I saw the teacher’s eyes travel over all the students, I tried to keep my head low and hoped she didn’t pick me. I knew what was coming if she did. I breathed in, trying to stay calm. But she was searching for someone like me, who probably didn’t have the answer let alone want to supply it so she could make an example out of me and tell the class studying was important.
“Nico. What year was the Declaration of Independence signed?” she asked.
Not even the day, just the year, that actually made it harder in retrospect. My heart hammered away in my chest, trying to break through my rib cage. My parasympathetic nervous system was failing. I tried to breathe but each breath was sucked in quickly and let out just as quickly making it impossible for my blood to receive much oxygen. The whole class was staring, waiting for an answer I should have known and didn’t or couldn’t remember because I was panicking.
Think, Nico! Think!
I’d studied for this verbal questionnaire, knew it was coming and I was still panicking. I should have sat somewhere else. She wouldn’t have picked me if I sat somewhere else. That was irrational, she picked me because I never spoke despite my average grades in her class. Maybe she had the best intentions and thought we’d all end up laughing at it this time instead of me panicking, fainting, or running. But that was never how it worked, you think after four years they would have figured that out but here we were. I glanced at the door, measuring the distance between my seat and it. Ten, maybe twelve feet? Could I make it out before I fainted or someone grabbed me?
“Nico? It was in the seventeen-hundreds,” the teacher called trying to help.
Her voice sounded like she was talking underwater. Or I was underwater and she was talking above it. My classmates were staring. I saw some of them whispering to each other. No doubt they were making jokes about all the other times I’d fainted or run out. I saw their forms vibrate with laughter.
I decided to make my attempt then. I sucked in a breath, grabbed the handle of my bag and bolted from my seat. The bag and my side hit a few desks on the way out but I didn’t stop. Not even when the teacher submerged in water called after me. I made it to the door and pushed through it. Once I was in the hall I had to get out of the school, not for the sake of avoiding further panic but so I wouldn’t get detention for being out of class.
My record was stained with detentions for running out. Like I choose to leave and it wasn’t my body’s instinct to get out every time I was spoken to. I guess I did choose to leave but the alternative wasn’t better. Fainting and waking up in the hospital was worse, because of the medical bills and the stares my parents gave me when I woke up.
Once I was out of the class I made a b-line for the nearest staircase down to the first floor and out a back exit. I hoped all the bullies who like to harass me were in class today or at the other end of the school or in the cafeteria, anywhere not near me.
I checked over my surroundings, all clear, no people. Out into the downpour of rain I went.
I considered my options, I didn’t have many. Couldn’t go home, my father would be there, most likely drunk and ask me why I wasn’t in class. I knew I’d hear it from them soon enough. My younger sister was in school and my older one was away so that made them useless, not that they’d care. That left one choice, Ryan.
Well, I made this choice I ran but still got drenched by the cold rain the season was supplying. When I’d left my house this morning it wasn’t raining and the forecast hadn’t predicted it, it was just an unlucky day for me all around.
I ran through the streets, I could see Ryan’s apartment building in the distance as it was one of the taller buildings in the area. The sidewalks were stained dark grey and the road’s tarmac was a shiny black. My shoes were getting soaked by puddles and raindrops. My skin turned cold as I ran. I shivered as the heat my body provided and the sweater I was wearing wasn’t enough to keep me warm.
I made it to Ryan’s apartment building and rang all the buzzers, hoping someone would let me in. It worked and I dove from the freezing atmosphere into a room temperature one. I avoided the elevator because I and small spaces don’t mix in this state. I climb the three flights of stairs to his apartment, I walk dripping and shivering down the hall to his door. I knock with some urgency, hoping that 1) He’s home and, 2) I’m not bothering him.
The door opens and Ryan stands there haphazardly, obviously not expecting me. My heart sped up again and I wanted to turn and run, I didn’t want to bother him, I didn’t want to be a burden.
“Nico,” he murmured.
I didn’t say anything, I couldn’t say anything.
“Come on,” he said waving me inside.
I stepped inside cautiously as if he were going to kick me out at any second. He took my bag from me and placed it aside, it was soaking, too, hopefully, my work was safe. He removed my sweater and left me in a long-sleeved plaid shirt, still soaked but less so.
He led me through the apartment and to the bathroom. The plain walls bright and stained with the yellow lighting.
He sat me down on the edge of the tub still fully-clothed. I was shaking and had labored breathing still. My quick heartbeat made me vibrate. He kept hold of my left hand as he turned on the taps and adjusted the water temperature. My hands began to sweat. My vision blurred.
“Nico,” he mumbled and lifted his hand up and spread his fingers in front of my face.
I attempted to lift my shaky left hand to the same height and press it into his. His bare feet sat in the filling tub. His toes calling to me from under the water. I imagined if toes could drown they’d feel like I was right now.
“What’s my name?” he asked quietly.
Normally, you’re supposed to ask questions about the person. Simple, easy, one-word answer questions. It’s supposed to calm them. That never worked for me. Maybe that was because the very frequent question that was asked when people saw me in this state was: What’s wrong with you? It kind of implied I was broken, ill or weird. Another frequent phrase I heard was: Just breathe. I hated that one, too.
I took another shaky breath before speaking.
“Ry—” I choked out before my heart sped up again cutting me off.
“In,” Ryan whispers taking a breath in.
I followed suit slowly wheezing.
“Out,” he finished.
“Good, good,” he murmured. He slipped off the tub ledge and knelt in front of me. I was still shaky and sweating.
He lifted his hand again and I met it with a slightly steadier hand this time.
“Let’s get you out of these clothes, okay?” he whispered.
My clothes were wet from the rain I’d run through to get here. I’d left school after the panic attack started and ran all the way here. Everything was soaked. My pants, shoes, everything.
I nodded briefly. Normally, I would have undressed myself because the thought of anyone touching me well I was panicking made it worse. But with Ryan, I was always okay. My parents were going to kill me for missing more classes. The therapist always tried to make them understand that these responds to stress were normal but my parents never got it.
Before I met Ryan, I used to just pass out half the time, I’d wake up in the hospital and my parents would be there to roll their eyes at me. You’d think they’d be more concerned, I could have gotten a concussion or brain damage. The other times I’d just run out and found a quiet place and listen to music till I came down from the panic myself.
I was never sure which was worse. Passing out or running away. With passing out you woke up in an unknown room, with needles and fluids going into you and bright, shining fluorescent lights overhead. Running away you had to continue to experience the panic till it passed. Most panic attacks were over in minutes, mine were never like that. They stayed for hours until the event that was stressing me out passed or I ended up panicking and running out or passing out.
Ryan pushed my plaid shirt off my shoulders gently and tossed it out into the hall. I watched it fly out and land in a heap. I lifted my arms up so he could pull my shirt off, my shoulders were sore from running and the rain. His fingers were warm against my icy, wet skin. My shirt ended up in the same heap.
“Can you stand?” he asked gently.
He was always gentle and understanding. Which you’d never think considering his size and the way he tackled people in college football. I’d gone to a few games, but they were always crowded and panic-attack central.
I placed my hands on his shoulders and used them as leverage to raise myself up into a shaky standing position.
“Good, good,” he repeated and removed my pants and wet socks. He stood back up and looked at my eyes, sweeping a bang gently aside. It had plastered itself to my forehead well running through the rain.
After everything was removed he got me into the bath. The water came up to my armpits, and I wished it covered my shoulders so the only points that could be cold were the tip of my nose and ears.
“I’m going to put these in the dryer, okay?” he whispered.
I wanted to cling to him and follow him around. Like a lost puppy but I was in the bath and already wet and warm so I just stayed put.
I used to do that when we went to the same school. The first time I passed out and he was around he laid me out and made sure I still had a pulse and hadn’t hurt anything. I thought that would be the first and last time he did but the next time I passed out he found his way to my hospital room, we weren’t in the same class when this one happened and why they let him in the hospital room was a mystery to me.
I started enrolling in the same classes as him and that worked until he graduated and I was still two years younger than him and behind him in English and History. Most days I ended up here after school, peace before arriving to the storm that was home.
Ryan came back and perched on the edge of the tub submerging his feet in the warm water again. I watched the water distort his feet as he moved them back and forth in the water slowly.
“Presentation?” he asked quietly.
Surprisingly the bulk of presenting in your school career is during middle school. I could count on one hand how many times I’d had to present a project in high school. I shook my head.
“Question,” I replied. “Didn’t know the answer and they kept hinting. Still didn’t know after the hints.”
“You didn’t know the answer? What class were you in, History?” he responded.
I nodded. I struggled in History. Remembering dates, events, etc.
“Hardly anyone can remember the dates,” he reassures me. “I know I couldn’t.”
Ryan was like a guardian angel, his Facebook, and Instagram said he was single but I didn’t know what that meant when we were like this. I didn’t know if he told his football buddies about the high school boy he helped through panic attacks. The gay, high schoolboy. It bothered me sometimes and other times I was grateful for him.
We stayed there for the hour it took for my clothes to dry from the rain. Our skin turning wrinkled and red.
He removed his feet from the water and dried them off before leaving the bathroom to retrieve my clothes from the dryer. I leaned my head against my warm, wet skin. I didn’t want to get out of the water, because I didn’t want to go home.
Home, consisted of a father who was hardly ever home and when he was he was intoxicated. A mother who was fed up with my anxiety, bullshit, and crap. And two sisters, one who was off to college and another too young to understand what was really going on. Maxine was majoring in medicine and wanted to become a surgeon but I doubt she had the patience to sit through nine to ten years of medical school. Alison, the younger one, was mid-elementary school. She was going through the prissy-princess faze where kids learned the worst words for gay people. She didn’t know I liked boys so she didn’t know she was hurting me. I hate people who used insults as jokes. She was too young to understand and I knew that but our parents didn’t stop her, they, if anything seemed to encourage the hate towards the LGBT+ community.
“You ready to get out?” Ryan asked quietly.
I lifted my head. The tips of my hair dripping water into my face. I looked up at him. He looked straight in his basketball shorts and a tank top. His hair was too short to do much of anything with and his nails bare but clipped.
“Okay,” I replied.
He turned and grabbed a towel off the rack and handed it to me as I rose up out of the water. I wrapped it around my waist and he pulled the plug to let the water drain.
“Do you want something to eat?” he asked putting my clothes on the sink counter.
I thought about it briefly. I had barely had anything for lunch because the anxiety made me nauseous. But was I hungry now? The more I thought about the less I wanted to eat.
“No,” I mumbled quietly.
“I’ll be right back,” he replied.
I didn’t know if he was giving me the curtsy of getting dressed in private or if he was trying to hold up his straight image even with no one around. I didn’t know what he really was. Gay or straight or both.
I threw my clothes on and dried my hair as best I could.
I stepped out of the bathroom but I didn’t know where to go really. Ryan’s apartment was a maze. I didn’t want him to feel like I was invading it either.
He appeared again and seem to take in my dressed self again. My clothes felt loose and too big on me as if they’d had grown rather than shrunk in the dryer. I wrapped my arms around my midsection, as if holding my insides in, trying to keep myself together.
“Come on,” Ryan said gently again holding out a hand.
I felt guarded and safe with my arms around me but this was also Ryan. If I was going to end up doing anything it would be with or for him. I reached out attentively for his hand as if he’d jokingly pull away at any second but he didn’t. I took his hand and I followed him. He led me to his room, quiet, dark and comforting. Unlike my own, it was noisy, dark and terrifying.
“Sit,” he told me and I did on his bed. But soon I curled into a defensive ball. Knees up to my chin and arms around my shins.
Ryan sat down in front of me on the floor. I could touch the top of his spine if I uncurled my toes. I shook the thought away. Ryan leaned back his head on top of my feet and looked up at me. I was surprised and froze.
Ryan blinked before I slipped my feet from under him gently.
“Sorry,” I murmured thinking I was in his way.
I tried to stay out of everyone’s way usually and normally I was pretty good about it.
Ryan got up, turned on the TV and laid beside me in his bed. If his parents lived with him and came home now would he flee back to the floor?
I stared at the back of his head. His large biceps and shoulders. His short brown hair and shaved sides. I curled tighter into a ball worried he’d notice or complain I was too close.
“Nico, relax,” he murmured.
I straighten out my toes and press them into the comforter on his bed.
He rolled over so he was upside down and his stomach was exposed to me. A hand rested by his side and the other over his head.
I looked down at his hand, tracing the lines on it with my eyes. The same hand an hour ago I held to calm down. I wanted to touch it again but I was worried he’d scold me. I unwrapped an arm from around myself and reach and placed it on one of the lines of his hand. I slowly traced it up to a finger. Ryan’s hand moved in response then, I thought he was going to pull away. But he simply threaded his fingers between mine and held my hand tightly.
We sat like that for a while. Hands-intertwined, side-by-side. Till we heard the doorbell. The school had called my parents to say I ran out again and they, of course, knew I would end up here, at Ryan’s.
Ryan shifted his head toward the doorbell.
“I could say you’re not here. Tomorrow’s Saturday, you could stay here tonight,” he offers.
“They know I’m here. I never go anywhere else,” I reply quietly.
“Do you want to stay?” he asked.
“I want to, but I can’t,” I reply.
“You know you can,” he answers.
“It’ll only make it worse when I do go home,” I continue.
He knows it’s true. My father will yell: “Where the hell have you been?”
“He’s been with that college boy,” my mother will utter. “Probably got drunk.”
Neither I nor Ryan, are the legal drinking age and neither of us drinks.
The bell continues to ring. Soon it becomes consistent background noise because they know Ryan is home because his car is in the parking lot.
“I have to answer,” he tells me quietly. “Are you staying or going?”
“Staying,” I answer finally.
I wasn’t ready to deal with their wrath, not that I’d ever be ready. I just wanted more time away. I wanted to delay it, the yelling, fighting and arguing.
“Okay,” Ryan replies.
His hand slips from mine and he disappears out into the hall.
I stretch out on his mattress, letting my sore muscles relax. I burrow into the pillows and comforter. I wanted to go under the comforter or go to sleep but I was worried Ryan would find that an invasion of personal space, too. My eyes wandered about the room. Past Ryan’s football trophies, his grad certificate, his scholarship. The medals for one and two-hundred-meter dash back in his eleventh-grade year. His CPR-certified certificate he got his twelfth-grade year. His walls are covered in his accomplishments. He doesn’t flake out. That’s what I was, a flaker.
My walls are bare, I’m too small or uncoordinated for any sports, and I’m terrible at anything that doesn’t have a logical answer I can’t calculate. My panic attacks aren’t making it any easier and medications aren’t helping.
I hear Ryan on the stairs, Ryan wanted to be an actor, and I didn’t doubt he couldn’t accomplish that. He fit the bill of any actor I could name, tall, handsome, jock. And there were lots of tall, handsome, jock roles that needed to be filled in the acting industry. Sure, he’d have to work for what he wanted but he’d get there. My dream was a little more complicated. A writer, not guaranteed to make money, once you got a role in acting at least you got paid, writers had to attract their publishers and audience and I’d never been good at attracting anyone.
Ryan emerges into the room and notices my wandering eyes and relaxed position.
“We’re all different, Nico. I’m not any more special then you,” he whispers sitting back on the bed.
He knows I’m looking, he’s seen how different our lives are. The mattress on the floor that was my bed back home. The guitar with snapped strings in a corner. He got it fixed for me last Christmas so I could play it properly. I could never perform before, mainly because of the guitar’s condition but also because of my flakiness. But once it was fixed I could always play for Ryan. I learned all his favorite songs for him. I’d play them and he’d always smile.
“Do you want to stay here?” he asked changing the subject.
On most Friday nights, he went to the trampoline place, it was fifteen bucks for teens on Fridays. You could play trampoline dodgeball. Do obstacle courses. Do flips into styrofoam pits or just jump around. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want Ryan to waste his money on me when I probably wouldn’t do much, thanks to my uncoordinated nature. He could do front and backflips, was athletic and could throw a dodgeball and actually hit a target.
I was scrawny, uncoordinated as I’ve stated three times now and couldn’t flip because I usually landed on my ass or face.
“If you go, I’ll tell you a secret,” he added.
Ryan liked to trade secrets about himself when he wanted his money wasted.
I always wondered if the secret would be how he felt about me so I always went. But tonight, I wasn’t up for it.
“Not tonight, Ryan,” I answer.
It was the first time in a long line of following that I didn’t follow.
Ryan laid beside me, his fierce blue eyes, pockets of paleness in the dark.
He took my hand, intertwined his fingers again with mine. He reached forward slowly with his other hand so he wouldn’t spook me. It touched my cheek.
“Nico,” he murmured.
He moved closer and I was frozen in place. I thought maybe this was his way of begging me to come with him.
“I still want to tell you the secret,” he continues.
“It’s yours to tell,” I reply.
My secrets always got out. When I fainted, or just by nature.
“I like you,” he whispers.
I freeze again thinking I must have heard him wrong or fallen asleep in the middle of our conversation and now I’m dreaming.
“Can I kiss you?” he asks.
I had to be dreaming. The jock couldn’t be gay. The jock was never gay. Ryan couldn’t be gay.
If it was a dream, it wouldn’t matter if I let it play out, right?
“Sure,” I answer.
I expect him to pull back, laugh, and claim it to be a joke. But he leaned in and pressed his lips to mine. My first kiss was from Ryan. From the jock. I had to be dreaming.
His warm fingertips ran through my hair. Moving my bangs out of the way. His stubble scratching my baby face. My arms wrapped around his neck, he pulled me up on top of him. He held me close, closer than a friend would.
“Kaleidoscope,” Ryan whispered.
It was how I explained what my feelings were like. I was a kaleidoscope, and normally only I could see in and understand but there were rare moments when Ryan could, too. Normally, his secrets weren’t pathways to his kaleidoscope, but this one was. He was looking in my scope and I was looking in his. And we both wanted each other to look.
A kaleidoscope is the only way to reveal the things I hide,
Without the two reflective surfaces,
You only see part of my story.
The part everyone else would see without the scope,
The outside, the visible parts.
All my secrets and pain are in the reflections,
What I am and want to be is inside the kaleidoscope.
Waiting to be broken in two and revealed,
By hopefully my own mouth,
And not the evil that stole a look inside when I wasn’t around.
I will break the kaleidoscope when I am ready,
After the fear feels weaker than the need to be real.
When the people around me feel ready to accept my differences,
And mingle in my world without spouting a word of hatred,
About people similar and like me.
When they see the part that was always there but,
Didn’t think could possibly be there.
When my happiness is more important to them,
Then their reputation.
Until then I will be the only one who looks into the kaleidoscope.