Jason Carrillo walked around the block a third time, working up his courage to go into the brownstone. When he finally stepped off the curb to cross the street, a car swerved past him, blaring its horn. Jason leapt back and caught his breath. Shit. All he needed was to get hit and end up in the emergency room. His parents would discover he'd lied about going to the park to shoot baskets.
He shielded his eyes from the warm afternoon sun and watched a group of teenagers enter the building. He glanced at his watch. If he walked in late, maybe nobody would notice him. Then again, everyone might notice him. Maybe he shouldn't go in at all.
He'd read about the group for teens in his school newspaper the previous spring. He'd torn out the phone number and carried it in his wallet for weeks. Every so often he would unfold it, stare at the numbers, then fold it up again until one evening, when his parents and sister were out and he was home alone, he uncreased the scrap of paper and dialed the number.
A man answered: "Rainbow Youth Hot Line."
Jason slammed the receiver back into its cradle and jumped up. He couldn't believe he was actually going through with this.
After a while, his breathing slowed and he called again. This time he stayed on the phone.
The voice on the other end of the line was friendly and warm, not at all what he expected.
"Are you gay?" Jason asked, just to be sure.
The man laughed. "Of course."
Jason never imagined that someone could be gay and laugh about it.
He asked questions for more than an hour and phoned the hot line three more times during the summer, speaking with different men and women. Each of them invited him to a Saturday meeting. No way, he thought. He wasn't about to sit in a room full of queers.
He pictured them all looking like the school fag, Nelson Glassman or Nelly, as everyone called him. Even though a lot of people liked him, Jason couldn't stand the freak his million earrings, his snapping fingers, his weird haircuts. Why didn't he just announce he was a homo over the school loudspeaker?
No, Jason was not like Nelson. That was for sure. He had a girlfriend. They'd gone out for two years, since they were sophomores. He loved Debra. He'd given her a ring. They had sex. How could he possibly be gay?
He remembered the first night he borrowed his best friend Corey's van and he and Debra drove to the secluded lane by the golf course. A little shy at first, they awkwardly clambered in back and lay side by side. The sweat poured off him as he wondered: Will I be able to go through with it?
When Debra slid her hand beneath the elastic of his underwear, he panicked. "Are you sure you want to do this?" his voice squeaked. "I mean, what if you get pregnant?"
From her jeans pocket she pulled a condom. His heart raced, as much from fear as from excitement. Excitement won out. That night he made it with her a girl. Homos couldn't do that. Ergo, he couldn't be a homo.
Ever since, he and Debra had been inseparable. Every day at school they ate lunch together. At basketball practice, she watched him from the bleachers, twirling the ring he gave her on her necklace. Each evening they talked on the phone. Weekends they went to movies. Sometimes they borrowed Corey's van, other times they made love in her parents' basement rec room.
So why'd he continue to have those dreams of naked men dreams so intense they woke him in a sweat and left him terrified his dad might find out?
On those nights he lay awake, trying to make sense of his feelings. Maybe it had to do with what happened that time with Tommy and how his dad had caught them. But that had been years ago, when he was ten.
He'd turn eighteen in a few months. He needed to concentrate on his future bring his math grade up, finish senior year, get that basketball scholarship, and go to college. He didn't have time for some stupid Rainbow Youth meeting.
Yet now, on this September Saturday, after six months of carrying the yellowing ad for the group hidden in his wallet, here he was.
He crossed the street toward the brownstone and stopped to look at himself in a car window. He tried to smooth his hair, but the curls wouldn't cooperate. Shit. Why did he care? After all, it was only a group of queers.
Twenty or more teenagers packed the sweltering fourth-floor room. Some sat on metal folding chairs, fanning themselves. Others lay draped across threadbare couches, grumbling about the heat. A few sat cross-legged on a stained, well-worn rug.
Jason scanned the room for an empty seat. There weren't any. He was thinking he should leave, when suddenly his eyes met those of another boy. Smiling across the crowd was Nelson Glassman.
Jason froze. How could he have been so stupid? That little faggot would spread this all over Whitman.
Nelson fingered a wave, like they were best buds, then leaned toward a boy in a baseball cap and whispered something. The boy looked up, his eyes widening in surprise.
Jason blinked. Kyle Meeks? What was he doing here?
"Let's begin, please." A stoop-shouldered man standing in the middle of the room clapped his hands. "Would everyone find a seat? Yes, I know it's hot. Tam and Carla went to get fans. Find a seat, please."
Jason turned to leave, but at that moment Kyle came toward him, extending a hand.
Jason offered a sweaty palm. "Wha's up? I think I'm in the wrong place."
"Can you boys find a seat?" the man shouted over the noise of the group.
"Here," Kyle whispered, and grabbed a folding chair from the stack that leaned against the wall. Without warning, the entire stack started to slide. Jason reached out to stop them, but it was too late. The chairs hit the floor. Crash. Then, silence. All eyes turned to stare at him and Kyle. A couple of boys on the rug burst into applause. The rest of the group followed with hoots and whistles. Jason wanted to crawl under the rug and die.
"All right, all right." The facilitator waved his hands, signaling the group to settle down. "Boys, please take a seat."
Kyle turned to Jason, his face red from embarrassment. "I'm sorry." He turned to pick up the fallen chairs.
"Let me do it," Jason said. The last thing he wanted was for Kyle to knock over the rest.
Nelson came over to help. "Way to go, Kyle."
Jason opened chairs for Kyle and himself, then sat down, avoiding Nelson's gaze.
Nelson unfolded a third chair and wedged himself between them. "Well hello, Jason. Imagine seeing you here."
Jason had never spoken to Nelson during their three years at Whitman. He wasn't about to start now.
But Nelson was relentless. "Of course, I always suspected "
That was too much. Jason turned to him, but the facilitator clapped his hands again, and Nelson looked away, smiling, letting his words hang.
"My name's Archie. I'm today's facilitator. Let's go around the room and introduce ourselves by first name." As he spoke an older girl sitting beside him interpreted his words into sign language for two deaf guys sitting by the radiator. "If this is your first time here," the facilitator continued, "let us know, so we can welcome you. Kyle, you start, and we'll move clockwise."
Jason slid down in his chair, furious. The phone volunteers hadn't mentioned introductions. Kyle introduced himself. Jason still couldn't believe seeing him here. He hung with Nelson at school, but he looked so...normal the shy swimmer kid with glasses who always wore a baseball cap. Everyone kidded him about it, but he just laughed along with that goofy grin of gleaming braces. He's okay, Jason thought, in spite of knocking over the chairs and embarrassing the shit out of me.
The circle of introductions continued. It was a pretty diverse-looking group. Only a few of the guys looked as faggy as Nelson. There were some geeks. One college-aged guy named Blake could've been a fashion model. A group of blond preppies, wearing khakis and loafers, monopolized the cooler side of the room.
There were a lot of girls. When a girl with boxy glasses introduced herself, Jason could've sworn he'd seen her before. Then he remembered her picture from the Post. She was one of six high school seniors nationwide to score perfect SATs. When the paper interviewed her, she'd come out as a lesbian.
Across the room, a black girl and a white girl, Caitlin and Shea, sat on a love seat. Earlier Shea had exchanged glances with Nelson. At first Jason thought her gestures were about him, but he wasn't sure. Now the two girls were all over each other. Both were pretty not his idea of dykes. It was hard to believe they couldn't find guys to like them. He should get Shea's phone number, he thought. She was probably just confused, like him. Maybe they could help each other.
Then it was Jason's turn to introduce himself. He sat up straight in his chair and felt the tension in his shoulders. "My name's Jason. It's my first time here, but...I'm not..." His throat felt parched. "I mean, I'm just here to see what it's like. I'm not...you know..." Everyone stared at him while he tried to finish.
Archie rescued him with, "Welcome, Jason," and moved on.
Jason slid down into his chair again.
Nelson bounced up in his seat. "My name's Nelson, and it's my first time queer I mean, here." Everyone laughed, and he continued: "In my case there is no doubt that I most definitely am" He turned and grinned at Jason "you know..."
Jason wanted to deck him right then and there.
"Seriously," Nelson said, grabbing his backpack, "I want to announce that I have queer visibility buttons, courtesy of my mom and PFLAG." He turned to Jason again. "That's Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. My mom is vice president." He pulled the buttons from his backpack. "Lovely pink triangles, Gertrude Stein pins, and a variety of slogans. Here's one: 'My parents are straight and all I got is this lousy button.'"
The group laughed.
"Et cetera, et cetera. If you want one, see me at the break."
"Okay, everyone," Archie said. "Today we're going to talk about 'coming out.' What do we mean by that?"
Caitlin's hand went up. "It's when you stop hiding that you're queer or bisexual, or whatever."
A boy raised his hand. "I thought coming out meant the first time you do it you know with someone your own sex."
"That's when you come," Nelson said. "Not come out."
The group hissed, and the boy threw a pillow at Nelson.
Archie smiled. "Let's keep it clean." He motioned for the group to settle down. "Some people don't come out until after they've had sex for years. Others come out before they've had sex with anyone."
"Coming out means you're no longer ashamed to tell people," said Shea. "It's a question of liking yourself and feeling good about being gay."
One of the blond preppies crossed his arms. "I'm not ready to come out."
"No one says you have to," the facilitator reassured him. "Most people do it gradually. Take your own time, it's up to you."
Nelson turned to Jason and winked. "I've been thinking about starting a group like this at school, to help people who haven't come out yet."
Jason averted his gaze. The thought of a gay group at school was beyond belief.
"I think coming out is hardest with parents," said Blake.
Jason thought about his own mom. She already had enough to handle with his dad. And his dad would surely finish what he'd once started if he knew where his son was.
Blake continued: "My dad couldn't understand how I'd gone out with girls and then suddenly told him I liked guys. I think it's even harder if you're bi."
Jason stopped jiggling his leg. Bisexual? Maybe that's what he was. Maybe he didn't have to stop going out with Debra. Maybe she would understand. But...? His mind spun with questions.
Before anyone else could speak, two adults stepped into the room carrying fans. Everyone cheered and applauded. Over the roar Archie shouted, "Let's take a break and set up the fans."
Jason sprang to his feet, his chair scraping the floorboards. "I better go," he told Kyle.
Jason heard the disappointment in Kyle's voice and was about to answer, when Nelson broke in. "Don't leave yet. After the meeting we go to Burger Queen." He batted his eyelashes and smiled. "Just us girls."
Jason winced. He saw Kyle jab Nelson in the ribs.
Jason's fingers curled into a fist. He had to get out of there before he punched someone. "I need to go."
Nelson reached into his backpack. "At least take a button." He grinned. "It's a gift."
Jason shook his head, but Nelson shoved the button at him anyway. Kyle started to speak. Jason turned and raced for the door. He bounded down the four flights of stairs and burst from the building, cursing himself.
He'd have to brace himself for Monday. Nelson would no doubt shoot off his queer mouth at school. And if people at school found out...
Jason opened his hand and looked at the button the little fag had given him. It read: NOBODY KNOWS I'M GAY.
Copyright © 2001 by Alex Sanchez