We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning—sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.
Before I met Aristotle and Dante, there was Two Boys Kissing. Back in 2013, I wanted to talk about this book, but life got in the way. The review lost when my laptop crashed. Yet something told me I needed to write this, no matter what. And here we are.
David Levithan has always evoked all sorts of feelings in me, but nothing like the emotions he brought out of me through Two Boys Kissing. The feelings were strong, like the very core of me shaken by the truth this novel has put forth and it made me more and more aware of how fragile we all are.
When I picked up this book, I thought I’d read something similar to Boy Meets Boy, but by the first few lines, I knew I was entering a world very different from my assumption. This wasn’t about just two boys kissing.
“You can’t know what it is like for us now—you will always be one step behind. Be thankful for that. You can’t know what it was like for us then—you will always be one step ahead. Be thankful for that, too. Trust us: There is nearly perfect balance between the past and the future. As we become the distant past, you become a future few of us would have imagined”
Whoever said that the second person point of view is arresting was right. It is completely, utterly arresting and typing those lines brought goose bumps down my spine. For we never know how much pain, suffering and blood was shed for the life we all live now.
Voices of the Past
“We were once like you, only our world wasn’t like yours.”
I remember it clearly, as if it happened yesterday how talks on HIV, AIDS and Homosexuality were enveloped in shadows and fear. While the Filipino culture isn’t as blunt as other cultures, the aversion of the eyes, the softly whispered side comment and the general demeanor of people as these topics surface into conversations: these things were taboo. I didn’t understand it then. I still don’t.
The collective voices of the past, speak of a world I was born into. It wasn’t long ago when all I knew of the LGBTQ community was that they were an abomination, promiscuous, immoral and dirty. These were the words that echoed in my head growing up, as if they were talking of some mutant form cursed to crawl in the dark dingy alleys of society. This was the picture in my mind.
“Dreaming and loving and screwing. None of these are identities. Maybe when other people look at us, but not ourselves. We are so much more complicated than that. We wish we could offer you a creation myth, an exact reason why you are the way you are, why when you read this sentence, you will know it’s about you. But we don’t know how it began. We barely understood that we knew. We gather the things we learned, and they don’t nearly add up to fill the spaces of a life.”
Abominations, promiscuous, immoral and dirty, how shallow and painful were these words. How much of these words truly capture the human soul? Little. Yet, in the society of my childhood (and maybe in some places today) this was what defined those whose love we could not understand. The weight of the past, as I read their words spoken to the present generation of queer teens in the novel, hurt. Each statement weighed on me, like rocks piling up in my gut. This was the world I was part of, I knew people who contributed to this kind of world and how helpless I was to make it less painful.
“Some of us loved. Some of us couldn’t. Some of us were loved. Some of us weren’t. Some of us never understood what the fuss was about. Some of us wanted it so badly that we died trying. Some of us swear we died of heartbreak not AIDS.”
This is the truth. No matter what it is we enjoy now, it was paid with blood. All our freedom – it didn’t come for free. And as these voices echo throughout the book, I am well aware of what they were saying, as they watch the teenage boy Niel walk to his boyfriend’s house. These voices make us recognize how much each step these teens took as they enjoy the freedom of dating freely; it is as precious as every step those from the past took to hide their loves, their relationships and themselves.
“We resent you. You astonish us.”
The Lives of the Present
While the truth of the present lives of the teens in the novel astonishes the voices in the past, much is still wanting. As we hear the voices of the past we are asked to witness the truth of the lives of several teenagers as they deal with their identity, their reality and their relationships within a society that is divided in their opinions.
Some of them are spared from the same anguish and pain of the voices of the past, while others are still tormented by the ideals and judgment carried from generations ago. The two boys kissing, Craig Cole and Harry Ramirez, take it upon themselves to break the record for longest kiss and in the process break the barriers that kisses are between opposite sexes. It is a bold move, a move maybe the voices of the past could not imagine, but it is a move that attempts to bring understanding in a still divided world. The two boys do this for Tariq Johnson, a talented dancer who suffered similar wounds as those who came before him.
“As he bled on the pavement, pebbles and gravel grinding into his wounds, we felt ourselves bleeding, too. As his ribs broke, we could feel our ribs breaking. And as the thoughts returned to his mind, the memories returned to ours. That dehumanizing loss of safety. It is something all of us feared and many of us knew firsthand.”
Why must those who are different fear for their own safety? Why must they continue to walk with fear breathing down their neck? Two Boys Kissing is a cross section of our current world where people like Tariq are both accepted and scorned. Avery, the boy born as a girl, succinctly argues this in his conversation with Ryan when he says “[Gender is] Stupid arbitrary shit.”
Like our clothes, like our hair color, and even our skin color, isn’t gender just the physical expression of our genes and not a reflection of our being? Then why must we be judged for it? Why must many suffer because of it? Why must it take two boys kissing for everyone to see to make this point? Why must those who are different need to succumb to anger, to self-destruction just because they cannot fit the norm?
Cooper, another teen in the novel falls into this destructive path. He runs from home and finds himself heading nowhere. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t hear of the two boys kissing. He lives in a vacuum where he feels alone and there are no other options. “Love, he thinks, is a lie that people tell each other in order to make the world bearable…” This is the lie the world fed him. This is the lie we continue to feed many other children, teens and adults.
We push people. We label them. We judge them because we do not understand. Because we cannot understand we are scared. Because we are scared, we try to control things. Because we desire to control what we cannot, we hurt others. We fail to see the person, only the trappings. This truth about us was hard to swallow.
The present is quite different from that of the past, yet much is wanting. So much still can be improved and this is what the two boys kissing are trying to push for, a future where people like Tariq can walk quietly without being beaten up for being gay.
The Future We Must Push For
“You need to love him. I don’t care who you thought he was or who you want him to be, you need to love him exactly as he is because your son is a remarkable human being. You have to understand that.”
When Tariq utters these words to Harry’s mother, I felt he was uttering these words to everyone. And how I wish many other people could have heard those words for THIS IS THE TRUTH. It is not about whom we think people are, or who we want them to be, who they really are and that is….a human being.
So many children in the past few years have been pushed to suicide because they felt so unwanted, so alone and misunderstood. Despite the presence of the LGBTQ in media, in their own lives, far removed from fiction, acceptance and even just a suspension of judgment, it all seems so impossible. But Two Boys Kissing, as much as it speaks of the past and of the present and as much as it comments about current society, it also speaks to the teens and begs them to take the road of hope and not of bleakness.
“You should all live to meet your future selves. We saw our friends die. But we also see our friends live. So many of them live, and we often toast their long and full lives. They carry us on. There is the sudden. There is the eventual. And in between, there is the living. We do not start as dust. We do not end as dust. We make more than dust. That’s all we ask of you. Make more than dust.”
For the past believes in the future. No future is born without a past that hopes for it. Every step towards a different and better future is a step worth witnessing and that is what the weight every one living in the present must carry from the past and bring to the future. It is not pain or suffering that we carry, but it is the life lived for a future that we bear on our shoulders.
“We do not want to haunt you too somberly. We don’t want our legacy to be gravitas. You wouldn’t want to live your life like that, and you won’t want to be remembered like that, either. Your mistake would be to find our commonality in our dying. The living mattered more.”
The novel, I think, in essence does not argue on morality or on religion. It simply asks that we see the human in each person, the human that deserves to be treated with compassion, with understanding and with love. Reading this book felt like I was swallowing a truth about the world I live in, a truth too painful to accept; a truth I never understood completely.
We are scared and that is alright, but what we do with our fear is what matters. Do we explore that we may know? Or do we strike in the darkness without much thought? What I learned in the process of taking in the words of David Levithan’s novel and reflecting on what is happening in the world today is this…we fear the truth about people because it is a weight, a burden that demands us to respond. Our response, in the micro-personal level reveals who we are.
“We know it is sometimes hard to receive someone’s truth. Not as hard as the telling, but still hard if you care about how your response will be taken.”
It is not easy to carry another person’s truth. I know this. I have for a fact been someone who has been told people’s deep dark secrets. It is heavy, but it is also an honor. Because to be told the truth, is to be trusted. Trust is a weight worth carrying. And maybe this is where we must begin, to see truth as truth, not as what we want it to be, not as what we wish it to be. We must see truth—the soul that resides within whatever trapping they come in.
Two Boys Kissing isn’t easy to read, it can be arresting in its experimental form, and it isn’t for everyone. But if you wish to read a book that challenges your own thoughts and allows you to reflect on the bigger world, then this is a book worth picking up. This is a book that reminds us what it really means to recognize that we are all human beings – deserving of love.