Kyle made Stan and Kenny rake leaves all day Sunday. By Sunday night Stan's hands were chafed and blistered, red and aching. "Jesus!" Kyle had said when he caught a glimpse of Stan flexing his fingers between jobs. "God, that looks so painful. Why didn't you wear gloves?" He grabbed one of Stan's hands, cradling it. "We could — shit, we could pause, or something, or you could sit out the next one?"

"That's okay." Stan didn't pull his hands away; they were left trembling in Kyle's for a minute, both of their breaths misting visibly in the air between them. The truth was that Stan was used to his fingers and palms aching; his adult hands were arthritic, badly suited to piano. He played anyway. Though the raking blisters weren't pleasant, surely, they didn't much bother him. This kind of manual labor produced a kind of pain that stung, temporarily, for it was only surface-deep.

Stan was about to say, "This is nothing compared to when I play," but he stopped himself. He had actually never told Kyle about the pain in his hands, and then it took a moment for him to remember that this was not his Kyle, anyway.

Then Kenny shouted, "What the fuck, if you guys aren't going to rake, I'm going home!"

- paramécie -

So Kyle had let go of Stan's hands, given him a look of sad concern, and turned around. "Hold the fuck up, Kenny, Jesus!" They then raked for another six hours.

After dinner, Stan showed his mother his hands. This wasn't something he'd ever been inclined to do, as a child, and yet now he couldn't resist.

"Stanley, what on earth were you doing?" she asked.

"Raking leaves."

"Raking leaves?" Stan had forgotten how dry her voice was. "Whatever for?"

"I don't know, Kyle wanted to."

"Oh, Kyle wanted to." She let go of Stan and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, that figures."

"What does that mean?" Stan asked her.

"What — oh, nothing. Just, jeez, wear some kind of gloves next time or something."

"That's what Kyle said."

"That's what Kyle said," she repeated. "Right. Well, I don't know what you want me to do about this — I mean, I guess I could wrap your hands in gauze or something, but blisters just kind of ... heal on their own." She would know. She had worked, at one time, as a physician's assistant — though, granted, for a plastic surgeon. "Maybe don't just do what Kyle says next time. I'm not sure all of Kyle's ideas are so hot."

This was something Stan had never heard her say. She'd always been polite to Kyle, at least, she had been as far back as Stan chose to remember, to high school and college. "What do you mean? What's wrong with Kyle?"

She sighed, as if the idea that he wanted to know was exasperating. "Well, nothing, you know. It's just, he's a little bossy."

"He's not bossy! Or — maybe if he is it's because he just knows the right thing to do."

"Stan, I've got news for you, no one always knows the right thing to do."

On Monday morning Stan's hands felt better, at least until he remembered that they should be hurting. It bothered him on the walk to the bus stop, a route which he realized, after putting two blocks behind him, he'd totally forgotten. Luckily, the neighborhood was small enough that Stan had only to wander around for 10 minutes before he caught sight of a group of kids standing in the distance.

He was only somewhat late, and Kyle only somewhat miffed, eating a granola bar and clutching his messenger bag over his crotch. "Nice of you to show up," Kyle said, and that was the end of it.

At least, until a fat kid on the other side of Kyle cleared his throat and said, "Well, well, well. Look who decided to show up!"

"Shut up, Cartman," Kyle said, through a mouthful of granola bar. It was one of those crispy peanut butter ones; Kyle was crunching it. "The last thing I need on Monday morning is to hear it from you."

"Hear what from me, Kyle?" Cartman asked. He was holding a large slushy coffee drink with whipped cream on top, and Stan noticed that at Cartman's feet was a box of doughnuts in a plastic bag. "I'm just concerned for public safety in this neighborhood."

"What are you talking about?" Kyle had now finished his granola bar, and was carefully folding the wrapper up, only to shove it in his bag.

"I'm talking about your friend the amateur vandal," said Cartman. "Smashing in people's windshields! What's next, liquor store robberies? Lock up your daughters, guys, we've got a real teenage hoodlum problem in this town, and I for one will not stand here and associate with this petty criminal."

"Oh, for fuck's sake." Kyle had produced a banana from his bag and unpeeled it, slightly; he was picking at the stringy fibers that clung to the inside of the peel. "I'm not dignifying this with an actual response. Don't talk to him, Stan."

Stan considered for a moment his mother's comment from the night before about Kyle's bossiness. "I just threw that ball," Stan said, trying to sound casual. "Kenny's the one who didn't catch it."

"Doesn't count." Slurping his drink, Cartman rolled his eyes. "You can't expect Kenny to do anything."

"Well, fuck you, too," said Kenny. It was the first thing he'd said at the bus stop, more absorbed in playing some clunky handheld video game system Stan couldn't remember the name of than getting invested in the conversation.

"Want some banana?" Kyle asked him.

This did cause Kenny to look up from his video game. "Yes, thanks."

Kyle broke off a little section and handed it to Kenny. "For your information, Kenny raked leaves with us all day yesterday."

"Raking fucking leaves? What—why, Kyle, desperate for cash to fund your meth habit? What are you, Mexican? You know, they say it's the biggest party drug in the gay community — are you a crystal queen, Kyle?

"No, retard, to pay back Craig's dad for the windshield." Kyle swallowed the last bite of his banana, Stan noted, with gusto. "I'm not a 'crystal queen,' Jesus, whatever that is, do you have any idea how ignorant and moronic you sound?"

"Ohhhhhh!" Cartman cried, in an exaggerated whine. Then he turned and spat, "Wait a minute! You guys all raked leaves yesterday and didn't invite me?"

"Yes, because no one wants to fucking hang out with you!"

"I think I beat this level," said Kenny. "Never mind, I died."

"Lots of people want to hang out with me! In fact, you'll never guess who wants to hang out with me!"

"We really don't give a shit," said Kyle.

"You know who's being awfully silent during this conversation? The guilty party."

"Fuck you," said Kenny.

"No Kenny, shut up. I meant Stan."

"Me?" Stan asked.

"Yeah," said Cartman. "You. It almost seems like you have — something to hide."

"Stan doesn't have anything to hide," said Kyle. "Don't even listen to him, Stan."

"What would I have to hide?" Stan asked.

"Oh, nothing." Cartman popped the domed lid off of his drink and, with his fingers, helped himself to a large glob of whipped cream. "Except something fishy is definitely going on. Breaking Craig's dad's windshield, not inviting me to hang out — ditching Wendy."

"Wait," said Kyle. "How do you know about that?"

"I have my ways, Kyle!" There was whipped cream smeared across Cartman's lips now. "I have my ways."

"Oh, brother." Kyle rolled his eyes and tossed his banana peel on the ground.

"Don't throw that on the ground," said Stan.

"Relax, it's natural. It's biodegradable!"

"This boss is super tough," said Kenny. No one asked him what boss, or how tough.

On the bus Kyle pulled Stan into a seat near the front. This was clearly where the lame kids festered, but as Cartman apparently considered himself the king of the cool half of the bus, he took a seat in the very back, declaring "no fags" in his section.

"Oh my god, he is reaching classic levels of obnoxious today," said Kyle. He rested his head against the window.

A blond kid popped out from behind Stan and Kyle's seat. His hair was plastered to his forehead with an excess of sweet-smelling gel. "Who is?"

"Your boyfriend, Butters," said Kyle.

"Who? I ain't got a boyfriend."


"Oh. Eric's not my boyfriend! We're B-F-F-A-E! A-E!"

"I don't know what that means," said Kyle.

"Best friends forever and ever. And ever!"

"Then why aren't you sitting next to him?"

"Oh," said Butters. "Well, I just figured I wasn't cool enough for the back of the bus. Plus Eric told me not to meet up at the bus stop with you guys anymore, so now I'm getting on over at Willow Street, and I guess I was already sitting here. I guess I just figured the back of the bus was for the cool kids."

"Every single seat of the bus is the same," said Kyle. "You can either buy into Cartman's bullshit because he's your 'best friend' and he's got you conditioned to thinking that sitting 10 rows up makes a pathetic difference in people's lives, or you can go sit next to Cartman because he's your BFFAE—"


"—your BFFAEAE," Kyle concluded, "and someone's BFFAEAE would want them to sit next to him."

"Oh." Butters seemed to think about it. When the bus was stopped at a light, Butters wished them farewell, got up, and moved.

"Good," said Kyle. "That'll piss Cartman off."

"Who cares?" Stan asked. "Who even cares about pissing off Cartman?" Unlike Kenny, Cartman had never moved away, and Stan was forced to see him not only at Christmas services, but any time he and Kyle went home to visit their families. Like the lingering stench of a house's previous owners, he was fucking everywhere. So far as Stan knew he hadn't a job, but he was always working on some insane-sounding Ponzi scheme. Kyle never got tired of making fun of Cartman in all respects: what he wore, what he said, the fact that he lived with his mother well into adulthood, the fact that he was so fat he breathed audibly and clumsily like some kind of "farm animal," Kyle said. While Stan generally didn't care about Eric Cartman either way, he had either never realized, or since forgotten, exactly how inane and annoying Cartman was.

"I don't know," said Kyle. He was now tapping his fingers against the windowpane. "He's an idiot, dude."

"Yes, he is, a tremendous idiot," said Stan. "Why heed him?"

"Why heed him?"

"You know, pay attention, fall for his shit—"

"I know what 'heed' means." Kyle scowled. "I'm not heeding him, it's just — he's right there."

"Just because something's right there doesn't mean you need to like, talk to it."

"It," Kyle repeated. "Cartman's kind of an 'it,' huh, like — he's barely a person."

"I guess." Stan might have been jealous of Kyle's preoccupation with Cartman, had Stan not grown up to have gay sex with Kyle and moved to Los Angeles with him while Cartman was stuck in South Park picking up his mom's dry cleaning. Instead, an unsettled feeling came over Stan as he realized more clearly what this was: unbridled pettiness. "It feels very small to give a shit about him."

"Tell me I'm small after I spend all weekend raking fucking leaves with you!" It was true that Stan had managed to collect $94 (with a tip), leaving him 140 to go until he was able to pay back his sister and tell Craig to fuck off.

As a middle school student Stan had found classes prohibitively difficult; he had never been anything but a mediocre student outside of the courses he really cared about, music and English. Sitting through school now, he was struck by how stupid he must have been as a child. These classes were easy as hell. In language arts they were rewriting sentences that had been professionally mangled by text-book authors:

In the morning I wake up and I put on my suit my tie my shoes my socks i got to work?

"You must be kidding me," Stan said aloud.

"Which one are you on?" Kyle asked.

"Um, 7."

"Yeah." Kyle leaned in and said, in a low voice, gloating "That one was tricky! I figured it out, though. Need help?"

"No, I don't need help! How is this tricky?"

"Well, because the end of the sentence could be its own sentence, 'I got to work,' but based on the first clause about putting on the shoes and socks it doesn't really follow. So for a minute I wasn't sure what to do."

"Well, what'd you do?" Stan asked.

"I made it one two sentences: In the morning I wake up and put on my suit, tie, shoes, and socks. Then I go to work. See, the 'got' is a bit hard because it's a word, so it's not an error necessarily. It took me a second. To pick it apart."

"Oh," said Stan.

"Oh what?"

"Nothing. Just, I made it one sentence, but I had to rewrite it a bit. In the morning after I wake up, I get dressed and go to work."

"Is that allowed?"

"Why wouldn't it be allowed?"

"Well, because, you changed words! Or added them, anyway, and took some others out. You took away all the shit about putting on the shoes and socks."

"All that information is redundant," said Stan. "Putting on shoes and socks and a suit before work, it's describing getting dressed. It's a neater way to say it."

"But you're cutting out that information — about the guy wearing the suit! Maybe his job is important, Stan, maybe he had some kind of office job, like he works at an investment firm and the suit is part of his identity."

"Kyle, Jesus," Stan said.

"What? What's 'jesus, Kyle,' I think that information is important!"

"Well, how do you know the subject of the sentence is male?" asked Stan, who'd had a couple of gender studies courses in college. "Why do you assume that?"

"I dunno! He's wearing a suit and tie."

"So what? Women wear ties. You can't assume. It's sexist."

This made Kyle nearly apoplectic. "I'm not fucking sexist! If anyone's sexist here, it's you!"

"Really?" Stan asked. "What am I doing that's sexist?"

"Just don't talk to me!" Kyle huffed, which was well enough; the instructor was eyeing them from behind her tortoiseshell spectacles.

Time passed quickly and soon it was lunch. Stan recalled how, in his youth, schooldays had dragged on. Lunch seemingly took centuries to reach. Now Stan was eating two slices of pizza with a side of wilted broccoli and a foil-topped Mott's applesauce. The drink was a squat carton of milk; Stan helped himself from a cooler in the corner of the room, where he was able to choose between whole, skim, 1- or 2-percent, or chocolate. "Don't get the chocolate," Kyle advised when Stan reached for it. "Too watery." Stan helped himself to a 1-percent.

"This lunch is downright terrible," Stan said, mopping orange grease off of his pizza slices with a thin paper napkin.

"I think it's okay today," said Kenny, who had wedged his tray in between theirs in the lunch line. "I mean, pizza!"

"This pizza tastes like rubber," Stan complained. "And it's got enough grease to fix a squeaky wheel. And this broccoli's unpalatable, and this applesauce is full of sugar. Full of sugar!"

"Well, duh," said Kenny. "It's a dessert."

"Kinda pussy for a dessert, though," said Kyle. "It could be something else. It could be a cookie."

"Yo, whatever." Kenny rolled his eyes. "If you're too good for your guys' dessert, I'll take it."

"I'm not too good," said Kyle. "I want my dessert! I love applesauce. Sugar's okay by me. It'll give you some post-lunch energy."

"Shit, take mine." Stan slid his across the table to Kenny.


"No problem." Stan choked down the rest of his first slice of pizza, and offered the rest of Kenny, who took it gleefully.

It wasn't until they were walking back to their lockers after recess that Kyle commented, "You know, I'd have taken your second slice of pizza."

"Oh," said Stan. He wasn't sure what Kyle was getting at.

"I mean, you didn't have to give it to Kenny. I would have taken it."

"But Kenny's always hungry."

"But, I love pizza," said Kyle. "And I thought I was your best friend!"

"You are," said Stan. "I guess."

Kyle halted in front of the door to the boys' restroom. "You guess?"

"I mean, you are! It's just — I dunno, Kenny didn't have to rake all those leaves with us."

"Yes he did! I didn't have to rake leaves either, by that logic! But I did because that's what friends do, Stan! That's what friends do! So in the future you can give me your pizza!"

"So what you're saying is, if I ever don't want something, I'm not allowed to offer it to anyone else, I have to give it to you."

"That's right!"

"What if it's something you don't want?"

"That's my choice!" said Kyle. "I mean, I shouldn't be eating three slices of pizza. Maybe I'd have given Kenny that slice, anyway. He's as thin as a rail!"

"See, that's what I'm saying," said Stan.

"But it's not about what I did with the pizza, it's about — you owe me your pizza! Because I'm helping you with your leaves and because I'm your best friend. You owe me! That's how it works between us. I help you figure out how to meet your obligations and you feed me."

"That seems more like a business contract than a friendship, or like..." Stan hesitated. "...A relationship. When do we just enjoy each other's company? Without being harried?"

"Harried? Dude, what — you're being nuts."

"I'm being nuts, but you're standing in front of the bathroom demanding I feed you my pizza. Look, I'm sorry I gave it to Kenny. He just seemed like he needed some pizza!"

"And I didn't?" Kyle asked.

It took Stan a moment to say, "No."


"You're very well-fed!"

"I'm not fat," said Kyle, and it was true that he wasn't.

"Your family has a lot," said Stan. "Kenny, shit, he's using a pager. Like some common — I dunno, crack whore!"

Kyle turned away from Stan and put his hand on the door. Then he turned back and said, "Well, at least you don't think I'm a common crack whore. Things are just so weird lately!"

"What does that mean?" Stan asked.

"Nothing, just — I'm going to the bathroom. Don't follow me in!" Kyle disappeared behind the swinging door.

Stan lingered there for a moment, parsing this last exchange, long enough for the next guy making his egress to appear.

Unfortunately, it was Craig Tucker.

"Marsh," Craig said, wiping his nose. For a moment Stan thought Craig might have just been snorting something, so strongly of the scene outside of the bathroom at someone's cocktail party in the hills did this gesture remind him. But then Stan reminded himself that Craig was in seventh grade, Stan was in seventh grade, and they were in the middle of a Colorado public middle school at the tail end of recess.

"Hey, Craig," Stan said, letting himself be dragged away from the bathroom.

"I saw your BFFAE go in. Waiting on him?"

Stan wasn't sure if Kyle wanted Stan to wait. "Um, no."

"Cool, let's chat. It was nice of you to walk him to the bathroom. Very gentlemanly."

"We were having a conversation."

"I'll bet you were!"

At this point Stan was fed-up with all the innuendo. "Are you trying to imply that Kyle and I have something gay going on? Because I can promise you we don't. ... At the moment, anyway." Stan shrugged his shoulders, hoping to come off as better-informed on the subject of gayness than Craig did. It was definitely true at that very moment, where Stan had actual, strong memories of buttfucking, and Craig was probably doing no better than treating middle-school girls to french fries off the McDonald's value menu.

"You and Broflovski and your whole set — whatever you guys are up to, I don't care. I just want my money."

"Well, I'm working on it," said Stan.

"Work harder," said Craig.

"God, you're an idiot."


"I mean, 'work harder' — you don't know how hard we're working! You're just saying it to — to come off as threatening or informed or something. But you're not! You don't know shit. I mean, really. It's very snide."

"I know Tweek said you guys rang his doorbell and asked his dad if you could rake the leaves."

"God, we didn't!" Stan couldn't recall who Tweek was; it took him a moment to put together that Tweek was a jittery kid whose family had moved away before ninth grade. "Well, whatever, Tweek's doorbell, whoever's doorbell, when you're raking leaves you don't discriminate."

"I always feel you have to discriminate or you end up with the chaff," Craig said. "Separate the wheat from the chaff, that's something my dad says."

"What? Shit, your dad's stupid."

"He is," Craig agreed. "I'm just saying, you're not applying a very smooth technique to it."

"Technique to what, to raking? Craig, you're a little turd, I don't have time for this, I have a score to write."

"A score to write?"

Stan blushed. "I mean, I have some class." He wasn't sure which class, but his schedule was taped to the inside of his locker. He hadn't known the combination and had convinced the janitor to clip the lock off earlier in the day. Kyle, who had Stan's schedule memorized, had seemed a little hurt by this. "I'll get your damn money. So long."

Stan had taken only a few steps away when Craig cleared his throat. "Aren't you waiting for Broflovski?" he asked.

"God, what's it to you if I am?" Stan snapped, though the fact that Kyle was in the bathroom had actually slipped his mind.

Stan followed Kyle home on the 2:45 p.m. bus, with an armload of homework, mostly on geography. He had been given a blank map of Europe, and was going to have to spend the night marking it with rivers, mountains, and "other geographical features" that defined the political borders he'd have to fill in tomorrow.

"I wish I could go to Europe," Kyle said on the bus. It was only now that Stan noticed Kyle's lips were very chapped, and that Kyle was not putting his fingers to his lips in deep thought but, rather, surreptitiously agitating his dry, cracked skin. "As you know, I've been reading about world history, or at least I was before you got into it with Craig and needed me to dig your ass out of it. So I'm kind of into the idea that water features that were formed in the long, long ago are responsible for the political entities we know today!"

Stan's eyes bugged a little at the dissonance between Kyle's relatively complex thoughts and his pitchy, childish tone. "Do you need some chapstick?"

"No, I don't need chapstick!" Kyle pulled his fingers away from his face. "You're one to talk! Your face looks like you need someone else to write your dating profile for you!"


"Ugh, you know what, you're ugly!" Kyle said. "Stop looking at me."

It was an incredibly odd moment; Kyle was red now, too, pressing his face against the glass and scooping his hair to make it fall in a way that obscured his features.

"I know I'm not ugly," Stan said, though he knew that as a child he would have taken such an assessment very seriously, and likely been very hurt by it. It was obvious to him here, though, that Kyle really didn't think Stan was ugly. Moreover, adult Kyle refused to jizz on Stan's face because it was "too beautiful" and often raved about how Stan got by on his looks. "Well, okay," he said, turning away himself. "You're not obligated to look at me, either."

Of course Kyle immediately whipped back around and said, "Sorry, that was mean."

"It's okay." Stan turned back to look at Kyle, too. "I've done my share of mean shit."

"Like ditching Wendy, huh?"

Stan rolled his eyes; he'd successfully managed to hide from her all day.

"Are you gonna apologize to her, or what?" Kyle asked.

"Welp, I dunno." Stan shrugged. "What do you think?"

"I don't have the least idea what to do about girls. They're like an extra-hard foreign language to me. An extra-hard obscure foreign language. I don't even think I need to learn it."

Kyle had taken Spanish all through college and had his language requirement waived in graduate school.

Stan parted ways with Kyle at the front door, and Stan hung up his parka on the coat rack. Almost immediately, before he'd even slipped his shoes off, his mother had called out, "Stanley, is that you?"

She appeared in black jeans and a baggy knit sweater. Stan's mother almost never wore makeup, though she had always been fond of needless clothing details such as ruffles or unflattering V-necks. Stan had often wondered whether being overly critical of his mother's wardrobe was a typical gay kid thing, or if he just happened to be deeply particular about this. Kyle's mother, for example, dressed worse and had an unappealing, corpulent body, appearing almost as a caricature of an overbearing Jewish mother. If Kyle cared either way, either as a child or an adult, he'd never expressed disappointment. Maybe Kyle had never cared because his parents had never been conventionally attractive, whereas Stan's both were, and clearly had been desirable at some point. By the time Stan was old enough to care, though, they both seemed a little too lazy to do much about it, looking worn out and, at least in Stan's father's case, wearing an honest-to-god pocket protector in which he always carried some pens because "I'm a big deal at the USGS." At least as Stan pondered this, he identified an easy way to get his homework done.

"Your coach called," Sharon said, handing Stan a note with a phone number on it. "He said you didn't show up to the pre-season basketball meeting."

"I play basketball?" Stan asked. "Um ... oh, yeah."

"Well? The guy seemed worried about you. I said I didn't know where you were. I'm not supposed to pick you up until 4."

She stood there looking at him, as if waiting for an explanation.

So Stan gave her one. "Kyle seemed to be taking the bus home," he said.

"Yeah." She rolled her eyes. "Well, he would."

"What's that mean?"

"You just — do a lot of stuff because of Kyle, Stanley."

"Well," said Stan drawing it out a bit. If she knew, why didn't she just say something? "I wanted to ask you, actually, if you had some chapstick stuff?"

"Not really," she said. "I just have the little tube that I use. Why, are your lips dry?"

"Oh, well. No, I mean, Kyle's are very chapped, and he doesn't have any chapstick so I thought I could buy him some."

"With what money? Or do you mean you want me to buy Kyle some chapstick?"

"I meant me! I have some money. From, uh — raking leaves."

"Well." She sighed, and slumped her shoulders. "Okay. Let me — I'll go get my coat."

As they were leaving the house, Stan's sister was returning from school. She had a pretty bad car, a beige coupe that had serious rusting at the door and trunk openings. Their father had found it for her parked on concrete blocks on Colfax, and prided himself on getting a "real value." She'd once asked to paint it hot pink or maybe neon blue; Randy had forbidden it, since "this model is a classic" and "this is a classic American car!" Stan recalled that it got something like 12 miles to the gallon and had been confiscated from Stan's father's driveway by the government when Stan was in graduate school for failing to comply with current emissions standards.

"Oh shit," Shelly said, spotting them. She froze on the spot and wiped some greasy bangs from her face.

"Honey," Sharon said, "isn't that really a lot of eyeliner? Is that appropriate for school?"

"Nobody hassles me about it!"

"That's good, honey. That's good. We're going to the drug store. Do you need anything?"

"Yes," said Shelly. "Drugs."

"What kind?"

"You know, whatever. Drugs."

"Do you not want to say in front of your brother?"

Rolling her eyes, Shelly shifted her backpack to her other shoulder. "No, I'm kidding, Mother. I don't need anything from the drug store."

"Oh." Stan's mother sounded surprised. Then, flatly, she said, "That's really funny."

When they were in the car, Sharon said, "I wish your sister wouldn't be so snotty. I wish she wouldn't cake on makeup like that, either. Even if there's nothing wrong with that, it could possibly give boys the wrong impression. Sometimes. ... Unfortunately. I hope no one has that impression about your sister."

"What, that she's willing to have sex?"

"No! Or, I mean — yeah, I guess." She had always been a slow driver, and Stan relished how gently they glided to a halt at a red light on Main Street. When they had a green light again, she said, "I hope you won't be the kind of guy who treats girls like that. ... But then, I don't think you will be."

"No," said Stan. "I wouldn't." Truthfully, he'd never thought about girls much in terms of sex. Clearly they had it, everyone did. But it wasn't much of Stan's concern. He liked girls very much, and always had, in a platonic way, loving the companionable way they related to him, warm and collegial. They made him nervous, or at least some girls did. Wendy did, for instance, or had when they were young. Stan had been terrified to kiss her, to the point where it made him sick to his stomach. But he'd been 8 then, 8 or 9 or 10, and physical closeness in an affectionate fashion had made him very wary. Maybe it was a psychosexual things, but as a boy he'd preferred to roughhouse. Sometimes he'd touch Kyle, or they'd hug, but only when Stan wasn't thinking too hard about it. But he knew now that it was largely subconscious, the way they were drawn together. Anyway, he was an adult now, or maybe he never had been, but at the very least he felt like one.

The lip balm Stan bought for Kyle with their raking money was a daunting decision. Something too girly, and it would scare him away. But Stan wanted this gesture to be imbued with all his feelings, the ones he couldn't express because Kyle was a 12-year-old boy and Stan could not imagine that even if Kyle liked him, somewhat (as seemed mostly obvious), he would be willing or even able to return Stan's affection.

Yet there in the aisle with the different moisturizing products Stan found two kinds between which he was unable to choose. There was an Intensive Repair product in a medicinal green tube with a matching cap, meant to be squeezed out in a glob. This suited Stan, because he thought of Kyle as very fragile and needing to be coated in something, protected. In his head he made up a little tune about it, humming, the feeling of the chapstick.

Then there was another, something called Soft Lips, in a thin pearlescent tube with pink striping. "Glides on," it said, "making lips super soft." Frankly it had a kind of maternal vibe to it, and made Stan think of kissing the vulnerable underside of a baby's foot, or each of its little toes. Stan had never done anything like that, not with his sister's kids when they were babies. Thinking of them made him think of his sister's smeared eyeliner, which thanks to the conversation with his mother in the car made him think of sex. Looking at the pearly Soft Lips thing made Stan get a childish boner in the drug store. He wasn't even thinking of anything sexy, just of kissing Kyle's ragged lips, swollen and raw. Stan could fix this! He bought both.

On the drive home it was dark out, the sun setting while his mother had been piling bottles of Vaseline on sale into her shopping basket. "We go through so much of this," she said, which made Stan think of lube. He didn't love using it for sex, because it was slow and often became gritty, the opposite of fluid, which was how he liked to fuck: deep, brutal, full investment.

Now Stan was really hard, and he hated that his mother made him get in the car and sit there in the dark while she said, "But if you remember what I was saying before about treating girls well — the thing is, it goes for everyone. You shouldn't treat anyone like that, Stanley, anyone. Whoever you end up with, someday."

"What if I end up with no one?" Stan asked.

"You have to be kind to people anyway. You can't be bitter. See, you're a lot like your father" — if there was anything Stan didn't enjoy hearing, that was it — "in both his cynicism and his wild kind of ... uncritical approach to things. You know? You know how sometimes Dad gets super excited about silly ideas? I think you have that, Stan, that childlike kind of fascination with overly emotional stuff, or this idealization of irrational things. Or people."

Stan had been resting his head against the window, but on hearing that he turned to his mother, disbelieving, and asked, "Like Kyle?"

She didn't flinch in saying, "Well, yeah, sometimes."

"I disagree. And how does that make me bitter?"

"I'm not saying you're bitter, honey, I'm saying that your father is someone who does a bad job integrating unmitigated devotion and, well — something like unbridled hostility. And I see you do the same thing, in some ways. Like buying Kyle this chapstick — you know he can get his own chapstick. Or skipping basketball practice to take the bus home with him. You can't throw away your chance to be on the basketball team just to hang out with Kyle, or because Kyle wants you to ditch it and take the bus home."

"He didn't want me to ditch practice. We just sort of ... both got on the bus."

"And if you don't get on the basketball team because you missed today's meeting because you wanted to sit with Kyle on the bus for 20 minutes, is that worth it?"

"Yeah," said Stan. "I think it's totally worth it."

She sighed, as if the weight of Stan's answer was oppressive. "Okay, honey. Whatever you think. Just, when you don't make it onto the team, don't be bitter and angry that someone led you astray. That was you, Stan."

"Thanks, Mom." Stan was suddenly feeling less romantic about the idea of having her back.

Stan felt even more bitter and angry when he tried to give Kyle the chapstick the following morning. He had wrapped it in a grocery store sale circular and tied it with some leftover red ribbon, apparently from the balloons at his recent 13th birthday party. The concept of wrapping paper was a distant memory to Stan, who was used to reusable gift cloth, which came in three sizes and myriad colors. There was something quaint about the little package as he arrived at the bus stop, only to find Cartman eating a fried apple pie and drinking the same giant coffee shake thing.

"What's that?" Cartman asked through a mouthful of pie and whipped cream. "Present for your girlfriend?"

"No, it's a present for Kyle."

The concept was apparently so riotous that Cartman began to guffaw, and he laughed so hard that he choked on his half-chewed food, and by the end he had spit it onto the ground, bent over with his hands on his knees, huffing and panting. "Oh god, oh god," he wheezed, face red and shiny. "Didn't you — ah — didn't you hear me? I, I said — oof, I said, a present for your girlfriend?"

"Yep." Stan held the gift to his chest. "Yeah, I heard you."

Cartman was still laughing, "So you admit it, you admit Kyle's your girlfriend! I should have gotten this on tape—"

"You're so fucking stupid," said Stan. "It's really not funny."

"Yeah it is, just 'cause you're offended—"

"I'm not offended or anything! It's just unfunny. And you're a bit of a buffoon."

This was when Kyle arrived at the bus stop. "Who's a — oh." He looked down at Cartman, then back to Stan. "Well, what's he being retarded about?"

"He called you my girlfriend."

"Wow," said Kyle. "Clever." He blushed anyhow.

They sat together on the bus, Stan and Kyle, again toward the front. Cartman was loudly telling the story of how Stan had confessed to being Kyle's boyfriend, in between noisy sips of his melting coffee drink. Stan heard Butters say, "Really? Gosh!" Wendy's contribution was to say, "You're so awful! I'm not listening to this." He leaned into the aisle to get a look behind his seat, and saw her getting out of hers while Cartman called, "You know I'm right, Wendy!" Stan hated the way Cartman belched her name with a kind of desperation, Wehhhhndy, turning her into a whine.

Turning back, Stan took the gift from his pocket and handed it to Kyle. "This is for you," he said, trying not to grin too widely.

"What?" Kyle asked. "It's not my birthday. Hannukah's not until the end of the month." He shook it.

"It's just because I — you're my friend. Open it!"

"What is it?" Kyle asked.

"You have to open it," Stan repeated.

"Well." Kyle was already unknotting the ribbon. "I guess it couldn't hurt." He unwrapped it carefully, smoothing back the paper until it was flat again. Kyle looked at each product for a moment, fingering the Soft Lips cylinder through the plastic, blankly. He looked up and said, "What the hell, Stan?"

- Kayotics -

"What do you mean?" Stan asked.

"Why'd you buy me chapstick?"

"Because your lips looked chapped."

"They are!" Kyle snapped. "But I didn't want you to buy me this!"

"Well, a gift is something you didn't know you wanted."

"I didn't want this! I can get my own chapstick."

"Oh." Stan felt idiotic. "Well, that's what my mom said."

"You should have listened to your mom! How much did you spend on this?"

"I don't know, a few dollars? Like, 7 dollars. Maybe seven and a half."

"You need that seven bucks! I spent my whole weekend and probably will spend most of the rest of my week raking leaves so you can pay back Craig so you won't get in trouble with your parents so you can hang out with me, and you just — throw it away on chapstick!"

"Your lips looked like they hurt!"

"They do! But, that's not for you to take care of! That's not what I need! Get out of my way." Kyle gathered up his backpack and stood up on the moving bus.

"Where are you going?"

"I'm changing seats!"

"I'm not letting you out," said Stan, and to his surprise, Kyle sat back down.

"You're a fucking idiot!" he screamed. "It doesn't matter if people do nice things for you when you just — undo them!"

"I didn't undo anything. Your lips are in bad shape, and I was helping."

"Think before you help next time!" And the rest of the bus ride was silent, save for the inanity coming from behind them.