We haven’t been friends for a while, you and I, but you should know I’ve been watching you. You’re growing your hair long—it looks good. There’s still that curl in front, though, the one you hated so much. Back during our middle-school sleepovers I’d watch you gel yours, trying to get it into a wave like mine, but within an hour you’d have a sausage on your head. It’s still there, but with your longer hair looks more like a ringlet. I bet you hate it. It’s kind of adorable.
Your friends seem nice. I see you talking a lot with the girl with the enormous jaw and the Cheerios tee shirt she wears every Monday. I guess her family must do laundry on Sundays. Then there’s the girl with the hair that’s huge from being dyed pink a few too many times. Does she play that guitar? I bet she’s good. But I’ve never seen her take it out. Must be heavy to haul around all day.
You’re hanging out with the new junior. Olivia. She found you right away, huh? Her skin is so white, and her hair is so black. Does she dye it, too? I guess she must. You’re in Advanced Drama together. I’d have taken it, but it meets the same time as AP Euro, and I need the quality point on my GPA if I want to make valedictorian.
Are you going to college?
It’s too bad you gave up gymnastics. I bet they give scholarships for that. That singlet you kept in the back of your closet in middle school—remember when I found it and put it on over my jeans and you kept yelling at me to take it off? Then remember how your coach had a sleepover for your team and bought everyone their own porn movie? We thought that was the coolest thing any adult has ever done, but looking back I think it was weird. Don’t you?
We watched it together, silent for two hours, three feet of carpet between us. After, I said I wonder what sex feels like and you said you weren’t going to help me find out, and I hit you and said that’s not what I meant.
I walked by the sign-up sheet for the school play and saw your name right below Olivia’s. Written in the same green pen. Is it a musical, or what?
You looked mad. Well, mostly you didn’t look. Like, I couldn’t catch your eye once, not even by accident. I felt weird among you drama kids, with your pins promoting causes and bands, ragged cuffs and belts made from old seatbelts. In my button-down shirt and khakis I felt . . . simple. No wonder I got cast as the dad.
I didn’t check the list right after school—I was afraid to run into you, and if seeing me makes you angry I guess I wanted to spare you. Or spare myself, who am I kidding. But the next morning I drove in early so I could check before first period. You got an awesome part, it’s perfect for you. And we’re related! I’ll try to be a good stage father.
“Have you ever acted natural in your life?” the girl in the Cheerios shirt asks me during rehearsal.
It’s good I don’t have a big part. I’d hate to wreck this thing for you. But it’s hard enough to be me on that stage, much less a character.
Do you remember the day we met? We were both brand new seventh-graders, at the table with the miscreants: Jacob Tennant, who spent the entire lunch period penciling stick soldiers and blowing them up within blue college-ruled lines; Doug Herty, who forgot the punchline of two jokes in a row; Ryan Aldredge, who bragged so hard about having had sex with his neighbor that even we the powerless felt bold enough to call him out. Then there was you. Halfway through Doug’s third joke, you launched into an impersonation of an opera singer, your eyes rolling back in your head and your mouth a warbling oval. It was like you didn’t know the first thing about what got guys like us called faggots.
We had our first sleepover that weekend. A year later, we asked out Tricia and Tamyra, went on a double date that ended with sharp kisses for you and a damp hug for me. I had no illusions about myself: I spent twice-daily quality time with a manila folder full of Hanes ads ripped from my dad’s Rolling Stones. As far as I knew, dating would always be an act of theater. Tamyra and I were never destined for a round two.
Then came high school, and the plaid-and-tartan honors kids let me in. Hot girls made me their best friend, and in the logic of straight boys that protected me from faggot. Hanging out with you would have kept it around.
As I pull out of the parking lot after rehearsal I see you and Olivia walking hand in hand along the highway. She’s a little shorter than you. She smiles at you often. She has breasts. She moved to our boring Tampa suburb all the way from Virginia. She knows about life outside. She wanted to be stage manager. She is an unknowable girl. You two look good together.
I pull alongside, roll down my window, ask if you guys want a ride. You say no, and Olivia says yes, and when you get in she takes the front seat. “Whose house?” I ask.
“Let’s all go to mine,” she says.
And like that, I’m invited.
I glance at you often in the rearview. You’ve pressed yourself into the backseat, knees lanking out of baggy shorts, tucking your long hair behind your ears, even though it’s been gelled there since this morning—you must have found stronger stuff since middle school. You don’t say anything as Olivia and I talk. She’s good at it, talking. Better than we are. I keep flicking my gaze to you back there, looking to see if you’re wounded, if I’m hurting you again.
Olivia explains why she moved here. She and her parents were fighting all the time up in Virginia, and her grandfather was lonely, so Olivia moved down to Florida and into her grandfather’s spare room. It all sounds like something someone way older than sixteen does. It’s like the adult life I’ve been straining to spot sneaked up sideways, saying surprise! “That sounds like an awesome setup,” I say.
“Paw-paw sleeps a lot,” Olivia says. “And everyone in this school of yours seems to think I’m a freak—except for you guys, apparently. But you’re enough for me, aren’t you babe?”
“You know it,” you say, staring out the window.
Olivia looks back at you, puts her hand on your knee even as she twists her attention to me. “You two have something complicated going on, huh?”
“Yeah,” I say. “We used to be best friends. Is this your subdivision?”
I pull into a gray driveway in front of a beige house with a green lawn. Brown leaves in pavement seams, orange pesticide flags, concrete circles sheltering sleeping sprinklers. “Come in,” Olivia says. “My grandfather won’t even leave his room. We have the run of the place.”
It’s all mirrored tile and shining fixtures and vinyl. Half of the overhead bulbs are out, so everything looks like it’s under dishwater. You and I sit at the counter while Olivia makes tea. Tea! I can’t meet Wednesday, I might need to say someday soon, I have a date for tea at Olivia’s.
“So,” she says as she sets something purple and steaming in front of me. A cat is clutching a branch on the mug, but its inspirational phrase has drained away. “Are you gay?”
I snort. It’s a question I’ve gotten plenty of times; only the meaner kids use innuendo. “Um, no.”
“My sister is gay,” Olivia says. “Well, she’s fooled around with girls. I would have, too. Back when I lived in Haiti. I mean, those women are beautiful.”
“You lived in Haiti?” you ask.
“Oh yeah,” Olivia says. “My parents were missionaries, and I grew up there. I speak Creole and everything. But then there was a revolution, and our closest friends were killed. Like, speared and set on fire and paraded in the streets. So we had to leave, like take nothing and get out of there. One day I was there, and the next I was in America. Pop!”
She laughs, and so we laugh, tightly and grayly. “Whoa,” I say.
“Say some Haitian,” you say.
“Creole,” I correct.
Olivia pronounces some syllables.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
“That girl is foxy.” Olivia laughs. “Come on, we’ll wake my grandfather if we keep talking out here. Let’s go in my bedroom.”
For the bedroom of someone special, it looks pretty normal. Maybe she hasn’t had time to decorate yet. Olivia sits on the bed, and you sit beside her. Comfortable. Like you’ve already sat on that bed plenty of times before.
“You never told me about that Haiti stuff,” you say. “It’s really intense.”
Olivia nods. “I guess I don’t usually want to talk about it.”
Through her slatted blinds, I see my car out front. Everything’s normal inside that car.
“You look really uncomfortable,” Olivia tells me.
“Do I?” I ask. I’m getting tired of having this pointed out to me. “It’s just that your story was so hardcore.”
“So why did you guys stop being best friends?” Olivia asks.
I examine the top of her dresser. Hairbrush, hair ties, ashtray, magazines, the bra she was wearing yesterday. Not enough to comment on.
“Let me guess,” Olivia says. “One of you turned into a Republican, the other one got his nipples pierced, and suddenly you stopped speaking.”
You shake your head.
“Nope, not it,” I say. “Wait, nipples pierced?”
“He doesn’t know? Show him,” Olivia says.
“No way, stop being weird,” you say, wrapping your arms around your chest. Then Olivia’s launched at you, and you throw yourself onto the bed, stomach-down. She’s on top of you, laughing as she grabs for your wrists. You roll and roll on top of the mattress, like you’re making a home for yourself there, your shirt wrapping tighter and tighter around your back, your baggy black shorts twisting and gripping.
“Help me!” Olivia cries.
I’m on the bed next to you, my arms around your shoulders as I heave you to your feet. I want you to notice that I’m stronger now.
I’ve got you in a lock, your soft belly exposed to Olivia. She takes one of your wrists and then the other and holds them out. You’re laughing. She’s laughing. I’m panting.
“Well, now what are you two going to do?” you ask. We don’t have any hands left to pull up your shirt.
“Huh,” Olivia says. “I didn’t think this far.”
I grip you tighter.
“Okay, fine,” you say. “Mercy. I’ll show.”
I let go, and Olivia steps back. You reach down and pull up your tee shirt, pinching the wrapped fabric under your chin. It’s the same body I remember from pool parties, but now there are little barbells, one in each nipple. They look a little silly, like nipple earmuffs. I would never want any, but I’m impressed by the whole body-change thing you’ve done. “Really cool,” I say, by which I guess I mean you’re brave. “Anyway, I’ve got to be going.”
It’s your bravery that keeps you on my mind, I guess. You’ve been at the edge of my vision for years, and then it turns out you’re living a life that’s bigger than mine. The next day I find myself picking you guys up on the sidewalk again, and the day after we all go straight to my car after rehearsal like we’ve been riding through our whole lives together. You’ve asked Olivia to prom, and we make plans to go in a group, but I asked Denise from AP Calc and you guys can’t stand her so we all know I’ll back out.
Denise and I are going as friends, but all the same I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be married to Denise Saint-Paul, to say goodnight and roll away from each other in cheerful cotton sheets and produce the kids that would make my parents proud.
“Hey, where did you two go?” Olivia asks as she steps out of the bathroom. “You’re both, like, staring into space.”
You’re lying on her bed, drumming your fingers on your breastbone.
“Yeah,” I say, shaking my head. “Long day, I guess.”
“So,” she says, eyes shining. “Ask me what’s special.”
You raise your eyebrows.
“What’s special?” I ask.
“I have my prom dress!” She rummages through her closet and pulls out a small blue dress. Jagged hem, like someone hacked away at it.
“That’s a prom dress?” you ask. Surely you know you’re screwing up.
“Yes!” Olivia says. “Of course it is. What would you know? It’s supposed to be really expensive, but the salesperson gave me a discount because he was into me.”
It’s the kind of bragging we willingly forgive Olivia for, at all times. “Put it on,” I say.
She ducks into her bathroom. By the time she returns, I’m sitting next to you on the bed. The dress looks awful. It’s loose around her waist, and poofs on her shoulders, but not in a retro way. You and I watch in silence while she turns.
“I’m thinking I should have tried it on in the store,” Olivia says, looking down at her body, plucking at the blue nylon glomming her breasts.
“I mean, I guess it’s cool,” you try.
“You try it on,” Olivia says.
“No way,” you say.
She glances at me, but doesn’t bother asking.
“Hand it over,” I say.
Olivia unzips the dress down the side and steps right out it. She shrugs a giant tee shirt over her body, then hands me the dress. I slowly turn it right side out, watching Olivia to gauge her reaction. For the first time, she’s impressed by me. Your mouth has dropped into the quavering operatic oval it last made back in seventh grade.
I unbutton my shirt and shrug it off. Turning away from you both, I kick off my shoes and slide my khakis down my legs. I’m wearing my oldest boxer briefs, the pair that’s more gray than blue and has a hole at one side of the crotch. Olivia wolf-whistles as I work the dress down my body. My shoulders are way bigger than hers, and it hitches, but then I stretch the fabric down and turn around.
This dress pulls my whole body in tight. I feel encased. I feel armored.
Olivia’s got her hands over her mouth, staring at me in wonder. You, of the nipple piercings, are shaking your head in astonishment. Finally you speak: “Worst. Drag. Queen. Ever.”
I do a little curtsy, hoping to work my way to the outside of this shame. My face is hot, burning with something like humiliation and something like delight.
“He’s blushing!” Olivia cries. “Oh my God, this is too adorable.”
You are silent. I don’t quite look at you. Instead I look down at the shiny glittery fabric stretched tight across my hips, reaching just past my boxers. There is a long expanse of white leg before my athletic socks start. Bodies have so much sameness to them there.
“Come over here,” Olivia says.
“Why?” I ask, even as I’m stepping to the side of the bed.
“Lean down,” she commands.
“What, are you going to give me a noogie?” I ask.
She gets up onto her knees, places midnight-nailed fingertips under my chin, and kisses me.
Her lips are cushions, taste like the purple tea, and have a heat, the real warmth of a person. While I kiss her, my body goes rigid and I wonder what’s going on in your mind. If this is all okay.
I sense you moving behind her, and then Olivia pulls away. “Now it’s your turn,” she says to you.
There’s something aggressive in her voice that makes me want to run to my car, but then your face is in front of mine, where hers just was. Your eyelid with the freckle, the half-brown eye on the left, the cheek and jaw that are so familiar.
And then your lips are on mine.
“That’s so beautiful,” Olivia says.
Your lips are harder and smaller than hers. Tasteless and rough. I’m bending you backwards, into the bed. You’re pressing up against me. Your tee shirt is back up. Your nipple piercings taste like quarters.
Olivia is talking the whole time about how wonderful this is. Occasionally we kiss her, too.
As I drive home, my body is light and my mind is fog. It’s not bliss I’m feeling, or sadness, or anywhere between. I’ve been overhauled; every last molecule has been removed and replaced. It takes all of my concentration to watch the traffic lights. I never had to watch them before, but now nothing in the world is automatic. It seems like nothing will be automatic ever again. Red. Green.
I run my tongue over my cracked lips. You and Olivia have wrung me dry. Once I’m home, I go to the bathroom and send the toothbrushes rattling to the counter so I can get the porcelain cup in my trembling hand. I take one, two, cold drafts of tap water. One cheek is red in the mirror; Olivia left me untouched, but your stubble left me raw.
When my mom gets home she finds me standing in the middle of the living room, staring out the window, the bathroom cup in my hand. The moment she sees me she asks me what’s wrong.
I shake my head. “Nothing.”
“Stressed out, honey?”
I nod. “Yeah, must be that.”
“Go do your homework, I’ll do your dishes.”
I float into my room. I’m being rewarded.
I write you five texts that night, but I don’t send any of them. My body wakes me up an hour early for school, and I blink at my dark ceiling for a while, then get up and eat cardboard cereal with water milk before my hand takes the keys from the hook and my legs take me to the car and my eyes watch the traffic lights to know when to go. Red. Green.
I pace the halls, looking for you that morning, but the jump-splat of what happened hasn’t brought you to school early like me. I am doing homework alone in the cafeteria, my hair slicked back and dress shirt neatly buttoned, facing the front doors like I’m about to open the school for business.
I light my phone whenever it goes dark. No word from you. But there’s a note waiting on my desk in English. You have it the period before me.
Olivia won’t stop talking about prom. Denise, too? See you at rehearsal.
I don’t know how to get a note back to you, so I rehearse conversations all day while I wait for the final bell to ring. My stomach’s doing a tight little spin cycle as I walk into the auditorium, far worse than audition day, but the moment I see you and Olivia, it stops. You guys wave at me, like all’s normal. We’re amazingly good at this performance. Onstage, though, I’m still the most horrendous actor ever to exist. Olivia’s in full stage-manager mode, and snaps at us for screwing up our blocking. We go to her house again after rehearsal’s done.
“Why shouldn’t a three-person relationship work?” I ask you on the phone. I’m on my floor, legs up the wall, free hand tapping my calves as I wonder what they look like to you.
“I’m not sure why, but it’s definitely not supposed to,” you say. “That’s, like, conventional wisdom.”
“Only because we’re taught that way, that it has to be two people,” I say. “That’s, you know, limitation.”
“Well, I still think we should go for it. I look forward to it all exploding dramatically,” you say. “Then we can become friends again after a decade of hatred and be fat old men in diapers checking out pool boys at some retirement home.”
“You’re so pessimistic,” I say, although my heart trills like I just heard the most hopeful thing anyone’s ever said.
“Fire and brimstone,” you say. “Actually, I’m not sure what that is. Well, fire I know. But not brimstone.”
“Are you alone?”
“What time are your parents home?”
“Not for forty-five minutes. Plenty of time.”
“I’m on my way,” I say.
We take a shower after and lie in your parents’ bed because it feels dirty and we’re seventeen-year-old boys and like feeling dirty. My hands do things I’ve long imagined: I run my thumb over your eyebrows. I tuck that curl of hair in the front down flat against your forehead. I kiss the base of your neck. You bought a metal chain at the piercing place in the mall and so the spot where neck meets shoulder tastes like quarters, too.
I lie back and stare at you. You lie back and stare at me.
“Do we tell Olivia what just happened?” I ask.
You let out a long breath. “I think she’d flip her shit.”
“Yeah,” I say. She was proud of bringing us together, at making music from two boy instruments. But I don’t think she’d feel proud to see us in your parents’ bed without her.
The front door lock goes, and we’re lurching to our feet. You throw the covers over mussed sheets, and I peel my sweaty tee shirt down my chest.
We stagger into the kitchen just as your mom does, slumping plastic bags of groceries to the counter. “You guys look flushed,” she says.
“Yeah,” you say. “Wrestling.”
“I pulled out the old gymnastics singlet,” I say. “Always good for a tease.”
She rolls her eyes. “Really, boys, you need to be kinder to each other. Come on, help me with these.”
You look elated from the deception, but I can’t stop my hands from shaking. “Calm down,” you whisper. “You look like you’ve been stopped by the police.”
The play goes up the next week and everyone lies and says we were amazing. Well, they lie about me. You were amazing, dropping that tumbling routine into the middle of a scene. It made no sense, but the crowd went crazy. Me, I could feel my mouth moving with every line I said, like I was my own ventriloquist.
We end up at Olivia’s grandfather’s house after the cast party. It’s been a long week, and no one has much to say. Olivia goes to make some more of that purple tea while you and I lie in the bed. I’m rock steady on my back, like a corpse. You have your hand on my stomach.
“Ask her if it was true,” you whisper. “That stuff about Haiti.”
“I’m pretty sure she made it up.”
“Why would she do that?”
“To be special, I guess,” you say.
“Oh,” I whisper. “That’s pretty messed up.” Even though it doesn’t feel so messed up at all.
“Stuff gets complicated quick, huh?” You close your eyes, and when you open them, you look worried. But not about Olivia. About the guy right in front of you.
Olivia comes in with the tea, and I drink it so quickly that I burn my throat.
The week before prom, Olivia tells you she doesn’t want to go anymore—she can’t afford any of the dresses she likes, and isn’t the whole ordeal a little manufactured anyway? You decide she’s right, that you didn’t want to go either, and cancel your tux rental. It was powder blue, with ruffles. I’d have liked to have seen it.
All the same, I’m relieved. We’d have had to avoid each other all night, or stare at each other over our dates’ shoulders, like some doomed couple we’d read about in English class.
The honors kids overpaid on a limo and made a reservation at the classy place in town where everything has aioli. Denise looks great. There’s fancy twigs in her hair that I learn are called baby’s breath. That’s gross but fancy. I put a corsage on her wrist, and her mother pins on my boutonniere. As the honors kids settle into our table, I look down the line of us. Boy, girl, boy, girl. Colorless, colorful, colorless, colorful.
In the bathroom, while I’m peeing I think of you and pull out my phone. No messages. Then, midstream, a text from you pops up.
Prom drama update: Olivia on a date with some college guy. We got dumped!
Of course we have. Olivia has too good a survival instinct to spiral down with us. I text, You should come to dance after all. Tickets at door, but as I’m pressing “send” the phone slips from my prom-nervous hand and drops into the urinal.
I fish it out and rinse it. The screen is dark and dead.
Prom is balloons and a disco ball and, though it’s in a hotel ballroom, has the same floor tile as our cafeteria. It’s like our prom is playing a prom in a movie.
There aren’t any real couples in the honors group, so we dance in a circle, like we’re waiting for someone to summon something magical in the center. I’m dancing next to Denise when I see you appear at the front doors, in jeans and a tee shirt.
What are we going to do, dance?
The honors group starts swing dancing, except no one really knows how. We’re just throwing bodies at bodies, hoping they get caught. It’s all sweaty, red-faced fun. I look over and see you’re still near the doors. I duck out and head to you.
You haven’t made it past the check-in table. “Dress code,” you say.
“Oh crap,” I say. “I’ll go open a side door and let you in that way.”
“No, it’s fine, go back to Denise Saint-Paul,” you say.
I look back at the group in their circle on the dance floor. Lights and balloons. “Let me at least walk you to your car,” I say.
“Okay,” you say as we slowly start to walk. “Nice tux.”
“This old thing?” I say. We fall into silence. “Nice . . . jeans.”
You stop short before we’ve reached your car. “I’ll take it from here,” you say.
“Yeah, okay,” I say. “Hey, I’d go off with you, but I guess you only get one prom, and I feel like I should probably . . .”
“I get it. See you around,” you say.
I watch you drive away.
Somewhere out there, Olivia is on her date. He’s probably some square-jawed divorced math major with plastic glasses. He’ll laugh when Olivia shows him pictures of us. Why were you dating little boys?
While I go back to dancing beside Denise, I imagine you driving alone in your car, opera on the radio, warbling your O’s like you once did for me.
Eliot Schrefer is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. His NY Times-bestselling books have been named to the NPR Best of the Year list and the ALA best fiction list for young adults. He is on the faculty at the Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA program.
“Singlet” was originally published in “Do You Love Me?” (TLR, Spring 2015).