I grew up in a tiny, weathered shack right on the water in Key Largo, between million dollar dream homes with horizon waterfalls and yachts waiting at the end of layered docks. My house was big enough for my family, with two bedrooms—one for me and one for my parents—a small bathroom, and an open space with the kitchen, chairs, a table, and an old chunky TV from the 80’s all crammed together. My dad came from a long line of fishermen. His family’s been in the Keys for generations, back to when his great-great grandfather migrated from Georgia and married a Seminole woman whose original tribe came from over on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Mom and her mom were both from Miami, but my mom’s father came on a boat straight from Cuba, where he was also once a fisherman. You could say I’ve got the ocean in my blood.
When I turned eight the family to our right—the one with the biggest yacht—moved out and a family with an even bigger yacht moved in. For a while, I didn’t see much of ‘em; they’d moved in during the summer when Dad dragged me out to sea every day on the old fishing boat to learn the family trade. I wasn’t much help at that age, but I was eager. I loved watching as the crew hauled the catch into the boat—a wriggling mass of tails poking through holes in the net, flicking and gleaming in the sunlight. After they dumped the fish on the deck, I helped shovel the keepers into the holds and swept everything else back into the ocean. One day that summer at high noon, Dad came up to me and patted me on the shoulder, grinning through his dark beard.
“Keep it up, David, and you’ll be just like your old man one day.”
Most boys that age want nothing more than to be exactly like their dad, and I was no exception, so I strutted around the deck like I owned the place—like I actually knew what I was doing. I was little more than four feet tall at the time and a bit small for my age, so I stumbled underfoot the whole summer and the crew usually shouted at me to get back in the cabin. I didn’t mind all the shouting so much; I just loved to be out there on the ocean, feeling the boat tossing beneath my feet and the sun baking my skin. Mom fussed every time I slipped through the door in the evening with a sunburn so bad I could barely walk. Her father had died of melanoma. She called me her little lobster, smeared aloe over the burns, and then glared at Dad.
“You have to reapply the sunscreen every hour,” she hissed through her teeth.
Dad just shrugged it off over a cup of black coffee. He always drank coffee at night after dinner. “His skin will rot off and he’ll die.”
Dad gave me that do-as-your-mom-says look—the one with his thick eyebrows mashed together and his eyes unblinking until he looked away. I mimicked his shrug from a moment before and went back to wincing as Mom smeared more aloe over my shoulder. I didn’t start listening to Mom though until I saw a man with melanoma on TV. His skin was dark and mottled and he had four weeks to live. After that, I started reapplying every hour.
The first time I caught a glimpse of our neighbours was nearly a month after they moved in. Mom worked for them as a maid—she was a professional house cleaner and they liked her, so they lured her into a full-time position with a very nice salary. Dad didn’t like the idea.
“This isn’t the fucking middle ages,” he told my mom the night before we were supposed to meet the new family; they’d been nice enough to invite us for lunch. “You’re not some little servant girl there to be called away from us when they ring a bell. You’re not a dog.”
“I’m not a dog, but I am their maid,” Mom replied while she dried the dishes and put them away. “That’s exactly what I am and I don’t care. They’ve invited us to lunch. We’re neighbours and they’re nice people.”
Dad grumbled and dismissed it with a wave of his hand.
“We barely keep our house clean and it’s the smallest house on this side of Key Largo. I think if I had that much money and that much house, I’d hire someone to keep it up for me.”
He didn’t say anything more, but I could tell he still wasn’t happy by the way he clenched his fists every time he looked out the kitchen window to the house next door. Our neighbourhood seemed to transcend the division between salary tax brackets. Whether in mansion or hut, most families had been living there for at least twenty years. We went through a lot together—hurricanes, flooding, tourists.
We met the Tracey family for lunch the next day, despite Dad’s reservations, along with a few other families from the area. I said hello to the Richards from the cottage down at the end of the road. Most of their kids were in college, but they still had a teenage girl living at home and they invited us over for fish fries sometimes. The young couple from a town house across the street had a new baby that everyone was fawning over. My father brought some of his best catches as a housewarming gift to grill. The Traceys were nice enough, but while I sat at the edge of the pool with my feet soaking in the water, the parents sat around the pool sipping iced tea and the conversation inevitably swayed towards country club drama they’d left back in Maine. Mrs. Tracey kept adjusting the white Gucci sun hat she wore, tucking frosted blonde hair behind her ears.
“We just had to get away from all that superficial nonsense,” she told Mom. “It was getting to the point where every day, one of my closest friends was calling me about yet another dress she’d bought! Didn’t she realise she should be spending her time and money on helping out the poor? Enough was enough. I’m so glad Rich was able to move his business elsewhere.”
Dad kept quiet, arms folded across his chest while he looked out to sea over the pool and dock. His eyes were trained on the horizon where an afternoon thunderstorm was building into a shadow over the water, but Mom nodded politely, nursing her glass iced tea and enjoying the sunshine.
Mr. and Mrs. Tracey had a son my age, all blonde hair and blue eyes. He loved to sing loud enough for everyone to hear him. Everyone called him Pip. I tried to invite him to play with me few times while I was out on our driveway shooting hoops but instead we ended up in his room, talking. I wasn't used to that—talking, I mean. Not like we did. Dad wasn't the quiet type and Mom mostly fussed. My friends from school liked to shoot hoops or play games but we never talked like Pip and I did. He asked me what my favourite movies and songs were. I was at a loss at first, because no one had asked me that sort of stuff, before. Kids at school just all did the same stuff, watched the same movies and shows, and listened to the same music. Pip went go on and on about his favourite films and songs. The kid had a Disney movie collection the size of a small library, along with a few child-friendly musicals like Newsies and Oliver!
Pip’s favourite was The Little Mermaid. Even though at first I thought it was stupid that a boy liked a princess movie, after he made me watch it I kind of loved it—loved watching the sea creatures come to life with music under the ocean’s surface. He liked the music and I liked the sea. It was a good compromise. His parents found us draped over each other in his bed watching it one day, and after that they didn’t seem to want me around. Some days I’d ring the doorbell and I’d hear Pip in the background calling out, “Mom, it’s David!” Mrs. Tracey would answer the door and tell me Pip was busy doing homework or getting ready for Boy Scouts or taking a nap when I knew Pip’s classes hardly ever had homework, Boy Scouts met on Wednesday nights, and Pip hated naps because he thought they were for babies. After summer ended I saw him at school. I heard piano music in the afternoons—familiar tunes I couldn’t name because I knew nothing about Classical stuff. It was him, though, I know because Mom told me that he had piano lessons every Thursday. Sometimes I’d spy him through the fence, playing alone in the neatly trimmed back yard, but we never got to hang out unless Mom got stuck with babysitting duty while Dad was out on a night run and she didn’t want me at the house late, alone.
One of those nights Pip and I sat out on the dock in his back yard, wrapped up in towels and swinging our bare legs over the water. We’d been in the pool all afternoon but it was getting dark, now. The sun was setting over the ocean in a palette of fire as we threw pieces of stale bread to the fish. Catfish, especially, swarmed for the chance of stealing a bite. We laughed every time we tossed a piece in and just as it hit the water a feeding frenzy broke out. I spotted a nurse shark hanging to the side, swimming slowly through the cypress roots near the shore, eyeing the crabs and shrimp that had gathered with the catfish for the free dinner. Mom sat beside us.
“Don’t sit too close,” she warned us. “Or one of the fish will jump up and bite your toes.”
“Catfish don’t eat toes,” I corrected her. I knew because I fished with Dad, of course. I knew everything there was about fish in the ocean. “Well, they might eat a toe if it was already off.”
Pip snorted and wiggled his toes. “Do any fish eat toes?”
“Crocs and gators do,” I stated, proud of my knowledge. “They’re not fish, though. They’re reptiles.”
“What about sharks?” Pip eyed the nurse shark, which was swimming closer to the catfish swarm.
“Sharks bite toes but I don’t think they eat them. They’re kind of stupid. They think you’re food but you’re not, so after they bite they spit you out because you don’t taste good. That’s what Dad said. But you could still die.”
“Can they jump?” Pip’s skin paled in the twilight.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “That’s just a nurse shark. They don’t jump or anything. They eat stuff off the bottom. They’re scared of people.”
“If you ever seen one while you’re swimming,” Mom interrupted our conversation. “Don’t mess with it. They’re harmless unless you mess with them. Your uncle went snorkelling with your father once and he thought it’d be funny to grab one. The shark bit him and didn’t let go, not even when he got out of the water, and we had to take him to the hospital to get the shark removed.”
Pip and I stared at the nurse shark nearby. It snatched a small crab and tore into it before swimming away. A cloud of sand trailed in its wake. Pip scooted closer to me until our legs were touching and threw the last scrap of stale bread to the fish.
When I was fourteen I realized I didn’t much like girls. They were fine to talk to and hang out with, but I didn’t understand the other boys’ obsession with tits that weren’t even tits yet. I didn’t get why they were so eager to date a girl who’d insist on chick flicks and cheap jewellery just for some making out (or more, if you were lucky). No, girls weren’t for me. They were a mystery that I wasn’t interested in solving. While my friends were busy watching soft hips slowly curve into thigh that framed a place I found disturbingly lacking in weight, I was distracted by something else. Instead, my eyes followed hard lines down the stomachs of boys in PE, at the beach, around town, and I was drawn to the way the crease of their pelvic bones disappeared behind the tops of their swim trunks to the familiar, heavy place I knew well. The Keys were full of men holding hands and pride parades every year, especially down in Key West, and I wasn’t confused or ashamed like some boys might be. The discovery felt right. It was natural to me like the ocean in my blood.
My parents found out eventually. It was a few weeks after I started jerking off to images of half-naked guys in magazines I’d borrowed from Laura—one of the few girls I hung out with, since we both played after school basket ball together, and the only one that knew about my secret. Magazines were old fashioned, but I made do since the only computer we owned was in the living room. I was spread over my bed with three of the magazines and my cock hanging out. Mom walked right into my bedroom with an armful of laundry and we both screamed. I yanked sheets over myself while she gaped, then turned on her heels and slammed the door behind her. A few moments later I emerged and saw she was just as red-faced as I was.
“You like boys?” she demanded.
I nodded, unsure what else I’d say.
“That’s fine, but for god’s sake David, lock your door.”
I nodded again. Through the embarrassment burning my skin I felt the smallest calm of appreciation that she wasn’t going to be like all parents I read about that disowned their sons when they found out.
“We should tell your father, though.”
I bit down on my lip. I’d never heard Dad say anything against the queers around town like I’d hear some of the tourists mutter occasionally, but again, extensive internet research in the form of queer community forums and pirated B-rated movies had taught me fathers didn’t typically want their son in the variety of homosexual. I agreed after a long moment of hesitation and that night we sat Dad down after dinner and had a talk.
“You sure?” he turned to me and watched, a bit confused, evidenced by the way his eyebrows furrowed over themselves. “You don’t seem like it.”
“How can you be sure? Have you tried out girls yet?”
I shrugged. “Not really. Don’t want to.”
Dad leaned back in his seat and thought for a long minute. I felt the time dragging through my stomach as I waited to hear the verdict. Mom sat quietly, hands on the table, watching her husband go from thought to thought. He finally sat up and looked me in the eye.
“Well, that’s all right with me. Just be careful who you tell, okay? There’s a lot of people who don’t like gays, but I guess do what you want. You’re still my son.”
Dad didn’t say he loved me, then, but I knew he wanted to. He was like a lot of fathers who’d been taught emotion was for women and it was bad for a guy to be feminine, went for handshakes and shoulder pats instead of hugs and rarely touched anyone other than my mom. I knew he loved me because he stood up, dragged me out of my chair, and pulled me tight against his chest. He smelled like salt and rubber and fish. The moment was over before it began and he pulled away, stood upright, drew his lips tight across his teeth, and muttered a grizzled good night.
Mom and I talked for a while that night and she made sure I knew both she and Dad loved me no matter what. It was nice. I felt a lot luckier than the boys I’d read about. I’d thought about coming out to my parents a few times, but I hadn’t made serious plans, and being forced to reveal that part of myself in the middle of getting off wasn’t exactly a way I’d recommend coming out to anyone, nonetheless your mother. Mom started knocking and I started locking my door.
During PE in the middle of December, students took to the track because of the cool, sunny weather. We normally had PE inside from September through November in the air conditioned gym because otherwise heat exhaustion and dehydration sent at least one student indoors a day. December was nice weather—a bit stormy, usually, but cool. I sat on the bottom bleacher bench beside the track waiting my turn to race, watching the blur of classmates’ legs as feet met hard with the painted track.
“I’m no good at that sort of stuff,” a voice sighed beside me. I turned to see Pip sitting close in tight gym shorts and blue PE shirt.
“Doesn’t really matter that much,” I shrugged.
“I wish they did dancing in PE. I’m good at that.”
“I’m shit at dancing.”
“Well, okay, I’ve never tried actual dancing, but I can’t even do the whole ass shaking thing everyone else does at formals. It’s not like I really need to know, though. I never have dates.”
“My parents are getting on me about grades,” Pip stretched out his legs in front of him and leaned back under the sunlight, elbows supporting him on the next bleacher seat up. My eyes travelled the line of his legs through his stomach, the curve from his chest through his neck. He lounged like it was natural. Like he owned the dirty metal bleachers. His pale skin freckled on his nose. “I’ve got C’s in PE because I can’t climb ropes, but I still get a pass for trying. They want me to go to Harvard or Yale or some shit like that. They’ve got the money, but I have to bring the grades. It’s stupid because I don’t even want to go to Harvard or Yale. I want to do theatre, but they think I’m throwing away my life because I don't want a ‘good’ education or job, and that I’ll turn gay if I act and sing. Mom almost had an aneurism when I refused to go off to some private boarding school in the UK and wanted to stay here instead.”
“Well, I can help you do some training. I’m good at running, catching fish, and tying knots. That’s about it, though.”
Pip smiled. “That’d be cool. I don’t know how I’d repay you. I could teach you to dance if you want.”
This sounded like a good proposition. I’d seen Pip dance and it was, well, it was nice. The girls loved taking him to the formals and dances because he didn’t stand around awkwardly and grumble when they wanted to do something besides eat or make out. Come to think of it, I’d also seen him kissing a girl and that looked nice, but I tucked that thought away to examine later.
“Sure,” I shrugged again.
“Meet you after school, then?”
He sat upright again and I noticed for the first time how his eyes were not on Kathy Thompson’s ass in her tiny yellow gym shorts while she crouched to tie her shoe, like the senior who was standing in front of us, but instead Pip’s eyes were fixed steadily on his ass. I raised an eyebrow. He caught me watching him and redirected his gaze to Kathy, blushing so hard his ears turned scarlet. I said nothing and stood up. It was my turn to run.
After class, every afternoon for the next week, I coached Pip on the track. I made him do some of the standard training exercises—sit ups, push ups, sprints, et cetera—and he got a little better. Halfway through the week I sneaked into his house to have a couple of dance lessons. We locked ourselves in his bedroom that overlooked the ocean, and stayed in there until I smelled Mom’s casseroles calling me home. He taught me how to waltz and swing, which wasn’t that helpful for formals, but it was fun anyways. I wasn’t great, but he assured me if I kept at it then I’d be better when the spring formal came up in a few months. To be honest, I didn’t care much. I went because I was curious to see what it felt like to dance with another boy.
Pip was a little taller than me, but he taught me to lead. My arm slid easily around his waist. I marvelled at the sight of my tanned fingers entwined with his, at the feeling of my hand, calloused and scarred from fish hooks and hard work, against his softer but larger one. His grip was surprisingly strong. I wondered if his piano skill had anything to do with it. Even though we hadn’t talked much over the years, I’d still heard him practicing every afternoon.
On Friday night I turned down an invitation to go down to the beach to sit around a bonfire and drink, and found myself hidden away in Pip’s room again, our arms entwined as we swayed—Pip more gracefully than me—to Etta James. I never really listened to that sort of stuff. The stack of CDs in my room at home consisted of Kansas, Journey, Simon and Garfunkle, U2. Mostly the stuff my dad listened to. I had a few EPs from local bands, but Key Largo wasn’t exactly up to date with popular music. I liked classic rock, anyway. Dad and I blasted it when we went out just the two of us to fish. Etta James was nice, though. It was storming outside, rain pounding into the dirty streets, wind whisking the ocean into white caps, and the distant rumble of thunder offshore mingled with the song like it was a part of it.
“You’re a lot better already you know,” Pip informed me.
I smiled and my spine straightened. Our dancing slowed and the moment thickened. I could feel the lightning in the air like it wasn’t offshore anymore, but here in the room with us. He kissed me. Our feet stopped moving and I stood there, wide-eyed and tight-lipped as he drew my first kiss from my mouth. I let him. My body tugged on itself in a dance of polarities. Shit, I thought. If I like how soft his lips are does it mean I like him? My thoughts fought on, even as I dug my fingers into his waist and followed his receding kiss back into his mouth. When he pulled away a few seconds later I saw how round and blue his own eyes had grown and we both licked our lips in unison. I tasted a bit of foreign saltiness on my own and licked again. Oh, I did like that. Interesting. Our bodies, stiff in anticipation, waited in the nagging silence for any sort of response. Mostly we were both waiting on me.
“What the hell is going on here?”
We both looked up and I saw Pip’s cheeks go from red to white in seconds. Mr. Tracey stood in the doorway, dressed in a dinner jacket, the tie around his neck undone like he was undressing on the way to his room. His lips twisted and he held onto the doorway with twitching fingers.
“Nothing,” Pip jerked away from me. “Nothing’s going on.”
“Was he kissing you?”
“Are you gay?” Mr. Tracey’s eyes pinned me to where I stood.
“Yes,” I replied, standing straighter. “I am.”
I felt Pip’s stare, the wrinkles of his frown, the way he almost sank into the floor as his father took a single step into the room towards us.
“Get out!” the man roared.
I obliged him, hurrying out of the room, pulse racing through my veins. I was hot. Very hot. My fists balled as I brushed past Mr. Tracey because I wanted to punch the bastard in the gut. I cast a look back at Pip and he mouthed I’m sorry.
I sailed down the stairs by two and all I saw was red—red carpets, curtains, vases, wood. Shouts poured behind me but I didn’t hear what they said. I was hot. I needed to get out. The front door slammed behind me and I felt rain against my skin, cold and wet, could almost see steam pouring off my body. Thunder rumbled again and the wind sighed as rain soaked me through. I ran down the dirt road to my house next door and ignored my mom and her casserole in the oven when I stepped inside and dripped all over the tile floor. I locked myself in my room and collapsed on my bed. My ears burned to hear something from the mansion next door, but the rain and thunder drowned out anything there was to be heard. Mom didn’t knock even though she’d promised she would when my door was closed, but slipped inside and sat beside me. I told her everything.
Dad marched next door in the morning and cussed Mr. Tracey out. Mom was fired immediately. Pip didn’t talk to me at school. I figured he wouldn’t. His father’s twisted lips wouldn’t leave me alone. Pip barely left his house, a prisoner peering out his expensive jail cell window every night. I saw him in the hallways at school, saw him disappear into his mother’s red BMW every afternoon. His mother’s face, dark behind the tinted windows, watched me with an upturned nose until Pip was safely inside. My friends started laughing at him, calling him names a lot worse than Mommy’s Boy. Weird how they didn’t tease me, even though they all knew I liked boys. They thought I was ‘normal’ because I liked fishing and basket ball. Pip was different than us and they didn’t like it. I told them all to fuck off it. I stopped eating lunch with the ones who kept snickering at Pip when he walked by.
Sometimes I saw Pip sitting on his dock, feet dangling over the edge like he was a kid again, throwing bread to the catfish. I watched from the window one afternoon, watched his legs swing inches over the surface of the water as the bubbling mass of catfish piled over each other. The sun was setting, half covered by dark clouds. His shoulders sagged. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t watch his isolation. I dragged a row boat into the water and paddled up to his dock—the gate around his place was too high to climb—and scared the catfish deeper into the water. He stared at me miserably and I stood, grabbing hold of his legs to balance myself between him and the boat bobbing beneath me. I leaned close until I could press my forehead against his. He sighed slowly and I could hear his breath snag in his throat.
“They’re sending me off to that boarding school,” he told me.
I felt a tug in my gut but I smiled to cover it. “At least it isn’t here.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“You should get away from them.”
“It’s not here, though. I like it here.”
“But it’s away from them. Where is it? What kind of school?”
“All boys. Catholic or whatever. It’s in Georgia.”
“At least it’s full of boys.”
He laughed. “Yeah, well, they’re really strict.”
“Aren’t those schools the type that all the rich parents send their naughty boys to? I think you’ll be okay.” I nuzzled a kiss against his lips just as we heard his mom calling. I pulled away and crouched down into the boat. My eyes found his so I could hold onto their blue one last time. “Email me. Write to me. Call me. Whatever you want.”
Pip caught my boat with his foot so it wouldn’t float away. “Hey, I’m sorry.”
“I know. It’s fine.” I smiled back and pushed his foot away. “I don’t know what they’re telling you, but if they’re telling you that you can’t like boys then don’t listen to them. They’re wrong.”
I paddled back to the rocky shallows behind my house and Mrs. Tracey appeared on the dock beside Pip. I watched him stand and disappear inside, swallowed whole by the giant house. I pulled the boat out of the water and went inside to eat with Mom while storm clouds crawled in from the sea. The sun never finished setting so the evening went from dark to darker. When I shut myself in my room later that night for bed, I fell into my sheets and listened, just listened to the swell of the wind and rain.