by Critical Strike
Walking into the halls of Martin Luther King High School was like coming home, and that wasn’t really a good thing. Home was full of reasons I didn’t want to be there, and school wasn’t any different. This was supposed to be better, even though I knew that was a load of shit my mom told me to get me to pack up my stuff and leave in Dad’s beat-up old Corolla. It was Dad’s house, Dad’s rules, Dad’s decisions, or it was military school. At first I thought my mom was full of shit with that threat. You see that on TV; it doesn’t really happen. But there were fucking brochures on the dining room table the last time I came home with bruised knuckles and a black eye, and if she was bluffing then she was better at it than I thought. She called Dad the same night.
Their divorce had been bad and I probably made it worse, but I didn’t care. Their bullshit had been hell to deal with for years and they had no idea how much they stuck me in the middle. How much they used me and never even listened to me. How much they didn’t even know me and worse, didn’t even try. So fine. I took my shit and left my mom’s house. It couldn’t be any worse at Dad’s.
I was wrong. He had rules, strict curfews, and a big fist. He hit me once and I hit him back, made him remember I was as big as him now and I wasn’t Mom. I could have called someone, maybe, but CPS likes to skip past our neighborhood. So we handle things our own way.
Going to MLK was like walking right back into everything I left. Because I’d been out of school a lot, my grades weren’t good enough for the honors class and that made a big difference. I got put in class with the kids everyone would be shocked to see graduate, if they did. The ones who started fights, who were two minutes away from prison or military school. I guess I belonged there too.
I expected that. I expected everything I got, except him. Javier was there. I tried not to stare, but he looked the same, just taller. Taller and darker. Not physically, something else, like he’d been through hell and back in the last few years. I saw that look in the mirror a lot.
I remembered him. We’d been pretty good friends once. He’d lived only a few buildings over and we used to ride the same bus before I moved. We hung out the way kids who didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter hung out, and we liked each other okay. Maybe more than okay, on my part anyway. He looked at me and his eyes went big and round and I knew he remembered me too.
That day after class Javier came up to me, his eyes narrowed, a couple guys trailing behind him like hired thugs. After a moment they drifted off and he tugged his cap up and looked up at me. I remembered when I used to look up at him. “Malik. The fuck are you doing here? Thought you got the hell out.” His voice was angry, bitter, and something else all at once.
“Didn’t work out,” I said, feeling a little prickly. The fuck right did he have to be angry like that? “So I’m back now.”
“Why does it matter?” I felt my anger bubbling, the way it did whenever someone started to get to me. “Didn’t have a choice.” I slammed my locker door and stared at him and he stared back, his nostrils flaring, his lips curled and those eyes I remember being a kind of weird brown-green still narrowed at me. He just snorted then and stomped off like I’d pissed him off somehow.
Yeah. I was home all right.
Sometimes new kids at school are lucky. They find a place to fit in or they at least get ignored by the people they’re better off being ignored by. I wasn’t so lucky. Something about me rubbed certain people the wrong way and they made sure I knew it.
The first fight happened behind the gym. This guy with fists like fucking Christmas hams threw the first punch and it was the only one he got in. Whatever fighting he did, he wasn’t used to having to dodge someone bigger than him, like I was, so I won, easy. The next one started the names and I knew why they had a problem with me. ‘Fag’ and ‘fairy’ were the nicest things they said and those fucking people that tell you that sticks and stones shit are liars. Words hurt, even when you know they shouldn’t.
Even when they’re true. I don’t know how they knew. Maybe I dressed too well or lisped too much or looked at them wrong. Ignoring the fact I dressed like they did, talked like they did, and didn’t look at them any special way. They decided I was gay and they decided I needed to be beat for it. They were Javier’s friends.
He wasn’t there. Not the first few times anyway. He was there when they decided three-on-one was a good idea and he was supposed to be number three. I was pissed at him, at all of them. But mostly him, because he was acting like an asshole and I didn’t really know why, but when he flung that word at me, I lost it. That’s how the fight that got us both in trouble started. That’s how everything started, including the punishment that changed everything.
The first hour was the worst, I think. It was out in the yard, in full view of everyone coming into school. Bright and shiny Monday morning about a week before school let out for Christmas break, and the first thing everyone saw was me and Javier, sitting side by side in folding chairs, holding hands and hiding our faces. Not that that stopped anyone from taking out their phones and taking pictures and fucking videos that were probably going to be on youtube any second. I never hated smartphones as much as I did then. Evidence would be everywhere and once something’s on the internet, it’s there forever. The internet never forgets.
So I kept my head down, my fingers slack, hiding my face and holding Javier’s hand. Javier was turned away from me, one hand over his eyes and the other loosely in mine, slightly damp. We spent the whole time not looking at each other or anyone else.
First period had us in English class, seats rearranged so we could keep holding hands. Some kids snickered and pointed, others outright laughed and mocked us, calling us names. There was a kind of justice in that, sure, but it made me wish we’d chosen a different punishment.
Yeah that’s the kicker: we’d chosen this and now we were regretting it.
See, some schools have weird punishments, like spanking, community service, or detentions like assisting janitorial staff. In some of those schools, the students actually get the option to choose the unusual punishment over regular detentions or suspensions. Martin Luther King Public High School was one of those. When you get to the point where one more suspension means your parents pull you out and send you to military school or worse, you take the other option.
Yesterday Javier and I got caught fighting behind the school gym. There were a lot of reasons but it all finally exploded between us and it was a pretty public fight, so we got caught. If we’d waited until we were off school property, it would have been fine, but we got hauled into the principal’s office and given a choice. Principal Simmons had seen something, some reason to offer us the choice he did. Maybe he knew why we’d been fighting. Maybe he’d heard what we’d cursed and yelled at each other. Or maybe he was just sadistic and wanted to see what we’d do. Whatever it was, he’d made us choose between nine days of suspension or one full day of holding hands, throughout all our classes, through lunch, every single period, every minute of the day, the only exceptions being if one or both of us had to use the bathroom.
We’d been given ten minutes to decide. It had taken me less than five. I had a couple reasons, only one of which was the problems it’d cause if I got suspended again. We’d chosen the other option, even though it meant ridicule, awkwardness, and way too much of each other’s company.
There was a reason we chose this. Javier’s situation was almost as bad as mine. Maybe he had one more shot, but he was the one with a little brother to set an example for and I was the one with military school brochures waiting at home. A nine-day suspension would have gotten us both into the kind of trouble that would have made our parents lay down the law. I almost saw when Javier made his choice and steeled himself to convince me to do the same. His green-brown eyes had gone all hard, resolute, and belligerent all at once, and I’d turned to look at Principal Simmons instead.
“Hands,” I’d said, and I’d felt Javier’s gaze turn surprised and incredulous. His hadn’t been the only one. Principal Simmons had looked just as stunned. Either he hadn’t expected me to say that or just not agree so fast; I didn’t know which. Either way I’d made my choice and Javier had been quick to agree. Simmons had looked at us for a while before he said anything.
“All right. Tomorrow, you two will report here to my office at 7:30 sharp. From here you will sit out in the yard until first period, holding hands. You will attend every class you have together, holding hands.”
I’d frowned at that because Javier and I had identical schedules, which meant every single moment of the day in each other’s faces, and now holding hands. It had to be better than nine days of suspension and the wrath of our parents, though. Simmons had kept right on talking, punctuating every sentence by tapping his fingers on his desk.
“You are allowed to let go for a few minutes at a time, to wash or wipe your hands, to use the lavatory, et cetera. If one of you has to use the lavatory, the other must accompany him, but obviously you may let go and not keep each other company in the stall.”
Javier’s face had registered disgust and he’d looked up, his own fingers tapping impatiently on the arm of his chair. “How we supposed to write in class then?”
Simmons had smiled and it made him look like a comic book supervillain. “Malik is left-handed and you are right, Javier. So you will be holding his right hand with your left and both of you will be able to write and eat just fine without letting go.”
Javier had looked stricken and I’m pretty sure my face looked the same way. Simmons had given this more thought than we had, that’s for sure. “Next time, gentlemen, you should think before you act, before you make choices. That’s what this lesson is all about. You think before you throw punches, before you use slurs and fight on school property. You think before you agree to something, before you realize the consequences and the details. Think before you regret your actions. Dismissed.”
I’d spent a lot of time that night thinking, but it didn’t change the fact that I was going to be spending the whole day holding hands with the guy who’d bloodied my lip and whose eye I’d bruised.
So yeah first period was English class, and second was History, which would have been the same as first if Javier hadn’t raised his hand and declared he needed to go to the bathroom. Which meant I needed to go too. I would have been pissed but it meant I could let go of his hand while he did his business. “Take your time,” I told him through the stall door.
“Fuck you,” came his reply and my nostrils flared like they did yesterday, right before I punched him. He took his time though, because neither of us was in a rush to go back to class holding hands again.
The worst was the people who didn’t know why we were doing it, the ones who catcalled and whistled at us, called us boyfriends, gay, worse. Words we’d both used yesterday. Each time it felt like someone was punching me in the gut. I was starting to understand. I’d been hurting people with words myself.
It took me until lunch to really get it, though. That was only half the lesson to be learned. By then we’d had two more bathroom breaks, Javier complaining of hand cramps, and me spilling something on our hands so we could go wash them, just to give us a few seconds apart. But somewhere during those hours something changed: we started talking.
“I swear if one more fucking freshman laughs in my face, I’m going to pick him up and flush him face-first,” Javier grumbled in the bathroom, cracking his knuckles while I dried my hands.
“Yeah, that’ll help,” I replied without any real malice. “‘Cause then Simmons’ll just make you hold hands with the frosh instead.”
Javier rolled his eyes. “Who the fuck comes up with a punishment like that? Why would he even want us to hold hands all fucking day? Pervert.”
I shook my head. “He wants us to be on the receiving end of the same shit we said, that’s why. I dunno if he heard us or someone told him, but he knows what we said.” Why did we say it though? And to each other?
Javier made this snorting sound like he was disgusted, but at the same time couldn’t argue my point. “Eh, fuck him anyway.”
I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall. “Really rather not.”
Javier looked up at me, blinked, then suddenly burst out laughing, and by the expression on his face I wasn’t the only one surprised that he did. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he managed.
“Yeah I know,” I replied, scratching my head and smiling myself.
He washed and dried his hands then, not that he needed to. Just stalling for time before he had to take my hand again. “Guess we should think about it, though,” he admitted, looking at my reflection in the mirror. “I mean, if we go through this whole fucking day and don’t say we learned some shit, who’s to say he won’t make us do it again?”
“Fuck that, he can’t do that,” I argued, but he could, and knowing him, he probably would. “Shit.”
“Well it’s lunch time anyway, so I guess we can get some food and figure out what we’re gonna tell him.”
We didn’t want to eat in the cafeteria, because we were just fucking sick of all the looks, the comments, the assholes. We didn’t have a choice, though, and instead just picked an empty table and threw threatening looks at everyone who came too close. We had reputations just bad enough that people didn’t want to test us.
“You know we’d be those assholes if this was someone else,” I said, setting down my tray and going for french fries with my free hand.
“We were those assholes yesterday,” Javier agreed. “Look, man, I’m sorry–”
“I shouldn’t have–”
We both started apologizing at the same time and stopped, surprise on both our faces. “It’s all right, you go first,” I said, wiping my left hand on a napkin.
Javier looked pointedly down at his onion rings. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you … that. It was stupid, and really fucking mean. I guess now that someone’s calling me the same fucking thing and some of them think it’s true…”
I nodded. I understood all right. “Yeah, I shouldn’t have said it either, especially since it’s not right to act like … like being that way is wrong or anything.” I shook my head. “Fuck this, we can’t even say the words, how we gonna act like we learned anything?”
Javier looked up and lowered his voice. “Fine. I’m sorry I called you a fag, Malik. It was fucking stupid.”
I winced at the word again, no matter that I threw it back at him after he’d said it yesterday. “Why did you?”
I knew the second I asked it that it was the last thing Javier had hoped or thought I’d ask. “What?”
“You heard me. Why’d you say it? Tell me why you said it, and I’ll tell you why I said it back.”
Javier rubbed the back of his neck, his eyes going back to his food. “Fuck. All right, look, some of my friends were saying shit and at first I told them to shut up about it and lay off, and then they started saying shit about me, so…”
“So you figured if you joined in with them they’d lay off you,” I finished for him, trying not to feel like I was being stabbed in my stomach.
Javier nodded, his face full of shame, his posturing bravado all gone. “I’m a shitty friend. It shouldn’t have mattered what they fucking said. They’re assholes for saying it anyway.”
I had the feeling there was more he wasn’t saying, something he wouldn’t volunteer, so I figured it was time to talk. “You wanna know why I said it? Kind of the same reason. I was trying … trying not to let people know… Look, people call me that and every time they do, I throw fists. I got kicked out of my last school and sent back to live with my dad because of all the fighting. I never told anyone why I kept fighting.”
Javier was looking at me in a strange, kind of guarded surprise. I couldn’t keep up eye contact, though, so I poked at my fries as I spoke. “You know why people call me that a lot? Because it’s true. I’m gay and I hate that they make it seem like there’s something fucking wrong with me because I don’t like girls like they do, all right?” I tried my best to keep my voice even, but it was hard. “And it’s fucking stupid because I know there’s nothing wrong with me, but high school kids are fucking dicks.”
I stopped talking then, because my voice was this close to cracking and no fucking way was I letting that happen here. Then the strangest thing happened. Javier squeezed my hand. “Malik. I’m sorry. I really mean it, ok? It was bad enough calling you that just because I wanted to look tough. It’s worse that I made you feel like shit. But you don’t know—”
The fucking end-of-period bell rang and whatever it was Javier was about to say got cut off. I’d have to wait to find out what I didn’t know.
Science was next period and all I could think about was the fact that now Javier knew I was gay and he still had to hold my hand for two more periods, including our free period next. Maybe we could go somewhere out of sight so he didn’t have to and no one would know. At least he hadn’t put two and two together and figured out what else I hadn’t said.
I was so lost in my own head I didn’t even notice when class was over until Javier tugged at my hand. “Come on, you wanna sit in here all free period? Let’s get out of here. I need to say something.”
I just let him lead us both wherever it was he was going, which turned out to be an empty classroom. As soon as we were inside, I let go of his hand. He sat down on a desk and I chose another one nearby, but didn’t look at him. “So what did you want to say?”
“That I’m an even bigger asshole than you think,” he started, holding his right hand, the one that had been wrapped in mine, in his other one, rubbing the pad of his thumb.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We used to be friends, before you moved. You remember, right?” Like I could forget. I liked him then, before he made friends with the assholes he hung out with now, before I left and my life got even more fucked up than it had been. He didn’t wait for my answer. “I wish you hadn’t left, you know. I know you didn’t have any choice, but I started fucking up when you left. Maybe you were the reason I was decent, I don’t know, but everything started getting messed up as soon as you weren’t around. I got messed up.”
I looked at him then, surprised about the direction this was taking. “Okay?” I didn’t say anything else. I didn’t say how it was the same for me, that I figured things out too late and then reacted all wrong when other people figured it out too.
“Look, you told me the truth and you deserve to hear it back, okay? I bet you expected me to be grossed out or something when you said it. Anyone who calls someone a fag would be grossed out to find out they’d been holding hands with, well, you know. But I’m not,” he added, quickly. “And you should know why. I lied a little. It’s not that I didn’t want my asshole friends to think I was gay. I didn’t want them to know I was.”
That shocked the hell out of me. “You what?” Javier looked away and I remembered how I used to watch him out of the corners of my eyes, watch the sweep of long lashes over green-brown eyes.
“When you left, I didn’t just lose a friend. I lost,” he hesitated like he wasn’t sure what word to use, “more.”
I was speechless, stunned into silence. I was also suspicious, because no way, no way was he actually saying this. It wasn’t real. Either I was fucking daydreaming or he was fucking with me, because it couldn’t be real. “Are you fucking with me?”
Javier shook his head. “No. I just thought I should say it, because I won’t be pretending when I talk to Simmons. I did learn something, and I guess that’s what he really wanted, right?”
I looked up at him then to find he’d started watching me, and it was almost uncomfortable, feeling so exposed. I hadn’t really ever meant to tell him or anyone here. I just wanted to get through the rest of the year and that’s it, but that hadn’t really panned out. “Yeah.”
Javier reached out his right hand toward my left. “I guess we’d better get back someplace to be seen so they don’t think we’re skipping out on punishment.”
I stood up and slipped my hand in his and closed my eyes because, fuck, it felt different now. Having that out in the open, Javier hinting that something more than friendship had been a possibility made it different. There was a long silence that was just us standing there breathing, and then he spoke. “Open your eyes, Malik.”
Javier’s voice sounded close, too close and when I opened my eyes, I saw why. He was standing inches away from me, his eyes conflicted. There were a ton of things floating in those eyes, but the strongest one was a kind of naked fear, and I recognized it. I felt it myself so often.
I’ll probably never remember which one of us moved first.
Javier’s mouth on mine was warm and slightly hesitant, but only for a moment, because then we were kissing for real, like it was something we should have been doing all day, all week, since I came back, since we met. It was coming home to the place I didn’t know even existed, where everything’s fucked up still, but at least there’s something good to hold onto, so I held onto him, my hand fisting in his shirt and his in mine.
It was messed up and we both knew it. Yesterday we were beating each other up, yelling homophobic words, products of our shitty environment. This morning we were holding hands and still trying to get as far away from each other as possible. But now we were yanking clothes out of the way, desperate for skin to skin contact, affirmation that we weren’t alone, that this was real. It wasn’t like a fucking fairy tale, but I didn’t want it that way. I don’t think he did either, not when he finally let go of my hand to shove both of his under my shirt to rake against my stomach. I followed suit, wasting no time and going straight for his fly.
We were noisy, breathing hard and cursing low, fumbling to touch each other before we ran out of time, before we came to our senses. I didn’t care that he tasted like onion rings, not when his hands were moving over my skin, my hands going beneath the band of his boxers and tugging them down. His mouth was warm, but his dick was hard in my hands and the second I wrapped my fingers around him, his breath caught and he clung to me like he was drowning. His hips moved, jerking and twitching like he couldn’t actually believe this was happening.
He wasn’t alone. I opened my eyes and yanked my mouth free to watch him, his mouth open, his eyes closed, his breaths coming short and fast. I tightened my grip, just a little, letting my thumb curl over the head of his dick with each stroke. Stuttered curses, Spanish and English, fell from his lips between breaths. His head tilted back, his eyes fluttered and I buried my face in his neck, a little too overwhelmed by just watching him like that.
It was a heady sensation knowing I was reducing him to this, powerful, incredible. I grinned against his skin and moved my hand faster, steadily, until his hips were rocking in time and he was practically shaking where he stood.
I jerked him off the same way I liked it: quick, smooth, and with a lot of attention to the head. It did the trick and fast. It didn’t seem like much longer before he dug his fingers into my skin and came with a sound that was half pleasure and half shock.
I didn’t say anything, just held on for a little bit longer, then went to grab the box of tissues on the desk. I handed them to him wordlessly and he cleaned up, avoiding my eyes at first. Pretty sure I’d just made things even worse, I turned away again, tugging my shirt back down.
“Wait.” Javier tossed the tissue in the trash and reached out, catching me by the wrist. “We’re not done yet.” He said the last part quietly, like he didn’t really know how to form the words.
I shook my head. “You don’t owe me anything. You don’t have to–”
“Malik, shut up a minute, would you? I fucking know I don’t have to. I want to. If you want me to, anyway.” Sudden uncertainty crept into his tone.
“Seriously? You’re not just–” I cut myself off. Javier wasn’t going to do this just because I had. He didn’t volunteer to do things he didn’t want to, and if someone gave him an out, he took it, if he wanted to. I knew that much about him. I knew a lot more about him than I let on. “Well. Okay.” Because yeah, I wanted him to, and I wasn’t going to stop him.
He went over to the door first and locked it. “Just in case. Should’ve done that before,” he said sheepishly and then tugged me over, backing me up against the wall so I had some support behind me. I stared at him in a kind of wonder, still expecting this all to be a really cruel daydream.
But it felt real enough when he opened my jeans and tugged them and my boxers down far enough that he could wrap his hand around my dick like I’d done his.
He watched me as he did it, his stupid fucking long lashes around his eyes – hazel, that was the right word. The brown-green color looked like moss and it was weird but hot staring at him, him staring at me as his hand moved up and down my dick nice and slow. His hands were warm and slightly chapped; the friction was incredible, the rough texture of his palm sending little jolts of pleasure along my skin. I reached up and settled my hand at his neck where it met his shoulder, needing something to hold onto that wasn’t the wall, needing to hold onto him.
We fell into an easy rhythm, his hand moving ever faster, my hips moving in time and my breath coming faster. I couldn’t help the sounds I made each time his thumb rubbed the head of my dick, and that just made him keep doing it. Fast fucking study, Javier.
He knew it, too. His mouth curved at the side in this superior sort of smirk, like he fucking loved the power he had over me right now. I wanted to hit him, but I didn’t want him to stop either, and really, I knew just how he felt.
He twisted his hand, jerking me faster, and I was grateful for the wall behind me, because my knees nearly buckled at the growing sensation. I’d been pretty fucking close already, hard not to be when you’re a teenage boy jerking off the guy you wanted and had a really fucked up and complicated relationship with. And now he was returning the favor.
I wanted to keep watching him but my eyes slipped shut, my mouth stayed open and I held on for life as his hand sped up, faster, harder, squeezing a little at just the right spots until—
I bit my lip when I came, trying to muffle the sound so if anyone happened to be walking by, they wouldn’t think to come investigate why the door was locked. I came and it was a little while before I could open my eyes again to see Javier still watching me, still smirking at me, and holding the tissues.
We left a lot unsaid; there would be time to do that later, and time was one thing we didn’t have. The bell would ring any second and I still had to clean up, straighten up, and pretend like we’d just learned a lesson for the day, not jerked each other off in an empty classroom because we’d figured out our admittedly fucked-up reasons for fighting in the first place. We’d still have to report to Simmons after class, still have to tell him what we’d learned and all that, but at least, finally, we were on the same fucking page.
It was a close call, but we managed to make it to our last class, still hand in hand. We weren’t hiding our faces anymore, and the way his light brown hand gripped my dark one, it didn’t really seem like a punishment anymore. We knew it really wasn’t: it was just a lesson we needed to learn.
We had a fucking long road ahead of us, but at least we understood. I understood why he acted like he did, and why I did. I understood why Simmons picked this punishment. I don’t think he expected this exactly, but I know he wanted us to realize two guys holding hands wasn’t the end of the world. That there was some reason we needed to get out in the open why we acted like we did. That if people had a problem with it, it was their problem, that there wasn’t anything actually wrong with it at all. People were always going to find something they didn’t like: gays, Latinos, blacks, inner-city kids – and we were all of those. It was just one more thing we’d fight for, not about.