It’s the End of the World As We Know It
By Ryan Smythe
Let me tell you about the first time I knew I loved a boy.
It was a sunny day, but the playground was still wet with dew. The metal of the merry-go-round still cool to the touch. We set out in our flip-flops to find mushrooms.
I remember that he was wearing a red-striped shirt.
There were lots of different types of boys in our class. I was just another one of them. I don’t think anyone suspected I was gay, any more than anyone suspected anyone else was gay. “Gay” was an insult you hurled that meant nothing specific. A song could be gay, or a movie. I had probably been called gay once or twice, but it didn’t mean anything to me. That came later.
This boy we’ll call Jason. He did this thing when he got excited, where he would wave his arms back and forth the way a three-year-old might do, but we were seven, and he still did it. Come to think of it, he probably got called gay more than I did. But there was something about him that I recognized. He was tender and thoughtful, and he liked to sing under his breath. That morning he was singing It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I sang along.
It was his idea to go hunt for mushrooms. He had seen them at the park the day before, and told me about them. We had agreed to meet there this morning–a Saturday. I wasn’t supposed to go as far as the park by myself. I was only allowed to go down the street. Even then I probably sensed that Jason’s family was not keeping the best eye on him. But that only increased my sense of tenderness towards him.
We sang the song together: That’s great it starts with an earthquake/Birds and snakes and aeroplanes. Lenny Bruce is not afraid. What did it mean? He said he thought Lenny Bruce was a superhero, and was going to save the world. I thought it probably meant that a meteor was hitting the earth. Either way, we didn’t care. The words were so delicious for ten-year-olds to repeat over and over again.
When we came to the patch where the mushrooms were, I had a sudden foreboding. He did that thing, waving his arms back and forth, his fists throbbing like radio antennae. Someone had told me that certain types of mushrooms could be poisonous. I didn’t know what kind. I didn’t know what they looked like. I only knew that death could jump on you like that.
As he reached down to touch them, I had a vision of him in his coffin, and all the other kids standing around at the funeral parlor, crying. I was crying the hardest.
I jumped in, pushing him down into the grass.
He looked up at me in a kind of hurt terror, as if I were a bully who might punch him. His look of shocked disbelief wrenched my heart. I knew that he was in for a hard road. Harder than mine, anyway.
I don’t even know if he was gay. I sometimes think he might have had a touch of autism. We walked home together, but we were silent. There was no rekindling our friendship after that, and I didn’t know how to tell him why I had jumped on him, why I cared so much for him, without revealing too much about myself.
After that we drifted apart. Eventually I moved and ended up at a different school, but I hate to admit that before that I mostly avoided him.
There are lots of people I think about from time to time, wishing that I could go back and explain myself. Any time I hear this song I think about him singing those words over and over again, in an effort to understand, to crack their code. I think I love him still, and I remember him with a mixture of regret and gratitude: regret that I couldn’t be strong enough to explain myself to him, and gratitude that he helped me discover who I was.