Poetry Month

Read an excerpt from Vanilla by Billy Merrell

Emily Morrow  //  Apr 17, 2018

Read an excerpt from Vanilla by Billy Merrell

April is Poetry Month, and each week we're sharing an excerpt from a book that celebrates the beauty and power of poetry! This week, we're featuring Vanilla by Billy Merrell, a novel in verse for teens.

About the book: A bold, groundbreaking about coming out, coming into your own, and coming apart.

Vanilla and Hunter have been dating since seventh grade. They came out together, navigated middle school together, and became that couple in high school that everyone always sees as a couple. There are complications and confusions, for sure. But most of all, they love each other. As high school goes, though, and as their relationship deepens, some cracks begin to show. Hunter thinks they should be having sex. Vanilla isn't so sure. Hunter doesn't mind hanging out with loud, obnoxious friends. Vanilla would rather avoid them. If they're becoming different people, can they be the same couple? Falling in love is hard. Staying in love is harder.   Start reading Vanilla right here: 


He calls me Vanilla
and presses his warm nose to my neck.
I don’t know what to do  but  laugh
and let him.

He sniffs and smiles and tells me
I smell like myself.
Says it like an inside joke
until it becomes one.

I feel him there, his touch
settling against my skin.
His gentle arms
circling my shoulders.

It’s as if a part of me has come loose,
but instead of spinning off into space
it turns back and stares at me
so sweetly.

“Vanilla,” he says, and I press my smile to his.

He could say anything after,
and it would seem a compliment. 

Like a backward sigh,
he draws me in. Holds his breath.


As easy as it feels being Vanilla’s boyfriend,
it was hard being friends at first.
He’d come over to hang out
and his eyes would scan my room,
making their way around
like a sweeping clock  hand.
And I couldn’t help but tense up,
wondering if he was smart enough
to figure me out.

When our eyes met again,
he’d change the subject.
It was always video games
he wanted to play,
anything as long as he didn’t have to
look at me. And if I looked at him,
he’d ask me, “What?”
as if I wasn’t allowed to look
without a reason.

One afternoon, after a big test,
when he’d been too busy
to see me all week,
I invited him over
with something in mind.
I said, “I’m tired of games.”

We  were almost teenagers,
and as many other friends as I had,
I’d chosen Vanilla to really know.
“Let’s talk,” I said,
but it turned into silence.
“Let’s dance, then,” I said,
putting on music.

“You mean, together?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Get up.” 

He looked at me like I was crazy.
So I danced alone, holding back at first,
then not caring.
Vanilla tilted back and forth, still sitting,
an embarrassed metronome.
His eyes were locked
on my dresser mirror.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said.
I pulled him up onto his feet, said,
“Then it’s a good thing you have me!”
My left hand took his right,
my right took his left.
It occurred to me then
that I was definitely gay.
And following that thought was the thought
that I might be in love with my maybe best friend.

Vanilla sighed, then stood taller,
becoming comfortable
with my hands in his.
“You make it look so easy,” he said,
watching my feet.
“It is easy,” I said. “It’s the easiest
once you let go and ride the music.”

He turned to face the mirror,
letting go of my hands.
I told him not to be self-conscious.
“I’m intimidated,” he said,
and I took his honesty as a good sign.
“Don’t be,” I told him. “I dance in here all the time.”
“Practice makes perfect,” he said,
calling me perfect.

His back to me, I looked in the mirror to see him
closing his eyes, committing to the dance.
The diva was breaking it down, losing herself
as if she didn’t care about hitting the notes at all.
But Vanilla was still wiggling, tense,
trying to make a wave
instead of riding one.

“I think it helps to pair some part of your body
with some part of the song,” I offered.
I put my hands on his shoulders,
pulsing the blips and bleeps into his bloodstream.
Vanilla stomped his feet to the swelling beat.

“Yeah!” I encouraged, and he clapped.
It was a bit off,
but at least he was smiling.
The song had a snare drum,
and Vanilla rocked
back and forth to its hiss,
opening his eyes,

catching my appraisal
in the reflection.

“You’re not dancing?” he said,
and I realized I’d stopped.

Without missing a beat, I threw my hands up,
and matched my steps to his.
I threw my head side to side as the vocals intensified,
not knowing if he was watching,
but hoping he was.

As the song wrapped up, Vanilla asked for another.
So I skipped to an old favorite.
I mouthed the opening lines, pointing straight at him,
willing him to be comfortable.
I figured if I made myself the bigger fool,
Vanilla might follow me all the way
into oblivion.

“Nice,” he said, copying my moves.
The song was winding down,
and I suddenly wished I’d played something longer.
“See?” I said. “You’re a natural.” 

“Thanks to you,” he told me,
dancing a little closer,
boyfriend distance, not friend distance.
I guess it startled me, because he apologized.
“No,” I told him. “It’s okay.”
But we stayed apart as the song ended.

“Do you know other ways to dance?”
Vanilla was looking through the songs on the playlist.
“Like slow stuff?”
I watched his finger scroll.
“Pick a song and I’ll happily dance to it,” I said. 

When he did, it was a crooner.
I swayed like a sea, like underwater leaves,
and Vanilla swam around me like a fish, making fun.
When we were face-to-face,
he took my hands again, my right in his left,
his left in my right.
“Like this,” he said. “Teach me.”

I put my hand on his waist, like I’d  been taught, 
and moved his up to my shoulder. He looked down,
his eyes tracing my arm to his waist.
Then we both stared at our socks
as we felt, together, for the beat. 


 “You’re burning up,” I said,
the first time we danced,

because he was blushing so hard
that I knew 

what we were doing was
worth being done. 

I could barely name it,
but it felt good, 

nagging deep inside
like a kinship.

I didn’t want to tell him
I saw him blushing, 

because if he stopped dancing,
a part of me would stop

right on with it.

“You’re burning up,” I said.
And to this day, if we’re at a dance

or walking
or even standing still

and I want him suddenly
to spin me, 

I only need to say those words.



 It stung like a hammer on nail,
but also built us. He said, “No.” Said, “Never.”
And I wanted to change him.
Already I knew I could.

We slipped into my sleeping bag
and kissed like the meeting of two wings
trembling out of their cocoon.
The room no longer fit.

I watched the two of us giggling,
holding tight, like it wasn’t me there,
like I didn’t deserve it.
We were taking off.


I was so in love with him already
that I took his word, never,
and held it against my heart
like a hand over a candle.

And for the first time, it didn’t add up.
I wanted so badly to be looked at like that
by a boy. By him.
To be cherished—that’s the word—

and loved and kissed.
Both of us
a part of
the same feeling.

I looked in his eyes but this time
he didn’t look back. I could tell.
“I love you,” he said, but he wanted it returned.
“I love you, too,” I said,

wanting to be his echo,
to feel his words in my throat.


“But,” I said,
“never come out, not ever?”
He looked so afraid. And I knew
I could be bravery for us both.

“Here,” I said, and I found some paper.
He rolled against the wall, playing dead.
“Pros and cons. Go,” I said.
But Vanilla just sat there.

“Pro, I could love you like this
in front of people,” I said.
“Con,” he said,
“people will make fun of us.”

“No they won’t,” I told him.
“Not the people
we care about.”
But I wrote it down anyway. 

“Pro,” I said,
“we wouldn’t have to use our silly code for everything.”
But, “Con!” he said. “I like our code.” 

He wanted to kiss,
but I was serious.
I needed him
to hear me.

“Stop it,” I said. “Listen.”
He crossed his slender arms,
and I caught a whiff
of his sweet smell.

The buzz ran through me
like electricity made of blood.
“Pro, if people knew,
I could do all sorts of things.

I could put up a shrine to you, a freaking altar.
And everyone could stop asking what I’m so happy about,
’cause they’d all know. Officially. Plus, let’s face it.
They all suspect.”

“You’re not writing all of that down, are you?”
Vanilla was hugging his knees to his chest.
“Boyfriend altar,” I said, writing it slow,
doubling every pen stroke for effect.


We were both quiet for a long time.
“Your turn,” I said. And what I meant was,
it was his turn to make his case,
to put me in my place, maybe. 

“Pro,” he said,
“it will make you happy.”
“I want it to make you happy,” I told him,
and he said, “Exactly!

Everything you do
is like that. As if my happiness
is all that matters. But
what about yours?”

And my first thought was to correct him.
Aren’t­ they­ the­ same? I thought,
feeling again
like wings. 

He let go of his knees finally,
unclenched his body, kind of.
I sat upright, following his lead.
“Really?” I said. “Can we? Please?!”

“I mean, not right this second,” he said.
“I want your mom to let me sleep over.”

And as we laughed, I swear
a glow-in-the-dark star
fell straight down onto us off my ceiling. 

It felt like another sign,
even to Vanilla,
who claims he doesn’t believe in signs,
even after all we’ve been given.


“Before the dance,” he said. “I promise.”


The next day I found that star
right there in the sleeping bag.
I put it on my dresser
and folded our list into a paper heart.

I took the candle from the hall bathroom,
lit it, and sat there, all quiet,
with my hands barely touching.
I was only a little bit scared,
and feeling less and less so by the second.
Because now I had a purpose
other than to love him well.
Frightening as it was, I’d gotten my way. 


is when we get to Hunter’s apartment after school,
and his mom’s not there, and his phone’s almost dead.
He plugs it in and we take off our shoes,
having said everything there is to say
already on the walk.

Hunter turns the TV on. I unravel
one controller, then another,
and plug them into his dad’s old game system,
while Hunter moves the back cushions from the dirty sofa,
making room for us both to lie parallel.

We’ll start off upright, playing a round or two,
fighting each other or teaming up against a boss.
I can tell Hunter’s mood based on the game he picks,
and for a while it feels like real life, real fighting.
Then it doesn’t, and I can relax.

That’s not the part I like.
My favorite part comes after,
when I get tired and quit,
and lie with my head in his lap.
I can hear his pulse,
my ear hot against his thigh.

If he tires first, he’ll put his legs across mine.
Which always hurts, bony as his knees are.
I’ll lift his legs and let them crash down with a bounce.
Then I’ll lie down beside him, nuzzling deep,
Hunter’s chest to my back as I lose the game.

But so what?
His arms come around me,
and I feel entirely at ease.

His nose parting my hair
as he falls asleep.

It’s like I’m alone,
the only one in the world awake.
And I love it.
Him both there and not. Feeling
the pulse of his breath

and making it our breath
by matching mine to his.
The way his warmth becomes mine,
his shape mine as we lie like a landscape,
body and breath, land and sky.

yet blissfully separate.


Read more about Vanilla by Billy Merrell here!