Jason steps back, across the off-white kitchen tiles, his mouth slightly open and his eyes darting to the floor and the cabinets around him. “Naw, man,” he mumbles, then takes a swig of his Pabst and walks out of the room. I blink at the sudden crispness of everything around me and raise my beer to my lips despite the weight that’s churning in my stomach. Stupid, that’s what I am, fucking stupid. The edge of the counter feels sharper than before, like it’s digging into my back and pressing against the bones of my spine, so I shift forward, standing rigid and alone in Jason’s kitchen.
My shoulders drop – how long have I been hunching them up like that? – and my left hand tugs at the hem of my baggy t-shirt. Just fucking stupid. I turn around to the sink and pour my beer on top of his crusty stacked dishes. Laughter from the party bounces into the kitchen from the living room and I set the Pabst can softly beside the sink as I keep still, trying to listen for any footsteps coming my way.
I close my eyes and breathe out hard from my nose, run a hand through my hair and roll my shoulders. Why won’t this fucking tension go away? My eyes pop open as Jason’s dopey, forced laugh joins the din of conversations and music coming from the other room. Fuck this, fuck Alana Turner, and if Katie isn’t here now, she isn’t coming, so fuck her too.
I turn to the back door – the one that faces the doorway to the living room – and give a quick glance toward the party before placing a hand on the cold glass knob and shoving my weight against the door. The summer air billows inside, brushing against my face and bare arms as I step out onto the wooden stoop and take my first steps toward home.
Richard lights a cigarette and leans a shoulder on the bathroom wall, his hip jutting out. He blows smoke out his nose and says, “You know, Andy, for such a sleazy place, Empire has really nice bathrooms.”
I look around the narrow, stark bathroom. It’s true, there’s not even dust in the white corners or smudges on the mirrors, but out in the club, the floor is sticky and all the vinyl barstools are duct-taped. I turn my head back to Richard. “Isn’t this place no smoking?”
“Yes, Andy,” he huffs, rolling his eyes, “it’s no smoking, but what the hell are they gonna do? Ask me to put it out? Fine.” He nods his head toward the urinal facing us. “I’ll just flick it in there and that’ll be that.” Smoke trickles upward from his lips and curls in front of his face. “We’re here to pick up guys, not follow the goddamn rules.”
I smile at him as genuinely as I can manage and twist my head to pop my neck, which doesn’t work.
“That’s gross, I don’t know why you do it,” Richard says, his lips curling out.
“Because it feels good.” I straighten my back and put my hands on my hips. The door opens, letting in the pump of bass and the treble of gossips’ shrieks. A tall guy with a slim face, long legs and gelled hair – he kind of reminds me of Jason – walks in and glances at Richard before slipping past us and into the stall in the corner.
“He must be pee-shy,” Richard giggles. He taps his cigarette and the ash falls to the floor; he takes another long drag.
I fold my arms in front of me, my palms on the bare skin of my forearms. I want to go home already and we’ve only had one drink; I hate it when Richard drags me out. I tilt my head and cock one hip as the sound of pissing starts in the stall. “So are we going to Jason’s later? Katie said she would be there.”
Richard looks at me, pure dramatic shock on his face. “Why, Andy, would we want to go there? Frat boys suck. Besides,” he sucks more smoke from his cigarette, the tip burning orange, “you’re the only gay guy they like over there. It’s probably because you dress just as sloppy as they do.” He blows out smoke. “Besides, Katie’s a slut. She fucks every straight man I want.” The whoosh of a toilet flushing fills the small room and the man steps out from the stall and over to the sinks.
I watch the guy in the mirror, letting my arms drop and hang at my sides, twisting my hips toward him, and dropping my head a little bit, my eyes trained on the reflection of his lowered face. He waves his wet hands, water flying back into the sink, and wipes them on his jeans as he goes back out the door into the loud, humid club. Not even a fucking glance. I fold my arms again and look at Richard. “Are you done yet?”
Richard sucks down the last of his cigarette and flicks it across the white room and squarely into the urinal. It hisses for a second as the cherry turns black. He wiggles his head side to side and rolls his eyes at me. “Andy, you’re such a queen sometimes.”
I shake my head as Richard’s hips sway side to side on the way to the door. Why am I best friends with such a bitch?
I park my ’93 Nissan in my parents’ driveway. I’ll just walk to Jason’s, it’s only like five or six blocks; and that way I can get hammered and not have to drive back. I take my keys from the ignition, which is beeping at me, and step out of the car onto the pavement.
My parents’ dark house, with the side windows as lowlights of inky black, seems larger than usual as I shove my hands into my pockets. I should do an oil pastel of the house from this angle – Mom might like the sweeping lines of ivy and extreme slant of the roof. As I walk down the driveway to the sidewalk, I take wide, careless steps and concentrate on hunching my shoulders to appear unconcerned with my appearance. When on the street, especially at night, the best thing that could happen is for someone to not recognize me – blending is the main objective.
I stare down at the uneven slabs of sidewalk as I walk, my fingers rubbing on the sharp edge of my apartment key. Richard is so negative sometimes. I hope the guy he wakes up with is way less attractive in the daylight. After a quick glance both ways, I cross Maple Avenue, my eyes still on the ground. At least it’s a warm night.
The light from Jason’s house leaks out onto the sidewalk and I see the glow before I can hear the music. It’s so weird that a frat has a house in this little residential area; the Greek letters on the front of the house look so out of place among the thick oak trees and manicured gardens. I cut across the yard, pull my hands from my pockets and straighten my back as I jog up the steps and to the front door. Since Katie said she’d be here, I just walk in.
The TV is playing some new music video and a group of six girls are on the Wal-Mart rug in the center of the living room, doing the dance from the video and laughing at each other’s mistakes. I look around at the frat guys watching the girls and smoking cigarettes, at the girls in their heavy make-up, and remember to slouch a little bit; blending is still the name of the game, especially since I don’t see Katie. Across the room, Jason looks up and raises his beer like he’s toasting me. He’s so cute when his eyes droop from drinking too much too early. I wave and he points to the staircase that leads up to his bedroom.
I follow him up the stairs and into his room, where some guys and a few girls are sitting in a circle, passing around a colorful glass bong. “Want a beer?” he asks.
“Sure.” I stuff my hands into my back pockets and glance around the room, at the pictures of women – who aren’t really that attractive – taped to the walls, the hot rod calendar and the glass tank that houses his pet iguana.
He pulls a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the mini-fridge by his bed and hands it to me.
One of the girls in the circle looks up at me, smirking lazily, as I pop open the can. “Hey Andy,” she says, one hand around the swirled glass of the bong, the other pushing her blonde hair behind her ear. I think we had Bio together forever ago, before I dropped out, but I have no idea what her name is.
“Hey, girl,” I say as I walk over to her, swinging my hips a little. If I know one of these girls then I’m safe, in this room at least. I lean down and give her a loose hug. “How are you?” I take a slow sip of Pabst and bat my eyes flirtatiously at her – girls love that shit.
“I’m good.” She grins wider. “Want a hit?”
I shake my head. “Nah, but thanks.” I smile widely, showing all my teeth, and turn back to Jason, who is standing by his bed. The way he’s standing makes it look like he’s about to do something, like his body is about to go into motion, but he just stands there. I relax my right leg, pointing my knee toward Jason. “How’ve you been, bud?”
He blinks and smiles. “I’ve been good, just hanging around here, drinking.”
I laugh. “That sounds fun.”
He kicks at the blue carpet with one of his sneakers. “Yeah, I guess.”
I nod toward the sleeping iguana. “How’s Rudolph doing?”
Jason spins to face the dry aquarium. “He’s been good, I guess. He’s been sleeping a lot, but he’s been eating more, too, so I guess he’s just in summer-mode.”
“Yeah.” We stand silent for a minute as the girl who spoke to me receives the bong again, takes a hit and sputters out smoke. “Well,” I say, looking straight into his dark brown eyes, “I’m going to go downstairs and mingle.” I take a step toward the door, still letting my waist rock loosely.
“Yeah,” Jason says, “I’m right behind you.”
Outside the bathroom, among the crowd of men dancing, making out and drinking, Richard and I pause to let two drag queens – one in shimmering green, the other in bright pink – get past us to the bar.
Richard leans back to me. “I’ve been thinking about doing that.”
“Drag, dummy,” he says, nodding toward the two who just passed us. We start walking behind them, single-file past the DJ stand to the bar, and I drop my arms so I can lean forward and hear him over the Madonna song and the screaming laughter of a cramped gay bar. “It seems fun,” he says. “I love to dance and I love performing.”
I roll my eyes, thinking of the stories about theatrical arguments and sex acts that Richard’s exes have told me.
“And besides, the whole ‘alternate persona’ thing would be fun,” he says. We stop just outside the mass of bodies at the tiny wooden bar, some shirtless, and Richard turns to me. I stick my ass out a little bit as I cock one hip. He raises one hand theatrically. “I think I would call myself Enya.”
I screw my face up to show him that the idea sucks. “Like the singer?”
His hand drops to his hip and he glares at me. “Yes, like the singer, but I wasn’t done.” Richard raises his hand again and leans back, his expression suddenly soft and angled toward the ceiling. “Enya. Enya Face!” As he says the last word, he bucks at me, pushing his shoulders and head dangerously close to mine. Then Richard bursts into giggles, covers his nose and mouth with his hands as the girls’ t-shirt he’s wearing rides up his waist and shaved stomach.
I laugh as he turns back to the bar and pushes past a rugged, hairy man in a leather chest harness. “Besides,” he calls over his shoulder, “have you seen the fucking tips those bitches make? Even the fat ones! I’d have no problem making mad money shaking my ass on stage.” The man Richard pushed past looks down Richard’s slim hips and then looks out at the dancers, his expression completely neutral.
I put a hand on Richard’s upper back and lean in. “Get me a Cape Cod.”
Richard nods, then smiles sweetly at the bartender – whose blue eyes have that same sad, down-curving shape as Jason’s – and yells, “I need a Heineken and a shot of Southern Comfort.” I can barely hear him over the music, but I swear that’s what he just said. I straighten back, prop my hand against my right hip and raise an eyebrow at Richard, who leans back and shrugs. “Whatever,” he says, “it’s not like you don’t like it. And you need to loosen up, Andy. You’ve been sucking lately.” He smiles at me like he did the bartender and bends over the bar to wait for the drinks.
The leather man gets up from his barstool, and as soon as he does, I jump past him, onto the patched vinyl. I feel something bump against my back and when I look over my shoulder, the pink drag queen is glaring at me. Whatever, I got here first.
The bartender crosses in front of the wide mirrors and rows of liquor behind the bar and slides a shot of Southern Comfort in front of me. He pauses just long enough for me to order a Cape Cod. Richard smiles at me.
“Shut up,” I say. “You’re such an ass sometimes.”
“Andy,” Richard croons, his face drawn in mock-sadness, “I order your favorite shot and that makes me an ass? Fine,” he reaches for the shot, “then I’ll take it.”
I snatch up the So Co and laugh, rocking back on the stool. “Fuck you, it’s mine.”
Richard smiles at me and takes a sip from his green Heineken bottle. He tips his head down and scans the club crowd over his shoulder. “A lot of fuglies tonight.” He looks down the bar. “And they don’t even have the strobe lights going to mask it, just those multi-colored pieces of shit that every fifteen-year-old acid head has in their room.”
I down the shot and feel my face contort. It’s good, but it’s nasty. The bartender places a clear plastic cup filled with pink liquid in front of me. “Thanks,” I say, hunching my shoulders forward like all those classic pictures of Alana Turner. I imagine my skin immaculate, my lips full and round, and wink at the bartender. He turns to the drag queen beside me and listens intently as she orders. Well, then, fuck you too.
My pocket starts vibrating as I take a sip of my vodka and cranberry and I pull my cell phone out to read the text from Katie. I tap Richard’s shoulder, distracting him from the shirtless stud on the dance floor whose muscles are gleaming as he writhes to some random remix. “Katie said she’s about to head over to Jason’s. Do you want to come, or should I tell her it’ll just be me?”
Richard rolls his eyes. “Tell her it’ll just be you, Andy. I hate that place.” He looks back to the man on the dance floor.
I text her a quick reply – that I’ll be leaving in five and she should meet me at Jason’s. I take a gulp from the Cape Cod. So much smoother than So Co. I tap Richard again. He turns to me, his jaw jutting out. “I’m leaving in just a minute, as soon as I finish this. Do you need a ride, or are you good?”
“I’m fine, Andy.” He looks back over at the shirtless man, who’s panting and walking toward the bar as the song changes. “Besides, I think my ride is coming right now.” He smirks.
“You’re such a slut,” I laugh. I raise the Cape Cod to my mouth and swallow the rest, then pull a ten from my pocket and toss it on the bar. “Here,” I say into Richard’s ear, “give him my seat.” He nods and we hug each other quickly. “Bye.” I slide off the stool as the man walks up and grins at Richard.
“Bye,” he says, not even looking at me. Whatever, I’ll see him tomorrow after I get off from Kinko’s. I shift aside so the sweaty man can sit and then I squeeze my way through the guys crowding up to the small bar. When I finally find a space to walk to the door, I let my hips move loosely side to side with each step. My head is slightly down, my eyes open wide and flickering to each man’s face as I imagine Ms. Turner’s would.
As I reach the front door and push down on the metal bar, I glance back at the throngs of men staring at the guys who are staying at the bar and ignoring the only one who’s leaving. Well. Fuck all of you, then. I press my weight against the door and slouch my shoulders as I take the first heavy steps out of the safe-zone of the club and into the sticky air of a summer night.
As I go back down the stairs to the party, Jason’s footsteps pad along behind me; he taps my shoulder about halfway down. “Hey,” he says, his lips closer to my ear than I realized, his breath moving humid and hot on my neck, “can I ask you about something?” His words are a little slurred, but he seems pretty coherent.
“Yeah,” I say, “but can we go to the kitchen?” I look down to the opening of the stairs, where the hip-hop is inspiring a dry-hump party between three girls and two guys. “It’ll be quieter.”
“Yeah,” he says as we descend the last few steps.
I try to make sure my hips aren’t swinging as I lower my head again, glancing up at the boys as I pass, smiling at the girls I’ve met before. I always wonder why more straight guys don’t realize the amazing networking opportunities I could open up for them.
In the dingy kitchen, I lean my lower back against the metal edge of the counter in front of the sink and fold one arm over my chest again. I stretch my legs out a little bit as I tilt my head to the side and look at Jason. “What’s up?”
“Well,” he says, his eyes moving across the nicotine-yellowed cabinets, “I mean…”
I move my head forward, trying to coax him further, but he just looks around the room and then takes a sip of his Pabst. I straighten my back, my eyes on his face. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” he takes a shaky step back and slowly moves his hands back and forth in front of him, “but there’s something I need to tell you, and you can’t tell anyone.”
No way. No way is Jason about to say what I think he is. I lean forward a little bit like Alana Turner would and square my feet on the faux tile floor. “Sure, I promise. What is it?” I take a sip of my beer. Oh please, oh please, oh please say what I think you’re going to say.
Jason glances back down the short hallway to the living room. “See, it’s…just that,” he looks back at me, those big sad brown eyes looking straight into mine, “I’m gay.”
Thank you God, thank you Jesus, thank you Buddha and Allah and anyone I forgot. Thank you. I promise to be at church this Sunday – early, even – and to pray to each of you before bed from now on. I drop my arm from across my chest.
“Really?” I ask, knowing full well that no heterosexual male in a Bible Belt town would ever confess to homosexuality unless he was sure.
Jason looks down at the floor. “Yeah. I haven’t ever told anyone. You’re the only person I’ve felt comfortable enough with who I thought would understand.”
A little quiver starts in my chest as I take another sip of beer, my eyes still on that lean, masculine face. “I’m glad you did, Jason. Thank you.” I reach forward and pat his shoulder.
He looks up at me and smiles shyly. “Does it feel better to tell someone?”
“Yeah,” he says. He grins.
I stand up straight, a few inches closer to him, close enough that I can smell the soft heat of his cologne. I glance down at my beer can. “Now can I tell you something?”
Jason’s face scrunches but he keeps smiling. “Sure. What is it?”
Well, can’t stop now. “Jason, I kind of…well.” I pause and then lean forward and kiss him. Like, straight up on the mouth kiss him. Every muscle is screaming with tension and I almost forget to hang onto my beer, but the quiver in my chest is suddenly still. I wonder for a second if it’s what a heart attack feels like.
I feel the pressure of his palm flat on my chest – he doesn’t press hard, but enough to move me – and my back strikes against the metal rim of the kitchen counter top.