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 smoke screen 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 what my dad would look like if he wore lots of leather, and there are others 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 our 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.