It made me nervous.
Ocean had this quintessential all-American look, the kind of look that made it easy for girls to fall in love with him, for scouts to know where to place him, for the community to think of him, always and forever, as a good boy with great potential and a bright future. I tried to explain why my presence in his life would be both complicated and controversial, but Ocean couldn’t understand. He just didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
But it wasn’t something I wanted to fight over. So we compromised.
I agreed to let Ocean drive me to school one morning. I thought it would be a small, carefully measured step. Totally innocent. What I kept forgetting, of course, was that high school was home to infinite clichés for a reason, and that Ocean was, in some ways, still inextricable from his own stereotype. Even where he parked his car in the school parking lot seemed to matter. I’d never had a reason to know or care about this, because I was the weirdo who walked to school every day. I’d never interacted with this side of campus in the morning, never saw these kids or spoke to them. But when Ocean opened my door that day, I stepped out into a different world. Everyone was here. Here—in this school parking lot—this was where he and his friends hung out every morning.
“Oh, wow, this was a bad idea,” I said to him, even as he took my hand. “Ocean,” I said, “this was a bad idea.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” he said, and squeezed my fingers. “We’re just two people holding hands. It’s not the end of the world.”
I wondered, then, what it would be like to live in his brain. I wondered how safe and normal a life he must’ve lived in order to say something like that, so casually, and really, truly, believe it.
Sometimes, I wanted to say to him, for some people, it really was the end of the world.
But I didn’t. I didn’t say it because I was suddenly distracted. An unnerving quiet had just infected the groups of kids standing nearest to us, and I felt my body tense even as I looked forward and stared at nothing. I waited for something—some kind of hostility—but it never came. We managed to weave our way through the parking lot, eyes following our bodies as we went, without incident. No one spoke to me. Their silence seemed to be infused with surprise, and it felt, to me, like they were deciding what to think. How to respond.
Ocean and I had very different reactions to this experience.
I told him we should go back to arriving separately at school, that it was a nice try, but, ultimately, a bad idea.
He did not agree, not even a little bit.
He kept pointing out to me that it had been fine, that it was weird but it wasn’t bad, and he insisted, most of all, that he didn’t want their opinions to control his life.
“I want to be with you,” he said. “I want to hold your hand and eat lunch with you and I don’t want to have to pretend that I’m not, like”—he sighed, hard—“I just don’t want to pretend not to notice you, okay? I don’t care if other people don’t like it. I don’t want to worry all the time. Who gives a shit about these people?”
“Aren’t they your friends?” I said.
“If they were my friends,” he said, “they’d be happy for me.”
The second day was worse.
On the second day, when I stepped out of Ocean’s car, no one was surprised. They were just assholes.
Someone actually said, “Why’re you fucking around with Aladdin over here, bro?”
This was not a new insult, not to me. For some reason people loved using Aladdin to put me down, which made me sad, because I really liked Aladdin. I loved watching that movie as a kid. But I’d always wanted to tell people that they were insulting me incorrectly. I wanted them to understand that Aladdin was, first of all, a guy, and that, second of all, he wasn’t even the one who covered his hair. This wasn’t even an accurate insult, and it bothered me that it was so lazy. There were so many better, meaner alternatives from the movie to choose from—like, maybe, I don’t know, compare me to Jafar—but there was never a good time, during these types of situations, to bring it up.
Regardless, Ocean and I did not have the same reaction to the insult.
I was irritated, but Ocean was angry.
I could feel it then, in that moment, that Ocean was even stronger than he looked. He had a lean, muscular frame, but he felt, suddenly, very solid standing next to me. His whole body had gone rigid; his hand in mine felt foreign. He looked both angry and disgusted and he shook his head and I could tell he was about to say something when someone, very suddenly, threw a half-eaten cinnamon roll at my face.
I was stunned.
There was a moment of perfect silence as the sweet, sticky bun hit part of my eye and most of my cheek and then dragged, slowly, down my chin. Fell to the floor. There was icing all over my scarf.
This, I thought, was new.
Whoever threw the thing at me was suddenly laughing his ass off and Ocean just kind of lost it. He grabbed the guy by the shirt and shoved him, really, really hard and I wasn’t sure what was happening anymore, but I was so mortified I could hardly see straight and I suddenly wanted nothing more than to just disappear.
So I did.
No one had ever thrown food at me before. I felt numb as I walked away, felt stupid and humiliated and numb. I was trying to make my way to the girl’s bathroom because I really wanted to wash my face but Ocean suddenly caught up to me, caught me around the waist.
“Hey,” he said, and he was out of breath, “Hey—”
But I didn’t want to look at him, I didn’t want him to see me with this shit all over my face so I pulled away. I didn’t meet his eyes.
“Are you okay?” he said. “I’m so sorry—”
“Yeah,” I said, but I was already turning around again. “I, um—I just need to wash my face, okay? I’ll see you later.”
“Wait,” he said, “wait—”
“I’ll see you later, Ocean, I swear.” I waved, kept walking. “I’m fine.”
I mean, I wasn’t fine. I would be fine. But I wasn’t there yet.
I got to the girl’s bathroom and dropped my bag on the ground. I unwrapped my scarf from around my head and used a damp paper towel to scrub the icing off my face. I tried to clean my scarf the same way, but it wasn’t as effective. I sighed. I had to try and wash parts of it in the sink, which just made everything wet, and I was feeling more than a little demoralized as I hung the slightly damp scarf around my neck.
Just then, someone else walked into the bathroom.
I was glad that I’d at least finished with the scrubbing of my face before she came in. I’d just pulled my ponytail free—I’d had to wash a little icing out of my hair, too, and I needed to retie the whole thing—when she walked over to the sink next to me. I knew I’d made myself super conspicuous in here, because I’d tossed my bag to the floor, disassembled myself, and was surrounded, at the moment, by little mountains of damp paper towels, but I hoped she wouldn’t notice. Wouldn’t ask questions. I didn’t know who she was and I didn’t care; I just didn’t want to deal with any more people today.
“Hey,” she said, and instinct forced my head up.
I’ll always remember that moment, the way my hair fell around my face, how it shook out, in long waves, as I turned, the hair tie still wrapped around my wrist.
I looked at her, a question in my eyes.
And she took a picture of me.
“What the hell?” I stepped back, confused. “Why did y—?”
“Thanks,” she said, and smiled.
I was dazed. She walked out the door and it took me a minute to find my head. It took me another few seconds to understand.
When I did, I was struck still.
And I suddenly felt so sick to my stomach I thought I might faint.
It had been a really shitty day.
Ocean finally found me in the hall. He took my hand and I turned around and at first he didn’t say anything. At first he just looked at me.
“Some girl took a picture of me in the bathroom,” I said quietly.
He took a tight breath. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.”