Doug's stomach flip-flopped. The official last day of summer before he started junior year was over. Now all he had left to do was somehow manage to get to sleep.
Well, there was one more thing.
He reached out, running a hand over the buttons on his backpack. Some of them could stay-- like his dorky yellow peace sign, and the second one he had gotten that said Breathe Peace with a pair of lungs on either side of the sign, because why the hell not? His fingers even passed easily over a white square with the words in purple: I don't Know You Well Enough To Dumb Myself Down For You, his Stop Whining, Start Campaigning button, and the requisite I Heart NYs, of course. But his fingers hesitated over each of his rainbow buttons. He touched each gently, holding back a wince as his fingers moved over the pins at the back while he weighed the pros and cons of unhooking the clasps.
He remembered the blistering hot day that he'd bought them both, at Pride in the city with his queer youth group. He had known that attending would likely land him back in the hospital for weeks and potentially ruin the rest of his summer. But, back from a week at summer camp, he was feeling cocky, and normal.
He’d forced himself to ignore the sweat pouring off in little streams and just kept knocking back Gatorade like a cheap drunk. Five minutes later he would be dry heaving in the back of the group leader's car, calling home to warn his father that he'd overdone it and asking him to pack his hospital bag. Again. But for just those few minutes, Doug was determined to stay upright and "with it" long enough to buy these two rainbow buttons--one in a triangle shape that he just couldn't stop running his fingers over. There won't be any hiding now, he thought. Everyone will know what it means. A giddy rush kept him afloat long enough to exchange two dollar bills for the buttons and give their group counselor, Dan, the signal they'd worked out ahead of time that he needed to head back to the car.
The other kids had wanted to ride the subway like "real" city-dwellers, and Doug had thought bitterly about how even in a group for kids like him, there weren't really any kids like him at all. But Dan had been firm, and arranged renting of the van for the trip, and going with Dan's group was the only way that Doug could get himself to Pride and back in one piece--so he'd gone, keeping to himself like always.
The excursion to NYC Pride cost him the two dollars, an ironic amount of dignity, and a whole four weeks out of his summer on either end of the July after eighth grade, but it had been more than worth it. He still got a thrill when his clubbed fingers brushed over that beautiful triangle, proof that he didn't hide in closets, and that he was more than just some sick kid. Proof of a personality inside his too-small, overly-vulnerable frame. He had just started to let that personality out where people could see it that year, when he'd gotten the buttons, and now his stomach was flip-flopping as he considered putting them away. Would he look smaller, more nerdy without them? Would people's eyes skip over the rest of his buttons and come to rest on the tiny shoulders and arms holding up his backpack? Would they stare at his fingers or focus in on his cough that much more?
He knew he looked stunted even for a middle school kid, much less a high school junior. Being small was something every kid with CF had to deal with. Up until now, Doug had dealt with it by wearing his personality on his sleeve--or his backpack, as it were. If he took away everything that marked him as queer, he'd just be one more tiny kid with too many hospital stories.
But it’s a new school. The last thing he needed was to come home from the first day already at the top of some kid's shit list because mom and dad taught him that beating up gay kids could keep the evil urges from spreading. Stop the germs, Doug thought, and laughed to himself.
Don’t be a chicken. You can’t be a chicken. The internal scolding continued. Yet he found his misshapen fingers unclasping the buttons.
He'd test the waters first. As soon as he'd made one friend, he'd put the buttons back. That'd keep him motivated to try that much harder. A bribe.
His stomach flipped again. He didn't like it. But he couldn't make himself put the rainbow buttons back on his backpack. Not for the first day.
Frustration surged through him. He picked up the two treasured buttons and flinged them in the direction of his closet door.
Calm down. You could make a friend tomorrow. You could put them back on tomorrow night. But you won't if you can't find them.
He knew it was unlikely to be that easy. Very unlikely. He was a sick kid. He'd always be a sick kid. It made people nervous. He could make them forget about it for a little while by playing the clown, but that just made them laugh. Making people laugh and having genuine friends were two completely different things. He knew that too well.
And what does a clown do when he's too nervous to make jokes? He'd have to find that out in the morning.
E. Lewy is a former editor for Breath and Shadow. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee for her story "Words." Her writing has appeared in the anthology My Body of Knowledge and in New Mobility and Box Magazine. She is currently writing a screenplay on faith, disability, family and sexuality.