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Complicated Boys

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Hey Jude,

How are you? No idea how to start this, to be honest. Feels weird to be writing to you, never having done it before. Who knows if I’ll even send this. Guess I can decide when/if I get to the end.

First thing, no big deal, but just have to tell you that it blew my mind seeing you last night. I had no clue you were going to be there (may have said that once or twice in the bar ;)). When I arrived, Taylor gave me, like, ten seconds warning that you were on your way. Well. You were there. You saw how surprised I was. The point is, even though we ended up having our first actual conversation in six years—which is great, don’t get me wrong—I feel like a few things got left unsaid. That’s why I’m writing to you now. This morning, when I woke up, I got to thinking about how easily we’d fallen back into our old pattern. You doing most of the talking and me letting you. You being real and sarcastic and hilarious. Me watching and listening, following your lead, trying to guess where you’re going. Making you laugh, getting you to open up while staying quiet myself.

Truth is, I’m not really like that anymore. That’s the second thing. It’s taken me a long time to finally quit the habit of ducking for cover, staying in the shadows, being a good team player. I got here, in the end. Grim persistence has its uses, I’ve discovered. Way too late to save us, of course. You seemed brave to me back then, when we were together. I got used to thinking of myself as kind of weak-ass in comparison. Needing you to jumpstart me into action. No. I’m not like that any more. I’m more of a no risk, no reward type of guy these days.

So. I want to say this stuff-left-unsaid. More for my own peace of mind than anything else. You may not want to hear it. It’s been years, so it would make sense if you didn’t. Suppose I do decide to send this, you’re free to ignore it, even delete it without reading it if you want to. The point is, I have no expectations. If you keep reading, I hope that’ll become clear.

Wasn’t the beach something else though? Last night was such a beautiful night. The breeze on my face, the smell of the spray, and the sound of the breakers on the sand bank … cheesy, I know, but it kind of made me feel thankful to be alive.

I wouldn’t have noticed that type of thing before. I was almost never in the present moment when we were dating. I was always looking forwards or backwards or just …elsewhere. Whenever we were together, doing our homework after school, or hanging out, I’d have this little teleprompter thing going on in my brain. I’d watch the words scroll past and it’d distract me from whatever we were doing. “What’s he thinking? What’s he doing with a loser like me? When’s he going to come to his senses?” Dumb, huh. Then you’d have to go home, or I would. The teleprompter would change and it’d be “Why can’t you enjoy anything? What’s wrong with you? Why are you ruining this for yourself?”

That was one nasty bar, though, wasn’t it? Like God’s last waiting room or something. Just way too many sad old guys. Can’t imagine how Taylor comes up with these places. She’s always dragging me to weird, out of the way dumps for losers and deadbeats. She says it’s good for us to see how the other half lives. She’s majoring in anthropology, don’t know if she told you. Kind of fits, doesn’t it? It’s good rooming with her. Suits us pretty well. Taylor wants us to find a cheaper place, otherwise she may have to move back home next semester. Don’t know what I’ll do if she does. Share with strangers, I guess. Dad’s in Sacramento now, did you hear? He and his wife had a baby last year. She’s pretty adorable. Stella, the baby, that is, not his wife. Frannie’s OK, I guess.

Sorry. Got distracted there for a minute. I’m getting to the point, I swear.

Last night, when we were driving, after Taylor took off and before we stopped to get snacks, I looked across at you in the passenger seat. You were staring out the window, laughing and pointing out landmarks you hadn’t seen in a while. Your profile was in shadow. It occurred to me we’d never been in a car together when one of us was driving. For a second I literally could not breathe, I was so sad. It was like this huge wave rolled over me and left me gasping for air. I guess it was the first time it hit home—the loss of all the things we might have done together. Normal stuff. Driving in a car, by ourselves, choosing our destination. We were so young. We never had a chance to write our own script.

I couldn’t say a word, not then. Couldn’t risk spoiling the moment. You’d been so great all evening. Happy in the way only you can be. Joking with me like when we used to be friends in 7th grade. We could have been back in math class. It was beautiful.

Now, after the beach, I can tell you. I need to.

I wanted to cry, seriously. You have no idea what it meant to me that you were there, beside me. My heart was going, like, 150 miles per hour. I wanted to touch you as we walked across the grocery store parking lot. I stopped my hand reaching for yours and tried to stop myself from thinking about what it would feel like. It was so fucking painful. I almost bailed and went home right then.

Glad I didn’t. I’d still be miserable now, instead of—what? I don’t know what I’m feeling now. Scared? A little, maybe. Excited. Hopeful. Alive. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s some ugly stuff I have to get through first, before I get to the beach.

***

Here it is. Sometimes, that summer you were my boyfriend, I’d get so torn up inside thinking about what you had. The Adams-Fosters. Brothers and sisters. What seemed like your perfect situation. I was enraged by it. Isn’t that crazy? It crowded out everything else, every nice feeling. I felt like the worst person in the world. Part of me knew how ridiculous I was being. If anyone deserved a safe place to land it was you. You’d lost so much. Your mom dying, being put in the system, being shoved from place to place. But I couldn’t stop myself. This flood of mean, nasty feelings would tear through me, corrosive like acid.

Me? I was fine. I had parents. I had a nice house, a big room all to myself and tons of stuff. What did I have to worry about? Nothing. I had no reason to be sad, or mad, or anything. I should be grateful and shut up and stop whining. Telling myself that—and I did, over and over—made no difference. The feeling would swell up inside me out of nowhere, and I’d hate you for a second.

At the same time, I’d be so in love with you. I needed you so much. It made everything worse. I couldn’t make sense of anything. When you were sweet to me I felt ashamed and when you got mad with me, like you did from time to time, I told myself I deserved it because I was a bad, awful person. That’s why I let you go without a fight. That’s why I made it easier for you by acting like a jerk.

Yeah. I was jealous, basically. Not just of your moms, not just of what you had with your sister and the whole family (even Jesus, that hot, dumb, surly bastard). It wasn’t just that. I was jealous of you. It sounds stupid in my head to say I thought you were perfect and that I hated you for it. I know now it wasn’t true, but they’re the only words I have to describe how it felt at the time.

When I first met you, I couldn’t believe how decent you were. You spoke your mind, even when it was hard. People knew who you were and you trusted the world to protect you from whatever came your way—the ignorance of other people and any harm they might want to do you. You made me braver and that felt good, as long as I was with you. I was a little safer, safe enough to be honest about who I was on the outside. But the fear didn’t go away.

You seemed fearless. How did you do it? How did everyone in your family do it, after everything they’d been through? How were you, and Callie, and Mariana not scared of what the world might do to you?

It made me so mad, but I didn’t show it. I couldn’t. And hiding the truth of what I was feeling made everything ten times worse. My entire life seemed like a fraud. When you got angry, you didn’t pretend. You let it show. When you were sad, you told me and let me help you. That was good. I felt powerful and needed but afterwards I’d feel empty. Sometimes you’d talk to your moms or Callie instead of me and then I’d be scared in case that meant I wasn’t everything to you.

I was pretending all the time that I was OK. Sometimes it felt real. Other times, I knew something was off but it was just this vague feeling of wrongness. If I pretended it wasn’t there for a while, it went away. Distracting myself with school or baseball helped. Being with you helped most of all. Sometimes I’d say a little bit about what was bothering me and you’d be nice to me and I’d feel better. The weird emptiness would pass and life would start up again. I thought that was just how it worked for everybody. I thought I was happy.

Until we broke up and it felt like my life was over.

Do you remember what you said last night, as we drove by Anchor Beach? You said you had great memories of us hanging out after school. I agreed with you (of course I did) but later I found myself wondering if you’d forgotten the details of the last afternoon we spent together. For me it’s like it happened yesterday. After everything went down, I turned it over in my mind so often I think it got burned in the pathways of my brain. I never actually talked about it though. At the time, I was too angry and upset to speak about it to anyone. By the time I could have done, it was way too late.

I’m going to tell you now. It’s not like it’s the truth anyway, I know that now. It’s just my story of what happened.

***

You have no idea what a relief this feels like.

We’d gone upstairs, as usual. The door to your room was open, according to the rule. It’s strange now, six years later, to realise how much I liked that rule. We were always frustrated and trying to sneak off somewhere to be alone—a few minutes here and there, getting up an hour early so we could meet before school to make out. In your room, we were never alone. We could hold hands, maybe kiss a little. Mostly we sat on the floor and did our homework. Sometimes I’d look up and catch you looking at me in that intent way of yours, like you wanted to memorise my face or something. It was so. fucking. hot.

Anyway. So, I remember your moms were in the girls’ room, talking to Callie. They were discussing her sister, Sophia. Her dad had just called and told her not to come over that weekend. Callie was worried, upset. Your moms were telling her that Sophia was in good hands and it was going to be OK.

You were pretending to work on your history essay but I could tell you were listening. Your leg was against mine and I could feel that you were tense. I asked if you were OK and you went into this halting, rehearsed-sounding speech. How it was tough for Callie when Sophia was sick, but the medication and therapy was helping her and everyone was focused on “keeping the lines of communication open”. You said you got mad about it sometimes but you talked to your therapist and he was helping you figure it out. You said mostly you were just glad Callie felt safe enough now to talk to Moms about how it was affecting her.

I wondered why you were using what I thought of as your “lying” voice. You weren’t lying, of course I know that now, but I was on high alert, I guess. Self-doubting words flashed across my mind like ticker tape. Why weren’t you being honest with me? What had I done that would make you shut me out? It’s so obvious to me now that you were just upset. I could have helped you, wanted to. I tried to listen and take in what you were saying but Callie and your moms’ voices kept breaking in. She was crying and they were comforting her. All at once, my mind just switched. You were looking at me expectantly and I knew there was something I should say to you, but I couldn’t get the words out. My heart was pounding and my skin was crawling like I was sick and I had no idea why. I guess it was because half of me wanted to run away and the other half was fighting to keep me in place and telling me to act normal. I couldn’t do it.

I think maybe I’d just reached a point where I couldn’t pretend anymore. Coming out to my dad was supposed to be the end of it, but it wasn’t. It was temporary relief, that’s all. At home, all the effort of pretending I was a straight jock now went into ignoring Dad’s slumped shoulders and baffled looks. He was trying, I could see that. Of course, he still had to be a dick about consequences for every little infraction, but he kept his word about not spanking me. He actually read that book your moms lent him. After a couple of years he got comfortable enough to start hugging me again. Problem was, even though Dad was adjusting, I still had to deal with all the shit he’d handed on to me. At fourteen, I hadn’t started to process any of it. So I went to school to escape and spent as much time as I could hanging out with you at the Adams-Foster house and in the neighbourhood. I’d be OK as long as I was busy but, when it came down to it, I couldn’t get away from myself.

Your moms and Callie went downstairs. I guess in all the excitement they forgot we were still up there. The panicky feeling washed away and I felt tired to death. Don’t know if you realised—it was pretty exhausting being me back then. Why couldn’t anyone see me, see how I was feeling? Didn’t everyone feel like life wasn’t worth living sometimes? We didn’t all go walking into traffic and whatnot just to get attention. That bitch, that brat, I thought. She’s got everyone wrapped around her little finger.

So. I didn’t say the right thing, the comforting thing. Instead, I said that awful, mean thing about Sophia. I can’t remember the exact words and it doesn’t matter anyway. I can forgive myself now. It was the pain talking. The pain was real, even if I couldn’t left myself feel it at the time. I was only a kid, with a lot of stuff to handle and a lot of feelings I didn’t have permission for. I understand that now. Wish I could have known it at the time.

You just looked at me. I couldn’t read your expression and I started to panic again. You’re pretty scary when you’re mad. Those expressive eyes of yours go kind of blank and dark. Like black holes or something. I figured you were disgusted with me and I was too ashamed to ask your forgiveness. I tried to backtrack, stuttered out some lame non-apology, but you wouldn’t hear it. You said you needed some space. I should just go and we’d talk in the morning.

I cried for hours when I got home. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I couldn’t stop myself from sending you text messages, and every time you didn’t reply I got more angry and more terrified. You broke up with me the next morning, quickly, brutally, before school and before I could apologise properly. Your voice was hesitant, stilted. You used words like “clean break” and said “we can still be friends”. It could have been Lena Adams, Vice-Principal, talking.

I figured you were still furious and covering it up. I wanted you to get mad and punch me, but you seemed perfectly in control, unlike me. The tears were coming into my eyes again and about to spill. He’s embarrassed by you, the little vindictive voice in my head murmured. He’s hoping you’ll behave and not make a scene.

It confirmed my worst fears. I’d ruined everything, I was a bad person, you hated me. So I didn’t even ask you why. I acted like the biggest asshole on the planet because it hurt less to shut down than feel the sadness of not being with you. You know how it went after that. You made an effort for a while, like you always did. I couldn’t—wouldn’t—hear you. Eventually, you gave up trying to talk to me even in class.

That’s my story, as one-sided and fantastical as it sounds.

***

So why am I telling you all this now when so much time has passed? Maybe you don’t even remember our conversation when we got to the beach. We were both pretty buzzed by then. But for me it was nothing less than the last piece of the puzzle falling into place.

For six years, I went over and over what happened that afternoon. Enough is enough. One mean thing about some girl I didn’t even know. To think you’d break up with me over that. Honestly, I still suck at knowing when to cut myself some slack, but that much is clear.

But, you see, you were flawless in my eyes and I was garbage. It distorted everything. It’s taken me years to learn to see myself as an OK human being, and to know who I am. I guess I’ve been 99% complete for a while now. But there was still a piece missing.

For the longest time I thought that piece was shaped like you. Figured I’d screwed up my life by losing the one good thing that would ever happen to me. I was wrong about that, just like I was wrong about why you broke up with me.

On the beach, last night, you looked at me in that intent way again. For the second time that evening I was dying to let myself reach out and touch you, and stopped myself. Somewhere deep inside I was still waiting for you to forgive me and take me back. Like it wasn’t up to me to decide. So I held back and waited for you to make the first move. You didn’t. Why would you? You’re not a mind reader.

A few hours ago, you ran up the steps to your moms’ house in a hurry to eat breakfast with your family before heading to catch your plane. I have to tell you that ever since you brotherly-hugged me and we parted ways, my arms have been aching to hold you again, just for five more seconds. That’s on me.

I guess I couldn’t quite knock you from the pedestal I had you on. You never asked me to put you there but, like I said before, I was so in love with you and—let’s face it—you are pretty great. It made it hard to see your faults. Even though you never tried to cover them up or pretend you were perfect. I was blinded by your Jude-light.

Last night, talking on the beach, a few things finally came into focus.

Turns out that when you drink you get loquacious. Me? I get taciturn. No surprises there, huh. You may or may not remember, but you started telling me about your new life. You said how tough you’d found college at first, so far away from your moms and Callie. You went on to reminisce about about how, once you finally got adopted, the Adams-Foster family kept you firmly grounded. Home, school, activities, friends, therapy—you’d never realised how necessary and comforting the routine was to you. You said that being in a whole different state, living on your own, with nothing familiar around you brought up memories of being by yourself as a kid. For the first time in years, you remembered that hateful foster home, the one where the guy hit you for putting on a dress. Afterwards, you didn’t speak to him or to anyone at school for weeks and no one even noticed. You told me about still struggling with meeting and talking to people. You said it was no different to Anchor Beach, where I was pretty much your only friend for the first couple years. You talked about this one guy at college who seemed decent. You said he might have become a friend if only you hadn’t fucked it up. My jaw dropped when you told me you’d picked a fight with some homophobic asshole who’d called him a faggot.

It also made a weird kind of sense.

You were shame-faced describing how you had to be pulled off him. The next day, you said, you could hardly remember what happened. That triggered something. Memories of stuff I’d long forgotten. The time you kicked me, right at the very beginning, for example. When I was still confused and scared and jerking you around because I didn’t know any better. When kissing you seemed like the most wonderful, and the most terrifying act I could possibly imagine.

And then there was the other time, near the end. We had a date to go to the planetarium, and I’d kept you waiting all morning. Dad was being a pain, insisting I’d promised to help him with something first. He took my phone so I couldn’t contact anyone. Instead of yelling at me when I finally showed up, you just ignored me. When I tried to explain, you pushed me so hard I fell off my bike. You immediately apologised, and I chose to believe it was no big deal. I was happy you’d forgiven me, just like when you kicked and yelled at me for giving you mixed signals. Both times I just brushed it off. Figured I was at fault anyhow.

When you told me about getting into that bar fight, that final piece of the puzzle clicked into place. After I got home last night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way I’d always rushed to blame myself and exonerate you, when you lashed out. What if it wasn’t my fault after all? What if I wasn’t that bad, and you weren’t that good? The pushing thing had just happened, I seem to remember, a couple days before we broke up. Yeah. Because I still had the bruise on my knee. I could feel it where your leg was pushing up against mine as we sat on the floor doing our homework.

I’m finally getting to the point.

You weren’t the missing piece after all. You don’t complete me.

I want you to know that I’m OK. You’re safe. You can be angry with me and not be scared of how I’ll react. I need you to hear me on this. I wouldn’t ever put up with being kicked or pushed or anything else by you. Not again. I won’t take it on myself and make excuses for you.

The point is, I’m over beating myself up as well. It hurts like hell to be apart from you, but I’m not stewing in my room, crying over losing you again. I’m not on a bus, on my way to you. I’m not waiting for you instead of getting on with my life.

I’m also not going anywhere. I let myself want things now, and believe that I deserve to ask for them. So here it is: I want to see you again, next time you’re home, if you want to. I want to kiss you again. Next time I see you, whenever that is, I intend to try. I won’t stop myself this time. I’m here, alive and well, and I miss you. All my love, forever, Connor.