Disclaimer: Do not own the newsies. Credit for Risk goes to Sita-chan.
Seeing for the First Time
"One must know oneself. If this does not serve to discover truth, it at least serves as a rule of life and there is nothing better." ~ Blaise Pascal
I am normal.
Or at least, 'normal' in the sense that my friends define it. I think the only 'abnormal' thing about me, that they're aware of, is the fact that I suck my thumb while I sleep. And, y'know, I don't think that matters much. The 'normal' things I do outweigh the one 'abnormal'. Like, I play stickball with everyone when they ask me to. Or I'll fight someone if they insult me or one of my friends, and I'll stick with that fight even if I'm getting beat to shit. I drink when it's offered, and I smoke if there's a cigarette available.
So, I am normal.
But, Jesus Christ... what is normal anymore?
I used to be okay with my lifestyle. Y'know. Selling papes in the morning, eating what I could afford at Tibby's for lunch, playing stickball or football until the time came to sell the evening papes, where sometimes I'd get lucky enough to be offered a drink for my services, or I'd find someone so drunk that I could take every cent out of his pocket without him noticing me at all. And sometimes, he would notice me, and would just carry on his business. See? It was a good lifestyle.
Then, Risk came. And things changed.
I'm not normal to them anymore.
Risk came to join us in the Lodging House about a year ago. His full name, as he put on the sign-in sheet, was Gabriel Harrington, but Mush, who had brought him here, kept calling him Risk.
Risk was normal too, or at least we thought he was, at first. He was rather quiet, but nice. He had black hair, blue eyes, and wore a set of glasses. I was sitting in the front room the first time he came in, and I just had to smile at the sight of him; he wore a shirt and pants that were much too big for him, his hair was all tousled, and his glasses sat crooked on his face... but still he smiled. Always, he smiled.
Risk quickly became "one of the guys", and a close friend of mine. See, at the time, I was kinda-sorta seeing this one girl, Lute. The thing was, while Lute was nice and everything, there just wasn't a click. Risk talked about the click a lot.
"When you find someone special," he said, "it's not fireworks and gunshots... it's a click. That's how you really know it's meant to be."
He told me this during one of our bonding sessions on the roof, before the big news hit. For some reason, Risk could never sleep at night. And since he slept near my bed (I do have my own... it's just that, sometimes, I'm not fast enough to claim it), I would hear him get up and would end up unable to sleep too. So I followed him up to the rooftop, and we would get to talking. It became a routine. Not the boring kind, you know, where you do it because you feel you have to. Naw. That wasn't it at all. It was just... nice. To finally have someone that listened instead of shouted. That was good. Sitting up there on the roof, watching the moonlight reflect off Risk's glasses, and the tension on the veins in his wrists as he held himself up... those were good times, my friend. Just sitting and talking and observing. Good times.
Which brings me back to Lute. I told Risk about her, and about how I liked her, but I didn't like her. That was how much I trusted this boy; that I could tell him my feelings (or rather, lack of feelings) for a certain girl.
Risk smiled at my uncertainty.
"Tell her," he said. "Don't worry about it, and just tell her there's no click, so you don't want to be part of it anymore."
"I don't wanna hurt her though..."
"Don't worry about it," he repeated. "Everything will clear up sooner or later."
While Risk and I talked, he shared some of his own secrets with me: he was scared to death of water; he was the youngest of seven kids and his big sister had spoiled him rotten; he was fascinated by the stars and moon. Once he told me that he though a person's hands were the most beautiful part of his or her body.
"Why?" I asked him.
He blushed. "Honestly, I don't know. But if a person has beautiful hands, that person's entirety is beautiful to me."
I blinked and held my hands out in front of me. "My hands are square... dirty... my fingers are too long..."
He grabbed my fingers and put them back on the ground. "They're beautiful," he said, smiling earnestly.
I smiled back.
We didn't always get so in depth, though. Sometimes, we ragged on our fellow newsboys. Like, one time, Risk was talking about who was best at football: "Jack and Blink are good, 'cause their shoulders are big, and you're good, Snitch, 'cause you're tall and scary," he paused while I laughed at the idea of me being scary. "But there's some guys that just shouldn't play at all."
"If you say Crutchy, I'll soak you."
"I don't mean Crutchy," he said seriously. "I mean Skittery."
For some reason, I bristled. "Why?"
"He's too skinny for one thing."
"So? He's smart."
"But he always drops the ball! And he can't run very fast either."
"Well," I huffed, "he's a damn good pitcher."
"That's stickball, Snitch."
"So? You can't pitch worth beans. So keep your mouth shut."
He stared evenly at me as I fumed.
"Okay, Snitch. I understand," he said calmly. From there, we moved to other subjects.
He understood more than he let on.
The big point of this story I'm telling is that I did not know myself. I thought I did. But knowing yourself and who you are is so much more than just knowing your name, your parents, your friends and other random facts about yourself.
So much more.
Things started to come to a boil one sticky July evening in 1900. Kloppman, in a good mood, treated us to a picnic dinner in the park. Those of us with ladyfriends were allowed to bring them. I didn't really want Lute there; she'd been acting funny lately and it made me uncomfortable. But, as my best friend Itey was seeing one of Lute's school-friends, she heard about it and came anyway. I couldn't help but groan when I saw her, which made Risk snicker.
Lute approached me joyfully, dragging me to a remote area of the park as soon as she got the chance.
"Snitch, can we talk?" she asked as soon as we were far enough away that I had nothing better to do than talk to her.
"Sure. What's going on?" I asked.
She beamed up at me with that pretty smile. "Snitch, I want to talk about... the future."
Future? I was having a hard enough time focusing on the present; Blink and Mush were throwing water at each other, soaking their shirts into translucency. For some reason, that was amazingly interesting.
"What do you want to do with your life?"
"Huh?" I blinked, and turned to look at Lute again. "Uh... I dunno, honestly." I shrugged. "Why?"
She hugged my arm, and suddenly I was very uncomfortable. "I want to finish school... then maybe get married..."
"... have some kids..."
Christ, here it comes.
"And live a generally good life." She squeezed my hand. "With you."
"Lute..." I began, gently prying her fingers from my arm. "No."
She frowned. "What?"
"I'm... not ready to think about that kind of thing. Okay?"
"But... but why put off to tomorrow what could be done today? Daddy said you could court me properly, and-"
"Well, maybe I don't wanna court you."
She stepped back from me, her eyes narrow. Her voice was flat when she spoke: "What?"
"Maybe... maybe you're not the one for me."
"Snitchy!" Her eyes flooded suddenly. "How can you say that?!"
I shrugged. "By saying it? I dunno."
She huffed, tears rolling down her rosy cheeks. "What makes you think we're not meant to be anyway?"
"There's no click."
"No click. Risk says the click is the key."
Her eyes narrowed. "And just who does this Risk person think he is anyway? Where is he?"
I turned and scouted Risk out, pointing when I found him. "That's Risk," I said, watching as he playfully shoved Snoddy into the dirt for a short tumble.
Lute squinted for a moment, studying him, then suddenly her back straightened, and her green eyes went wide.
"Oh!" She said. "Oh!"
I frowned. "What?"
"Snitch... that boy used to live in the apartment below the Lilkenses."
I blinked. I hadn't been directly involved in the Shock Lilken ordeal, but every newsie and friend of a newsie in New York knew that story: Shock Lilken had been a schoolboy-newsie, selling in the evenings after school, in Brooklyn. Everyone liked him well enough until De Pelligrino, one of Spot's boys, caught him tangled with another boy in an alleyway... both with their pants down. After that, Shock was never heard from again. Spot likes to say he killed him.
"So?" I said. "Don't mean nothin'."
"Yes it does," she responded, nodding solemnly.
She pointed at Risk, watching me and waiting for a reaction. "That's the boy De caught Shock with. De's sister, Mandy, is a friend of mine, and she's pointed him out to me before."
I stared at her in surprise. "But... no, but... Risk ain't like that!" I insisted.
I swear to God, she was smirking. "Ask him. See if I'm wrong."
I asked him.
She wasn't wrong.
"How come you never told me you's a boy-kisser?!" I asked Risk that night on the rooftop, sounding very upset.
He didn't look happy either. "It's honestly none of anyone's business. I didn't think it would be important."
"Is this why you left your parents?"
"More like why my parents left me." His blue eyes were boring into mine. "Does this change anything? Between us?"
I wasn't sure what he meant, and stayed silent. He sighed.
"I know the difference between love and friendship, Snitch. You don't have to be afraid of me."
I didn't have a response. To be perfectly honest, I still liked Risk. I just... I don't know. I don't know what was wrong.
There was a heavy silence for a very long time. Risk got up with a sigh and stretched.
"That's answer enough for me," he said, heading down the ladder to the bunkroom.
Once he was gone, I laid back and stared at the stars, frighteningly confused at what was going on in my mind.
Unfortunately, Lute wasn't the only one that recognized Risk from the Shock Lilken Scandal. Spot Conlon and De Pelligrino themselves dropped in on the picnic too, and as soon as De was positive of what he saw, he told Spot... who told Jack... who told the entire Manhattan Lodging House.
This was not a good thing.
After Risk had fallen asleep, Jack lit a lantern and insisted we talked about this 'problem'.
"So everyone knows what's up, right?"
"Yeah, sure, of course," was the general response.
"All right," Jack swallowed. "What're we gonna do about it?"
"Kick... kick him out?" Mush suggested tentatively. Safe in the shadows, I cringed.
"That's what I was thinkin'..." Jack mused. "But we could do like Spot did..."
"That's a little cruel, Cowboy," I said. "You's a better man than Spot. Don't sink to his level."
Stroking Jack's ego always worked. "Yeah," He smiled, stroking his chin. "You're right. I's better than Spot. Ain't gonna do what he does."
"Y'know," Skittery said moodily, "I seriously don't care. Risk can stay or he can leave, I don't care. I was never close to him. Snitch was, but I wasn't."
Again, I cringed.
"So, I don't care. Can I go back to sleep now?" Skittery ran his fingers through his soft, chestnut hair, and stared at Jack with stormy eyes.
Jack stared back. "What was that about Snitch?"
"He and Risk's real close. They go up on the roof some nights. Don't come down for a while neither."
Jack twitched his head to look at me. "Really?"
I looked pointedly at the ground and kept my mouth shut.
"Snitch? You and Risk do things up there at night?"
"No!" I insisted. "No, I mean... I... we didn't do nothin'! Nothin' but talk! That's all we ever did! Talk!"
"Awful lot of talkin'," came Blink's voice, low and unsure.
"Seriously, guys! I ain't like that!" And I wasn't. But images kept popping into my head: The veins in Risk's wrists straining as he held himself up on a moonlit night; The movement of Skittery's fingers through his fine hair; Blink and Mush soaked to the skin, laughing and clinging onto each other, their chests showing through their shirts...
Oh, fuck, I thought. Oh fuck, no, don't you dare.
I blinked and looked up. "I ain't," I finished.
An uncomfortable silence followed. I knew no one believed me, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. So I kept my mouth shut.
"If you asses are done accusing Snitch of bein' a pansy, I'd like to get back to sleep?" Skittery's sullen voice poked out of the shadows. "Good night and shut up."
The creaking of Skittery's bedsprings drowned out Jack's final words, so that I couldn't hear them. Maybe that was planned. I don't know.
I lay down on my side and placed my thumb in my mouth, ignoring the first bitter, dusty taste.
I didn't sleep that night.
I was too scared.
The following day I ignored Risk entirely; it seemed like the safe thing to do. I sold papes by myself, and managed to get very lonely. By lunch, I was desperate for a friend to talk to.
Unfortunately, most every one of my 'pals' at the Lodging House thought I was... well, you know.
I sat at a booth in Tibby's by myself. Itey stopped by for a moment, but quickly left when the first chance arose. Skittery paused for a moment to tell me "not to listen to those bums, they're just being stupid, they'll get over it", before flashing a smile and ducking away.
I pounded my head on the table, hating everyone and everything.
Then, Jack came up to me.
I followed Skittery's advice and ignored him.
"Hey, ya damn pansy, listen to me when I talk to ya!" He slammed my head against the table, a lot harder than I'd been doing. I glared at him, rubbing my pained forehead.
"Where's your pretty boy?"
"I don't get you."
Jack scowled. "Where's Risk, you fag?"
"I ain't!" I persisted, desperate. "I ain't, Jack!"
I stared at the table and shrugged.
"You didn't take him out for a lovely morning fuck today?"
"Leave him alone, Jack!" Skittery shouted from across the room.
"Stay outta this!" Jack yelled back. His face was reddening. That meant I was in deep shit. "Where's Risk, Snitch?"
"I don't know, now fuck off, and lemme alone!" I shouted, turning poutily away.
Jack laughed. "You're such a child, Snitch. Why don't you grow up? Grow up and see how much better off you was with Lute. With any girl for that matter."
"Fuck off, I said!" I told him, not bothering to turn.
The bell over the door chimed, and dear God Almighty, who should come in but Risk. My heart sank. This wouldn't end well.
A smile spread over Jack's face. "Risk! Been lookin' all over for ya!" he said cheerily. "Got your boyfriend right here, waitin'!"
Risk looked confused for a moment, then his face hardened. He said nothing.
"Ain't ya gonna say hi to your lover-boy, Risk?" Jack asked innocently. "C'mon. Y'know you wanna see his lovely face again."
Risk ignored him, walking past without a sound.
"Snitch!" Jack gasped, putting his hands on his hips and feigning shock. "I do declare!" His voice was high, his motions girlish.
He was making fun of Risk.
I hated Jack Kelly more than anything at that moment. If the whole thing with Snyder hadn't ended a year before, I would have gone straight to the Refuge and turned the bastard in.
"He completely ignored you!" Jack continued, unable to hold in his laughter any longer. Most of the other boys roared right along with him. I noticed Skittery trying to ignore the whole thing from his seat in the back, and Itey looking torn between his loyalty to Jack, and his friendship to me.
I turned to look at Risk and was surprised to find he was watching me. His eyebrows were raised with curiosity. I see now that maybe he was just waiting to see what I would do about this situation, but in my frustration, it looked like he was eyeing me, judging me... wanting me.
I saw red.
I stood up and shoved Jack aside, stalking my way towards Risk. The entire restaurant was silent as I pulled my arm back and punched Risk in the face, snapping his glasses in two and knocking him to the ground.
"I ain't like that!" I yelled at him. "I ain't like you! We ain't lovers! We ain't nothin'! So don't look at me like that! Stop fuckin' lookin' at me!"
Risk stared up at me in with surprise. Then, his face filled with mild disappointment.
"Well," he said, standing and looking me in the eye as he placed his broken glasses in his pocket. "You've sure proven yourself today, haven't you, Snitch?"
I said nothing. I had just realized what I'd done and was too busy feeling like the lowest scum on the face of the planet to respond.
Risk nodded at my silence and left the restaurant.
Jack clapped me on the shoulder. "Guess you ain't what we thought you was, eh?" he said. "No pansy could punch like that."
I think it was supposed to be a compliment, but it really didn't feel like one.
After lunch, I went out and did something I'd never done before: I sought out Morris Delancey, provoked him, and got him to beat the shit out of me. My reasoning behind this was that I deserved to be beaten within an inch of life, and if Risk wasn't going to do it, then I'd get someone else to.
I then dragged myself to the Lodging House, avoided Kloppman's questions, and went straight to the roof, where I nursed my wounds and sobbed. I could not have been more pissed at myself than I was just then.
I knew I was never going to see Risk again. After a scene like that, why would he ever want to come back to the Manhattan Lodging House? He would run away, far away, and I'd never see him again.
But that was okay. That wasn't why I was crying.
I was crying because I'd realized something while Morris was pounding his knuckles into my cheeks. Something important.
Se, I'd kept insisting to the guys that I wasn't 'like Risk'. I honestly thought I wasn't. But that was because I couldn't see myself.
While my physical eyes were closed, anticipating Morris's next kick, my mental eyes opened wide, and I could see my true self perfectly.
I wrapped a piece of cloth torn from my discarded and bloody shirt around a cut on my arm, and sniffled slightly. God, was I scared.
I jumped and looked up. Climbing onto the roof was Skittery, his shirt lost to the summer heat, his eyes glimmering with worry.
"You look like hell..."
I smiled slightly. "Thanks."
"No, I didn't mean..." he sighed. "Never mind. I... are you okay?"
"Just a couple flesh wounds," I said. "They'll heal up. I've had worse."
"I don't mean those," he said, sitting across from me and lightly running his fingers over a bruise on my exposed collarbone. "You've been real quiet lately. Thoughtful, I guess. And that show in Tibby's! You fuckin' exploded! I did not see that comin'!"
"And you think I did?" I replied sourly.
"Well, no. Just... never mind." He was quiet for a moment. "You didn't have to punch him, y'know."
"Are you..." He paused. "Are you really... like that?"
"Like what?" I asked, knowing exactly what.
"Gay," he said. "Are you really gay?"
I stared at him, hard. Do or die. Truth or lie. I sighed and he waited patiently for my answer.
I waited too.
Finally, I opened my mouth and let the words come, not knowing or caring what they were.
"Yes," I said, sounding surprised. "I am gay."
He stared at me for a quiet moment.
"Okay," he responded softly. "Okay. Me too."
"And if you got a problem with me, then you can-... what?" That last word was very much a croak of surprise.
Skittery looked at me for a moment, then leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on my mouth. When he moved away, blushing, sweat gleaming on his chest, the few doubts I'd had about my answer to his question flew right out the window.
Skittery and I stared at each other for another moment.
"How long?" I asked.
"One year. One very long year."
"And you weren't scared?"
He shrugged. "Why be scared of love?"
I stared at him for a moment, then burst into tears. When he hesitantly put his arms around me, I grabbed him and sobbed into his chest, hating myself and loving the warmth and comfort he attempted to give me.
I was seeing myself for the very first time. I was seeing Snitch Riccio, seventeen years old, pickpocket-slash-newsboy, boy-kisser, young man... I was seeing the real me.
Breaking your shell and seeing what you really are inside is one of the hardest things you will ever have to do... but it's something you need to do. It hurts... it hurts like fucking hell. But pain always goes away, and it always helps you grow into something better. I, a gay street-rat orphan, would know that better than anyone.
See, I am normal.
I live. I love.
I may not live like you do... and I may not love like you do... but still... I live, and I love.
And that, to me is normal.
Seeing for the First Time by Lute