The bass is pounding in my ears when I realize the true extent of my unhappiness.
I'm usually not this kind of guy, but tonight, something tells me that I can’t stay in the stifling summer heat of my apartment, so I find myself in the stifling summer heat of a dance club.
It's funny that I'm thinking of unhappiness now, considering it's been nearly twenty years since the start of my slow decline, but regardless, I let the thought roll in my head, smooth and calm. I'm empty, hollow; the thought clatters like a marble across porcelain.
I’m at the same seat at the same bar that I've been at all night and I'm not sure what number shot I'm on, but I don’t feel as nearly as drunk as I want to be.
So, I might be somewhat of an alcoholic. I try not to think about it.
Just as the bartender slides me another drink, someone stumbles past me and lets out a little yelp as he trips over a dislodged floorboard. He catches onto my arm and, as he straightens himself, mutters an apology under his breath.
I freeze. As quiet as it was, as long as it's been, I'm not drunk enough to forget that voice.
We lock eyes when he looks up at me and ten years of memories weigh down on my chest, a feeling that I haven't felt since high school floods through my veins, and—
“Hi,” he greets. Even the single word manages to send shivers down my spine. “Fancy seeing you here.”
Look at that is my first thought, because his once dark hair is a light pink, falling in soft curls around his ears, and it suits him, just like everything does.
“What?” I choke out in response. I'm dizzy, and I'm not sure whether because of it's the alcohol or the fact that he's back. I hadn't realized how much I miss him.
He smiles. “I'm home,” he says, and with that, everything seems to fall out of place.
My most vivid memory of that day was that it was raining. I've woken up from nightmares time and time again, with the all too familiar wet grass and spring air aroma choking up my throat, and I've fallen asleep to it calming me.
That day, during the spring before the summer before the fall that would mark my first year of school, my mother had taken me to the grocery store and I had escaped from her clutches to run across the street and into the parking lot of an apartment complex.
I didn't know what I was expecting, but I found a boy in the grass, ankle deep in rain-soaked mud. It looked fun, so I joined him, like I would for the rest of my life.
“I’m Jun,” he introduced, and held out his hand. I shook it, like an adult would, and then reached down to flick mud up in his face. He scrunched up his nose for a second before breaking into a devious grin.
“We’re going to be best friends,” I replied, if only to stop the barrage of dirt that was likely incoming.
“Okay,” he said, and a fresh blob of mud hit my face.
When my mother finally found me, she led Jun back to his apartment, where his grandparents opened the door.
“I'll see you?” Jun almost asked and I looked up at my mother, who smiled in the way that she always did, kind and gentle and approving.
It rained the day after, and my mother drove me to the apartment complex so Jun and I could pelt each other with mud from opposite sides of the parking lot.
We were still best friends.
And, so it went.
The back alley behind the club is disgusting, to say the least, and the dumpsters have never been my ideal place to reconnect with old best friends slash first crushes, but it's the only place quiet enough to talk.
“It's been quite a while,” Jun says. He pushes sweaty hair out of his forehead and smiles at me and it's too much all at once; all I want to do is run.
In comparison to his caramel tone, my voice is dry and my breath is shallow. “It has,” I reply.
Jun snorts. “Didn't really peg you for the club type. Or the dancing type.” It’s hard to focus when he looks like a model, in skinny jeans and a sleeveless top, but I manage to find words.
“People change,” I respond, a little bitterly, but all Jun does is laugh.
“I guess they do,” he says, a little cryptically, before shrugging. “Anyways, I have to get back, but we should hang out sometime.”
No, we shouldn't, I think, but my mouth says yes, anyway. He hands me his cellphone and I put in my number, willing my fingers not to shake. When he takes it back, his skin brushes against mine, and I try not to flinch.
“I'll see you?” he almost asks and I think back to that afternoon in the rain.
“Yeah,” I reply and he smiles, raising his hand in a mock salute before disappearing through the same door from which we’d come out. It takes me two whole minutes to work up the nerve to leave.
He texts me days later, when I'm starting to wonder why I’d even bothered to give him my number in the first place.
Hey, this is Jun, it starts. I have a question. Are you still afraid of heights? And, really, he would remember that, out of everything.
I wait as long as I can (three hours) before replying.
I’m still afraid of everything.
The night I first began to realize my feelings for Jun was a cold one, dead winter and theatre rehearsal extended to 6:30 to make up for a snow day that we’d had a week prior.
I wasn’t an actor—stage fright was middle school Leo’s worst nemesis—but Jun was, so I joined stage crew out of obligation as a best friend.
I was fiddling with the soundboard in the booth and peering through the dusty glass to the opposite side of the theatre, where Jun and one of the lead girls were rehearsing a scene on stage.
The director, coincidentally also my math teacher, guided them around until they were standing nose to nose, and even though I’d read the script cover to cover, I was still surprised when their lips connected.
The girl’s blush could practically be seen from here but Jun looked as calm as ever, and my fingers faltered on the volume switch.
Was that his first kiss? Why don't I know whether he's kissed before? Why couldn't that be me?
Jealously became a familiar feeling from then on.
“I'm not going to act next year,” Jun told me casually on the drive home that night.
“What?” I asked. “Why not? You're so good at it.”
Jun had shrugged, in the way he always did when he wanted to avoid conversation. “It's not fun, anymore.”
He'd said that before, too. I just wondered why he gave up when he was talented, while I struggled to be good at something in the first place.
He’d implied that he only let go of theatre because of disinterest, but, by the time I was dropped off at my house that night, I had already begun to suspect that Jun just didn't like kissing, girls or otherwise.
And, so it went.
“Jun’s back?” is the first question I hear when Amara’s front door swings open in front of me that night.
“Not now,” I groan, because, yes, I may have frantically texted her about it as soon as I got home after seeing him, but that doesn't mean I want to talk about it.
“Yes, now,” she shoots back, shutting the door as I step into her house. “I've been dying for some good gossip.”
“You're a journalist. Isn't your job gossip?” I reply. I toe off my shoes and flinch as she drags me by the arm to her living room and makes me sit.
“Don't demote me to some tabloid columnist,” she snaps. “News journalism is a professional field.”
“Okay, okay, I got it,” I reply, rubbing my arm to relieve the pain. “Would you stop being harsh for a second?”
She scoffs, choosing not to answer. Instead, she stomps over to the kitchen to pour wine into a crystal glass.
“None for me?” I whine, and she narrows her eyes at me.
“I thought you were sobering up?” she almost asks, way more concerned than she has any right to be.
Right. I’d forgot that she'd thought that. I make a show of rolling my eyes.
“It was a joke. I'm cutting back, I swear,” I say, and draw a cross over my heart as a promise.
It's a filthy lie, but Amara doesn't need to know that. She already knows too much about me.
Amara had gone to high school with me and him, but I'd only met her when the Jun and Leo, best friend duo had already ceased to exist.
“So, Jun. How’re you taking it?” she asks, cutting straight to the point like she does so well. I shrug.
“I'm okay,” I reply, and it's kind of true. If an outside source was involved, they probably would have said something about repression, but Amara knows me and I know myself, and I'm handling it pretty okay.
“He didn't say anything about it?” she continues, and that stings a little.
“I didn't expect him to,” I reply, taking a sip of the wine. It's really not true, because what I really didn't expect was to ever see him again, but, considering the bad luck I am continuously blessed with, this is the best that I could have gotten.
“So, you're just gonna play along?” Amara asks. She likes to pretend that she isn't judging everything that I'm telling her, so I let her.
“I mean, if he's acting like it never happened, that's just easier for me,” I say.
It's a filthy lie, and when I leave her house that night, I crave a drink more than ever.
As ugly and cliché as it is, a kiss changed my life.
And, as ugly and cliche as it was, it might have been the worst mistake I ever made.
It was in the art room after school, our usual perch during sophomore year of high school, and Jun had been complaining about something, as usual.
He’d never been a “hands to himself” type so, in the middle of his wild gesturing, he accidentally brushed his fingers across my still-wet painting on the desk, staining them violet and blue.
And, this. This I remember clearly. He’d done nothing special, but I found myself thinking that he was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.
So, in the middle of his fervent apology, I took his painted hands in mine and kissed him, just like that.
I realized that I'd fucked up the second our lips touched.
“I'm sorry,” I had said, after jerking back, and Jun just stared at our connected hands for a few seconds, before ripping them apart.
I could hear the tremble in his voice and it made me want to cry. “I'm not—I’m sorry,” he repeated after me.
Sometimes I wonder why we were both apologizing.
Still, only later, after Jun had pulled away from me and dashed out of the room, only when I was scrubbing acrylic off of my fingers and trying to forget it had ever happened, did I remember that Jun didn't like kissing, me or otherwise.
And, so it went.
I still haven't seen him for a second time when he calls me past midnight. I pace a few times around the room to calm the little butterfly that does a barrel roll in my stomach, before accepting the call on the third ring.
“Hey,” he says, and his voice is a little breathless when he speaks. “I need a favor.”
I want to ask him why he thinks he can casually walk back into my life and just assume that we’re best friends again. “Okay,” I reply.
One of the few things I still know about Jun: he's a photographer, and a popular one, at that. From what he's told me over infrequent text messages in the month he's been back, I figure that, for the past few years, he'd been working around the globe, in different cities and countries.
(One of the few things I still know about myself: I'm a painter. I hate that I only kept painting to immortalize Jun in my work.)
“Can you come to that park off of the interstate?” he asks, and I'm getting dressed before he finishes speaking.
(I catch the bottle before it falls to the floor.)
“Yeah, sure,” I agree. I try to convince myself that it's only because I'm bored, but it's always been hard to say no to Jun, even if what he's asking isn't particularly good for me.
“Thanks,” he says, and hangs up before I even have a chance to ask why.
It's not a short drive to the aforementioned park, but I’m willing to make it simply out of curiosity.
It's technically against the rules to be here this late, but Jun and I had been before. I know the right way to get in and the right place to be so that the two guards wouldn’t have a shot at finding us.
Jun is a few feet away from the park bench, scribbling something down in a notebook with a camera hanging from his neck. He's wearing the same thin-rimmed, round glasses that he wore in high school and his pale skin catches stray bits of light from the streetlamp. He’d dyed his hair back to midnight black and that familiar feeling of breathlessness chokes me.
When he looks up, tucking a pen into his pocket, he smiles softly and waves me over.
“What do you want?” I ask, tucking my hands into my pockets, and his smile widens.
“I need a model,” he tells me almost gleefully and of course, I understand.
“What do you mean?” I ask anyway.
“I need you,” Jun replies. I’d always marveled at how he could say such cliché sweet things without cringing (and without meaning them).
“I haven't brushed my hair and I got out of bed twenty minutes ago, I'm sure you can find something better,” I shoot back but his words are still echoing in my skull.
Jun just rolls his eyes and drops his notebook on the grass to come over to me, standing up on his toes to run his fingers through my curls to tame them. He straightens out my shirt, his fingers on my collarbone, and smooths it out, hands running down my chest, tugging on the ends.
This is the same boy who didn't even want to hold your hands in high school, the working part of my brain says.
“There we go,” Jun announces. He pushes me by my shoulders to the park bench—oh god, when will he stop touching me—and makes me sit. I lean to tuck my jeans into the work boots I had shoved onto my feet.
Jun steps away for a second, looking me over, and then moves closer to pull my loose shirt a half an inch off my shoulder, fix my hair again, and move my knees further apart.
When will he stop touching me?
“Stay like that,” he commands and pulls away from me, bringing the camera up to his face when he's near the tree on the other corner of the small grassy area.
I try to pretend that he's not taking pictures of me, and I try to pretend that I don't know why I'm here, why I'm doing this for someone I haven't seen or talked to in years, for someone who is so beautiful that I might die.
“Tilt your head back,” he calls and I comply, easily, to this and the rest of the instructions he gives me.
I'm not sure how long it's been he comes back over, to pull his glasses off and hand them to me.
“These only look good on you,” I say impulsively. He gives me a cryptic smile and makes me put them on anyway, before going through the satchel on his back to find a black knee length coat.
I put the coat on. It fits a little small, but well enough. The glasses are fake, of course, and I kind of smile. Jun takes a picture.
It must be three in the morning when Jun puts the camera down.
“I'm really not pretty enough for that thing,” I tell him, handing back the coat and the glasses before motioning to the camera, stretching out my neck with my hand.
“Would you do this again?” he asks, instead of replying.
Well, it was a reply in its own way, but I try not to think of the implications behind it.
“Sure,” I say, because I can't say no to Jun, not really. I’m turning to walk back to my car when Jun catches me by the wrist.
“Thanks, Leo,” he says, voiced with sincerity. It hurts a little bit so I just shrug and tug my wrist out of his grip.
“Get some sleep,” I tell him. He just smiles wryly.
(Another thing I still know about Jun: insomnia.)
The wooden fence creaks as I hop over it to get to my car, which I'd parked a few blocks away. The moon disappears behind the clouds.
Jun and I were invited to our first real party halfway through our freshman year of high school. High school parties had been like a myth when we were kids, and there was no way that we weren't about to figure out what it was like first hand.
It was harder for Jun to escape his grandparents’ control, but my aunt had gotten tired of taking care of me by my fourteenth birthday, so I accepted the invitation with ease. And, there we were.
Don't get me wrong, though. I’m usually not the one to assign blame to other people for my own problems.
But, see, if my aunt had given a fuck about what I was doing on a regular basis, I probably wouldn’t have ended up an alcoholic.
Anyways, there we were, Jun and I poking through the mini fridge in my garage for something to eat, and there it was, an unopened six pack of beer in the bottom rack.
Our idiotic ninth grade selves really thought it would be a good idea, so we downed two of the bottles and threw the other four in our backpack to take with us.
It was about a ten minute walk to the house, which was bursting with music and people. The fruit punch at the door was good, unlike most party fruit punch, made of strawberries, sprite, and lemonade, and spiked with vodka. So I kept going back to it. The buzz was nice, especially when it led to dizzy stumbling darkness.
Needless to say, I didn't remember much of that party, or any of the others to come.
That night, Jun helped me home and helped me sneak into my room through my window. I took a shower and threw my clothes into the washing machine and sprayed around an air freshener.
My aunt didn't notice a thing when she woke up in the morning (or maybe she just didn't care).
See, if Jun had stopped me that first night instead of disappearing into a locked room and reemerging at midnight with kiss-swollen lips like some kind of fucking Cinderella, I probably wouldn't have ended up an alcoholic.
I was invited somewhere else two weeks later and sneaked more six packs out of the mini fridge in my garage. I ended up taking them into my room on weekends when my aunt would spend her off days with her boyfriend. I ended up loving that buzz more than anything by the time I hit sixteen.
Sometimes the guilt would overtake me, usually during a hangover, because that isn't what she would have wanted from me. My mother had hopes and dreams for her son, but, with her, they disappeared from sight.
See, if my mother hadn't died, I probably wouldn't have ended up an alcoholic.
And, so it went.
In a surprising turn of events, I'm not drinking.
Of course, I'm not alone either, because Amara’s back, and I find myself in her clutches once again.
“So?” Amara’s leaning onto her hand, elbow propped onto the table. I've come to learn that that's probably her most used word.
“I had an epiphany,” I reply. It’s something I've been meaning to confront—a word that is one of my least used—for a while.
“Oh?” Amara asks, cocking an eyebrow.
I swallow, breathe in. “I'm in love with Jun.”
Amara snorts. “That's your epiphany? I could have told you that years ago.”
Somehow, I felt as if it would be more of a revelation, but Amara isn't even phased. “Not like a crush,” I clarify. “Like an ‘I would die for him’ kind of love.”
“Like I said,” Amara replies, smiling. “I know.”
“I hate you,” I state. “I hate myself. I hate Jun, holy shit. I fucking model for him now. I hate it.”
She bursts into laughter. “You model for him? You? A model?” I make an affronted noise and she shakes her head. “At least he thinks you’re fucking pretty.”
I groan. “I doubt it. I've never seen him express attraction to someone in his whole life.”
Amara shrugs. “It has been almost ten years, so stop digging yourself into a hole,” she says. “I'm not emotionally ready to deal with you if you start crying over him.”
I drop my head into my hands. “I want to like. Paint his stupid fucking gorgeous face.”
“Wow, that's gay,” Amara replies helpfully.
I roll my eyes. “Fuck off.”
Jun picked up the camera a month after he dropped theatre. He was like that: good at things on the first try, perfect on the second.
He spent his afternoons taking pictures of the girls performing in our school plays and the daisies out in the rocks behind the soccer field.
I spent my afternoons in the art room with paint-stained fingers, getting color on Jun’s pitch black snapbacks.
Still, before photography and theatre and the number of other things Jun had excelled at as a child, he was a painter and so was I.
I always loved the art books that my mother gave me for my birthday, and I especially loved when she'd sit down with me and tell me stories of her mother (long gone, before I was even a concept).
You're so much like her, mijo, my mother would tell me, but that was before she was long gone, too.
So I kept painting, for my grandmother and my mother and Jun, because most days, their faces starred in the empty spaces of my sketchbooks.
Jun stopped painting, citing disinterest like he always did, when he found the piano, but I wasn't like that, I wasn't so perfect.
So, I stayed in the art room after school when he drifted off to the choir rooms.
I stayed in the art room while he vanished to the choir rooms and the stage and the daisies out in the rocks behind the soccer field.
I stayed in the small art room while I kissed him.
I stayed while he vanished.
And, so it went.
I'm usually not the one to blame other people for my own problems, and, true to my word, this one is absolutely completely my fault.
I'm pretty fucking broke.
I spend my time working odd jobs and waiting for art shows where I can sell some of my work and I spend my money on paint, canvases, and expensive wine.
But I'm still pretty fucking broke, which is why I'm baffled when Jun invites me to his upper-class photography convention’s exhibition.
“It's for photography and art,” he says when I point it out, so I gather my wits, put on a rented tuxedo, take a cheap taxi into the city where the event’s being held. The day before, I'd come to the venue to drop off the works that I'd wrapped in brown paper, but the grandiosity of it all still takes my breath away.
Jun meets me outside in an immaculate suit, matching his dark hair, and gives me his arm. It’s an odd gesture, for friends, but I smooth my curls back and loop my arm through his. His smile feels private, intimate even, and I rip my eyes away from it.
The first thing that catches my eye in the ballroom is the four foot tall painting on the stage. It's painted in shades of grey, and the sensuality of the two figures, twisted together, fingers and mouths gripping into skin, washes over me.
Suddenly, I'm even more aware of Jun’s presence.
Jun doesn't seem to notice how tense I become, and immediately pulls me over to the champagne, with which I comply easily. The paintings and blown up photographs around me are like things I have never seen; I reach out to touch one but Jun’s hand comes to rest on the inside of my arm and he pulls me away.
“There's yours,” he tells me, pointing, and I see my two pieces on a table with a pile of business cards that I had created in the last moment. They're not nearly as good as anything else in the room, but the fact that they're there sends a shiver of something up my spine.
There's a girl with long blond hair peering at my pieces. Expensive rings adorn her fingers and the red on her long fingernails match her four inch heels. Jun just smiles at me and nudges me over to her. My brain screams at me to run, but she's already turning around.
“Jun!” she exclaims and dear god, they know each other. “I haven't seen you in ages!” She steps over and kisses Jun on the cheek, leaving behind a faint stain of pink lipstick. I'm almost instinctively moving my hand to wipe it off of him when the girl notices me. “Oh, who's this?”
I startle and jerk my hand away from his cheek. “I'm Leo, Jun’s friend,” I introduce myself.
“The Leo who painted these?” she asks, waving her hands towards the canvases. There's a thick some-kind-of-European accent to her words.
“That would be him,” Jun says, grinning.
“Uh, yeah,” I finish lamely. She stands an inch or two above me in the red heels.
“You're talented,” she compliments. “Not as good as I am, though,” she finishes and points to the stage. “That's mine.”
Oh, that one. “It's incredible,” I say.
“Thanks,” she replies, smiling crookedly. “I'm Estelle. Me and Jun met a few years ago in Germany.” So, that's the accent. “What about you?”
“Um—” I start, but Jun cuts me off.
“We knew each other in high school,” he offers, like it isn't more than that.
“That's cute,” Estelle says and I'm still trying to figure out whether she's being patronizing or not, when she twirls around and takes a business card off of the desk with my paintings. “I’ll see you around?” she asks.
I smile and shrug. “Probably not.”
“Yeah, okay,” she replies and laughs before floating over to someone else.
Jun nudges me. “Estelle’s one of the best in the business. You should be glad that she noticed you.”
“I don't really fit in here,” I tell him mournfully, and exchange my empty champagne glass for a second full one when a waiter passes by. “By the way, don't let me take anymore after this,” I instruct, and down the glass in one go.
He raises an eyebrow. “Still got that problem?”
“Yeah,” I reply. “I guess I finally grew into it.”
One of my most vivid memories of my mother was when she was my group’s chaperone on our first grade school trip to the local zoo.
It was me, and Jun, and two other girls who adored my mother, probably because she ran the after-school care program and brought in homemade brownies every week.
My mom was, undoubtedly, a PTA mom.
She had bought ice cream for the four of us during lunch break, using money that we’d brought from home, and we ate them cheerily on our way to the tiger enclosure.
Jun was most excited to see them, while I, being a scaredy cat, was much much more wary.
The first mistake I made that day, out of many, was noticing the open gate of the enclosure.
The second was pointing it out to Jun.
“I want to go closer,” he’d told me, and I figured that had meant right up to the glass because I'd made him stand with me farther away when my mother and the two girls went to take a look.
Instead, he ambled over to the gate. He really never was one to back out of a challenge. Where were the zookeepers, anyway?
The third mistake I made that day was being a scaredy cat. I should have gone there—closer to the cage—to stop him myself but instead I called out, high pitched and panicked, to my mother.
Jun was already in the cage by the time my mother heard me.
(Of course, the tiger never ended up getting near him, or else I wouldn't be telling this story at all.)
After zookeepers finally arrived and my mother gave them a piece of her mind and Jun safely cried his tears of shock into my shoulder, my mother crouched down to eye level with me.
“One day, you're going to kill me with all of the stress you cause me, mijo,” she said, seriously, and I buried my face into her chest, holding back my terrified shudders.
When she died months later from a stroke, and acute stress was listed as one of the catalysts, I believed her.
I cried tears of shock into Jun’s shoulder at the funeral while he held a bouquet of lilies in his tiny second grade hands and stared blankly into the engraved headstone in front of us.
And, so it went.
I'm still afraid of everything, and Jun knows it better than anyone. It’s a perfectly normal early autumn day when he drives up to my apartment, so I should have expected that something shady was in the works. Nothing with Jun is ever normal.
“I need your help,” he tells me, and I figure it's a modelling thing again, and I really do need a break from my paintbrush.
My first mistake is falling asleep on the car ride to wherever we’re going.
My second is not hijacking the car and driving off when Jun gently shakes me awake and I realize where we are.
“Are you fucking kidding me,” I state.
“Nope,” he says. “I'm making you get over your fear.”
“The first time I went on a rollercoaster, I threw up and then cried for fifteen minutes. You were literally right there.”
“Oh, yeah, that was fucking hilarious,” Jun replies.
I make a disgusted face. “I threw up on your shoes.”
“Don't worry, I'm over it,” Jun says, smiling gummily and patting me on the shoulder.
I sigh. “I'm not going on any rides.”
“Suit yourself,” he replies and gets out of the car. As usual, I follow.
By the time he buys tickets for the both of us (as if I'm going to pay if I'm being forced), Jun is bouncing on his heels with anticipation. I remember our kindergarten school trip to Storybook Land, when he’d dragged me onto the Bubbles the Dragon coaster—the most intense in the whole park—and he’d just laughed through every second of it while I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed while gripping his fingers blue.
He hadn’t been laughing when I threw up on his shoes afterwards but apparently he’s over that.
“Let’s get food,” he chirps when we finally push through the turnstiles.
“Do you really want to relive that experience?” I ask him, and he pouts.
“Fine, be that way,” he says, and I sigh, and follow him to the cotton candy stand. He buys a pink one for himself and a blue one for me, and I vaguely begin to feel bad for the fact that he’s paying for everything.
Still, although we’d only ever met up at my house, I'm pretty sure he lives in some luxury apartment in the city. He can afford this shit.
“Do the colors even taste different?” Jun ponders, taking off a piece of his with his fingers and popping it into his mouth. “Here, try it,” he says and presses another piece against my lips until I open my mouth. I let it melt against my tongue before trying the blue one.
“There’s a slight difference,” I tell him. “But they’re virtually the same.”
“Huh,” he says shortly, before shoving more of the sugar into his mouth.
“You’re not actually going to make me ride anything, right?” I add casually, because an eating Jun is a somewhat compliant Jun, but his eyes just sharpen.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he warns.
My third mistake is letting him take me on the spinning teacups, and then the looping Batman ride, and then, there we were, in line for the tallest ride in the park.
My fourth is never learning how to say no to him.
“You’ll be fine, the ride’s less than a minute,” Jun assures me, and I think my knees are going to fall out from underneath me.
“I'm scared,” I whine and he just touches my forearm gently as we inch forward. “Why are these lines so long? I think I'm going to puke again.”
“Not on my shoes this time,” he whispers into my ear. I smile weakly.
After an agonizing half an hour, six minutes of which involved a pep talk in which Jun cursed me out mercilessly, we finally reach the gates to the ride.
“Don't look up,” he advises, so I do. My stomach lurches in response.
“I can't do this,” I tell him.
“Too late now,” he shoots back. It's true. We’re already strapped in. I let out a healthy stream of cuss words that makes an older woman in the seat in front of us scoff.
The ride rumbles to a start and my breathing comes ragged all of a sudden. “Hold my hand,” I mumble.
“What?” he asks.
“Hold my fucking hand, bitch,” I hiss and grab his fingers in a vice grip, and let my eyes squeeze shut as the coaster shoots up, up, up, and my lips are trembling and maybe I'm going to die, that would at least be better than the drop down.
“Hey, open your eyes,” Jun nudges me when I feel the coaster stop for a split second, so I do (I never say no to him) and we’re four hundred feet in the air. I can see everything, the sun glinting off metal and tiny people and I want to capture this moment forever in a painting.
“Holy fuck,” I say and that's all I have time to, because the seat tips down, and we’re falling. I close my eyes.
There's not much I remember, really, except my heart in my throat and my mouth going dry and adrenaline burning up in my veins and my hand clasped in Jun’s like my life depended on it.
“You did it,” he tells me after he tugs me off and I think my knees are still weak but somehow the happiness and pride in his voice strike a clear chord. We walk—or rather, he leads me—away from the ride and his hand burns into the skin of my palm.
When he lets go of my hand and puts his hands on my shoulders, I suddenly feel focused, grounded, by his touch.
“That was…” I start and he smiles, soft and reserved, and for me. “Awesome,” I finish and when he's wearing that smile, I really want to fucking kiss him. but I can’t, I can’t, I can’t—
His hands go to my cheeks and he's stepping in, leaning in, and his lips touch mine, and there's only one time I’ve ever had a kiss that felt like this. He makes me feel alive, not like the fucked up adult version of the fucked up kid that saw his mother die in front of his eyes.
And just like that, it's gone, everything's gone, and I feel like I'm floating again.
“Jun,” I say, and reach for his wrist, but his face is panicked and he jerks away. “Jun. Jun, do you remember?” I suddenly need him to remember the first time we kissed, because that's all I can think of and we've never talked about it in the six months he's been home.
“I'm sorry,” he says. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can’t.”
And he runs. I don’t follow. He runs and, for once in my life, I don't go after him and that must be the biggest fucking mistake of them all.
I go on the ride two more times, my eyes shut tight and fingers gripping the armrests.
The taxi home costs too much money. When I empty my bag for cash, I find an unopened bag of cotton candy that Jun had bought for both of us to share after the ride.
I don’t have the heart to throw it away.
Post-Jun Leo was a lot of things.
Depressed was undoubtedly one of them, but more poignant was the way I just went quiet. It was like Jun sharpened the world around me, and with his departure, nothing felt quite the same.
With his departure, I entered college.
By that point in my life, I'd already grown tired of the freedom that most cherished when leaving home; I had been on my own since my mother died and had learned that freedom was overrated.
Well, if I think about it, quiet was an overstatement. Art students didn’t do quiet. Art students did ecstasy and painted for eight hours straight, drank coffee mixed in with a healthy amount of Redbull and painted for forty eight hours straight, got drunk and had sex on the weekends with their friends from the drama department, got high in alleys with English majors, and I am only somewhat ashamed to having been a part of all of those.
Not to stereotype, because I'm sure that many art students are model citizens, but I went to school in the city. We didn’t do model.
I never had a boyfriend in college, and if I did, I didn't count it because they were either vague or manipulative and I didn’t really do feelings. There was always Jun floating in the back of my mind, Jun who was already famous around the world while I was telling my “best friends” that no, I'm not being the designated driver the next time we go out because I want to get fucking smashed too.
So, I suppose, college wasn’t really a quiet affair. Numb is more accurate, forcing myself through class after class and drowning stress in alcohol and trying to pull anything I had out of my brain the night before final projects were due.
I guess that’s why most of them were based off of Jun, anyway. Some of them had been my best works. I hate how I only kept painting to immortalize Jun in them. I could say he was my muse, but that would imply something sweet or loving, when thinking of him only left bitterness on my tongue and an urge to make art.
I guess I owe the fact that I graduated almost at the top of my class to him, but not that it mattered anyway.
I made art and passed classes and it seemed fine until the day after graduation and I belatedly realized that I was still just as fucked up as I'd always been.
And, so it went.
It only takes three days before I miss him again. Jun is kind of like a drug in the way that I really can’t stay away, but that’s apparently how love is.
It gets to the point that I shut off my phone for a few hours to resist calling him, so I'm surprised when a notification for two missed calls pops up on my phone when I click it back on.
I stare at Jun’s contact until my eyes burn before I call him back.
“What?” I ask him as indifferently as possible, but I can still feel the phantom of his lips against mine.
“Can I come over?” he asks; I can hear the shake in his voice.
“Sure,” I say, but it comes out like a whisper. I clear my throat and reply louder. “Yeah.”
“Okay,” he says quietly, and ends the call, and I'm left wondering why I love him at all.
I clean the house. I take out my sketchbook. The doorbell rings.
Jun looks exhausted, like he hasn't slept since I'd last seen him, so I take his bag out of his hands and guide him to the couch before he even has a chance to talk.
“Sleep,” I tell him.
“Not tired,” he hums but he lies down anyway, leaving space for me to sit down. I grab my sketchbook and take the seat, letting him rest his bare feet in my lap.
“Well, you look it.”
“I’ve been working,” he says vaguely, and I sneak a glance at the bag where his camera is tucked away.
“Can I see?”
I groan, and he laughs. “You don't let me see your paintings,” he replies.
“Fair point,” I concede.
“Hey, hand me my bag,” he says, and I do. I'm not sure what I expected him to pull out, but it probably wasn't an already rolled joint in a plastic bag. “Do you mind?” he asks, fishing a lighter out of his pocket.
“Uh,” I mumble. “No?”
He grins at me and puts the joint to his lips before lighting. I watch him take the hit and open his mouth slightly to filter the smoke out. I'm suddenly glad I left a window open.
I go back to my sketchbook but my head is fuzzy and the charcoal pencil between my fingers only seems to be able to form the profile of Jun’s face. I sneak a glance at him and decide that he's not looking at my sketches anyway.
I shade his face with light gray smoke on my paper.
“You want?” he asks me after a few quiet minutes, and I look. His eyes are hooded with exhaustion but they still seem to be shining. I shrug.
“Sure,” I tell him. He smiles, before pausing to bite the corner of his lip.
Fuck. I want to kiss him. “C’mere,” he mumbles. He pulls one more time, inhales, and lets go of the smoke.
Reaches up to tug me down by the collar, meeting me halfway there. Kisses me like he's done it a thousand times in his life. Pulls away with a smirk.
How was Jun thinking about kissing when I was thinking about kissing? My brain’s practically short circuited, but Jun hands me the joint, so I pull my attention away from his lips.
It takes ten minutes of passing the joint back and forth to realize I'm high.
I go into the kitchen to grab something to eat when Jun laughs suddenly. I abandon my task to peek back into the living room, where Jun is flipping through the sketchbook that I had left on the floor.
“It's me,” he says, grinning, and holds up the sketches I had just made. “It’s me.”
I'm too tired to feel embarrassed. “Yeah, man. It's you, alright.”
He taps the couch. “Come back,” he urges.
“You gonna kiss me again?” I reply, half joking and half with this weight in my chest that feels like it's been there for years.
“Probably,” he says. He sounds a little nervous, and my mouth goes dry.
“Oh.” I cross the room in record time.
“You sure you want it?” he asks me. For some reason, I get the feeling he's not just talking about kissing.
“Yeah,” I reply. “Of course.”
The high makes everything feel more real than it is. the slide of Jun’s lips against mine and his hands gripping my waist overwhelm me with sensation. I think I could get used to it.
The thing about sex is that you learn more about a person than if you had known them for a hundred years. I learn that that was definitely not the first time that Jun had given someone a blowjob before.
I met Amara the summer after junior year.
Post-Jun Leo frequented the ice cream shop where she worked nearly every day, and if I actually liked girls in the first place, it probably would have made a pretty good love story.
“You go to my high school, right?” she’d asked, sliding into the seat across from me, even though I was pretty sure that she was still on her shift. To be honest, I’d never seen her before that day, so I just shrugged and went back to my ice cream.
“Wow, a talkative one, aren't you?” she drawled and then suddenly brightened and snapped her fingers. “Leo. That's your name. You won that statewide art contest.”
That made me look up. “How do you know that? I don't even know you?”
She smirked. “I work for the school newspaper, dude. I know most things.” I scoffed in response and she rolled her eyes. “Amara, by the way. And what I wanted to ask is why you come in here every day looking all depressed. You're killing the summer vibe.”
“And you’re killing my vibe, so I’d appreciate it if you didn't,” I shot back.
“So, you do talk. Interesting,” she mused. “Anyways, what I actually wanted to ask is that if you're interested, we kind of need more employees here.”
“Nah, no thanks,” I replied immediately. “I'm not interested.”
“I'm not interested in you, either, honey,” she snapped back. “I'm just trying to do my job.”
She had spunk. I guess that's why I ended up agreeing to her offer, and ended up her friend.
It might have been the best mistake of my life.
And, so it went.
I, as usual, am not exactly sure how I got myself into this situation.
“Stop fidgeting,” Jun hisses.
“You're literally stabbing my eye out,” I complain even though Jun is brushing the eyeshadow across my lid as lightly as possible. “I agreed to model for you, not for you to doll me up.”
“It's my concept,” Jun replies, and I open the eye that he's not working on to look in the mirror, which is set onto the wall opposite from a bed. We’re at a set that Jun had rented from one of his colleagues, and I'm regretting my life more and more with every second that passes.
“Close,” Jun says to my eye, and I comply as he begins working on that one. He finishes the eyeshadow, curls my eyelashes, puts on mascara and eyeliner with a practiced hand.
I open my eyes.
He tilts my face up to dust highlighter across my cheeks and grips my chin to paint lipstick on my lips. I involuntarily jerk away and he groans.
“Sit still,” he commands and I roll my eyes. He smirks and finishes my lips. “There. Pretty.”
I can feel my cheeks heating up. “Alright, whatever. Let’s just do this.”
Later, when the shoot is over, Jun kisses me until lipstick is stained all over our faces and necks. I've never looked too closely at his skin before, but now I notice the mole on the tip of his right ear and the tiny scar on his hipbone.
The thing about sex is that you learn more about a person than if you had known them for a hundred years. I learn that, despite how good Jun is at makeup, the imperfections on his skin are still the things I love most about him.
I met Amara the summer after junior year, and I wasn't sure what it was about her that made me want to tell her everything, but I did.
I guess that, since I had lost Jun, I needed someone else to confide in or else I probably would have gone insane that summer.
It came after one afternoon, when Jun had walked into the ice cream shop with his camera, and I’d refused to come out of the back, leaving Amara to serve him.
“What was that all about?” Amara asked, when she came into the back after he left, and I just groaned and started making an order for someone else.
“You ever just lose friends and you don't even know why but you know you're not going to confront them about it ever?” I said in means of explanation.
“Wow.” Amara stopped in the middle of her task of wiping down equipment. “That's some serious repression you've got in there, Leo.”
“You're telling me,” I replied. Amara was a good friend, and a good listener, but she just didn't get it.
Amara had the kind of life I wanted: two whole perfect suburban parents who let her go out on the weekends but still enforced curfew and good grades.
Amara became a drinker when she grew up, but never an alcoholic.
And, so it went.
The text message, making my phone chime at precisely midnight, is from Jun. It’s just a simple happy birthday and a smiley face, but it still does something to my heart anyway.
The call is, inevitably, from Amara.
“Happy twenty-sixth, bitch,” she says, warmly, when I accept the call.
“Thanks,” I reply. “One year closer to my death, amirite?”
“Stop being edgy and depressed for just one day of your life, Leo. Go to sleep so we can hang out tonight.”
I sigh wistfully. “Can’t. Jun’s coming over for dinner or something.”
“Perfect,” Amara replies, and the grin is evident in her voice. “I’ll be there.”
Oh fuck, I think. “Oh fuck,” I say. Amara meeting Jun would be a bad idea. I still don’t think Jun realizes that I have friends (however few) other than him sometimes.
“Come on, let me at least meet the love of your life after all of your ramblings.”
Love of my life. God, maybe he is. I groan. “Don't embarrass me.”
“I'm sure he could embarrass you way more than I ever could but okay.”
“Fuck off,” I tell her, even though she's probably right.
“Good night, Leo,” she chirps happily and hangs up right after.
Later, when the clock makes a whole turn and a half turn, my doorbell rings. “How do you feel?” Amara asks, as soon as I open the door.
I still feel twenty-five. Hell, I still fucking feel twenty-four. I feel every age but the one I am right now.
“Like I’m a year closer to death,” I reply.
She rolls her eyes, and, on cue, the doorbell rings. Something seizes up in my throat as Amara grins and floats her way to the door.
“Leo?” Jun asks, and I can imagine his face, small frown and scrunched eyebrows.
“I'm Amara, Leo’s friend. you must be Jun,” Amara says. She sounds delighted. When they leave, I'm breaking out the liquor.
“She went to our high school,” I add, walking past Amara to move the food I'd been cooking to the table.
“Nice to meet you,” Jun says, politely, and shakes Amara’s hand. She moves out of the way to let him in. “I got you a present, Leo,” Jun tells me and I give him a look.
“You didn't have to,” I protest. He only shrugs in response and puts the box on the couch, before rolling up his sleeves and moving to the table.
Dinner goes smoothly enough, but it doesn’t seem like Amara and Jun click in any way throughout the night, so it’s almost a blessing when Jun says that he has to leave for work.
“I’m not really sure if I like him or not,” Amara announces.
“Me too,” I reply.
She gives me a look. “Anyways, give me time to get used to him. I'm not about to be hating the kid that you're in love with.”
“Don't worry,” I retort. “You're never meeting him again.”
Amara pouts. “Is that really the right way to treat your best friend?” I stick my tongue out at her. “What did he even get you?” she asks and I shrug. Amara huffs and walks over to the couch to open it herself. I hate best friends.
She tears off the silver wrapping paper and inside is a fancy looking box, which she pops open to reveal a set of folded clothing. “It's a tux, I think. How rich is this guy?”
“Don't ask me,” I reply as she pulls out an envelope from between the fabric. She raises an eyebrow at it before shrugging and handing it to me.
I rip open the envelope and a few pictures printed on photo paper fall out. I catch them before they hit the ground.
Most of the pictures are scenery (a park, a ballroom, a ferris wheel) but there's few of me, too. I look out of place in the beauty of Jun’s photos.
If it were up to my mother, I probably wouldn't have had to live with my aunt after she died. My mom had always had her suspicions about her sister—which I assumed from the fact that we’d never visited her once when my mom was still alive.
But, the fact of the matter was that most of my relatives were across the border and my aunt lived a mere thirty minutes away.
My mother also hadn't left a will.
So, social services had decided that my aunt was a good option for me. She worked an online job with a decent income, so she moved down south to my house and took residence in my home.
Maybe I should have been grateful. I wasn't in the foster system. I got to stay in the same school, got to keep my old friends, got to live in my old town. It was all going to be okay.
It was all going to be okay, but my aunt got tired. She was alone and didn't know shit about raising an elementary school kid and she got tired.
In retrospect, I shouldn't blame her.
I would get tired of me, too.
And, so it went.
The hospital calls me on a chilly night, and I guess it's true that tragedies only happen in the winter.
“Hello,” I greet, politely, even though nervousness is building up in my spine. “Who is it?”
“Is this Leo? Nephew of Frida Márquez?” a female voice asks, and my chest tightens.
“Yeah, what about it?” I reply, even though I know.
“I'm sorry to have to tell you this,” the lady starts, “but your aunt has passed away. You're going to have to come to the hospital immediately.”
A stone drops in my stomach. “Okay,” I reply quietly,
“I offer my condolences,” she says. I just make a noise of affirmation and hang up the phone.
When it's all over, I have more bills to pay. I have to plan a funeral. I read the will (one that my mother didn't have). Surprisingly, I get the house. I thought she’d forgotten about me altogether.
She didn't own much, so the transfer isn't hard. I still have to plan a funeral.
(It's a small one, because I don't know any of my other relatives, so it's just me and the casket, me and the woman I never loved, me.)
I get the house. I guess it was cowardly in the way that my apartment was only about twenty minutes away from the house that I had grown up in, but I’d never been back there after college. Now, though, if I wanted to, I could move back.
I don’t think I want to.
Amara and Jun call for the next few days. I text Amara the details, but it's difficult to pick up the phone and explain this to Jun. I try to remember that I hated my aunt, that she's one of the reasons that I ended up like I am, but instead I feel guilty. I hadn't ever visited her in the hospital either.
When my buzzing phone gets unbearable (and my yearning for Jun’s voice breaks through my skin), I finally answer.
“Leo, holy fuck, I've been calling you for days. I would have swung by if I wasn't so damn busy, what happened?” Jun says all in one go when I click the call button.
I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say. I don't know what to—
“Hey, Jun,” I start. I know what I want to say and I know it's going to come out wrong but I say it anyway. “Do you want to come back home with me?”
“Sure,” Jun replies, even though he has no idea what I’m talking about. “Of course.”