The first time I saw Seth Barrett, he was leaned against a chain-link fence with his fingers hooked on the metal, arms spread like wings, and I remember thinking he reminded me of a tiger or some other large predator. Caged, for the time being.
I noticed him almost immediately though I pretended not to. We weren’t an organized team by any means—just a half dozen rangy teenagers playing a pickup basketball game on the neighborhood courts—but we had our reputations to maintain. We couldn’t invite just anyone to play with us.
That was my main concern back then, making sure I didn’t look uncool.
It wasn’t until we took a water break that I was able to see him up close—our stuff was piled up on the bench in front of where he stood. He still clung to the fence with a casual confidence, eyes trained on me. I nodded and he smirked, just a slow tug of his mouth on one side that could almost be qualified as a sneer. He was older than me, and I thought perhaps I’d seen him around school, a senior, which was beyond reach for a freshman like myself. He had dark hair and eyes, and his summer tan had not yet faded. His build was slim but he looked scrappy, like he could hold his own in a fight. His hair flopped over in front of his face, though it didn’t seemed planned, more like he’d just gotten out of bed and neglected to comb it.
“You look good out there,” he said to me, gripping the fence tighter so that the muscles in his arms tensed. His underarms were lean and ropy, and I couldn’t help but admire them. His smile widened when he caught me checking him out. I’d exposed myself in the first few seconds of our encounter. I wasn’t out about my sexuality then but still dealing with the urges I was having toward other guys. I dreaded telling my dad and hoped it was just a fleeting fascination or the result of an overactive imagination. I even thought it might be a byproduct of masturbating too often, like I’d fallen in love with my own dick and was looking to match my adoration with that of another man.
I was searching, and I suppose that’s what Seth recognized in me, before I even understood it myself.
“What’s your name?” he asked me with a cocky tilt to his head.
“Hiroku Hayashi.” I was breathless when I said it. It wasn’t from exertion.
“Hiroku Hayashi.” He sculpted my name with a special attention to every syllable, a loving caress of tongue and lips around its shape. I’d never heard anyone say it so beautifully before. “What a pretty name.” Seth smiled, showing his teeth, and I felt it then, that irresistible tug in his direction. Was this cute senior actually flirting with me, or was I being overeager?
“My name’s Seth Barrett.” He trailed his fingertips along the fence as he casually strolled to where the door was propped open. He wore a white t-shirt and ripped-up jeans. He had the infinity symbol tattooed on his wrist, and I’d bet money he had more tattoos elsewhere. I got a little lost in my mind imagining where they might be hidden.
Seth stopped when he was just in front of me, closer than was socially acceptable for two straight guys. My pick-up partners had all wandered back to the courts by now, but they were eyeing our exchange with interest. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind the attention.
“You want to play?” I asked in an uncharacteristic display of inclusion.
He glanced across the courts. “Your teams are already even.”
Gripped by a sudden compulsion, I wanted him to play. I was no longer just being polite. “We can make it work.”
“You don’t want me on your team.” Seth sighed the words so softly I had to lean in closer to hear him.
“Why not?” I asked, dazzled and disoriented by him.
He smiled again. He must be flirting with me. “I’m not very good at basketball.”
I shrugged and said something about how it didn’t matter, another first. He bit into his lower lip, considering it.
“Come on. It’ll be fun.” I was practically begging him to join us.
His eyes searched mine. “Okay, but you’ll have to help me.”
I introduced Seth to the rest of the guys. They all stared at him with a slight bewilderment. A cool senior demeaning himself to associate with us losers? He may as well have been a unicorn.
Seth was right about not knowing how to play basketball. We called him on double-dribble almost immediately, and I gently explained to him what it meant. Same with traveling. He laughed at his own ignorance and made self-deprecating jokes about his lack of ball handling skills, shooting me a leer, which didn’t go unnoticed. He caught on quick, though. We’d put him on the other team—the one that was losing at break—and it seemed he far preferred guarding me to taking shots. More than once he brushed up against me in a way that couldn’t have been an accident, always accompanied with that teasing smile of his.
“I should call you on a foul,” I joked after he bumped me with his chest.
“I don’t think that would keep me from doing it again,” he said, which stunned me enough that he was able to take the ball and dribble it back to the line. His next shot was an air ball. He laughed and glanced over at me like we were in on the same joke. He had this ability to make me feel like in any given place, we were the only two people who existed.
When we lost, I attributed it to Seth’s efforts at distracting me. He probably only made two baskets the whole game.
“Beginner’s luck,” he said as we dispersed to gather our water bottles and t-shirts.
“I’d say there was some strategy involved,” I said cheekily. Whether Seth was straight or (hopefully) not, he was easy to flirt with.
Seth had nothing with him, so I offered him a swig from my water bottle. He leaned back and spurted some of the water into his mouth, catching the wetness that dribbled out the corner with his tattooed wrist. His neck was slick and glistening with sweat, and I found myself wanting to catch the droplets with my tongue. I couldn’t tell if Seth was making the simple act of drinking water sexual, or if it was my raging hormones leading me there.
“What are you up to now?” he asked, handing me back my water bottle.
“I got to get home.” My mom was pretty strict about us all eating together, even with my sister Mai’s busy schedule.
Seth glanced around as though just realizing how late it had gotten. “Streetlights will be coming on soon,” he mused. “Can I walk you home?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, still in a daze. The way he said it, walk you home. Wouldn’t a straight guy say walk with you? Walking me home sounded almost…courtly.
We said goodbye to the others and headed down the sidewalk. Shady Creek was a tree-lined suburb of Austin, fairly affluent and close enough to my high school that I could ride my bike there instead of taking the bus.
“You go to Hilliard?” Seth asked.
“Ever so often. How come I’ve never seen you around?”
Because I’m forgettable, is what I thought, but what I said is, “I just started.”
“You’re a freshman?” His eyebrows lifted with genuine surprise. He looked away then, and I worried he was regretting this…whatever it was.
“And you’re a senior,” I said, deflated.
“Yeah, but…” He glanced over and perhaps sensing I needed some reassurance, added, “that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”
“Friends,” I echoed, but the way he was looking at me, the way my body was responding, I didn’t think friendship was what he had in mind.
Besides, I had enough friends already.
Seth came to a few more of our basketball games, always wearing shredded jeans and shoes that were not equipped for sports. Tousled hair, lean muscles, a small mole just above his upper lip, a habit of gesturing with his hands when he was excited. I tucked these bits away, ruminating on our interactions while we were apart. An hour with Seth equaled at least three hours of obsessing on my own time.
Did that thing I said sound stupid?
Did he laugh because he thought it was funny or was he just being polite?
When he touched my arm, what did it mean?
I’d seen him in school a few times as well. Just when I thought he was going to pass by me in the hallways, he’d glance over with a smile as if to say, this one’s just for you.
After every basketball game Seth walked me home. I didn’t quite understand his attraction to me. I was a scrawny punk. Not poor, but certainly not rich. Smart enough, but slow to the punch. I looked a little different from the other kids at school, but not in a way that made me desirable.
Regardless, I enjoyed those walks. Seth asked good questions, ones that showed he was paying attention. He made me think about things in a way I hadn’t before.
“What’s it like being Japanese in Texas?” he asked me one day about two weeks after we’d met on the courts.
I was tempted to lie, but he’d listened to me so far without judgment. I wanted to be truthful with him.
“In a lot of ways, it’d be a whole lot easier if I wasn’t,” I said.
I told Seth about some of the questions kids had asked me over the years. Why is your name so weird? Why are your eyes slanted? Or, why don’t you open your eyes all the way? Why aren’t you good at computers? Do you know karate? In middle school there were a few slurs aimed in my direction, but more than that was the sense that other kids held me at arm’s length, like no matter how many common interests we shared, there would always be this fundamental divide between us.
I told all of this to Seth, and he listened, really listened. It was an intoxicating feeling, to not only be heard, but to be understood.
“How do you know it’s not you pushing other people away?” he asked. “Like, as a defense mechanism.”
His observation kind of blew my mind. What if he was right? Maybe I’d insulated myself from everyone to prevent the jerks from getting in. “I’ve never thought about it like that before. Pretty lame, huh?” I glanced over to gauge his reaction. His opinion mattered to me. A lot.
“It’s not lame at all. Seems like a natural reaction to people being assholes. And as far as wanting to be someone else, I used to wish I was a girl.”
“Really?” That struck me as odd, that someone as cool and confident as Seth would want to be anything other than what he already was, which was awesome.
“Then I could wear dresses and date cute boys, and it would be normal.”
That was the first time Seth made it known to me that he was gay. I’d heard rumors of course, and I’d asked around at school, but this was Seth coming out to me for the first time. It felt significant.
“I can’t see you ever being normal,” I said with admiration. I’d meant for it to be a compliment, but worried it came off sounded snotty or sarcastic. Seth laughed.
“No, probably not.”
We reached the corner of my yard. Seth never walked me to my door, always stopped at the edge of our property and glanced up at our house uneasily, like he knew he shouldn’t be there. I was tempted to ask him in, but it would only invite questions. My mother was perceptive. She’d already noticed my spike in phone usage, usually stalking Seth on social media or chatting with my best friend Sabrina about Seth. For whatever reason, I wanted to keep this a secret, and I sensed Seth did too.
“You should come over to my house tomorrow after school,” Seth said. His lips pursed in an angelic bow, and I knew he was asking for more than just that. As if to warn me, he added, “My parents won’t get home until late.”
“Oh… that’s… cool.” I tried to sound nonchalant about it.
“So, you’ll come?”
“Yeah, um, sure. I guess so.”
Seth’s lips curved into a triumphant smile. “Cool,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. He’d been worried I might say, no. I couldn’t believe my infatuation wasn’t obvious to him already. And the fact that Seth was interested in me. Me, of all people? That fact alone had my head spinning.
Seth angled his body so that he could whisper into my ear, “See you tomorrow then, Hiroku.”
My limbs were reduced to pools of jelly and my heart was racing so fast I worried it might take flight.
“Yeah, see you tomorrow.”
I didn’t go to Seth’s house right away. There was some preparation on my part. A shower, for one, and some body spray to mask the smell of my stress sweating. I had to pick out an outfit that said, I look this good by accident, something he would find attractive. Same with my hair. That ended up taking a while. By the time I rounded Seth’s block, I worried I’d missed my window.
His garage door was open, and he was sitting on an old plaid couch, hunched over an electric guitar with his headphones on. There was an old carpet covering the floor of the garage and a drum kit, microphones, amps and chords. A few posters decorated the walls and in the back corner, a washer and dryer. Seth was waiting for me, just as he’d promised. It didn’t calm me in the least.
I paused at the bottom of his driveway. As if sensing me, his head lifted, and a slow smile spread across his face. He set the guitar aside and rose to greet me. We didn’t hug or anything, just stopped a few feet apart and appraised each other. He looked good in a casual, cool way that I could only fake. I regretted the effort I’d put into my look. I didn’t want him to think me a poseur.
“I thought you weren’t going to show,” he said, “but it seems you were just spending a little extra time on your appearance.” He touched my chin with his knuckle in a gesture of endearment. Still, I felt my own embarrassment seep outward, flaming my cheeks with a fever until it was all I could think about.
“I like it,” Seth said, noticing my extreme embarrassment. “I’m flattered you went to the trouble, but I like you sweaty and dirty too.”
It was the first time he referred to me as something he desired. Did this mean we were more than friends? It gave me confidence and made me anxious at the same time. I’d never kissed a guy or even held hands with one. I was pretty sure his experience vastly outpaced my own. And what if he saw me as just some little kid?
Despite my inexperience, I’d do everything I could to match him in every way.
I glanced around the garage and tried to think of something to say. “So this is where your band practices?”
“Yep, this is where the magic happens. I’d give you a sample of our music, but we kind of suck.”
I laughed. How humble. He’d told me a little bit about his band. Skull Necklace was their name, and they played some kind of heavy metal—death metal or black metal, I didn’t know the difference. Seth hadn’t told me much more than that, but I’d sensed from the way he talked about them, he wasn’t exactly happy with the situation.
“Have a seat.” He pulled out his phone and fiddled with it. A woman’s sultry voice filtered out through the speakers. I recognized the artist, and Seth seemed impressed that I knew her.
He settled down next to me on the couch while I tucked my hands between my knees and tried to keep my toes from tapping. Seth had a way of commanding the room, even in repose.
“So, what are you taking pictures of these days?” he asked. I couldn’t recall talking to him about my photography, though I’d shot a few pictures for the school blog at their request.
“Have you seen my stuff?”
He shrugged. “I must have seen you with your camera around school.”
“I’m getting more into portraits. Experimenting with different backgrounds and trying to focus on the attribute that sets the subject apart.”
Seth sat up to face me directly. “What sets me apart?”
I studied him with an artist’s eye. There was so much that set him apart: his nose, which steered a little to one side; his eyes, deep-set and coppery brown with thick, dark lashes; the point of his chin and a dimple on one cheek, both of which gave him an impish quality; the way he was looking at me right then, which caused my throat to tighten.
I took a risk and grabbed his hand, turned it over. I traced the infinity symbol on his wrist. “This is interesting. What does it mean to you?”
“Infinite potential. I do that sometimes…trace it like you just did, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It calms me, like a fidget. It’s a route that never ends.”
His answers were even better than his questions, a real-life Sphinx. For all that Seth could be, he was never boring.
I stared at our fingers intertwined. “For your portrait, I’d put you behind a chain-link fence, like when I first saw you, with this by your face, maybe leaning your forehead against the back of your hand to create a little mystery. The best photographs leave the viewer wanting more.”
“Aren’t you a clever one?” he said with a smile, almost like he was proud of me. I pulled my hand away, and he grabbed for it. He held on long enough to make his intentions known.
“Do you have any other tattoos?” I asked, which was a flimsy cover for, I’d like to see more of your skin.
“Just this one.” He lifted the sleeve of his t-shirt to show off a detailed anatomical rendering of a heart on his shoulder.
“How literal,” I remarked and he chuckled.
“You’re funny.” His eyes drifted to my face and landed on my lips. “And you’re pretty.”
“Pretty?” I asked dubiously.
He shrugged. “Handsome, hot, whatever gender-conforming adjective suits you. When I look at you, I like what I see. And I want to see more of it.”
I glanced away, feeling intensely aroused and fearful that it might be blatantly obvious.
“Do you like that?” he asked. “When I comment on your looks?”
I cleared my throat. I didn’t know what was normal between two guys who might be into each other; I only knew I wanted to please him. “I don’t mind it.”
He trailed one fingertip up my arm, giving me goosebumps and making me shiver in a most pleasurable way.
“Do you have any tattoos?” he asked, dipping in close so that his breath tickled my neck.
I shook my head. I’m only fifteen, I almost reminded him, but I caught myself. I didn’t want our age difference to be a thing.
“That’s good,” Seth said. “You have beautiful skin. I wouldn’t mark it up with something as common as ink.”
“But you have tattoos,” I pointed out.
He shrugged. “I’m a rock star wannabe. It’s part of my look.”
I liked that he was able to make fun of himself. But there was something else too that I only realized later: the rules were different for him.
“A piercing might be nice,” he said into my ear as though he were going to lick my lobe. I inclined toward him instinctively.
“Am I your Barbie?” I teased in a voice threaded with lust.
“Do you want to be?”
I swallowed tightly and said nothing. Maybe.
Seth stood abruptly. A wash of cold air flooded me, and I felt his loss desperately. He crossed the room to the door that led inside the house and pushed a button so that the garage door shuddered and groaned to a close. A floor lamp bathed the garage in a warm glow. He was setting the mood. I was in his clutches and quite honestly, there was no where else I wanted to be.
“A little privacy,” he said and strolled leisurely back toward the couch. His movement had a feline quality about it, a sinewy grace. To watch him was to want him.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked. I nodded. He reached for my hand and pulled me up so that we were standing nose to nose. I was shorter than him, but not by much.
“I like you, Hiroku.” He tucked a lock of loose hair behind my ear. My cheek turned toward his hand. His calloused finger traced the shape of my lips, and they parted, ready to receive him. “You like me?” he asked.
“Yes.” I nodded, breathless and dizzy. My blood was rushing south, my mind abandoning all reason. I was completely failing at playing it cool.
He pulled me toward him, even though I was already leaning in his direction. He brushed his lips against mine soft as a feather. Teasing me. With a purr and a smile, he drew me in again, deeper this time, and breached my mouth with his tongue. He cupped my face and kissed me with the same singular attention he’d given to our conversations. Clearly, he knew what he was doing, and I only needed to part my lips a little wider to allow for his exploration. A moan escaped me, and he pressed his hardness against my hip so that I’d know he wanted me, too.
Kissing Seth was like diving into the deepest, darkest water and being numb to all other sensory input, except for him—tasting his tongue, smelling his skin, caressing his muscles, feeling the stir in my groin and the deep ache that resulted.
When we finally surfaced, he pulled away and eyed me with a lazy smirk . “You’re a good kisser.”
I touched my lips. “Thanks, but I’m pretty sure that was all you.”
He beamed. “Have you ever kissed anyone before?”
I shook my head, a little embarrassed to admit it.
“What a pleasure it would be to corrupt you.” He sighed like he was giving up on me, but there was a mischievous glint in his eyes. His pupils were huge and hooded with lust, as he focused on my every blink and swallow.
Corrupt me, I thought, while I stared at his lips, hoping they might grace mine again and soon. The longing he inspired in me was one I’d never known before; it consumed me.
“You’re so young,” he said sadly, as if I’d already broken his heart.
“I’m not that young,” I argued. He smiled again and kissed my forehead.
“I’ll be patient,” he promised and pulled me down to the couch. We made out for the rest of the afternoon, heavy petting that was somewhere between second and third base, doing everything just short of pulling out our junk and slapping it around. I came in my underwear just from our grinding, and even though I tried to hide it, I think Seth knew it, because after that he pulled me on top of him and petted my hair.
“Will you stop by again tomorrow?” he asked dreamily. I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Yeah,” I said eagerly, ecstatic that he wanted me back. He tilted my chin up so that I would look at him.
“This is the beginning of something remarkable.”
“You think so?” I was skeptical. And clueless.
“I know so. I can feel it.”
Remarkable, Seth said.
And it was.
For those of you who’ve read The Bravest Thing, you know this story between Hiroku and Seth doesn’t have a happy ending. With that in mind…
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