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‘We Are Totally Normal’ is the Queer Contemporary You Need to Read

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‘We Are Totally Normal’ is the Queer Contemporary You Need to Read

'We Are Totally Normal' is the Queer Contemporary You Need to Read

Who among us doesn’t love a good queer contemporary YA? Fans of Becky Albertalli and Kacen Callender, we have a treat for you: We Are Totally Normal is nearly here, and we know you’re going to love it.

Nandan had his plans all straightened out for junior year, right up until he hooks up with a guy for the first time: his friend Dave. Though Nandan has never been into guys, he’s willing to give this relationship a shot, but his feelings of anxiety grow as he questions what his sexuality means for himself, his friends, and his social life. But is sacrificing his relationship with Dave, the only person who ever let him feel “normal,” worth it?

This book is messy, hilarious, fast-paced, and so totally normal. Nandan is complicated, his feelings are complicated, and his journey of questioning and self-discovery is so beautiful. Read on for an exclusive sneak peek of We Are Totally Normal below!

 

Chapter One

The music in the car was so loud that my teeth vibrated. I couldn’t hear words, just a raw, brutal wall of noise assaulting me from every direction. I didn’t cover my ears, since you shouldn’t ever show that kind of weakness around Pothan and Ken, but half an hour into the ride I leaned forward and shouted: “Are we going to the lake house?”

“What?” Pothan yelled.

I reached for the volume knob, but Ken swatted my hand.

“Are we going to the lake house?” I shouted.

“What?”

“Are we going to the lake house?”

“What?”

This went on absurdly long, until I realized Pothan was toying with me. I slapped the back of his head, and he jerked the car into the next lane.

“Holy shit!” I yelped.

“Don’t mess with the driver.”

“You did that on purpose.”

Ken sat quietly in the front passenger seat, his face lit up with a sideways smile. Ken had really dense eyebrows and a broad neck. His arms and shoulders were huge, but his legs were puny, and Pothan loved to call him chicken legs. Ken always said legs didn’t matter; girls didn’t go for legs, but I was sure he regretted his gym choices—he never, under any circumstances, wore shorts. The problem was that if he suddenly added a leg day to his workout, everyone would know Pothan had gotten to him.

When they missed the exit for the lake house, I was like, What the fuck?, but Pothan pretended not to notice.

“Hey, where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

“Umm, didn’t Avani say to meet at the lake house?”

“Dude, this is an intervention. You cannot keep trying to hang out with her.”

Part of me wanted to force Ken and Pothan to let me out and let me make my own way to the lake house. But if I showed up all by myself, empty-handed, without a party in tow, it wouldn’t be fun: it’d be stilted and awkward.

I wasn’t like Pothan. I didn’t have that indefinable extra something that marked a person as a leader. A party isn’t an end in itself; a party is just a container for exciting things. It’s a place where you bring together lots of people and heat them up and see what will happen. But in order to experience the magic and grandeur of a party, you need to hang around the right people. I wasn’t one of them, and I’d resigned myself to this. I was a follower.

We ended up at the beach, in Santa Cruz, where Pothan and Ken made me down a forty before letting me out of the car. I ambled across the boardwalk, grinning goofily, when Pothan jabbed my side and said to look for a rebound girl.

I rubbed the sore spot on my rib and looked for an opening to hit him back, but he was already out of arms’ reach.

“Avani made you lazy,” Pothan said. “She was a decent start, but you got lucky, bro. Admit it, you got lucky.”

“I freely admit she was out of my league,” I said.

“Nobody’s out of your league, dude. That attitude is exactly the problem. You act like this shit is entirely out of your control, and so you sit around, waiting to get picked. Well that’s not how it works.”

We ate hot dogs at a table on the edge of the boardwalk. To our left, tourists spilled out of a Ripley’s, and on our right, the ocean was lit by the setting sun.

A dozen feet away, a group of three girls burst into laughter. I fought to catch the nearest girl’s eye, and she smiled back with that nervous, automatic, smile that’s a girl’s first defense against a strange guy.

“Should we talk to them?” I said.

“Who?” Pothan said. “Them?” He jabbed a thumb at the trio, and over his shoulder I saw them notice his gesture. “No. Of course not.”

Ken looked up from his phone. “The blind spot should be pretty good today.” They were talking about the part of the beach, out past the rocks, that you couldn’t see from the boardwalk.

“Yep. The blind spot,” Pothan said.

I compacted all my food trash into a ketchup-covered ball and tossed it into the garbage can. The eyes of the girls tracked us. Ken tossed a brutal “Hey” in their direction, but we were gone before they could respond.

“Uhh, maybe I don’t understand the plan here,” I said.

“Dude,” Ken said. “You’re gonna hook up today. Those girls? They would’ve laughed and smiled and maybe followed you online, but here and now nothing would’ve happened.”

Pothan clapped a hand onto Ken’s shoulder. “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with planting seeds for later.”

My neck was tense. I was actually fine with later. Somewhere out of sight. Hooking up in the blind spot, with the whole beach nearby, sounded incredibly nerve-racking.

We climbed over the rocks and came down near a group of kids sitting on the other side. They wore dark colors, and many had dyed hair. Leather jackets were in evidence. You know, it’s weird: you watch old movies and the alternative kids are always wearing the exact same shit that alternative kids wear today.

They gave us blank, guarded looks, but Pothan jabbed his chin at them, and although my stomach squawked, I knew this was a test of whether I had the balls to approach.

“Err, hey.”

I spoke to the group in general, but my voice was quiet and the surf was loud, and only one guy, a dude with three earrings through his left ear, looked at me.

“Hey,” I said again.

“Yeah?”

“Umm, what’s up?”

“Nothing, ‘bruh,’” he said. “What’s up with you?”

One of the girls looked me over and turned away. Then Pothan came in, with his back hunched, his arms hanging down like a crazed monkey. “Yo,” he said. “You guys have any rolling papers?”

The guy shrugged. Then there was a general rooting-through of bags until a pack of rolling papers appeared. Taking the little cardboard package, Pothan said, “Cool. Oh, anyone have something I can use for a filter?”

Ken, to my side, started snickering.

A longer wait while a girl tore off a little bit of the cover from her notebook. “Great, great,” Pothan said. “Now anyone got any tobacco?”

A pouch was produced. By now half the group had figured out the joke, but their leader, the guy with the earrings, was still huffing and puffing and shaking his head, as if to be like, Okay, fine, now it’s time for you to leave.

I jumped in. “Let me do that.” I took over the spliff-rolling operation while Pothan made small talk with the leader.

“Umm,” I said. “Anyone got any weed I can put in here?”

There was open laughter. The nearest girl, thank God, took out a little grinder and sprinkled some onto the paper. I gave her a big smile. Her hair was pink, but it’d grown out, showing her dark roots. I scooted close, sitting cross-legged with the paper on my lap.

“Hey,” I said. My heart was beating so hard, and for once not just from anxiety, but from excitement too. “Help shield me from the wind.”

She put out her hands. “You guys are ridiculous,” she said.

“Believe me, I know.”

I blinked a few times and looked at the little mass of weed and tobacco lying on the paper.

“Anyone have . . . ?” I said.

The whole group stopped talking.

“The knowledge of how to, umm, actually roll this?”

More laughter. By now Ken and Pothan were sitting too. I looked with innocent eyes at the girl, and she shook her head and took everything off my hands. After that, we talked a bit more naturally. I lay down with my head in the girl’s lap, and she fell to stroking my hair. The joint passed, but I didn’t intercept it. The conversation swirled above me while her fingers went through my hair again and again.

“You’re so tangled,” she said.

“These two assholes grabbed me out of bed before I could shower.”

A hairbrush appeared, and she worked it gently through my hair, tugging here and there at knots. Her other hand massaged my ear, scraping out a little of the sand that’d collected inside. Everything about this was so incredibly perfect. The girl and I smiled at each other. I didn’t know her name, and I didn’t want to know it.

Ken’s laughter broke through. “What the fuck is going on there?”

I got up, shaking my hair, and the girl pulled away, embarrassed, even though we hadn’t done anything.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just brushing out the sand.”

She put the brush back in her bag, and shortly after her group was like, We gotta run. Ken gave them an awkward-as-hell invite to party with us, but Pothan waved goodbye and made for the next group of people.

I chased after the alternative kids for a few feet, until I was walking backward in front of the girl. “Hey. Thanks,” I said.

Her expression was so strange. Mouth completely flat; eyes downcast. But after I spoke, her lips turned upward in a tiny smile. The whole group was tense, and I understood their feelings, but I hated being treated like a possible predator.

“No problem,” she said.

After a half beat, I tossed her another helpless smile and ran back to Pothan.

Ken gave me shit for not making a move, but Pothan shook his head. “Your only problem was you gave her all the power. Like, from the ground, you couldn’t do shit, she had all the control, and that made her feel safe, but you were also powerless, and that meant she wasn’t into you.”

“Whatever, I liked it.”

He grabbed me around the middle while Ken glowered at us. “That’s cool, bro. You’ve gotta have some fun. Not every girl is closable.”

“I could’ve done it,” Ken said.

“Dude, don’t be like that,” Pothan said. “He’s just learning. He’s not a Jedi master like you and me.”

We launched into another group of kids, and this one was a disaster. A beefy guy threatened to kick our asses, and we ran away, jumping up and screeching like a pod of dolphins. The next group was all college girls, a row of shining bodies—one was on her stomach, bikini off, so she wouldn’t have tan lines—and we were a troop of clowns, performing for them, pretending we were visiting scientists from MIT, here for a conference, and they laughed and laughed until the laughter trailed off, and after a few minutes it got weird, so I checked out, saying I needed to pee.

The silvery seas let loose a distant howl, and with every step my smile got wider. The nearest bathroom had no line, but I texted the guys that I was headed to the far one that nobody uses.

After I’d pissed, I looked across the sand, thought about Pothan and Ken still swirling around those girls, and decided I could take a few more minutes, so I stood in line for a churro. Imagining how Ken would probably lick and suck on the churro and make some gross remarks, continuing the joke until the humor dried up and the laughter turned uncomfortable, made me glad I was alone.

Then a bright purple bow tie walked past my table.

“Dave!” I said. “Hey, Dave.”

The wind was loud, and he walked past uncomprehending, so I ran half a step and said, “Dave, dude. What’s up?”

Bow-tie Dave was my project. I always saw him hanging around the edges of parties, getting way too drunk, not really saying much, but the thing is—he was actually kind of hot. Maybe folks didn’t see it because he was Asian, and they were used to looking past him, but he had an interesting body—thin-hipped and broad-shouldered—that gave him a hawklike look. His face was nice too, with its high cheekbones and straight nose. In his glasses and blazer he was an Asian Clark Kent. And everybody knows it’s not the fifties anymore: nowadays girls think Clark Kent is way hotter than Superman.

“Hey, dude,” I said. “What you doing here?”

“Oh . . . I actually work at the Baskin-Robbins.”

“Nice. I didn’t know that.”

“Yep, I job. I’m a job haver. Ever since I was fourteen.”

“Is that even legal?”

“At ice-cream stores? I don’t know. I think ice-cream stores exist in a weird legal limbo. As long as your fingers are strong enough to grip the scoopers, you’re good.”

I laughed. “Hey, uhh, what happened with that girl you asked me about?”

“Mari?” He shook his head. “Disaster. I’m awful. I’m the worst. We hung out for six hours yesterday on the boardwalk.”

“That doesn’t seem bad.”

“I couldn’t even hold her hand,” he said.

“Shit.”

“Yeah, that’s it. You’re making the right face to describe this situation.”

I tried to smile. “Come on, dude, you want a churro? Let’s get a churro.”

“You just ate a churro.”

“Let’s get another churro. What? A guy can’t eat multiple churros in one day? You don’t know my life. You don’t know my struggle. Stop food-shaming me.”

He looked over his shoulder, as if expecting rescue, but I grabbed the sleeve of his collared shirt and gave it a slight tug. As we were ordering the churros, my phone buzzed.

POTHAN: Dude, where are you?

ME: Can’t talk. Met a friend. Be right back.

I pocketed my phone. Dave said, “Are the guys waiting for you?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ve got time.”

The picnic tables were filled, so we leaned against the wooden railing. The wind beat against the collar of Dave’s shirt, and my eyes were drawn to a little smudge of sugar at the corner of his mouth.

“It was a disaster,” he said. “Like, after dropping her off, I just sat in my car and laughed. She must be like, What just happened? And I even called it a date. I was like, ‘Let’s go out on a date.’ But then I made zero moves.”

“No, no.” I nodded my head. “I get it.”

“But do you actually? Or are you just trying to relate? Because shyness doesn’t seem like a problem you have.”

“Mmm.”

“I’ve seen you.”

“Things happen.”

“I kinda never want to see her again.”

“Dude, I get it. Do you know why Avani and I stopped hooking up?”

His eyebrows went up.

“Too much stress!” I said. “Every time we were together, I’d be like, Will we hook up? Where’s this going? What’s happening? Will she talk to me? Will she ignore me? I hated it. Half the time I was so anxious I couldn’t even get it up.” Although that was my deepest and most shameful secret, it slipped out easily with Dave. “So one day I was like, Wait a second, if I end things first, I’ll win. So I did.”

“But . . . she really liked you.”

“No. That’s not true. I don’t know.”

A jet plane left a long white mark on the sky. “It wasn’t fun. None of this is any fun.”

He doubled over, dropping his head into his hand. “It’s like a math problem. How do we make it fun?”

“I have no idea. You only get these tiny, brief, infinitesimal moments of fun. And then, no fun. The fun disappears.”

“We don’t have to do this. We could just ignore it all.”

“Yeah. . . .”

Dave looked up at me. “You’re not convinced.”

“I don’t know, dude. Those moments, though . . .”

His eyebrows crinkled. “What? What’re you thinking about?”

“Dave, you’re supposed to just let people trail off into silence.”

He rolled his eyes. “Come on. Talking to you is like the only excitement I ever get in my life.”

“Well, I don’t know, I had this weird moment. . . .” I told him about the girl running the brush through my hair on the beach. As the words came out, I saw details I hadn’t noticed at the time, like the way her eyes, seen from below, were so watery and insubstantial.

“And you didn’t even ask her name?”

“No. I didn’t want it.”

“Maybe you’re turning into one of those awkward-cool guys.”

“What?”

“You know what I’m talking about?” he said. “Those guys everybody loves. Like, umm, umm, Greg Sarbanes.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Or Hyram Willendowski.”

“Who?”

“Niko Diamandis?”

“The kid who wears a fanny pack?”

“He never makes any moves, but all the girls love him. It’s kind of amazing to watch. This is our idol, Nandan.”

“Whose idol? Not my idol.”

“He’s an idol for nerdy guys. Like, you guys—nonawkward guys—have Pothan. We have Niko. He’s completely oblivious to everything and everyone. And he talks alllllll the time about how terrible he is with girls, and you can see them just looking at him and being like, But you’re so hot, you’re so amazing, except maybe you don’t know you’re hot. Maybe you need my help, my sexual help, to get over your awkwardness.”

“But he wears a fanny pack.”

“I’m telling you, dude.”

Now I laughed. “Okay, so go to Niko for advice.”

“You think I haven’t tried?” he said. “The thing is . . . ninety-nine percent of cool people—basically all of them, aside from you—are incapable of being honest.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know!”

“You’re not making sense, dude.”

He rubbed his fingers together. “I mean I’m not Holden Caulfield. I think being a fake is great. I wish I was a fake. But you have to let people behind the mask sometimes. Niko never does. If I was like, ‘How do I get with Mari?’ he’d be like, ‘Why are you asking me? I’m so terrible with girls. I’m suuuuuch a geek.’”

The way he said that, all nasal and drawn-out, made me laugh, and I ruffled the swoop of his hair.

“Hey!”

“No, but I believe you,” I said. “About Niko. The thing is, there are people like him, who’ve got the magic, and people like us, who need to fake it.”

“You don’t fake it.”

“I’m in so over my head. Pothan’s trying to turn me into”—I thought of trying to hook up with some random girl, maybe tonight, maybe over by the rocks, and my stomach lurched—“into a completely different person. But the crazy thing is: I want to be that person.”

Dave brushed sugar crumbs off his fingers. “Well, to be honest, I’d prefer not to change completely just to get a girlfriend.”

“I don’t know, though,” I said. “There’s so much shit that nobody teaches you. Like, all that idiotic stuff people like Pothan and Ken believe in, like how you’ve gotta sack up and be a warrior and never show fear. That’s all true. It’s all really true. Because without that you’re just nobody.”

Dave tipped up his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose, and the air whipped his fine hair off to the side.

“I’ve just got to make a move on Mari,” he said. “I’ve got to make a move.”

I nodded. “Pretty much.”

My phone buzzed again.

POTHAN: What the hell, where are you?

The sun kissed the ocean, and all the heat seemed to sizzle out of the sand. I pulled my hoodie closer and said, “Hey, you want to come hang out?”

“I’ve gotta go back to work.”

“What about after? You could invite Mari! Give it another shot, seriously, dude.”

He looked down, then his eyes went back to me. “Sure. I could do that.”

“Do it,” I said. “We’re gonna make this happen.”

I got up, nodding my head, and left with a big smile.

 

While I was gone, Pothan and Ken had regrouped at the car. They handed me another forty, and after I’d gotten a third of the way through, they told me to lean back against the door, and Pothan put out his hands.

“Now don’t freak out,” he said.

“All right. . . .”

“But we invited Avani to come down.”

“Dude,” I said. “She’s not gonna come. She’s done with the beach scene. That’s why she asked us to the lake house.”

“She’s on her way, dude.” Pothan held up his phone. “I just got the text.”

My heart quivered. “Oh.”

I must’ve looked anxious, because Pothan grabbed my neck. “Whatever, dude, just be cool.”

“No, it’s really not a problem.”

“And no hanging around her. Stick with us. You’ve gotta be cool.”

Pothan shook his head, and now he used a finger to tip the bottle in my hand, trying to get me to drink up. A rush of foam surged onto my face, and the bottle fell to the pavement and shattered in a spray of beer and glass.

 

Chapter Two

Avani was still a half hour away, so we hung out in Ken’s car. Nobody talked about their feelings or anything at all real, but it wasn’t unfun. At one point the cops buzzed past, and we hit the floor, and fifteen minutes later we were still crouched in the back and in the wheel wells, passing the two remaining bottles between us, laughing and pressing up against each other. Pothan got on top of Ken, humping him, and Ken rolled his eyes back, pretending to enjoy it.

Ken made fun of me for being weird around Avani.

“Dude,” I said. “I’m happy she and I are broken up.”

“Except you were never together.”

“Then why did we have a breakup conversation?”

“That was all you. Nobody thought you needed to do that.”

“I just wanted to stay friends.”

“LOL, you regret it, dude,” Ken said. “No shame in that. Just admit you regret it.”

“But I don’t.”

“Whatever.”

“Hey, hey,” Pothan said. “He didn’t want her to get attached. That’s fine, dude. You should’ve done the same thing with Laila”

Even in the dim light, I saw Ken’s ears turn red. This sophomore girl Laila had stopped responding to Ken’s texts, and Pothan kept harping on it. He was like a wolf—he’d find your weak point and attack it, again and again, until you showed your belly.

“Dude,” I said. “Lay off about that.”

“Look,” Ken said, “Laila was crazy.”

“Crazy for your dick, until you effed it up.”

My phone flashed. Dave had texted: his shift was ending. I wrote that I was in the car with Pothan and Ken, watching them try to psychologically dominate each other. It’d be fascinating to create a video game that modeled how guys spend their time testing out weak points, pushing and pulling and slapping and wrestling, to see who’s in charge and who isn’t. Normally Pothan was on top, but Ken had been trying him lately. I was a year younger and normally wasn’t in the running, but my trying to get Pothan to stop making fun of Ken had put Ken in competition with me—when you protect someone, you’re sort of saying you’re better than them—so he started in on Avani again.

“You were scared,” Ken said. “You were like a dude who’s harpooned a whale. You want to reel her in, but you can’t.”

I said, “The whale’s your mom, right?”

Pothan whooped, and I popped the door, saying I needed to piss.

I staggered off into the dunes, with Pothan and Ken running and shouting behind me, and I found a cactus and pissed facing them, because they’d been known to try to hit me with their spray.

Avani’s immense gray SUV bounced over the curb and lurched into the parking lot. The car stopped at the far corner, and an unearthly blue lit up the interior. All three girls in the car were hunched over their phones.

Fierce winds blew off the sea, and as families streamed away from the boardwalk, I saw, here and there, groups of kids moving purposefully toward the beach. When night fell, the real fun started.

I wiped my hands on my jeans, and I watched Avani’s car, thinking about those three girls—she always came with her friends Carrie and Jessie—sitting in its cool black interior, and my heart lurched. Maybe Pothan was right. Maybe I was hung up on Avani, but the thought of her didn’t make me angry or ashamed or sad. Instead, whenever she showed up, I became purely, immensely happy.

My phone lit with a text.

AVANI: We’re here. Where are you guys?

Abandoning Ken and Pothan, I walked toward her car.

The door slid open, and Jessie shouted, “Nandan! Thank God!”

Avani’s voice: “I told you he was here.”

Jessie gave me an awkward one-armed hug. The moment I was in, I pulled the door closed, sealing myself inside. Jessie’s dirty-blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was in a puffy vest and hiking boots and jeans. I flashed her a smile.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”

“So are the guys really here?”

“Yeah, sorry about the lake house, by the way.”

I instantly knew that mentioning it had been a mistake. I’d suggested a dozen times that Avani invite us to the lake house, and now she’d done it and we hadn’t come. Her silhouette vibrated from her anger.

“Where are they?” she said.

Avani was a shadowy figure in the driver’s seat. Her keys hung around her wrist, attached to a bracelet, and her eyes, despite the setting sun, were veiled by sunglasses.

“Uhh, they’re peeing in the dunes.”

“Why?” Carrie said. “Aren’t there bathrooms?”

I paused for a second. “Actually there are. That’s a really good question.”

“That’s gross,” Jessie said. “Why do those guys do that?” she said. “Pee on the dunes for no reason? Isn’t that bad for the environment?”

“Yessssss,” I said. “These are great questions.”

“Please,” Avani said. “Nandan’s probably peed out there a hundred times. He’s no different from the rest. You are way too easy on him, Jess.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Too mean.”

Ever since we had stopped hooking up, Avani had taken to lashing out in this same way, always implying I was just as shallow and immature as all the other guys.

I didn’t get it, but I also didn’t hate it. All my life people had been like, Oh, Nandan, you’re different. You’re deeper. You’re more sensitive. Now at least one person was saying the opposite, and it felt nice. Maybe that showed just how much I had changed in the past year.

Carrie turned around in her seat. “What’s up, dude?”

She was a tiny brown-skinned Vietnamese girl with bobbed hair and a fierce attitude. Right now she wore slacks and black boots and a wool halter-top deal underneath a huge windbreaker.

Avani, on the other hand, had long, wild black hair and seemed to have dressed according to a completely different color scheme: she was in white pants, a yellow T-shirt, and a tan leather jacket—all accentuated by the many-colored bracelets on her right wrist.

Avani hopped out and opened the trunk. As I joined her around back, she said: “What’s going on? What are we doing?”

“Here’s the thing.” I put two hands together as if I were praying. “I don’t know that there’s a very well-formulated plan.”

“God.”

One school really shouldn’t hold both an Avani and a Pothan. It creates conflict. She was grabbing blankets and chairs—all the little stuff that guys forget—meanwhile Pothan rolled up and, assessing the situation in a split second, leaned on Jessie, asking her what was going on, distracting her from Avani’s orders. They fought a tug-of-war—Avani gave commands; Pothan ignored or laughed at them—and I came up next to Avani, giving her a conspiratorial smile.

“Hey,” I said. “Let me take something.”

“Great.”

She dropped a duffel bag into my arms and told me to find a spot on the beach and turned without checking to see if I’d heard. She gave a nod to Carrie, and some silent communication passed between them. Carrie walked off a little ways and made a call. I imagined the two of them as CIA agents, supervising the cleanup from some covert operation, and a weak smile hit my lips.

Avani had enveloped me in silence. So long as I held her duffel, I wasn’t a part of this group—in their minds I was already gone—and none of the girls paid any attention to me.

Pothan told me to drop that shit and come with him to buy more beer.

“No, I’ll, uhh, I’ll do this.”

“Seriously, dude. What is wrong with you? It’s over.”

I carried the duffel bag to the other side of the rocks, where the waves, now in low tide, had left behind hundreds of yards of mucky-soft sands. I opened the duffel, got out the blankets, and laid them on a dry patch of sand, next to a firepit. In the distance, about a hundred yards away, another group of kids was clustered around a bonfire. Up on the cliffs, silent cars pulsed through the curves of Highway 1.

I texted Avani, saying I’d found a good spot. Then I saw a message from Dave.

DAVE: Mari is on her way. Wish me luck!

ME: You two are staying here? Come by the blind spot! I think there’s gonna be to-do? A foofaraw? Not sure of the technical terminology.

DAVE: You might be thinking of the term “hoedown.”

ME: Pretty sure you need bales of straw for that.

My fingers flew across the phone, sending energy through the ether, directly into Dave’s brain. Texting him was so different from texting Avani. He responded instantly. Like he actually wanted and needed me around. I just wished that I didn’t feel so . . . so . . . so . . . just so sick for her presence. I didn’t want to hook up with her—that was done, I knew—but even those few seconds in the car with her and Carrie and Jessie, earlier, had felt so right.

What Pothan forgot was that Avani and I had always been friends! We’d hung out for months before we started “hanging out.” And we talked about stuff too! I told her all my crazy theories about how to get ahead. Heard about her constant friendship drama with Carrie. We’d spend hours sitting in silence in her basement, drinking from the cup of each other’s company. And when we weren’t together, we were texting. Just gossip. Or little jokes. But it’d been so important—that sense of being always connected to another person. And now it was ruined.

Dave was totally game to come out, and in ten minutes I saw a tall form striding slowly toward me. He was with a girl, short and a little chubby, whose smile I saw from thirty feet away.

The figure waved his arm, and I waved back.

We met in a nowhere spot, a few blankets set down at the edge of a little cove of rocks, and most of the light came from the intersecting beams of our phones.

“This is cool,” the girl said. “So this is where it happens? The 90210 stuff?”

“Hey, I’m Nandan.”

“Mari!” she said. “Dave! You’re supposed to introduce me!”

The three of us sat down, folding the edges of the blankets over our laps to provide some shelter. The song of the wind got louder, and now it blew sand off the rocks and into our faces.

AVANI: Thanks for finding a spot! Can you get some driftwood? Pothan is being a dick, but I’ll get him out there soon.

ME: Sure.

Mari peered over my shoulder. “What is it? What’s happening?”

“Avani wants me to gather driftwood,” I said.

“I can help!” Mari said.

The blanket was held tight around her shoulders, and she looked heavy and padded and crone-like.

“What?” I said. “No. No. . . . No. We are not doing this.”

“Huh?”

“Come on, let’s pick up all this stuff,” I said. “Wait, actually let’s just leave it here.”

Crossing to the other side of the rocks instantly halved the wind. We walked aimlessly, far from the dying lights of the boardwalk. I had texted Avani that I’d left the blankets behind, and now I was afraid to look at my phone.

Mari chattered between us, and Dave hardly said a word. He pulled away from Mari when she reached for his hand to get help climbing over the rocks.

Pulling myself out of my own head, I said, “Uhh, did you drive here?”

“My mom dropped me off!” Mari said.

“Seriously? Your mom dropped you off at the Santa Cruz boardwalk after dark?”

“Why?” she said. “Is that stupid? My mom would love to hear this. She’s always wondering if she’s a bad mom.” Her fingers flew over her phone. “Just told my mom the consensus is that she did something stupid. Okay, now she’s texting back. ‘WHYYYYYYYYYYYY?’”

“I don’t know. . . .” I shrugged. I didn’t want to imply she was too close to her mom. That was the sort of thing that Pothan and Avani did. They put people down, just to make themselves look better. It was like making people wait for you. It was automatic. Something that reinforced the idea you were better than them.

“What?” she said. “What were you gonna say?”

“Uhh, it’s no big deal. Most people come here to escape their parents, but you and your mom are cool with each other, and that’s awesome.”

“I didn’t know there was anything to worry about!” Mari said. “She loves Dave!”

As we came to the end of the rocks, I saw a big bunch of kids standing at one end, near the century-old wooden roller coaster. I waved a hand, and we slowly approached.

Avani looked at me with confusion. “Oh, hey . . . ,” she said.

Carrie was there, too, but things had gotten weird between her and Avani. She was talking to this other girl I didn’t recognize. Pothan tugged a beer out of his jacket pocket and lobbed it in my direction. My catch went wrong, and I slapped the beer into the sand, stinging my fingers.

“What’s up?” Pothan said.

I introduced my friends. Mari, so talkative a second ago, went completely silent, while Dave answered only with shrugs and “Hmms” when Pothan asked him stuff.

We merged with the group, and I got hugs and fist bumps from the people I knew. Jessie acted really happy to see me, and she apologized, in a whisper, for abandoning me. “Carrie’s girlfriend showed up with some other Holy Redeemer girls.”

“Ohhh . . .” I glanced quickly at the girl, who, wearing jeans and a hoodie instead of the Redeemer uniform, seemed the same as a Grenadine High girl.

Avani ignored me; she caught up in the orbit of Henry, the only openly gay guy among our group of friends. I insinuated myself into their circle and waited for my chance to join the bantering.

Maybe it’s a stereotype, but some people are just really gay. They have soft wavy hair, they buy clothes that fit really well, and they move with natural grace. Henry told me once that when he realized he was gay it was frustrating, because he was like, Ughhhhh, my parents were right! Apparently they’d been hinting to him that he might be queer since like age six.

“Nandan!” Hen said. “You are my hero. You are my idol. You are . . .”

“What . . . ?” I said. “What’s happening?”

“Your pants. They’re incredible.”

They were garishly embroidered bell-bottom jeans, bought from a thrift store. “Thanks.”

For the first time Avani looked at me. “Nandan has no eye,” she said.

“What the . . . ?” I shook my head. “I think Henry is saying the opposite.”

“Oh . . . relax.” She wrapped an arm around me, and we both let the warm glow of Henry’s voice fall over us. We were in the darkness cast by the roller coaster, and all the faces were indistinct. Avani rested her head against my shoulder.

“You two were so perfect together,” Henry said.

The polarity had switched. Henry’s attention dragged Carrie and her girlfriend toward us. Dave and Mari were still hovering nearby, and I introduced them to Avani, and she exerted herself to actually be nice to them. We laughed and had fun. I even teased Avani about the blankets I’d left beyond the rocks.

She got mad, saying I could’ve at least brought them back. She stomped off, trying to find somebody to help her get them. I was about to follow, but Henry shook his head.

“Don’t humor her,” he said.

He was right. When I took a few steps in her direction, she was arrogant and cold again.

“I’m not gonna fuck you just because you helped me carry some blankets,” she said.

“Whoa,” I said. “What the hell? Come on, Avani. That’s not what I want.”

Avani’s response to my trying to be friends was to pretend she had ended things with me. “Sure, whatever.”

I put up my hands and circled back to Henry, who was trying to pull Mari into a conversation. Hen had a fluid grace and languid voice that made everything seem so simple. I got drunker and drunker, laughing and shouting with the rest. Avani came back and slapped me in the face for some reason. Dave and Mari stayed in the background, no matter how many times I tried to draw them out, but I kept an eye on the two of them even as they hovered around the edges of the crowd.

Then, between one moment and the next, Mari disappeared.

 

Chapter Three

My foggy brain was slow to grasp that Mari was gone.

“But where is she?” I said.

“Her mom got her,” Dave said.

At our backs, I heard shouting and a brief flash of light. Then more pops. Roman candles had sprouted from everybody’s hands, and everyone ran around shooting them at each other like guns. Pothan shot a full round of flares at Avani, and I put a hand to my mouth, wondering if her hair would catch fire, but they all glanced off her sweatshirt.

Carrie ran toward us, her mouth wide-open. “Here,” she said. “Here! I got them online.” Her backpack was full of the flame sticks. She jangled the bag at us. I took one, and fire snapped from a metal lighter in her hand. The end of my Roman candle was alight.

“Shit!” I pointed it at Pothan, but Dave tipped my hand, and I shot the flares into the sand.

“Dude,” he said. “You could hurt someone.”

I shook my head. “Uhh, huh?” In a few seconds the firework was spent, and Carrie’s backpack was empty, and everybody stood still, shrieking and laughing.

“That was so epic.” Pothan grabbed Carrie and lifted her up. “Carrie, you are a monster!”

Now more beers were popped. Avani sat on a concrete divider, staring blankly at the ground. I knew she hated how people like Carrie and Pothan needed to disrupt perfectly good parties with their crazy, attention-getting stunts. Normally, at this point I’d go to her and she’d cry, and, with alcohol and loneliness to blunt her normal resentment, we might manage for a few hours to be friends again. But today I had Dave by my side, still looking a little shell-shocked.

“Why’d Mari leave?”

Dave shook his head. “Hey, dude,” he said. “I think I’m gonna go. Do you need a ride?”

“What?”

“Umm . . . are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

My brain wasn’t working. I held on to his forearm and blinked groggily. Then I drunkenly teleported into his car. Dave’s face was lit up by the brightness of his phone.

“What’s happening?” I said. “It’s only . . .” I looked at my phone. “It’s only ten o’clock.”

“I’m gonna head out,” he said. “I have a class tomorrow.”

“But it’s summer. . . .”

“It’s an SAT class.”

“Right . . . coo . . .”

“But you should get back. You’re right, it’s only ten.”

“No, uhh, du-dude. Dude.” My finger at this point might’ve been jabbing him in the chest. “We need to debrief. You know—post—postgame analysis of, uhh, she was cute. I liked her! So cute!”

“Mmm-hmmm. I don’t know. She and I are probably not gonna happen.”

“Why not?! She liked you.”

“I couldn’t make the move.”

He started the car. And in the dim light from the dashboard panels, his face stood out cold and serious, with a little shock of hair askew over his forehead. He was small and dejected and dirty, and even his bow tie was crooked.

“Last chance to get out and go back to the party,” he said.

“No, no way. You’re my bro, and a bro has to bro with his bros.”

“Okay, fine.”

Then we were on Highway 1, and I watched the dark ocean tumble against the cliffs below.

 

We lived in Grenadine, on the other side of the hills, and the drive was a long one. I looked at my phone, expecting a text from one of my friends asking where I’d gone, and when it didn’t come I gathered a bouquet of sadness and bitterness and clutched it to my chest.

Then I remembered Hen, reaching out to me through the darkness and silence. I admired him. He had burst onto the scene during our freshperson year—we’d gone to the same middle school, but before coming out he’d been nobody. Maybe it wasn’t politically correct to say, but being gay was pretty cool—it was a specialness, a separateness, that couldn’t be challenged.

Carrie was the same. Though for her it’d been harder. When she told people she was bisexual, they’d thought she only wanted attention, but ever since getting with Gabriela, the Holy Redeemer girl, she’d slowly formed her own unique reputation.

Sometimes I wondered if maybe I was a little bit gay. The idea of being with a guy didn’t make me sick, like it seemed to make some guys. Sometimes I thought it’d be fun. Different. Easier.

Yet at the same time the idea of coming out felt shameful. It’d be so needy. So dishonest. I’d mentioned once to Pothan that I liked Hen’s social role—his position at the intersection of every group—and Pothan had been like, “You drama queen, you’d just love being gay, wouldn’t you?” And I’d flushed very red. Pothan had this way of seeing directly into my lightless core.

Right now the darkness of the passenger seat felt very safe. I fiddled around with the stations, changing all of Dave’s presets.

“I’d tell you to stop, but I know you won’t.”

“No classical music. You’re a young person, for Christ’s sake.”

“That’s definitely a true statement,” he said.

“Hey, dude, what happened with you and Mari? You two were doing so good.”

“The thing is, I know, on some crazy abstract level that it’s possible for a person to be into me,” he said. “And I have friends, right? So what do I want? Just a friend to have sex with. That seems pretty doable.” Now he grimaced. “But then I look at myself in the mirror, and it seems impossible to believe anyone could ever like me.”

“Dude.” My eyes swept across his face in profile: his dark hair brushed sideways across his forehead, his adorable glasses, and his strong neck disappearing into that collared shirt. “You’re hot. You’re smart. You’re funny. Most guys are complete dicks. Girls would kill for somebody like you.”

“Yeah, that’s what people say. . . .” He shook his head. “I don’t know. If I keep talking like this, I’ll come off like a self-pitying monster. It’s okay, nobody owes me anything.”

“Dude, dude, dude, somewhere out there a girl is drawing hearts around your name.” That was a line Pothan had used on me, earlier this summer, and I still wondered if it was actually true, but, whatever, it sounded good.

Then we were in front of my little apartment block, which was right off El Camino, across from a gas station and a Starbucks.

“Hey,” I said. “What you up to now?”

Dave’s pale nose and throat were lit up by the floodlights of the gas station. “Going home. Why? Is something happening?”

“We could keep hanging out.”

He shrugged. “Sure.”

“Yeah?”

I put a hand on the door and hopped into the cold air.

 

Each night before she leaves, my mom opens every single window, so when I got home the apartment was dim and drafty. But I turned on the heater and went around closing the windows.

“Just sit anywhere.”

“Hey,” Dave said, “do you have a towel?”

I saw his point: sand and salt were dried into my hairline and the folds of my eyes.

I blinked. “To sit on? Yeah.”

But I didn’t get the towels right away. Instead, I fiddled around with the stereo in the corner, tuning into a Top 40 station. I bounced up and down on my heels as the music played, then stuck my head into the linen closet. Our apartment was tiny. After my dad died a few years ago, we’d had to leave our house, but my mom hadn’t wanted to move to a cheaper town, because the school district was so good, so we’d gotten this place instead.

“You could just borrow some clothes,” I said. “I’m not that much bigger.”

“Maybe that’s a good idea. I’m so gross. On the beach it doesn’t matter, but the moment you get off the beach, it’s like, why would anyone ever kiss me?”

The music still played dimly as we went into my room, and when he went through the doors his eyebrows went up.

“This is kind of a collection.”

The walls used to be covered in old movie posters I’d found in a stationery store: Kill Bill, Scarface, The Godfather. I’d watched some of them but wasn’t really a movie guy. I just wanted to bring Avani back to something other than blank, bare walls. Then Avani had laughed at me for having such a guy’s room, so I’d torn down half the movies and replaced them with girlier ones: Mean Girls, High School Musical, When Harry Met Sally. Now my room was exactly half and half.

“There’s a story behind that,” I said.

I jumped on the bed. By now my clothes had dried, and I didn’t really care about the musty smell. He went through my closet.

“Most of the ones in that pile on the floor are clean too.”

“Umm . . .”

He picked up a pair of khakis.

“No,” I said. “Those are so torn.”

“Err . . . ,” he said. “Do you have any, like, normal clothes?”

“What?” I said.

Leaning over the side, I picked up a pair of jeans. “These are normal.”

“They’ve got butterflies all over them.”

“What’re you, a homophobe? I feel very microaggressed right now.”

His face froze, and Dave didn’t relax until I smiled. I tossed him the jeans and some other clothes. “Hey, you can change in the bathroom.”

While Dave was gone, my body odor wafted through the room and finally reached my nose, so my armpits got a once-over from some deodorant and I swapped out my clothes too, pulling on a red T-shirt—it showed two unicorns having sex—and a pair of dull brown pants.

Shower sounds had started in the bathroom, so I felt safe to fish out my secret supply of whiskey and mix it in the kitchen with some apple juice. The alcohol spread through my toes and fingers, and I became euphoric and relaxed and ready to gossip.

When he came out, I asked immediately, “So what did you think?”

“Huh?”

“Oh, haha, sorry. Here.” I offered him some whiskey, and he shook his head. I took another gulp. I threw the living room’s couch cushions on the ground and sat amid the pile. “Did you at least have fun? We’re gonna do this again, you know that, right? Now you’re, like, one of my peoples. I marked you as a peoples of mine.”

“Uh . . .” He nodded slowly. “Maybe that ought to offend me, but . . .” He shrugged. “I’m a born follower. I’ve always known it.”

“That makes two of us.”

“What’re you talking about? You’re definitely not a follower.”

“I am. And I don’t care. I just wish I had a better leader.”

“You are so drunk right now.”

He laid his head against my side, and my hand reached up, sort of touched his chest. His other hand was uncomfortably close to my crotch, and I wriggled to one side.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I texted with Avani all week trying to get together a nice and chill day at the lake house. But Pothan ruined everything. They’re in a fight, those two—a fight for the soul of the Ninety-Nine. All Pothan cares about is getting drunk on the beach. But Avani wants so much more, and all I want is to be on her side.”

The Ninety-Nine was what I called all the kids at our school who shone brightly: the ones who had courage and style. As opposed1 to the rest, the Twelve Hundred, who were sort of like nameless background characters in the video game of life.

“Have you ever told her that?”

“No. She’s afraid of honesty. Everything has to be delicate and indirect.”

“I bet she’d want to hear your real feelings. I really bet she would.”

Our voices got lower and hazier as we talked about what we’d seen that night. Then, halting, unsure, I mentioned how they’d found me hanging out by myself on those blankets.

“You looked great.” His husky voice blew hot air across my neck. “Just totally satisfied with yourself.”

“I didn’t look, err, sort of lonely?”

“What?” he said. “No! Of course not. The opposite. You were like, Fuck this party, I’m doing my own thing.”

I impulsively put an arm out and hugged him close, surrounding myself with the smell of shampoo and soap. “Thank you.” I struggled for a better way of putting it. “Thank you.”

My eyes closed as a sad woman wailed over the radio. “This song is perfect. . . .” I hummed along quietly, then pitched into a falsetto. I jumped up, grabbing for Dave’s hand, and he stared haplessly at me.

“I’ve never heard this song before.”

When he wouldn’t get up, I gave a try at flinging my hair and staring at him shyly over my fingertips, like Avani would’ve done, and Dave didn’t seem repulsed. Suddenly I boiled over laughing and flopped down next to him.

“Hey . . . ,” he said. “Umm, you seemed kind of upset earlier.”

“No. I don’t know.” My hands covered my face, remembering the college girls I’d run away from the moment things turned weird. “I hate feeling so pathetic.”

“Well, if you’re pathetic, then what am I?”

“No, no, you’re fine. I’ll help you.” I exhaled and uncovered my face. “You’ll learn to ignore that voice.”

Now I reached out, took his hands, and my thumb rubbed small circles on his wrist. “You know,” I said. “If we were girls, and this was a movie, I’d teach you how to kiss.”

He looked away.

“I mean, that’s it, right? You’re too nervous. But your first kiss . . . you just have to go for it.”

Our legs lay on the carpet, and our necks were braced against the bottom of the couch. His chest rose and fell.

“What if she’s not into it?”

I nodded. “Well, some people say that if you’re careful and look real close at her body language, you’ll always know. Other people say, well, you only go like ninety percent of the way and let her meet you the rest of the way. But, I don’t know, this is real life, Dave. People are drunk. They don’t know what they want. It’s just a fucking kiss. If you get it wrong, she turns away, or she goes really still, and, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, you feel so terrible—I mean—like—every single time I’ve tried to kiss somebody my heart’s been beating so fast that I could hardly breathe, much less think.”

“So . . .” He gulped. “You just go for it.”

“Yeah.”

We held there for a split second, breathing in sync, and then I touched my lips to his.

His eyes widened, and I had a split-second thought—Okay, so this is really happening—before I came close to gagging on the slimy tongue that invaded my mouth. But I held on to that thought, This is happening, this is happening, this is happening, and the tongue kept moving around, like some deep-sea tentacle was foraging inside my mouth.

After a few minutes, his hand twisted back and around to go into my pants, and he said, “Is . . . is this okay?”

“We don’t have to.”

“But I want to.”

I wasn’t feeling turned on at all, so I tried thinking sexy thoughts, but it was like he was mashing a baked potato down there, so instead I redirected his attention by unzipping his own pants, and I bent down over him.

All through the experience, I kept thinking the weirdest stuff like, Oh, this is actually not easy and What do you do with your teeth? and Hmm, this is a really interesting experience. I’d expected Dave to be as turned off as me, but he gasped and moaned, and I was like, Wait, okay, he’s enjoying this. Or maybe he’s faking it, because I’ve definitely done that with Avani. God, she was terrible. So many teeth. Wait, where are my teeth? And then it was over and I went to the bathroom and used a fair bit of mouthwash.

When I came back, I was afraid he’d want more, but he was sprawled out like a Roman emperor, enthroned on cushions and blankets, and he took my hand with a happy smile. We lay together for a long time.

“That was incredible,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It was definitely something.”

My hand ran along his belly, playing with the little bit of fat around his waist, and he kissed me on the forehead. It was all just very funny, but I didn’t laugh.

“You’ve never done that before?” I said.

“Like that? No. What about you?”

He was still wearing his glasses, and I plucked them off and put them on the table.

“Umm, no,” I said. “With girls, I guess, but you’re my first guy. It was good, though. Really interesting.”

“I, uhh . . .” He rubbed a hand across my chest. “You were awesome.”

The oddness overpowered me, and I thought, Hmm, I’m going to remember this forever. This is actual personal history, being created right here.

“You don’t need to, umm, return the favor.” I pointed to myself. “There’s no way I could get it up. I’m way too drunk.”

“Oh, umm . . .” He smiled. “But . . . maybe some other time?”

“Wow, you’re acting just like I used to act after Avani went down on me. That’s what’s so funny.”

He laughed. “I feel really good.”

“Well, yeah. I mean, if you didn’t, I’d be offended.”

We chatted back and forth, talking about sex, going round and round. He had never come close to being with someone else. Never even kissed anyone. And I almost said, Well, we could keep hooking up if you want, but instead I yawned. “You can stay the night, my mom won’t suspect anything.”

And something about that word—“suspect”—broke our little trance. He pulled away, sorted out his clothes, and after that we didn’t touch each other. He stayed for another hour, but our conversation was awkward and slow, and when he left we did not kiss goodbye.


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