01 May 2007

A Story

I missed International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, alas, and so the following is not, technically part of that celebration. What it is, though, is a story I just don't know what to do with, and so I am offering it here for anybody who might be in desperate need of something to read. It is the only piece of fiction I have written deliberately aimed at what is often called the YA market -- teenagers, basically. I wrote it a couple years ago for an anthology someone I knew was putting together of "outsider" stories for teens. She ended up rejecting it because, she said, it didn't fit with the rest of what she had. That might have just been a nice way of saying she didn't like it. Nonetheless, I'm fond of much of the story, and a couple friends who have read it have told me to keep sending it out places, but I really don't know of a place where it would feel at home, and I don't have much confidence in it as anything much more than an experiment, so it seems like perfect material to post on this here blog.

This also gives me a chance to try out what promises to be a really good hack for Blogger to allow expandable and collapsible posts. So to read the story, just hit the "Read more..." link below (unless you're reading the RSS feed, in which case it probably just appears below. Update: Or some versions of Internet Explorer, which, on a Mac at least, cuts off the first few paragraphs...)



The Boyfriend from Another Planet
by Matthew Cheney

I knew we were having difficulties in our relationship, but I never expected Lu to tell me he was an alien from the planet Lirg.

Tired of me? Yes, I could take that. In love with somebody else? Sure, no big deal. A Republican? Maybe. But an alien?! How desperate and stupid do you have to be?

Before I go on a rant, let me indulge myself in a list. (I love lists.)
Things Derek Loves About Lu
1. His laugh. It's silly, high-pitched, and contagious.
2. His blonde hair. It's just this thing I have for blonde hair. Not absolutely required in an object of my affection, but definitely a plus. And Lu's hair is very blonde, very straight, always clean, and heavenly.
3. His taste in music. Exactly the same as mine: SHOW TUNES!
4. His screw-the-world attitude. He doesn't ever let anybody else's expectations get in the way. If you don't like what he says, you don't have to listen. If you don't like how he dresses, you don't have to look. If you don't like who he kisses ... well, why are you watching him kiss anybody in the first place?
5. His dislike of dogs. They're stupid and dependent. Cats are the superior species.
6. His beat-up old brown pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window.
7. His willingness to cry during sappy movies.
8. His beautiful paintings. I always wanted to date an artist.
9. His favorite book: Goodnight, Moon.
10. His kisses.
As you can see, he's nearly perfect. Not completely perfect — nobody who thinks game shows are a form of high art could ever be called completely perfect — but he's close.

As you can also see, he's not the sort of person who would continually, and apparently sincerely, insist he's an alien unless there was a good reason for it.

At first, I thought he was joking. "Ha ha, funny," I said after we'd had lunch together in the school cafeteria. "The planet Lirg," I said. "That's a good one."

"I'm not joking," Lu said. "I'm an alien from the planet Lirg."

I smiled my best oh-you're-so-lovely-and-charming-Lu smile, hoping it would at least move him on to a different subject. It didn't.

"Lirg is ten thousand light years from Earth," Lu said. "It's very much like Earth in every way, which is why I think I didn't realize I was an alien for a while. I'd forgotten. I thought I was still on Lirg."

I yawned. I didn't need to yawn, but it felt appropriate.

Perhaps, before moving any farther along, I should explain why our relationship was having some difficulties.

First, there was the simple pressure of being the only out gay couple at school. It's a liberal school, or at least most people like to think of themselves as fairly liberal and accepting, but hardly anybody seems to think having an out gay couple is a great and wonderful thing. Soon after we started dating, Lu and I both noticed that we weren't invited to very many parties together, some of our friends didn't talk to us as frequently as they had before, and a couple of teachers even insisted we not sit together in class. Typical empty liberalism for you: love the idea, hate the reality.

But nobody really got in our way. We weren't attacked and assaulted, we weren't openly insulted, we weren't told we were sinners in the hands of an angry God. But there was the pressure of always being looked at furtively, of always feeling like whatever we did was getting judged by all the chatty gossippers who populated the halls between classes, and we knew our lives were potent fuel for the all-powerful rumor mill chugging away at the background of every student's and every teacher's conversation.

More than the pressure of being who were were, the pressure (or decompressure) of knowing each other too well was what really seemed to be chipping us apart. The relationship was fun at the beginning, before we knew a lot about each other, when each day held revelation and surprise. I learned that Lu's full name was Lucite, because his parents were unreformed hippies who happened to be tripping on acid the day he was named and liked the sound of the word "lucite", which floated toward them through the purple air they inhabited. Lu learned that I'm afraid of snakes.

("Quit it with the background material already!" I hear you cry. "Get back to the aliens!")

The day after our first conversation about the planet Lirg, Lu and I went to the mall to try to find Mother's Day gifts. The mall had long been a point of contention between us: Lu hates all malls and shopping in general, while I think shopping is the highest form of human activity and the mall is the closest thing we've got to Heaven. The feelings are reversed when it comes to art museums. We learned early on to indulge each other: for every time I drag him to a mall, Lu gets to haul me off to an art museum.
What I Love about Malls
1. Anonymity. I hardly ever see anybody I know there, and if I do I can escape them.
2. The stores are always changing. Very exciting.
3. You can shop, you can eat, you can sit on a plastic bench beside an ugly fountain while inside an atmospherically-controlled environment.
4. There are far more gay boys to gawk at at the mall than anywhere else in town.
5. Bargains. Bargains everywhere. Wonderful, glorious bargains on stuff I'd never otherwise buy.
6. Tasteful window displays.
7. Soft muzak everywhere. Normally, I hate muzak, but in malls it's somehow comforting. Even (dare I admit it?) Barry Manilow.
So there we were in the mall, with me dragging Lu past the shops like a slime mold on a leash, and suddenly he stopped in front of a store window, pointed at a lovely blue dress, and said, "Think I should wear that to the prom?"

Oh gawd, the prom.

I'd forbidden him to mention it. We weren't going. No way, absolutely not, never in ten billion trillion gazillion years, no matter how much I said I loved him, would I ever ever ever go to a prom. Proms are stupid. Proms are empty. Proms are evil rituals designed to make all the square pegs realize what they were missing by not squeezing themselves into the round holes of life.

Lu, of course, said he thought we'd be making a courageous political statement by taking each other to the prom.

"Aliens don't go to proms," I said.

"They do if they wear the right clothes." He hadn't risen to take my bait. He hadn't even batted one of his beautiful eyes or done one of his usual dramatic pauses. (Lu's a master of dramatic pauses. His timing is impeccable.)

"I don't go to proms," I said.

"Even to see me in a dress?"

"Even then."

I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to a shoe store. (I love shoes. I own something like thirty pairs of shoes. It's an obsession, an addiction, a tragic flaw which I adore in myself.)

"You should buy more shoes," I said, pulling a beautiful brown sandal onto my foot while Lu stared at the ceiling. "The shoes make the man, remember."

"I've got what I need."

"Do aliens wear shoes?"

"Usually." Pause pause pause. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"About being an alien? Uh ... let me think a minute ... no I do not believe you are an alien from the planet Lirg, Lu!"

Silence throughout the store. People were looking at us. I turned to a grizzled old lady with purplish hair and gave her a stare vicious enough to kill a venus fly trap.

Lu turned away from me. Something was wrong, I could tell. Once you know somebody well enough, there's a kind of aura to them, and when the aura changes, it's unmistakeable. Lu's aura had suddenly gone grey.

I stood up and put my arm around him. He breathed deeply, and a tear flickered down his cheek.

"What is it?" I asked quietly.

He turned and looked me in the eyes as if he didn't recognize me. He shook his head, brushed the tears away with his hand, and walked toward the door. "I'll be in the car."

I bought the sandals with my mother's credit card (couldn't wait till the statement came in and she asked me why I had yet again bought something at a shoe store with the credit card she'd given me for emergencies, though a good pair of sandals seems close enough to an emergency for me to justify the use of the credit card) and ran after Lu.

He was standing outside the mall, smoking a cigarette.

"Since when do you smoke?" I asked.

"Now and then," he said. "It's calming."

"It's carcinogenic. And you've got crappy lungs, anyway." I grabbed the cigarette out of his mouth and crushed it under the sole of one of my new sandals. Sometimes I'm a little too aggressive for my own good.

Lu slapped me.

He's never slapped me. He's a pacifist! Pacifists don't hit people! That's the whole point of pacifism!

I was too stunned to be hurt. I stared at him.

"I'm not going to apologize," he said.

"Neither am I."

"Fine." He turned away and walked toward the car.

"Oh, so we're leaving now?" I said loudly.

"I'm going home. I don't care what you do."

So as I said, our relationship was on the rocks. Or, to be more accurate, our relationship was on a cliff, about to fall a few thousand feet into a pool of razor blades.

Lu and I didn't talk for the rest of the weekend. I called him Monday morning to see if he was going to pick me up or if I needed to ride on the bus with all the refugees from the land of Dull.

"I'll pick you up if you want," he said, sounding oddly cheery given the fight we'd had.

As we were driving to school, he said, "I'm sorry I've been so weird." He lit a cigarette.

"I thought we weren't apologizing?" I said.

"I'm not going to apologize for slapping you. You were a jerk. But I also know I've been kind of weird recently."

"Yeah, I'd say insisting you're an alien would definitely fit under the definition of weird."

"It's a beautiful place, Lirg. Soft, pleasant, warm. Enchanting, really. Like a Renoir painting."

I couldn't remember what a Renoir painting looked like, though I'm sure Lu has shown me a bunch of them.

"Are you still saying, then, that you're an alien?"

"Yes, I'm definitely an alien," Lu said. "But..."

He took a long drag on his cigarette and was silent.

"But?" I said.

"But I meant it like a ... like a kind of metaphor. You know?"

"No," I said. "I don't know. I haven't the slightest #%$@ing idea what the &@!# you're talking about." (Those symbols aren't there because I'm afraid to write what my mother would call "naughty words", but because the sound I made was closer to a growled scream than anything else.)

Lu just sighed. We were in the school parking lot by then, and he clearly didn't want to continue the conversation.

Lu was never the best with words — he's extremely visual. Ask him to recite Shakespeare and he'll faint; ask him to identify 500 elements of ancient Greek architecture, and he'll lecture you for three days. I knew after our conversation that he probably wouldn't tell me what he wanted to tell me in words, and that when I finally figured it all out, it would be a lot worse than if he'd just stuttered and mumbled his way through it to me that morning.

In the afternoon, Lu was sitting in the cafeteria with a girl who had recently moved to our school from some far, exotic place like New Jersey. Her name was Helen, and all I knew about her was that I'd been impressed with some of her answers in English class discussions — she was sassy and very smart, always thrilled to be able to contradict the teacher and show he was an idiot. (The teacher, Mr. Bennett, was, indeed, an idiot. I'm certain his ancestors included a cauliflower and a manure pile.)

"Hi there," I said, sitting between them. I glanced at the green conglomeration of cafeteria mystery meat on my tray, certain it had tried to bite my finger. I leaned over to give Lu a kiss on the cheek, but he pulled away.

"Hi," Helen said.

"We were just talking about Magritte," Lu said, as if I should know who Magritte is.

"Uh huh..." I said, doing my best to sound both interested and knowledgeable.

"Do you like art?" Helen asked me.

"Of course," I said. "Anyone who doesn't is a troglodyte. But I'm more of a poet, myself."

"A poet?" she said. "I adore poetry. Who's your favorite poet?"

Okay, so maybe it was the wrong thing to say. What ever possessed me to make such a ridiculous statement? The truth is, while I like writing dirty limericks in my school notebooks, that's about the only poetry I write. And I refuse to read the stuff. I'm effeminate enough without having to give in to all the stereotypes of homosexual sensitivity.

"I'm deeply influenced by some of the, ah, Romantic poets," I said.

"I've never really been able to get into them much," Helen said. "I mean, I like Blake when he's weird, and I like some of Byron's stuff, but mostly I find his life more attractive than anything. My favorite poet is Paul Celan."

"Ah," I said, again doing my best to make a breathy interjection disguise my complete ignorance and general lack of interest in the subject of the conversation.

"He was German, wasn't he?" Lu said.

"Yes. He escaped the Nazis when he was young, though his family was killed by them, and then he went on to write just the most complex and sad and enigmatic poems you've ever read. Then he jumped off a bridge."

"I'd love to read some of his stuff," Lu said. (And then jump off a bridge, I added to myself.)

"I'll bring you a book tomorrow. He's amazing."

Suddenly I knew I needed to talk to Lu alone. I knew what we had to discuss. But the bell rang for the next class, and he seemed intent on escorting Helen to it.

After lunch, I made it through history class by gouging meaningless runes into the desk with a compass from my mechanical engineering class. The teacher, a five-thousand-year-old woman named Mrs. Vladallsplotchnick@#^$&bzckr or something similarly unpronounceable (I'd never bothered to really learn her name), didn't notice my frantic carving as she droned on about the French Revolution.

After class, I grabbed Lu and pushed him into a nearby janitor's closet. "You're in love with her, aren't you!" I said, my voice a frozen wasteland of anger and hatred.

"Well ... not really ... uh ... not in so many words ... but ... uh ... yeah?"

I stormed out of the janitor's closet and out of the building without looking back. I heard Lu call, "Derek!" once, but I was out the front door before he could say my name again.

I didn't know where I was going, didn't have any plan, only wanted to move, and so I walked until I couldn't walk anymore. I stood in the center of the flower garden at the base of the flag pole in front of the school, my new sandals sinking into the soft dirt, crushed petunias and lilies and whatevers tickling my toes.
Five Thoughts Whizzing Through My Brain at That Moment
1. Lu is the biggest freak I've ever known.
2. Falling in love with the sons of hippies is stupid.
3. I'm over-reacting.
4. I'm under-reacting.
5. I should start smoking cigarettes.
I rode the bus home that day, rode with the derelicts and mutants, the detritus of public education in America, and as I looked at them, the sad and pitiful faces all around me, I couldn't help feeling a certain kinship with them, a desire for friendship. These kids I'd spent so much time dismissing as losers and freaks and prime material for daytime talk shows all seemed mysteriously noble to me. Certainly more noble than myself, better than me in more ways than I could possibly list.

None of these people, I told myself, would ever involve themselves with a crazy person like Lu.

And then a middle-schooler with a mullet sat next to me and said in a pipsqueak voice, "Is it true you're a faggot?" He quickly moved to another seat, where his friends, who had obviously put him up to this, all giggled and slapped him five.

Then I remembered why I usually do anything possible not to ride the school bus.

Finally, mercifully, my stop came and I got off and ran into the house and up the stairs to my room, where I buried my face in my pillow and cried for at least an hour.

Lu called that night.

"I'm sorry, Derek," he said.

"What does she think? She's knows you're gay, right?"

"Yes. We've talked about it."

"Are you two going to go out?"

"I'm going out with you," he said.

I laughed. "Are you? Could've fooled me."

"Do you want to end it?"

"You sound hopeful."

Pause pause pause.

He said, "I don't think we've been doing very well recently. Do you?"

"No," I said quietly. "But ... we're ... we're us, Lu. I don't know what I'd do ... I don't remember how to be without ... us."

"I know what you mean," he said.

"Couldn't this be like some sort of phase you're going through or something? Because you're not happy with me these days, so you think that a woman will solve all your problems?"

"I wondered that. I mean, I've thought about it. And I don't think so. I've never felt the way I have about someone the way I feel about her."

Oh, that hurt. That got me right in the gut, a sucker punch from a prize fighter, an elephant kick, a great meteorite blasting down and obliterating my psyche like it was an island full of dinosaurs. After all this, all we'd been through, everything we'd had and done and been, he dared say— I couldn't even think about it.

Now it was my turn for a dramatic pause, but it didn't come from any sense of timing. No, I was silent because I couldn't speak, because words had abandoned me like a hobo kicked off a train.

"Derek? Are you there?"

"Uh," I said, the most eloquent thing I could get out of my lungs and mouth.

"I'm so sorry."

"So you're, what, you're straight now? This has all been a charade? You're like cured, like one of those stupid Republican Baptist @#$%ing turncoat idiots?" (That time, I said the word.)

"No," he said. "I think I'm still gay. Mostly. But I'm in love with a woman."

"Brilliant," I said. "You're a gay guy in love with a woman. That's one for the record books. What's she got, Lu, that you so love? Breasts? Or—"

"No," he said suddenly. "It's not about the ... physical part. I mean, I like—"

My turn to jump in: "Physical? Explain exactly what you mean."

"Yes, I'm ... attracted to her body. She's beautiful. But it's so much more than that. The physical is the least part of it."

"And so you're not attracted to me anymore?"

"I love you, Derek. I have loved you. You'll always be ... really special to me."

"Thanks," I said. "It's so comforting." And then I hung up. And threw the phone across the room.
Things I Hate about Straight People
1. They never have to come out. People just assume you're straight unless you prove otherwise.
2. Nobody stares at them when they hold hands in public.
3. They get to see themselves on t.v., in movies, in pictures, in music, in books — everywhere. And nobody thinks to comment about how wonderful and progressive it is to see representations of straight people in the media. Or how revolting.
4. When they're growing up, straight people have parents and teachers and friends who welcome them into the world of heterosexuality, because, of course, every child is straight.
5. The great heterosexual conspiracy — they help each other gain power, they support each other, and they're @#$&ing everywhere! They run the world!
6. They stole my boyfriend.
We didn't talk again for a long time. I saw Lu and Helen together at school a lot. They sat together in classes and at lunch. Nobody paid much attention to them, except for me. They held hands and exchanged soft, tentative kisses. They drove home together. They went to the prom.

I, of course, was a wreck. I crashed myself into every oncoming psychological storm I could find, and boy, when you're seeking it, the weather of the mind can be brutal. I skipped classes, I got the flu and then a cold and then the flu again, I hardly left the house. My parents forced me to go to counseling, and I had some fun lying to the shrink who tried to understand me. I convinced her my former boyfriend was insane and I was good to be rid of him, and she agreed.

I knew he wasn't insane. And I knew the heavy ache under every cell of my skin meant only one thing: I missed him.

After a while, I found a new boyfriend. His name's John, which is a lovely name, nice and simple. I won't list all the things I love about John, because I'm trying to give up making lists. Lists are fun, but they lose all the subtleties, and truth lies not in numbered sets of simple sentences, but in the ragged infinity between the lines.

Lu and I talked after a few months. It was near graduation, and Helen was going to be salutatorian and Lu would be valedictorian. I passed him in the hallway one day and congratulated him, which broke the wall between us. He gave me a big hug and a sloppy kiss.

"How's life as a straight guy?" I asked.

"I'm not very straight," he said. "But life is good."

"And Helen likes you?"

"Seems to. I mean, it's not always easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is." Pause pause pause.

"I never thought I'd start spouting clichés," he said.

"It's okay," I said. "When they're true."

Yes, it's a cliché, and yes, what Lu said was true: Nothing worthwhile is easy. I try to keep reminding myself of that, because it tames the bitterness I feel toward him, it softens some of that pain, the pain that grows older and older every day, but never goes away, never truly fades, just shuffles over to a corner and gums its food.

Lu was right about something else, too. He is an alien. I don't know what planet he's from, but it's definitely not the same one as me. I've forgiven him for that, but it doesn't mean I don't regret that he didn't have a spaceship to come back to my planet with. Meanwhile, I'll have to sit on a bench in my own little corner of the universe and try to keep John from making contact with NASA.

So farewell, Lu, you alien boy. Send me a postcard from outer space sometime, will you?

7 comments:

  1. Nice story, but I'm confused by the end. Where you say "Derek and I talked after a few months. ... Derek would be valedictorian... what Derek said was true" you meant Lu, right? Derek is the narrator, isn't he? Or is this all deliberate and I'm missing some subtlety that's the whole point of the story?

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  2. Thanks for the story - you know how I feel about making one's work openly available - and also thanks for the link to the useful hack. I need to take my time over the story and reread it, so I'll add another comment later.

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  3. Thanks, Miranda, for catching that -- I had changed it just before posting, thinking I'd somehow gotten the names wrong when I wrote the story. I sometimes have done tricky things with narrators, but this story was one I wanted to be pretty straightforward...

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  4. Straightforward? And here I thought you were parodying the standard YA voice.

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  5. Well, "straightforward" might be a relative term -- usually I end up writing nonlinear stories with unreliable narrators, so... I intended a bit of gentle parody, but not a lot, though it may have ended up being more than I really knew. I'd actually hoped the characters were kind of likeable. But I do think there are some problems of voice in a few passages, and I haven't come up with good solutions yet.

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  6. I think this could lead to an interesting discussion on what 'everyone' is looking for in voice, most particularly YA voice, which annoys me to no end - literary convention, for the most part.

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  7. BTW I don't think parody and likeability are mutually exclusive, necessarily.

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