His name was Stephen. Nobody called him that of course. He went by his surname, Tan.
We attended St. Paul’s together. A Catholic boy’s school in the suburbs, it was a dangerous place to be gay. Had I been willing to make a fuss, I would not have allowed myself to be enrolled there.
Tan was thin, with a long neck; dirty black hair flicked over the collar of his blazer, in blatant defiance of the school’s dress code. When he smiled, which he did often, crooked teeth jutted in strange directions; with his mouth closed his lips were full and vaguely feminine. When tasked with reading the daily prayer, he would deliberately fuck it up. For instance, if the prayer read, Lord, give us victory over sin and temptation, he said, Lord, give us victory, sin, and temptation. If it read, Lead me to the towering rock of your safety, he said, Lead me to the towering cock of your safety. It was far from clever, but when the slightest infraction tempted detention, he commanded roaring barks of laughter. He wanted people to pay attention to him. My cock swelled if he spoke to me, which he did rarely, thank God. Sometimes, it became too much and I would retreat to the toilets, where I’d knock one out.
Of course, nothing would come of it. I read space opera and spent my weekends building landscapes for my model trains. I dreamt of being a jazz pianist, and hung out with the music kids, an eclectic bunch of misfits who talked exclusively about Coltrane, Led Zeppelin and The Legend of Zelda. Tan was different. He had come to the school on a swimming scholarship, although that was under risk. He lacked discipline, had stopped showing up to practice. One of my band mates told me that Tan’s father was a ‘nut’; that at last year’s state heats the man had been escorted from the pool for his endless screaming. In pastoral care, Father George was always taking Tan aside for a lecture on the value of potential.
At lunch, Tan hung with a crew of boys who lingered at the top of the grassy hill that overlooked the school’s soccer oval and the old gym. They slipped down to the Merri Creek to smoke, and if they were bored, they’d find a year seven, and, like a pack a cats playing with a half-dead bird, shove him around until it got old. Those boys were sometimes close, taking each other into rough side hugs, or ruffling another’s hair. In class, they would play gay chicken beneath the desks, where an adventurous hand sliding up a thigh was a test—swerve too soon, and you’re a pussy, but let it climb too far and you were something much worse: a homosexual.
Once a month, our year level was dragged into the school’s chapel and exposed to Father Peter’s sermons. He was an ancient man, with excretions that leaked constantly from the folds of his eyes. He wanted to make us ‘gentle men’, and spoke at length on the value of Christian Caritas, and loving one’s brother. These ideas provided ample fuel for the simmering gay panic. Tan called Father Peter a super-pedo for his speech at the school’s 40th anniversary assembly, in which he fondly recalled watching the ‘fine boys’ shower together. The thought depressed me. Tan and I were in P.E together, and in the changerooms, he and the other boys would clutch their towels around their tight waists to hide their peckers. How I longed for the freer days. But I never said any of this; I barely said anything at all. When I spoke, my voice moved with lovely accordion motion; unchecked, my slight hands would nurse my face in an effeminate way. In year seven, I had been called homo a few times, and had since mastered the art of not being seen. In silence was a rough kind of safety.
This silence made me more aware of my surroundings, more so than my peers. Years later, over beers with an old band mate, I had casually remarked on the school’s wire Jesus.
‘Wire Jesus?’ he had said, wiping the beer’s head from his lip. Surely I couldn’t be the only one who noticed. I was captivated by that sculpture of Jesus. Not in the spiritual, believe-he-died-for-my-sins kind of way; it was the oddness of the crucifix, or lack thereof, that got me. Unlike in most churches, where the Son-of-God was well-and-truly nailed to the cross, this Jesus was liberated, a minimalist wire sculpture suspended above, his hand stretched out before him. Waiting in line for the eucharist, my eyes would fix with where Jesus’ eyes should have been but weren’t, and I’d feel a piercing pain in my lungs, like the sort I sometimes got from running. I did not believe in God—or the wrath of Sodom—but beneath that chicken wire Jesus, I felt seen in all my queerness and I was afraid.
St. Paul’s had a strict uniform policy that extended well beyond school gates; after school, teachers drove in their dusty Volvos to distant train stations to find students wearing their uniform improperly all across the eastern suburbs. After the forty minute bus-ride and twenty minute train ride, it was easy to believe that I was far away from the institution’s reach. But on a thirty-six degree day, loosening my tie just enough to let in air at my clammy neck, Father Michael stepped out ominously from behind the bus stop. He took my name and wrote me a lunchtime detention slip.
The following lunchtime, I walked to the edge of campus. The detention rooms were famously stuffy, the air too hot and close. I arrived on time, and sat in the back row to avoid the light, split by the venetians. Mr Lee, a dumpy man known as ‘Dogfuck’, supervised. The nickname had emerged after an infamous religious education class in which Lee told us that masturbation was a greater sin than bestiality.
‘I’m surprised you’re here,’ Mr Lee said.
I might have explained myself, if not for Tan. He came through the door yelling to an out-of-sight friend, but silenced when he saw Lee. The men acknowledged each other with the wordless nod you might grant an old enemy. Tan shuffled to the back of the room and settled beside me. My fingers started to tremble. I met his gaze with trepidation, and raised my eyebrows, as if to say, hey. He pulled out his laptop. My stomach plunged. We were supposed to tackle our homework in silence, and I thought we might do just that, until I saw him opening MSN and circling his username with his mouse. I don’t know why he wanted to talk to me, he had barely paid me any attention at all. To pay this mind would break my rule of silent protection. But I was intrigued by the gesture.
His username was t@nXXX. Mine was Basil Lurhman. In his profile picture, he stood in green shorts at the beach, rivulets of seawater tracing his abdominals. Mine was of model trains.
t@nXXX said: look at Dogfuck go.
Mr Lee picked at his teeth with his finger, digging furiously in attempt to dislodge an indeterminate green speck.
What do you suppose he’s digging for? I wrote.
Tan sniggered. Treasure.
Mr Lee’s excavation expanded into two-handed operation. His left hand pried his lip over his gums, exposing a raw fleshy mound into which his finger furrowed. Tan sent another message.
You got any games?
I admitted that I did not.
Mr Lee rose with an exasperated huff. The dig had failed to dislodge the gunk.
‘You gentlemen stay here,’ he said. ‘Keep working, and don’t talk.’
With Lee gone, Tan let loose his crooked smile.
‘I have a game,’ he said. ‘Want to see?’
The game’s name was Beer Goggles. The player shifted a six-pack from left to right, trying to catch bottles that fell from the top of the screen. On the right, an image of a buxom blonde flashed a flirty smile. I didn’t understand. Tan collected ten bottles and the game lurched, as if glitching. The bottles sped up. The woman on the right was now sans shirt, her firm nipples visible through her white bra. Another ten, and the pants flashed off. She lost her shoes, her panties. And finally, her tits were free.
Nailed it! the game declared.
‘You think she’s hot?’ Tan asked.
‘Yeah,’ I replied, though I didn’t really think so. Something about the game had left a sour sensation in my mouth.
‘The next chick’s hotter.’ Tan clicked Play Again.
The ‘next chick’ had red hair. Larger breasts. I felt nauseated. Then, I realised: For him, this is porn. And, he was probably hard. I eased myself up an inch, vying for a subtle glance. It stirred in the fabric. My cock lurched in reply. I could tell he had a porn star dick. I bit my lip, and held my breath.
‘You like that, huh?’ Tan said.
I glanced back at the screen. The ginger woman’s pants blipped into non-existence, revealing a trimmed strip of pubic hair. ‘Oh yeah,’ I said, swallowing. ‘Hot.’
A bang on the window behind us. Tan slammed his computer shut as we turned together. Mr Lee’s round face pressed to the glass—bright red and full of fury. He, too, had seen the ginger pubes.
‘Fuck.’ Tan said.
Sex education at St Paul’s was folded into a class called ‘Personal Development’, and most of our time was spent talking about ‘Goals’ and how to say no to drugs. What I recall most vividly was a video about ‘the change’, which featured infrared footage of a hard penis. The boys in my class had screamed ‘sick,’ and ‘turn it off!’ while Mr Platt, our teacher, yelled, ‘be mature’. I was oddly captivated, and I knew in that moment what others had deduced from my girlish laugh.
So I felt ridiculous, and sick with dread, to be dragged to the Vice-Principal’s office, for the porn I had no interest in. Being caught with porn was about the worst thing that could happen to a boy at St Paul’s—when Father Peter had caught Bradley Howett gifting his stash to a year eight, a meeting was organised with the Vice-Principal, who played the offending material back to Bradley and his stone-faced parents. Bradley told the story through fits of laughter, but a terror hung behind the façade. Excuses presented themselves to me as Dogfuck walked us across campus: I could tell the Vice-Principal that I was forced to watch it, I could say, ‘I was as shocked as anyone, I was only looking so I could be sure of what it was, once I knew it was too late.’ I could pose a question: ‘If someone tapes a knife to your hand while you’re unconscious and used it to kill someone, does that make you a killer?’ I had a good record, would probably get away with it. But I couldn’t do that to Tan. It felt right, that we should both suffer. I thought, like Simon of Cyrene, that the shared burden of our cross would draw us together somehow—that it would become the story we would laugh about and tell strangers at parties when they asked when how we became friends.
I was lucky: the school only called my mother, who responded with faint, inarticulate huffs. When I got home, she had burnt dinner, and disappeared to her night-shift at the Alfred Hospital without looking at me. I was not surprised. We were strangers in those days, and weathered the disappointments we inflicted on each other as old friends do—we did not believe that the other person was capable of change. The shame I had felt quickly gave way to excitement. Tan had shown me porn; we got hard together. In Pastoral Care the following day, I asked him for the game. I needed him to know: I was hard too.
Our detention was escalated to a Saturday. In the days leading up to it, the bulge of Tan’s cock crowded my thoughts. I found a photo of him online wearing a lime-green mankini at last year’s swim carnival—the swimwear came with the premium edition of his favourite film, Borat. He had worn it for laughs, but still won his events easily. The blue ribbons, pinned to the thin strips of fabric that ran down his chest, added to the comedic effect. Tan’s hipbones jutted from the top of the bather’s in in a way that reminded me of the crucifix in my father’s house; Jesus starved and suffering, hip-bones jutting from loincloth. There was something sad and venerable about those bones, something that suggested a complexity in Tan I hadn’t expected to find. I heaved over this photo: it was what I turned to when horny at night and hard in the morning. I could not, did not, believe the fantasy would become real. Still, usually in the heat of it, I opened MSN with the intent of starting a conversation, only to be stopped by the terror and excitement that pounded through my body. Besides, I had been unable to think of anything to say, except ‘hi.’
Saturday came. Showering, I nervously scrubbed my arsehole, just in case. I didn’t have any concrete plans, and when I tried to rehearse a conversation it failed. I was unable to imagine what we might talk about—he did not seem the sort to get lost in a conversation about Thelonious Monk. Still, when I saw Tan standing outside Father Peter’s office joking with Tommo and Luis, my crotch tightened with anticipation. Tan was leaning against the lockers in the hall, and nodded a hello. I watched him, not really listening to what he was saying. I wanted to touch his body; I kept my hands in my pockets and pinched my thigh when I felt myself getting hard. Then, Kristof rocked up and took Tan into a one-armed hug. He was one of Tan’s best mates, a quiet man who was built like a refrigerator. Watching them embrace, the tightness in me evaporated. I wouldn’t get between their antics.
We spent the morning picking up litter from the footy oval under the watch of Father Peter. Above, stone clouds hung close like a ceiling. I scooped discarded Smith’s chip packets and the lids of discarded LeSnacs and Yoplaits from the dewy earth, while Tan and Kristof trailed behind, taking the piss. They shoved each other, and laughed in thick stumbling bursts. When Father Peter asked what was so funny, Tan pointed to a used condom.
‘That’s too big to be yours, mate,’ Kristof said.
‘You’re right there,’ Tan said. ‘Must be your mum’s.’
Waiting for the 904 bus, I felt ridiculous. I smelt mouldy from the trash and was hot with disappointment. But what had I missed out on, really? I didn’t think he would fuck me, but I mourned him all the same. I tried to escape into my book and failed. What seemed exciting a week before was now unfathomably far away.
Tan settled on the seat beside me and gave the finger to a passing black Mercedes.
‘Kristof,’ he explained. ‘If he isn’t the richest cunt we know, I don’t know who is.’
The use of we punctured my misery. Perking up, I asked:
‘How rich is he…? Does he have a tennis court?’ Idiot.
‘Ask him yourself,’ Tan said. ‘His folks hate me. Won’t let me round. Want to smoke?’
He led me into thick bushland, and down a shadowed clearing. Under dappled glow, Tan stared with folded arms as I struggled with the lighter. If he were testing me, I was failing. I tried the spark-wheel six or so times before the flame leapt up, and when I dragged on the firm tube, nicotine seized the back of my throat. I managed to stifle the cough. Tan easily lit his own cigarette and blew smoke into the sky.
‘Where d’you live?’ Tan asked.
‘Close-ish. I’m in Montmorency.’
‘That’s the fucking sticks,’ he said. ‘What do you do out there?’
‘A lot of reading, I guess.’
He sucked to the stub and flicked the cigarette into the underbrush. I waited for a fire to erupt in the scrub, and when nothing happened, I followed his lead. He lit two more smokes and passed one to me.
‘What did your folks think of the tits?’ he said. ‘Good boy like you, I bet they flipped their fucking-shit.’
I didn’t like that he called me a good boy. I exhaled some smoke.
‘They were chill,’ I said. ‘Disappointed, but too ashamed to say anything. What did yours think?’
Tan pulled up his shirt, and pointed to a deep vermillion bruise below his right nipple. ‘Dad,’ he made a half smile.
‘Shit,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry.’
Tan laughed. ‘Not your fault,’ he said. He shuffled across the dirt, rearranged himself beside me. ‘Last one,’ he explained, producing another smoke. We shared it close, his leg against mine. He smelt like chlorine. My head spun with fear and nicotine. I wanted nothing more than for this moment to stay. I took another drag, and stared at the autumn leaves, shivering overhead.
Then, the hand settled on my lower thigh.
My heart rattled but I didn’t let myself look. With delicate, testing movements, the hand shuffled north. The advance seized, then continued. My gaze strayed to Tan’s face. He grinned manically. His hand moved on to the inside of my thigh, and he is close, so close, he brushed up against the firm presence and—fuck!
He leapt to his feet.
‘You were going to let me,’ he said. ‘Weren’t you.’
I said nothing. He slung his bag on his shoulder and set back up the hill. Too late, I realised he was playing chicken. Being hard and horny, I had failed to swerve.
I spent the rest of the weekend in a terrified fugue. My insides squealed and roared. What was I going to do? If I asked Tan not to tell anyone, it would be like admitting that something did happen, and I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself or anyone else. Did I deny everything, pretend it never happened? Should I fake sick? Move schools? I knew I couldn’t come out. My mother had once said ‘the gays lived lonely lives.’
I stayed up to four on the Saturday, taking bites out of the block tasty cheese in the fridge. My skin felt irritable, and poorly fit; like a wetsuit a size too small. Near delirium on Sunday, I logged onto MSN, praying he’d be online. I would pretend my enthusiasm was a joke—and if that failed, beg. He sent a message to me the moment I came online.
t@nXXX: ive been thinking of u
Alone, the words were dangerous, terrible things.
Basil Lurhman: Is that so?
youre gay … aren’t you? its kwl if u r.
He would be laughing at the other end, readying to take a screenshot if I confessed.
He said: i hope u r.
I wanted to vomit. I wrote: I think I might be bi.
i want you to blow me, he said. I would … like … shove my dick … right down your throat.
I unzipped my pants, released my already firm cock, typed: I wouldn’t object. My most sexy flirt.
He replied: I would like … force it down there
I massaged my cock, using a singular finger to stab: I will take it.
t@nXXX: coz like… once i start … im not gonna wanna stop … for at least a couple of days
I came, violently. Shame bloomed in my gut, and I wanted him more than ever.
So, I wrote. When do you want to do this?
No reply. I waited a minute, another few.
t@nXXX: Duuuudeee. Another pause. My sister was using my computer.
I slapped my laptop shut and whispered: Shit! I opened the screen again, studied the flashing cursor.
I’m not gay, I typed.
I was fucked.
But Tan told no-one. And when he messaged me late one Tuesday evening, I understood. We played a game: we sexted and absolved ourselves of perversion post-orgasm, only to return later, filthier and desperate. At school, we remained distant. I learnt that he was slightly allergic to chlorine; that he had to take cold showers to keep his skin erupting into hives. Mostly, we talked about sex.
We stopped absolving ourselves. He would steal his older sister’s G-strings, and sent me photos of him barely contained in the underwear. I replied in kind. When Tan started going round with Mary, a girl from our sister school, I despaired, but the lewd messages continued. We bought webcams. I discovered that his porn star penis delivered porn star loads. He loved to watch me swallow.
One night he wrote: I can promise u … I want my dick to be aching … if I fuck you.
When I took the exam for my learner’s permit, he told me not to fail: take me cruising, he wrote.
It was my idea to book the room at the Box Hill Motor Inn. I suppose we might have driven to a carpark, or secretly fucked in one of our bedrooms, but I wanted romance, the texture of his skin against mine as we fell into sleep together.
I checked in a little after six. I was frightened and excited, my voicing wobbling as I passed my ID over to the disinterested concierge. While she scanned my documents, I wondered if she knew what my night was going to entail and felt suddenly hot, my temples pricking with embarrassment. This was ridiculous, I knew—even if she guessed, why would she care. And even if she did, what Tan and I had planned was legal. Though it didn’t feel that way to me then—it felt filthy and illicit.
Safe in the room, I stripped to my briefs and sent Tan a selfie. He said he’d meet me at seven, which gave me forty minutes to kill. I took a beer from my bag, and sipped in the shower, where I washed my hair with the complimentary shampoo. I emerged pink and steamy and checked my phone. Nothing. It was twenty past seven.
You nearby? I typed out. Another hour passed, without reply. I drank another beer—attempted to call, straight to voicemail. I felt furious, and desperately sad. I wanted to scream and throw things around the room, but also crawl under the bed and stay there. Then, the shaking started. I ran a bath, but even submerged, I shook. I drank deeper and deeper into the evening, into the still depth of night, shivering in the neon light of the Motel’s entrance.
He never came, of course. He never messaged, not that night, nor in the days, or weeks, or months that followed. I tried to contact him. I asked, What happened? Drunk one evening, I wrote: Fuck you. And then, the lonely messages, months apart. Hey. Hey. Hey. You there? I’m here for you. Call me?
He didn’t call.
Some years have passed since then. I have dated some good men, more bad men, and one terrific man. Coming out was not easy, but it never is. My partner, Chris, says anybody who tells you otherwise is either a liar or too well-adjusted. I don’t talk to people from high school, but Facebook keeps me in the loop. Tan has partied, cycled through women, and become a carpenter. He has started to swim again.
I still dream of Tan sometimes. He is his best self, muscular and lovely. And smoking. Always smoking.
Three months ago, he sent me a photo. He was wearing tight, red briefs and had shaved his body hair. The way the light lingered on his biceps suggested he took time to compose the image, his patient, firm penis an extended olive branch. When Tan messaged, hey mister, I didn’t hit block.
I didn’t want Tan, but I let his slick body and porn star penis flood my messages. I encouraged him. I replied with a wink sticker, or with: Wow. And: Nice. It was intoxicating to hold such power over him, to behold his nakedness, twisted and presented just to please me. But Tan and the memory of the original desire—that coming into queerness where everything felt wrong, and exciting—rose like a leviathan and swallowed me. When Chris pushed my legs over my head, I closed my eyes and let Tan pound me. When I descended on Chris, his penis petered in comparison. Sex between my real and phantom lover was desperate—a negotiation across time and bodies. Chris noticed; one night, he asked, ‘You home?’ I tickled him until he begged me to stop.
Not long ago, as I teetered on the edge of sleep, I received Tan’s final message.
I’m outside your house.
Uncertain, I rose from my bed and snuck through the dark house, not daring to turn on any lights in case he really was outside. With heavy breaths, I pressed myself against the crisp glass of my living room window. There, on the street, was a car with the headlights on, purring with anticipation. At the time, I couldn’t fathom how he’d found me—I’d never told him my address. Later, I would learn that Messenger had been attaching an address to each message I’d sent, courtesy of location services.
In the quiet evening, the muted hum of his car’s engine was astonishing. My breath fogged the living room window, and I wondered if he could see me; if he would get out to cross the distance between us. I don’t know how long I stood there, the warmth of my breath fogging the living-room window. It was a while.
Jack Kirne is a queer writer and academic. His work has appeared in Exposition Review and Voiceworks. You can follow him on twitter at @JackKirne