Wednesday. Outside, the carpet of the pavement unfurled for us, Cosme and me, walking side by side. Ahead, an altar awaited, one formed entirely of kids, some sitting, some leaning against the facade of the old slave house, Knots smoking from a hole that had once been a window. My groom tried to give me his hand, but mine were tied up with walking, crutches, my school uniform, my skin stinking of the rancid morning—math and Portuguese classes, a surprise geography test. I’d bombed.
The sun at its peak, though it wasn’t very hot. Cosme was more confident than me. He knew exactly what to do. I just guessed. He was wearing his uniform too, walking slowly alongside me, a kind of waltz, as though dressed in a tailcoat, with a gold tie and shiny new shoes, his chest puffed out. He waved from a distance, and they waved back. He’d had a test that morning too, in history. Cosme was good at history. He never found out his grade. (I didn’t either. The principal gave his report card to my father, but the teachers hadn’t put the marks. Only those from the first term.)
My face isn’t ugly. I’ve got a few Roman features, soft and slightly plump from good living, with full lips on a smallish mouth, a little nose that looks straight, but up close isn’t quite. I’ve always visited the dentist regularly. Curved eyebrows and curly hair, today almost entirely gray. My skin, marble-white with green veins, is no longer smooth. I was a good-looking child. We were a good-looking family. Cosme’s and my kid would have looked like an Egyptian god.
We arrived at the boys’ feet (there were no girls). He squeezed my hands with his, leaned in, and gave me a you-may-kiss-the-bride kiss.
For a long time they didn’t react, their faces frozen as if they’d seen a man with the black head of a dog. I imagined, in panic, one of them jumping up and kicking my left knee, breaking my crippled leg; another punching Cosme on the nose, forcing his mouth open and grinding his teeth against the rough wall. I imagined them grabbing us and pouring boiling oil on our skin. That they’d drive a steel bar into our thighs, sealing us together like a plastic toy. That they’d get up without saying a word, such was their disappointment, and walk away in disgust. Or they’d try to argue with us, out of friendship: but if everybody was like you, humanity would no longer reproduce! Or they’d laugh, hahaha, heheha, hawhawha. I imagined all that old stew of horrors, in which they put the severed heads and flesh of queers burned at the stake. An old stew, reheated and reseasoned with each fresh generation of boys, ever since the first emperor of Rome thought that to be clean a man should remain a virgin, while doubly filthy was a man who lay with another man.
Their faces softened after the initial shock, they began to stir, and look at one another. They had an obligation to be angry and disgusted, to mock, but no one wanted to start. They stared at us. We didn’t smile. We stared back.
Then Knots jumped from the window back onto the street, tossing his cigarette away (the embers sparked on the road). Hearts readied: this was it. My vision went dark around the edges, then grew darker until there were just two little holes left, a double-barreled shotgun. They’d shoot first, I hadn’t seen enough cowboy films. The boys got to their feet, blood rushing to their legs, ready to pounce. I’m going to fall. Cosme held me, and I steadied myself on my crutches, I’m going to fall. Knots stepped forward.
He stopped in front of the gang. Smiled to make peace. Now I could see better, but my knees were trembling. The boys behind, oblivious to Knots’s smile. (Pause) Iguatemi looked at Zetimó, and I saw it: Zetimó’s arm picking up speed and becoming a punch that landed right on Iguatemi’s neck. Zetimó looked bewildered, and Iguatemi fell coughing to the ground.
He gasped for air as though he’d just been saved from drowning, his hands tearing at his chest. Air.
Zetimó was staring at his arm, his arm and the boys, the boys and Iguatemi, who was now surrounded, my Cosme in the middle, on his knees. Porky put both hands on his fallen friend’s chest and began to push, like he’d seen them do on TV. You’re going to give him mouth-to-mouth? You’ll finish him off, shit-for-brains! Then Tiziu gave him a get-out-of-it barge with his shoulder. Porky fell over.
By now Iguatemi was half coughing, half laughing.
A pause and the boys advanced on Zetimó, hungry for revenge. Including my Cosme. Somebody stuck out a leg and Zetimó fell, not far from Iguatemi. One kick, two in the ribs. He took it, raised his hand to plead for a truce, nodded OK, OK. Knots slapped him on the ear, then Cosme gave Knots a shove, telling him it was enough.
They all eyeballed one another, weighing up the possibility of a mass brawl. Iguatemi sat up, breathing heavily. Zetimó stuck his fingers in his mouth to see if he’d lost any teeth. Stop, Porky said, for fuck’s sake, stop!
Afterward, to have something to say, Knots commented that I was white and Cosme was brown, I was rich and he was poor. A gold digger. And then laughed, because you can’t just change the subject and move on either.
And that was that.
In a few hours, they were over their beatings, and got used to the idea that their two friends were boyfriends. Only a bruise would remain and that was OK. When we kissed they’d say yuck, or every now and then they’d throw things: dirt, a bunch of weeds. They weren’t ready to joke about it, but they stopped calling Cosme names and shoving him around. For two weeks, they respected us.
The next day or the day after, I forget, Tiziu’s sister gave birth at home. Twins, a boy and a girl, with a mother but no father. Yuck, they said when they heard about the placenta, and threw bunches of weeds at him, and called him a shit-for-brains. They were probably more disgusted by his sister than by us. They still hadn’t completely lost their fear of girls.
The news spread, but the scandal didn’t come from the tender faces of my friends. It came from the faces of the old women and the well-brought-up young ladies—I’m certain it was the hard faces of the old women that were offended first. No doubt one of them was spying on the street, with the tsk-tsk-tsk cocked on her tongue, ready to fire at the slightest sign of indecency: an unaccompanied woman, savagery in the traffic, a macumbeiro, a drunk or pickpocket. But a kiss between boys she’d never seen. Perhaps she didn’t even have time to click her tongue, no doubt she went straight to call the youngest young lady (wherever there are old women, there are young ladies). Come see, come see. And the come-see of one multiplied into ten, two hundred, three hundred did-you-sees? In the bread line or the afternoon house calls, did you see that boys are going around kissing now? In broad daylight, shamelessly, an indecency, two hundred indecencies! What’s the world coming to.
None of this reached my father’s ears. Of course. As far as I know, he died thinking it was women who didn’t like me.
From The Love of Singular Men. First published in Brazil under the Portuguese-language title O amor dos homens avulsos by Companhia das Letras. © 2016 by Victor Heringer. English translation © 2023 by James Young. Forthcoming from Peirene Press and New Directions Publishing. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.