“Just one more track, please? I want to hear how it continues. I haven’t heard the end of this. What was his name again, Johnny Money?”
“Cash. Johnny Cash,” I corrected Jason and watched as he nodded thoughtfully. As I reached out and changed to the next song, he pressed his ear close to the loudspeaker to make sure he would catch every breath, noise and sound emerging from it. He was mesmerised, I could tell; his blue eyes shone and his lips parted as he pretended to sing along. He didn’t know the words. He’d never even heard of Folsom Prison before, but he still seemed to understand. In his mind everything clicked and his pupils danced along with his growing knowledge. It was amazing to watch and yet I felt sad.
It was summer and we were stuck inside. I had my window wide open to let the fresh breeze into my small room, but it didn’t stop me from sweating. I longed to put on my sunglasses and run down to the beach, feel the sand prick my bare toes and the water wash in over my red hands. But Jason’s mum had insisted:
“He’s too young to go to the beach, he's only thirteen! You can’t do that, Billy, don’t do that to me. Stay inside, play a game.” She didn’t mean videogames - she’d handed me a pack of cards and looked into my eyes as if to silently assure me that I would get in trouble if I dared to let Jason play anything but solitaire. I had a feeling I was already breaking her rules by letting him listen to Johnny sing, but I didn’t care - it kept him occupied.
I fiddled with the newspaper I’d stolen from Dad’s office. He’d dog-eared several pages, 23 out of 30 to be exact. They were all articles on the neighbourhood; one described the beautiful landscape surrounding our cottage, another the poor means of transportation between here and the city. I didn't need to read it to know that I was far away from home.
“Is there a lot like this?” Jason asked me and I looked at him.
“Johnny, like his music.”
“Loads,” I said and shrugged. Meanwhile, Jason’s eyes grew wide with curiosity; it was as if they took up more space on his face than what was humanly possible as he stared at me intensely. I felt I had to say something more, so I added: “I mean, Johnny’s pretty old by now. I just like him ‘cause Mum used to listen to him when I was little.”
“You mean he’s nothing special?” Jason asked confused.
I poked my tongue to my inner cheek trying to figure out how to explain this to him. “He is,” I said. “Else he wouldn’t still be popular. He was great for his time, just… Well, there’s just newer music.”
“All sorts. Lady Gaga, Macklemore, Robbie Wi-”
“Lady who?” Jason interrupted me.
“Gaga,” I said. “Lady Gaga.”
“I want to hear her. Put her on. What’s her story?”
“They don’t have stories. Every song is a new story, it’s not consistent, Jay,” I said, and Jason moved aside as I put away the CD with Johnny and put on one with Lady Gaga. He watched in awe; he didn’t have CDs at home and I wasn’t sure he’d ever touched one. Though he was closer to the shelf, I put the album back myself just to be sure he wouldn’t break the cover in excitement. “Have you really never heard this kind of music before?”
“Mom plays the piano,” Jason explained, “and she sings songs of praise.”
“Of praise?” I repeated, but ‘Bad Romance’ started playing in the same moment and Jason eagerly pressed his ear to the loudspeaker again as he devoured every word. He didn’t just look like someone who wanted a romance, he looked like someone who really needed one, be it good or bad. He was a teenager completely out of touch with the world. I fiddled with the newspaper again and turned to face the window as I thought to myself that so was I.
Jason wasn’t really my friend but Mum had insisted I make him one. Since there weren’t a lot of kids around I had to be happy for whoever wanted to speak with me, she said. Though Jason was odd and even Dad disliked his parents - good old Dad who couldn’t even manage to swear at the guy who punched him in the face for not crossing at a red light - I had to suck it up and act interested in his life. However different it was from mine.
I was born in the city. Mum didn’t even reach the hospital before I started popping out on the backseat of a cab. The driver stopped and assisted her in the middle of a busy street, and though he shouted at her the whole time calling her an ‘irresponsible bitch’, she still describes my birth as a wonderful time. I’m not sure what part of it was wonderful; when she got the bill for bleeding all over the floor, or when no one had any scissors so they cut the cord with Dad’s pocket knife. Either way, I was born in between cafeterias and tall buildings made out of steel and glass, and I was taught to avoid crazy drivers, not to speak to drunk homeless men, and always read the newspaper in case something important happened in our country.
But Jason was raised on the countryside, so far out that I doubt they had electricity most of his childhood. At least he never spoke of computers or televisions, of radios or videogames. When I asked him what he used to do, he started blabbering about all these drawings he did of cows and a poem he wrote about the blue sky. It all seemed a bit dense to me.
“Bad romance,” Jason mumbled suddenly and I looked at him. I’d been watching the clouds slowly drifting by as my mind started closing down and I hadn’t even noticed the music had stopped. Jason still had his ear pressed to the loudspeaker, but now he moved away and sat with his legs crossed on the carpet. “What is a bad romance?”
“A romance gone bad, I guess,” I said without being very helpful. “Don’t think too hard about the lyrics. They don’t always mean something.”
“What do you think it means?” he insisted.
I poked my tongue to my cheek again. “I guess she wants something that she knows isn’t good for her, but which will make her feel alive.” I spoke every word slowly as I’d been taught by Mrs Madison in English class. She said that if we tasted every word we would understand them better, but my little analysis still didn’t make sense in my head.
Jason wasn’t satisfied either: “Why would she want something bad though?”
“I think she means bad as in sex,” I blurted out tired, but I realised my mistake immediately. Jason was staring at me with his lips parted like a fish gaping for air on land and my cheeks blushed. “I mean…”
“That’s bad,” Jason said quietly.
I scratched my arms furiously and looked out the window. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“Have you ever had sex?”
I started really regretting my words. “Want to listen to Macklemore?”
“I’m fourteen, what do you think?” I grimaced at Jason, but he still looked clueless. I could sense another ‘have you’ moving its way through his throat, so I added: “No. You’re not supposed to have sex when you’re fourteen.”
“You should wait until married,” Jason nodded.
I just agreed. I didn’t dare to tell him my parents weren’t even engaged.
“Who are you going to marry?” Jason asked and I laughed, because I was sure he had to be joking. But of course Jason never jokes. “Don’t you know?”
“No, how could I know already?”
“Mum says I’m going to marry Irma.”
“She’s a girl my aunt knows. She lives next to her. They say she’s really pretty with red hair and green eyes. And they say she’s fun, because she always comes up with stories and draws them well. She’s in the choir. She’s a good girl, they say.”
I smiled a little at the way he described her. “They say?” I repeated and pushed the newspaper away to look down at him. I was on my bed while he was staring up at me from the floor. He was only one year younger than me, but from up here he looked to be no more than nine. “What do you think?”
Jason hesitated; he blinked in surprise and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Then he sighed, scratched his neck and looked at the floor troubled. I realised that probably no one had ever asked him this question before and I was about to say ‘never mind, doesn’t matter’ - but then he looked me in the eyes with a grave, honest gaze as he whispered: “I don’t like girls.”
I felt my throat knot up. “O-oh,” I said and blindly reached for the paper to have something to fiddle with again, but I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t make myself break eye contact.
"I know it's weird."
“No, that’s… natural,” I stuttered. “A lot of guys don’t like girls when younger, I mean, they’re pretty weird. Romance seems far away but you’re going to grow up and-”
“No,” Jason interrupted me. “I don’t like girls.” His voice was stronger than before and it left me completely quiet. I didn’t know what to say or what to do but for nodding my head. “I don’t like girls,” Jason repeated. Then he looked down. His voice was shaking as he added in a mumble: “I’m a sin.”
“No,” I whispered but then I cleared my throat. I took in a deep breath to get more authority to my voice: “No, Jason, you’re not. You’re not a sin.”
“I want to hear some more music. What have you got?” Jason asked and pressed his ear to the loudspeaker again.
I watched him; his blue, naïve eyes had darkened as he stared at the wall in front of him. There was only one thing I could do. “I have a CD with Elton John,” I said. “I think you’ll like it.”
James Vinter is a Danish writer who has recently moved to Bristol in England to get more in touch with the art scene. He writes flash fiction and short stories which focus on people's relationships, their development and their search for a meaningful place in this world.