Whenever I text Brandon from school, I almost feel like a superhero. Not that there's anything super heroic about texting my boyfriend, but it puts me in danger of exposing my secret identity.
I also get to flex my poetry powers. My thumbs hover over my phone like two asps about to strike. A flurry of tapping follows. I read the text over, and, with a groan, delete it from existence. For the past few days, this has been my pattern: write, groan, delete, repeat. Bran deserves more-especially today-but I don't have a hell of a lot of options. Or time. A few more tries and the piece is more or less complete: Like the Bat-Signal at night I'll come running when you call You are my one and only Just like Nick Fury's eyeball
I count the number of syllables, making sure there are twenty-eight total. Four lines, seven syllables each. The structure of the Filipino poetry form tanaga.
"Aw, comic book fanboys in love. Happy anniversary, B!" Rosie, a strikingly pretty Latina and my best bud, plops onto the seat beside me and brushes back her dyed-orange drapes of hair.
"Announce it over the loudspeaker, why don't ya?" I whisper. With a sigh, I tap send, and the text flies out into the ether. At the surrounding lunch tables, the usual goes down: chatting, eating, littering. Thankfully, nobody seems to have noticed Rosie's characteristic outburst.
"Sorry, mi amigo." She lowers her voice to a near-acceptable level. "Hey, I made you something to mark the occasion. Relax. I didn't use your names."
She pulls a black picture frame from her bag and sets it between us on the table. My breath catches. It's a painting of a dark purple heart set against a backdrop of blue and black swirls. Written across the heart in calligraphy are the initials B + B. It's incredibly detailed, gorgeous, thoughtful. Before I can thank Rosie, someone else cuts in.
Shit. Right off, I know the owner of the shrill voice: Charlotte Wilkes-the nosiest girl in school, possibly all of MacArthur Park. A one-teen TMZ.
She whips her platinum blond hair over her shoulder and takes a seat across from us without being invited. "What, your nerdy ass finally nab a girlfriend, Bobby?"
My stomach clenches, but I'm ready for her question. Been ready for months, practicing my answer out loud ad nauseam in front of the bathroom mirror, in the shower, probably even in my sleep. "I actually do have a girlfriend. She's homeschooled, she's a total geek, and she's cute."
The key to selling a good lie is to cloak it in layers of truth.
Charlotte leans in closer. "Uh-huh. So what's the name of this cute geek of a girlfriend nobody's ever seen or heard of?"
She squints, game for the challenge. "Where'd you meet?"
"Where else do geeks meet? The comic shop." Also the truth.
"Right. Got a pic of her? Let's see." She grabs for my cell, but I slip it into my pocket. Okay, I wasn't ready for that one. My phone has a few selfies of Brandon and me; no way can I let her see them.
"Um, we don't-she doesn't like taking pics." My eyes dip slightly. "She's kind of shy."
Charlotte smirks. "Sure she is."
"Hey, chica," Rosie says, "back off with the interrogation."
"Yeah," I say, "don't you have a Gossipers Anonymous meeting to get to?"
"Whatever." Charlotte's distracted by a gathering at the center of the quad, and she dashes toward the commotion.
Air shoots from my mouth. Close one. The knot in my stomach starts to loosen, but it quickly tightens again. In the middle of the crowd, a giant student repeatedly pummels a smaller boy with spiky blond hair. Freshman, from the looks of it.
"Fuck that little faggot up!" somebody yells.
I wince at the slur, even though hearing it at school has become a regular occurrence. There are some words I never want to get used to.
Onlookers cheer, while others barely take notice, numb to the routine. He floors the boy with a punch to his jaw, making him spit blood. Possibly a tooth. Before any teachers arrive, the bell clangs off-key, and the larger boy disappears through the stream of bodies.
Rosie sighs. "Another peaceful day at Westlake High."
As a few students help the battered boy to his feet, blood spills from his lips-a graphic reminder of why my secret identity can never get out.
I rise and shove the frame Rosie made into my backpack. The gift really is amazing; Rosie's so thoughtful. Just wish she'd been thoughtful enough to give it to me anywhere but school.
At the end of the day, I hop on my bike-a cherry-red seven-speed-and tear off campus like I stole something. Back in 2008, when I was only nine years old, Dad gave me this bike right before he died. HeÕd used it every day to get to his job at the laundromat. Without this bike, our family would not have eaten. As he lay withering away in bed, the cancer shredding his stomach, he said he wished he could have given me more. That memory slips into my thoughts every time I go for a ride.
I pedal over cracked concrete, past brick walls decorated with various gang tags, then hang a right onto the obstacle course of chaos known as Alvarado Street. A red SUV swerves and nearly clips me. The driver blasts his horn-'cause it's my fault he texts and drives. They say driving in L.A. will make even the most chill person freak out. I wouldn't know, but somehow I doubt it's as terrifying as biking through it. I wouldn't risk the trip without a good reason.
Brandon Elpusan is better than a good reason.
The shadows of the 101 Freeway swallow me as I ride under the overpass, through the shanty tent town. My body slumps at the sight of so many families who are even poorer than Mom and me living on the street. A few blocks later, I cut into the hilly residentials of Silver Lake, where the streets are cleaner, the homes larger, the graffiti nonexistent. Silver Lake sits barely three miles from MacArthur Park, but it's a whole other world. A richer, whiter one. More than just the 101 divides the two neighborhoods.
Five minutes later, I coast up to the Villain's Lair, my favorite comic book shop in L.A. Six months ago to the day, I met Brandon here. He'd just started working as a cashier after school, and we hit it off right away. We talked for nearly an hour that first day and had a highly informative discussion regarding the age-old question: Why don't the Hulk's pants rip when he transforms? We decided on gamma-irradiated stretchy pants.
I chain up my bike and open the glass door. Posters of iconic heroes dominate the walls-Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, the Avengers-along with lesser-known characters like Deena Pilgrim and Savage Dragon. I breathe in the familiar scent of lemon air freshener and new comic books, and the stress of the school day fades away.
Bran leans over the cashier counter, sporting a Dawn of the Dead tee, the sleeves tight against his lean arms. Like me, he's Filipino, but his brown complexion is a shade lighter-probably because he spends so much time indoors at the Lair. The boy could use more sun, but other than that, he's perfect.
He brushes back his dark bangs and greets me with a dimpled smile that makes my palms sweat. "Welcome to the Villain's Lair. May I help you?"
I grin back. "Hope so. I'm looking for a dope gift for that special geek in my life."
He furrows his brow in that cute way he does. "Right. Well, we just got in some super-cool hardcover editions: All-Star Superman, Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl?, Civil War."
"Hmm, hardcovers?" I chuckle. "He's not that special."
"Really now? Okay, you know what makes the best gift? Poetry. Writing your own, I mean. It's personal and shows you put real thought into it, instead of just being lazy and buying something off the shelf."
"That's what I keep saying!" I lean in closer. "So what'd you get me?"
"Bought you something off the shelf." Bran gives me a grin that makes my earlobes warm and pulls a flat rectangular package from behind the counter. "Happy anniversary, B."
It's obviously a comic book, but which one? Out of all the millions of comics in the world, what single issue did he pick to mark our big day? My fingertips tingle. I tear off the wrapping paper to reveal Alpha Flight, issue #106.
I've read it before as a reprint, so I immediately recognize the issue. Alpha Flight is Marvel Comics's designated Canadian superhero team-they're basically the D-list Avengers with maple leaves across their chests. On the cover, in mid-scream, is the mutant speedster Northstar. Issue 106 deals with him saving an abandoned baby who has AIDS, and ends with Northstar coming out as Marvel's first gay superhero. Landmark stuff.
I bite my lip, crossing my arms so I don't fling myself into Brandon's. The first out queer superhero-it's perfect. Still, a nagging thought wiggles into the back of my brain: Is he trying to tell me something? He's out to his family and friends-has been for a couple years. Me? Besides Brandon, exactly two people know: Rosie and my mom.
"Thanks, Bran. This is incredibly sweet."
"Of course," Brandon says. "And I really love the poem, B. It's a Marvel/DC epic crossover in four lines." He means it. And he doesn't seem to mind that I'm so dirt poor I can't afford a real gift. He tries to take my hand, but a stranger walks up to the counter with his purchases. I back away and let Bran ring up the customer.
Bran's boss, Larry, the owner and manager of the Lair, is pretty laid back and always lets me hang out-as long as I help out around the store. While Bran works, I stock shelves, chat with the regulars, and try to stay out of the way.
A few hours later, closing time arrives. Bran activates the store alarm and hits the lights, and I follow him to the front entrance.
I want to do something to mark the moment, to show Bran what I have yet to say in words. What the hell, the store is empty. Before he can open the door, I take his hand, lean in, and kiss him. Softly at first. He flinches in surprise because I'm never affectionate in public, but then he pulls me close. Adrenaline courses through me, and my chest heaves. Is that his pulse thumping or mine? Even in the dim light coming inside from the streetlamp, I see him blush. It's catching; my cheeks flush.
Bran's lips split into a grin. "Now that was a good present. So what did you think of mine?" I follow him out to the deserted sidewalk. The night is gorgeous, as smoggy, starless Los Angeles nights go.
Bran tries to take my hand, but I stuff it inside my pocket.
"You mean the comic book hinting that I should just announce my complete gayness to the world already? Not too subtle is what I think."
"Dude, I should be able to hold my boyfriend's hand when we go for a walk."
"Easy for you to say in the queer haven of Silver Lake. Not gonna fly in my hood."
"Come on. It's not that different from here. People are just people."
I stare at Bran. Sometimes I can't believe he's so naive about certain things. "Yeah, well, you don't go to War Zone High, where there's a fight every other day. And what if someone from my school sees us? What's my motto?"
He sighs. "Self-preservation."
"And it's a damn good one." I climb onto my bike and almost ride off, but a tugging in my chest stops me. I can't stand the thought of leaving on a bad note, especially today. "Give me time, all right?"
He breaks eye contact and sighs, but eventually nods. "You know, you said the same exact thing back on our three-month anniversary."
His words make me wince. How much more time will I need? And how much longer will he continue to wait for me? The questions linger like the cold breeze on my neck as I pedal away.
Despite nearly dozing off during the ride, I make it home okay. To say our apartment is small would be charitable. It's basically two bedrooms the size of walk-in closets, a tiny kitchen with a used restaurant table for two, and a living room furnished with a dingy couch Mom found on the curb five years ago. It's sparse, but it's home. Right now, it's an empty home. As usual, Mom won't be back from waitressing until well after midnight.
I down a plate of leftover rice and chicken adobo for dinner while trying not to fall asleep. I accidentally bite into one of the tiny black peppers, and it gives me a much-needed jolt. After eating, I wade through twenty problems of algebra homework, then belly flop into bed beneath a poster of my childhood hero, boxing champ Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao. It's the only thing decorating my walls.
As sleep begins to overtake me, the final thoughts that sprinkle my mind are of Brandon. How his scent reminds me of comic books and long bike rides. How he brushes back his bangs like a curtain, revealing the shine and warmth in his eyes. How I would do almost anything for him—except, it would seem, come out.
Copyright © 2023 by Rod Pulido. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.