“Hey, we should get married.”
The bell rings and Mark catches the chains as they fly towards him, bringing the swing to an abrupt stop so Jackson, his best friend and future husband, can safely jump off.
Jackson returns to school the next day, and sits shoulder to shoulder with Mark against the chain link fence that surrounds the playground, slowly working through the pronunciation of ‘marriage certificate’ as he relays new information that could negatively affect their plans.
Mark confirms his fears, telling him his mommy said the same thing, along with a lot of stuff about waiting and growing out of it. He’s not positive about what he’s growing out of, but he’s pretty sure it’s his pants, because, look, they don’t cover his ankles anymore.
Later, once the topic of Mark’s too short pants has been exhausted and Jackson ends his rambling explanation of the cool game his dad showed him how to play the night before with, “You still want to marry me, right?”
She hears the screeching and instantly assumes it’s an injured student.
She’s right and wrong.
The source of the noise is a third grader she knows well, staring and pointing at two young boys she only vaguely recognizes but has never formally met. From her spot, watching the playground, she can see the back of one boy, kneeling on the blacktop, holding the face of the other boy. Nearing them, she can hear that the smaller boy sobbing while trying to speak. She can also see that the silent one is injured, both his knees missing the jean fabric that once covered them and smeared with blood. There’s another scrape across his chin, and his hands still have rocks imprinted in the palms from where he caught himself falling.
Once she gets Mark, the calmest second grader she’s ever encountered in her decades as an elementary school teacher, into the nurse’s office, she returns to the hallway to try and comfort the first grader, Jackson, who had been trying to help him before she intervened.
“Is he gonna die?” Jackson asks, gravely, once he stops crying.
“No,” She promises, “He’ll be back by the end of recess.”
“That’s badder!” Jackson says, jumping off the bench that sits beneath the office window, “He’s gonna go back to the big kid room and I’m gonna go back to the stupid baby room and we’re not gonna say goodbye.”
She’s about to interject, to explain that Mark needs to get his wounds all cleaned up so he can be healthy and safe, and that Jackson will see him at the end of the day or the next morning and that’s not so long when you think about it, but he’s too worked up. He’s rambling wildly.
“You always have to say goodbye. My mommy and daddy, every time they leave, mommy hugs him, and he touches her face, and says, ‘I love you, have a good day’, because they’re married, so when me and Mark are married, we gotta do it, and we gotta practice, ‘cause if we don’t, we’ll be bad at being married and they won’t let us.”
She’s a little floored by the speech, even if she didn’t quite get all the words and there’s probably a full pint of spit on her arm. There’s always kids who play house and try to emulate their parents, but she’s never seen anyone take it so seriously.
She considers explaining that it doesn’t work like that, you don’t have to be good at being married, no one checks, no one cares, as long as you want to be married you stay married, or maybe telling him that every marriage is different and he and Mark don’t have to do those things to be married.
“Well,” she finally decides, “how about you stay here with me until Mark is cleaned up, and then you can say goodbye and I’ll take you to class so you don’t get in trouble.”
Jackson agrees excitedly, and the tears that had started to well disappear.
As the bell rings, the nurse leads Mark into the hall and she goes into the office to call the first grade teacher and explain why his student is missing. From inside the office, she watches as Jackson takes a moment to fret over Mark. She can see his mouth moving but she can’t hear through the glass.
Jackson says something, looking serious, and Mark nods and sits on the bench. Jackson kneels in front of him, touching the bandages on his knees, turning his hands over three times each to make sure they’re unharmed. She sees Jackson stand, and then Mark stands and obscures her view, the older boy standing a few inches taller. After a moment, she sees two thin arms curl around Mark’s back, and can see how tightly Jackson is squeezing, before they let go. Seconds later, the hands appear on the sides of Mark’s head, almost covering his ears.
She leans around the desk just in time to see Jackson lean up and kiss the bandage on Mark’s chin, and thinks she sees Mark’s cheeks flushing. Jackson says something, and she’s not an expert at reading mouths, but she’d bet her life savings it’s ‘I love you, have a good day’.
Jackson is coming back from the bathroom when he sees it.
Obviously, he has to do something about it.
It’s his duty as a fiancé.
“Why is Mark in trouble?” He asks, standing slightly behind the teacher who’s speaking softly, just outside a slightly ajar door, Mark in front of her with wet cheeks and red eyes. She jumps when he talks, and turns, suddenly flustered.
“Sweetie, I think you should go back to class.”
“Mark, why are you in trouble?”
Mark doesn’t answer, which Jackson doesn’t mind. Mark doesn’t answer a lot of stuff. Jackson asks question after question and sometimes Mark can’t keep up or he doesn’t really have anything to say or he’s just not really in the mood to talk. He also doesn’t talk in front of teachers, unless he has to. Once, he tried to explain it to Jackson, why he has trouble talking to them, but he didn’t have the right words and it was, like, two whole years ago, so Jackson just knows that Mark doesn’t really like talking unless it’s just the two of them.
Instead of speaking, Mark just holds out his left hand. Jackson’s confused until he notices that something is missing.
“His ring is gone!”
The teacher looks confused as she tells Jackson again, gently, that she and Mark need to talk and he needs to return to his classroom.
“But his ring is gone!” Jackson repeats, and Mark nods next to him, waving his empty hand, fresh tears appearing at the corner of his eyes and dripping down. Jackson steps around the teacher to wipe a little too aggressively at his cheeks, and Mark lets him.
“Is that why you’re crying, Mark?” The teacher asks, finally understanding. Mark nods, sort of, making a jerky movement with his head while Jackson’s hands push at his cheeks so his mouth curves, until it finally makes him give a real smile.
“I don’t mind that you lost it,” Jackson tells him, leaving Mark’s face alone so he can push himself against Mark’s chest, leaning against him until Mark gives in and hugs him.
“But your Aunt,” Mark whispers, glancing nervously at the teacher, waiting for her to get mad.
The rings are really important to Jackson. Halfway through second grade, his Aunt had moved in with them because she was getting a divorce. He wasn’t really sure what a divorce meant, but he’d heard his Aunt crying a lot, and yelling about cheating, and about disrespecting the ring and not knowing what he meant and when he asked he said when you love someone and you want to marry them you get them a ring and that ring is a promise and you keep that promise forever or else you’re a lot of words Jackson’s mommy immediately told him to never say.
At recess that Friday, he’d shared his new insight with his fiancé, as fiancés do, and the following Monday, Mark showed up near his cubby to give him a small plastic purple ring with a spider on it, a black one already on his finger. His older brother had given him some tickets he won at the arcade and Mark got them at the prize shop. They made their promise to always love each other, and agreed to never ever take off the rings.
“My Aunt’s crazy,” Jackson says.
Jackson shakes off Mark’s arms, pulling himself out of the hug. He wipes away the wetness on Mark’s cheeks, leans up to kiss his chin, and says, “I love you, have a good day,” before finally bouncing down the hall into his own classroom.
The teacher, surprised that the same ritual she witnessed after Mark’s nasty playground fall held up over a year later, watches in awe as Mark waves at Jackson’s back, smiling shyly at her before walking around her to get back into their classroom as if he had never been upset at all.
Two weeks after Mark lost his ring, Jackson bounds up to him in the morning before class starts, depositing something in his hand.
It’s a thick ring, made of clear plastic with a smiley face inside, and it slides right onto Mark’s recently bare finger.
This time, Mark pulls Jackson into a hug and says, “I love you, have a good day.”
Mark is in a line with thirty seven other kids, the sounds of clapping almost deafening in the narrow hall.
Jackson is leaning against a locker, his arms crossed over his chest and his mouth set in a deep pout. Up and down the hall, kids are clapping erratically.
Mark tries to smile at Jackson as they pass the fourth grade classes, but he isn’t having it, and won’t even look at him.
When they filter into the parking lot, fifth graders exiting first after being ‘clapped out’, their schools tradition to say goodbye to students moving up to the middle school, Mark waits by the door for fourth grade to follow them out so he can catch Jackson before buses come.
Jackson assumes Mark will be long gone, on to bigger and better things, leaving Jackson alone to fend for himself on the playground and in the lunch room for an entire year. He’s surprised when he half-stomps out of the school building and an arm shoots out, pulling him into a half hug.
They didn’t do hugs anymore, hadn’t since the fourth week of third grade when Mark’s classmates caught them saying goodbye near the water fountain after recess and teased Mark so badly he wouldn’t talk to anyone, not even Jackson, for nine whole days.
Other kids swarm into the lot and Mark steps away until they’re no longer touching, instead choosing to ruffle Jackson’s hair.
“Don’t be nice to me, you’re leaving. You’re the worst,” Jackson whines, slapping at Mark’s hand.
Mark shrugs apologetically, frowning.
“I don’t want to.”
“I know,” Jackson sighs heavily.
They stand in silence until the buses can be seen at the end of the street, leading up to their school.
“Nothing’s going to change,” Mark says.
“Everything’s going to change!” Jackson counters.
“Nothing important,” Mark says, his voice confident, sounding eerily similar to the way Jackson’s dad says ‘That’s final’, when one of his kids tries to argue, “We’re still best friends, we’re still gonna get married, I’m just not gonna play with you at recess anymore. We’ll play after school.”
Jackson’s mom calls him down the stairs and he comes, complaining the entire way that there’s plenty of time before school starts and he wasn’t still sleeping, he promises, his hair is just messy because it’s a new style and he has to be cool if he’s going to make new friends? She’s not mad about him ignoring her earlier wake up call, though. When he gets to the bottom of the stairs, and rounds the corner into their front hall, he sees the door standing open with Mark on their front step.
When he’s close enough, Mark pulls him into a hug.
Jackson goes willingly, pressing his cheek against Mark’s shoulder and squeezing his arms tight around the older boy’s waist.
Too soon, Mark pushes him away and gives him an expectant look.
It takes Jackson almost a full minute to understand, breaking into a wide grin when he does.
"I love you, have a good day," he says, kissing Mark’s chin even though he’s been tall enough to reach Mark’s cheek for months.
Mark grins back, equally as bright, and instead of his customary mumbled ‘you too’ or simple nod, he takes a step closer, kisses Jackson’s forehead, and then turns and runs back down the three steps to his mom’s car.
They do play after school.
Mark starts calling it ‘hanging out’, but Jackson doesn’t really care what it’s called as long as they keep doing it.
At least two days a week and every Saturday neither of them is busy, Mark comes by and talks and talks and talks and Jackson loves it.
He thinks the reason Mark didn’t talk much before is because they were with each other every day and saw the same things at recess so there wasn’t much to tell.
Now he has everything to talk about. He tells Jackson about all his teachers, all seven of them, which blows Jackson’s mind, to Mark’s delight. He talks about how weird it is to not get recess, how much cool stuff he’s learning and how his schedule changes every other day so it doesn’t get too boring, and all the new people that came from the other elementary schools.
Their roles have changed.
Mark tells Jackson everything about sixth grade life while Jackson listens, pleased, and interjects where he thinks he can without sounding like a baby.
It’s new, but it’s fun. Jackson has always liked Mark’s voice, and it was always a treat to hear it. Now he gets it all the time, like when your parents let you eat ice cream for breakfast but way better.
Jackson finds out two things when he graduates elementary school.
One, it’s not as fun as Mark made it sound.
Two, Mark didn’t just start talking to him all the time.
Mark started talking to everyone all the time.
It’s his first day and he hasn’t seen Mark all day even though Mark promised he would meet him in the morning and help him find all his classes.
Which he did not do, leaving Jackson to be late to both his homeroom and his third class of the morning.
They eat lunch at the same time, but Mark doesn’t even see Jackson waving from across the cafeteria as his table fills up with boys who keep him so attentive he never even looks up.
Mark apologizes for missing Jackson at lunch, and promises to find him the next day.
Mark makes that same promise and breaks it three more times before Jackson starts to wonder if maybe Mark never meant any of the things he promised.
Mark is growing too quickly and Jackson can’t catch up and things start to fall apart but they never quite break.
Mark opens to door to see Jackson with a strangely intense look on his face.
“Do you –“
“Have you ever been kissed?”
“- want to come meet my friends?”
“Have you ever been kissed?”
“You used to kiss me all the time,” Mark replies, confused, and steps back to let Jackson in so he can introduce him to his new friends. Jackson doesn’t come in.
“No, have you ever had your first kiss?” Mark sometimes forgets that Jackson’s younger than him, and remembers when most of his friends started dating and kissing around the beginning of eighth grade. He’d gotten his first kiss from a girl during spin the bottle at the first high school party he attended, three weeks into ninth grade.
“Yes,” Mark waits for Jackson to explain why this was such a pressing question that he had to come over at five in the afternoon on a Sunday to demand an answer. Mark waits for Jackson to ask advice, like he used to when they were in elementary school and he wanted Mark to lay down some big-kid knowledge. Mark waits for Jackson to say anything.
When he remains silent, still with that weird, intense look on his face, Mark offers again, “Do you want to come in and meet my friends?”
Jackson agrees, but when he comes in he’s quiet and awkward and so unlike himself Mark’s not that surprised when he leaves soon after getting a quick introduction from each of the four guys who were sitting around discussing music on Mark’s living room floor.
Jackson had wanted to be Mark’s first kiss.
Instead, two days after the confrontation, he has his first kiss with a girl behind the bleachers after she destroys him in a gym class game of flag football.
High school is different.
Schedules are a little less structured and grades are mixed more often than not.
For the first time in their friendship, which is currently being haphazardly held together by a few strings of fond memories and bouts of easy, enthusiastic conversation that remind them why they were ever friends at all after moments of strained discomfort, Mark and Jackson have classes together.
Technically, they had lunch together in middle school, but students were segregated by grade with no exceptions.
Now, it’s a goddamn free for all.
Which sucks, at first, because Jackson is standing in the cafeteria with all his friends and teammates currently sitting in classrooms, while he scoures the room for an empty table where he can settle himself and hope people join.
There’s one empty table, in the back corner near the trash cans, and with a sigh, Jackson trudges over, hoping someone asks him to sit before he gets there.
No one does, not at first, and he sits silently and pokes at his food and toys with his phone just for something to do.
Soon, Mark appears, asking him what he’s doing over there when Mark is sitting all the way across the room.
“I’ve been looking for you for ten minutes!” Mark tells him, and Jackson feels the warmth of being wanted flood his stomach, “Come on, my table’s over there.”
Jackson follows Mark to the table, where he tells a boy to scoot over so Jackson can fit into the space next to Mark’s chair.
There’s several conversations going on at the table, and they all make sure to pull Jackson in when he gets quiet, and Mark interrupts occasionally to whisper a joke or complain about their shared science class.
In eleventh grade, Mark learns three things.
One, bisexual is a thing that people can be.
Two, bisexual is a thing that he is.
Three, puberty was very kind to Jackson and he might actually be kind of in love with him.
In eleventh grade, Jackson learns three things.
One, he doesn’t really like girls.
Two, he likes boys.
Three, he told Mark every day for three years that he loved him and ten years later it’s still absolutely true.
The night before Mark leaves to move into his college dorm, he calls Jackson at one twenty six in the morning and tells him to come outside.
Jackson, groggy and still half asleep, stumbles out onto his front step in a pair of boxers and a baggy t-shirt that he thinks he owns but Mark instantly recognizes it as one of his own.
Mark’s watches him standing just outside the door, waiting, fighting with the anxiety that’s keeping him in the car, parked on the street. He calls himself a coward, steels himself, and walks up the drive towards the boy he’s in love with.
“What do you want so late, weirdo?” Jackson asks, ending with a yawn, as Mark slowly comes up the steps.
Mark doesn’t reply, just pulls Jackson into a hug.
Jackson laughs softly, breath hot against Mark’s face. They’re almost equal in height, Jackson just an inch taller, so much different from the last time they did this, the first day of sixth grade.
Jackson releases Mark to kiss his chin and murmur, “I love you, have a good day.”
Mark takes a deep breath, holds the sides of Jackson’s head and says, “I love you, have a good year,” before placing a chaste kiss to Jackson’s lips.
The second he pulls away, he loses all the courage he spent three weeks cultivating and sprints back down to his car and drives away.
When Jackson confirms it was not a dream, he speeds to Mark’s house only to be told Mark has already left for school and won’t be back until winter break.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
“Merry Christmas to you too,” Mark snorts, standing in the doorway of his parents house in plaid pajama pants and a stained hoodie, missing half the letters that used to write out the name of his high school and no shoes.
“What the fuck was that?”
“What? I’ve been gone for months. You should really be happier to see me,” Mark tells him, crossing his arms over his chest. Underneath the casual teasing, he’s terrified. Jackson’s pissed. Jackson’s so pissed.
He knew it was a bad idea. He knew Jackson wasn’t really in love with him. He knew that they were just kids, that it was just Jackson trying to make sense of adults things as a child, that obviously their elementary school agreement to get married didn’t actually mean anything for the future.
“You… you come, in the middle of the night, you kiss me, you get all weird and tell me you love me and then you leave and, come on, that kiss? To last me until December? You’re the worst fiancé in the world.”
And then, Jackson looks fond and happy and not at all pissed and he’s shoving himself into Mark’s space, just like he did when they were eight and Mark sometimes felt so nervous he wished he didn’t exist and there are lips on his lips and this is definitely the kind of kiss that could last someone five months.
Apparently, having a wedding involves a lot more than just a seven year old suggesting you get married sometime.
But, Jackson’s worth it.