Joining a boyband gave Tyler everything he ever dreamed of. A close-knit group of friends, the chance to model a beautiful masculinity, and a vocal implant that lets him sing even better than he did before transitioning. But deep on tour, Tyler realizes he wants more from one of his bandmates, yearns for a love that would never fit the image that has been carefully crafted for him. His manager wants him to be the heartthrob: available, wholesome, and pure. And since his manager gave Tyler his voice, he can always take it away again.
Jeff opens the app on his phone while we warm up. While we run through scales and diction exercises and harmonies. While we breathe in—two, three—out—two, three. While four voices unite to become one, each a band in a rainbow of sound. While Jeff adjusts the timbre of my voice.
It didn’t always sound like this. That’s part of why I auditioned for Back 2 Back—for the vocal implant. A chance to sing like I used to before my vocal chords thickened. I wanted my range back, wanted the soaring feeling of a note held against the swell of harmony.
I clear my throat.
“Sounds good, boys.” Jeff pockets his phone. “Have a great show.” He waves over his shoulder and heads up to the sound booth.
As much as I love being in a band, I love being in a boyband even more. You’re not supposed to. Boyband members are male, but no one considers them masculine—not when their audience is comprised of teenage girls. Heaven forbid girls’ tastes be given any weight. When I was one, my favorite band was a group of baby-faced cis boys whom my classmates misgendered just so they could call me a lesbian for liking them. Figures, they were my trans masculinity goals and now here I am:
Beside a piano, backstage at Madison Square Garden, arms around three other guys as we huddle up before the show. I breathe in the spice of deodorant, freshly washed cotton, sweat, and hint of coffee. Feel the heat of their damp armpits against my shoulder blades. The beat of their hearts.
“All right, lovers, let’s go.” Zeke waggles his eyebrows, eliciting laughter as we pile our hands on one another’s, twine our fingers. Sing ourselves off.
“We’re all together again, we’re here, we’re here. We’re all together again, we’re here, we’re here!” Our joined hands bounce up and down to the rhythm as we sing the old campfire song in a circle no one else can penetrate. “Who knows when we’ll be all together again? Singing all together again! We’re here, we’re here!”
We whoop and cheer. Adrenaline punches through my body as we race to take our positions below the stage. The opening notes of “Keep Running” rumble through the stage above, though they play clearly in our monitors. I close my eyes, letting them vibrate through my body.
A stagehand holds out a microphone with a strip of blue tape wrapped around the handle. Mine is always blue. Jasper’s green. Aiden’s yellow. And Zeke’s red.
I take the offered mic, nod my thanks, and glance sideways at Jasper. He winks at me. Smirks. My heart flutters like a teenaged girl’s. It’s the same heart I’ve always had and it still flutters for musicians like Jasper. The edgy ones.
He exudes masculine energy through eyeliner, tight black jeans, and nail polish. I straighten my own jean jacket, a light blue denim over a thick white tee shirt. Khaki joggers. Clean white sneakers. I only wore them for the first time two shows ago. Still have the blisters to prove it.
“All right, B2B.” The stagehand’s voice is in our ears. “You’re up in five, four, three, two—”
I don’t hear her say “one.” I’m already in the music. A loaded bullet in a sparking chamber. When the trigger is pulled, we shoot up into an arena of sound. The electricity of the band—of a live-wire guitar and surging drums. The wall of cheering and screaming, words indistinguishable but the sentiment the same:
This music is a part of me. It hurts when I don’t listen and even more when I do. I’m here because this concert hall is my church. This melody is my body and these lyrics are my blood.
I feel the ache in my chest and know I feel the same.
Then, I’m raising my mic and our voices join the chorus of noise and we’re off. Euphoria settles under my skin, carrying me between songs. We don’t officially dance—we’re too cool for that—but we’re so close. We’re mocking dance: jumping to the beat, bouncing around the massive stage. Zeke runs past with the melody on his lips and a can of Silly String in his hand.
When it’s empty, he chucks it aside and slaps my ass, cackling. I’m not mad and the fans love it when he screws around. Even the label encourages it. I pick up the bridge, startled but laughing. My voice doesn’t break or crack. With Jeff’s control, it doesn’t falter—it lifts without effort. I close my eyes, hold my free hand up and, for a second, I’d swear I’m singing four notes at the same time, harmonizing with myself, conducting sound like a lightning rod.
I wonder, with the implant, if I could.
But then I see the others closing in, hear their voices joining mine. Aiden flips his long brown hair out of his eyes while he picks at his acoustic, notes like the patter of raindrops on hot pavement.
Jasper walks towards me like he’s in West Side Story, crouched down, snapping his fingers, singing to me—only me. He grabs my mic and our voices blend impossibly into one.
“When I kiss you / it’s like ooh-wee-ooh.”
“I can’t describe / your ahh-la-la-la.”
“Some night when / the moon is high”
“We’ll ay-ay-ay-ay / ’til it’s light.”
“When I kiss you, baby.” Then Jasper is looking at me the way he’s looked at a hundred girls and his hand is in my hair, sliding down my neck, and my face is burning, and the next thing I know I start to for-real kiss him. On stage. While Zeke sings, “ooh-wee-ooh,” and Aiden strums his guitar, and the crowd is so loud, I can’t even hear my ear monitors.
Slowly, the sound mellows, the lights drop, and spotlights illuminate our final song. No one looks at me differently. Zeke ruffles my hair like I’m his kid brother. Aiden leans over his guitar to sing backup into my mic. Jasper takes my hand for our bows.
Everything is okay. I don’t know why I thought it wouldn’t be. Zeke calls us “lovers” all the time, Aiden’s cried on stage before, and Jasper flirts with anyone with a pulse. I can kiss him. It doesn’t mean anything to the fans. Only to me.
“You wanted to see me?” I’m still rubbing a towel through my sweaty hair, when I duck into the makeshift office the venue’s provided for Jeff. “I got your text.”
“Hey, Tyler. Have a seat.” He gestures to an upholstered chair on the opposite side of his desk. It’s fat, polished wood that belongs in a penthouse office, not a room with a paper sign taped on the front. But his workspace needs are outlined in our tour rider alongside ours. I can’t blame him for wanting to feel comfortable.
Jeff is as awkward as you’d expect an executive-type who chases twenty-somethings around music venues, all day, to be. Like an out-of-touch dad who’s too busy to be home for your birthday, but still pays for the party. And he is sort of like our dad—none of us has been home for more than a few days at a time, in years. Not since we auditioned. Not since Jeff called us all into a conference room, still strangers, and said, “I want to bring back the boyband.”
I sit and slouch, crossing my legs casually, the way I’ve seen Jasper do. It looks better on him, I decide, and shuffle until I’m sitting up straight. Jeff lays his phone face up on the desk, amidst two stacks of papers and a computer monitor that could’ve come from outer space, in comparison to the heavy desk.
“What’s up?” I ask.
He taps lazily at his phone. He does that enough that we’re never surprised or offended when he’s working and talking to us at the same time. But this feels different. Like it’s for show. Like he wants me to watch what he’s doing.
“I want to review some interview protocols with you. Nothing big, just a couple notes from the label.”
“Okay.” I lean forward until I can see the app on his phone. The one he uses to adjust our vocal implants.
“About what happened on stage tonight.”
He rubs his hand over his evening stubble. “We want you to carefully consider how you answer questions about the incident.”
“Oh, that.” I laugh. If I act like it didn’t mean anything, it won’t. “The fans loved it.”
“They did. That they did.” He disappears into his phone again, switching to a news app that streams video of the “incident” and photo on which someone has scribbled pink hearts with a stylus. I try to catch the website, but Jeff scrolls quickly before turning off his phone and looking right at me. “But is that really the image you want to cultivate?”
Is that a trick question? “Yes?”
“Let me re-phrase.” Jeff flattens his palms against one another and points his fingertips at me. “That’s not the image the label is hoping you’ll cultivate.”
“Zeke literally spanked me, on stage.” I’m smiling but Jeff isn’t. For the first time, I’m nervous.
“He’s a goofy guy,” Jeff says. “It was a joke.”
My smile goes stale. “Am I not funny?”
“You are, of course. You’re all good-humored guys. That’s why the fans love you. You’re easy going, approachable, you make them laugh.”
“But you’re the one they always come back to, Tyler. The one they want singing ‘When I Kiss You’ to them. Whose last name they write on their binders. Who’s plastered on their bedroom walls. You’re the face of Back 2 Back. You’re . . .”
I know the word he’s looking for. “Wholesome.”
“Exactly!” Jeff nearly leaps out of his leather chair. “When I envisioned the band, I didn’t know who would comprise it, what your personalities would be, what you would look or sound like. But I knew I needed you. And I chose you over a thousand potential heart throbs because you’re smart and business savvy. And I trust that you can carry out my vision for the band. You can do that, right?”
I nod, pulling my knees up onto the chair.
“That’s good.” He smooths his tie. “If anyone asks about the incident, how about saying that it was Jasper’s idea. He’s got that bad boy thing going on.” Jeff tries to mimic Jasper’s smirk, but it looks creepy when he does it. “Anyway, I’ll let you get to the bus, celebrate with the guys. I think we understand each other.” He holds out his hand to me.
I’m on autopilot when I take it.
“Good man.” He pats me on the back and ushers me out, shutting the door behind me.
I stand in the cold hallway, staring at the painted cinderblock walls. I can still feel the imprint of Jeff’s hand on the back of my right shoulder. His assurance. And yet, I feel so unsure.
It’s almost 4:00 a.m. when I give up trying to sleep and wander into the back room on the bus. A reading lamp shines in the corner where Jasper sits sideways on the couch, wearing sweats and a clean black shirt. His sleeves rolled up, notebook in hand, pencil between teeth.
“It’s okay.” Jasper tucks the pencil into his beanie. “Stay.”
I walk over to the other end of the couch and slide onto the warm leather, pulling the bottom of his blanket up over my knees. “What’re you working on?”
He shrugs. “Had some lyrics in my head that I couldn’t get out. Nothing special.”
I’ve never seen Jasper write before—that’s Aiden’s thing. He’ll sit right there, too, curled up in a blanket and hoodie and spend hours writing and re-writing, pick his guitar up off the floor, play a few chords, hum, set it down, then write again. Zeke and I can play video games right beside him—nothing. None of us even try to get his attention while he’s in the zone.
“What about you?” His question startles me more than it should.
But Jasper stares at me, his left eyebrow slowly rising.
“What? I couldn’t!” I whisper, eyes darting towards the door.
I can’t tell him I was thinking about the rush of kissing him in front of all those people. The heat of the lights, of his body, his mouth. I’ve never done that before—kissed a man in public since I’ve been one, too. It was just as terrifying as I thought it would be. And I want to do it again.
“Okay, Ty, um . . .” Jasper leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I know that kiss wasn’t a joke.” He dares to meet my eyes, but I can’t. I look away before all the blood in my body can rush to my face; it already is. “I’m guessing that’s why you’re still awake.”
I stand, looking at my feet. “Think I’m going to head back to—”
Jasper takes my hand. Stops me. “I know it’s awkward to talk about.”
“It’s not awkward.” I look him dead in the eye and remember what Jeff said—how I’m supposed to talk about “the incident.” “Because it was a joke. Sorry for making you uncomfortable.”
He laughs. Laughs. I curl my fingers into fists, even though he’s still holding on, pulling me towards him. How fucking dare he do this when I’m trying.
“You didn’t make me uncomfortable, Tyler. You’re one of my best friends—you’re like my brother.” He pauses and I watch him think through the implications. “Whom I’d make out with, apparently. That’s weird. Sorry.”
I give in and laugh with him. My ears cool, or they’re so hot they’ve gone numb. “Glad I’m not the only weirdo.” I sit back down. Closer.
“Oh, I’m definitely weird, too. And I think Aiden might be weird? But it’s rude to ask, so I’m totally reading into his lyrics.”
We laugh again. My heart’s still beating fast, so I place a hand over it and take a deep breath.
“It’s okay to be weird.” Jasper takes both my hands in his. We can’t be this close again. I’m going to want to kiss him and we’re not on stage.
That’s the unwritten contract we have with each other and our fans. We’re freer when we perform. We can do things there we’d never do at an appearance or say on an interview. To some extent, it’s an act. We all know it. We can only dance if we’re mocking dancing, only touch and kiss if we’re mocking affection.
Jasper squeezes my hands. “But you can’t—”
“I know.” It hurts more than I thought it would, when he starts to say what Jeff already did. “We can’t . . .” Kiss each other on stage. “. . . do weird stuff during our concerts.”
“Well . . .”
“Well?” That wasn’t the response I expected.
“Tyler.” He sighs, then leans forward and kisses me for the second time. Lips chapped, smelling like pine trees and hops. He kisses me a third time—I’m counting, because I know we only have so many. My mother used to say the garage door only had so many ups and downs, because my cousins and I would play with the remote and she didn’t want us to break it. Same with the car windows. The computer only had so many startups and shutdowns. And Jasper and I only have so many kisses.
He catches my bottom lip between his teeth when he pulls away, biting. I gasp and grab on to his shirt.
“You can’t do weird stuff on stage. Because you’re the boy next door,” he says. “The heartthrob. Always single, always straight, always—”
“Wholesome,” I say to Jasper like I did to Jeff. “I get it. Zeke can grab my ass because he’s a joker and you can kiss guys because you’re the rule-breaker.” I scoff. “You’d think being trans would disqualify me—it’s not a secret.” I get asked about it during interviews all the time. “As long as I’m romantically available to our fan base, that’s what matters.” I pull my hand free of his and stand. “It’s not like any of them are going to fuck me, anyway, so it doesn’t matter what’s actually in my pants as long as the possibility exists.”
Jasper looks from his empty hand to me. “Never underestimate the power of a respectable weirdo.”
I don’t kiss Jasper, tonight, when we sing the song—I don’t even stand near him. My mark is moved to the other side of the stage, near Aiden. It’s that way for the whole show—I find words pushing themselves out of me as if I’m not even singing them, but rather they’re playing from inside me, my body an elaborate music box. And my voice sounds different, tonight. Slightly fuller, deeper. It’s thick in my throat. It feels good, like hefting a weight easily over my head. Like I always imagined my voice would sound.
Nothing else feels right, though. Aiden hands his guitar to a stagehand, for the last song, puts his arm around my shoulder, and draws the others towards us for a ballad. The screaming stops. My ears ring with silence.
I look at Jasper, raise the microphone to my lips and, when I sing, it’s to him—for him. “I want you as you are / don’t ever change for me / when I give you my love / I give it unconditionally.”
A wave of applause crashes over us as we finish. Aiden takes my hand, raises it over our heads. We bow. I stare out into the shining abyss. Surrender myself to the noise. Find my frequency. Dissolve into pure sound.
Aiden pulls me off stage with him. The change in scenery jars me as if awake from a dream. The cool dark tunnels backstage. A slippery water bottle thrust into my hand, a towel draped over my shoulder. The band pats my back as we pass; Aiden puts his arm around my shoulder, guiding me into a room with “Press” taped to the door.
I forgot. We agreed to do a backstage exclusive with Netflix. Across the room, Jasper pops open a beer and up-ends it. I watch the golden liquid tilt back, bubbles rise, the level drop as it disappears between his lips. The angle of his neck, exposed Adam’s apple, stubble.
“Why don’t you have a seat over there, Tyler.” Jeff’s pointing with his stylus to an empty seat between Zeke and Aiden, not even looking at me. Looking at his phone.
“Sit with us, Ty!” I brace myself as Zeke slams into me. He hoists me over his shoulders like a fireman.
I burst into laughter. “Zeke!” I pretend to struggle, but not enough so he’ll drop me. “Okay, okay, I’ll sit with you.” I look directly into one of the cameras and shake my head. Jeff gives me a thumbs-up.
I work to maintain my smile after that. I wasn’t acting. I genuinely like goofing around with Zeke. Now it feels fake.
He plops me down on the sofa sideways, my feet landing on Aiden’s lap, my head on the leather, beside Jasper. He looks down at me. Doesn’t touch me. Doesn’t run his fingers through my hair or bend down and kiss me.
Zeke nudges me to sit up while he slides in between me and Jas. The interviewer is a girl named Thalia, not much older than us—if at all—with a nose ring and thick wavy, black bangs. Her cute cheeks dimple when she smiles. She looks nervous. A fan? A professional who’s also a fan. She’s trying not to look at me, but our eyes meet several times.
I politely watch while she reads her introduction. We’re going to play a game, apparently. Another, older woman hands us each a can, while Thalia says, “This is ‘Truth or Drink’!”
“Is this—” alcoholic, Aiden begins to ask. He’s definitely not supposed to drink on camera. Never mind Jasper chugged a bottle before this.
“Oh gosh, no!” Thalia laughs. “It’s seltzer.”
“Cool,” Aiden says.
Thalia tucks her hair behind her ears and straightens up, question cards in hand. “Well then, are you ready, boys? I have some tough questions lined up, but I’ll start you off easy.”
None of them are actually tough. Most of these we’ve been asked a million times, but we’re good at pretending they’re interesting.
“What’s your most embarrassing moment on stage?”
“Best fan encounter?”
“Worst fan encounter?”
Drink. We never shit-talk our fans.
“Fair, fair.” Thalia drinks. “Any girlfriends?”
Drink. The answer is no, we don’t have time, but we’ve learned fans enjoy the mystery.
“Boyfriends?” Thalia holds my gaze for too long.
I break the contact and am about to drink when I realize the others are all answering the question. Of course they are. There’s no room for mystery. Our fans have to believe we’re available to them. Like Jeff said. Like Jasper said.
“What about that kiss, Tyler?”
I perk up at my name, having been dutifully watching Aiden explain how straight men can be sensitive and express their feelings—shit I agree with but which grinds me down in the context. He knows I’m gay. Just because I never say the word, doesn’t mean I haven’t shared late-night stories of past hookups and childhood crushes. That he and the others haven’t ribbed me for chatting with cute stagehands during sound check and bus boys at twenty-four-hour diners.
I want to drink. Why can’t I drink. That’s why the option exists, so I don’t have to answer this fucking question. They’re all looking at me. Jasper, pleadingly. Jeff, as if he can will the words from my mouth. He’s a second away from mouthing the answer like a helicopter mom at her kid’s spelling bee.
I’m supposed to say it was Jasper’s idea. It was Jasper’s idea and I’m an innocent party, ladies. When I kiss you, you will be a girl and I will be straight and wholesome.
“What about it?” I’m three seconds away from puking my heart into my lap.
Thalia looks at the woman who handed us the cans. Her supervisor, maybe. Someone who’ll tell her how far she can push this. The woman nods.
“Can we get some details? The fans are in quite a tizzy. Some are even—do you know the word, ‘shipping’?”
I shake my head.
“Like—” She explains with her hands, face flustered. “—advocating that there’s a relationship between you and Jasper. ‘Jasler’ is all over the internet, ever since the New York show.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jasper take a long slow drag of his seltzer and my mouth has never felt dryer. I hate this. I hate lying. I hate Jeff for telling me to and I hate Jas for playing along.
I hold my can with both hands, to quiet their shaking. Look past the camera at Jeff. Say, “I don’t know anything about ‘Jasler’ but things can get a little weird on stage, sometimes, and the truth is, I kissed Jasper becau—” I don’t finish my sentence. Not because I’m at a loss for words but because I can’t.
I clear my throat and try again, but nothing comes out. I hear Jasper covering for me. Playing my answer off. Zeke laughing and Aiden talking about what the song means to him and I cannot speak. At all.
I bring the can to my lips, let its contents slide down my throat. The room isn’t the right color. I feel like I’m sinking. Underwater. Dizzy.
“Whoa there, Tyler, need another drink?”
I nod and catch the can tossed at me.
“Nice reflexes,” Thalia says.
Seltzer sprays when I crack the can open and I don’t smile. I drink. I drink for every remaining question and during the silences between them. When it’s over, I jump to my feet, cross the room, and push into the hallway. Adrenaline drives me down the winding hall until I find the red door marked “Dressing Room – B2B,” slam the door and lean against it.
I scream. A good hard scream that rips through my throat like fire. But it’s a silent scream.
I do it again. Feel it scraping my insides. It hurts. I want it to hurt. Want to scream so loudly it echoes down the concrete halls. But I can’t. I can’t make a sound. Jeff turned off my voice. He took it.
“Tyler?” I hear Jasper’s muted voice as he pounds on the thick door. “Ty, it’s me. Open up.”
He can’t hear my “No” or my sobs as I slide to the floor.
“Is he in there?”
“I think so, but he’s not answering.”
“Tyler?” More knocking. Jeff’s voice. “Tyler, I’m coming in.” He cracks the door.
I don’t move. Don’t look at him when he peeks through the crack, but I know he’s there. His cologne smells like crisp white wine. He slips between the door and its frame then says to the guys outside, “We’ll only be a minute, boys,” and closes it.
“Tyler,” Jeff says with an air of I don’t know what to do with you. He massages the creases in his forehead while he plays with his phone. “I thought we were on the same page?”
I don’t try to answer.
He squats down to my level, the legs of his suit rising with the bend of his knees, to expose gray argyle socks. “The label’s giving you a few days to decompress. Regardless of what you might think, we care about your well-being. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.”
What he means is, let me know when you’re ready to behave the way we want you to and I’ll give you back your voice.
“Fuck you,” I mouth. It’s enough. He knows.
Jeff locks his phone and slides it into his suit pocket, stands and adjusts his cuffs. “Get up.” He looks down at me but doesn’t move. “Come on, the buses need to leave, soon, and you’ve already made enough of a scene tonight.”
More knocking and muffled voices from the other side of the door.
“We’re here for you, Ty.”
“Whatever it is, it’s okay.”
I don’t want them to see me like this. Not the guys or the band or the crew or fucking catering. The one thing everyone likes about me—that I like about myself—is gone. Stolen. No, I gave it away when I let the label stick an implant in my throat. How could I have been so fucking stupid as to think I owned my voice?
“Tyler.” Jeff is still here. “You can walk out of here on your own or—”
That’s all it takes to get me to my feet. I fling the door open to see the guys hovering beside the door. Jasper chewing on the ragged collar of his shirt, Aiden on his necklaces, Zeke on his fingernails. They all stop. Straighten up.
“Ty.” Jasper reaches out, but I knock his hand away before he can make contact. As if I need a reason for the label to hold my voice hostage any longer.
I don’t mean to look at him, but I can’t help it. His forehead is wrinkled, lips parted, a held breath between them. I speak a silent, “I’m sorry,” but it’s too late. I walk beside Jeff all the way back to the bus, so I don’t have to look at him. He stops short of the front door and I hop on, followed by Jas, Aiden, and Zeke.
When the door closes and we’re alone, Zeke grabs my sleeve and finds my eyes with his. They’re dark blue and searching, their usual spark softened. “Do you want to talk about what happened back there? You sort of . . . fled.”
“If you’d rather we give you some space . . .” Aiden looks at the others, making sure they don’t overcrowd me. Thing is, I want them with me. It means so much that we confide in one another and care about each other in the same world where frat bros once called us ‘Butt 2 Butt.’ Where I’ve otherwise lost my faith in men.
But how can I tell them when I can’t speak. How can I make them understand when they didn’t seem to care I kissed Jasper and didn’t support me during the interview or notice when I couldn’t speak.
I break away, leaving the three of them in the front lounge, while I hide in my bunk. Their voices rise over the hum of the road, as the bus pulls out of the parking lot. Aiden’s soothing tones, Zeke’s suddenly serious. I can’t make out their words but listen for the patter of their shoes as they pass. Two go into the back, to unwind. The third stops.
I close my eyes when the curtain draws back an inch.
“Hey.” It’s Jasper.
I don’t look at him.
“I know you’re awake, Tyler.” He rubs my shoulder and my anger rises to his touch like a magnet. “Ty.”
I press my face into my pillow. One I took from the house I haven’t been back to in years. That used to live on my bed but now lives on a bus. I didn’t know I only had so many sleeps in that bed, so many nights as a regular guy with a family and a home.
“Talk to me, Ty.”
“I can’t!” I shout it right in his face, feel the scratch in my throat. The dry air on my lips.
Jasper blinks like I’ve spit on him.
I slide out of my bunk, claiming most of the narrow hallway. He teeters back, and I continue even though he can’t hear me. “I can’t talk to you because Jeff turned my fucking voice off, okay?” I slice my hand across my throat.
“You can’t talk,” he says.
“No,” I say, then shake my head, which is so hot, and this bus is so small and stuffy. I throw my head back and scream. Tears well in my eyes, spilling over when I look at him. They catch in my eyelashes and blur Jas’s thick brows and brown eyes until I blink them free.
“Ty, I’m here for you.” He pulls me into a tight hug. “Are you sick? Did it happen during the interview?”
I start scanning the bunks for a pen and paper. I need something to write with and Jasper’s black leather notebook stands out against the ivory sheets. I drop down to his bunk and pick the notebook up. Jasper sits beside me on the messy pile of blankets and pillows. We lean back against the outer wall, our feet hanging over the short edge and resting on the floor. This feels safer, like we’re outside of time and space.
“Wait.” Jasper slaps his hand on the leather-bound cover. His fingers curl, face twitches and tenses. This is his journal. I didn’t even think. It’s—it might be private. I shouldn’t. “You know what, screw it.” Jas hands me a pen and gestures for me to go ahead.
Without stopping to read, I flip through pages of cursive and sketches and scratched-out lyrics, glimpsing my name amongst others, until I find a blank page.
<<Jeff has an app on his phone,>> I write.
<<He uses it to tune our voices—their ranges and timbre.>>
<<He can turn them off. Our voices.>>
Jasper scoffs. “No.”
<<YES.>> I underline the word three times.
“No.” He’s pleading when he says it this time.
I circle the word YES until the paper rips.
Jasper looks away. “He can’t—they can’t. Can they?” He wraps a hand around his neck, looking to me for confirmation.
“I’m not making this up,” I say, then write the same words.
“I believe you, I just can’t believe it,” he adds. “This is because you kissed me.”
<<Jeff told me to say it was your idea—he called it an “incident”—but I didn’t think . . .>> I squeeze the pen in my fist. Jasper wraps his hand around mine. The tension feels so good, I want to feel it everywhere. Want him wrapped around my whole body. To quench the fire. Crush me to cinders.
I drop the journal and pen between us and press my mouth against Jasper’s.
I kiss him because Jeff doesn’t want me to.
I kiss him because he’s scared, now, too.
I kiss him because the label could confiscate my voice forever and I’ll lose not only my voice but him and the others. What else will they take from me? What else did I sign away when I signed over my life as the heartthrob? How many of the few remaining moments belong to me?
I kiss Jasper because I am not wholesome. I’m a fucking weirdo. A queer—that’s the word everyone’s terrified to use. It doesn’t matter if I was born a girl, as long as I blend in, now. I’m a man, now.
I pull my mouth off Jasper’s long enough to tell him how badly I’ve wanted him and for how long. How I want him, unconditionally, and want to be him. I can say anything I want, now that no one can hear me. He listens, anyway, holding and kissing me until we’re so close to breaking all the rules.
“You shouldn’t do this,” I say, pressed into the corner of Jasper’s impossibly small bunk. There’s no room for us to lie side by side, only him on top of me. His hands in my hair and up my shirt, pressed against my scalp and my back. He has so much to lose still.
I dig my finger into his chest and hold his eyes, so he knows. When he unfastens my fly, he knows. When he slides his hand down my pants, he knows, and when his name vibrates silently through my throat, he goddamn well knows—we are not supposed to be doing this. He could lose his voice, for this. I could lose mine forever. It hurts like someone is scooping out my chest, but not doing this would hurt more.
We collapse. My pants half down, Jasper’s shirt half up. The door to the back lounge clicks open and I hear Aiden’s and Zeke’s feet pad along the carpet. The metallic swish of their curtains sliding. Whispers and hushed laughter.
“Are you going to tell them?” Jasper traces my jaw with his finger.
Looking into his eyes, all I can think is, god I am so gay, but I say, “I don’t know.” And I don’t know if Jas understood me, so I pull his phone out of his back pocket and open his texts to me and type, <<I don’t want to take everything away from them, like it has been from me. I don’t want them to have to choose.>> The electronic light illuminates our soft cave. “Like you do,” I say to myself.
I won’t tell Jasper, but I’m terrified he’ll forget about this. That Jeff will give me my voice back and we’ll keep on going, like always. Singing the words they write for us. Hitting the marks.
“I can talk to them with you, if you want,” Jasper says. “So you don’t have to go through that alone.”
<<Why should you go through it?>> I type.
“Ty.” He sounds incredulous. “What do you think this is, a solo act? We’re a team. Pull your pants back—ow, fuck!” He bangs his head on the low ceiling of his bunk and rubs it while straightening his shirt. I watch him duck under the curtain and stand up in the hall, while I tug my pants on and fasten them. Run a hand through my hair. Pull myself together long enough to push the curtain aside and join them.
Aiden’s sipping a craft beer he can only buy in his hometown. Zeke’s holding his Nintendo DSx. They let their hands fall by their sides, give me their attention. I bite my lip and glance at Jasper. If he wants to share this burden, now’s his chance.
“The label can turn off our voices,” Jasper says, point blank.
They stare at us.
“What does that mean,” Aiden asks, “‘turn off’ our voices?”
“It means the vocal implant the label fitted us with can be more than tuned. They can literally shut us up if we don’t play along with their images of us.” Jasper and Aiden both look at his beer. “You’re not supposed to drink in public, are you?”
“No,” he whispers. “Not me or Ty.”
He’s right. We weren’t handed rulebooks and it’s not in our contracts. These are the rules we’ve learned by working with Jeff. By the tour riders suggested for each of us, the wardrobes we’re given, the interview questions we’re asked.
“What do you think would happen if Zeke went back on his meds? If he was able to focus for more than five seconds. Sit still. Fucking think. If I decided I wanted to learn guitar—you think Jeff would let me play acoustic?”
“I’d never even considered playing or writing before Jeff suggested it,” Aiden says. “I do like it, but . . .” He looks at Zeke. “You should be able to go back on your meds, if you want. You don’t always have to be on. And Ty should be able to kiss guys, if that’s who he is. I mean, we all know that’s who you are.” A little laugh escapes him.
Jasper smiles and raises his hand. “Hi, um, my name’s Jasper. I don’t actually like the color black as much as you’d think. Sometimes I write lyrics that I’ll never show anyone—”
“What?” Aiden playfully smacks his arm. “You can show me! I want to—”
“—and I’m bisexual.”
“I’m straight,” Zeke says, raising his hand. “I’ve asked Jeff about going back on my meds multiple times and no one ever asked me if I wanted to write songs!” His look of offense sends us into full on, face-hurting laughter.
I poke my finger into my chest and shout, “I’m gay! And I have a big fucking crush on Jasper!” No one can hear me, but they all laugh, anyway—with me, not at me. Our arms are around one another again, all of us.
Aiden raises his hand. “I-I’m . . .” A deep crease settles into his forehead. “I don’t even think I’m a ‘boy’ all the time. I’m afraid to tell Jeff. We’re a boyband. That’s the basic requirement. I don’t want to be kicked out.”
“It’s okay, man—or not-man.” Zeke rubs Aiden’s shoulder. “Neither do I.”
I shake my head and say, “Me neither.”
“Fuck ’em,” Jasper says. “If they kick us all out, we can be our own band.”
“Not if they take our voices, like they did Ty’s,” Zeke says.
They all stare at me, the reminder of how fragile our band is. The moment when we were our full selves, gone. Our voices at stake.
“Hey, Ty.” Jeff’s head and torso appear where he leans into the bus. This isn’t his space, but he inserts himself, anyway.
I don’t respond, obviously. I can’t speak and don’t give Jeff the satisfaction of watching me try. I don’t even remove my headphones, though I do hit pause.
“Shayna from wardrobe asked me to bring that over.” He nods at a garment bag hanging from a cabinet knob. “You do want to perform, right?”
The question catches me so off guard—the yearning to sing, again—that I say, “Yes,” then dig my nails into my palm when I remember I vowed not to “speak.” I nod, trying not to look too eager. But I can’t help it. I fucking miss it. I miss the lights, the energy, the crowd, the guys. I miss the feeling of sound ripping through me like a bullet.
Jeff pats my back. “Good boy.”
I literally bite my tongue.
“I’ll leave you to it.” He nods at the garment bag. “Call’s in fifteen minutes. I’ll meet you and the guys at your marks beneath the stage. Got it?”
Jeff nods, then leaves.
I should sit it out. Protest. Show the label they don’t own me, but they do. And I want to perform so badly—need to. I close my eyes and take several deep breaths. Forget this is Jeff’s doing. Remember why I’m here: for the music, for the guys, for the fans. For me.
We soar as the platforms we stand on rise. Born from the ground into the spotlight. I hold my mic to my lips and unleash the melody: “Don’t stand still / gotta keep running.” I feel the sound in my throat. Hear my voice harmonizing with the others’. But something is wrong.
“How y’all doing tonight?” Jasper asks the crowd, holding his mic out to pick up the swell of their response. A wave of screams. “I don’t know, guys, I don’t think they’re awake yet.” He winks at me.
I bring my mic up and say, “They sound a bit sleepy to me, Jas,” but no sound comes out. My heart ticks like a bomb waiting to explode in my chest. Confusion seizes my face.
Jasper’s smile falters. He tilts his head. Says, “I asked how y’all are doing, tonight.” Except he doesn’t watch the audience for their response, he watches me.
I put the mic to my lips again and say, “I think they’re awake, now.” And no one hears me. I snap my fingers into the mic.
Jeff didn’t turn my voice on. He didn’t even turn my mic on. And yet, when the chorus comes around, I hold up my mic and move my lips and my voice rings out over the speakers like it’s coming from my throat. It’s not. I’m a warm body. A marionette. Jeff might as well stick his arm up my ass and puppet my jaw with his hand.
The lights dim to soft blues and purples. The four of us walk to the front of the stage, Aiden with his guitar. Jasper raises his mic to his lips and says, “We’re going to do something special for you guys. Go off-book. Sing a little song a cappella, for you, that we only ever sing for each other. You won’t find it on the set list.” The crowd cheers but Jasper holds his finger to his lips, quieting them. “You know the one I mean—Zeke?”
“Yup,” he answers. “And you guys are in for a treat.”
“Aiden?” Jasper says, next.
When Aiden says, “I’m ready,” I realize what Jasper’s doing.
He’s forcing Jeff’s hand.
My heart picks up speed as I search for the sound booth through the glare of lights. Is Jeff up there? Is his finger hovering over the app, wondering whether to turn my voice back on or shut Jasper’s off? When he says my name next, will Jeff let me answer?
“What about you, Ty?” Jas looks right at me. “You ready?”
When I bring my mic to my lips and say, “As ever,” the words sound full and loud over the waiting silence. I switch my mic to my left hand and put my arm around Jasper and sing, “We’re all together again, we’re here, we’re here.”
Jasper puts his around Aiden. “We’re all together again, we’re here, we’re here.”
Aiden, around Zeke. “Who knows when we’ll be all together again?”
Zeke around Aiden. “Singing all together again? We’re here, we’re here.”
We look at one another. Smile. And, this time, sing in unison, that we’re all together, again. Four voices, again. Brothers. Friends. Weirdos. We’re here. And who knows how long Jeff will let us go on like this. The label can stop the tour. Bar us from the studio. Maybe even keep us from singing all together, again. But we will continue to use our voices to support one another. As long as someone is listening. As long as we have each other. We’re here, we’re here.
“We’re Here, We’re Here” copyright © 2020 by K. M. Szpara
Art copyright © 2020 by Goñi Montes