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“Now, what I did,” Denny said, gesturing with the clippers, “was I just shaved my whole head.” He paced circles while Mark sat bare-chested in a dented metal chair. “Then when it started growing back, I kept a strip down the middle.” He flicked a finger through the hardened tips of his orange mohawk.
“Did you shave the sides yourself?” I asked. I was in my usual spot on the floor of Denny’s one-room apartment. He didn’t own another chair. “Seems like it’d be hard to keep the lines straight.”
He cracked a smile. “Yeah, the first time I fucked it up and had to shave the whole thing again. The next time I got Sara to do it. She drew guidelines on my head with her eyeliner.”
Mark’s knee jittered up and down. “I don’t wanna shave it all.”
“You don’t have to,” Denny said. “We’ll start with the sides, one at a time. Then I’ll even it out.”
“Is it gonna be weird that it’s shorter in back than on top?” I asked. Mark and I had the same haircut, one that worked as well for a boy as a girl like me: short at the neck, longer on top, side-parted, with bangs drifting down across one eye. It looked different on each of us—his hair was brown and wavy, and mine was blonde and flat—but I liked how the cut was something we shared. It was one of the first things we’d talked about, back when we met in the beginning of the school year.
Denny squinted and bent down, his face close to Mark’s neck. I saw Mark stiffen and close his eyes. “Nah, it’ll be fine.” He flicked on the clippers, filling the room with a tinny buzz. “Ready?”
Mark nodded. I reached my hand out and put it on his ankle, for support. Then I took it back off.
I’d first noticed Mark during lunchtime on the school steps, the place where most of the random people who didn’t fit into any of the larger cliques hung out. I found myself watching him, taking mental notes on his sad eyes, the freckles dusting his cheeks, his haircut like mine, his leather jacket with three buttons on one side and two on the other. Occasionally I’d venture close enough to eavesdrop while he was talking to someone. That’s how I learned his name was Mark and he was in eleventh grade, a year ahead of me. I kept wishing I could talk to him, but I could never think of anything to say.
Then it was Spirit Day, that October afternoon when all the students flocked to the auditorium wearing their finest red and gold. Each class sat together, cheering and yelling like idiots in a competition for which year had the most school spirit. Pretty much every year the seniors won, and it looked like it would go that way this year too, with their giant sparkly “Class of ’85” banner, so big it took a dozen people to hold. My girlfriends and I had been planning to ditch, but at the last minute they decided they wanted to go. Lame as it was, I had nothing better to do, so I was about to walk in with them. Then I glanced across the courtyard and saw Mark. His eyes caught mine, just for a second. I told my friends I’d catch up with them later.
Making a deliberate effort to seem casual despite my thunking heart, I walked over. “Where’s your red and gold?” I teased. We were both dressed in black. “No school spirit?”
He laughed. “I can’t believe people give a crap about that stuff.”
“I know,” I said. “All my friends wanted to go. I don’t even know why.”
“I think I’m just gonna go to Au Coquelet and get some coffee,” he said. I nodded, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. He stretched his arms out and squinted at me. “What’s your name, anyway?”
For the millionth time I wished it wasn’t so dorky. “Dawn.”
“I’m Mark.” I smiled, hoping it wasn’t obvious I already knew that.
He got up and started walking toward the sidewalk. As far as I was concerned, the encounter had been a massive success. I was just turning around to head home when he stopped.
“Dawn.” His voice was forceful, but warm. It made my name sound different. Almost cool.
“Yeah?” I stammered.
He turned around and grinned. “You’re coming, right?”
Over the next four hours, Mark and I drank about a hundred cups of coffee and made a few discoveries: we liked a lot of the same bands, we could crack each other up over almost anything, and we both preferred the less popular candy bars, like Violet Crumble and Alpine White. We ate lunch together the next day, and the day after, and soon we were regularly sneaking off campus to grab cheap Chinese food or bagel sandwiches. We started hanging out after school and meeting up on the weekends to go record shopping or see movies. It seemed like we’d never run out of things to talk about.
I kept waiting for him to kiss me. My friends all said I should jump him, but I never had the nerve. Instead, I’d scoot a little closer in the theatre, or drop my notebook in front of him so my v-neck shirt would billow open as I bent down to pick it up. I gave him every opportunity to make a move, so when it hadn’t happened by December, I decided to shrug it off. Maybe he doesn’t like me that way, I thought, but at least we can be friends. That’s what’s really important.
I tried really hard to believe that.
It was January when Mark and Denny met at a punk show, after Denny complimented Mark on his ripped-up homemade Spiderman t-shirt. They bonded fast, each thrilled to find someone else into comic books and kung-fu movies who wasn’t a typical fanboy. They sneered at those people, despite their common interests, and loved going to science fiction conventions decked out in spiked belts and wristbands, laughing about the pasty losers who bumped against them in the crowded halls. “Owww!” they’d imitate in whiny voices, falling into each other with laughter.
Denny was a little older than us, eighteen or nineteen—he wouldn’t say, adamant that age was a meaningless construct. He’d dropped out of his small-town high school, then moved to the Bay Area, where he’d bounced around for a while before settling into his current apartment: one room in what had once been a large house, the bathroom and kitchen shared between eight tenants. Now Denny worked at a pizza place and played bass in a hardcore band. He didn’t have a car, a phone, or a television.
I felt a little jealous about how much Mark liked hanging out with Denny. I worried that I’d get shut out. But to my relief, Mark kept inviting me along. And Denny always treated me like one of the gang, never acting like I didn’t belong there too, even remembering that mushroom was my favorite when he snuck us free slices at work. It felt natural to joke around with him, like he was the cool big brother I never had. I didn’t find him particularly attractive, though I could see how some girls would, with his lanky body, piercing eyes, and goofy lopsided smile. And being in a band never hurt, even one like his where the songs all sounded the same. But we never saw him with anyone.
Then one day in April we showed up at Denny’s and there was a girl in the chair. “Guys, this is Sara,” he said. She looked gorgeous and hard, like a dark princess, with long auburn hair, pale skin, and smudgy eyeliner. Her dusty black dress was either high-fashion or homemade, with weird drapes and ragged edges. She was taller than me. Older. Curvier. More of everything.
We already knew who Sara was: the girl Denny had moved here with. They’d split up soon after. “It just wasn’t working,” he’d told us, and if her name came up he acted glad she was gone. But now here she was.
We hung out for a while—Denny on his mattress, Mark and I on the floor. Sara seemed bored, only mumbling occasional responses to our conversation. After a while Denny asked if she wanted to get something to eat, and it was pretty clear Mark and I weren’t invited. We stood in front of the apartment and watched them walk away. Sara reached over and took Denny’s arm, draping it around her shoulder. Mark muttered something about how lame she was, and I eagerly agreed.
We kept stopping by Denny’s place on the usual days after school, but found him home less often. Sometimes we’d catch him at work and he’d take his break with us, excitedly comparing notes with Mark on monster toys or movie releases. But when Sara was there, he cut those conversations off quick. Mark always seemed eager to leave anyway if she was around.
I didn’t mind having Mark to myself again. It reminded me of when we were first starting to hang out, back when I thought our friendship might turn into something more. I even let myself imagine that Denny having a girlfriend would make Mark want one too. I was sure he knew I’d be his if he wanted me. But the only thing that changed for us was Mark growing more withdrawn. I tried to keep him entertained, coming up with new places to go or silly things for us to do, but none of that worked for long.
It was one of those days when we managed to catch Denny at home, maybe a month after we met Sara, when Mark asked Denny to shave his head. Denny was happy to induct him into the mohawk fold, abolishing what he called Mark’s “new wave hairdo.” Once he finished with the clippers, he showed Mark how to use soap to slick his mohawk into sharpened points. All flattened and spiked, it looked perfect. Mark beamed all the way home.
A few days later he decided he wanted to color his hair too. We went to the drugstore and got a box of pale blonde dye. It didn’t take much to cover Mark’s mohawk, so I painted a few streaks from the leftovers into my own hair. I was excited to see how it would turn out, but when I washed it out it was hard to tell I’d done anything. The dyed parts were almost the same blonde shade as the rest.
Now Mark and I had matching color, and he and Denny had matching styles. And it felt like that was what got the three of us hanging out again, the way we had before. Though I knew it was just because Denny and Sara had broken up again.
I loved those warm spring afternoons at Denny’s. We’d play music and goof around, and the two of them would usually end up launching into some long, animated conversation. I’d sit back, watching and listening and laughing along. That was enough for me.
And while I was watching, I noticed that Mark and Denny seemed to end up wrestling a lot. First it was re-enacting martial arts scenes. Then it was Denny refusing to hand Mark his backpack, making him fight to claim it. Sometimes it was acting out what they might do to someone who’d pissed them off. And sometimes one of them would joke about being gay, clutching at the other, who’d then be forced to fend off the fake advances. Whatever it was, they never stopped until they were rolling around, gasping for air between laughs.
One day, when they were really working up a sweat, I started giggling. “Jeez, you guys,” I said. “I think you really do want each other.”
They broke apart and dusted themselves off. “We’re just fucking around,” Denny said.
“I know,” I told them. For a second, we all just sat there. The air grew tense. Then Denny growled in mock rage and threw his pillow at me. I threw it back, Mark threw my jacket, a tampon flew out of the pocket and hit me in the eye, and we all burst out laughing. Everything felt normal after that.
But later that night I wondered: what if they weren’t pretending? I’d only been joking when I said it. But I thought about earlier in the year, when I kept hoping Mark would make a move. Maybe that was why he never went for anything more with me.
I started to drop hints when I was alone with him, trying to tease out an answer. I brought up Rocky Horror, Freddie Mercury, Boy George, anything I could think of that might get a telling response. I gossiped about who was dating who at school and who had crushes. I mentioned that I’d never noticed how muscular Denny’s arms were until the day he wore a particularly torn-up t-shirt.
Mark mostly listened and nodded. That wasn’t unusual. I was always more talkative.
But I definitely saw his cheek flush as I waxed poetic about the curve of Denny’s bicep.
Mark was out sick one Tuesday, a day we typically went to Denny’s. I decided to stop by anyway and tell him what was up. Denny listened, shrugged, and then held the door open for me to come inside.
Being there without Mark there felt a little strange, but just a little. I’d spent so many afternoons in there, I knew everything in that room by heart: his shelf of model kits, his sticker-covered stereo, his milk crates full of clothes. Denny poured me a glass of flat soda from a two-liter bottle and sat on his mattress. I thought about taking the chair, but went for my usual spot on the floor instead. Soon we were laughing about how Mark’s mohawk never seemed to behave. He’d never mastered the spike and had started wearing it loose, its frizzled waves sloping over the half inch of dark stubble that had grown back in.
There was a quiet moment. Denny tilted his head and looked at me. “So, were you and Mark ever …”
I thought about playing dumb, making him say it. But I knew what he meant. I shook my head.
I shrugged. “It’s just not like that,” I said. I didn’t want to say: he just doesn’t like me that way.
“Well, that’s cool,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better just to be friends.”
“Yeah, sometimes.” My voice came out shriller than I expected, and Denny gave me a sad little smile.
We sat for a minute, listening to cars go by.
“I’m gonna get my license soon,” I said. It was only a couple of months until my birthday. “Then I can drive us places, like if you guys want to go to a con or something.”
Denny nodded, then turned his head away. He drummed his fingers on his thigh for a few seconds. It seemed like he was about to say something, but then he bit his lip.
I smiled at him. “What’s up?”
“I just …” He picked at the shredded knee of his jeans. “Since you’ve known him, has Mark ever gone out with anyone?”
“Nope,” I said. “He told me about this one girl he got together with last year, but that’s it.”
Denny sucked his breath in, gave a quick nod.
“I mean, maybe there’s someone he likes or something. But I don’t know.”
I waited for him to say something else, but he just stared across the room.
“Denny,” I said. “Are you okay?”
He shrugged, looking down. “I dunno.”
I tried to choose my words carefully. “Is it about you and Sara?”
“Sara,” he scoffed. “You wanna know why we broke up?” He stood up and started pacing. “I mean, she’s beautiful, right? But even so …”
I kept as still as possible. Like if I moved he might stop talking.
He looked at me. “You can’t tell anyone.”
“Okay,” I said.
He sat back down on the mattress and let his head fall to his knees. “I like guys,” he spit out in a harsh whisper. After a few seconds, he looked up. His eyes shone, almost glared.
Then he exhaled, and shook his head, and his face softened.
“I like Mark.”
Walking home, I was crackling with excitement. After Denny’s big confession, I’d revealed my suspicion that Mark might feel the same way. Denny made me promise not to say anything unless I was sure. “I don’t want to ruin the friendship,” he said.
I told him I knew exactly how he felt.
The next day Mark was back at school. Over lunch at Edy’s Restaurant, I mentioned I’d seen Denny. “He asked about you,” I said. I gave him what I hoped was a meaningful look.
Mark shrugged. He dumped a packet of sugar into his coffee and gave it a stir.
“He asked if we were gonna come over tomorrow,” I continued.
“Sure,” Mark said. “Why not?”
I sighed. And then, despite my promise to Denny, I told him. I blurted it all out.
Mark didn’t say a word.
Shit, I thought. I’ve ruined everything.
Then he said I better not be lying or he’d fucking kill me.
Mark had a class that ran late on Wednesdays, so that wasn’t a day we usually went to Denny’s. But I raced there alone after school, wanting to skip and jump the whole way. Yes! I shouted in my head, hoisting an imaginary triumphant fist.
It almost seemed weird how elated I felt. I always figured I’d be jealous if Mark got together with some other girl, but this was different. Even if he and Denny got closer, the three of us could still hang out like always. And I was proud to be the one who made this happen. Maybe I can’t be the one he wants, but I can give him the one he wants, I thought, pushing through the outside door and down the hall to Denny’s room. They’re lucky they have me.
I pounded on Denny’s door. Music was blasting from inside, dark and slow with crooning, moody vocals—different from his usual thrashy punk. He’s letting new sides of his personality come out, I thought, giving myself credit for that too.
Denny pushed the door open and stuck his head out a crack. “What’s up?”
I grinned. “I talked to Mark.”
He stared at me, and I nodded. I was too excited to say anything else.
Denny stepped into the hall. “Listen,” he said, scratching behind his ear. “Forget that stuff we talked about yesterday. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“No, Denny, it’s cool! He’s—”
“Dawn, just shut up, will you?”
I stepped back. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“I didn’t mean any of it,” Denny said. “I think I was just depressed or something.”
“Denny,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“Just forget it ever happened.” He looked down the hall, away from me.
“Come on,” I said. “Let me come in and we can talk about it.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.” He jerked his head toward the door. I looked through the crack and saw a high-heeled shoe lying on the floor. A fishnet-covered foot swirled in lazy circles. I felt my stomach go ice cold.
“Sara and I had a long talk last night,” Denny said. “We’re back together.”
My cheeks burned.
“In fact, I’m moving in with her. I’ll be out of this shithole by the end of the month.” He started to go back inside, then looked at me. His eyes were wet and steely. “See you around,” he said, and closed the door.
I went over to Mark’s house that night after dinner. The minute he saw me, he knew something was wrong. We went to his room and sat on his bed. I took a deep breath, preparing to tell him what happened. But when I saw his face I started to cry.
He was quiet for a while after I finished talking. I wiped my face on my sleeve, staring across the room at his faded Star Wars curtains, waiting for him to yell at me. I knew I deserved it. I was ready.
Instead, he grabbed my shoulders and kissed me. He kissed me hard, with passion. I kissed back softly, with disbelief. And for a second I let myself imagine that this was how it ended. That this was how it was always going to be.
I didn’t admit to myself until much later that even as it happened I knew his kiss was many things, but not desire for me. It was for comfort. Revenge. To prove he didn’t care. To prove that he was straight.
And to push me away.
A true friend might have stopped him. Instead, I kissed him anyway. I licked his neck and ripped his shirt off.
I took every inch of skin I could get.
The next day, still floating a little from the night before, I went to find Mark at lunchtime. When I saw him across the courtyard, his hair was a dark flat mat. I could see choppy places where he’d cut the mohawk off with scissors.
Mark looked up and saw me, and it made me think about the very first day that we talked. When I walked over and we started up our friendship.
It was exactly like that, except it was the complete opposite. Because this time he got up and walked away.
Jenny Hayes grew up in Berkeley, California and now lives in Seattle. Her fiction appears in Spartan, Eclectica, The Northville Review, Printer's Devil Review, and other interesting places.