Cody L. Stanford
Photo Credit: luxomedia
It’s not there anymore.
Think of worn-out pale brown shoeboxes lined up end to end and you’ll see where I left the yellow bike, at our drab little shopping mall in old Boca Raton. In front of the mall doors by the taco place sat a poor little courtyard, with large planters of sand-colored concrete where a kid could rest his butt while hanging out. An awning clung to brown brick walls, propped up by chocolate-painted poles that doubled as bike racks for kids like me. That was the best place to chain my yellow bike, especially the night I went away.
The mall was about to close up. I hitched the yellow bike to one of the narrow poles and double-checked the lock, spooked that it might have surrendered at a bad moment. I was breaking all the rules that night; pushing at imposed limits; baring my flesh for a razor cut that might draw blood.
I walked over the dark, deserted parking lot and ran across Federal Highway to the grey-blue gas station. Soon a Greyhound bus came tottering along like an unsteady elephant, and in chuffs of diesel smoke swallowed me up to go to Ft. Lauderdale.
I had one simple truth in my life, one thing I was sure of: an emotion pure and lovely as a razor so sharp that nothing could ever grind it dull.
I loved him.
Stefan the meteorite burned into my world in the sunny late summer of 1979. We were both sixteen. We didn’t have cars but we had our bikes, and Boca Raton was still small enough that a boy who flew through his life on a bike owned the entire town. I spotted Stefan at school one day and puppy-dog followed him until he noticed me. I wedged my way into conversations with his friends like I actually fit in. Stefan had long, thick, frizzy blond hair and gentle green eyes, strong legs and shoulders, and a smile cute enough to melt diamonds. Laura was his girlfriend, smart and pretty but plain, with long brown hair and grey eyes. Stefan could have picked any girl he wanted, that he chose Laura proved he was not just some dumb and gorgeous kid who didn’t give a damn.
I was tall and bike-post thin. Florida gave me cover to grow my dark-brown hair very long. My mother hated both my hair and Florida. I hung out with the surfers and the freaks, and no one knew that I liked my hair long because I wanted hair like a girl. I crushed heavily on another boy for the whole summer of 1979, a lithe Italian surfer boy with dark eyes and a cute overbite. For him I was at the beach nearly every day.
Our summer ended with a hurricane. Then I met Stefan.
Normally I was shy, a wallflower without a blossom. But I made friends with Stefan, and told him my name. How hard did I fall for Stefan? I wanted to look cuter, so I cut my hippie-girly hair.
I was a wolfboy tracking down Stefan between classes and after school. On Friday and Saturday nights we met up at the tired shoebox mall on Federal Highway. My eyes were full of stars. Stefan and I ate pizza and drank beer. We wandered around and talked. Sometimes we got high. Our bikes carried us, or we walked. To Stefan it was just a friendship. Me? For the first time in my life, I was an ecstatic little animal with red blood hot in my veins like heady, new wine.
One day I “ran into” Stefan after his metalworking class. He had forged a little pendant, like a charm, one of those peace signs that looked more like a Mercedes emblem. Stefan didn’t want to keep the charm but rather than toss it out, he did the first thing that came to mind: he gave it to me. I was smug over my good timing, certain that Stefan would have given the charm to Laura had he seen her first.
I bet Stefan wished he had given the charm to Laura after it showed up on the leather cord around my neck, next to my tiger shark tooth. I told everybody that Stefan gave it to me. I was so very much in love with him.
I’m surprised it took Stefan so long to figure that out.
The drive from Boca Raton to Ft. Lauderdale took only thirty minutes on I-95, but the bus crawled like an old lady down Federal Highway instead, and made stops. This was annoying. Summer of 1980. I was seventeen years old, but my mother forbade me to use her car to go to Ft. Lauderdale. Hence, the bus. In later months, I took Mom’s car to Ft. Lauderdale without telling her where I had been. But that night burned with honesty and love, and my desperate desire to see Stefan again.
Even so, Stefan was in the dark. I was afraid he might arrange to be out if he knew. I watched shops and restaurants glide past the bus, and I envied the people in their cars down below.
The yellow bike had never pulled an all-nighter at the mall before. It came close once, on a night when Stefan and David and I were taken by some rowdy guys to a party until three a.m., with beer and grass in good supply. I faded into a couch and simply watched Stefan being beautiful. The party guys were too busy with beer and high school girls to notice the lovesick boy who didn’t talk much.
The yellow bike was my first really good bike, a Schwinn ten-speed, mine since I was ten or eleven. Today I live just a couple of blocks from the shop where my mother bought me the bike; its memory is never distant. Yellow is not even close to my favorite color. It was probably chosen for me, a boy who let others delimit and define him, who went along too easily. But it was a hot-looking bike all the same.
Sometimes the bike stayed home. One sunny afternoon at the Boca Mall when I was fourteen, I hunched against the edge of one of those planters outside the taco place. I waited for my mom to pick me up from a movie, probably Star Wars again. A few boys staked out the area behind me with affected maturity beyond their years. One boy’s lean body was clad only in sand-colored corduroy pants. The skin on his torso was nut brown. He glorified in the most incredible long and loose-curled black hair that spread in frizzy radiance like a lion’s mane over his shoulders. He was twelve or thirteen. He stared back at me, but his black-as-coal eyes told me nothing. I had yet to fully accept the way boys had enchanted me since I was eight years old. I was too shy to talk to the black-haired boy with his hawk’s eyes, as if, were those eyes to detect why I couldn’t stop looking at him, he might rip me to pieces.
Alone in my room later, the boy’s image came back to me, and in my dream I talked to him. We both wound up right where I was, together. His eyes were still dangerous, but his breath was soft and his lips were wet, and his naked body felt warm against mine.
David was my other good friend and he attached himself to our adventures, especially those at night. David was in our school’s Drama Club. He was boisterous and funny, and told great stories of which you never knew how much to believe. Like Stefan, David was straight, so he didn’t spark up my jealousy over Stefan the way Laura did. But it turned out that I was vulnerable to the betrayal of another boy, gay or not.
Rock music fueled our lives, but in this day before Walkmans and iPods, the soundtracks of our shared days and nights played mostly in our heads. I liked Yes, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, and was on the cusp of discovering the towering joys of classical music, dramatic and emotional like hard rock. The Yes song “And You and I” became “our” song, even though I don’t think Stefan ever heard it. The entire album Close to the Edge, full of innocence and expectation, played alongside every thought I had about Stefan.
That previous spring I had finally said to myself, “I’m gay.” The stars aligned, and I felt nothing but bliss for days afterward.
Stefan, David, and I pounded pavement when we were short a bike. One day I wound up riding behind Stefan on his bike, and tempered my fear of tumbling off by holding tight to his bare shoulders. Stefan’s beautiful golden hair ruffled like a lion’s mane between my hands.
The three of us did the beer and pizza thing together, and no one gave a damn that we were all too young to drink. David showed us a way to get up to the roof of the mall, where we drank beer and watched shoppers through the domed skylight. David loved to take a piss on that dome, laughing at the oblivious people below. We went to movies, and occasionally Laura came along. At those times David and I tried to lock down our antics. If Stefan and Laura went out alone, David and I attacked the beer and pizza together, and wandered through late-night Boca Raton afterwards. One night we sneaked into the swank Boca Raton Hotel and Club. Another night a police car stopped where two youths talked calmly atop a picnic table at the Palmetto Park Road Pavilion, over the beach. David and I had deftly hidden our beer just before the cop pulled up; he soon left, and we laughed. On other nights David and I screamed dialog from Apocalypse Now at each other at two in the morning, along residential streets. It’s amazing that we never got in trouble for any of this shit.
The three of us saw Apocalypse Now in a theatre with a broken air conditioner, and I called the hot and humid auditorium “genuine southeast Asian jungle effects.” Stefan and I saw Alien together, and I jumped and screamed, and wished, wished, wished I were a girl so Stefan would hold my hand.
The bus lurched into the Greyhound station in Ft. Lauderdale and set me loose. I smelled the pungent aromas of late-night adventure: damp concrete, old oil, diesel fumes. I found a cab and gave the driver the address, a residential motel facing the beach across A1A.
One day between classes, Stefan gave me a letter, hand-written, with a couple of funny sayings to soften the letter’s tone. In the letter, Stefan asked if I could please stop following him around everywhere. See, I was there all the time, between every class and after school, and, well, some of Stefan’s other friends were starting to wonder about me. That I always wore the charm Stefan gave me didn’t help.
I was mortified, panicked, close to tears. After class I ran to Stefan, vulnerable as any girl. Were we still friends? Of course, Stefan said; I just needed to give him some space, that’s all.
I gave it to him. I would have done anything in the world for him.
I still have the letter. I keep it with the ticket stub from the bus trip.
The cab left me at the motel. I heard the rush of ocean across A1A, and watched waning moonlight tremble on the waves. I knew Stefan loved being so close to the beach. I walked past motel doors, checking numbers. Stefan had given me his address over the phone, with an open invitation to come see him. I sent him a letter also, here to his current home. My enthusiasm for him hadn’t waned. I bet my letter to Stefan read much like the one Tatiana sent Eugene Onegin, launched by Tchaikovsky into mad, soaring bursts of ecstasy.
I found Stefan’s door, right next to the pay phone he used to talk to me. I knocked.
Stefan opened the door. I said hello, fearful as a mouse. I hadn’t seen Stefan since March, when he ran away from home. He still looked beautiful, and still carried his body with the casual grace of someone who never let anything bother him, the polar opposite of my worrisome personality. Stefan smiled, glad to see me, even though he was a bit surprised. Laura was with him, and I had visions of spending the night in the bus terminal. The next bus back to Boca didn’t leave until morning, and I hoped Stefan would let me crash on the floor or something. My luck held; Laura was leaving just as I knocked.
I entered a small sitting room with a couch and a chair and a small TV. At one end of the room were a kitchen sink and a little refrigerator. The colors were dark and tired, browns and burgundies, as I recall. Maybe blue? Maybe green? You didn’t even notice the damp Florida smell after you’d lived there a while. A painted cinderblock wall separated the sitting room (front room, living room, such a fancy name for so small a space) from the bedroom. Stefan was tired from his job, a line cook at a restaurant. We traded banal words about people we knew. My main concern was him: was he okay? Were we okay? Stefan assured me—again—that I wasn’t the reason he ran away from home. But I knew my love for him had hastened the events that upended his life.
I apologized to Stefan for the surprise visit. He could have been angry; he could have kicked me out in a rage; he had every right to hate me. Had he done so, he would have destroyed me.
Instead, Stefan said I was welcome to stay and watch TV or sleep on the couch.
I still had Stefan’s friendship. That was what I had traveled to Ft. Lauderdale to find.
November of 1979. I invited Stefan and Laura over for dinner. My Italian mom cooked, and the food was delicious. Stefan’s mom was Italian, too. I barely noticed Laura; I was too smitten with Stefan.
After dinner we watched a movie on TV; or rather, everyone else watched the movie while I watched Stefan with silly-happy love-struck eyes. The movie was dreadful, and I shuddered when the story turned out to involve a youth who commits suicide after a homosexual encounter with a male teacher. Utter, ignorant rubbish, but no one else seemed to notice.
I gave Stefan a gold roach clip for Christmas. Stefan and I spent a sun-drenched Christmas Eve at the beach, drinking beer and laughing on sand as warm as summer. Laura was there, too. I didn’t care. To the beach and back, I hammered the pedals of the yellow bike toward the earth with my furious joy at being in love.
Stefan was gorgeous in the sun, a golden-haired, bronze-skinned beach creature. I called him “Fozzie Bear” because his adorable face reminded me of one of the Muppets.
Stefan disappeared behind the painted cinderblock wall and went to bed. I watched TV, The Conversation, another Coppola movie that I had seen before. I thought about Stefan in the next room and hoped for the impossible, for a call from him to come share his bed. Of course, it didn’t happen. Miracles like that happen only in the movies.
On TV, Gene Hackman played a desolate saxophone amidst the wreckage of his apartment. That felt about right.
One cloudy late winter afternoon, while David and I hung out alone on an old playground in a park, David asked me.
“Yes,” I said, sitting on a creaky old swing. “I’m gay.”
See, it was that simple. I told my older sister back during Christmas, but no one else knew. I wasn’t a fool; I knew exactly how the hornets would swarm if word got around school that I was gay. I made David promise not to reveal my secret to anyone, not even Stefan. Though I knew, and probably hoped, that David would tell Stefan.
At first it stayed the same, all of us still friends committed to endless acts of fun. Stefan lived with his mom, and I with mine; we both had older sisters that lived away from home. But Stefan’s mom was religious, and a bad drunk. Nothing much bothered Stefan, but his emotionally unstable mother was the one dark cloud disturbing his sunny life.
Stefan’s mother found out about me, and the heavens thundered down over us.
I could no longer call Stefan, unless I wanted to listen to his mother rant in the background that I was evil, and destined for Hell. I could no longer go into Stefan’s home; I had to wait outside for him while his mother condemned me in righteous platitudes through the walls.
Stefan remained my friend despite what it cost him, and I dared not put my gratitude into words. He knew I loved him; I didn’t have to keep saying it.
The bathroom door was right inside the entryway to Stefan’s motel bedroom. I used it once.
Stefan lay atop the sheets wearing only a pair of shorts or swim trunks. A blue glow from the back window traced the muscles of his gold body. Was he asleep? I think so, but I didn’t linger in case he saw me. Again I felt the fluttering warmth inside, the overwhelming urge to touch Stefan’s body, to feel his hand nest in mine, to kiss him.
Dawn was nearing. I stepped outside and used the pay phone to call a cab, then came back and waited. I wrote Stefan a note to thank him for letting me stay the night. I signed it “Love” with my name. He wouldn’t like that, but it was necessary. We lived far from each other now; I had to say it.
I watched Stefan sleep. I wished for courage to walk in and give him one kiss before leaving, but I wouldn’t surrender the respect that kept me from it. Not because there was anything wrong with my love for him, but because he didn’t share that love.
Outside, the sky was still dark. I smelled salt and dead things in the nearby surf. A squeal of brakes heralded my cab’s arrival.
March of 1980. My birthday fell on a Friday. My dream was to spend that evening with Stefan at the mall, and he assured me we would. Laura had to work. I didn’t want David along; I knew he was spending time with Stefan without me. It didn’t matter that David wasn’t gay. Stefan was my guy, and I was very jealous.
I floated through my birthday like a giddy girl, anticipating the night and Stefan’s promise. Just the usual beer and pizza, just him and me alone, and you and I in paradise for one beautiful night.
Everything precious can shatter. That night, Stefan and David went out together, to Ft. Lauderdale, and left me behind.
They call it “heartbreak” because saying that it feels like someone tore the fucking thing apart takes too long.
At first I didn’t know; I only knew I couldn’t find Stefan. I rode the yellow bike everywhere, fast and desperate, fueled by love and burgeoning hints of betrayal. I dared call Stefan’s home, and faced his mother’s righteous wrath. David’s parents finally told me what happened. In my chest I felt the muscle tear, like gristle ripped from steak. I spent the evening in tears. I hated David beyond measure, and I was furious with Stefan. But I could never, ever hate him.
Two days it took me to reach David over the phone. I was ready to scream it out with him for encouraging Stefan to join his betrayal. But my anger deflated; I had no choice. While I skipped in the clouds that Friday, everything came apart at Stefan’s home between him and his mother, and that night he needed a release with another guy who wasn’t in love with him. David didn’t actually use those words, but I knew, one more revelation to me about the mysterious behavior of guys. The muscle tore further; didn’t Stefan see how much I cared?
Stefan’s mother had stopped answering the phone, so I asked David. “Where is Stefan now?”
“He ran away,” David said. “He’s staying with his sister in Ft. Lauderdale.”
Stefan moved to the beachfront motel as soon as he got a job. For a time he didn’t keep in touch with Laura, and one day she phoned me in despair, seeking advice and consolation. She worried that Stefan didn’t love her anymore. I tried to help, but I’m terrible at giving advice. Not to mention that I was stunned by her words and the very fact of her call. Laura didn’t know. She didn’t know. I was her greatest, most vicious rival, and she had absolutely no idea.
Sunlight seeped into the sky over the rolling bus while it passed the same shops and perhaps the same cars as before. Back in Boca, I crossed the empty mall parking lot with muted sneaker-steps in the quiet morning. The yellow bike was still there. Both of us had survived the night.
It’s not there anymore. The sad little shoebox mall and the grey-blue gas station have been replaced by Mizner Park, giddy with shops and offices and sunny, happy people. I sold the yellow bike to somebody’s kid when Mom and I moved back to Kansas City. That hurt, too, losing both the bike and Florida together.
Until then, David and I still went to the mall for beer and pizza on Friday nights. I was like a girl that way: a guy filled me with wrath, and then I forgave him. But vicious whispers hissed around me like swamp fire. On a Friday night, David and I walked out of the mall past several jocks and their girlfriends. One of the girls knew, and ignited the fire. After words were exchanged, I watched the jocks step off the curb as one, coming to get us. David defused the bullies’ fists before either of us got beat up.
I saw Stefan two or three more times, and sometimes David was along. But that night never came again, the bike ride and bus trip like a lifeline to the boy I loved. Stefan remained my friend until killing distance came between us. Your best friends, your truest friends; they understand. A part of them sticks to the ripped muscle, always.
The little charm Stefan gave me? I still have that, too.
The torn muscle stopped bleeding for a little while. I wheeled the yellow bike into the apartment while Mom left for work. I crawled into bed and clutched the pillow, and pretended that Stefan and I held each other close while I fell asleep.
Cody L. Stanford‘s publishing credits include “The Hot Bolt Kids” at Aphelion, “Wolf Dreams” at Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, “Freedom,” “Flying Fox” and “Gryphonwind” at The Piker Press, “White Fire” at Gypsy Shadow Publishing, “Alexandra’s Cat” and “Reedman” in The New Orphic Review, “But a Toy” in The Circle, “Blindsight Eclipse” in The Rejected Quarterly, and “The Magician” in Eyes magazine. Upcoming stories include “The New Boy’s Kiss” in Collective Fallout. Email: gryphontiger[at]gmail.com