By George Ian Thomas
His lips kiss the rim of the almost empty water bottle. I sit across the aisle, intently staring at his intake and, for some reason, curious as to if he would finish the water here, in this particular lip to rim exchange, or leave some in the bottle. Soon, the water is gone, and he sits back in his seat, looking tired. His eyes open; he catches me looking.
“Thirsty much?” I grin, my head leaning his way, so he knows I’m friendly but not too.
“I know,” he says, smiling wide and rubbing the water off his mouth with his fingertips. “You ever try and try but can’t never get rid a’ your thirst?”
“Yeah, I been there. Is that what’s goin’ on with you?”
“Drinkin’ a fuck load a’ booze last night will do that to ya. This is like my fourth water bottle already today.” He lifts the empty bottle in the air like a trophy. “This size, too.”
“You’re smart tryin’ to rehydrate.” What the hell am I saying? “I’m Paul.” My hand goes out across the aisle, and before his comes over to mine, I wonder what kind of shake I should do.
“Derek.” His strong, bronze coloured arm comes over and meets my hand, and his hairy knuckles have obvious dominance over my smooth, manicured hand. He smiles and I’m pretty sure I flutter my eyes.
I have to tear my eyes elsewhere, so I throw them around the tops of heads in this Greyhound, then out through the keyed-up, tinted window to Somewhere, Georgia. But now I find them back on Derek and his cute, sleeveless, black hoodie. The yellow shirt underneath and baggy blue jeans suit him very nicely.
“Where you from, Paul? Atlanta?”
“No. I’m coming from New Owlens.”
“You go to school there?”
“You play any sports?” You’re funny, sweetie.
“Captain of the beer pong team.” Derek laughs like it’s a cough. That joke always gets monosyllabic laughs from the straight boys in New Owlens; or rather the one’s who think they’re 100 percent straight until a cute twink, much like moi, gives them the option. Once the thought is put in their little heads, all it takes is two drinks to quash the Southern guilt from overriding their curious want.
“You got a girl down there?” Are you serious? Can you really not tell by my chic J.Crew burgundy sweater, my 140 pound frame, plucked and waxed eyebrows, and my oscillating eyes over your square-jaw and wet lips that I don’t have a ‘girl’ down there or anywhere? Really? Or are you just fishing, hun?
“Got one to where ya goin’ to?”
I smile, lick my upper lip, rummage around for some words, and just turn my head side to side.
“Where ya goin’ to?”
“No fuckin’ way, man! Me, too!”
“You’re from there?”
“No, man. My parents moved to Signal Mountain from the Nashville burbs a few, oh, man, like two years ago.”
“You back to visit them from somewhere?”
“Yeah, I don’t have to be back in Knoxville for a few days. That’s where I live,” he says, raising the water bottle to his lips and hoping for some drops.
“You go to U.T.?”
“Use to. Graduated this past May. Played baseball my first two years there, then I tore my knee up.”
“Yeah, man.” He throws his right leg up on the empty seat next to him and slowly, as if a peep show, unveils his scarred kneecap. There’s something intriguing about his scar; all scars really. The story, the permanence. I rise from my seat. His sideways scar is surrounded by a perfectly round and smooth bulb of bone. The scar runs high to low from outer to inner knee. His shins are hard, hairy. They fall into blue and white tennis shoes.
“You must’ve been devastated.”
“I was.” He looks toward the nothing landscape; exact memories obviously bombarding his present consciousness. “Ain’t got baseball no more. But I got Trina.”
Oh, great! Trina! “How long you been with her?
“A year, man. She goes to Georgia Tech, and the second I saw her, I knew she was the one I wanted.”
Yeah, why’s that? Does she have huge tits? “Did you tell her that?”
“Not at first. All she would do is let me kiss her on the cheek for a little while. Made me want her more and more.” What a little princess she must be. “That hard-to-get thing is so true. That old pre-evolution animal comes out. The hunter in us is awoken.”
I’m a 20-year-old homosexual, big guy. Hard-to-get is not in my vocabulary. Did you know that two nights ago I walked into a bar bathroom, a guy looked at me and I smiled a smile. He motioned with his head and three minutes later he shot three loads of cum into my mouth. He told me to swallow, like I needed a prompt. And then he play-slapped me on the cheek, zipped up and left the stall. When I took my whiskey shot to get the taste out of my mouth, I saw him making out with his girlfriend. Didn’t get his name. Or even hear him say something besides, ‘swallow it, bitch.’ So, you were saying something about hard-to-get?
At the Greyhound depot, we gather our bags and chatter.
“Besides turkey dinner tomorrow, what’cha got goin’ on?”
“Nothing,” I say truthfully. Well, that’s not exactly truthful. There is a 30-something, decent looking couple four houses from my folks, who e-mailed me two days ago to invite me over. Last summer, they had a party and invited the block, so I went. I ended up sucking his cock while his wife fingered herself and asked me to swap the cum into her mouth. So that’s something going on. “What about you?”
“Besides spendin’ lots of time at Tremont Tavern, nothin’. We should hang, man.”
“Yeah, I was thinkin’ that. I like talking with you.”
“You should show me around. I never get off the mountain, and don’t know too many people in the ‘Noog.”
“First rule, stop calling it the ‘Noog. Deal?”
He laughs heartily and lightly open-palms me on the upper back. “All right, man.”
A deep blue Jetta honks and slows to a halt.
“That’s my pa,” he says, straining his face trying to hoist himself up from the curb.
I stand over him and know he won’t ask for my hand, so I just put it out. He cups it at the webbing in between thumb and pointer finger, and we hold it for a long second. He nods, and I pull with all the strength in my scrawny arms. He gets to a standing position and carefully puts his right foot down on the concrete like it’s a delicate ice sheet on a pond. I am elated when he wraps his strong right arm around my upper body in a half-hug. Do all straight boys say goodbye to their male friends this way? You know your lips are two inches from mine, right?
His dad honks again, just as we are exchanging cell numbers. A surge of energy floods my finger when I hit SAVE and see Derek is in my phone. Saved.
Two cigarettes, and 12 passing cars later, my mother greets me and asks if I want to drive home. I haven’t driven a car in months, and it kind of feels like I’m a 16-year-old, newly licensed kid again. She tells me to finish the cigarette before I get in. I do. She tells me to buckle up. I do. Where are you, mom, when I’m about to get fucked condomless by a nameless stranger?
The sun goes down and night brushes across the Tennessee sky in a quick sweep.
“I got nothing goin‘ on tomorrow, man. Come by at 11.”
Hmmm, give me a minute – YES! “Yeah, let’s – I’ll pick you up at 11.”
I pull into Derek’s driveway and see two overfilled black, plastic bags with leaves. I picture Derek in extra-large gloves, jogging pants, and a orange, hooded Tennessee sweatshirt, on the next to last rung of a ladder, sweeping the gutter clean, as his lips sang along to Zeppelin.
He comes out of the house. Freshly-shaven, but for a soul patch. It’s a lovely touch. Straight men and their facial hair: their way of accessorizing. He spits before he opens the car door, then throws something into his mouth.
“Paul-ie!” He drops his tone on the second syllable and plants his body comfortably in the passenger seat.
“Hey, Derek. Nice house.”
“Yeah, thanks, man. It’s kinda nice, huh?”
“Haven’t been up the mountain in a while. I forget how nice and different it is up here.” His eyes are on my iPod sitting on the gear shift box. “Change it if you want.”
He’s scrolling for something, maybe Iggy Pop or The Pixies, but he’s not saying anything. I back the car out of the driveway and don’t know if I should turn the music up or off. He goes through my catalogue, and places it back down. Nothing for him.
At the foot of the mountain, Derek asks me to pull into the parking lot of the Bi-Lo. “You feel like throwing some back?”
“You mean now? Before we go to Rock City?”
“My treat, man. What kind of beer you like?”
“Something light, I guess.”
Derek returns to the car with two six-packs.
“You sure you wanted to get that much, Derek?”
“Oh come on you fag.” You still don’t get it, do you? “I thought you was a N’awlens boy?”
“I am. And it’s fine if you want to get ripped, but I’m driving my mom’s car and … I gotta drive, ya know?”
We drink our beers by the Tennessee River, in some deserted parking lot of the VFW next to the defunct Boat House Restaurant. The breeze is a whisper, but there, and the clouds are too thin to block the sun. It’s beautiful.
I feel a buzz coming on, finishing my second beer. Derek is opening his fifth, and I can tell he is slowing down for my benefit.
“You’re not done, are you Paulie?”
“I can’t …”
“You ain’t gonna waste ‘em?”
I slide my beers over to him. “They’re all yours, D.”
“I like how you call me D.”
Oh do you? D. D. D! Turn you on? D, like that? D! D! “Trina call you that?”
“Man, she don’t call me much of anything anymore.” He takes a long sip, eyes closed, and swallows with conviction. “What’s your girl situation like right now?”
“You for real, D?”
“Yeah. What’s your deal-ee-o?”
“Derek, I don’t have a girl.” I rub my face with my hands and breath deep. “I’m not into girls. Can’t you tell?”
“You mean … you ain’t?”
“Yeah, I am.”
He finishes his bottle, pops the cap off his last Octoberfest, and runs through a few responses that never get past his throat. Finally, when he does find his voice, it’s full of Southern back road and defense. “Is this some sort of date to you?”
I look away. “No, D.” Actually …
“Cause I ain’t. You are, all right. Fine. But I ain’t.”
“Hey, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, I just thought it was obvious. If you want me to drive you back up the mountain, I get it. I will.”
He hits me on the back, tosses back a violent sip, and stretches his arms high to the air. “Fuck, nah. Let’s go see this Rock City place, man. Come on. I ain’t gonna stop being your pal jut cause you’re, ya know, gay.”
“It’s happened before.”
He opens a bottle and hands it to me. When I can’t drink anymore than half, he finishes it for me.
We cross into the Georgia state line at 1:30, and glide into the parking lot on Lookout Mountain. I pay the entrance fee for him and a very skinny high school girl rips our tickets before we go through a turnstile. She hands us each a map, which describes the points of interest at the theme park. We go down a staircase and get a great vantage of what this place is: a magnificent maze of sprawling paths, hidden caves, high vistas, and frightening bridges. Derek is 10 steps in front of me, slipping through a mountain pass where you have to walk sideways, and stopping at a sign with arrows pointed in opposite directions. SWING BRIDGE; STONE BRIDGE; ELEVATION 1,028 FEET.
“We’re taking the swing one, right,” Derek says, nodding.
“Stop being such a …”
“No, man, I …”
“I will be one, ’cause I am too scared to go that way.”
Derek puts his hands on my back and pushes me towards the stone bridge. I look straight ahead and sprint across the 20-yard connector without looking down or around. He jokes that I could be an Olympian if races were on bridges.
We follow a group of people to the edge of the mountain, where seven states are visible. All of the states — Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia — looked the same. Borders were seen as what they really are, non-existent. Farces of man. And the sky was palpable, reachable, yet still completely ungraspable.
I look at Derek. He turns to me and smiles, tears welling in his eyes. Aren’t you cute.
“What else you got here?”
“You gotta see what’s underground. It’s like Disney World on acid.”
We split up at the bridges, this time he wants to take the swing bridge. When I get across to the other side, I wait for a minute but Derek is not there. I walk to the swing bridge and see Derek leaning over the rope, his face looking directly into the long drop. He looks beautiful and diabolical. I call to him.
“Paul-ie,” he says, exhausted.
“Come on Derek, there’s more to see.”
I put my hand out, my feet staying on the mountain ground, and Derek comes over and grabs it. “Let’s get off this bridge and go underground.”
Our hands let go once he gets onto ground, and I lead us into the underground opening, where faint music grows louder with each step.
“Where are we?” Derek looks around at the mechanical elves.
“Hey, Paul-ie. You can hold my hand if you want.”
I hold his hand and we walk past all the Grimm Brother scenes where gnomes take the place of Cinderella, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood. Derek laughed at the two gnomes making moonshine.
A mother and her three-year-old daughter come near us. The daughter has Down Syndrome.
Derek asks the little girl, “Who is your favourite dwarf?”
“Snow White,” the girl says after her mother prompts her.
“I like Grumpy. You like Grumpy?”
“Are you my pa?”
“Yes,” Derek says, and his face is quivering.
“Hey!” The mother is alarmed, moving in front of her child. “Don’t be sayin‘ that to the child. What wrong wich you?”
“We’re in fairy-tale land, ma’am. Nothin‘ is real down here.”
“What’chu on, boy?”
“I can be her pa if you let me, ma’am. What do ya say?”
“You a crazy son of a bitch!” She looks at me with anger. “Get your boy some help.” She grabs her girl and hurries away.
“Goodbye, little darlin’!” Derek calls after them.
“Goodbye, pa,” the little girl shyly calls back.
Minutes later, Derek and I find our way back outside. His face is covered in sweat, and a sour smell is exuding from him. He is moving wildly, directionless, aimless, stopping and going with no reason to anything. I look into his eyes, and they are wild. I know he’s on something, and I want to get him off the mountain now.
“Let’s get out of here, D. Let’s go to the Tremont Tavern or wherever.”
He places his right hand on the side of my neck, and kisses me on the lips. I kiss back. He begins to cry, then stop, and I am equal parts aroused and disgusted. He tastes wonderful, but smells horrific.
He pulls away when a little boy runs past and yells to his sister, “Race you to Lover’s Leap!”
Derek backs away from me and looks towards the running kids. “Where they goin’?”
“It’s this ledge where this Indian guy got thrown off because he fell in love with a girl from the rival tribe on this mountain. It’s Georgia’s version of Romeo and Juliet.”
“I’m going,” he says.
“Nah, let’s go back to …”
“Come on, man, we gotta pay our respects.”
“Come on, D, let’s head back.”
“I’m goin’ up there.”
“We’d have to cross the bridge again. Let’s get out of here. Hit the bar. Or go back to the river. I can make it worth your while.” I’ll let you do anything!
“Just let’s go up there, and then we’ll get outta here.”
He runs towards the swing bridge, and I stall at the start of the stone bridge. I can hear Derek clomping across the swing bridge, the creaking of old spires and strings that hover, somehow, over air. I count to five, jet across the stone bridge, and ascend the carved in, DNA spiral rock stairway up to Lover’s Leap. Before he comes into view, I hear Derek making war cries. I get to the highest point of this mountain, this theme park, and stare at Derek’s back. He is looking out into the sky, his hands in front of him, palms facing up. It is a poem.
He bows his head and everything is painfully quiet.
I tip-toe to Derek’s back. I stop. My fear of heights and uncertainty of what is wrong with him not allowing me to go any farther.
“Trina dumped me.” He is still turned away from me, toward the open sky.
“It’s okay, man.” He doesn’t respond. So I say it again. And again. I put my hand out towards him.
He turns his head halfway, looks at my hand, and says, to my hand, “It ain’t okay. I want to be that little girl’s pa, ya know?”
“Okay.” I wait for his hand to come into mine, or for him to say something. But nothing happens.
I watch his face turn back to the sky in front of him. His body falls forward, then down, and he is gone. Murderous screams come from the seven-point state crew 100 feet below, whom have just seen his body fly past.
I fall against the rock behind me. The world spins and bounces. I can feel it turning, violently and wobbly. I am unable to breath, and fall into the arms of an old, white-haired man as I am shaking, trying to get my legs to move down the staircase. He walks me back to the park entrance, where I replay what happened for everyone who asks.
I board the Greyhound and pass a darling who has an empty-seat next to him. He gives me a look; the look. I dare not stop. I dare not speak. I dare not take off my gloves and expose my dirty, horrible, delicate hands.
George Ian Thomas is a recovering Catholic from Yonkers, New York, who now calls Chicago home. He holds a Masters in Public Transportation Survival and, in between subway and bus trips, teaches high school social studies. His favorite movie is “Before Sunrise,” color is green, and pen is Bic ‘Round Stic’. And his favorite Canadian province is … All of them!