When they were kids, Chris Mitcham rescued Theo from the neighborhood bullies and taught him how to “be cool.” Now, years later, Theo’s developed feelings for his best friend that arise at the most inopportune times. Theo hates lying to Chris, but in coming out, he might lose the one person who understands him best, a risk he’s not willing to take.
When a relationship with another young man goes south, Theo is forced to confront his own sexuality along with his growing attraction to Chris and his stunted, tenuous relationship with his father. Will Chris abandon Theo when he learns the truth, or will he stand by him in this tumultuous season of self-discovery?
In this quirky coming-of-age romance, Theo’s path to manhood is fraught with awkward firsts and a few haters, but also the unexpected comfort of a friend turned lover.
On Writing Flawed Characters
When I begin to ruminate on a new writing project, there are a lot of things that go into the magical muse brew. Usually I am first inspired by something in real life—a dream, a song, a personal event, something I read in the news… then comes character and conflict, and finally, setting and circumstance.
In the case of When Everything Is Blue, I was inspired by the well-worn romance trope of best-friends-to-lovers and the Reddit threads I was reading about young men falling in love with their presumably straight best friends or questioning something that happened between them and wondering if it might mean something more. Who hasn’t had a friend where you’ve wondered, what if?
That got me thinking about how when you’re young and just starting to experience the first stirrings of desire, how you can get so fixated on a person that they are the only thing you see. How all-consuming it can be to wonder if they might have the same feelings for you, if they find you desirable, if they might even initiate romance. It can be overwhelming at times to analyze and second-guess all of your interactions with them. Plus, with a friend, there is the added fear of ruining a perfectly good and stable friendship.
With this backdrop in mind, I created Theodore Wooten III who has always loved and looked up to his best friend Christian Mitcham, but has only recently discovered these feelings of affection have taken a romantic turn. It’s a questioning time for Theo, not only in his budding sexuality, but in his relationships with his family members, his growing independence, and his desire to forge a true connection with others.
For me, one of the greatest joys in writing fiction is crafting characters and their relationships, as well as putting them in a situation to see how they react. One of the ways a character comes to life for me is when their flaws surface and/or they make poor decisions. All of us humans have warts. We do things we’re not proud of. We make mistakes. We get angry and make others angry and we hurt feelings, even if it’s unintentional.
That messiness and ambiguity is what I strive for in writing stories, because it allows the reader to interpret on their own what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what actions or words are forgivable and which characters are irredeemable.
If you’ve read my previous work, you’ll probably notice that my endings are somewhat the same. Not every aspect of the story is answered, and there is room to wonder what might happen to the characters in a week, a month, a year, the rest of their lives. There’s a quote in The Last Unicorn, one of my favorite movies, where Schmendrick says, There are no happy endings, because nothing ends. For better or worse, I think I’ve internalized that philosophy in my own writing. Or maybe I’m leaving it open for a sequel 😉
The other thing that’s fun about writing flawed characters, is they can really piss you off. Perhaps it’s because they should know better or they’re misreading the situation because they’re too close to it. How many times have we made a decision or have taken an action based on an assumption or only half of the information. How many times have we not said something because we were afraid of how the other person might react or said something we’ve regretted?
Part of Theo’s journey is learning to trust himself to know what’s best and make his own decisions about love and life, rather than let others chart his destiny. But it wouldn’t be very fun or true-to-life if the answers to those questions came easily. So, there’s some screwing up and some definite awkward moments, a few mixed signals and a cutting betrayal. And there are a lot of flawed characters, because that’s what makes life (and fiction) interesting!
I’m including one of my favorite chapters because I think it really gets at the intimacy of Theo and Chris’s friendship and the struggle that comes with falling for your best friend—both tender and terrifying—just like first love!
Just the sight of Chris’s Volvo coming up the street fills me with a full-body flood of relief. I’m hopping from foot to foot as he approaches, under the bus stop overhang where I’m waiting for him out of the rain.
“What happened?” he asks as I climb into the passenger side. I shake the water from my head like a dog and Chris shields himself from my spray with his hand.
“Dinner with my dad.”
I think back to this one time my dad came and picked me up for the day. One of the rare occasions it was just me because Tabs was busy elsewhere. We watched football at a sports bar and ate chicken wings until we were both uncomfortably full. I asked a lot of questions about the game, and my dad was pretty patient in answering. All in all, it was a good time. Then, when he dropped me off, he picked a fight with my mom about how bad my table manners were, how I didn’t say please or thank you and how he was embarrassed by my behavior while we were out.
It was bullshit—all of it—and he didn’t seem to care that I was standing right there. Their fight escalated, and it made me question everything I thought I knew about my dad. He was using me to get back at her, that much I understood. I was so angry and felt so betrayed, I swore to never let my father use me as a weapon against my mother again.
In Chris’s car, I tell him everything about the night up until the point where my dad said Chris was strange and asked if he was gay. Chris listens and commiserates with me until I start to feel better. What a relief it is to unload on him, knowing he’s one hundred percent on my side, unlike Tabitha and my mom, who are always defending my dad and trying to make me see his point of view. In a way, Chris has suffered through my relationship with my father right alongside me, so the whole feelings part of it is covered without me even having to explain it. This is how it used to be between us before everything got awkward and strained.
“You should stay at my house tonight,” Chris says. “We’ll eat junk food and watch scary movies. Fart on each other’s pillows.”
I smile at that. It actually sounds like fun. Who cares if we have to be up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to get ready for school? There’s honestly no one in the world I’d rather be with right now.
We get back to his house, and Chris makes me a grilled cheese sandwich, since I never did eat my expensive froufrou dinner. Dad’s probably pissed about that too. I watch Chris move around the kitchen, thinking how nice it is, how comfortable and safe I feel in his kitchen, how lucky I am to have him in my life. Even if things with my dad are kind of messed up. Even if my sister thinks I’m a selfish asshole.
Chris slides the grilled cheese onto my plate. He uses the edge of the spatula to slice it in half, diagonally. Even my mom doesn’t know I prefer it that way.
I get to thinking then about when we first started hanging out. I was wearing this expander in my mouth so my upper jaw could fit my huge horse teeth. It made me talk with a lisp—Seadore Woosen—I couldn’t even say my own name right. Sixth grade was pretty rough, especially because in addition to our dad ditching us, that was around the time Tabitha realized I was a dweeb and started ignoring me at school. Tabs was always good at knowing what movies and shows and web videos were popular. She, like, studied up on how to be cool, whereas I just liked to sit in my room with my Magic cards or else mess around with a soccer ball outside. Our mom never introduced us to any of the American pop culture that most kids are exposed to, and we were too broke for devices or video games, so I was pretty clueless when it came to finding common ground with other kids my age. I read a lot of fantasy books, which probably didn’t help. When I tried to talk about my own weird obsessions, I was met with blank faces, or else teasing.
I got so uptight about where to sit at lunch, I couldn’t eat. Then, a few days after the bullying incident in our neighborhood, Chris saw me at school and told me to sit with him and his friends at lunch, an honor for any sixth grader. Tabs and I started catching rides with Chris and Paloma, who drove us to school. Once people saw Chris and me palling around, they pretty much left me alone. I learned how to be cool, or at least, how to keep my dweeby thoughts to myself. And even when something weird snuck out, Chris went with it and made it acceptable.
He really saved my ass.
“Whatcha thinking about?” Chris asks.
I shake myself from the memory. “When we first started hanging out. Why you stuck it out with me. I’m kind of a dweeb, Chris. Let’s be real.”
He smiles. “Maybe I like dweebs.”
I glance around at all the new, shiny appliances that adorn his state-of-the-art kitchen. Nice cars, nice family. Nice, nice, nice.
“You’ve got, like, everything, you know? Money, personality, looks. And you’re so cool about it.”
“What’s cool about me?” Chris asks like he’s baffled by it. I roll my eyes. There’s no way he can’t know. In all the ways Chris could be an asshole, he isn’t.
“Your hair, for one. It always looks awesome. You’re, like, super buff without even trying. The girls are always throwing their panties at you. You’re generous and smart and funny and you always know the right thing to say.”
“Not always,” he says. His brow wrinkles in the middle. “And who’s throwing their panties at me?”
“Kelli Keyhoe, Isabelle Demonte, that girl in California offering you a blowjob. I have to, like, wade through a pile of used panties just to talk to you.”
“Your laugh.” I turn back to my grilled cheese, sad as hell because I’m in love with my best friend and I’ll never be able to have him the way I want him. I should just be grateful I have him at all, instead of being such a wiener about it.
“What about you?” he asks, leaning on the counter so he’s close enough I can see his individual eyelashes.
“What about me?”
“Tall, dark, and handsome. Mysterious. Smart as hell. Those eyes. That smile.” He sighs like a lovesick maiden, and I shake my head. He’s messing with me. “And you don’t give a shit whether people like you or not. That’s punk rock, man.”
“Yeah, that’s my problem.”
He nudges my shoulder with his knuckles. “That’s not the problem. Your dad’s a dick. We’ve always known this. Your mom knows it too. That’s why she left him. So why are you making this about you?”
He’s right. Sort of. But it’s my fault too. If I tried harder, like Tabitha, I could at least have some kind of relationship with my father, instead of constantly fighting with him about stupid shit.
“See, you always know what to say.” I take a bite of the grilled cheese. The warm, salty goo melts in my mouth. The bread is buttery and crisp. A perfect pairing.
“I don’t always know what to say.” Chris turns away to put up the dishes and wipe down the counter—he even tidies up after himself. I get the urge, then, to talk about what happened in Sebastian. To ask him if it was just some weird mood, or if it meant something to him, but I don’t want to ruin this moment we’re having, and I really can’t afford to lose any more allies right now.
“If it was legal, I’d totally marry this grilled cheese sandwich,” I tell Chris in appreciation of his culinary abilities.
“How would you consummate the marriage?” he asks with a leer. I grin and poke a hole through the sandwich with my finger. Chris shakes his head and throws a dishtowel at me, so I wiggle my finger a little more until he cracks up. God, I love his laugh.
“I’ve seen worse matches,” he says, and I grin, excited by it because we’re talking about sex, even if it is with a grilled cheese sandwich. My mother would be so horrified.
I finish eating, and we head upstairs. Chris keeps this trunk of snacks at the end of his bed—I call it his treasure chest. It’s filled with every kind of snack cake, candy bar, and potato chip imaginable. I’m surprised he doesn’t have ants in his room. We gorge ourselves on snacks. Then I convince Chris he’s going to get fat from all the junk food he eats, so he tells me we should go swimming to work it off. It’s stopped raining, so I borrow one of his pairs of board shorts, and we go out back. We goof off in the water, acting like total idiots, horsing around like we haven’t since before he left for summer.
Afterward we lie back on lawn chairs and stare up at the hazy, light-polluted sky. The scent of chlorine is in the air and the faint sweetness of cut grass. Smells like summertime.
“I missed this,” Chris says.
“Yeah, me too.”
“You’ve changed since last year,” he says and rolls over to face me. The shark’s tooth dangles from his neck and the light from the pool plays on his face, making his eyes dance. He’s gorgeous in all lighting.
“How’s that?” I ask.
“You’ve, like, grown up. Started shaving. Got a J-O-B. Mr. Man.”
“Trying to please you, Boss,” I joke, only not really. When I think about the male role models in my life, Chris is who comes to mind. I’d be truly lost without him as my guide. Maybe I can’t tell him how I really feel, but there are other emotions I have for him that have nothing to do with my sexuality and everything to do with the kind of person he is.
“I really admire you, Chris. The way you’ve always stood up for me, and other dweebs like me. The way you keep peace in the jungle at school. And you’re always doing nice things for other people. You’ve been a really good friend.”
“Are we breaking up?”
I chuckle. “No, man, I’m trying to express myself. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me I need to do?”
“Yeah.” He rolls onto his back and clasps his hands over his perfect, ripped abs. I give myself to the count of three—three seconds to stare, and then I look away.
“Anyway, you’ve always been there for me, since that first time. I hope I’m there for you too, when you need me.”
“You are, Theo.” He sighs. “You are.”
We don’t end up watching any horror movies. I’m exhausted from all the emoting of the day. I roll out the futon cushion I normally sleep on when I spend the night, and Chris pulls out my favorite old comforter, well-worn and smelling of him. Even stale-smelling Chris is pretty nice.
We each get comfortable in our beds, and Chris shuts off the lights. After a few minutes, he leans over the side of his bed.
“You awake?” he asks.
“No,” I tease.
“Come up here.”
I don’t question it. His bed is a king-sized. I used to share with him before it got weird. I even have my own side. I climb up and lie on my side, facing him in the dark.
“Remember the time we watched It and you made me barricade the bedroom door to keep Pennywise out?” he asks.
“And developed a phobia of clowns?” He grins and I continue the thread. “Remember the time the time we watched Dr. Giggles and you asked me where my dad kept the dead bodies.”
Chris starts cracking up. “And you were taking a shower….” He can’t stop laughing long enough to finish, so I do it for him.
“And you shut off the lights and screamed like your head was being chopped off.” He’s laughing so hard there are tears coming out of his eyes. “And I busted my ass in the shower and almost got a concussion. Your mom was so pissed.”
“You were buck naked,” he says, wheezing. “Tore down the shower curtain and everything.”
Some of the plaster came out of the wall as well. I felt really bad about it. Not to mention the embarrassment when we had to explain it to his parents.
“So not cool,” I say.
“You were so pissed,” he says between gasps.
“Yeah, and I seriously went looking for the dead bodies the next time I was at my dad’s office. The receptionist was all, like, what are you looking for? And I had to be, like, um, an extra toothbrush?”
“I didn’t mean to traumatize you,” he says, looking sad as a pound puppy, but I know he’s not sorry at all.
“So messed up, man. You really get off on scaring me.”
He smiles. “You’re not that easy to scare, though. That time you ate shit at Tropical Smoothie and got knocked out. That shit was scary.”
I bombed on a trick and fell wrong, knocked my head against a curb, and went unconscious for a spell. “And you forced me to wear a helmet for, like, weeks after, even though it made me look like a total dweeb.”
“You were concussed, Theo. I didn’t want you to have any more brain damage than you already did.”
“So lame,” I say.
“Yeah, well, someone has to keep an eye on your clumsy ass.” He’s quiet, and my mind wanders to some of our shenanigans over the years. All the stunts we were able to pull off because we had each other, like the time we got the neighborhood kids to meet us at this big concrete drain at the edge of our subdivision. It has a slope of, like, forty-five degrees. We “borrowed” a couple of shopping carts from Publix and tried skating them down the drain, judging one another based on distance, speed, and style. One of our many dumb ways to die.
“That day in Sebastian, though,” Chris says, “I thought you had drowned, T.”
“Getting soft, old man.”
“You were under for so long.”
“You were hoping to give me mouth-to-mouth, huh?” I say, and the words are out there, hanging between us, and I can’t take them back.
A beat later he laughs, but it sounds more like he’s choking. “I would have done it, you know, if it needed to be done.”
I shake my head. “Lucky for you it didn’t.”
“Lucky me.” He smiles and glances away, then pulls the sheet up over our heads like we used to when we’d be watching something we shouldn’t on his laptop, aka porn, and sharing a set of ear buds between us.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could stay in here forever?” he asks.
“Yeah.” I sigh, afraid to say anything more and ruin the moment.
We stare at each other until the oxygen runs out. Warmth radiates from my chest thinking about all the shared memories between us, and the contentment in knowing that at least one person in this world gets me, really gets me.
I don’t know why, but I kind of start to sniffle. Chris pulls back the sheet to see me better. “Theo?” he says and shoves me a little, like I might be faking. When he realizes I’m not, he mutters roughly, “Come here,” and grabs me with his two powerful arms, manhandles me so my back is against his chest. He wraps his arms around me, like a brother might or maybe even a lover. At the moment I don’t really care, I just want to be held by him.
Chris rests his chin on my shoulder and breathes into my neck. I wish I could capture his noises in a bottle and keep them forever. Lift the lid a little when I’m lonely and let his sighs and moans roll over me like the waves on the sand.