It's so quiet at night here, even with me blasting my music. Here: a small, tidy suburb in Northern California. The night remains still and the only light comes from street lamps and stars.
I have to admit, every little noise — like the clock ticking, or the hum of cars out on the streets — is magnified. Conversely, I'm terrified that, however muted I try to be, I'm making a ruckus. Disturbing the neighbors. I imagine that any second now, I would get an angry call from the old lady next door, complaining about "loud, awful music from your house."
It's a whole new world I came back to when I returned home for the summer. Sometimes, it's a world where I wonder if I belonged anymore. The geography remains the same: the house on the corner still run-down like a set from a horror film, the park still a block away. Yet the map I have in my mind is gone. Erased. Like an old chalkboard, traces of recollected moments linger, but they overlap and blur into unreadable forms.
It's a question I like to wander when I go jogging in the mornings. I have no idea why, or how, I picked up this habit. It certainly isn't when I was at school. At school, I rose in the afternoon and slept at some ungodly hour like three or four. And that was on a regular school day. Now, every night, I turn in early and wake up early. It's a most wholesome life. My mother approves.
I suppose, like any young adult with rebellious tendencies, that's one of reasons why I am so disenchanted. What happened to the disaffected youth I fancied myself to be? Am I so boring that a week in the suburbs will reduce me thus?
My shoes scuff on the concrete, and I halt for breath. I wheeze, hard, and look at my phone. I haven't even been running for more than ten minutes; I must be really unfit. My view zooms into my legs. They're just wearing plain white sneakers without socks. I hate socks. No idea why. My head whirls for a moment and fireworks envelope my vision.
"Are you all right?" A voice speaks. It's a warm voice, deep and soothing. It brings to mind whiskey and old fashion cologne, the type you'd expect your successful older brother to wear.
"I'm fine." I gulp a mouthful of breath. It sticks in my throat. "I just need to rest a bit." I laugh. "I'm sadly out of shape."
"I see you running around here a lot," the voice says. "You don't look out of shape to me, either."
I look up at that. The owner of the voice flushes. "I just mean … you seem fine."
I take him in. He is handsome, with a sharply chiseled jaw and high cheekbones. He possesses the advantage of a full head of height over me, and also the advantage of his full composure. Meanwhile, I'm flushed and sweaty, face red and wet.
"Thanks." I manage to stand up. "I guess I need to build my stamina." I try to arrange myself into some semblance of order. My shorts had ridden up and sweat trails line my face. I'm suddenly self-conscious around this man.
"Do you live around here? I see you a lot. I'm Alex, by the way."
"I live over there." I point out my house. "I'm Harry."
For some reason, this exchange has me nervous. I don't understand why. We're just introducing ourselves. And for some reason, I cannot help keeping my hands still and not rearranging my shorts.
He's attractive, Alex. Maybe that is the source of my nerves. I haven't seen — much less spoke to — someone attractive since I've been back. It pains to admit how much I miss even seeing a person pleasing to the eye. I can't tell if he thinks the same.
"Nice," he says. He grins at me. "I haven't seen you around much before this month, though."
"I just got back from the east coast," I tell him. "I just finished my internship."
"Oh nice! What did you do?"
We continue our conversation as we walk. He finds out that I am studying Economics and that I actually hate running. I learn that he plays basketball every day in the morning at the park a block away and is a freelance photographer. He goes to school in California, but "school isn't really his thing" and that he's home on summer break.
I find him fascinating. It's not that I've never met anyone like him before — I have. I just usually don't interact with them. My attention never stray very far from him; his mannerisms and opinions pulls on me like a magnet. He's also nice to look at.
I don't even notice that we are in front of my house. I say that.
He laughs. "Well, I certainly wasn't planning on ending our conversation so soon," he says.
"Yeah," I say. "I'm kind of disappointed. But on the other hand, you know where I live now."
Alex grins. "True. And I'm not too far either. I'm sure we'll see each other around."
At that point, I want to ask him for his number. It's simple to do. All I need is to open my mouth. But appearances are deceiving, and it's harder than I imagine. I don't know how to phrase the request. Should I try under the pretense of friendship? Or should I make my intentions clear? I'm not even certain what my intentions are, anyways. I find him attractive, but I barely know him.
I decide to shelve that idea. If it's meant to be, I'll see him again. No need to force anything.
"See you around," I say, with a small and wistful wave.
"Wait!" Alex hesitates. "Umm… we should hang out more. That is … um …."
It might be awful of me, but I kind of enjoy his discomfort. It is a pleasant change from how I met him. I can guess at what he's trying to say and I helpfully supply: "We should exchange numbers."
He grins. "That sounds great."
I saw Alex a lot over the next few days. Sometimes it was planned; sometimes not. I suppose it is inevitable, seeing how we live in the same neighborhood. Yet still, I cannot help but feel that it was more than coincidence. If anyone else suggests such an idea, I would laugh them out the room. I don't even understand how I'm entertaining such a thought. It was silly.
I can't shake the idea, though. And I want to see more of him.
I'm puzzling the way to do that. I have to confess — I'm a coward. Especially when it comes to people; I never approach strangers first. And while Alex is not exactly a stranger anymore, there still is a barrier. I know I do not have the energy to hold a battering ram, let alone use it.
It must be fate, then, that one day, he asks me: "What are you up to tonight?"
It is a Friday and if I were at school, I'd be out. Probably drunk by eleven. Yet I'm at home, under the hawk-like supervision of my parents. I can barely sneak a bag of chips into my room, much less sneak out and party all night.
We sit in the park. Sun's up, sky's out, and the grass is green as ever. It is perfectly picturesque. Alex lays out in a slight sprawl next to me on the park bench, his hair casually rumpled, an easy smile playing on his face. An urge to touch him momentarily seizes me. He looks so … it is like a magnetic and I'm helpless to resist.
I must have stared too long, for Alex waves at me. "Hello? Do you want to come to a party? Yes or no?"
Uh. "Maybe," I say. I could. It beats sitting at home in my pajamas, watching TV with a bottle of wine. I don't want to commit to Alex, though. I'm not quite sure what he's asking, or why he is asking me. Is he just being friendly? I can't tell. My antennae for reading signals is pretty much fucked.
Obviously clarifying this outright can't happen. I need to approach this discreetly.
"You got my attention," I tell Alex, bestowing him my most charming smile. "Tell me more."
"Well," he says. "It's at my buddy Allen's place. His place is huge—there's a swimming pool and a game room and shit goes down."
"That sounds … intriguing." I'm tempted by this promised debauchery. I miss the bitter kiss of alcohol on my lips, as the pounding bass filled my ears. It's where my inhibition becomes bottled and my desires come uncorked.
But the night isn't a blur yet — it's the day, and I answer Alex cautiously. "I don't have a ride. And I don't know … I'm kind of over house parties."
"Aww … come on." Alex makes a puppy face. "It'll be fine. I'll be there. I make everything fun." He says that last bit with a wink.
I sigh. I can't resist, not when I've been bored out of my mind staying in watching bad made-for-TV films.
"Pick me up and you got a deal."
We arranged for Alex to pick me up at eight; he arrives promptly. The ride there we spend in companionable silence, he concentrated on the road and I on my phone. I've spend plenty of time alone with Alex but this feels different. More intimate. There is something about being in the car with someone as lights stream pass. It softens the moment, a bokeh effect for life.
The quiet is too hard to break, either with words or by turning on the radio. I kind of just want to lay my head on his shoulder and sleep. The thought is oddly comforting yet intoxicating. I cannot sleep, though: I know in a short while I'll need to pump my energy level to extremes, my smile to stretch as wide and as long as possible.
Gradually, the highway recedes and the soft night withdraws to music blasting and streets lit bright by car lights. I can hear the familiar refrain of drunken laughter from the car. People are streaming out of the sidewalk, cheered by liquid good mood. Alex parked on a curb a block away. He leads me to a three-storied house done in Georgian style with a massive front lawn shaded by tall trees.
Again, people everywhere. I can see — though I hope it is a failure of my eyesight — someone on the rooftop. On safer levels of the house, guests and partygoers carouse, holding colorful cups.
"We're early," says Alex. At my incredulous look, he laughs. "Trust me. You'll see."
We walk up to the door. My eardrums nearly burst at how loud it is. I wonder idly when the cops would come. A tall male, his hair mussed and eyes rimmed red, comes out accompanied by a haze of alcohol and smoke. I smother a cough.
"Alex!" he hugs fiercely, "you've made it! And who's your friend? He's cute!" He leans in, whispering in what he must've thought as a discreet manner: "You fucking him?" I'm watching, focused like a hawk on its prey, waiting for Alex's reaction.
Alex simply grins. He pats Allen on the shoulder, gently guiding him back inside with one hand. The other he offers to me. I take it, inclining my head as I do so. A spark of giddiness flickers inside my chess at his touch.
Inside is as hot and claustrophobic as any of the clubs I've been to. If hell is a playground, this would be it. The well-decorated and tastefully furnished interior contrast utterly with the state of dishabille everyone is in. People could be seen in the corner hooking up — some even blatantly having sex on the couch.
I take off my jacket. It's a smart move; sweat is already beading up on my forehead, and my chest is already constricting from the heat. I hand it to Alex.
"Do you mind putting this away? I'll go find us drinks."
He complies as I slide into the crowd. I have not a single clue what I am doing; all I know is that I would choke of thirst if I don't have anything to drink. I'm elbowed by a million people as I try to squeeze through. It's though, even for a skinny guy like me.
"Hey," I grab someone at random. "Where'd you get that?" I ask, gesturing at the drink in his hand.
He turns to the source of the question — and smiles. It is, in retrospect, a dangerous kind of smile, one that I should've took note of. But I'm too hot and too tired to worry about little things like that. I need a drink. Besides, he's good-looking with his strong jaw and his bright eyes. I always appreciate attention from attractive people.
"What would you be having?" he asks with a grin. He takes me by the forearm. "Come on, I'll take you to the kitchen.
"Anything's good," I say. "I'm dying of thirst." I follow as he heads off. I think by this point, I've managed to master the skill of slipping past people three times my size.
"So I haven't seen you before," he shouts. "You haven't come to one of Allen's party before, have you?"
"No," I say over the noise. Really, this cacophony is starting to hurt my head. "It's my first time."
"How do you know him?" he asks me. "I mean, Allen knows everyone, but —"
"Oh, through my friend Alex." Even as I voice the words, I wonder if he's something else. I wonder if I want him to become someone other than my friend.
By now, we've reached a quieter area of the house. It's adjoining the kitchen, a little sitting-room of sorts. A chaise lounge in soft-gray and a couch in black velvet are placed inside. He goes into the kitchen and comes out with two red solo cups. "Oh, you're Alex's friend? What's your name?"
I offer my hand. "I'm Harry. I didn't catch your name either."
"I'm Chris," he says, taking it. His grip is tight, almost painfully so. I take the drink with my other hand; it's sweet, with a slightly bitter, burning aftertaste.
"What is this?" I ask, still feeling my tongue tingle.
"I don't know," Chris shrugs. "I just poured a bunch of random things together."
I laugh. As I do so, I become aware of how intimate this is. We're sitting side by side, knees touching, and I can feel the warmth of his skin radiating through thin cotton layers. It's unsettling.
We drink in silence for a bit. I'm not sure how to engage him in conversation, or what we could even talk about. I'm feeling rather tongue-tied at the moment. Usually, it is the reverse: alcohol endowing me with enthusiastic friendliness. And Chris and I do not know each other well enough to sit in companionable silence.
Luckily, he starts to speak after five or six minutes.
"How do you know Alex?" he asks me. I tell him that we ran into each other — literally — in our neighborhood.
"Do you know him well?" I'm curious to know what others thought of him. I only know Alex through the lens of my own experiences.
"Kind of," Chris says. "We went to the same high school. We weren't really friends, though."
Oh. I wonder at that. There seems to be so much implied in that statement. Before I could puzzle over this, Chris presses closer to me.
"I want to learn more about you," he tells me in a whisper, the pressure of his hand soft but insistent on my knee now. I fidget, but it sticks like it's been glued on.
"What do you want to know?" My stomach begins to clench and unclench, my chest begins to pound. My mouth dries. "I'm just a regular college student that's on break right now."
"Well," Chris says in my ear, "you can tell me —" his hand is reaching disturbingly high "— how
you're so hot —"
He kisses me. I've opened my mouth for a respond that never materialized as something enters it. Frozen, I don't know how to react. Part of me wants to push him away; part of me wants to deep the kiss.
I don't do either. I'm not given a chance to, as the roar of the party interrupts us. Then, sudden silence. Someone had opened the door and then, just as quickly, closed it.
The interruption brought me back my sanity. I push Chris away.
"What the hell was that?"
"What?" Chris is wiping his mouth, looking at me as if I'd grown three heads. "This is a party. Loosen up."
"I- I-" I don't understand why I'm so upset. This is a party. And I wasn't giving any signal that I wasn't interested. I did allow myself to be alone with him in a quiet room. And I did enjoy the kiss.
But, then … why all this guilt?
"I'm not looking for that kind of night," I say finally. I stand up. The room spins, and for a minute, I'm standing on quicksand.
"I'm going to go now," I tell Chris. I leave without waiting for his response.
Out of the room, the party is oppressively loud. I'm feeling the alcohol now: I see three where there is one, and my head weighs immeasurably heavy. I'm past the point of consideration now, pushing people out of my way. They don't appear to notice anyways.
I'm looking for Alex. I want him to take me home. I want him to answer my questions, questions that I don't even know I have. I want— I want —
I want … him.
The realization hits me as hard as a bus. I want him. All these weeks I've spent talking to him, all the interactions that we've had — I like him. A lot. Maybe even more than a lot. At the very least, I know now how I feel about him.
I can't find him anywhere. It's too packed for me to spot that tall, broad-shouldered figure in the crowd. My head's spinning around and around, and the people are blurring into a whirl of colors. I'm about to open my mouth; I'm certain I'm about to puke —
Someone grabs me, pulls me along. I stumble blindly along. It's not until the fresh air of the crisp night hits me that I'm aware I'm outside. Alex stands next to me.
"Hey," I barely manage to croak out. "Can we go? Back home, I mean." My headache is receding, though nowhere as quickly as I'd like it to.
Alex stares at me without a word. I almost think that I hadn't actually spoken when, imperceptibly, he nods.
He sets off without a word. a hard pace. I follow. I'm barely able to keep up, his stride is so long. When we get to the car, I'm panting from lack of breath.
"Why did you go so fast?" I ask. He doesn't respond. It's only then that I see his face clouded with displeasure.
"Nothing," he spits out. "Nothing at all. Why did you want to leave so quickly, huh? Wasn't Chris doing a good job of entertaining you?"
It dawns on me now. He was the one who interrupted us.
"It's not like that!" I say. "That was just — I dunno — a mistake —"
"It sure seems like you knew what you were doing," he sneers.
"Well, what's wrong with that?" I snap, flaring up. "I didn't do anything wrong. I'm perfectly within my rights."
We stare at each other. I want to say something — anything — to tell him that what I want is him, not Chris, not anyone else at that stupid party. I want to tell him that one word of affection from him is headier than all the alcohol in the world. But he speaks first.
"Yeah, you're right." His shoulders sag. "You weren't doing anything wrong." Alex opens the backseat door. "Let's just go home."
There is finality in his words. I know, that if I don't act now, that we — if there is even a we left — we'll continue to exist in a limbo of furtive looks and unexpressed words.
When my lips touch his, the veil parts. A new world is revealed. It's not the sloppy tongue that Chris and I engaged in earlier. This one is soft, tentative, and after a pause of hesitancy, Alex returns it with fervor.
It lasts forever, and yet ends too quickly. Every second is an eternity, if eternity is as fleeting as a second. We break finally.
Alex looks at me. "You're not still drunk, are you?"
"No," I say. And it's true: the world had stopped spinning when I touched Alex. I had become me as soon as I determined to act.
"Why?" Alex climbs into the backseat and beckons me to join. I sit, my knees over his.
"I like you," I say simply. "You're cool to hang out with, and you care about me. As a person, not as a conquest or anything." I can't resist asking: "Why do you like me?"
"You're alive," he tells me as he leans in. His hand cups my cheek. "You're a great person."
It's a collision like the Big Bang. Our worlds met and melt and reform as one. We become lost in each other, and it's indescribable.
After what felt like hours of feverish activity, Alex grins at me, his eyes glinting hair sticking on his head, his skin glistening with sweat.
"There's something else I like about you," Alex says with a mischievous smirk.
"You're a great kisser."