NOW AWAY WE GO
9 P.M. on a November Saturday. Joni, Tony, and I are out on the town. Tony is from the next town over and he needs to get out. His parents are extremely religious. It doesn’t even matter which religion — they’re all the same at a certain point, and few of them want a gay boy cruising around with his friends on a Saturday night. So every week Tony feeds us bible stories, then on Saturday we show up at his doorstep well versed in parables and earnestness, dazzling his parents with our blinding purity. They slip him a twenty and tell him to enjoy our study group. We go spend the money on romantic comedies, dimestore toys, and diner jukeboxes. Our happiness is the closest we’ll ever come to a generous God, so we figure Tony’s parents would understand, if only they weren’t set on misunderstanding so many things.
Tony has to be home by midnight, so we are on a Cinderella mission.With this in mind, we keep our eye on the ball.
There isn’t really a gay scene or a straight scene in our town. They got all mixed up a while back, which I think is for the best. Back when I was in second grade, the older gay kids who didn’t flee to the city for entertainment would have to make their own fun. Now it’s all good. Most of the straight guys try to sneak into the Queer Beer bar. Boys who love boys flirt with girls who love girls. And whether your heart is strictly ballroom or bluegrass punk, the dance floors are open to whatever you have to offer.
This is my town. I’ve lived here all my life.
Tonight, our Gaystafarian bud Zeke is gigging at the local chain bookstore. Joni has a driver’s license from the state where her grandmother lives, so she drives us around in the family sedan. We roll down the windows and crank the radio—we like the idea of our music spilling out over the whole neighborhood, becoming part of the air. Tony has a desperate look tonight, so we let him control the dial. He switches to a Mope Folk station, and we ask him what’s going on.
“I can’t say,” he tells us, and we know what he means. That nameless empty.
We try to cheer him up by treating him to a blue Slurp-Slurp at the local 24-7. We each take sips, to see whose tongue can get the bluest. Once Tony’s sticking his tongue out with the rest of us, we know he’s going to be okay.
Zeke’s already jamming by the time we get to the highway bookstore. He’s put his stage in the European History section, and every now and then he’ll throw names like Hadrian and Copernicus into his mojo rap. The place is crowded. A little girl in the children’s section puts the Velveteen Rabbit on her shoulders for a better view. Her moms are standing behind her, holding hands and nodding to Zeke’s tune. The Gaystafarian crowd has planted itself in the Gardening section, while the three straight members of the guys’ lacrosse team are ogling a bookstore clerk from Literature. She doesn’t seem to mind. Her glasses are the color of licorice.
I move through the crowd with ease, sharing nods and smiling hellos. I love this scene, this floating reality. I am a solo flier looking out over the land of Boyfriends and Girlfriends. I am three notes in the middle of a song.
Joni grabs me and Tony, pulling us into Self-Help. There are a few monkish types already there, some of them trying to ignore the music and learn the Thirteen Ways to Be an Effective Person. I know Joni’s brought us here because sometimes you just have to dance like a madman in the Self-Help section of your local bookstore. So we dance. Tony hesitates—he isn’t much of a dancer. But as I’ve told him a million times, when it comes to true dancing, it doesn’t matter what you look like—it’s all about the joy you feel.
Zeke’s jive is infectious. People are crooning and swooning into one another. You can see the books on the shelves in kaleidoscope form—spinning rows of colors, the passing blur of words.
I sway. I sing. I elevate. My friends are by my side, and Zeke is working the Huguenots into his melody. I spin around and knock a few books off the shelves. When the song is through, I bend to pick them up.
I grasp on the ground and come face to face with a cool pair of sneakers.
“This yours?” a voice above the sneakers asks.
I look up. And there he is.
His hair points in ten different directions. His eyes are a little close together, but man, are they green. There’s a little birthmark on his neck, the shape of a comma.
I think he’s wonderful.
He’s holding a book out to me. Migraines Are Only in Your Mind.
I am aware of my breathing. I am aware of my heartbeat. I am aware that my shirt is half untucked. I take the book from him and say thanks. I put it back on the shelf. There’s no way that Self-Help can help me now.
“Do you know Zeke?” I ask, nodding to the stand.
“No,” the boy answers. “I just came for a book.”
He shakes my hand. I am touching his hand.
I can feel Joni and Tony keeping their curious distance.
“Do you know Zeke?” Noah asks. “His tunes are magnificent.”
I roll the word in my head—magnificent. It’s like a gift to hear. “Yeah, we go to school together,” I say casually.
“The high school?”
“That’s the one.” I’m looking down. He has perfect hands.
“I go there, too.”
“You do?” I can’t believe I’ve never seen him before. If I’d seen him before, it would have damn well registered.
“Two weeks now. Are you a senior?”
I look down at my Keds. “I’m a sophomore.”
Now I fear he’s humoring me. There’s nothing cool about being a sophomore. Even a new kid would know that.
“Noah?” another voice interrupts, insistent and expectant. A girl has appeared behind him. She is dressed in a lethal combination of pastels. She’s young, but she looks like she could be a hostess on the Pillow and Sofa Network.
“My sister,” he explains, much to my relief. She trudges off. It is clear that he is supposed to follow.
We hover for a second. Our momentary outro of regret. Then he says, “I’ll see you around.”
I want to say I hope so, but suddenly I’m afraid of being too forward. I can flirt with the best of them—but only when it doesn’t matter. This suddenly matters.
“See you,” I echo. He leaves as Zeke begins another set. When he gets to the door, he turns to look at me and smiles. I feel myself blush and bloom.
Now I can’t dance. It’s hard to groove when you’ve got things on your mind. Sometimes you can use the dancing to fight them off.
But I don’t want to fight this off.
I want to keep it.
“So do you think he’s on the bride’s side or the groom’s side?” Joni asks after the gig.
“I think people can sit wherever they want nowadays,” I reply.
Zeke is packing up his gear. We’re leaning against the front of his VW bus, squinting so we can turn the streetlamps into stars.
“I think he likes you,” Joni says.
“Joni,” I protest, “you thought Wes Travers liked me—and all he wanted to do was copy my homework.”
“This is different. He was in Art and Architecture the whole time Zeke was playing. Then you caught his eye and he ambled over. It wasn’t Self-Help he was after.”
I look at my watch. “It’s almost pumpkin time. Where’s Tony?”
We find him a little ways over, lying in the middle of the street, on an island that’s been adopted by the local Kiwanis Club.
His eyes are closed. He is listening to the music of the traffic going by. I climb over the divider and tell him study group’s almost over.
“I know,” he says to the sky. Then, as he’s getting up, he adds, “I like it here.”
I want to ask him, Where is here? Is it this island, this town, this world? More than anything in this strange life, I want Tony to be happy. We found out a long time ago that we weren’t meant to fall in love with each other. But a part of me still fell in hope with him. I want a fair world. And in a fair world, Tony would shine.
I could tell him this, but he wouldn’t accept it. He would leave it on the island instead of folding it up and keeping it with him, just to know it was there.
We all need a place. I have mine—this topsy-turvy collection of friends, tunes, afterschool activities, and dreams. I want him to have a place, too. When he says “I like it here,” I don’t want there to be a sad undertone. I want to be able to say, So stay.
But I remain quiet, because now it’s a quiet night, and Tony is already walking back to the parking lot.
“What’s a Kiwanis?” he yells over his shoulder.
I tell him it sounds like a bird. A bird from somewhere far, far away.
“Hey Gay Boy. Hey Tony. Hey folkie chick.”
I don’t even need to look up from the pavement. “Hello, Ted,” I say.
He’s walked up just as we’re about to drive out. I can hear Tony’s parents miles away, finishing up their evening prayers. They will expect us soon. Ted’s car is blocking us in. Not out of spite. Out of pure obliviousness. He is a master of obliviousness. “You’re in our way,” Joni points out from the driver’s seat. Her irritation is quarter-hearted, at best.
“You look nice tonight,” he replies.
Ted and Joni have broken up twelve times in the past few years.
Which means they’ve gotten back together eleven times. I always feel we’re teetering on the precipice of Reunion Number Twelve. Ted is smart and good-looking, but he doesn’t use it to good effect, like a rich person who never gives to charity. His world rarely expands farther than the nearest mirror. Even in tenth grade, he likes to think of himself as the king of our school. He hasn’t stopped to notice it’s a democracy.
The problem with Ted is that he’s not a total loss. Sometimes, from the murk of his self-notice, he will make a crystal-clear comment that’s so insightful you wish you’d made it yourself. A little of that can go a long way. Especially with Joni.
“Really,” she says now, her voice easier, “we’ve gotta go.”
“You’ve run out of chapter and verse for your study group? ‘O Lord, as I walk through the valley of the shadow of doubt, at least let me wear a Walkman . . . .’ ”
“The Lord is my DJ,” Tony says solemnly. “I shall not want.”
“One day, Tony—I swear we’ll free you.” Ted bangs the hood of the car to emphasize the point, and Tony gives him a salute. Ted moves his car, and we’re off again.
Joni’s clock says it’s 12:48, but we’re okay, since it’s been an hour fast since Daylight Saving Time ended. We drive into the blue-black, the radio mellow now, the hour slowly turning from nighttime to sleep.
Noah is a hazy memory in my mind. I am losing track of the way he ran my nerves; the giddiness is now diffusing in the languid air, becoming a mysterious blur of good feeling.
“How come I’ve never seen him before?” I ask.
“Maybe you were just waiting for the right time to notice,” Tony says.
Maybe he’s right.
Boy Meets Boy; David Levithan