It happened in a tree, in the Boudreaus’ backyard, in the dark, in the middle of a game of manhunt. There just wasn’t much for teenagers to do in rural Vermont. Ira Dubois scrambled up where he was sure the late summer leaves would hide him from the hunters’ flashlights. A whisper nearly sent him into a free fall.
“Shit,” Ira hissed. “Sorry.” He began the hairy process of descending. A hand gripped his arm.
“You can stay.”
He couldn’t make out the other face but the choirboy voice told him it was Jamie Nash, known throughout St. Pierre High as The Drama Queen. Ira didn’t particularly care for Jamie one way or another, but figured he wouldn’t break an ankle sitting in a tree with him. They sat side by side on a thick branch and listened to the far-off shrieks and laughter of the other kids getting caught.
Jamie asked, “How long have you known Brian?” The boy whose birthday they were celebrating.
“I don’t know. Since we were five probably,” Ira whispered. “Keep quiet or they’ll find us.”
Jamie snorted. “They’re all too far away. We’ve probably already won.”
Only thirty seconds passed before Jamie broke again. “Have you ever been kissed?”
“Yeah,” Ira lied. Fifteen was too old to still be unkissed.
“Who was it?”
Jamie laughed and pissed Ira right off.
“She’s a lesbian,” Jamie said. “You must’ve turned her.”
“What do you know?”
“Come here, I’ll show you.”
Then they were quiet for what felt like a long time, but was maybe only a few seconds. Jamie inched closer, and Ira didn’t move, just turned his head in the other boy’s direction. They kissed because they wanted to, because no one could see them, because they could barely see each other, because their mouths were better off without words.
Did Ira’s first kiss live up to his expectations? Not at all.
Did that matter? Of course not.
Jamie jumped down from the tree. Turns out they weren’t that high up.
“I’ll go turn myself in,” he said. “Only one of us can win anyway.”
He was gone, and Ira was alone, swelling with embarrassment and anger. He wanted to chase after Jamie, push him to the ground, or just do anything to make sure he didn’t tell anyone what happened. How horrible would that be? Jamie and Ira sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G. He wasn’t a fag like Jamie.
Climbing down, he thought about walking home, never being found. The game of manhunt would never really end, and Mrs. Boudreau would panic when she learned one of the partygoers was missing in action. Jamie would be the last one who saw him, and they’d ask all kinds of questions. When he slouched back into the light of the campfire people laughed, and for a moment Ira froze. But they just joked about calling the police to find him. No mention of Jamie. The Drama Queen had left before they broke out the marshmallows and toasted s’mores to the end of summer.
After the party, he caught a ride home from Michelle Camden, who lived two houses down from him, and often gave him a lift from school. Since Ira was little, his mother and sister made jokes about how someday he and Michelle would get married. They didn’t hang out really, not since elementary school, but had always been friendly, if not exactly friends. He felt bad for lying about kissing her, and thought maybe he should ask her to make out. That way he’d have an alibi for his first kiss. She would back him up. But the thought made him feel small and gross. In the glow of the headlights reflecting off the asphalt, he tried to map the contours of her face, like that would tell him whether she was really a lesbian. Then again he had no idea what a lesbian looked like. Maybe this. Gosh, Michelle was good-looking. She’d never needed braces. She was tall, played softball, and could probably kick his ass, not that it would be very hard. Ira knew he was gangly with puberty, all angles, and not an ounce of muscle. He played basketball in middle school, but didn’t make the cut for the high school team.
“Where did you hide?” she asked.
“I’ll never tell.”
“Big secret, huh?”
“Oh, the biggest.”
They laughed a little. She dropped him off and said goodnight. His parents were still awake, sitting in the living room, watching the eleven o’clock news. They asked how the party was.
“Total drag,” he said, going right to his room. He put Green Day’s Dookie in his cassette player and by the time he pressed repeat he wasn’t thinking of Jamie anymore.
His dreams betrayed him. Like holy shit could you die from all the blood rushing from your head to your crotch?
In the morning he made a mental list of definitive proof he wasn’t gay. He’d jerked off to Playboys in Brian Boudreau’s basement more than once. He’d gotten hard in the movie theater during Forrest Gump when Jenny was naked. He thought Freddie Mercury was only okay—kind of overrated, honestly. Besides, being gay was something you knew, you just felt, and he didn’t. Simple as that.
On the first day of school, before going to work at the Post Office, Ira’s dad drove him from their house in Kingsfield to St. Pierre High.
“Hey, Dad,” Ira started. “If I don’t have kids, does the family name die?”
“What?” His dad chuckled. “It’s a little early for an existential crisis, don’t you think?”
Ira crossed his arms. “I was just thinking about it is all. If Uncle Dana doesn’t have kids. And Lucy will give up our name…if she ever gets married.”
“She’s never had a real boyfriend.”
“That’s because your sister is one smart cookie. And so are you. So don’t go trying to have kids at your age.” Ira’s parents had Lucy when they were only eighteen, and though she skipped a whole year of high school, they were always worried about the past repeating itself. When she turned twenty they gave her a homemade card that read “Congratulations on Beating Teen Pregnancy!” Ira would probably get the same.
“I’m not trying to have kids, Dad. I’m just thinking about it. Eventually the line runs out, right? Nothing lasts forever.”
“Well, rest assured the family name won’t die with you, bud.” He reached over to pat Ira’s shoulder. “There’s a million Dubois’s out there. It’s a common name. A lot of them are Catholics and Mormons too, so don’t worry, they’ll make plenty of babies.”
“Don’t make me sic your mother on you for another sex talk.”
“God.” Last time that happened, she had told him they were going to Burlington to run some errands. Then on the interstate, pushing eighty miles per hour, she asked if he was having sex and did he know what a condom was. The memory made him shudder.
Ira figured he had enough friends in high school. He wasn’t in Band but got along with most of those kids. The grunge kids respected him because he owned a Nirvana T-shirt and his Dad had a Pearl Jam bumper sticker. Some of the basketball players still liked him from middle school. Being from Kingsfield, a town so small it didn’t have a single stoplight, he’d been going to school with a lot of these people his whole life. Yet at the start of sophomore year, he felt a bit adrift. Cliques were calcifying, and he couldn’t claim exclusive membership to any of them. He waited for the interminable school days to end.
He found he had four classes a day with Jamie Nash. The boy wore eyeliner and mascara, and only smiled at Ira once. Two girls from the Drama Club always accompanied him, different ones in each class too, like bodyguards. No one had ever actually kicked Jamie’s ass. But people were happy to call him a fag, until they realized he didn’t react. Still, it made Ira angry to see him flaunting around with makeup on, like no one could hurt him, like no one would. He was wearing some kind of lipstick, too.
The first week, Jamie caught Ira staring during Latin class, and leaned over to one of the Drama girls to whisper something. She made a show of stifling a laugh. Ira’s ears burned, and he pretended to be absorbed in the lesson Mr. Timpson was giving on transitive verbs.
Next passing period in the hall, Ira made a point to bump into Jamie. It wasn’t a shove, wasn’t supposed to hurt, just annoy. The first time they touched since the tree. But instead of anger or even mild annoyance, Jamie laughed and said, “You know, he’s bisexual right?”
Ira stopped and turned around. “What’d you say?”
The girls giggled. Jamie pointed to Ira’s chest. “He’s bisexual,” he said. “Their singer. He said so in a magazine.”
Ira looked down at the Green Day T-shirt he was wearing. He wanted to rip it off, stuff it down Jamie’s throat. But the thought of being shirtless was more embarrassing than anything else, so Ira just said, “Oh. I thought you were talking about me.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Jamie said, and it surprised Ira to hear no guile, no joke in his words. He walked away feeling silly. Even if Jamie told people they kissed, who would believe him? No witnesses. Safe. Ira was safe.
He kept listening to Green Day even though it made him think of Jamie. There was one lyric about going to a male prostitute, but it was just a joke. All the songs were about girls, so Ira was pretty sure Jamie was bluffing.
When Ira’s mom said he had to help her get groceries, he feared his dad had sold him out to the sex talk after all. But it didn’t come up. On the way back from the store he asked her, “Do you think Lucy might be a lesbian?”
His mom frowned. “Why would say that about your own sister?”
“She’s a gender studies major.”
“Oh please. I know you two don’t always get along, but good god, Ira.”
He shrugged. “Would you be okay with it?”
“Have you two been talking about this? Did she tell you that?”
“No! I was just curious.”
Silence. His mom sighed.
“I would be just fine with that. She’s my daughter and I love her no matter who she loves.”
“What if she got a nose piercing?”
“Ira. Cut that out.”
“Well you’re not very funny.”
“I know. I inherited your sense of humor.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
At a stop sign she leaned over and kissed his cheek. He pretended to be annoyed.
Ira and Jamie didn’t speak, didn’t share a single look, for so long that the kiss in the tree began to feel like a dream. It had been so dark, so quick, that Ira wondered if Jamie even knew who he kissed. But instead of another layer of safety, Ira felt panic. If two boys sat in a tree and kissed and no one was around to call them gay did it even happen? It felt unfair, that he couldn’t even acknowledge that moment. He set to staring at the back of Jamie’s head in Algebra, thinking of ways to let Jamie know it was him.
Only after three days of unsuccessful telepathy, did Ira remember that he was the last one to come back from hiding that night. That everyone was looking for him. That Jamie knew exactly who he was. But this only made him angry. What right did Jamie have to act like nothing happened? Well, he told himself, nothing did happen. It didn’t matter.
Except of course it did. That fucking faggot could’ve given him AIDS or something. And Ira had just let him. Had maybe even liked it. That pissed Ira off so bad. He didn’t hate Jamie though, he didn’t think. Fags were fine so long as you weren’t one. He would just act like nothing happened. Like Jamie was a total stranger. Ignore him, make him feel like Ira had when he came back to the party not knowing what anyone else knew.
How did you ignore someone who didn’t even look your way? Would they just never acknowledge each other, go off to college, get jobs, get married, raise kids (biological or maybe adopted), and die without a word in one another’s direction? Maybe that wasn’t so bad. Nobody needed to know. But Ira did. Was it a fluke? That feeling like heat lightning, picking his way back through the night in search of someone who just changed his life.
He got his chance sooner than expected.
He was waiting near Michelle Camden’s locker hoping to catch a ride home with her. But when she appeared, Jamie was by her side, and though Ira hit his growth spurt that summer, six inches in six months, he felt very small in front of the pair.
Michelle smiled, friendly, and Jamie was placid. By focusing on her, Ira thought he did a good job of ignoring Jamie.
“Hey, I’m staying after school to help paint the set for the fall play today, sorry,” Michelle said.
Ira’s mouth reacted faster than his brain. Typical. “Oh, I can help. You’ll finish faster then.”
“Really? That’s so nice of you!”
Ira thought it would be the entire Drama Club armed with paint rollers, but it was just the three of them in the art room, which was always a mess, with no two chairs quite alike, and a couch in one corner. The walls were plastered with student art and papier-mâché masks, so it felt like you were being watched.
“This is it?” he said, as Michelle jimmied open a paint can with a screwdriver. The art teachers had both gone home already, leaving the three teenagers under the supervision of the stereo, and only one cassette: Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill.
“Everyone else is at rehearsal,” Jamie said. “I’m the whole tech crew.”
“We’re only honorary members,” Michelle said, giving Ira a smirk.
“Why aren’t you at rehearsal?” Ira asked, before remembering he was supposed to ignore Jamie.
“I don’t act anymore,” he said. “Too much drama, you know?”
Ira wanted to say, but you’re The Drama Queen. Instead he said, “Oh.”
“I just got tired of pretending to be other people.”
They started slopping paint onto canvas flats for the backdrop. They were making a mountain range, tall peaks with storm clouds on their shoulders.
“Why aren’t you an actress, Michelle?” Ira asked. “I bet you’d be really good.”
Michelle laughed and so did Jamie. Ira’s cheeks burned red, because they knew each other better than he knew either of them.
“I get stage fright,” she said.
“Bad,” Jamie added. It still felt like they were laughing at him, so Ira didn’t say anything else for a while.
Jamie and Michelle sang along to Alanis. They relished the few curses in the songs and sang them loud because there was no one around to hear. It reminded Ira of how he would turn the music up when his parents weren’t home. So even though he didn’t know every word the way Jamie and Michelle did, he enjoyed it.
At one point, Michelle went to the bathroom and left the boys alone together. From the corner of his eye, Ira watched Jamie, tried to gauge what the other boy was thinking. They didn’t say anything while Michelle was gone, didn’t even sing along when “You Oughta Know” came on for the third time.
When they left the flats to dry and Michelle drove him home, Ira was proud of how well he’d ignored Jamie, but was also frustrated that Jamie ignored him. He didn’t want the attention, just wanted to know that he wasn’t the only one thinking about the other. He wasn’t the journaling kind so he probably couldn’t have put any of this into words, had he even tried.
“Jamie’s all right,” he said, like it was nothing.
“Yeah, he’s a riot,” Michelle said. “I’m glad you guys get along. He doesn’t have a lot of guy friends.”
“Oh. Huh. Well, we don’t really know each other.” Jamie had grown up going to school in St. Pierre instead of Kingsfield. “How do you know each other?”
“Our families go to the same church. We used to sing in the choir together.”
“I thought you got stage fright.”
Michelle laughed. “Well neither of us go anymore.”
Because of her stage fright or because they were both gay, or only he was gay and she was on his side, and there were no gays allowed at church? Ira wanted to know but he’d rather die than ask.
“Oh. We never really went to church.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
In the driveway Michelle told him, “I’m doing the same thing tomorrow too.”
“That’s cool,” he said. “I can help again.”
“You’re sweet. Thanks.”
He fantasized about leaning over the center console and kissing her. Of course, he didn’t. And when he dreamt that night he didn’t recognize anyone there. The next day he brought his Green Day cassettes.
Friday had them feeling the impending weekend freedom and they goofed off in the art room. Before the paint cans were even open, Michelle and Jamie were tangoing to Alanis, and laughing. Ira didn’t know what to do but he laughed along, secretly sweating because he couldn’t tell which one he wanted to be: Michelle or Jamie. He only knew he wanted to dance too, to lead and be led, to touch and be touched.
Then Jamie broke away from Michelle, offered his hand. Ira gulped, but reacted fast enough to cover it. He took the hand, and Jamie spun like a ballerina. His nails were painted robin’s egg blue. Jamie let go, falling into Michelle’s arms, like it was all a perfectly planned act.
The song ended, as Michelle cupped Jamie’s chin, the Mona Lisa of melodrama.
“And scene!” Jamie said, standing up. He and Michelle bowed to one another, then to Ira, who bowed back. He didn’t even mention the music he brought, hoping they would start dancing again. But they got to work soon after, slathering their brushes with paint, gossiping about the fall play. The lead couldn’t carry a tune, Michelle said, and worse, she and her love interest had the chemistry of argon gas.
“What do you mean?” Ira asked.
“Argon. It’s a noble gas,” Michelle said. “It doesn’t react with anything.”
Michelle and Jamie were both in accelerated Chemistry class, while Ira was still stuck in biology with Mr. Bauer whose breath smelled like formaldehyde. He laughed, but was embarrassed he hadn’t gotten the joke. They must’ve thought he was stupid and for a full furious second, he hated them. Hate in a teenage boy is a perpetual motion machine, one smog-clogged engine, that eats up and burns everything it can, but Michelle and Jamie were hardly enough fuel for a full revolution, and the cannibal engine turned on itself. He hated himself for hating them.
To get away, he went to the bathroom. He spent a long time washing the paint from under his fingernails, even though as soon as he started working he’d be a mess again. Maybe he wouldn’t go back. Just walk home from school. Maybe try and hitchhike. Get picked up by some creep. Get drugged and killed and thrown in a ditch. Or by some westbound hippies who would take him in. Let him play tambourine in their jam band. Share their drugs with him. He’d grow his hair real long.
When he was six or so he got in trouble for touching other boys’ hair without permission. The boys with buzz cuts were the best, because their hair felt like fresh-cut grass. One boy, Henry Something, who moved away the next year, let Ira touch his hair whenever he wanted. They watched TV at Henry’s house. Henry sat on the floor while Ira sat on the couch behind him, running a hand over the other boy’s head back and forth. And when Henry was gone, that was how he and Brian Boudreau started being friends. Eventually Ira learned it was wrong to want this, to ask this of others, though he couldn’t remember who told him. He never got a buzz cut himself because he didn’t have the right kind of hair.
The bathroom door opened, and Jamie entered.
“I thought you might’ve fallen in,” he said and laughed a little.
Ira didn’t. He turned around and shoved Jamie against the wall. He kissed him again and again, untrained and uninhibited, all teeth then all tender. He thought of a mother bird regurgitating food for her children and he stopped, still holding Jamie to the tile.
Jamie’s lipstick was smudged. He didn’t look surprised, only suspicious of what was next. Ira wanted to leave him there like that, with everything else unsaid, so that he would have to come to Ira to ask for answers. Ask did he like that? Did he want to do it again? Was he any good anyway? But Ira couldn’t move, so he asked the question.
“Do you like that?”
Jamie’s lips twitched. “You need some practice.”
And it was supposed to be a joke between just the two of them, Ira would later realize, but it made him so ashamed and angry, that he said the thing he shouldn’t have.
And suddenly Ira was just like any other asshole in St. Pierre High who couldn’t stand to see a man who wasn’t afraid of himself.
“Say it again,” Jamie said. “I like it when you do.”
He wasn’t smiling, wasn’t joking, and now Ira was afraid of him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Say it again. I’m not scared to be called what I am.”
“No,” Ira said, finally letting go of Jamie. “I really didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
“What about the rest of that?” Jamie asked, not moving from the wall, like he was stuck there, taped up like a movie poster. “Did you mean that?”
Ira knew he meant the kissing, the unfiltered and violent excuse for affection that he already regretted.
Jamie relaxed, and leaned against the tile like that was where he was comfortable, instead of where he’d been forced. He said, “I won’t tell anyone.”
“No one would believe you if you did,” Ira said, like that could protect him.
Ira clenched his fists. “I’m not like you.”
Jamie nodded. “I know,” he said. “Because I’ll never hate myself the way you hate yourself.” He looked in the mirror, fixed his lipstick and walked away, the first to leave again.
Ira followed him back to the art room. Maybe he was right, but that only made Ira angrier. He didn’t say anything, and gave no indication that something happened. Even sang along to Alanis. Jamie did the same. What great actors they would’ve made.
Another day of painting, another two hours of acting like everything was the same, and the set was finished without fanfare. A week later, when Michelle dropped Ira off, his sister’s car was in the driveway. He’d forgotten she was visiting from college that weekend. Mom and Dad would make a big deal of family time and he’d have no excuse to lock himself in his room with the Green Day cassettes he didn’t even want to listen to anymore.
Lucy greeted him at the door, waving to Michelle. She had a stud sparkling in the left side of her nose.
“When’s the wedding?” she teased him.
Lucy rolled her eyes. “Good to see you too, lil’ bro.”
“Mom’s gonna freak when she sees that junk on your face,” Ira said.
“She’ll get over it. Not even Mom can stay mad forever.” She put her finger in her mouth and tried to stick it in his ear. He swatted her away.
“Long as you don’t tell her you’re a lesbian.”
Ira was disappointed when Mom did not really freak out about Lucy’s piercing. He felt like he was always under their parents’ microscope when his sister was away at college and was hoping for some relief.
Mom and Dad took them to dinner at the one pizza parlor in St. Pierre. Of course, Jamie was there too, sitting at a table with both of his parents. He wore a full face of makeup, while his parents wore big grins, none of their affection affected. The servers brought out a slice of cake with a candle in it, sang him “Happy Birthday.” Ira didn’t make eye contact, pretended they weren’t even on the same planet.
Lucy leaned over and asked him, “Do you know that kid?”
“No.” Ira shrugged. “Not really.”
Ira and Jamie didn’t look at each other in class anymore. His Drama Girl Bodyguards didn’t either. They finally reached the silent agreement of mutual cold-shoulders. There was probably plenty they could say to each other, but Ira was out of words. He hated high school. He hated himself. He couldn’t wait for it all to be over.
Brian Boudreau quit the basketball team and started giving Ira rides home after school. Ira didn’t even wait around to tell Michelle, just left. She caught him in the hall one day and handed him a folded piece of paper. For a second he panicked, thinking it some kind of secret note from Jamie, but it was just the program for the fall play. Michelle beamed as she opened it up and pointed to the three names listed under “Tech Crew”: Michelle Camden, Ira Dubois, Jamie Nash.
“You’re coming to opening night, right?” she asked. “I can drive you.”
Ira wrestled with making up an excuse, but he wasn’t actually that good a liar. So the following Friday, he found himself sitting next to Michelle on an awful wooden seat in the old auditorium, waiting for the play to start. The audience was scattered throughout the house, mostly parents and a few of the Drama-Adjacent Friends, a couple teachers being good sports.
The set looked shoddy under the stage lights. The mountains were squat, the storm clouds sagged, the sky had never been that shade of blue. Ira wished they had done a better job.
He twisted his neck around.
“Where’s Jamie?” he asked.
Michelle giggled. “They couldn’t get the flats to all stand on their own, so he’s behind that one there and keeping it upright.” She pointed to one part of the backdrop. Ira snorted. Once the house lights went down he thought long and hard about reaching over to hold Michelle’s hand. Maybe she would think it was just that careless closeness she and Jamie shared in the art room after school. Or maybe she would squeeze his hand back, and on the way home pull over somewhere and kiss him, then tell him what a good kisser he was, that she’d never been kissed before, that he was her first, and he’d say she was his. But Ira kept his hands and fantasies to himself. He spent the play watching the one section of the set where Jamie was supposedly hidden, holding up the whole illusion.