Temper

The only person I could ever stand to have in the room with me while I slept was my little brother, River. Even him, I couldn't sleep if he was touching me. When he'd have nightmares -- which he did a lot -- he'd climb up to the top bunk and crawl in with me. I'd scoot over to make room, and he'd curl in a ball between me and the wall with my stomach for a pillow. River would be snoring little kitten-snores within seconds, but I'd lay in a half-doze for the rest of the night, unable to let go of wariness.

And yet, that first night with Jaime, I slept like the dead.

When I woke from dreamless oblivion, I decided it had been a gift, my reward for taking in the stray the universe had demanded I shelter. In retrospect, it probably had more to do with being warm for the first time in weeks.

I didn't want to move too much; Jaime was curled up against my back with his hands under me. It was perfectly dark. Even though the traffic sounds coming through the wall were daytime sounds, no light penetrated my little hideout. I groped across the floor until I found a votive, teased my lighter out of my pocket without elbowing Jaime in the head, and winced at the rasping of the flint when I lit the candle.

Grabbing a book at random from my piles of shoplifted paperbacks, I tried to get into reading. My body had things to say to me, concerning a bathroom and then a gorgeous boy in my bed, and possibly some food at some point, but I wasn't listening. I was determined not to move until he woke on his own.

He started stirring after half an hour or so. He'd make a little noise, and move a little, and then be still again. This repeated for some time. Once he said something in Spanish, but when I said "What?" he didn't answer. He wriggled against my back, burrowing closer, pulling his borrowed jacket around his ears. At last he sat up, looked down at me with a confused frown, and said, "Oh."

"Morning," I said.

"What time's it?"

"Dunno."

"Um. Where's... is there a bathroom?"

"Just sec." I picked up the candle and shoved my feet into my shoes; waited until he put his shoes on too before opening the door.

There were thin stripes of light coming in around the boarded-up window, and steam from our breath curled in it. I led him down the hall to the bathroom. Its floor was deep in composting wallpaper, but the toilet still flushed.

"Weird," he said.

"Guess they never got around to turning the water off. Cool, huh?"

"Can I take a shower? No wait, it's cold, right?"

"Yeah. I took a shower in here once. Took me like all night to get warm after. You could get sick."

"How do you wash then?"

Mostly I didn't. Just then I was pretty clean for a homeless person, because a trick had let me use his shower -- insisted on it, in fact -- three days ago, and you don't sweat much in the cold. But I didn't want to admit to being the filthy trashy thing I was, not to Jaime who still smelled of soap. I said, "I bring a bucket of water in my closet and let it warm up for a while. Use a rag, don't get all undressed at once. Still chilly though." It was true that I'd done that sometimes.

He picked up the bucket that was by the sink and started filling it. I thought he wasn't nearly dirty enough to need a wash, but I liked the idea of him getting naked, so I just shrugged and went to pee. When it was his turn, he told me not to look. I couldn't decide if that was cute or just overcivilized.

"What do we do now?" he asked when we were back in the closet.

"Whatever." I shrugged. "I have a few bucks. We could go eat."

"But --" He pointed at the bucket.

"Hot water in the bathroom at the Hard Times. And the door locks."

"Oh." He looked taken aback. "Why'd you let me fill the bucket?"

"Why would I stop you?"

Instead of answering that, he tried to give my jacket back. I wouldn't let him. I said he could keep it because it was too small for me. It wasn't quite, but it still fit him better. I put on all three of my shirts.

From the look of the gray sky and rushing traffic outside, I guessed it was about noon. We went to Goodwill first, and I picked up an oil-stained army jacket for two bucks. It wasn't quite as warm as my sheepskin coat I'd given Jaime, but it was meaner-looking, which I liked. Then we caught a bus to the West Bank, to the only establishment I knew would let us stay as long as we wanted, however grubby and cheap we were.

The Hard Times Cafe is a kind of landmark. It's been there, under various names, since the dawn of time. Hippies, punks, junkies and crackheads and drunkards, students and tourists, all share its wobbly formica tables and mismatched chairs without trying to kill or rob each other too frequently. If you're ever in Minneapolis, go there; buy something overpriced like iced chai, subsidize the hollow-eyed teenagers laughing brittle laughter in the corners.

We got a large coffee to share, and an assortment of day-old pastries. The girl behind the counter was the mean one with the tattooed face, so that was all we got. Sometimes the nice girl with the pink hair was there, and she always slipped me some broken cookies or something. But I guessed I'd used up my luck for the time being, having pretty Jaime beside me.

When we'd secured the little window-corner table half-hidden behind a sickly potted tree, Jaime said, "I guess I'm gonna be drinking coffee a lot. You like coffee."

"It's cheap and hot," I explained. "You put enough sugar in it, it's okay." I didn't comment on the implication that he planned to stay with me, but I thought about it. I didn't realize how broadly I was smiling until he commented.

"You should smile more. It looks good on you." He looked away shyly, but his eyes were back on my face a second later.

I reached for his hand on the table. He let me hold it for a moment, then pulled away, embarrassed. Or afraid that someone would see and get hostile. I said, "Tell me about you."

"Um. Like what?"

"Anything. What music you like. What books, what sports. What school you went to."

His eyes widened, surprised at the thought. "I'm missing school. I guess I dropped out, huh?"

"I guess." I shrugged. I didn't really see the point of school. I'd never met a teacher smart enough to keep up with me, let alone lead me, and was arrogant about it. "I guess just educate yourself, like at the library or whatever, and you can get your GED. I think they let you test for it at 16." I'd just pulled that number out of the air; I had no idea what the law said about the subject.

"Oh man, I don't think I have my library card." He went on a frantic search through his pockets, and turned up a wad of post-its, dollar bills, and -- to his evident relief -- a library card. "I forgot I had some money. I should get the next thing."

"How much?"

He counted. "Four."

"Fuck that. I still have more than that."

"How do you get money?" He looked afraid of the answer.

Suddenly I knew I couldn't tell him. Not only that, but I couldn't do it anymore either. It would be cheating on him. He'd hate me. He'd leave, and someone else would pick him up, someone who didn't care enough. "Panhandling," I lied.

I'd tried that, actually, sparing for change on street corners. My personality didn't much incline people to help me. I was determined to do better at it from now on.

"I like soccer," he told me. "I'm too short to be a goalie."

So we talked about sports a while, and movies, and food. The conversation didn't mean anything. It was just a carrier wave for the looks passing between us, the smiles, the warmth of voices. I was in heaven, and astonished to be there. It was starting to look like the universe wasn't a malicious rat-bastard after all. When he glanced around to make sure no one was looking and then fed me the last bit of lemon danish with his fingers, I actually sent up a prayer of thanks. Not to anyone in particular; just to everything.

He went into the bathroom to try washing, and came back with dripping hands and face to tell me there were no paper towels, and there was a hole in the door where the lock went in, so he wasn't going to get naked in there. Plus it wasn't very clean. "Some of the graffiti's funny, though."

"We should get going if we wanna pan in Uptown over rush hour."

"Is that a good way to do it?"

I shrugged. "I guess."

"Okay." Scared, he nodded.

Back on the south side, he stared around with big eyes, seeing his home turf from an outsider's perspective. I'd guessed from his speech and manner that he hadn't grown up rich, was probably the son of hardworking immigrants who demanded that their children be good citizens; his attitude now confirmed it. He had a very hard time asking anyone for anything. I didn't mind asking strangers for money, though I didn't expect them to give it to me, and they mostly didn't. Jaime, however, was inaudible. Finally I told him to just sit there and look pitiful, and did all the talking myself.

"Can you help us out? Scuse me. Spare any change? Can you help us out at all? Got any change? Scuse me."

Of course almost everyone ignored us. They didn't have the time or the cash to notice every beggar who called to them. We weren't the only ones in the area, or the most needy-looking. I knew that, but it still pissed me off. Who needed their dollar more, some vet in a wheelchair who had social security and a guaranteed shelter bed, or a couple of children too scared to play foster care roulette? It made me even more angry when it occurred to me that the people I called to probably saw it the other way around, probably would rather help a crippled old man than a young healthy boy, and that their logic made sense too. I just got angrier and angrier.

"Can you help us out here? Scuse me. Yeah, keep walking. That's great. Scuse me, spare any change? Okay, bye. Go get in your car and turn the heater on, we'll still be standing here. Scuse me?"

Jaime tugged on my sleeve. He whispered my name fearfully, and when I turned to him he flinched a little.

"Sorry," I said, and forced a smile. He patted my arm, smoothed my sleeve down where he'd touched it.

I offered my fake smile to the next businessman stomping down the sidewalk in a suit and warm coat.

"Sir, can you spare a dollar?"

The man turned on me with a furious glare, as if I'd said something obscene. "I work hard for my money, and you want me to just give it to you. You're what's wrong with this country, lazy little shits like you, why don't you get a fucking job?"

Paralyzed with fury, I stared. Not waiting for an answer, the man kept walking. And then I watched myself start to shriek at him. "A job? Fuck you! Do you know how old I am? I have a job! You know what my job is? I suck cock in parking lots, you fat smug motherfucker, thirty bucks a blow, you want some? You have kids? How old are your kids? You think your kids would be any good at my fucking job?"

In the middle of my tirade, he'd glanced back once, and then hurried away, almost but not quite running. Jaime was hauling back on my arm, or I would've chased him down and kicked the shit out of him. I was breathing hard, blood humming with the urge to do harm. But when Jaime said my name again, and please, sounding scared, I stopped and stood still.

After a while, he said, "We should go."

"Yeah." I was shaking. I let him haul me away.

We passed a knot of punks down the block a bit, and one of them said, "Right on. That rocked."

I stared stupidly. "Huh?"

He clapped me on the shoulder, making me stagger. "That fucker yelled at me too. That was great. 'You want a blow?' Did you see his face?"

I hadn't, but I grinned anyway. "Bet he goes home a different way from now on."

"No fuckin' doubt, man." He grinned at me, and nodded, and his purple liberty spikes bobbed.

Liberty Spikes was big and pink-skinned, with a lot of metal in his face. His two friends looked a bit more like goths. There was a pretty, pudgy girl in a plaid kilt and tall boots, and a skinny goateed boy in a holey sweater. They all smiled at us. The girl said, "Wanna come party with us?"

I wasn't sure what they meant by party. While I warily considered their offer, Jaime piped up with, "Sure!" So I shrugged and echoed it. "Sure. Panning's a bust today."

"No shit," said goatee boy dryly. "You look like one more of those you're gonna get yourself arrested."

I shrugged again. Beside me, Jaime nodded like an idiot.

They led us through the side streets that were like studio backlots behind the movie-prop facade of Uptown. Where the railroad ran behind a supermarket, they showed us a gap in the fence, and we all skidded down the slope. On the concrete slab between the pillars of an overpass, half a dozen punks were already working on four cases of beer.

"You bring cash?" someone greeted us.

Our new friend explained: "Two bucks to drink."

"They're just little kids," the girl protested. "I got a ice tea, they can have that."

"Fuck that noise," said Liberty Spikes, and took my two bucks.

Jaime said meekly, "I like ice tea."

I settled down crosslegged beside the nearest case, took a bottle, and introduced myself. Within five minutes, they were all bumming me cigarettes and laughing at my jokes. Jaime clutched his bottle of iced tea in both hands like a squirrel with a nut, and added only a laugh or two. I could tell he wasn't quite comfortable, and I felt a tiny bit guilty on that account, but not much. This was the first time I'd found any of my kind of people since before my stint in Juvie.

No, the kids in the South Dakota Juvenile Detention Facility were not my kind of people. In case you're wondering. They were all either victims or vandals; either terrified 24-7, or determined to wreck anything and everything they could get at. None of them had been willing to grab life with both hands and hang on.

But these punks drinking under the bridge by the tracks, they were having fun, they didn't require that life be kind before they could enjoy it. I felt I could learn from them. And I was determined to get my two bucks' worth, too.

When I had a fair buzz going, one of the guys who'd been here when we arrived started telling a long, rambling, obscene story concerning pussy. Not girls, mind. Just pussy. The way he talked about it, this pussy wasn't attached to people, it was a separate creature -- or possibly a substance, like toothpaste. Bemused, I listened, and he mistook my amazement at his idiocy for fascination, so I became his main audience. The others started wandering off. Jaime went with Plaid Kilt Girl, though only far enough off that they didn't have to listen to Pussy Hunter's blathering.

As long as I kept listening, he kept handing me beer and cigarettes. He made remarks about how any minute I was gonna puke, and how funny that would be. I'd been drinking and smoking since I was eleven or so, though, so I didn't oblige him. His story just went on and on without end. The sky started to get dark.

Jaime came back and knelt to whisper in my ear. "Can we go pretty soon?"

"Whatever you want," I told him, and put my arm around his waist; tried to kiss his cheek but got the corner of his eye. He squirmed out of my grasp.

"I'm a wait up above, okay?"

"Okay." I watched him go, then turned back to make my goodbyes.

I found the soliloquist staring at me in disbelieving disgust.

"The fuck was that?" he demanded.

"I gotta go." I reached to put my bottle back in the case, but realized there was still a little in it, so I kept it.

"No, what the fuck was that? You some kinda fucking queer or something?"

I stood up, and between alcohol and recent Jaime-touching, was feeling good enough to forgive him that. "Don't even start that shit. I'm going."

But he wouldn't let it go. "That's disgusting, man. That's a exit, not a entrance, you know what I'm saying? That ain't right."

I finished my beer in one long swallow while I thought of my answer. I was still pretty calm. "Three hours I sit here listening to you talk about pussy like it's something you get at the hardware store, and now cuz I'm in love with a boy I'm the disgusting one? Sure, dumbshit, whatever."

"That ain't about love, that's about sick. Man can't be in love with a man, it don't happen that way."

"Whatever, expert."

"Where you going, I'm talking to you. You fuck that little beaner in the ass? You gonna get diseases. Little boys fucking like monkeys, that ain't love, that's wrong, you hear me?"

And I still thought I was calm, so I was a little surprised when I traced a breaking glass sound to my own hand, which had knocked the bottle against the concrete pillar of the overpass. I looked from the splintered glass knife I'd just made to the bigoted asshole who'd inspired it, and nodded slightly. I said, "You're so stupid, the gene pool's lucky you'll never get any of that pussy you think comes in gallon jugs. I know damn well I love Jaime, I'd die for him, and I'll kill anyone who talks shit about him. Which you just did."

"Whoa, settle down, kid." He forced a chuckle, hands up in front of his chest. "You don't wanna get in trouble, do ya? We're just having a little debate, right? Just expressing an opinion, you know?"

Before I could answer his cowardice with the bottle, I heard Jaime say my name. I stepped back well out of grabbing range before turning to look. Jaime had a shocked look on his face. I took a deep breath, and threw the bottleneck down.

"Let's go," he said.

"Yeah. It smells like redneck around here." After a last defiant glare, I draped my arm around Jaime's shoulders and walked away with him.

At the top of the slope, he shrugged off my arm. Hurt, I didn't try to put it back, and we walked in silence. A little while later he said, "I heard you."

I knew what he meant. I asked anyway. "Heard what?"

He didn't answer.

Stomach in knots, I let him pull ahead a little. I watched the back of his head with a sick pain of longing all the way back to the squat, certain I'd ruined everything.

In my room, he stood while I lit the candles. He made no motion to take his shoes off or sit down. Miserable, I told him, "Just say it. Whatever you're gonna say."

"What you told -- when we were sparing for change -- what you told that guy. That you -- in parking lots. That wasn't true, was it?"

Half drunk, buzzed on nicotine, and high on anxiety, I couldn't possibly think up a plausible lie. "It was true."

"You suck at panhandling. I figured something. But I hoped maybe like, I dunno. You steal bikes or something."

"No."

He nodded unhappily. "I hope you don't think I'm gonna do that."

"No! No, never! I'm never gonna do it again either, I'll find a different way, I'll -- I'll -- rob banks if I have to."

A bit less unhappy, he said, "That's silly."

"I totally will."

A doubting pause. He said carefully, "If you ever hit me, I'm leaving."

Baffled by the subject change, I blurted, "What? I never would! Did you think I would?"

"You have a temper."

"But I'd never hurt you."

"Twice today I saw you about to start it up with somebody bigger than both of us put together. How come you're still alive, you keep doing that? You have a mean temper, and you ever turn it on me, I'm leaving."

"I swear to God. I'll never ever."

"I've heard that before."

"Not from me." I was able to meet his eyes steadily now. This was true, I meant it through and through. "I promise. If I break that promise, don't just leave, kill me before you go."

A little smile curled his lips, amusement at my melodrama, and he shook his head. "Okay, I believe you." Then he turned solemn again. "I heard you, when you were yelling at that guy. When you had the bottle."

I apologized on principle. "I'm sorry."

"No, I mean -- you said you're in love with me."

"Um. Yeah."

"Is it true?"

I just knew he was going to be mad. I was going to scare him off. But it was too late for denial. "Yes."

"You don't even know me. It's like, not even 24 hours, and..."

"It doesn't matter. It's true."

He considered this answer for several seconds. Then he put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me against the wall. He pinned me there and kissed me clumsily, knocking our teeth together.

It felt like somebody'd pulled the pins of my knee joints, but his body and the wall kept me from falling. I hugged him so tight he gasped, and he wrapped his arms around my neck and rubbed his cheek against mine like a cat.

"I don't know how to tell," he whispered, "but I think I love you too."

I didn't reply out loud, sure it would be the wrong thing to say, but I thought it: Mine. Forever. I didn't know hope well enough to recognize it, but it lifted me nonetheless, turned tomorrow's clouds to sun and its streets to gold.