My nerves were dancing as we pulled up to Nirvana. The outside was just painted cinderblock. The windows had some beer neons and a rainbow. There was an old neon sign over the entrance with The Nirvana Club in stylized script.
“Jace is jealous,” Lilly said as we hit the sidewalk. “He has to work tonight.”
“I thought he worked here?” I asked.
“Part time,” she confirmed. “He also has a job at a burrito place.”
Conversation stopped as we reached the padded door. With a deep breath I opened it and we were hit with waves of dance music. There was a small booth with a middle aged woman at the counter charging the cover and stamping our hands. Once we were into the club proper I felt like I was in some weird sci-fi/porno flick. The walls were covered in bright colors, strands of lights and images of partially disrobed men. There were glittering signs all over the place with words I wasn't familiar with – Twink, Bear, Otter, Twunk. What did any of those have to do with the others? They seemed random, and it was kind of tipping my senses toward overload.
We moved deeper in and found a table to stand at. A guy with no shirt popped up and asked if we'd like water or soda and we all ordered water. I slowly took in the sights around me: the lights, the mirrors, the pulsing strobes on the dance floor, the guys in large birdcage-like platforms dancing in just underwear. One guy was in a jock strap, and he had such a big ass...I mean. There's cake and then there's a sheet cake and then whatever that was. A wedding cake, maybe.
I looked at the dancers, and suddenly saw him. Ben. Lights strobed over him as he twisted in the cage, enticing people nearer the bar. He was in a pair of briefs; it was hard to tell the color. He wasn't looking at the guys at the bar or responding to their calls, looks or entreaties – whatever it was, I couldn't hear. I didn't care. I'm not sure if I've ever seen someone look more enticing, more beautiful, more...sexy than he did.
Luca tapped my shoulder, tipped his head forward with a smile and nodded in Benji's direction. I swallowed, smiled in a way that probably looked like I was going to throw up. My stomach flopped and I wondered if I might.
“Go let him know you're here,” Luca said, encouraging me.
I glanced at him. I flicked my gaze to Julia who leaned forward, her breasts resting on the table. “If you don't, I will.”
I frowned lightly and turned from them, taking an unsteady step or two before steadying out. As I approached the bar a group formed in front of me, blocking my path forward to Benji. I glanced at the group and they looked vaguely familiar, but I wasn't sure why – nor did I care. I tried to side-step, but there was suddenly someone blocking my path.
I guess he would be called attractive by some. Not quite handsome – maybe a step or two up from plain.
“And who are you? I know everyone and I don't know you. Are you anyone?” he asked. He oozed falseness and was more pushy and annoying than threatening. That tickled something in the back of my mind, but he shifted in my field of vision and my thoughts broke up.
“I'm nobody,” I said and looked past him to Ben who had noticed the group – and me. I smiled tentatively.
My view was blocked again by this...person.
“Well if you're here, I have to know you. I'm Peter.”
I looked at him blankly.
He rolled his hand on his wrist and gave me a weird look. “This is the part where you tell me your name.”
I frowned lightly. I shifted my gaze to Benji, who wasn't dancing with as much animation, but instead watching what was playing out between Peter and me. From the corner of my eye I saw Peter turn to look, frowning at what was distracting me from him. He turned back to me and smiled widely, a shark's grin before biting.
“Benjamin? Really? Oh, honey, honey, honey,” he said his voice oozing. “I rode him so hard and so often, if your dick isn't a beer can it won't even touch the sides.”
My gaze snapped back to his face and his smile faltered for a moment. “I think you should move,” I told him.
“Look, honey,” he said, stopping as I put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him out of my way. He hopped a few steps over, as genuine as a plastic pink flamingo. I stepped past him and up to the bar. I looked up at Benji, who was looking down with a look of intense curiosity.
“You get a break?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard. He squatted down, pointing to his ear. “Break?” I asked, and acted like I was snapping an imaginary twig between my hands.
He paused and looked at me, then past me, then back to me. He nodded slowly. I nodded, a grim set to my lips and I headed back toward my table. That was the plan, but Peter stood in my way again. What was with this guy?
“So you like sloppy-”
I shoved past him, slamming my shoulder into his. Fucking jerk. My friends were all on the dance floor. I leaned on our table and sipped my water. I was starting to get a small headache from the lights and the noise, not to mention that weirdo Peter. I glanced back to where Benji had been dancing, but his cage was empty. I let my gaze roam around, looking for him. Julia noticed I was back and they started to come over, probably to see what had happened with Benji, if anything.
I turned with my friends as a couple of guys joined us. One of them had silver hair that bordered on pure white. There was no way it was natural. “I'm Tristan. This is my boyfriend, Ehren. I wanted to say hi – anyone who isn't a friend of Peter is good in my books.” He smiled widely, and I couldn't help but notice his dimples. He was our age; didn't those things go away after about twelve? Maybe? Apparently not.
“Peter?” Lilly asked.
Tristan straightened his shirt a little and leaned forward to be heard. “He's a control freak. Some friends knew him in high school. He used to try and prey on the guys that were freshly out or not quite ready.” He glanced around and I know my eyes were wide. “Wait! I don't mean like rape or anything. He was more like...slimy. Controlling.”
Something clicked for me. “Oh, that guy back there? That Peter? He just, um, introduced himself, I guess.”
“He's got this weird way of being verbally and, like, aggressively...stanced? Is that a word?” Tristan asked and glanced at Ehren, who shook his head. “So his stance is aggressive, and he's verbally....?”
“Manipulative,” Ehren filled in.
“That,” Tristan said, pointing to his boyfriend. “But I saw you kind of set him aside, so I figured...not friends of his.”
“No. He was in my way,” I admitted, blushing a little.
“He's here for Benji,” Julia told them. “I'm here to watch my ex-boyfriend squirm.”
“That sounds like a story,” Tristan said with a chuckle. They started talking with my friends and then someone mentioned getting out to dance and then I wasn't paying attention anymore because I was wondering what had become of Benji. I did finally spot him, and the nervous, twitching feeling of possibly throwing up was there again. He'd changed into his slim fit jeans and a bright, solid colored tee shirt. His lips were pressed together briefly as he noticed me looking at him. Then he was at my table, hands in his pockets and looking...I don't know. Good.
“Hi,” I said to him, struggling to get the conversation started.
The press of his lips lessened and then he said, “Hi, Ryan.”
I reached up and rubbed the inside of my eye and then looked at him. “So, um, I was thinking we should talk.”
He tilted his head to one side. “You do? Why?” He glanced back over his shoulder and then to me. “We hooked up. Gwen told everyone, not me. I hope you're not – um.” He stopped suddenly and a light blush filled his cheeks.
I looked down at the table where my hands were pressed together. “I...it's kind of brought up some things. Can we, I don't know, meet somewhere? Someplace quieter?”
He held his arms up in the air and turned around. “I fit in here. I'm okay talking here.”
I leaned a bit closer. “But I don't. I don't know if I ever would, but I don't right now. I can barely hear you, and it's hard to concentrate.”
I'm not sure what he thought I was going to say, but he looked slightly taken aback. Confused. Before things could get any weirder our table was surrounded by my friends coming back from the dance floor, grabbing their bottles of water and waving at Benji, greeting him, being friendly, as if we'd all come out together that night.
“This is so much fun,” Lilly said and held the bottle of water to her forehead. “I'm so jealous Jace never invited us all out!”
Benji looked at her oddly. “Jace?”
She nodded. “Jace Mead, my brother. He was telling Ryan about the dance night for eighteen plus. He wanted to come, but he has to work tonight.”
Benji looked at me with a raised eyebrow and...I don't know. I couldn't read his expressions very well, I guess.
“Let's go back out there,” Julia said and grabbed my hand and Benji as well. We made it to the dance floor as a trio, but then Julia was dancing with everyone and no one all at once, which left me with Ben. Benji.
Ben shook himself and started to dance lightly and I tried to mimic him. He noticed, smiled a little and changed his moves and I tried to copy him. For ten or fifteen minutes we played a dancing game of mimic, and I started to relax. He started to move closer, so I copied him, and then he backed off and I did the same. It was like a mating dance and yet a game as well. I was sweating, and so was he. Lilly and Luca kind of stumbled between us, laughing, and Luca grabbed Benji's arm for balance. Benji reached back to Luca, laughing. Our moment – or more – broken, we all headed back to the table and got more water. It was really hard to hear.
Given his interest in Italy and the gardens I'd seen in his photos, I'd had an idea of where to meet. Café Italia was a little out of the way, but across the street was a new community park with manicured shrubs, hedges and flower beds in one area and a place for little kids to play elsewhere. I figured the park would be perfect to walk and talk and see who Ben really was. I leaned in closer to him and he hesitated a moment, but leaned toward me as well. “I found a neat place. A cafe. Do you...would you want to meet on Saturday? Around three?”
He studied my face for a moment, seconds that seemed to be elastic. Sweat trickled down my back, my body still hot from the dancing.
He let out a small sigh. “Sure.”
I felt relieved. I smiled at him and we danced a little more until Ben had to go back to work. I watched him dance for a bit. He'd glance at me every so often, or I think he did, so he knew I was watching him. There were overtures made by the others to go out to a diner and I was fine with that. I went along with my friends and our new friends Tristan and Ehren, who would be attending college in town and had moved early. Conversation was lively, but I felt apart from it all. Cushioned. Cocooned. I was wrapped up in Ben.
Work was brisk on Friday, but it frequently is – people need their cars back, and of course we want to get paid. My father pays me under the table, and I have to pay him some rent money. I think this is also some form of punishment in their minds, but it seems fair to me. By the end of the day I was wiped out.
At home I took a shower and ate dinner with my family. I thought I might go collapse and get to sleep early, but that wasn't in the cards for me. First Stan wanted to play a game of 'fart in my room and run like hell' and he'd take off down the hallway, farting and giggling. How he didn't crap himself I don't know – and the kid reeks. I ended up locking my door, but that only invited my second visitor – my sister, Annie.
At fourteen she was just enough behind me that we didn't have many of the same acquaintances, yet she still managed a surprising amount of nosiness when it came to me, my friends and my life; she is my mother's daughter. Even so, I loved the feisty little thing. When I opened my door to her knocking she stood there looking at me as if I'd been knocking on her door.
“What?” I asked, aggravated.
“Who is Ben Masterson?”
I frowned. “How do you know him?”
“I got told you knew him.”
I frowned again. “So what?”
She frowned back, looking every inch the nosy brat. “Sara Murch says her cousin Linda found out from Lindsey Seaver's girlfriend that this girl named Gwen – and what the hell is up with that, anyway?” she asked, holding her hand out, palm up. “What's her full name, Gwendolyn? Does she have a knight of the round table hidden somewhere?”
I couldn't help but smile a little at her getting side-tracked.
She frowned at my smile and slid past me into my room. She turned and lowered her voice. “Are you gay? I need to know.”
I frowned anew and closed the door. “What business is that of yours?”
“You can't be that dumb,” she said with a roll of her eyes.
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“Okay, maybe you are that dumb.”
“All the dumb went to you. The bad hair, crooked teeth and – hey!” I said, laughing as she started lightly slapping at me.
“Stop being a jerk, RJ! I want to know!” she demanded, squaring up to me. “It's important. Are you?”
I crossed my arms. “What's so important about that to you?”
“Are you serious?” she asked, her jaw dropping. “Do you have any idea how popular I would be if you were gay?”
Of all the things she might have said...that never occurred to me. I cocked my head to one side and asked, “How does that work?”
“Please,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “It's the hottest thing. There's, like, three girls in my class that changed their names to boy names, but are dating guys. They ship so many guys from TV and stuff – it's totally hot.”
I stared at her. She looked back, unaware of my skepticism. “That's the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
“Really Mr. Got to catch them all?”
I laughed. “That's a multi-million dollar pastime!”
“Look at ratings that go up when two hot guys are getting shipped – and then turn into a couple!” She pointed to the ceiling. “That's what happens! The whole final season of Thirteen Reasons, every cute guy went gay!”
I paused, momentarily off balance by her focus. “Are you saying I'm hot? That's kind of gross, Annie.”
She crossed her arms. “Some high school girls have bad taste. I can't help that.”
I started to laugh. “You think if you can tell people – no, some girls in your grade – that I'm gay it's going to make you popular?”
She pursed her lips and stared at me. “This...Gwendolyn, my lady fair,” she said with an impressive eyeroll and ample derision in her voice, “has pictures of you in this guy's bed.” She had the grace to blush a little at the end.
My sister and I get along all right, but we're not super close. I'd been very protective of her as a little kid, but then she'd kind of turned into someone who didn't need that. She’s nobody's fool. Not that we'd try to hurt each other, but there were enough years between us – and I'd had the pressure of being told for years I was to be a doctor and she wasn't under the same microscope – that we just weren't the type to tell each other secrets or anything. We'd team up against the 'rents if it served our purposes, and I did love her, ever since she was born. I also knew she was a brat.
I walked past her and sat down on my bed, leaning back against the headboard and regarded her. “It was a bed, and no one else was in it with me.”
A thoughtful mask slipped over her face. “So...you're saying it wasn't his bed?”
I shrugged. “Even if it was, he wasn't in there with me. Right?”
She frowned. “I guess it was too much to hope for,” she said with a regretful sigh. “I mean you dated Julia forever.”
“Yeah,” I said. I cleared my throat. “I hope you realize, Annie, that if I were anything besides what I have been – it would be my business to tell people. People aren't props for you to use – or Gwendolyn the Fair for that matter,” I said and then snickered. “She not not all that fair, either, by the way.”
“Ugh, I saw her 'Gram. She has no skills.” She paused and her breath seemed to be a bit faster. “But if you were...if you decided...would you tell me?”
I smiled. “If something like that is a thing, you'll find out.”
She turned from me and then back. She frowned. “You know I'd be cool with it. Right?”
I shrugged. “I'm glad you would be, but at the end of the day I'd have to live with it – not you.”
Her frown grew stormy. “I'm not some little girl for you to protect anymore, you know? If my brother is gay and someone has shit to say, I'll tear them up. So stop treating me like I'm still a little kid.”
I was angry, at first, that she was yelling at me in my own room. I softened, then, because she was right that I'd always coddled and protected her when she was little. I'd laid off when she developed her attitude.
“Okay,” I said quietly. “You're not a little kid, but it's still my life. I get to decide what I do, what I say and when. That's not treating you like a little kid – it's me making choices about my life.”
She pressed her lips together and worked her mouth for a moment. “Okay. But I can keep a secret, if that's what it is.”
I nodded and smiled at her. “I'll remember that.”
She put her hand on the door and as she opened it she turned back toward me slowly. “If you're not-” She topped suddenly and lowered her voice, “gay, then why did you close the door to talk?”
I shook my head and smiled at her. “You really want me to be gay, don't you.”
She got a devilish grin on her face. “Ben has a hot Insta. You could learn some things.”
I frowned. “I don't think you should be looking at his pictures.”
“Why? You're the only one in the family that can?”
“Whatever,” I told her and stretched out on my bed and started looking through crap on my phone. She stood in my doorway for a few minutes until she got the hint I was ignoring her and she flounced away. It didn't take long before I was on Ben's page, though, looking at his pictures. Looking at him. His smile.
Ah, fuck. This is serious.