We ride our bikes on a mountain path near dusk, our rusted pedals squeaking with the pumping of our hot and tired feet. A—’s thistledown hair dances in front of me, wind-whipped and free. “Yo, check it out!” he yells, nudging his head toward our open, cliffside right. On the horizon hangs a sun like a slice of blood orange at the margin where the slated sky edges into the madness of the sea. In the crispness of high altitude, we can smell the insides of our nose and the salt of the water below us. We can feel the pulse of our heartbeat in our throat.
“You tired, baby boy?” he shouts, mocking me. He swerves left along a curve.
I clench the handlebars of my Shimano Deore, tensing each knuckle. Huffing with my air-burned lungs, I pump with everything my legs can give. Soon my front wheel meets his back, and I tailgate his SRAM X4 for a while, like a hitched caboose, before we both brake on a sudden slope descending through a trench. Here, the path widens just enough for us to cruise down side by side, and we synchronize in a kind of choreography. In this moment, we are champions crowned in a golden aura, racing to the finish line of our goal, our whoops and cries ringing and echoing on the rocks around our bodies. We feel the roller-coaster swoop in our stomach. We feel the breathless thrill of gravity.
“Wait, stop—Jay, stop!”
He turns the handlebars of his SRAM sharply into a pocket of space between two slabs of stone. I skid to a halt, the wheels of my Shimano kicking up explosive plumes of dust. Taking off my helmet, I run my hand through the flattened peaks of my rubber-black hair. Earlier this morning I found the same tube of Bioré mousse that A— had bought for me six years ago, back in high school. It was still in the same place in the medicine cabinet of my parents’ house, only now it was coated in dust. When I squeezed a dime-sized dab on my palm, it smelled a little off, but I smoothed it in my hair nonetheless, sculpting it into a style that my younger self might like. It reminded me of our freshman year, when our faces had burst with ugly, angry acne, and jungly hair had grown out of strange places on our skin. We’d spend many lazy weekday afternoons agonizing by a mirror, wondering what we needed to do for girls to like us enough to want to “do” it. We wanted a prom date, a blow job, but we’d never even kissed a girl, not then. We didn’t know what love was.
Now that both of us have boyfriends, we often laugh about it, about our lives having been something of a joke before we came out.
A— hunkers to a crouch, his back facing me. I can’t help but think about how far apart we’ve grown, how separate I feel from him even today, even as we ride our bikes. The last time I saw him was a year ago, when we were both home for the holidays. He picks up something from the ground and turns around, a little wild-eyed.
“I fucked my boyfriend here last year,” he says, grinning, “but I forgot I’d taken my watch off.” He dangles it in the air, lets it swing from side to side like a dead, limp fish, before flinging it at me. I watch as it arcs in a perfect parabola, the last hint of sunlight glancing off its surface in a blinding dazzle of silver. Catching it by the wristband, I feel the cold leather with my thumb. The hands, frozen at six o’clock, are hard to see behind the dirt-clouded glass, and the date, also frozen, reads a moment last winter, around the New Year. I remember that winter now, how I was still in the snug grip of first love, and I remember the sweet taste of P—’s lips, and how I knew I’d never love another person quite the same way again.
“Wow,” I say. “I always wondered where this watch went.” And suddenly I remember a balmy summer afternoon before high school, when A— and I were thirteen, my limbs still lithe and lanky, his voice still high in treble. He’d parked his bike by the bank of a trickling stream near his house, in the cool shade of the tallest redwoods in the world. We’d splashed in the water from one end to the other, trekking across what we pretended was a tropical world at the meridian. Our black rainboots were slick with thick mud and needles from the trees above our head, and we scratched the mosquito bites on our necks, the “fucking skeeters,” as we called them.
Around six o’clock, the time I promised my mother I’d be home for dinner, we found ourselves suddenly caught in the downpour of a storm. Rain slipped through the cracks of the canopy, crashed at our feet, and the water of the stream rose to our knees and flowed into our boots. We leapt out like two frogs and cursed our wet socks. Stumbling through the twining trunks, we howled for warmth and a roof. When we could almost see the clearing of grass that surrounded the forest, A— grabbed my arm from behind, pulling me to a stop.
“What?” I shouted, out of breath, the roar of a thunderclap booming over my voice.
“My bike!” A— said frantically, pointing behind him. “We forgot my bike!”
And so we turned back, trudging through the wet earth, lost in the chaos of the rain. The fragrance of the petrichor was intense. We ran along the river that the stream had become, so frightened by the flashes of lightning, by how different everything looked at night, that for a while we held hands, running awkwardly in unison. We felt as if we were in a lot of danger, sprinting through one of nature’s violent moods.
“There!” I said, pointing. His bike was floating on the surface of the water, moving fast in our direction. We watched it glide past us and disappear around a bend. Pulling away from each other, we chased after it, daring, for a moment, to go into the water, but it roared around our waist and we crawled out, heaving.
“Just look at it,” A— said quietly, as we knelt on the bank, sloughing water off our clothes. “Just look at it go by.” It slithered farther and farther away from us, shrinking to a speck. We watched in silence, holding our breath and forcing our eyes not to blink, as it sunk into the depths of the water, in slow but inevitable increments, drowning in the churning, brackish rush, until we couldn’t even see its handlebars poking through.