He was waiting there as I finished my jog, just standing on the corner, acting like he was out for a walk or whatever, but I knew he was looking for me.
“Hello,” he said. Steve Wilkes, my across the street neighbor. He had the arms of a ten-year-old girl and a chest like a textbook—not a biology book, either; a thin one, health class, paperback. I couldn’t help but think he probably shouldn’t be outside at this time of day; hair that light, he could burn looking at the photograph of a sunny day.
“Hey,” I said back, too winded to get out a full hello.
“Did you have a good jog?”
“Not bad. Lost track of how many laps I did. Twenty maybe.”
“Wow!” Steve sounded genuinely impressed, not just smile-and-nod impressed like most of my friends at school.
“You run at all?”
“I used to run cross country when I was younger.” I wasn’t surprised. Cross country turns you into a set of human chopsticks.
“Listen,” I said. “I gotta grab a drink and a shower. I’ll catch you around.”
“All right,” he said. “It was good to talk to you.”
“Yeah,” I said, and I headed in for a glass of watered-down lemonade with a pinch of salt.
“Yo, Andrew!” Marc Johnson was waiting beside my locker, probably looking for the answers to our bio homework.
I was walking with Steve, who caught up to me as I was heading to school. He had this slow sort of meander, like he was thinking about the clouds and didn’t really care where he ended up on the ground, so we were running a few minutes late.
“I have to get to homeroom,” Steve said. “Maybe I’ll talk to you later on.”
“Cool,” I said. Apparently I was his new best friend. It was news me to me; we had only talked a few times. But whatever. I wasn’t rushing to recruit Steve for the soccer team, but he was alright. So far as I could tell, he didn’t seem to have an unhappy mode.
Steve wasn’t even out of earshot when Johnson started in. “What’s the deal, dude? You know he’s off, right?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Let’s just say he ain’t playing for the same team as me and you.”
“Dude! Nobody smiles that much and still’s into chicks.”
“You know how stupid that sounds?” I asked him. Johnson had an opinion on everything and everyone; and his opinions were always wrong. On the other hand, he hadn’t let a ball slip past him into goal all season, and he was the best catcher in the county. “If that’s true, then being straight must be the root cause of depression. Forget Zoloft; just get yourself some man kisses!”
“Hey, there’s a reason they call them gay!” It was the wittiest thing I’d ever heard come out of Johnson’s mouth. He must have heard it somewhere.
“I can’t wait to show you what I got yesterday!”
Steve and I were walking home from school. We’d made a habit of it over the past few weeks. Made sense. He lived across the road. And it was a good break from the usual crowd of jock-brains I was stuck with at school. Steve was in concert choir, drama, and advanced art. Didn’t make him the most popular guy at school—and definitely didn’t help me defend him to guys like Johnson—but it was cool to see the kind of passion he got when he talked about practicing a new song or learning his lines. About the only things Johnson and the rest of my teammates ever got passionate about were breaking their max bench or stealing a Playboy.
“You should definitely join choir next quarter. It will be so much fun!”
Steve had been trying to talk me into joining concert choir ever since I let slip that I used to be in chorus up until halfway through 7th grade when I dropped out because Stacey Wallach told me that real men don’t sing.
Steve’s house was like a museum. Something out of the fifties when moms stayed home, spent all day cleaning, and made sure everything had its rightful place. It would have given my mom nightmares. I didn’t know where to sit, or if I should ask for a coaster before setting a drink down, or if the candy in the candy dishes was actually to eat or just part of the decor—it matched the accent throws. But Steve told me to make myself comfortable, just like I was at home. Yeah, as if I could put my feet up on that coffee table!
“Wait here,” Steve said with that high-pitched inflection he got whenever he was excited about something. “You are going to love this!” He disappeared into the big walk-in closet off the family room and reappeared half a minute later holding a record player. Not one of the new, nostalgic record players either; this was a classic 1970s record player, imitation wood finish, tinted plastic cover, bright silver knobs. “My dad bought me this at an antique store in Albany, along with a bunch of old records. They’re classics.”
He pulled out a stack and handed them to me: Chicago, Jefferson Airplane, Journey.
“Journey?” Sometimes I found myself wondering about Steve. Maybe there was something to what Johnson said about him. I didn’t know anybody who got excited about Chicago or Journey, except maybe a couple of my aunts.
I had no choice. My dad wasn’t going to be home for another hour, and there wasn’t any food left at my place. At Steve’s at least I had a bowl of popcorn—hot air popped, real melted butter like we never got at my house—to tide me over until dinner.
The records sounded horrible on that old player, crackly, muffled, skipping. But it didn’t matter. A set of waveguide speakers from Bose couldn’t make Journey sound even close to cool.
“If they actually play Chicago in Chicago,” I told Steve around the time we hit a song I recognized from the oldies station my mom forces me to listen to when I visit every couple of weekends, “I’m never going to Illinois.”
I couldn’t believe they actually called this rock at one time, but Steve was in heaven. He knew the words to every song, and he sang along with a big dopey grin on his face.
“Are you kidding?” he asked, looking as if I’d just suggested LeBron James switch to Tennis. “Fine. Maybe Chicago’s not for you.”
“Or Journey,” I added.
“Okay,” he said as if I’d just taken a sledgehammer to the baby grand in their family room. “But just give this one a try.”
I was debating whether or not I should force his hand from the last record and drag him back to my place so we could listen to some real retro music—a little Nirvana, early Pearl Jam, maybe even some vintage 80s Metallica—when he plunked that needle down onto the Jefferson Airplane album. At first he tried to sing along, but he didn’t actually know the words to any of these songs, and he definitely didn’t have the voice for it. Plus, for the first time in almost an hour, I was actually listening to the record. Somehow that scratchy, old-record quality fit songs like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” This music had a raw intensity that made Chicago and Journey feel like over-produced, American Idol crap.
We listened to the whole album twice and those two songs five times each. By the time I left for dinner, we were even attempting to match Grace Slick’s shrill vocals.
“One pill makes you—” Steve tried, but we both burst out laughing at how off-pitch he was, which was about ten times closer than me.
Back home I even downloaded the album to my Zune, but somehow it wasn’t the same on mp3.
“What is that, from one of them Narnia movies or something,” asked Johnson the next day when I asked if he had ever heard “White Rabbit.”
“It’s about Alice in Wonderland,” I told him. “But it’s definitely not a kid’s song. It’s sixties psychedelic, crazy intense. Gets your adrenaline pumping.”
“Yeah sure,” said Johnson, looking doubtful. “I want my adrenaline pumping, I’ll stick with Korn thanks.”
As we were heading to the field, he asked, “What other fairy music do you and Neil Patrick Harris listen to? He sing you any love songs?”
“Can’t,” he said, running off toward the goal. “Wouldn’t want Steve to get jealous!”
Hayden High has two levels of chorus. General chorus, which just about anyone can get into so long as you aren’t completely tone-deaf. And Concert Choir, which requires an extra audition, and only the best get selected. Steve tried helping me practice over Christmas break, but I still wasn’t good enough to make Concert Choir. Steve took it harder than me. I was happy just making chorus. We could hang out during practices, and I still got to perform in the spring. It wasn’t like I had a lot of time anyway; soccer season was over, but I still worked out with the guys after school, and baseball season was starting in a couple of months too.
“Luckily,” said Steve, “everyone sits together in chorus. We’ll be in different sections, since I’m a tenor and you’re a baritone, but they’re right next to each other!”
Thank goodness. The thought of suddenly having to find someone new to sit next to in a room full of unfamiliar chorus types had actually been scaring me half to death. It was one thing to hang out with Steve—he was my neighbor. But what the heck do you talk about with chorus types? Seen any good show tunes lately? How’s that honey tea working out for you? Was Simon way off base last night, or what? My usual break-the-ice-with-jocks line—So how much do you bench?—probably wouldn’t cut it.
“Over here,” Steve said as we entered the chorus room. He led me to the back corner of the classroom, where the handful of other early arrivals were mingling by the piano. “I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
Everyone turned out to be the Concert Choir.
“This is Jamie, he’s a bass. And Kevin, a baritone like you. And this is Claire, she’s in my English class. I think you know Alexxa already. Todd. Oh, and here comes Jeanette.”
As Jeanette strode across the chorus room, her long, red hair flowed seamlessly behind her and tossed from side to side with each step like some kind of music video goddess. Tall, confident, and my new answer to any jock friends who gave me a hard time about joining chorus.
“Steve!” she said, rushing up to him like she hadn’t seen him in years and throwing her arms around him. As Steve hugged her back, something pulled at the inside of my gut, and it wasn’t anger that he hadn’t told me about her. It was something very different. Instinctively I shifted so that I had to support myself against the nearest desk, causing the muscles in my arm to tense up and, I hoped, the vein in my bicep to bulge impressively.
“Is this the famous Andrew?” Jeanette asked. I would have been excited that she knew my name, if she hadn’t added a cheek-kiss to Steve’s hug.
I should have been psyched for Steve. Jeanette was obviously crazy about him. Even saying hi to me, her eyes never left him. And the way she was glowing had nothing to do with the fluorescent lights. But still, I couldn’t help thinking a girl that beautiful should be with a guy a bit more like—well—me.
“Sorry,” I said. I’m not sure why I said it out loud, except that maybe my brain was thinking the added vocalization would help me undo that last thought. It was a stupid thought. Truth was, if I’d been a girl like Jeanette, I would have been all about Steve too. He wasn’t muscular or athletic, and he didn’t have those chiseled facial features you see in underwear ads; but he wasn’t bad looking for a guy, he knew how to treat people right, and he was the kind of guy you could talk to about anything and everything. No doubt in my mind, he would have made a great boyfriend for any girl.
“Sorry for being Andrew?” Jeanette asked, squinting her eyes suspiciously at me. “Or famous?”
I took a slow breath, tucking away the momentary surges of jealousy and guilt. And as I reached out to shake Jeanette’s hand, I felt happy for Steve. If she hadn’t been there, I would have given him a high five.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said. “I don’t know what Steve’s been telling you, but I’m not half as cool as him.”
“Interesting,” Jeanette said, taking a good look at me for the first time. Her eyes seemed to fix on my arm, and it took a moment before I remembered I was still flexing my bicep. I tried as casually as possible to shift my position, but it was too late. “A modest jock. I don’t think I’ve met one of those before.”
“What are you guys doing tonight?” Steve asked, oblivious to the fact that his maybe-girlfriend was shooting me death glares.
She and I both shrugged.
“Come over to my house,” Steve said. “Let’s have a movie night!”
“Only if there’s some Jefferson Airplane involved,” I said.
“Oh no!” said Jeanette, but the way she was looking at me changed. Suddenly she wasn’t sure whether to hate me for being the cocky jock trying to infiltrate the protected space of their Concert Choir corner, or pity me the way you do the kid brother on an episode of Intervention. “He didn’t get you hooked on that garbage too?”
“Don’t knock the Airplane,” said Steve. “Or you’re not invited.”
“Whatever! Maybe I don’t want to go.”
She went. So did Kevin, Alexxa, and another girl from Concert Choir named Brianne. Steve introduced us all to an old movie called Airplane. “It’s a theme night,” he said at the start of the evening, right after we made everyone listen to the one woman in his life he actually told me about—Grace Slick.
Airplane is one of those ridiculous spoof movies, but probably the best spoof movie of all time. I never laughed so hard in my life. I couldn’t even eat my popcorn, because I was afraid I’d spit it all over Steve’s mom’s Oriental rug. I was laughing so much, I almost missed Jeanette and Steve slipping off upstairs together. I probably would have, if Kevin hadn’t nudged me.
For a split second I felt that same sting of jealousy, but I forced it down, thought about how much wider Steve would smile if Jeanette really kissed him. I pictured Steve grinning like The Joker, and the image left me doubled over laughing again. Or maybe it was something from the movie that made me laugh. I can’t say for sure. But I laughed long and hard, and only stopped laughing when Steve and Jeanette reappeared a few minutes later, not looking even slightly disheveled.
After that, the movie wasn’t as funny.
“What happened?” Kevin and I waited until it was just the three of us left in the car. We were driving in Steve’s dad’s baby-blue Prius, the engine humming along in that way only hybrid cars do—something like the grown-up version of a remote control car.
“Nothing,” said Steve.
“Exactly,” I said. “How could nothing happen? She’s totally into you!”
“It’s not like that,” said Steve. “We’re just friends.”
“Get out!” said Kevin. “How can you be just friends? With Jeanette? On a scale from one to ten, she’s a ten to the tenth power. And she’s completely into you!”
“Seriously, how can you not be into her?” I said. “Unless there’s someone else? Some secret crush?”
Steve didn’t say anything for a minute, but his face turned red.
“I think Soccer Boy nailed it,” said Kevin, slapping his knee. “Stevo’s got himself a serious crush! Who is she? Come on, don’t hold back.”
“It…it’s…” Steve was flustered, redder than the Webster’s dictionary. “It’s no one,” he said.
“Don’t try to get out of—” started Kevin, but we were already pulling into his driveway and his mom was waiting at the front window.
After Kevin got out, Steve and I drove back to his place in silence. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about Jeanette or any secret crush he might have. And, truth be told, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear about any other girls in his life. I wasn’t jealous—at least, not of the girls. It was just—
“Why didn’t you tell me about Jeanette?” I finally asked as we pulled into his driveway.
Steve didn’t answer. He popped the sunglasses compartment above the rearview mirror, where they kept the garage door opener, and pressed the open button.
As he turned the car off, he asked, “Do you think Jeanette’s pretty?”
The question caught me off guard, but I answered honestly. “She’s beautiful.”
“I thought you might have a thing for her.”
“That’s not why you didn’t—” I said, suddenly feeling unbelievably guilty. “You didn’t pass up a chance to be with her on my account?”
“No,” said Steve honestly. He turned away and reached for door. “She’s just not my type.”
I couldn’t imagine how it was possible for Jeanette not to be any guy’s type, but I said, “So there is someone else?”
“Who is she? Come on,” I said. “Look, I’m your best friend. You’re supposed to tell me about stuff like that.”
Steve took a deep breath. “Do you talk to Marc about stuff like that?”
“No,” I said honestly. “Marc Johnson and I play soccer together. I let him cheat off me once in a while so he won’t get kicked off the team. But when it comes to serious conversations—well, that’s why I hang out with you.”
Steve let go of the door handle and turned back to me. There was a serious debate going on inside his head. I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming.
“You have to promise not to tell,” he said.
“No,” he said, looking straight at me so that I could plainly see that probably for the first time in his life, Steve was not smiling. “I mean, you have to swear.”
“Okay. I swear I won’t tell.”
“I’ve never told anyone,” Steve said.
There was another long silence, just breathing, the rattle of keys as Steve tucked them into his coat pocket, a single bark from the retriever next door. But finally Steve said, “Andrew, I’m gay.”
And at that moment, I realized two things:
- For the first time in his life, Johnson was right.
- Steve didn’t stand a chance with his crush, because I would never play that side of the field.
Without saying a word, I got out of the car and walked home.
It was a cold night. I should have worn a jacket. The wind whipped down Filmore Street so hard, I was shivering halfway across the road. A part of me felt awful for not responding, but another part of me was freaked the hell out. All that time hanging with Steve, just the two of us. Christ, I even spent the night over at his place a couple of times. Slept in the same room. He’d seen me in just my boxers.
Was he checking me out?
How can you keep something that serious from your best friend?
What kind of friend does that?
I walked to school alone over the next few mornings. Saw Steve in chorus, but we didn’t say anything to each other. I didn’t have anything to say to him. A couple of our friends asked what the deal was; I told them to mind their own business.
I wasn’t sure if I was angry with him for not telling me, frightened because he had or because of the implication, or just confused. I’d never known an openly gay guy before. I didn’t even know what the hell that meant.
So he likes guys. That just seemed so, so—
I tried to imagine some of the guys on my soccer team with their shirts off in the locker room, and it just turned my stomach. How in the hell could anybody be attracted to that when there were girls like Jeanette in the world? Was Steve even really my best friend, or was he just being nice to me because he wanted to—
“It’s a good thing you and your boyfriend finally broke up,” said Johnson at lunch on Wednesday, not for the first time that week. “Me and the guys were starting to think you were turning into a real pansy.”
“Kiss it!” I said, slamming my tray down at my old spot at the jock table.
“Ouch! Someone’s touchy,” said Johnson. “You still pining for your little choir boy?”
“Would you drop that crap already?”
“Maybe if you sang him a love song, he’d take you back.”
My hand shot across the table, grabbed Johnson by the shirt collar, and yanked him forward until his face was less than an inch from mine. All kidding aside, I said, “Drop it now, or I’m going to break your girly little nose on this lunch tray.”
“Okay, okay!” said Johnson, jumping backward the moment I released him. “I’ll stop calling you his boyfriend. But seriously, you know you’re better off without that guy, right? I mean, ol’ Steve’s about as fruity as a bowl of Fruity Pebbles.”
I didn’t even bother picking up my tray, just left it on the table, food untouched, and walked out of the cafeteria.
It wasn’t that Johnson kept calling Steve my boyfriend that bothered me. Or even his saying that Steve was gay. I knew he was just messing around with the one; and he was right about the other. What got to me was the attitude, the loathing in his voice when he accused Steve of being gay, like that was the worst thing anyone could ever be.
I bolted from that cafeteria so fast, I nearly ran over Jeanette. We collided as I rounded the corner into the hall, and she went flying backward.
“Oh my god!” I said, reaching out, grabbing her arm before she lost her balance completely. “I’m so sorry. Really. Very sorry.”
Jeanette collected herself, picked up the bag that had fallen from her shoulder in the collision, and glared at me. “Do you jocks ever watch where you’re going?” she asked. And before I could respond she said, “I thought you might actually be different. But obviously I was wrong. You know, Steve really likes you. I don’t know what happened between the two of you, but friends don’t just walk away from each other.”
“Wait!” I said, but she didn’t stop, and I didn’t know what to say if she did. I wanted to ask how much she knew, if anything. I wanted to ask if I was right, if she liked Steve as more than just a friend. I wanted to ask what she thought about me. I wanted to ask if she thought that guys like me were attractive. And if so, why?
But she was already gone.
I wanted to ask if she would ever laugh at a joke about Steve and me dating, the way Johnson and all my soccer friends did.
What if we had been dating? What if I were gay too? Why wouldn’t I date Steve? Why did Johnson think the idea was so funny?
And why did that question bother me so damn much? What did that say about me?
I skipped all of my afternoon classes. Just sat on my soccer bench in the jock’s locker room, thinking. A couple of guys came in during their gym classes, but I told them I was ditching, and they seemed cool with that, didn’t ask any more questions.
I thought about Steve, me, his big secret, that crap Johnson was saying, and what Jeanette said about friends. And I kept coming back to the same thing: I was wrong the week before to think that Steve would make a great boyfriend for any girl; truth was, he would make a great boyfriend for anyone.
I wasn’t upset with him for being gay; I wasn’t afraid of him. I was mad at myself. A real friend should want to do everything they can to see their friends happy; but there was nothing I could do to make Steve happy. Steve had a crush on me, and I couldn’t help him. Not because the thought of a gay relationship revolted me—I didn’t quite understand it, but maybe if I asked enough questions I’d figure it out—or that I thought there was anything wrong with being gay, or anything else like that. I couldn’t help Steve because in a million years I knew I’d never be able to think of him the way he thought of me.
If I could, I’d be a very lucky guy.
“You and me,” I told Steve that night, standing outside his front door. It was another cold evening, even with my jacket. But I didn’t care. I had to say this. “You know that we can’t—”
“I know,” he said.
“It’s just, I’m not—” I wasn’t sure how much I could say, who else could hear me.
“I know,” he said again.
“And you’re cool with that?”
He looked puzzled. “Are you okay with it?”
“I’m cool with it so long as you’re cool with it.”
“Okay,” he said, revealing a faint hint of that smile he’d been hiding all week. “My dad brought back another box of records over the weekend. There are some Beatles, Rolling Stones, and even a Jefferson Starship.”
“Jefferson Starship?” I followed him to the kitchen, set the bag I was carrying on the counter. “Seriously? How is it?”
Steve rolled his eyes. “It’s awful.”
“Good,” I said, reaching into my bag. “We have better things to listen to. This was supposed to be a birthday gift, but I just thought—”
Steve took one look at the record sleeve for Conspicuous Only in Its Absence by The Great Society, Grace Slick’s original band, and threw his arms around me. For a half a second, I just stood there, not sure what to do. Would it give him the wrong idea if I hugged him back? Was this his way of trying to sway me to the other side?
“Sorry,” I said, but not to him, to me, for even thinking that. The only thing this hug meant was that I’d just gotten my best friend back. And at that moment, he was waiting for confirmation that he’d gotten his best friend back too. I didn’t hesitate again. I hugged him back and it didn’t mean anything more than that.
As we settled in to appreciate the one woman we could both agree on, I asked, “Jeanette really hates jocks, huh? You think she could ever get past that?”
“No,” Steve answered honestly. “But you’re not a jock. You just play sports.”
I could have corrected him, but I didn’t want to.
“So Marc Johnson really hates guys like me, huh?” Steve asked a few minutes later, a sly grin on his face. “You think he could ever get past that?”
“If anyone could convince a guy to switch teams, it’s you,” I said, and I couldn’t remember ever speaking more truthfully. “But I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
This story really fleshes out each of the characters and an interesting personal conflict as well as setting up a surprising last line that resonates long after the story is over.
—Holly Black, 2010 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge