I was on a schol camp. We’d just finished hiking and were now spread out in a dim clearing. All one could hear was the murmur of boys and the crunch of gum leaves under foot. I was sitting on a dead tree, sandwiched between three or four others talking excitedly. Usually I’d be the one to crack a ‘witty’ gag. But I was silent; across the clearing someone was laughing, and I looked over.

I’d been walking with him for most of the camp, and now he was talking with two or three others. His chin scrunched into his neck, he was giggling. I could hear it, the unashamedly boyish laughter pouring out of him. I watched him closely: how his eyes welled with tears; how his skin pinched at the corners of his eyes as his smile grew wider; how his skin seemed almost to beam. His hands were snug in his pockets, a beanie pulled down over his head. A strand or two of hair fell out of the beanie and across his eyes, and his nose was tinged red from the cold.

He was a friend, but I wanted inexplicably to be closer with him. I had no idea why he was so – what was the word? – so interesting to me. I was normal, wasn’t I? Not one of those sissies we joked about. But why did he feel different to other friends? Why was he so interesting? Amid my worries, someone nudged me, and out of habit I looked down. And once I stopped thinking (for a moment) about him, I threw myself back into the chatter around me. We talked about how much we loved footy and cricket and the boys and how hot girls were, am I right? And the laughter I forced out of myself, a refrain of my masculinity, was almost greater than his.

I don’t like him, I thought, I’ve never liked boys before – I couldn’t now, could I? No, no, that couldn’t possibly be the case because I was your typical Aussie lad and I talked about cricket and footy and girls and I’d never liked boys before and I didn’t want to be this because I just wanted to be normal and I wanted to like girls and this boy certainly was not a girl – did this mean I was one of them, one of those faggots?

I felt the fiery spite of that word as if someone had spat it in my face. I almost felt on the verge of tears, but I stopped myself. That was what sissies did, wasn’t it. What those faggots did. Crying over another boy. I stared at the dead gum leaves on the ground, listening to the sounds of the boys around me. I’d always aspired to be as tough and masculine as my mates, but now they felt strange and grotesque and foreign, almost as foreign as my feelings for this boy.
While my head was down, he’d walked over to me from the other side of the clearing.

My breath grew short. He sat down on the log beside me, rubbing his hands together vigorously, his legs huddled close into him. I tried to spread myself out, to be a commanding presence, but because there were so many people on one log, I was pressed against him. I felt uncomfortable with how close we were and, at the same time, excited. For a while we chewed the fat, and even though I was glad I could momentarily push my feelings aside, I felt their presence soon after. Every emotion he showed I reciprocated.

Whenever I told a joke at which he laughed I couldn’t help feeling a soaring happiness; whenever he seemed sad, or whenever he wasn’t smiling and laughing, I not only felt dejected but considered it my duty to make him happy again. Despite the tingle of the nerves I felt when he sat beside me, his presence was soothing. I was vulnerable with him, almost controlled by him, and though that was weak and feminine and what those fags did, I still wanted to sit with him and talk with him and laugh with him more. Something in him sung to me.

Some others started to talk to him. He was laughing with them, too, and it bothered me. I’m the one who makes him laugh, I thought. They motioned to him to follow them. He looked to me, then to them, and then back to me. He reached out his hand and placed it on the log right beside my leg. He moved closer to me. His eyes growing wider and fixing on mine, he apologised to me. His eyes were still on mine.

I told him that it was okay, and even when he leant in further and raised his eyebrows sadly, searching for reassurance, I repeated that it was okay. He got up slowly and walked with the others, his eyes flicking back to me every so often. He rounded the bend and disappeared behind the gum trees, his giggle not to be heard. My body seemed to grow limp, to sag disappointment.

Though deflated, the feeling he’d spurred in me lingered. The nerves that had overcome me, the excitement with how close he’d been. Once again tears began to form in my eyes. And for a moment, I felt okay with who I was.