Chapter 7: I Cheapened My Worth
When I realise the body I’ve crashed into is Christian’s, I’m largely relieved. It could have been Dom’s by some cursed luck, but with the snippets of memories that return through my hammering headache, my relief is cut short like Leah’s hair when she got a mixture of toffee from her fingers and superglue from the cabinet - which she shouldn’t have had - stuck in a section.
Christian runs his eyes over me with a smirk etched into his face, his broader body resting on the doorframe. He doesn’t need to tell me I’ve got greasy, matted down hair or the white mark of dried drool on the corner of my mouth staining down to my chin, but he does need to drop that look. I clear my throat, but that smirk never ceases.
“So, did you prove your point?” His voice has a dangerous hint of knowledge in it, and instantly I become uneasy with his tone.
“What?” I ask.
“That you’re not gay.” He takes one daunting step towards me. “I saw you take Gemma upstairs.”
Cascading down on me are all the asphyxiating moments of last night, from Gemma to the moment I broke down over what Christian asked. Moments that hold my every breath hostage and rain down an eighth sea between my lungs and air, no matter how hard I gulp.
I stumble back, but Christian only steps closer. His intentions are indecipherable, but my brain convinces me he’s finally dropping the act, that he’s going to beat me until I’m a midnight blue and a saturated purple, then pass me around the frat boys like food on Thanksgiving.
He brings his mouth up to my ear - I’m stock-still, unable to even inch a finger.
“Just so you know,” he continues, “Having sex with a girl doesn’t prove you’re not gay. Anyone can imagine a body to be someone else’s.”
His voice is cotton-soft to the raging hangover headache I have that hollers for about a dozen pills of Tylenol. But his words start to sound like verbal poison that will infect my veins with nothing but a surge of anxiety. I turn my face away from him.
“And so I have a question.”
He leans back for what comes next, purposely moves away at that moment to see the queasy look on my face when he says it.
“Who were you thinking about?”
I’m so far down the never-ending spiral of fear and anxiety that I can barely move my lips to get any words out. In clockwise laps around my brain is how it’s damaging to leave Christian unanswered - he’ll conjure up his own answer, far from the truth, or rather, far from the lie I’ll cook up if I can think straight.
Who am I fooling thinking I can think straight anyway?
In anti-clockwise laps around my brain is how it’s dangerous giving him an answer - he’s an English Lit student. He’ll infer what he wants and see things that aren’t really there, then write an entire essay after studying my life choices for a minute and come to the conclusion that I was thinking about him.
I was thinking about him.
“I have to go,” I breathe out.
He lets me step away too easily compared to what I’ve started getting used to. I regret letting him so close in the first place because this entire conversation feels like I’ve given him complete permission to pry into my sexual life and to continue pointing out all that is true but all I don’t confirm.
“By the way,” a warm smile replaces his smirk, “The ear piercing suits you.”
My hand shoots up to feel the proof of another one of last night’s mistakes. No. Fucking. Way.
Campus is tranquil; freshly mowed grass, cherry blossoms here and there, a couple scattered papers swaying with the medium breeze that dries my hair. I faintly smell freshly brewed coffee hanging out the window like this, and I inhale deeply at the scent.
Some students bask in the lovely weather, typing up assignments on blankets on the grass with café food to-go, others attend their weekend classes. I opt for rotting away in this dorm room letting Aiden flick me with the packet of elastics one of his flings left here.
Pet peeve four: pointless people.
“How’s college been, Tom-o?”
I side-eye him balancing a Reese’s peanut butter cup between his nose and the roof of his mouth. It’s better than the elastics, but worse than elastics is getting into a casual swing of basic talk with him.
When I don’t answer, he sits up. “When did you get the ear piercing?” he asks, with no other intention than to tease me. “Was it closer to you getting drunk off your ass, or was it closer to boning that hot girl with the nice boobs you picked up? I could fuck that.”
I don’t like the way he’s taking about Gemma, but I’m also not in the position to defend her given how I just used her to prove a fake point. I clear my throat, my conscience raking through all the premeditated routes of escape out of this conversation.
The door: but Aiden will say something on my way out and my anxiety will entrap me in a net full of the myriad times I’ve failed to just end a conversation. Earphones: but they’re in a tangled knot which seems just as problematic to me as finishing a Rubik’s cube.
The window: but I’ll ultimately be dead, won’t I?
I decide to ignore him and keep my eyes wandering aimlessly around the campus ground. The guilt that doesn’t leave me feels like frostbite - wintry and blistering. I owe Gemma an explanation, but she doesn’t deserve lies.
Looking out the window, part of me expects to see Christian in his frat boy group staring back at me. It’s only been a week and he’s imposing a plague on my mind for two reasons: he sort of knows the one thing I’m failing to hide, and he’s sort of all that’s on my mind after last night.
The irony is, it’s thinking that ruins me. It’s thinking that activates the crippling anxiety, but it’s the anxiety that triggers the excessive thinking, but it was thinking about him that got me through last night, and I’m losing my fucking mind.
“You alright there?” Aiden asks. The only thing I answer, still hanging out the window, is the text that comes through on my phone from my mom.
Hi baby! I hope you are settling into college well. I didn’t want to call at this time in case you had any weekend lectures. I was wondering if you received the letter we sent in the mail? Someone from your high school dropped by asking for you, but since you were gone by then, they left an important letter for us to pass on instead. I think it’s a love letter! Let me know! Love you xxx
“What girl gave you the time of day enough to write a love letter for you?” Aiden’s voice comes from beside me.
I immediately toss the phone in shock - I didn’t even hear him approach me. It hits the unmarked wall behind me with a sharp smack and drops down the side of my bed. I don’t want to know if I’ve broken it or not. At least if I have, all the past conversations with my mom discussing my sexuality won’t accidentally be seen by the wrong person. I make a mental note to delete the entire conversation, including the ones with my dad, just in case.
“What letter is she talking about?” I mumble. I hear Aiden get up and I feel the overwhelming urge to curse at him for disregarding my personal space.
“As much as I want to stay around for a juicy love letter, I’ve got a lecture.”
I wait until he leaves to let out the breath I’ve been holding in. For him to have had his eyes on my text conversation with my mom is dangerous. Her text could have been about anything, particularly about whether I’ve come out to the necessary people or not, and that could have exposed me. I’m just thankful that wasn’t the case and Aiden had the decency not to snatch my phone and scroll through every conversation I’ve kept.
Some time goes before I collect any mail I have at the Mail Services Department. I coop up in my dorm room again with two letters: a pointless coupon letter - I don’t see myself spending anytime soon - and that letter. I take my place by the open window, taking in the crisp fresh air as I internally debate on whether I should read the letter or not.
Finally, I rip open the envelope. High school spells out nothing but trouble and panic, but my anxiety won’t let me rest if I remain unknowing of the envelope’s contents. Although, soon enough, I regret it.
I wanted to apologize for what I put you through in high school. I know this doesn’t undo the pain I caused you, and I know it’s too late, but I want to explain myself.
Have you ever felt like you can’t breathe? Like you’re being suffocated but no one is actually strangling you and you’re mouth isn’t actually sewn shut and your nose isn’t actually blocked off? That’s how I felt being on the soccer team surrounded by the guys.
It was so important to me that I acted like most jocks do. I was their captain, and they’d vote me off if I didn’t call you names or beat you up, and I knew it was wrong but I still did it, and I’m sorry.
High school is a fish tank, what can I say? It’s enclosed to the point the little things start to matter too much, like staying captain or getting girls, even if it costs the happiness of another.
And so, there was this pressure, this societal, controlling pressure that led me to hurt you because I was more concerned that if I didn’t - in the moments when they wanted me to shove your head in a toilet or your body into a locker - I would have degraded my masculinity and have been called gay myself.
Now I know I cheapened my worth giving into the pressure instead of standing up for you, and standing up for myself. And that’s the worst part about all I did - that I’m the same.
I fell in love with you in the eighth grade when you lent me your eraser and told me to get rid of everything I drew because it was terrible.
To this day, I’m still in love with you.
I knew, being the captain of the soccer team and the heartthrob of our high school, that I could never have you. It would only upset the natural balance of the stereotypes, and it was easier for everyone if I pretended that I wasn’t gay and I pretended that I wasn’t in love with you. And for that, I lost myself and so lost years of my life, and ruined years of yours, and I’m so sorry. I can’t sleep at night because I feel so guilty.
I’m not asking for your forgiveness, but I hope you respond. Even though my folks will disown me if they ever find out the truth, I now know - from not seeing you everyday anymore - that this is more than worth the risk if it means I can see you again. I’m in no place to say it, but I want you.
P.S. I asked my cousin who goes to your college to pass a message on, I don’t think he ever did. My phone number’s on the back of this paper if you decide to call me.
The air in the room is too thick, even with the window wide open. I scrunch up the letter, my heart racing. Then I un-scrunch it and rip it up into the size of bark chips, and instead of into the recycling can, I stuff the pieces into a bottle of water that I shake hostilely and lock inside my suitcase under my bed, only until it turns into sludge, when it’s so unreadable it’s safe to throw away.
That’s the only way I know the contents of this letter won’t get out. It’s the only way I know I won’t read it again and have second thoughts. It’s the only way I won’t succumb to my anxiety and forgive him all because it’s better to be on good terms than to have enemies.