Contest #254 winner 🏆

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LGBTQ+

I don’t really know how to tell this story. For a start, there are some logistical difficulties – I’ll get to those later – but even without those, I don’t know how to explain it all. I guess I’ll start when we saw each other at the club after four years apart. That night, my head was pounding with noise and my heart was burning with hurt, and I’d come to the club alone – a stupid move for a girl, some part of me still said, though I hadn’t looked like a girl in public for over a year. I threw myself into the sweaty, rainbow-hued crowd prepared to try to lose my mind. I couldn’t have ever anticipated the direction my night was going to go. 

Was I surprised to see him at that club, his bronze hair grown out to shoulder-length since high school, a rainbow stick-on tattoo smeared across his cheek? No, of course not. And he couldn’t have been surprised to see me in a black button-down shirt, open over nothing but a pink-and-orange chest binder, my hair shorn into a buzz cut. But the second we saw each other, we burst out laughing. 

“Oli Hansen,” I shouted hoarsely. “Well, so, how have you been?”

“Addy!” He was shoved from behind by a careless dancer, and he stumbled into me, letting me catch him by the wrists. “You’re in town!”

“For two weeks. Then I’m fucking off to grad school.” I’d always been the one who dreamed of escaping this town; he’d been the one to dream of things changing here. It didn’t seem like they had, given the drab concrete street outside, the black walls masking the sprays of rainbow light within, but maybe he was still dreaming. “Are you still local?”

“Yep. Just finished community college.” He tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. He was taller than he’d been in high school, thinner; his long-lashed eyes were more prominent in his face. “Now I’m working for the public library.”

“Oh, man, that’s awesome.” We’d always taken refuge together in the public library when we were kids, when the pavement outside got too hot, or the world too much. 

“They’re cool over there. They’ve put some pride flag stickers on the windows since you’ve been gone. And they ordered the suite of Heartstopper comics after about a million requests for them, so, steps forward.” 

I chuckled. Seeing Oli was the biggest relief I’d felt since coming back to town. It drove back the ache that had set in earlier, when I’d try to go out for drinks with Natalie and Charlotte, girls I’d shared lunch tables and study sessions with in high school. They’d started throwing back glasses of fancy wine like their lives depended on it and plunged straight into complaining about their boyfriends, telling me I was so lucky to be a lesbian, saying I didn’t understand how terrible men were, and half an hour in they were ignoring me entirely to talk to each other. I’d slipped out after using the bathroom and they hadn’t even noticed. 

Somehow, after four years away struggling to find myself, I’d thought coming back here would feel like coming home.

I Will Survive came on.

Oli squeezed my hands. “Want to dance?”

Without a word, I pulled him out onto the floor.

I have to tell you about how Oli and I grew up, of course. He was the kind of friend you can only have in a small town where no one is different but you. In summertime we avoided the sun, mostly as a way of avoiding the other kids. We didn’t want to join their games of Do What the Grown-Ups Do: playing business meeting, playing city council campaign debate, playing cook and vacuum and fight with your husband. Oli and I spent our days finding overgrown driveways and alleys and digging up tiny wild onions. We built castles out of sticks and acorns and stuck worms in them, pretending they were royalty. I liked telling him stories about faraway lands and monsters and magic; he liked spinning ideas for machines and societies that would exist in the far future.

The other kids weren’t cruel. They knew we were different, but in a town like ours, different just meant we were trying to be normal and failing, so we were met with sympathy more than ridicule. We were always invited back to Do What the Grown-Ups Do, and sometimes we went, but it always felt empty. 

Shame is a funny thing. It’ll get to you, even if everyone is nice, even if no one ever shouts at you that you’re sick. Shame creeps inside and chokes out your voice. When I felt that strange shivering warmth as I watched Leila Joyce win the public speaking contest back in eighth grade, it didn’t matter that no one had ever called me a nasty name; just imagining the cold reactions I might meet, if I told anyone about it – God forbid if I told Leila – was enough to make me pray for the feeling to go away. 

“So,” I said, swaying next to Oli as the music played. “How’s the love life?” 

His smile slipped. I thought his face grew paler, the rainbow paint stark against his skin.

“Sorry,” I said quickly. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“It’s still hard here,” he said. “Being out, I mean. The guys who are like me – well, I don’t know if they really are like me, to be honest.”

“What do you mean?” I thought I knew, a little, but I wanted to hear him say it. 

His gaze lowered to the floor as the song died away. “I don’t know. It’s a lot of older guys. Some of them have girlfriends they don’t tell you about. And if they meet you at a club or on an app, if they ask to take you home, it’s like they’re scared the whole time.”

“Scared of what?”

He scratched the back of his neck. I recognized the gesture; it was the one he always did, even as a kid, when he wanted to get something off his chest he’d been thinking about for a while. I leaned toward him, ready. 

“If this makes sense,” he said, “it’s like they’re scared of losing what makes them men. So they have to act as tough as they can.” His voice lowered. “Sometimes it’s not a nice kind of tough.”

“You don’t mean –” My hands tightened around his wrists, suddenly, and he flinched. I released him immediately. I was stronger than I’d been when we were kids, strong with four years of weight training, but I knew what a pair of hands stronger than mine felt like around my wrists. “Sorry, I just – no one hurt you, did they?” 

“Not like that.” He didn’t look up. “Not exactly.” 

I twined my fingers through his, careful to be gentle. “Oli, I’m so sorry.”

Our eyes met and held each other. Something passed between us, an electric current. I’m not going to tell you what happened to me on my first night out in college – I never told anyone then, not wanting to bother my old hometown friends, not yet feeling I had anyone to tell at school, and anyway you can probably guess what it was. I didn’t tell Oli, either, at the time. But at that moment I sensed he understood it.

Then there was a drag queen in eight-inch heels shouldering her way toward us. She carried jello shots on a tray.

“On the house,” she shouted. 

I glanced at Oli. “Want to drink?” 

He snatched up two and passed one to me. “Cheers to the end of college!”

I raised my glass, and we sucked the shots down together, the sweetness hitting my tongue first, then the burn of tequila.

“Woo!” Oli pumped his fist. “Want another one?”

“One apiece,” said the queen.

“I’ll get us some more at the bar.” He waved me off the dance floor. “This library salary’s got to be good for something, right?”

We took two more shots off the generosity of Oli’s library salary. Afterward, the lights felt brighter, blurrier; the avalanche of color around us turned to a kaleidoscope, with us nestled in its center.

“The thing is,” Oli said, “I don’t understand all that, about losing your masculinity.”

I nodded, my head bobbing more than it needed to. “Yeah?” 

“My dad,” he said, “when I finally came out to him, he had the same idea. He sat me down on the couch and gave me this whole speech about not being a real man anymore. And all I could think the whole time was, would that be so bad?” 

I narrowed my eyes, working to peer past my oncoming drunkenness and study him. He was swaying in time to the music, but his words were crisp, not slurred. Still, I had the feeling this wasn’t something he had told to anyone else. 

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, why should I be so afraid to stop being a man? There’s nothing that wonderful about it. If you have to keep your masculinity by hurting people –”

“That’s not all being a man is,” I said, surprised by a note of defensiveness creeping into my voice.

He tilted his head to the side. “What’s the matter?”

“I mean…” I looked up at the ceiling, trying to gather my thoughts. I thought of the first time I’d buzzed my hair, thought about looking in the mirror and seeing a hard, sharp, freshly unearthed face looking back. The thrill of it, then the uncertainty on its heels. I remembered the first time I saw a girl stiffen when I brushed past her on the bus. Lesbians my age were supposed to still be pretty, still be posed and ready for a picturesque social media story. 

“Masculinity,” I said, and I was struggling now to keep my own words from slurring. That third shot was kicking in deep; the ceiling was pulsing to the music’s beat. “It doesn’t have to be about cruelty. It can be about, you know, strength. And pride. Not letting anyone fuck with you or the people you love. Or it can be, like, building things with your hands, or whatever, I don’t know…”

I trailed off into silence. The music swelled even more.

Oli’s voice was barely audible when he finally replied. “I guess. Except I’m only a man by accident.”

It’s Raining Men came on. Several people in the crowd cheered; the rest laughed at the cheers.

I lowered my head and held out my hands. “Want to dance?”

The song was thunderous, joyful; the chorus came and everyone in the crowd scream-sang along, bouncing up and down in time to the beat. Oli and I clutched each other’s hands and bounced along. Rainbows, pink-and-orange stripes, the blue and pink of the trans flag, all flashed together every time the beat rose. 

Two rail-thin girls with matching winged eyeliner kissed behind Oli’s head. One of them reached her arm back to take a photo mid-kiss. In a blur, I watched her upload it to Instagram, a perfect, radiant snapshot of their night. They looked like a pair of identical models there in the half-light. 

My tongue felt looser from the drink, and from the company; Oli’s presence made me feel like I could ask anything. “Do you ever feel like you’re still pretending, even here?”

He went silent. The song played around us. The next time the chorus swelled, we didn’t bounce along.

The truth had been hard to accept. It had felt like the ultimate unsayable thing, because overcoming the shame of loving women had already been so hard; I’d felt, after coming out, that I deserved to find a perfect community waiting for me. I’d thought the queer community should be a ready-made home for anyone who’d grown up feeling out of place. But the world was still messy and confusing and complicated. I was still messy and confusing and complicated, and hard as I tried, I couldn’t fit myself into the games everyone else seemed to be playing. 

Still, if we couldn’t push against our shells here, where could we? 

“Is there anything you’re still scared of?” I asked. “I mean, anything you haven’t done since coming out, that you still want to do?”

His cheeks flushed. “I don’t know.”

“You do.” My face was numb, but I felt the smile spread across it. “You just thought of it. I saw you.”

He leaned his forehead on my shoulder, embarrassed. “You’re going to laugh.”

“Try me.”

“I want to wear a skirt.”

He said it simply, but I heard the tremble behind his words – knew it, because I’d felt it myself when I buzzed my hair off, when I let the hair on my legs grow out instead. If I’d been more sober, I would have drawn back to meet his eyes again, assess how he felt after making such an admission. Instead I leaned fully against him, and before I’d thought about it my response had spilled out. “Oh, my god, you should.”

He laughed, breath against my neck. “Seriously?”

“Yes. You would rock a miniskirt. Man, I’d offer you my old ones if I hadn’t burned them.”

He laughed harder. “Shit, Addy, I missed you so much.” 

And then my arms were around him, we were hugging, before I knew it was happening. I didn’t remember the last time I’d hugged anyone. It might have been the last time I was home, if I’d had some friendly interaction with my parents in that time, or it might have been high school. But hugging Oli felt natural, easy. 

“I have a skirt in my bag,” he mumbled against my cheek.

I pulled away, grinning from ear to ear. “Oh my god. Okay, you have to go get it. Right now. I’m buying us some more shots.”

His eyes lit up. I shooed him, and he slipped eagerly away. My heart beat faster as I approached the bar. I’d never felt this good drunk before, never felt the kind of alcohol-fueled fire in my veins that made me want to dance. Even at gay clubs in college, dancing with strangers, drinking had always seemed like something more to fill the time or make up for lack of conversation.

When Oli came out of the bathroom wearing a light blue skirt under his t-shirt, I already had our shots in my hand. Honestly, I almost dropped them. 

This part of the story is the hardest to tell. How do I describe what I felt when I saw him? I’d known Oli all my life. We’d been there for each other through every harrowing attempt to be normal. In the end, we’d even shared the experience of coming out in a small town where no one is different. But when I saw Oli under the rainbow lights, the shape of him softened with fabric, smiling in a shy, drunk, delighted way I’d never seen before, it was like I was meeting someone for the first time.

“Shit,” I said, as I approached.

He twisted his fingers together. “I look stupid, right?”

“You look beautiful.” 

This time, when his eyes met mine, there was something searching in them, uncertain, challenging. As though he wanted to be sure I wasn’t lying to spare his feelings.

I pressed the shot glass into his hand, then put my free hand on his shoulder. Then, somehow, it was against the side of his neck. “Hell, Oli, you’re beautiful.”

I Wanna Dance With Somebody came on. We groaned at the same instant. It was the song that had ended our high school prom. 

But there was something warmer in his gaze when he held his hand out to me. “Well, do you want to dance or not?”

And this time, we downed out drinks together, and I let myself be led out onto the floor. I let him pull me close, let his fingers nest in my buzzed hair, and I traced the curve of his shoulders with my hands until I found his waist instead, and his body was warm against mine, real and alive in the midst of all these rioting colors. And finally, finally, I felt at home. 

Now how do I tell the end? Because I’ve been saying him and his for Oli, and I’ve been calling myself a girl, and sure, that was how we’d always understood ourselves. Since that night it’s gotten murkier between us, harder to decipher. So what do I say? Do I say he kissed me? Do I say she kissed me? Do I say Oli and Addy or do I give us one of the dozen different names we tried in the four years afterward? Do I say the girl got the boy, or the boy got the girl? No, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that we don’t fit in to that type of story. Best to say just this. We kissed each other. Quiet and slow in the middle of the dance floor with I Wanna Dance With Somebody playing, of all things. 

And when we pulled apart, we burst out laughing again. We laughed until the song ended, laughed until we could barely breathe, until we could barely stand. Because, really, the whole thing was absurd. 

June 13, 2024 18:49

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26 comments

Sarah Baker
22:49 Jun 21, 2024

Congrats! This is such a well-written and beautiful story, I loved the descriptions you used. Everything felt so real!

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Noah Tillier
19:38 Jun 21, 2024

Your story caused me to tear up a little bit. It was very well written and captured for me some of the struggle of being an LGBTQ person. Your descriptions melded seamlessly with dialogue; the characters seemed to flow off the page with unique voices and mannerisms and desires. Thank you for writing this!

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Jerry Beitzel
18:41 Jun 21, 2024

Congrats! You definitely deserved this win, so well written.

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Story Time
16:31 Jun 25, 2024

I thought the relationship here was very clear, and I'm glad to see queer stories being featured this month. Well done.

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Rebecca Mahoney
04:42 Jun 25, 2024

I really feel the weight of social pressures from these characters, as many people have to feel as they navigate this world. I feel that if the story would have been longer, they might have been able to be together. I mean, does it really matter who has long hair or who has a skirt? It matters how you feel when you are together.

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Joseph Hawke
00:27 Jun 25, 2024

Congratulations on the win. This is so authentic and unvarnished while being so well told. My hat (which I rarely wear) is off to you! Awesome story! I aspire to your capacity as a raconteur.

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Mary Bendickson
00:17 Jun 25, 2024

Congrats on the win.🥳

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Anika Gupta
16:22 Jun 24, 2024

nice job

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23:40 Jun 23, 2024

i loved the ending so much! the 'him and his', 'he or she' and all the questions are super well-written and interesting to read. i also liked the dialogues a lot, they flowed really well in the story. congrats!

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Jennie Creel
04:45 Jun 23, 2024

I found your story touching at so many levels. Beautiful description of how difficult it is to be vulnerable and connect with another person. Thank you and congrats!

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Darvico Ulmeli
21:01 Jun 22, 2024

Nice one. Congrats on win.

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Leah Billings
06:39 Jun 22, 2024

Congrats! This is beautifully written and captivating. Your vivid descriptions and authentic dialogue draw the reader in immediately. I loved how you handled the exploration of identity and belonging with such grace. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I appreciate how authentically this story captures the experience of LGBTQ+ relationships. Very impactful!!

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Paul Simpkin
04:29 Jun 22, 2024

Congratulations on your win. You handle an important subject with sensitivity and have produced a good story.

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Dawn Bravata
22:14 Jun 21, 2024

The literary device of saying to the reader that this is a hard story to tell...or asking 'Now how do I tell the end?' is very effective. It captivates the reader's attention. The relationship between Addy and Oli--as you've portrayed it both in the present (during the dance) and in their childhood--is of two 'outsiders' who seek and receive comfort in each other. Their relationship is powerful even as it is also quiet. Exceptionally well-done.

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Alexis Araneta
16:54 Jun 21, 2024

Hey, congrats on the win ! The flow of this was really well-executed. Lovely work !

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Darvico Ulmeli
16:28 Jun 21, 2024

Congrats.

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Kristi Gott
16:27 Jun 21, 2024

Congratulations! Well done!

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Jennifer Luckett
16:15 Jun 21, 2024

Well-done, made me smile. Congrats on your win.

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Trudy Jas
15:47 Jun 21, 2024

Congratulations on your win. Well done!

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Cara Fidler
16:00 Jul 12, 2024

So well done, Phoebe! An enjoyable read.

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