I was twelve when I first met Eli, his denim-clad legs draped over his new porch steps as his parents fought over where to put the garden gnomes. His mother had her hair woven into her signature braid, the forceful blonde whip striking the air as she wrestled the ceramic, pug-faced monster away from her husband. Eli’s hazel eyes were focused down the street in his signature stare, cutting through sunlight and air to see something no one else could see.
I used the full force of my tween body weight to drag Wags out of our suburban home. The aging lab dug his paws into the ground, struggling to drag us away from the dangerous newcomers across the street.
Eli’s head jerked toward us. He blinked a few times to bat out the July sun, but when his eyes settled on me, he maneuvered his wrist into a small wave. Just for kicks, I waved back.
I met Eli again near the close of November. He lounged just over the smiling real estate woman on the bus stop bench, an iPod on his lap and a pair of earbuds rising up through the body of his hoodie. Envy rose in me as I watched him, the bitter emotion mixing with my ever-present rage.
I plopped onto the bench next to him having nowhere to go but wanting to get away from my problems in any possible way. Anger toward my parents churned through me in rhythmic sync with the brewing thunder overhead.
Eli pulled one of his earbuds loose and said, “You’re my neighbor, aren’t you?”
I looked up, took in his soft hazel eyes, the artistic curve to his lips and hard shape to his jawline. I felt the envy weaken, the anger fizzling out. There was an ache radiating out of my heart, pounding through my arteries, and silently snaking its way into the darkest recesses of my mind, the crevices even I was too afraid to venture into.
“I’m Eli,” he said, nodding at me.
And in that moment, that single, head-jerking gesture was the coolest thing in the world, better than an iPod or the computer my father had installed the week before. I wanted to know Eli more than I’d wanted anything before.
“Sam,” I said.
Eli smiled, and I ducked my head away. There was a voice whispering in the back of my head saying that just maybe, Eli wanted to know me.
Eli’s curfew was ten o’clock. I thought it was amazing that his parents cared what time he came home, but Eli hated it. He said all the best things happened after ten.
The first time Eli came to my house, it was just after nine o’clock. My parents had gone to bed, and Eli had texted me saying, I don’t want to be here, so I said the only thing that made sense to me: come over.
We were fourteen-years-old, and I was ashamed of the fear that poured over me once the message was sent. He wouldn’t say no, even though his curfew was looming over us and his parents would lock the doors if they found out he’d snuck out after ten. I was afraid that, despite the time we’d spent together over the past two years, I’d have nothing to say.
I snuck down to the entryway to let Eli in, his hair in disarray and his legs covered by pajama bottoms lined with the batman insignia. Eli had always preferred superman, but he knew batman was my favorite.
Neither of us spoke as I led the way into my kitchen and shakily pulled out a box of crackers and a jar of peanut butter. We dipped our crackers into the jar, making sure to scrape up any crumbs so my parents wouldn’t find out. With each second passing in an cacophony of crunching, I felt my fear subside. Maybe silence wasn’t so bad if it was silence with the right person.
Eli stopped chewing and pushed the cracker box across the table to me. “I don’t want to go home, Sam,” he said.
“I hate my parents.”
“You don’t mean that.”
But I knew he didn’t. Eli fought with his parents the way people did in movies. They yelled, they slammed doors, and a few hours later, they hugged and acted like it never happened. There were no fists, no blood, no bruises or scars. I knew what hate looked like, and Eli wasn’t capable of hate.
“What did they do?”
Eli didn’t respond. He stared at the cracker in my hand, his eyes roving each individual granule of salt. I wanted to catch his attention like passing cars and drops of rain. I wanted him to stare me down, to look into my soul and find something beautiful, but I didn’t want him to know that I wanted that.
“They want me to go to boarding school,” he said.
“They think it’s better for me to be around “proper” boys.”
“You mean, not me.” It wasn’t a question. I knew I wasn’t a proper boy, the sort that people respected. I didn’t have a “bright future” ahead of me. I wasn’t the type anyone wanted in their children’s wedding books.
“I don’t think they meant you specifically.”
“Yes, they did.”
Eli rubbed his wrists the way he always did when he was about to say something I wouldn’t like, as if he were as afraid of my anger as I was. “Don’t get mad, okay?”
I wanted to say, I can’t control how I feel. Instead I said, “Okay.”
“I told them about Stanley.”
Stanley, the boy who’d shoved me against lockers, spat in my face and spread rumors about me crapping my pants during homecoming. Stanley, the blackberry-tooting, boat shoe-wearing rich kid who’d tossed my new sweater into a toilet bowl after I refused to let him copy my homework. Stanley, the jerk I’d punched in the face the year before resulting in a three weeks suspension. “Why would you tell them about that?”
“It just slipped out.”
“Are you crazy?”
But Eli wasn’t crazy. He just trusted his parents and didn’t keep secrets from them. He wasn’t like me. He made friends at school. He didn’t lose his temper over things that weren’t important.
“You promised you wouldn’t get mad.”
Eli was rubbing his wrists again, but it felt like he’d turned my own punches back on me. One came in the form of Stanley Bedford telling me that my type “don’t make it to college. They get buried in all their shit and no one remembers them.” Another in Eli’s parents wanting to send him away just to protect him from boys like me. The last in the watery-eyed look on Eli’s face, the pain of knowing that no matter how hard I’d tried to be normal, Eli was still afraid of me. He was afraid I would lose my temper, that he would be the next Stanley, and all I wanted to say was, Not you. I could never hurt you. Instead, I said, “Okay.”
I had eight, nearly identical scars on my leg. That was why, at age fifteen, when Brittany Waller tried to get my pants off, I’d pushed her off of me and told her I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t because I was gay. I hadn’t realized that yet.
It didn’t take long for word to get around school that I was the pansy who cried at sex. I wasn’t entirely sure what they even meant by that, and I doubt most of them knew what they meant either, but it was enough to make every single person in that hallway feel like an A-list celebrity compared to me.
I sat away from everyone at lunch, absentmindedly scratching at the scars on my leg. Eli sat down across from me. He didn’t look at me as he ate, but he didn’t have to, nor did I need him to say anything. He was committing social suicide for me, and I was grateful.
“You disgusting shit!” my father roared, seven bent and frayed magazines tumbling to the floor at my feet.
My mother slammed the bathroom door shut, the faucet used to cover the sound of her forced sobs.
My father glared down at me, Leonardo di Caprio smiled up at me, and the weight of being sandwiched between them made me too angry to speak.
“Did you touch yourself to that?”
“I don’t touch myself.” It wasn’t a lie.
“You little shit. I’ll kill you.” It wasn’t a lie either.
“You graduate in six months,” the counselor said. “Can’t you just wait it out until then?”
I wanted to say, “Are you trying to kill me?” but instead I said, “Okay.”
Eli was waiting on the wooden bench outside the office, his eyes soft as I closed the door behind me. It wasn’t his fault someone had seen the marks on my arm and alerted the counselor. It wasn’t his fault that I had to lie through my teeth to pretend that they were accidental. But I felt like it was his fault. I felt like it was his fault for not seeing them, for nothing saving me from my father, from myself.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“There’s a party tonight,” he said. “You in?”
“No, I have homework to do.”
“Sam, you never do homework.”
I didn’t do homework because homework was for someone who had a future, who had the grades to get into college and who could actually afford to go if he did. Homework was for someone who cared about life, but I’d been to parties before, and my father always had something to say about it. It wasn’t worth it.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Eli asked. He was staring at me, looking at me that way I’d secretly wanted him to, but the compassion was mixed with pity, and I hated pity. I didn’t want sorrow. I wanted love, but I’d given up on trying to find it.
“I’m just going to go home.”
“Do you want me to walk with you?”
I didn’t answer, and he didn’t follow.
Five days before my eighteenth birthday, I got appendicitis. I lay on the couch, my body bursting into flames as my father stood over me and shouted at me to stop faking, to stop making everything about me.
By the time Eli arrived to take me to the hospital, my father had taken to throwing my clothes across the front lawn.
I never thanked Eli for saving my life by driving me to the hospital or letting me move in with him once I was released. He apologized later for ignoring the scars. I forgave him.
Eli graduated fourth in our class. The morning of graduation, I congratulated him with the words, “Fuck you.”
“I don’t understand how you can be mad at me,” he said.
And I didn’t understand it either. In reality, I was mad at myself, mad that I couldn’t go to whatever college Eli went to and that, while he’d be away at some Ivy League, I’d go to a community college or work at a grocery store until the hundreds of miles between us washed me out of his memory.
But my mind wouldn’t let me tell him that. Instead, I said, “Whatever,” and refused to go to graduation.
His parents threw a party at their house, and I spent it on the porch, legs draped over the steps and a pair of earbuds shoved far enough into my skull to block out the sounds of happiness from inside. I stared at my old house, the peeling white paint and new front door, and pretended that I could just go back once Eli left, as if he weren’t the sun in my crooked solar system.
Eli left the party at ten o’clock. He plopped down on the porch next to me, yanking one of the earbuds out but not saying anything afterwards. He took up his signature stare, his eyes following the faded lines on the street.
“Are you scared of me?” I asked.
“Why would I be scared of you?”
“When I get mad.”
I looked at him, waiting for him to say that he couldn’t be around me anymore, that’d he’d be relieved to go to college, to get away and never see me again. Instead, he laughed. It was the sound I loved the most, but I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to punch a hole in the wall.
“Why the hell are you laughing?” I screamed.
Eli shook his head. “How could I be afraid of you?” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”
“I’ve hurt people.”
“Not me,” he said. “Not anyone who didn’t have it coming.”
I looked at my palms, the only part of my body that didn’t say otherwise.
Eli sighed, his voice dropping. “I’m not scared of you, Sam, but I am scared for you. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
I stopped talking.
“Sam, I want you to get help,” he said. “I want you to talk to someone. I know you’ve been through a lot, but there are people who can help you.”
“I don’t need a shrink,” I said, though maybe I did. “I just need you.”
“You can’t just rely on me,” he said. “I don’t know the right thing to say. I don’t know what you need.”
“Are you going to Boston?”
“Harvard? BU? Boston College?”
Eli shook his head. “I’d rather stay with you.”
And then I was angry again, angrier than I could put into words. I didn’t care if Eli left me because I was a desert storm, a sinkhole, an infectious disease. It only made sense for him to get as far away from me as possible, to save himself before there was nothing left to save. But for him to throw his future away for me? I couldn’t live with myself. “Why are you so stupid?” I said. “You can’t throw away your future to stay here.”
“I’m not throwing away my future,” Eli said. “I’m still going to school. I’m just going to school here. What’s the big deal?”
“You could go anywhere, and you’re going to stay here? It’s stupid,” I said. “I don’t need you.”
“You’re just proving to me that I made the right choice.”
I stood up, stepping off the porch. “Forget it. I’m going home.”
“Yes, my home.” I gestured toward the house across the street, the one that had never been my home.
Eli caught up to me, grabbing me by my forearm. “Sam, stop it. Don’t do this. Don’t hurt yourself because you’re upset.”
I wanted to hit him, but I didn’t. Instead, I turned to him and met his eyes. It was a mistake. The second I was looking into his eyes, the anger drained out of me, and I just felt cold, alone, like I was on an island and no one knew how to make a boat.
“I’m not worth your future,” I said. I couldn’t control myself. I couldn’t control the tears forming in my eyes. “You should get as far away from me as you can.”
Eli shook his head, his eyes looking sad. “Sam, I said I don’t want to leave you, but I’m not just doing it for you. What would be the point of going away to college if I never saw you again? I don’t want that future without you in it.”
I don’t remember what I did after that, but I ended up in Eli’s arms, tears pouring out of me. It was the first time I’d been allowed to cry.
My psychiatrist prescribed me three different medications: one to treat my depression, one to stabilize my moods, and one I never asked about but took anyway. When I told Eli that I was seeing a professional, he’d kissed me. I don’t think he meant to do it. I think he was happy in a way that he couldn’t quite control, a perfect negative of my own uncontrollable anger. I didn’t care. His happiness was infectious.
Eli thought I needed the drugs to stay sane, but I thought I could get by if I had Eli. The drugs were nice, but Eli was the voice in the back of my head that reminded me to keep breathing. He was the reason I got up in the morning. He was the reason I applied to college. He was the reason I didn’t go back to my parents, no matter how many times they called.
If this story seems different than the first time you read it, that would be because this is the revised version. I find that this version works much better so I hope you all agree.