After the 1st Kiss - Part 1

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Tuesday afternoon, a week after the start of high school, I sat at the lunchroom table beside Kareem, poking at the stiff cheese of my pizza. Jeremy sat down across from me then motioned for Kareem to scoot closer to him. Kareem did and Jeremy crossed his arms.

"My girlfriend is eating lunch with her friends someplace else today, so you can tell us: what happened between you and Alex?"

I glanced at them and then to the empty seat beside me where Alex would be. Where we'd planned for him to be back in grade 8 before that party at the end of the year when he'd kissed me. I shrugged.

"Fuck, man. Stop shrugging it off," Jeremy said.

Kareem nudged him. "Dude, they're childhood friends. Whatever it is, let's not get between it."

"We're all childhood friends," Jeremy replied emphatically.

"Eh, I dunno. They've known each other longer. And they were closer. Anyway, man, just don't bother. I'm done. I don't even want to get involved." Kareem leaned over his tray and took a bite out of his burger as if to finalize the fact that he had nothing more to say.

"Kareem's right," I said. "Don't worry about it. It's cool."

Jeremy let it go.

I had officially let Alex go just the week before. He'd approached me stubbornly, determined to talk. It was one thing I liked about Alex. He cried easily, but at the same time, he was tough. But liking that about him wasn't what I was thinking when that mix of weakness and strength showed as he spat "Fuck you, Liam," with tears streaming down his face. I was thinking that I was a piece of shit for having said what I just said. For having been honest when he asked if I'd date him if he were a girl. Of course I would. I liked girls. And Alex was my best friend. Why did he even ask that? And I, instead, for that moment, hated Alex for kissing me and for blaming me for the situation. As if I was the villain just because I was straight.

At the same time, it physically hurt me to see how much I was hurting him. It was just proof that my decision was right, though. Alex would be better off without me in the long run.

"Don't you ever show your face in front of me again," were his words, putting a tight seal on the coffin.

Our friendship, six feet under for six more years.

***

I watched from the sidelines as Alex went a month without friends before meeting another guy who, back then I was sure, was probably gay. I was so done steering clear of assumptions. Ignoring stereotypes had already proved to be breeding grounds for insensitivity. Malcolm's voice and mannerisms were more exaggerated than Alex's. I had liked Alex's voice. When we first met as kids, I found its slight raspiness interesting. Malcolm's voice was more nasal and he did everything with dramatics; I couldn't imagine being friends with him myself but thought it was good that Alex had made a gay friend. They could relate to each other in ways Alex and I couldn't.

Alex's friend group expanded by one: a girl in grade 10 who wore anime shirts every day. I'd secretly gotten a bit into anime after discovering a series on late night TV. I'd probably get along with her better than I would with Malcolm. I wondered if she'd introduced any anime series to Alex. Even if she had, it wasn't as if I could talk to Alex or her about them.

And then I'd look over at my own group of friends. We weren't the most popular, but we were apart of the "normal" group of kids. I didn't dislike them at all. We had fun and laughed; Jeremy and Kareem hadn't changed much and we'd already spent three years together in middle school. But there had been things only Alex and I shared. Our undying love for Harry Potter. Our favorite band being The Cure. Yet, Alex was happy with his new friends. I'd survive without him too.

**

I wasn't the only one who noticed Alex's new friend group. I was at Kareem's house with Jeremy, playing video games when Jeremy said, "Hey, Liam. You see Alex's new friends, right?"

I didn't say anything.

"That guy he's friends with is... Alex changed too. Was he like that before?"

"Like what?" I asked, pushing buttons on the controller and not removing my eyes from the screen.

"So... like... Do you think he's gay?"

"I don't know," I lied.

Kareem said, "Oh!"

"What?"

He shifted his eyes. "Uh, no. I just remembered something."

"What did you remember?" I found myself demanding, whipping my head to look at him. Kareem had noticed something I didn't?

"No, just, in grade 7, when that guy had spread around that Alex was gay. He said Alex was like that in elementary school... right?"

"Liam," Jeremy sighed. "Tell us what happened. You found out he was gay, right? Or did you already know?"

"I don't know anything," I snapped. "Alex and I aren't friends anymore."

"Being gay must be hard," Kareem said what I first thought was randomly. Then he went on to say, "So, Jeremy, just leave it alone. Those assholes had told Alex to go change in the bathroom. He dealt with enough shit back then. If he's openly gay now, just cut him some slack."

"I'm just a little pissed off," Jeremy admitted. "Feels like I was lied to. Do you think he had a crush on me?"

I rolled my eyes. "Jeremy, please, shut the fuck up."

"Did he have a crush on you?" Jeremy smirked.

Kareem paused the game. "Jeremy, want another soda?"

"Yea―"

"Come get it." Kareem gently kicked Jeremy in the ass and Jeremy followed. I glanced at Kareem, thankful for his sensitivity.

That day back in grade 7, Alex had intended to hide the locker room incident from me, but it spread through the halls quickly. I had tracked down that rumor as soon as I'd heard it and told Raphael that I'd put him in the hospital if he bothered Alex again.

I thought that was the last time I'd go out of my way to protect Alex, especially since we were no longer friends. But when grade 10 rolled around and Alex got himself a boyfriend, I realized that when it came to my former best friend, I couldn't stop myself.

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