Sweetness Mattered

Aaron Hamburger

It’s been a couple of decades since I last held a roll of Smarties candies: roughly a dozen dimpled pastel tablets of chewable pressed sugar, tightly wrapped in cellophane. However, as a teenage boy in suburban Detroit, I always kept a stash of them in my closet, on the shelf above my prep school uniform. Every morning before school, I brushed my teeth and hair, tied my necktie, and yanked the knot up to the collar of my button-down shirt as dictated by our dress code. And then I placed a roll of the candy in the inside pocket of my sport jacket.

I recently bought a bag of Smarties, which I’ve never cared for. According to the company’s website, the different colors are meant to evoke different flavors: white for orange cream, pale green for strawberry, etc. Yet to me they all share the same stunningly sweet taste, which makes my tongue curl. They have a harsh chalky texture between my teeth, like aspirin.

But liking Smarties was never the point. The candies weren’t for me. For three years, I doled them out as gifts, one roll at a time, day after day, to a classmate named Justin, on whom I had a hopeless crush. It was my very first attempt at a love offering.

This was a risky maneuver during the late 1980s and early ’90s. In hindsight, I’m struck by how odd it was for one presumably straight young man to give candy to another young man every day for such a long time. I don’t know why Justin never said anything about it, but I’m all too aware of the powerful reasons for my silence. I had the usual fears of coming out in a hostile place and time, when politicians fulminated about culture wars and “family values,” and the only gay people you saw on television were the ones dying of AIDS. When telling gay jokes wasn’t considered offensive but rather a rite of passage for male adolescence.

In my case, however, there was one more reason.

A year before I transferred to the school I attended with Justin, a boy named Bradley moved in across the street from me. I was a lonely, bookish thirteen-year-old who wasn’t very good at sports, and since he and I were both Jewish and the same age, my parents hoped we might become friends. My dad in particular mistrusted non-Jews, often reminding me that Gentiles were anti-Semitic deep down. They had sucked up their hatred through their mother’s milk.

I sensed immediately that Bradley wasn’t interested in my friendship. Nonetheless, he seemed intent on seeking out my company. He’d ring our bell to invite me over so he could beat me at basketball, or watch for me to ride away on my bike and then follow me on his buzzing motorized scooter. He showed off his solid gold bar mitzvah ring—its front shaped in his initials with a tiny diamond in the center—and told me that he dreamed of someday punching someone hard enough to leave his initials imprinted on their cheek. I had never punched anyone or been punched, didn’t know how to, and that image of his ring branding some boy’s cheek stayed with me for a long time. He told me he’d once watched a gang of boys slice the genitals off a dog.

He also bragged about his exploits with girls, then quizzed me about my nonexistent romantic life. He wanted to know what base I’d gotten to, explaining that first base meant French kissing, second was feeling a girl up, third represented sticking your fingers down her pants, and a home run was, well, a home run.

I had to confess that I hadn’t gotten to any of those bases.

“Why? Aren’t you interested in girls?” he asked.

“I’m interested in them,” I lied. “I just haven’t met the right one.”

I could tell he didn’t believe me.

Slowly, Bradley coerced me into participating in games of truth or dare that grew increasingly sexual. He’d flex his muscles and invite me to touch them, to feel how hard his arms were. One time he pulled down his pants to show me the new pair of tight underwear he’d bought to impress his latest girlfriend. When I wouldn’t show him my underwear, he sent me into the bathroom with a candle, telling me to get a hard-on and then measure it against the candle.

After each encounter, I was terrified, bewildered, and on occasion confused by other nebulous feelings that cropped up, unbidden and unwanted, but stubbornly present. I hated him, feared him, and yet a part of me was curious about the acts he was describing. He must have sensed that.

Everything changed one afternoon when Bradley showed up at our door. After I opened it, he punched me in the stomach and told me to watch out: he’d decided to kill me. I tried to pretend he didn’t mean it, even choked out a little laugh, as if it were a joke.

He wasn’t joking. A few days later, as I got off the bus from school, Bradley cornered me again. When he figured out that no one else was home, he told me I had a choice: I could let him into our house, or he would kill me. I let him into the house, where he announced that he had changed his mind and had decided to kill me after all. In the end, I suppose, I was lucky, because he stopped short of making good on his threat. Instead he punched me repeatedly, forced me to have sex with him, roughly hiking down his pants and mine, barking at me to do what he said and to stop crying, though I did not stop. When he finished, he continued punching me while telling me how disgusting I was, only stopping because he heard my older brother’s car pulling into our garage.

For a while, I walked around the house in a kind of daze, rubbing the soreness in the places where I’d been hit. My brother kept asking me what was wrong, and I refused to speak. Finally, though Bradley had threatened to kill me if I told anyone, I put in a call to the therapist I happened to be seeing at the time. He told me the law obligated him to share my story with the police. I begged him not to, fearing it would bring even more disaster on my head, but my therapist said he had no choice.

A police officer came over and interviewed me in our living room. Then I watched him drive his car across the street to Bradley’s house.

The following day, my family took me to the local precinct to make our official statement. I remember sitting in that tight awkward room where there weren’t enough chairs so I had to share one with my mom, who had me sit on her lap and kept patting my back. On the other side of a desk covered in stacks of forms and various papers sat a matter-of-fact (and definitely non-Jewish) detective with a bushy blond mustache.

My parents were midwestern-friendly, polite, though they became increasingly silent, even stoic, as I recounted my story. I imagined that no one in the room had ever encountered a shameful and bizarre story like mine, or someone foolish or weak enough to allow such a thing to happen to him. This was the kind of crime that happened to women. But then, after what had happened, maybe I wasn’t really a man.

Then the detective told us Bradley’s defense: I wanted it. Deep, hot color flooded my cheeks, and my voice caught in my throat. Still, I managed to choke out that it wasn’t true, that I kept telling him no, and the detective said quickly, “And I knew that, I just had to hear you say it.”

Later, as we staggered down the front steps of the police station, back to our car, I wondered if there’d been some kind of mistake. Had Bradley really thought I wanted it? I went over and over what had happened: his deep barking voice threatening to slice off my balls as if I were that dog his friends had mutilated, the knife he’d found in our kitchen drawer and held over me so it lightly grazed the surface of my skin, his fists finding the soft spots all over my body, the weight of his body pushing me so firmly against my parents’ bed I couldn’t breathe.

In all of these details of the actual events I was innocent. But in my mind, specifically that corner of my mind that knew that I liked boys and not girls, I felt guilty.

Because I’d said “no,” Bradley was sent away to military school, somewhere out West, and he could return home only for supervised visits. The fact of my “no” had put him away and now kept me safe. And so I feared that any muddying of that “no” might bring him back and put me once again in danger.

The Jewish suburbs of Detroit proved to be a small world. A month or so later, a girl I knew confronted me in synagogue, saying, “I heard you called the cops on Bradley X.” Panicked, I froze, then, weirdly, offered her a weak smile.

Desperate to get away from anyone who might know me or Bradley, I begged my parents to send me out of our district for high school. Ultimately, they chose a private college preparatory school about a half-hour drive from our home, a school with a much more diverse student body than I was used to, attracting students of various ethnicities, religions, and class backgrounds from all over Detroit and its segregated suburbs.

In my new surroundings, I hoped to erase my old self and become a model prep school boy. I studied the student handbook and bought the school uniform, a jacket, striped tie, and wool pants. And I signed up for a sport, soccer, which I’d never played. I chose it because in soccer you didn’t have to catch anything.

At our first practice, I quickly realized my dreams of self-transformation were not going to work out, and not only because I seriously sucked at soccer.

We began with drills to practice kicking the ball, which I was surprised to learn you struck with the inside of your foot, not the toe. The movement felt awkward, like learning to walk for the first time. Our coach had us form two lines opposite each other so we could face off. I was out of shape, unused to so much physical activity, and already out of breath. As I was struggling to kick my ball across the grassy field, I locked eyes with my opponent, a lanky blond-haired boy with arrestingly blue eyes like bits of sky.

I knew I shouldn’t stare, but I couldn’t look away. Those eyes, filled with a shimmering light, seemed almost transparent. You could look and look and never find an end to them.

The owner of the eyes stared right back, meeting my gaze and holding it as he effortlessly, gracefully, kicked the ball out of my possession. He seemed startled by how easy it was.

His name was Justin, and during the rest of that week, I watched him dart across the soccer field, or trade wisecracks with the other kids. With his blue eyes, pale Aryan blond hair, and snub nose, he looked so different from the Jewish kids in my neighborhood. Even his voice sounded different from theirs; he talked with a slow-paced twang that had a bit of a sneer to it, like a gunslinger from a Western.

That first year at my new school, I kept my head down, hoping to blend into the walls and avoid being noticed by bullies or burnouts. I quit soccer and switched to track. No catching or kicking of balls, just you against the pavement, running as fast and as hard as you could, as if your life depended on it.

I also watched Justin out of the corner of my eye. In the hallways or at lunch, he was surrounded by friends who made snarky comments about each other, teachers, TV shows I hadn’t seen, music I didn’t listen to. I tried to stay out of his way. At the time, I thought I was afraid he might snicker at how poorly I’d played soccer, or even that he might hit me. (In those days, I was often afraid of getting hit by boys my age.) But now I wonder if I was actually more afraid I might get too close to him, divulge too much by accident. I didn’t want to muddy my “no.”

We were in the same English and math classes and, to my surprise, we became friendly, even friends. Maybe it was because we were both white and male, or maybe because I let him copy my homework. He gave me a nickname, “Burg,” which made me lose my breath every time I heard it.

As I watched him copying my answers, I’d drink in his long, lean profile and take care to look away the moment he raised his head. His French last name, and somehow the shape of his jaw and the gentle slope of his forehead, reminded me of a stained glass window in a cathedral. He spiked his hair with some kind of gel so it stood up in front. He wore brown docksiders every day so that by the end of the year they were well worn and scuffed.

Justin and I lived about thirty miles apart, each commuting daily to school from our separate corners of the Detroit suburbs. While I came from an upper-middle-class family in a predominantly Jewish suburb northwest of the city in affluent Oakland County, he was from a working-class Gentile family in Macomb County, home of Reagan Democrats, a place I’d heard about on the news but never visited. I wondered what his life was like there. In the normal course of events, we would never have met.

It turned out that Justin was also interested in my life. He’d often ask me about the Jewish holidays and what they were about, like the Jewish New Year, which he called “Rash Hashashnash,” or Hanukkah, which he pronounced “chuh-NEW-kah.” Once he inquired earnestly, “What is Jewish exactly? Is it a race or a nationality or just a religion?” I chose “just a religion,” which struck me as not quite the whole truth. I wanted to downplay the differences between us. I wanted him to like me.

Despite my father’s warnings about non-Jews and the hatred they sucked up through their mother’s milk, it had been a Jew who’d hurt me. I decided I was better off taking my chances among the latent anti-Semites.

The longer I knew Justin, the more painful it became to keep my feelings for him a secret. Still, I had no other choice. Justin was letting me talk to him, sit near him, look at him when he wasn’t looking. I didn’t want to sacrifice that by revealing myself.

I had another worry, too. If Justin sensed the full truth about me, he might become mean, dark, and ugly. In other words, I might turn him into another Bradley.

Finally, the fall of our sophomore year, an opportunity came along for me to raise my voice slightly above a whisper.

Justin and I were having one of our little chats during those precious few minutes before and after class, and I mentioned that at home we had a big bag of Smarties left over from Halloween. It turned out they were Justin’s favorite candy.

“Really?” I said. “We’ve got tons of them. None of us like them.”

“Oh, man,” he said. “Burg, you got to bring me some of those Smarties.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said casually. “Like I said, we’ve got tons of them.”

That night, however, I felt dizzy trying to decide what to do. Had Justin really meant it? Did he really want those Smarties? Or was this an example of typical guy-to-guy banter, not meant to be taken seriously? I decided it was just a joke. Clearly a normal straight guy would forget the whole thing.

But I couldn’t forget it. I wanted to do something, any little thing, to bring him pleasure. If I could do that with a piece of candy, then why not?

But how to approach the exchange? How could I pass off the gesture as casual, friendly, yet definitely not loving except in the safe confines of my own imagination? I couldn’t think of an answer.

The next day in class, I waited for the right moment, when no one was looking. Periodically, I’d finger the roll of Smarties in my pocket, to make sure it hadn’t fallen through some hole in the lining of my jacket. I still hadn’t come up with what to say, so I’d have to wing it.

Finally, at the end of the period, in the frenzy of kids packing up their book bags, I sidled up to Justin. “Here,” I said and opened my palm. “I have something for you.”

“Smarties!” he said, sounding surprised, excited, and—mercifully—not offended. His face bloomed into a generous, genuinely grateful smile. “Thanks, Burg. You’re awesome.”

He accepted my offer of candy as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The next day, I brought him another roll. Once again, he took it happily. So I kept bringing the candy.

We developed a routine. Justin would purr, “Burg, Smarties?” And I’d pull a roll out of my jacket pocket and hand it over, slightly warm from my chest. He’d accept the candy with a sleepy-eyed grin. “Like I told you,” I’d say, “we’ve got tons of them at home. I don’t like them.”

Sometimes I had the pleasure of watching him eat them then and there, in front of me. At other times, he’d save them for later, to devour in private. “Aww, yeah,” he’d say. “My favorite.” I felt flattered, as if he were saying that I was his favorite. And I felt safe. I was merely sharing leftover candy, which meant absolutely nothing.

When I’d exhausted my supply, I went to the drugstore and bought another bag. And when that one ran out, I bought another, and then another one after that—for three years. Justin never questioned how any bag of Halloween candy might reasonably be expected to last that long. He never said anything like, “Come on, Burg, why are you still feeding me candy after all this time?” He simply accepted the candy. No one else noticed. It was a private thing between us two.

Once or twice, I forgot to bring the candy to school and he seemed disappointed, even a bit indignant, as if I’d failed to live up to my share of some bargain we’d struck.

Over those three years, we became closer, sitting next to each other in math or English or history class. I lost my fear of his wisecracks and learned to make a few of my own. And despite the terrible fact of living all that time across the street from Bradley’s house, which constantly watched me like an unblinking eye, I became more confident, more comfortable in my own skin. I became less afraid. It helped that Bradley was almost always away at whatever school he’d been sent to. He’d been warned to keep his distance.

I found my own voice, taking art classes, working on the school literary magazine, performing in the school musical. I learned to play tennis, and my body became toned and lean.

And I slowly realized that Justin would never hurt me. He would never become another Bradley, no matter what I said or did, because it wasn’t my actions, thoughts, or words that had caused Bradley to assault me, but his own demons. When I’d said no to Bradley, what I’d said no to was not my sexual identity but the violence he’d perpetrated on me in the guise of a sexual act.

I was now a senior, looking forward to college at the University of Michigan. Justin was going there too, and I imagined that once we’d escaped the confines of the high school social scene with its cliques and unwritten rules, we might form a true friendship.

At our graduation party, I asked Justin to sign my yearbook. He wrote: “European History sucked this year, but you made it somewhat an enjoyable class for me. I have a great deal of respect for your artistic talents and I wish you the best of luck at the only real school in the state! See you in Ann Arbor.”

We didn’t see each other much in Ann Arbor. For one thing, Ann Arbor’s a big place. Also, as I began meeting other people who shared my love of literature and culture, I fell out of touch with Justin. I came out and began dating, and, mostly, I forgot about him.

But even all these years later, what I haven’t forgotten is the power of that romantic gesture of giving him candy, the deep and satisfying pleasure of paying tribute to someone I loved with a small gift of something sweet. The sweetness mattered.

Aaron Hamburger is the author of Faith for Beginners and The View from Stalin’s Head, winner of the Rome Prize in Literature.