The third place winner of our Fall 2021 National Teen Storyteller Contest, presented with the student-led and founded Decameron Project! We invited young writers to share a story responding to the theme of Friendship.
After a full minute of laughing and wheezing James blurts, “She didn’t even get the slur right.”
I cackled through my tears. I don’t remember why I started crying. I didn’t think I would care that my mom called me a homophobic insult, especially considering that I definitely don’t fit the definition of the specific word she chose. She’s insulted me before. Heck, this should even be affirming of the androgyny I had always longed for. But here I was sobbing on a perpetually damp, rotting picnic table bench with the only person in my life to who I would ever tell this to.
I had just snuck out of the house at the usual hour, that being whenever Mom wasn’t home so she wouldn’t ask questions. Nothing is worse than having to explain where you are outside. I’ve always found it ruins the wanderlust of it. Letting myself think of freedom for too long, I checked my practical digital watch. I was right on time for the usual meet-up with James. The spot was always the park three blocks from his house. Two queer kids with judgmental parents who don’t understand them don’t really get to invite their friends over, so the picnic benches by the baseball diamond seemed to be the next best thing.
I promise I didn’t start falling apart as soon as James waved me over to the bench. I mean, I had a feeling I would start crying because a friend who I can tell everything to has that effect on me. But I didn’t come to our spot with the intention of trying to process my emotions or some bullshit like that. In fact, I wasn’t one to really process my emotions at all, a trait my dear friend James never failed to remind me of.
As soon as I entered his periphery, the man knew something was up. He beckoned me over for a hug, which I so desperately needed. I was just glad I didn’t have to ask for one. His familiar arms clad in his handmade rough jean, anarchist patch-jacket, a James Austin Shane staple, enveloped mine. Smelling his familiar scent of fresh bread and a type of muskiness that came from staying in for the past couple of days, was a welcome experience.
As I looked over his shoulders from the hug, my body was at ease but my mind was the opposite. I stared intensely at the vines hugging the NYC public park stairs. The American morning glories watched me from their post, as their vines crept further and further up their chain link fence, threatening to block my exit. Exit to where I wasn’t quite sure of. They wouldn’t take the aim of their turrets off of me, and I wouldn’t take my eyes off my lavender-colored enemies. I thought the staring contest would be a welcome distraction from churning thoughts, but instead, the watery and blurred world I was seeing just had a vague purple color swirled in.
When the staring contest became too much for me, I heard James say, “Is everything okay? Do you want to talk about it?”
Internally I quickly said, “No. What good would sharing this do?” I didn’t want James to have to feel the way I did. But after a moment of silence, I realized these feelings felt different than usual. They felt big and complicated and worth trying to understand. I also knew James would be proud of me for attempting to process my thoughts, so I tried.
“I think I’m so upset because my mom just doesn’t understand me, what so much of my life is about.”
I managed to stutter out a few things about the events leading up being called a slur. I explained that my mom noticed me admiring my new sleeveless shirt in the living room mirror, a few days ago. She stepped out of the kitchen as I turned from side to side, glancing over my shoulders to look into the mirror to see how the new garment fit into my oversized jeans. I guess the oversized and traditionally masculine clothing, her general dour mood, and the armpit hair just slightly peeking out from under the sleeves of the fresh new shirt made her decide that today was the day to insult me.
Regardless, this is where the aforementioned cackling comes in. The man started laughing to no end. I don’t think he meant it to hurt me, but the absolute absurdity of the insult that sent him howling. I started laughing too, though mine had a twinge of pain enveloped deep within its folds.
After a few moments, James noticed the warm water droplets running down my cheeks and his laughter slowed to silence. I could tell he understood that my mother had found my Achilles heel. His expression changed drastically, and the tone of his voice dropped to a lower calmer resonance. He started talking about how it made sense that I was feeling like this and how I could calm down. I’m not entirely sure what James said because I’m not a very good listener when someone is attempting to reassure me, but I can tell you it was likely understanding and practical, but that’s about all I can say. It still made me feel better, though.
As he spoke, I pulled out my notebook and began to focus on cutting along the edges of the images I tore from magazines. The smooth cutting sounds of the scissors paired with the reassuring voice of my closest friend played like a guided meditation in the back of my mind. “Welcome to therapy,” I said internally as my hands fluttered among papers and glue sticks. The monotony of the task allowed me to think clearly for a second, as it always had.
I felt like I was on the brink of learning something from this experience, something that would give meaning to all this bullshit, but I was startled by a sharp, BRRRRRIIINNNGGGGG from my cellphone. Its screen blinked to life and brightly displayed my mom’s caller ID alongside her phone number. My heart fell onto the lush grass and flopped around for a bit, still pulsating. I quickly packed up my stuff and swiped the little green button that would answer the call. I covered my phone’s microphone as I started jogging towards the park’s exit.
“I have to go home, James. Thanks for everything.” I guess my enlightenment could wait for another time.