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I wanna be your boyfriend, chapter two

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Eric’s role in Vince’s life has always been uncomplicated. He knew even as a six-year-old that Vince needed looking after.

They weren’t really friends until this hot summer day. Hot summer days in Queens were thick with the smells of traffic, melting tarmac, food and sickly garbage rot. The heat was sticky and uncomfortable, wrapping itself around Eric like a damp blanket. It didn’t just beat down from the hazy white sky, it radiated up from pavements and out from walls, blasting from vents sudden and unwelcome.

Eric spent his days with the other neighbourhood kids, looking for anything to do that took the edge off the physical feeling of boredom. Their parents all struggled to meet the rent and bills every month, so theirs weren’t summers of day trips or Disneyland visits or actual vacations. Eric had never been on a plane and didn’t think he knew anyone who had.

Most days, boredom and heat drove them to rule breaking. Scrapping, stealing, throwing stones at cars. And bullying whichever kid was that week’s smallest or weakest. Vince was the newest target; girly pretty, needy and sweet, he could neither take nor throw a punch and he hadn’t yet learned that whatever happened to you, you did not cry. Eric isn’t mean to Vince, he doesn’t take any pleasure in making other kids miserable, but he isn’t exactly nice to him either. He knows that Vince needs to toughen up and stop being so pathetic. He learned the word pathetic from his older sister, who uses it constantly along with a curled-lip look of disgust. Everything is pathetic to her, especially Eric and their parents.

The day Vince and Eric become friends, the group from the neighbourhood has walked right out to the part of the docks which is completely derelict. Eric wouldn’t tell anyone, but he’s absolutely terrified of the abandoned buildings. They smell of decay and damp and piss and Eric knows that absolutely anything could be hiding inside behind those broken, boarded windows. Winos, junkies, something too scary for a name just waiting to grab Eric’s wrist or ankle. He hates every second while he stumbles through dark graffitied corridors petrified the floor will collapse or everyone will run off and leave him here alone in the dark. That day though, he knows they’re definitely not going to run off and leave him, because that’s what they’re going to do to Vince.

They do it three floors up in one of the biggest, scariest buildings, which is a maze of rotting hallways and locked rooms. Eric has been watching Vince and he knows the kid is petrified. When a pigeon suddenly whirled at them out of a corner shortly after the entryway they’d all been scared, but Vince was the only one to scream and cover his face with his hands. They’re all walking single file, Eric right at the back and Vince directly in front of him. Eric thinks Vince might have cried a little bit at one point, although he might have just been sniffing and rubbing dust from his eyes.

There’s an unspoken signal between them all when it’s time. Ray, who’s the oldest at 11 and the defacto group leader, suddenly shoves Vince over, shouts “Go!” and they all bomb outside, shrieking and giggling, made faster and bolder by adrenaline and the thrill of working as a pack.

Once they’re outside, the other kids carry on running.
“Hey” says Eric. “We not gonna wait for Vince?”
Ray snorts his derision. “No. We’re leaving the little pussy to find his own way home”
Eric fights his fear of Ray and says: “Shouldn’t we just check he gets out ok? Then we can run away again. What if he’s hurt?”
“Fuck you Eric. You can stay here and wait for pussy boy on your own.” He checks his head to the other kids “C’mon. Murphy’s stayin’ here to wait for his pussy friend”
They all run off and Eric shouts (but not that loudly) “Well fuck you guys”, the word fuck still feels foreign and awkward in his mouth and he expects his mom to reach over and cuff his ear.

He waits for a long time. He doesn’t have a watch, but it’s long enough for him to sing all the Ramones song he knows in his head, pitch a bunch of stones through some of the few remaining panes of glass and throw some bigger stones into the river. Vince still hasn’t come out. Eric waits a bit longer and he’s starting to worry that his mom is going to be mad that he’s missing lunch. He waits long enough to get scared that Vince could have died and they might all get sent to jail like Tina Carter’s dad did after he beat a man up with a piece of pipe outside a bar one night, because if Vince is dead in there, it’s all their fault.

He takes a deep breath and goes back into the building, terror starbursting in his chest like fireworks as the dark of the lobby swallows him immediately, the bright summer day feeling unreachable. He shouts Vince’s name over and over again, as much to chase away the silence as to find the stupid kid, who actually, Eric thinks, really is a pussy. He doesn’t have to go very far in before he finds him and relief flushes through him. Vince is sobbing and snotty and when he sees Eric he actually runs up to him and grabs him in a half grapple, half hug. He’s too hysterical to even talk, taking huge shuddering breaths.
“Hey, it’s ok. Follow me out, ok? You’re alright” says Eric.
Vince doesn’t say anything, just carries on crying, but he does slip his hand into Eric’s and grips it like a vice. Eric wants to snatch his hand back, but even through Vince’s death grip he can feel that he’s shaking, so he just sighs and roughly pulls him along.

In the daylight, he can see Vince’s tear-slick face, puffy and red and snot streaked, hair damp with either sweat or tears or both, sticking to his forehead. He can also see that the front of Vince’s tan pants is dark with a stain that starts at his crotch and goes right down his leg.
Vince sees Eric noticing what he’s done and, apparently past the point of feeling any shame, his lip shakes and voice still shuddery with tears he says: “My mom is gonna be so mad with me” and launches into a new crying jag.
Eric, who still feels guilty, and also wants him to shut up, says: “You can come home with me first. My mom can sort it out”
“Won’t she be mad?”
“Not with you”.

So Vince comes. Eric walks as fast as he possibly can the whole way home, nervously scanning the streets for one of the other kids the whole time, because if crying is a no-no, crying and peeing your pants like a toddler is basically a request to be bullied forever. Being associated with a pants-peeing cryer isn’t much better. The kids must have found an adventure somewhere else though, because they don’t see them and Eric is soon opening his front door and shouting: “mom, I’m home. I have Vince with me”.

Eric is unfailingly honest with his mother, so he tells her exactly what happened, what they did. What he did. His mom looks horrified and she says “Oh Eric”, in her most disappointed voice. “Vincent, come here baby” she says, softly. Vince, who is still sniffling slightly, doesn’t even hesitate before going into her open arms and letting her pet his curls and rub his back. Pussy, Eric thinks again, but he thinks it without malice. Actually, he is kind of in awe of the fact that even after this, Vince still doesn’t give in to the pressure to toughen up, or at least pretend to.

Eric’s mother cleans Vince up, gives him something of Eric’s to wear while she makes them lunch – the pant legs are comically half-mast on his already gangly limbs – and she calls his mother, telling her some story which is enough for her to accept Vince’s absence. After that, they both go play with Eric’s Star Wars toys and Eric realises that while Vince may be a huge pussy he also does a great Chewbacca impression, knows how to curse in Italian and can do a backflip off Eric’s bed.

By the time Eric’s mom sends Vince home in the pants, which she’s somehow magically laundered and dried just in time, they’re friends. When Vince leaves, he asks Eric if he wants to go to Coney Island the next day, because his big brother Johnny who is 15 has a summer job there will let them ride the rides and eat hotdogs and cotton candy for free. Eric says “sure” like he's doing Vince a favour, even though he’s so excited he wants to run around and shout, and Vince grins pure happiness and bounds down Eric’s stoop.

“See ya tomorrow then” he says.
“Yeah, see you tomorrow”, he echoes.

The next day, after they ride the Cyclone a third time, Vince begs Eric not to tell the other kids what happened in the warehouse, and it’s an easy promise because Eric had no plans to anyway. Actually, he wouldn’t have told the other kids even if he and Vince hadn’t become friends.

After they’ve ridden all the cool rides at least twice, they stand at the end of the pier eating cotton candy and Vince grins over at Eric.
“We should be best friends”, he says.
Eric thinks about it. Being Vince’s best friend probably isn’t a great idea for him. He doesn’t need a best friend who increases his risk of getting beaten up by about a bajillion per cent. But he’s had more fun today with Vince than he can remember having ever and he thinks maybe with his help, even if Vince can’t toughen up he can stop making it so obvious that he can’t. So he grins back and says: “Sure Vince. Best friends”.

Through all these years, they've both kept that promise, and Eric thought he knew Vince in the way you only can when you’ve grown up with someone and you know all the versions of themselves that they’ve been. Been friends with all of those versions. This thing about Vince being with guys, wanting to be with him, isn’t part of any of those versions and Eric feels so thrown by it.

For a while, he’d actually wondered about Vince when they were much younger, maybe 14. It hadn’t been anything specific, he just thought he sensed it in the way that Vince seemed to feel around guys like Eric constantly felt around girls. Like he didn’t know where to look, wasn’t sure what to do with his limbs. A few times, when they were on their own there was an awkward-feeling moment and then it seemed like Vince might be about to say something, but he never did. Eric knew he couldn’t just ask Vince, so he waited for him to make the big confession, thought a little about what it would be like if Vince were gay. Mostly thoughts about Vince being violently, mercilessly beaten which left him cold and anxious. It never happened though, and then Vince started having a lot of sex with a lot of girls and Eric convinced himself that he was wrong. Vince convinced him he was wrong.

So Vince suddenly, out of nowhere, making his confession, feels like they’ve gone over the highest peak on a rollercoaster he didn’t know they were riding. And now Eric is gripping the bar, body rattling, just waiting until he can get off and feel firm, uncomplicated earth under his feet again. Because if he doesn’t really know his best friend, who he’s essentially built his life around, then that entire life feels like a huge tear has been cleaved in the side of it and he’s just waiting for everything else to get sucked out.