Pickle

James shouldn't be here. It isn't his scene. It's never been his scene, and it never will be. He's kept it that way on purpose. It isn't that he's closeted; on the contrary, he's been out for as long as he can remember. He's perfectly fine with being gay—or the part of being gay that involves being a man who has sex with men. He identifies as gay. He does not, however, identify as part of the so-called gay community.

(Is that even what they call it here, at this particular university of his? There are so many names, acronyms, symbols, and sometimes he can't keep track. Are they going with gay? Queer? LGBT? GLBT? LGBTQIA? Where the fuck does this insistence on political correctness end? He can't keep track. He doesn't try. He doesn't want to. That's the point.)

No matter how gay he is—and yes, James Page is very, very gay—he isn't part of the community. He isn't part of any queer student groups. He doesn't take any queer classes. He isn't friends with many other queers (with the exception of Bea, which is so much of the problem). He doesn't go to queer parties.

Except this one. And it's all Bea's fault. She tricked him, told him they were just going to a friend's place for a few beers and a game of pool, and then dragged him into a dark house that's practically bursting with glitter and music he's never heard. She pulled him over the threshold, despite his protests that this isn't his scene, and she said, oh so patronizingly, "Oh, James, there's plenty of beer, and I think Heath has a pool table in the basement." She kissed his cheek, then, sloppily, leaving the imprint of cherry red lipstick, before she abandoned him to find her on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate.

So now James is stuck, standing in the hallway, thinking about how very much he shouldn't be here. This is wrong. He doesn't like this. He doesn't like anything about this—not the dark, not the heat, not the noise, not the sweat, not the strobes, not the fucking glitter—but he can't leave. He promised Bea earlier that evening that he'd make sure she got home okay. Because she's more than a little drunk, and he's a good friend. So he can't leave. He just stands there, the walls vibrating around him. He's pretty sure he's going deaf from the music—he can't name the song—is it Gaga or Ke$ha or Brittney or Rihanna—or which artists is it that gays are supposed to like? He isn't cut out for this. He wants to cut and run. But he can't. Won't. He's a good friend.

But if he's going to stay here, he's going to need a drink. So he takes a deep breath, and he pushes into the house. His sneakers stick to the alcohol-soaked floorboards as he walks. He weaves through the throng of drunken people—they're all swaying and groping and sweating—and he can't fucking stand it. Finally, he makes it to something that looks like a kitchen. Or at least, there's a counter with a dull silver keg on top of it, and a stack of stereotypical red plastic cups beside it. He feels ridiculous, as if he's at a fucking frat party—except this is nothing like a frat party because there's too much Gaga and glitter and gayness.

James doesn't do parties. Period. He doesn't do dirty dancing or anonymous sex. He doesn't like it, doesn't want it, avoids it all like the fucking plague. He just wants this night to be over already.

He's waiting in line to get to the keg. It takes forever. He doesn't like people. This is so many levels of absurd he doesn't even know where to begin or stop. Finally, he's at the front, and he fills his stereotypical red plastic cup to the brim. Technically, he pregamed with Bea, and he's at least a little tipsy to begin with. But he's nowhere near drunk enough. He raises the cup to his lips and nearly gags. As could be expected from a keg, it's crappy beer. Frat beer. Except that this isn't a frat. This is a gay house party. And fuck, he doesn't even know whose house this is.

He backs himself against a wall, where he can nurse his beer without having to see the makeshift dance floor in the living room. He doesn't want to see other people doing dirty dancing or anonymous sex, either. He just wants to disappear into this fucking wall and make this night go by a little faster. So he keeps drinking his cheap, crappy beer, and he shuts his eyes, resting his head back against the wall. He's trying to pretend. He's trying to block out the music and squishing and other obnoxious noises roaring all around him, but it isn't really working. If nothing else, James is a master of playing make-believe.

He's almost convinced himself that the party is nothing more than an ill-conceived fantasy when cold liquid makes contact with his chest.

James's blue eyes flash open. His shirt is wet and sticky with cheap, crappy beer, and there's an anonymous slutty drunk girl in front of him, spewing, "Oh my gawd, 'm so sorry. I didn' mean t'—"

"It's fine," James snaps back instinctively, even though it really isn't fine and he himself feels about as far from fine as humanly possible. He pushes past her but then stops. He turns back, swallowing around the discomfort rising in his throat. "Just—do you know where the bathroom is?"

Her eyes are glassy and glazed, but then she's yelling back, "I think I saw one downstairs—"

And he's moving again, without thanking her or anything. He remembers passing the stairs when he came in. So he retraces his steps, moving out of the kitchen and back into the dark hallway. It's difficult to remember where he is or where he's going, especially now that the beer is starting to hit him. Now he's the one swaying—just a little—and he's starting to regret the decision to match Bea for shots of tequila earlier, even if his tolerance is considerably higher than hers. He sees the stairs, finally. He braces himself on the railing as he begins the journey down, one step at a time. The staircase creaks—it's an old house—he shouldn't be surprised.

He's downstairs, finally, in the basement, which isn't quite so crowded. On the contrary, he sees the pool table Bea taunted him with, and a group of about four or five guys, all of whom he recognizes as the poster boys for campus queer groups. He doesn't know them all by name, but he does know a few, and he knows well enough to know this really isn't the group of gays he wants to get involved with. He's just about to back right back up the staircase and avoid them—go home with a beer-soaked shirt without Bea—but he doesn't get the chance.

Because one of the guys calls, "Hey, have we met?" And he isn't just one of the guys, one of the poster boys. He's the poster boy, so to speak. His name is Heath Kelley, and he's something of a campus legend. He's the chair of the Lambda Alliance, as well as a regular columnist for the paper. He's a senior, and he's triple-majoring in political science, philosophy, and economics. (Despite the fact that there's actually a PPE degree on offer, he's doing all three.) He's outspoken and charismatic and known by everyone. He's tall and thin and brown-haired and hazel-eyed. He's wearing obscenely tight jeans and a flannel button-down that reveals just a little too much skin. And he's staring straight at James, waiting expectantly for a response.

"I, erm—" James is stuttering like an idiot. He wants to turn and run away. "No, I don't think so."

Suddenly, Heath is taking a step closer, squinting oddly. "Are you a freshman?"

James blushes, and it isn't just because of the alcohol. There's still at least six or seven feet between them, but he doesn't like being under this kind of scrutiny, especially not from this sort of person. He swallows thickly. "No, I'm a junior." He understands the mistake. It's hardly the first time he's been mistaken for a freshman. He's short and petite, and as Bea routinely informs him, between his thick-rimmed glasses and his baby blue eyes, he looks like jailbait.

"That's odd," Heath replies. He's his approach, thank god, but his interest doesn't seem to be diminishing, not in the slightest. "I know everyone."

"I, uh." James feels ridiculous. This is what culture shock feels like, isn't it? He's taken anthropology classes. He should know. "This isn't really my scene."

"Oh?" Heath takes another step closer. He's wearing a crooked smile, seeped in twenty layers of meaning. "You're not a straight, are you? Because my parties aren't exactly straight-boy friendly."

"No, I'm," James shakes his head rapidly, his vision blurry, everything impossibly hot, he's pretty sure he's dying, "not straight." It's a struggle to get the words out. "Look," he says, trying to be diplomatic, "I was just looking for the bathroom." He gestures to his soaked shirt. "Some girl spilled her drink, and I just want to get cleaned up." There. He's quite proud of himself for stringing so many words together. Grammatically correctly even. Go James.

Heath laughs. "Okay," he concedes with an easy nod. "I'll show you. Follow me."

James is vaguely aware of the fact that the other three or four guys—Heath's friends—are also laughing, but he's trying—pretending—not to notice them. He just swallows around the bile in his throat, and then he follows Heath, who is winding around the pool table to another hallway.

Heath doesn't stop until he reaches a door coated in cracked white paint. He turns the brass doorknob and does a funny half-bow, gesturing James in. James scoots past Heath, trying not to feel anything (but there's only so much pretending he can do). He wants to shut the door, but Heath is leaning back against it, making the motion impossible. So James stares at him, hands stuffed awkwardly in his pockets, trying to figure out how to word this tactfully.

"Mind if I stay and chat for a bit?" Heath asks, then, wearing the most dazzling of smiles (and if there's a layer of something else beneath the sparkle, James is too tipsy to notice). "You see, it isn't very often I meet anyone new at these parties, let alone an upperclassmen. Let alone someone as cute as you."

James feels dizzy and light-headed and a little sick and a lot of something else. (It's curling in his abdomen, and he doesn't want to think about what it is.) Heath must wear cologne, or there must be air freshener in the room, because he's feeling just a bit overwhelmed by something he can't begin to name. He swallows again and turns away from Heath, nodding a bit as he faces the mirror, where he knows Heath can see his reflection.

(There's nothing about this that isn't a bad idea, but he just can't stop.)

Heath shuts the door, then leaning casually against the wall across from the mirror so that he can see James's face. "So, you never did tell me your name," he comments, still so sickeningly casual.

The light of the room is harsh and bright and James feels pale and gaunt and ghost-like. He could disappear, if it weren't for Heath's gaze anchoring him in place, in this room, in this impossibly unreal moment. The ceiling is quivering, the makeshift dance floor is directly above them, and the blurry beat of yet another song he can't name is more than audible. His heart's racing. He's impossibly hot, skin burning, blood boiling. There's nothing about this, he thinks to himself for the thousandth time in the last twenty seconds, that isn't a bad idea. Then he finds himself saying, "James. James Page."

"Well, James, I'm Heath Kelley."

"I know," James says dryly. He turns on the faucet, considering how exactly to best clean his shirt.

"Of course you do." Heath laughs. "So tell me, James, why I've never seen you before."

"I already did." James still hasn't done anything. The faucet's running. They're making eye contact in the mirror. It's unnerving.

"Oh James, James, James," Heath is laughing harder now, as if James has told a particularly uproarious joke, "don't tell me this isn't your scene. You're gay. The queer community accepts everyone. We're—you know—a lavender menace. Or the Borg. If you're the least bit queer, we're going to assimilate you sooner or later. Resistance is futile."

James looks away from the mirror, finally, breaking contact with those piercing, laughing, intoxicating hazel eyes. He reaches for the towel hanging by the sink, and he dips the end of it under the faucet. Then he proceeds to dab his shirt with the wet end of the towel. "Sorry," he says, tearing his attention between his task and this exceedingly uncomfortable conversation, "but I don't really want to have anything to do with the queer community."

"Then why are you at this party?" Heath challenges, leaning forward from the wall a little.

"My friend dragged me here."

"Who's your friend?"

"Bea Redding."

"I love Bea!" Heath's still laughing, if that's even possible. "But with a friend like Bea—radical lesbian feminist that she is—how is it that you aren't more involved?"

It's true. Bea's the political chair of the Lambda Alliance, which is how she knows Heath, besides the fact that the community is generally insular. Not to mention incestuous, which is another major reason to avoid it.

James shakes his head. His hands are shaking. His shirt is sopping wet, and he feels like an idiot. He's frustrated. He should leave. He can't move. "I just. I don't want. I can't. I'm not—" the words won't form, and he feels like an idiot.

"Are you really that worried about fitting in?" Heath asks. "Into straight society?"

"It isn't us against them," James replies, looking up at the mirror again.

"Isn't it?" Heath's eyes glitter in the harsh light.

James's breaths are sharp and shallow. The air is stifling and stagnant and stormy with tension.

"Hey," Heath says suddenly, the laughter gone, replaced by something else entirely unreadable, "let me help you with that." And suddenly, instead of being on the other side of the wall, he's right behind James. He keeps a small cushion of air between them, but he reaches in front of James to grab the towel, which he soaks again, and rubs in a circular motion over the affected area of James's shirt.

And James is pretty sure he has forgotten how to breathe. He's still staring straight at the mirror, trying to keep his expression impassive, but he's pretty sure from the smirk on Heath's reflected countenance that it isn't working.

"You know," Heath murmurs, his breath hot against James's ear, "this might be easier if you took your shirt off."

Everything is impossibly hot. The dulled music is throbbing all around them. James can't breathe. "I think."

"Yeah?" Heath's mouth has migrated closer to his neck. He's closer and overwhelming. "What do think?"

It's all James can do to say, "I think you might be right."

Then Heath presses up against his back, and he puts his hands on James's waist after he drops the towel on the floor. He runs his hands along the thin fabric of James's t-shirt, and then he curls the material in his fists, pulling it up over James's head. He tosses it toward the bathtub, and then his hands are back on James's torso, against his skin.

James can't breathe, can't think, can't do anything except focus on the feel of James everywhere against him. Heat. Sweat. Breath. Scent. Glitter. His eyes flutter shut.

Then he feels Heath's mouth against his neck, sucking, and he's fairly certain he's going to have a hickey tomorrow.

There's nothing about this that isn't a bad idea, but honestly, James doesn't give a fuck.

Um. So. I was supposed to be writing an essay about sexual essentialism and constructionism and so on for my queer theory class. But. Um. This happened. So now it's like after 11 pm, and I haven't started my essay. I'm so irresponsible. But yeah. That's the main reason this stops where it does.

Also. I definitely know queer people with the attitudes of both James and Heath, but it's very rare to see them interact.

Any interest in seeing this continued? It's kind of absurdly fun to write.