Issue 13

Just A Little Broken

 · Fiction

“Happy New Year!” Marcie says, throwing her hands around my neck.

I know what she wants, and it’s harder to say no to her this time. The paired-off couples around us lean in, boy-girl, sticky faces covered in candy and champagne, lips reaching out to touch at midnight. Marcie wants the same thing. I’ve stalled for a week now, and all our friends in college have been asking her questions.

Marcie’s fingers move up from my shoulders and twine themselves through my hair. Her bright blue eyes peer deep into mine, lashes fluttering — not seductive, more beseeching. A long fingernail scratches the back of my head in a way I believe she thinks is pleasurable, and she says, “Please, Shane.”

I am held captive in myself. Her finger stops its scraping, and she flattens her palm against the back of my head. She pulls, and I don’t fight. Her breath smells of sweet alcohol and licorice. Her purple lipstick mimics the smudged shadows on her eyelids, and I close my eyes. I feel a soft brush against my mouth before she’s there, pulling me closer. I hear the pop of another champagne bottle.

Marcie releases me and smiles.

“Way to go, Shane!” Mark shouts from beside me. “You manned up!” Marcie giggles, looking away from me while I turn and brush purple lipstick from my lips.

* * *

Love Actually plays in the background, Andrew Lincoln holding up tacky posters expressing his love for Keira Knightley to a soundtrack of Christmas carols. But I’m having trouble concentrating on the movie. Marcie pulls my arm tighter around her shoulder and burrows into me. I shift uncomfortably to allow for the closer embrace. The couch sticks to my lower back where my shirt has ridden up, and Marcie feels like a bonfire, her Prada Candy perfume as strong as smoke.

“Are you comfortable?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “I’m fine.”

She sighs, and I can’t tell if she thinks I’m lying. It has been two months now since she asked me out. We’ve been best friends since high school, and our friends have been telling us we just need to get on with it already. On Christmas Eve, in our senior year of college, Marcie did.

I feel like I should be happier. I should feel fluttering when she touches me, passion when we kiss, fire when I press against her. I should be kindled with the love I’ve been taught I should have felt by now.

“You know,” Marcie whispers, “I’ve been thinking about what we might do once we get our bachelor’s.”


“What do you think of Paris?”

“Paris?” I try to remember if she’d ever said anything about Paris before. “Why Paris?”

“Well, maybe just somewhere in France. I was thinking maybe I could go teach there. You could work on your photography. Get out of this place.”

“I think your mom would kill us,” I say.

“Yeah.” Marcie laughs. “She probably would.”

We don’t speak again through the rest of the movie, but a few minutes after Paris, Marcie pulls away and rests against the arm of the couch.

* * *

A door slams. I stare at it blankly, considering it, breathing in the stale air of our overdue fight. Ceramic shards lie scattered among sauce and noodles on the floor, but I have no will to pick them up. I tell myself to move, but my body feels frozen in time, Marcie’s Candy perfume melting away in the air around me.

Marcie has a right to be upset. At three months into a relationship, our other friends had sex on speed dial. They could get laid with a flick of a finger, or a snap of the tongue against teeth. Maybe that’s all relationships are in the end. Contact. Pressure. Heat.

I used to tell Mark over our weekend coffee that I was just waiting for the right person. I wanted to be in a relationship first. Dedicated. But now, I’m dedicated, and I still can’t bring myself to take that next step. I knew it had been wearing on Marcie. I knew she wanted to be bare with me. I didn’t know how to tell her how much I wished I wanted that too.

I made dinner. I never make dinner. She must have thought it meant something special would happen, but when she leaned into me, I recoiled like a beaten animal.

No pressure. No heat.

* * *

The mug slips against my fingers. I catch it, but coffee splashes up. Burning liquid covers my hand, and I yelp. Mark leaps up to grab napkins while I try to wipe off the searing coffee. Wincing with pain, I look around the shop. Herm’s is packed. Some say Herm’s Café is the best in Chicago — the secret being mixed hazelnut in the coffee. I’m just glad to be lost in the crowd.

Mark returns and wipes up the coffee with napkins. It’s only then that he speaks of my break up.

“Marcie shouldn’t have left you like that,” he says.

“It’s fine.”

“Have you heard from her since?” Mark asks. I shake my head in answer. Marcie could have gone anywhere at this point — maybe even to Paris. Part of me hopes she did. She deserved to be happy.

“I knew you guys were having some problems, but I thought you’d work it out.”

I lean back and fold my arms. “She said I’m not communicative — that I wouldn’t let her in.”

“Well, that’s because you’re supposed to go in her,” Mark says with a smile. We’ve been friends since freshman year of college. He’s trying to lighten the mood with one of his usual lewd jokes, but today it’s too much.

When I don’t respond, he says, “God, I’m sorry. I’m just trying to get you to smile.”

* * *

The dining room is full of utensils clattering against my mother’s china plates — the ones she only uses on our Saturday night dinners. It’s my final semester in college, another stage of my life winding to a close. There are five of us tonight: my parents, my twin sisters, and me. My brother, Carter, the eldest of the family, is in Manhattan this weekend to interview with a publishing company.

Steel candelabras stand atop an old satin tablecloth, all covering the scuffed surface of the cedar table. My mother sits at one end, opposite my father.

“You know what I heard today?” she calls across the satin-covered table, her lips curled in a grin.

“What’s that?” my father asks, not looking at my mother, cutting deep into his rib-eye.

“Apparently Nathan…” my mother pauses for effect, “is gay.”

My breath catches in my throat, and my father stops his carving, and stops his chewing. He looks up to meet my mother’s eyes, then shifts to the twins. Both of them stare at my mother with confused expressions. My father coughs.

“Where did you hear that from?” he asked.

“Catherine,” my mother says. Catherine is her sister, which means that it’s Catherine’s son, Nathan. My cousin Nathan. I’ve only seen him a few times in my life because he lives in California. He’s a few years younger than me, just in his second year of college.

My father looks on the edge of anger. “Catherine should keep her mouth shut.” He turns back to his steak, ferociously carving.

“She needed someone to talk to,” my mother says. “She doesn’t know what to do now that her son’s a queer.” There’s venom in her voice. “I told her she should just cut him off before he sways the other kids.”

“Can we not talk about this right now?” my father says, glancing at the girls.

My mother huffs and says, “Fine.” I shift in my seat, rolling peas across my plate with a fork. My stomach twists uncomfortably, and my fist clenches in my lap. I’m no longer hungry.

* * *

I slam the bathroom door shut, not caring that it’s three in the morning. I collapse in front of the toilet, my knees cracking against the checkerboard tiles. I retch. Tears stream down my eyes. There’s a foul taste on my tongue. I’m shivering so violently that I’m unable to hold on to the sides of the toilet. I dry-heave a few more times before crumpling into a ball on the bathroom floor.

I lay awake in bed for hours, thinking of what my mother had said about Nathan — and that’s when it hit me. It’s why I’m in the bathroom, hurling, my throat burning, the black and white tile cold against my bare skin. I’m up because I’ve realized it.

Nathan. My cousin Nathan. My mother said he had gone to a Pride Festival in Santa Cruz with some friends. Talking with the others there, he’d come to terms with what he is. Who he is.

I punch the tiled floor. Nathan had finally turned on the light, and now he could never forget what he’d seen. I pull myself up to the counter and look into the mirror. In the dark bathroom, bathed only in moonlight shining in from the fogged window, I can see a shadow of myself — an outline. I reach over and flip the light switch.

The boy I see in front of me is a stranger. A red-eyed, puffy-faced foreigner.

“You’re…” I say to him. “You’re…” I can’t say the words, but the truth is in the boy’s eyes. I fall back to the floor. Checkerboard tile. A light switch turned on. A new era. Black and white.

* * *

It’s a week before graduation, and I can’t graduate without doing this first. I can’t leave it like this. At a table outside Herm’s Café, I see her marching toward me, face twisted, eyes skewering me beneath purple eyeshadow. She throws her purse strap along the back of the chair and falls into the seat. There’s a steaming cup of her favorite white chocolate mocha latte in front of her, but she doesn’t take it. She only stares at me.

We sit in silence for some time, studying each other. I should be the first one to speak, but I can’t seem to find the words.

Eventually, Marcie says, “Care to tell me why I’m here, Shane?”

When I still can’t seem to find any words, she huffs. “Well, I’m not going to just sit here. I don’t know why I expected anything different from you.” She snatches up her purse.

“Marcie, wait!” I say in panic. “I just — I need to explain.”

“Explain what? How you didn’t care? How you never wanted to be with me?”

My heart pounds harder than ever before. “Marcie…” I say. “I think I’m gay.”

Her glare drops in an instant. Tears roll softly down my cheeks as I silently beg her to say something. To not be silent. She reaches down, clasping my hand on the table, and I cry. I don’t hear Marcie’s next words, but she walks around the table and embraces me. Her Candy perfume doesn’t seem so noxious this time.

* * *

It is my first summer after college, and Searidge Park is shaded, but the moonlight shines bright enough for me to keep my grounding. Eric strides beside me, moving with a sense of confidence. We pass a small pond where underwater jets shoot small fountains from the water. Five-foot lampposts surround the pond, making it look ethereal. I can’t imagine anything more peaceful.

I’d met Eric online — on an app that told me who was nearby. Marcie had helped me build my profile. Eric had messaged me two days after I downloaded the app. He seemed nice enough. He asked me on a date. We’d gone to dinner at a little bakery and bistro. He’d paid. He was taking me home when he mentioned a beautiful little park on the way that he wanted to take me to.

The park is magical. Eric takes my hand. It’s more calloused than I expect it to be. Hotter too. Uncomfortably sweaty, but I enjoy the sensation all the same. It’s the first male hand I’ve held like this. I smile at him. His face is covered in shadows, but I can still see the small curve of his lips. I squeeze his fingers, and we keep walking.

He takes me to a secluded area on the other side of the pond where sprinklers have just finished their watering. He pulls a blanket from his bag, planting it on the ground like a bed. He sets himself on top of it and gestures for me to join. We lie there together in silence, holding hands, him grazing my arm with his fingernails.

He kisses me. Without warning, without guidance. He leans over me. I slide away.

“Wait,” I say. His lips curl up again.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.” It takes a minute for the statement to sink in, and by that time, he’s kissing me again. The blanket, soaked in sprinkled water, presses into my back. I choke on night air as I am pinned beneath him. His hands push, press, force their way down my body; my fingernails scrape, fight, and scream. There’s total darkness. He pushes me into the mud, and I’m gone.

* * *

Marcie holds my hand beneath the table, clutching tightly. With the exception of Marcie, my family sits in the exact same seats as the night I learned about Nathan. My father is distracted with his food; my mother keeps opening and closing her mouth as if she has a million things she wants to say; the twins stab their basil carrots repeatedly, playing a game only they understand. Marcie squeezes a little tighter.

“It’s so good to have you here again, Marcie,” my mother says.

“It’s good to be back.”

My mother’s eyes glance at me before moving back to her. “We wondered if we’d ever see you again after all that unpleasantry.”

Marcie’s foot taps rapidly beside mine as she nods her head.

“So, does this mean you’re getting back together?”

“Tina!” my father shouts, surprising me by the fact that he was paying attention at all.

“What?” my mother says innocently. “It’s a fair question.”

“No,” I say, sturdier than I feel.

“We’re just friends again,” Marcie states. My mother’s eyes narrow, but she doesn’t say anything more. Marcie squeezes my hand again, signaling that it is time.

“Guys, I have to tell you something.” My parents both look to me, but the twins keep playing their game.

“It’s something I think I’ve known for a long time, but have never accepted.” My mother chews her lip, clenching her fork in her fist. My father does not move, staring at me. I take a deep breath. “I’m gay.”

Neither answer. Neither speak. The twins stop playing their game. Silence engulfs us all, and my breath comes out quick and painful. I want them to speak, to say something. After an inordinate amount of time, my mother stands. She looks to my father, then to the twins, then to Marcie. She doesn’t meet my eyes. She walks out the room and up the stairs, slamming her office door shut.

My dad lets out a sigh, one that seems to resonate somewhere deep within himself. “I’m sorry, kid. I’m so sorry.”

* * *

It’s August now, the summer dwindling. I haven’t figured out where to go next, so Marcie and I move in together until we can figure it out. Without me knowing, Marcie seeks out our old school’s LGBT alliance, called Spectrum. I’d heard of the group throughout my years in college, but I’d never thought of going; now Marcie calls them, and they insist we come to their first meeting of the new year.

The room is brighter than I’d anticipated. I had imagined a dank, basement-like scenario — a place without electricity so we’d have to use candles to see in the darkness. I had imagined being on the same level as vermin. Somewhere compressed. Somewhere dark.

The room is on the third floor of the library, a small conference room that seats fifteen people. There are windows on all sides, and on the third floor of the library, we can see across campus. The sun sets against the faraway hills, casting a dark yellow light into the room. Nine brown, padded chairs sit in a circle. I learn that the president is a girl named Lori Johnson, and the vice-president is a transgender boy named Max Laine. They welcome us and introduce us to the other members. I take a seat between Marcie and a boy named Brad Burnside. He has veins stretching up his tanned arms and hair as dark as his burnt umber eyes. He reaches out a hand in greeting, and I take it. I quickly unfasten from Brad’s steady grip and turn to Lori.

“We’re so happy to have you two with us,” Lori says, her voice sincere. Marcie thanks her, and I nod. Lori continues. “Because this is the beginning of a new year, I figure it would be good for us to do a little get-to-know-each-other session here first. Let’s just start with your name, your favorite T.V. show, how you heard about Spectrum, and something interesting about you. I’ll start.”

As people speak around the room, I find out that almost everyone has heard about the group the way Marcie did — while searching for a refuge. Brad becomes the first one to break this trend.

“My name is Brad Burnside. I forget the order now, but I heard about Spectrum last month when Kristin passed away. I didn’t know her, but I read how Spectrum had really helped her in her final days.”

Lori nods. “For those who don’t know…” I feel her eyes land on Marcie and me. “Kristin was one of our founding members. She passed away from cancer just last month.”

The pain in the room is palpable. Most of the group hangs their heads, as if they’re praying. I hear a sniffle from someone, but can’t tell who. Brad speaks again. “Her death made me realize just how short life can be. I dunno, maybe it’s clichéd, but I don’t want to waste my life stuck in the closet.”

There are nods of agreement, and I turn to face Brad. Even though he is speaking of reclaiming his life, his brown eyes are sad. We all share this same secret. We revolve around each other in this room. We understand that we are all just a little broken.

* * *

Chicken Parmigiana seems like a decent dish for a first date. Not so elementary that he thinks I’m green. Not so extravagant that he thinks I’m pretentious. When I tell Marcie my plan, she tells me that I overthink these things. But it’s only my fourth date with a man, and I just want things to work out.

To my surprise, Brad orders the same thing. He makes a joke about Lady and the Tramp, and how he should have ordered meatballs with it. His tanned face turns beet red before he admits that he hates first dates. I’m honestly glad that someone hates them just as much as me. I know that at one point, when I was younger, I believed in the fairytale dream —I’d see someone across the room, fall in love, and get married. I think, subconsciously, over the years, I withdrew from that dream. I told myself it might not be for me. I understand now that I had been manufacturing a lonely life in place of one where I could be happy. It was easier to believe love wasn’t in my future than believe that my love would be invested in a man rather than a woman. At this point, I’m not sure what I believe. I don’t know whether it’s prudent to think that Brad could be someone special. Still, on my doorstep at the end of the night, he leans toward me. Something inside me wants to recoil — a remembrance of a wet park.

He pauses as if he understands, and he says, “Sorry. I just wanted to kiss you.” His dark eyes seem to tell me he’s been through the same thing.

“I’d like that,” I tell him.

* * *

A golden “4” dangles on the door of my father’s apartment. The building is almost completely crafted in red brick — one of the many remnants of the Chicago of the ’50s. It is beautiful, if a bit dilapidated. The stairwell Brad and I climbed on our way up has turned green and brown with age. I wonder if my dad is happy here. I wonder if he has asbestos. The shuffling of what sounds like a stool against wood sounds from the other side of the door when I knock. Quick footsteps follow before the door swings open.

What I see is nearly a stranger. A thick, trimmed beard has attached itself to my father’s jaw. His neatly ironed shirt is unbuttoned at the top, no tie choking his neck. His hair has grown surprisingly long in the month I haven’t seen him, and the beaming smile he’s put on looks foreign on his face.

“Dad?” I say with a laugh. He immediately wraps me in a hug, which he hasn’t done in years.

“Shane.” He says my name softly as he embraces even tighter. He loosens and looks me in the eye. “It’s so good to see you.” His eyes then flick to Brad, who is still outside the doorway, looking at the ground. “And you must be Brad,” Dad says, reaching out a hand. Brad pauses for a moment, as if expecting a trick, before taking it.

Dad invites us in and pours each of us a mug of searing hot coffee. It’s burnt, but there’s something about it that tastes pure. His apartment is nicer than I expected it would be from the outside. Tan brick makes up the largest wall of the small, one-bedroom apartment. There is an ancient, well-kept fireplace and used couches that Dad claims he bought at a flea market. It’s small, no bigger than 500 square feet in total, but it seems to suit him. Thirty minutes into our visit, I swirl the dregs of my second cup of coffee. “So,” I say, conjuring up the courage to ask the question I’ve been too afraid to ask, “have you seen Mom since…” The words slip back down my throat.

“Since I moved out?” my dad finishes. “No. She doesn’t want to see me.”

“I can’t believe she kicked you out.” Dad stands and steps to the nearly empty coffee pot, his face turned away from me.

“Yeah, well,” he says as he pours the last bit of dark liquid into his cup, “she made her decision. I made mine.” It is true, then — everything I feared since I heard they left each other. It is me. I have caused this.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

Dad turns, a smile too big to be real on his face. “It’s not your fault, Shane. None of it.”

Brad’s hand closes around mine, gripping my fingers in his own.

* * *

The snow swirls in circles around Marcie’s car, howling wind crashing against the windows. The winter came early, more bitter and cold than I ever remember it being. No matter how many layers I throw over myself, it bites through to my skin. Even in Marcie’s car with the hot air blowing over us, it seems like the cold is cutting through the windows.

“He raped me!” I scream. “He fucking raped me!”

“Who?” Marcie asks. I can’t see her through my tears, but I can hear the horror in her voice. “Brad?”

I punch the dashboard. I open the door and slam it twice. “Eric.” I sob.

“Who’s Eric?” Marcie asks, but I can’t answer. I don’t know how to answer. My legs kick the floor uncontrollably. I punch the door, the window, any part of the car I can, as if I’m punching him. As if I could still fight against him, stop him from pushing me into the mud of a recently watered park.

I’m in Marcie’s arms without realizing how I got there. She squeezes me, and I cry. For the first time since that day, I let myself loose — more than tears filled with pain. My punches land softer against the seat. I weep transparent. Raw.

* * *

Sitting with Marcie on the couch, we watch as Mark, Brad, and Lori put decorations on the small pine tree in our apartment while Max cooks lemon chicken in the kitchen.

“So, is it weird?” Marcie asks. “Not being with your family, I mean.”

A fair question. I’ve never had a Christmas away from my family, but my dad went out to visit my brother in Manhattan and my mother still hasn’t spoken to me since August.

“No,” I tell her. “Not really. Just feels like this is where I should have been all along.”

Marcie smiles. “I know what you mean.”

She sighs and leans on me. “Remember where we were a year ago?”

I laugh. “We went to Christkindlmarket for Christmas Eve. It’s where you asked me out.”

Marcie laughs too. “It’s been quite a year, huh?”

I nod, and laughter rings from beside the tree where Mark has just collapsed into the branches. I look to Brad, who grins as he turns to me, and I feel something within me move. A wall. Not torn down. Slipped away. Nothing left to brace it. I open myself up.

* * *

Like every year, Chicago’s Navy Pier is packed with people to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. I’ve personally never been before — the crowds seeming to be a bit much for me to handle — but Brad had wanted to go. We stand among a crowd of people, all waiting for the sky to fill with light. I had always watched the event on T.V., but being here feels different — more open.

Excitement hums through the crowd as time closes on the year. I wonder if they’ve all had a year with as many changes as mine. I wonder what the next one could bring — whether it’ll be harder, whether it’ll be less painful.

Brad grips my hand and I look into his dark eyes. He smiles, and a warmth fills me, even on a chilling night like this. I feel it. I do.

I smile back, and we look up. The first of the fireworks shoot into the air, their electrifying booms quaking across the water, across the city, across our skin.

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