The following is an excerpt from Celia Laskey's new novel Under the Rainbow, the story of a group of social activists who arrive in Big Burr, KS (named "the most homophobic town in the US"), in an attempt to educate and broaden mindsets in small town America. Celia Laskey’s work has appeared in Guernica, The Minnesota Review, and other places.
I’m sitting in second-period biology, where I should be diagramming a chain of DNA but instead I’m diagramming something way more fascinating: the back of Jake Strommer’s neck. The spot where his light brown hair meets his suntanned skin looks like a bird in flight, with two arches connecting in a V in the center. I imagine what it would be like to reach out and touch it, trailing my fingertips down to where his skin gradually pales at the rim of his gray, frayed T-shirt. J’d pull the shirt off with my teeth—I’d rip it right in half—then I’d kiss my way down his spine, stop ping at each bony knob. When I get to the two dimples at the base of his back, my hetero shame hits.
hetero shame: noun lhe-ta-ro\ Isham\
: fear of coming out as heterosexual to your lesbian mom who you know wishes you were a lesbian, too
That’s right—I’m a straight fifteen-year-old girl with moms who basically raised me like a dog-show poodle to be the most perfect lesbian ever, with just the right amount of feminist theory and fall flannels and whale watching. Not that there’s any whale watching here, and not that my moms are even together anymore.
A few weeks ago I moved from Los Angeles with my mom Karen and my brother Cory to Big Burr, Kansas, a charming little hamlet of ten thousand people that has definitively been labeled the Most Homophobic Town in the U.S. Try not to be too jealous. The “most homophobic” thing is for real—this huge LGBTQ non profit called Acceptance Across America had a whole process for how they narrowed it down.
They started by looking at which states had the most hate crimes and conversion therapy and all that fun stuff, then they combed through people’s social media and saw who was dumb enough to publicly say things like, “I hate faggots” or “Choke on a dick, you dyke,” then once they had a few front-runners they visited the towns, incognito, to see what was up. Big Burr was the clear winner.
Finally, in an exciting experiment to see if bigots can be transformed into reasonable people, Acceptance Across America sent a task force to actually live in Big Burr. A task force that my mom promptly volunteered to be the head of, which brings me to how I found myself in this classroom. I’m pretty sure they’re hoping the task force will work like that old MTV show The Real World: This is the true story of fifteen queers and lefties, picked to live in the most homophobic town in America, to work with its residents and find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
We’re supposed to stay in Big Burr for two fucking years. My other mom, Steph, was not down for the ride. She’s the head of programming at Netflix and wasn’t about to move to what she calls “the grundle of the United States.” My moms fought nonstop for the six months before we left about whose work was more Important with a capital I and whether my brother Cory and I would stay or go. Since Steph travels all the time for work, they decided we had to go with Karen. I threw a shit fit, which obviously didn’t change the outcome, but Cory said he didn’t mind going. He said he thought it was “important to his development” to “experience how queer people are treated in other parts of the country.”
Did I mention Cory is essentially a seventeen-year-old Dan Savage? At our high school in L.A. he had a column called “The Fag Rag” and he starred in the theater group’s renditions of The Birdcage and A Chorus Line. He and Karen are two peas. All of this is why I’m a little hesitant to be, like, “Hey, Karen, while I totally realize all the ways the patriarchy has held us down and while I completely appreciate the female form on an objective level, when I fantasize in class it’s about guys, specifically Jake Strommer, and how I’d like to lick his body up and down.”
Mrs. Stark tells us to pair up with someone and compare our DNA diagrams. Jake turns around and smiles at me, the little gap between his front teeth making my stomach dip. “Let me see your genes, girl,” he says in a deep, jokey voice.
I stand up and do Vanna White hands around my Levi’s. Jake laughs, and I want to yell at no one, “SEE HOW WE GET EACH OTHER?!?!”
“Now let me see your other genes.” He flips a page of his note book to his diagram.
I sit down and look at my blank page. “I didn’t do it,” I whisper.
“Tsk tsk, Avery.” He puts his notebook on my desk. “We can look at mine.” His drawing looks like two magnified strands of hair with twisted ladder rungs between them. The perspective and the shading make me think he draws outside of class.
“This is really good. But you missed a thymine.” I point to the spot on his drawing where it should be.
Jake scoffs good-naturedly. “You didn’t even do it, and you’re correcting mine?” He draws in the thymine and asks, still looking down at his paper, “So are you going to Billy’s party tonight?”
“I don’t know,” I say, trying to make it seem like I’m debating between Billy’s party and other plans, even though I haven’t heard of any party and I don’t know who Billy is.
“I haven’t seen you at any of the parties since school started. What are you always doing?”
I lean in and lower my voice. “You can’t tell anyone, but I’m actually in the CIA. I’m undercover as a high school student for a top secret case.”
“So what happens when you fall for the smooth sophomore?”
He pulls his front teeth across his bottom lip and looks right at me. My cheeks heat up like the coils of an electric stove and I look away, scanning the class. “Oh, you mean Franklin?” I say, tipping my head toward the other side of the room. Franklin sits at his desk, a spit-filled pen cap dripping from the side of his mouth, his pleated khakis bunching around his midsection.
“Dang, it’s like that, huh?” Jake laughs and shakes his head. “Well, I heard Franklin is coming to Billy’s tonight, so…”
“So I’m there.”
At home, I drop my backpack next to the couch with a thud. Karen and Cory stand at the kitchen counter chopping vegetables.
“If there’s a hunting club, then I don’t see why there can’t be a GSA,” says Cory, perfectly symmetrical slices of red pepper falling off his knife in rapid succession.
“I’ll come talk to Chuck next week,” says Karen. Chuck being our principal. “He’ll listen to me.”
“Seriously, Karen?” I say, stealing a slice of red pepper from Cory’s cutting board.
“What?” She places the flat side of her knife over a bulb of garlic and whacks it with the heel of her hand, then winces and rubs her arthritic knuckles. Her hair, cut in a classic mom pixie, is just starting to gray at the temples, and the other night when I walked by the bathroom I noticed her patting baby oil under her eyes.
“Can’t you leave some things alone?” I say. The school year just started a few weeks ago, which means no one knows who my mother is yet, and I’d like to keep it that way for as long as possible. Thankfully I have Steph’s last name, and I told anyone who asked that we moved here to take care of my ill grandmother, who lives one town over in Dry Creek. “You do know no one’s going to join a GSA, right?” I say to Cory.
He narrows his eyes at me. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, yeah,” I lie. “But you and me would be the only members.” I grab a handful of pepper slices and chew them with my mouth open.
“Did you have a bad day at school, Avery?” asks Karen, reaching over to pet my hair.
“I had a fine day.” I duck away from her hand. “I’m going to a party tonight.”
Karen and Cory make eye contact. “Billy Cunningham’s?” Cory says.
“How do you know about it?”
“Because Billy told me during history class that if! go, I’ll be … How did he put it? Beat till I’m a dead horse.” He laughs exaggeratedly. “Such a nice guy, that Billy. He’s gone out of his way to introduce me to Kansas customs like drawing dicks on my locker and reminding everyone my name is Faggot.”
Karen puts down her knife. “Honey, are you serious?”
“Now I’m definitely coming to talk to Chuck,” says Karen. “And I don’t want you going to a party at some homophobe’s house,” she says to me.
“Fine, I won’t go,” I say, and quickly change the subject. “Are we having stir-fry again?”
“There’s nowhere decent in this town to get Chinese,” says Karen, removing a paper-towel-wrapped block of tofu from under neath a dictionary. “So yes, we’re having stir-fry again. Did you know I had to order fish sauce online? None of the grocery stores in a sixty-mile radius had it.”
Cory winces. “I’m so desperate I would even eat P. F. Chang’s. Compared to Pu Pu Hot Pot it’s, like, gourmet.”
“You guys are the ones who wanted to come here,” I remind them.
Karen looks at me from the corner of her eye while she slices the tofu block in half horizontally, then cuts vertical strips from the top. “So who were you planning to see at that party tonight?”
“Jana,” I say, who is my one friend so far in Big Burr, “and some other people from school.” I shrug. “No one in particular.”
“No one in particular, huh?” Karen makes a self-satisfied face like when she solves the Sunday crossword. “Does Avery like someone?” she asks Cory in a teasing, singsongy voice.
What is it with mothers? Sometimes they don’t know anything, and other times they know the one thing you wish they didn’t. She’s always so careful to use the right words: someone, anyone, she or he or they. But her bias shows anyway, like a bra strap underneath a spaghetti-strap tank top. I can see it in how she holds her face when she asks questions like these, expression deliberately neutral. I can hear it in her tone, overly disinterested and nonchalant. Most of all, I can feel it in the pressure underneath her words, her hope for an answer that will mean I’m just like her.
I can feel it in the pressure underneath her words, her hope for an answer that will mean I’m just like her.
It’s not like she’s ever outright said, “I wish you were gay.” But on any given day Karen’s sound bites would include the word “hetero” said like a slur, “Divorce your husband!” (yelled at the TV during House Hunters; said under her breath to women at Target), and, “Every day something makes me sad for straight women.” The take away being: heterosexuality is inferior, and all straight people must be miserable idiots.
After dinner, Karen and Cory nestle on the couch and cue up Queer as Folk, which they must be re-watching for at least the tenth time. I hover near the window, waiting forJana to pick me up. I told Karen we were going to a movie even though we have no plans of abandoning the party. When I see Jana’s white Toyota Corolla with the dented door pull into the driveway, I sprint outside before Karen has a chance to invite her in.
As soon as I open the car door, I’m smacked in the face by the sickly sweet smell of Jana’s vanilla-scented perfume, magnified by the Yankee Candle vanilla air freshener hanging from her rearview mirror. “Jesus, Jana, it smells like you fucked the Cookie Monster in here,” I say, rolling down the passenger-side window.
Jana pauses to roll her eyes, then continues applying mascara using the tiny mirror on the back of the sun visor. She’s wearing her standard black V-neck and black jeans, her long black hair parted down the center. She’s not a goth or anything; she says she just likes her clothes to match her soul. I don’t think my floral-print sweat shirt matches my soul, but I have no idea what would. Probably that gross purply brown color you get when you mix all the colors in the paint palette together.
“Hey, can I put some on?” I ask, gesturing to the mascara. I rarely wear makeup but we are going to a party. Maybe it will entice Jake to make a move.
Jana hands me the mascara and the second I bring the wand near my lashes, I poke myself in the eyeball.
“Oh my god, have you never done this before?” Jana licks her thumb and wipes the mascara from my eyelid, then takes the wand back. “Blink,” she directs me as she makes small upward strokes. My lashes catch in the brush, sticking together and getting heavy.
When she’s finished, I flip down my sun visor and behold my self “Wow. I never knew my eyelashes were so long.” I wonder how I would look with a full face of makeup: my acne foundationed into oblivion, my barely visible cheekbones contoured into sharp lines, my normal-sized lips plumped to Angelina Jolie proportions.
Jana laughs at me batting my eyelashes at myself, then backs the car out of the driveway. “So where are we going?”
“I thought you knew where Billy lives.”
“Nope,” she says. “Why don’t you just text Jake and ask him for the address?”
“And reveal what a loser I am? No thank you.”
Jana presses her lips together, thinking. “It’s cool. We can just wait at 7-Eleven until someone from school shows up to buy Slur pees. Then we follow them.” The rumor is that to be allowed into one of Billy’s parties, you have to be holding a Slurpee, like some kind of offering. Apparently he dumps all the Slurpees into a huge bucket and then adds a few handles of vodka. The resulting slop is called pussy punch, supposedly because it gets girls so wasted that they’ll have sex with anyone. Sometimes I can understand why my mom hopes I’m a lesbian.
After we’ve waited twenty long minutes in the 7-Eleven parking lot, a black hatchback pulls in and two people from school get out: Zach Roland and his best friend Ramona. Jana tells me they’re kind of loners, not really friends with anyone except each other, and she wouldn’t expect them to be invited to a party of Billy’s, but when we follow them into the store they buy two Slurpees, so we do the same. Armed with a Mountain Dew Kickstart and a Fanta kiwi strawberry, we follow them back out to the edge of town, past the gravel pit where yards become car graveyards and it’s harder to tell which houses are lived in or abandoned. Finally we turn into a long, potholed, tree-lined driveway, thick branches scraping against the side of the car as we creep toward the house.
Jana parks in a dirt lot next to about fifteen trucks, her head lights illuminating a barn and some kind of animal hanging upside down from a post. When we get out of the car, I can tell it’s a deer by the antlers that graze the ground. It’s been slit from ass to chest, the empty red body cavity gaping, white fur flapping from the sides. A group of boys I vaguely recognize as juniors stand wide legged around the deer, drinking beer and gesturing to various parts of its body.
Jana and I try to pass by quickly, but one of the boys holds out his arm to stop us.
“It’s a beaut, huh, ladies?” The bill of his Jayhawks hat sits low over his eyes, and he flicks it up to get a better look at us.
“Sure,” I say, swallowing a mouthful of sour spit. “A real beaut.”
Tiny strings of white tendon hang from the ribs of the deer like remnants of a spiderweb. Between two ribs, there’s a jagged V-shaped hole. The boy sticks his finger through it, and I jump.
“Killed the old-fashioned way, with a bow and arrow,” he says proudly.
“Did you kill it?”
“Billy’s dad got this one,” he says. “But I’ll get mine when fire arm season starts.”
“Why’s it hanging upside down?” I ask, immediately kicking myself for a question that might mark me as an outsider.
“The tenderization process,” he says, slapping its haunches. “You’ve got to wait for the rigor mortis to pass,” says another boy, his words slow and sticky from drinking. He tips his head back to finish the last of his Colt 45 and tosses the bottle in the bushes.
“About five days will get you some nice, delicate meat.” He smiles at my mortified expression. “Not from here, are you?”
“I’m new,” I say, hoping he won’t ask for more details.
He looks me up and down, his body lilting back and forth like he’s standing in a rowboat. When he sways toward me, he holds his face close to mine. His breath smells like rotting leaves after it rains. “No one here is new. Why would you come to Big Burr?”
I switch my Slurpee to my other hand, wiping the cold condensation on my jeans.
“She’s on a top-secret mission,” Jake says from behind me. I breathe out, not realizing I had been holding in air, and step closer to him.
“What kind of mission?”
Jake rolls his eyes. “It wouldn’t be top secret if I told you, would it?”
The boy regards Jake, then me. His pale blue irises bob near his eyelids. Then he stumbles back against the wall of the barn and falls sideways into the brambly weeds. His friends laugh, help him up, and pass him another Colt 45.
Jake puts his hand on the small of my back, my skin lighting up under his touch, and guides me past the deer. “Let’s go inside.”
As we walk into the living room, I can’t help but stare at the animal heads mounted above a gaudy rose-patterned couch. I recognize deer and moose, but can’t figure out exactly what the other ones are. Below each head hangs a picture of a handsome bearded man, who I assume is Billy’s father, holding up the head when it was still attached to its limp body in the wild. Two large windows flank the couch, framed by yellow tulip-printed curtains. I’ve never seen such a straight-looking room: something for the husband, some thing for the wife. It’s a very democratic, if not visually cohesive, form of decorating. I can practically hear Karen yelling at Billy’s mom, “Divorce your husband!”
A girl who’s just funneled a beer climbs onto the couch and holds her red Solo cup up to the moose’s stiff mouth. Just as she begins to tilt the cup, Billy comes tearing across the room, grabs her arm, and pulls her to the front door, tossing her out. “What is Billy’s one rule?” he asks the room.
“Hands off the taxidermy!” everyone yells back.
Jana and Jake and I wander into the kitchen to see what there is to drink. The infamous bucket of pussy punch sits on the kitchen table, which is covered with a vinyl daisy-printed tablecloth. We dump our obligatory Slurpees in, then stir the sludgy dark purple liquid with a plastic ladle.
Jana dips a Solo cup into the bucket. “When in Rome.” She takes a sip, then shakes her head back and forth and smacks her mouth like a cat after you force a pill down its throat. “It’s good,” she croaks. “Tastes just like a Slurpee.” I reach for her cup.
“Don’t drink that,” Jake says to me. “You, either,” he says to Jana. He hands us each a can ofBud Light and we head back into the living room.
The TV is tuned to the local news, which I’m assuming is just the default channel, because no one is paying attention. The anchor, who looks like she can barely hold her eyes open with all the eye shadow weighing down her lids, is talking about how a man with a shotgun held up a combination KFC/Taco Bell. When it turned out there was only forty-four dollars in the till, he demanded one of each menu item from both restaurants and was arrested halfway through eating a Beefy Fritos Burrito.
“He should have been arrested just for eating a Beefy Fritos Burrito,” jokes the woman’s co-anchor, a man wearing a striped tie almost as wide as his face.
The female anchor gives a small, forced chuckle and then moves on to the next story. “Today, task force members from the gay rights organization Acceptance Across America met with the mayor and council members of Big Burr.” My stomach jumps. I pray no one notices, but the name “Acceptance Across America” triggers some kind of Pavlovian response and everyone in the room snaps their heads around to look at the TV.
“The head of the task force, Karen Roxford, spoke to us today about Acceptance Across America’s main objectives, and the strategies that businesses and residents can use to make their communities more LBGT-friendly,” the anchor goes on, botching the order of the initials, but it doesn’t seem like anyone noticed. I fight the urge to bolt out of the room or huddle into a ball on the floor as the camera cuts to my mother, wearing a white blazer with a large AAA pin fastened to the lapel. As shouts of, “Dyke,” and “Go back where you came from,” echo across the room, I make eye contact with Zach, the guy we followed from the 7-Eleven, who seems to be the only other person not yelling some kind of epithet. He pulls his mouth into a grimacey smile and starts walking toward me. Oh, Jesus. Has he somehow realized that Karen is my mom? Is he going to out me right now, in front of everyone? He has a gentle, dopey face, the kind of guy who looks like he wouldn’t be able to grow a full beard no matter how hard he tried, but appearances can be deceiving.
He leans against the wall next to me and widens his eyes at everything going on around us. “You’re new here, right?” He shakes his head. “That’s a stupid question. I know you’re new. I would ask how you’re liking Big Burr so far, but I don’t think this party is doing us any favors.”
I cross my arms. “I’m having a fine time.”
He laughs. “A fine time. What everyone wants to have at a party!”
I laugh, too, but keep watching the TV out of the corner of my eye, waiting for Karen’s face to disappear.
Zach leans in close to me and lowers his voice. “I’m having a terrible time, to be honest. I’m only here because my best friend Ramona has a crush on Seth Braun.” He shoves a fist into his mouth. “Oh, shit. Don’t tell anyone I said that, will you?”
I roll my eyes. “I don’t really have anyone to tell.”
“Oh, right. I heard you’re from LA?”
He smiles a big, goofy smile. “I’ve always wanted to go there. Have you ever met a celebrity?”
I shrug. “Sure. Not, like, been introduced to them, but I see them around all the time. One time Kristen Stewart tried to pet my friend’s dog, then the dog growled at her.”
“That’s crazy.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “What was it like at your old high school?”
My old high school—the word sends a jolt through my gut. “It was like a different country,” I say. “A way more developed one.” Karen is still on the goddamn TV, talking about how businesses can put rainbow flags in their windows to signal acceptance. When I look back at Zach’s face, I see that it’s fallen. “Sorry, that’s so rude. I only said it because you don’t really seem like everyone else.”
He gives me a sheepish look. “Is it that obvious?”
We both laugh, then stop when we see Billy sauntering up to the TV with a mischievous look on his face. He unzips his fly and pantomimes taking his dick out. He cups the air in front of his pants and guides his imagined member into my mother’s mouth.
Someone hoots. A few people laugh. Encouraged, he humps the screen, starting out slowly, then quickening to a frenzied pace. His pants sink lower as he thrusts, and the top of his boxers becomes visible, little red hearts on white fabric. I wonder why someone like him would wear boxers like that. Maybe they were a gift from his mom. Maybe it’s laundry day. Or maybe he’s actually a very sensitive person.
“You like that, huh?” he says, looking into my mother’s eyes with an amount of hatred I’ve never felt for anything. He jerks his crotch forward and groans enthusiastically, pretending to come on her face, as the room cheers. My heart beats in my ears, and I realize Zach has disappeared from my side. I look for Jake and Jana and they’re not cheering, but they’re definitely laughing—either because they actually think it’s funny or because they feel like they have to, and I don’t really want to know which it is.
From Under the Rainbow by Celia Laskey. Copyright © 2020 by Celia Laskey. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Random House.