Little America, Side A
illustrated by safelybeds
The first time Nate met Jase was in ninth grade: the afternoon after his first day of high school, in fact. There was an independent record store near the university campus, on the basement level of another storefront, that he could get to by bus if he needed to, and he definitely needed to after all that cold sweat and tears of boredom. It was his favorite place in town; he'd found it in the yellow pages in a fit of desperation, when all his naive attempts to find The Feelies at the mall or the shopping center had been in vain. It was seedy and mildew-smelling, with only a hand-lettered sign on black posterboard out front to mark it, and all the walls and ceiling inside painted a glossy black -- although you could barely see any of the walls because the whole twenty-foot-square space was floor-to-ceiling with racks of cassettes, sometimes at haphazard angles or looking like they were about to fall out onto the floor. The guy who perched at the jackleg counter was a pudgy 20-something with shaggy hair and horn-rim glasses, who wore long flannel shirts and always seemed to be reading books by Immanuel Kant. The one time Nate had made his mom bring him, she'd taken one look at the place and looked about to faint. It wasn't a mistake he ever planned to make again.
He came down the steps that day from street-level, already relaxing back into his skin as he got out of the daylight and into the glow of the bare bulbs, and the first thing that met him was the back of a guy who was standing at one of the free-standing racks that crowded the middle of the store, flipping cassettes back one by one with little clack! sounds. Nate couldn't see that much of him from the back, but the guy had on a dark blue cloth jacket with patches sewn onto the sleeves and tight acid-washed jeans over legs like toothpicks, which disappeared into heavy black boots. There was a stud in one of his ears -- he could see the back of it -- and his dark hair was buzzed close to his scalp all over except in the front, where there were a couple strands that had been left chin-length long and dyed blue. It was only seeing that hair, as Nate came around the rack and got a look at the guy from the front, that made the recognition finally click home.
"Hey, um -- " The sound of his voice made him wince, as well as making the guy standing at the rack look up in mild surprise and the guy sitting at the counter look up in annoyance. Nate hadn't even really known he was going to say anything. But he made himself smile, hard as he could. "...You go to Warrington, right?" The guy raised his eyebrows a little further, then nodded. His face was thin, foxish, handsome in a noncommittal sort of way. Nate laughed, sheepishly. "I, ah, saw you at that totally lame assembly this morning. I'm a freshman."
The guy just seemed to watch him for a minute longer, size him up, coolly amused. Finally he seemed to make up his mind, and smiled a little bit back. "Me too," he said -- blowing Nate's mind a little right off the bat. "What, you mean you aren't all gung-ho with school spirit now?"
Nate laughed again. "As if." He got distracted, though, and tilted his head on one side, reading the labels near the guy's hands. "...Oh -- you like Sonic Youth?"
One of the guy's eyebrows raised even further. "Do you?" he countered, with a note of skepticism Nate guessed he could understand. He brightened up in spite of himself, though, beaming and nodding.
"Yeah, sure! I mean, I'm kinda more into the Violent Femmes, R.E.M., you know, but they're great. Kinda like Dinosaur Jr., I think?" To his pleasure, he saw the guy starting to look genuinely interested, turning his direction with a little more light coming on in his dark eyes.
"Yeah, sort of. Hey, did you ever listen to Dead Nails?" Nate shook his head, and the guy started flipping tapes again, a little further down in the rack. "They're locals, from Chicago. They're a little edgier, you know, a little more out there. You should give them a shot, especially if you ever listened to any Joy Division." Nate was about to respond in the affirmative, enthusiastically and to a lot of different parts of all that, but before he could do more than get his mouth open the guy was looking up at him again, smiling and holding out a tape. "I'm Jason," he said.
"I'm Nate," Nate said; grinning like an idiot the whole time. "Nice to meet you."
He'd only just taken the tape, though, when he became aware of more footsteps down the stairs, and a second later two girls popped in behind them. The one in the lead was small, thin, dark blonde, and very pretty; she had rings of dark makeup around her eyes and a ripped t-shirt hanging off her shoulders, showing tank-top straps. The girl behind her had long dark hair in a frizz of curls, was popping gum, and looked desperately bored and slightly ashamed to be there. Jason turned in their direction at the noise, and the blonde girl smiled at him brilliantly, weaving her way in. The guy at the counter furrowed his brow and dug his head down deeper into his book.
"Hi, Jase," the blonde girl said, hands linked behind her back. He spared her a brief, distracted smile before turning his attention back to the tape-rack. "I figured you'd be in here. Are you busy?"
"Kinda, yeah." He glanced between her and Nate, and then looked back at her with a thumb in Nate's direction. "Nate and I were just talking. Nate, this is Amy."
"Hi," Amy said, turning a brilliant two-dimensional smile on Nate for maybe half a second. Then straight back to Jason, like a compass turning north. Nate barely had time to wave. "We were just wondering if you wanted to come to Tony's with us, grab a pizza?"
The girl behind Amy looked like she had never wondered anything in her life. Nate tried to smile at her, and she turned her eyes away and sighed, audibly. Jason -- Jase? -- shrugged, looking at the tapes again.
"Nah, I'm kinda busy. Thanks, though."
Amy smiled again, brightly as ever, which Nate thought was pretty impressive given how unhappy she obviously looked. "Okay, too bad. See you at school, then."
"Yeah, see you."
After they'd tromped their way back out, Nate glanced back up the stairs and sidled in closer to Jason. "Who is she?" he asked in an undertone, not sure why he was bothering but feeling like it was necessary somehow. Jason followed his eyes without much interest, then shrugged again.
"Amy Hamilton. We went to the same middle school. Had homeroom together last year." He flipped through a few more racks, then shifted around to the other side, making Nate follow him. "She's all right."
"Man, she seems really into you," Nate offered -- giving this the same air of awestruck, won-the-lottery good news he'd hear in it if someone ever, his whole life, had occasion to say that to him. Jason glanced at him, then back down.
"Amy? Nah, I think she's just like that." He clacked through a few more times, then made a soft sound and held out another tape to Nate. "Oh, these guys, too. Especially if you get a chance to see them live."
Everything Jase did became Nate's goal in life over the next couple of years, although he hardly ever got to actually carry through. For all his dad might grunt from behind the newspaper that Nate should get a haircut, it seemed clear he didn't mean one like Jase's; Nate's dad had a very different sort of buzzcut, and was on record as believing mohawks were direct indicators of criminal behavior. Nate's dad managed a department store downtown, and thought that people who didn't like the job President Reagan had done should move to Russia. When Nate mentioned hair dye to his mom, her lips disappeared, and the one time he gingerishly brought up the subject of getting his ear pierced she burst into tears and demanded to know if he was on drugs, was he a drug addict, with both of them working all the time had they somehow not noticed he'd turned into a drug addict. It had taken him the rest of the evening to calm her down out of it, and he'd definitely never tried again. So his hair stayed in the same long, soft, slightly girly waves, and by junior year the best he'd been able to manage was a jean jacket and some boots that made his dad's lip curl. And the music, of course. Always the music.
Nate's room wasn't quite stacked with tapes the way Dooby's Records was, but it put up a decent competition. His backpack was always crammed with them, his walkman always in one pocket of the jean jacket. Stuff he'd gotten at Dooby's on his allowance, stuff he'd traded for with Jase or Rick or through Jase's brother, and all the blank tapes he could get his hands on, always turning into mixtapes and compilations one after another. His prized, hard-won possession was his two-tape-player boombox, plus he dubbed stuff constantly off W.Z.R.T., the university station that had been like his religion ever since his older cousin had turned him on to it. He'd sit up in his bedroom windowsill nights when he was supposed to be asleep, the light off and his big studio headphones plugged in, listening with his finger hovering over the record button for the first telltale note of a song he liked. Feeling alive and on top of everything, for the only times ever, when the rest of the world was asleep.
It was good music, but it was more than that; it was powerful music, it was secret music. It made him think to himself, stupid or not, of codes and hidden clubhouses, secret knocks to get into speakeasies, passwords traded between spies. It was a world he didn't have to share with the people at school who didn't even notice him, no matter how nice he was to them or tried to be friendly, because they didn't notice this, either. It passed under their feet, unknown to them, in a world they couldn't even imagine. The guys who played it didn't even look outlandish or super-cool; they just looked like guys, like regular guys, even more like him than like Jase or Amy, although that thought made him feel a little guilty. The music seemed to belong to him, to every kid who didn't quite fit and wasn't quite the same as everyone else. It was who he was. It was who they were: him and Jase.
"Hey, man," Jase said, as Nate was setting his tray down on the table and sitting down. "Stu's driving me out to Chicago next Saturday to see Hüsker Dü. You in?"
Nate hesitated in mid-sit, glancing around. Everyone else was looking at him, which made the odds of getting out of this clean a lot lower. "Um... to Chicago, wow. I guess we wouldn't be, like, back the same night?" It wasn't quite a question. Jase looked slightly incredulous, and Amy, who had latched herself in under his arm and already looked annoyed at losing his attention, snorted loudly.
"See, I told you," she said in Jase's ear, not in undertone at all. Jase appeared to ignore her.
"Yeah, probably," he said, still mild. Nate paused a second longer and then forced out a half-hearted, wheezing laugh.
"Yeah, cool... it's just, you know -- "
"Oh, come on, man," Jase said, rolling his eyes slightly. Now his tone had gotten up to mild annoyance, and Nate's palms broke out in sweat. "Don't be a wuss about it."
"Sorry -- it's just -- " Nate swallowed, trying to keep from crumbling. "You know, if, if I don't go to church I'll be in trouble, and -- "
"And Nate's mommy would have a heart attack if he stayed out all night," Amy cooed suddenly, and when he glanced back at her in alarm he found she'd finally turned her full attention on him, all glinting with sweet, smiling poison. He tried to fix his frozen smile on his lips, even as his stomach sank. "C'mon, Jase, forget it. He'd just make your brother pull over every five minutes so he could take a leak, anyway."
Which made him wince, and Toby and Rick laugh, but at least it worked out sort of in his favor. Jase still looked irritated and a little disappointed, but in the end he just shrugged and said nothing, and Nate could finally look somewhere besides at his dark eyes. And then Nate was, blessedly, out of the center of attention completely, when Toby took his chance to seize the floor.
"Did you guys see the new kid?" he asked -- gesturing with his head to the table where the new kid was sitting, eating by himself with a book in front of him. "I'm in homeroom with him. His name's Eric... something weird. Huhsoo or something like that." He pronounced this to rhyme with 'kazoo,' something that both didn't seem correct to Nate and gave him absolutely no clue how the name might have been spelled. Amy leaned in with a new vicious spark of interest, though, which he had to admit was even more of a relief, just for its giving her a new focus.
"No, not 'til now. What's he like?"
Toby shrugged, sipping at his straw again. "Beats me. Pretty dull, as far as I can tell, he's just been reading all day."
Nate frowned past Toby's shoulder, leaning back a little to get a decent line of sight on the new kid. Looking at Eric However You Actually Said His Name gave him a little sting of pity; the guy was Oriental, which brought it up to a grand total of one in the whole school, and even in his neat, anonymous jeans and button-down shirt he stuck out even worse than Jase's piercings and hair, and without even the balm of having done it on purpose. They weren't the only ones staring, and that alone made Nate self-conscious enough to stop. Amy kept going as far as he knew, though, for a long moment before she finally snorted and made her pronouncement:
"Well, he looks like a total nerd. Maybe if he really lucks out, he can get that book to go with him to the prom."
Even if he'd been thinking about trying to make friends with the new kid -- maybe even trying to make a place for him in their own group -- that assessment from Amy was pretty much the kiss of death right away. It would have been a bad idea, anyway, he told himself; you didn't go crossing boundary lines, reaching out to someone outside your little circle. You hung out with your crowd and you didn't bother anyone else, and they didn't bother you, and that was how it worked. Eric might fall in with a group in time, but one member of a group didn't reach outside of it to pull somebody in. That just wasn't how it was done.
And maybe it was a good call in another way, because over the next few months it seemed to become clear that Eric wasn't all that interested in falling in with a group, or even in making friends. Anytime he wasn't in class, he was reading by himself, and although a few people did try to talk to him, he perplexed them all away with a polite, mature, total lack of engagement. He was clearly very smart, but not really even nerdy like Amy had said: at least nerds were social with each other. And he was athletic, although he didn't go out for any sports -- just did as effortlessly well in P.E. as he did in any other class. He was just quiet, and had a steady, aloof self-possession that made him seem more like a miniature adult than one of the rest of them. And after a while, everyone just left him alone, including Nate -- especially Nate. If Eric wasn't interested in being friends with anyone else, after all, he wasn't about to be interested in it with Nate.
Nate had never really had friends before high school. He'd known people well enough to play with in kindergarten and the first couple years of elementary school, sure, but when people started forming into groups around third grade, it seemed like he'd been one of the only ones left without a chair when the music stopped. He'd spent most of those last three years practicing the piano or hanging out with his mom, at least before she finally went back to bookkeeping like she had before he was born. Then he spent most of junior high getting made fun of and/or the shit kicked out of him. Music had been the only comfort, the one thing he had to keep him company, even when nothing and no one else would. He was friendly, and he at least thought he was nice, but he had a sort of big mouth he couldn't seem to learn to shut up, and people had always gotten tired of him pretty fast. Even after two years of hanging out with Jase and his friends, he still couldn't ever shake the certainty that it was an incredibly delicate situation; at any moment they could lose patience, finally get too sick of him and hound him out. He had to be on his toes all the time at school or if they let him hang around afterward, pushing himself to smile all the time, laughing along at their jokes at his expense, on desperate eggshells to make it right every time he said something wrong or one of them found something about him to pick at. He couldn't take anything for granted. If they'd all made one thing clear to him, it was that he'd been here all this time only on probation.
So he did what they wanted. Jase loved nothing better than to instruct and correct him on his musical taste, and Nate was only too happy to let him. He coveted Amy, helplessly -- had guilty lurid fantasies where she somehow decided he was the one she'd always wanted and ended up on his bed naked except for her eye makeup, or daydreamed while he jerked off about her and Jase making out, Jase's thin graceful hands spidering out over the cups of her bra, his skinny hips clasped between her thighs -- but while both Jase and Amy almost definitely knew, they seemed to accept it with a certain satisfaction: as though that were only the natural order of things. He helped Toby manage his endless string of girlfriends, and dubbed copies of his rarest albums for Rick. He got his mom to drive places when Jase's brother was back at school (she tolerated Jase only out of sheer relief that Nate finally had any friends at all, but they both always steered Jase well clear of Nate's dad by mutual unspoken agreement). He worked hard, all the time, it seemed like. He kept up.
Or he always had, anyway.
The problem, in the end, was Jase. As he supposed he might sort of have expected.
They were watching slasher flicks on the couch in Jase's den, which was in the bottom part of the split-level: next to the garage, and under Jase's mom's room and the one he'd used to share with his brother. His mom was upstairs, like she always seemed to be when Nate was over; on the few occasions Nate had met her, she had looked bleary and slept-on and had spoken little, and a vague liquory smell had clung around her like a fog. Jase had never mentioned where his dad was, and Nate had never asked. The house had a faint old-milk-smell funk to it, and there were always clothes on the floor and bits of cereal crushed into the carpet. The plus side of hanging out there, though, was that they could watch whatever they wanted -- Nate's mom was death on anything with even a hint of boobs -- and that, more to the point, the fridge was always full of beer, and Jase waved off all Nate's concerns about Jase's mom catching them drinking. "Like she cares," was all Jase had said, and somehow Nate had kept from questioning that, either.
So they each had bottles in front of them, and even though Nate didn't really like beer or horror movies, he was at least trying to enjoy the forbidden fruit. Jase was tucked into the corner section of the sofa, his knees up by his chest and his beer balanced on them, drowsy-eyed and smiling a little to himself. Nate liked it when he smiled; it warmed up his eyes, softened his mouth.
"So hey," Nate said, mostly just to have a reason to keep looking at Jase and not at the screen. Jase's eyes flicked toward him for a second, and then back to the movie. "How was that thing at Amy's last Friday?"
Jase shrugged, and took a swig of his beer before answering. The thing at Amy's hadn't been exactly a party -- actual parties were way too basketball-team-and-their-girlfriends for Amy -- but there'd been music and some people and some booze in a parents-free house. "It was pretty cool. Stu was around, he hooked up the stereo for us." He was quiet a moment, watching the screen. "Why didn't you come?"
Nate shifted in his seat, uncomfortably. "Well, you know." Jase didn't answer, though, and when Nate glanced up Jase was looking back at him with eyebrows raised, in a way that didn't much say he did know. "...Amy doesn't really like me."
"She doesn't not like you." This wasn't exactly an argument or exactly true, Nate thought, but he let it go. "You worry about her too much, man. She rags on everybody. It's no big deal, she's just like that."
"Yeah, I guess so," Nate said, and made himself smile; and then lapsed into silence, picking up his beer again and staring into it as a girl screamed and ran onscreen. As with just about every time Jase said that, it seemed more out of lack of insight into Amy than the opposite, but he didn't want to argue about it. Jase would get annoyed, and they were having a good time, sort of.
He knew Jase and Amy had done it; he'd asked about it often enough after they'd started going out, always equal parts eager and embarrassed, and Jase had answered with a kind of bemused, patient honesty. He had never seemed all that interested in the subject, actually -- although Nate figured that was just Jase, always being so cool. When he was alone with Amy, he was probably different. Had to be. Put him between a girl's thighs, and even a guy like Jase would have to warm up. But even still, even knowing that, he could never quite get how Jase could be so calm about Amy: like it didn't even matter to him, like she could leave and he wouldn't even care, might not even notice. When Nate tried to even talk to a girl he liked, let alone make a move on one, he kind of got an instant case of low-grade stomach flu.
What would Jase be like, alone with Amy? How would he change? How would he look? His mind was already fogged out from the beer, and it drifted without a hitch to the image of Jase wearing some more wholehearted version of that little smile, his lips curving like a cat's mouth, with Amy's hand wrapped up in his longer one. Jase laughing at the jokes he was being told, being impressed, being opened up enough to actually let something come out. And then -- a little too quickly, from ease of practice - to Jase's face, reddened, with sweat standing at the temples and his lips slightly apart. Jase's eyes lightly closed and moving, the thin green strands of his hair at the front sticking to his cheek and his lips, while Amy was naked and grinding on top of him on this same couch. Her breasts resting in his long hands, the faint blue glow of the TV light sliding down the white curves of her skin and his, making dimpled shadows where he touched her and where her hair fell across his thin, bare chest.
Nate finally snapped back, blinking, to find that he'd actually spaced on that subject for a good long while; his eyes on the TV had gone comfortably out of focus, and his beer had both sweated long rivulets over his hand and somehow magically become mostly empty. Maybe just because his mouth had gone so dry. He shifted again in his seat, for a different reason this time. Why did he always have to think about stuff like that at just the wrong time?
When he glanced over at Jase, though, a huge warm wave splashed into his chest, of relief and something else mingled in -- something heavy and tight and hard to name. Because he was safe: at some point in there, Jase had dozed off, with his bare feet tucked up on the couch cushion and his head lolling off to one side, against the back of the couch. His beer stayed snug between his knees, even while his hand had gone lax and loose around it; his mouth was a little parted, and the long strands of his hair tumbled over his cheek and stuck slightly to his lips, not unlike the way Nate had just found himself picturing. He was tall even though he was thin, much taller than Nate, but folded up like that he looked small. Unguarded, and easy to reach.
There was no conscious thought involved. Nate's head was hot and seasick, his pulse seeming to bang through his chest like a drum; he wasn't thinking anything that seemed to make sense. He just crawled his way along the couch, with extreme exaggerated care, quiet enough for the screams and sound effects and shrilling stings of the movie to cover. He hadn't even put down his beer-bottle, which made it a good thing it was almost empty. The only light down here was the dim glow down the stairs from the kitchen and the flickering bluish TV light (also like he'd just been picturing, he was dimly aware and tried not to be), and in it Jase got closer, the space on the couch between them somehow seeming to shrink without his being involved at all. He couldn't really feel his feet pushing him, couldn't feel his hands padding along.
And then he was just there: his chest just shy of pressing into Jase's knees, his hand planted on the seat of the couch next to Jase's hip. Staring at that thin black crack of space between Jase's parted lips.
Staring at it hard enough that it actually took him a second to notice when -- just as he was in the middle of leaning in -- Jase's eyes opened.
Nate froze. Right on the spot, completely unable to move. Jase stared back at him, wide awake now but with his mouth still a little bit open. It was more of an actual expression than Nate had probably ever seen him make. With his normally sleepy eyes that wide open and round, he somehow looked smaller and more vulnerable than ever, like a kid.
"Hey, uh," Jase said, after what seemed like forever. His voice sounded thick and naked. "...What are you doing?"
For a second or two, maybe, Nate couldn't say anything -- couldn't even breathe, his lungs just felt pressed flat with nothing getting in or out. And then finally, somewhere, somehow, he found it in him to force out a weak laugh. "Nothing," he got out next, and that broke through the ice somehow; he was able to push back, in a hurry, back into his own personal space on the couch. He couldn't help noticing how wide-eyed Jase stayed, though. "Nothing, just -- sorry! Sorry, didn't mean to -- " No, no good, he was losing it, babbling, laughing now too much -- "Just, you, you fell asleep, and you've still got -- " He gestured, helplessly, at the beer soaking a dark place on either inner knee of Jase's jeans. "I was just gonna, you know. Put it down. Sorry I, like... woke you. Scared you. I guess."
Jase just kept staring at him for a second, not moving; he hadn't moved all this time, Nate was only vaguely aware. Finally, though, he picked up his hand, scrubbing once over his face with the tattered sleeve-cuff of his shirt. "Oh. ...Yeah." His gaze had gone inward and distracted, his voice soft. "Uh. Okay. Thanks." He was still for another few seconds, in which Nate didn't trust himself to say anything without babbling like an idiot again, and then finally unfolded his legs and sat forward, setting the bottle down on the coffee table. Maybe it was Nate's imagination, though, or just the uncertain light of the TV, but he still thought he caught a bit of an mistrustful look out of the corners of Jase's eyes as he did. Something curious and unsure and wondering.
He had to get the hell out of here.
"I, uh -- " He swallowed, scrambled to get his words into order. "Anyway, I-I should probably go home, anyway. It's, um, it's getting late and all." He got up, kind of too fast, dropping his beer-bottle and having to dive for it and then nearly knocking into the table on his way back up. He set it down and then scrubbed his hands back into his hair, wheeling around unsteadily. "I'll... go call my mom, okay?"
"Okay," Jase said, in that same thick murmur; but by the time he did, Nate was already heading for the stairs.
Nate spent the rest of that night sleepless and sweating into his pillow, staring at the dark ceiling, his guts sloshing with alternating waves of cold relief and cold dread. For a while he'd be okay, he'd have himself convinced that if Jase had actually thought he was... doing something weird, he would have said something, not just asked; that Jase had been asleep and hadn't seen anything really, just Nate leaning in, and Nate'd thought of a good explanation. He just had to never do anything like that again, that had been too close, but it would be fine now as long as he didn't, it would be just fine. Then things would twist around on him the other way and he'd be suddenly sure of that look he'd thought he'd seen on Jase's face, sure that that momentary awkwardness hadn't just been Jase being sleepy and confused, that sure, Jase hadn't said anything, but he must have known, how could he not have known, how could he not just see through Nate all the way down to the things Nate hadn't even realized he had in himself. Nate didn't even know what he'd been trying to do -- he kept telling himself -- but Jase would, Jase always seemed to know everything. ...But then it would flip back again: how could Jase know if there was nothing to know, at least nothing Nate knew?
He guessed he grabbed maybe a few thin hours of sleep here and there, in between his brain chasing itself around, but finally rolled out of bed around six feeling puffy-eyed and dazed and like he might as well not have bothered to lie down at all. The pale grey sunlight that was starting to seep through the window by the time he got out of the bathroom, though, actually made things start to seem better, like daylight always seemed to. He'd go to school, and hang out with Jase, and things would be normal again. He wouldn't try something that dumb again, never in a million years. He'd been right the first time; things were going to be fine.
And he kept believing that right up until he walked into homeroom and the first thing he saw was Amy leaning across her desk to whisper in Debbie Johnson's ear, and just about everyone in the room all at once pretended not to be looking at him.
Sheer momentum carried him a couple more steps into the classroom, but they stuttered and died on him a little at a time, until he was just rooted. Amy's eyes flicked unmistakably up at him, in the middle of whatever she was saying, and a smile formed on her mouth behind her cupped hand; Debbie's eyes flicked up too, and something complicated happened with her eyes and at the corners of her mouth, a sort of grimacey, grinning twist. Some part of Nate, miles away, was able to note that he didn't even think Amy and Debbie were friends. Off to his left, Dave Pearce had leaned over to murmur something to Joey Cumberland, who ducked down his head to hide some reaction. Nate could see meaningful looks out of the corner of his eye in another direction, had a vague sense of some other half-dozen whispered conversations going on around him, although the room seemed very quiet somehow -- almost silent.
Someone bumped into him hard from behind, or maybe shoved him; it was hard to tell. He stumbled forward, and a guy from the swim team whose name he didn't even know came forward past him, smirking. Nate had been standing rooted at the doorway for a long time: whole minutes, maybe. Somehow he finally forced his feet away from the floor then, got them moving. Got to his seat and sat down.
Someone snickered, loud and unmistakable. Mrs. Eddington looked up from her desk at the front, her wide mouth pursed in a frown, but that was all. No one said anything, not yet. No one had to.
Nate stared at his desk, and tried not to actually faint.
First through fourth periods were, basically, an eternity in hell. In all his classes, he was sure he could feel eyes on him, from every direction and every single second; in the hallways in between, even staring at the floor he couldn't avoid the stares passing him, or the shoulders knocking into his, or hissed names under someone's breath that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, behind or beside him and gone before he could look. At some point in Pre-calc someone stuck used gum to his backpack, and having to clean it off in the bathroom made him late for History. When he went to his locker before lunch, he found that someone had scrawled FAG across it in black magic marker, sometime since the first bell. For a second or two all he could do was stare at it, with his stomach knotted up in his throat -- and then he launched himself at it and scrubbed it off in a wild blind panic with the sleeve of his flannel shirt, his eyes wide and lips stripping back unconsciously from his teeth.
He couldn't think. Couldn't function. His notebook lay blank and empty in front of him, while he closed his eyes and ducked his head down and prayed not to throw up. His palms sweated big dark patches on the thighs of his jeans. His head swam in endless circles of incoherent panic.
And in the two morning classes he and Jase had together, Jase kept his head bent down over his desk as Nate passed his seat, and wouldn't even look at him.
The idea of eating was hysterically laughable even by noon, but he bought his lunch anyway out of numb blind routine -- and even found himself walking toward his group's lunchtable for the same reason. Every table he passed seemed to be smirking and glancing and muttering to each other as he went by, but at his own it was infinitely worse: as soon as he got close, Toby and Rick scooted ostentatiously away from the aisle, down the bench, and then laughed with each other over it; Amy looked up, straight into his eyes, and smirked at him, pure malicious pleasure in every line of her face; Jase sat with his arms folded -- his own food, Nate barely noticed, was untouched -- and again kept his eyes fixed on anything that wasn't Nate. No one said anything, but again, no one had to. In the end Nate kept walking right past them, his face both frozen and burning, his hands cramped into claws on his tray.
He had no idea where he was going, if not there, but somehow his feet just led him on their own. And he ended up -- not surprisingly, he guessed -- standing and clutching his tray beside the last lunchtable in the row, where as always, Eric What'shisname sat alone, toying with some macaroni and bent over a book.
"Hey," Nate heard himself say, and the sound of his own voice horrified him; it squeaked and groaned like something broken. Eric looked up at him, mild and surprised and polite, just as though he were anyone. "So, um... I was just wondering, if you maybe feel like committing total social suicide today, could I sit with you?"
Eric's expression didn't change, but he glanced around the cafeteria for a moment, as though only just noticing it was there. Nate wondered giddily for a moment if maybe he actually hadn't heard. After a moment, though, Eric just let out a soft breath, that could have been amused or resigned or neither, and shrugged. "I think I'd have to have a social life to kill it," he said. His voice was surprisingly deep and smooth, like a radio DJ's, and he had no accent at all, although now Nate couldn't imagine why he'd thought he might. Eric gestured at the bench across from him, with the hand not holding his place in the book. "Sit down."
"Thanks," Nate said -- with a weakness in his voice that betrayed just how deep his gratitude actually was. He sank onto the bench like he was wilting, and his lunch tray rattled briefly against the tabletop as he set it down, with how badly his hands were shaking. As soon as they were free, if still trembly, he put them over his face instead. And then just sat like that for a minute, not even able to care who was looking and laughing now, just breathing in big, uneven gulps.
He hadn't thought that Eric would actually bother to talk to him, even after letting him sit -- had actually maybe even hoped he wouldn't -- but after another moment Eric's voice spoke again, from somewhere out beyond his hands. "Are you all right?"
"Um," Nate said, and then made a weak noise into his palms that wasn't quite a laugh. "No?" He dropped his hands away, though, feeling self-conscious about trying to talk through them, and found that Eric was looking at him with a slight frown, his book lying open but forgotten on the table. For a second Eric seemed to be about to give up, to take a breath like he was about to exhale out all his interest in the subject and go back to his book... and then the breath caught again, and came out on words instead.
"Try to calm down." His voice was lower now, and Nate wasn't sure but he thought there was a thin thread of kindness working its way into it. Just hearing it made him feel horribly like crying. "The more you panic, the worse it's going to get."
"Easy for you to say," Nate said -- which not only came out strangly and cracked, but was about the most stupidly ungrateful thing he could have come out with in this situation, making him grimace as soon as he heard it out of his mouth. Before he could scramble to take it back, though, Eric shrugged again, a slight rueful smile twisting his mouth that made Nate feel worse than ever.
"Yeah, I guess it is." He glanced around, and then leaned in a little over the table. He was good-looking, now that Nate finally had a good look at him; he had a sort of unfortunate businessman's haircut, but his face was fine-boned and smooth, his almond-shaped eyes large and expressive. His shoulders and forearms and hands were all large and heavy-boned, a little too big for the lanky rest of him. "But if you let it get to you, you're just giving them what they want. They don't deserve -- "
"Hey, Flowers," a sneering male voice said from above and to the side of them: interrupting Eric, and making Nate jump and whirl around like he'd been shot at. Steve and Doug, the couple of meathead jocks who were standing there, both cracked up, which maybe proved Eric's point a little. Steve prodded a finger at Eric once he'd recovered himself, grinning. "This your new boyfriend?"
But while Nate was still struggling to say something, to have anything to say -- maybe even to laugh shrilly along with their laughter, to try to soften them up, like always -- Eric surprised him for maybe the fourth time today, by beating him to it.
"Why?" he asked, in that same mild, polite, interested tone, and without looking away from Nate until the last second. "Did you two want a double date?"
Steve and Doug glanced at each other for only a second before busting out laughing again, nastily; and Nate's stomach shriveled back up inside him. Of course it was never that easy, they could never actually let you think you'd scored a hit off them. Steve started sauntering away, though, and Doug only paused on his way after to bend in too threateningly close on Eric now, and pull his eyelids out flat with his fingers in a crude parody, chirping a bunch of high-pitched "ching chong ching!" noises that Nate thought made him sound more like one of Alvin and the Chipmunks than anything else. Eric watched him with the dispassion of a biologist among the gorillas, at least until Doug had gotten out of his face again and started to turn away.
"Yeah, that's really witty," he said, actually raising his voice to be heard as Doug walked away; Nate couldn't even imagine the nerve. "You're like the next Oscar Wilde." Doug ignored him, though, for a wonder, just kept walking; but Nate ended up with his hands pressed over his face again anyway, his breathing tight in his chest.
"Sorry," he said, his voice muffled, choking on it. "Thanks. ...Sorry. ...Shit."
"It's okay." Eric didn't sound angry or upset, either; and when Nate actually dared to drop his hands away again and look up, Eric was looking at him again -- and now with an actual, genuine, sympathetic little smile at the corners of his lips. "Can I ask you something, though?" He jerked his thumb behind him, in the direction Doug and Steve had gone. "Do you actually care what those assholes think about you?"
It took Nate a long moment's work to be able to answer that, during which he dropped his hands back into his lap and stared down at his congealing food. "No," he said, finally, half-swallowed, without looking up. "No... but -- "
"No, never mind," Eric's voice cut him off suddenly, and surprised him into raising his head. Eric wasn't looking at him this time, and he wasn't smiling anymore, but somehow his whole expression was even warmer now, for all of that. "No. I get it. It's okay."
They split up awkwardly for their classes after lunch, neither of them really saying much. For a while, the memory of how nice Eric had been about the whole thing helped buoy Nate along, at least a little -- but it didn't last. It only took one spitball stuck in his hair for the reality of his situation to crash in on him again, send him back to trying to cringe himself all the way down into his own shirt and just disappear.
By the end of the day he was a wreck: exhausted and still wired practically to the point of vibrating, jumping at shadows and tearing himself to shreds. He'd gnawed all the way through his lower lip and most of his fingernails, and spent at least half of one period just finally giving up and crying in the bathroom. He kept his red eyes down and away from the knowing smirks as he fumbled his way through the hallway, just trying not to see anything or be anywhere. When he got to his locker for the last blessed time, he found that someone had apparently figured out a way to poke the plastic straw of a water bottle or something through the vents and squirt it in; the whole top layer of his textbooks was soaked and swollen. Nate just stood there staring at them for a moment, hearing snickering again from around and behind him, and then just closed the door again and hoisted his backpack as it was, trying to swallow his stomach down out of his throat. He just wanted to get the hell out of here. He didn't even know to where, he didn't want to go home, but he just had to get anywhere, anywhere else. If he could just be not here this all might still turn out never to have happened.
And then, as he was turning away from his locker to make a half-blind dash for the door, he crashed into someone. He flinched away by protective reflex, miserably sure at once that now he was done for, here came the real violence like a period at the end of the sentence -- but when he looked up, wild-eyed, it was just Eric. Standing there looking at him, holding onto the straps of his backpack, and with that odd regretful look back on his face: like he thought he might be making a mistake. ...Not that Nate couldn't understand why he might feel that way.
"Hi," Eric said -- as though no one were looking at them, as though Nate hadn't just butted into him headfirst and knocked him back a step. "Are you doing anything today?"
Eric led him under the overpass, across Spring Street and into downtown -- such as it was. The sleek, glass, new-looking high-rise building Eric led him into, though, did manage to impress Nate at least in context, even through his haze of panic and misery. He'd never actually known anyone personally who lived in an apartment before. An engraved nameplate on the mailbox Eric stopped to check in the lobby said HSU, which Nate guessed at least answered one question.
The apartment itself was near the top of the building, and it was much bigger than Nate might have pictured -- probably the size of the downstairs floor of his house, at least -- and so spotless and high-class that it looked like a hotel suite. The living room was done in muted salmon colors, with glass tables and a big TV, an endlessly huge window behind one sofa letting in desultory strands of light through the downturned blinds. Eric dumped his backpack on one of the immaculate chairs with a carelessness Nate could never in a million years have committed, although he did set his own down very carefully on the floor, when Eric gave him an expectant look.
"How are you holding up?" Eric said, after they'd been standing awkwardly like that for a minute. Nate just stared at the floor for a few more seconds, and then his shoulders shook with a little snuffling, laughlike sound.
"Um. Well. I'm... still here, I guess."
Eric just nodded, as if that had made any sense. "That's a start." He gestured behind him, and they both made their way over onto one of the sofas, Nate scrubbing at his face with both palms again after he'd sat down. "Just calm down for a minute. Try to breathe deep, and just concentrate on your breathing."
Nate tried, but couldn't concentrate on anything for long. "I don't know how I'm gonna go back there tomorrow." His voice came out tiny and crushed, almost a whimper. He let his hands drop, and stared at them, trembling slightly between his knees. "...I don't know how I got through today. What am I gonna do?"
"I know it seems bad right now. I'm sorry." He couldn't even look up at Eric; he was just a blur at the corner of Nate's vision, with a reasonable, comforting voice attached. "But this'll blow over."
"When?" It came out high-pitched, cracking in the middle. He couldn't control it, his hands were still shaking, his eyes just kept getting wider and were going out of focus. "What if it gets worse? What if they come to my house?" His breath hitched. "Oh Jesus -- what if my dad finds out?"
Eric didn't say anything for a moment, letting Nate just fall back into silence, just him and his labored shaking breath. "Then tell him it's just a rumor," Eric said at last, and though his voice was still patient and kind, there was an edge of caution on it now that there hadn't been before: of handling this with gloves on. "Something some people at school made up to pick on you."
Nate made a strangling little sound, not really a laugh at all this time. "You don't know my dad."
"You think he won't believe you?" Nate couldn't quite bring himself to answer that, though -- honestly, wasn't even sure what exactly his answer would be if he did -- and just waved it off, pressing his face back into his hand again. Eric was quiet for another long moment... and then, finally, even more carefully than ever, came the question Nate hadn't even known he'd been dreading: "Is it just a rumor?"
If it had been any other time, and anyone else, anyone else in the entire world -- Jase, Amy, Toby or Rick, his mom or dad, the school guidance counselor, the President -- he never would have even thought twice. He would have laughed in their face, or exploded in outrage: of course it is, what are you, stupid; how dare you even act like it might not be? Anyone else, his whole life, he wouldn't have even hesitated before giving them what he knew was the right answer. The only answer he could have imagined, up until now.
But somehow, today, after everything he had gone through, as tired and bewildered and crushed as he was by now, and with Eric... Eric, who didn't seem to like anyone but who had been so nice to him when he didn't have to, even when it just made things worse for himself... Eric who had sought him out and invited him home... Somehow, here, on this couch in Eric's apartment with his face in his hands, he just couldn't put up the defense. If nothing else, he guessed honesty was the least he owed the guy.
He dropped his hands away again, staring down at the floor, and let out a heavy breath. "I guess that... depends on what you've heard."
With his face uncovered, he was aware now of Eric watching him: not in a judging way, he didn't think (although he still couldn't make himself look up), but just with the same uncertain caution as before. It took him another minute to answer. "Well... I heard you tried to kiss Jason Tanner, when you were over at his house."
Nate closed his eyes for a minute. He just couldn't help it. "Then..." He swallowed, covered his mouth for a second, then dropped his hands again. "Then, um. That's -- kind of true."
Eric paused. "Kind of?"
"It..." Nate scrubbed his face again, and sighed, forgetting himself enough to flop back on the back of the couch. "...I don't know. I don't know what I was trying to do. Or if I'm... anything, I don't know. I really don't know. But..." He swallowed. "I guess -- that's what I was doing, though. I mean. It just sort of... happened. I don't know what it meant."
He still couldn't quite bring himself to look at Eric, but he was aware at the corner of his eyes of Eric nodding, slowly. "All right," he said. And sounding that way, too -- not grossed out, or laughing, or fascinated like he was looking at some kind of sideshow freak. Just calm and mild, as though this were anything normal. "Just asking."
Nate stared down at his hands; and after a moment, his face started to sag down again, into the same miserable crush as before. "What am I going to do?" he asked again -- mostly just to himself. Eric hesitated for another moment, beside him... and then a warm, heavy hand touched Nate's shoulder, patting it once through his jacket. It startled him so badly he forgot himself and finally looked up at Eric. It blew him away all over again, looking in his eyes: how nice he was.
"Just relax for right now," Eric said, sounding kind and slightly awkward. He stood up then, with one last pat, and stood over where Nate still was on the sofa. "Do you want something to drink? We don't have any soda or anything, but there's... well, there's water, and milk. And coffee. ...And vodka."
Nate tried to smile at that, although the last thing he wanted to think about ever again was getting drunk. "Water's good. Um... thanks. Really, I -- thanks."
And Eric smiled at him one more time, before heading around the corner into the kitchen. That smile, Nate tried not to think even after he was gone, was the kind of thing you could get used to.
"I'm Eric, by the way," Eric said, smiling again, when he sat back down and handed Nate his glass. "Eric Hsu." The way he said it definitely didn't rhyme with 'kazoo'; it sounded more like shoe, but much softer on the first consonant. He hadn't brought anything for himself, but before Nate could make some sort of awkward protest about that, he caught the rattly drip-drip-drip of a coffeemaker from the kitchen. Well, fair enough.
"I know." Eric glanced at him, surprised, and Nate coughed another little laughing sound into the rim of his glass: still weak, but slightly realer. "There was, uh... people talked about you, too, when you transferred in."
"Hm." Eric smirked, looking down at his fingers laced between his knees. "Well, I'm sure all of that was totally reasonable and complimentary." Nate bit his lip, digging his thumb into one of the crenelations in the glass -- it was heavy, some kind of crystal maybe -- and didn't confirm or deny. After a moment Eric just smiled again, though, and ducked down his head to catch Nate's eye. "And you're Nate Flowers, apparently."
Nate snorted under his breath, and met his gaze only skittishly, in quick flickering jumps. "Apparently. ...Who told you?"
"No one. I overheard some people in the hallways this morning." He shrugged it off quickly, though, moving on before Nate could even get all that miserable again. "I guess I haven't really gone out of my way to make friends, either."
"Yeah... sorry for barging in on you." Eric waved this off, though, smiling, which oddly gave Nate a warm little glow of pleasure. "Where did you move from, anyway?"
Eric gave him a quick glance, looking surprised again, but Nate just dodged his eyes with a feeble little smile, saying nothing. It was better to be talking about something else, anything else. "Chicago, most recently," Eric said after a moment, without other comment. "We move around a lot, though. We stayed the longest in New York, and that was when I was in grade school. I think I was born in San Francisco. Though now that I think of it I'm not completely sure." He glanced over, caught Nate's expression, and smiled. "It's not as great as it sounds. I'm just lucky I do well in school to begin with."
Nate couldn't quite see how luck entered into that, but decided to leave it unquestioned. "Wow. That's cool, though. ...But if you're normally in really big cities like that, how'd you end up... you know, here?"
That actually made Eric laugh, which Nate thought he could get even more used to, maybe. "My dad has some investment business in the area. That's what he does -- it's why we travel so much. And my mom's a psychologist; she got a job teaching at the university." He shrugged again, sitting back. "We probably won't be here long. We never are."
"That part sounds pretty great," Nate muttered under his breath, prodding at the glass. He thought Eric smiled beside him, but didn't say anything. "Did you have a lot of friends in Chicago you had to leave?"
When he turned back to look at Eric again, though, he caught a curious sort of smile on his lips: not quite that cynical smirk, but not that kinder, softer, sympathetic smile, either. Something inward and quiet, and hard to read. "No," he said, without looking up -- and surprising Nate in spite of everything. "I kind of... gave up on that, after a while."
But just as Nate was opening his mouth to ask some other stupid question about that, Eric stood up suddenly; and it was only just as he did Nate realized the coffeemaker had gone quiet. "Excuse me a second," Eric said, and disappeared back into the kitchen. Leaving Nate just sitting with his mouth a little open, probably looking like a dumb gaping fish.
When he came back, though, Eric didn't seem upset or anything, just mild and quiet as always. The coffee was in a cup and saucer that looked pretty fancy too, and Nate guessed Eric's dad being some sort of investment banker or something did give a little more context to this whole apartment in general. They sat quiet for a few moments, holding their drinks, before Eric finally glanced over at him and spoke again.
"Are you feeling any better?"
Nate didn't move or say anything for a minute or two, and then rubbed his arm with one hand as he shrugged, the glass still dangling from the other. "A little, I guess? I'm kind of... just... trying not to think about it, right now." Eric nodded, and then something finally occurred to Nate; he snapped his head up to look at Eric, alarmed wide-eyed. "Or -- did you need me to get out of your way? Shit, sorry -- I can -- "
"No, that's not it," Eric said -- catching him before he could get too far into scrambling himself up off the couch and toward the door. When Nate looked at him he was almost smiling a little again, and in an amused patient way like Nate had just gotten some totally dumb idea into his head, instead of a pretty reasonable one. "You're not in my way. I was just asking." He seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then his smile turned rueful. "It's actually... pretty nice, having someone over. ...I mean, if you don't have somewhere else to be."
Nate shrugged, a half-smile turning into more of a grimace on his mouth. "Well, you know, I did have plans to hang out with everybody else in school today, but for some reason I'm feeling like that's not gonna pan out." The joke fell flatter than he'd meant it to, though, and he ended up just biting his lip, and trying to drown it in another fast swallow of water. "I mean... sorry. Not that I'm saying -- " He took a breath. "...You've been really nice about this. I... Thank you. I really mean it. I'm sorry I'm kind of, like... being completely crazy, and a giant jerk, and everything, I just -- "
"It's okay," Eric stopped him, as gently as he could. "I get it. And you're not." There was a pause where neither of them said anything, just sat with Eric looking at him and Nate looking down into his water, and then Eric broke it again. "I know you don't want to think about it, but... do you think you are gay?" He must have seen Nate stiffen, though, because he went on quickly: "You don't have to answer that if you don't want to. And it won't bother me one way or the other."
"I..." Nate took a long breath, and it shook when he let it out. "I just -- really don't know. I mean... I haven't really ever..." He lapsed into silence, then sat forward to just set the water-glass down on a coaster on the coffee table, and scrubbed both his hands over his face again. "I like girls. I do. A lot. It's just... I don't know. Sometimes I just... you know, think..."
He was pretty helplessly lost by that point, but Eric waited until it was definite that he was done speaking before responding. "Well, it doesn't always have to be completely one or the other, you know." Nate glanced up, frowning, and he shrugged with a tiny smile. "I mean, I'm attracted to guys too, sometimes. And girls. It's never really been an issue, so I've never really tried to choose one or the other."
...For a second or two, all Nate could do was stare. He tried to say You, or more likely some sentence that would just start with You, but it didn't really come out as a word at all: more of just a whining, wheezing breath. He tried to catch some air back into his lungs to replace it, and found it surprisingly difficult. It seemed to take forever before he was ready to actually try talking.
"You..." Well, there it was. "...Really?"
It was a pretty lame performance, for all of that effort, but Eric just smiled at him again. "Yeah," he said, and shrugged. "I don't really advertise it or anything, but it's true. ...Not that I've ever dated a guy, or anything, so it's mostly just in theory. But I've thought about it, sometimes."
And there was an instant or two, somehow, where even in spite of everything Nate's first impulse at that was to freak out and panic, or inch away down the couch, or something; but even now, even he had the presence of mind to realize how completely awful and stupid and ridiculous that would be. "I..." he started again, and then swallowed and had to do it over. "...Wow. Um." Eric didn't say anything to that, though, just kept smiling at Nate as though expecting something from him, and he had to struggle for a moment. "How... like..." He groped for purchase, and finally found it: "...How did you, you know -- know?"
Eric blinked. Well, at least it had gotten rid of that patient smile for a minute. "What do you mean?"
"You know. That you were... or, I don't know, that you just, did..." Nate trailed off, making some confused whirling gesture with his hands that even he couldn't have interpreted. Eric seemed to understand, though; his expression had gone patient again, although the smile was still absent.
"I realized that I was attracted to some of the guys I knew," he said, almost gently. "I mean, if you want to kiss somebody, then you do. It's not really a complicated thing."
"But -- " Nate struggled again; trying to pull it all into words, trying to make sense of some hundred scattered puzzle pieces that (he was beginning to realize) he'd deliberately kept from coming all together at once in his mind before, swept them into separate corners and into the dusty gaps under the furniture. "But, like -- sometimes, you know, there's just somebody who's, who's just kind of special, you know, kind of different, and... it's not like, like that, exactly, like you want to... do anything, or anything, probably, it's just that... he's... when you're around him, sometimes, you know, you think... I mean, maybe that's just normal? Or it's not..." His breath hitched in his chest, seeming to all go down in a bubble, choking him for a second. "I mean, not that it's abnormal, or something, the other way, but... it's not... Sometimes there's just stuff like that, you know, where it gets really confusing and you're not sure, and, and it's just this one person -- probably -- mostly -- and um, it's close in some ways, but you know, how do you tell how close, like there's some stuff that's different and maybe -- "
"Nate," Eric said, quietly, cutting him off; to be honest, through his red-faced stinging-eyed haze, Nate was sort of surprised he'd actually let him keep running on this long. And Eric's warm hand fell on his shoulder again: a pressure that had become electric, with all of the rest of this in the back of his mind, made Nate have to shut his eyes against everything outside them. "It's not really a complicated thing."
And all Nate could do, for long moments, was just sit there with his eyes shut. His breath coming in deep fumbling trembles, and Eric's hand rising and falling with each one.
They ended up watching TV for the rest of the afternoon, cartoons and kids' shows mostly at this time of day. There just didn't seem to be much more to say after that, or at least nothing that either of them wanted to. After a while, Nate dozed off -- out of pretty much nowhere -- curled up against the bare back of the couch with one of the spotless shell-pink cushions bunched up in his arms; and when he woke up, he was so embarrassed he ended up just mumbling excuses and staggering his way out to head home right away, even though Eric seemed to keep trying to tell him he didn't mind.