And not a minute too soon, the poor guy…
At lunchtime, Dex often sat alone in the cafeteria, reading. Just as he’d learned to conceal Guitar World in a textbook when he was in class, now he concealed a novel inside Guitar World in the cafeteria. Reading, as everyone knew, was gay. And even if someone had passing interest in what he was reading, the question was always, “What class you readin’ that for?”
He could feel someone standing behind him, looking over his shoulder. He turned his head, ready to glare away any smart remarks, his height and mass coming in more than handy at times like this.
The guy behind him was slim, short, and his dark hair flopped over one eye. The other was bright and alert behind a pair of cheap black glasses, the kind you got on Medicaid – not hopelessly lame, but not fancy, either. Somehow, though, they worked on this guy.
“Hey,” Dex said back.
“That the Da Vinci Code?”
“Yeah. You can see that good?”
“Nah. But I saw the red dust jacket over the back of your magazine. My mom’s reading it, too. It’s all bullshit, you know. He ripped it off from another book.”
Dex shrugged. “It’s just a novel.”
“Reading is gay, you know,” he said with a smirk.
Dex laughed. “Everyone says so.”
“That’s how you catch it, you see.”
“Right. You go gay from reading.”
He sat down next to Dex, offered his hand. “I’m Alex, Alex Carroll.”
“Dex Dexter,” he said, flinching. He was painfully aware that his mother had been a huge “Dynasty” fan and had named him after her favorite character. It made him feel like white trash when people heard his name, their eyes glinting with mockery. But Alex seemed oblivious to the reference.
“Dex and Alex,” Alex mused. “See, we already sound like gay lovers.”
“Only if you read books, too.”
Alex bowed his head. “Guilty as charged, Your Honor.”
“So how come I don’t know you? You just transfer or something? You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” Alex’s accent was American Broadcaster, with no Southern inflections.
“Yeah, I’m from Michigan,” Alex said. “But you know, two people in the same school can still be in different worlds. I’m sure you’re on the football team, and I’m a music nerd, so that…”
Dex perked up. “Music? You play?”
“Yeah. Violin, some piano. Gay gay gay.”
Dex laughed. “Guitar here. Manly shit. Not on the football team.”
Alex raised an eyebrow, and slathered on a pitch-perfect accent. “You ain’t on the football team? Big ole boy like you? What the fuck is wrong with you, son?”
“Yeah, that about covers it. It’s not that I don’t wanna get hit,” he said with a shrug. “I’d live with a broken bone or two.” He wagged his fingers. “But I wouldn’t risk these.”
Alex nodded. “Yeah, when I get the shit beat out of me, I’m the same way. Just keep away from my hands, man.”
Dex’s nostrils flared. “Who’s beating the shit out of you?”
Alex shrugged his slim shoulders. “Who knows? Fucking rednecks who see me walking home carrying a violin case.”
Dex felt a familiar anger, that urge to beat the shit out of someone that he felt when he hit the punching bag, but also an unfamiliar sensation – the urge to protect Alex.
“So we should jam,” Alex said. “You any good on guitar?”
“Am I any good?” Dex gave Alex a shit-eating grin. “Son, you’re gonna get schooled.”
Dex’s grin stayed on his face all through his shift at work. “What you so happy ‘bout?” Cleve pried. “You get laid or something?”
“Yeah, Cleve, that’s the only thing would ever make a man smile around here, ain’t it?”
Cleve looked at him, wondering if that was sarcasm, but he wasn’t bright enough to be sure.
He ran home, his book bag bouncing against his back. Mom and Dad were both at work, and Carrie had been left “in charge” of Charlene and Kaleb. All three of them were glued to “American Idol” when he got home, and he was more than glad to leave them that way.
“Don’t start no trouble while I’m gone.”
“Where you goin’?” Carrie asked, her eyes not leaving the TV.
“Out. And don’t give them no sugar tonight.”
He grabbed his guitar and ran out, then realized he’d forgotten his picks, and his tuner. His excitement was making him crazy, but Alex was the first person he’d met who was serious about music.
Alex lived in an old, shabby house, but inside was another story. The furniture was worn but funky, with a red velvet “fainting couch” in the living room, a pair of green easy chairs, and holy crap, so many bookcases. There was no TV in sight.
The walls were covered with posters from concerts – every kind of concert. Rock concerts, classic old Nashville posters that Dex recognized as Hatch Show Prints, a poster from the Salzburg Mozart Festival…
“Wow,” Dex said.
Alex nodded. “My mom and dad are music teachers. We’ve been to a lot of shows, obviously.”
“Come on down to the basement, that’s where the studio is.”
“Studio? No shit. Wow.”
Alex laughed. “You sound like you’re in hog heaven. Just wait till we get downstairs.”
Dex really was in heaven then. Now he saw why so little money had been spent on the thrift store furniture – it had all been invested down here. There was a dazzling array of equipment whose uses Dex could only guess at, and the basement had been neatly divided into two rooms. A window looked from the mixing room into the studio itself, where he could see drums, a keyboard, and…
“Oh shit. Is that a…”
Alex put a hand on Dex’s shoulder. “Yes, sir. A Gibson J-45. Gifted to my dad by Donovan. John Lennon used that guitar to write some of the songs on the White Album.”
Alex took it off the stand where it had pride of place in the studio. “Here. Try it out.”
“Oh, no, no way.”
Alex pressed it against Dex’s midsection. “It’s meant to be played. You won’t break it. Unless you do a Pete Townsend or something and smash it.”
Dex put his hands on the instrument. His skin prickled with the excitement that comes from physical contact with a piece of history. John Lennon put his hands on this, right where I’m putting mine, right now… He could hardly believe it.
“What kind of pick you like?” Alex said, fishing around in a bowl full.
“Thin. Thinnest you got.”
“Excellent choice, sir.”
Dex hesitated. What could he play that he wouldn’t embarrass himself, what could he play that wouldn’t…dishonor the instrument? Because the biggest part of that thrill of contact with history? Is the knowledge that you’re a part of it now. That someday someone might say, John Lennon and Dex Dexter both played that guitar.
He didn’t know why he picked the song he did, but it just…felt right. He launched into “Norwegian Wood,” whispering the lyrics as he always did, still not trusting his voice.
Alex picked up a violin and joined in. Dex could see it, suddenly, how perfect the song was for that instrument – maybe for any instrument. His fingers hesitated, as he tried to get in the same groove as Alex.
Alex lifted the bow. “Don’t overthink it. You’re leading the dance.”
Dex nodded, started over from the beginning. He fell into the music, his nerves settling as he focused on playing. Alex matched him note for note, playing softly, letting Dex concentrate on his own performance.
Dex finished the song, and looked up at Alex. His new friend’s eyes were glowing with exuberance, and Dex smiled, knowing his own face looked the same way.
“Fuckin’ A,” Dex said. “That was the greatest moment of my life.”
Alex nodded. “Why’d you pick that song? Just curious, I just wouldn’t expect, I mean no offense but…”
Dex laughed. “Yeah, I know. Not exactly shit-kickin’ music, right? I don’t know.” He frowned. “I just felt…it just…” He shook his head. “It was like I heard someone playing it, in my head. Far away. But not far.” He laughed. “Some fucking bullshit anyway. Hey, I bet you can’t play ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’ on that thing.”
“Oh yeah? Listen and learn.”
Day after day, they huddled like conspirators in Alex’s bedroom, listening to music. Alex’s parents often had private students downstairs in the afternoons, to supplement their meager incomes from teaching music in the school system.
“Your parents are cool,” Dex said wistfully one day. It was true – Alex’s dad, Alex Sr. was a whip-thin man with keen blue eyes behind rimless glasses, but his smile belied the otherwise stern look on his face. Alex’s mom was always smiling, because, shockingly, she always had something to be happy about. She was happy it was fall, she was happy Alex had a new friend, she was happy they liked her pumpkin pie.
Alex smiled. “It’s adolescent blasphemy to say it, but yeah. They are cool.”
“I’m jealous. My parents are…ah, shit. It’s a jungle at my house.”
“Here,” Alex said, pulling an Altoids tin out of his desk. “You need to get stoned.”
Dex blinked. “But your mom and dad are downstairs…”
“It’s Friday. My homework is done. Time to relax. You think they won’t be lighting up later, too?”
Dex laughed. “I’ve never smoked pot before.”
“And you call yourself a musician.” He pulled out Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. “It’s so trite, but really, there’s a reason this is the stoner’s favorite album.”
Dex could see the appeal of weed immediately. Time was slowed down, so that you had all the time you needed to walk around the notes of the music, walk inside them, see them like a 3D mobile, stirring in the breeze. Alex’s parents hadn’t grudged the price on his stereo system, either, so the notes rang clear and cool.
He and Alex sat on the floor, their backs against the side of the bed, and Dex just let his mind wander. Alex had posters of people Dex had never heard of, jazz musicians and classical violinists and shit like that.
“Your house is like…on a different planet.”
Alex nodded. “In Biloxi? Yeah. This is totally a portal to another universe.” Alex sighed. “I can’t wait to go to college. Get the fuck out of here. I mean, I’ll miss you. But that’s it.”
Dex felt his stomach drop. Shit. He’d totally forgotten that they were juniors in high school. That this wouldn’t last. Alex would go away, and he would stay. Forever, probably.
“The only guys I know who get out of here go in the military. And now that’s a one way ticket to fucking Iraq, or Afghanistan.”
“You’re smart. You get good grades. Don’t you?”
“Well, yeah. If I’m interested in the class. If it’s like science, biology…I get really sick when I have to dissect something.”
Alex giggled. “Omigod I can see it. A big old horse like you, fainting at the sight of a worm’s insides.”
Dex fake punched his friend’s shoulder. “Fuck you. I can cut up a worm. Just not a frog. And you know, you can’t really…you can’t answer a lot of questions in class.”
“You can’t? I do all the time.”
“Yeah, but you’re a nerd. No offense. People expect you to know the answers. If I do it, it’s gay. Guys will rag on me. Studying is even gayer than reading.”
“I almost got an F this semester.”
“In Sex Ed. You know how you’re supposed to write a paragraph on ‘why I’m saving myself for marriage’? Well, I did.”
“Uhh…let’s just say it didn’t go over well. That class is so much religious bullshit it’s not even funny.”
“You don’t believe in God?”
“Hell, no. So to speak. You?”
“Well, yeah. Of course.” Dex was befuddled by Alex’s atheism. “I mean, how could we have music without God, don’t you feel like you’re, you know, touching God when you play?”
“No. I feel like I’m touching humanity. But come on, you know that abstinence education is bullshit, right?”
“Oh hell yeah. Kids around here are gettin’ knocked up left and right.”
“And that’s all about control, you know?” Alex’s arms flailed now, waving the joint around as he got into it. “What they want, see, they don’t want to stop you having sex. They just want to see you punished for having sex. I mean, they need you to have sex without condoms, so you get STDs or get some girl pregnant. So they can make you repent. It’s…the whole system is all about sinning. You can have the sin, as long as you’re punished. The system needs you to sin, so that it can continually re-exert control over you through the punishment. If you get laid, and use a condom, and nothing bad happens, then there’s no punishment! You had fun, disobeying them, and nothing bad happened! What could be worse!”
“Huh. I never thought about it like that.” Alex was so smart, he thought. So…self assured. His small little body had so much righteous anger in it, like a V8 engine had been put in a little VW. He watched Alex’s face in profile, the set of his jaw, the way his mouth moved, his hair flopping over one eye with that new, whatdyacallit, Emo hairdo. He was so handsome, really.
He blinked. Whoa. Was I just checking out a guy? No. No, I’m just stoned and tripping.
“So,” he said hesitantly, “what did you write in your abstinence paper thing that pissed them off.”
Alex laughed. “Oh, that. Yeah, I said that I wasn’t really sure yet, but I might like guys, and if I saved myself for marriage, well in that case I’d never have sex, because gays can’t get married.” He bent over laughing. “You should have seen the look on Mrs. Parsons’ face when she handed me back the paper.”
Dex felt something strange, unfamiliar – an excited dread, a thrilling terror. He’d walked home from school with Alex, laughing, joking, putting him in a headlock or just throwing his arm around his shoulder, just buddies, messin’ around. Now suddenly every physical contact he’d had with Alex took on new meaning. Did he…did he get excited when I touched him?
Dex recoiled from the idea. Somewhere deep inside himself, he was recoiling not from Alex’s gayness, or even his own, but from the primal terror of becoming the outcast. What if people knew Alex was gay? What would they say if they saw me…touching him? They’ll think I’m gay, too.
“Are…are you gay?”
Alex hesitated. Dex had asked the question to the wall, not looking at him. “I don’t know. Maybe. Don’t knock it till you tried it, right?”
“It’s a sin.”
Alex sighed. “What isn’t?”
Dex turned to look at his friend, to see his face full on, to see…to see what he wanted to see, didn’t want to see.
And it was there. Alex was looking at him with this open, plain, intense gaze that said, yeah. I would, with you.
All Dex had to do was lean in. Put his lips on Alex’s soft, sensitive mouth. Then he really would be in another universe.
Then the hammer came down in his head. GAY. Then he’d be GAY. He’d lose his friends and his family and his life, he’d have to trade in all his clothes for a neon green Speedo and spend the rest of his life gyrating wildly on top of a parade float. He’d have to talk like those queers on that new show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” that his mom and his sister Cassie loved to watch. Yeah, they watched, and they laughed, at the flamboyant queens who camped it up to entertain people like them. People who’d burn ‘em at the stake as soon as look at ‘em if they weren’t dancing and singing for your entertainment.
“I gotta go.” He jumped up, grabbed his baseball hat and clamped it low over his face. “I’ll see you around.”
Outside, his stomach knotted in pain. What had he done? What had he said? “I’ll see you around,” as if Alex wasn’t his best friend, as if he wasn’t going to see him tomorrow, the next day, every day.
I can’t. It was that simple, and that complex, and that clear and that painful. I can’t.
But I can’t lose Alex! I can’t lose my only real friend. That hit him like a truck. He had buddies, guys he’d grown up with, hung out with, shot the shit with. But they didn’t play music, they didn’t read, they didn’t think, they…didn’t move him like Alex, either. They were safe. Yeah, because they’re fucking boring idiots.
Something he’d heard once came to his rescue. “It’s a phase, you’ll grow out of it.” Alex hadn’t said he was gay, had he? He’d said don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. That was just the marijuana loosening his gears for a minute.
That wasn’t so bad. He could live with that. He could stand by his friend till he grew out of this phase.
His whole body loosened up as the stress left it, a huge sigh of relief expelling it. I can’t lose him.
He let a small voice whisper it, around a corner where he could pretend not to hear it.
I need him.