Must be Crazy for Me
There are a lot of ways to start a relationship: good, bad, wacky, and sometimes spectacular. Running over your significant other with your bike? That probably falls under "bad."
All Ethan wanted that day was a soda and a bag of chips. What he got instead was a face full of cement and rubber tires. "What the fuck," he wheezed, trying to suck in enough air to breathe normally again. Couldn't a guy go to the store for a soda and a bag of chips without getting rammed by some maniac on a bike? Apparently not. "What the fuck is your problem?" he addressed the jumble of jeans and bike tires next to him.
The reply was muffled. "Idiots who step in front of my bike, that's what." The boy struggled upright. Ethan caught a glimpse of black before a baseball cap was jammed back in place and a pair of some very nice lips were scowling at him.
"Dude, come on. You're the idiot who just smashed right into me--"
"Because you got in my way."
"I was stepping out of the frickin' store. What the hell were you doing riding your bike on the sidewalk anyway?"
"Is there a sign that says I can't?"
"No, but common sense says you shouldn't. The sidewalk's narrow. People come in and out of stores a lot--"
"Without checking first."
"For what? Crazy maniacs on bikes?"
"For people in a hurry who happen to be using a moving vehicle that can potentially cause harm. Dumbfuck."
"So basically, crazy maniacs on bikes."
The boy got to his feet. "Fine. Be a smartass." He jerked his bicycle upright. "But I'm leaving now."
"You're not even going to apologize?" Ethan was indignant.
"People only apologize when they're sorry."
"Nice comeback," the boy said, sneering, and hopped onto his bike.
But he'd already pedaled away, leaving Ethan to fume by himself on the sidewalk with nothing except a crushed bag of chips. The can of soda had rolled away into some unknown abyss. "Fuck," Ethan muttered. What a pain. Still, that boy had had really nice lips...
Man. It was always the assholes.
"So anyway, some fucktard on a bike just runs into me as I'm walking out of the store--" Ethan was busy explaining his run-in with Crazy Bicycle Guy to his friend Lynn. "We kind of got into an argument, and in the middle of it he just gets up and pedals off, no apologies."
"Tragic," Lynn said, scanning the faces clustered here and there as they strode across the quad. Ethan knew that she was looking for Todd. Ever since Lynn had started going out with the guy, she'd been hard-pressed dividing her time between her best friend and her boyfriend. Todd, at first, had much preferred she spend time with him, until Ethan had told him,
"You know, Lynn should be worried about me stealing you, not the other way around. Know what I mean?"
Todd didn't like to be alone with Ethan too much.
"Your boyfriend's over there," Ethan said to Lynn. "He's waiting to escort you to class and slave over your every whim. Look at the puppy-dog expression on his face."
Lynn shoved his shoulder. "Quit being such an asshole." But she smiled and waved to him as she ran off, calling over her shoulder, "I'll see you at lunch!"
Ethan waved back, then headed toward the boys' locker room. Fourth period P.E.--what a pain. He'd opted out of P.E. sophomore and junior year, which meant that now, as he was about to graduate, he needed to complete his credits for that class. It sucked being in a class full of sophomores (bunch of immature brats, really), but at least he'd signed up for badminton P.E. The class only had to run the mile once every quarter; the rest of the time was spent whacking the bird over the net. Piece of cake.
The bell rang just as he got to his locker. Shit, if he didn't get out there soon, Rodecker was going to fry his ass for being late for the third time that week. Ethan jammed his feet into a ratty pair of sneakers (like hell he was going to be running around and scuffing up his Vans) just as a snarky voice said over his shoulder, "Running a little late?"
He slammed his locker shut and whipped around to face a boy, probably a sophomore, who stood smirking at him. Pretty tall; short black hair; incredibly skinny. Ethan didn't know him.
"Who the hell are you?"
"What? You don't remember me?"
Should he? There was something oddly familiar about him. Not that he had spectacular looks or anything: his face was too pointed, too narrow. In fact, the only thing remarkable about him were his lips: they were surprisingly full, curved in a tempting m, brightly red--
His lips. Well, fuck.
"You're Crazy Bicycle Guy!" Ethan blurted out before he could stop himself. He hadn't recognized him without the baseball cap.
Crazy Bicycle Guy (with Very Nice Lips) raised an eyebrow. "And you're Idiot with Orange Hair. Fancy running into you here."
"My hair is not orange," Ethan huffed.
"Oh, my bad. Red-orange. It still looks stupid on you."
"Don't you have anything better to do than piss me off?"
"Don't you have enough self-control to not get pissed off so easily? Jesus, what a baby." Crazy Bicycle Guy moved towards the locker next to Ethan's and set down his backpack.
"Hey--wait--" Ethan put two and two together. "You have P.E. right now?"
"No, I just wandered in here to take a piss. Of course I have P.E. right now."
"But I've never seen you around before," Ethan said as Crazy Bicycle Guy pulled on some shorts.
"Gee, could that have anything to do with the fact that I just transferred here?" He shut his locker.
"Yeah? Well, you'd better hurry. The bell just rang, and you don't want to be late your first day." Ethan paused. "Shit! The bell just rang!" He shoved past Crazy Bicycle Guy. "Thanks a lot, asshole. You just made me late!"
"Hey, who said you had to stay and talk to me?" Crazy Bicycle Guy followed him. "By the way, do you know where Rodecker's class meets?"
Ethan froze, hand on the gym door. "You have Rodecker?" he asked numbly.
"Yeah. Why, do you?"
Ethan banged his head on the door. Why, God? What had he done to deserve to have Crazy Bicycle Guy in his class? He was about to smack his head on the door again when it was yanked open and his forehead thudded against a very broad shoulder instead.
"Ethan!" Rodecker said. "What do you think you're doing still hiding behind the door?"
"Sorry," Ethan muttered, still a little dazed. "I, uh--"
"Get in here already," Rodecker ordered, cutting him off. "And you!" He pointed to Crazy Bicycle Guy. "Who are you?"
"I'm a new student. You're Mr. Rodecker, right?"
Rodecker blinked. "New student?" Then he consulted the clipboard he always carried. "Oh. Right. You must be--errr...is it Xuan?"
"Yeah," Crazy Bicycle Guy muttered, suddenly nervous. "That's me."
"Okay then, Xuan. Go stand to the side. We'll find you a partner. Ethan, get to your court already."
Ethan obeyed, but not before grinning evilly at Crazy Bicycle Guy. Xuan, was it?
He walked over to the last court, where he was more or less restricted to, seeing as he put the minimal amount of effort into playing. His partner, Ben, handed him his racket.
"Dude, what took you so long? Did you have to put make-up on or something?"
"Haha, very funny." Ethan served the bird over the net. He liked Ben; the other boy's brother was gay, and he was probably the only straight guy at school who wasn't afraid that Ethan would suddenly jump him and try to shove his hand down his pants. The rest of the non-straight population? Well, that was a different story entirely.
Ben and Ethan had just started getting warmed up when Crazy Bicycle Guy (now Xuan) wandered over. "Rodecker couldn't find a partner for me," he explained. "So he told me to come over here and just play singles with you."
"No problem," Ben said charitably just as Rodecker blew his whistle, signaling for them to start playing. "Oh, hey, we're starting. You wanna play me or Ethan?"
Xuan pointed at Ethan. "Him."
Ethan ginned. "You sure about that?"
"Why, you some kind of badminton pro?"
"Crazy Bicycle Guy."
"Idiot with Orange Hair."
"Uhhh...guys? You wanna start sometime soon?" Ben interrupted the two boys, who were glaring at each other.
Ethan threw the bird over the net. "Here. Xuan can serve," he said, overemphasizing the other boy's name and smirking as he scowled at him.
Xuan served the bird, and Ethan returned it easily. This was going to be a cakewalk--
The bird zinged over the net, whizzing past his ear and slamming onto the floor.
From the other side of the net, Xuan grinned at him. "One to zero!"
Okay. This was war.
"It's not funny."
"Getting your ass kicked in badminton by the same guy who also ran you over with his bike isn't funny?"
"He did not kick my ass."
"Tell me the score again."
"I said, fifteen to three!"
The outburst caused more than a few people to look up or crane their necks to look at Ethan. He scowled. "What the hell are you staring at?" he snapped, glaring at a group of overly curious freshmen. They immediately went back to huddling, probably discussing about Ethan.
Lynn shook her head as she unwrapped her cheeseburger. "Seriously Ethan. Lay off on the freshmen. You're freaking them out."
"Like I care. It's not like I deliberately try to scare them, anyway."
"Your hair is enough. Just add that to your 'fuck-off' attitude and it's no wonder they're all so afraid of you."
"Don't forget about the fact that I'm also a fag."
"Oh right. How could I ever," Lynn said dryly.
"By the way, what do you think about my hair?"
"That it's absolutely shocking. Why do you think people stare at you so much?"
"We sit outside at lunch every day. I'm used to it. But what I meant was do you think it looks stupid on me?"
"No. It looks good. It just takes a little getting used to. Why? You've never cared before."
"I don't. I just--"
"Hey, Lynn!" Todd ran over to the bench where Ethan and Lynn were sitting. He pulled Lynn toward him in a one-armed hug to kiss the top of her head. "Sorry I'm late. Freeman held me back--"
"It's okay," Lynn said, patting the seat next to her. "You want some of my fries?"
Ethan excused himself. Public displays of affection--not really his cup of tea. "I'll tell you later," he answered Lynn when she asked him what he had been about to say. "See you." He waved, headed off to the library.
Being a third wheel sucked, really.
At home that day he studied himself in the bathroom mirror. It was true that his hair took getting used to--red-orange did not exactly mesh with Asian features. But did he look stupid with it?
Fuck it. Fuck Crazy Bicycle Guy--Xuan--whatever. Why did it matter what he thought of Ethan's hair? The whole reason why Ethan had dyed it in the first place was to say screw you to people--to say he didn't care. And here was some random guy whom he'd just barely met, making him worry about how he looked.
Well, screw him too. Ethan didn't give a shit.
"You suck at badminton."
"Yeah, well, at least I don't have a girl's name."
Xuan shook his head. "That's getting old, you know." But he served the bird practically into Ethan's face.
Ethan just barely avoided getting smacked on the nose. It had been two weeks since this feud (of sorts) between Xuan and him had started. So far, the other boy had consistently beaten him in badminton, and the only thing Ethan had on him was his name. Although, that was a pretty damn good advantage.
Xuan. Spring. What a girly name to give such an asshole. Ethan still got a kick out of rubbing it in Crazy Bicycle Guy's face--even if it was starting to get a little stale. Whereas, getting his ass kicked daily was a sore spot that never really went away.
"Hey. Idiot. with Orange Hair."
"Five to one."
"Shut up, Xuan."
"Give me the fucking bird, Idiot with Orange Hair."
"My hair is not orange and not stupid."
"You're stupid. You just happen to have orange hair. Those are two unrelated things."
"Give me the bird."
Ethan threw it over the net. "Here. Happy now?"
"As long as I'm beating you, yeah."
"Jesus, if I suck so much why do you keep playing me?"
"I don't ask you to play me. You just volunteer every time."
"What the hell?" Ethan racked his memory and, to his horror, realized that Xuan was telling the truth. The bastard had never asked specifically to play Ethan after the first game. Ethan had just always assumed that he would.
"Remember now?" Xuan asked. "So do you want to keep playing me or do you want to let Ben take over?"
Ethan was seething. God, how could he have been so stupid? "Screw you. I'm finishing this game."
What was it about this guy that always caught him off-balance?
The worst thing about this whole fiasco, Ethan thought as he changed in the locker room, was that Xuan was younger than him. By two years. Christ, he was letting a guy two years younger get the better of him. What a pain in the ass.
Ethan paused in the middle of buttoning up his shirt, staring at Xuan, who had just arrived. "What?" No name-calling? That was new.
"You uh...you don't have to play me tomorrow, you know. If you don't want to." Xuan wasn't looking him in the face. Rather, his eyes were focused on the sliver of bare skin between the flaps of Ethan's shirt. Ethan hastily finished buttoning up, almost blushing. Was Xuan checking him out? And if so, why the hell did Ethan care?
"What do you mean I don't 'have' to play you?" he asked, voice gruff to hide his confusion. "I choose to play you."
Xuan's eyes hardened. "Oh, so I guess you choose to lose too?"
"Dude, seriously: what the hell is your problem?" Ethan snapped. "Why the hell do you bother me so much? Do you get off on making me pissed or something?"
"Fuck yourself." Ethan slammed his locker shut. "And leave me the fuck alone." He stormed off.
Ethan stared as Xuan walked out of the Civics class, having just handed in a paper to the teacher. "I thought you were a sophomore."
Xuan glowered at him. "I'm a senior. What the hell made you think I wasn't?"
Ethan gaped. Well, there was the fact that Xuan still looked very boyish, in a skinny, knobby-kneed way. Hardly seventeen, even, really. But instead of saying this, Ethan retorted, "You had P.E. I assumed."
"You know what they say about assuming. And anyway, you have P.E. too."
"Only because I procrastinated on getting my credits."
"I'm from a private school. They didn't make me take P.E. there, so I need to make them up now."
"I thought you wanted me to leave you the fuck alone."
"I did," Ethan said heatedly.
"Okay then." Xuan started walking off.
"Hey, wait a minute! Where are you going?"
Xuan raised an eyebrow coolly. "Just leaving you the fuck alone. Like you wanted."
"Well, I did." He did. Really. Yeah, Ethan, just keep telling yourself that, a snide voice in his mind jeered.
Oh, Christ. He cursed the other boy; now Xuan even had him talking to himself.
For the rest of that week, Ethan sulked. It sucked, anyway. He knew Lynn was pissed at him for being such an immature ass, but god--he was confused, and he didn't know how to handle it. Life used to be clean-cut--he either liked someone or didn't, and if someone didn't like him, well then, fuck them. Life was easier that way. He'd learned that a long time ago.
But Xuan threw him completely off-kilter. The guy pissed him off, no doubt about it. Still, he thought about him. He let his remarks get under his skin. Other people, idiots like Connor Whiting who liked to sneer "fag" at him as he walked past, he could and did lose his temper over. But it was always a quick flare, a tempest that blew over. Xuan, though--he was always right there, right under Ethan's skin, until sometimes all Ethan thought about was the stupid asshole: if he was always such a bastard, why he was one, and what, exactly, his problem with Ethan was.
Finally, Ethan decided to just deal with it. Head-on. A direct confrontation, the kind he was best at. He cornered Xuan after P.E., ignoring some sophomores who sniggered. "Queers." He flipped them the bird, too focused on getting this over with to even bother getting mad. Xuan, though, stiffened and backed away. Oh. So maybe that was what was up with him.
"What, are you scared of me?" Ethan asked, sneering.
"Why the fuck would I be scared of you?" But Xuan backed further away.
Oh yeah. Definite homophobe. Ethan smirked. "Because--I like doing this." He lunged forward; Xuan, already as far back as he could go, was pinned by the wrists to the lockers behind him.
Ethan silenced him with a kiss. He made sure to take his time, going slow and thorough. Xuan thrashed against him, and he clamped down on the other boy's wrists. Goddamn, he was thin. Ethan wasn't exactly Muscle Boy of the Year, but his fingers could easily wrap around Xuan's wrists, the bony knobs biting into Ethan's palms. And this was the guy who kicked his ass in badminton every day?
Xuan finally managed to break free by biting down on Ethan's lip, hard. Ethan swore, clutching at his swollen lip. "What the fuck--"
But Xuan had already run off. Ethan cussed some more, venting his frustration. So much for his direct confrontation. He'd meant to freak Xuan out, get him to admit that he hated Ethan because Ethan was gay. Instead, all he'd done was confuse himself further. That kiss had been...nice. And Xuan had reciprocated, for a little bit at least. Ethan remembered now. He'd felt Xuan's tongue tangling with his for a brief while, before the thinner boy had started struggling.
What was up with that? Was Xuan into him or something? Or had that just been some instinctive reaction? And why did Ethan feel so disappointed that Xuan had run away?
Ethan was looking for Xuan, determined to sit on the boy until he explained everything, when he ran into Lynn.
Lynn glared at Ethan, her one-thousand page, hardcover, AP physics book still hovering threateningly over his head. "What did you do?"
"Oh, him? I've been looking for him all over. Have you seen him?"
"What did you do to him?" Lynn demanded.
"What the hell for?"
"Because. I wanted to freak him out. Put that book down."
"You idiot! How could you?"
"What do you mean, how could I? Since when did you care so much about Xuan? Wait, do you even talk to him?"
"I have French with him, and when I ran into him today he seemed really upset. I just figured it was about you. I can't believe you kissed him just to scare him! God, Ethan--"
"So do you know where he is?"
Lynn glared at him suspiciously. "Why?"
"Because, I want to get this over with already, okay? I'm really sick and tired of not knowing what his problem is, and I want to find out. So where is he?"
"Are you sure you're not just going to stick your tongue down his throat again?"
"Like he could talk if I did."
"Okay, okay, I promise! I won't do anything to upset his poor sensitive feelings, Jesus."
"Fine." Lynn sighed. "He hangs out by that big tree on the quad--you know, the one that hangs over the gym?"
"That's where he hangs out? But that's where--never mind." Ethan started trotting off. "I'll see you later!" he yelled to Lynn, and the last glimpse he had of her she was rolling her eyes, probably at him.
Ethan found Xuan where Lynn had told him he would be. He was talking to Brendan Eckhart, which surprised Ethan even more. Eckhart and his preppy friends never deigned to associate with the "lower classes" as Lynn had once joked; the entire crowd was composed of CSF and NHS members, the kind of students who had above 4.0 GPAs and kicked ass in sports, besides. And Xuan hung out with them? Somehow, the image didn't fit.
"Vu?" Eckhart eyed Ethan suspiciously as he trotted up.
"Shut up, Eckhart, I don't want to hear it from you right now. I need to talk to Xuan."
"If you're going to be rude--"
"Why does it matter? I want to talk to Xuan, not you, Jesus Christ. Are you his bodyguard or something?"
Eckhart flushed. "Look--"
"It's all right, Brendan," Xuan intervened, shifting some of his books to the side and getting up. "I'll be right back. Let's go." He jerked his chin at Ethan and walked around the corner of the gym, out of sight.
Ethan gritted his teeth. Seriously, the last thing he wanted was for Eckhart to see him following Xuan like an obedient puppy. But Xuan was already gone, and Ethan didn't have time for anything more than a quick "Do you have a problem with me?" glare before leaving.
When he turned the corner, he saw Xuan wiping surreptitiously at his eyes. He took a closer look. "Hey--have you been crying?" he asked, more than a little surprised. Xuan's eyes were slightly bloodshot, and some instinct in Ethan prompted him to reach out a hand to wipe at the barely visible tearstains on the other boy's cheeks. Had Eckhart even noticed this, or was he doing the "Boys don't cry so I'll just ignore this" routine?
"Don't touch me."
Ethan recoiled, surprised--and a little hurt. "Why not?" he asked stupidly, unable to think of anything else.
"After what you did to me in the locker room?"
"Look," Ethan said, anger already boiling. "I'm sorry, okay?" God, of course Xuan had to be a homophobe on top of being a first-class bastard. Ethan wasn't sure why that stung him. "It was a joke, Jesus."
"Do you always kiss guys as a joke?"
"No," Ethan said. "Only you."
He was shocked to see Xuan's eyes darken. Wow. He had no idea that anybody's eyes could get so black.
"Asshole," Xuan hissed, and Ethan instinctively backed away. "You fucking asshole," and, Jesus, Xuan was really, really pissed off. Xuan, who was usually the calm one in their arguments. Had Ethan upset him that much?
He opened his mouth to apologize again, but Xuan leaped to his feet and slammed him against the gym wall. Before Ethan could even grunt in surprise, Xuan smashed their mouths together, jamming his tongue down Ethan's throat. Ethan groaned a half-hearted protest. Xuan ground his hips against Ethan's in response, and the heat that swamped his body made him sag in Xuan's grip, light-headed.
"Do you find this funny?" Xuan panted when he broke away for air. "Is it a joke?"
"No." Ethan gulped in large lungfuls of hair. "No, it's not. Don't stop." He was breathless, it was so hard to breathe, and then Xuan's lips were smothering him again.
And the itch that had wormed its way under his skin from the first day he had crashed into Crazy Bicycle Guy, Xuan, this boy who was kissing him senseless in broad daylight--it suddenly flared into a burning, consuming need.
He surrendered to it gladly.
Ethan floated into his house grinning like an idiot, lips swollen and Xuan's mumbled, "I actually like your stupid hair," still echoing in his ears. He checked himself out in the hallway mirror--his hair ("It's scarlet, so maybe I should call you Idiot with Scarlet Hair.") was still tangled, mussed from when Xuan had twined his fingers through it. God, that boy was an amazing kisser. Even if, as he had confessed, embarrassed, Ethan was the first person he'd ever locked lips with. Well, Ethan could always teach him more.
The heat, the sheer feeling that had enveloped him when he and Xuan had kissed--he had no words to describe it but he knew, in that way when the only reliable thing is your gut feeling, he knew that it was why he felt the way he did about Xuan: irritated, uncomprehending, confused, inexplicably drawn. He grinned again as he fingered his sore lips, then started towards his room.
But just as he stepped past the living room, his mom's voice called him back. "Ethan. Come in here, please." Her voice sounded strained.
Shit. He knew what this was about. Making out on campus (and with another boy, horror) was more than enough reason to be sent to the principal's office. And he'd bet anything that Milner had called his mom, too. Just what he needed to yank him out of his Xuan-induced high and send him careening to reality. He braced himself before stepping into the living room.
But whatever he had been expecting, it certainly wasn't what he saw.
"Ethan," his dad answered, voice and posture stiff. His eyes flicked to Ethan's hair. "Your hair. It's..."
"Amazingly gorgeous on me?"
"A horror. How could your mother let you do it?"
A familiar anger began to throb. His dad always knew how to hit all the right nerves. It'd been years, but he still played Ethan's Anger Scale to perfection, right to the highest pitch. "I'm seventeen, Dad. I think I'm allowed to do what I want with my hair."
"Really, you'd think your mother would have more control over you--"
"Don't blame Mom for this."
"She's your mother--"
"And you're my dad. I don't see you around."
"You know I can't be here as often as I want to be--"
"Yeah, because you're too busy with that hag, running around with her all the time--"
"Ethan!" His mom's voice was pleading. "Ethan, please don't."
"No." Ethan's dad waved his hand, and Ethan hated the dismissive gesture. "Let him talk."
"Oh, I'm done talking," Ethan spat. "I'm through with you, so you can just go back to that bitch--"
"You hypocritical little bastard!" Ethan smirked, but a little root of fear clawed at his stomach. No amount of time could ever erase the apprehension that always clutched at him whenever his father got angry. But he stood his ground. "Hypocritical? I thought that was your specialty."
"You accuse me of running around, when you act like a whore--"
"He does! Do you think I don't hear about all his boyfriends? One every month, and he probably allows every one of them to touch him like he allowed that boy at lunch today--in full view of everyone--"
"How did you find out?' Ethan asked, gritting his teeth. "Milner didn't call you, did she?"
"She didn't have to. Serena's niece goes to school with you. She saw--"
Fuck. Ethan remembered now. Quincy Pham. She hung out with Eckhart's group. "And she phoned Serena, who told you. You've got your own spy system all set up, don't you?"
"I hardly need one to keep up with you. You are always looking for new ways to embarrass me--"
"It's not about embarrassing you! It's not about you, period! Why do you always think everything revolves around you? I stopped giving a flying fuck about you the moment you walked out of here, and I would really, really, appreciate it if you kept your goddamn nose out of my life!" Ethan fumed, and stormed out of the living room.
"Don't you walk away!" his dad ordered.
"Why shouldn't I?" he shot back. "Why shouldn't I, when that's exactly what you did?"
"Don't you dare--we're not done yet! I want an apology."
"For what? For being a fag? For turning out queer? Or for you, because you're such a conceited, narrow-minded asshole?"
"Andy." Ethan's mother got up from the couch, where she had been sitting, nearly frozen. "Andy, don't you dare talk to my son like that."
"Your son? He's my son, too."
"You abandoned him, the same way you abandoned me."
"Lan, don't start this now--"
"Get out of my house," she ordered calmly. "Get out."
"You've done it so many times before. Why should this time be any different?"
Ethan watched, shocked, as his dad actually shut up and walked slowly out of the living room. As he passed Ethan, he said clearly, "You're a disgrace."
Ethan hated the tremble in his words even as he stared his dad straight in the eyes. "Do you think I care?"
He needed to see Xuan. Needed to get over his dad, needed to stop caring.
After his dad left, he stared at himself in the mirror. Stupid him with his stupid hair. Always saying he didn't care, thinking he could say "Fuck you" to the world with nothing but a smart mouth and blazing hair color.
All it took was a few words from his dad to make everything crumble.
But Xuan avoided him the next day. He barely put any effort into badminton (Ethan almost caught up, ten to twelve) and practically ran out of the locker room. When this went on for several days, Ethan finally lost his temper and snagged Xuan by the arm as he was leaving an Academic Decathlon meeting after school (Ethan had coerced Lynn into getting him the other boy's schedule and after-school activities; puppy-dog eyes worked wonders).
"Why are you avoiding me?" he demanded.
"Look, you have to understand, okay? I can't see you." Xuan shifted from foot to foot.
"Can't see me? Why the hell not?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"Leave me alone!" Xuan wrenched his arm out of Ethan's grip and hurried off.
Ethan followed, completely clueless. This wasn't the Xuan who had kissed him, the one who had pissed him off from day one. This was a Xuan he had never seen before. "Xuan, what the hell is going on?" he asked as they reached the parking lot.
"Nothing. You need to leave me alone--"
" 'Need to'? Is someone forcing you to stay away or something? Hey, Xuan--"
But the other boy had frozen, eyes riveted to a sleek silver Mercedes parked a couple of hundred feet away.
"Shit. Ethan, get out of here."
"What? Xuan, what are you so scared of?" Ethan followed his gaze to the Mercedes, just in time to see an old man, stiff and formal in a vest, get out and storm towards them. "Who is that?"
"Nobody. Seriously, Ethan, go away."
But Ethan knew that whoever this old man was, he wasn't "nobody." Xuan was scared of him; Ethan could see it in the stiffening of his shoulders, the way the thinner boy's eyes couldn't meet those of the old man barreling toward them. And no way in hell was Ethan going to leave Xuan to face this alone. "I'm staying," he said quietly. "Don't think you can boss me around."
Xuan just shook his head. "You're such an idiot," he whispered.
The old man had reached them by now. "Xuan," he said, pointing a finger at Ethan. "Is this him?" His voice was cold, clipped. He didn't even wait for Xuan to answer, just took a couple of more steps forward and jabbed his finger into Ethan's chest. "You," he said, voice authoritative, used to intimidating. "You sicko, you pervert--"
Ethan was momentarily too stunned to react. Then his anger snapped. "Okay, who the hell do you think you are? I don't even know who you are, and you just start calling me a bunch of names--"
"I only call you what you are," the old man said, sneering.
"Ong noi," Xuan said. "Don't. It's not his fault."
"He's your grandfather?" Ethan gaped. Xuan was this scared of his own grandfather? Well, Ethan knew what that felt like--to be so afraid of someone because you care so much what they think. And to be constantly disappointed and hurt--Ethan's temper flared, this time for Xuan. Fathers, grandfathers. Someone you're supposed to trust. And this is what they do.
Xuan's grandfather was yelling at him now. "A disgrace! We spend so much money raising you, and this is how you repay us? Huh? By whoring yourself out to other boys? You sicko--"
"Leave him alone," Ethan cut in. "Leave him alone, you asshole--"
"You stay away from my grandson! This is your fault. You've perverted him; I knew that father of his couldn't keep a proper eye on him. Everything has to come down to me, in the end." He turned to Xuan, crooked a finger. "You're coming home with me," he announced, no hesitation in his voice, as if Xuan didn't even have a say in the matter. "I knew I couldn't trust your father, that no-good--"
"Stop!" Xuan shook his head violently. "Just stop it." He shoved his way past Ethan and ran for the bike rack. He unchained his bike as Ethan ran after him.
"Xuan, don't leave--"
"Get the fuck away from me." Xuan's voice was trembling. "Leave me alone. Please, Ethan. I need to go." He tore off, ignoring his grandfather's shouts.
Ethan was left, feeling like all the air had just been knocked out of him.
"What was that?"
"What was what?"
"Yesterday. In the parking lot." Ethan stood in front of Xuan, arms crossed. If he had to stay here all lunch to make Xuan talk, he would.
"I think it was kind of obvious."
"Yeah, well, I got that your grandfather is a major homophobe. Is he always like that with you?"
Xuan sighed, resting his head against the gym wall. "Yeah. It was like that every day--my grades, my manners, everything and anything. Except being queer. Until yesterday."
"You said every day. You live with him?"
"Used to. Now I live with my dad. That's why I transferred here. My grandparents forced me to go to that private school; my dad let me leave it, when I moved in with him."
"Are you saying that your grandfather drove all the way here just to claim custody of you again, so he can rail at you?" Ethan knew someone like that.
"Oh yeah. Haha, really funny. I'm eighteen; I'm legal. But he'd like to do that, I'm sure."
"What's his problem?"
"It's a long story."
Ethan sat down next to Xuan. "I'll listen; it's not like you've got anything better to do, hiding from the prep crowd like this." Xuan glared at him. "You owe me the explanation, anyway."
Xuan sighed, a gust of air that didn't expel the unhappiness Ethan felt radiating from him. He said, "I'm a bastard."
"I knew that already."
"No. I mean--" Xuan's eyes fluttered closed. "Literally. I was born out of wedlock, if you don't want to put it my grandparents' way..."
"Yeah. I know. I--it was my dad. In college. He got his girlfriend pregnant."
"Oh. Yeah. And she didn't want to get married. She didn't even want a baby. Didn't want me." Xuan's voice choked up. "She was going to get an abortion," he whispered.
"Oh, Jesus. Xuan, I'm sorry."
"Yeah. Well. I'm here, aren't I? Even if my grandparents had to pay her to keep me."
Anger roiled in Ethan. "What kind of mother does that?"
"The kind who doesn't want to be one. Anyway, when I was born, my grandparents claimed custody. They said my dad was unfit. And my mom didn't want me, anyway."
"Did they--did they ever let you see him?"
"Maybe once or twice a year. He went to Harvard. They lived in California. Here. And after he graduated, they still tried to keep us apart. Because if I saw him too much, his 'bad influence' might rub off on me."
"Not to my grandparents. My whole life, they've treated me like I'm a bomb that could go off any minute." Xuan knocked the back of his head against the gym wall, sighing. "I've tried so hard to prove to them that I'm not worthless. That I won't turn out to be a no-good nothing."
"They're not worth the effort."
"You don't get it. It's like...my grandparents are one of those people who you know aren't worth it. You know it's not like it matters what they think, but it does. It's not like I want it to, but my whole life has revolved around creating this me that my grandparents will be proud of. Grades, sports--I'm fucking fluent in French because my grandfather learned it."
"And being gay kind of screws you over."
"Being me, period, screws me over."
"So why did they even...you know--"
"Pay my mom not to abort me? Because, abortion wasn't a sin they wanted on their hands. Have I mentioned that they're both staunch Catholics?"
"So, what, raising you was their Christian duty?"
"Yeah, and my grandfather is a fucking martyr for putting up with a delinquent like me for so long."
"You. A delinquent. I didn't know they allowed troublemakers like you in Academic Decathlon."
"Shut up. At least I don't have orange hair."
"Scarlet. Jesus, I thought we were past that." Ethan grinned, leaned in. "You know you like it."
To his surprise, Xuan backed away. "Ethan," he said warningly. "I meant it when I said I couldn't, you know, be with you."
"What? But didn't you just say that you're living with your dad now? It doesn't matter anymore, right?"
"Come on, Ethan. My grandfather drove all the way to school to try and kidnap and brainwash me, or something. It isn't over just because I don't live with them anymore, even if it's what I wanted."
"And they can still reach me, in more ways than one. It's not just about me, either. It's about my dad, too. They've been giving him so much trouble about this, telling him it's his fault, and he's the one who moved from Chicago so I wouldn't have to leave home. He's the one who gave up his life to come here so I could get away from my grandparents. I can't do this to him."
"You know," Ethan said slowly, "as touching as that is, it's bullshit. This isn't about your dad; it's about you. You're afraid."
Xuan glared at him. "So maybe I am. Can you blame me? It's not exactly a cakewalk being gay."
"Right, and I have no idea what that's like."
"Yeah, you don't. You have no idea what it's like, trying to keep up this image, you with your fucking orange hair--"
"In seventh grade," Ethan butted in, "David O'Hara shoved me face-first into the toilet, and held it there. In ninth, he and his tough pals ganged up on me and beat me so badly I had to stay home for a month." Ethan looked Xuan in the eyes. "Don't tell me I have no idea. I know what it's like." He took a deep breath. "And I know how much it hurts: the words they can throw at you. More than kicks or punches. It hurts." Getting up, he resisted the urge to kiss Xuan. A goodbye. "I know what you're afraid of," he whispered. And he left.
For once, he wasn't going to chase after. It was what was best, for the both of them.
He didn't know he could miss someone so much. Not after he'd told himself, following his parents' divorce, that he wouldn't give a shit about anybody he didn't want to. It hadn't worked with his father, so he should have guessed it wouldn't work with Xuan, either.
His dad called, just once. He didn't even bother to apologize. "Look, Ethan. I just want you to know that it's not your sexual orientation that bothers me." Yeah, right. "It's the way you...flaunt it. I really wish you wouldn't, for your own good."
"Right, Dad. Because it's totally okay to be gay, just not to act like you are."
"Ethan, you know I only want what's best for you."
Ethan's grip on the phone tightened. This, from the man who'd left his wife and Ethan to run off with a woman whose sole hobby in life seemed to be spreading vicious rumors about people, including Ethan's mom. "You know what, Dad?" he gritted out. "You are really full of it." He slammed the phone down. God. And this was the guy he'd wanted approval from almost all of his life, even though he'd gone out of his way to prove otherwise. He still cared what his dad thought. Goddamnit. God. Damn. It.
It was Lynn who found him in the park later that day. "Ethan? Ethan, seriously, stop ignoring me." She waved her hand in front of Ethan's face.
"How'd you find me here?" he muttered.
"I called your house, and your mom said you were out. I just figured 'out' meant the park."
"Yeah. Well. Here I am."
"What's wrong? You look really upset. Is it about Xuan?" She sat down on the swing next to him.
"No. It's my dad."
"Oh, Ethan. What happened now?"
"He was an asshole. You know, the usual."
"Was it about kissing Xuan?"
"Yeah. Get this: he says it's okay to be gay, as long as I don't act like a queer in public and embarrass him."
"I hate to say this, but your dad's kind of an--"
"Asshole? Don't I know it. But I still care what he thinks." Ethan grinned lopsidedly. "Go figure."
"Ethan..." Lynn leaned over and hugged him, awkward because of the swaying swings. "Look, she whispered."I know I can't make you just not care about your dad, but I want you to know that I love you, okay?" She snuffled a little, and Ethan was surprised. Whatever it was Lynn had called him about, it wasn't this. But she'd put it aside, and he was shocked to hear the tremor in her voice as she spoke. "You're such an insensitive asshole sometimes," she murmured, "but you're also the most amazing friend I've ever had."
Ethan couldn't help it. He sniffed, hard, to stem the tears coming on. "Thank you," he mumbled in a choked voice. "Thank you. God, you have no idea how much I needed to hear that."
"Tough-boy Ethan--even you need somebody to lean on sometimes." Lynn patted his back. "But this isn't just about your dad, is it?"
"What makes you say that?"
"I can tell." Lynn shrugged. "It is about Xuan, isn't it?"
Ethan nodded reluctantly.
"God, Ethan. What is it now?"
"He said he couldn't be with me."
"Honestly, you two are worse than a soap opera."
"He's scared of his grandfather."
"Let me guess: homophobe?"
"What else? So I promised not to come near him again, sort of--"
"What?!" Lynn slapped him on the shoulder. "What for?"
"Because it's better for him."
"What do you know?" Ethan muttered. "What do you know about it?"
"I know how hard it is for you."
"And that's why I left him--"
"Ethan, you idiot, how many people give you a hard time every day?"
Ethan was caught off guard. "What? Well, uh, pretty much everybody."
"But who's there for you?"
"My mom," Ethan answered automatically. "You. Obviously."
"Okay. And what about Xuan?"
"What about him?"
"God, Ethan, you can be so thick. Who's there for Xuan? Who do you think he can lean on?"
"Nobody," Ethan said, and almost wanted to hit his head on something hard. "Nobody, Christ, I'm such an idiot. I've got to go." He jumped up, swing chains jangling wildly, and started to jog off.
"Ethan--hey, Ethan!" Lynn sighed in frustration. "Asshole! Wait up for me!"
Ethan stopped, turned around. "Shouldn't you be with Todd? I mean, not that I don't want you to hang around; I do. But you should, you know--"
Lynn coughed. "Yeah, well, I did just see him, so, you know, it's okay."
Her eyes fluttered, and Ethan caught on to the lie. "Lynn, what are you hiding?"
"Nothing." Lynn shouldered past Ethan. "Come on, let's go back to your house. Maybe we can come up with a plan to show Xuan your undying love and support."
"Hey, what happened? Shit, did you two break up or something?"
"No. We just--wejusthadsexokay?"
"What?!" Ethan sputtered. "Wait--" He watched the blush spread across Lynn's nose. "Is this--is this the first time?"
"Shit--what--and when were you going to tell me?!"
"Well, that's what I was calling for! But now that we've got all this drama with Xuan--" She didn't finish, just started walking briskly off. "Come on!" she called over her shoulder. "Let's make that plan for you to get Xuan back!"
Ethan gaped after her. "Lynn? Lynn! Come back here! Jesus Christ, hey--tell me what happened!"
Plan: Phase One
"So, how about this one?"
"Are you joking? It's so friggin' sappy."
"Sappy is good. Sappy says 'I love you.'"
"Do you think I'm actually going to sing this? I can't even get all these lyrics out of my mouth without gagging."
"God, stop being so picky! This one, then..."
Plan: Phase Two
"Todd, come on. It's not going to be that hard. We just go there, you set up the system, Ethan does his thing, and we leave."
"Do you realize we could get arrested?"
"For, I don't know, disrupting the peace, or something--look, just no."
"Goddamnit, fine. I'll do it, okay? But if we get arrested, I'm pointing a finger at you, got it?"
"Some boyfriend you are."
"I have to draw a line somewhere, you know."
Plan: Phase Three
"Oh my fucking god--" Slam. "Wrong number."
"Definitely not his number."
"Well, guess it's back to the phone book."
Plan: Phase Four
"Black or white?"
"Black. It goes with my hair better."
"Yeah, and anyway, white is for virgins."
"Excuse me, look who's talking--"
"Okay, okay! Sorry. So, uh, how about you practice that song again?"
"What? How was it? And quit staring at me."
"Come on. What, did I really suck?"
"...Ethan...have you ever considered trying out for American Idol?"
Plan: Phase Five (Otherwise Known as Embarrassing Xuan on His Own Front Lawn)
Hours of combing through a phonebook later and planning finally landed Ethan in front of Xuan's house.
"Big? Man." Lynn shook her head in admiration. "Wow."
"Do you think he'll be able to hear me all the way in there?" Ethan eyed the imposing expanse of perfectly managed grass.
"Don't worry. I'll be sure to crank up the volume." Lynn clapped Ethan on the shoulder. "You ready? I need to go tell Todd."
Ethan twirled the microphone in his hands. "Yup. No time like the present."
"Well. Good luck." Lynn trotted off, flashing a thumbs-up at Ethan.
He waited on the lawn nervously. Then the beginning bars of Melissa Etheridge's "Must be Crazy for Me" blared out. Tightening his grip on the mic, he crooned into it. "Yeaaa-hh." He waited, then launched into it.
"You tell me not to call you up, cause it ties you down.
"Or don't tell your friends you've been hangin' rouuuund--"
The window to the balcony opened, and Xuan stepped out, looking torn between pissed and embarrassed. Ethan smirked. Score.
"You must be crazy for me--"
He continued to sing, watching the expression of mortified horror that was slowly spreading across Xuan's face. The thinner boy began to say something, but Ethan couldn't make out the words, just the blush that was working its way up his neck, across his face.
"Cause when I kissed you last night, in my own backyard--" He blew the thinner boy a kiss. "You ran so fast and you fought so hard..."
When he got to the part "You don't like my hair--" he made sure to flip it and wink. "You must be crazy for me...must be crazy for me..."
Xuan was beginning to look downright alarmed. Ethan saw him mouth "Ethan," and waggled his fingers in response. The other boy snorted in exasperation.
"Must be crazy for me..."
Ethan caught a glimpse of a man staring at him bemusedly from one of the windows of Xuan's house. Probably his dad. He was about to wave to him, too, but there was loud shouting coming from the neighbors by now ("What the hell is going on?" "Singing, at six bloody A.M. in the morning?" "I'm calling the police!"), and Lynn, from her car parked next to the curb, was calling to him.
"Ethan!" There was a tinge of worry in her voice. "I think the neighbors have called the police or something. Oh shit--they have. Ethan, get over here already!" Todd was waving frantically at him as well.
Ethan threw one last kiss to Xuan. "I'll be waiting for you, hot stuff," he yelled. Lynn and Todd had already cut off all power. He turned and ran, looking only once to grin encouragingly at a stunned, mortified Xuan.
There's nothing like publicly humiliating your significant other while simultaneously pissing off his neighbors to say "I love you."
One week, three days, nine hours, and counting. Still no contact with Xuan. Ethan began to worry that he had embarrassed the boy into permanent hiding, the complete opposite of what he had planned.
But then on his way home the eleventh day after his debacle on Xuan's front lawn, he heard the squeal of bike tires behind him and stopped dead in his tracks.
He ended up being rammed into the concrete.
"Oof." He glared at the boy lying in a heap next to him, who was blinking a little dazedly. "Watch where you're going...Crazy Bicycle Guy."
"Idiot with Orange Hair."
Ethan hesitated, then leaned over. "Still too scared to kiss me?" he murmured, almost into Xuan's mouth.
Xuan yanked his head down, mashing their mouths together and nibbling at Ethan's lips. "As if I could resist you...asshole."
Ethan chuckled. "Oh, of course not... Cause you must be crazy for me, baby."