Authors: Francesca Lia Block
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Gay
Joanna Cotler Books
and Teddy Quinn
irk had known it since he could remember.
At nap time he lay on the mat, feeling his skin sticking to brown plastic, listening to the buzz of flies, smelling the honeysuckle through the faraway window, tasting the coating of graham cracker cookies and milk in his mouth, wanting to be racing through space. He tried to think of something he liked.
He was on a train with the fathers—all naked and cookie-colored and laughing. There under the blasts of warm water spurting from the walls as the train moved slick through the land. All the bunching calf muscles dripping water and biceps full of power comforted Dirk. He tried to see his own father’s face but there was always too much steam.
Dirk knew that there was something about this train that wasn’t right. One day he heard his Grandma Fifi
talking to her canaries, Pirouette and Minuet, in the teacup-colored kitchen with honey sun pouring through the windows.
“I’m afraid it’s hard for him without a man around, Pet,” Fifi said as she put birdseed into the green dome-shaped cage.
The canaries chirped at her.
“I asked him about what the men and ladies on his toy train were doing, Mini, and do you know what he said? He said they were all men taking showers together.”
The canaries nuzzled each other on their perch. Pet did a perfect pirouette and Mini sang.
“I guess you’re right. It’s something all little boys go through. It’s just a phase,” Fifi said.
Just a phase. Dirk thought about those words over and over again. Just a phase. Until the train inside of him would crash. Until the thing inside of him that was wrong and bad would change. Until he would change. He waited and waited for the phase to end. When would it end? He tried to do everything fast so it would end faster. He got A’s in school. He ran fast. He made his body strong so that he would be picked first for teams.
That was important—being picked first. The weak, skinny, scared boys got picked last. They got chased through the yard and had their jeans pulled up hard. Sometimes other kids threw food at them. Sometimes they
went home with black eyes, bloody noses or swollen lips. Dirk knew that almost all the boys who were treated this way really did like girls. It was just that girls didn’t like them yet. Dirk also knew that some of the boys that hurt them were doing it so they wouldn’t have to think about liking boys themselves. They were burning, twisting and beating the part of themselves that might have once dreamed of trains and fathers.
Dirk knew that the main thing was to keep to himself and never to seem afraid.
Every Saturday afternoon his Grandma Fifi took him to see a matinee, where he could hide, dreaming, in crackling popcorn darkness. They saw James Dean in
Rebel Without a Cause.
That was who he wanted to be. He practiced squinting and pouting. He turned up his jacket collar and rolled his jeans. He slicked back his hair, carefully leaving one stray piece falling into his eyes. James Dean was beautiful because he didn’t seem afraid of anything, but when Dirk looked into his eyes he knew that he secretly was and it made Dirk love him even more.
Grandma Fifi had two friends named Martin and Merlin who were afraid in a way Dirk didn’t want to be. They were both very handsome and kind and always brought candies and toys when they came over for tea and Fifi’s famous pastries. But as much as Dirk liked Martin
and Merlin he knew he was different from them. They talked in voices as pale and soft as the shirts they wore and they moved as gracefully as Fifi did. Their eyes were startled and sad. They had been hurt because of who they were. Dirk didn’t want to be hurt that way. He wanted to be strong and to love someone who was strong; he wanted to meet any gaze, to laugh under the brightest sunlight and never hide.
Dirk especially didn’t want to hide from Grandma Fifi but he wasn’t sure how to tell her. He didn’t want to disturb the world she had made for him in her cottage with the steep chocolate frosting roof, the birdbath held by a nymph and the seven stone dwarfs in the garden. There were so many butterflies in that garden that when Dirk was a little boy he could stand naked in a crowd of them and be completely covered. Jade-green pupas hung from the bushes like earrings. Fifi showed Dirk the gold sparks that would later become the butterflies’ orange color. Then the pupa darkened and stretched and finally a fragile monarch bloomed. Fifi and Dirk put flower nectar or a mixture of honey and water on their fingertips and the newborn butterflies crawled onto them, all ticklish, and practiced fanning wings that were like amber stained glass in the sun. In the garden there were also little butterflies that looked like petals blown from the roses with the almond scent. There were peaches with pits that also
smelled and looked like almonds when you cracked them open. Fifi showed Dirk how to pinch the honeysuckle blossoms that grew over the back gate so that sweet drops fell onto his tongue. She showed him how to pinch the snapdragons’ jaws to make them sing. If Dirk ever cut himself playing, Fifi broke off a piece of the thick green aloe vera plant she called Love and a gel oozed out like Love’s clear, thick blood. Fifi put the gel onto Dirk’s cut and stuck a Peanuts Band-Aid over it; the cut always healed by the next day, skin smooth as if it had never been broken.
Fifi had a cat named Kit who had arrived through the window one evening while an Edith Piaf record was playing and never left. Kit had pinkish fur like the tints Fifi put in her white hair. If Dirk or Fifi ever had an ache or a pain, Kit would come and sit on the part of the body that hurt them—just sit and purr. She was very warm, and after a while the soreness would disappear.
“Kit is a great healer in a cat’s body,” Fifi said.
Kaboodle the Noodle was Fifi’s dog. He had a valentine nose, long Greta Garbo lashes and a tiny shock of hair that stood straight up. When you were sad he kissed your hand and winked at you.
Dirk and Fifi and Kaboodle went shopping at the fruit stands on Fairfax that were covered with pink netting to keep out the flies. Kaboodle sat out in front and waited.
Fifi bought bags of asparagus and bananas, kiwis and radishes, persimmons and yams. There was a little Middle Eastern market where she bought bottles of rose water and coffee beans as dark as chocolate. Fifi made pastries shaped like shells, ballet slippers and moons, and salads full of vegetables cut into the shapes of flowers.
Dirk knew that Fifi wanted great-grandchildren someday. She wanted to make pastries for them and teach them about how peach pits smelled like almonds, about butterflies that looked like flowers and about talking snapdragons. He knew he was her only chance. Worst of all, he knew she wanted him to be happy and how could he be happy in this world, he wondered, if what he knew about himself was true? So Dirk didn’t tell Fifi. He didn’t tell anyone. He kept to himself. He waited for the phase to end. Until the day he met Pup Lambert.
he air smelled like lemon Pledge, sweet jasmine and mock orange. Bougainvillea grew thick up the fences like walls of paper flowers. Morning glories glowed neon purple, twining among the pink oleander. Nasturtiums shimmered along the ground like fallen sunlight.
As Dirk walked home from school he heard a whistle, and he looked up into an olive tree. In the branches sat a boy. He had brown hair with leaves in it, freckles on his turned-up nose and a Cheshire cat grin.
“Hey,” the boy said.
“Hey,” said Dirk.
“Want to shoot some baskets?” the boy asked.
The boy jumped out of the tree, landing lightly on the white rubber soles of his baby-blue Vans deck shoes.
Dirk and the boy shot baskets in the driveway of the
pale yellow house with the pink camellias growing in front. Dirk was taller, but the boy was light on his feet and had perfect aim. Dirk’s heart was beating fast like the basketball hitting the pavement again and again; he was sweating.
When a car pulled into the driveway the boy grabbed the basketball and took off down the street.
“Come on,” he shouted.
Dirk stood still, looking at the boy and then into the car. A heavyset man got out. Dirk just had time to wonder how such a big man could have such a quick and slender son when the man said, “Scram! I told you not to hang around here anymore! I’ll call the cops!”
Dirk ran after the boy. When he caught up with him, at the edge of a field of wildflowers, he was out of breath. The sweat was getting into his eyes.
“I thought that was your house,” Dirk said.
The boy grinned. “Nope.”
They stood under the shifting sunlight, laughing. Dirk thought their laughter would look like sunlight through leaves if he could see it. A flock of poppies, with their faces toward the sun, moved in the breeze as if they were laughing too. Dirk noticed that the boy’s ears came to slight points at the top.
“I’m Pup,” the boy said.
“Hey, Dirk. Next time we’ll borrow someone’s swimming pool.”
Two days later Pup jumped out of the tree again. He and Dirk climbed the fence of an ivy-covered Spanish house with a terra-cotta roof, and stripped down to their underwear. Then they took turns diving into the aqua water. Pup did more and more elaborate dives—cannonballs and flips and flailing-in-the-air things—and Dirk tried to imitate him. They stayed in the pool until the tips of their fingers looked crinkled and crushed, and then they dried out on the hot cement. Pup had freckles on his shoulders and a gold dusting of hair on his arms and legs. With his wet hair slicked back Dirk thought he looked like James Dean.
“Are you hungry?” Dirk asked Pup.
Dirk and Pup went to Farmer’s Market where the air smelled like tropical fruit, chilled flowers, Cajun corn bread, Belgian waffles, deli meats and cheeses, coffee and the gooey sheets of saltwater taffy that spun round and round behind glass. The light filtered softly through the striped circus tent awnings. Wind chimes and coffee cups sang. Dirk looked for Pup but couldn’t find him. Then he heard a whistle. He followed the sound to a corner table where Pup was sitting behind a huge banana cream pie. He handed Dirk a fork.
“Where’d you get that?” Dirk asked.
Pup grinned his Cheshire grin.
Nothing had ever tasted so good to Dirk as that frothy concoction—peaks of meringue and melts of banana—that Pup had lifted so slyly from the pie counter. But the next day Dirk asked Grandma Fifi to make a pie so Pup wouldn’t have to steal and invited his friend over for dinner.
After school they went to Fifi’s cottage through the backyards of houses, leaping fences and climbing walls, patting dogs and dodging the lemons that one woman threw at them. Pup gathered avocados, roses and sprigs of cherry blossoms as he ran so that by the time he met Grandma Fifi at the front door he had almost more presents than he could carry.
“This is Pup,” Dirk told her.
“Pleased to meet you, Pup,” said Grandma Fifi. “Thank you for the alligator pears and the flowers.”
“This is my Grandma Fifi,” Dirk said.
“Hi,” said Pup. He seemed suddenly shy. He shook the tips of his hair out of his eyes. He lowered his eyelashes.
“Come in for some snacks,” said Fifi.
She brought out guava cream cheese pastries and a pitcher of lemonade. Pup gulped and swallowed as if he hadn’t had food in days.
Then Dirk showed Pup the comics that he drew. They were about two boys who turned into the superheroes
Slam and Jam when there was danger.
“You’re serious,” Pup said.
They lay on the floor of Dirk’s room reading comics until the room turned jacaranda-blossom-purple with evening and the glow-in-the-dark constellations that Fifi had pasted on the ceiling began to come out.
“Superheroes aren’t afraid of anything,” Pup said softly, his voice fading with the light.
Kit jumped off the windowsill where she had been gazing at the blur of a hummingbird in the bottlebrush bush and sat on Pup’s chest, over his heart. Kaboodle licked between his fingers.
“You don’t seem afraid of much,” said Dirk.
“I’m afraid of everything. That’s why I do stuff. My mom is afraid of everything too but she just stays inside. She’s afraid to go to the market, even.”
“You can come over and eat with us when you want,” Dirk said. “My grandma would like it.”
“Thanks,” said Pup.
He stayed for chicken pot pie with carrots and peas and peach pie for dessert. When you asked Fifi for pie you got it.
While they ate their dessert Fifi played an old record.
“Chills run up and down my spine / Aladdin’s lamp is mine,” the singer crooned, and Dirk felt silvery chills, saw, beneath his eyelids, the glinting lamp of love.
“This is cool music,” Pup said.
“Do you dance, Pup?” Fifi asked.
“Not really,” Pup said. “But I’m willing to have some lessons.”
Fifi blushed. “Oh, I’m not very good anymore.”
“That’s not true,” Dirk said. “She’s a cool dancer.”
“Show me,” Pup said.
He stood and offered Fifi his hand. She took it, putting his other arm around her waist. Dirk watched as Fifi led Pup around the room so skillfully that it appeared he was leading her. But that was also because Pup was a natural dancer. Dirk watched how he held his head, proud on his straight strong neck, the way his shoulders curved.
“Your turn now, Dirk,” Fifi said.
Dirk wasn’t embarrassed the way he would have been around anyone else except Pup. Fifi felt light in his arms as they danced over the garlands of roses on the carpet. Pirouette and Mini did a waltz in their cage. Kaboodle sat up on his hind legs and offered Pup his paws. While Pup danced with Kaboodle, Kit watched them all from the mantelpiece.
When the record ended Pup insisted on skateboarding home although Fifi tried to offer him a ride. He and Dirk planned to meet in the quad at school the next day at lunch.
That morning Dirk told Fifi he was especially hungry
so when he opened his lunch there was one sandwich with cheese, avocado, lettuce, pickles, artichoke hearts, olives, red onion and mustard and one with peanut butter, raspberry jam, honey, bananas and strawberries, both on home-baked bread.
“She always does that,” Dirk said, pulling out the sandwiches and shaking his head. “Would you eat one of these, Pup?”
“Are you sure?”
“She acts all hurt when I bring one home but she keeps giving them to me.”
Every day after that Fifi put two sandwiches in Dirk’s lunch. She never asked her grandson why he had started to eat twice the normal amount. She just beamed at him and said, “You are growing so tall and strong. And so is your friend Pup Lambert. When I first met him I was sad to see how thin he was.”
“I love you, Fifi,” said Dirk.
“I love you, Dirk,” Fifi said.
After school Pup and Dirk listened to music in Dirk’s room. They could play it loud because Fifi was a bit hard of hearing. On the wall was a chalk drawing Dirk had made of Jimi Hendrix.
“That is hell of cool,” said Pup. “You are a phenomenal artist, man.”
Dirk tried to concentrate on keeping his ears from turning red.
“My mom went out with this gross trucker guy once,” Pup told him. “He saw the Jimi poster in my room and goes, ‘That nigger looks like he’s got a mouth full of cum.’ I wanted to kill him. I told my mom I would if she didn’t stop seeing him.”
“Yeah. But I don’t think that’s why. Her next boyfriend saw my Bowie poster and started calling him a fag. My mom said if I ever dressed like that she’d kick me out of the house.”
Dirk and Pup looked up at Jimi burning his guitar. It flamed beneath the steeple of his hands, between his legs. Jimi had said it was like a sacrifice. He loved his guitar. He was giving up something he loved. Dirk wondered if Jimi had felt that way about life.
“We should start a band,” Dirk said.
“Can you play?” asked Pup.
“A little. I mess around with my dad’s guitar.”
Dirk got out the guitar that he kept hidden in the closet.
Pup stroked it. Dirk had never seen him touch anything with such concentrated love except for Kit and Kaboodle. Just like Kit and Kaboodle, the guitar seemed to love Pup. Dirk imagined he could hear it singing in Pup’s arms although Pup’s fingers never touched the strings.
“It’s beautiful,” Pup said. “Your dad was cool.”
“I don’t remember him,” Dirk said.
“My mom and dad died in a crash.”
Pup looked up at the picture Dirk had drawn of his hero standing with his hands in his jeans pockets, shoulders hunched, feet rolling out.
“Like James Dean?”
Pup’s eyes got big. “I bet your dad looked like James Dean,” he said. “ ‘Cause you do.”
Dirk picked up the guitar and bent to tune it so that Pup wouldn’t see that his ears were turning red. He felt almost as if Pup had put his arm around him and said, “I’m so sorry about your parents, Dirk. I wish they were alive.”
Pup took a cigarette out of his pocket.
“Where did you get that?” Dirk asked.
“I steal them from my mom.”
He lit the cigarette and handed it to Dirk. Dirk hesitated. He didn’t want Pup to see him cough like someone who had never smoked before.
“You know I still cough sometimes,” Pup said as if he could read Dirk’s mind. “And I’ve been smoking for a year.”
Dirk inhaled. He could feel where Pup’s lips had been, moist on the paper end. Pup was unscrewing one of
the large brass balls on Dirk’s bedposts. “This is perfect,” he said.
“For what?” Dirk coughed.
“For a tobacco stash,” said Pup, depositing another cigarette inside the ball.
After he met Pup, Dirk’s room became full of secrets. The cigarettes in the bedposts. The stolen Three Musketeers bars in the dresser drawer. The
magazines under the bed. And the real secret that had always been there grew larger and larger each day until Dirk thought it would burst out licking its lips and rolling its eyeballs and telling everyone that Dirk McDonald wasn’t normal.
Dirk looked at the
that Pup brought, trying to feel something. All he could think of was that the giant breasts must keep the women safe somehow, protected. As if the breasts were padding for their hearts. His own was so close to the surface of his chest. He was afraid Pup might be able to see it beating there.
Dirk’s heart sent sparks and flares through his veins like a fast wheel on cement when he was with Pup. They rode their bikes and skateboards, popping wheelies, doing jumps and flips. Dirk wanted to do wilder and wilder things. It wasn’t so much that he was competing with Pup or showing off for him; he wanted to give the tricks to Pup like offerings. He wanted to say, neither of
us has to be afraid of anything anymore. Their knees and elbows were always speckled with blood and gritty dirt from falling but Fifi treated them with gel from Love’s leaves.
Every morning Pup came by on his skateboard or his bike. He never let Dirk meet him at his house. Dirk wondered what Pup’s room was like, what his mother was like.
“You wouldn’t want to know,” Pup said. “She’s just all sad and scared.”
Dirk didn’t push Pup. It didn’t matter anyway where Pup came from as long as they were together. At school they met for lunch. Dirk always had two sandwiches—sometimes he even had peanut butter and jam on waffles, which was Pup’s favorite. Dirk rolled his eyes and acted as if Fifi had always given him two sandwiches. He and Pup didn’t talk much at school, just sat eating and scowling into the sun. Sometimes girls walked by giggling in their pastel T-shirts, matching tight jeans and pale suede platform Corkees sandals. Pup winked at them, and they tossed their winged hair, smacked their lip-glossed lips. Dirk was glad the girls were too shy to do much more than that. Even the tough boys never approached Dirk and Pup although Dirk was always braced for it, a tension in his shoulders that never went away. It seemed Pup was braced too. His muscles were a man’s already, as if his
fear had formed them that way to make up for his small size. So the tough boys never bothered them. Together they were invincible. You couldn’t find anything nasty to say. They were brown all year long, lean and strong, good at sports, smart; they smoked cigarettes and skate-boarded. They wore Vans and their Levi’s were always ripped at the knees. The most popular girls dreamed about them.
They shot baskets in strangers’ driveways and swam in neighbors’ pools and picked flowers and fruits from gardens for Fifi. Sometimes they borrowed dogs from backyards and took them on walks for a while, bringing them home before their owners returned.
It was not just Kaboodle—Pup loved all dogs and all dogs loved Pup. They came running up to him with worshipping eyes and licked his fingers, immediately flopping onto their backs like hot dogs to let him pet their bellies. He always had scraps of bread in his pockets for them.
“What do you think dogs dream about?” Pup asked Dirk one day as Kaboodle lay stretched on top of his Vans, long eyelashes curling as if he had styled them that way.