By Samantha Toh
At the end of summer, balking at fall, Jed ended his crush on Hakeem Kamal. The crush might have gone on, because Hakeem, with his big chest and goofy smile, could have liked Jed back. But on the weekend before school began, Hakeem asked them to camp on a lawn, three-quarters of an hour away.
"You heard of seduction?" Hakeem said. "We'll seduce the Dreha sisters."
So here they were in Half Moon Bay. Here, the dusk crept, and mosquitoes floated on the chilled ocean wind. The two sisters lived here, long dark hair curling over their olive shoulders.
"Green eyes," Hakeem described. "Gorgeous," forgetting that Jed's own eyes were green.
There had been no reason to stay on campus. The frat house echoed with loneliness. It had just been them all summer, Hakeem, Rob, Bae and Jed. Only a handful of sorority girls had stayed for summer school, and they were boring. So, "Come on," was all Hakeem had to say. Bae craved the waves and Rob the promise of a girl. They had readily agreed. But it had been harder for Jed, who could not forget the press of Hakeem's hand, one night that summer. He could not forget that Hakeem, despite his love for chubbies and Ray Bans and obsession with working out, was an honest, beautiful straight-talker, deep-set eyes and hair a dark Jed had never seen. Jed thought to himself, I must really like him. Jed could still feel the heat of Hakeem's palm.
"It'll be fun," Hakeem said, giving him a grin, and Rob said, "I know there are just two sisters, but the four of us can share."
"You're a fuck," said Bae, laughing, knowing that Jed would go, and Jed stood, ignoring the lurch in his stomach at the thought of Katie Dreha the easy lay. As he stood to get into the car, he felt the rough patio beneath his feet, the splintering wood, white boards cool. Rob thrust the cooler into his hand, the beers toppling on the ice.
"Come on," he said, freckles swarming. "Some time by the coast will be nice."
"It'll be raw," Bae said, putting his sunnies on.
Raw was Hakeem's word and everyone had picked it up, though nobody was sure what it meant exactly. Hakeem used it again as they loaded the tents into the Volvo. His arms were big and brawny from a summer at the gym. Jed felt a surge of dizzy, told himself it was the heat.
"Okay," he said. "I'll go."
"You're a man," Rob said.
"But you know I don't want Rob's sloppy seconds," Jed said.
The doors slammed, loud and final. As Bae's foot went hard on the accelerator, the conversation turned to waves. Bae combed his hair back with his fingers, the surfer lust on his tongue. His skin was flush with the prospect of a heavy. "Maverick's," he said, the biggest wave you'd ever see.
"Can we focus on the girls," Rob said.
"The waves are my girls," Bae said, his foot heavy, jaw stuck out. The car hotted up the asphalt, tires screeching, and to put a stop to the squabble Hakeem stuck his head between them.
"Don't you worry. Bae gets his babe, we get ours." The whole time grinning, like he was thinking about Katie and Jessie, the wave on his forehead curling over a dark brown eye. Wave I want to ride.
It made Jed wonder, a shiver slinking deep, how much of Hakeem's lust was real. The thought occupied him, through the ride from campus and down the CA-280, the road fast then winding, the bends doubling journey time. He wondered through Rob's complaints and through Bae's five cigarettes, "You drive like an old woman," Rob said of Bae, and as the car twisted, bend on bend, Hakeem's knee knocked Jed's, the hairs on Hakeem's calf backlit by the sun, the glare blazing Hakeem's shorts afire. Jed propped his head against the window, his skull clattering. He tried to will the tunnel of joy, the rush in his spine as their legs rocked left and right, touching and touching again. But the promise of the sisters loomed.
"You looking forward to this?" Jed asked Hakeem quietly, as they rounded a bend.
Hakeem looked at the scenery hammering by.
"Yes," he said, staring through the window, and now they were here on the Drehas' lawn.
Bruised dusk, cold wind. Bae grabbed the first can of beer, his stance wide across the roil of tent poles and skins, his and Rob's still unmade.
"I'm not good with my hands," he said.
"No tent, no ramen," Hakeem said, turning on the stove. He tossed the packet of dehydrated noodle onto the grass, then warmed his hands over the circle of blue fire. The light flicked on behind the gauze of the Drehas' kitchen window, lighting up a hazy figure behind the curtain.
"It's one of the babes," Hakeem said.
He had planned it. It had been easy. The girls would come out when they were ready, and whoever wanted to make it could make it with them. Hakeem had texted Katie. We want you. It would be fun. Raw. Raw as Hakeem's grin, all white teeth, dull canines. "Come on," Hakeem saying, incredulous as Bae stood, still flapping out the sod cloth.
After all, Hakeem had set their tent up in minutes, pulled the sheet over the poles as though it were habit, him and these girls, these casual flirtations and lovemaking outdoors.
It was hard to bear the idea. Jed hated that they were out on the lawn, trying to sleep with the sisters. It felt crass. It forced him to think about making a move on Katie or Jessie Dreha, girls whom he did not know and did not care to. He imagined them with their hair up, plastic headbands the colour of tacky candy. He thought of them laughing like they craved attention, the noise bursting from their throats in high and lingering calls. He knew girls like that. It made him wish that he were like Bae, who didn't give a shit. Bae was here to surf, and everyone knew that. Bae would lie outside while Rob and Hakeem fucked, his head in the waves. But Jed would be left alone outside his tent, and Jed would care. He had doomed himself to this game.
"Try harder," he heard himself saying. Bae messed around with the tent poles again, trying to drive a wedge into the ground.
"Use your boot, you shit," Rob said, though he wasn't any better.
Bae crossed a pole on the other, his thin fingers holding the metal together, his good-looking face creased in concentration. Jed could just as easily have liked Bae. Bae was popular, with his glossy hair and swimmer's build. He was cute when he obsessed over surfing, and was capable of serious conversation. Even Rob had been an option at the beginning, back when they were all strangers. Each of them equally likeable, equally unlikely to have liked Jed back. But it had been with Hakeem that the couch had toppled and they lay breathless, the floor smelling of dried beer and Hakeem dribbling a bit of vodka onto his shirt, the rest thrown against the wall when they had fallen, leaving a patch. It was not with Bae or Rob whom Jed had laughed and laughed, a few days before the crush began. It was not Bae or Rob who had put that hand on Jed's thigh, high up near the hip.
The lawn whispered with the clink of tent-building. Four feet away, Hakeem squat by the stove and made a face at him, lit by the blue fire, and Jed could almost feel it again: Hakeem's hand moving, Hakeem's hand staying, Hakeem's hand holding his thigh, a light touch, going on, gentle and sly. Jed was aware again of the girls lurking in the standalone house, threatening to dismantle the fantasy. Their shadows fluttered by the white windows of the house, the lit squares untouched by the darkness. Those windows stared at Jed like eyes. Soon, even they would be sucked into the coming night. The Dreha sisters would come out with torches, in dresses, or flirty shorts. The torchlights, darting in the darkness like fireflies.
"Man," Hakeem had said that night. "Bro," he said, leaning on Jed's shoulder, and he had edged his hand on Jed's leg, too slow to be casual. The room went silent for a few breaths, then in whistled the wind, a sudden, gasping reprieve. On the shelf quivered their frat flag, the shadows sighing on the wall, Bae's swimming trophy glinting as a startled, watching eye, spitting fluorescent light. Jed could have said something. He was certain that he should have. But even the furniture, the pale faces of pine, breathed without a voice.
"Canning's gonna bid for the Cubs," Hakeem said.
White walls, expanding if Jed stared too long.
"But Cuban might win the bid," Hakeem said, his hand pressing now.
White walls, pine shelves, the brush of cool wind.
"What do you think?" Hakeem said.
"I'd go for Canning," Jed heard himself say, and he could not put the horror in his voice. He had missed the moment. He had not shouted. He had not called Hakeem a homo. All he had was the weight of that hand. Hakeem's eyes, glazed, his hand shaking a little. The both of them not looking at one another.
"Canning huh," Hakeem said. "I'd bet on Canning" as though he had run out of things to say. As though Hakeem were pressing down on an object and not Jed. As though Jed did not have, coiled at the bottom of his gut, a yearning slowly unwinding.
Nothing like that evening had happened again, but each of Hakeem's looks, each smile now came with a weight. Jed leaned onto the grass, his elbows grazing soil, watching the kitchen light go off. A shadowy figure reappeared in a room upstairs, shaking out her long hair, picking something up from a dresser, turning back to say something. A second shadow appeared, framed against the window, her outline the same, eerie grey.
"They're hot," Rob said.
"You can't see their faces."
"He's right though," Hakeem said. "Top bods in our year. Runners, both of them."
"The babes at our school don't have time for games," Rob said.
"And the Drehas are pretty," Hakeem said, his lips curved slow as a wild dog's searching and finding something good.
He seemed to like the sound of those words. Girls, bods, babes, the vocabulary coming easy to him like a set of beliefs. Jed held a can of beer against his wrist, then moved it to his forearm, his elbow. The cool creep distracted him. It allowed him to ignore Hakeem's voice, which circled the air like a slow buzzing creature, landing when it could to draw blood. "Club," he heard Hakeem say. "Clubbing with the alumni." Bootie for the hipsters, Mighty for the hotties, best when some bro brought the drugs. Funny how, had Jed met Hakeem in a different circumstance, they would not have been friends.
"You gotta choose," Hakeem was telling Rob. "Choose wise or the weekend's over and you haven't done living right by yourself."
"What, choosing girls?" Bae said, finally finishing up the tent.
"Yeah," Hakeem said, and Jed nearly said, "Really?" Because what was this. What was Hakeem's hand up on his leg and then Hakeem's hand around his waist and later, his big arms crushing Jed and his face against Jed's neck, the stubble rough. Jed found his teeth gnawed tight and forced himself to exhale.
"Cigarette?" Bae offered.
That hand, and now this. These girls, this house and lawn. Now what? Stick with it. Take responsibility for not saying anything on the night he touches you, take responsibility for agreeing to come along. Jed lit up and thought of Hakeem in class with his floppy hair and questions that made the TAs swoon, the long days with the beer and the friendly smile, the things that made him remember Hakeem with a quickening heartbeat. It was cruel that it had to be Hakeem, but it was. Jed had thought too much about holding a warm body. He had imagined a warm body holding him back. He had thought it would feel good. He had thought he would find out.
The day after Hakeem had touched him, Jed woke and memorised every detail in the room: the thin mattress on the floor, stripped of its sheets, the duvet crumpled thick and grey. It had been a cool morning, the smell of summer unfolding, and all he could think of was that hand. That hand had touched him, again and again. And though it would remain unspoken between them, never referred to that summer, there it was: the undeniable reality, the possibility that it could happen again.
Now on the lawn, it seemed fair to resent Hakeem. It paralysed Jed to think of having to find someone else, to have to make that long solo trek until it arrived again: the relief of being desired. Jed had hoped, and now hope had led him here. The lawn would undo his dreams. The trees, humped from age, the standing picket fence, would witness his misery. The girls loomed. He saw them brushing their hair through the window, knew that he was only Jed, whose life had been quiet and afraid, and had no room for mistakes. He could not make another move. If Hakeem did not work out, he would not try again. He could not bring himself to go from crush to crush, the fantasy over before it began.
Jed wondered if he would shout, if he would have to grit back his sobs, at the end of this ordeal. He wondered what he would do while they were at it, Hakeem and Katie in the tent. Would he talk to Bae, voice even, as though there were no disappointment? Could he bring himself to speak the next day to Hakeem? He could not join the boys in chasing waves, that burst like joy on the shore. There would be no joy for him.
So here he was, in the crackle of plastic, Hakeem ripping open the ramen packets. Rob came striding across the lawn, hungry for girls and now also for food. Bae had reappeared in sweatpants. And Hakeem, saying, "Anytime now." Saying, "Eat before the girls come. For energy," he told Rob lewdly, a raw look on his face.
"You sure you don't want in?" said Rob, turning.
"The girls are pretty," Hakeem said.
"No," said Jed.
A raw look on his face. Hakeem's blunt nails dug into the plastic, the knuckles bulging as his fingers pulled. The plastic stretched, then tore. The block of dry noodle fell onto the grass. Hakeem picked it up, slid the block into boiling water. He dusted off his palms.
Jed had dreamt of those hands. They were hands with sinews and thick bones. Jed remembered the look of them when they were docile, the pads of those fingers, warm against his knee. Jed wondered if he could will Hakeem now. If he could, through concentration, make Hakeem put down the food and bring that hand back. Hakeem would put that hand over Jed's, press it into the grass. Hakeem would tell him it was a joke, Katie and Jessie Dreha. It would be warm and comforting. It would be so comforting that Jed could touch too. Jed could touch Hakeem's bare ankle, or Hakeem's knee. Jed was so close to Hakeem.
Rob said, "I'm hungry."
"Shut up," Bae said.
"We're still 12," Rob said, and Hakeem laughed, chucking the plastic wrapper at Rob.
"Pass me the keys."
"What do you need?"
"Pass me the keys," Jed repeated.
"Ice from the trunk?"
"For the beer," Jed said, and Bae said, "That's a good idea."
Jed nodded. He had been so close.
The soil was packed underfoot, a firm and certain ground. Jed knew he would walk it. He would walk to where the Volvo sat, the staunch black animal resting, sleepless. Jed would unlock the trunk to find the ice. And then he would walk to the front seat, the bag of ice in his hand, and climb in. He would start the car. He would back the car out.
It will be Bae who realises what is happening before anyone else. Bae will jump up and swear. Bae will run after him, and Rob will follow quickly after. But Jed will go, his foot heavy on the accelerator, his hand tight on the wheel. He will step down quickly, learning from Bae, and the engine will groan, and he will go, although Jed does not know the roads.
And Hakeem shall not move. Hakeem shall continue cooking. He shall stir the ramen until the strands go soft. And he shall laugh it off when Bae and Rob come back, red-faced and confused. Hakeem shall laugh off, Jed and the car. He shall tell the others to chill out, because Jed shall be back the next morning, and it shall be raw.
Then Hakeem shall wait. He shall wait for Katie Dreha. And she shall come.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014