Chapter 12: He's a Frat Boy in a Frat House
Part 2 "Imagine A World Without Labels and Defaults"
I’ve missed home. It’s worth the six-hour drive of Leah persistently going over all the things she hasn’t been able to tell me. Mom got a ball python and named him Rumpelsnakeskin, he’s in the living room, and a cute boy is my friend, and Dad burnt pancakes, Dad never burns anything.
And the instant she says ‘boy’ and ‘pancakes’, I redevelop a gigantic nettlesome ball called Christian rolling around in my head like my brain is a roller rink. By ‘gigantic’ I mean galaxy-sized. I have the entire integral galaxy inside my minuscule-in-comparison brain and I’m an explosion of pure embarrassment thinking about him on this level.
Pretty sure Dad can see the stars bursting out through my face in the rearview mirror. I’m a mess again. Again. Again. But he always finds the humour in the pitiful situation of it all, at least that’s what his large smile tells me.
When we get home, it’s late enough for Mom and Dad to call it a night and take an unwilling Leah to bed. My brother doesn’t exist anymore, because Luke doesn’t care if it’s Thanksgiving or if I’m coming home. He disappears when he pleases, leaving my room in a state. He is what he is.
Even though I’m long gone past tired, I can’t sleep. It doesn’t come to me because being back here, I’m reminded of Will Carter’s letter, the letter I went to excessive lengths to make unreadable, and I remember how we share the same block, and I think I’m going to die being here.
I also think I can’t stop thinking about Christian’s lips on mine.
And so, you almost forget about me. Almost.
“Good morning, honey,” Mom hands me a plate of pancakes. Non-chocolate, but pancakes.
“Good morning!” There’s Leah’s audible high-pitched voice at this unreasonable hour (it’s eight in the morning on a school break and I don’t agree with this).
Dad’s greeting follows, muffled with the food moulding into his jaw and seeping into his brain. He becomes food. Eating pancakes? Acts like the thin floppy ones he prefers over the thick fluffy ones, then lets Leah get away with anything and everything. Eating some form of pepper? Embodies the totality of hot and almost loses his marriage getting all drunk-happy in a bar he never goes to without being under the influence of pepper.
“Morning,” I say.
Mom telepathically tells me to be a little bit joyful because the universe exists for the sky to be everywhere and it’s a blessed day because of that and dot dot dot. But there are pancakes on my plate. I steal a glass of OJ from Leah and slide the plate away. Dad looks at me like I’ve become a drug lord.
“Since when don’t you like pancakes?” he asks.
“I never said I didn’t like them, per se,” I take a sip of my OJ, very aware that all eyes are on me, “I just don’t want them.”
Mom’s offended enough to wind a finger up at me out of Leah’s view. It’s pretty funny since she’s always giving Dad a mouthful for the unnecessary swearing. It’s never coming from her. Guess it’s a necessary moment?
“Okay,” I put my hands up, “before you attack me with we raised you to be accepting or I just made a whole plate of food for you and you’re wasting it, you suck pure ass-”
Dad tries to silently scold me for the curse word with the classic Mom squint-eye, but he’s one big epic fail. When did the roles reverse?
“Sorry,” I say, although it’s not my fault. Being around Dad has an effect. Swear jar maybe? Too broke for that. “Mom, before you behead me for the simple fact there are homeless people and children in third world countries who could do with this meal, just know I’m sorry. I’m...a mess, so...”
It’s not meant to sound depressing, but it is. Their faces soften up.
I take the plate back because they don’t deserve an inconsiderate son, and it’s nothing but childish looking at these pancakes and seeing Christian and feeling like I’m a fly in a web of increasing lies-that-may-not-be-lies-but-feel-like-lies.
Dad laughs. The atmosphere needs him too. “What the hell has ‘pancakes’ become a connotation of?”
Don’t tell him. “Uh...”
Mom, Dad and Leah look at me expectantly, like I’ve got some grand news. Leah’s just waiting for me to say I’ve met someone, even though she’s five years old and barely understands the meaning of that, but she’s grown up around romance too - born into a fairytale as I say.
Therefore I’m not surprised when she says, “Tommy likes someone!”
I deadpan her. “No.”
It’s totally acceptable to duct tape a five-year-old’s mouth shut. I don’t need to, I don’t like anyone. And it’s not. Mm.
Leah doesn’t believe me.
“I dooon’t,” I drag out. And for a five-year-old, she’s way too romantically literate. How has she inferred that I like someone from a question about pancakes she doesn’t understand?
To be clear, I like no one.
As you’ve said.
“Pancakes just...” I sigh. “Okay, fine, since you’re all clearly dehydrated because you’ve been walking the No-Tommy-Gossip desert for a while now... Pancakes just remind me of someone I can’t crack, and you know how unfinished equations get me all screwed up inside.”
“It’s a boy,” Mom jumps to conclusions. “Alex, it’s a boy!” Makes it sound like my confession has just given birth.
“No,” I try to say, but they’re eyeballs deep in a conversation with each other and Leah about how I’m finally creating a fairy tale of my own - in all its gayness - as if I’m not sat right here. The only way to escape it is to answer the front door. Someone’s finger-fucking the bell like the apocalypse is occurring.
I fling the door back. “Yes?”
I look at him. There on my doorstep is none other than Will Carter.
Letter-now-slush-in-a-bottle Will Carter.
I blink. “Did you receive my letter?” he asks.
Blink. “Don’t come back here. Don’t contact me again.” Not how did you know I was home? or anything.
I close the door. Press my back to the wood. Keep forgetting how to breathe.
“Is that the boy?” Dad’s got his head sticking out from behind the kitchen wall.
I get confirmation in this moment that Dad’s full name is Asswipe Asswipe Asswipe - first, middle and last. I’m always conflicted with him. He’s either a typical American dad (past his distinctive personality) or a complete, total, uncanny clone of Uncle Jay who’s a pain in the anus at times.
That’s why they hit it off with each other. They’re both solid asswipes.
“Get lost, Dad.” Can my existence be swallowed by a life-leeching morbid hole yet?
“Chill out, Son,” Dad slides back around the wall. Moments pass and I still see I brushstroke of his hair peeking out around the corner. There’s nothing to eavesdrop for. I’m not opening the door again, or proceeding with this conversation.
But then the finger-fucking the doorbell situation happens again like the asswipe outside has been constipated by his life failures and the ‘shitting’ finale is about to begin. You know what? Serves Will Carter right. He can feces his pants on this doorstep as long as he doesn’t stain anything and he walks his unwinding constipation right back to the doorstep he came from.
Mom turns the corner with an exaggerated groan. “You’d think that being eighteen and living all alone six hours away from us means you’d know how to open a door and have a decent conversation regardless of the amount of shit waiting on the doorstep.” (WHAT DID DAD DO TO HER? She used to say poop).
Except no, because I sleep through most knocks on the door back on campus if I’m not already getting myself locked out by Aiden.
“Don’t open it.” I don’t move. She pouts like a child. “Mom,” I turn her and direct her unwilling self all the way back to the kitchen, “it’s not the ‘boy’ you and Dad are convinced I’ve met, okay? So just, no.”
Then the ringing finally stops. No household on this street gets their door rang up thirty bazillion times at eight in the morning, hence I’m one hundred per cent sure us Carpenters look like we’ve gone haywire. It reminds me of the time Uncle Jay came finger-fucking the doorbell to beg for forgiveness after Mom found out what he did with Dad.
The difference here is I’d rather chew a couple of cacti, razor blades and hot stones before I ever forgive Will Carter of all people. I’m content going about my day and trying to forget he ever existed through the fact he wrought my teenage years.
In the stark quietness of our home, I hear my phone ping from upstairs. That’s my cue.
“I’m going to go... Um...yeah. Love you.” Kiss her on the cheek and I’m off up the stairs before Dad, Leah or her can question why I appear loco with none of my pieces in the right place, or even existing yet for me to be me.
Like I told them: I’m sort of a mess.
Said mess increases to a pigstye when I see my phone on my bed and the notification on my lock screen. Coffee comrade.
You’ve been avoiding me again... Why? :(
It’s near nightfall on Thanksgiving evening, the sky an abstract painting of mellow pinks and yellows deepening up, the sunset gaining more ink as dusk begins to intertwine with it, when the internal deterioration begins again.
It picks its times, often spoils my good moments. I suffer in silence as I usually do. Don’t say anything. Don’t do anything. Thinkthinkthink. Merry-go-round. Vacuum. Apocalypse. Drowning.
Fighting myself. Fighting you for you. Can’t breathe. Think about breathing. Clutch my chest. Window. Air. Repeat. Wonder when I became so systematic to cope. Wonder when I became a simulation of The End in my own body. Wonder why I don’t want help.
But I do.
Earlier on, Mom said, “Something’s different. You never really talk, but if you change your mind, I’ll be waiting.” Something is different - part of me doesn’t like it being alone anymore.
I close my window, throw on an old hoodie torn at the left sleeve - which promptly reminds me of Christian’s sweater which sits under my bed beside the suitcase with the bottle of Will Carter sludge inside - then search for Mom throughout the house.
I find her outside on the porch reading a book about veganism, drinking a peppermint tea and letting Thanksgiving dinner digest. She’s always been my rock; I feel guilty I never let her know I’m struggling whether I’m six hours away or under her nose.
“Hi, honey,” she says, lifting the blanket on her legs and patting the porch swing beside her. I sit, let her wrap me in as I take in the sunset, feel the night coolness, then rest my head on her shoulder. “Are you ready to talk?”
Her voice is grounded. She’s been waiting a long time for me to finally open up. All I know is I want to. I feel the air flood my lunges and try not to think about how that’s a form of drowning as well, the very thing that makes me breathe.
“Are you ready to talk about Luke?” I deflect.
An organic laugh escapes her. “He’s also my son and I love him too, but he’s currently a lost cause. Probably at a girl’s house when it’s the day of Thanksgiving. I would be offended that he’s not home with us, but at least he’s living his life.”
“Or picking up aids.”
“Hey,” she points her finger at me awkwardly in our positions. “Quit deflecting. Let’s talk about you.”
“Okay,” I begin.
“I thought college would be a fresh start. I thought that I would be leaving the anxiety behind. I thought a lot of things.”
“Tommy,” she thumbs my cheek, “I’m no professional but your anxiety isn’t by circumstance. You were anxious even when you were a happy kid. You’ve always had it, you know you always will. Maybe one day something will click? Who knows? But until then...”
“Yeah,” I whisper, letting the wind hit my eyes, but it doesn’t dry the tears welling up.
“You are Tommy. You are not Anxiety, or I would have named you that. Okay?”
“Yeah,” is still the only thing I can say.
She kisses my forehead and I feel like a kid again. Almost unworried but needing her hugs and needing to hear the sound of her voice for the tranquillity of it.
“You need to know the anxiety is not your enemy. It keeps you safe, it keeps you aware, it gives you a deeper perspective many people couldn’t experience. It knows you best, it is your best friend, and best friends fight.”
I stay silent, letting moments pass. She’s told me this before when I could actually apply it because I never knew that way of thinking was an epic fail, because, yes, it wants the best for me, but it gives me the worst in the process. Or perhaps I just never tried hard enough to understand Mom’s way of thinking?
“There is a boy,” I admit after a while, after letting the distant chatter down the road lead me to be present at this moment, along with the planes flying overhead, the car engines humming by, the leaves on the trees rustling, and the last of the sun slipping away.
“Tell me about him,” Mom says supportively.
“He’s a frat boy,” I try to laugh at my misfortune. “Frat boy of all boys. I don’t get him.”
“Have you tried? As your mother, I must tell you, you rarely try enough.”
It sucks, but I respect her honesty. I know her ultimate goal in life is Leah and me being happy, even if that means she’s got to be honest so we put the work in ourselves.
“He just...came into my life without my permission. He always shows up, always speaks to me, buys me coffee, cares too much about me given that he’s only known me a bit. All because I looked at him.”
Here it goes.
“And he kissed me.”
Mom tries to hide her exuberance for she’s been awaiting the moment a boy becomes a part of my life. I never chose it, darn it.
“He says he knows how it feels - the fear of everyone’s reactions when they find out. He says he cares. He says he wants to help me. I say he’s lying.”
“There you go jumping to conclusions.”
“And what did you and Dad do yesterday? Huh? Jump to conclusions,” I get back at her.
“But we were right! How do you know you are?” She sighs. “Honey... He’s a frat boy in a frat house and those places are usually filled with homophobia. Given how fond the fraternities are of hazing and pledging, imagine what they would do to a gay member or even a bisexual one. He has a lot to lose if the fraternity finds out.”
I look at her confused. She presses the world into my temples to make me catch on.
“The point is if he’s showing some kind of interest in you - if he’s kissing you - regardless of that, I doubt he’s lying. If he wants to help you, it’s probably because he likes you.”
“Now you’re jumping to conclusions again.”
“But I know I’m right.” She usually is. She always is.
“It’s just...” What to say? “It’s all happened too quickly.”
Mom hums. For once, I think she’s lost the dictionary. But then she tells me, “Your father asked me out without even knowing my name. This boy-who-surely-likes-you never did that, presumptively because he knows you have anxiety, respects that and cares about you. However, I know no matter what I say, the anxiety will make you come up with every excuse as to why I’m wrong and that he’s lying.”
I let that sink in.
She hands me her peppermint tea. “Drink up. It’s soothing.”
“You know I don’t like tea.”
“I know. You don’t like a lot of things, but that’s no excuse.”
Still letting it sink it.
There my phone is ringing and ringing. It’s four in the morning. Four. Four but my gut downs fifteen imagined coffees when I see who the caller is like sleep was never a necessity to get through the night.
I let it ring, but then by some spontaneous streak I’m possibly developing, I answer it, just until I need to puke from how out of body this feels.
“I’m surprised you picked up,” Christian’s voice fills my right ear. He never left.
Six hours away and he’s been my focal point this entire time, whether I’ve realised it or not. Thanksgiving has gone awry in that sense, but I expected nothing less. Everything in my life is a shitshow, right up to how I’m not meeting deadlines.
I duck my head under the comforter so it’s just me and him, him and me, and me, and all of my nerves. “I’m surprised too.”
His breathing is soft and level. Frat boys don’t get nervous like that. Me on the other hand?
“I’m not sorry that it’s four in the morning and I’m calling you, just so you know.”
Silence is the best way to answer that. I fear I may choke on nothingness talking.
“Okay, I’ll cut to it,” he fills in the dragged out pause. “I know you still think I’m lying,” yes, “but I thought this was worth a shot. I’m not going to be able to sleep until I say this.”
I yank the comforter down under my chin. Fresh air, not the stench of dark pitiful depression. Say what? “Say what? What is worth a shot? What-”
“Calm down,” his laugh is golden. Platinum. Homely.
Just waiting for him to address how I’m a mess. Inside-a-trashcan ripped diapers and teabags and leftover food of a mess. I could make some use out of being a landfill by applying preservation to myself as I wait for centuries to pass for someone to find me when I’m actually needed to scientifically explain why people are so screwed-
“Will you go on a date with me?”
Just an automated voice? That’s far too farfetched. Someone who sounds like Christian prank calling you from Christian’s number? Out of your mind. How does a mind go out of its mind?
“What?” I say breathily. Ironic. Thought I wasn’t taking in any air.
“My parents live about forty-five minutes away from campus and I was thinking we could go there. Garden, projector, movies, blankets, popcorn...coffeeee - you know, steal Pinterest from Pinterest to reinvent Pinterest...in my backyard.”
I have an unconventional approach to having good things: I don’t have them, and that’s a good thing. Yet hearing Christian’s question, his indirect confession, Mom’s conclusion being verified, I want to have good things.
I want to say yes because it’s four in the morning and none of us are in our right minds.
I want to say no because it’s four in the morning and my anxiety is my mind.
I want to say maybe because maybe.
But I say nothing.
“You still don’t believe me.” He sounds defeated. I can envision the look on his face, just like the one I saw when I ended the call on him as he walked across campus close to when I first met him.
I don’t know what I believe, but I do believe my mouth is suddenly moving.
“I’m back in Georgia right now,” I say.
I remember what Mom told me just yesterday evening. It’s sunk in more than I expected it too.
“I’ll be back by late morning. You can drive us there for this evening.”
End the call. “Talk later.” Ended it. Block his number. Block Earth.
My phone pings. I don’t look at it for a while but then I rip the bandage off and shove the screen right up my nostrils, vision doubling.
On the screen I read, You’re actually saying yes? Did I really say yes?
I text him back: What about Megan, your girlfriend? Because I really said yes to someone with a girlfriend. I’m that guy.
Broke up a couple of weeks ago.
Oh. A full stop in an entire universe. A full stop in an entire universe.
Then out of curiosity, I text, what do you have me saved as? Part of me knows already what he’s going to say.
I never reply back then. Don’t sleep. Only lay there as the sun begins to rise and Mom brings me a coffee and tells me it’s time to go and that something’s different - again.
Something is different, and again. I sort of feel like compressed straw, back in my corner. Sucked up into a small space ready to explode with all the reasons why not saying yes but not saying no was a bad decision.
A whole you’re not breathing so breathe situation occurs. But that’s where the problem lies.
You spend years of your life trying to do something that’s a wired-in function requiring no thought. That’s why you can’t breathe: You think about it too much.
Sometimes I want to cry dealing with the voice in my head. Other times - even though the voice is the sole reason why I can’t breathe - it lifts a weight off my shoulders. I think, how can the reason for all my troubles have the ability to make me feel better?
How do our brains function to keep us alive, only for its thinking to kill us?