Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Disease

by Jarrett Fontaine

When you’re a teenager, summer is your life.
I had turned sixteen that June. The temperature never seemed to leave eighty perfect degrees. The sun would ignite the city on fire by day, with only the cold starry blackness to douse the flames hours later. My friends and I had become wild creatures of those endless nights. Lurking under street lights, loitering inside the 24 hour convenience mart, cruising until our cars begged us to stop. My parents thought I was working extra hours at the drive-in. I’d challenge my friends to childish shopping cart races through
Wal-Mart, spreading out our arms and seeing how many things we could knock off the shelves and into our carts.
The thrill of getting kicked out.
I remember the bitter rush of my first sip of alcohol. And then my second. I always drank just enough to get slightly buzzed. Parties are better when you remember them the next morning. In July, fireworks-induced smog swelled up over us. We’d breathe the smoke in like oxygen. Sidewalks played host to our firecracker wars. I liked to shoot bottle rockets directly at the city hall building, smiling as they popped and bounced off the brick walls. Little black burn marks dotted the side. There were lots of walls in my town, most of which I couldn’t see. It was a small town, the kind of place that if you were friends with a cop, the city was yours.

The Quik-Stop mart. More than just a convenience store, it was where you could park and be seen. This was where your first car defined who you were. Ned would drive up in his old Volkswagen. Ned was a nerd. Johnny Football Hero always sat inside his gleaming red mustang, a different girl with him every week. Cars have the ability to get you laid.

I’d go there early on Saturday evenings, I liked to get one of the parking spots right next to the front door. I’d show my mom’s Mazda off like a brand new Christmas toy. I told people I had bought it.
You had to be accepted, or else it was a very lonely four years of high school. Everyone except me seemed to be in a relationship. I could never tell when my friend Sarah left one boyfriend and found another. One week she was in love with being in love. The next she was crying all over me, leaving mascara smudges on my shoulder. We’d always been close friends, but nothing more. I wasn’t sure why.
I remember that time I walked in on her in the bathroom when she was taking a razor to her arm. Little red tracer lines, paralleling blue blood veins. The somersaults my stomach did after watching her blood spill into the virgin-white sink. Instead of it giving her relief, she seemed to grow more hostile after doing this.
Everything gets under your skin when you cut yourself open.

Whenever a new family with kids moved into town, it was a big deal. 
It had been rumored that the dad would be the new fire chief. He and his wife and son were moving onto the corner of Blossom and Pierce Street, I’d heard. No one could afford the houses there. They were majestic and pompous, and most had a For Sale sign in the front yard. 
I had hidden behind some bushes a block away from their house the day they’d moved in. I was always nosy. The dad was tall, chiseled, and kind of hot, like a fireman should be. The wife seemed distant, reclusive. She never smiled, and seemed unsure if she even wanted to be there.
It’s hard to make a good first impression when you’re being spied upon.
And then I’d seen their teenage son, Shawn. You noticed his short, floppy red hair and hesitant yet warm smile before anything else. Tall for his age, with blue eyes that seemed to hide something. My friends later said they thought he looked like a geeky
I thought he was beautiful.
I’d never felt this way towards someone before. Sure I had little crushes here and there, but this, this was intrinsically different. It was a weird mix of intrigue and repulsion. I was supposed to like girls. I’d always heard that parents shipped their gay kids to those rehabilitation camps. Gender reinforcement or something. Science camp had been bad enough.
From that point on I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to be around him, without it being obvious. Courage is always in high demand.

Groceries stores are a fluorescent haven of stereotypes. Fat people bought fat food. Trendy women bought Cosmopolitan. The only Irish family in town
bought the only Scotch sold in town. I bought energy drinks. With enough caffeine in your system, you’re free to do anything.
During one of my frequent trips to that supermarket, I’d gotten in a checkout line and noticed I was right behind Shawn. I’d felt a sort of contact high just being next to him. The feeling of wanting something I shouldn’t have, followed by the ensuing flood of regret in not saying anything.

That summer I’d watched a special on TV about a poet who became a serial killer. I started writing poems. Nothing long and elaborate, just short haikus about whatever was on my mind. Shawn, war, hating myself, you name it. I’d fold them up and draw little butterfly wings on the outside. My parents had found them and thought they were suicide notes. Why was I having such dark feelings? They’d yell at me over and over. It was like I wasn’t allowed to ever be depressed. I resented them for not liking how I expressed myself. For not liking who I was.
Adolescence is not a disease.

That town was crazy about recycling for some reason, but it had always creeped me out. The fact that I could be drinking or eating from something someone else had once used. Life was too reused at it was. We breathed our recycled air, took part in our recycled traditions, and dreamt our recycled dreams all the time.
Left-overs. Reheating the rules.
Those families in that town never went away. They’d raise their biodegradable kids, their same mindless ideas passing down from generation to generation. Everything was a copy of a copy of a copy. If daddy hated gays, junior would too. Homophobia: Someone’s dirty little secret reminding you of your own.

Some of the teenagers street raced through town. They got away with it, because Johnny Football Hero had sucked up to the cops. He knew what kind of jokes they liked, how to act around them. And every fall he’d do whatever it took to win the home football games. The city was his. He was everyone’s savior. He was the reason to procreate. The hope that your kid would turn out as perfect as him. Bred and nurtured by a town full of clerks and retired farmers.

I had begun despising how he’d change his personality to appeal to adults, even though I did it too. I had those shallow friendships with most of the teachers in school, to get a better grade. I despised Johnny because his fakeness reflected my own.

I also couldn’t stand that girl of the week attitude he had. Along with his gelled-up hair and that smug American Eagle grin. He got what he wanted, when he wanted it.
He was who I could never be.
But Shawn, Shawn was different. His family was rich, but you couldn’t tell looking at him. Jeans faded and torn from actual use, and a bleach-stained punk rock t-shirt was what he’d usually wear. Sarah said something about him didn’t seem right. It was in the way he looked at you, she’d say. Like he didn’t belong there. I didn’t care. I wanted him.

No one knew why Shawn didn’t have his own car. He had his license, and his dad definitely had the funds to buy him one. But Shawn seemed content on his mountain bike, sweat beading through his loose red hair as he rode on top of the asphalt streets. He hadn’t been able to get a job that summer; everyone had starting hiring in May as soon as school let out. By mid-summer, we’d filled all the part-time jobs. I’d watch him roaming throughout town, knowing he was lonely. I thought about quitting my job at the ice cream place and letting him have it. Maybe he’d notice me that way. If only I hadn’t needed the money. Sometimes Shawn would ride to the grocery store, usually buying a pop or an energy drink. The more you have in common, the less ice to break. Something inside me had started burning, until I couldn’t just fantasize about him, I had to finally talk to him. I’d followed him in my car to his house, anticipating our first conversation. I didn’t want it to seem too obvious that I liked him. He had gotten off his bike and skid it under a half-open garage door. He stood there for a moment, debating what to say to this car in his driveway. If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have needed words. The love I felt was too beautiful to be strangled by verbs and adjectives.
Why couldn’t he just read my mind?

Sarah had started wearing long sleeve shirts all the time. I knew they were to cover up her self-inflicted cuts. I’d tell her I wanted to see them, and then I would gently lift up part of her sleeve. She trusted me and knew I wouldn’t tell anyone. Still, she’d
always cringe when I ran my fingers along her scars. I saw new ones that ran inward from her arms to her chest. She seemed embarrassed about her figure.
“Touch them, I barely have anything there,” Sarah demanded, while forcing me to cup her breasts from under her shirt. I stood in her room staring at her sad blue eyes, hands on her cleavage. In another life, that may have turned me on. But for now, seeing her pain made me forget my own. I was glad she cut; it kept me from having to do the same.

I had hated my job that summer. Coming home covered in ice cream debris, clothes stained with chocolate from countless cones, malts and shakes. I was feeding a generation raised on fast food, and being paid minimum wage for it. Johnny Football Hero made thirteen dollars an hour working in another town.
Resentment has a way of staining you too.

Shawn had started hanging out at the Quik-Stop on Saturday nights. I couldn’t have been happier. He’d prop his bike up next to the outside wall and just kind of stand there. Everyone else gave him strange looks and snickered. I wanted to stick up for him, to invite him to sit with me in my mom’s car. I wanted it to be just me and Shawn. I wished to disappear completely into his breath, his smell, his skin. I wanted my hands under
his shirt, I wanted to feel his manhood come to life.
But then I’d see the faces of my peers; they were my friends, enemies, neighbors, schoolmates. Those self-appointed judges kept me quiet.
I knew I shouldn’t care what they thought. I told myself if I really loved Shawn I wouldn’t care what anyone thought.
Taboos can be a part of your DNA.
Sarah subtly noticed that all of my attention had been going to Shawn lately. She started calling him a queer and making fun of how he acted. “Gays will burn in hell,” she’d state matter-of-factly.
I wanted to give her a razor to shut her up.

Everyone in that town went to church. Not for spiritual reasons, they did it to look enlightened, or to socialize and spread rumors. If you wanted to know who was having an affair, sit in the third row behind Mrs. Crossip.
I planned to get a tattoo of a cross over my heart when I turned eighteen. Baptism by ink. I thought this would be a good way of proving my genuineness. I’d rub it in the faces of everyone I knew. My faith was better than theirs.
As the school year approached, we all felt that collective dread where you were forced to make every remaining day of summer meaningful. I’d been single that whole summer, I’d just imagined about being with Shawn. What a lazy worthless person you are, I’d tell myself. How pathetic. Shawn barely even knew who I was. Maybe I should lose some weight, get better abs.

I wanted to become bulimic. How many other guys made themselves throw up? When you start shoving pinky fingers down your throat, people pay attention. I figured it would get me skinny, plus people would feel sorry for me. Sympathy is a drug. I’d daydream about walking into my bathroom and bowing in front of the toilet. My trembling hands could caress its sides like a newborn baby. I’d smile thinking of how the smell of vomit would singe my eyes. I could expel the old, disgusting me. The side of me that lived in fear. I wanted to start doing this. I could tell all my friends about my new addiction. People would actually care, instead of being indifferent about me.
On the second to
last day of summer, the town threw its annual end of summer party. The city park would overflow with festival-crazed people. Free hotdogs, a juggler, someone’s garage band blaring out guitar riffs, vendors selling anything they could find. It was our goal to go crazy. We’d all gotten Ricky, a senior in college, to buy us some beer. Sarah had been eyeing that guy for a while. I told her I hoped it worked out for them. In reality, I wanted him to break her heart. I missed her crying on my shoulder. I hadn’t cried all summer. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.
Sometimes we envy those who are more alive.
I didn’t care about remembering that night; I wanted to drink all that my 180 pound body could hold. I wanted alcohol to foam out of my bloodstream.
Inhibitions can be a wonderful thing to lose.
More and more people had begun saying Shawn was gay. I was starting to believe them. If he could be gay, I could be too. He’d begun giving me more eye contact at the Quik-Stop.
I’d driven from my house that night knowing it would be the last time I could stay out past eleven for a while. We’d all gotten some burgers, the thick, juicy kind that cost more, and then driven to the park. I’d started downing some beer. I had looked around for Shawn and saw him sitting under a tree, watching a band play on the giant stage they’d wheeled into the park.
Johnny had worn a pink shirt that night and had some hot girl all over him. Typical.
I drank another beer.
I saw Ricky sitting with Sarah on his motorcycle. Her arms wrapped around him, carefree. She had rested her head on
his shoulder. That was the loneliest feeling of all. Other people finding contentment, happiness. They’d had the perfect summer. My regret sent chills up my spine. I had to do something about it. I didn’t care about being popular; I didn’t care about the town’s view of wrong or right. They considered me an outcast. This had given me power.
Another beer.
The lights were dim over the park that night. I waited until the mayor stood in front of the crowd to give his little speech. He’d ramble on about how great the town was; a stronger community than the year before. I sat next to Shawn. He gave a slight nod and smiled. He had to feel for me what I felt for him, that’s just how it worked, right?

I crept my hand closer to his over the grass. Three beers controlled me, not my brain. A summer-long sexual urge was primed to explode. I grabbed his hand and his neck, and pressed my lips into his. My heart stopped. The mayor’s speech was over, and they’d picked that exact moment to turn on the bright outdoor lights. And there I was, in the middle of it all, making out with another guy.
People looked over and saw us. I was the center of attention, for once. An old lady gasped. But most just stared. That kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen here, they’d thought. What do those two think they’re doing? they murmured.
I was the razorblade in their perfect little caramel apple.
Maybe adolescence was a disease.

 Recent winner of the Iowa Scholastic Gold Key Award, Fontaine has a youthful flair for short, quick-tempo pieces of creativity. You'll find his work most prominently featured in MidStarz Magazine and The Omaha Reader.

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