Rob Samborn vs. Ian Shea

The Naked Flame

93

votes

Not based on a true story...

Death barreled toward me, more like a locomotive than a missile. Two or three sidesteps would’ve spared me from an inglorious end but I opted to wait until the last second. A relationship of escalating tension instigated my desire to play chicken with a poisonous viper slithering straight for me on the top of a moonlit sand dune in the Sahara.

My trip to Morocco was fairytale-like. Technicolor bazaars bursting with leather hawkers, snake charmers and spice vendors, lush oases teeming with date palm trees, and sumptuous tajines of couscous, lamb, and berries provided a kaleidoscopic backdrop to a three-week journey into the exotic. The one holdout to the magic was my traveling companion.

In our typical existence, my wife and I clicked on every level—food, lifestyle, entertainment, sex, you name it. Sure, she liked to befriend each person she met whereas social distancing suited me just fine, but other than that, her desire for kids, and a few other minor quibbles, traveling was the one area where we didn’t see eye-to-eye. But it was my greatest joy, so once the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted and Americans were allowed to travel internationally, I booked us tickets on the first flight to Casablanca. In non-pandemic times, my wife would begrudgingly oblige whenever my travel bug bit and pretend to be a good sport enough to make a trip tolerable. After months of breathing the same air, she embraced this vacation with an enthusiasm that reminded me of why I fell in love with her. Our therapist gave us two thumbs up and accommodated our Zoom session schedule. Unfortunately, Morocco was not my wife’s cup of mint tea.

The complaining commenced the moment we stepped into the unairconditioned airport. It continued when sweltering air as thick as armpit soup engulfed us. Despite the pandemic ravaging the globe, the throng of people in a country that kissed Europe at the Strait of Gibraltar seemed to be unaffected. Other than the Orwellian-level mask policy, as we traveled from Casablanca to Marrakesh, the 35-million-strong populace went about their daily routines. Perhaps my wife had grown accustomed to our thinned-out world at home, but I could see in her screwed-up eyes she regretted her decision. The high-density, tightly wound streets of Marrakesh caused her to grumble about the traffic. The lack of variety in the succulent Moroccan cuisine led her to whine about the food. And then she’d outright refuse to attempt speaking French, let alone Arabic.

“Can I get a Coke?” she asked the snack vendor wedged between two spice stalls in the bustling medina.

The sixty-something man who looked closer to ninety peered over his round glasses and rubbed his chin over his mask, as if contemplating one of life’s great mysteries. 

He perked a bushy eyebrow, as if to say: ‘Ah, my dear madame, but can the Coke get you?’ 

I seethed inside. She’d done it again. It was bad enough she chose to drink America’s most ubiquitous beverage in such a unique country. She never drank Coke at home. To compound the situation, she had to phrase the question like that. As much as I hated talking to people, if you had to do it, do it right. I couldn’t recall how many times I asked her to speak in as simple English as possible if she wasn’t going to try speaking another language.

“That is simple,” she yelled back.

“It’s a colloquialism,” I said. “‘Can I get...’ Think about it. Technically you’re asking if you’re able to retrieve it. And besides that, you have no idea if he speaks a word of English.”

The vendor continued to stare with an indecipherable gaze at the idiot tourists arguing in front of him.

Reciprocating the anger in my eyes, she didn’t hide her exasperation and apparently didn’t want a Coke that bad. She stormed off.

I concluded the transaction and handed the vendor the money, thanking him in French. I had to admit—the ice-cold can felt like a handheld air conditioner. She stood ten feet away with her attention diverted by the vibrant spice bins, so I pressed the can against the back of my sweaty neck. With the backdrop of the bazaar, I must’ve looked like the poster boy for Coca-Cola’s marketing campaign. Suppressing my urge to take a quick sip before chucking it at her head, I handed it over. 

She cracked it open and chugged for a few seconds. “So I asked for a soda in English. Get over it.” 

Despite the harshness of her words, the drink had coaxed them into a soothing tone. I also never drank Coke, but that mix of carbonated sugar and caffeine would’ve been an elixir for my own sour mood. I refused to give her the satisfaction when she offered me some.

“How would you like it,” I asked, “if a tourist came up to you in Cherry Creek and asked for something in French or Arabic?” 

“What do you expect me to do? I don’t speak those languages.”

“You can at least be polite. You know how to say, ‘Hello, do you speak English?’ in English.”

She didn’t respond. Maybe that one got to her. I’d tried to see it from her perspective. She’d never been to a developing country, whereas I had, and Morocco was the India I’d been searching for—a quixotic land of my dreams sans a billion people.

With apologies and promises not to travel to developing nations together again, we continued our trip. I swallowed her daily-turned-hourly irritations. By the time we reached the Sahara, I had retreated into myself, fantasizing of vast swaths of nothing but mountainous sand dunes.

Solitude is not an easy thing to find. I’d lived in cities my entire life and loved the vivacity and buzz. The harmonious chaos of Marrakesh, Fez and Tangier enticed me, but I’d been craving isolation for years before COVID hit. In the countryside, deserts, and mountains of America, you’re never more than a five-hour drive from a city and there’s always some noise—a car, an airplane, other people, or even animals, birds and bugs. 

I sought … nothingness. Short of hitching a ride into space with a money-burning billionaire, I thought I’d find it on our overnight camel trek. 

We had joined a group of eight other tourists—six Americans and two Italians, all coincidentally also in the early 30s to mid-40s. Since all our mandatory COVID tests were negative, we were able to go mask-free, a nice prize in the confines of a passenger van. The other tourists were friendly, but none of them lived anywhere near us, so we didn’t think they were worth getting to know enough to keep in touch with.

“Single-serving friends,” my wife muttered under her breath.

That she referenced one of my favorite movies sparked a flutter in my lower abdomen. That she said it with mocking disdain had that spark punching itself in the face until it was quashed under its own boot. 

She threw me a smirk, twisted onto her knees, and struck up a conversation with the couple behind us. I slunk into my seat and fished out my earbuds so I wouldn’t be forced to endure two life stories from Indiana, Iowa, or Illinois. I had forgotten where they were from already. As Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack to The Sheltering Sky caressed my ears, I wondered if it were really that odd to love immersing oneself in other cultures yet hate human beings. My wife claimed it was people who helped shape the journey of one’s life. In a therapy session, I had conceded that as an extrovert, the pandemic had hit her hard. In a way, this trip must’ve been a relief for her. Did the traffic and crowds truly bother her? Years earlier, I had promised our therapist I’d make an effort to be a functioning member of society, so I supposed it was time to make good on that threat. This wasn’t high school; I wasn’t going to expose myself and set myself up for immolation. I could deal with a handful of people who all desired to experience the same thing. I switched off the music and joined the conversation.  

A three-day van ride took us from Marrakesh and through the Atlas Mountains, where we explored ancient gorges, took breaks at rest stops selling fly-covered goat meat, and managed to sleep at cliffside inns where the temperature had mercifully dropped forty degrees.

Arriving on the edge of the Sahara, a six-hour ride deposited us at an outpost in a remote village. From there, the final leg of our trek was by camel to a campsite nestled in the dunes, twenty kilometers from the Algerian border. Our two Tuareg guides both wore nearly identical pure blue djellabas—traditional loose-fitting robes with full sleeves, along with cloth turbans that covered their whole heads except their dark brown eyes. They’d been wearing face coverings since they hit puberty. Given the two men were also of the same height and stature, my wife and I worried we’d be unintentionally racist and get them mixed up. We were relieved to learn they were both named Mohammed. 

Needing to travel light, the tour group stashed their backpacks in an outpost room and then one-by-one, mounted our dromedary rides. As we balanced on the humps, with fur like straw in both color and texture, my wife captured a shot of me with her Canon. Seeing her beautiful smile caused my perma-grin to widen further. With Mohammed leading the caravan and Mohammed bringing up the rear, we pushed off. 

Half a mile in, my enthusiasm vanished. All around us, SUVs and ATVs roared their engines over the banks. Wealthy European tourists carved up the landscape like machetes on a Monet. Finding solitude in the Sahara was not the foregone conclusion I had expected it to be. Though not an auspicious beginning, dusk fell quickly and as our camel train trotted a few miles into a desert the size of the continental United States, the noise diminished. The void lay before us, spread bare, inviting me in. The deeper we went, its emptiness embraced me, welcoming me. I closed my eyes and as my head bobbed along with the camel’s trot, I inhaled the crisp, dry, perfectly clean air, as if breathing for the first time.

Riding in single file made conversation difficult, enabling the quiet I desired. My wife rode in front of me, so I couldn’t see her expression. I hoped she enjoyed it too, but I suspected a camel’s hump battering her ass for hours erased all traces of her previous smile. 

I’m not sure if we left late intentionally, but by the time we reached the campsite, it was dark. A half-moon lit our way.

Ten tents encircled a raging fire, surrounded by twenty-foot-high dunes, creating a small, valley-like setting. Our tents were pitch black inside. We didn’t have flashlights and our cells had died many hours earlier. Blindly feeling around, my wife and I dropped off our bags, hoping the beds weren’t too disgusting or crawling with anything you don’t want a bed to be crawling with. 

Joining the rest of the group and a camp caretaker not named Mohammed, we ate dinner sitting around the fire. After the customary lamb tajine with couscous, squash, and raisins, the guides passed out drums. They sang and played and invited us to join in. The music was enjoyable and the vibe was infectious. Some of us got up to dance, circling the fire. But the volume of the drums obliterated the silence I so yearned for, and the light of the fire eclipsed the billions of stars over us. 

We’d been informed that the sand dunes were the facilities, so when it came time for me to use nature’s toilet, I seized the moment and climbed to the top of the dune to relieve myself. The music died down just over the crest. Fifty feet away, it had quieted completely. The firelight faded and the stars made their grand appearance, like pinpricks in an obsidian sheet. 

I breathed in slowly, inhaling the solitude. Gazing across the magnificence, the moonlight afforded miles of visibility. Miles of nothing. I’d completed my quest. From the edge of the horizon to directly above me, more stars than I’d ever seen wrapped me in a blanket of shimmering light. Though I didn’t want to worry anybody, I had no inclination to return to the campfire, so I soldiered on another hundred feet into the infinite abyss, contemplating how far I could reasonably go. I bent down and scooped a handful of cool sand, letting the purity of the virgin grains cascade through my fingers.

That’s when I heard the slithering.

My heart skipped a beat.

It approached at a constant, deliberate speed, gliding straight for me.

Calming my nerves, I rationalized it was mere coincidence I was in a snake’s path. If I didn’t bother it, it wouldn’t bother me. It’s not like snakes hunt humans. Then again, what cruel twist of fate put this creature in my path—interrupting my sanctuary? I recalled an episode of Man vs. Wild that took place in Morocco. Bear Grylls found and killed a horned viper, a venomous snake that lived in this habitat. Yeah, a snake with horns that could kill you.

Was the universe challenging me, testing me to see if I could enjoy the moment, despite this most unpleasant, potentially lethal obstacle?

Challenge accepted. 

I wanted to see this insolent serpent, confident it was minding its own business and sheer chance put us on a collision course in nothingness. I only needed to step out of its way and watch it go by. Then I could get back to my tranquility. Maybe even lie down, ensconce myself in the sand, and gaze up at the sky.

The slithering came closer. Much closer. A surge of panic shot through my chest. In the dim moon shadows, each wind-brushed ripple surrounding me looked like a snake. Would I be able to see the thing? Would it be buried in the sand? What was I doing? I fucking despised snakes. What if it bit me? I couldn’t hear the music at the campsite; how could the group hear a scream? Would they have an anti-venom kit? We were a five-hour camel ride from the waystation. It got closer … closer. I needed to make my move. This was it. I stepped … on the candy bar wrapper blowing under my foot.

In 3.6 million square miles of empty void, a piece of trash had drifted along the top of the dune right at me. What were the odds?

I’m neither superstitious nor religious, but when a sign smacks you in the face, you read it. Sometimes you find something that’s one-in-a-million, but that thing may not be what you expected. My initial thought was to pick up the wrapper. Be a conscientious citizen of the world, cleaning the desert. Then I considered the other side of the coin—though that one-in-a-million thing may not have been the deadly Saharan horned viper, even an anti-social plastic wrapper deserved another chance. 

Realizing I’d been holding my breath, I exhaled and lifted my foot, freeing the trash to sail on its peaceful—if not tainting—journey. I relaxed, knowing for that instant, I was completely alone. The dunes and sky transported me to mesmerizing comfort, as if floating in the expanse of space. Remarkably few in our time are afforded the opportunity to be enshrouded by the infinite. The comprehension hit me that I was nothing but a fleck on a planetary fleck. And the painful beauty of that knowledge, that we’re all mere electrons in the cosmos, somehow sparked a glimmer of hope.

My thoughts zipped to my wife. After years of dating, I’d found her. Our issues be damned, she was my one-in-a-million and I wanted to share the grandeur of pure solitude with her. 

I trudged down the dune. The drums and fire accosted the serenity. Nobody batted an eyelash at my return, though it felt like I’d been gone for hours.

“There’s something I want to share with you,” I whispered.

She smiled and stood. I took her hand and led her up to the spot where I’d been standing in wondrous awe.

“Amazing, huh?” I said. “You can’t even hear them. Isn’t the peace of this place incredible?”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing here. We should get back.”

“Babe, look at the stars. Have you ever seen so many?”

She gazed up and acknowledged their splendor with a nod. “Let’s go back to the fire. It’s cold up here.”

My shoulders sank with my sigh.

“Why don’t you go,” I said. “I’ll be down in a bit.”

She shrugged and moved to go.

“Wait,” I said.

She stopped. Turned.

A slithering approached.

Maybe that one-in-a-million chance isn’t what it seems after all. Were we standing in a wind channel of litter?

“What are you looking at?” my wife asked.

I didn’t answer, squinting into the darkness, searching for garbage.

“I’m going down,” she said. 

I swallowed. She couldn’t even take two seconds for a two-in-a-million chance. Maybe she wasn’t my one-in-a-million after all.

But she didn’t budge. “What’s that noise?”

“Eh.” I waved her off. “Just a candy bar wrapper or something. Let’s go.”

“Oh my God! It’s a snake!”

I followed her gawk. Charging straight for us, half-buried in the sand in perfect camouflage, was a four-foot-long horned viper.

In a split-second decision, I seized my one-in-a-million opportunity. A chance to reset my life. A chance for freedom to travel wherever I wanted to go. A chance … for the perfect crime.

I grabbed her shoulders and shoved her down. 

Like a whip, the viper lashed out. It sunk its fangs into my wife’s neck for two seconds, before releasing. It sped off, sidewinding down the dune.

My heart insistently resumed its beat, taking charge while my brain fixated on the most beautiful and terrifying thing I’d ever seen. It was nature in its truest, rawest form: the most vicious species on Earth protecting its own self-interest by committing murder.

In a state of shock, my wife stared at me, not knowing—or comprehending—what just happened. If Bear Grylls was right, she had about two minutes to live. I had two minutes to prevent her from telling anybody the truth.

But there’d be questions if I didn’t immediately call for help. 

I knelt and caressed her shoulder.

“What can I do?”

“You … pushed me,” she managed.

I covered her mouth and counted to thirty. Her body convulsed. Her shaking was uncontrollable. Even in the darkness, I could see her neck and face swelling, her veins turning a sickly green.

Twenty-eight … twenty-nine … thirty.

“Help,” I shouted. “Help!”

Voices carried across the sand. 

She tried speaking. Froth pooled on the corners of her bloating mouth. I held her head. “I love you, I love you.” I kissed her. “Hellllp!”

The group ran up the dune.

“She was bit by a snake!”

Everyone gasped, haphazardly searching the ground, shuffling their feet.

“Don’t you have a snakebite kit?” I shouted at one of the guides.

He shook his head.

My wife stopped trembling. Her last breath escaped.

One of the tourists clasped my shoulder, but I knocked his hand away.

I picked up the love of my life and cradled her in my arms. Tears streamed down my cheeks. This wasn’t what I wanted; I wanted someone to share the moment.

As I carried her, the others followed in silence. We reached the campsite, but I didn’t put her down. I held her, staring into the fire. The desert was quiet again, no sound but the crackling of the naked flame, sparks flying to the sky, desperate to join their kin, but destined to flicker out every time.


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Gotta Be More Careful

107

votes

In high school, my backpack was never large enough to hold all my textbooks. Every day, I would manage to cram a few notebooks and textbooks in it, but there was so little time between classes, I couldn’t stop at my locker to switch them out. I’d have to carry all of my books for the classes I had before lunch, then during lunch, I’d grab the books I’d need for the second half of the day. This meant I’d inevitably have to carry a couple in my arms as I navigated the halls, creating a perfect opportunity for bullies.

As I bent over picking up my math book and notebooks off the floor, a soccer player, Mike, saw an opportunity and kicked the book further down the hall. “Gotta be more careful, fag,” he said mockingly, barely breaking stride as he continued to walk. He was so full of himself. Being one of the best players on the team afforded him a lot of clout in school. The fact that he was handsome with a great body made him think he was a god among insects.

“Screw you, Mike!” I called after him.

“Mr. Shea, that’s not an appropriate way to address a classmate.” One of the football coaches appeared behind me.

“Coach, he knocked my books out of my hands and then kicked it.”

“That’s not how I saw it,” he said, shaking his head. 

I don’t know why this surprised me. Jock types always stuck together, regardless of their age.

“Of course not. How convenient for him,” I muttered.

“Maybe you need an afternoon of detention to think about how to show people respect. My classroom. After school.” He didn’t wait for me to respond. He didn’t even attempt to help me pick my stuff up off the floor. 

***

Mike wasn’t done with me that day, even after the bell released us from school. I don’t know how I allowed my friend Stephanie to talk me into going to a school dance. I never enjoyed dancing. But someone always seemed to succeed in dragging me to these things. I typically found a place to sit and socialize with the few people who weren’t afraid to be seen with the school’s only openly gay student.

The school gym was packed with students dancing to Gwen Stefani declaring herself a “Hollaback Girl.” Stephanie was dancing with a guy from her Spanish class. I waved to her and pointed to the boys’ locker room, letting her know I was going to the bathroom. She waved, acknowledging me, and redirected her attention back to Spanish Class Guy.

In the locker room, I had to walk past a row of lockers and benches to reach the actual bathroom. As I stood at the urinal, I noticed the distinct smell of weed coming from one of the stalls and saw a pair of sneakers under the divider. This wasn’t uncommon. I don’t know why anyone would want to smoke weed inside a school bathroom. If you want to smoke, why not do it outside or in the car or something so you wouldn’t risk getting caught by a teacher?

I was washing my hands as the stall door opened and Mike emerged, his eyes looking as red as his hair. I tried to ignore him, but he didn’t want to ignore me. “What are you doing, fag? Hoping to see some dicks?” He pushed my shoulder, but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want to engage. I dried my hands and tried to walk out, but he grabbed my shoulder, holding me back. “What’s the matter? You too cool to talk to me?”

“Leave me alone.”

He grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me closer. “Fag. Why don’t you leave the rest of us alone? You come in here hoping to check out another guy’s junk, and I’m just supposed to be okay with it?”

I could smell beer on his breath. “I wasn’t trying to look at anyone’s junk. I had to pee, you jerk!” He tightened his grip for a moment, and, with as much force as he could muster, shoved me in the direction of the lockers. As I stumbled backward, I tripped over the benches and fell hard to the floor. I don’t know what I caught my arm on, but it was now scraped with a small amount of blood trickling down. Not knowing what else he would try to do, I looked up at him. “What’d you call me, fag?” I asked. 

Mike calmly walked around me, making his way back to the gym. Before he left, he took one last look at my shocked expression. “You tripped. You gotta be more careful, fag.”

 ***

Seven years later, I clumsily placed four shot glasses on a table, drops of vodka spilling from each one. “Okay, kids, drinks are served!”

“Party foul!” Derek teased. “You gotta be more careful, dude. Just because you’re not done waiting tables doesn’t mean you get to spill my drink.”

Everyone grabbed a shot glass, but Samantha stopped us before we drank. “Here’s to Ian, selling his soul to corporate America for a few pieces of silver!” She held up her shot glass. We all laughed at her mocking toast before downing our respective shots.

I winced as the vodka made its way down my throat. I hated shots. “In my defense, I’m not selling my soul for a few pieces of silver. I’m selling my soul for a 401k and a bad-ass dental plan!”

We all laughed. It was Saturday night, and we were all in good spirits. I was starting my new job on Monday, and last night was my final shift as a waiter. I would never have to carry a tray of appetizers ever again. Despite her disdain for “corporate America,” Samantha was happy for me. All my friends were.

The club was busy tonight. We stood around one of the tables in the bar area, enjoying the music thumping through the loudspeakers. We could see the large entrance to the dance floor populated by couples and small groups of friends boogying the night away.

Derek put his arm around me. “Ian, I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?”

“Now that you’ve quit waiting tables, who’s going to get my order wrong?” He burst out laughing at his joke. I tried to pretend I was insulted, but I couldn’t suppress my own laughter.

“Oh, come on, I wasn’t that bad!”

“Honey, I’m still waiting on my steak from three months ago,” Samantha said, chuckling.

“I told you, it’ll be out in a minute.”

Derek declared he felt like dancing. Samantha and Darcy cheered at the idea.

“You guys have fun. I’m going outside for a cigarette,” I said.

“You really need to quit,” Darcy said. “Your teeth are going to get yellow and gross one of these days.”

“That’s okay. He’s got that great new dental plan!” Derek laughed as they all made their way to the dance floor. Sam and Darcy wrapped their arms around each other as they started dancing.

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I walked outside. The club had a back patio that contained a series of tables and overlooked a river. At night, it looked really pretty. You couldn’t tell how polluted it really was. The patio wasn’t anything elaborate, but it served its purpose. About a dozen people were milling around, some smoking, some just sitting and enjoying their drinks. Two women sat at a table, holding hands, looking as if they were in the middle of a deep conversation. I stood at the edge of the patio, lit my cigarette, and looked out at the water. I wasn’t interested in mingling, so I just enjoyed a moment to myself.

My moment of peace was interrupted when a guy approached me asking if he could use my lighter. He was taller than me, wearing a Tom Brady jersey and Patriots cap. It wasn’t the typical attire I was used to seeing at gay clubs. He lit his cigarette and handed me my lighter back. “Thanks. You’re Ian, right?”

Mike stood before me, smoking a cigarette, holding a bottle of beer. I wasn’t sure what to say. It took me a moment to realize it was even him. His athletic body was a distant memory. His face was much rounder than it had been back in school. The Tom Brady jersey was loose-fitting, but it didn’t hide the fact that his stomach was a lot rounder than it used to be. The Mike I went to high school with was at the gym after school virtually every day. I wasn’t sure how to react seeing him now. High school was years ago, but some memories never fade. “Wow. Mike. Hi.”

“I thought that was you! How you doing, man?” Mike’s tone was cheerful, even friendly. I was confused. He spent four years addressing me as “fag” more than my actual name. What was he doing at a gay club?

“I’m good. I’m good … I’m here with some friends … they’re inside … hi.”

Mike seemed to sense that I was uncomfortable. He shifted his weight to his back leg and tried standing more casually. Maybe he was trying to put me at ease. He took a long drag of his cigarette.

I wasn’t sure what to say. I wasn’t even really sure why he had approached me. “So, um, what are you up to? What are you doing with your life?”

“Uh, well, I’m not working. Rough economy right now, you know? How about you?”

“I’ve been waiting tables for a couple of years, but I just had my last day yesterday. I’m starting a new job Monday. I’m going corporate.”

“That’s great. Good for you.” 

This was ridiculous. Why was he trying to talk to me like we were old friends? “Mike, what are you doing at a gay club?”

He seemed taken aback by my bluntness. “It’s a good place to meet guys,” he replied as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. He shifted uncomfortably. I don’t know what he had expected, but this little reunion didn’t seem to be going as planned. “I guess you’re surprised I’m into guys considering …” He didn’t seem to want to finish the sentence. It was as if he was just now realizing the irony of what was happening.

“Considering how much you tormented the token fag in high school.” I didn’t see any need to hold back. We weren’t kids anymore.

Mike shrugged his shoulders. “Oh come on, man. That was high school. We were teenagers. That was a long time ago. Let me buy you a drink.”

Dropping his cigarette to the ground and snuffing it out with his shoe, he put his arm around my neck as if to lead me inside to the bar. I used my free hand to remove his arm, uneasy that he was trying to be so friendly. He was right. High school was a long time ago. And yeah, we had been teenagers, but was that a valid excuse? Did that change how badly he had treated me? Had I deserved what he had put me through?

“Yeah, it was a long time ago. But you were still horrible to me. And then you walk up to me like we’re old friends and nothing happened? What did you think would happen?”

“I don’t know. Say hi, have a drink, see where the night takes us? I mean, your ass does look really good in those jeans.”

“No. No, it doesn’t work that way.” I took one final drag of my cigarette and put it out in one of the smokers’ outposts.

“Come on, man, it was just high school. Don’t be that way.” He sounded sincere like he genuinely wanted to talk. He was attempting to downplay the past, but I didn’t want to hear him downplay it. I wanted to hear him to apologize. But it didn’t seem like those words would ever come out of his mouth.

“Good to see you, Mike.” I began to walk back inside, but he stopped me, putting his hand on my shoulder again.

“Don’t walk away like that. Let me just buy you a drink so we can talk,” Mike insisted.

I spun around, getting in his face. “You and I don’t have anything to talk about. I’m not your friend, and you sure as hell aren’t mine.” He stood in stunned silence, thrown off by my anger. My outburst had earned the attention of some of the nearby patrons, who were discreetly trying to listen to us. I didn’t care at the moment. “You spent four years going out of your way to bully me and push me around any chance you got. You were a bully. Maybe you had some kind of self-hating homophobia you were dealing with, but frankly, I don’t give a damn. You tormented me and you had fun doing it. You loved that I was too afraid to stand up for myself. I got news for you, Mikey, I’m not scared of you anymore.”

Mike looked sheepishly at his shoes, shoving one of his hands inside his pocket as he took another sip of his beer. “I don’t know what to say,” he humbly admitted.

I took a deep breath. As calmly as I could, I answered him, “How about ‘I’m sorry.’”

His lips parted as if he were about to say it, but something stopped him. He couldn’t make eye contact with me. Was he really unable to utter two little words? I shook my head, too aggravated to say anything else. I turned my back to him and returned indoors.

Inside, I tried to make my way to the bar, but my friends spotted me and coaxed me to join them on the dance floor. After a few minutes, Derek leaned in closely, speaking directly into my ear, trying to make sure I could hear him over the music. “Hey, see the guy in the Tom Brady jersey at the bar? He keeps checking you out.” I looked where Derek pointed and saw Mike staring at me as the bartender handed him another bottle of beer. A group of girls pushing their way to the bar bumped into him, causing him to drop his beer.

“Party foul!” Derek laughed.

As I watched Mike use his hands to try and wipe the beer from his shirt and his arms, I leaned towards Derek. “Dude should be more careful.”



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