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Such a muddy line between The things you want
And the things you have to do.

Every Day Is A Winding Road
~Sheryl Crow

TAY

When the lights came up Tay squinted and stretched, the brightness jarring after the intimacy of the darkness they’d sat in. Only they and some movie geek looking boys in the very front row were left and the clean-up crew had already started sweeping up stray popcorn and napkins from the sticky floor. Marshall kept looking at him then away, like he did the times the energy between them got heavy and deep and Tay felt it too, like a shift of something had happened as they sat in the dark.

“That wasn’t so bad, right?” Marshall finally said and Tay shook his head, smiling.

“No, it wasn’t so bad. I get to pick the next one. Do you like foreign movies?” He cracked up at the absolute panic on Marshall’s face, touching his arm for reassurance. “I’m kidding! I’m kidding! I wouldn’t do that to you!”

“Better not.”

“Not right away.” Marshall’s shoulder bumped his and he bumped back and as they stumbled into the crush of people in the lobby, laughing, Tay was able to name the bright upsurge of emotion in his chest as joy and wondered if he’d ever really felt it like that, pure and heady, bubbling out of him, unable to stop.

Part of it was that he was actually out here, with kids, doing what kids did, and he didn’t feel like a freak. He didn’t feel out of place, like he’d wandered in on someone else’s movie script and didn’t know the lines. Walking next to Marshall, talking and joking felt easy as breathing, as skating, as drawing the first time he picked up a pencil. If they got a second look from the mounds of kids milling around the cinemas they didn’t get a third, and Marshall didn’t even seem to notice the first one.

However, neither of them wanted to play more video games and before Tay knew it they were out in the parking lot, back at the car. A spark of disappointment nudged him when he realized this was almost over and it was too soon. He wanted to keep on talking and finding reasons to touch Marshall and give Marshall reasons to touch him.

Except he had no idea how to say this without, well, saying it and they were suddenly in the moving car, a momentary silence settling between them as Marshall negotiated the busy intersection out of the parking lot. Even though all they were doing was sitting Tay felt the space get that heaviness to it that happened when they were alone and risked a glance at Marshall. He collided with Marshall’s eyes, electric blue and speculative, fleeting before the stare returned to the road and Tay’s stomach fluttered helplessly.

He wondered if Johnny was right and it was possible to explode from sexual tension.

“Look,” Marshall said into the stillness, “I don’t wanna take you back yet. You hungry?”

After a bottle of water and at least half a bucket of buttered popcorn? “A little.”

“Dope.” Tay spied the distinctive golden arches of a McDonald’s on their left a second before Marshall turned the wheel into the crowded parking lot.

*~*~*~

The inside of the restaurant sported long lines and a sea of kids spilling out of and into the covered playground while their parents parked themselves on the hard swivel benches amidst a sea of used wrappers and empty fries containers. A tired-looking Black girl with a long weave swept refuse listlessly into a dustpan with an extendable arm, the metallic opening and closing background to the Saturday din.

A lot of older kids were here too, and Tay saw the stares they garnered as he and Marshall stood in line. The space wasn’t like the insanity of the theatre; it was a lot smaller. He wondered if Marshall really didn’t notice or was just playing it off. He decided Marshall really must be oblivious when a large boy in a Piston’s cap gave Tay a pointed once-over and Marshall didn’t even look at him.

“I’m getting this so don’t even start.” Marshall said as absently, eyes on the menu on the wall and Tay decided not to.

In truth he didn’t go to McDonald’s all that often, though everyone else seemed to inhale the stuff. It used to be their place Before He Walked Into the Room. They’d clamor to be taken to trade Happy Meal prizes, steal each other’s fries, and see who could suck up their milkshake fastest without getting a brain freeze. That was before public school and hockey and before he began to watch his diet carefully.

“Where’d you go?” Marshall asked and Tay blinked back, shaking his head a little. Way to go, Tay, he chided himself. Zone out on him. Very smooth.

“Nowhere. I used to come here with Zac and Ike when we were little. Well, not here,” he amended, “The one closer to my house.”

“You talk like you don’t do it no more.”

“We don’t.” Tay shrugged and the cashier’s perky voice saved him from the puzzlement on Marshall’s face.

“Welcome to McDonald’s can I take your order?” She greeted in one whole sentence, the round dark moon of her face smiling brightly.

“Yeah, gimme a number five, super sized, with Mountain Dew, another Quarter Pounder, a chocolate Sunday and an apple pie.”

Tay would have fallen over at the amount of food except he’d seen the amount of damage Zac and Ike could do, and Josh wasn’t far behind. He’d seen his younger brother annihilate an entire large pizza and have dessert afterwards. It was kind of scary to watch.

“I’ll have a Dasani and a Premium Southwest Salad.”

“That’s it?” Marshall said in disbelief, “I got money.”

“We had all that popcorn.” Tay glanced away hoping he wouldn’t have to go into the whole diet schpiel because it made him feel like a girl even if other athletes watched their weight: wrestlers, football players, swimmers. Somehow if you figure skated it made you girly not committed.

But Marshall just shrugged and paid the girl who had already assembled their food, drawn Marshall’s fountain drink, and slapped another brown tray on the counter for the next customer. Tay didn’t think he could ever work someplace like that. He didn’t know how people got the smells out of their hair.

For a second Tay didn’t think they’d find a place to sit because every booth and table had families or groups of kids at it. Finally, though, a mom and three kids vacated a booth near the back amid much shouting and herding and Marshall sprinted over before the new influx of people entering could spy it.

“Nice moves.” Tay teased as the tired-looking lobby girl cleared the table of wrappers and empty drinks and ran a damp cloth quickly over the surface.

“Snooze you lose. It’s always this full on Saturdays.”

“They all are, I think.” Tay kept himself from waving at the lingering scent of ammonia from the girl’s washcloth but he did surreptitiously wipe the surface down with a napkin to dry it before place his plastic container of lettuce and bottle water on the table. He unzipped his jacket and shrugged it off, already kind of warm in the fuzzy cashmere and full restaurant. Marshall seemed comfortable in his hoodie.

Tay excused himself to go to the restroom which had definitely seen better days and sported no soap, little toilet paper, and a mysteriously sticky floor that Tay decided immediately not to think too much about. He guessed no one had quite gotten to it yet with the never-ending crowds. Someone had written ‘311! Peace out!’ in black marker on the mirror.

Tay walked back and met a few curious glances on the way, but nothing hostile or anything. It’s not like there were no white kids, there just weren’t many, and most of them were girls.

By the time he got back Marshall had already begun to eat, sipping at his soda and tearing open many packets of catsup to squirt on the mountain of fries. Tay carefully squeezed out his diet salad dressing and started to mix it in after taking a drink of his water. He glanced up to see Marshall eyeing his food with interest.

“I can’t believe that’s all you’re eating, man.”

Okay, so maybe they weren’t over the food subject. “I just don’t eat a lot. I have to stay at a certain weight for skating.” Tay speared some lettuce with his fork.

“You fuckin’ kidding? You’re all skinny and shit.”

“I’m not skinny.” Tay said with his mouth full, one hand already diving to the hem of the sweater to tug it lower over his waistband. He knit his brows at his cold container of lettuce and scoop of taco beef which looked even smaller next to everything Marshall had ordered. To prove how not-skinny he was he grabbed some of Marshall’s fries and plunked them on the cover of his salad, popping two in his mouth. “It’s just hard to jump in the air and do three rotations then land without looking crappy. I’d like to see you jump…” he looked up ready to make his point and saw Marshall’s electric blue eyes laughing at him as he sipped his drink.

“You’re fucking with me.”

“Yeah.”

“Jerk!” Tay kicked at him under the table and Marshall laughed, trying to dodge his feet without looking then grabbing Tay’s ankle fast between his feet no matter how much Tay struggled to get free. They smiled at each other like doofuses.

“Naw, you ain’t skinny. You look good.” Marshall said then got the same startled look as in the car when he called Tay ‘cute.’ Tay lowered his eyes and ate another fry then looked up again to see the pink on Marshall’s cheeks but the intense blue of his stare not shying away, not dropping.

Oooh, Tay thought, letting himself fall into the ocean depths of that stare, felt his heartbeat trip over itself and his palms sweat right here in the middle of all the noise and pandemonium and that annoying Ronald McDonald song filtering in from the playground. Don’t say anything, don’t, don’t – but he didn’t know how long he couldn’t because this, it was. He wanted to lean across the table and touch his face so badly when Marshall looked like at him like that, with this wonder and almost surprise.

He said the first safe thing he could think of. “Not as good as that girl in the movie. She was really skinny, but I think it looked better on her. She was pretty…” And bring on the babblefest.

Marshall shrugged, still holding his stare; took a languid sip of his drink and Tay could not, upon pain of death, stop from dropping his eyes to Marshall’s pouty, chapped lips closing around the straw. He felt the heat on his face and still couldn’t not look. “She’s a’aight.” Marshall allowed voice offhand, not-impressed. Not at all agreeing, and Tay did look down then, the smile curving the corners of his lips no matter what he did.

“That guy, that special forces guy in the movie; the only one that didn’t die. He looked good.” Marshall commented casually and Tay looked up to see the studied indifference as Marshall ate. Tay stole some more fries and made sure Marshall had met his stare before answering.

“He’s alright.”

They smiled at each other and Tay wondered at how they must look because he could feel this thing between them now, so strong, so really right, somehow, and the words, he didn’t even know what they were, hovered there, wanting to be said.

Tay leaned his elbows on the table, watching his finger trace the imitation wood grain of the veneer. “Marshall…”

“Yeah,” /porn voice/ and Tay took a breath, looked up and saw him leaning close, too, folding his arms and bracing forward. His eyes were so blue, intent and sharp.

Then they widened staring a point past Tay’s right shoulder. Knitting his brows Tay turned to follow Marshall’s surprised gaze when a group of boys invaded the space, large, laughing, shoving boys wearing ghetto gear and starter caps, calling Marshall by name and sliding curious, judging glances Tay’s way. The conclusion in the sea of dark eyes didn’t look good.

“Yo, Marsh!”

“Hey, dog, I thought you was studying!”

“I can get behind this kinda studying!” A huge boy that was squeezing Tay into the corner of the booth opined to be greeted by deafening laughter.

Tay tried to catch Marshall’s eyes, the mix of testosterone and tension so thick in the air it gathered behind Tay’s eyes in a dull pounding.

Then a lanky, dark boy with a fall of dreadlocks slipped next to Marshall and met Tay’s eyes with shrewd ink black eyes. Tay watched, helpless envy burning in his throat, as the boy threw an arm around Marshall’s shoulders, easy and intimate, the ease with which Marshall accepted the gesture stinging.

Tay was being squeezed into a corner by an enormous boy who kept staring at Tay’s chest for no reason, the rest of the boys eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and judgment and Marshall would not meet his eyes at all. The entire magic of their day had evaporated completely, like it had never existed at all, and Tay felt the familiar sinking dread at being studied closely by all these tough-looking friends of Marshall and so obviously found wanting.

“Who’s your friend?” The dreadlocked boy asked, his eyes still fathomless, his arm still slung around Marshall’s shoulders in the international possessive gesture that screamed /MINE/. Their eyes met across the table and Tay stared into the flat, confident dark pools.

And, then, Tay understood.

*~*~*~*~*

“You ain’t a girl.” The slow voice of the heavy boy next to him cut the chatter at the table to silence before they all burst into raucous guffaws of laughter. The flush burned furiously on Tay’s cheeks but Marshall wouldn’t give him anything but nervous, slight glances before his gaze slid away to the table or off to the side.

“Shut up, fool,” Marshall finally said, but the words sounded embarrassed not supportive. “This Taylor. He helps me with Math.”

“Damn! That’s a girl’s name, too.” One of the boy’s exclaimed and Taylor glared at them, wishing he hadn’t worn the sweater or that he wasn’t socially inept, or that they’d gone anywhere but here.

“It is not! Not all the time.” Tay defended, the muscles in his shoulders like rocks under the stupid, stupid sweater. His hands warred with each other on his lap and he made them stop.

“So you’re the tutor.” Proof nodded as if he’d figured something out. “I’m Proof.” As if Tay hadn’t figured that out. “This is Von, Denaun, and the whole lotta booty squashing your ass is Rufus.”

“Fuck you, dog. I’m large and in charge.” The enormous boy boasted and, to make his point, grabbed a fistful of Marshall’s cold fries and nonchalantly chomped on them.

“Well, you sure as shit are large.” Proof agreed, which Tay thought sounded mean, even if Rufus just flipped him off and proceeded to finish off Marshall’s meal without permission.

“You been holding out on us, yo. Weren’t you supposed to be studying?” Proof asked, sipping at Marshall’s Mountain Dew.

“Yeah, dog, what up with that?” Von or Denaun, Tay couldn’t remember which, piped up.

“We were studying.” Marshall mumbled, eyes downcast.

Tay finally felt he had something to contribute, “We’re celebrating because Marshall passed his test.” Marshall’s electric blue eyes met his, such a look of pure panic in them Tay lowered his gaze.

“Is that right? We already celebrated, ain’t that right, Marsh?” Proof kept meeting Tay’s eyes with that dull challenge and Tay tried to meet them but the way Marshall kept acting had thrown him seriously off balance. “Went to The Shelter. Club I DJ at. You been there?”

He knew the answer before he even asked and Tay knew it. “No. I don’t go out much.”

“What do you do?” For the first time Tay realized the other boys were watching the exchange with the back-and-forth concentration of a tennis match.

“I skate.”

“You a hockey player?” VonORDenaun said and the familiar resentment at the disbelief in his voice made Tay clench his jaw.

“Figure skater.” Tay corrected voice level. This he knew; he’d been defending his sport since he began partaking in it. “I figure skate. I met Marshall at the rink.”

“You mean like those cats that skate to music and shit?” Rufus questioned as if Tay had just said he participated in knitting circles or something.

“Yeah. That shit.” He took a sip of his water, catching the raised eyebrows the boys cast each other.

“Well, I been wondering something, you know, just curious. See if you can help me out.”

Tay said nothing, had fleeting glance from Marshall, and met Proof’s eyes head on.

“Whatcha wear under those costumes, huh?”

“Excuse me?”

A cacophony of disgusted sounds drowned out his remark and Marshall squirmed, but only his eyes betrayed how miserable he felt. The rest of his face was a smooth, expressionless mask.

“No, really, now, really. ‘Cause Marsh here, he wear a cup, right?”

“The fuck are you doin’?” Marshall muttered to his friend and Proof shrugged expansively.

“Just learning more about your friend here. That’s a’aight ain’t it?”

Tay narrowed his eyes.

“Is that what you wear, a cup?”

“No.” Tay said flatly.

“You don’t wear nothing?” DenaunORVon exclaimed, scandalized. “That shit gotta be swingin’ in the wind, man.” This brought forth laughter and some more disgusted sounds.

“You all fucked up…”

“It’s called a dance belt.” Tay interrupted Marshall’s embarrassed comment. “It does the same thing a cup does.”

“But it’s different, right?” Proof pressed.

“Yes.” Tay admitted, wishing he knew what the hell Proof was driving at. “The material’s thinner and there’s one section in the back instead of two.”

“So, basically,” Proof surmised, “You wear a thong. That’s fresh.”

“Not exactly.”

But Tay’s words were lost in the wave of laughter and joking from the other three boys and, even if he didn’t want it to, the heat on his cheeks surfaced again.

Then he glanced at Marshall, hating the look of pleading he could feel coming up on his face—and saw him laughing, too, a low, snicker under his ducked head. Tay hadn’t literally felt what people meant when they said, ‘My heart sank,’ but he knew then.

He had to get out of here. Right now.

“I need to go.” Though he’d meant the words to be normal, even, they came out in a whisper so he repeated them too loudly and everyone paused the laugh-fest to look at him. “I can get home on my own.”

Marshall met his eyes for longer than two seconds and for one moment, just one, Tay thought he saw regret and emotion in the electric blue. Thought he would say something, do something, to erase the ugly, defeated lump that had taken up residence in Tay’s chest. “Yeah, a’aight.” But he didn’t.

“I need the keys to the car. My stuff is still in the trunk.”

Marshall reached in the pockets of his loose jeans and Tay snatched the keys mumbling an ‘excuse me’ to Rufus who was already shuffling his considerable bulk sideways on the cramped seat.

Once he was free Tay couldn’t help risking one more glance at Marshall but Marshall’s eyes stayed averted. And Tay fled through the restaurant clutching his jacket.

The brisk cold outside took his breath away so he pulled the jacket on with trembling hands and figured out which key opened the trunk. He took out his backpack and his skating bag and locked the trunk again and it felt as if the cold not only numbed the tips of his fingers and his toes but everything. If he was numb he wouldn’t feel, wouldn’t hurt, wouldn’t cry. Most importantly wouldn’t cry because like hell was he going to do that in front of the people at the table.

Walking back in the noisy restaurant he paused behind the fake greenery of the booth taking a few deep breaths before approaching the table, and then heard the voices under the restaurant chatter.

“I thought he was a girl, dog! No lie!”

“That’s cause you’re a punk.” Marshall’s sullen voice.

“He that way, though, Marsh. I ain’t seen anyone dress like that wasn’t that way.”

“Uh-huh.” It sounded like Rufus’ voice.

“He’s a’aight.” Pitifully, pathetically Tay’s grasped at Marshall’s phrase. “I can’t pay him, you know? I owed him for my grade. It ain’t like I can take him to The Shelter and shit.”

“Shoot. You ain’t kidding!”

“He prolly get hit on!”

“You KNOW he get hit on! A brother be fucked up, think he’s a girl!”

The raucous laughter was back, broad and loud, and Tay saw his vision blur, felt a fist squeeze his chest hard. Viciously he controlled it. By the skin of his teeth he controlled it and won.

Taking the few steps to reach the table the laughter ceased as he approached and he thought Marshall might have blanched when he saw Tay move from behind the plant, but probably not.

Tossing the keys on the table Tay stared at Marshall for a few seconds. The beautiful eyes that had been so open now barely met his. When Marshall turned
his head again Tay walked away. He didn’t say anything.

Things were clear enough without words. They were clear as day.

Luckily, thankfully, the number 17 bus had just pulled up to the bus stop on the corner of the small parking lot and Tay waved it down just as the driver shifted gears. The driver stopped. Tay got on.

The cold of the seat sent a shiver through him, but he concentrated on not feeling, not thinking, not knowing. It felt best.

The bus held several elderly Black women, a mom and two small kids, and a group of teen-agers being loud in the back. Tay ignored them and they ignored him back.

His vision blurred again and would not be stopped, but only two tears escaped before he swiped angrily at them, and regained control. He didn’t even think anyone noticed.

He didn’t cry again, not another drop.

He was pretty proud of that.