i - Uncharted


By Aaron H. Aceves

i. queer people don’t get happy endings

i blame his forearms.

thick. sun-kissed. covered with hair. i used to imagine them straining as he caught hold of my wrist. the intent behind his grip was of no consequence. he could have meant to hurt me or draw me in close. either way, i was his.

queer people don’t get happy endings.

in movies, in books, it’s always the same. he falls in love with his childhood friend who will never see him that way. she’s forced to marry a man who treats her like his father treated his mother. he gets beat. she gets controlled. she runs away. he loses his soul.

but maybe, i think, this will be different. he thinks i’m funny. i think he’s kind. if he were evil i’d see it in his eyes. it’d be the look of dorian gray: a hate he wouldn’t be able to hide.

does he know? does he suspect? that at night i lie down and dream of his scent? i don’t know. it’s a possibility. no one’s ever raised the question, but i don’t know why. all of my actions seem incredibly transparent to me.

sometimes i stop around the corner from his geometry class and wait for him. i stand there, glued to the floor, until he barrels into me. he apologizes, and i do too. he says he needs to watch where he’s going, and maybe he’s right. i wouldn’t get away with it if he weren’t always walking around with his nose in a book.

queer people don’t get happy endings.


ii. tired

today i fell asleep in algebra 2. i woke up when the bell rang, wiped my mouth, and left.

mateo says i look like i have cancer. i tell him that i might. he says not to joke like that, and i tell him that he’s the one who started it. he shrugs it off, and i smile because that means he’d care if i died.

i’m incredibly grateful to God or satan or whoever’s in charge of my romantic attractions for making sure i didn’t fall in love with my best friend. mateo is handsome in a classic way and i envy his browner skin and his athletic body, but for him, i’ve never felt anything other than philadelphia. i love him with all my heart, but he doesn’t keep me up at night thinking about whether or not it was strange that i asked him if he got a haircut and he said yes, and i said, “nice!”

“maybe you should go to the doctor,” mateo says.

my neck jerks as i realize that my eyes were closed and my head was making it’s way down to my shoulder.

“i’m fine,” i say.

mateo says nothing, but i know he’s still concerned. i abort a second attempt at reassuring him when marisol from third period walks past us and mateo tracks every bounce of her body with his eyes.

i hate him for that. it’s one small action that he’ll claim he can’t control, but it makes him like all the others. it doesn’t help that when i look at someone like that, it has to be quick and it has to be discreet.

i think about all of my clandestine glimpses of fingers scratching beard when he’s thinking, of a happy trail that shows only when he’s stretching, and yes, of course, of forearms when the day’s almost over and he rolls up his sleeves.


iii. it happens all the time

my family will be watching tv, and my mom will say this actor’s cute and that actor’s hot. my sister will agree with the first, and they’ll argue about the latter. the debate will get playfully heated, and i’ll open my mouth to be the tiebreaker. then i’ll realize what i’m about to do, so i’ll roll my eyes and say i’m going to the bathroom.

i’ll start pissing at a urinal when a dude comes up next to me and does the same. now it’s time to play the role of “just another guy.” the complicated part isn’t controlling myself; it’s not hard to look away. it’s pretending the alternative has never crossed my mind.

two men in the park will kiss and laugh and touch and kiss, and i’ll see whoever i’m with crinkle their nose and sneer at them. i try not to look too upset, like their disdain isn’t also meant for me.

i’m always undercover. i’m always trying to hide. i’ve come so close to being discovered. it happens all the time.


iv. technology

i wish i had his number. not to call him, obviously, but to text him. i’m great at texting… when i want to be. i need time to think before i reply. i need time to come up with a way to articulate genuine interest and subtle desire without it being perceived as desperation. but i am desperate. i’m desperate for him, for the wink behind his glasses, for the swaying gait of his long, lanky body, for the brightness of his smile.

i’ve looked him up on social media of course. that’s always the first move. he’s not on any of the “hip” sites, just the boring one. his account’s fairly private, so every time i look at it, all i can see are a profile pic and a post from a couple years ago about a soccer team.

i always focus on the woman in his picture. she’s pretty and white, like him. are they siblings? i wonder. possibly, but i can never tell. are they best friends? their embrace indicates some level of intimacy but not necessarily in the romantic sense.

i wonder if i should add him. would that be strange? part of me says, no, he’d love to think more of you. the other part says, yes, he’d see the request and assign the label you’re trying so hard to avoid: desperate. i err on the side of caution because i know i wouldn’t survive the wait. the wait for him to answer, the wait for him to accept.


v. girls

it’s not that i don’t like them. they smell good and they’re pretty and they’re interesting. it’s just that they’ve never liked me back. i think it’s because i’m too passive. i try so hard not to be my father, that i overcorrect and blend in with the background.

or maybe they know. maybe they can sense that my mind is occupied by someone else, by a man. not a boy. a man.

i like marisol. she has the most beautiful black eyes and a heart-melting smile and this gorgeous, curly hair that makes me want to bury my face in it. and sometimes i entertain the thought of being with her, of holding her hand at school, of putting my arm around her waist at the movies, of kissing her mouth in the park…

but what happens when we’re alone? when i’m on the couch with her in the living room that my father so cordially abandoned? will she wonder why i keep one hand on the remote and the other limply on her shoulder? will she blame herself? will she figure it out?


vi. music

it shouldn’t come as a shock that i have a playlist dedicated to him, a set of songs that i listen to late at night when everyone else in the house is asleep. songs that express my emotions with words and chords that are not my own but might as well be. the list expands as my feelings toward him grow and become more complex.

i remember very clearly that one morning when i asked him a question and he replied with uncharacteristic barbarity and i started talking really quickly before running away. it wasn’t until that evening when i came upon a fast, screechy rock track that i realized what i was feeling: anger.

the next day he found me at lunch and i gave him an equal dose of brusqueness, making it fairly clear that his company wasn’t wanted at the moment. i turned back to my friends and watched out of the corner of my eye as he pivoted where he stood, wondering if i actually wanted him to leave. i felt a profound sense of satisfaction.

i would of course go back to longing for him the second he walked away, but in that moment, i was the composer of our soundtrack.


vii. wise words

i just really want to talk to someone. someone who “gets it.” someone who’s as ashamed as me. someone who lives in their head and only rarely comes out.

the only advice i’ve ever gotten from my father is, “if you’re going to drink during the day, never nap. and eat! the key is to keep eating.”

my mom tells me that she’ll love me no matter what, but i don’t want to test her to see if that’s true.

my sister tells me to be myself, to have confidence. she says my time will definitely come in college, but i could accomplish everything i want to accomplish now if i only believed it.

i guess things could be worse. i could be one of those kids who aren’t able to hide it. the ones who get caught with a men’s fitness magazine under their bed and get kicked out of the house. the ones who get caught with another boy in the locker room and have to transfer schools…

my mom’s washing dishes in the kitchen.

“what’s up with you?” she asks as i stand there, hypnotized by the iridescent bubbles.

“nothing,” i reply, slowly turning to look at her.

she makes a face like she knows i’m lying and goes back to scrubbing. i rest my head on her shoulder (which is difficult because i’m so much taller than her now) and feel her lean hers on mine. is this something i would lose? these small moments that make me feel safe? even if she weren’t lying, if she would indeed always love me, it would be different. it wouldn’t be as easy. and right now everything is hard enough as it is.


viii. summer

he didn’t mean to do it. i know he wasn’t trying to make me suffer. but i did. for three months i agonized over him.

i tried not to think about it when i was with mateo, but i couldn’t stop my mind from wandering, replaying the words that made my heart race and my palms sweat. mateo might have asked me what was going on if he weren’t also focused on someone else. he and marisol had started dating at the end of the school year.

i expected tmi. i expected play-by-plays. but he was surprisingly reticent about her, and that made me anxious. trust me, i didn’t want to hear about his exploits. but isn’t that what dudes do? don’t they tell their bros about the things they do with girls? to form that sacred, masculine bond? it made me wonder if he knew.

my first inklings were in middle school when my mom would send me to the men’s underwear section to pick out a package of boxers or briefs. the models on the front were always so… perfect. they were handsome and white (but tanned), confident, with sculpted, hairless bodies. at first, i don’t think there was even an attraction; it was just awe. but eventually, the amount of time i spent staring at their prominent pecs and defined abdominals became noticeable, and my mom would have to tell me, “go grab some underwear, but be quick about it. they’re just chonies.”

the embarrassment and shame i felt following her words enabled me to put those  thoughts on simmer in the back of my mind for a while. by freshman year, i had the utmost faith that my peculiar penchants were anomalies associated with puberty. but when i entered my first-period classroom on the first day of high school, all of my assured hope was stripped away. the pot had boiled over.

i had never seen anyone like him. i mean, i had, on movie posters and tv shows i had, but i had never experienced the feeling taking up residence in my chest in that moment. it was like seeing your food coming at a restaurant but multiplied by infinity. i knew he was for me.

i sat down and tried not to stare, but i was unsuccessful. i was greedy for his body. i needed to know every inch. eventually, i got reckless and he noticed. he caught me mid-stare, and he… smiled. i thought it so strange. i expected anger or disgust. instead, i got a toothy grin that touched his eyes, and i was left breathless for a moment.

then he stood up and cleared his throat.

“Hello, ladies and gentlemen. my name is Mr. Davidson.”

the rest of that class is a blur of postulates and theorems and hypotenuses. i remember it like a fevered dream. i couldn’t believe he was real. when the bell rang, i felt stuck to my chair.

as everyone else left, i finally got up and walked over to him. looking back, it seems brave, but in that moment, it was subconscious, inevitable.

“Orlando,” he said, smiling. “What can I do for you?”

normally, i would have cracked under pressure. i would’ve stuttered and spit and run away. but i didn’t.

“just wanted to welcome you to the school.”

he laughed, and it gave me goosebumps. “I should be welcoming you.”

“we can welcome each other.”

he smiled, and i did too.

every day for the rest of the year, i came to his class to talk to him. i only allowed myself one visit a day, and i alternated between using my mid-morning break and the second half of my lunch. i knew i had to impose limits because otherwise i’d never leave. i loved hearing him talk. his voice was the perfect pitch between deep and high, and he used words that other adults would never use with me because i was quiet and brown and they thought i wouldn’t know them.

i learned so much about him, and all of his stories painted a beautiful picture. more than anything, he wanted to teach english. his heart belonged to long-dead wordsmiths and bleeding-heart dreamers. he said he was teaching math because it was the only open position when he applied. but one day he’d like to be—

“—lecturing on Shakespeare, and Poe, and Dickinson, and Morrison, and Márquez, and… am I boring you?”

i shook my head fervently. i couldn’t have been more entranced.

“Are you positive? Because I’m listening to myself talk, and even I want me to shut up.”

i laughed. “i’m positive.”

he shook his head. “No, no, no. You’re just too gracious to say anything. Tell me about yourself. Tell me what no one else knows.”

school starts tomorrow. junior year, the penultimate chapter of my high school story. mateo’s coming over later, and i’m dreading it. he’s spent this entire summer being awkward and closed off. i feel like he’s a different person.

while i wait for him, i watch baseball with my dad. it’s not exactly unpleasant. it’s nowhere near as boring as golf, and ever since he took me to a game a month ago, i’ve felt invested in it.

i get up when i hear the doorbell. i let mateo in, and we head to my bedroom. my dad tips his bottle of beer at him in greeting.

“hello, sir,” mateo says.

we enter my room, and mateo takes a seat on the edge of my bed. he interlaces his fingers with a serious look on his face.

“is everything okay?” i ask.

he scrunches his right eye and scratches the top of his head. “this might be awkward.”


“i don’t know if i’m totally off,” he says. “this might all be in my head. but i have to ask…”

oh no.

“for like two years now i feel like i’ve been seeing signs with you. and i think maybe i’ve been trying to ignore them. probably because i didn’t want to believe it…”

i feel like i’m going to vomit.

“but just be honest with me, okay?” he looks me in the eyes, and i have no choice but to nod. i will. i’ll tell him everything.

he takes a deep breath. “i’m just gonna come out with it. do you, um, like… marisol?”

“huh?” i can’t stop myself from saying it out loud.

“do you like marisol?” he repeats.

i almost laugh. “uh… no, i don’t.”

he looks a little relieved. “are you sure?”

i smile. “yes. i’m sure.”

“oh good!” the boy in front of me is once again the mateo i know and love. “you have no idea how hard it’s been to keep this bottled up for so long.”

i put my hand on his shoulder. “i can only imagine.”

mateo and i spend a few hours catching up before he has to leave. we hug on the porch, and i wave him off, feeling like one of two very heavy weights has been lifted off my shoulders.

i sink down to the steps as i watch him drive away. i rest my elbows on my knees and let the warm night breeze waft over me. the neighborhood is quiet and peaceful, almost like the houses are part of a studio set rather than actual homes.

i try not to let it happen. i try to think of anything else. but i can’t. you don’t stop chewing gum when it still tastes sweet.

it was the last day of school. i was almost out the front entrance when i heard my name behind me. i turned, and it was him.

“mr. davidson.”

“I’m glad I caught you.”

“what’s up?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to tell you to have a spectacular summer.”

“oh. thanks. you too.”

“Thank you.” he inched closer, and i forgot to breathe. “You know, I really missed you this year.”

i swallowed hard. what happened to all of my spit?

“I hope I see more of you next year. I always look forward to our little powwows.”

i stopped myself from asking him to pinch me and instead said, “yeah?”

he nodded. “Of course. i was just telling my fiancée the other day about what you said about nick being a little enamored with gatsby, and she thought—”

stop. enough. i went too far. i was supposed to stop the memory after “of course.” i’ve swallowed the gum and, according to my mom, it’ll be seven years before it’s gone.

“what the hell’s up with you?”

i flinch away from my father. he takes a long swig of his corona.

“uh… nothing,” i reply.

he stares at me, not believing it for a second, says, “okay,” and goes back inside the house.

i sigh and get up. i should get to bed. tomorrow has to start sometime.


ix. new kid

avoid. avoid. avoid.

all i have to do is keep a lookout for the palest face in the school, which shouldn’t be hard because it’s always a head higher than everyone else’s in the hallway, and it’s the only one with a full-grown beard on it.

at lunch, mateo and marisol don’t notice that i’m using them as human shields. they’re too focused on each other. marisol laughs at something mateo whispered in her ear and slaps him playfully on the shoulder. then something catches her eye behind him.

“ooh, is that him?” she asks.

mateo and i both turn to look at a tall, lithe black kid exiting the lunch line.

“yup,” mateo says.

“he’s cute,” marisol says.

mateo glares at her.

“what? he is. don’t you think so, ‘lando?” i force myself to keep eating despite my stomach’s response to her suggestive question. “don’t tell me i’m alone in thinking it.”

“you’re not,” i say with my mouth full. “he’s perfect boyfriend material.”

marisol laughs, and mateo cracks a smile. as i swallow my food, i notice the new kid staring at me.

“i’ve gotta go,” i say. i offer no explanation as i pick up my lunch tray and practically bolt out of the cafeteria.

word going ‘round is that he’s “weird.” he always volunteers to read in english class. he’s friendly and charismatic but sits alone at lunch. his favorite color’s purple (at least that’s what his backpack and his shoes and his hoodie say). he transferred from a school downtown under mysterious circumstances.

why can’t i get his face out of my head?


x. queer people don’t get happy endings pt. 2

i know before they hand it to me that the water bottle isn’t filled with water. they had been laughing and passing it around the class all throughout mr. piñeda’s lecture on harriet tubman. as my fingers wrap around the plastic, i’m still unsure if i’m going to take a sip. on one hand, a little taste would absolve me of my “goody-goody” image. on the other, i would be giving in to the dictates of people i don’t care about at all.

in the end, i do what i do best: i pretend to go along with everyone else, but really i’m on my own. the alcohol hits my teeth and goes straight back into the bottle before i pass it to someone else.

after school, marisol and i walk to her apartment to study for our english quiz tomorrow. today’s the world series, and i know my house will be too noisy for me to get any work done. but once we’re there, i realize silence can be just as distracting.

the two of us sit on the pleather couch together, reading. at least, that’s how it looks. my eyes scan the pages of my book, but my mind is blank. marisol is smiling, looking down at her own book, and i can feel this energy emanating from her, a buzzing in the air between us. my thighs burn in trepid anticipation, like my nerves have been flayed beneath my skin. i can’t understand why, but the image of her snaking her hand up my shorts repeats in my head, a premonition that feels so certain i almost grab her hand to end all the build-up.

that’s when the doorbell rings.

“i’ll get it!” marisol says, catapulting off the couch.

i watch her walk out of the room and swallow. it’s not like i’d be able to get up right now if i tried.

i hear her open the door and let out a high-pitched greeting. a voice i don’t recognize mumbles something back. it’s low but young. i wonder if she ordered pizza.

when marisol walks back into the room, i’m pretending to read again, but i look up when i realize she has company. instead of a delivery man, it’s the new kid standing behind her, his thumbs pushing up both straps of his backpack.

“‘lando, this is kevin. kevin, ‘lando.”

the new kid tips his chin at me, and i do it back, trying my best to copy his nonchalance.

“i’m gonna go get some snacks,” marisol says. she’s like a hummingbird doing it’s best not to flap its wings.

“cool,” kevin says.

when she’s gone, he takes a seat on the couch, as far away from me as possible.

i take a deep breath and try to focus on my book.

it’s slow going. the amount of brainpower i spend on pushing him out of my mind means it takes me about five minutes to read one page. it doesn’t help that he keeps glancing at me from time to time. i will myself to believe that it’s inconsequential or accidental, but deep down i know that’s not true.

at one point, i take a long, unnecessary stretch and catch a sly grin pulling up one corner of his mouth. after that, we just stare at our books for a while in silence. i’m only pretending to read while i watch him out of the corner of my eye. either he’s actually reading or just doing a much better job of pretending than i am. the still-present grin on his face makes me think the latter.

it’s a smile that says he knows. it’s a smile that makes me feel like he can see the future.

he puts his book down, and i tear my eyes away from the smooth, dark skin covering his sculpted cheekbones. as i stare at my book again, i try to slow my breathing. even though i’m no longer studying him in my peripherals, i can tell that he’s looking at me. there’s nothing secret about it. he’s waiting for me to meet his eyes.

this has to look natural.

i lick my finger, turn the page of my book, make a fake mental note of where i left off, close it, put it down slowly, and turn to him.

the first thing i notice is his long, pink tongue pressing against the bottom of his two buck teeth. i raise my eyebrows at him, an expression calmly asking, “what can i do for you?” i hope.

he smiles and clears his throat. “What page are you on?”

i know he doesn’t care.

and he knows that i know he doesn’t care.

i also know that queer people don’t get happy endings. but this, this is a beginning.

About the Author

Aaron H. Aceves (he/him) is a bisexual, Mexican-American writer born and raised in East L.A. He graduated from Harvard College and received his MFA from Columbia University. His fiction has appeared in Epiphany, The Florida Review, and Passages North, among other places. He currently lives in Texas, where he serves as an Early Career Provost Fellow at UT Austin, and his debut young adult novel, THIS IS WHY THEY HATE US, was released by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. It received multiple starred reviews and was named a Best Young Adult Book of 2022 by Kirkus Reviews.

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