J could smell the hostility, the pretense, the utter fakeness of it all before they even climbed the last set of stairs. He was going to this party for Melissa, though she knew he’d hate it, though she’d have friends to talk to and J would stand there in the corner like a plastic tree, sucking at a beer, steaming in his too-many shirts and humiliation. The stairs were already sticky with spilled drinks, and reggaeton thumped through the door.
“Come on, J, you have to go with me. Daniel’s gonna be there,” Melissa had whined to him earlier that day at school. They were sharing a Diet Coke in the school’s emergency stairwell. The place was littered with cigarette butts and graffiti; every few days, some student dismantled the alarm, looking to sneak off and smoke. Daniel was Melissa’s latest crush, a quiet guy who played chess with the old men in Washington Square Park and who always had a Strand book bag over one shoulder. J thought he was pretentious.
“I hate parties,” J had said. “And I hate everyone at this school.”
“You’re so dramatic,” Melissa had answered, tapping the brim of J’s cap. She leaned her head on J’s shoulder. “What happened now?”
“Got called a dyke again.” It had happened a thousand times before. Dyke, aggressive, AG, butch. Whatever the names, none of them fit. He’d considered the possibility briefly, when he first realized he was in love with Melissa a few years back, but he’d never felt like a lesbian.
“Oh, sweetie,” Melissa said, lifting her head from J’s shoulder and trying to meet his eye. She sounded exactly like Karyn, her mom.
J shrugged off her concern even as he longed for it. He stared straight ahead, steeled his jaw.
“I know you’re not one,” Melissa said. “I know you just have your own style, like me. Screw this school. And…” Melissa paused. She pulled at a binder clip holding back a strand of curly hair. “Even if you were gay, it wouldn’t be the biggest deal. It’s not like a tragedy or anything.”
J jiggled his knee. “I’m not, though.”
“Okay, dude. I didn’t say you were.”
Melissa had recently taken to calling J “dude,” which J loved. In J’s mind, if not in anyone else’s, he was a he. He couldn’t go so far as to actually think of himself as male anymore; he had let that dream go at puberty. Now he tried not to think about gender at all, except when the world outside his brain barged in and forced him to. Which happened about every other minute. Still, saying she felt like something close to blasphemy. In J’s head, he was nothing; in J’s head, he was just a head, floating, trying to forget he had body parts he hated.
“J—” Melissa started. “Come to the party tonight. I want to be with you.”
Melissa smelled like amber, cinnamon, and cigarettes. J inhaled, but quietly, so Melissa wouldn’t notice. He leaned his head back against her wild hair and gave a tiny nod.
Melissa jiggled open the door to the party, knocking aside some sophomores who had been leaning there. Pot smoke obscured his vision, but J could tell this was a nice place. There was a dining room, separate from the kitchen, with African masks on the wall. Three girls J recognized from math class were sitting on the table, legs swinging, all vying for the attention of a senior boy, who was twirling a drumstick and tapping it alternately on each of their knees. Another couple was making out in the foyer, with the boy’s oversize jacket wrapped around the girl so people couldn’t tell he had his hand up her shirt. J averted his eyes as Melissa took him by the hand. “Let’s get a drink,” she said.
The kitchen counter was a pool of spilled soda and Cisco; next to this were giant bottles of gin labeled in a language J didn’t recognize. “They’re out of mixers,” somebody said, walking away. “You’ll have to drink it straight.”
Melissa filled two red plastic cups (one already had lipstick on its rim) with warm gin and took a sip. J swallowed a long gulp and tried not to shudder as it burned his throat. He held the cup by his side and followed Melissa toward Daniel, who was smoking a joint and reading in the corner.
“Hey,” Melissa said, and Daniel looked up, putting a finger in his place. His straight brown hair and pale skin made him look like a zombie. “What’re you reading?”
“Proust,” Daniel answered. “But I’m getting sick of all the madeleines.”
“That’s cool.” Melissa giggled and turned her foot inward a bit.
J hated how Melissa acted around her crushes—overly sweet and dumb. He’s a fake, J tried to psychically transmit to Melissa. Can’t you see that? A total ass.
“If you don’t like girls named Madeleine,” Melissa said, giggling, “maybe you should put down your book. You know J, right?”
Daniel glanced mildly at J and said, “I don’t think so.” J widened his stance and grimaced. They had met several times before—sitting next to each other on the same ramshackle stage at a school awards ceremony for high math scores, and through Melissa in the hallway. Daniel turned his attention back to Melissa. “Have you read Proust?”
Dios mío, J said in his head, just the way his mother would. God. He put on his toughest scowl, but he felt, in his mouth, that it looked more like a pucker.
“I don’t read at parties,” Melissa said, smiling flirtily. “I socialize.” And then, as though she owned the apartment, she added, “Can I get you a drink?”
J marveled at Melissa’s social skills as Melissa and Daniel pushed their way back into the kitchen. He sat on the arm of a couch and drank some more gin. This apartment was nice; the old dark thoughts of pocketing a few valuables rushed through J’s mind. He shook his head to get rid of the thought. Bad, he thought. And, Who are you fooling? You’re no gangster. He looked at his shoelaces, which Melissa had played with just the night before.
She had toyed with them, those very laces, in her apartment, right after their squabble about the cutting. Most nights, after school, J went to Melissa’s apartment. Melissa lived on the Lower East Side, in a studio apartment with her mother. It was even smaller than J’s family’s place, and much messier—with books and dance tights strewn about, two cats nuzzling against the worn furniture. Melissa and her mom were close; Karyn was in school herself, studying psychology in college, and she was full of ideas. She read the tarot cards of anyone who came through her door, and loved to stay up late drinking wine out of miniature jelly jars. Karyn was black and had been with a white man, Melissa’s dad, who had been little more than a hit-and-run, and this too was fascinating to J. His own parents were so conventional, hanging out in the building, talking with the neighbors, making dinner, watching TV. They’d stopped talking about whose sons back in PR were growing up, getting handsome, might make a good match for J, but still. J knew that aside from college, his parents’ slowly slipping dreams for him involved a white dress and a three-tiered cake.
Yesterday, like most days, they got to Melissa’s place and just hung out. J went online, and Melissa changed into dance clothes to stretch. He’d looked over at Melissa, who was flexing her biceps in a sports bra in front of the mirror. Melissa was a dancer and a cutter; like J, she was obsessed with her body, but unlike J, she admitted it. She wore her drapey sleeves long to cover the pine needle–length lines on her arms, nicked out every few nights with a razor she kept in her purse. She studied these cuts closely, monitoring their progress, scanning for infection, and she examined her musculature, too, wanting her legs to be both strong and lean, so she could jump higher, her shoulders perfectly broadened for lifting. Melissa’s dream was to join a company like the one Pina Bausch had founded—athletic, urban, and strange. Whenever she could, she stretched, pushing an elbow up and down her back like a cricket, bending in half and curling her forearms around her knees.
Melissa was smart, and J loved her for that. Melissa didn’t mind J’s long silences, the way he couldn’t muster a witty comeback, didn’t seem to have a political bone in his body. Melissa said she liked J’s photographs—she was the only one he showed them to—though Melissa spent most of the time talking about Melissa. Melissa’s curly wild hair, always tied up with pieces of yarn, or multicolored rubber bands, or even paper clips, matched her personality. Melissa’s hair, Melissa’s clothes, even Melissa’s cutting said, “Look at me.”
“Melis, those cuts look nasty. You should talk to a counselor or some shit, for real,” J had said, nodding at the fresh scars on the inside of Melissa’s forearm. “Why do you do that?”
“Shut up,” Melissa answered, pulling on a shirt. “They’re from the cats.”
Melissa plopped on the floor and stretched her upper body out over one leg. “Why do you wear fourteen million shirts when it’s a hundred degrees outside?”
“I don’t know. It makes me feel better.”
Melissa looked up at J from the floor, checking to see whether she’d stung him with the shirt comment. When she saw that J was still looking at her, she playfully untied J’s sneakers. “I read a book about people who cut themselves. It was called Cuts. Anyway. Supposedly tons of people do it, something about bringing the pain of your insides to your outside world so you can see it. Or master it. Or something.”
Melissa’s cuts were close together and scabbed up in little black dots, like several short strings of beads. J wondered if he’d ever have the courage to let someone cut into his skin, if a scalpel or a knife could help get the tormenting thoughts out of him.
Melissa went on. “But people stop. So I’ll stop, too. Probably when I get into a dance company, and I don’t have so much stress in my life. It’s not like I ever go deep—so stop worrying.”
“Okay,” J said, but he had already stopped worrying, if that’s what he’d been doing, already stopped paying attention to the words Melissa was saying. Instead, he was watching Melissa’s fingers twisting and untwisting the laces on J’s sneakers, as though they were the ears of some animal. She was so gentle with the laces, so tender and attentive, it made J feel dizzy.
J remembered learning to tie his shoes when he was a kid. He was probably four. His dad had bought him a pair of Nikes that almost matched the Air Force 1 mid-tops the older kids in the neighborhood wore; J had begged for them at the store, and Manny had given in. That was back before his dad had gotten so involved with the union. J worshipped his father then; he remembered copying the way Manny walked and sat and smoked his endless packs of Marlboros. J would pick up unlit cigarettes and hide them in his fist, puffing into his curled thumb, making his dad laugh and laugh.
“These are bunny ears, Jeni. You just have to cross them,” Manny had said, taking J’s tiny hands in his own. “And then you just make a tunnel for one loop to go through, and you’re done. Look. Like this.”
“My dad taught me to tie my shoes,” J said to Melissa, trying. There always was more to say.
“Mmm-hmmm,” she answered. She was still playing with J’s sneakers. She had undone the laces and restrung them, looping them through the holes in straight lines instead of X’s. “Your shoes look better like this.”
As she worked, the sides of her palms brushed J’s ankles. He wished he weren’t wearing socks, wished it were summer.
“My dad used to be so great,” J continued.
“Your dad is great.”
“Yeah, but…” J trailed off.
“At least you have one.” Melissa narrowed her eyes at J again, tugged at the hem of his pants. She reached up under the cuff, above the socks, and felt his calf. “You’re hairy.”
J glared at her. Melissa knew better than this, he thought. And still, the pull of her touch—she felt like landing the perfect photograph in the viewfinder, just before you pressed the button. That mix of jittery stomach and absolute stillness—that rare sense that somehow all is right in the world. He loved it. He hated it. An image of a car crash he’d seen on Cops flashed through his mind.
“M, I gotta go.” J stood up and bolted out the door.
Suddenly, at the party, someone tapped his shoulder. J looked up from his laces.
“Hey, J.” It was Mischa, a kid from the group at school that called themselves the Alchemists. J sometimes tinkered around on the computers with the Alchemists after everyone else went home.
“What are you doing here?” J asked, jutting up his chin. Alchemists never went to parties.
“I dunno. Same as you, man. I got invited,” Mischa answered, his accent thickened by alcohol.
J got up and walked away. He didn’t care about this party, but he didn’t want to be seen talking to an Alchemist, either. And was Mischa throwing a punch with the man comment, or was it a figure of speech? He was so sensitive, it seemed. Mischa was a social climber; he was talking to J only to be seen talking to someone, and J didn’t want to help him out. Mischa smelled like body odor, and he looked stupid in his polo shirt. At least J smelled good. Comforting himself with these thoughts, J turned and saw Melissa and Daniel leaned up against a fireplace. The mantel was littered with red plastic cups, and the fireplace was filled with burning candles and melted wax. Melissa was laughing with her head tilted back—a fake laugh J had seen only when Melissa was talking to older boys or bragging about dance companies she was too insecure to audition for. Daniel was running his hands through his hair and looking very serious. He reached out and touched Melissa’s cheek, and she hooked her forefinger into the front pocket of his jeans. J turned abruptly toward the kitchen for more alcohol.
Hadn’t Melissa said she wanted to spend time at this party with him? J fumed as he poured himself another cup of straight gin, warm and sharp-smelling, the bottle slightly gummy from so many hands. When they’d arrived, Melissa practically flew toward Daniel and left J in this nest of vultures, all looking to one-up each other with their sex appeal and their sophistication. J felt like a bald baby bird, waiting to get gobbled up.
As if to prove the point, a Dracula-ish older girl in all black with spike-heeled boots swooped down on J and sneered. “Are you going to let go of that bottle, or do I have to fight you for it?” J was gripping the neck of the gin bottle with his fist. He looked at the girl; she was pretty. He nodded toward the cup she was holding and reached over to pour her some gin. “Thanks,” she said coyly, and half-smiled. Her lips were outlined in black.
Damn, J thought. Does she know who I am? How come I haven’t seen her before? He opened his mouth to say something, to ask her her name, maybe, but only a raspy sound came out, something between a choke and a gasp.
“Are you all right?” the girl asked, concern briefly lighting her eyes.
“I’m fine,” J said, covering his embarrassment with a coughing fit. “I just have a cough.”
“Okay,” the girl said. She looked into her cup as though J might have contaminated it, and then clacked away in her heels. “See ya.”
Loser! J thought. You are such a loser!
J roamed away, too, and found a den, or some kind of office, lined with books. The lights were off, and kids were dancing to someone’s iPod. He thought they looked like a single blob of flesh, an undulating sea creature, tentacle-like arms flailing out here, a butt in tight jeans jiggling out there. The room was hot and short on air, and he sucked at his gin, though it just made him thirstier. He wondered what it would feel like to live at the center of the sea creature, enveloped by bodies. Would he stop noticing his stomach, his back, his stupid legs, and just feel like a whole person for once? Would he belong in some kind of primal, physical way? No. The alcohol was getting to him. He would never belong. He would never wear tight jeans and bangles on his wrists. That much was obvious. He would never be able to talk with other people the way Melissa could—he would never be funny and graceful and easy. The only place J could be himself was on his computer, and there he was Rico, which wasn’t himself at all but a rich man in his twenties, which J wouldn’t be, either.
J was a joke, and everybody knew it. Here he was, in oversize jeans, a baseball cap, and three shirts, looking like an eleven-year-old boy. The top shirt was a ripped sports jersey, and that’s what he was, nothing but an empty shirt, something to be tossed off and thrown away. Why had he worn such a dumb shirt? Suddenly, he wanted to yank it off and just wear the thermal beneath. The room was so hot. Why was it so hot at parties? His head was spinning now; he was definitely drunk. He couldn’t take the top shirt off—people would look at him. And then his breasts would be more obvious. God, he hated those things. Every single day he thought about destroying them. When he first began to develop, at thirteen, J had slept on his stomach every night, trying to stop their growth. But the breasts were determined. They pushed forth from his ribs like animals, fisting their way up from beneath. Even with two sports bras and the extra shirts, you could see their roundness, their adamant shout: I am a girl. J finished the last of his drink and went back to the kitchen for more. At least with a drink in his hand, he thought, he looked something like everybody else. Everyone held a red cup.
All the bottles on the counter were empty, so J splashed his face with water from the sink. He was starting to feel thickheaded, bleary—and sad, the sadness that settles with drinking too much, too fast. A small girl with a face like a mouse said, “There’s beer in the fridge,” and at first J thought she was talking to him, but she was motioning to her boyfriend, who was trailing behind her, red-eyed and spacey. J found a can of Schlitz next to takeout containers and jars of condiments and opened it with a fizz. He took a long swallow. That was better. Lighter than the gin, at least, and cold.
“Dude, you got a light?” a guy with a goatee was saying to J from across the counter. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He seemed to be very far away and too close at once. J reached into his pockets but knew he didn’t have any matches.
“Nope,” he answered.
Goatee Guy walked over to the stove and lit his cigarette from the flame. J studied the way he bent at the waist, feet parted—the way he shoved his hair from his eyes so as not to catch it on fire. Every move was quick and deft, though somehow also thick, as if his bones carried more weight than J’s. “You go to PS three eighty-six?” he asked. It was the New York City public magnet school for math and sciences, in midtown.
“Yeah. You?” J was surprised a stranger—a guy—was talking to him.
“Yeah. I hate it.”
“Me, too.” J tried to look tough, but the room was swaying.
“You know Stacey Ramirez?” the guy asked.
J thought. The name sounded familiar, but his thoughts were sticky, slow. He shook his head.
“She’s only a freshman… and I’m kind of worried about her. She’s in the master bedroom right now giving head to seniors—twenty bucks to anyone who wants it. She was advertising at the beginning of the party.”
“Cool,” J said. He was so surprised that Goatee Guy was talking to him, he almost didn’t register what he had said. J tried to copy the way the other kid was leaning against the counter. He wished he had a cigarette, too. He thought about Stacey, about the line of guys, briefly wished he had twenty bucks, then erased the impossible thought.
“It’s not cool, actually,” Goatee Guy said, now eyeing J suspiciously. “Don’t you think we should get someone to intervene? I mean, she’s so young, and I don’t think she knows what she’s doing.” Goatee Guy took a long pull on his cigarette, flicking his eyes briefly over J once more, and then stared upward at a spot in the ceiling, like he didn’t care.
But Goatee Guy obviously did care, and J wondered why. The word intervene sounded so weird. Intervene. Like intravenous. Like the rat J’s biology class would be dissecting on Tuesday. What would it be like to be Stacey Ramirez? What would it be like to give head? Gross. It would be gross.
Goatee Guy was now staring at J as though he expected some kind of answer. J didn’t know what to say. He was thinking about Melissa. Would Melissa do that with Daniel? Suddenly he was angry, very angry. Melissa had come to this party with J, and now she wanted to mess around with Daniel, who sat in corners and read books like he was better than everybody, smarter than everybody. J was Melissa’s real friend; J was there when Melissa fell apart after a bad dance class, when she cut her arms, when she fought with her mother, when guys broke her heart. But where was J now? Talking with Goatee Guy about some stupid girl giving it up for money.
“Look, I don’t care about some dumb-ass bitch,” J said.
Goatee Guy looked shocked. “You’re an asshole,” he said, and walked away.
Wait, what went wrong? J thought. Did that guy think I was a dude? I was being cool to him. Everybody here’s an ass. And he went to look for Melissa.
Melissa and Daniel were still in front of the fireplace, but they were standing closer now. J took a long swig of beer and positioned himself behind a ficus tree that somebody had strung with Christmas lights. Melissa was laughing at something Daniel was saying—what could he be saying?—and Daniel was looking serious and pompous, as usual. Melissa reached out and touched Daniel on the nose, and then touched her own nose, as though connecting them by an invisible string. Suddenly, Daniel leaned in and, very gently, kissed Melissa. J threw up in the plant.
“Nasty!” two girls standing nearby shouted. “Get this bitch to the bathroom!” J felt himself being shoved from behind, and he saw a pathway between the bodies open up before him. Another heave welled up inside him but, mercifully, a toilet bowl materialized, and J made it in time. He slumped down against a bathtub and leaned his head against the cool porcelain. He flushed the toilet, then lay down on the floor. After what seemed like a long time, Melissa’s pink ballet slippers, which she had striped with black paint, appeared in front of J’s face.
“Dude—what happened?” Melissa was shouting. “You just barfed all over a tree!”
J moaned and closed his eyes.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” Melissa said, pulling J up from the elbows, her tone a little gentler. “You can sleep at my place.”
In the taxi, J drank some water Melissa had in her bag, and Melissa gushed about Daniel. “First he was talking about chess and the way it mirrors life. The way most of us think we can move in only one direction, one step at a time. We’re so restricted. But the knights—they get to jump over everybody else and make unexpected sideswipes.” Melissa was glowing. “Daniel feels like he’s the knight, all erratic and misunderstood. He thought maybe I was a knight, too.”
“Are you?” J asked weakly, his head against the taxi window.
“I told him I was a queen, but unprotected. All my pawns have left me.”
“That’s dramatic,” J said.
“Daniel’s the type of guy who likes to hear himself talk. But he’s smart, too.” Melissa looked out the taxi window at Fifth Avenue streaking by. J could tell she was hurt he didn’t like her crush. True to form, she fought back. “At least he doesn’t throw up in strangers’ trees.”
J felt a hot rush of shame. “How was the kiss?” It was torture to ask, but he had to know.
“Wet. Too much tongue. He didn’t know how to be delicate, you know?”
J didn’t. At seventeen, he’d never kissed anybody save for the neighbor girl he’d played “bar” with in fourth grade. The girl, Laureleen, used to live in the apartment downstairs, and after school she and J would take their cups of juice and lean against Laureleen’s bookcase, pretending they were in a bar. J would be the man; Laureleen, a chick he was picking up. They must have seen this on TV. They’d “practice” making out for hours, Laureleen pretending to resist and J encouraging her to take a ride in his car. They never talked about what they did, but they played the game several times. “Daniel’s a fool,” he said.
Melissa ignored him and paid the fare.
Melissa’s mom was out for the evening. The apartment smelled like cloves and candle wax, and the cats were underfoot, meowing for dinner and attention. J had known the cats since they were kittens, rescued from some bodega’s back room in another winter, years ago. Melissa had begged to keep them, and when Karyn relented, J and Melissa had tried to train them to do tricks, one kitten with a ribbon around its neck pulling the other in a plastic toy wagon. J had tired of the game quickly—the kittens were always jumping away and dragging the wagon under the bed—but Melissa was patient, rewarding them with treats and cooing in their ears. She was often patient like this with J, too, encouraging him to talk about the pictures he took, stretching her legs again and again while he struggled to find words. Once when his father and mother had argued about money, Manny left the house and didn’t come home for three days. J went to Melissa’s, and she let him watch all the music videos he wanted on her computer, even though she usually hated the female dancers. That time she didn’t press J to talk, but when he spent the night, she took his hand and held it, kissing his thumb once before he fell asleep. Nobody understood J’s moods like Melissa; nobody else let him be who he was.
Melissa started boiling some water for tea, and J crawled into Melissa’s bed, his head throbbing. The comforter felt thick and warm, like being inside a loaf of bread, and when the kettle whistled, J covered his ears.
“Here, drink this,” Melissa said, handing J a cup of chamomile. “You’ll feel better.” She took off her shoes and pulled her bra off from under her shirt and climbed in bed beside J. He wondered, briefly, if she didn’t want him to say anything about the cuts. Usually she tossed off her clothes with abandon and scrutinized her body in front of the mirror, pinching imaginary fat or looking for blemishes before she pulled on some boxers to sleep. He’d seen her naked countless times. “Want to watch Late Night?”
“No, too noisy,” J said. “My head hurts.”
“Okay. So let’s talk. What do you think of Daniel?”
“I think he’s a pretentious prick.”
Melissa mock-slapped J on the arm, sloshing tea onto the comforter. “No, he’s not! He’s just quiet.”
“I’m quiet,” J answered.
“So? What does that have to do with anything?” Melissa touched the razor lines in J’s hair, above the ears. “Why’d you shave these stripes in?”
“I dunno. Better my hair than my arms.”
“Ouch,” Melissa said, pulling back but watching J closely. “What’s the matter? You mad at me or something?”
J considered this. “No. I’m not mad. I don’t know what I am. I think I’m just sick from the alcohol.”
“Okay,” Melissa answered, snuggling down into the bed. She curled her feet around J’s. “Let’s go to sleep, then.”
In the dim light cast by the street lamps outside, J examined Melissa’s face. He could see the shape of the large eyes beneath her lids, and he watched her eyelashes twitch slightly, as though some invisible breeze were touching them. Her lips parted, and her breath came slowly; she made a kaaah sound with each exhale, and a curl fell across her forehead. Was she really sleeping? Could a person fall asleep so fast? J wondered. Or was she faking it?
J and Melissa had slept this way dozens of times before. It was the only reason J could appreciate being born female: girls like Melissa—well, actually, only Melissa—let J in on their secrets, their biggest plans, their most frightened, sad places. Melissa let J see how smart she was. Other girls, of course, rejected J, saw only the most superficial aspects of him—the way he was so butch and tough-looking—and they’d run away, thinking he was a freak or a dyke or both. Something predatory, something hard and impenetrable. They’d never know, as Melissa knew, that J was a photographer, that he loved the interplay of light and dark and finding the wavering balance between them. They’d never know how gentle J was inside, and how scared, how he wanted to do the right thing but often couldn’t. They’d never know how confusion and cruelty change people, make them hard—the way the deepest cuts make the toughest scabs. As long as he could remember, J had been taunted, tested, and mistreated for the way he looked.
It was, in fact, in the middle of a schoolroom taunt that J and Melissa had met. It was in middle school, and both of them had been placed in a program called Arts for Gifted Children. Sixth grade was well under way, but J had skipped most of the arts classes—until a six-week photography rotation was announced. All the other “gifted artists” knew one another when J showed up, his old 35 mm stuffed into his backpack. The teacher was reading the roll, and she came to J’s name.
“Um, it’s J,” J said quietly, looking down.
“I can’t hear you; what did you say?” The teacher was bottle-blond, middle-aged. She sat next to a tall stack of magazines that she had brought from home.
“My name. It’s J.”
“Okay,” the teacher said, smiling just a little. “You might be J in your other classes, but this is photography. In photography, we strive for accuracy, for telling the truth in pictures. That’s why we’re not doing digital work here—so nothing can be altered. So in this class, I think it’s important for you to be as honest as the subjects you’re photographing. You’ll be exactly who you are—no deception, no fooling.”
J had no idea what the teacher was talking about, but his head was starting to swim. The other kids had turned to stare at him. The teacher continued. “In my class, you’ll be Jenifer. Roberto will be Roberto, Frances will be Frances. No changes, no alterations, no lies. It’s an important part of the learning process. Understood?”
J couldn’t answer. His tongue felt like a thick sweater in his mouth, and his hands started to sweat. Somebody laughed.
“I can’t hear you,” the teacher persisted.
Suddenly, a girl in neon tights and braids piped up.
“ ’Scuse me, ma’am?” she said, completely unafraid. The girl had a tough street accent, which J would later learn could be adopted and abandoned at will. “J is my cousin, and something real bad happened in our family. She can’t be called Jenifer no more, ’cause of the memories. That’s why her name is J.”
“Oh!” the teacher said, her mouth a small circle, her eyebrows lifted in surprise. She weighed the situation for a moment, seemingly steeling herself for a battle. Then she dropped her armor. “Okay, then. I’m sorry. J it is. Let’s go on.”
After the class, J thanked Melissa. It took all his courage to stop her in the hall.
“Don’t worry about it,” Melissa had said. “That teacher was an idiot. I mean, since when is photography honest? There’s a Picasso quote from the first teacher—the one who taught painting. I love it! It goes, ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’ That teacher was waaaay better.”
J knew, right then, that he loved her.
More than five years and countless sleepovers later, J wondered: could Melissa feel J’s own breath as he moved microscopically closer to her in the bed, his own lips now almost touching Melissa’s? He was sure Melissa shifted toward him, too. J thought suddenly of Stacey Ramirez and wondered whether she had really wanted to do that, or whether she just craved attention. Or money. Melissa’s knees pressed harder into J’s, J was sure of it, and a flame rose up in J’s stomach. J’s eyes were closed now, and he didn’t dare open them; Melissa might see him watching and move away. He could feel Melissa’s breath on his upper lip, and though the alcohol smell made him queasy, he didn’t want the moment to end. And yet he wanted more. He wanted to be in the lineup of guys with Stacey Ramirez, he wanted to be in Puerto Rico, he wanted to fly a plane. He wanted Melissa.
Suddenly, they were kissing. J’s mouth on Melissa’s, his hand lightly hovering above her hip. J felt Melissa’s lips part in response, her tongue dart out and back again.
Melissa sat straight up. “J!” she said. “What are you doing?”
Melissa got up and walked across the room. Her bare feet made a slapping sound on the wood floor, and then an overhead light shattered the darkness. J threw the comforter over his head to protect his eyes. “I was sleeping!” J shouted, his voice muffled. “Same as you!”
“No,” Melissa barked. “You kissed me.”
J peeked out from the blankets. Melissa’s face looked strained and confused.
Melissa came back and sat on the edge of the bed. She hung her head and looked at her toes. Her black nail polish was chipped in several places, and she leaned down to pick away at some more. “People warned me about you, again and again and again,” she said. “But I ignored them. I thought you were my friend.”
J just looked at her. His headache was worse than ever.
“J—” Melissa started again, “I’m not a lesbian.”
J sat up straight in bed. He screamed at her, inside his head, louder than anything he’d ever screamed before. I’m not, either!
Melissa, of course, couldn’t hear him. She picked up J’s bag from the floor and said, “I think you should go home.”
Excerpted from I Am J by Beam, Cris Copyright © 2011 by Beam, Cris. Excerpted by permission.
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