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The Barcelona Review

Author Bio



And  where will we take our pleasures
when our bodies have been denied?
Richard Fariña

He has never been touched lovingly and can only imagine it from what he has read in books or seen in secret corners of the internet. Yes, that, but also he has never felt the loving touch of his mother, for whom even the act of tucking him in at night was a mechanical exercise. His father is very nice, but there will be no touching, except perhaps a tousle. Hands are for throwing things, they are for holding and gripping and cutting things: this is how his father feels the world.
           He is a high school sophomore. It is a Catholic school, and only boys are allowed, and it is in Oregon, just close enough to Portland for all the kids to know what they are missing.
            Him especially. He has only just learned he is one of them. The monk at the front of the religion classroom says he is not equipped to talk about them, but junior year they’ll learn. In the meantime, Pentecost. The Spirit arrived on the wings of the dove.
            He wonders if the classmate who broached the topic is just like him, but no, only spoiling for an easy fight with a flustered teacher. He stares at the back of the other boy’s neck for the rest of class, memorizing the delicate angles of the follicles there. Next period, he closes his eyes and maps them.


He has two friends named Carl and Melvin. They are in his English and Spanish classes; Carl wants to be a famous writer when he grows up, and Melvin wants them all to do shrooms together, once he gets them from his cousin in the Dalles after Christmas.
            Sometimes he worries he will find them attractive, but that hasn’t happened so far. They are all right, he guesses, though he wonders how anyone could ever love a boy named Melvin, let alone sleep with him.
            All their fathers work late, and so after school they sit and talk under a pavilion named for a student who killed himself forty years ago.
             “When I die,” Carl says, “don’t let my parents name a damn pavilion after me.”
             “Whose fucking dumb idea was that?” asks Melvin, “A pavilion? Not like Richard Taylor Laughton is getting much use out of it.”
            He gestures to the drizzle. Perennial. “We are. That’s nice, right?”
            His friends stare for a minute, narrow-eyed, before laughing again. They hock loogies on the ground in front of the memorial plaque. Last of all, he joins them.
            Last of all, his dad arrives. It is getting dark now and the downpour is coming stronger, but the loogies are still there on the ground when he leaves, frothing and shuddering in the rain.

He cannot take his eyes off the powerful heaving ass of the school president, Ricky Hohenzollern. Ricky is also quarterback for the football team and, rumor has it, a distant relation of European royalty.
            He can believe it. Ricky has strong cheekbones and thin lips, and it looks like the wind is always in his hair. A princely face; he could look at it all day.
            Even better, Ricky has a pair of buttocks that he longs to swear fealty to. They strain and sway and almost dance inside their uniform khakis and shining blue game-pants.
            Thank God in heaven for football, he thinks, and often.
            He starts dragging his friends to games. “I don’t even know how this sport is played,” Carl complains, and he doesn’t really know either. More, he doesn’t like the cool fall weather or the constant bleating of the cheerleaders from the girls’ school down the road.
            But he likes what he sees.

When he makes a C on his geometry test, his parents take away his computer privileges. “So you’ll learn,” his mother explains. Father gives a nod. They unplug it and move it out of his room, to a closet.
            What follows next is difficult without visual aids, but he manages, even in a dark room, he manages. He imagines Ricky squatting on the field, the game-pants turning his ass into an enormous gleaming sapphire. Then the whole team squats. He has choices; he makes them, there in a room so black it seems an aching void, he makes them.

He keeps a list (unwritten) of the things that Ricky’s ass reminds him of:
            Rolling thunder.
            Plate tectonics.
            Twin planets, caught in the perilous gravitation of their tandem orbits.
            Waves rippling and crashing against a beach during a once-in-a-century storm.
            You will remember the sapphire.
            Of course, a very shapely heart.

Carl proclaims, “The tits will always be superior to the ass, and I will never trust another man who doesn’t believe likewise.” They are halfway through Spanish, the three of them, but Señor Chris has an obvious hangover, and things have grown lawless in the back of the class.
            Melvin says men are biologically programmed to love butts, since they indicate what he calls ‘birthability.’ “Anyway, dat ass.”
            Carl groans. “What about you? Third opinion here. Ass-man, or the tits?”
            He says, “Ass-man, of course.”
            “See,” says Melvin, “he didn’t even have to think about it. Innate!”
            And so it is, he thinks.

High in the bleachers, where he sits watching the boys squat and lunge while their best parts shiver like gelatin dessert, he thinks, how boring. Not the best parts; no, he is very interested in them.
            It’s everything else.
            At night, with his parents sleeping, he has snuck furtive glances at that one channel for people like him, and which is home to low-budget sitcoms and talk shows and Golden Girls reruns. Boring. He has seen interviews with people like him, on CNN and Fox, listened as they told their sad, sad stories, pontificate and bleed. Boring!
            They don’t know how good they have it, they who feel and have been felt. He wonders when the rest of his life will begin, and if he’ll have to wait till then for someone else to touch him.
            He sits still and keeps his eyes on the line of scrimmage.

He gets his computer back, not because he is any better at math this month, but because his parents have grown bored with punishing him. His father okays it without looking up from the dinner plate. Mac-&-Cheese.
            He is bored with pornography now, though. His house is on the edge of town and there are no neighbors for two miles, but he starts spending more time outside, taking long walks through the woods, doing pull-ups on pine branches, pull-ups till they shatter. The fresh air tastes good. Out in the forest, he does squats and thrusts and lunges.

There is to be a party at Ricky Hohenzollern’s, and while he isn’t specifically invited, Melvin assures him it’s “one of those things where you can just show up.”
            Carl objects. “Freaking jock-parties. Why go where you aren’t welcome?”
            Melvin reiterates that they’re technically not not welcome, and that furthermore, “this is a prime opportunity to get laid.”
            “You two.” Carl shakes his head. “We’re friends and all, but there is just something fundamentally different about me and—”
            He feels Melvin wrap his arm around his neck, real buddy-buddy. “Yeah,” says Melvin, “we’re ass-men!”
            There is groaning.
He has to beg his parents to let him go. The mere idea of him going anywhere unsupervised awakens prohibitive yearnings.
            “Will there be drinking?” asks his father, who has knocked back two Miller Lites even before dinner. “We won’t let you go if there’s drinking.”
            “What sort of boy is this, having the party?” his mother wants to know. “What do his parents do? Are they good people? What neighborhood do they live in? Are they good people? Well?”
            The surge of questions, he thinks, is almost orgiastic. He assumes. “Melvin’s going. His parents know Ricky’s parents from church,” he lies.
            His father begins, “If Melvin stuck his head in the toilet, would that—”
            “And Carl,” asks his mother, “will he be there?” His mother does not like Melvin, whom she has never seen without a hoodie on.
            “Carl will be there.” Lying again. The monks would be displeased—God too, perhaps. But when his parents, bored at last with their interrogations, relent, there comes no shame. I’m good at this, he realizes.
The thought makes him laugh.

His mother pulls up to the Hohenzollern place and frowns. “You said they were good people, but I didn’t realize…” She blinks and gawks.
            The Hohenzollerns live in a literal mansion. White-walled, Greek-columned. Tallest building in town, tall enough to lay a shadow on his mother’s heart.
            “Gotta go,” he tells her. “Love you.”
            Still staring, frowning, curtly, she says, “Have fun.” She will be back in three hours, don’t forget.
            He won’t. Like Cinderella at the ball, he tells himself. He smiles at his own joke, since no one else can ever hear him say anything like that.
            He ascends the marble steps of the portico, crosses the foyer to the sitting room, a room of picture windows and plush couches. Here is the party.
            Several of his upperclassmen lay strewn across cushions, getting fawned on by girls from the sister school. There is a painting on the wall he recognizes from his religion textbook, pagans with a martyr in their midst. That’s too on the nose, he thinks, watching the running back swizzle cheap wine behind his darkened lips.
            “Over here. Hey.” A deafening whisper from Melvin, who is peeking his knobby head out of another room. The laundry room, it turns out.
            “Are we hiding?”
            “Yes, dude!” Melvin is crouching at a height with the washing machine. “There’s girls out there. You know, those things we never get to see at Jesus school?”
            “I hadn’t noticed.”
            “How are you so cool right now?” Melvin is sweating hard, and his left shoe is untied, and he is beginning to smell.
            “Been here a while?”
            Nodding. “I was like the fourth one here! The looks, dude.”
            He thinks, this doesn’t matter. My being here is only fiction, poor Melvin’s too. Our lives won’t start for a long long time, and none of this matters. So he puts his hand on his friend’s shoulder and says, “Just go out there and be yourself. If they don’t like you for who you are…” and he keeps going, quoting some other fiction.
            A gulp. “Who I really am really sucks, bud.”
            With real sympathy now, he asks his friend, “Well, what else can you be?”
            Gulping again. Melvin shakes his head, ties his shoe and, after a breath, steps outside.

Two hours later and Melvin is back in the laundry room, but with a girl this time. A surprising development—though he’s happy for his friend. He thinks. He saw the girl briefly, and he lacks the critical apparatus to know exactly how proud of himself Melvin will be tomorrow, next week.
            Whatever. This is all make-believe. He shows himself to the backyard, by the pool, where there is a healthy selection of beer. Self-serve. He has had it before, but not enough to keep his face from wrinkling at the taste.
            Neither hide nor hair of Ricky Hohenzollern—his parents either. Did he even have them? Could someone like him ever truly be born? Make-believe, he reminds himself.
            He stares into the pool. He is blue there, and constantly in motion. Shifting. He watches his face wrinkle again when he drinks the beer, tries to count the ripples, fails.
            “You’ve been very quiet all night. Why?”
            He hears the girl before he sees her, and when he sees her, she is also blue and rippling, and thin and blonde. Older. “Are you a junior?” he asks.
            “No,” she says. “Are you?”
            He tells her that he isn’t.
            “Well then, what are you?”
            Blue, he thinks, a liar, make-believe. “A sophomore.”
            She giggles. “That’s one answer.” Unexpectedly, she sits, Indian, at his feet. “So tell me Mr. Sophomore, what brings you to a big-boy party? Lemme guess—looking to get laid?”
            “Good guess.” He is looking at her now, not because she is special, but because even in the water, she is staring back at him.
            “I’m good at that. Guessing, I mean.” She giggles again. He thinks she must be playing make-believe too. “How long till your mommy picks you up?”
            He feels his stomach move. Ripples.
            “Long enough, I’ll bet.” She smiles for only a moment, before it all falls away. “Look, I’ll be honest, I don’t normally go for the little ones, but you look nice enough, and everyone here’s mostly partnered up already, and my dick boyfriend and I are fighting, and you’re the only one here who doesn’t know him.” Her lip quivers, until it doesn’t. She sticks a hand into the water, stirs. “So, I’m feeling generous. Once-in-a-lifetime. What’ya say?”
            He has nothing to say. He never expected this, any more than he expected to sleep with Ricky, or with anyone before he was in college, far away. He expected to keep quiet, be ignored until the time came.
            He says, “I’m sorry.”
            “I’m sorry?” she says.
            “About your boyfriend,” he adds quickly.
            “Forget him.” Again, her lip is quivering. “Just take me behind the bushes over there and let me touch you.”
            “No.” He realizes now she’s been drunk this whole time; he is ashamed of not knowing.
            She stares for a minute. She snorts. “Oh. I can pick ’em, huh?” She staggers to her feet, graceless. Before turning back for the house, she looks him over again. “What does it say about me…” she starts to ask, but she trails off, and then she is gone.
            Alone again, he watches his own lip quiver in the pool. He thinks it will be very hard to remain untouched, even if the lying still comes easy. He feels like sitting motionless there until the very instant when his life begins in earnest, but he knows he only has forty-five minutes or so until his mother pulls up, and he has to go on make-believing something else.
            Ten minutes pass, and then his friend comes running from the house. “Dude, dude!” Melvin skids to a halt. “She let me touch her butt!” He jumps and skips and whoops, and both of them are suddenly, powerfully laughing.

His mother texts him that she will be there in five, and Melvin is gone already, so he makes his way to the front yard to wait. There are dozens of cars in the driveway, all of them parked at zigzag angles. Expensive cars. Dark and quiet, like they’re sleeping.
            Night in the yard is bluer than the water. There is a little wind, up in the trees he sees it passing. So quiet.
            He wonders how much more of his life will be this still and uneventful. He closes his eyes and, just when he doesn’t think he can bear any silence ever again, the wind picks up and carries voices with it. High and low, woman and man.
            He goes where the wind takes him: the backseat window of a Range Rover. It is dark inside, but there are two bright spots, bright as the moon.
            I know that ass, he thinks.

Not just the moon, but a pair of them, each one too dazzling for poetry, astronomy, or the eyes to comprehend.
            Pure-driven snow, thicker than he had ever seen, like the pioneers themselves endured in the treacherous passes.
            The treacherous passes.
            Sea foam, rising, cresting.
            A tremendous seismological event that could shake cities to their foundations.
            The wings of the dove.
There is a little mole, right side, north of the cleft. He loves that little mole and he wants very badly to give it the loving touch.

His reverie ends with his mother honking. She is at the end of the driveway now, red Subaru.
            In the back of the Range Rover, the motion of the buttocks slows; a head is lifted and the back begins to crane. But he is gone before Ricky knows that eyes have seen.
            Four miles down the road before his mother asks, “Did you have a good time?”
            “Good.” She holds her wheel at ten and two. “Make any new friends?”
            He tells her no, but “I saw some old ones.”

“Should’ve gone to that party,” Carl admits, although it pains him. Melvin has been bragging all morning about the conquest.
            “Thought you didn’t like butts.”
            “Not as much as titties, sure, but…” Carl blushes, and everyone laughs. He is allowed to laugh in conversations like this. But it will be long years, he reminds himself, before he can speak.

Brother Aloysius, frustrated, rubs his clean pate and stomps the bright linoleum with the staff he carved himself. He is very proud of the knotty thing, he tells everyone. “All right, all right. I’ll tell you, if you really want to know.” Brother is an old man, and doesn’t have much patience, and will retire soon, he tells everyone. “But keep in mind, what I have to say, I say with the utmost compassion.”
            There are victory shouts throughout the classroom. The boys are tired of learning about Noah’s Ark at their age and want to hear something risky. Something gross.
            Brother sniggers at this. Boys will be boys.
            In the back of the room, he is watching Brother intently, determined not to stand out, determined to appear the right kind of interested, determined not to listen to any of this. His mind goes absolutely blank. The only words he hears are “fundamental disorder.”

He imagines a city—almost Portland, but farther away, where he has never been. He knows only that it is sunny for most of the year, and that there are people there who are just like him.
            He realizes he has never before met another like him. That he knows. He tries to imagine how that first conversation will go, attempting to share the great overwhelming feeling he has ignored for so long; he cannot find the words. He cannot find the words.
            He imagines he does, and that they spend all day together, not even touching, only sitting on a couch in that sunny city. In his dark little bedroom now, this is what he imagines.

Soon it will be Christmas, but first, the last big game of the year. He does not attend, having lost the taste, but come Monday assembly, he and everyone find themselves worshipping the district champs. The principal eulogizes, Coach Wilson cries, and the team puts a Burger King crown on Ricky Hohenzollern’s golden head to fete him MVP.
            Everyone cheers. He cheers too, and then—like so many others—finds that he is weeping.
            “What a bright future he has,” the principal says, taking back the mic. “Our favorite son.”

His feelings are all very large, but he himself feels small, too small to contain them. What he would like very much is to talk them out. To decompress.
            Instead, he laughs. He spends all day laughing, then comes home and sits in perfect silence. Sometimes he touches himself, but he has come to realize that isn’t loving, what he’s up to. The monks have that right, at least. Very least.
            Occasionally, in the afternoon, he sneaks away into the pine forest to do squats and pull-ups where no one can see him or guess at why he is there. Then he will say, in a hushed voice, “I want you to touch me, I want to put my hands all over your butt, I am gay, gay, gay.” Although he is whispering and no one is around, he can only stand to say it for so long.
            It is a very boring kind of make-believe he is playing and he cannot wait for it to be over.

© 2020 Ethan Cade Varnado

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