Chapter Excerpt

 

He wants to know why it happens.

"Why," he asks. "Why?"

You shake your head.

"I don't know," you tell him.

He leans back on your mother's stupid corduroy couch, looks away. With his index finger, he flicks a leaf from her tropical plant. He waits for you to talk.

What are you supposed to say?

We walk outside first. We walk outside beneath the October stars and hold hands in the cold, cold air. The dim light from neighbors' windows wishes us well. No cars drive by because there aren't that many people in Eastbrook, Maine, driving around at eleven, a sad fact but true.

I wait and walk, quiet, because in the house Dylan said he had something important to tell me. I figure it has to do with college next year, seeing other people, that whole thing, all that stuff we've already decided about how we'd finish out this year and the summer together and then see how things go. His mouth makes a cute little worried line the way it does right before he has an advanced algebra test. I want to kiss it, make him stop worrying about the things I know he's worried about.

The cold keeps me from reaching up and kissing my lips against that cute line. Every time I open my mouth, the cold shrieks my teeth. We walk past the houses in my little subdivision. It's just a mile of road with homes stacked along the sides. That's what it's like in Eastbrook, subdivisions spaced out on miles of rural roads, blueberry barrens and forests scattered between. Every subdivision is far from one another, but the houses clump together. Everyone here knows everyone's business.

I imagine that Eddie Caron had turned away from his NASCAR reruns and watches us trot down the street. Or maybe Mrs. Darrow has pulled aside her curtain and shut off the light in her living room so that she can peer out and see if we kiss. Tomorrow they'll tell their friends and then by Monday everyone will know that Mrs. Darrow saw us kiss, that Eddie Caron saw us act moony beneath the stars.

That's just how Eastbrook is, everybody knows every­body and most of the time that makes me scream and want to hide in a city somewhere, but tonight it just makes me a little warmer in the cold, makes me feel like if Dylan and I fell down, frozen solid from the cold, someone would come and pick us up, call an ambulance, make things okay.

"It's freezing," I say to Dylan.

"Yeah."

"You think Eddie Caron's watching NASCAR?"

"Probably porn."

I laugh, but Dylan doesn't even smile. I make an attempt at humor. "Bodylicious Babes in Big Trucks."

Dylan doesn't say anything. Normally, he'd come back with something like, Nasty Housewives and their Vacuum Accessories.

"Dylan, what's up?" I say. "It's cold out. Want to go back?"

He shakes his head. "Give me a second, Belle. Okay?"

Cranky. Cranky. I pull my body a step away from his. I march around the cracks on the road, made by last winter's frost, pushing up the tar, heaving things around. It's almost winter again and still the town hasn't fixed the road. I hop over the cracks to try to warm up.

In my pocket lumps the note Dylan wrote me in school Friday. I always keep his latest note in my pocket like a good luck charm or maybe proof that I have a boyfriend. In case I face the boyfriend inquisition, I can whip it out and say, "No. No. He exists. Really. Here. Here's a note."

Like everyone in Eastbrook doesn't already know that.

The note in my pocket heavies my hip.

"Belle Philbrick, I love you," he wrote, "and if I seem weird today it's 'cause the dark days are getting to me. I hate when the days get shorter."

Maybe that's what's wrong, I think. Maybe it's because it's getting so cold and so dark out. The wind swirls some dead leaves across the road. I shiver.

Dylan stops walking, runs his free hand through his blonde hair, then turns to face me. He takes my other hand in his, the way men do when they propose. In the dark light, I can't tell that his eyes are green. They are just shadows, sad shadows. I shiver again. I want to go inside.

"Belle," he says, voice serious, voice husky. This voice sounds nothing like his normal voice, all mellow and song-like. A cat screeches down the road and it makes us both jump. I laugh because of it but Dylan doesn't. He just stares and stares and starts again with that same serious voice. He sounds like a dad. "Belle, I want you to know that I'll never love another woman."

Not this again. I groan. Dylan is a skipping CD sometimes, stuck on the same track so I give him my normal response and think about how good it'll feel when all this is over and we can go snuggle on the nice warm couch in my nice warm house. "That's stupid. You'll love lots of other women."

He shakes his head.

"You will!" I say and repeat the lines I've been telling him all fall. "And that's okay. That's what happens in relationships sometimes. Love isn't always an exclusive thing. We'll take a break from each other in college and you'll find girls who are way way prettier, and way smarter and way sexier than-"

He drops my hands and throws his own hand in the air. "Will you shut up for a second?"

"Hey . . ." My blood presses hot against my skin and I almost like it, because it isn't cold.

"I am trying to tell you that I will never love another woman." He accentuates every word. A dog barks. They sound the same.

"And I'm saying you will." I blow on my fingers to keep them from freezing.

"No, I won't! I won't! Alright?" He whips around, walks away two steps, and comes back.

A plane flies above us. Its lights blink. It's on its way to Europe probably. Sometimes when planes leave from Boston or New York they have emergency stops in the lit­tle airport nearby. It's the last stop before Europe, the last chance for planes and crews. It's a tiny airport but it's got the longest runway in the nation, just a big strip of asphalt with nowhere to go but up.

Ice cracks on a stream behind me and I jump at the bang, but Dylan's body stays still. His face though, turns hectic. He yanks in a breath. I wait for the explosion that always comes when his lips disappear and his fingers curl into themselves. I am not scared. I know him too well to be scared. He would never hurt me. The plane gets farther away.

Instead of an explosion, his voice is steady and strong, "I won't ever love another woman because I'm gay."

The world stops.

One century passes. Two. My mouth drops open. My legs bring me backwards, one step, another, and into the breakdown lane beside the road. My hand finds my mouth and covers it.

Dylan moves toward me, his hands outstretched. "I'm sorry, Belle. I had to tell you."

My head nods. My mouth stays open but no words come out. My body slumps into itself and I crumble down onto the cold ground at the side of the road. It's a praying position, on my knees, hands in front of me.

Dylan kneels too, and hugs me into him. "I love you, you know."

I don't say anything. What can I say?

----0----

It isn't every day that my high school boyfriend, Eastbrook High School's Harvest King, for God's sakes, tells me he's gay. It's not every day that the Harvest Queen is dumped in the middle of a road in my mother's silly subdivision with the stars watching the humiliation and the dogs barking because they want to come help tear my heart out and leave it on the cold, gray ground.

It isn't every day that my entire world falls apart.

"It's okay," I tell him when I can finally talk again and the chill from the ground has sunk into my bones and my butt. "It's really okay."

"You're not mad at me?"

"No," I say, because I'm not. Stunned, yeah. Mad, not really. Somehow, mostly numb. I unfold my legs and try to stand, but I am slow, slow, slow from the cold.

"Good," Dylan starts whimpering. He sits down and I stop standing. Caught half up and half down, I wrap my arms around him. The dog barks again. Dylan's body shakes against mine. "Good."

I hug him tighter. He sniffs into my hair. His hands move across my back and I tingle, even though, even with what he just told me, I still tingle.

His tears turn to sobs. "I couldn't handle it if you hated me, Belle. I couldn't handle it."

"I know," I say. "I know. I don't hate you."

My words are dark breath clouds in the cold air. My hands pat his back, his hair. I hold on and hold on because I'm scared I'll never hug him again. I hold on and hold on but my heart is empty like the night sky. The plane is gone. It's flown away. Even the dog is quiet.

"We're always supposed to be in love," he says. "We're always supposed to be there for each other."

"Yeah," I say. "We are."

Car headlights swing into the road and I can tell that it's a Chevy pickup truck, which is pathetic, but that's what it's like in a small Maine town. I even can tell by the hitch in the engine that it's Eddie Caron, so I guess that's even more pathetic, but I'm glad he wasn't stuck home watching porn on a Saturday night.

He stops the truck near us and opens the door, but doesn't get out, just sticks his head and part of his body out. It's all black shadow and I can't make out the features that go with his bulk because the headlights are so bright.

"You guys okay?" he yells.

"Yeah," I yell back, which is a total lie.

"You aren't getting funky on the side of the road are you?"

I stand up. "No! Jesus, Eddie."

He laughs. "Just wanted to make sure you're okay, Belle."

"Thanks," I yell back.

Eddie shuts the door and drives to his house. I reach down to Dylan and help him up off the ground.

"We have to get inside," I say. "It's too cold out here."

Dylan doesn't use my hand. He pushes himself up, wipes dead leaf crumbs off his butt. "I hate Eddie Caron."

"It was nice. He just wanted to make sure we're okay," I say.

"Well, we're not. We're not okay, are we?"

He starts walking to my house, not waiting for my answer. It's an answer that would have to be, totally be, a no.

----0----

It's the chorus in a song that he says over and over again. He wants to know why it happens. Why, he asks. Why?

I shake my head.

"I don't know," I tell him.

He leans back on my mother's stupid corduroy couch, looks away. With his index finger, he flicks a leaf from her tropical plant. He waits for me to talk.

What am I supposed to say?

I can't. I can't say anything.

----0----

We sit on the couch for hours. My mom pokes her head in. She's wearing her turquoise bathrobe, with the little pink roses on it. Dylan is the only person other than me who has seen her in it. She pads over to the couch, yawning. "I've got to hit the sack," she says.

She kisses me on the top of my head, then she kisses Dylan. She squints her eyes at both of us like she maybe knows that something's going on.

"Don't stay up too late, you two," she says and wad­dles out of the room, heading up the stairs.

"Your mom is so cute," Dylan says, leaning forward. He puts his head in his hands. His voice cracks. "I'm going to miss your mom."

I reach out my hand and touch him on the back. "We'll still be friends. You'll still see my mom."

He shrugs, but doesn't take his face out of his hands. I am stuck staring at the muscles of his back. "It's won't be the same."

"No," I say, wanting to take my hand away but too afraid that it would be insulting somehow, if I moved it. "No, it won't."

We sit like that for a long time. Minutes click away and still I am numb. With each second that passes, Dylan-and-Belle becomes a lost fairy tale, an old story, and I don't know where this new story is going.

Finally, Dylan sits up. His green eyes look like leaves blending all together. "We'll still sing together, right?" he asks me. "You'll still play Gabriel and we'll hang out. Right?"

I nod, but I know it isn't probably true so I say, "I don't know, Dylan. I don't know. It's like the songs we had, they're gone now. You know?"

He closes his eyes because this is the hardest truth of all.

----0----

Dylan and I would come home after all our extracurriculars were done at school, and we'd always hang out in my bedroom. I'd strum Gabriel and we'd fool around, singing songs, making up chord progressions, fooling around with corny lyrics. Then we'd throw on some old-time crooner music that Dylan liked and we'd sing it.

The thing about my guitar, Gabriel, is that she's how I express myself. I'm not a brilliant writer, or an actress, and I don't spew out heartrending confessional poems. I just play my guitar and that's where all my emotions go.

I bring her to school every day, play her during the sec­ond part of lunch, because that's how you get good, you do things all the time, you keep on playing and working at it. I thought that was how relationships were too, but obviously I thought wrong. I didn't factor in the whole gay thing.

I'm not wrong about what playing Gabriel means though.

And when I played for Dylan, all those songs were about fun and silliness and love and that's gone now. It's all gone.

----0----

Hours later, my mom snores in her bedroom. The clock tells me it's too late to call Emily, my other best friend. Dylan? Well, I can't exactly call him. He kissed me on the cheek before he drove off. My lips felt neglected, but they didn't pout. They trembled instead.

I pull his last note out of my pocket, read another line.

I wish that people would just leave us alone. Leave every­one alone so they can all be themselves. But, of course, there's always a restraint on like a leash.

I read another line.

I just want to be free with you.

Standing in my bedroom, with my flannel pajamas on, it hits me: I will always be lonely.

This stupid note isn't going to help me. I throw it on my dresser and it flutters down on top of my lip gloss, dead.

The stupid clock keeps making it later, too late to call anyone, or even text message.

Gabriel leans up against the wall by the window. She belonged to my dad. I named her Gabriel, which is a man's name, I know, but she's still a girl guitar. She's too pretty to be a boy, and Gabriel was an angel, right? And to me, angels are sort of sexless; they aren't about gender, they're just about soaring and flight, like music. So no matter how much Dylan used to tease me about it, I think it's a perfectly appropriate name for a guitar. I'd play her and Dylan would sing with me, old folk songs mostly. Bob Dylan. Greg Brown. John Gorka. I pick her up, but even arching my fingers over a simple G7-chord doesn't feel right, so I put her back down.

There's a big empty hole in the middle of an acous­tic guitar. The sound echoes in there, but right now, that circle looks like an eye staring at me, waiting for me to make some noise, to fill up the empty, but I can't. I'm too empty myself.

Usually, when I'm not at school, or doing homework, or eating, I'm playing Gabriel. The tips of my fingers are hard because of all the strumming I do. Dylan used to call me Guitar Girl. Some people at school still do when we're just hanging out and fooling around. What are people at school going to think? About me and about Dylan?

I touch Gabriel's neck with one of those hardened fin­gertips, but I can't pick her up. I can't play her.

I turn off my bedroom lamp. Through the window, past the mostly leafless trees and a good mile away on flat land, cars move on the Bayside Road. Their headlights make little lights, like tiny stars. I probably know everyone in those cars and they probably know me. It's probably Dr. Mahoney going in to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital to deliver a baby. It's probably Cindy Cote, Mimi Cote's mother, going in to work her shift at Denny's, our town's only restaurant that serves after 8:30. She works there and at the Riverside on Sundays.

And all those people know me too. That's Little Belle Phil­brick, they'll say, whose dad died in the first Gulf War when she was a baby. She dates that cute Dylan boy. What a good couple they are. They'll get married after college. You just can tell.

In my town, everyone repeats your past and predicts your future every single time they see you, even though the people they tell it to already know. I wonder what they'll say about me now, what they'll say about Dylan.

I turn away from my window and tiptoe through the house without flicking on any lights. It doesn't take much to lose my way, even though I've lived here all my life. Every­thing is different in the dark. I bump into the coffee table. My shin bruises. My hip launches into the corner of the kitchen counter. The pain is sweet, like water after a long bike ride uphill.

Night sounds skim against me. My mother's snore-breaths bound down the hall. Cars on faraway roads rev their engines. Mice rustle in the walls. Cats' paws pad along crackling leaves.

I lean against the counter.

"I'm lonely," I say to the sounds, the house, to nothing.

In the dark, dark kitchen my body slumps onto the counter, leaning, but my soul, it floats up by the ceiling, watching it all, wondering about this lonely girl with her feet planted on the wood floor, this girl who is me.

My mother snores in her bedroom. The clock tells me it's too late to call.



Excerpted from Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend by Carrie Jones
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