That moment spun through my mind, playing on a haunted, familiar loop. Blake’s muffled chuckles bubbled through his lips; his dark brown eyes leaned into mine; they briefly dropped to glance at my lips and then jumped back up to hold my reeling gaze. He turned back to listen to the prof, and, after a moment, I looked away too, but I couldn’t listen; I just watched the slides change. My mind, my perverted mind, was already relishing the image of Blake peeking at my mouth, this material it could twist and shape into something else.
My head snapped up and I looked at my mom. She was holding out a stack of cash to me.
“Oh. Sorry, Mom. What’s this for?” I asked, grabbing it.
“Groceries. The ones you just picked up. You weren’t listening?”
I shook my head, pulled out my wallet, and folded the bills into it. “Thank you. Sorry.”
My mom’s eyebrows drew together, and she pursed her lips, knowingly. Slowly, she withdrew, resumed slicing carrots, and I continued putting away the groceries.
I probably imagined Blake’s lingering look on my lips. Maybe he was just examining my laugh. But, the image of his features, his cocked, amused lips, was being remolded in my mind, sculpted and edited, adjusted so my imagination could play with the idea of him leaning in close to me, of him wanting to kiss me…
“Ok,” my mom cut in. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing. All good. Just a bit distracted.”
“Whatcha distracted by?” She asked, playfully prying.
“Not stuff!” Her tone was ironic, her expression contorted dramatically, and her posture mockingly disparaged. I smirked at her performance. “How will you cope with stuff! How will you go on? My dear baby—” She rushed over to me and took my face in her small hands, looking up at me with exaggerated concern. “—dealing with…y’know… stuff!”
“Ooook,” I laughed, removing her hands from my cheeks.
She ruffled my hair and went back to teasing her carrots into shape. She gently cut them, each slice uniformly even. Then, she moved onto the zucchini and gently undid the vegetable as well.
“Is zucchini a fruit or a vegetable?” I wondered aloud.
“I don’t care. They taste good: all that matters to me.” She popped a slice into her mouth and smiled at me. “So, you gunna tell me?”
I tensed. I knew I should tell her before it started to take over, before I started to convince myself that I actually did want to kiss Blake. Seeing how she energetically prepared our dinner, I grew heavy.
“So? Tell me about nothing. About stuff. I crave to know about your nothing-stuff, you know that right? As your mother,” she gestured her knife at me, “your nothing-stuff is what I most look forward to.”
I rolled my eyes and asked with forced levity, “Could you lay off even, like, slightly?”
“Never,” she vowed.
I grinned at her and her enviable energy, soaking in her palpable brightness. She practically hopped around the kitchen, half humming a half-familiar tune, as she noticed every detail most people seemed to miss. There was no use in trying to stop this on my own. She would sense it as I withdrew and tried to protect her from it. She could help me stop—would help me stop, like she always did. She gave so much, and I wished I could give her better. Be better. But, if I left these thoughts, these perverted urges, unattended too long, without my mother’s help, I would become something else. Someone else. I dreaded her betrayed expression at her finding out when it reached a tipping point.
Pausing in her humming, she peered over her shoulder and raised her eyebrows, gesturing me to get on with it.
I sighed. Tried to sound casual as I admitted, “There’s this…guy in my class?”
She raised her eyebrows at my tone. “Is there a guy in your class? You don’t seem sure.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. His name’s Blake.” I picked lint off my sweater and pulled at the clumps of fabric that pilled together.
“Oh. Is this why you’re enjoying Stats so much? Blake?”
“Maybe? I don’t know.”
My mom’s green eyes interviewed my features. Picking up a carrot and a paring knife, she turned around so she could look at me directly while she nimbly skinned the vegetable. “How’d you two meet?”
I shrugged. “He just sat down next to me at the beginning of the semester. Talked to me during breaks. A bit after class.” I didn’t want to tell her that it got worse from there, that there were many nights we studied for hours over video chat on Discord. Or, how those study sessions strayed into sending each other gifs, memes, and our favorite comedy sketches, and then invites to play Valorant or Dark Souls together. Or how we’d just devolve into sleep-deprived, stifled laughter that made my body ache in a depraved way.
“What do you guys talk about?”
“Oh.” I paused and wracked my brain through the dozens of miniscule encounters that were carved out carefully in my mind and frequently dusted off as I reviewed them, perfected them. “Nothing…special. Just, like, what we’re watching on Netflix, whether either of us understand what the fuck the prof is saying…” I smiled at one memory and told her, “I showed him a meme I thought was funny a few weeks ago and he laughed. Really loudly. It, like, disrupted the prof for a sec and he had to try not to laugh and then I was trying not to laugh at him trying not to laugh.”
I turned my attention back to my mom and my memory’s color began to desaturate at her expression. After a moment, she asked, “So, is he the nothing-stuff?”
She nodded. Sighed. Put down the knife and carrot. “Thank you for telling me, Thomas.”
“I don’t want to feel like—” I choked on my voice.
“I know. We can help you feel like you again.”
I nodded. Bit my lip.
“What’s that brain of yours telling you this time, eh? What’s it focusing on?” She was so calm, so kind, even in the face of this bullshit.
“I don’t know.” I averted my gaze. “How he looks at me. The way I feel when he looks at me.” Hot shame roiled through me. “The way I think about kissing him.”
She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Wanting to kiss your friends isn’t outside the realm of normal friendship,” she explained.
My head leapt up. “Really?”
“Oh, yeah,” she maintained. “I know I’ve wanted to kiss some of my closest friends. Either because of how attractive they were, or because of how much I wanted to be like them, or…because of how lonely I was.” Her eyebrows communed at the bridge of her nose in concern. “Oh, honey. Do you want a hug?”
“I’m fine. Just…it’s a lot.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“I don’t know what to do,” I blubbered, pathetically.
“I know,” she said gently. “My first advice would be to not kiss your friends. Typically, doesn’t end well. You wouldn’t want to weird him out.”
You wouldn’t want to weird him out. My mind latched onto the words, burned a CD from the sound, found our loudest sound system, hit repeat, and turned the volume all the way up.
“I just don’t understand why this keeps happening. Why I can’t just be normal and not think these gross things about my friends.” A tear dropped and my mom rushed over and clutched me tightly.
I instantly started crying. I couldn’t help it. Her affection was like a knife, and I was one of her vegetables, effortlessly breaking open.
In my ear, her voice was velvet and warm: “We can’t control our thoughts, honey.” She was rubbing soothing circles into my spine. “A lot of people have fucked up thoughts, but that doesn’t make them bad people.”
“But what if—” My chest burned, disbelieving the question I had started to form.
In my arms, I felt her tense, her carefully guarded repulsion seeping out. She pulled her head back and squinted up at me. “What?”
“What if I’m just…gay?” I murmured hopefully.
She placed her kind hand on my cheek. “I wish it were that simple,” she said, sadly. “But, this isn’t a crush. This is…obsession.”
“I’d never do it, though,” I whispered.
She took my chin in her fingers. I blinked her features into focus. She was the only person in the world who would look at me so tenderly after I’d admitted to this.
“Kissing anyone who doesn’t want to be kissed would make you a bad person, right?”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“And,” she continued delicately. “Dreaming about a guy who doesn’t want to kiss you and convincing yourself that he actually does want to kiss you doesn’t mean you’re gay,” she explained. “He didn’t consent to these fantasies, Thomas. These intense fixations you get…it’s not normal, honey.”
My mind gawked at all the creepy footage my brain had compiled. Cowardly thoughts buried themselves in joints and raced through my muscles, hoping their twisted energy could be converted to something useful even as they made my body ache. My heart expanded resentfully, in disgust, its valves grunting and spitting blood into my wobbly veins. A familiar sense of emptiness expanded within me, a fog: thick and cloying, both numbing and suffocating. I willed myself to turn to stone at these exact coordinates on Earth and become a harmless sculpture that fit nicely into this world.
Over the next week, I remorsefully gathered every strand of Blake my brain had nested in. It was gruesome work, slicing him away. It was futile, really. There was too much of him that I had woven along arteries for me to easily burn away. So, instead, I reedited the images of him leaning in to images of him leaning away. I didn’t check my phone much, and luckily, he hadn’t texted me all week or messaged me on Discord, sent me articles or Tiktoks, memes, or anything as he usually did, so it was easier to remind myself that I had created everything in my mind.
Wednesday 6 p.m. used to be my favorite time of the week. However, this time, I was a pumpkin, gutted and carved out, wheezing on charred memories in the back corner of the Stats lecture hall. When Blake walked in and saw me huddled in the back corner and started to pad over to me, my bones rattled nervously like an animal sensing an impending flood. I chained my mind down as it tried to take flight. He folded his body into his seat, and tucked his legs under the table, inches from my own thigh.
“Hey, Thom,” he whispered, leaning in close enough so I could smell his shampoo. I cursed myself for liking it. Stop it. Just fucking stop it, I pleaded with myself. Don’t weird him out.
“Hey, man,” I muttered.
He did a double take when he saw my face. “Are you ok?”
I refused to look at him, even as I felt his eyes on me. Maybe he could sense all those weird feelings. Blake glanced over every time I sniffled and shifted my weight, like he was uncomfortable with being so close to me and wanted to monitor our proximity. I tried to lean away as much as I could.
After class, I tripped over my feet and almost ran into people as I rounded corners. I couldn’t get on the bus yet. I needed to make sure I wasn’t going to cry. Pulling out my phone, I texted my mom: Gunna miss the 9:10 bus. Need to ask the prof about an assignment. I’ll catch the 10:10 bus. Be home around 11. She replied with a thumbs-up.
I sunk down in a stairwell and began negotiations with my lungs, tried to convince my heart not to tear my chest open.
“Did I do something?” Blake’s voice shocked me, and I jumped.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, shuffling his feet. “Didn’t mean to scare you. I just…I wanted to tell you that if I did something, or whatever, to make you uncomfortable, then…please just tell me.”
His fists clutched the straps of his backpack and his eyebrows huddled together, nervously.
“You didn’t do anything.”
He looked down at his fraying shoelaces. “You didn’t come to the stream on Friday. I just thought you were…I thought you said you’d…”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“No, it’s uh…whatever. I don’t know why I care.” He laughed awkwardly, biting his lip, rocking on his heels. He squinted at me. “You sure I didn’t do anything?”
“So, why didn’t you answer any of my texts? Why wouldn’t you even look at me in lecture? I don’t get it. We were…and then…” He paused. He was breathing heavy, searching my dumbfounded face. “Ok. Yeah. I’m sorry, dude. I’ll take the hint—”
“What texts? You didn’t text me.”
“Yes, I did. I even called you, Thom. But maybe that was—”
“You didn’t. I didn’t get anything from you.”
I pulled out my phone and scrolled through recent messages and realized that, not only had Blake not texted me this week, but our chat had disappeared.
“Did you delete my number?” he asked quietly, moving closer and peering down at my screen.
“No,” I told him firmly. “I definitely did not do that.” At least, I didn’t think I did. “Even if I had, your texts would have come through as an unknown number…”
“Did you…block me?”
“No. I would not have blocked you,” I said as I pulled up my blocked contacts.
He pointed. “That’s my number,” he said, disbelief filling his voice. “You blocked me?”
“I…” Did I? My finger hovered over it, almost restored it, but I couldn’t. My bones started to freeze. She’d know.
“Why would you block me?” He was backing away.
“I didn’t, Blake,” I explained, getting to my feet, as he continued to retreat till his back hit the wall across from me.
“My number’s blocked in your phone, Thom.” His eyes were darker as they melted. “You couldn’t have waited till the end of the semester to ghost me? I just thought…whatever.” He started to walk away.
“It was my mom.” The words left my lips and I was still processing them even as he turned around, deep confusion and surprise warring on his features.
“Your mom blocked my number in your phone?” He repeated, bitterly, not believing me. “What about Discord?”
“I think she uninstalled it,” I said weakly.
“Why the fuck would your mom block me?”
Tears fell on my cheeks. I owed him an explanation. Then, he’d leave. Call me a weirdo. A perv. I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping myself away from him anymore. He’d maintain a safe distance for both of us.
“Because…I want to kiss you.”
Blake blinked. Opened his mouth. Closed it. Gave a short laugh. Shook his head. Looked at me. His narrowed, angry eyes devoured me, finally noticing every creepy tendril that sprouted out of me. Then, he blinked and took a step forward.
“Thom, I’m so sorry.” Blake’s voice was soaked in warmth I never expected. It made me sick.
“No, I’m sorry,” I told him, weeping. “I don’t want to weird you out or anything. I just…Blake, I’m so, so sorry. I would never, ok? I promise. My thoughts just get…twisted. And I’m working on it. My mom was probably trying to protect you—not that I would ever, ever do anything. I think she just wants to make sure, though. So, all the weird things stay in my head.”
“Holy shit,” Blake muttered. I slumped pathetically against the wall and let him evaluate the pervert before him. Those soft eyes reviewed the features he thought he knew and I shrugged, helplessly. “When you say weird thoughts, are you talking about…wanting to hurt me?”
I covered my face and wailed, “Oh, my God, no! Never!”
“Do you…follow me around or anything?”
“No! It’s nothing like that.”
“What is it then?”
I sighed. His features were as distorted by my tears as my internal perspective of him was by my fantasies.
After a moment, he asked, “Is it just that you want to kiss me?”
“No,” I moaned. “It’s that I’m fucking obsessed with wanting to kiss you and making myself believe that you’d want that too.”
He paused. “You know I have, like, the biggest crush on you, right?”
He was making fun of me.
He wasn’t. But I deserved the joke.
“Thom…” His voice was filled with horror. “I don’t know what your mom has told you, and granted, I don’t know what you quantify as obsessed, but…when I tell you that most nights I fall asleep thinking about kissing you, I’m…being a little modest. I think about it all the time. And I certainly don’t think about you not liking it. We have…a very nice, consensual, sexy time in my head.”
“But I didn’t…” My voice broke.
“Consent to…to those things you think about.”
He shook his head, confused. “They’re just thoughts. I’m not asking you to do any of that with me.”
He gawked at me. “Ask if I can think about you?” His lips started to bubble, but then they smoothed out, pinching thoughtfully to the side. “I think it’s ok to have secret thoughts. Personal things that you don’t tell anyone. Not ’cause they’re weird or wrong, but ’cause…they’re yours. You don’t owe anyone all your thoughts…no matter how close you are.”
My thoughts stumbled and I squinted at him. He took a step towards me, and I tensed, so he withdrew. “You’ve never made me uncomfortable or weirded me out. And I hope I haven’t made you feel like that.”
“Then, from where I’m standing, it kinda just sounds like you’re into me.”
“No, it’s not normal,” I insisted.
He raised his hands. “Ok. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m just projecting or whatever. I don’t know what you actually feel or think. Neither does your mom, though.” He paused. “But if it’s just you really hoping I want to kiss you too, then you’re not some weirdo. You’re just…in the same boat as me.”
I collapsed into a puddle on the ground, leaking confusion, sweating frustration, and oozing pain that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend or explain. Blake wrapped his arms around my liquidated form and slowly, patiently, with soft words, kind touches, and reassurance, helped me to solidify myself.
He walked me to my bus stop and waited with me, both of our eyes swollen. We stood there silently, fingers clinging to each other desperately as I urged myself to remember the terrifying surety in the way Blake’s eyes traveled freely over my features. As the bus pulled around the corner, a sob chopped my breathing and he pulled me to him. My arms tried to absorb him, wanted to bring him with me. For one, painful moment, I wished I were strong enough to run. But I wasn’t. I left him there. I boarded the 10:10 bus as promised, sat in an appropriate seat, and walked through the door at exactly the time I told her I was going to.
“Hi, honey,” my mom called from her office.
I swallowed. Went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Scoured the fully stocked fridge of all my favorite foods and drinks that I didn’t pay a cent towards, took a deep breath, and grabbed the container of dismembered zucchini.
“Hey mom,” I called back.
“Come talk to me,” she insisted, sweetly. I dragged my feet over the cold marble floors in the kitchen, across the library’s hard-wood, and onto the clean, white carpet of her expansive office. Posed on an upholstered couch, her glasses perched on her nose and her laptop balanced on her thighs, my mom was trying very hard to seem relaxed. She poured wine that probably cost more than most people’s rent down her throat.
“Did you figure it out?” She asked.
“Whether or not zucchini is a fruit or a vegetable?” I asked, blandly, not breaking eye contact.
She paused. Her eyes were on mine. Her lips peeled back to reveal teeth soaked in wine. A rhythmically staggered breath, resembling a laugh, issued from her throat. “No. Your assignment.”
“Oh!” I chewed the zucchini slowly, letting her watch me pretend to fluster. “Yeah. He was really helpful.”
“Good. Good.” She was still looking at me, surveying me for anything that needed to be ironed out. That familiar green gaze, the one that typically watered me with sunlight and warmth now felt so empty. I felt empty.
I stroked my anger gingerly, urging it to bide its time. Raising the zucchini in mock farewell, I said, “Ok. Well. I’m gunna go get some reading done. Night.”
I started to retreat, but she quickly interjected: “Why don’t you read here with me? You could read to me! I love when we read together. We haven’t done that in a while.”
“It’s a Stats textbook, Mom,” I said, my mouth full.
“You could read out a phonebook and I wouldn’t care.” Her painstakingly manicured hand patted the seat next to her.
It shocked me how instinctually my lips slid into a smile that felt so warm, and even more so, how quickly she returned it, how clearly that expression was her antidote. Curled up next to her – she cast a blanket out, cocooning us – as I animatedly recited the dull text and thoughtfully pondered various statistical questions aloud, I didn’t listen to a word I said, but marveled at the ease with which I conjured the energy to play my role. My weeping, trembling pain gloated every time it noticed her fumble over her lines or trip over her elegant gestures. What I thought were wrinkles were actually seams in her splitting costume, evidence of a hasty patchwork cover-up rather than true wear. I filed away these flaws for my own debut performance. I’d need to play it perfectly. If I ever wanted to unblock numbers in my phone or re-download Discord, I’d leave the door to my heart ajar for her, until I could afford a lock. So, I mirrored her stunted warmth and let her believe my bones became branches, my legs trunks, off which roots dug into this house, and coiled around its foundation, securing me to this couch and next to my mother. I’d pretend to be a pretty piece of petrified son and let her sand the thorns from my branches to dangle every one of her emotions, dreams, and hopes like shiny ornaments.
Photo by Mishaal Zahed on Unsplash