Micah Deluca came out sophomore year.
He was standing by his locker, talking to a blond with a crooked smile and one fake tooth, feigning interest to stare at his biceps. The blond's name was Dylan Arnholt, and Micah had better things to do, but he was always polite and politer to handsome boys. Perhaps that was telling enough, but there was something effeminate about Micah: his straight dark hair, the curve of his pink mouth, the way he held his hips, his meticulously shined Doc Martens and tight bleached jeans. Everyone suspected he was gay, but no one knew until Dylan asked pointblank, "So, are you a fag?"
"Do you mean to ask if I suck dick? Or are you asking if I'm going to suck yours?" Micah had black-brown eyes, round and large in proportion to his otherwise understated features. They held light in white shapes, bright and penetrating. "Because the answer to one of those questions is yes and the other is no."
Stunned, then screaming something incoherent, Dylan left him with a bloody nose and a swollen eye.
Noel Edenfield watched from down the hall and whispered, "Damn," beneath the commotion of students rushing to see the fight that never ensued. Micah walked away and calmly informed a teacher of his injuries while Noel repeated, "Damn."
Noel was a freshman. It was his first year attending public school, and no one knew his name. He sat at the front of every classroom and answered questions correctly and got perfect scores on tests and was soon the head of his class, but no one could pinpoint Noel in a crowd. Some knew he was Asian, others knew he was only half-Asian, but no one could describe his clothes or his haircut or what genre of music he listened to.
He was nobody.
At lunch, Noel sat with other kids who were more interested in grades than friendships. One girl played tennis, and she talked about the tennis season nonstop. Noel guessed that she went home and wept the rest of the year, completing every sheet of homework because she needed to take the AP suicide schedule because she needed to go to Harvard because she needed to be a lawyer and then a judge.
"I just can't do anything else with my life," she confessed, stirring lentil soup she had brought from home. "I can't wait for tennis season. I already bought my new racket. It's pink, for breast cancer. Our uniforms are going to be pink this season. I bet it'll look really nice on Ellie. Do you know who Ellie Richmond is?"
He didn't know who Ellie Richmond was but it was inconsequential. He nodded and she chattered on while he picked the banana peppers off his sandwich. A hand appeared on his shoulder and he flinched, turning to look at a dead dog with red eyes staring at him from a black t-shirt.
"Woah, I'm not going to kill you. Noel. You're in my Geometry class, right?" Micah's teeth were white, but he needed braces. "You're really smart. I saw your name on the tutoring board she keeps, but uh... I don't really have time during any of the hours posted. Wanna help me?"
Micah looked at Harvard Girl, who had quit yammering, and Noel realized he didn't know her name. She had told him before, but she was more of a nobody than him until tennis season started. "Yeah. Right now?"
"Yeah. Right now." Micah rolled his eyes and put both his hands on Noel's shoulders, pushing down. "Sarcasm, kid. Next Tuesday in the library, just pack a lunch or something. See you then."
He smiled again and then walked away.
That Tuesday, he wore a stained white t-shirt, fraying black jeans, a red hoodie with an upside-down rosary screen-printed on the back, and his Doc Martens. He also wore four rings, all costume jewelry, and chewed his nails ragged despite the effort to paint them with a clear coat of nail polish. He sat at the table closest to the windows, past the bookshelves and out of the librarians' eyeshot, though he waved when he looked up and noticed Noel waiting by the biographies. "What are you doing? Hey. I was just closing my eyes, sorry."
The linoleum floor squeaked as Noel tried to pull a chair out from beneath the table, dropping his backpack to the floor with a heavy thud.
"You're not graceful, huh?" Micah rubbed his eyes, and Noel realized he was wearing makeup: pale foundation, smudged eyeliner, and maybe mascara. It made his dark circles look darker. "Alright, uh, I really don't need help with proofs, just the most recent chapter... the triangle stuff. I hate graphs." He rested his cheek on his hand and his elbow on the table, head cocked. "You're a freshman, right? Why are you in the retard class? You're smart."
"I am in Honors. There weren't enough students to uh... constitute a second class, but there were too many to put into one class, so they put the extras in regular classes and just give us the Honors work. They do the same for Honors German." Micah stared at him, and Noel opened his Geometry book, placing two practice worksheets on the table. "Which, I'm not in Honors German, I just know because a girl I sit with at lunch is, and she talked about it once. I take Spanish, but I'm already bilingual, so it really isn't a big deal, though I am in Honors Spanish, so I guess take it seriously..."
Micah hadn't stopped staring and laughed. It was an abrupt, barkish noise. "Just, holy shit, you do talk. Your voice is really deep for how short you are."
"Yeah, it's a compliment. Are you just shy in crowds or something? Nah, don't answer that, I'm not trying to embarrass you." Micah rifled through his bag, an old laptop case he used like a satchel. "Uhm... do you have a pencil I can use? I only have pens."
"Yeah. Just use this one. I'm not going to be writing." He handed him the pencil and noticed splotchy bruises on Micah's neck, numerous and telling, some more faded than others. "Uhm. Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Boy...?" Micah fiddled with the pencil, touched his neck, and laughed louder than before. He bared all his teeth and clutched his chest, rings glimmering in the slanted sunlight, hair falling in his eyes. "Jesus Christ, no. No. I don't. You must be fun at parties, huh?"
"I don't go to parties," Noel mumbled, turning one sheet around so Micah could look at the equations. "We really need to get some work done, half the hour's already gone."
He tapped his foot but listened intently.
Micah owned eight shirts, three hoodies, one sweater, one coat, two pairs of jeans, and one pair of black Doc Marten boots. He wore the Doc Martens every day, the jeans in rotation, the sweater at least once a week when the weather cooled, and two out of the three hoodies more often than the third. Noel suspected the coat was only worn when someone told him to wear it—Micah treated it with visible disdain—and guessed Micah wore the shirts in an order decided by his favorites but dictated by what was clean. There was no way to prove that, just as there was no way to prove those were the only clothes Micah owned, but they were the only ones he wore.
"Noel. Noel." Micah, precariously perched on the edge of his seat, tapped his wrist with a chewed pen. "Come sit next to me. I need help."
"With what?" Noel picked up his books and sat at the empty desk beside Micah's. "We're not doing anything new."
"Nah, I'm just bored." He kicked up his feet until the teacher told him to sit in his chair properly. "And no one else in this class talks. I did my work yesterday. What are you up to?"
"Nothing?" Micah mimicked his tone, wide-eyed and gaping somewhat. "No, no. I'm messing with you, stay there. What are you doing tonight?"
"Well. After school, I am taking you home." He held up a hand. "Don't argue with me. Call your parents or whatever, but it's one Friday, it won't kill you. You seem pretty cool."
No one else had ever called Noel 'pretty cool'. He had been complimented in a variety of ways, usually pertaining to his above average intelligence or giving nature, but 'pretty cool' struck a different chord. 'Pretty cool' wasn't Micah asking for a tutor or assistance with his locker or someone to ask the teacher for a class extension because he'll listen to you. Micah wanted to hang out with him, which meant Micah wanted to spend time with him, which meant Micah thought he was 'pretty cool'. Noel swallowed. "Uh. Okay. Sure."
"Great. See you, Noel."
The bell had never picked a better time to ring.
The floor was beneath his feet, and he couldn't say anything else with certainty. The room was unfamiliar. Two hours earlier, Micah said they were going to his house, then changed his mind and said they were going to his friend's house. He had driven with one hand on the wheel.
"You called your dad, right? What'd you tell him?"
"That I'm studying for finals with someone..."
"Wow. He really wouldn't let you go out? Is he Chinese or Korean? No offense, you just don't look Japanese or any of the other ones."
"Oh." Micah ashed on the dashboard and remembered to roll down the window. The car reeked of smoke, and there were dappled yellow-orange butts littering the floor. "Is your mom Korean or Chinese?"
Micah nodded, turned erratically, and then they were at his friend's house, which was really an apartment. It was basement level and sometimes smelled like laundry detergent and cologne. The rest of the time it smelled like mildew, and the carpet was damp. Noel blinked and looked at his feet, where the floor definitely was. When had he taken off his shoes? He wandered to the empty couch and sat, watching strangers mingle, looking at Micah.
An hour earlier, Micah asked him, "Have you ever smoked pot before?"
Noel knew what marijuana smelled like. He smelled it when they walked inside and saw six people crowded on a couch and loveseat, passing a thickly rolled joint with tapered ends. One girl, whom Micah told him was Stefanie Villalobos, sauntered close and greeted them both with a kiss on the cheek. "Micah! Who's your friend, he's a cutie."
"This is Noel. Don't scare him, slut." Micah bumped shoulders with her and took Noel's wrist, walking him to the couch. He sat on the floor and waited for Noel to sit beside him. "Uhm, this is Ryan, Angel..."
He didn't remember any other names. He remembered what Ryan looked like, but he couldn't remember if Angel was a boy or a girl. He remembered taking two hits, and his legs felt like they were full of dust. If he turned his head sideways, the room turned sideways, and that was an epiphany. The floor was damp and the couch was empty.
Noel lay on his side. Everyone seemed more coordinated than him. They talked about going to get White Castle. Five people went along for the ride, which left Ryan, Stefanie, and Micah. They stood close and talked quietly and drank from a clear bottle that smelled like rubbing alcohol. Noel turned to face the back of the couch because it made him less nauseous, but there was a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't pass out. How're you feeling? Move your legs." Micah pulled Noel's legs over his lap. His knee fit comfortably beneath Micah's palm. "Is this your first time? Nah, don't answer that, I know it is. Ryan has good shit, huh? Yeah, he does."
"You have to babysit!" Stefanie laughed and threw her arms around Ryan's neck. She pulled his face close to hers and said, "When do you get to see your baby? I bet she's cute. Does she have your eyes?"
"Dunno. Zinnia's been a bitch about it..." He took Stefanie's wrists and deposited her on the loveseat, sitting on the floor, head beside Noel's head. "Micah, your friends are always goddamn lightweights. Stop bringing high school kids here."
"I'm in high school."
"Yeah, but I know your brother. It's different. You don't pass out after a hit. I'm gonna get busted hard for this someday."
"You're only twenty-one."
"I'm still gonna get busted hard."
Micah nodded dismissively, and his fingers were drawing together and pushing apart like a jellyfish, sending shivers up Noel's spine. "You need to chill out... Zinnia's really not talking to you yet?"
"She's a cunt." Ryan tipped his head back. He had long, greasy blond hair tied at the nape of his neck. "You're a cunt. Stop touching him. Bring him home or something, he's wasted. You even in there, kid?"
"Yeah." Noel must have replied belatedly because Stefanie opened an eye to look at him. "Can I go home?"
"Yeah, yeah. I'm gonna take you." Micah pushed Noel's legs off his lap and stood, stretching. He had piercings on his hips. "Bye Stef, bye Ryan. I hope Zinnia comes around. You did a lot for that little girl."
"I know." Ryan hauled Noel to his feet and patted his back, making sure he could stumble through his first few steps. "See you. Have fun with him."
Micah wound his arm under Noel's and helped him through the door, up the stairs, and to the car. The night was vast and cold and breathless, stars scarcely piercing the sky.
Micah had two tongue piercings, one above the other, and he let Noel touch his hip piercing. "Gentle, I think that one's infected."
Noel's hands were full of Micah's shirt, then his skin and bones. They were parked on a stretch of road with no streetlights, and he blessed empty Illinois and its cornfields. He blessed Micah's talented lips, his tongue hot and soaked, how his throat felt tighter than any slick fist. "You're good at this."
He touched Micah's neck and gripped his shoulder. He could see his hip piercings until his eyes fell shut, distracted by the sensation building in his gut and spine, legs taut and thighs moist, breaking with a wavering moan. Micah swallowed and then pulled away for a long breath. "You're good at this? Jesus Christ, Noel, just don't talk next time."
Micah shrugged and kissed his neck.
Catherine always made breakfast at eight, setting the table before she woke Dad and Noel. She had a soft voice and a pretty face, but Noel never liked her. She spent too much time straightening her hair and never had a problem spending Dad's money. Her makeup was natural but Noel could see powder collected in the creases around her eyes. She smiled tightly at him and rested a hand on Dad's wrist.
Dad held his fork but had yet to take a bite. "Where were you last night? I told you to be home before it was dark. I was worried."
"We ended up watching a movie. I should have called, I guess. I'm sorry." Noel met Dad's eyes and shrugged.
"Well. Call next time. You're not going out again... until you learn how to call us." Dad looked at Catherine and then back at Noel. "How do you like school so far? It seems like you're getting along, but is the work too easy? I really think you would like Bennet..."
"I like this school." Noel poked his eggs. The lights were too bright, and his stomach rolled. He thought of Micah's backseat, the plowed fields surrounding that road, and smiled at his lap. "It's alright."
"You should leave him be, Allan. He's just acting his age." Catherine took her plate to the sink and picked a prepackaged cup of Greek yogurt from the fridge. She ate it with the smallest spoon she could find, leaning against the counter.
Noel thought of sticky leather and let them argue.
Harvard Girl grabbed his sleeve and smiled when he turned to her. Her tennis uniform did not abide by the school dress code but they made exceptions for athletes. It hugged all the wrong places on her body, and Noel thought she would have looked better in anything else. She spoke too loudly, echoing in the emptying hallway. "Hey! Where have you been this week? We miss you."
He wondered who we was, then recalled six other kids who sat at their lunch table. He'd never talked to any of them, but he listened to them talk about classes and homework and GPAs. They were more uninteresting than Harvard Girl. "Oh. I've been tutoring in the library. Maybe I'll come eat today."
When she walked away, satisfied by his lie, he knew her name was Tyler Holmes. It was stitched on her uniform in Pepto Bismol pink letters.
"So." Micah smoked a cigarette. His brother had his car, he said, so they were walking to Ryan's. It wasn't very far from the school, but Noel's backpack was heavy.
He paced himself a step behind Micah, poking between his shoulder blades. "So?"
Micah turned and flicked Noel's wrist, blowing smoke through his nose. "I think it's just gonna be us and Ryan. He had a bad week, so he didn't want too many heads."
"Is it about his daughter?"
"Holy shit, you remember that? You looked like you were dying." Micah took a long drag, then offered the cigarette to Noel. It was between Noel's fingers before Micah snatched it back. "Nah, this is my last one, actually... but uh, yeah. It's about his daughter. The chick he knocked up, Zinnia, she made a big deal about him paying for the baby, but now she isn't letting him see her... so they're going to court and he's gonna try to get weekends, at least. She's saying he shouldn't get to see her at all, because she was seventeen when she got knocked up, but that's legal in this state, so I dunno where she's getting off at."
"My mom didn't let my dad see me until I was... a few months old. I don't talk to her anymore, but her reasoning was... she thought that she'd lose me, because he wanted to keep me. Which is stupid, because she stopped talking to me anyway, but I guess I'm just saying... She probably has her reasons."
"Yeah. I guess. She's the one who fucked a drug dealer. And the one who said no condom, but I dunno if I buy that. Ryan's a bullshitter." Micah stretched, spine cracking audibly, and Noel saw he'd removed one of his hip piercings. The puncture was red and angry. "That sucks about your mom, though. Mine bailed after I was born or some shit. Dad's been useless for years, so I'm living with my brother right now, but he's always at work."
"Bringing it up, I guess." Noel sat on the steps leading up to Ryan's building, letting his backpack fall from his shoulders. Micah had lit a second cigarette, and he realized, "You just don't want me to smoke."
"Nah. I kind of like that you're innocent." He inhaled and chuckled. "That and I don't want to share. You'd like cigarettes, the way you drink coffee."
Noel didn't see the connection but nodded. Micah rested a hand on his knee. Noel touched his knuckles. They were raw and protruding, in sharp contrast to his blue veins and prominent tendons. "Are we going inside?"
"It's nice out, chill." Micah turned his palm up and took Noel's hand, tangling their fingers. "I got a B on that test, by the way. You're actually like, really helpful. Are you any good at English?"
"I'm okay at it. It's harder to teach than geometry. Or any math, I guess. What did you do?" He brushed his thumb over Micah's middle knuckle. It bled in pinpricks.
"Oh. Punched a wall. It was stupid. Here." He held his cigarette to Noel's lips. Noel took an uneasy drag and coughed, doubling over, hacking phlegm on the sidewalk. "Still want one?"
He wretched, gagging and clutching Micah's hand until he thought he might break it. His lungs ached, but he said, "Yeah. Thank you."
"You don't have to." Micah plucked one from the pack and lit it with the cherry tip of his, placing it between Noel's fingers. "I'm not going to think any less of you."
The second inhalation was smoother. He didn't cough after the third and the fourth hardly burned. "Are we going to go inside?"
"Yeah." Micah tucked the pack in his coat pocket. "As soon as Ryan gets here. He's at work.... you really don't have to smoke that, Noel. I can tell you don't like it. I was just fucking with you."
"It's fine." The fifth tasted like menthol. "I like it."
Micah frowned and smoked.
Sexuality was a subject Noel had scarcely breached, and attraction was a mystery. He knew he was gay. Time alone with a computer and manufactured footage of muscled men rutting had been enough to effect that realization, but he didn't know what he wanted from another body. He had heady thoughts about what sex should be like, and he had romantic thoughts about what attraction was, but the ideas were inherently conflicting: he lusted after that hot slick night in Micah's car, but he liked to lean against him in a hazy room, thinking Micah wasn't beautiful but he was alluring. He wasn't hot but he was sexy, and Noel could not make sense of the way Micah pressed his lips to his arm, whispering on a breath that smelled like kush, "Next time, we should just go to my place."
Micah's room smelled like his deodorant and dirty laundry. The closet was open, and inside, Noel saw the clothes he had observed strewn across the floor. The dresser was meek, the walls were empty, and his bed was pushed into the farthest corner, dressed in a tan comforter and spotted with mismatched pillows. The carpet was dingy blue, as it was throughout the apartment, and Micah told him, "Nehemiah doesn't get home until late, so we have the place to ourselves..."
He closed the door and opened the window, sitting on the bed and patting the spot beside him until Noel sat. "Is that your brother?"
"Yeah. Want a smoke?" The pack was balanced on his headboard, and Micah took one, letting Noel take and light his own. "You should stay the night. I mean, didn't you say your stepmom's advocating the whole you-out-of-the-house thing?"
"She is, but I don't think my dad would let me." He parted his lips in an O, blowing his smoke out the window. "How did you do on the quiz today?"
"C, but I passed at least. Miah's been getting on me about grades... he dropped out, so he's sensitive about school. He's going to be home in..." Micah looked at the clock. "A few hours, so we have plenty of time. A lot of time, actually."
They finished their cigarettes, and Micah kneaded his thigh. He raked his blunt nails over Noel's half-hard cock, straining in denim. He kissed his mouth and laid him back on the bed, pulling off his shirt and unbuttoning his jeans. Noel touched his ribs, counted the knobs of his spine in slow fascination, but they caught heat: pulling and sliding and breathing. Micah said, "You have such a deep voice."
Noel wondered how many other guys Micah had pressed down and been pressed by. He wondered how much sweat lingered in the fibers of his sheets, how much each drop meant to him. He wondered if he was special and hoped he was. He hoped Micah meant it when he brushed his hair from his eyes and kissed the bridge of his nose. He hoped when they wound tight together, panting and damp, it was a sign.
"I like you."
"Yeah, me too." Micah promised and nuzzled his temple, wedging his leg between Noel's. "Are you going to stay the night?"
He nodded and placed his hand over Micah's heart. He could feel every palpitation, see how the pulse in his abdomen matched the erratic beat. "Mmhmm... you're really skinny."
"I don't gain weight." The white sheets were around them. The comforter was on the floor, stuffed halfway under the bed. "I don't want to put a label on us, but I'm glad I'm your first. You're so sweet."
"How do you know you're my first?"
"I just know."
On Monday, Noel sat with Harvard Girl and asked her, "Tyler, what do you do when you're not in tennis?"
"What do you mean?" She looked up from her AP Psychology homework, tapping the table with the tip of her mechanical pencil. It was pink like the ribbon in her hair. "Oh, we have a game today! You should come. Maybe bring your boyfriend." She grinned like she'd said something clever. "You are seeing him, right? I could tell."
Noel shrugged. "What I meant was... when you're not in tennis, what do you do? When the season's over, what do you go home and do?"
"Oh. Not a lot, I guess." She chewed her eraser and filled out an answer. Her handwriting was small and neat. Her nails were painted pink, chipping. "I hang out with Ellie sometimes, but she still has track, and we both have homework... I have Yearbook Club and Photography..."
"Outside of school," Noel clarified. "Do you have any hobbies?"
"Mmmmm..." She tilted her head. "I like to write, actually. And draw. I'm not very good at it or anything, but I like to. Maybe I'll bring my sketchbook Monday, if you're not in the library with Micah. You are dating him, right? It seems like you are."
Noel shrugged again. "Is the pink still for breast cancer?"
"Oh, no. Well. I mean yes. It's just that... everyone on the team's still wearing it, and it matches the uniform. I can't wait to paint my nails a different color. Maybe red." She chipped more polish from her thumb and filled out another answer. "You still haven't answered my question, you know."
Noel shrugged a third time, and she finished her homework.
"Oh, sorry... you guys can't stay here. Uh, you can come in for a second, but..." Ryan stepped aside to let them in. "As long as it's just you two, I guess."
The apartment was unrecognizable. Pinesol permeated the air, interrupted by a thin spritz of seasonally appropriate Febreeze, and every surface gleamed with light filtered through newly hung sheer curtains. Seeds had been picked from the carpet and the black crevices around the edges of the coffee table, and the collection of bongs and hookahs had been moved from the shelf above couch. All the Dayglo posters were stacked, and the Navajo blanket that adorned the couch looked freshly laundered. In the corner, a playpen had been erected, and there were blankets and packages of diapers and soft pink toys tossed inside it.
"Is your daughter here?" Micah sat on the loveseat, scrolling through his texts. "I'll try to see if I can get Stef to pick us up. I don't have the car again."
"She's not. She's gonna be here this weekend, though." Ryan paced the room, tracing his steps from the kitchen doorway to the glass door that didn't open. "I need to be on like... the straight and narrow until then. Someone's gonna come look at the place, but I'm gonna get to see her. Britta Anne."
"Did you name her?" Micah waited for Ryan to shake his head. "That's a fucking terrible name, poor girl."
"Yeah, it's pretty bad... Zinnia named her after her grandma or something. She looks just like her. I mean, Britta looks just like Zinnia. She don't even look half-white." He laughed. "It's gonna look like I stole a baby or something... she's so pretty though. Zinnia tied her hair in those little poofy pigtail things, and she knew me right away. Well, she don't talk yet, but she was smiling for me and everything... my mom's even gonna come by and visit. She bought me all of that, and my dad said he'd throw in some cash..."
"That's great. Noel, sit down, you're making me nervous." Micah didn't look up from his phone. "Stefanie can't come get us... are you sure you can't give us a quick ride? Just to my brother's. Doesn't he owe you money?"
"Nehemiah stopped smoking ages ago," Ryan corrected, patting Noel's shoulder when he walked past again. "You're quiet today. How are you, kid?"
Noel would have answered, but Micah said, "He's fine. Don't bully him, Ryan. He's a watcher, y'know? Observer. That's the word. But anyway, come on. It's a short drive. Please, Ryan?"
"Yeah, yeah. You just can't smoke in my car right now. My mom says it's bad for the baby... Come on, we have to go now if we're gonna go. Can you grab those posters?"
Micah grabbed half the stack, and Noel took what he'd missed. One was of a naked women, her contours painted in neon, and the other was of a man he didn't recognize. "Who's this?"
"Oh, uh, Ken Kesey. Ever had to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest?" Noel nodded and Ryan grinned. "Well uh, that's the dude who wrote it. I have one of the Merry Pranksters, too. Guy did a lot of acid, there's a book by—"
"I forgot what a dork you were. You can still read?" Micah tossed the posters in the trunk and slid in the backseat, pulling Noel in beside him. "I was sure you'd have lost the ability by now."
"Fuck you." Ryan looked back and offered Noel a good-natured smile. His hair was clean, a very dark blond and as long as his shoulders, though he had an elastic hair tie around his wrist. He looked different; happier. "Why do you hang out with this guy?"
"Because he has good taste. Come on, I want to get there before Nehemiah's home. Are you sure he doesn't owe you money?"
"Have you read uh..." Micah sat on the floor, sorting through his school bag. He offered him his cigarettes when he located them in the front pouch, a pocket that was intended for a mouse. "Here it is. Atonement. Have you read it?"
"No." Noel found a lighter in one of the coffee table drawers, beside a box of condoms. He wondered whose they were. "Can I smoke in here...?"
"Yeah, go ahead." Micah kicked his bag over and jumped on the couch, landing haphazardly before draping himself over Noel's lap. "Ryan's going to be so boring now."
"He seemed really happy."
"Yeah, but he's going to be boring. It's not like it's gonna last, anyway." He stole a drag from Noel's cigarette, shifting to lie on his back, his head resting in the part of Noel's thighs. "He's going to see her a few times, realize what a pain in the ass she is, think it's not worth dealing with Zinnia, then he's gonna be done."
"I don't think so."
"Well, you're an optimist." Micah flicked his chin. "How do you think it's gonna go, then?"
"I don't know. It seems like he really wants to be a father."
"No one wants to be a father. Unless they're... I dunno, old. It's not like he knocked her up on purpose."
"Maybe he didn't, but now he wants to be a father."
"I guess. You're weird sometimes." Micah took Noel's wrist, guiding his cigarette to his lips. He took a drag and kissed his thumb before releasing him. "Point is, I'm gonna have to find a new dealer... maybe I'll ask Stefanie."
They were silent, finishing one cigarette and then a second. Micah said something Noel didn't hear. The room smelled like stale smoke and something worse, a combination of liquor and bile that rose from the carpet. It grew thicker and thicker, and Noel looked for the source. He found nothing but a few strange stains. The ceiling was pockmarked with black dots, and there were three holes in the wall, small and jagged. Light streamed in through the kitchen, the air was full of motes, the television sat on a nightstand, the closet door was ajar and inside, there were four pairs of shoes. Micah's Doc Martens were beside the coffee table, and the front door opened.
Nehemiah was tall, thick with work-earned muscle, and startlingly handsome at first glance, though Noel noticed he appeared older than his twenty-four years. He walked past them, clattered around the kitchen, then looked back into the living room. "Who the fuck is this?"
"Noel. I told you about him..." Micah drawled, sitting up and stretching. Nehemiah's eyes were an animalistic hazel, scornful and penetrating, rimmed with red and a bruising color. "Do you want us to go?"
"No. Make dinner tonight. I'm fucking exhausted." He held a glass of ice and clear liquid that Noel thought was water until he saw the bottle in his other hand. "He can't stay the night again, by the way. You didn't ask me last time."
"You're not my dad."
"Yeah, well, you fucking live here. Don't argue with me right now." He grabbed his cigarettes off the coffee table and disappeared into the hall. A door slammed behind him, and a television flickered on, loud through the walls.
"He's in a bad mood," Micah whispered. After a minute, he added, "He's not always like that. He works really hard to keep me here. He hated foster care." He toyed with Noel's hair and pressed his lips to his cheek. "Let's go to the park or something. He's gonna be pissy all night, if we stay."
Noel let Micah lead him.
Stefanie called back and said she was at Diego's. "He's gonna be pissed if you bring a bunch of gringos here. Who you with?"
"Just Noel. Is he making people pay to get in?"
"Nah, but if you want some bud, bring cash. And Dylan's here, forewarning."
"I thought Diego and Dylan hated each other."
"They do, but Nick brought him and some other pendejos. Diego's already pissed about it, but they're getting along fine now... Are you gonna come?"
"Yeah. Just... do you think you can get me a ride or am I gonna have to hike over there? How drunk are you?"
"I'm sober. I'll be there in a second... you at your place?"
"No, we're at the park on Central and 63rd. By the high school."
"Gotcha. I'll be round in a few minutes. Is Noel gonna get wasted like last time? Don't give him more than he can handle, you're not gonna wanna babysit."
"Fuck off." Micah hung up and looked at Noel. They were sitting on the swings. Noel held still and Micah rocked absently, pushing his toes into the muck and woodchips. "She's such a whore. I bet she already got with Diego... that's her ex, really big douchebag. DJs for parties up in the city and thinks he's a fucking celebrity. Racist motherfucker."
"Why don't we go somewhere else, then?"
Micah sighed. "I'm not complaining too much, it'll be fun when we get there... get a little wasted... at least there'll be music. Better than Ryan's deadhead shit."
"Do you have a thing for him? Ryan. He's bi, you know. You gotta a chance. He even likes Asian guys."
"Why do you think that?"
"Dunno. How defensive you were getting... and you kept staring at him." Micah stood, pacing around the swingset. Every time he passed behind Noel, he pushed him. "I mean, I get it, he's a pretty-okay-looking-guy. You might be young for him, though, he's really concerned about legal shit right now..."
"I'm not into him."
"You don't gotta lie to me."
"I'm really not."
"Okay, Noel." Micah rolled his eyes. His hand connected with Noel's back more firmly. "I wouldn't fuck a guy with a kid, anyway. Zinnia was a huge whore, so he might be diseased."
Noel looked up. The sky was a grey bed of rolling clouds, fat and dark. The first drop fell on his forehead and the rest cascaded. He closed his eyes and listened to Micah cuss. "It's beautiful."
"It's pouring, you fucking lunatic. Jesus Christ. Come on." He ran to take cover under the white gazebo. Noel followed sluggishly, and Micah clucked his tongue. "You're crazy. Come here."
Micah drew him into a tight hug, pressing his face against the crook of his neck. His breath felt hot, warming the water rolling down his skin and soaking his collar. Micah's teeth were sharp but gentle, and Noel held the back of his shirt. "You're getting wet."
"You look hot. Your hair like that." Micah glanced up at him. Noel hadn't realized he was taller than Micah, if only by an inch. He felt like he could wrap his arms around him twice. "Would you ever dye it? You should let me... put some color in it."
"If you want." Noel touched Micah's hip, pushing up the hem of his shirt. He ran his thumb over his piercing: a silver stud, cold but bedded in warm, inflamed skin. "I think this one's infected, too."
"I'll take it out later." He took Noel's hand, guiding him to cup his ass. Noel squeezed, though there wasn't much to squeeze. "You are so sweet, you know that? I have never met anyone... sweeter than you. You're so... open-minded and just sweet. Everyone likes you, you know. Even Stefanie. She was just hassling..."
"It's okay." Micah sounded upset, and Noel couldn't fathom why. He kissed his forehead and slid his hand up to rest on the small of his back. "It's okay..."
Stefanie's car smelled like cigarettes and sickeningly sweet air freshener. She had a fluffy purple steering wheel cover and three rosaries hanging from her rearview mirror. The upholstery was soft velour, recently scrubbed clean, and the floor was clear of trash. "Roll down the window if you're going to smoke."
"It's raining." Micah obeyed anyway and rested his head on Noel's shoulder. He tucked his legs beneath himself. "It's not my fault if your seat's wet."
"I don't care if it's wet, this is my mami's car. Noel, hey, I didn't realize you were like, smart. I was sorting papers in the office on Friday, and like, I saw your grades and wow. You're like, a genius. How do you do this and keep up?"
"You must just be like, really smart. I can't keep up with school, I get so lost. Like, they give too much work, you know?" She narrowed her eyes, trying to see a street sign. "Aye, I'm so blind. Can you read that?"
"It's Ashbury, you fucking retard."
"Fuck you too, Micah." She turned sharply. "Anyway, yeah, man, I didn't know you were so smart. You must be laughing at our dumbasses. Man, I can't even read a book... Ryan's smart too. He did shit in school cuz he never went, but like, he's real smart. Genius smart."
"He's not that smart." Micah snorted. "You just want to suck his dick."
"Ryan's, you dumb cunt."
"Oh." She blinked and remembered to flush, indignant. "That isn't true. Just cuz you couldn't get with him don't mean you gotta—"
"Pay the fuck attention. You're going to pass up Diego's." Micah ashed on the floor when Stefanie wasn't looking and winked at Noel. "Suck his dick yet?"
"Oh my God, get the fuck out of my car, Micah." She slammed on the brakes, pulling up to the curb. "Try not to suck Dylan's dick, maricón." She gritted her teeth. "Stop laughing. God you are the worst." She pulled her keys from the ignition, slammed her door behind her, and stormed up to a plain suburban house.
Noel realized they were in his neighborhood. "Are we going inside?"
"I want to fool around," Micah told him, flicking his cigarette butt out the window. He fiddled with Noel's collar and kissed him. He had a way of kissing: soft at first, parting lips first, building pressure and saliva until it was nearly unpleasant. He pulled away then. "Noel."
"Not here." He trapped Micah's hand between his thighs. "I'd feel weird. Let's just go inside." He opened the door and waited for Micah, who huffed but followed.
Noel didn't understand parties: a collection of people who seemed to neither know nor like each other crowded in a dim room, laughing and kissing and disappearing and making regrets. He didn't smoke because he didn't want to lose himself, but he sipped from a red plastic cup. In it was something noxious and pale, boiling his stomach and making the music too loud. Micah was gone, and he thought of looking for him, but he didn't want to stand. The couch was an oasis, hidden against a forgotten wall. Everyone became a dim cacophony or an unlikable movie or a chattering painting. He tipped his head back and sipped his pale-noxious drink and thought maybe he should find Micah. Someone puked on the floor, and he stood, walking past her. Her friends or maybe strangers swarmed around her, and some guy led her outside by the waist.
Micah was not in the living room. He was not on the porch. Noel paused to watch the girl who had puked cry until the guy who had led her away told him to fuck off. Micah was not in the bathroom, and he was not in two of the three bedrooms. There was a couple screwing in the second bedroom, and the girl sounded like she was dying. The guy sounded like a neanderthal from a terrible documentary.
He opened the third bedroom, and there was Micah, kneeling in front of Dylan Arnholt, who had one hand tangled in his hair. Noel closed the door quietly and went back to the couch, finishing his pale-noxious drink.
Micah found him after midnight, and Noel refused a kiss. He let Micah pull him to his feet and caught him when he stumbled. "You're drunk, Micah."
"I know." Micah giggled and held onto Noel's shirt, stretching it. "Come... come outside with me. Have you been having fun? Sorry I left you..." Noel followed because he had nowhere else to be. "You are so sweet, you know that? Come here."
He tried to kiss him on the porch, and Noel refused him again. "How am I getting home?"
"Do you want to come stay at my place? I can call—"
"I asked how I was getting home."
There was a beat, and Micah clung to Noel's sleeve. "You're mad at me. Noel, please don't be mad at me. Why are you mad at me?"
"I'm not. I just want to go home." Noel looked away. "Can you please just get me a ride?"
"No, why are you mad? Don't lie to me. I... I'll call my brother to give us a ride, just, why are you mad?" He touched his cheek and flinched when Noel pushed his hand away. "Why are you mad at me?"
"Why are you mad at me?"
"Christ, shut up! For two minutes, shut the fuck up!" Noel grabbed his other hand, crushing it until he let go of his sleeve. "Shut the fuck up, okay? I'm mad because you brought me... somewhere to leave me on my own, with a bunch of people I don't even know, so you could go suck some guy's dick. Don't look at me like that! You're not a victim if you let someone stick his cock in your mouth, you're a—" He pursed his lips. "I'm not mad at you, but Micah, I... I thought..."
"We were never dating. You can't—"
"No, I didn't think we were dating. You don't do labels. I just thought you had... a shred of human decency. I thought there was something about you, but there isn't. There is nothing about you. You're shallow. You are the shallowest person I have ever met. What do you have besides this, Micah?"
"I don't understand."
"Besides this." Noel threw his arms. "What do you do besides this? Besides going to parties and getting high and fucking anyone who gives you the slightest bit of attention?"
Micah drew in a harsh breath. "I don't—"
"Stop crying. Stop it. You are so fucking pathetic. You are so pathetic. Just stop and think. Do you have any hobbies? Do you do anything besides this?"
"Noel. Please." He didn't answer, but he crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm sorry."
"For what? You're not doing anything to me. You're doing it to yourself." He ran his hand over his face and deflated. Micah shivered, and Noel slipped out of his hoodie, draping it over Micah's shoulders. "I mean, you're fucking miserable. You're the one who told me—"
"Don't touch me. I get it." Micah swayed, taking two steps back, pulling on the hoodie anyway. "You think you're better than me, I get it. You are better than me."
"That's not what I—"
"Well, you might as well have. I'm sorry I'm not what you thought, but you made that up. Just... I never told you anything else. I wasn't pretending to be anything. You made that up." He sniffled and wiped under his nose. "Do... do you still need a ride?"
"Yeah." Noel looked at the concrete and almost smiled. He felt nervous and ridiculous. He felt like the girl who had puked all over the floor. "Thank you."
Micah rocked from heel to toe. He pulled out his phone and sent a text, still rocking from heel to toe. Minutes passed, and he rocked from heel to toe. He looked at Noel and rocked from heel to toe. He spoke, hoarse and delicate, rocking, "I know I led you on, but I do like you. I like you a lot. You were just so nice to me. No one is that nice to me. I know... I know I'm fucked up." He chewed his nail and spit it out. "No, don't... don't. I am really fucked up. You have no idea. Nehemiah... " Micah scrunched up his nose, narrowing his eyes until it didn't look like he was going to cry anymore. "Just. I am fucked up. I should be better, because I know I am. I notice. You noticed."
"You're really drunk."
"I am." He pushed his face against Noel's shoulder, and Noel rested a hand on his back. "I texted Ryan instead. You don't mind, do you?"
"Why would I mind?" Micah didn't answer. He rubbed his face on Noel's shirt, and Noel folded him in an embrace. "You're getting snot on me."
"Sorry. Ryan's gonna be here really soon. He said uh... he was already on the road. I... I just don't want to see Nehemiah right now." He drew in a tight breath. "Noel?"
"If I told you something, would you keep it to yourself? Like, take it to the grave. Never tell anyone."
"I... sure. What is it?" Noel ran his fingers through Micah's hair again and again. Rainwater had frozen on the sidewalk and street, and dusky clouds hung low overhead, making the world seem smaller. The porch light flickered, brightly fluorescent, pockmarked with dead moths and junebugs that had not been scraped out since summer.
"Nehemiah... we... we've had...It's only been since I moved in again, and we hadn't seen each other in years and it just happened..." He shook his head. Ryan's car pulled up to the curb, headlights flashing. "Never mind. Come on."
Noel followed, not understanding but knowing he didn't want to.
Ryan parked outside of Micah's apartment building, at the mouth of the walkway which lead up to the front door. Nehemiah sat on the cracked stone steps, waiting, and he walked up to the car. He helped Micah out and didn't look at Ryan or Noel. "You have to stop doing this."
Micah mumbled something that might have been a response. Noel looked at Nehemiah's hands on Micah's arms. He watched him take Micah up the walkway, the steps, and inside, bundling him close so he wouldn't fall over. Beside him, Micah looked like a child.
"How long have you known them?" Noel asked when Ryan shifted into drive and started toward Noel's.
"Uh, I've known Nehemiah longer. He moved here a few years ago... Micah didn't come to stay with him until their dad died. Don't tell him I told you that. He keeps it to himself."
In the morning, Dad knew he was hungover. He didn't say he knew, but he looked at Noel hard and said he was disappointed. He said he thought he was better than that, and he just hoped that his grades hadn't suffered. He hoped Noel hadn't done anything stupid, and he hoped he'd learn from his mistakes. Noel assured him his grades were fine, but he wasn't sure. He had done all his work, but he'd missed a few days, and he thought again and again: Do I care? Why do I care?
Micah called him twice, but he didn't answer. He called him again, and Noel picked up. He sat cross-legged on the center of his bed, the bright afternoon refracting in rainbows across his sheets. He looked at the black branches outside his window, listening to Catherine and Dad speak in a hush. "My parents are home, this kind of needs to be quick."
"It's really quick. I just wanted you to know... if I said anything last night, I was drunk. Like, hammered. I didn't mean it. I didn't know what I was thinking or saying."
"Okay. I need to go." Noel waited on the line, and Micah waited on the line. Their breaths mingled through static. "Maybe... we can go to Ryan's or something. How's that?"
"I think I'm going to be staying in for awhile. I'll see you in school, Noel."
He hung up, understanding but knowing he didn't want to.
In what felt like matter of seconds, without warning, Micah vanished from Noel's life and then everyone's. By late spring, he was gone from the roster and even the most vicious gossips had stopped spinning rumors about his absence.
It was Ryan who told Noel that Nehemiah had gotten arrested for a car accident, after he found out from the woman who owned the apartment building they'd resided in. "He was drunk and hit a stop sign. It's his third offense, so they're gonna put him away for awhile. I knew he had a problem, but man. I didn't think it was that bad... but yeah, I dunno where Micah is right now. I know he has an aunt somewhere in California, but he hasn't called me, and when I tried his phone, says it's disconnected. You can keep that pack, by the way... and come by some other time, I missed seeing you."
"Oh uh. Me too."
Noel smiled, took the pack, thanked him, and left for home, walking along the same path Micah had showed him. If he cut through two backyards, it made the trip half as long, and he could dump his cigarette butts in some old woman's vase, a big floral one she kept beside the back door.
Dad was waiting for him on the porch, but Noel walked past him. Dad followed, red-faced and tense, but deflated when Noel continued to take off his shoes, placing them on the mat. He hung his coat in the closet, on its proper hanger, and stood in the foyer. He wanted to go upstairs but found he could not coax his legs to move. Dad remembered to close the door behind him, staring.
A long silence passed before Dad asked, "What's wrong?"
Everything was on the tip of Noel's tongue, but he dried the flood before the dam broke. He pursed his lips, looked at the wall to the left of Dad's head, and admitted, "Micah... the guy I've been hanging out with, his brother got into trouble with the law... so he's moved."
It was enough for Dad to conclude, "You know, some people just aren't worth your time, Noel. They don't change."
"Are you sure?" Noel kicked up the corner of the carpet. "I think everyone can change. I mean, you've even said that. Everyone can change."
"Well." Dad hated to contradict himself. His expression twisted, and Noel imagined him in court, refiguring his words to suit a case. Lawyers were wordsmiths, Dad had said many times, and Dad said, "People have to want to change, first. If someone doesn't want to change, they're not going to, and they're not worth your time, and it isn't your fault. You can't hold the world on your shoulders, and you can't hold yourself accountable for what other people do or how they handle any given situation."
"You'll understand better when you're older. Come on. Catherine made dinner, and I think it may be edible today." He rested his hand on his shoulder and squeezed, placing the smallest of smiles on Noel's lips. "You're a good kid. I don't want the world to eat you alive."
He followed him into the dining room, where the table had been set and three plates made.
The scent of autumn ushered in the new school year, one marked by long bus rides and a stone building that reminded everyone it had been built in 1945 on a brass plaque beside the heavy wooden front doors. Noel was sitting in English, listening to an overqualified teacher drone about James Joyce, staring out the window and into the courtyard. There was a pond, green and thick with weeds, and a bench beside it. He thought of asking the teacher to go sit outside but got a text and surreptitiously checked his phone. He didn't recognize the number. It read I hope you're okay. Tell Ryan I said hi. His daughter's beautiful.
Noel deleted the text but told Ryan Britta was beautiful when he bought a dimebag after school.