It's stupid, but James doesn't know what to wear. It isn't a date. He knows it isn't a date, despite the fact that there's going to be dinner and an event in auditorium. But that event is a lecture, not a movie, and dinner is discussion, not a date. Ergo, it doesn't matter what James wears. Because it isn't a date.
But his knowledge of the irrevocable, certain fact that he is not going on a date with Heath Kelley has not prevented him from standing in front of his closet for the better part of an hour. He's only half-dressed, wearing an exasperated expression and no pants, when there's a knock at his bedroom door.
"James?" Bea calls. "Are you okay in there? If you don't hurry, you're going to be late."
"I'm fine," James yells back. "I just—"
"Do you need some help?"
If nothing else, James knows when to admit sartorial defeat. "Yeah," he concedes, "that might be for the best."
Bea comes in, blinks once, and promptly asks, "Really?"
"What? Too much? Not enough?"
"James, you're wearing a tie."
"You're right. Not enough. Let me just find my blazer—"
"Oh, honey." Then she sighs her long-suffering sigh, the one that's a cross between disbelief and pity and signals that he's missed some seemingly obvious social cue. She comes up close and puts on a sympathetic smile. "Let me help."
James nods and stays mannequin-still as Bea loosens his striped tie, slips it over his head, and tosses it on the bed. Then, pursing her lips, she unbuttons the top two buttons of his light blue button down. He can breathe a bit better, and he isn't sure if it's mental or physical. Then Bea works on his sleeves, unbuttoning the cuffs, and rolling them up to his elbows. When she's done, she steps back, looks him up and down, and nods sharply.
"There," Bea says, smiling and looking generally satisfied with herself. "Much better. Now, you're going to wear jeans instead of slacks, and you're going to lose the blazer because, remember, it's eighty degrees outside, and then you'll be fine."
Still feeling slightly helpless, James asks, "What about shoes?"
Bea laughs. "Shoes, right. How could I ever forget shoes?" Sarcasm aside, because of course Bea, whose closet is at least fifty percent shoes and wears heels around their dorm, goes to his closet, sifts through his five pairs of eminently practical shoes, and picks out a nice but otherwise unremarkable brown leather pair. "Here. Wear these."
"Thanks," James replies without moving. He doesn't understand why he's acting like this. It isn't a date, and now Bea has conveniently solved his clothing crisis. There's nothing to worry about, and yet, here he is, worrying.
"Oh, James," Bea murmurs. "Come on. Sit." She sits on his bed, pats the space beside her, and waits for him to sit, still pants-less. "Now, tell me. What's freaking you out?"
"It's nothing," James lies.
"It's not a date, so I have nothing to worry about."
"Oh. Do you want it to be?"
"Of course not."
Bea smiles knowingly but doesn't press the issue.
"I just. I hate Dan Savage, and I don't even like Heath. Why the hell am I doing this?"
"James," Bea sighs. "It's just one night. If it's really as horrible as you think it's going to be, then you can avoid Heath for the rest of the year."
"I don't think I can do this."
"Yes, you can."
"No, I feel sick. I should cancel."
"Pyschosomatic illnesses don't count. Medical excuse denied."
"Bea," James whines.
"No. You're going. It'll be fine. I promise."
"That's what you said about the film screening. And the party. And you were wrong both times."
"Well, third time's the charm," Bea grins. She stands up before grabbing his arm and pulling him up, too. "Come on, time to put some pants on."
James gets a text when he's waiting under the designated tree outside the auditorium. The text reads:
Hey, sorry, I went in early to make sure we got good seats. There's ticket for you under my name at will call. Meet me in the front row. HK
James has absolutely no idea how Heath got his phone number, though he suspects Bea is to blame. He groans, though, at the thought of sitting in the front row. He's half tempted to turn around and run away now, but he stops himself. He's a man of his word, isn't he? He certainly isn't a coward, and he can handle two hours in the front row next to Heath.
In the end, he steels himself as he goes into the auditorium and tries not to die of awkwardness when he says "Heath Kelley" at will call. The girl gives him the ticket without a second thought, and he embarks on his journey through the antechamber to the actual auditorium.
When he finally makes it through the crowd and inside, the multitude of stadium seats are mostly full of obliviously chattering people—men and women, a variety of ages all over eighteen, and a mix of races and ethnicities leaning toward mostly white. He can hear his heart pounding over the roar of the chatter. He tries (unsuccessfully) to ignore it. As he descends down the steps, he feels the doom rising in his heart. He makes his way to the front row, stops for a moment, realizes that Heath has snagged seats front row, dead center, and groans as he awkwardly squeezes past everyone else in the row, trying (unsuccessfully) not to bump their knees.
Finally, he reaches the middle of the row, sees Heath, and momentarily regrets not wearing the tie.
Heath turns, sees him standing there, grins broadly, and says, "Hey, have a seat. I know I said I'd meet you outside, but, well…." His grin turns sheepish. "I didn't want to miss the chance to get good seats."
"It's fine," James says, sliding into the seat next to Heath. He tries to smile, despite his nervousness. He doesn't know what to say, not to mention it's difficult to hear given the noise surrounding them, and James realizes abruptly he's never seen Heath stay quiet this long. That's when he looks over, notices the product in Heath's hair and the black form-fitting crew neck sweater that looks designer, before realizing that Heath looks unnaturally tense, and maybe even a little jittery. He tries to hide his surprise and asks, "So, I guess you're excited?"
"Oh, yeah." Heath turns back to him for a moment with a smaller smile. "I've loved Dan Savage since high school. I never thought I'd—" he breaks off, shakes his head. "Sorry. I might not be the best company right now."
"No, it's fine." James is a bit awestruck, watching Heath struck speechless by his own hero-worship. He seems so human, so normal, and it's such a bizarre contrast to the superhuman image Heath maintains. "Really." And somehow, it is.
Sitting within the proverbial spitting distance of the podium—and by extension, Dan Savage—is a strange experience, to say the least. The strangeness actually has very little to do with Dan Savage. Savage is more or less as expected. He shows up wearing a punny shirt their LGBT Center sold last year, makes the obligatory comments about how glad he is to be here, talks about his and his husband's experiences growing up before moving into the story of the It Gets Better Project. Most of it James has heard before.
No, what's strange is Heath. James sneaks sideways glances at him every so often, and each time, he's thrown off by the shifting expressions on Heath's face. At first, he looks like a kid on Christmas morning who just opened his shiny new Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and that thing which tells time. From there, believe it or not, it just escalates. Near the end, Heath's expression could be said to resemble expressions of religious ecstasy.
It's unbelievably strange, and James can hardly believe it's happening. He doesn't think anyone would believe him, would believe that Heath would act like this. James tries to imagine if there's anyone he would react like this upon meeting, and he can't come up with a single name. Something clenches in his heart, and he's almost glad he's witnessing this.***
"So, lay it on me," Heath says, playing at serious but failing rather dismally. "What did you think?"
For dinner, they ended up deciding on an Indian buffet that Heath says has pretty good vegan options. They've gone through the buffet and have full plates and tiny cups of Chai tea. Now they're settled into a cozy table for two against the wall. There's even a candle on the table, and James tries not to take that personally. All the tables have candles. It doesn't mean anything.
"Oh, I almost forgot." Heath reaches into the messenger bag he has with him and pulls out something that looks suspiciously like a bottle of wine.
"What is that?"
"Wine. Pinot grigio from Northern California. That okay with you?"
"But is this place even a BYO?"
"Yep," Heath nods. "That's one of the things that makes it so fantastic."
"Okay, sure." James watches as Heath dispenses with the less-than-classy twist-off cap.
Heath fills the two wine-like glasses on the table, pushes one toward James, and raises his own. "Toast?"
"Right. To civil discourse, despite our ideological differences."
Their glasses chink.
Then Heath takes a long draught of his pinot grigio and says, "Okay, formalities aside, go ahead. What'd you think?"
"It was interesting," James says with a shrug. He sips his own wine before cutting into a samosa. "I just have fundamental problems with the philosophy of It Gets Better. I understand what he's trying to do, yes, and I do think it's important to give hope to teens who need it, but—" he shakes his head. "It's not that easy. You can't just move to a city, make a lot of money, fit into some great new community, meet a life partner, and live happily ever after. It doesn't work like that. Not everyone can leave. Not everyone can make it in the queer community. Not everyone is going to live happily ever after. Come to think of it, not everyone wants that heteronormative life."
"But you do," Heath observes between bites of rice.
That catches James off guard. Yes, he does want that. A monogamish life in the suburbs, with a partner and maybe a couple kids. How he expects to get this kind of life when he shuns the community is beside the point. "What I want isn't relevant."
"There's still room for a queer non-normative life in the It Gets Better narrative," Heath replies carefully. "Dan Savage is all about sex positivity, and so am I."
Clearly, James thinks. Heath's lifestyle is pretty far from the heteronormative monogamy narrative. "Okay," James says, not really conceding the point but not willing to fight it either, "but there's a bigger problem. It Gets Better is the worst kind of progressive narrative. We're telling youth that things magically get better at some distant point in the future, which, you know, really doesn't help them in the present. We're telling them to go to cities, where conditions are already liberal, and we're not discussing the root of the problem, which is the homophobia is rural areas, and elsewhere. There's a culture problem that isn't being addressed, and it really, really needs to be."
Heath stares at him in something that might be shock. "Okay," he says, nodding slowly and refilling his wine. "Tell me. How do we fix this culture problem of homophobia?"
"I—" James shakes his head. Honestly, he's a bit surprised by how this conversation is going. Maybe it's because of the wine. He accepts a refill on that, too, before admitting, "I'm really better at identifying problems than solving them."
"Most people are," Heath replies with an easy smile. He doesn't seem particularly concerned by this. "You know, for someone who professes to avoid the queer community like the plague, you're pretty well versed in the politics of it."
James shrugs. "Well, it's hard not to pick some of it up, what with living with Bea and all. Especially when she was dating Kate." Which reminds him he needs to ask Bea if they're actually dating again. He's been a bit lax in his best friend duties, given the clusterfuck that is his own social life. "They thought Judith Butler was good dinner conversation." He shudders. "I still have nightmares about 'free-floating artifices.'"
Heath chuckles. "Butler is pretty abstract. Have you read any sort of queer or feminist theory, though?"
"I read Audre Lorde once. Or, I tried to. I didn't get very far."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Oh, I wish I was," James laughs, remembering. "It was last spring. Kate left a copy of Zami in the bathroom, and I made the mistake of trying it. To this day, I still have no idea what the hell a biomythography is."
"Well, I guess you could have started with Foucault. That would have been worse."
"Hey, I have read Foucault, you know. Not The History of Sexuality, his theories about surveillance and the panopticon came up in photo theory seminar last year, believe it or not."
Heath laughs. "Sometimes I forget how weird this place is, that we read Foucault in photo classes and graphic novels in writing seminars. True story. My final paper for my writing seminar was on Watchmen. The professor said it was 'inspired.'"
James rolls his eyes. "I'm sure."
Heath takes a sip of his wine before setting the conversation back on track. "So what about fiction? You've at least read gay novels, right?"
James grimaces. "Not really. Well. I read Mysteries of Pittsburgh because Michael Chabon is fucking brilliant, and I wasn't expecting the gay subplot, but—"
"Art shouldn't have cheated on Phlox."
"But Phlox was weird, and Arthur was his best friend. It was totally justified."
"Really?" James asks, arching a skeptical eyebrow. "You believe in justifiable cheating?"
"No, I believe in true lllloooovvvve," Heath croons. Then he smirks. "Well. Maybe not. But I'm a moral relativist. I believe in judging each event in its own context. In this case, the context is Phlox's weirdness and Art's obvious love for Arthur."
"Look, I know you're a serial non-monogamist, or whatever, but that doesn't give you license to just do whatever you want."
"Rumors of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated," Heath deadpans. "But anyway, this isn't about me. We're talking about literary portrayals of non-monogamy. Honestly, I'm a bit surprised. Usually it's only the Religious Right who have a huge problem with artistic depictions of supposedly objectionable behavior. Do you have a problem with The English Patient, too?"
James sighs. "I'm fine with artistically depicting just about any type of behavior, regardless whether it's morally or even legally objectionable. What I'm talking about is how that behavior translates to real life."
"Okay, fair enough. Let's do a translation exercise. Pretend you were in a relationship with a weird girl, who was madly in love with you, while you had feelings for your best male friend, who was also in love with you. What would you do?"
"If I were Art, I wouldn't act on my feelings for Arthur until I'd broken up with Phlox."
"That's what you say now," Heath agrees while waving his fork rather dangerously through the air. "But if it were actually happening, I think you'd find Arthur too irresistible to wait to break up with Phlox."
James smiles. He's keenly aware of the warmth in his cheeks. It might be time to slow down on the wine. "Maybe it's time we move on from Chabon."
"Okay, okay," Heath nods, "what about the classics? Have you read Maurice? A Single Man? The City and the Pillar?"
"None of those titles mean anything to me."
"Early gay novels by Forester, Isherwood, and Vidal, respectively. On second thought, though, I actually don't recommend The City and the Pillar; the sex scenes are atrocious, and the narrator's kind of an idiot. Maurice is better, but for the most part, it just feels dated. Isherwood writes beautifully, though."
"Okay," James nods. "I'll have to give him a try."
They keep talking, without incident, through two helpings of Indian buffet and the rest of the bottle of wine.
The evening is pleasantly warm as they walk across campus toward the dorms. They aren't talking at the moment, but the silence is companionable. They walk until they reach James's dorm, and then they both stop in front of the steps.
"So," Heath begins, "I had a really great time."
"So did I," James replies with a nervous smile. "I'm glad you talked me into this." He feels Heath's eyes on him, looks straight into them, sees the dilated pupils inside the ring of blue, feels something similar inside himself.
The moment is heavy, heady, like the humid heat in the air. Heath takes a step closer and presses his lips to James's before winding an arm around his back.
For a moment, James lets him. It's nice, feeling Heath against him, overwhelming all his senses except sight when his eyes fall shut. He kisses back until his brain catches up with his mouth and he remembers he told himself he wasn't going to do this. He doesn't want this. He can't. "No," he says, pulling away abruptly.
Heath pulls back immediately. "Sorry," he says, thrusting his hands in his pockets. "I didn't mean to do that. I—" He bites his lip. "Fuck."
"It's okay," James replies, surprised by how okay he feels about all this. He doesn't blame Heath. It was nice, and Heath stopped when he asked, so the panic stays down.
"Fuck," Heath repeats. He winces. "Have I ruined any chance of us hanging out again the future?"
"No," James shakes his head. "I think I'd like to hang out again."
Heath looks surprised.
"As friends," James clarifies. He still isn't ready for anything more than that—doesn't know if he'll ever—and certainly not with a serial non-monogamist such as Heath, but if this evening has proven anything, it's that Heath is someone he can have a conversation with. He thinks he wants to have more conversations with Heath.
"Okay," Heath agrees, "as friends."
James smiles as he walks away.
***So, I wrote two additional paragraphs for this scene, based on a question Heath asks during the Q&A. I didn't include it because it's vaguely based on something that actually happened to a friend of mine. However, I think I'm going to put the paragraphs in a password-protected post on my blog. If you're interested in reading them, I'll PM you the password and link.
In other news… I got a plot idea that would… significantly lengthen this story. Originally, this was going to be a pretty short sub-10-chapter jaunt. But… now I'm considering expanding this considerably and introducing another major character. Thoughts? Are you guys in this for the long haul, if I adopt a more regular updating schedule?
Speaking of updating schedules... this speedy update is entirely thanks to all of you and your kind reviews.
So, yeah. Let me know what you think of this one.