3. (Speaking of) Coming out
Chapter Three: (Speaking of) Coming Out
I wholeheartedly believe that my mother is one of a kind. The best in the world. Time and time again I doubted her or simply found myself unsure of how she’d react to something, like the confession that I could very possibly be gay for example, but her reactions always shocked me into speechlessness.
Without revealing to Raz what I had said, she apologised about cancelling their salsa date (Priya and I exchanged curious looks at this) and explained that she and I had important matters to discuss. He instantly seemed to understand and even offered to have Harry over—he and Priya could do their homework together and eat at his. Mum gratefully agreed.
And then the two of us stayed up all night. Just talking.
We’d started in the kitchen, cup of tea number one. Mum poured in one spoon of sugar for me and three heaps for herself as she asked about when it all began. How long I had known. Said, just for a while, and also some years. And even though I now knew she wouldn’t care so much, it still took me a few false starts to get the words out. A stutter—stutter—before it fell from my mouth in broken sentences, eventually gaining confidence like a toddler finally leaving the wall as I found the words to explain the dreams I’d had back then, of Curtis and of Ryan. The disgust I’d felt that I’d shut in a cage in my head and left locked—until I’d seen Curtis again.
“So you like that boy?” mum had asked, carrying our mugs over to where I was sat. “Or Ryan?”
I shook my head; “No,” but in the pause that followed, flashes in my mind and a singular flutter in my stomach provoked the reply “But, maybe someone else.” And then Freddie fell into place on the table before us as the jigsaw pieces of my sentences tumbled out, from the fight to the sea. Remembered his friends questioning why he was staring at me during Spanish, and briefly recalled the kiss aloud —shit, did he like me? Was that what this was?
“It sounds like it, Joe.”
I shook my head again; she hadn’t seen his ex-boyfriend. As if Freddie would go from Jay to me. But the kiss… I pulled my phone from my pocket. Navigated to the last text received; Hey. Can we meet at the beach on Wednesday @ 5? Need to apologise. He needed to apologise. I saw the “Sorry” formed by his lips when he’d passed my parents’ relationship as divorce rather than involuntary separation—on my mum’s part in any case, but before that apology had been mine for saying what I had about his dad. Guess if they’d gotten us this far...
Mum took a sip of her tea and I soon followed suit. I burnt my tongue though, and had to take a moment to cool it down and clear my throat before speaking.
“I just don’t understand,” I said after swallowing hard. “I don’t get how—or why, because I liked Courtney, I know I did. She was pretty—or hot, or whatever.” She was. And yet, whenever she kissed me, I got little more than the knowledge that I was kissing someone. There was no excitement, no desire. No want for more, but a clumsy childish obligation. I’d thought that was just me and struggled on. Blamed myself. But Freddie had shown me that I could need just as much. Fuck, maybe it was just the sea, but-
“Joey,” mum interrupted my thoughts calmly, reaching a hand across to place her cool palm against my arm. “I find many women pretty—or attractive. It doesn’t mean I want to sleep with any of them.”
“But I don’t want to sleep with any guys either,” I protested. That much was still true. “I don’t get it. I don’t know shit about being gay—any of this.” Nothing except how good it felt to stand in shallow water and be held by what happened to be a guy. Freddie Fucking Lewis, with his cold fingers and salt kiss, cider lips against my own.
Mum was quiet for a moment. When she spoke up she said, “Did you read that book?”
“The one you gave me for my birthday?”
“Yes. Did you finish it?”
“Last week. Yeah. Why?” I already had an inkling. Mum could tell; she smiled at me a little, knowingly.
“Jacob really liked that girl, Hille, didn’t he? But he liked Ton, too.” Mum’s eyebrows rose as she waited for my affirmation, but I was hesitant to reply; it felt different somehow. “Daan’s explanation was the most clear, I think. Made it very easy for me to understand. Wait,” mum stood. “Where did you put it? I’ll find the part.”
I described the book’s whereabouts and she went to retrieve the copy from my bedside table. When she returned, while I was mid-tentative-sip, my tongue still sore, she’d been flicking through the pages frantically. She grinned up at me several times, upon seeing the streams of words I’d highlighted in orange. When she eventually found the passage, she beamed happily and paused, middle finger keeping her page as her left hand cradled the book and she picked up her cup of tea for a quick swig. “I see you noticed that part too.” I hid my blush behind my mug but rolled my eyes for her to see. She cleared her throat and recited it and she was right; it was clear, even if I couldn’t personally understand it. See, Friend A, a guy, was gay and seeing Friend B. Friend B, a guy, must have been bisexual or something (though he never claimed that of himself) because he was seeing Friends A and C. Friend C, a woman, was into only B. B was basically fucking A and C at the same time, and they were all aware of it—in fact, they were okay. That’s how they wanted things to be; some sort of strange three-way relationship.
I’d highlighted the part because it had led me to think about Ryan and Courtney. It made me wonder if, had Ryan asked me first, and Courtney been okay with it, we’d both have dated her. Weren’t A and C jealous? Wouldn’t we have been? Though, the way things had ended up I hadn’t been jealous of Ryan at all. Only angry. Betrayed.
“I had friends once,” mum was saying with a secret smile. “They had a relationship like that. An open relationship. It relies a lot on trust. Do you get it?”
In a way, I did. It brought the conversation with Curtis back with a vengeance.
“Forget about clipping yourself to the label ‘gay’. Especially if it’s causing you distress; what’s important is first and foremost discovering what you want, who you are. You need to allow yourself to grow into that. If you enjoy the company of a girl tomorrow, pursue that. If it’s a boy, like this Freddie person, follow that path. Don’t fret or panic or question every feeling so long as it makes you happy—but hurts no one.” She closed the book and placed it in the middle of the table, between us both. My eyes darted from the rim of my tea-stained mug to the frayed pages of the novel and back.
“I know,” I murmured. “I guess. I know. Just, it isn’t so easy, not when stepping out in this direction, before I’d even realised or accepted it for myself, has already gathered a hate group around me, supposedly run by Ryan—mum—”
“You should speak to him, Joe.”
That much I knew already; I wanted to, even if I had no idea how to go about that. Even if I didn’t really know if I could or would forgive him.
We drank our second cup of (decaf) tea in the living room. Three sugars for mum. Me just the one. Our attention was divided between the TV screen and our ever-wavering conversation, which danced from mum’s Salsa classes, to Harry, to bad restaurants and seafood.
When it got to Freddie, though, we lingered there a while.
See, another line of the book I’d highlighted had been “congenital wimp” like Jacob’s father thought of him. I react to things when it’s far too late to do anything about it. Freddie had kissed me—and, when I thought about it, apologised there and then. My reaction? Crouching to allow the sea to surround me. Blocking the thought from mind. I couldn’t even deal with it then but “I liked it, mum. I really liked it. And, I think, I like him. But after the way I acted he’d never try again—”
“No, not unless you make some sort of move. You can’t expect him to do all the work, Joe. Especially if you rejected him the first time.” Especially not then. And yet I didn’t know how I would even begin.
“You can reply to that text of his, for starters,” mum smirked. I laughed at the expression on her face but went ahead and replied; Yeah. 5 is cool. Need to say a few things too.
“More tea?” mum asked.
“You’ve finished yours already?!”
Tuesday morning, Halloween, I woke up happier than I had in awhile. I was still prickled by anxiety, having decided that I had to attempt to tell Freddie how I felt—and soon, but I was happy. Mum teased me about whistling as I hopped down the stairs, towards the scent of toast she’d started slathering jam over but she joined in. She kissed me once on each cheek after I’d grabbed a cereal bar and left, wishing me luck. I’d probably need it.
I got to school earlier than my usual early. The school building starts filling up fairly quickly in the morning, but sixth formers tend to slack off where punctuality is concerned, and our area is often pretty much empty until ten minutes to registration at best. Even then people trail slowly in, solo or in small groups. They always regret their arrival, wishing they’d chilled a little more outside for that extra smoke and come in later; if you’re going to be late anyway, might as well forget to rush.
My form room was both dark and empty when I walked in, though by the time I reached a desk on the far end, Chou came whirling in, a picture of anxiety. He was slightly wet too. Apparently I’d narrowly avoided the rain. He managed an unconvincing smile when he saw me, though.
“Oh!” he said, straightening his tie uncomfortably as he headed towards his desk. “Good morning. You’re early today.”
I offered him a shark-like grin and shrugged my shoulders. “What can I say? It’s Halloween.” And then Chou did something unexpected—he laughed.
See, Mr. Chou doesn’t really laugh. He exhales gusts of air with an unsure wince of a smile, sure, and he’ll hitch up his shoulders as though he’s trying to return back into his shell, but a full-blown laugh? Never-before-seen footage. Achievement unlocked.
My eyebrows rose an inch. It hadn’t even been that funny, but there he was, slumping down onto his hard-back chair, holding his stomach and wiping his eyes.
“Is that what this is? A Halloween prank? Was this you?”
Chou’s laughter began to subside, but his mouth remained amused as he straightened and grabbed at the mouse, wiggling persistently. “Very funny, honestly, but do you mind returning it to how it was? And sorting this mouse out? I need to check my emails.”
My eyebrows strained closer. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” but I stood and strode towards him anyway, dodging desks and wooden chairs. Someone had changed Chou’s screensaver to a gif of Freddy Krueger motioning with a claw that Chou and I come closer, a blood red font dripping Happy Halloween, bitch.
“Shit,” I grinned. “That was not me. Wish it was.”
“No?” I shook my head. “I did have a GCSE class in here last lesson, though I assumed it was done this morning- by you. You didn’t see anyone else leaving the room?” I shook my head again. Chou shrugged and smiled, wiggling the mouse again with more ferocity. “Never mind.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work, Sir.”
Chou clicked and wiggled more frantically if anything. “I’ll—I’ll go get a technician.”
“Have you checked if it’s plugged in?”
My form teacher went still, cheeks welcoming a deep shade of red that washed through his cheeks. “Of course.”
“I’ll take that as a no,” I said, leaning forward to do just that for him. With the mouse moving across the screen again, Krueger disappeared, replaced by Chou’s email window. One in particular had already been opened; “Happy Halloween! I’m looking forward to tonight. See you later? x T. Technology Dept.”
Chou remained frozen for another second, face glowing impossibly brighter, before he hurried to minimise the window. He kept looking at the screen, clicking this and that inanely, though I got the feeling he had nothing he wanted to do but reply to the email we’d just seen.
“Got a date?” I asked mock-nonchalantly, hiding a grin, as I backtracked, moving around his desk to settle onto the edge of one of the tables in front of it.
Chou paused and took a few moments to blink at his computer screen. “I… I tried to mention before, actually…” He stopped to clear his throat. “I haven’t heard anything but… but I’d prefer if you didn’t spread what I told you. Before.”
“Uh…. What? When?”
“The,” Chou furrowed his eyebrows. His lips twisted as he pushed the mouse away and focused his attention on me. “The lesson that I was less than helpful to you. Before the half term break. I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” I said. Back then.
Chou nodded, standing hesitantly, as is expected of near all of his movements. “I shouldn’t have told you what I did about myself, but I needed you to know why it was so hard for me to speak up.”
I had no recollection of him saying anything to me, beyond offering apologies I hadn’t been willing to accept. Now, though, it was “no skin off my nose” as Ryan’s mum used to say.
“Just, things closer to home… They—” Chou paused again and swallowed. “It scared me too, you know? Everything they said, and every rolled up ball- it affected me too. Do you understand, Joey?”
My features grew closer in confusion.
Chou’s fingers found each other and picked, squeezed. “I’m a grown man. I should be above this, you know? But it… I felt,” Chou took a deep breath. “Familiar. I’ve been in a familiar situation, and I felt like shit.” The expletive felt crisp and bizarre coming from Mr Chou’s ordinarily timid tones, but my form teacher looked oddly relieved to have said it. His shoulders dropped a centimetre or so.
Another achievement unlocked.
“Feel like shit. About myself and about it. And, now, about using such language in front of you.” His eyes caught my own. He almost smiled. “I’m sorry, Joey.”
And with his words came realisation. Finally, and slowly. “You’re gay.”
Chou swallowed loudly again, but his ability to look me in the eyes seemed to have melted away with his desire to speak up anymore.
“I’m sorry that I let you down,” he murmured instead.
I shrugged. “I’m okay.” Though a good amount of shock was coursing through my brain. Mr Chou did not look gay. Small, unsure, a little chubby around the face, with broken glasses and ugly shoes. But what was gay anyway? How would I fucking know? And regarding the situation, I wasn’t going to go as far as voice my acceptance of his apology— it was a fucking shitty thing to do. For a teacher to notice how I had been treated and still literally react in no way... I’d felt alone. But, I had no real courage of my own, so how could I ask the same from someone else?
“Can you—does that—that spectrum thing that you were talking about with Freddie. Freddie Lewis, I mean. Do we study that later? Anytime soon?”
Chou seemed to relax with the subject taking a slightly different direction. He removed his overcoat and hung it behind his swivel chair with a little difficulty. “No. Unfortunately not. And I don’t think it would go down too well with your peers, do you?” My lips twitched. “But we can discuss it if you like. As I did with Freddie. Actually, I’m thinking of setting up an after-school group for Philosophy and Sociology discussions. What do you think?”
I smiled at Chou. “I’d like that.”
The rumours weren’t gone, but they were subsiding, and I managed to make it through most of the morning without confrontation. I kept my head down. I saw Ryan skulking around a couple times, sneaking me glances every now and then, but I ignored him and he moved on. Kelsey tried her best to goad at me during Philosophy in the first period, but Chou shut her down with uncharacteristic resolve, and she was shocked into silence. We all were. I couldn’t stop myself from grinning as he and I shared a glance, and I had to stare at my notebook for the rest of the lesson to hide it.
I found Freddie at lunch. He was standing in line with a group of his friends, so I excused myself from Abby and hers and forced my feet towards him.
I tapped Freddie’s shoulder. “Hey.”
He froze when he turned to face me. I was glad. The pause made me realise I hadn’t come up with a single thing to say.
“I tried to catch you after registration but you rushed off pretty quick.”
“Oh. You did? Sorry.”
“Yeah.” I cracked the joints in my fingers. Freddie flinched. “Sorry.”
“Oh, hey Joey,” Tom said, turning away from the salad bar and tuning in to our conversation instead. Freddie and I turned to him instantly, so I can only imagine that he was as grateful for the interruption as I was.
“Paige said she saw you in Art yesterday. Didn’t you, Paige?”
The blonde glanced up from her phone and grinned at me. “Sure did. And today.”
“Sorry about that, by the way.”
“Jeez, how many apologies has that been in the last two minutes?” Tom laughed. Freddie and I exchanged a look. “I can’t believe you dropped Spanish though. Do you miss us?”
I allowed a chuckle slip through then. “I miss my window?”
Tom’s palm found his chest. “Ouch.”
“Um, Joey?” Freddie interrupted. “Don’t want to keep you…” My throat constricted as my gaze dropped to his collar bones. “You probably had something to say, right?”
My mouth parted but-
“Did you want to change the time or something?”
“No.” I shrugged, “Just thought that we’re here now. We could—let’s talk.”
“Now?!” Freddie’s eyes darted first to Tom and then to Paige, both of whom had odd expressions hijacking their faces too. Did they know what had happened?
“Not here, no. Just thought—it’s lunch. We’ve got some time. If you’re not busy.”
“He’s not busy,” Paige spoke up. Freddie sent her a look akin to a glare.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” I said.
“I just- no, I... I want to,” he said slowly. After a moment, he sighed and turned to Tom. “Tell Sherry I’ll be back in a minute, okay? I’m… I’m going to the toilet or something.”
I raised a brow, but Tom winked at me as he saluted Freddie, and Paige looked just as amused.
“Don’t you want to get your coat?” Freddie asked.
“Didn’t bring one today.”
“What?” He paused in front of the door leading to the field, hood midway up, and frowned down at me. “So why are we going outside?”
I glanced behind us. “Somebody could hear-” Freddie’s lips grew almost un-noticeably thinner. “There’s shelter by the sheds.”
“Not much of it,” he muttered.
I bit my lip. Freddie frowned harder. I stared out of the window and, after another moment, Freddie sighed loudly and pushed the door open. He strode into the downpour, hood up, head down, hands pushed into his anorak pockets. I followed, slower, heart suddenly going erratic.
“Did you want to go first?” I asked, wrapping my arms around myself and squinting in a futile attempt to keep from being blinded by rain. The droplets were cold against my skin. It was good; I felt like I was heating up.
“I guess. There isn’t much.” He laughed humourlessly and hugged himself too. “I’m pretty sure I know what you’re going to say, but it’s fine. I shouldn’t have kissed you. I won’t do it again. I’m sorry. That’s it.”
“That’s it?” I echoed.
“And Ryan thinks you’re gay. You might want to sort that out. But don’t worry, I won’t do it again,” Freddie finished firmly, just as I whispered “I liked it.”
Freddie’s expression dropped from his face and took all hint of colour with it. My eyes followed their direction and landed on his shoes, an inch deep in a puddle.
“It’s fucked up, I know. I’m sorry.”
Freddie seemed to choke, commanding my eyes to meet with his. They were imploring. They were bright, intense brown eyes. I couldn’t really describe them as hazel or chestnut because I had no idea what those colours really were, and milk chocolate seemed way too cliché, but, they were brown. Usually so dark, just then the individual spots of light on each of the falling raindrops seemingly bounced off the surface. They were asking me questions. The different shades were emotions, melting around each other in subtle rings that would shout green amid the cocoa, and then there I was, reflected in the shadowed pupils of his eyes.
“Joey, what are you trying to say?” he asked faintly.
“I liked it.” I swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
He said, “Fuck.”
A kiss is a touch of the lips. We met as contours, every inch of my body greeting his almost the moment that he moved. It was a reaction that I hadn’t been aware that my instinct knew to act on. As his hands, only fractionally hesitant, rose to meet my jaw, cheeks, mine were already moving into position; to reach around his back and hold him where he was. Against me. The way his mouth met mine had me straining to be closer, my heart increasing speed like a rabbit chased—
What the fuck was this?