Thirteen, by Cameron Colwell

Cameron Colwell is a writer, critic, and poet from Sydney, Australia. He has appeared on a panel at National Young Writers Festival, has had work published in The Writer’s Quarterly, Writers Bloc, Heaps Gay and The Star Observer, and was the 2013 winner of the Mavis Thorpe Clark award for a collection of short stories. His Twitter is @cameron___c and his work can be found at neonslicked.wordpress.com.

This story first appeared in Issue Sixteen of Tincture Journal. If you like this story, please consider buying a copy or subscribing.

I wander all these forums, these days. All these chat rooms for teenagers. I don’t know why, I just like finding these people talking about all these grown-up problems. All these kids older than me talking about their boyfriends, or their eating disorders, or make-up. Sometimes I pretend to be other people—girls, emos, university students—for a night, and talk on these chat rooms. I really get into it; after a while I forget I’m me. One time I’m just cruising, just going over things without really paying attention, and I find this picture.

Two boys kissing. Both in shorts, both skinny American boys with big brown fringes. They’ve got rainbow armbands on their wrists, and t-shirt tans. Just faggots, just poofters, just fudgepackers.

It takes me about five minutes to close the window. Later, I keep coming back to it. I want it so bad it blocks out everything else—even shame.

§

Dad’s car rolls into the parking lot at around eleven. By now I’m sweaty and my book’s abandoned in the pocket of the passenger seat. My mouth tastes like Frozen Coke residue. Out the window there’s another family, all looking struck while they walk to the McDonald’s in their summertime clothes. They seem like zombies, directionless and dazed and murmuring to one another. “Alright, get out,” Dad says. The car locks shunt down in unison. On the other side of the back seat, Connor blinks, returning back to Earth, not from sleep but from a daydream.

Heat radiates off the tarmac. I wipe sweat off myself. The sense of disorientation reminds me of descriptions of intergalactic warp-travel. Shame we’re just getting lunch, then. On the way Mum asks Connor if he has any allergies, and he says, “Nah, Mrs Gallagher.”

Mum giggles and pats his back, like she’s thinking of adopting him. “You don’t need to call me Mrs Gallagher,” she says. “Jenny will do.” We’re on holidays, heading to a town called Forster. Mum said I could bring a friend, but I suspect she didn’t think I’d be able to produce one.

The inside of the roadside rest-stop smells of burning chicken fat, and the frantic nervous air of a temporary, in-between place. The beeping of the machines behind the counter and the out-of-timeness of the restaurant makes me think Purgatory might be a McDonald’s line that doesn’t end.

There’s a couple sitting on the faux-leather couch at the edge of the restaurant, the girl asleep on her boyfriend’s arm. They look like the minutes before the shooting of a surfwear ad or something, him in his boardshorts/singlet combination and her in a bright coral summer dress. Whenever I see couples like this now, I feel a sense of regret for something I haven’t even missed out on yet. I’d had crushes on girls and stuff in primary but now I know they didn’t mean anything. What’s my future? A lisp, a limp wrist, a body that looks forever eighteen wearing speedos at pride marches. What age will I start losing consciousness and turn from a real man into a stereotype? When does my fag gland kick in?

Maybe if and when I start telling people.

“Oi, what do you want?” Dad asks, while we’re in the line.

Heterosexuality. Confidence. To be normal. “I’ll get a medium cheeseburger meal,” I say. “With a coke.”

“And you?” Dad asks Connor.

“Same as Noel,” he says.

“Alright, cool,” he says.

Dad gets our lunch. Connor checks his Nokia, his face lighting up—rare, for him—when he reads a text message. “Cindy?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, pocketing the phone.

“What do you talk about?” I ask.

“I dunno. Stuff,” he says.

“What kind of stuff?”

“Just… I don’t know. How her day’s going.”

“Hmm.”

I don’t like it, him texting while I’m in front of him. Makes me feel cut off from something.

Dad hands me a grease-spotted paper bag and we look for Mum, somewhere among the ultra-lit shiny plastic tables. I look at all the other families and wonder how many of the other early-teen kids are dying inside like I am. Trust me to be spectacularly premature on the worst thing to be. Why couldn’t it have waited? I keep asking. Why couldn’t I have worked it out after at least having a standard, straight adolescence my parents could be proud of? Mum sees us and morphs from dead-eyed hassler into happy housewife, forcing a red lipsticked smile. We sit down, and I eat the super-salty fries while Dad stares mournfully at the dregs of coffee in his mug.

The fag-shame’s worse today ’cos this morning before we left Connor was helping to pack the car without a shirt on and it was hard to look away.

“You boys keen to go fishing, over the weekend?” Dad asks.

Dad says I can stop fishing as soon as he has one photo of me with a decent catch for the garage, to balance out all the ones with my cousins. Connor looks at me like I’m meant to confirm it. I am grateful, at first that he didn’t enthusiastically respond with a “Yes!” and then because I have a friend who can talk with me without opening his mouth.

“Um, Jenny, can I be excused for a second?” Connor asks, taking out his ketchup-slathered gherkin and dropping it on the wrapper of my cheeseburger. “I’ve got to take a phone call.”

“Oh, darling, of course you can. And thank you for being so polite,” she says.

Connor skulks off, holding his phone between two fingers. Screw him. If he doesn’t want to have lunch with us, cool.

§

Through the window, I see this cute boy and it kills me. He’s blond, and he looks about sixteen, and he’s really good-looking in a pure, pop-sensation kind of way. His hair’s all wavy, and he’s wearing a white v-neck and blue skinny jeans, and a pair of orange thongs. I feel hot clouds in me, followed swiftly by spinning inner shurikens. Because I want it: I want short hair, I want hard pecs hinted at in tight t-shirts, I want shoulder muscles exhibited with singlets, I want bulges in shorts, I want penis lines and strong jaws. Christ, I want men. It’s not the normal romantic haze straight boys must feel for hot girls, it’s like I’m a goat that wants to rut, like I’m a bitch in heat.

My revelatory Big Gay Awakening was when I looked across a feet-smelling locker room and saw Connor’s skinny self undressing, instantly confirming in a single intense moment the niggling suspicions I’d had about myself throughout my first year at high school. The initial sensation was one of immense and immediate clarity, because the late-night worries and bodily reactions to handsome actors had all been clarified. Like a ripple breaking up placid pond, the meaning of what just occurred, what was still occurring, settled on me with a fierce and panicky sense of dread.

§

It’s weird how on the outside I’m just another travel-weary kid stuffing himself with junk food.

Connor returns looking pleased with himself. He spins his flip-phone in his hand while he’s walking. “You look love-sick,” I say.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, with a sly smile.

“So was that your mum?” Mum asks.

Connor shakes his head. “It was Cindy,” he says.

“His girlfriend,” I say.

“Oh,” Mum says. “Well, that’s nice. How long have you been going out for?”

“Six weeks,” Connor says, chewing a chunk of his bun. “You could say it’s getting pretty serious,” which warrants a snigger from Dad.

I head to the bathroom. I like bathrooms. It’s easy to recover in them: they’re like a Save Point but in real life. I twist the tap and wet my hands.

The boy from before enters the bathroom while I’m washing my face. Normal Noel doesn’t care but Gay Noel craves him. My Save Point shatters, the stage has encroached on the backstage. I watch the water splash on the ceramic sink. Future Noel takes over with a few moments of adult thought:

Every single person in that restaurant is acting a part. My dad is pretending he enjoys these sort of holidays, my Mum is pretending she has a happy normal family, my best friend is pretending that he doesn’t care about his girlfriend. But it’s bigger than that. Boys are pretending to be more boy than they are and girls are pretending to be more girl, the middle-aged are pretending that they know what they’re doing and the elderly are pretending they’re not scared of death—in fact, I suspect everybody out there on some level is pretending that they are not totally terrified most of the time. I breathe in, then breathe out. Maybe if I act Straight Boy long enough, it’ll come true. After all, it’d just mean acting normal, acting how movies and ads tell me to act, right? Because being gay is not the real me. It can’t be. It’s a phase.

I turn around and face the door. It’s time to pretend. I wonder how many people sitting here in this tired, in-between place are harbouring crises as painful as mine, and I’m both terrified and comforted by the thought that it could be all of them.

§

We stay indoors all day, because of the weather.

That night, we rush from the car, through the rain, to the RSL, all our going-out gear under threat from the torrent blasting down. We’re greeted by air-conditioned warmth and a certain seedy alcohol smell that makes me think maybe all the dodgy drinking holes of the world are connected through a series of tubular wormholes. Connor’s got on newly fashionable skinny jeans and a white button-up. “You’ve got a really good fashion sense, Connor,” Mum said before we left. He shrugs and says his mum lets his sister Eliza choose all his clothes for him, because she’s really good at that stuff.

I’m feeling pretty shitty until they bring out the complimentary bread rolls, which to me is about the most exciting collection of three words imaginable. Aside from ‘instant heterosexuality pill’, I guess.

Mum eyes us forlornly. “Look at you, we’re on holiday, shouldn’t you be having fun?” Her head cranes to the window and she stares out the window. “You look miserable. Nothing could please you.”

Here we go: Connor gives me a look I’ve only ever seen before on my friends’ parents when it becomes apparent I’m going to be the last kid to be picked up, by half an hour or more. “Your family’s fucked,” it seems to say. Something fluid and painful begins to roil in my chest; it’s time to go. “Hold on. I’ve got a call. I’ll be back in a moment,” Connor announces.

“Cindy?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

Connor navigates the floor of the RSL, talking on his phone. “Typical,” I say.

“Oh, OK Connor,” Dad says. “You’re excused.” He slices his steak.

“Come on, it’s his first love.” Mum says. “Least someone has a girl in their life.”

“Stop embarrassing him, Jenny,” Dad says.

There’s more bickering, but a key talent gained from being brought up in a house like mine is that you learn to tune out with ease. I still hear the words, but they stop affecting me. “Children, can we settle?” Dad says, when Connor comes back. “How is she?”

Connor shrugs. “She’s alright.”

“Well, that will happen, after a while.”

Connor sips at his water. “Yeah. It’s pretty good,” he says. Is he deepening his voice? What’s that about? “I don’t think it’ll last much longer.”

“Why’s that?”

“We’re thirteen.”

“Right. Well. At least you’re rational.”

“Is it that rational? To be in something you know’s not going to last?” I ask. Rational is a word it takes me some time to remember I know.

“Noel, the adults are talking,” Dad says.

Connor answers regardless, “No. Nothing’ll last. So it’s useless thinking about it too much.”

Mum lifts her eyebrow and taps her fingernail on the rim of her wine glass. “Well, that’s one kind of rational,” Dad says.

“Don’t encourage him! That’s awful, that you think that way,” Mum says. “That’s not rational, that’s terrible. Cynical.”

Dad grunts. “Well, it’s true.”

“Love can be forever,” Mum says. “Just look at all the happy married people. Happy married normal people.”

“How many actual happy married people do you know, Jenny?”

Mum grins and points. “Look, over there, I’d bet they’re happy. That’ll be us one day.”

At the back of the RSL is a panelled dance floor. An old couple shuffle, holding one another under dingy multicoloured spotlights that accentuate the wrinkles on their creased, withered faces. It must be nice, having a life that looks like an advertisement. But they’re old. I bet they think about death a lot. It probably never really leaves their minds. It can’t really be as good as it looks, can it?

“She’s just glad she’s found a man who can still get it up,” Dad decides. “Or they’re senile.”

“Oh, and what does that make us? Are we senile, for loving each other?”

“Who said I love you?”

I roll my eyes at their conversation, more out of instinct than anything.

“Don’t be rude.” Mum says. “Can’t we go out, for one night and act normal? Can’t I have that?” She’s only on her second drink but her eyes have already started to swell up with tears.

“We are acting normal,” Dad says. “We’re bitter, and bickering. Listen, kids; this is what marriage is about. Mutual loathing and compromise.”

“Oh, shut up,” Mum says. “Just shut up. You’re behaving like a child. Don’t you believe in anything?”

“Not really, darl.”

“Well, then, you’re a sociopath.”

“Well, then, I’m a sociopath.”

I let out a yawn to let Connor know this is all par for the course.

How many hours have I spent looking over an RSL-slash-pub-slash-tavern table waiting for Mum to finish her drink? “One last wine,” she says, later on. “One more.” Then she spends half an hour staring moonily upwards when there’s just two sips worth left. This time she’s looking older than usual, with her lipstick smeary and her eyes all cracked with red. “All I wanted was a good time,” she announces, to nobody in particular. The edge of her glass is lit up by the light above. “You’ve ruined it. You’ve ruined my night. We’ll go in a second, since your father’s so keen on insisting.

“Alright,” Dad says. He stands. “But I’m going now. You can get the courtesy bus if you wanna stay.”

Outside the door, Dad tells Mum to stop nagging, you bitch, over her screaming for him to shut up and listen.

We’re playing Xbox, but the game feels distant now. I just about let Connor snipe me down. We play on but my focus is on the effort to not cry. “Sorry,” I say. “About them.”

“Nah. It’s fine,” Connor replies. He puts his hand on my wrist for a second, then swiftly pulls it away. “My parents used to fight all the time, too.”

“Oh,” I ask. “Was it like this? Before the divorce?”

Before he can answer, a plate explodes against the wall. There’s a single, loud, maternal cry. Some instinct to protect my mother directs me into action: I stand and leap to the door.

“Don’t,” Connor says behind me. “Just let it burn out.”

I look at him, wanting to obey him, but decide not to.

Dad’s face is like a tomato. A plate lies in pieces on the table next to the couch. There’s this moment where I’m sure Dad is about to smack me across the head.

Finally, Dad speaks: “All you’ve ever given me is my fucking faggot son and fifteen years of misery. Piss off, I’m out of here.” He walks off to the door and pushes it open. My soul withers painfully at the sound of my mother crying behind me. I need to get out of there. I do so, following him out the door.

I watch, feeling that this is unreal, as Dad’s car drives out of the holiday flat’s car park and out onto the road. Not knowing what to do, and not wanting to be back inside—not wanting to be anywhere—I head towards the ocean.

The crash of plate meeting wall reverberates inside my skull.

“Noel!” Connor calls as my feet cross the road.

I keep walking, eyes covering my face. Connor catches up, sees me.

“Noel. It’s OK.”

“No, no, it’s not. It’s fucked.”

“He’ll be back,” Connor says. “Doesn’t he always do this?”

The sand scrapes my ankles. “And I bet he didn’t mean what he said. About you being a faggot.”

I say nothing, and decide to sit on the sand. Connor sits beside me and I think, he won’t care. He probably knew anyway.

Connor gets up and my heart alights with gratitude at having a friend like this.

“He wasn’t wrong.” I say.

“What?”

“I am. A faggot, I mean,” I say, looking at Connor.

“Oh,” Connor says.

It becomes quiet, again.

“You know,” Connor said. “Freddie Mercury was gay. And Kurt Cobain said he’s not gay, but he wished he was. There are probably heaps of cool gay dudes. So, you know, it’s not a bad thing. I’m fine with it. Nothing wrong with it at all. You are who you are.”

“Easy for you to say,” I say.

For a moment the world feels normal again, like it did before I began to take notice of the warm sparks that Connor set off within me.

Connor leans on his side, towards me. The ocean makes me feel tiny and utterly irrelevant, and it’s a comfort. It doesn’t matter that I’m a freak, suddenly. I lean back, looking at the stars. Connor is warm against my side.

We look at one another. I bend my head just a little and Connor gives a shrug and leans in, kissing me.

Lips meet lips. Fantasies meet reality. Utter sadness meets impossible, beautiful bliss.

And the world is changed, forever.

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