For as long as he can remember, Joe's liked boys. His grandma hammers it into him that he isn't supposed to, cause whenever Joe looks at Matty from next door that way, she hits him with that ruler Joe's papa used to use in his business job.
As he grows up Joe only fucks girls and dates girls and breaks up with girls - in that order - but he knows he carries torches for boys. There are three of them – Benny is a little firecracker of a kid, tiny and blonde and competitive. Lou rides a motorcycle, he has jet black hair with blond eyebrows, and whenever Joe makes an unfunny joke he smirks and punches Joe in the arm. Frankie has the same birthday as Joe, but he's a year older, he talks all city-like and he has blue eyes that looked like the sky in mid-summer.
When Joe's grandma dies, so does the hitting and shaming and yelling "queer" when he forgets to take out the trash. He gets a job, washing dishes at the diner down the street. His waiter friend George tells him about his boyfriend, and how they get to live together and spend time together and no one hurts them cause all they gotta do is say they're just friends. And it makes Joe think.
Joe gets to New York in a flash. It all goes by so fast he barely notices himself getting off the train and onto the platform and into his hotel room, but it happens. When he asks chicks if they want some time with him, they all say no, except for one, who doesn't even pay him. Joe's scared out of his fucking mind - he thought women'd be all over him by now, and he doesn't have any way of living here otherwise. Heck, he might be blowing things out of proportion, he's only just started, but if these chicks aren't going for him, who's going to?
Ratso bursts onto the scene too fast and too hard. Ratso looks like his name suggests, he looks like a rat. He has greasy hair and weird teeth and just enough facial hair to qualify as whiskers. They've barely met, but Joe needs a place to stay and hey, Ratso has a place he can stay. Joe needs a bed to sleep in, and hey, Ratso has a bed he can sleep in. He's known the asshole for barely a week and they're closer than Joe's ever been to anyone else. Ratso doesn't like queers, he can tell from how he talks about not being one himself, so Joe tries not to bring it up.
Joe has to start fucking guys to make ends meet. He doesn't hate it, but a high school kid blowing him in a movie theatre ain't his first choice. The kid doesn't even pay him, for fuck's sake. The next one is a middle aged married guy who's never been attracted to his wife, and who's too formal even when fucking. He's the first one to pay Joe, thank Christ. Next after him is a twentysomething queer he meets outside a warehouse, who's so gentle he barely does anything.
Joe don't think much of him and Ratso sleeping in the same bed, but Ratso sure does. Sometimes the landlord switches off everyone's heating when he's in a bad mood, so it gets so cold at night that Joe has to hold Ratso so tight he disappears into Joe's chest. When they're trying to fall asleep, one freezing Thursday night, little Ratso buried in all six feet nothing of Joe, he kisses Joe on the cheek. It's the only sign of affection Ratso's ever shown him. Ratso kisses him on the lips and Joe opens his mouth, lazy and careless, and they stumble onto each other till they fall asleep, legs tangled and arms wrapping. Ratso doesn't mention it again.
When Ratso dies, on a bus, sitting on his own piss, Joe barely notices. Joe assumes that he's just fallen asleep, but then he realizes what's happened and he isn't even surprised. Ratso had like eighteen diseases, after all. It was only a matter of time, but Joe feels like his heart's been ripped in half. He wraps his arm around Ratso, cold and sweaty and limp. Ratso was a rat, sure he was, but he never meant bad. He didn't deserve it. He didn't deserve the leg, he didn't deserve the father he got, he didn't deserve to die at thirty-two, he didn't deserve any of what life got him stuck with.
Joe moves on. He gets a job. And there are new people – there's Mary, a brunette waitress with a kind heart and ruby-red lips. She likes Joe as a friend, but not as a lover. There's Alfred, a five foot nothing Italian-American who swears like a sailor. And there's Dave, a slick-haired office worker who never takes his socks off. Joe and Dave are together, for a long time, but Joe doesn't tell him about his old life – his old job – until two years into living together. And when he does, Dave tells him to fuck off.
Joe goes back to Texas. Nothing's changed, but he isn't scared anymore. He isn't scared of himself anymore. He just knows that he likes boys. For as long as he can remember, he's liked boys.