Emilia (Novel Excerpt)
Chapter 4: There are mouths to be kissed before mouths to be fed.
The light had been coming in through the locker room windows differently those past few days. It was not that it seemed brighter. Or not just that it seemed brighter. But softer too. Cleaner. The weather was cooler. It felt like autumn, like the long Southern California summer would abate.
This was a trick of the weather, of course. Every year the weather in Redlands cooled for a bit towards the end of September, and then the heat came back with a vengeance, usually by mid October, and stayed in the low eighties all the way to the New Year. Knowing that this respite of false fall was so fleeting filled it with a sense of dread. Like so much of life. Of course, everything ran out. But the good stuff seemed to run out so much more quickly than the bad. The quilts from my grandmother, maple syrup from Vermont, even the sun, the thing that was our hope for a greener, cleaner, solar California, would eventually run out. Light——the very light that came through the locker room windows——was not endless.
It had been a run day that day in PE. Danny Coleman lapped me twice. The second time, he stopped, put his hands against my back, and said, “Let me help. I’ll push, but you have to run.” He did this almost every week. Two years ago, the first time he’d done it, it had almost been funny. But it was an inevitability now. Like the light. Like the weather. Like the false fall. At least run days would be ending soon. There was only one more year of PE, then the graduation requirement would be filled. And then no more PE. No more run days where Coach Lopez expressed her disappointment with my 16:22 mile time. No more changing in front of Danny Coleman and having him grab my fat, my “tits,” and smelling his cheap body spray on me for hours after.
Trudging into the locker room, my breath just regained, my legs sore, my shirt slick with sweat, I took comfort in the fact that even PE was not endless, no matter how interminable it felt.
God is endless, they’d told us at church. He represented the hope that there was something beyond the looming, black punctuation mark that was death. But what came after that? More of the same? Was existence (and after-existence) just one long line? Or were we to, as one of the speakers at church had once said, look to the seasons for our answer? That the way the year repeated itself was a sign from God that we too could be resurrected? Which implied rebirth. But rebirth into this same life? Into a new life?
We had to watch a PBS documentary on the Big Bang theory in eighth grade science. The teacher, in an attempt to appease the fundamentalist students, had prefaced the viewing by stressing that what we were learning about was a theory and that none of us had to take it as fact. It wasn’t the Big Bang I had a problem with. The Mormon Church didn’t have an official policy on it, and the general consensus was that there was no problem with viewing God as the “Ultimate Scientist.” What was unsettling came about halfway in when a scientist explained the “Big Crunch,” the theory that the Universe would eventually stop expanding and start contracting and eventually compact itself into a single, infinitely dense mass, wherein it would explode and create a new Universe. And that the Universe had been doing this, making and unmaking itself, longer than time.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the Big Crunch, and about how the entire universe would look compacted down. Would it be the size of a planet? A comet? A baseball? An atom? Would you be able to see it? And what would it be among? I had asked my mother about it as she was making dinner that night and she said she didn’t like to think about things like that. Which is what she always said when I brought up questions like “Where did God come from?” and “Will I be the same age as you in Heaven?”
I couldn’t explain to her how it wasn’t just that it made my head hurt to think about the Big Crunch, but that the thought made my body feel weightless and hollow, and that my chest constricted like my heart was imploding, and that it became hard to breathe, and a pin-prickly, numbing sensation spread over my entire body. I couldn’t tell her how there were only 36,525 days in a century, how that didn’t seem like that many, and how, given the average lifespan of the American male, I knew I was bound to see many fewer than that 36,525. How if I was thirteen at the time, and I lived to be as old as my great-grandpa had, 87, an eighth of my life had already elapsed. How in such moments, death seemed not only inevitable, but imminent, preferable, even. If only to get it over with.
“Why don’t you pray about it,” she finally said. “And I’ll pray about it too.”
I told her I would, recognizing that I had reached the end of the help she could give me. She pecked me on the forehead, and I left her in peace.
I wanted her to tell me that maybe the Big Crunch did go against the Church. Dismissing it outright would have made things easier, like my evangelical friends did with evolution. But if my mom, so logical but so devout, wasn’t willing to disown it… then both science and religion confirmed it: the very nature of existence was that there was no meaning, no novelty, just repetition. We were meant to repeat these patterns over and over again, like the Buddhist monks who made the same artwork in sand every day only to brush it away. In which case, there needed to be an end point for things to have meaning. Real flowers die, that’s why they’re prettier than plastic ones. Novels end, that’s why they make us cry. But if an end provided meaning, did Heaven rob life of its meaning? Even a Heaven where you were forever separated from your loved ones?
I had to pull myself back. Out of the polluted swamp of my consciousness. Back. Back. Back to the P.E. locker room, and out of the mud and tar and radioactive waste.
It will be many years before I learn the meditational breathing techniques that help in such situations. And even then, they will not help much. Instead, at that moment, I looked to the light for help. I followed it as it came through the paneled windows and fell on the floor near Chris Demirdjii’s lithe form——half-naked of course——caressed only by those thin white briefs of his. How pretty life is, I thought. Enjoy it now, you depressing bore.
It was hypnotic following the neat groups of muscles that ran up Chris’s legs. Up and down. They were not marbled with jiggly fat, like mine. They were neat, spare, fibrous. You could see the individual chords rise and fall, leading into the next group, all the way from his ankle to his calf to his thigh to just above the waistband on his briefs. There was a small razor cut just above his left knee. He had shaved his legs. Just last week, there had been a thick matting of black hair running up and down them, but they were bare now, milk white. Is that in now? Shaved legs. Even the swim team boys only shaved their legs because the coach made them. Shaved legs said a certain thing about a boy. Was Chris on the swim team now? Or was he a certain thing?
Mr. Roth was a certain thing. I hadn’t been able to get that out of my mind since Emilia had told me the other day. It was such a loss of control; Mr. Roth giving into his baser urges, leaving his wife. And for a man. A man. Even constructing the sentence in my mind felt wrong, like the social order was being undone by the mere existence of the concept. He had a wife, a house, a good job. He’d done everything he was supposed to.
Did he feel guilt over what he felt? Did he try desperately to think of girls while his mind kept going back to boys? Beautiful boys. With their smooth skin and hot breath, their garlicky odor and their piquant deodorant, their big, body-built arms so out of proportion with their bodies, their Adam’s apples, the way their hair changed in texture and color as you tracked it down their torso. I thought of Mr. Roth, glasses off, his black hair slick with sweat, his frumpy body slamming against Jeff the janitor, over and over again. Jeff’s eyes rolling back in his head, biting his lower lip, a low, guttural grunt emerging with each of Mr. Roth’s thrusts. Or switching positions, with Jeff’s taut, wiry body overtaking Mr. Roth. Again and again I thought about it.
At church we were told to envision our “future families.” Not our present families, of course, with our parents and siblings. Those people were preparation, the pupal stage that would eventually molt off and be left behind in a husky, translucent pile. No, we were always meant to consider our future family. The one that would be composed of the person we married and the children that resulted. Ever present were they, my future family. Every decision had to be made weighing them in mind. College, career, diet, exercise, where to live, whether or not to have a dual-income home. And these were decisions that had to be made now. Now, they told us. Women wanted to marry men with a future (whereas men, we were told, wanted to marry women without a past), and the only way to have a future was to decide now, not for ourselves, but for these people who would come to rely on us.
My future family always seemed to be composed of those wooden, jointed modeling dolls, the kind with smooth, nondescript features that artists use to draw the human form in different positions. They doll family was not unkind. We always seemed to be sitting around the dinner table in a house not unlike the one I grew up in, the dolls talking to each other in a language made up of the scrapes and squeaks of their various joints moving.
Earlier that morning, before Chris Demirdjii and the locker room and Danny Coleman and the run and everything else, while I was lying in bed, before my alarm had gone off, an anarchic, electric thought had occurred to me: Would I care if one of my children told me they were haunted by the certain thing? Would I tell them God hated them? Would I believe God hated them? Them, spiritual and corporeal duplicates of myself. Would I hate them?
Across the room, Chris Demirdjii buttoned up his plaid shirt, pulled on his pants, ran a hand through his hair. For the first time the thought verbalized that he was beautiful, not just the light or the hair or the muscles, but the holistic he was beautiful. And even more so standing there in that square of light. The sunshine reflecting off his black, curly hair, giving the effect of a bronze halo hovering just above his head.
Would I hate my child? And did I hate Mr. Roth now, when he had been my favorite teacher up to that moment?
Danny Coleman walked into the square of light, in front of Chris Demirdji. Lost in thought, I had been looking too long. Danny locked eyes with me, gave me a toothy smile, his eyes lupine and hungry. I immediately squinted, as if I were trying to see something above Chris. Danny moved.
I turned to my locker and started changing quickly. I had to get out of the locker room. I ripped off my PE shirt and shorts, rolled them up into a funky ball and shoved them to the back of my locker. I grabbed my t-shirt and frantically tried to pull it on. My arm banged against the row of lockers and my elbow seized with blunt pain. I paused to rub it, and in that pause Danny darted up behind. His arms were around me almost as quickly as I noticed him. They were veiny.
“God, your rack,” Danny said, lightly pinching my nipples. “If I had these I’d be playing with them all day.”
I followed a vein from the top of his bicep as it ran down his forearm. His hairless forearm. Danny had shaved them. Had they always been hairless? Or was Danny on swim team now too? He didn’t have the build for it.
In the locker room, other guys chatted, the teachers in their office at the other end laughed, and… these things are so brash in their clarity that the only option, sometimes, is that they are not the things they are. I apologize, I am being obscure. When I meet up with friends now, old high school friends for a coffee or lunch or a drink, they will say, “I always knew. We all did.” and I will say, “But no one told me.” And they will say, “It was so obvious.” And we will laugh, and I will not know why we are laughing. Things hide in plain sight. You do not see Danny Coleman sneaking up behind you in the locker room. You do not see the way your male teacher flirts with the male janitor. You do not see the clear inconsistencies in your religion, the contradictions in dogma, but you know they are there. And you know you are not supposed to see them. So you don’t. Meteors swoop past Earth and scientists tell us we should have seen it coming. Fascists win elections and the pundits tell us how blind we were to reality. And it might be late at night, and you might have never thought about killing yourself before. You might not have seen how easy it would be, via a jump from a high ledge, one of your father’s guns, by running your car in the garage, or any number of frighteningly possible methods, to pass from the land of the living to the land of the dead, if there is one. And suddenly you see it all.
Danny brought his mouth close to my ears. “You like this, don’t you?” he asked, his soft lips brushing my earlobe, conforming to its curve. They were soft and conformed to the curve of my ear. The warmth and moistness of his mouth mere millimeters away from my skin. Goosebumps spread up and down my arm. My dick hardened. In that moment, I realized it always did when Danny grabbed me.
In Danny’s arms time always went slowly. They were strong, his arms. There was no escaping them, even if I tried. They were sturdy. Comforting. I could go limp in them and he’d still have me. ‘You like this, don’t you?’ he asked again, softer this time, as if he did care whether or not I liked it. As if he would change if I said, ‘No, a little softer.’ I let my legs weaken a little bit. His arms bulged, his vein popped even more. And still he had me.
The smell was intoxicating. The fruity, vinegary smell of his fresh sweat, adulterated by the chemical spice and citrus of his cheap body spray, astringent and overbearing. Why ruin perfectly natural body odor with such obvious artificialities? His skin was so smooth, his body so hard, so strong, his breath hot against my neck, his heart beating underneath it all. Maybe I do like it, I thought. And another part of my brain answered, No, not now.
He gripped a handful of my tummy fat and slid his thumb slowly over it. “You could get rid of this if you actually tried running out there.” His deep voice vibrated against his throat. In ward choir, Danny always had to sing the low bass notes. He wasn’t bad. A little flat, but all basses tended to be. Danny’s other hand left my nipple and started to roam around. He caressed my arm, my side, my back. My breathing shallowed. “I used to have this baby fat like you,” he said. “Keep up with me next time. It’ll melt right off.” How long had Danny been holding me? It had to be longer than normal. Or maybe I was just enjoying it more. Maybe I do like it, I thought again, stronger this time. Maybe this was how Mr. Roth felt when he cheated with the janitor. And the other part of my brain answered again, No, not now. And I thought, Then when?
I needed to pull away. Danny’s constricting hold had loosened enough. I could get out. And there was only so much time left before Danny did it himself. Better to have it be under my own terms. But I didn’t pull away. I held off. Suddenly other paths in my life seemed not only present, but traversable.
Under some force, conscious and unconscious, Celestial and Terrestrial, I pushed myself back into Danny to further feel his body against me. It felt like falling. Falling into his uneven stubble snagging against my neck, and his clearly defined six pack, and his pecs, his tight little nipples that poked out of his shirt at church because he didn’t wear an undershirt. Falling into “faggot” and “nice tits” and his high-pitched, gatling gun laugh that he reserved for his own jokes, and the way he called me “Brother Cook” with rehearsed respect in Sunday school. Falling into his tree trunk arms, and his gammon legs, and his spoiled wine smell, and a hardness bulging against the thin netting of his PE shorts.
In fifth grade, when the school nurse showed us the videotape about sexual reproduction, I learned the word “erection,” meaning “the enlarged and rigid state of the penis, typically in sexual excitement.” The knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who experienced the phenomenon of having an appendage, which previously had the consistency of jello, randomly become “enlarged and rigid,” was comforting. But the word didn’t encompass everything around it. Erection sounded like something you built, something you controlled. It did not seem to indicate the feeling that your body was visibly betraying your inner thoughts, or the shame when you dashed to the bathroom in the morning, hoping no one saw. Not to mention the pressure of realizing you had to produce one should you ever wish to have future children with your future wife.
I pushed further into Danny. The hardness became harder. Oh, I thought. So that was what they felt like when other people had them. Before I could even think, Danny pushed me away, against the lockers. I banged my arm again, tripped over the bench, fell flat against the concrete floor on my back. “Fucking fa…” Danny started to say. Gone was his clement tone, his impish grin. But he couldn’t finish saying it. Because if he did, it would mean something about him—some thing about him. Like that needling saying from when we were kids. “I know you are, but what am I?” Because if I actually was the real McCoy, the fucking fag, then not only he had gotten too close, he would have actively held me there. His face had hardened into a scowl, his eyes were matte. He was thinking. And Danny’s thoughts were never anodyne.
I looked away. And when Danny didn’t move, I picked myself up, and started to change. I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to provoke him. He began to take deep breaths. It was coming. Everyone else in the locker room went about their business. Guys chatted with other guys, they got dressed, put on deodorant. Chris Demirdjii pulled on a pair of jeans that were far too big for him and strapped them on with a belt. In the teachers’ office, all the coaches were talking, drinking coffee. If Danny decided to hit me he’d only get a few good punches in before the teachers got to him. And at the very least, I could ball up to minimize the damage.
I was down to my blue plaid boxers, and he still hadn’t done anything. My fingers had gone numb. My clothes, as I grabbed them out of my locker, felt like they had no texture. The only sensation was their slight weight in my hands. Danny needed to punch me soon and get it over with. He needed to punch me soon or… or I would punch him. Yes. I would punch him. How dare he wield such power over me. How dare he claim to know things and things when he was the one with the erection, the one chasing after my body. When he acted more the thing than I ever dared.
I turned to him, still in my boxers, shirt in hand. The numbness had spread to my entire body, as if I had mainlined novocaine. I looked him straight in his eyes. His wide eyes leering right back into mine. They narrowed ever so slightly. His brow furrowed a bit, worried. He broke eye contact for a millisecond. He was no longer trying to take in just me and my stance, but the wider picture, and an escape route. Oh yes. I could punch Danny Coleman. And he knew it.
“What do you want?” I asked.
He returned his gaze to me, his eyes no longer hard and set, but unstable, watery even. Confused. They were beautiful too, his eyes. I had never noticed them. Or perhaps, like Chris Demirdjii, I had, and never allowed myself to call them beautiful. But they were. Amber, with hazel flecks. His eyelashes long, soft. I pulled back to take in his full face. His scowl was gone. His lips were loose, slightly downturned. He was scared. I hadn’t seen Danny so subordinate, so powerless since we were in nursery. It was… exciting, knowing that I had made him this way. And by something as simple as getting too close. I wondered what else I could make him do.
I zeroed back in on his eyes. It was beginning to feel like the staring contests I used to have with my sister. Except with Danny, I blinked freely, as if to say, No, it’s all right. Blink away. But I know you. You’re mine now. And I can do whatever I want with you. And there is nothing you can hide.
Time had stretched out again, and I was not sure how much of it had passed.
“Stay away from me,” Danny said finally, breaking eye contact. He attempted an anxious laugh, but it got stuck in his throat and came out like a small squeak. He walked off quickly and didn’t look back.
I pulled on my shirt, my shorts. Rubbed some deodorant under my arms, grabbed my backpack, put the lock on my locker, pushed up extra hard. The locker room was almost empty now.
Danny was talking with his friends in a circle outside. They all wore tight polo shirts in blue, green, red, or in a particularly assertive mood, pink. The shirts hugged their muscular frames and tightened at the cuffs to emphasize their biceps. You could tell the difference between the boys who got their shirts from the nice store versus the department stores by if the polo shirt had a little piece of embroidery over the left pec, the crocodile or the polo player being the most desirable of these embroideries.
The boys were always rowdy and would routinely break out in violent, cacophonous laughter. It was frightening. Like thunder. Everyone was waiting behind the gates to the PE area, waiting for the bell to ring. No other group was as loud as Danny’s. No matter where you were in the hoard of people, snatches of their conversation would find you. “This weekend.” “So drunk.” “That bitch.” They were allowed to make their mark on the world, allowed to take up as much space as they pleased.
I examined Danny from afar in the group. It was seldom that I looked at the boys outside of the locker room. There weren’t enough distractions. People were more likely to notice. The locker room was a liminal space, nothing concrete happened in there, and so staring outside, in the real world felt active, definitive. But this newfound boldness was surprising to me, and I was taking to it quickly. Why should I not exact on Danny the same entitlement to his body that he took with me?
Danny was looking intently at the boy who was speaking in the group at the moment. I did not know this boy. Perhaps his hair was a little more artfully messy, perhaps the crocodile on his shirt was a bit bigger, but he was essentially a carbon copy of the rest. But Danny looked at him with such respect, such admiration, like he was studying him. His eyes, his beautiful eyes, had that soft openness of the new converts at church, people who have let their barriers down, who are ready to believe anything. Danny nodded at everything this boy said. He smiled when this boy smiled. He laughed a good half-beat before everyone else. The thought came to me so clearly: Danny wished he was this boy.
I wondered if this was how we all are: looking from person to person, hoping someone in this world was doing it right. Danny looked to this boy, this boy looked to someone else, and so on and so on. Where did it end? Our progenitors? God? And who did God look up to? Or was God just the culmination of all this longing?
Danny’s eyes darted to me, and just as quickly they darted back to the boy.
That’s right, I thought. Look away. Maybe I am frightening. Maybe I am too much to look at. Maybe you could never compare to me. And so you hate me. Maybe I am.
Maybe I am.
Adam Zane Cook grew up in Redlands, CA, and currently resides in the Bay Area. He received his BA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. He is a substitute teacher, and is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at San Francisco State University.