“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”
I retreat with my cocktail to the bench, tapping my fingers, staring into space, contemplating my possible answering methods.
I dig my fingernails into my palms, squeezing my lips together. “I’ve never had a girlfriend. Never kissed a girl. Never had sex. Never held a girl’s hand. I don’t even want to if I’m being honest. I probably couldn’t even if I wanted to. I’m ugly, unattractive and can’t even talk to people I know sometimes. Sorry, that was deep.” My face flushes red.
“That’s not weird, I’ve never actually kissed a girl either.”
“Really?” I cock an eyebrow.
“Well, I’m gay.”
“What?” I looked him dead in the face, hoping my shock will not come off as the homophobic person that many of my classmates and their parents are.
“I like guys.”
“Mhmm.” He says it like it’s something you would expect from him. “I knew that.” His smile falters.
“Why is that weird to you?”
“I’ve never met a gay guy in this town,” “I mean…” I’m losing my speaking abilities. “I…you…anyone…just…that’s possible here?”
“Ben, It’s possible anywhere.” I wanted to believe that and maybe ask about how he figured this all out so he could help me. But I still can’t forget what everyone in this town taught me. That you could only be straight in this town.
I stare through the window into the living room. I no longer see the living room. I see the inside of my high school locker room:
Fifteen-year-old me was in there, kissing another boy behind the locker. Fifteen-year-old me said to the boy, I wish you told me you liked boys earlier. He tossed younger me onto the ground and jabbed me in the face by the quarterback’s sneakers.
I don’t like boys! GOT IT??!! The quarterback screamed on his way out. Fifteen-year-old me tried to crawl over to his phone but was doubled over in pain and shock. ‘I could never be gay in this town’ I remember him saying in his head. I can’t handle this anymore. I open my mouth and attempt to scream, nothing comes out. I count to three and then shut my eyes.
My eyes open, and the cruelly lit locker room flashes back to the lamplit living room behind a window. “Are you okay?” He’s still talking, and I’m still stunned into silence. I still thought he was crazy and considered telling him so. Why would I ever date a guy. “Ben?” He knit down his brows. “What’s wrong with you?”
I wanted to blurt it out and tell him that I was gay too so that I could ask him out or kiss him, but that wouldn’t end well. Like when a boy asks a girl to go to the dance with her because he felt bad for her. I leaned in and kissed him on the lips, which were soft and strawberry-like. It was just a soft short kiss, which turned into many kisses.
“Want to go up to my room?”
“Yeah.” He nods with a sultry smile.
The next few meetings were awkward. If he came into a room, I would walk out. When he said hi to me, I said nothing, probably making him feel unworthy of existence. I was even considering taking up a past offer to go over to his house. He could live in my dorm back in Columbia.
Aaron still had hope. That we could be something more than a secret in my bedroom. Aaron tells me he’d be okay with that. Then I think that I would be okay with it. Then next dinner, I realized that perhaps I wasn’t.
“You’re business partners?” My grandma grumbles.
“Actually,” Aaron begins. “We’re bo—”
“Business friends.” My smile shivers nervously.
“Oh wow!!!” She applauds my response, cracking the largest smile I’ve ever seen on her face. “Very Impressive guys!!!” I shift my eyes away towards the snow-covered wooden bench.
I didn’t know what to say after dinner when Aaron asked me about it later on the wooden bench. “I’m sorry. It’s the town!!!” Aaron couldn’t believe I was throwing the blame on this town. His brows furrowed into a scowl.
“No, it’s you!!!” He closes the door. I rise from my seat. I grab my beer bottle and throw it at the swing. After staring at the broken glass for three seconds, I fall to my knees and start to cry.
The air stings with betrayal and selfishness, pestering me for ways to make this right. I turn to where he once sat on the bench and mutter “I’m sorry, it’s me.” Crickets. Wind howling.
Each night after dinner I go out to that bench and turn to face where he sat, to say: “I’m sorry, it was me.” Though he never comes around to those dinners, I enjoy pretending that he’s there, and that I have not broken with him yet.
I check up on his social media once or twice a month. When I look at his Instagram posts, I see the two people I created: a stranger who became the best friend I love and the best friend I love who became a stranger.
Evan Parente is a high school senior in Hawaii who writes and reads constantly whenever he can, in-between classes, while he is waiting for musical rehearsal to start, sometimes when he should be asleep. He is part of his school newspaper team and is currently working on rewriting a novel he wrote when he was fourteen. He dreams of receiving his first magazine publication and being discovered by a big five publisher.