Before the Kiss - Part 1

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Four Years Before the Kiss...

Liam threw me one of his crooked grins as we raced our RC cars down the sidewalk. "I can't wait until my tenth birthday party next week. It's gonna be sick!"

I nodded in agreement, though Liam hadn't told me any details. It was all a surprise. "Is Raphael going to be there?" I asked him, scrunching my nose. Raphael was one of Liam's friends, not mine, though we all went to the same school. For a 10-year-old, Raphael was pretty shitty. Needless to say, I hoped Liam's reply would be 'no.'

"No way! How could I invite him after he called you a fag? We're not friends anymore." Liam shrugged.

Hearing the news, I couldn't help but smile. Liam had been standing beside me and defending me from bullies since second grade when my newly-divorced mom moved us to London, Ontario closer to my tía. Liam was the most amazing friend anyone could ask for.

"Alex, you're the only one coming."

"Huh?" I turned to Liam, allowing my RC car to zoom into a ditch. "Does everyone hate you now?!" As grateful as I was for Liam, I didn't want his sticking up for me to cause him any problems.

"Nah. Everyone's cool. I just want to spend my birthday with just my best friend."

When Liam told me that, all I could think was how much I liked him. As a friend, that is. Or, so I thought.

During the night of Liam's birthday, we excitedly whispered to each other in our sleeping bags until his eyelids began to close. Missing his eyes, I stared at his hand sticking out from the padded nylon. I longed to reach out my hand and hold his. But I was convinced I wasn't a "fag" like Raphael had called me. Or should I say, I wanted to convince myself I wasn't. Even if I was, there was no way I'd let myself become one.

***

When Liam and I got to school the Monday after his birthday, Raphael was ready and waiting in the hallway by the dropoff. "I heard you two went on a date," he teased. "I knew you were both fags."

"Go away, Raphael," I snapped, crossing my arms and twisting my head.

Raphael put his hand on his hip and pointed his finger upwards, waving it as he mocked in a high-pitched voice, "Go away, Raphael." By the way, Raphael grew up to be a fuckboy. No surprise there. 

I shrunk back, wondering if that's how I really looked and sounded. So girly. My eyes began to sting, threatening to cry. But I couldn't cry. That'd just make things worse. You see, bullies---the ones that tease us in particular---are clueless. They don't realize that by highlighting and putting a negative spin on things like the way we speak and walk---things that come so naturally to us, they're attacking our very being. It took me years to grow comfortable with the way I spoke. And even now, I don't feel safe to be myself everywhere.

I felt Liam's fingers graze my lower arm, but when I looked down, he was already walking away. "Just ignore him," Liam told me as he went into his classroom across from mine. "See you at recess!"

Raphael stuck his tongue out at me before following in behind Liam. Blinking away the tears, I went to my own classroom.

***

At recess, Liam and I sat by the tree stump at the far end of the playground, talking about the latest Harry Potter while huddled around a patch of dirt and drawing patterns with sticks in our hands.

As our drawings crossed paths and sticks collided, Liam looked up at me and smirked. I knew what that meant. He wanted to "sword" fight. 

As even younger kids playing with chalk, he would pull this move with me all the time. "Oh, Liam," I began, rolling my eyes. I was going to say 'Can we for once draw without it turning into a battle?' but a shadow cast itself between us, stopping me.

We looked up to see Raphael. He wiggled his hips and mocked in that high-pitched voice that was supposed to sound like me, "Oh, Liam, please touch my tamale."

My jaw dropped in shock at Raphael's not only crude but also racist teasing. And it practically hit the ground when within the next second, Liam's fist connected with Raphael's nose.

You couldn't even call it a fight. Raphael immediately dropped to the ground, groaning, blood dripping through his fingers that shielded his nose. 

Liam was standing above him, face red and chest heaving. I had never seen him so furious.

It didn't take long for the teachers to come. In front of the principal and counselor, I didn't have the guts to say what had happened. Finding out Liam had gotten into the most trouble, especially since he'd kept quiet about what exactly Raphael said too, all I did was cry. 

We sat outside the office as our parents finished up a private discussion with the principal and counselor. "I'm sorry, Liam," I sobbed. "I'm sorry you always have to stick up for me. I'm sorry I made you get in trouble. I'm sorry if people think you're gay for being friends with me."

"It's cool," Liam said. "It's not like we're holding hands or anything."

"Right," I muttered and sniffled as I remembered longing to hold his hand during our last sleepover.

"Plus, I'm half-Dominican, so he made me really mad." Liam morphed his cute face into a sneer. "So, I was basically standing up for us both." I wiped my tears as our parents stepped out of the office and Liam gave me his crooked smile. "I've got your back," he said, rubbing the back of his head as he glanced at my mom talking to his dad in Spanish so that no one else, including the two of us, would understand. "Best friends, right?" he said, holding out his fist for me to dap.

I smiled back and nodded again. "Best friends." Our fists met. The closest I figured I would ever get to holding his hand.

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