1. Josh and I met at church, and he played football for Lassiter High. He worked out. He liked to sweat. He performed manual labor. I quit sports at fifteen to focus on the piano. Each time my dad drove past a football field, he would say, “My son gave up sports for music. He could’ve played football or baseball, could have been strong, but no.” And if Josh rode with us, my dad would add, “That’s why Josh is my favorite son.”
2. I played piano since I was five. Photographs in my baby book show me, a chubby blond baby, sitting at my uncle’s piano when I was three. I practiced diligently every day. At fifteen, I played the first movement of Beethoven’s No. 8, Op. 13 (Pathetique), an eight-minute sonata, for my piano recital. I learned cello and acquired first chair in the school orchestra. I set up appointments to audition for college music programs because I wanted my life to be a song.
As a kid, after the piano recital ended and students found their parents in the crowd, my grandfather closed the video recorder and grinned. “I’m proud of you, guy,” he said. My grandmother and stepmom wiped their eyes. My dad put his hand on my shoulder, said, “Let’s get out of here,” and guided me out into the cold by the back of my neck.
3. When I was eight I dreamt that Jon from S Club 7 waited for me in the bushes beside my childhood home in New Jersey. Though the sun shone hot on the white concrete, I knew in order to meet him, I had to sneak out like I had seen teenagers do in Disney Channel movies. In the bushes, Jon, in an open Hawaiian shirt and cargo pants, knelt in the dirt. He’d worn that outfit in the show. I remember staring at his torso, confused by my attraction to it, but wanting to be him. In the bushes, he grabbed my face and kissed me. He smiled.
All I ever wanted was for a man to smile like that at me in my waking life.
4. My little sisters, fifteen and seventeen years younger than me, always asked when Josh was coming over next. Sometimes Josh would come over after working outside in metro Atlanta all day, shirt sticking to the sweat on his back, fabric clasping his chest. A draft carried the sweet musk of body odor and Axe body spray across the room. Josh acted silly with the girls, which I never did. They would hang on his legs like lemurs as he walked through the living room. Sometimes they cried when he left. Even they seemed to prefer him over me, the way kids prefer ice cream to a balanced meal. Sometimes it just sucked to always be the balanced meal when it’d be nice for someone to want to lick you like sweet cream.
5. My dad hired Josh at his restaurant, where I also worked when I came home from college, and bragged that he caught on quicker than me. I didn’t think it was true, said only to get under my skin, but he knew I grew to be the kind of man he feared. Was I even a man if I didn’t act like the others? Dad quickly promoted Josh to manager, another way of showing favoritism, another way of showing me I needed to get to Josh’s level.
6. Natural light broke through the blinds at the counseling office. A girl played with a balloon in the meadow. I felt the suede couch under my fingertips, my legs crossed, a throw pillow resting on my abdomen.
I had been living alone for a few years and developed anxiety that limited day-to-day interactions. I lost twelve pounds—I was already skinny. My counselor, Jaynie, suspected my anxiety was rooted in what I had learned to believe about myself, so we spent time unpacking family relationships.
“Tell me about your grandfather,” she said.
“I’ve heard he relied on my dad to help him in the yard a lot,” I said. “He always studied the Bible in his office, but when I would play the piano, sometimes he would ask to sit next to me, and we’d play a duet. Anton Diabelli. Not sure if you’ve ever heard of him.”
“I haven’t. That moment sounds really special to you.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes pooled underneath her blue cat-eye glasses. Her pupils opened up like portals to a universe.
At that moment I realized how my grandfather loved to listen to me play the piano. On a few occasions, my dad had yelled at me to stop playing so he could hear the TV. My great-grandfather wanted my grandfather to go to school for chemical engineering, something to make him money. My grandfather wanted to be a musician, but instead landed a job as a salesman and worked as the church’s music minister. He didn’t expect my dad to be someone he wasn’t.
Once my dad’s car broke down when he was in college in Oklahoma. My grandfather flew out from New Jersey to fix it so my dad wouldn’t be overcharged by a mechanic. My dad wouldn’t do that for me. He said so himself. He said, “Don’t expect me to do something like that for you.”
I looked out the window. The little girl let the balloon go. I couldn’t tell if it was accidental or on purpose, but she stood there, and she cried.
7. In eighth grade, over Swedish meatballs, I asked my parents if I could join the competitive cheerleading squad.
“No,” my dad said without consideration.
My stepmom laughed.
“What?” I said.
Dad set his utensils down. “Why do you want to be a cheerleader?”
I kept my knife in my hand. “Because I’d be good at it, and I can already do the flips. Some of the team already talked to their coach about it.”
“No,” he said again.
“Because I will not tell my friends that my son is a cheerleader.” He lingered on the words “my son”—boys didn’t cheer. I wouldn’t be cheering at games, just running and flipping for a score in an arena. Dad didn’t struggle when earlier that school year I dressed up as a geisha for Halloween, but he wasn’t in any pictures that year.
8. In seventh grade, I auditioned for the basketball team. Dad and I used to shoot hoops outside daily. I never practiced dribbling, though my hand-eye coordination made it easy enough. Try-outs consisted of mostly lay-ups, free throws, jump shots, and passing. I waited a few days for Coach to post the results outside his office on the junior high hall. Each day, in different classes, I made excuses to use the restroom so I could check the wall outside his office.
The evening I found out, my grandmother and I tricked my dad into thinking I didn’t make the team. We sat in the keeping room, amidst my grandmother’s breakables, with the lights off. When he yoohoo-ed as he came through the door, he walked into the room.
“What’s wrong?” he said. “Are you okay.”
I leapt up and said, “I made the team!”
Then he scooped me in his arms and said over and over again, “I am so proud of you. I am so proud. I am so proud.”
9. Josh and I played music in a band. When he came over he usually brought his guitar, and we would spend the night downstairs, strumming our guitars and singing along to songs we loved. Josh learned every popular Taylor Swift song. His favorite to play was “White Horse” from her album Fearless, a song about a girl, deep in love, who leaves a relationship because her man doesn’t treat her right. But for some reason, though Josh didn’t have the most confident voice at the time, I loved hearing him sing, Say you’re sorry. That face of an angel comes out just when you need it to.
My parents told me that the door to my room downstairs needed to remain open, a stupid rule I never understood. But with Josh, they made an exception. We could play music and stay up together until we couldn’t keep our eyes open.
10. My grandfather, my dad, and I all have the same name. I am the fifth. It will stop with me.
11. In eighth grade, I started to grow peach fuzz on my upper lip. For the first time in my life, I felt ugly. I remembered being young and my dad dabbing shaving cream on my nose. I didn’t want to ask him for help ridding myself of my first facial hairs, so I found my stepmom’s haircutting kit. I pulled out the clippers and ran the blade over my lip. The hairs were too fine to be trimmed, a smearing of dirt across my lip that couldn’t be washed off.
My dad taught me how to shave. I cut myself. But at least I could hide the man I was growing into, that is until it grew back and eventually became a shadow.
12. Josh is still “Cripple” in my phone, but he hasn’t answered my texts in five years.
13. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the rope that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. And David went out and was successful.1
14. I never met Josh’s father. He lived with his mom in a neighborhood near the church with his two sisters, niece, and dog Koda, who sometimes shit in the house, but no one cared. Josh rarely spoke of his dad, and when he did, I heard a lack of respect in the hardness of his voice. He told me his older brother Wes, who had once been my leader on a mission trip to Ecuador, looked identical to his father.
I’m not sure if he told me because he struggled with his relationship with his brother, or because his brother may have been friendlier with his father than Josh thought permissible. I know in part that’s why Josh came over to our house, to be with my dad, to be a desirable son.
15. My dad attended my first home basketball game, held in our church’s gymnasium. The referees announced the starters and everyone cheered. I sat on the bench. Everyone played so intensely in a way I never imagined I’d have to, but I knew what was expected like me. Coach placed his hand on my shoulder and subbed a player out for me.
I was the shortest person on the court.
Someone passed the ball to me, which I didn’t expect to happen, so I shot it. Airball.
Dad shielded his eyes and looked away. I played harder but passed the ball to other teammates so they could shoot. Coach pulled me out after four minutes. My dad shot me a look across the court.
Coach rested his hand on my shoulder again. “Good job,” he said.
16. Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen David to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?2
17. Jaynie, my therapist, showed me breathing exercise. Inhale for five seconds into the tummy, hold for five seconds, then exhale completely. The oxygen redistributes through the body, away from the tingling fingertips and toes, back up into the brain.
“You need truths associated with this technique,” she said, taking off her glasses. “The goal here is to keep anxiety at bay by retraining your brain by what you know to be true.”
I knew she was right. I knew I had lost myself so deep into trying to prevent the next panic attack that I didn’t matter to myself any longer.
Jaynie instructed me to lie down on my back on the couch. “You know you’re capable of safety,” she said. “I want you to do the breathing and think of a time when you felt the most safe.”
I closed my eyes, inhaled, held, and exhaled. Inhaled, held, exhaled. Inhaled, held, exhaled.
She leaned over and spoke softly. “What moment in your life did you feel the safest, Andrew?”
I kept my eyes rested shut. I lingered in my memory, attempting to prolong the security of my bed, of the arm around my waist, of a boy who started to give me more than his heart.
18. Josh and Christina went steady for a while. I don’t remember a moment either of them expressed to me that their relationship wasn’t working, or that one frustrated the other. I only heard the stories, like the ones when a cop stopped them in a Publix parking lot because the car windows fogged from making out in the driver’s seat. All I ever heard was how much they loved each other, until one day, they just weren’t dating anymore.
19. David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most.3
20. I looked forward to after dinner in the summer when my dad wanted to spend some time outside together. Sometimes we kicked a soccer ball back and forth across the yard. Sometimes we threw a frisbee. I remember one summer afternoon Josh stood on the grass where I usually stood, my dad across the way. He held a football. Josh ran toward my dad, then away. Dad threw a perfect spiral over Josh’s shoulder into his arms. Together they acted like a star quarterback and wide-receiver couple cheering themselves on to victory as I stood on the sidelines, on the outside, prohibited from stepping on the field with the players.
Dad and Josh ran to each other and high-fived. I waited to see if either would pat the other on the ass. They took turns running the same play over and over again, so I walked to the back of the yard to the trampoline and practiced the flips Dad never let me perform for a cheer team, not even if it would require me to work out, to sweat, to grow strong in the way he wished I would.
21. When Josh stayed over he slept on a futon mattress on my bedroom floor. One of my baby sisters accidentally spoiled the bed with juice or urine or worse, so I forbade Josh from sleeping on it.
“I could just sleep in your bed,” he said.
For some reason, I wasn’t taken aback by his solution. At church camp, we fit up to four or five in a hotel room, which sometimes meant doubling up. I only occupied one side of the bed nearest the door on nights I slept soundly. Josh turned off the light and crawled into bed next to me.
I lay facing away from him toward the closet. I felt his arm wrap around me, disguised as a horizontal hug goodnight. We always hugged hello and goodbye, but never goodnight. His arm lingered on me. I slightly moved back so our bodies touched a little more without commitment.
“Is this okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I wanted to say in his arms all night until the sun lit up my room, and maybe even a little longer still.
He pulled me a little closer, our bodies still a soft suggestion. “Your body feels like Christina’s,” he said. Christina’s hips were larger than mine. Christina had breasts. My stick body appeared nothing like the rolling hills of hers. But I think what Josh was saying, and what he’s said to Christina many times before, was “I love you.”
22. I lay on Jaynie’s couch, my eyes still resting. Exhale.
“In what moment did you feel the safest?” she asked again.
I let my lids slowly peel back to reality. I wished I hadn’t found myself in Lynchburg, afraid of my own body’s nonexistent self-destruction. “The first time Josh and I shared my bed,” I said. “And he said things that made me feel special.”
“And what did he say to you that made you feel that way?” She leaned forward over her crossed legs and pushed stray hair from her bangs back into their rightful place. Jaynie wanted me to let go of vagueness, to learn how to say what I meant so I had nothing to hold on to.
“He said I was the David to his Jonathan.”
23. Josh wrote one catchy guitar riff in a collection of failures. We never wrote a song for it. Thirteen years later, I play it on my ukulele, sitting up in bed with the instrument’s curves nestled into the bottom of my rib cage. Maybe it’s my way of saying, “I can feel the vibrations of you against my bones, but I know you’ll never take me past those eight measures of your discarded song.”
24. I eventually asked my dad to show me how to shave like I’d seen him take the blade to his face all those years ago. He showed me how to use warm water to open the pores, to make a white lathered mustache, to take the edge softly against my lip.
The soft scraping of the razor against the fine hairs terrified me. I imagined the blade catching my skin and peeling it down like cheddar. What hurts worse: allowing myself to become a man, or trying to hide it?
“Don’t worry,” Dad said. “Cutting yourself doesn’t hurt.”
 1 Samuel 18:3–5 ESV
 1 Samuel 20:30 ESV
 1 Samuel 20:41 ESV
Andrew Hahn is a current MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has been featured in Crab Creek Review, Rappahannock Review, Lunch, and R.kv.r.y. Quarterly among others. He currently lives in metro Detroit, Michigan.