Authors: James Klise
Tags: #young adult, #teen fiction, #fiction, #teen, #teen fiction, #teenager, #angst, #drama, #romance, #relationships, #glbt, #gay, #homosexuality, #self-discovery
© 2010 by James Klise.
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E-book ISBN: 9780738727271
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I now hasten to the more moving part of my story. I shall relate events that impressed me with feelings which, from what I had been, have made me what I am.
Judging by the angry mail we get, a lot of people consider me to be the villain of this story. The Chicago newspapers treat me like a public menace. They use the most biased headlines:
STRAIGHT CHARADE LEAVES READERS IRATE
NO MORE DATES FOR JAMIE BATES
WOULD YOU WANT HIM FOR YOUR DAUGHTER?
No, people, you would not want me for your daughter. That should be obvious.
It’s true, I told a lot of lies. I lied to everyone, including myself. I took things that didn’t belong to me. Valuable things. In the end, I resorted to violence, which I totally regret, and I set what I thought was a very responsible, very contained, tiny fire, which led to—well, massive destruction of private property.
But a villain?
My defense goes like this: Technically, in order to be considered a true villain, you’ve got to have a sinister plan. I suspect that a class called “Creating Your Sinister Plan” is taught during freshman year of Villain School.
Take, for example, the Disney movie
. Cruella De Vil creates a plan:
I am going to steal these adorable puppies and kill them to make coats.
The crazy old people in
hatch a downright devilish plan:
Let’s take this innocent young woman and use her body to give birth to Satan’s immortal offspring.
Friday the 13th
movies, the drowned teenager Jason Voorhees comes up with a truly ambitious, no-good, blood-splattered plan:
Maybe, if I avenge my young death by killing every teenager who comes to Camp Crystal Lake, over time I will find some measure of peace.
Sure, these characters are all lunatics—certified, grade-A wack jobs—but they are bad guys nonetheless. They created evil plans; therefore, they are villains.
Let the record show, I never had a sinister plan. I never said to myself:
Let me trick a beautiful, intelligent female classmate into thinking I am heterosexual.
In our case, a relationship simply grew of its own accord. Opportunities presented themselves. It was the classic romantic scenario involving two young hearts, first kisses, exotic locales, and a stolen supply of untested pharmaceutical drugs designed to alter the sexual chemistry inside the brain.
I don’t mean to excuse my crimes. These days I carry regrets with me like my grimy gray backpack, evident for the whole world to see.
People are complicated. Desire can be confusing. Not for you? Consider yourself lucky.
Reporters hold their compact digital recorders up to my mouth. “Please, Jamie, talk about the drug,” they say. “Tell us about specific changes to your mind and your body.” They always ask me to describe the taste of the pills, and they always use the word “miracle.”
Often they ask for a photograph, something for them to use instead of my freshman yearbook picture, which everybody’s seen. Infamous me, sitting up too straight, with my shiny brown bowl cut. Toothy and too happy-looking—alarming glee, like someone just pinched my ass. Now when someone pulls out a camera, I slouch a little and push my bangs to the side. I cross my arms. I’ve learned how to stare at cameras with confidence, without needing to smile at all.
Chicago reporters like to include my background story. Here’s my version: I’m an only child. For the past five years, my family has lived with my mother’s parents in Rogers Park, north of Peterson Avenue. Before that—back when my dad had his quick-printing business—we lived on the city’s west side. My grandparents’ place is a brick two-flat, one apartment on top of the other, with a chain-link fence along the front sidewalk. It may not impress, but it doesn’t embarrass, either. It fits in.
When we first moved in, I picked a bedroom downstairs, in my grandparents’ apartment. I wanted to be in the middle of everything. In retrospect, my parents must have appreciated the chance to have the upstairs to themselves, where they had plenty of space for starting their endless chain of doomed businesses—discount magazine sales, website design, recipe subscription clubs. One half-baked venture after the next.
At first, my parents expected our stay would be short. “One year, tops,” my father said. Of course he thought so. My dad wears his wavy brown hair exactly as he did the year he led his high school baseball team to historic wins. (Another headline:
SLUGGER BATES TAKES LAKERS TO STATE
.) I’ll catch him paging through the old yearbooks we keep on the TV, next to the Bible, and even I’m struck by how much I resemble him at that age. Despite subsequent setbacks in my dad’s life, he has always clung to the notion that the universe happens to favor certain people, like him, and that the universe is not fickle.
“Now remember, kiddo,” he told me back then, as we carried my suitcases into the “temporary” bedroom, “we’re guests in this home.”
I looked around the room. The narrow window offered an unobstructed view of my grandparents’ garage, squat and brick. On the bed lay an old toy, a small wooden carving of two painted ducks on a log. I reached for it. The ducks were at opposite ends of the log, but when I pulled a string at the bottom, the ducks moved to the center, flapping their speckled wings.
My father hung my clothes in the closet and continued to give instructions in a low voice. “You’re almost eleven, Jamie. Make yourself useful, and otherwise try to be invisible.”
My mother came in, carting two rubber bins. She has always been freakishly strong. Unlike my dad and me, my mom is little, and she has straight ash-blond hair like her parents. “We’re one floor up,” she told me, pointing toward the ceiling with a sly smile, “like in a regular house. It won’t be any different than before. Just bigger!”
It didn’t take me long to realize that choosing the downstairs bedroom was a big mistake—the first in my noteworthy streak. Now and then, the phrase “suddenly an orphan” crossed my thoughts. My parents ate suppers on the first floor with us, but I got used to their early good-nights, quick kisses, and their departure through the front door. I would follow the sound of them climbing the stairs, then moving around the apartment above as they attended to business. Sometimes it sounded like ghosts.
I dreaded the quiet after they left. In the living room, an antique clock tolled ominously each hour. Every night after eating, I would rise from the table and say, “Thank you for the very nice supper,” as I’d been trained to say.
“You’re quite welcome,” my grandmother answered. “Now go on, we’ll get these dishes.”
“Pleasure knowing you,” my grandfather sometimes added, or “Nice doing business with you.” It took some time before I understood he meant this to be funny. Then he’d reach for the TV remote.
For as long as I can remember, the rubber bins in my bedroom have stored all the things that brought light and sparkle to my life—toys and plastic superheroes when I was ten; books when I got older (I preferred books about explorers, astronomers, martyrs, events that changed the world, and people who took risky chances to improve their lives); and most recently, music and movies. In junior high, we took field trips downtown to see big musicals. We’d have lunch on State Street or Michigan Avenue, then race to get in line for the show. My favorites were
but I wasn’t picky. Now I have a dozen recordings on CD. For eighth-grade graduation, my parents gave me a cheap TV/DVD combo for my bedroom, and I began buying used DVDs—classic titles that my dad recommended. I got them from the Korean video store for a couple of bucks each:
Rosemary’s Baby, Strangers on a Train, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Know You’re in the House Alone, Halloween.
I’d watch them by myself, with my bedroom door closed. Things are scarier when you’re alone.
To be clear, I never felt unwelcome in my grandparents’ apartment. They treated me with generous respect. “Jamie, we respect your privacy,” they said, in order to explain why they never entered my bedroom. They smiled at me and patted my shoulder, but they had forgotten how to interact with a young person. Over time, their lack of communication intersected with my escalating need for privacy, and—
It was like the signing of the Magna Carta. We found an arrangement that worked for everyone.
“What I don’t understand,” reporters always say, “is why you didn’t come out sooner.”
Simple as walking through a wide-open door into a perfect, sun-dappled day.
Give me a break, I was fifteen—a high school freshman.
“Gay” is the word my best friend Wesley used to describe the three-page essay on school spirit that we were assigned for English. “Damn, man, this project is
“That’s gay,” the girls remark, when a friend dares to tie a sweater around her shoulders as if posing for a magazine.
“You look totally gay.”
“No homo,” boys say quickly in class, if they’ve expressed something bordering on sensitive and don’t want to misrepresent themselves.
“Queer” is what they call the way-too-friendly guy who sells French fries in the cafeteria.
“Hands off, queer bait!”
“Faggots!” This was the furious outcry directed toward the immature clowns who misbehaved in homeroom, making us lose our pizza party.
“Take a picture, faggot, it lasts longer.”
“Faggot,” too, was the overweight, effeminate boy who showed up at school at the start of seventh grade and then silently endured a constant attack of projectiles aimed at his head—crumpled papers, rubber bands, even pencils. By November, he was gone. I imagined his life had become a series of sad switches, a long lonely search for a place to fit in. But I wouldn’t be his friend, either. After all, I was getting by.
Recently, even a gay journalist asked me, “Jamie, why? Why put yourself through all this?” As if he had forgotten those harrowing years between ages ten and eighteen, when the meanest, most dreaded, completely acceptable, worst insult for any boy was to be called, simply, “fag.”