Paul lets himself fall on the chair more than he sits down. There have been looks and comments again this morning. He thought that people would get over it much quicker. Even the people that are cool with it are talking about it because there was a picture. Something to go viral.
At least, his friends stopped looking at him with that sparkle of pity in their eyes. Even when they looked proud, it was worse. He accomplished nothing. He just handled the consequences of a shitty situation the best way he could. There was no decision making in there.
Sarah joins him at the lunch table and immediately says: “The picture popped in my feed again today. Seriously, don’t they have anything else to talk about?”
“Apparently not,” Paul replies. For some reason, he doesn’t mind it so much when Sarah brings up the picture. It might be because she does not feel sorry for him. She is angry with him. That, more than anything, comforts Paul and makes him feel like someone is on his side.
He can’t believe that this happened to him. After nearly a year of struggling with this reality, Paul had finally come to terms with the fact that he was gay. He had been so close to coming out. He had planned to tell Sarah first. Before coming out to his family, he wanted to tell his two best friends. He pretty much grew up with them and he wanted to see how they would react to him making this big revelation about himself before being able to tell his parents. Or even his sisters. And out of the two, Sarah was less scary than Leo.
But then this photo of Paul kissing a boy went viral. It was like his entire life came crashing down around him. Thankfully, his friends were more supportive than he could have predicted. Still. His coming out never should have happened that way. No one else should have made that decision for him. His little sister shouldn’t have found out online. He shouldn’t have had to come to his parents in a rush with a half-prepared speech before they heard it from someone else. He shouldn’t have had to tell his older sister over Skype…
It might have been less frustrating if at least it was a picture of Paul kissing his boyfriend. Or at least his date. But it wasn’t even that.
Paul is not a party person. But Leo is on the basketball team, so Paul and Leah always join him when he goes to Max’s victory parties. There, Paul met Louie. He had never seen him before. He doesn’t go to their school. He was a friend of someone from the opposite team or something like that. He was cute, interesting, and interested. It was the first time that a boy flirted with Paul and it felt incredible.
Paul doesn’t know if it was the few drinks he had or the exciting novelty of feeling attracted to someone who seemed to like him back, although none of them had said it exactly, but he was completely bewitched by the moment. He forgot that he wasn’t out, that being gay was still terrifying, that the world isn’t as progressive as it should, that he was entirely not ready for that, and he let Louie put his lips against his.
It could have been a sweet moment. Even maybe the beginning of something. But drunken Paul didn’t even think of asking for Louie’s number and the next day the picture was already viral. Suddenly, being associated with Louie was the last thing Paul wanted.
Losing a boy he barely knew shouldn’t have been a big deal in the midst of things, and it wasn’t really. It was just the last straw. An extra blow in the shitstorm that his life had become.
Leo and Amy join them at the lunch table. That’s the one good thing that happened at the party. After months of will-they-won’t-they, the two of them finally became an item. As hard as it was to be thrilled about anything after everything that happened, Paul was happy for them. Sarah too, even if she pretended that she didn’t care.
“What are we talking about?” Leo asks.
“People being obsessed by one picture, as if it was going to reveal to them the secrets of the universe,” Sarah replies, still angry.
Paul appreciates the sentiment, but he also wishes that she would let it go. They cannot blame people for not moving on if they are not willing to do so themselves.
Amy looks at Paul with that annoying air on her face. Since she found love – even before that, actually, it just got worse – she has been obsessed about making sure everyone else falls in love too. “You know, it might be a sign.”
“A sign of what?”
“That you need to own this story.”
“And how should I do that?”
“We need to track down that other boy and you should ask him on a date!”
“No, thank you,” Paul replies. “I am not going to spend energy finding a boy for whom I might simply be a vague memory from a party just because I need someone to rescue me. Do you know what I actually need? I need to find one person in the world who has not seen the picture, who doesn’t see me as the kid who got outed online.”
“There is always the weird bus lady,” Max offers, sitting down with them. The last member of the lunch table. “I don’t think she knows the Internet exists.”
“There we go. I will be hanging out with her for the next couple of weeks.”
Max completely ignores Paul’s pity party and asks: “Leo, do you have half an hour after school?”
“Do you remember that I have a new neighbor that is joining the school? The one I met at basketball camp? I talked to him a bit and he was on the team in his last school. The coach said he would watch him play today, but I need a few guys to play with us.”
Leo looks at Paul. “Would that work for you?” They often carshare to school.
“Yes, that’s fine. I have a bit of homework to do anyway.”
Sarah, Paul, and Amy end up going to the gym to watch this new guy’s tryout. If he is Max’s neighbor, they will probably be seeing much more of him, and they are curious.
At first, Paul regrets it a little bit. There is nothing more depressing than a high school gym... But then the view of basketball players running around makes him much happier. Especially since the guys on the team, probably thanks to Max and Leo, have been pretty cool about the gay thing. At least, none of them has called Paul any name, nor commented or shared the picture.
The new guy seems hot. Not that Paul would mention that at loud. Somehow, it’s okay for Amy and Sarah to say stuff like that, but not for him. However unfair that might be, Paul knows that he would be properly bullied if some guy heard him call another boy hot. Especially a jock. It’s like the worst thing high-schoolers could do was to let a jock be the center of some gay attention.
“The newbie seems cute,” Amy says, precisely making Paul’s point. “Do you think he’s single?”
“Do you remember you’re taken?” Sarah asks.
“Yes. But you’re not.”
Sarah just glares at her. A look that clearly says: ‘Stay away from my love life’.
“Or maybe he’s for you,” Amy tells Paul.
“Exactly,” he answers. “If he’s gay, I don’t even need to know more about him. We should start dating straight away.”
Amy looks at him like he’s being immature. “Oh, come on, you know I didn’t mean it that way!” Paul nudges her gently. He does know that. She is just that helpless romantic who tries to see love wherever she looks. And, to be fair to her, Paul cannot label as ‘homophobic’ a statement that had first been targeted at Sarah.
After the tryout session, Paul and the girls are sitting on the hood of his car, waiting for Leo. He finally shows up with Max and the new guy.
Max introduces everyone immediately. “Okay, this is the rest of the lunch crew. We have Sarah, Paul, and Amy.” The new guy looks like he is linking faces and names, as if he had heard about them already. “Guys, this is Ben. He will be joining us for lunch, if that’s alright.”
No one has any objection. Paul is mainly trying not to stare. He was right. He is hot. Not just in a basketball player way. Amy was also right. He is cute, with his soft curls and his long eyelashes. He is also very handsome with his defined jawline and his gorgeous brown complexion. He doesn’t really make eye-contact for a long time and he seems a bit shy. But there is also something in his eyes that indicates something more. Like he sees and thinks more than the world will ever get to know.
Paul just really hopes that he will eventually get to know.