This post is currently under revision. Read if you want, but it’s not going to stay this way.
As I near the underbridge, I stop to watch two boys talking by the river. Unaware of my presence they argue, one trying to placate, the other gradually getting louder and angrier. The loud one seems afraid, worried about something, and as I watch he waves his arms frantically, yelling at the other boy. He’s hefty, muscled, while the other is slight and wispy. I can see traces of veins in his hands. The move aimlessly, around in circles and semi-circles, the smaller one stopping often to observe the larger one. I walk slowly closer, listening, still unnoticed. Snatches of conversation drift above the waves, and though their voices are low in pitch, they’re speaking loud enough for me to catch their words.
“What do you mean there was no tape, Alex!?”
“There might not have been. You saw it, the thing was dusty.”
“If there was a tape and it gets out–” The smaller boy, Alex, flinches as the larger one- the source of all the anger and fear- picks up a rock and flings it into the river. It goes glup and the water absorbs it without much of a splash. The angry boy doesn’t expect so anti-climactic a reaction and glares at the ripples for a few minutes, chest heaving and teeth bared. I guess from his shirt that he is in some sort of sports team. He’s so full of testosterone that I think he might pick a fight with the water for being so unpredictable.
“It won’t get out. There might not have been any tape!” Alex is still trying to calm him. He hovers nearby, not too close, but wanting to be closer. He dances from foot to foot.
“Well you’d better find out.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The larger one rounds now on the smaller one, growling something too low for me to hear. I suppose it was a threat as Alex shrinks back, murmuring something passive. He plays frightened well, but as the larger one returns to pelting the river with stones, the fear disappears replaced by some sort of nervous sadness.
I inch down the shore towards them, trying to remain invisible but stopping again as the larger one stops throwing stones and returns to his bag, glancing at me with dark, angry eyes, before turning back to Alex.
“You find that fucking tape, or else.” The snarl is shaky, personal. “Fucking fag.”
Then he is gone, running with an athletes ease down the shore. Within minutes he is out of view. Alex watches him go, running his hands repeatedly through his scruffy ash-blonde hair, mouthing words of panic to himself. Only once the boy is gone does he notice me, walking slowly down the shore towards him. His look becomes falteringly defiant, puffed chest, straight shoulders, hands shoved in his pockets in what he hopes is an uncaring pose. I can’t help but smile, which of course only makes him more uneasy, and therefore, more puffed up. “Whaddyou want?” He calls across the small pebbled stretch.
I casually tuck my hands into my pockets too, looking down at my feet. “I’m just wandering by. Thought you might like someone to talk to.”
Wrong tactic. He’s had too much trouble at school already, I think. I’d forgotten that teenage boys don’t like to talk, not like girls. Especially not to strangers, not about this. He gives me the response I expect, “Yeah, well, you’re wrong.” and waits for me to keep walking.
I turn instead to the nearby bench, gesturing towards it, a sort of do you mind if I…? Which he answers with a silent, curt nod. I smile in thanks and sit, watching him, and waiting.
He regards me in that same awkward defiance until he is sure I’m not going to speak again, and then starts kicking stones into the waves. Every now and then he glances back towards where the other boy had left. Sometimes longingly, sometimes with annoyance, other times with an expression I can’t read. A cold breeze funnels beneath the bridge, bringing with it the smell of the harbour and exhaust fumes of cars. Alex shivers and glances towards his jacket, piled on top of his schoolbag, but something changes his mind. He glances at me again, and then away.
“You must be cold.” No response. He rubs his arm, briefly, but still kicks stones into the waves, his back to me. “Your jacket looks warm.”
“Not mine.” He muttered, glancing at it again, this time like it was a poisonous snake. His voice is almost lost in the waves.
“His?” Another curt nod. I am beginning to see the shape of things now. “What’s his name?”
“Jon.” Look to me, to the jacket, away again. “Jonathan.”
“Is he a footballer?” That strikes me as too cliché. He didn’t have the body for an american footballer, not enough bulk.
“What is this, twenty fucking questions? Jesus. No, hockey. He plays hockey.” He kicks another stone particularly hard and then comes to sit with me, awkward and faux-annoyed. “Ice hockey. He’s courting the big league teams for intake next year. He’s got the skill to get in. Stirling record.”
I realise suddenly that Alex is the bookish sort. He speaks with reluctant intelligence, obscuring a good vocabulary with simple comments and swear words. Survival instinct in a world of high school cliques, where popularity has little to do with grades. Once he gets to college, the whole world will open up for him, but he wouldn’t believe that now. The world of a teenager is so hard. I want to smile, but I must stay serious, or he won’t talk to me. I can feel him peering at me from beneath that messy fringe as I gaze across the water, admiring a tugboat moored on the opposite shore. We wait in silence.
“May I ask, are you two…?” I choose to break the silence, leave the question open-ended. Let him answer for himself, without labels or absolutes. Surprisingly, this is the question he’s the most comfortable with. He shrugs, and sighs.
“I don’t know. He has a girlfriend. She’s a sweet girl. Not too smart, but sweet. One of the few people at school who didn’t go batshit when I came out.” He draws random lines in the sand with the toe of his sneaker, thinking. I wait. “He came to me. I mean, I wanted him for years, but I never… never… I think he’s just curious, y’know?”
We ruminate in our own thoughts for a while, Alex drawing lines in the sand while I watch the boats. I can see a tiny, brightly coloured figure moving about on the tugboat, apparently tying things down or loosening them, I can’t tell which. Alex had more to say, I could feel it, but he had to come to it of his own accord.
“Last week we, uh. We did it. Actually did it. He seemed okay with it, I thought he might want to-” He cuts off and scuffs the sand furiously, embarrassed. I catch his eye and smile gently.
“It’s okay, I understand.” He doesn’t look for explanations. I’ve become the unbiased party, the sounding board, someone he can talk to. Somewhere in my belly, I feel warm; It’s nice to help people. “So what was he so angry about? Something about a tape?”
Alex frowns at me in confusion, wary. I backtrack a little. “I used to be a journalist, I eavesdrop naturally. I’m sorry.”
He shrugs and flicks his mop of hair. “Meh. S’ok I guess. I did something stupid and he found out, sort of. He came over yesterday and saw the camera on my desk.”
“Oh.” Now the argument made sense. “You taped him?”
“I just wanted- I just wanted something to, I don’t know, make sure it was real.” His kicking had turned up the darker wet sand beneath the shiny damp surface layer. I could see an image taking shape in his scuffings, a chiaroscuro sketch of Jonathan’s face, complete with scowling eyebrows and little dark eyes. “I didn’t tell him though, and when he asked I said it wasn’t mine. He freaked out. He thinks someone taped us and wants to ruin his reputation.”
I sit back on the bench and sigh. The little tugboat begins chugging away downstream, pouring black smoke from somewhere within its bowels. It looks now in desperate need of repair, and I wonder if that’s where the fluorescent man is taking it. “Hmm.” I roll my lips as Alex waits. I want to roll a cigarette, but Sierra threw out the last of my tobacco last night. It’s making me feel antsy. “Hmm. That’s quite a dilemma there. And you don’t want to tell him it was you, because you did it without his permission? A dilemma indeed.”