Around noon Sam heads to Phil’s place. It’s a short walk across two lawns and down the side of the house, Sam could do it barefoot if he wanted. He doesn’t call first. Phil knows he’s coming. They have a standing Saturday date to do maintenance on their shared car. Even on weeks when it’s barely stalled or backfired at all Sam goes over. The routine started with the Wreck and trying to fix its brakes so they wouldn’t slide down a hill and die in a fiery crash. When the intermittent defect proved permanent and the Wreck was hauled away for good Sam was worried about what would happen. Then they acquired the Rustbucket. Different piece of crap car, different specific issues, but ultimately the same when it comes down to needing weekly maintenance. Which is good. It’s the only date he’ll ever have with Phil and he can’t turn it down.
Normally Phil has the hood up and waiting for them to dive in. In the beginning they had a few books, all heavy enough to brain someone, as well as a handful of papers with scraggly sides. Those were from Phil, ripped out of notebooks when he was still going to Greenbush High the first time. He’d peppered the automotives teacher for information, because neither of them had blood relations with that skill set, and sometimes it was nice to get an explanation with hand movements. Some of those papers had actually had Phil’s ugly sketches on them. They’re better than that now. Know their way around a transmission, for the most part.
Not today. Phil’s sitting on the front of the ancient Dodge Dart, legs dangling. He’s not idlely kicking them, and he doesn’t say anything when Sam comes in. He doesn’t seem his usual glass half full self. It’s enough to make Sam ask “are you alright?” when he approaches.
“You wanna talk about it?” Sam doesn’t ask that of Phil very often. Then again, Phil never needs to be asked. His faith in humanity is forever being lost and regained, and everyone knows when it happens because he tells everyone in the general vicinity.
“You know how everything I show potential for, I end up sucking at?”
“Don’t forget the reverse,” Sam replies. He doesn’t want Phil to get too mopey. He’ll try talking first, but he’ll tickle him if he has to. From the collarbone to the belt line Phil is incredibly ticklish. He’s the only person Sam knows who giggles when he’s elbowed. “The things you’ve done at random have actually turned out quite well. Like selling Technicolor Wheat to Mr Montrose for a boatload of money.”
Normally Phil considers it a crowning achievement of his life so far. His ego inflates at the mention of the money, even though he’s technically no richer because his mom made him put it away for college. Today the mention does nothing for him. “What? Yeah, I guess.”
“So the pattern isn’t why you’re so glum?”
“Not really. I mean, kind of? It fits the pattern, anyway. See I guess being born with a penis and all I showed potential for being a guy. A male of the species.”
“But what? You’re not tough enough? Look, I know public school is tougher than Nassau Arts, but you’ve only got a year left.” Not for the first time Sam wishes TJ could have done more. Which isn’t fair because at three course changes Phil got the highest number of second chances anyone at Nassau Arts anyone ever had. Still, though.
Phil keeps his eyes on the chipping turquoise paint rather than look up. “It’s not that I’m not some quality enough to be a male. I’m just not. Period.”
“I don’t understand.”
Phil shrugs. “I didn’t think you would. But you asked and I just wanted to say it, even once. Whatever. What are we doing today? Scraping rust off?”
“No, that’s not fair. You can’t leave it there. I didn’t say I didn’t want to know. You just have to tell me.”
Sam hates not talking things out. It was the worst part of dating Barbara. Pretending to like her was a necessary evil. He knows he’ll have to date with false pretenses over and over again, until his parents -who still call him Sotirios, who are so Orthodox he could scream- pass away. He doesn’t care about leaving the church, or disappointing his extended family. But he can’t tell his parents he’d rather paint the male form ninety nine times to the female’s once. They’ll blame themselves. They’ll say he’s only part of the family if he focuses on that rare one percent. Still, the next time it’s been suspiciously long since he last kissed a girl, he’ll get someone better than Barbara. He’ll never again date someone so utterly devoid of opinions.
“It’s not that much more than what I’ve told you. I should have been a boy, so of course I started to be and failed, just like every other thing I’ve ever tried. Except this isn’t a scheme Simon can make better with a brilliant speech. There’s no easy fix. There’s barely a fix at all, except wearing the right clothes. Girls clothes.”
“Is that something you’re going to do?” Sam can’t see him in a skirt. Then again, the whole deal is that he’s not supposed to see Phil as a he.
“At public school?” Phil laughs. It sounds painfully bitter, like nothing Sam’s ever heard from him. “At Nassau Arts I could have. Maybe. It didn’t seem like I could have at the time, but maybe I might have been just another Bill, a weird kid doing his thing. But not at Greenbush High. Hell, at Greenbush I couldn’t even pull off Boy George without getting my ass kicked.”
“That sucks, man. Um. That sucks, girl? Anything I could do?”
“Well, you’re already being awesome by not kicking my ass.”
“That doesn’t count. Now this on the other hand,” Sam swiftly positions himself between Phil’s legs and digs his fingers into Phil’s waist. As expected, Phil begins to flail. Sam keeps going. He wants to provoke a reaction. He always hates it when Phil loses his faith in humanity, and there’s no question that this is one of those situations. There’s a lot Sam doesn’t get about it, but all of that comes second to making Phil laugh.
Phil’s indeed laughing a few minutes later, tears of mirth at the corners of his eyes, when Sam suddenly notices something. Phil’s hard. Leaning the way he is, over and into Phil, there’s no way to avoid the lump in his sexy acid wash jeans, or mistake it for anything else.
The bad part of Sam wants to keep going. He likes Phil. He likes him enough be willing to pursue this when his parents are within shouting distance. This is the first and probably last time Sam will ever get to feel his hard dick. The rest of his soul tells him to stop. Phil’s straight. He’s got an erection from his big emotional swing, or maybe just because he’s sixteen and random erections happen. It’s nothing to do with Sam, which means that continuing just because he wants to would be using him and that’s messed up.
Sam does the right thing. He backs away, even though it nearly physically pains him to. They’re both hard now. His own dick sprang to attention thinking it would meet Phil’s.
Phil scowls. “Fuck. Shit. There goes the mood.”
“What mood?” Sam asks, crossing his wrists. It’s a combination of crossing his arms and trying to cover his stupid no-nothing dick that really does neither competently.
“For a minute me and you had figured out how to work. And then you killed it. When even Sotirios can mess up it really kicks a girl’s faith in humanity in the teeth.”
“I didn’t kill it. I was respecting you. You don’t want me. You’re straight.” Sam can’t even count the amount of times he’s reminded himself of those last two facts. Probably thousand times since last summer, when he started trying to convince Phil to audition for a place at Nassau Arts. Just because he’s gay doesn’t mean he’s a predator. He needs to back off whenever he gets too close, he knows that as well as he knows that Querada is a mad genius.
“I’m a straight girl. It’s not disrespectful to enjoy this.”
“You know you can be gay, right?” Sam can’t quite bring himself to say it’s fine to be gay, but that’s close enough to sound the same. “You don’t have to- If the gender thing is about wanting to be straight-”
“Don’t be an asshole. Me failing at being a male has nothing to do with being scared of being queer. Like I don’t know that that’s how it’ll always look to outsiders. So stop talking like a dummy. And start tickling me again, because I want to come.”
“Do you just want a handjob?” It would be Sam’s first, but he’s confident he can figure it out.
“Like hell I do. Coming untouched suits me better, and apparently tickling’s one of the things that gets me there. You’ll learn the others soon enough.”
Sam nods. There are a thousand shades of things Sam wants to do with Phil, and he’s not sure if a single one of them will meet up with his gender issues. But slotting back between Phil’s legs as he sits on the hood of their Rustbucket and writhes and laughs until he cries and comes? That’s something he’s willing to do every day of the week.