Autoboyography

Chapter 18

I don’t know what I’m doing. I definitely shouldn’t be here. My eyes are red, and my hair is a mess. I’d still be in the clothes I slept in except (a) I showered the second I got home and (b) I didn’t sleep anyway. I’m a mess.

My eyes scan the hall on my way to her locker. She’s usually easy to pick out of a crowd; her hair is a spark of fire in a sea of navy and denim, and her voice can carry from one end of school to the other like nobody I’ve ever known.

Nothing.

I spin the dial on her locker, turning it right and left and then right again, only to see her coat and backpack aren’t here either.

Fuck.

The bell rings, students siphon into classrooms, and the halls slowly drain to empty. Adrenaline mixes with dread as I stand alone in the hall, anticipating the gentle click of our principal’s shoes on the linoleum. I should be in Modern Lit—with Auddy, who never actually transferred to Shakespeare. I walk to the class, peek inside just enough to see her chair is empty, and turn around. I’ll take the truancy and whatever comes along with it, because I am too restless and frantic to sit and discuss James Frey and his fake drama.

But I don’t want to go home. My dad is off this morning, and even though I’ll have to talk to my parents eventually, I’m not ready to see that look—disappointment softened with pity—that tells me they knew this was going to happen, that it was just a matter of time before this all blew up in my face. I deserve every I told you so because they were right, about everything.

There’s a bench at the top of the stairs, out of the line of sight of teachers and administrators trolling the halls for the dumb truants like me who aren’t smart enough to leave school grounds. I grip my phone in my hand, praying for a few breaths that there’ll be something there when I turn it on. But nope. There aren’t any new notifications.

Auddy hasn’t answered her cell since last night. Feeling desperate, I open her contact info and press the number listed next to the word “home.” It rings twice before a voice fills the line.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mrs. Green.” I sit up straighter, clear my throat. I used to speak to Autumn’s mom nearly as much as my own, but I’m suddenly nervous. Has Autumn told her what’s happened? Does she know what I did?

“Tanner, hi.”

“Is Autumn there by chance?” I wipe my free palm across the denim over my thigh.

There’s a blink of silence, and I realize that I don’t know what I’ll say even if she does come to the phone. That I love her—even if it’s not in the way she needs? That we made a mistake—I made a mistake—but I need her in my life anyway? Will any of that be enough?

“She is. Poor thing woke up with some kind of stomach bug and needed to stay home. Didn’t she text you?”

An exit sign glows green at the top of the stairs, and I squeeze my eyes shut. I climbed out of Autumn’s bed last night and left without a backward glance. When I finally got my head together, she wouldn’t answer. I’ve texted and called and e-mailed.

I swipe at my eyes with the back of my hand. “I must have missed it.”

“I’m sorry, Tann. I hope you weren’t waiting outside for her this morning.”

“I wasn’t. Is she awake? Would it be possible to speak to her?” My voice is pure brittle desperation. “There’s a test in calc, and I was hoping she had the notes in her locker.”

“She was asleep last time I checked. I can wake her if you need me to.”

I hesitate. “No. No, that’s okay.”

“I’m just leaving for work, but I’ll put a note on her door. She’ll see it when she wakes up.”

I keep my voice even long enough to finish the call and tuck my phone back in my pocket.

The bell rings and the halls fill and empty again, but I don’t move. I don’t even know what time it is.

I imagine I look like a statue, sitting on the bench, framed by the big window behind me. I’m bent at the waist, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor, and I start to force myself into complete stillness. My brain is chaos, but as I sit here, unmoving, things start to settle there, too.

It’s easy to acknowledge that I’m an asshole, that I acted impulsively—like I always do—and that I potentially broke another heart to distract myself from the tattered state of my own. I sit here and start to pretend I was carved out of something cold and unfeeling. I’m not sure if people don’t notice me or if they can just tell I should be left alone, but I see feet pass in front of me and no one speaks.

Until someone does.

“Tanner.”

I look up, startled, to see Sebastian standing halfway up the stairs. He takes one tentative step up and then another as students jog past him, hoping to make it into third period before the late bell.

He looks like crap too, for the first time ever. It strikes me that in the middle of this, I’ve barely thought of him at all. Do I tell him about Autumn? Despite what he said yesterday, he’s here—are we still together?

“What are you doing here?”

He makes his way toward me, hands pushed into the pockets of his hoodie, and stops when he reaches the top stair. “I went by your house.”

“I’m not there,” I deadpan. I don’t mean it to sound the way it comes out. The statue seems to be cracking more slowly than expected. Maybe I am this cold and unfeeling.

“Yeah, I figured that out when your dad answered.” Sebastian hasn’t seen my dad since the afternoon he walked in on us, and he must be thinking about that too, because a blush spreads high in his cheeks.

“You talked to my dad?”

“For a minute. He was nice. Told me you were at school.” He looks down at his feet. “Not sure why I didn’t put that together myself.”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“You’d think so.”

“Cutting school.” I try to smile, but it feels like a grimace. “So perfect Sebastian isn’t that perfect.”

“I think we both know I’m not that perfect.”

I don’t even know how to navigate this conversation. What are we talking about? “Why did you come here?”

“I didn’t want to leave things the way they were yesterday.”

Just the mention of it makes my stomach drop. “Breaking up, you mean?”

Autumn’s face floats in my thoughts, the feel of what we did, and nausea rises in my throat. I genuinely worry I’m going to be sick, and tilt my head up to the ceiling, sucking at the air.

“Yes,” he says quietly. “I’m sure it felt terrible to say what you said and have me respond that way.”

I blink back down to him, aware of the weight of tears on my lower lids. What I said? I want him to acknowledge the words. “Yeah. It felt pretty terrible to tell you I love you and have you break up with me.”

There’s that blush again, and I can almost see the elation he feels when he hears those three words. It’s childish, but it’s so unfair that he should get joy out of something that feels like a rope tied around my chest that tightens every time I say it.

He swallows, and a muscle tics in his jaw. “I’m sorry.”

He’s sorry? I want to tell him what I did—because it was two betrayals—but I don’t actually think I could get through the words without breaking. Right now, we’re speaking quietly enough that no one can hear. But if I broke down and started crying? It would be obvious to anyone watching what kind of conversation we’re having. I’m not ready for that, and even after everything, I want to protect him, too.

His face is arranged in a perfectly patient expression. I can see in this moment what a great missionary he’ll be. He looks attentive and completely sincere, but somehow . . . peacefully removed.

I meet his eyes. “Did you ever picture me in your life after this semester?”

He looks confused for a beat. I know it’s because what came next was always an abstract thought. He had plans, of course—book tour, mission, returning home, and finishing school, probably meeting some sweet girl and following God’s plan—but I never figured into any of it. Maybe early in the morning or in some secret, dark corner of his mind, but not in any real way that mattered.

“I don’t think I pictured much of anything,” he says carefully. “I don’t know how the book tour will be—I’ve never done it. I don’t know what leaving on a mission will be—I’ve never done it. I’ve never done this, either.” He gestures between us with his index finger, and it feels somehow accusatory, like it’s something I hoisted onto him.

“You know what I don’t get?” I say, running a hand down my face. “If you never had any intention of anyone knowing, or of it meaning anything, why did you dangle me in front of your family and your church? Did you want to get caught?”

Something flashes across his face, and the calm, disconnected mask is gone. Has the thought never occurred to him? His mouth opens and closes again. “I . . . ,” he starts to say, but there’s no more room for easy answers or sound bites from a church manual.

“I know you said you prayed, and prayed, and that God told you that being with me wasn’t wrong.” At this, Sebastian breaks eye contact to look behind him, making sure we’re still alone. I bite down my frustration—he followed me here, for crying out loud—and push on. “But when you did that, did you actually take time to think about how this fit into your future, and who you are, and what it means to be gay?”

“I’m not—”

“I know,” I growl. “I get it. You’re not gay. But did you ever look inside yourself while you prayed and try to find the seed of who you are in there, instead of just asking God over and over for permission to look?”

He doesn’t say anything else, and my shoulders sag. I just want to go. Without any idea why he came to find me, I can’t fix this for either of us. Sebastian is going to go, and I have to let him.

I stand for the first time in what feels like hours. I get light-headed as blood flows to my legs, but it feels good to be moving, to have a goal again: Autumn.

I move to pass him and stop, leaning in to whisper and getting caught in the familiar smell of him. “I don’t actually care if you break my heart, Sebastian. I went into this knowing it could happen and I gave it to you anyway. But I don’t want you to break your own. You have so much space in your heart for your church, but does it have space for you?”

• • •

I hear the music as soon as I get out of my car. The windows of Autumn’s small, two-story house are closed, but the pounding bass of her screaming death metal rattles them in their frames. She’s moved from sad and hiding under her covers to death metal.

All in all, this is a good sign.

I’m usually the one who cuts the grass in the summer, and right now it’s in need of a good mowing; unruly tufts of green creep along the edge of the sidewalk. I make a mental note to bring the mower over later this week . . . if Autumn lets me. We might not even be speaking.

With a steadying breath, I ring the bell, knowing she’ll probably never hear it over the music. There’s no movement in the house. I pull out my phone and dial her number again. My head snaps up when—for the first time since last night—it actually rings instead of going to straight to voice mail. She doesn’t answer, though, and it goes to voice mail anyway. I leave yet another message: Autumn, it’s me. Please call me back.

Stuffing my phone in my pocket, I try the bell again before sitting down on her front steps for the long haul. I know she’s in there; I’ll just have to wait.

I’m up to twelve cars, two dog walkers, and one mailman passing by before I finally hear something. The music cuts off so quickly that the sudden silence leaves my ears ringing.

I twist around in time to see a red-eyed Autumn peeking her head around the door. In my rush to stand I almost pitch myself off the porch, and the corner of her mouth twitches up into a smile.

My chest grows carbonated with hope.

“I saw you pull up,” she says and, squinting into the bright afternoon, steps out onto the porch. It means she’s known I’ve been here for nearly an hour. “Figured I better come out before the neighbors call to report a squatter.”

“I tried to call.”

“I saw.” With a sigh, she looks out into the yard before squinting up at me again. “Maybe you should come in?”

I nod eagerly. She pulls the door open wider and steps back into the darkness, waving me in with a pale hand.

Her living room is a literal blanket fort, the way it always is when she needs to hide out from the world: The curtains are pulled shut, and the TV is on but muted. Pillows and blankets engulf the couch, and in the corner is a package of Chips Ahoy! that looks like it’s been torn open by a band of ferrets. Her phone is sitting placidly on the coffee table. The screen is lit with notifications. I bet they’re all from me.

I’ve been in this house a thousand times, had dinner here, done homework, watched countless movies on this very couch, but I’ve never stood here like this, with a mountain of awkward between Autumn and me. I don’t know how to scale it.

I watch as she moves to the couch, kicking the majority of the blankets to the floor before waving me over. We hardly ever talk out here. We’ll watch movies quietly on the couch, eat food in the kitchen, but always—for as long as we’ve been best friends—our conversations happen in her bedroom.

I’m not sure either of us is ready to go back in there yet.

My stomach is in knots. What was the point of sitting at school, calming my thoughts all morning if, now that I’m here, I can’t think of a single thing to say?

I look at her and try to focus. When I came over last night, she had on a pair of pink-and-black pajamas. A flash of color pops in my head, chased by the question: Did she get dressed? Or did she climb immediately into the shower?

Did she try to wash away what happened as quickly as I did?

She’s wearing a pair of sweats now, and a U of U shirt we got at a game last summer. They were playing BYU, and we wanted U of U to beat them so badly we were scouring the ground for lucky pennies and making wishes in fountains. It feels a hundred years away from where we are now. Her hair is pulled to the side and twisted into a single braid. It looks wet. Why am I relieved that she showered? My thoughts trip down another tangent: I remember how Sebastian’s hair felt against my face as he kissed down my jaw to my chest, but I have no recollection of whether Autumn’s hair was up or down last night, whether I felt it at all.

This seems to pull my guilt right up to the surface, and the words tumble out. “When I came over, I never meant . . .” I swipe at a tear and try to start over. “I didn’t mean for . . . that to happen. I was hurt and not thinking straight, and I never meant to take advantage of you and—”

Autumn holds up her hand to stop me. “Wait. Before you go all noble on me, I get to talk.”

I nod. I’m breathing so hard, like I just ran ten miles to get here. “Okay.”

“When I woke up this morning, I thought it had been a dream.” She says this with her eyes fixed on her lap, her fingers toying with the ribbon tie at her waistband. “I thought I’d dreamed you came over and that we did that.” She laughs and looks up at me. “I’ve dreamed about it before.”

I don’t know what to say. It’s not that I’m surprised exactly, but Autumn’s attraction to me was always some abstract concept, nothing solid, no foundation to make it last.

“Oh.”

Which is probably not a great response.

She reaches up and twists the end of her braid around her finger until the skin turns white. “I know you’re going to tell me that you took advantage of me, and I guess . . . in a way, you did. But it wasn’t only you. I wasn’t lying when I said this whole thing with Sebastian was hard for me, Tann. For a few reasons. I think a part of you has always known some of it. Has known why.”

Autumn looks to me for confirmation, and I get this sick, slithering feeling in my chest. “I think that’s why it feels so terrible,” I say. “That’s the definition of taking advantage.”

“Yeah, okay”—she shakes her head—“but it’s not really that simple. Our relationship has changed so much these past few months, and I think I was still trying to figure it out. Figure you out.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you told me you were bi—and God, this makes me such a terrible person, but since there are literally no more secrets between us, I need to get it out. Okay?” I nod, and she pulls her legs to her chest, rests her chin on her knees. “I’m not sure I believed you at first. I had a moment where I thought, great, now I have to worry about girls and boys? But then I also thought maybe I could be the one to change your mind.”

“Oh,” I say again, not knowing how else to respond. She’s obviously not the first one to think bisexuality is about choice and not about the way you’re made, so I have a hard time faulting her for that. Especially now.

“You were so upset and just . . . I know you. I know how you react when you’re hurt. You dive into me, into your best friend safe space, and last night . . .” She bites a lip, chewing it as she thinks. “I pulled you over me. Maybe I took advantage too.”

“Auddy, no—”

“When you said that Sebastian didn’t love you, it’s like some fuse burned down in my chest.” Tears fill her eyes, and she shakes her head, trying to blink them away. “I was so mad at him. And then the worst part, how could you let him hurt you? It was so obvious.”

I don’t know why—I honestly don’t—but this makes me laugh. My first genuine laugh in what feels like days.

She reaches for me, pulling my head onto her shoulder. “Come here, idiot.”

I lean against her, and with the smell of her shampoo and the feel of her arm around my neck, a filmstrip of images blurs past me, and a quiet sob escapes. “Autumn, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” she whispers. “I made you cheat.”

“We broke up though.”

“There has to be a mourning period.”

“I want to love you like that,” I admit.

She lets the words hang there, and I keep expecting it to thicken, to grow weird, but it doesn’t. “This will be in our rearview mirror soon.” She kisses my temple. It’s something her mother has said to her probably a thousand times. Right now Auddy sounds like a girl trying on wisdom, and it makes me squeeze her tighter.

“Are you okay?”

I feel her shrug. “Sore.”

“Sore,” I repeat slowly, trying to follow.

And then she laughs, self-consciously, and the brakes lay down a long scar of black in my mind.

How.

How did I forget?

How did it not even pop into my head for one goddamn second?

A sensation like my chest crumpling causes me to fall forward. “Auddy. Holy shit.”

She pushes back, trying to trap my face with her hands. “Tann—”

“Oh my God.” I duck down, putting my head between my knees so I don’t pass out. “You were a virgin. I knew you were. I knew, but—”

“No, no, it’s fi—”

I make some ghoulish moan, wanting—basically—to die on this couch, but Auddy smacks my arm, jerking me upright.

“Knock it off.”

“I am Satan.”

“Stop it.” She looks pissed, for the first time. “We were sober. You were upset. I was at home, doing homework, reading. I wasn’t out of my mind. I wasn’t intoxicated. I knew what was happening. I wanted it.”

I close my eyes. Come back, Statue Tanner. Listen to what she’s saying and nothing else.

“Okay?” she says, shaking me. “Give me some credit, and give yourself some while you’re at it. You were so sweet to me, and we were safe. That’s what matters.”

I shake my head. I remember tiny flashes. Most of it is this weird, emotional blur.

“I wanted it to be you,” she says. “You’re my best friend, and in some twisted way, it made sense that it would be you. Even if you were doing it to get out of your own head for a half hour”—I actually snort at this; it was definitely not a half hour, and she smacks me again, but I can see she’s smiling—“I’m the one you make that kind of mistake with. That person is me.”

“Really?”

“Really,” she says. Her eyes turn into these shining beacons of vulnerability, and I want to punch my own face. “Please don’t say you regret it. That would feel terrible.”

“I mean,” I begin, wanting to be honest, “I don’t know what to say to that. Do I sort of like that I was your first? Yeah.” She grins. “But that’s shitty, Auddy. It should be with . . .”

She raises an eyebrow, waiting skeptically.

“Yeah, not Eric,” I admit. “I don’t know. Someone who loves you like that. Who takes their time and stuff.”

“ ‘Who takes their time and stuff,’ ” she repeats. “Honestly, you’re so smooth, I have no idea why Sebastian broke up with you.”

I bark out a laugh that seems to die out into silence almost immediately.

“So we’re okay?” I ask, after a minute or so of quiet.

“I am.” Auddy runs her fingers through my hair. “Have you talked to him?”

I groan again. It’s like a revolving door of suck. I pass through the lobby of Terrible Best Friend Behavior and into the room of Heartache and Religious Bigotry. “He came by today to apologize.”

“So you’re back together?” I love her for the seed of hope in her voice.

“No.”

She makes a small sound of sympathy that reminds me how easily everything happened yesterday.

I think we both realize it at the same time. Autumn pulls her arm away, tucking her hands between her knees. I shift so that I’m sitting up. “I think he just wanted to own the way that he was sort of shitty about it. As much as I want to hate him, I don’t think he set out to hurt me.”

“I don’t think he set out for a lot of this to happen,” she says.

I lift my chin to see her. “What do you mean?”

“I think he was intrigued at first. Sometimes you actually can be as charming as you think you are. I think he saw you as a way to rule something out, and then the opposite happened.”

“God, that’s depressing.”

“Is it terrible that I sort of feel sorry for him?” she asks. “I mean, I know it hurts and feels like it will never be okay again, but it will. Someday. You’ll wake up and it will hurt a little less and a little less, until some boy or girl is smiling at you and it makes you stupid all over again.”

It does sound impossible. “My whole book is about him,” I tell her. “He was going to help me edit it, to cut out himself in it, make it someone else. I never sent it to him. That’s out the window now, and I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do.”