Jesse’s face goes slack.
He is four years old, and he has bashed his little thumb with his father’s hammer, banging tenpenny nails into the hood of his father’s car. When his father sees what he’s done, he picks the boy up without a second thought, and kisses his thumb. He takes him in to the house, and promises that the throbbing, aching, terrible feeling will go away if he eats enough ice cream. “But slowly,” Terry Gray says. “Slowly, otherwise you’ll have a belly ache AND a hurt thumb.”
He is eight years old, and he has broken his leg falling out of the treehouse his father helped him make, once it was a good idea to let him near a hammer again. While he recovers, his mother introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, and balsa wood planes he can throw from his second-story window, where she will retrieve them, and send them back up in a basket they’ve rigged to the soffiting of the house just outside his bedroom window.
He is eleven years old, and he has pushed a younger boy down for making fun of him, and he is sent to bed early for having lost his temper and hurt someone else. He has never been so ashamed of himself, and his mother and father leave the punishment at that, with the words that they expect much better from him in the future. They show him what being truly sorry means, by encouraging him to make reparations, and talk out the conflict, but they leave the decisions and actions to him, and he discovers pride and humility all at once.
He is fourteen years old, and his best friend since he was three has moved away, and he has said goodbye for the last time, and they have promised to write, promised to stay in touch, promised every kind of promise blood brothers can make, but Aaron will be three thousand miles away, in a place that has snow in the winter, and there will be no more last minute sleepovers, microwave midnight s’mores, games of Sardines, tree climbing contests, or any of the best-friend things they’d shared over the last decade.
It is a crumbling of his castle of childhood, and he knows it for what it is, and what stands across the other side of the yawning chasm of puberty.
His mother comes into his room that night, where he is sleepless and miserable, and takes him out to the kitchen, where she and his father have made a blanket fort, and have pulled the microwave off the counter, underneath the table. They are making s’mores and reading comics, and he cannot tell if he wants to laugh or cry at the way his father ends up with marshmallow on everything, trying hard to assuage his lonely heart.
He is sixteen years old, and Sara, the girl who moved next door into Aaron’s old house, dares him to kiss her, while they are sitting in his tree fort, lamenting the beginning of the school year. Later, his mother hands him a tube of something labelled ‘Magnolia Blush’ with a smile. “Because,” Lydia Gray tells him, “You’d look better in something more pink.” He tells her about the kiss, not because he worried that she thought he liked makeup–because in truth, he has worn colored gloss for years–but because he tells her everything, because she listens.
He is seventeen years old, and he buys Liza a tube of Magnolia Blush, because he thinks she’d like it, and he shows her how to apply it during lunch, by applying his own in front of her. When his history teacher writes him up for ‘inappropriate conduct’, his father shows up for the meeting in Magnolia Blush.
He is eighteen years old, and he has finally acknowledged to himself that the feelings he’s been having for years now are not an accident, and not confusion. His heart skips a beat when he sees Emily in the hallways, fluttering in his throat, but when he passes Adam, it seizes up proper, chokes him, grabs him low in the belly and squeezes all at once. He has kissed Sara and Liza and Emily. He has slid his hands up under shirts and tasted toothpaste and school lunch and bubblegum on the lips of half a dozen girls, but it is not until he tastes coffee on Adam’s tongue that he nearly faints on his own bed, his hands clutching at Adam’s t-shirt in a panicked sort of glee. When his father has opened the door all of a sudden, asking if the boys want to go out for pizza and a movie, or order in and rent something, Adam runs faster than Jesse has ever seen anyone move, and he is left staring at his father, alone, without any idea of how to explain what just happened. In truth, he doesn’t know how they got from talking about Star Wars to making out. It doesn’t really matter, because Terrence Gray promises quickly to love his son, no matter what, no explanation required. Even more quickly, he urges him to go catch his friend before he can run — no reason to call an end to the evening.
He is twenty years old, and has found himself in a stupid situation. He knows the alcohol was a bad idea, but it seemed like so much fun at the time. He knows driving home isn’t an option, but he also knows he can’t sleep in the car tonight; it’s too damned cold. He’s out of money, so a cab’s out of the question, and he doesn’t have anyone close enough nearby that he can crash with. He calls his mother without hesitation, and she drives two hours to pick him up, proud of her son for setting aside both anxiety and shame to do the right thing. It doesn’t stop her from playing loud music in the morning, and teasing him relentlessly about his headache, and he is grateful for knowing she is there.
He is twenty-three years old, and his parents have met three of his girlfriends, and two of his boyfriends; and they are honest, and they are kind, and they give him safety and shelter and acceptance. He lives with them still, paying rent and contributing to utilities and figuring out what he wants to do with his adult life, and sometimes, his mother still wakes him up for midnight microwave s’mores, and his father still occasionally wears Magnolia Blush.
Jesse stares long and hard, his expression one of near-confusion. It sits on the bones of his face, an ill-fitting suit attempting to disguise a sick sort of terror.
“What do you mean… ‘They don’t exist‘?”