Eyes of Excruciation – Final Act

Brave Again


Final Act

Eternity in Him


It’s 9:37 when I find the big red house on the edge of four mile and Bentsen – and with no ice.

The party is so alive.

Cars and trucks line the streets and the front driveway, a long half-circle curving through a long and prosperously green front yard. Bodies are moving everywhere, carefree and laughing faces, a sea of fun.

The thumping music, some kind of techno, roars into vibrant clarity as I get out of my truck and walk towards the open gate. I’m surprised the cops haven’t shown up yet.

A couple of bigger guys pass me with their plastic red cups in hand, paying me no mind as they laugh and slur something about condoms.

This is stupid, this is stupid…

I enter the yard, looking up at the impressive two story…mansion, practically. Bricks colored like autumn leaves. Two towering stucco white pillars before a high dome-shaped entryway. All the windows have their blinds pulled up, and electric blue and green lights flash in sync with the music.

Passing guys and girls in jeans and skirts, all of them somewhat dressy, I see one girl emerge from the crowd. She looks familiar, but I can’t place a name on her. She smiles at me as we get closer, her white blouse looking…well, lovely.

“Excuse me.” I stop her with a gentle hand gesture, trying to be sincere. “You seen Eddie? Eddie Garcia?”

“Yeah.” She points to the back and tilts her head that way, so that her brunette hair brushes against her cheek. “I think he’s still hanging out with a couple other guys in the backyard.”

“Thanks.” I give her a cheesy thumbs-up. “I wanted to surprise him.” Somehow, I feel charming when I say that.

“No problem,” she says, her eyes glowing warmly as we start to walk our separate ways. And in that last nanosecond of mutual eye contact, I see a glint of something else in her pretty irises, a hint of tender questioning and her hunch about my true purpose there.

The side driveway is less crowded, and three tables of food, punch, and booze line the way. Walking slowly, brushing past more strangers, my heart starts speeding up again, and the urge to back out throbs stronger than ever before in my chest. But I say No.

I see a basketball goal and the side gate of the fence leaning open.

I won’t stop.

I pass through the open gate, ignoring a few guys from the basketball team at the pool table. They watch me, pool cues in hand, as I step onto the back patio.

Just like that, I find him.

It’s like everything is irradiated. The patio lights go out, girls screeching and laughing in excitement, and blacklights placed around the ceiling blink on. Everything white glows electrically, and a few girls and guys starting dancing to Tiesto. By the pool are three guys wearing the iconic red football shirts, side by side, and instantly I know the middle one is Eddie.

Drifting through the dancers and the purple glow, I realize that the three of them are chugging something from clear shot glasses as they tilt their heads back, three wide shoulders and backs facing me.

I recite fragments of a Foo Fighters song. Bring some change up to the bridge, bring some alcohol. There we’ll make our final wish, just before the fall

“Not even drunk yet.” J.P.’s voice carries over as he turns to Eddie from the right. “Ahh…it still feels fucking crazy that we’re graduating, man.”

“Shit, J.P.,” Eddie hollers to the night sky, popping his shot glass into the air, where it spins for a second before plunging into the vacant pool with a tiny splash. “Just enjoy the vodka. Graduation is waaay off.”

I approach, my shoes crunching on the grass. My heart has to slow down. I’m too scared to tell him with certainty.

“Yeah…shit,” the third guy on Eddie’s left scoffs. It’s Michael Gomez. “Your head isn’t all here, J.P.”

J.P. clears his throat and remarks happily, “Like yours is, Mike? You’re drunker than I am.” He raises his glass. “To Svetka! And being crunk!”

“The Russians,” Michael agrees, holding up his shot glass.

Eddie looks back and forth between them and says incredulously, “I’m not fishing mine outta the bottom of the pool.” They all laugh and point at the glass glimmering at the bottom.

Then he turns and sees me. We’re barely two yards apart. His drunken smile sags. Time means nothing. I lose touch of every sense except sight and sound, and I can’t even figure how shocked or scared or blank I look.

“Eddie.” Wow. I speak first. Michael and J.P. turn, eyebrows raised. It’s just me on the grass and the three of them by the pool.

“Yeah?” Eddie cocks his head back, eyelids sagging down but his eyes still puzzled. “How’d you…get here man?”

I laugh out loud. For once I feel safe in my own skin. “I drove, man. I think you mean why am I here.”

J.P. looks at Eddie like he’s waiting for a cue.

“Yeah…” Eddie’s eyebrows furrow. “R.J. Yeah, so, what’s up dude?”

I pocket my hands, thinking. I need words that’ll get him away from everyone else. An excuse.

“I dunno if you know, man,” I say, almost like a game show host, “but I’m helping out with this last-minute yearbook distribution, and you didn’t pick yours up. I got it in my truck if you want it.”

Another lie. They have to stop.

Eddie wipes around his eyes and blinks widely a couple of times. “I didn’t order one.” He laughs and bites his lower lip, his lengthy arms swinging at his sides. “But I’ll take a free yearbook. Ha-ha, hell yeah!”

Michael grins like this conversation is ridiculous and downs the last of his beer, which he had been double-fisting along with his last shot. J.P. says to me, “Damn, if I had known you got connections with yearbook I woulda waited until you started giving them out for free!”

“Yeah, no shit.” Eddie laughs and elbows his friend, then looks at me half-seriously again. “Alright man. I’ll take it.”

I grin in return. “Yeah man. I parked out front.”

Getting back seems to take almost no time, my truck like an unwelcome ghost. I wonder if Eddie ever feels all this: the weight of anxiety so bad it makes you wonder if you even really exist.

I shove my key into the lock and open the passenger door, Eddie standing by the front of my Dodge before he folds his arms. I let my hands scramble around the floorboard and the seats uselessly, pretending to look. I can’t buy any more time.

“Hey.” I start and look up. He’s leaning through the open window beside me, looking genuinely sincere. “Open the other side. I’ll help you look.”

I nod and, reaching precariously near his hand slung over the door, hit the unlock button and grin. “I shouldn’t have lost it.”

Walking around to the other side and yanking the door open, Eddie says slyly, “It’s red, right?”

I laugh, really laugh. “The whole thing.” Eddie nods and searches his side, checking under the seat and around the dash carefully.

“Damn,” I say softly, “I know I had it.”

“Maybe someone jacked it,” he says gruffly, pulling the seat forward and looking around the cargo pit.

It’s now or never. I get in the truck and close the door, Eddie glancing at me vacantly before searching again. I sigh and put my head into my hands. “I’m so fucking stupid.”

“Nah,” Eddie assures me. “We’ll find it dude.”

I don’t tell him we won’t. Instead I say: “You’re lucky. You’re always relaxed, Eddie. I worry about all kinds of stupid shit.”

I can tell by his brief silence that I caught him off guard, but I don’t look up. Instead I clutch the steering wheel, the only thing that I can seem to give direction to in my life. Then Eddie laughs, three mellow syllables: “Ha-ha-ha,” a gorgeous sound. “I’m not always easygoing,” he says, sounding weirdly modest and gentle. “Shit hits the fan for me too. I mess up plays in basketball sometimes. It gets to me every once in a while.”

I remember his picture in Hector’s yearbook: number 1 on the varsity team. A leader by example.

“Yeah, but you don’t show it,” I muse, trying not to cry too hard. “Sorry…I lost it.”

“Don’t sweat it, man,” he says, then pauses and looks at me. “Y’know, you can stay here if you want.” He nods back towards the house. “Chill here, it’s pretty cool. I’ll watch your back.”

“Naw,” I say solemnly, “you don’t owe me anything, dude.”

“Oh-ho, you kidding?! That time you hauled ass to get me a Scantron for our second test in Government? When I forgot to buy it, and thought I was shit outta luck?”

I grin. “Yeah…that was crazy. Doas thought you had one for like an hour.”

Eddie chuckles. “And you saved me, man. I do owe you.”

I shrug, then meet his eyes. “It’s late.”

“Yeah, it is.” I can tell by the focus in his eyes that he’s sobering up. “I’m used to it. But it’s all good.”

I nod and sniff. “Well…next time, though. For sure.”

“Yeah. Hey, I appreciate the effort, though. You didn’t have to drive out here.” He offers a hand, smiling. I reach for it and shake it. With that touch my heart pulses with a thousand extravagant new beats of happiness and gratitude. What he’s done for me…

“When this is over,” he tells me, scratching his nose, “graduation and all, we gotta hang out sometime. You’re cool man, very cool. I appreciate what you –”

“I’m gay.”

A roar fills my ears, then a sudden inversion of noise before the music and laughter are drowned out to a dim hum. I catch a glint of light in Eddie’s shocked eyes.

“I’m gay,” I say again, puffing out my chest, “and I like you. A lot. I wish I had the balls to say that before.”

I’m suddenly aware of how low his arms hang. One swing and he’d knock the shit out of me from this distance. Seconds go by with no such beating. I count his blinks: one, two, three, four, five…

It seems like he’s gone for an eternity. Then two girls walk behind him, paying us no mind as they giggle their asses off about one or the other’s skinny shorts. Sharp awareness comes back into Eddie’s eyes. And they are beautiful.

“So the yearbook was a lie.”

I nod, regret eating me up inside like acid.

“And you came out here to, what, figure out if I’m…y’know.”

Either his whole body is shaking, or my eyes are. I think briefly of losing him, of never making eye contact again, of being cut off from him completely in class, the three feet between us now an abyss. Never knowing if he was really a jock through and through, or someone with far more depths and hues.

But I spoke my mind. I shared my heart. And now I can walk with my head up. Bloodied, shamed, whatever comes next. I took my leap.

“Gay,” I say so, so softly. “If you were gay. Like me.”

No one else is around, but Eddie doesn’t look to double check as he opens his mouth and says, “I guess I knew. Way back in my head, somewhere. I felt something every time you looked at me. And it didn’t bother me. Still doesn’t.”

Then he walks back around to me and stretches out an arm. I flinch, feeling my vision dim, even though my eyes are wide open. When I come back into myself a bit, I feel his fingers gently pressing into my shoulder. Like a switch, his reassuring touch releases everything – and I break down like there’s no tomorrow. Quiet sobs at first. Then guttural heaves. I wobble and step out to catch myself. He doesn’t try to stop me, even with his hand on me, though concern flows through his fingertips. He sees strength in me, I realize, the tears rolling down my cheeks somehow cooler than the night air. I don’t act on emotion. Don’t throw my arms around him. I just stand in the rawness of it all, knowing that he also saw something more in me during all those first period exchanges. Fragments of the hurt and self-hatred I felt when I left Kristina – my ex – behind.

“You okay?”

I really look at Eddie. His eyebrows, softened with concern. The red fullness of his lips. His own watering eyes. All of it becomes one. In a moment of soul-shaking awareness, he is everything to me as I allow myself to repent.

“Yeah. Just…trying to forgive myself.” Then I give words to the shame. “Kristina, my ex-girlfriend. She broke up with me when she found out…that I’m gay.”

Eddie visibly retracts, already clenching a fist. But I speak faster. “She broke up with me to help me accept that about myself.”

It’s a beautiful thing, watching the preemptive hate wash out of his eyes. Then he says something that makes me feel more gratitude than love for him all over again: “If I ever discovered myself like that, I’d hope that my girlfriend would do the same for me.”

It’s late when we walk back up to the house. Eddie slips back into the lighter drunkenness that I know he deserves. But he still guides me. Does everything short of take me by the hand to help me cross that final threshold. Past a half dozen blacked-out faces and into the front door. We drift through the smoky haze and neon strobe lights, through the buzz of so many voices running together:

Hey babe, I dig you…

   I want to sleep with you as badly as you do.

   This is our last party before we graduate. I’m gonna miss you, man.

“You sure you’re okay with this?” He looks back at me, having just shouldered some much bigger guy out of the way – out of my way – so that neither one of us would have to worry about his drunk ass. I give a tiny nod.

We take the stairs to the game room, and for a moment I feel placed in someone else’s life. The girl taking her boyfriend’s hand as they dart up the carpeted steps, her heart racing as she asks herself if this is going to really be her first time. Or the guy who just told his crush that he liked him, and the other guy is holding him close now, both of them finally letting go of the banister once they realize that they finally have each other. I gently pass those thoughts on at the top step. Round the corner, see her sitting there with another friend sipping on water. She lights up when she sees Eddie, and I follow her joy as it crosses the room and leaps into Eddie, who smiles like he’s scared of asking her out all over again.

“R.J., this is my girlfriend, Ana.”

Her smile only grows. I see the goodness in her face, in all of us. She extends a hand, as unafraid but tender as I am. I shake it and know that I will fall in love some tomorrow on down the line. With someone else, someone who can catch my loving glance and hold it just as carefully as Eddie is now.

Without excruciation in my eyes.



The End

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