Chapter Sixteen: the strip tease to end all strip teases

Come on baby won't you break my heart in two
So I can keep a piece of it from you
I see no reason why I am c-r-a-z-y-i-n-l-u-v

So hey who are you?
Is the space filling you?
With stars across the settled sky in the universe
Yours and mine
But you blame the night
For its blues
But its your thoughts killing you
Could you slow down
'cause you're living fast and when fast is new
Let's pretend you're right

I wanna love you in a difficult way
I'm holding out for you girl
So don't be scared when I say

Don't let me down slowly
Don't let me down
Let's pretend you're right

-The Main Drag: Don't Let Me Down (Slowly)

I know this moment is supposed to be one of the great milestones of my life.

A) The start of my real life.

B) The end of my childhood.

C) A time of deep, personal understanding.


I call: bullshit. For starters, A) How does graduating high school mark the start of 'real' life? Has my entire "life" (since it's not real, apparently) up to this point been a complete travesty? I know my mother would be none too pleased to hear about this, because I'm pretty damn sure she marks the start of my 'real' life as the 15 hours she spent in labor trying to pop me out of her nether regions.

B) I believe the word you're looking for is puberty. Menstruation. And such. But if you wanna be a smartass and get technical, I was a bit of a late bloomer myself, so you could argue that my period was not the end of my childhood. But at some point not long after that, I did manage to surpass a AA-cup, so there goes that.

C) The only thing I understand about myself is that I'm an idiot. With poor impulse control. And a penchant for younger men. Somehow, I don't think that's in the spirit of the intended message.

Believe you me, I'm not even making up any of this crap. All of this was taken verbatim from a part of the most 'win' graduation speech of the century. Ha..ha ha…

Listening to that graduation speech is a tad like what I imagine menopause will be: painful, uncomfortable, and mildly embarrassing.

Had it been left up to me, our graduation speech would've read something more along the lines of this:

Graduating high school is a piece of cake. No one fails because they're too stupid (and if it that so happens to be the case, for your sake and mine kindly keep it to yourself), it's because they're too damn lazy. So the only reason anyone gets invited to these boring-ass things is because someone is wanting a nice, fat graduation check from you.

For some people, high school is the end of the road. And all things considered, I don't envy them. In this economy, finding a decent job without a degree is just not happening. But I do envy just one little detail.

What I'll miss most about high school is this not the "hallways that we shared," or, or the "memories of these past four years." It's a little something called . Read it and weep, bitches, because it ain't never coming back.

So this is the end of high school. To be perfectly honest, I don't even know most of these people. And most of the few I do know, I don't even particularly like. The majority of those assholes spent these last days calling me all sorts of variations on the word "pedophile." Yeah, I'm really gonna miss them.

Pity no one asked me to give the speech. Because that's a real tear-jerker right there, don't you think?

….Hey. It beats that lame, tired old crap any day and you know it.

But I'll admit it. A little part of me is kind of sad that it's over. By kind of, I mean the 'kind-of' you give as an answer when your friend asks you if you like that hideous, booger colored sweater she bought.

Kind-of. Yeah, that kind.

I am going to miss seeing everyone every day. Especially since I'll be going halfway-across the country to New York for school. In a perfect world, I could stay right here forever, with Aaron and Tomi and the rest of them by my side.

But it's my life I need to live. And I can't spend my whole life fighting to ward off the inevitable. Someday, maybe even in as little as a few months time, there will come a day when I no longer call these people my friends. Someday years from now, I'll remember them in the middle of the night as the people I once loved and knew.

Because you can't keep them all forever. One thing I've realized in recent times is that you've got to choose the ones you want to keep, or you'll lose them all for trying. You could end up alone before you even know it.

I've come to realize that, if I can help, I'd really rather like to keep him.

In my head, I had imagined the picture-taking portion of graduationg to be much tamer. I'd have time to collect my diploma, take a few pictures with the parents. Get on my knees to take a picture with hump-backed Grannie. Then take a few pictures with the friends.

Tomi and me. Dexter and me. Aaron and me. Aaron throwing me into the air. Nathalie feeling me up. One with all of the girls. One with all of the boys.

Maybe one with Lars…and Jude, conveniently to the side.

Nope. Nope, nope, and nope. I had barely had time to snap a few pictures with the gang before the parents had insisted on getting a move on. While all these 'sappy-ass fools' were busy taking photos, we should be smart and use this time to make it out of the parking lot.

Which is exactly what we did, because I had made the mistake of being dropped off by my parents. I had no car, which brought me right back to the days of license-less confinement.

We pulled up to the restaurant to see that Aaron and his family were nowhere to be seen. After spending an entirely useless week fighting over who would be invited to whose graduation dinner, our parents had had the brilliant idea to, get this, combine our shindigs! I mean, talk about brilliant. Every parent has got to have at least two brilliant moments in their lives. This would fulfill their quota, preceded only by my conception…

I thought bitterly of how Aaron was probably still at the stadium, camera-whoring it away while I was stuck in a crowded restaurant with no one under the age of 40.

So I sat down at one of the tables, feeling a sudden spell of drowsiness overcome me as soon as my feet were well and rested. I blame the rehearsal, making us wake up at the ungodly hour of 6:00 am. That would probably explain why I had rested my eyes for a second, just a second! Just a…second…

It turns out that my presence at my own graduation dinner was more or less negligible, because no one had thought to wake me up. I might've slept forever, had it not been for what sounded like the doings of a butcher shop.

It took me a moment to realize that said noise was laughter. It was like lightning, jolting me into an upright position. I turned towards it like a kind of magnetism and saw the most unholy of holy's.

There, buried in a pile of tacky middle-aged hags, was Jude.

So…maybe they weren't exactly middle-aged…or tacky. But they might as well be, for all the coddling and schmoozing they were doing.

One of the twins gave his cheeks a good pinch, saying "You are so cute. Why didn't I notice before?" By the tone of her voice, it sounded like she'd rather be pinching a different type of cheek on him. And it's a good thing she didn't, or it'd so be off with that hand.

"Maybe because my face was covered by a camera the whole time…"

Tomi seemed to have contracted a case of selective memory. She seemed to have forgotten that she had previously dated his brother, and couldn't stop herself from ruffling his hair. "How old did you say you were again?"

I couldn't hear his answer, amidst all the "awwwws" and "oooohs" coming from that general direction. By some miracle, they must've been able to hear him, because I swear I heard Nathalie say "15 isn't so young…I've done worse than that."

It made my blood boil a little.

…The filthy whores! All of them!

I cleared my throat loudly. The girls at least had the decency back off of him. Just barely though. Enough for me to get a clear view of him for the first time.

"I fall asleep for five minutes and this is what happens." Hopefully, all of the lavish attention wouldn't go to his head. At the rate this was going, his head would be the size of Jupiter by the end of the night.

By the looks of it, Jude wasn't letting all of the attention get to his head. Rather, he looked like he'd give anything to disappear. When we locked eyes, he mouthed a small "help me." I was so surprised that he was speaking to me (albeit mouthing to me) that I almost forgot to save him.


I smiled in spite of myself and went about picked each of the raving whores (aka friends) off of him like ants. What I didn't expect was for him to look at me, and cock his head to the side before walking away. I must have stood there for a bit like a moron, basking in his radiance, before realizing that he had meant for me to follow him. With a healthy sprint, I managed to catch up to him before he disappeared from sight. We ended up in an empty hallway that led outside.

He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked at him more closely.

And, tilting my head to make sure, I opened my mouth to ask him a burning question:

"Hey, have you gained a bit of weight?"

My first words to him in the span of about two weeks seemed to disappoint him. I was quick to shake my head, offering a half-hearted "I mean, not that you don't look great…because you do." I was starry-eyed for a second, forgetting just how damn glorious he was, before shaking those thoughts away. "And, not that you can't afford to gain a few inches…maybe then you'll be the same size as me."

Before I could say another word, he rolled his eyes. And then, in what was like slow motion to me, he proceeded to unzip his hoodie in a most tantalizing manner.

Just when I had decided that this was his way of saying he missed me, I saw that he was only revealing! ordinary shirt. He must have guessed my impatience, because he sent me another look before grabbing the collar of his shirt and pulling it over his head in slow motion. Surely this time, he would be—

The lousy tease. He took off his shirt only to reveal…another one! Oh joy. I was about to ask him what the mock-strip tease was about when I stopped to read the words printed across it.

Team Judacie.

And just like that, I snapped my mouth shut and smiled. So that would explain the mysterious weight gain, only it was not-so-mysterious anymore.

Then, right when I least expected it, the cheeky bastard slipped that one over his head too and revealed that there was nothing else he had left to show me.

Aside from his smoking hot bod, mind you.

Without giving me a fair warning, he cut my ogling short by ramming the Judacie shirt over my head, leaving me with puny t-rex hands sticking awkwardly out of the shirt holes. That, and my head had gotten caught halfway, making me look like some kind of stupid turtle.

He smirked at his successful sneak-attack, delighting in the sight of my wretchedness. "A gift from Lars."

"Well tell him thanks." I turned to walk back to the dining area when I felt him grab the neck of my collar and succinctly choke the living breath out of me. "Is there a…prob…lem?" I managed to wheeze out.

"You, you're not, you don't mean to…uh…go back out…like…that?"

I gave him a dumb look. "You don't mean to tell me that this shirt clashes with my dress?"

He almost laughed at the sight of me: the shirt was pulled over my purple peplum dress, giving me the most bizarre shape known to man. But I had a feeling that my acts of fashion terrorism were the least of his concerns.

"Lars would be awfully upset to know that his hero was an Indian-giver."

"That, Gracie, has the potential to be misconstrued as a derogatory term."

"Derogatory shmogatory. What do you plan on doing, stripping me?"

At the word 'stripping,' he seemed to come upon a better idea. Replacing his own shirt, he took the hoodie in his arms and roughly shoved me into it. He zipped me up, satisfied that the words were covered up, and turned to leave before me.

I was too fixated on his lingering smell to really care. The arms were about a foot too long and I was practically swimming in fabric, but I didn't care. I scrunched up the sleeves and hugged the warm fabric around me, smiling like the fool I was.

While his parents were occupied with strategically stuffing various balloons and flowers into their car, I latched onto the hem of his sleeve. "Wait."

He waited, to my utter surprise. For a second, I was at a loss of words; that is, until he made to move away again. There was a look of knowing that crossed his eyes when he saw that his actions had forced me into speaking.

"Can we, um, talk?"

"We're talking."

I sighed, kicking at nonexistent rocks. "More like me running my mouth while you stand there. Attractively."

He raised an eyebrow at my tacked-on addition. "And…I don't recall you ever minding that before."

"Right. I still don't. Well, how about this. I ask, you answer. Sound decent?"

He shrugged. "Depends."

"Always with the tone of uncertainty. Um, here goes. So, I wanted to first off start by apologizing. I know I've been kind of a mess these past few weeks, and I don't blame you for avoiding me."

His eyebrows gathered into a scrunch. "I wasn't avoiding you—"

"—call it what you will. And like I said, I totally understand. The reason why I've been going back and forth with you is because I have been jumping back and forth with myself."

"On what?"

"Oh, you know," I said, "this and that. That and this. Mainly, why I should or should not…like you."

"Oh. And I wasn't avoiding you."

I groaned, unable to resist a small face-palm. "Would you give it a rest? I am trying to make peace here, and you keep insisting that you weren't avoiding me when clearly you were avoiding me! Avoiding me like the black death!"

He shook his head, ignoring my incredulous look. "I wasn't. I was 'giving you space,' as they say."

"Who the hell said that?"

"No one. It's like, a saying. You know, a phrase."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Well, why?"

"I don't know," he shrugged. "You seemed really upset that night when you eavesdropped—"


"—eavesdropped on us and found out about…you know."

I blinked, trying to understand him. "Well. Of course I was. I thought I was only some kind of bragging right for you."

This time, it was his turn to glare. "What made you think that?"

"I don't know. These things are really hard to tell with you strong, silent types. It's not like you ever told me outright that you liked me."

His look softened a little at the last bit, but only a little. "You never told me either."

I had to glare at him for that. "Wow, really? You'd have to be the dumbest person alive not to know I'm crazy about you. I figured, what other possible reason would you have for telling people? I know it's not to hurt me. "

The glare lingered as he said, "Gee, I don't know. Maybe I was…excited. I guess? Happy." He looked at me and sighed, seeming to regret his words. "Close that mouth, would you? See, this is why I can't tell you these things. You make it so embarrassing."

"Embarrassing? That might be the sweetest motherfucking thing I've ever heard, Jude."

"Excited and happy? If that's the sweetest motherfucking thing you've heard, someone should really start showering more affection onto you."

I smiled, before remembering something. "Wait a second. What did you think I was upset for?"

"I thought maybe you were ashamed. It can't be a walk in a park, being called a pedophile every other day of the week."

"Maybe just a little. But more than anything, I thought you were just playing me. Face it, if anyone's ashamed to be seeing anyone, it should be you."

He smiled. With teeth, this time. "Why?"

"I'll admit. I can be a slightly embarrassing individual."

"That is very true."

I tried to return his smile, but wasn't quite so successful. Because the topic had to be brought sooner or later, and now it was sooner. "Jude?"


"You said I was difficult to understand. That last time." I yanked his hand out of his pocket and held it, tucking it under my chin. "Well I'm actually very easy to understand. Very easy."

I dropped his hand, looking at him square in the eye. He looked slightly alarmed, almost scared shitless, so I was glad I wasn't the only one at the moment.

Because I was laying all my cards out on the table for him.

"I fell in love with a boy."

And despite my hopes, I wasn't surprised to be met with silence on his end. He tried to avoid looking at me, probably finding it too hard to face me after that, but it had to be done. Here and now.

"What are we," I whispered, directing it to myself every bit as much as I was to him.

"Well. I don't really know right now, to be truthful."

I nodded, understanding him. After all that I'd dragged him through, it was only to be expected.. Things were already so complicated, and we had barely just begun. I was wrong to hope for anything, really

That's not to say it didn't hurt like a bitch, though. It did.

So, I dropped his hand. I realized that, for the better part of ten minutes, his parents had been done loading the car and were now floating aimlessly whilst they waited.

So I had to let him go.

Hoping, though knowing otherwise, that he'd come back on his own.

They were already seating people. They had already called up my seat number, but I couldn't bring myself to move. I stayed behind on the uncomfortable chairs, waiting with the others. Friends, families, and lovers. Some happy together, and some sad.

It seemed I was the only one alone.

Before long, they would ask for any last calls, before shutting the doors and taking off. Well I'll be damned if I let that happen without me on bored. Even I'm not that much of a lummox.

I don't even know what I was waiting for. A phone call? Or just a simple glimpse. That would have done too. Anything, really, before I stepped onto the plane and left him without a chance. Because this was it, I told myself. Either now, something would happen, or it would be all over. Last damned straw.

Even the lovers were separating now.

I think it might really be over.

I figured I may as well spare myself of any more torture. What was a few more minutes of pain to add onto my misery? I felt too weak to carry anything, much less myself. So I shuffled towards the terminal, kicking my bag along the way with me.

All in all, it was one sorry-ass sight.

I was making my way over when I reached out my foot again to kick along my bag, nearly tripping over my own damned feet. The stupid bag wouldn't budge, for some reason.

This was getting old fast. Without looking, I reached down towards my bag and groped around for the handle. I thought I had it when I felt something long and leathery. So I nearly wet myself when I grabbed it and it grabbed back.

Calm down. There are many things it could be. Just breathe and calm down.

And don't you fucking dare get your hopes up.

I recited this over and over into my head, squeezing my eyes shut in fear. I was afraid because it was already too late; I had already let myself hope that holding onto me was the one I never wanted to let go.

"Open your eyes, Greasey."

It was a voice I trusted. So I opened.

He was standing in front of me, holding my hand, but I wasn't any less afraid. The silence grew painfully awkward, what with my last tantrum still fresh on both our minds. I figured he had come to let me make amends. To give me a chance to explain the temporary insanity that had come over me, so that way we could forget how bat-shit crazy I had been.

"I'm not taking anything back!" I don't know what it was, but something about his presence always made me develop a sudden case of Tourette Syndrome.

"Slow your roll, Tootsie. I haven't even said anything yet."

"I know, damnit." With my free hand, I slipped a finger into my shirt, loosening it. "It's kinda making me sweat here, okay?" He let out a weak chuckle that quickly died down before it even happened.

And there was silence once again.

Normally, I would have egged him on to say something, but I was afraid of what he'd have to say to me. The last thing I expected was to see him here, flesh and all. It was so unlike him that it could mean only great or terrible things.

I swallowed a lump. It could really be over.


"I am a boy."


When he let go of my hand, I held back the urge to scream. He shoved both hands into his hair, ruffling it in frustration.

"I know you're not my sister. And that you're not a girl. You're a woman."

My temperature must have skyrocketed, because my t-shirt and shorts suddenly felt like a bear-skin parka. It's a sad sad day when the words "you're a woman" are compliment enough to get make you all giddy. But lo and behold, it did.

"But look at me. I'm a boy."

I thought about it, and answered as honestly as I could. "You are, but you aren't."

"I hate when you talk crazy like that."

"No, just listen. You may be a boy. Technically. But you're so much more than all the airhead dumbies my age. In my book, that counts for something, okay? You're more than a boy to me."

When he turned to face me, there was this crazy look in his eyes that simultaneously shocked me and kinda turned me on.

"Can I ask you something?"

"….I don't know. Depends."

"What do you like about me?"

"…I like you. That's all you need to know, okay?"

"But I'm just a kid."

Rolling my eyes, I kicked the back of his knees so that he stooped over in pain, enough for me to bring him closer to my eye-level.

"That may be. But let me tell you something. Whether you're a boy, kid, man, alien, or whatever the hell you are, get one thing straight. You, Jude, are mine."

He said nothing. The only indication that he gave of having heard me was to reach out and pull me against him. I leaned into his hug, relaxing from the weight I hadn't known I'd been carrying. "What the hell took you so long" I breathed against his chest."

It pounded faster as my hands ran along his sides and settled against his shoulder blades.

"I don't know. I just wanted to be sure this time."

I savored the comfort that his arms gave me as they cradled my head. "I'm leaving, Jude."

His chin, leaning against my forehead, nodded slowly. "I know. I know."

Then he released me slowly and pulled. Though his sudden withdrawal left me cold, the way he looked at me made that coldness disappear. His pupils were impossibly wide, darkening his eyes into a black vortex. I thought the moment would pass by us and die as it always did, before anything could come from it. But it didn't.

He kissed me.

"What was that?"

He smiled. "I don't know." His voice broke the spell that had come over me, but it returned with full force when the darkness of his eyes swallowed me into them. They gleamed.

And he kissed me again.

The moment had seemed like an eternity, but I knew it wasn't. I had made my flight after all, with a little help from Jude. He had heard the intercom for last call, grabbed my duffel bag in one hand, grabbed me in the other, and raced us over to the gates just in time. As the flight attendant tried to push me into the tunnel, I wrestled against her for one last look back. I felt horribly sad, leaving after what had happened. In the last few seconds I had, I blew him a kiss.

This time he caught it, begrudgingly slapping it onto his face.

And when I faced forward, I saw him give a small frown, probably thinking I had not seen it. But I did, and it made leaving all the more painful.

He kissed me.

He kissed me.

He kissed me, and did it twice, too.

It was all I could think of as I stared down at the city beneath me. The lights twinkled like fairy dust.

Alright, now I'm just getting downright cheesy and sentimental. But can you blame a girl? And one who had just been kissed, no less?

You're thinking, whoop-dee-fucking-do, a kiss. I know. But it meant more than my first kiss, or any subsequent kiss, had ever meant to me.

It was far from over, I realized.

Far from it.

It was really just the start.

Well, gang! It's been one hell of a ride. Thanks so much for taking it with me.