as a little girl she always looked like a little boy so she knew some things.
her name was Phoebe, but she called herself Philip. after a while she gave up altogether trying to make people understand that she was a girl. socially she became a boy.
she cut her hair short and wore jeans and jerseys. she liked baseball caps a lot. learning about sports was fun. her only real problem was her voice.
Phoebe sounded like a girl.
this was a problem for her because all the other boys called her a faggot and made fun of her a little bit. but most of the times she got along with them just fine. once she even kissed a shy little girl on the lips who had a crush on her just to prove she wasn’t gay. it was one of the most disgusting things she’d ever done, but people thought about her differently after that.
one day Phoebe comes to school a little later than usual. she’s missed her bus and her mother gives her a ride. as she’s heading towards class she meets a boy in the hallway.
aren’t you Philip, he asks her?
uh-huh, she says. why?
I don’t know. I’ve seen you around is all.
what’s your name, she asks him.
Leslie, he says.
Leslie? isn’t that a girl’s name?
some people say so, but my mother says that it’s both a boy and girl name and they don’t know what they’re talking about.
he blinks at her in such an innocent way she thinks he’s very attractive. he’s much different than all the boys she hangs out with.
the hallway is narrow and gray. everything’s made out of dirty old metal. it’s a nice day and she’d rather talk with him outside.
aren’t you late for class? she asks.
I’m going to skip my class.
her face goes soft and curious. skip class? do you do that a lot?
I’ve never skipped class before, he says. that’s why I’m going to try it out.
well, last night I read this story where this kid skipped class and had the most wonderful day of his life because of it.
yeah. and my dad says that, and here his voice goes deep and stately, literature is the very germ of all human truths.
Phoebe laughs and covers her mouth. why does he say that?
he says that whenever he doesn’t want me to watch tv. he says to go read a book and then I ask him why.
do you read much?
Phoebe looks at him and squints. I think life is a story already, she says. and it’s better than dusty old books.
well, that’s what I’m going to find out today, he says.
can I come with you?
it’s dangerous you know. we could get caught.
what happens if we get caught?
Leslie shrugs. the boy in the story got in a whole lot of trouble. but it was worth it, he said.
his whole life changed.
well then I think we should skip class too.
well come along then and follow me.
they sneak around the corner and back out the front door. Phoebe feels really happy to be outside.
say, I like you Leslie, she says.
I’ve heard rumors that you were gay, says Leslie. he looks at her sideways.
that’s a lie, says Phoebe. it’s just because of my voice is all.
do you believe me?
I believe you.
there’s something romantic about the schoolyard today. a large oil stained parking lot sits shining beneath dozens of colorful cars in the morning sun.
is it too dangerous to go to the playground? she asks.
I think so. we have to stay away from windows too. that’s what the boy in the story did.
where should we go?
let’s hide between the cars.
the pavement is awful hot to touch and warm to sit on, but Phoebe doesn’t mind.
do you watch baseball, Leslie?
yeah, like on tv.
my dad doesn’t like me to watch too much television.
but I don’t mind so much, because I don’t know if I’d watch baseball anyway.
Phoebe looks at Leslie’s flat face and wide ears. she smiles.
what would you watch?
I don’t know. something with a story, I guess.
you like stories a lot then?
a little I guess. just because I’m always reading them when I can’t watch tv.
you’re a strange boy, Leslie.
I think so.
I guess I am a little bit strange. but I’m not all that different from other kids.
I guess not.
I think maybe someday I’d like to write stories, he says.
yeah. Leslie kicks out his legs like he’s uncomfortable with his skin.
Phoebe decides he looks adorable. what would you write stories about?
I don’t know. people I guess.
just people? doing what?
having adventures. he looks at her and smiles. just like we are now.
what about big adventures?
like with pirates and soldiers and knights and things?
yeah. like tv and the movies.
I don’t know.
I like those types of stories, she says.
Leslie frowns. well, that’s the problem. I mean, so do I. everybody does.
so why not write them?
well, I’ve tried.
you’ve written whole adventure stories?
I’ve never known anyone who wrote a whole story before.
just because I wanted to try.
well, what’s wrong with big adventures?
maybe it’s just because I’ve never had one.
what do you mean?
well, just that I like to read and write about people like me. like the boy who skipped class.
yeah. and then you can go try it out for yourself and learn something from it.
Phoebe’s hand rests on the hot pavement next to Leslie’s. when she shifts her pinky touches his very lightly.
you sure are strange, Leslie.
maybe. why do you keep saying that?
I don’t know.
the sun feels like a warm poem on Phoebe’s face.
I like poetry a lot too, Leslie says after a while.
so do I. I mean-. Phoebe looks up at the blue layer of clouds squinting. I mean I’m not sure I’m supposed to like poems though.
being a boy and all. aren’t they for girls?
Leslie shrugs. are they? I don’t know.
that’s what my friends say.
they don’t say anything for a few minutes. Phoebe’s watching the cars as they pass by the school.
I like stories that are poems, Leslie decides.
stories that are poems?
Phoebe frowns. Shakespeare doesn’t make any sense.
but it sounds nice.
yeah. and I like reading the short lines of verse.
the rhythm of it I guess.
but how can a short story be a poem too? it’s not like a play, you know.
Leslie folds up. I know.
for the first time in a long time Phoebe wishes she weren’t a boy.
but here’s the thing, Leslie says. I know I can write a story poem if I think about it enough.
well, maybe. I hope so.
I don’t know. I don’t read all that much, but maybe I’ll start.
if I ever did figure it out, I’d write a whole book of them. nothing but.
she smiles at him. me too.
my dad says that literature and love are the same thing.
why does he say that?
because I told him about my idea and how it might be impossible.
and that’s what he said?
what do you suppose it means?
I don’t know. maybe when I get older I’ll find out and then I’ll be able to write a story poem.
Phoebe screws up her face. why do you suppose we learn more as we get older?
do you think it’s school?
Leslie looks at her smiling. but we’re skipping school to learn, so it can’t be school.
you think it’s adventures?
that’s what I think.
I bet it would take a big adventure to find out what your dad means.
like pirates and soldiers and knights?
soldiers at least.
I don’t know.
has your dad had a lot of adventures?
he was in a war I think.
I bet that’s where he learned it.
the sunshine is quiet and warm and minutes pass.
Phoebe balls up her fingers and squints. she can feel her heart in her throat. I want to tell you something, she says.
sure, go ahead.
I mean, but it’s a secret, she says.
I don’t know. you’re not like other boys. I like you and trust you for some reason.
well, I won’t tell anyone.
Leslie unfolds again like he’s uncomfortable with his skin. he’s grinding his palm into the hot pavement.
listen, he says. I’ll tell you a secret first and that way we can both feel safe.
they don’t say anything for a while.
well, it’s just that, says Leslie. you remember how I said people said you were gay?
well, he squints. have you ever been curious?
but I told you I’m not.
well a year ago, says Leslie, I read a lot of Walt Whitman and I heard he was gay.
he’s a poet. and he’s a real good one.
yeah, but, he pauses and looks at Phoebe. I mean you have to swear not to tell anyone.
Leslie looks at the ground. it’s just that I’ve been curious about kissing another boy ever since I read that Whitman.
have you done it?
no, he says.
they don’t say anything.
Phoebe smiles nervous through the sun and the shining metal colors of cars.
I’d give it a try, she suggests softly.
just this once and all, I mean.
they turn face to face and pause in the awkward moment.
Phoebe doesn’t know who moves first. she feels his lips against hers.
afterwards they don’t say anything for about a minute.
what did you think? he asks.
I don’t know. what did you think?
I don’t know.
Phoebe feels even sicker than she did when she kissed the shy little girl. she’s dizzy and the sun and the pavement are very hot now.
she wants to die for dread of his next question.
(Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)