Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
My thumb hovers over the exit button on the remote, poised to strike as soon as I hear the jingling of keys that means one of my parents is home from work. Playing on our enormous flat-screen—easily the most expensive thing in our house because if there’s anything my dad loves more than drinking beer, it’s watching TV—is the end scene of a moody indie film about two white guys in love who don’t end up together. Even though they’re both bawling their eyes out at a train station, I can’t help but envy them. “It’s better to have loved and lost” and all that.
When the screen fades to black, I breathe a sigh of relief, switch over to my sitcom equivalent of a security blanket, and grab the bag of Hot Fritos on the glass-and-marble coffee table. Then I stretch out on the übercomfortable puke-green couch my mom inexplicably loves (possibly more than me) and start stuffing my face.
During the end credits of the first episode I watch, my phone lights up with a message. I sit up, suck chili powder off my fingers, and check it.
Saleem. God I hate how much I love how formal his texting is.
sup, I reply.
Did you get home safely? he writes back almost immediately.
I smile and put my feet up on the coffee table. It only took one ride in Fabiola’s truck for Saleem to realize that the fact that I make it home every day in one piece is a miracle.
nah i died
It amuses me to no end to respond this way. With every other person I text, I use adequate punctuation, but not with Saleem. It actually takes more of an effort to reply the dumb way—Autocorrect and I always get locked in a battle of wills as I fight to keep the first word of my sentence lowercase, among other things—but Saleem appreciates the chaotic energy I inject into his life. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
Your fingers have remarkable dexterity for a corpse’s.
wow dats deadist
I hope that makes him laugh. I can’t say what I really want to say, which is “You wanna see how dexterous my fingers are, you sexy brown—”
The sound of keys makes me throw my phone across the room. When I look up, my mom’s walking in, and she does not look happy.
“Bad day?” I ask.
She blows hair out of her deceptively young-looking face. “There aren’t enough cuss words.”
My mom works at the CVS down the hill from my school. Every day when she comes home, she goes off about an exceptionally stupid customer that she very graciously refrained from punching in the face. Unless she’s too tired to do so, which looks like the case today.
She hangs her keys on the hooks beside the front door that she had my dad install because he could never find his keys in the morning before work, throws her purse onto the faux marble counter that separates the kitchen from the living room, and trudges past me to the hallway on the way to her room. But before she’s all the way there, she backtracks until she’s standing next to the couch, looking down at me.
“Why’s your phone all the way over there?”
I look to the corner of the room where my cell is lying facedown.
“Uh… Fabiola just scored sixty points in Words with Friends.”
“Triple word score?”
She glances at the TV, and my eyes follow hers. The episode currently playing features two lesbian side characters getting married. Shit. I usually skip this episode if my parents are home. But my mom doesn’t say anything, just turns back to me and asks, “When you gonna ask her to marry you?”
This question has been a running joke from the time I was thirteen or so, but ever since I turned seventeen, my mom’s been sounding less and less like she’s kidding.
“We’d have to start dating for that to happen, Mom.”
“Mm-hmm.” I suspect she suspects we already are, but she changes the subject. “How was the last day of school?”
“Oh.” She rubs her face and sniffs. “How was your second to last day of school?”
“Okay. Not too different from all the others.”
“Only one year left.”
“Well, don’t stay up too late, kid.” She tousles my hair and goes to leave, but then stops. “Chips.”
I grab the bag of Fritos from the couch, roll it up, and put it on the coffee table. She nods and is on her way to her bedroom again.
When she’s gone, I retrieve my phone, and Saleem’s message is waiting.
Is that a term for prejudice against dead people?
I reply with one (made-up) word.
I will have you know that I have a number of close dead relatives, so it is impossible for me to be “deadist.”
Oof. How am I supposed to respond to that? He’s joking, but he’s also not….
As I often do when I don’t know how to reply to someone, I shift my focus to something else in the hopes that a perfect response will pop into my head while I’m distracted. In this case, I actually start a game of Words with Fabiola. She completes her turn almost immediately.
After she wins, we start another game. I’m in the middle of putting down the word “gay” (for entertainment value, not point value) when my dad gets home. Despite toiling in the sun all day, he actually enjoys his work. I think he and his colleagues spend more time pranking each other than actually washing cars.
He puts his keys on the counter, walks over to me, kisses my forehead, and then heads to the bedroom. I hear the squeak of springs as he falls onto the bed next to my mom.
I play a few more turns before I get up. First, I grab my dad’s keys and hang them on the hooks. Then I head to my parents’ room. Their door’s open, and they’re both passed out in their work clothes. I take off my dad’s boots, then my mom’s sneakers, and turn the ceiling fan on. As I leave their room, I glance at the Bible on my mom’s nightstand and can’t help but sigh.
In the living room, I flop down on the couch again and stare at the strip of wall next to the window. Hanging there are two framed decorative cards with my parents’ names on them. Underneath the names, in parentheses, is their biblical meaning. My mom’s card reads, Maria (The wished-for child), and my dad’s says, Abel (Breath). I have a card as well, but it’s hanging in my room. There is no Enrique in the Bible, so we had to cheat. My middle name is Luke, which means “light.” I don’t think that fits me at all.
My parents aren’t the most religious people I know—we’re those Christians who only go to church for Christmas and Easter—but they believe in God and grew up with ultraconservative parents, which is why I haven’t told them that I’m bi. Part of me is certain they’ll still love me when—if?—I come out to them, but another part of me keeps saying, You never know….
It’s the same with Jesus. Most of the time, I know He loves me. I mean, that’s what He’s all about. But sometimes when I hear someone—my pastor, my grandparents, a random person on the Internet—say that God hates queers, I have to squash the tiniest inkling of doubt that worms its way into my chest.
My eyes travel to the coffee table, where my phone is flashing. I pick it up and see another message from Saleem.
Hey, are you still there?
No need for (barely intelligible) apologies.
how tings wit aya
Saleem’s sister Aya is just about the coolest person I know. I’ve only met her once, but I was stunned by her beauty and the confidence with which she carried herself. For some reason, though, whenever she comes home from film school in New York, Saleem gets a little weird about it.
They’re going well.
Ah, a contraction. That means he’s lying, but I’ll let it go for now.
gude gude gude
Yes, “gude.” Anyway, I wanted to ask if you happen to be free later tonight.
I sit up, my heart pounding because I know where this is going, and all I can think about is how the smallest act on his part—an accidental touch, a compliment, initiating a hangout—can send me reeling.
Having feelings for Saleem is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with because I know we can never be together. There are a lot of reasons why that’s true (my own cowardice being one of them), but the main one is I did the math and calculated that there is—exactly—a 0.01 percent chance that he sees me the way I see him. I mean, why would he?
Saleem is thoughtful and kind and a much, much better person than I am. He never complains about his parents or fights with his sister like I would if I were him. He always holds doors open for old ladies and gives homeless people his change or at least apologizes to them when he doesn’t have any. I bet he doesn’t even do that thing where you break something at someone’s house and only fix it enough so that it looks fine and the next person who breaks it thinks they did it. He has the sweetest, gentlest soul I’ve ever encountered, and I’m, well, me.
Which means I shouldn’t tell him I’m free.
im free, I reply. y?
I was thinking of a late-night swim. Would you like to join me?
There it is.
hellz yeah, I write without hesitation. gets hot af in my rume @ nite
Great. I look forward to seeing you, ’Quique.
Ugh, he just had to add that sexy-ass apostrophe before my nickname. God I hate him. Except that I don’t, never could. Short and handsome and smart and caring Saleem. He is my greatest source of joy, and despite all the possible complications, I need him in my life. I’m not going to ruin us.
After I get his grammatically immaculate text saying I should head over at around nine o’clock, I go to my parents’ room to wake up my mom and ask for permission to take her car. She grunts in approval before turning over and resuming her snoring.
It takes twenty minutes or so to get to Saleem’s. He lives equally far from school as I do but in the opposite direction. It’s a quiet area with mobile home parks, shopping plazas, and similar apartment complexes to mine. I pull up to the gate where I usually punch in a code to get in, but the keypad isn’t working, which is weird. I reverse back onto the street and park across from the complex.
After I jump the gate, I walk quickly to Saleem’s apartment, noting that the entire compound is almost completely dark, which, again, is weird. Even the streetlamps are out. If this were my first time coming here, I would get lost as hell—this place used to be a maze to me—but now, even in the shadows, I know exactly where to go.
I hike up the stairs to the apartment but don’t knock or ring the doorbell. I know Saleem can hear me arrive from any room inside his apartment. The few times I’ve been inside his place, I’ve found it grand yet homey. Everything (from the rugs to the curtains to the tapestries) looks handmade with rich colors and intricate patterns, and the now-familiar scent of cumin-forward Palestinian stews hangs in the air.
The door opens, and he comes out, forcing me to do what’s become necessary for my survival: try my best to ignore everything about him that drives me wild. The smile that lights up his entire face. The black T-shirt that matches the single ringlet of hair dropping onto his forehead. The amber eyes that wait for me in my dreams.
“Hey,” I say, “what the hell’s going on?”
“Power outage,” he replies, handing me a towel.
“Oh. That explains the gate.”
“I should have warned you.”
“Yeah, you should’ve, asshole.”
He smiles, and we head to the pool. It’s a considerable walk (because it’s past all the apartments and across a parking lot), and walking in near-complete darkness makes it feel even longer. Every unexpected noise makes me jump.
“Are you scared?” Saleem asks with a laugh.
“No!” I say, with way too much defensiveness for him to believe me.
“That’s Misty, Mrs. Jamreonvit’s cat. You’re not a bird, so you can relax.”
“I am relaxed!”
I trip on a sprinkler head and almost go down.
“I can tell.” I’m so glad he could only hear that. “I am still way too full,” he says, most likely changing the subject to relieve me of my embarrassment. It’s the kind of thing I’d never think to do because I’m way more comfortable having the upper hand in our conversations.
“Gluttony, my dear friend, is one of the seven deadly sins. Wait, is that a thing in Islam?”
“Not explicitly, no. They’re not laid out in the Quran like that.”
I should sit down and read the Quran one of these days. Most of what I know about it I’ve learned from Saleem. My friend/favorite source of pain is a faithful Muslim, which means he avoids pork and alcohol. He doesn’t smoke weed. He prays five times a day while not at school (you can imagine how shitty the other kids would act if he did it there). He doesn’t even cuss. And for the past month or so he’s been fasting for Ramadan.
I’ve never asked him what the Quran says about guys liking guys. I kinda assume it handles the topic the same way the Bible does: ambiguously. Which means some people say it’s unequivocally condemned while others disagree. When I Googled the topic, I found out that a lot of Muslims believe it’s okay to have queer thoughts, but not okay to act on them. I wonder if that’s what Saleem believes.
“They’re actually not in the Bible, either,” I say. “I have no idea where they come from.”
“In any case,” Saleem says, “I am not a glutton. You try fasting from sunup to sundown, and we’ll see how much you eat when you’re finally allowed to.”
“I wouldn’t last a day.”
I catch a glint of moonlight coming off his crooked white teeth as he smiles, and it takes everything in me to stop myself from pushing him up against the nearest wall and mashing my face against the beard that’s been coming in recently. In order to release some of my pent-up energy, however, I say something I know I shouldn’t.
“But it’s not like gluttony would be the hardest sin to give up.”
There’s a hitch in Saleem’s regular footsteps, but his rhythm returns to normal before he asks, “Then which one is?”
I swallow. “I think you can imagine.”
In the dark, it’s hard to see the expression on his face, but I can tell he’s nodding.
“I do,” he says, almost solemnly.
“Yeah? What is it then?”
He turns to look at me and parts his beautiful lips. “Sloth.”
And with that, he takes off across the parking lot, his sandals slapping against the asphalt. I shake my head, take a deep breath, and pelt after him.
I skid to a halt when I reach the pool. With my longer legs, it was pretty easy to overtake my vertically challenged friend.
“This is actually kinda dangerous,” I say when I hear him approach behind me. I can barely make out where the water begins. “What if I belly-flop onto concrete?”
“Yes, well, at least we won’t drown,” he says, out of breath. “It’s five feet at the deepest.”
“You could still drown,” I say.
He lets out a hoarse laugh, and that’s it. I hate it. I mean, I love making him laugh, but the fact that he doesn’t react in any other way makes me crazy (or crazier, I should say). I wish he were the type to appreciatively slap me on the back or the type to playfully punch my arm, but he lets it go. Water off a duck’s back.
We have the pool to ourselves because everyone in the apartment complex (including Saleem’s family) has been avoiding it like it’s infested with piranhas ever since a opossum drowned in it last summer. The time Saleem and I spend in the water is only for us. Well, mostly. There is the occasional visit from the old white dude in Apartment Forty-Three, who shows up to get away from his wife, Christine, but that’s usually only during the daytime.
“Did Aya ask about me?” I say, pulling my shirt up over my head and throwing it onto a lounge chair.
Saleem snorts. “Sure, Quique.”
I smile. “And how is it having her back?”
“Good…,” he says, taking off his shirt.
He’s such a bad liar.
“Come out with it.”
He sighs. “Fine. So every time Aya comes home, I feel like my parents forget that I exist, and I don’t want to say anything because she was away for school, but it’s hard being… forgotten.”
It would be impossible for anyone to forget you, I say in my head, you beautiful boy.
“Or, not forgotten, but ignored a little bit. Sidelined. And then a part of me wonders if it’s because I’m… boring. I know I’m probably being irrational, but… that’s how I feel.” He sighs again. “I’m being ridiculous, aren’t I?”
“No,” I say. “Not ridiculous at all.” His face relaxes, and his shoulders drop. “But you are…” So many words hang in my pause. “Anything but boring, Saleem.”
“Thanks, Quique.” He clears his throat. “I think I only needed to vent.”
My shorts are the last article of clothing to come off. Before, the reason I swam in my boxers was I kept forgetting to bring trunks, but at this point it’s simply how I swim. I walk over to the pool before noticing that Saleem is still over by our clothes.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“I forgot to change into my bathing suit,” he replies, looking down at his shorts.
“Okay… Swim in your underwear like me.”
He doesn’t say anything. Is he too shy for that?
“I don’t want wet underwear,” he says finally.
“You can’t tell in the dark, but I’m rolling my eyes. Let’s go back and get your trunks.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I, uh, do you mind if I swim without… anything?”
I feel like I’ve been transported to another reality. My hearing seems to leave me completely. “Like, naked?”
“Yes… Would that be okay?”
I clear my throat. “Yeah, that’s cool. I don’t care. I can’t even see anything right now.”
“Neither can I,” he says.
“In fact, that’s kind of a good idea.” What the hell am I doing? “Isn’t skinny-dipping kind of a rite of passage?”
“I believe so,” Saleem says evenly.
“I’ll do it too, then.”
There’s nothing but the sound of crickets as we wait to see who’s gonna go first. Then Saleem takes off what are presumably his shorts. After that, I strip off my boxers, place them close to the edge of the pool, and jump into the water.
Despite the shock of cold, I stay under for as long as I can. When I surface, I’m panting for breath, the smell of chlorine filling my nostrils. I glance where Saleem had been standing near the lounge chairs but can’t make him out. Then I hear a splash not too far from me. I turn in that direction and, thanks to the moonlight, catch his curls breaking through the water.
“Oh my God, it’s freezing,” he says, out of breath.
“Yeah,” I say, “but it feels good.”