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We Love Anderson Cooper
Markus hadn’t had sex with Gavin. Not yet. But he couldn’t help thinking about it as he lay on his bed, listening through a single earbud to Rabbi Margolin’s nasal recording of Leviticus, Chapter 20, Verse 13. “If a man lies with a man … both have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” It was part of Markus’s bar mitzvah reading. In less than a month, he was supposed to chant those words from memory in a Cedarhurst, Long Island, temple.
Markus hadn’t bothered with the second earbud because he didn’t need to hear the recording in stereo to know he hated Leviticus. He didn’t need to hear it at all. He swiped the file containing the Torah portion and deleted it. Just like that, the offending words were gone. He breathed easily, the air in his room suddenly light and abundant, his heart full and calm. On a poster above his dresser, Mets’ slugger David Wright leaned over home plate, gripping a bat. Markus imagined hitting a home run and the crowd cheering.
His mother, Miriam, was in her study. She wore a short-sleeved sweater tucked into pressed khaki pants and peered at documents open on two computer screens. She had been promoted to vice president at her consulting firm that spring. Less than five feet tall, she nevertheless frightened those who crossed her.
Markus stood in the doorway. “Mom?”
“Yes?” she said, keeping her eyes on the documents.
He would tell her everything if she turned around. Why should he keep his relationship with Gavin a secret? Hadn’t she exclaimed, “It’s about time,” when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage? Hadn’t she worn a pride pin to the wedding of a lesbian cousin?
After he told her, they would tell his dad, who would cry because he cried at everything, especially happy endings. His mom would open a bottle of champagne and say how proud they were of him for having the courage to be himself.
“Yes?” she repeated.
He couldn’t say it to her back.
She was busy. Markus had overheard her say to his father the night before, “I don’t know how I’ll get it all done, with Markus’s bar mitzvah and this project deadline coming up.” She sat on the boards of three charities.
“Do you need something?” she asked, still facing the screens.
“I accidentally deleted the rabbi’s recording.”
“How come you never accidentally delete Lil Wayne? I’ll e-mail you a backup.”
* * *
The next morning, he tried again to tell his mother. “I can’t read Leviticus.”
His mother was late for work. He followed her through the house as she stuffed her laptop into a messenger bag and pulled on a navy jacket and heels that stabbed the carpet, leaving a bloodless trail. “If you practice, you’ll get it.”
“No—I can’t say the stuff about gays.” He wanted her to ask why he couldn’t say it. If she did, he would tell her. But if she didn’t ask—his mother, who asked a million questions about everything—if she didn’t ask, it was because she didn’t want to know.
“Don’t take it literally,” she said, staring at the entryway mirror as she applied plum lipstick.
“How else can I take it?”
“Tell yourself you don’t mean it. Or tell yourself you mean the opposite.” She kissed the air in front of his forehead and hurried out the door, calling over her shoulder, “Don’t forget your lunch.”
Furious, he trolled the temple’s website that afternoon under an account he created for the purpose—Kosher Fag—leaving comments like God loves gays and Moses was queer. God’s Watching replied, It’s Adam and Eve, faggot, and Sodomites burn in hell. The temple blocked both accounts.
“I don’t want a bar mitzvah,” Markus announced at dinner. “Dad’s not even Jewish.”
“Your dad wants you to have a bar mitzvah,” his mother said, though his father was sitting right there. “Don’t you, Fritz?”
Markus’s father cleared his throat. Sawdust clung to his unruly eyebrows. Markus had heard him planing boards in his workshop before dinner. He towered over the kitchen table, which he had built to suit his wife. “I want whatever you and Markus want.”
Over the years, the temple congregation had become more progressive, but the rabbi remained a zealot. Markus couldn’t remember his father ever attending services, though he occasionally picked up Markus outside after Hebrew school.
“Your father’s welcome in temple, if that’s what you’re worried about,” his mother said.
* * *
With the bar mitzvah two weeks away, Markus was miserable. Even thinking about the Mets-themed party his parents were throwing for him Saturday night after the service failed to cheer him up. He lay on Gavin’s bed, his head on his boyfriend’s stomach, his heart aching as if he had taken a punch to the chest, and decided once and for all he wouldn’t read Leviticus.
Gavin’s parents were working late. The rapper Drake stared from a paisley hoodie in a poster pinned above the headboard. Jay-Z’s “Fuck With Me You Know I Got It” blasted from desktop speakers.
Gavin was a popular boy whose habit of wearing untucked Oxford shirts, the last button undone, had been adopted throughout the seventh grade. Outside school, he wore headphones and crossed against lights, oblivious to honking horns and ambulance sirens. He was a foot taller than Markus. For years, girls had been including Gavin in their trips to the mall and ice skating. Lately he joined them at concerts, though Markus complained of being left out. No girl ever asked Markus anywhere, and boys never picked him to captain a team. Since Gavin kissed him behind the 7-Eleven six months ago, Gavin’s lips cold and tasting like raspberry Slurpee, Markus tried to tell himself he didn’t care about his own lesser popularity. He’d been chosen by the only boy who mattered.
Markus had first suspected Gavin was gay when he saw him at their neighborhood community center, loitering outside the room where PFLAG was running a support group for queer kids. Neither boy had the courage to go in, but when they ran into each other at the 7-Eleven a few weeks later, Gavin had motioned for Markus to follow him around back.
“I’m not going to recite the Torah,” Markus said now.
“The what?” Gavin was Catholic.
“Leviticus,” Markus said. “Fags are ‘an abomination.’ I told you.”
Gavin nodded, but Markus didn’t know if he was nodding to the music or because he was following what Markus was saying.
“Remember the valedictorian who came out in his graduation speech? His video was downloaded two million times,” Markus said. “That’s what I’m going to do in temple.”
Gavin sat up abruptly, forcing Markus’s head off his stomach. “You’re not going to mention me, are you? My father would kill me.”
“I won’t mention you.”
“Don’t even say you have a boyfriend.”
Markus wished they could come out together. Not only would they get to be themselves, in public, but having Gavin as his boyfriend would be a social triumph. No one would ever exclude him again. “I won’t. It’ll be fine. I promise.”
Gavin let out a breath. “You’ll be famous. Everyone will be talking about you.”
Markus pictured kids at school congratulating him on his newfound celebrity.
Gavin wound his fingers in Markus’s hair, tugging gently on the black curls. Markus’s scalp warmed. He felt pleasantly dizzy.
“More guys our age should come out,” Gavin said. “I’d like to know who they are.”
Markus stared at the luminescent stars glowing dimly on the ceiling. He didn’t like the idea of Gavin with other guys.
Gavin pulled Markus on top of him. Even fully clothed, Markus felt as if they were one boy. They moved against each other, and Gavin found Markus’s mouth and rapped Jay-Z’s song into it.
When Gavin tried to unbutton Markus’s shirt, Markus brushed his hand away. It had been like that since the beginning, Markus content to make out, Gavin pushing for more. Markus knew he would eventually give in, but the idea scared him. He wasn’t proud of his body the way he knew Gavin must be. He was short and doughy, and though Gavin had seen him in his bathing suit, it would be different if they were having sex. He hated the idea of disappointing Gavin.
In his room later, Markus had second thoughts about surprising his parents with an announcement in temple. His father fried schnitzel—Markus’s favorite—every Sunday night. The dusky smell of the sizzling meat almost made up for having to return to school on Monday. A math professor, his father came from a long line of cabinetmakers. He taught Markus to build tables and desks using dovetail joints, handing him a fresh piece of wood without recrimination when Markus missed a cut or cracked a pin, applying too much force in his impatience to join the boards. And his mother: She had written an absence note after he skipped school to attend the Mets’ opening day. She helped him with book reports, improving what he wrote with her own views on The Basketball Diaries and The House on Mango Street. Together his parents attended all of his soccer and baseball games, though coaches often forgot him on the bench.
But Markus was afraid if he told them, his parents would try to stop him from coming out in temple. His mother was secretary of the synagogue’s Hadassah chapter, whose members took it upon themselves to enforce decorum in the sanctuary. If he told his father, his father would tell Markus’s mother, so Markus couldn’t tell his father, either. Markus imagined taking a picture of himself in a rainbow Mets jersey in the photo booth at his party. He envisioned other boys finding the courage to come out at the party and all of them dancing together. He kept his mouth shut.
* * *
It was a warm May morning. In his bedroom, Markus struggled to button his white dress shirt, his fingers sweating and wobbly. His father knotted Markus’s tie, while his mother ran a lint brush over his pristine navy suit jacket for a third time before handing it to him. When Markus was dressed, his father wrapped an arm around his mother’s waist, and they leaned into each other and observed him, a boy they thought they knew.
His mother handed him a folded copy of the speech she had written for him and cleared with the rabbi and the youth director. The speech was about being a member of the Jewish community. Markus didn’t plan to read it. He had written something for himself that was about belonging to a different community. It was in the top drawer of his dresser, buried beneath a pile of tube socks. He had memorized it, but planned to bring it anyway, just in case.
His father took out his phone to snap Markus’s picture. Markus could tell how proud his parents were, how excited their only child would be honored in the temple, and he knew the day wouldn’t go as they expected. Wiping his palms on his pants, he forced a smile.
Two hours later, standing on a stool behind the lectern, Markus smelled bodies pressed too close together, Rabbi Margolin’s musk aftershave, and the slow disintegration of parchment Torah scrolls lined up in the ark behind him. Soft light filtered through abstract stained-glass windows just below the ceiling. The temple seats were covered with purple velvet and spring loaded. When he attended services, Markus half expected to find a bucket of popcorn between his knees.
The rabbi rested a hand on Markus’s shoulder as he introduced him to the congregation, but Markus wasn’t listening. He was picturing a makeup artist preparing him for a morning show, just one of the many TV spots he imagined he would do after the video of his bar mitzvah speech went viral. The valedictorian who came out had appeared on the Today Show and CNN. And then there was Sam Horowitz from Dallas. The video of his bar mitzvah dance routine landed him on Ellen. After he was famous, Markus thought he might do one of those “It Gets Better” videos that gave hope to gay kids.
He looked down at his mother in the front row. She was smiling, displaying teeth whitened for the occasion. She held one of the dozens of small cellophane bags stuffed with candy she had distributed among the congregation to throw at Markus at the conclusion of the service. Next to his mother sat his father, a silver skullcap perched on his head like a miniature alien craft. At his father’s right was Markus’s grandmother, Helga, who had flown in from Hamburg. Knowing he was about to disturb a Lifecycle Event, as the Hadassah ladies liked to refer to the bar mitzvah, Markus’s legs trembled. He clutched the lectern. He hoped his parents would understand that confronted with Leviticus, he had to be honest about who he was.
In the second row, Markus’s classmates from Hebrew school and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School gazed down at silenced phones, texting or playing World of Warcraft, as he had done during so many interminable bar mitzvahs. Markus located Gavin, whose cheeks were pink—whether from warmth or excitement, Markus couldn’t tell. A pale blue shirt fell easily across Gavin’s chest. Mindful of his promise not to mention his boyfriend, Markus looked away.
The rabbi droned on, throwing out worn phrases Markus heard at every bar mitzvah: “upstanding young man,” “future of the Jewish people,” “honor thy father and mother.” The man seemed to have a boilerplate speech into which he plugged each boy’s name. Perhaps after Markus’s announcement, the rabbi would talk about diversity, a subject Markus couldn’t remember him ever addressing.
Markus fingered the speech in his pocket his mother had written. “Never be afraid to take initiative,” his father had once said to him. “That’s what makes a leader,” his mother added, only half listening as she bent over her laptop. He was taking that advice now, but he knew they might not see it that way.
The rabbi squeezed his shoulder and receded from the lectern. In the packed synagogue, Markus stood alone.
The congregation stared at him, hundreds of faces shimmering in the heat, flesh pixelating into swaths of pink and yellow and gray. Markus struggled to breathe the thick air. In the back someone coughed, and it startled him. His mouth was as dry as soda crackers, and his tie choked him.
He cleared his throat. Glancing at his mother, her posture erect and her expression a mix of joy and anticipation as she held his father’s hand, Markus considered giving the speech she had written. He wasn’t responsible for Leviticus, which Jews had been reading in temple for thousands of years. But then he looked at Gavin. Why shouldn’t everyone accept him as Gavin had? And why shouldn’t he be famous, more popular even than his friend? Markus left his mother’s speech in his pocket. A tremor in his voice, he began: “Thank you all for coming to my bar mitzvah.”
“Louder,” the rabbi stage-whispered from his thronelike chair facing the congregation.
“Remember the people in the back,” his mother said.
Markus raised his voice. “The Torah portion of the week is Leviticus.”
“Louder,” Rabbi Margolin said.
“Project,” his mother said. “Like we practiced.”
Markus shouted: “In Leviticus … In Leviticus—”
“Leviticus—we got it,” said the rabbi.
Words that had come easily as Markus practiced them alone in his room now eluded him. He began again. “Things … things are different now. People are different.”
“Yes?” the rabbi said. But Markus didn’t know where to go from there. He reached for his speech, patting his pockets, but found only his mother’s. He had forgotten to bring his own.
The congregants leaned toward him, waiting, but Markus’s mind remained blank. He felt as exposed as the carvings of Adam and Eve hanging on the wall. Unsteady on the stool, he shifted his feet.
His mother rifled through her large Chanel purse. She pulled out a sheaf of papers, her speech, and waved them. “Markus.”
Determined to ignore her for once, he tried again. “Michael Sam,” he pleaded. “After he came out, no one in the NFL wanted him. He wasn’t drafted until the seventh round. He kissed his boyfriend on TV. On TV!” He didn’t know what point he was trying to make.
Markus’s mother stopped smiling.
His father cocked his head, sending his silver skullcap to the floor.
His classmates looked up from their phones, the disaster unfolding before them more interesting than the fiery explosions on their screens.
“I didn’t even want a bar mitzvah,” Markus shouted, but that wasn’t what he meant, either.
Clenching his fists, the rabbi stormed over. Still waving her speech, his mother hurried toward him. They were closing in. His time was running out.
“Markus Grunewald, that will be enough,” the rabbi said, clutching Markus’s sleeve.
“I’m not an abomination,” Markus shouted. “Gavin and I are not an abomination.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he didn’t feel quite so alone, but he also couldn’t believe what he’d done.
Kids turned to stare at Gavin, who sat there wide-eyed, shaking his head as if it were all a lie.
Veins throbbing at his temples, the rabbi dragged Markus from the lectern. “This is not a church where you make your confessions,” he mumbled.
“Michael Sam got a raw deal!” a boy in the second row called out.
“They can’t force you to have a bar mitzvah!” came a woman’s voice from the back.
“Obama Nation!” shouted the rabbi’s young son.
Someone hurled a bag of candy at the rabbi, knocking off his skullcap. Someone else pelted the microphone, which let out a sharp wail.
* * *
Markus’s parents ushered him out of the synagogue. He didn’t even have a chance to apologize to Gavin, who huddled in a corner with Joey Moskowitz, Markus’s classmate from Hebrew school. Gavin didn’t turn around when Markus called his name.
In the back of his father’s Mercedes, Markus slouched next to his grandmother. She rested her tiny, dry hand on his damp one as they drove home.
From the front passenger seat, his mother turned to face him. She ran her fingers through gold hair, wrecking a stylist’s careful work. “Why didn’t you talk to us first? We would have understood. We love Anderson Cooper. You didn’t have to tell us so … so…”
“I tried to tell you. Anyway, if you’re not ashamed, why do you care that I told the whole temple?” Markus yanked his shirt from his pants and undid the bottom button.
“It’s the kind of thing you tell your parents first, before you announce it to the world.”
“So we can protect you.”
“What your mother’s trying to say is that you can tell us anything,” his father said, glancing over his shoulder.
“As long as I do it privately and not in temple and don’t tell anyone else unless it’s that I made honor roll.”
“That’s not what we’re saying,” his father said.
They were quiet for a while, and then his father asked, “Did Gavin know you were going to mention him?”
“It just slipped out.”
His mother fanned her face with the speech she had written. “Oy.” Markus thought if he could read her mind, she would be imagining him reciting her speech, and the rabbi pumping his hand, not pulling him from the lectern. “You’ll have to apologize to Gavin,” she said.
Markus’s dreams of celebrity were already fading. Even if the videographer had captured the events at the temple, it wasn’t anything Markus would want to post online. Gavin wouldn’t want it publicized, either. Of course, one of his classmates might have gotten it. Markus checked his phone to see if anyone had uploaded a video. He was relieved—and a bit disappointed—not to find one.
Outside the car window, people went about their normal Saturday lives. A postal worker in shorts delivered mail. Young girls in ponytails jumped rope. A boy a grade below Markus rode his bike past their car and Markus wished to trade places with the kid who might never have a bar mitzvah and certainly not one like Markus’s.
“My uncle Dieter was gay,” his grandmother said in her heavy German accent. Everyone turned toward her except Markus’s father, who was driving and looked at her in the rearview mirror.
“Great-uncle Dieter?” his father said.
“Don’t sound so surprised. You thought Albert was his friend?”
“That’s what he said.”
“When the Nazis were in power, Dieter was terrified they would be discovered. Many of their homosexual friends died in camps.”
Now his father turned around. “You never said anything.”
“Watch the road. We didn’t talk about it.”
Thinking about his own lack of discretion, Markus felt ashamed. He imagined Gavin’s father kicking him out of the house. The Internet was full of stories of homeless gay kids, panhandling or trading sex for money. He and Gavin had read the stories together, never thinking it could happen to them. Even if Gavin’s parents didn’t throw him out, they might refuse to let him see Markus. Gavin might not want to see him after what he’d done. Markus texted Gavin that he was sorry, that it had been an accident. Gavin didn’t reply.
Markus continued to text Gavin all afternoon, apologizing and asking him to come over. He finally gave up, figuring he would see him that night. Despite everything that had happened, Markus’s mother said they would go ahead with the party. She had posted an update on his bar mitzvah website: “Notwithstanding the unorthodox events at temple, tonight’s party will be held as scheduled.”
* * *
In the catering hall, National League pennants hung from the walls. Baseball caps that said “Markus’s Big Game” were piled high on a table, and kids grabbed them and put them on. Inflated bats and beach balls designed to look like baseballs filled giant cardboard boxes. Kids bounced the balls off one another’s heads and taped them to the ceiling. They mugged in the photo booth. A deejay played hip-hop, and they did their favorite rappers’ moves. Markus’s father danced with Helga and with Markus’s mother. If Markus’s friends cared about what had happened at temple, they didn’t mention it. The party would have been perfect, if only Gavin were there.
Markus poked his head out the door every five minutes, looking for his boyfriend. He wondered if Gavin still was his boyfriend. He texted Gavin until he couldn’t bear not getting a response.
He was sitting at a table, staring at his phone, when a kid at the party sent him a link to a YouTube video: images of him stammering, the red-faced rabbi, bags of candy flying in and out of the frame, and a shot of Gavin shaking his head in what could have been denial or disbelief or both. It wasn’t a flattering portrait. Markus felt embarrassed, but he was also excited to see himself on screen and to know the video was circulating. It had been viewed only twenty-five times. He hoped more people would watch it.
When Markus returned from a trip to the door, his father asked, “Everything okay?”
“Gavin hates me.” He took off the baseball cap and squeezed the bill between his hands.
“Maybe he’s not ready to face everybody.”
“No one cares that he’s gay.”
“He doesn’t know that.”
“I texted him and told him.”
“Think you could try to have a good time without him?”
* * *
As of Sunday morning, only forty people had watched the video. Markus knew he should be grateful, given how embarrassing the video was, but he couldn’t help feeling he had missed his only chance to meet Ellen.
Gavin finally replied to Markus’s texts early Sunday afternoon and agreed to ride to the beach with him. They met around the corner from Markus’s house.
Straddling his bike, wearing swim trunks and sneakers, Gavin stared at the asphalt. His body, which was always moving, hands drumming his pale belly or thighs, was still. Gone was his easy manner that had enveloped Markus, making him feel there was no reason to be anything but himself. Instead, Markus felt regret, dull and heavy, and a longing for the past. He wished Gavin would look at him.
“You shouldn’t have said anything,” Gavin said.
“You said you wouldn’t.”
“I’m sorry.” Markus wondered if any of his neighbors were watching.
“This morning my father played golf with Sam Miller. He told my father about this kid Markus who came out during his bar mitzvah and outed his friend Gavin. He said, ‘Isn’t your kid named Gavin?’ My father told him to go fuck himself, his kid wasn’t queer, but he knew it was me.”
“What did he do?”
“My father? He didn’t do anything. I said, ‘I thought you hated gays?’ He said, ‘Other gays. Not you.’”
Markus realized he was one of those other gays.
“He said, ‘Besides, your mother and I aren’t stupid. He’s always here, you and him behind a locked door, listening to that garbage. What were we supposed to think?’” Gavin kept his head down. “Then my mother started to cry.” He pounded his front tire on the street.
Markus didn’t know what to say. “I thought the rabbi was going to hit me.”
“I wish he had.”
Markus winced. “At least we don’t have to pretend anymore.”
Gavin shrugged. He squeezed his handlebars and looked down the empty street.
As they rode to the beach, Gavin was unusually quiet. When they arrived, they sat on a bench on the boardwalk. Reconstructed after Hurricane Sandy from concrete and plastic wood, the boardwalk looked nothing like the original hardwood structure. Markus and Gavin had pedaled over the new boards more times than Markus could count, their tires humming.
“There’s a video,” Markus said. He held tight to the bench. “Not too many people have watched it.”
Gavin stared at his lap. “Fuck.”
The surf scoured the beach, reclaiming broken shells and motionless starfish. Sweat from the vigorous ride rolled down Gavin’s chest. He smelled like exertion, like salt, like himself.
Gavin tightened the tie on his trunks. “I hung out with one of your Hebrew school friends yesterday. Kid named Moskowitz.”
Gavin looked out at the water. “He’s gay, you know.”
“Joey Moskowitz? That kid’s a pizza face. What do you want to hang out with him for?”
“He has built-in speakers in his room and everything Jay-Z has ever recorded.”
“I don’t give a fuck what kind of speakers he has.”
A mother and father played with a small boy in a blue swimsuit, digging a hole just beyond the reach of the waves. Markus’s parents, too, had brought him to this beach. Markus’s father had taken him under the old boardwalk to show him its construction. They swam and his father taught him how to recognize a riptide—a line of floating debris, a change in ocean color.
The father lifted the boy onto his shoulders and carried him into the surf. Gavin jogged toward the water with Markus behind.
They were up to their waists, the waves coming steady and hard. Markus plowed through the water toward Gavin. Water beaded Gavin’s neck. The air smelled of decaying seaweed. Before Markus could reach him, a giant wave broke over them, sending them tumbling.
After they swam, they rode to Gavin’s house. His parents were at church, but the boys locked the door to his room just to be safe. Gavin stepped out of his suit and Markus followed. Aroused, the boys didn’t stop to put on music. They lay on the bed, and Markus took Gavin in his mouth. It was Markus’s first time, and he wasn’t sure if he was ready. But he wanted to do something for Gavin, something to make up for outing him. Markus’s teeth were in the way, and he wondered if he was doing it right. The last thing he wanted was to hurt him. Gavin swelled and hardened against his lips. He pressed his hands against the back of Markus’s head, forcing Markus to take all of him. He tasted bitter, a surprise after the sugary sweetness of his mouth.
Markus thought Gavin would reciprocate, but he didn’t. After Gavin came, he turned toward the wall and lay still, sleeping or pretending to sleep. Markus got dressed and rode home.
Later that day, Markus built a chest with his father. Hammers, saws, bevels, T-squares, screwdrivers, vices, clamps, and chisels covered the walls of the workshop. New tools hung alongside old, because his father never discarded anything. Safety glasses were lined up, the child-size ones Markus had first worn next to those almost as big as his father’s. Markus breathed the familiar smells of cedar planks and wood finishes. His father handed him the dovetail saw.
“Are you mad?” Markus asked, though after spending time with Gavin, he worried less about how his father felt.
“Pay attention when you’re making a cut.”
After Markus finished, his father took the saw. “We worry people will give you a hard time. We wish you had waited.”
Markus examined the cut. Distracted, he had missed the line his father had drawn. “I didn’t want to wait to be with Gavin.”
“How does Gavin feel?”
“I don’t know.” Thinking about what he had done with Gavin, Markus blushed. The workshop, which had once felt as big as the house, now seemed too small for him and his father. “Is Mom still upset?”
“She knows you tried to tell her. She wishes she had listened.”
“Did I ruin her life?”
“Not her life.”
“Just the bar mitzvah.”
“Her entire Hadassah chapter was there,” said Markus’s father. “She may have trouble getting reelected.”
“Grandma’s probably sorry she came all this way.”
“Your grandma’s happy for any excuse to see you. And she’s been through enough in her life to know that what happened isn’t the end of the world.”
* * *
At school on Monday, Markus overheard his name everywhere kids huddled together. His friends said it was cool he was gay and that Gavin was his boyfriend. They asked if he had seen the video. The number of views had mushroomed to ten thousand. Markus hid in a bathroom stall and refreshed the screen on his phone to watch the counter advance, so excited he nearly dropped the phone into the bowl.
He tried desperately to catch Gavin alone, but every time Gavin saw Markus, he turned his back. Markus wanted to touch Gavin’s hand or his face and to tell Gavin how happy he was about what they had done, though in truth, he wasn’t sure. Staking out Gavin’s locker, he leaned his head against the cold, beige metal and remembered how before the bar mitzvah they had met there and made plans. Gavin never appeared, and Markus was late for class.
At lunch, he searched for him in the cafeteria, toting an empty green tray from table to table and pacing up and down the serving line, where he gagged on odors of warmed-over pizza and fish cakes. When the bell signaled the end of lunch period, he had yet to eat.
Monday afternoon, he finally caught Gavin alone in a hall.
Gavin didn’t look happy to see him. “Kids I used to think were my friends are talking behind my back. Girls especially,” Gavin said. “You’re a hero for coming out. They think I was a tease who pretended to be something I wasn’t.”
Markus reached for Gavin’s arm, but Gavin shook him off. “I didn’t mean to out you,” Markus said.
“Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t.” Gavin walked away, his beautiful back receding along the cinder-block wall, a spot of light in an otherwise dim hallway.
During the week, each time Markus checked the video, the number of views climbed, from twenty-five thousand to thirty-five, then fifty. Markus’s classmates were giddy. He was becoming the most popular boy in the seventh grade. Girls asked him to sit with them in the cafeteria. Two boys from the lacrosse team invited him over to play video games, and he went, feeling like a stranger.
Everyone loved him except Gavin, who ignored him, refusing to talk to him at school or to reply to the texts Markus sent morning to night. After school on Friday, Markus tried again, texting Gavin that they should ride to the beach.
“Hanging w Joey” came the answer.
“Tell him u got 2 go.” Markus waited a minute, and when he didn’t hear back, he texted Gavin that he missed him. After another minute, he begged Gavin to come to his house and talk.
Alone, Markus hurtled toward the temple on his bike. He crashed into potholes and flew over speed bumps, the violent rattle of his bike an echo of what he felt inside. When he arrived he found a rock the size of a walnut with flintlike edges. He walked to the rear of the building, which bordered the congregants’ parking lot, empty because it was hours before Friday night services. He knew which was the rabbi’s window, having visited the office in preparation for his bar mitzvah. The room was empty and dark. Pressing the rock to the glass, he chiseled in large, uneven letters: GOD HATES GAYS. He snapped a picture of the window with his phone. As he ran back to his bike, he tossed the rock. He pedaled home, longing to feel Gavin’s weight against him, the tangle of their limbs. The fact that Gavin was probably in Joey’s bedroom, his hands in Joey’s hair, kissing him or worse, tore at Markus.
* * *
“It was a mistake to come out,” Markus declared at dinner. He reached under the tablecloth and squeezed the edge of the oak dining table his father had built.
His grandmother sat across from him. She smoothed the cloth, her fingers twisted with age. “I once asked Dieter if it was worth it. Couldn’t he have lived with a woman? He said his life was better than most people’s.”
“But Albert never abandoned him,” Markus said.
Markus’s father stared at him and then leaned back in his chair, his face sagging.
His mother returned from the kitchen with platters of brisket and steamed green beans. “A cable TV reporter called me this afternoon. She saw the video of the bar mitzvah and wants to interview you.”
Markus hadn’t been aware his mother even knew about the video. “What did you say?”
“That it was up to you. I just texted you her number.”
“She’d probably want to talk about Gavin.”
It was what he had wanted, to be famous and impress his friends. But even his brief popularity had worn him out. Being surrounded by classmates only reminded him of who was missing. If he did the interview, it would be hard on Gavin. But if he didn’t do it, when Gavin tired of Joey, he might miss Markus and come back to him.
Quiet settled over the table as his father served his grandmother. She was flying back to Hamburg in the morning. Markus would be sorry to see her go.
In his bedroom after dinner, Markus thought about Gavin and Joey. He hoped Gavin got a flat the next time he rode with Joey, and fell and scraped his elbows and soft palms. He hoped Joey’s mother discovered her son was gay and cried and smashed his speakers.
Glancing at his phone, Markus saw the video had reached a hundred thousand views. He took a screen shot of the number, more out of habit than interest. For the last time, he erased the rabbi’s recording of Leviticus. He had at least managed not to recite it in temple. That might be all he chose to remember about his bar mitzvah service. It would be all he chose to tell. Scrolling through texts, he found the reporter’s phone number and deleted it. Then he texted Gavin a picture of the defaced temple window with the caption, “GOD HATES RABBIS.” His phone buzzed with the reply.
Copyright © 2019 by R.L. Maizes