We five were an unusual gang—“the famous five”—as we liked to call ourselves. It was comprised of me, my best friend Mark, his brother Ryan, and Ryan’s friends, Shane and Rahul. Ryan and his friends were fourteen-years-old, two years older than Mark and me. We all went to one of the top Catholic schools in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. We used to meet every morning before classes, some days at recess, and after school, whenever possible.
One evening, we were hanging around getting ready for the athletics meet the next day, putting up flags and arranging the ground for the event. “Bam!” I felt a massive thud against my head, and I was knocked to the ground.
Amid the “oohs” and “aahs”, and some distant laughter that followed, I saw Ryan running towards me with an apologetic look on his face. I sat on the ground, while he kneeled beside me, holding my face and massaging my head where the football had hit.
“Sorry, man! I’m so sorry!” he blurted out.
I was upset, but I couldn’t really be mad at him, because he was Mark’s brother. I tried not to show any emotion and looked down, so he wouldn’t be able to see how flustered and embarrassed I was.
Then, something happened that I didn’t understand. He held my chin, raised my face level with his eyes, and looked directly into mine. “Are you…?”
He didn’t complete the sentence. He merely continued looking into my eyes, like no one had ever done before.
“What was he asking me?” I wondered. “Was I… what”?
I could feel his eyes penetrate deep, so deep, where I did not want him to go. I saw tiny sweat drops parked on his upper lip, like water droplets on a piano. His thick eyebrows so close to me were like shiny feathers. For a millisecond, I didn’t know who I was or where I was.
“Sorry again, man!” He continued, apologetically.
He got up without any further explanation, took the ball from the ground, and started walking towards the other end of the field with me, all the while his little finger gently touching mine.
For the next three weeks, we avoided each other, but I started observing him furtively, every day, every moment that I could.
I was afraid he had read my mind and had figured out my darkest secret. I had nothing with which to shield myself from him. Yet, I needed to know him and see him, too. I admit it: he was the cutest of the bunch, with a bright beautiful smile. He had a charm other football players in the school did not have.
Behind his tough shirt-tightening arms, he had a cotton-like personality, soft and free. His loud laughter was infectious. His curls, tangled and wavy, reminded me of someone in an old painting from our history class. He used to constantly comb them back. After he got a hair-cut, I was mad at him and counted the days until his curls grew back and surrounded his face, just like they did the day he first stared into my eyes.
Ryan did not have many friends, only a few like Shane and Rahul. You could see he would have willingly given his life for them, anytime. Above all, what I remember most about him is the sparkle in his eyes, mesmerizing, but difficult to read. His eyes were a weapon and, from the day he stared into mine, I knew I was in trouble. I had entered a field of land mines.
Finally, one day right after school, he broke the silence. He came to the library where I was studying. He must have known it was my customary hideout.
“What I’d wanted to say was I want to meet you,” he began.
“We meet almost every day, so?” I responded, ignoring the fact that for the last three weeks we had mostly avoided each other. I could already feel my throat going dry.
“I mean I want to meet you, just you and me. Please don’t tell Mark. I’m going to leave now. If you want to meet me, just come to the chapel balcony at recess next Wednesday,” he said, and he rushed towards the exit.
My heart was racing. Born to a Catholic mum and a Buddhist dad, I had a cloud of guilt hanging over me because of what I was thinking, but all I knew was that I wanted to see him alone. When all of my classmates were talking about chicks and arranging hot dates with them, I just wanted to be with another guy—with Ryan in particular.
The chapel was a white-washed wooden structure, located on the school premises, where mass was held every day, both in the morning and at noon. The balcony was rarely used and could give us the privacy that we couldn’t find elsewhere since a majority of students never attended mass and the few who did were too devout to pay attention to anything happening in the balcony at the far end. On Wednesday afternoon, I snuck up to the balcony and waited. I already was sweaty and could feel my white shirt pasted to my back, like thin foil paper. I could hear the entrance hymn. The mass had begun. It felt like I was waiting for an eternity. Then, I heard his footsteps getting closer. I looked down from the balcony to be certain, and, yes, it was him. I saw his curls jumping up and down with each step he took.
“How are you?” he whispered. With a big bright smile, he took my palm into his, looking down, nervously.
I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. He smiled back while combing back the sweaty curls sitting on his forehead with his hand.
I could see his eagle eyes staring at my lips, while one of his hands held my neck. In that tiny moment, I lost my guilt and fear and let myself go. He held me tight and kissed me. When I kissed him back, I tasted saltiness on Ryan’s lips. Our tongues tangled with unspoken words. His curls brushed my face and his stubble pricked me unevenly reminding me of walking in the woods after a heavy rain. The more into the wild I went, the happier I was.
I became a traveler looking for direction. Like a Good Samaritan, he offered to guide me. His eyes took me to a place I did not know existed. I felt his fingers walk slowly from my lips to my hips. His grip became so intense, at one moment I thought I was going to break into pieces.
In that moment, the nerves in my arms and the vivid colors in my head merged. My breathing accelerated until my emotions crested. I felt drugged, heavily enough to hypnotize me, yet light enough to awaken all my senses.
We collapsed back onto the floor, our two untucked white shirts lying carelessly on the ground, like ghosts haunting me for what I had just done.
He looked at me, touching the waistband of my Calvin Klein underwear softly as if it was a petal. He took my shirt and put it on me, fastening its buttons, as if he was whispering a sacred prayer.
“I always knew it,” he said.
“You know what? That’s part of what makes you beautiful. Not knowing yourself yet.”
I looked up at the painting on the ceiling of the chapel, two angels battling Satan, crushing him to the earth. Beautiful and deadly, I did not know which side I belonged on anymore.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The mass was still going on below us.
For two years, Ryan and I explored our feelings for each other, trying to figure out how strong our wings were. We continued meeting secretly in the chapel, spending time together after school and sharing our favorite books. We talked about football, films, and our favorite boy band.
During semester break in 1999, his father was awarded a scholarship in Australia and he had to leave the country with his family. I remember looking at the world atlas, searching the distance from Sri Lanka to Australia on many dark lonely nights thereafter.
I never saw or heard from Ryan again, but this chapter taught me who I was and gave me the courage to spread my wings. I will always cherish my memories of that time, but not without some feeling of the pain of loss, nor the lingering guilt I felt every time I stared at the angels and Satan struggling on that chapel ceiling. They had watched everything Ryan and I had done.