In October, we announced an exciting new project from David Levithan and Nina LaCour. The duo wrote a book together called You Know Me Well about two unlikely best friends helping each other navigate the ups and downs of first love. Now, EW is thrilled not only to reveal the book’s cover, but also to share a sneak peek at the first two chapters. Check everything out below, and pick up the book on June 7, 2016.
Right now, my parents think I’m sleeping on the couch at my best friend Ryan’s house, safely tucked into a suburban silence. At the same time, Ryan’s parents think he’s in the top bunk in my bedroom, slumbering peacefully after a slow night of video games and TV. In reality, we’re in the Castro, at a club called Happy Happy, kicking it up at the gaygantuan kickoff party for San Francisco’s very own Pride Week. The whole spectrum is in attendance tonight, breathing in the rainbow air and dancing to the rainbow sounds. Ryan and I are underage, underexperienced, underdressed, and completely under the spell of the scene pressing up against us. Ryan looks a little bit scared, but he’s trying to hide it under an arched brow and a smokescreen of sarcasm. If someone he doesn’t like approaches us, he’ll hold my hand to make himself seem taken, but otherwise it’s hands-off. In the context of our relationship, this counts as logic: We are just friends except for the moments when, oops, we’re more than just friends. We don’t talk about these moments, and I think Ryan believes if we don’t talk about them, then they haven’t been happening. That’s what he wants.
I don’t know what I want, so mostly I go along.
It was my idea to come here, but I never would have been able to do it without Ryan at my side. I’ve stuck to the halls of our high school, living my out-to-everyone life pretty much the same as before everyone (including me) knew. Only now it’s the last week of junior year, and it felt like it was time to take that forty-five-minute leap into the city. “Sweet sixteen and never been risked ,” Ryan calls my life – as if he’s been sneaking out any more than I have. Luckily I look older than I am – to the point that an opposing coach once wanted to see my records, to make sure I wasn’t a college-age ringer. I don’t have a fake ID or anything, but at a place like Happy Happy, on the first night of Pride, it’s not like they check. We just had to look like we knew what we were doing, and that got us in.
I was a little surprised when Ryan said he’d come, because he insists that his being gay is “nobody’s business.” Where this leaves me, I’m not exactly sure. There are times I want to shake him and say, Dude, I’m the baseball player with the jock friends and you’re the sensitive poet who edits the lit mag – shouldn’t I be the one who’s scared? But then I think I’m not being nice, or at least not being understanding, since Ryan has to figure things out for himself. There is no way whatsoever to figure things out for someone else. Even if he’s your best friend who you always end up fooling around with.
It’s really dark and there isn’t much room to move. We’re getting plenty of wolfish looks from other guys. When they’re cute, I think Ryan likes it. But I feel awkward. Meeting someone new was not the reason I came here, although maybe it crossed Ryan’s mind when he said yes. There are some guys at the party who look like they’re auditioning for selfies. Everyone’s sentences crash together to make this gigantic noise, and my thoughts overlap so much that all I can feel is their loudness.
The parties I’ve gone to before have been held in basements and school gyms. Now it’s like I’ve walked into a wider, narrower world. Robyn is singing about dancing on her own, and people are verbing their bodies along to that. These are not the people I usually hang with. We are not in Brewster’s rec room, watching a Giants game. This is not a beer crowd. Everyone here is a cocktail.
We’re not quite at the bar and not quite on the dance floor. Ryan’s about to say something, but a man with a camera interrupts by leaning in front of him and asking me who I am. He can’t be older than thirty, but he has bright silver hair.
“Excuse me?” I shout over the noise.
“Who are you?” he asks again.
“I’m Mark,” I say. “Why?”
“Do you model?”
Ryan snickers at this.
“No!” I answer.
“You should!” the guy says.
I’m thinking he can’t be serious, but he takes out his card and gives it to me. Before I can say anything else, there’s the pop-burst of a flash. I’m still blinking in the afterglow when the photographer touches my wrist and tells me to email him. Then he vanishes back into the crowd.
“What was that?” I ask Ryan.
“Are you talking to me?” he replies. “I’m afraid I’m currently invisible. Or at least I’m invisible to noted fashion photographers.”
Ryan is just as cute as I am, but it’s against the rules for me to tell him that.
I let the card drop to the floor and say, “Whatever.”
Ryan bends down, picks it up, and hands it back.
“Keep it as a souvenir,” he tells me. “I mean, it’s not like you’re actually going to do anything about it.”
“Let’s just say history is on my side.”
Not untrue. I am shy. Sometimes painfully shy. And it’s especially painful when someone reminds me about it.
“Can we look around some more?” I ask. “Maybe dance a little?”
“You know I don’t dance.”
What he means is: He doesn’t dance when other people are watching. This was his excuse when I wanted to go to junior prom together. It would have been a big step for us, and he looked at me like I’d asked if he wanted to make out in a shark tank. In front of his parents. Instead of saying we couldn’t go to the prom because he wanted to keep us a secret, he wrapped his refusal in a blanket dismissal of dancing. I knew he wasn’t going to put me through the indignity of watching him go with someone else – he wasn’t going to try to live that lie, at least. But he wasn’t going to go with me, either.
I ended up staying home instead. He came over and I thought he was going to make it up to me, but instead we watched There Will Be Blood. Then he went home.
I can understand not wanting to dance in front of everyone we know. I can see that’s a big deal. But I was hoping it would be different here. I was hoping that being among all these happy, happy strangers would pop the cork.
“C’mon,” I say, trying to keep my tone light. “It’s Pride Week!”
Ryan’s eye has already moved elsewhere. I follow his gaze to find this very pretty college guy in Clark Kent glasses and a simple blue t-shirt with a slight rip on the left shoulder. He’d be the apple of any bookworm’s eye – he’s much more Ryan’s type than I’ll ever be. He senses Ryan looking at him . . . then senses me looking at him, and meets my eye instead of Ryan’s. I quickly look away.
“I saw him first,” Ryan mutters. I think he might be joking, but something in the pit of my stomach tells me he’s not. Then he says, “Oh man.” I look back up, and Indie Bookstore Clark Kent has his arms around a boy who’s wearing a ski hat even though it’s June. Hat Boy leans in for a kiss and Clark gleefully obliges. If it were manga, hearts would be rising like balloons over their heads.
“Happy Happy is depressing depressing me,” Ryan says. “You promised me fun. Where’s the fun?”
That had been my big argument – it’ll be fun. What I didn’t add was that I thought the idea of sneaking out of my house, tiptoeing to the train, and coming into the city where no one else really knows us would be . . . romantic, I guess. On the ride in, it was almost like that, like it was an adventure we were sharing. I pressed my leg against his and he didn’t move away. We sat there making jokes and imagining the look on my mother’s face if she checked up on us and found the room empty. (My mother gets upset when a pillow is out of place on the sofa.) I thought that people looking at us would see a couple, and I got a sense of confirmation from that.
Now I’m guessing we look like two friends. I probably look like Ryan’s wingman.
“I want a drink,” he declares.
“You’ll get caught,” I remind him.
“No, I won’t. Have some faith. Some of us aren’t Timid Timmys.”
I follow him as a he presses into the crowd and makes his way to the bar. I wonder what would happen if I stopped walking, if I let the crowd fill up the space between us. Would he notice? Would he wade back to find me? Or would he keep going, because forward is his destination and I am not?
I falter for a moment, and in that moment, he reaches for my hand. As if he senses my doubts. As if he doesn’t need to turn around to know exactly where I am. As if everything we’ve been through has at least constructed this connection, this much of a bridge.
“Stay with me,” he says.
So I do. And when we get to the bar, Charming Ryan returns. The shadows fall from his mood. When the bartender comes over, Ryan tosses out his words like he knows they’ll float into the ears of anyone who hears them. The bartender smiles; he can’t help but like Ryan. This is the boy I fell for, about eight years after we first became friends. This is the boy who made me want to be who I am. This is the boy I can borrow my confidence from.
The bartender comes back with two flutes of champagne, and I can’t help but laugh at how silly it is. Even though I don’t drink, Ryan slides one of the glasses over to me.
“Just one sip,” he says. “If you don’t, it won’t be a toast. It’ll just be a burnt piece of bread.”
I relent and raise my glass. We clink, and then I sip while he downs. When he’s done, I give him mine to finish off.
“I wish you’d live a little,” he says when the bubbly’s been popped.
“What does that mean?” I ask, even though we’ve had this conversation before.
“It’s not nothing.”
“No, it is. It’s precisely nothing.”
“What’s precisely nothing?”
“The degree to which you put yourself out there.”
I have no idea why this has become the subject.
“What are you talking about? A failure to finish my champagne makes me – what? A Cowardly Connor?”
“It’s not just that.” He points his empty glass at the crowd. “This room is full of attractive men. You are a fine specimen of boyness. But you’re not even looking around. You’re not trying. That guy gave you a card you’ll never use. Other guys keep looking at you. You could totally work it. But you don’t want to.”
“What would you have me do?” I spy the signup sheet next to his elbow. “Join the midnight underwear contest? Dance around on the bar?”
“Yes! That is exactly what I’d have you do!”
“So I can find a guy to hook up with?”
“Or talk to. Don’t look at me that way – we’re far from the only teenagers in this place. Mr. Right could be right here, right now.”
Can’t you see it’s you? the part of me that should know better wants to ask. But that, too, is against the rules.
“Fine,” I say, and before Ryan can say another word, I am reaching across the bar for the clipboard. I pull the ever-present pen from his pocket and write my name down.
Ryan laughs. “No way. There’s no way you’ll follow through on that.”
“Watch me,” I say — even though I know he’s right. I’m fine in the locker room, or with Ryan. But in public? In my underwear? That would seem about as likely as me going home with a girl.
Still, it’s one thing for me to have it in my head that I’m not going to do it, and quite another for Ryan to have it in his head. Because the more he insists I’m going to flake out, the more I want to prove him wrong. There’s definitely a double standard here – there’s no way he would do it, either. But I’m the one who’s been dared.
We bicker along these lines for a few more minutes, and then it’s midnight and the DJ is telling all the underwear contestants to make their way to the bar. The bartender puts all the names in an upturned pink wig, then yells my name out first, followed by nine others. The man next to me immediately starts to take off his clothes, exposing a steel-armor chest and graph-paper abs. I think may have seen him swimming in the Olympics, or maybe it’s his Speedo-shaped underwear that’s tricking me. The bartender says we’ll be starting in a minute.
“Now or never,” Ryan tells me. From the way he says it, I can tell his money’s on never.
I kick off my shoes. As Ryan watches, dumbstruck, I pull off my jeans, then remove my socks, because leaving my socks on would look ridiculous. I cannot give myself any time to think about what I’m doing. It feels strange to be standing barefoot in the middle of a packed club. The floor is sticky. I pull my shirt over my head.
I am in my underwear. Surrounded by strangers. I thought I’d be cold, but instead it’s like I’m feeling the heat of the club more fully. All these bodies clouding the air. And me, right at the center of it.
I don’t think I’d recognize myself, and that’s okay.
The bartender calls out my name. I hand my shirt to Ryan and jump onto the bar.
My heart is pounding so hard I can hear it in my ears.
There are cheers from the crowd, and the DJ throws Rihanna’s “Umbrella” into the speakers. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I am standing on a bar in my red-and-blue boxer briefs, afraid I’ll knock over people’s drinks. Obligingly, the patrons pull their glasses down, and before I know what I’m doing, I’m . . . moving. I’m pretending I’m in my bedroom, dancing around in my underwear, because that is certainly something I do often enough. Just not with an audience. Not with people hooting and whistling. I am swiveling my hips and I am raising my hand in the air and I am singing along with the -ella, -ella, -ella, -ella. Most of all I am looking at the expression on Ryan’s face, which is one of pure astonishment. I have never seen his smile so wide or so bright. I have never felt him so proud of me. He is whooping at the top of his lungs. I point at him and match his smile with my own. I dance with him, even though he’s down there and I’m up here. I let everybody see how much I love him and he doesn’t shy away from it, because for a moment, he’s not thinking about that – he’s only thinking about me.
I take it all in. The world, from this vantage point, is crazybeautiful. I look around the crowd and see all these people enjoying themselves – having fun with me or making fun of me or imagining having fun with me. Pairs of guys and pairs of women. Young skateboarders and men who look like bank presidents on their day off. People from all over the Bay Area patchwork, many of them dancing along, some of them starting to throw money my way. Clark Kent’s in the crowd, looking me over. When I see him, I swear he winks.
I feel my gaze pulling itself back to Ryan. I feel myself coming back to him. But along the way, someone else catches my eye. Before I can return to Ryan – while I’m still up there in my underwear, thinking he’s the only person in this whole place who knows who I am, who cares who I am – I see another face I know. It’s like the song stops for a second, and I’m thrown. Because, yes, it has to be her. Here, in this gay bar, watching me dancing near naked over a carpet of dollar bills.
The senior I sit next to in Calculus.
“Tell me about her again,” I say.
I change lanes on the top deck of the Bay Bridge so that we get the best view of the city lights, even though June and Uma are kissing in the back seat, oblivious to the scenery, and Lehna is busy scrolling through her phone for the next song we should listen to.
“I don’t know if there’s anything left to tell,” she laughs.
“It’s okay if I’ve heard it before. Just tell me.”
The first chords of “Divided” by Tegan and Sara start to play, and for a moment I remember what it felt like for Lehna and me to stand in the sea of girl-loving girls at their concert when we were in eighth grade, how I felt something deep in the core of my heart and my stomach that told me yes.
“She got home on Tuesday,” Lehna says. “And she was pretty jetlagged but she told me she was used to traveling, not getting much sleep, keeping weird hours in general. When I talked to her on the phone she was sewing sequins onto a scarf. She says she likes to sparkle at Pride.”
“Do you think I look too plain tonight? I am the opposite of sparkling.”
I began worrying about what to wear several weeks ago, but that didn’t make me any closer to a solution by the time today got here. I ended up choosing what I hoped would look a little bohemian, effortless but still put together. A soft, light chambray button-up tucked into darker jeans. A brown leather belt with a bronze buckle. High heeled boots. Long, diamond-shaped bronze earrings and bright red lipstick. I put my hair into a loose side-braid that falls over my shoulder. In between moments of almost paralyzing self-doubt, I looked in the mirror and thought, for about half a second, that I looked like the kind of person I might like to know if I didn’t know myself already.
“You look great,” June calls from the back seat.
“I would totally fall in love with you,” Uma says.
Lehna says, “Yeah. You look a little bit European, which Violet will appreciate. And after the performers she’s been hanging out with, you’ll probably seem refreshingly normal.”
That word—normal—it fills me with panic.
“Make sure to remember to reapply your lipstick. It brings out the green in your eyes.”
I nod. I will. I turn up the music and try to calm myself down. Out the window, the lights of the city spread before us, full of so much promise. All the people in the cars around us are smiling or nodding their heads to music. We are all on our way to the same party even if it’s taking place in hundreds of different bars and living rooms. We are going out to celebrate ourselves and one another. To fall in love or to remind ourselves of all the people we’ve loved in the past. For me that would be a very short list. Which is part of why tonight scares me so much.
Lehna and I have been friends since we were six, so I’ve known about her cousin Violet for years. The daughter of Lehna’s photojournalist aunt, Violet has never lived in one place for more than a year, has never attended a traditional school, and has been traveling across Europe for the past twenty months, studying with the trapeze artists while her mother documents circus life. Violet’s always been a source of fascination. Even more so when, last year, she wrote to Lehna from Prague and told her she’d fallen in love with a girl. She described it in a way that no one living a normal life in a California suburb could explain it. She used words like passionate and phrases like love affair. The girl was from the Swiss Alps and her name was Mathilde and it began and ended over the span of two weeks, from the moment the circus got to town to the moment it packed up and left.
And then, a couple months later, Violet wrote again to say that she was going to move back to San Francisco. Her mother was continuing the circus project, but Violet was turning eighteen and wanted to make her own life. I want to know how it feels to stay in one place for a little while, she wrote. So I’m coming home, even though I don’t even remember what the seasons feel like there. When Lehna exclaimed late one night that she should set Violet and me up, I pretended that the thought hadn’t occurred to me, when really it was all I’d been thinking about for months.
“Remember to call me Kate in front her,” I say.
“Got it. Kate-not-Katie.”
“Thanks,” I say, even though I can tell by her smirk and the tone of her voice that she’s annoyed.
I exit onto Duboce. I’ve driven us to this house a few times. It’s a classic San Francisco Victorian with small rooms and high ceilings. Lehna’s friend Shelbie lives there along with a big chocolate Lab and parents who never seem to be home. Violet knows her, too. Shelbie’s mom and Lehna’s mom and aunt go way back, I guess. I don’t totally understand the connection, but I am willing to accept it because it’s taking me a step closer to finally meeting Violet.
Now that we are actually in the city, my dad’s old Jeep taking us closer and closer to where we’re going, the streets full of celebrating people, the night buzzing all around us, I feel my hands start to shake.
I know that it’s just a first meeting. I know that Violet has already heard about me and that she wants to meet me, too. I know that it shouldn’t be the end of the world if it doesn’t work out between us. But the embarrassing truth is that I have far too much at stake to be casual about this.
When I’m sitting through History, listening to my teacher drone on about dates and the names of battles, I think about Violet. At night, as I do the dinner dishes listening to love songs through oversized headphones, I think about Violet. I think about her when I wake up in the morning and when I’m mixing oil paints and when I’m getting books out of my locker. And when I begin to worry that I chose the wrong college, or that my future roommate will hate me, or that I’m going to grow up and forget about the things I once loved—cobalt blue, this certain hill behind my high school, searching for old slides at flea markets, the song “Divided”—I think about Violet. She’s swinging from a trapeze, mending colorful costumes, driving in a caravan across Europe while cracking jokes with fire breathers and tightrope walkers—then coming home to San Francisco and falling in love with me.
“There’s something I should mention,” Lehna says as we make our way down Guerrero Street. “I may have told her you had a solo show coming up at a gallery in the city.”
“We were talking about how good of a painter you are, and then I just got carried away for a second.”
“But I don’t even know any galleries in the city,” I say.
“We’ll look up a couple places when we get to Shelbie’s house, okay? Once Violet gets to know you she won’t care about it anymore. For now it makes you seem sophisticated and accomplished. Here, park in the driveway. Shelbie said it was fine.”
I pull into the narrow space and park at an incline that seems perilous.
“Lovebirds!” Lehna calls into the backseat. “It’s time to get out of the car!”
I hear Uma murmur something and June giggle, and then I guess some weird time lapse thing happens because the three of them are outside of the car and I am still here, clutching the steering wheel.
Lehna knocks on the window.
“Come on, Kate.”
I follow them inside to where Shelbie and her cool city-dwelling friends sprawl across the sofas and rugs, laughing and drinking and looking fabulous. All these boys and girls, gay and straight and everything in between—they look at us and wave and say hello and I would like to stop and get to know some of them but Lehna heads to the study where the computer screensaver glows shifting family snapshots and says, “We have to look something up real quick. We’ll be right back.”
And then, even though I am right behind her, she says, “Let’s go, Kate.”
I’m about to ask why it’s so annoying to her; it’s my name, after all. And it’s not like I’ve decided that I want to be called something totally random. It’s just another form of Katherine, one I think might suit me better. But I don’t even need to ask her because I already know the answer. When you’re friends with someone for such a long time, it’s easy to feel like she belongs to you, like the version of the person you became friends with is the only real version. If she hated peas when she was a kid then she will always hate peas, and if she starts to eat them and declares them delicious, really she is deluding herself, masking her hatred of them, trying to pretend that she’s someone she’s not.
But the thing is, I never chose to be called Katie. As far as I know, that’s what my parents called me the moment I popped out and I never even thought of the other possibilities until recently, when I started to feel like something was a little bit off every time someone said my name. And as I stand here in this dim room while Lehna looks up the names and descriptions of San Francisco art galleries I can’t help thinking about how that applies to a lot of my friends, too. I didn’t choose to be friends with Lehna, not really. I kind of just fell into it the way you fall into things when you’re in a kid in a new school and the first person who pays attention to you feels like such a gift, such an overwhelming relief. You are not alone. You have a friend. And it’s only later—maybe even years later—that you stop and wonder, Why this person? Why her?
Lehna rattles off the names of galleries but I can see from the images on the screen that my paintings wouldn’t belong in any of them.
“This is such a bad idea,” I say. “If she brings it up I’ll just tell her that you misunderstood me or something. I’ll tell her that I want to have a show one day.”
“It isn’t enough,” Lehna says. She turns in her swivel chair and looks at me. “You want this, right?”
“Yes,” I say. “I want this.”
And I can see how much Lehna wants it to work out between Violet and me, too. There must be some compromise we can reach, some in between. I lean over the computer and type, hair salon art gallery san francisco.
“Let’s start out a little more realistically, okay?”
I find a trendy salon in Hayes Valley that features a new artist’s work every month.
“Your stuff is way better than that,” Lehna says, even though the work that they are featuring this month is actually really nice. Delicate line drawings with splashes of color. Mostly portraits, some botanicals. She clicks through some other links until she finds a list of San Francisco’s best new galleries.
“Look through this,” she says. “Choose one.”
“Fine,” I say, even though I know it’s a terrible idea. Because what Lehna is telling me is that I’m not enough for Violet yet. I need to be better, and I know that I can be, even if I have to fake it for a little while. “But I don’t have a show lined up yet,” I tell Lehna. “It’s still preliminary.”
“Let’s just say they went crazy when they saw your portfolio. It’s just a matter of time.” She reaches into her pocket for her phone and when she looks back up at me she’s smiling.
“Violet’s on her way,” she says. “Maybe you could, like, reapply?”
I stand up and I find myself suddenly hot and dizzy, saying, “I think my lipstick’s in the car,” even though it’s not.
We head out of the study and into the crowd that has already multiplied in the few minutes we spent back there. None of the faces are ones that I recognize, and they are now too absorbed in one another to acknowledge us. Lehna at least looks like she belongs with her nose ring and her hair in its ponytail to show off the patch on one side that she keeps buzzed short. June and Uma are nowhere to be found. They’ve probably snuck off to a bedroom.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Lehna and she nods and walks into the kitchen.
I step around the kids on the rugs and out the door, past my car and up to the corner, telling myself that I’ll just walk around the block. I need a few minutes by myself because I suddenly feel stupid and small and like there’s no way I could be worthy of this girl I’m about to meet.
But I reach the end of the block and I keep walking, up through Dolores Park, into the throngs of celebrating people. They’re a happy riptide and I’m letting myself get carried out, deeper and deeper into the sea of them, further from the moment I’ve been awaiting for so long.
Out here feels worlds away from Shelbie’s living room. A bunch of teenagers sitting around looking cool is nothing like the thrumming crowd on the street. Here everything is electric and happy. Even the toughest looking women, leaning against storefronts with expressions of practiced unapproachability, soften when I smile at them. Even the vainest, most aloof-looking boys seem sweet. And most of the people out here don’t even have a barrier to break.
I don’t know how long I’ve been walking and I don’t want to take my phone out to check. I should turn back, but I’m not ready to leave all of this yet. Just thinking of Violet makes my hands tremble, and I’m standing next to the open door of a club that’s beckoning me inside with the techno-remix of an old jazz song. I reapply my lipstick in the darkened window—for myself, not for Lehna—and then I step inside. It’s so dark it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust but soon I spot the bar. I’ll just try to get a drink, give myself some time to calm down. Then I’ll walk back to the house, ignore Lehna’s disapproval, and meet Violet.
The boy serving drinks is paper doll perfect, and the crowd of men waiting to order from him seems to be in direct proportion to his attractiveness. But at the other end of the bar a cute girl with short hair and tattoos all over her muscular arms seems to be coming back from a break, so I make my way over to her and flash her a smile. She locks eyes with me and nods a nod that means she’ll take my order.
I lean over the bar toward her until our faces are close. She tips her head to the side so that she’ll hear my voice over the music.
“Tanqueray and tonic.”
Lehna learned this from her older sister and taught me how to say it with confidence. It’s the only drink I know how to order.
The bartender turns away from me and grabs the green bottle and a glass.
I wish I had Violet’s number because I would text her and say: I got a little sidetracked and ended up in a bar. Meet me here? I would say: I’ve been really looking forward to meeting you.
I avoid looking at my lit-up phone as I dig in my purse for my wallet. The bartender plunks my drink in front of me on a bright pink napkin, and I hand her ten dollars in exchange. Then I make my way to a tall table with a single bar stool. It’s been shoved against a wall and left unoccupied because everyone here is either standing or dancing, pushing their way into the center of the party. I take my first sip as the paper-doll bartender makes an announcement and cheering follows. It’s for some kind of contest; I can’t hear what kind, but soon “Umbrella” is playing and almost-naked men are climbing on top of the bar. Some of them look super confident, some of them look self-conscious, but they are all having fun and their happiness fills me up. I watch them strutting around and then I watch the crowd watching them, and I notice that most of the guys are focused on one particular dancer. I follow their gaze to a boy who seems too young to be in here but who also seems totally at home.
All he’s wearing are those tight boxer things I’ve seen in Calvin Klein ads, red and blue, and with his close-cropped blond hair and general wholesomeness he could be the gay poster boy for America. Unlike one of the older guys who is practically humping the bar, he doesn’t even seem like he’s trying to be sexy. He’s just doing his thing, singing along. I sing along with him. He points into the crowd and I see a dark-haired boy whoop back at him. And it’s crazy, but I know that boy. He’s a junior; his name is Ryan. He used one of my landscapes for the cover of the literary journal last semester. I couldn’t tell if he was gay or just the sensitive, artistic type, but I guess this answers my question.
And now I’m starting to think that the dancing boy looks somewhat familiar, like I’ve seen him in a commercial or something, like he’s played in the background while I’ve been thinking of other things. But no. I know him from real life, I guess, because he’s caught sight of me now and his whole demeanor changes.
He freezes. And Oh my God it’s Mark Rissi. We’ve never even talked, but we sit next to each other in Calc. Now the song is over and the crowd is going crazy. Mark jumps down from the bar and Ryan is trying to high-five him but Mark is still looking at me, taking his clothes from Ryan and muttering something.
When Mark reaches my table, he’s still fumbling with his belt buckle.
He stops in front of me and says, “Oh my God.”
All of that confidence and happiness is gone, and I want it back for him. That rush. I want it back for all of us. I feel like we share something, in what we’re missing right now.
“Hey, Mark,” I say. “It is Mark, right?”
He nods but all he says, again, is “Oh my God.”
“I have something serious to ask you.” My heart is pounding because I’m not the kind of person who just opens up to anyone. I tend to be more of a listener, not a sharer of problems, but tonight is not a typical night. Violet is less than a mile away from us, the bass is pounding, the disco ball casting diamonds of light through the darkness, and it turns out that the shy jock from Calc is in reality a heartthrob jail-bait of a boy who dances practically naked in gay bars.
“Please—” Mark starts.
But I am not a ruiner of squeaky-clean reputations. I’m ready to move on to bigger things with him. So I cut him off and say, “I thought it was an excellent performance. By the time you leave I’m sure that every available guy in here will have given you his number.”
Ryan appears next to us.
“It’s my fault,” he says. “I kind of coerced him into doing it.”
“God, you two,” I say. “Lighten up! I won’t tell anyone. But, Mark, just listen, okay? Because I’m about to ask you something and, like I said, it’s a serious question.”
Mark’s panic fades into relief. He sighs and runs his hand over his face. When he looks at me again, he is ready to listen.
“Do you want to be friends with me?” I ask him.
He cocks his head.
“I know that makes me sound like I’m in preschool or something. It’s not even the main question, but I feel like we should establish a friendship before I ask you what I really want to ask you. I’ve spent the whole day, the whole school year, really, realizing that I might not actually like my friends all that much. Which is why I’m at a bar by myself on a night when everyone else is with other people. I wasn’t supposed to be here, but here I am, and then here you are, and it’s like a flashing arrow is pointing at you, telling me that you are someone I should know.”
“Uhm,” Mark says.
Ryan mutters something about invisibility but I don’t ask him what he means because I’m too focused on Mark’s face.
“I guess?” he says. “I mean, if you want to?”
“Okay, good. So now for the real question: Have you ever wanted something so badly that it sort of takes over your life? Like, you still do all the things you’re supposed to do, but you’re just going through the motions because you are entirely consumed by this one thing?”
The blush that was beginning to fade comes rushing back to his face, even deeper than before, and his eyes dart toward Ryan and then away quickly. Interesting.
Mark nods, and he really looks into my face as he does it, and I look hard back at him and it is clear: We understand each other.
“I just ran away from a girl I don’t know yet,” I tell him.
He smiles. “She sounds that bad?”
“No,” I say. “She sounds amazing. She’s supposed to change my life.”
“So what happened?”
“She’s all I can think about all the time,” I say.
“Yes,” he says. He understands.
“Have you ever wanted something so badly that when it’s about to happen, you feel this need to sabotage yourself?”
His eyes stay fixed on mine and I can tell that he’s trying to follow me to this place, but he ends up shaking his head.
“No,” he says. “I don’t think I work that way.”
“I didn’t think I did either. I’ve been waiting for this night for months. And then, I just . . .” I shrug. I feel my eyes well up.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he says. “Don’t give up. It’s still tonight. Where were you supposed to meet her?”
“At this party. Lehna’s friend’s house.”
“Okay, and is it close?”
“Yeah, just through the park and over a few blocks.”
“Has anyone tried to get in touch with you?”
I groan. “I’m afraid to look.”
“Then hand it over.” He waits. I dig my phone out of my bag and place it, screen down, into the broad palm of his hand.
“Whoa,” he says, the light of the screen illuminating his face. “Twenty-three texts from Lehna Morgan.”
“Want me to read them all or just the highlights?”
“Just the highlights.”
He scrolls down the list.
“They’re mostly variations on ‘Where the fuck are you?’ A few ‘Are you okay?’s”
“One says, ‘Violet just got here.’ Is that the girl?”
“Okay, hold on. . . . Oh.”
“She left. About five minutes ago.”
“Is she coming back?”
“Lehna doesn’t say.”
I look down into my drink. Mostly empty. Just some remnants of ice cubes.
“Maybe I should order another one.”
“Or, we could try to find her.”
Mark’s face is open, hopeful — a perfect antidote to the despair slowly settling in me. I’m about to ask him how we’d go about finding her, but the music gets softer and a man’s voice booms out that the winner of the midnight underwear dance contest has been determined.
People cheer and I cheer with them, rooting for my new friend Mark, who is not looking toward the bartender but instead scanning the room, the hope on his face now mingling with concern as the bartender says, “Defeating our reigning champ Patrick, Mark takes the crown tonight. Mark, are you still out there? Get your all-American sexy butt up here to collect your prize.”
And then the music is loud again and everyone is dancing.
“Aren’t you gonna go up there?” I ask him. “The prize could be something good. You know, penis-shaped lollipops, rainbow-patterned condoms . . .”
But Mark doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t move. So I turn toward where he’s looking and I finally spot Ryan, who is now across the room from us. He’s with a few cute college boys, one with thick black glasses, another in a ski cap, and another who I can only see from the back, tattoos peeking out of his shirt sleeves, one hand holding a glass of beer, the other hand settled in the center of Ryan’s back. One song fades into the next and Tattoo Boy and his friends are feeling it. He turns, takes a few gulps of beer, sets the glass on a nearby table, and starts moving with the rhythm.
I’ve probably kept Mark to myself for too long. Here he is, out in the city on the kickoff of the year’s gayest week, winning underwear contests, the object of quite a few lustful gazes, and I’ve trapped him in a corner with my crisis.
“You should go over there,” I say, but Mark doesn’t even seem to hear me. That despair I mentioned I was feeling? It’s like it has suddenly become contagious, taken over Mark’s entire body. His shoulders are slumped, his breathing seems labored.
“What is it?” I ask him. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Ryan,” he says, so quietly I can barely hear him. “He’s dancing.”