Byron was oddly convinced he’d get into Berkeley. He’s not really sure where the conviction came from, Berkeley was a really good school. Plus, he needed a scholarship, the Pike kids all knew they were on the own when it came to college.
He worried when he brought up Berkeley that his mom might say something, might know his real reasons. That she might know he’d googled the best schools for LGBT students. That she’d know, not just that it was a good school and he wanted more sunshine, but that being a whole coast away might mean he could tell people, that he might be able to go to a bar for people like him and kiss a boy on the lips, tongue and everything. She never said anything though.
When the fat letter of acceptance comes in the mail it feels inevitable, a plot point pre-written.
His parents’ take him out to his favorite pizza place for dinner, just the three of them. His dad even lets him drink some of his beer, so Byron knows for sure they are proud. Adam and Jordan are both going to the local community college. His parents make sure to loudly proclaim that they are very proud of all three of them and they were all making the choices that are best for them. Secretly Byron basks in it though, with the childish envy of the brother who never won baseball trophies.
His parents can’t afford the time off to fly to California to get him set up at college. Byron says right from the start he doesn’t want them to anyway, doesn’t need them. Turns out he was wrong. His stomach turns the whole flight. He’s never felt so young, so unprepared. He is reminded of the Morris’ puppies last spring. Sparsely furred, eyes shut and unaware of their surrounds, useless. The whole journey his hands are clammy. From as soon as his mom kisses him goodbye at the airport, smelling of home and hugging him so tight he almost can’t breathe, eyes watery. Changing at Chicago he gets so turned around he almost loses his gate.
He makes it though.
Three weeks into the school year he makes himself walk into a bar in the Castro, he’s warming up to telling people at school. He makes himself grab a stool near the bar and he makes himself talk to the guy sitting next to him. It’s not romantic or classy, it isn’t smooth or cool or any of those things the songs and the movies and the TV shows wanted it to be but that night he kisses a boy for the very first time and it’s fantastic.
The first person he tells is a girl called Anna, at a party. She seems nice, they have American Literature together, and he’s drunk a lot of watery keg-beer out of a red solo cup. Right after he tells her he throws up on her shoes but she’s still his friend the next day.
Byron’s first year at Berkeley is a mix of things all at once. It’s awkwardly not knowing anyone at orientation, it’s instant bonding with people who just seemed to get him, it’s crying on the phone to his mum sick with missing home, it’s trying weed, tequila, and cooking for himself all for the first time (although not, thankfully, AT the same time). It’s struggling with papers and referencing systems and scary professors, and it is almost failing Econ. But most of all it feels like the future, it feels like what his life can be.
Summer at home is harder than he’d thought it would be. He plays mopey music in his room. He gets a part time job at the movies. He feels oddly constrained everywhere he used to feel comfortable.
School starts up again and this year there’s no compulsory econ class and he already knows his roommates. He signs up to help with orientation - mostly because the job pays in book tokens and textbooks are expensive.
There’s no mistaking Jeff when he turns up at the pre-set assembly point, even though his hair’s longer, blonder and his skin is more tan and his shoulders thicker. But his smile is the same, as is the way his shoves his hands in his pockets, the tiny scar on the bridge of his nose. Jeff reminds him of summer, and here in California with the summer dying out slowly around them it makes sense to see him again.
“Byron, dude!” he says. “This is crazy!”
Byron groans a little at the dude-treatment but he’s been in California long enough to build up a bit of an immunity. “Hey,” he says, “shouldn’t we be in the same year?”
“I travelled in South America last year, gap year.”
Of course you did, Byron thought. He’d met enough of those people last year, guys and girls who had the luxury of a lazy year off to find themselves and amass a whole lot of anecdotes that started, “well when I was in Belize”.
“We should hang out after this man, catch up,” he finds himself saying, even though he doesn’t really call people man, like, ever.
“Sure thing dude,” Jeff replies before he’s swept off in the crowd.
For the next few hours Byron points gangly 18 year olds at campus facilities. He knows he was their age last year, but he doesn’t quite believe it. They’re like new born foals who can’t do anything useful. Someone asks if a professor will call their mom if they miss class, someone else asks where to score weed. It might be Berkeley but Byron can’t really reveal that on the campus orientation tour. He pays special attention to the number to call if you or your friend need your stomach pumped and makes his small group of students repeat it back to him like they are still in elementary school.
When they cross paths at the drop off point at the end of the day Byron invites Jeff back to his dorm. Byron hopes that some of the beer they’d paid an exorbitant amount for from a morally dubious grad student is still in his room; he hopes his roommates aren’t. His roommates are fine. Most days he even likes them. But he can imagine them cluttering things up somehow with Tom’s questions about South America and Jude wanting to talk politics and Byron left to sit useless and quiet.
Byron takes in the dull surrounds of their suite with fresh eyes with Jeff in it. The band posters seem like they’re for the wrong kind of bands and the hand-me-down furniture feels embarrassing. He hands Jeff a beer and finds himself asking after Jeff’s family, shuddering inwardly at how fake the question sounds, a thing you ask acquaintances. Maybe that’s what he and Jeff are now though.
Jeff seems happy enough to answer however. He talks about Dawn. She’s thinking of going to law school next year. It doesn’t sound like she’s changed; she’s volunteering for a small environmental charity, and “last year she chained herself to a redwood and got arrested!” Jeff reports.
“Was your dad pissed?” Byron asks. His parents would be.
“He wasn’t thrilled, but he got over it,” Jeff says with a shrug and Byron feels childish for asking.
“So, what’s the lowdown on this place then, tell me, oh learned one,” Jeff asks, Byron suspects as a kindness, so he can feel useful.
Byron fills him in on the professors to avoid (“don’t read his RateMyProfessor score, I’m pretty sure all those votes are from him”), the days to skip the dining hall, the best place to shop for cereal and the cheapest burrito place nearby.
Byron figured it out when he was twelve. It took him a while, because it looked a little different to what the songs and the movies and the TV shows led him to believe.
He didn’t know anyone who was gay.
His parents never said anything bad about gay people, but then they never said anything at all about them. Sometimes he thought he’d prefer they said something bad because at least that would be an acknowledgement of their existence, of his existence. To Byron it felt like Stoneybrook was the one place in the world without gay people; he longed for New York, for San Francisco, for Berlin, for places with people like him. He watch Queer as Folk under cover of darkness and learned how to block his search history.
It turned out, of course, that Byron was also blind to the town around him. Heather and Hazel, who lived together and were in their 60s were probably not just good friends. When his mom said that Dr. Cahill must be lonely at Christmas because he was a bachelor she actually meant something else. There was a code and he cracked it as the years went on.
He was still shocked when Kirsty Thomas came out after her first year away at college. There was no code left to be cracked there, she just came out and said it. Nearly everyone was fine with it in a way that made him wonder if he’d been exaggerating, creating a persecution complex. Until he walked in on his mom saying “isn’t it sad, she’ll always be alone. We should have known, she did play a lot of sport.”
Byron had backed out of the kitchen, a stone suddenly lodged in his chest making breathing and thinking hard.
When the semester starts he and Jeff eat dinner together every Tuesday in the dining hall. Jeff hates his history professor, “he wants us to read three books every week man, that’s not actually possible!” and loves everything about his literature subject. They talk about home too. Well, Byron’s home. Jeff asks about some people from their grade and then they got onto their sisters. Byron holds his breath when Kirsty comes up but Jeff says that he met her girlfriend when they visited California last year, says that they are a cool couple.
When Byron was twelve Jason Connors caught him staring at a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio in a girl’s locker and called him gay with such vehemence Byron had hidden in the toilets all through next period sure that Jason knew about him. He worried all the time after that, that people knew, that they could tell. he’d liked school before then. And he didn’t hate every moment after, but he always had his guard up.
When Jeff moved back to California he only came back to Stoneybrook over summer. The summer they were twelve Byron found himself imagining pressing his lips against Jeff’s. He became obsessed with the way Jeff smelled, the way he laughed. He was annoyed when his brothers made Jeff laugh and when it wasn’t just the two of them together.
Jeff was from the summer time and he was safe.
They didn’t plan to end up at the same party but Jude had a friend who knew a guy whose girlfriend had a place off campus and Byron had followed along. It’s mid way through semester and Byron should be working on one of the three papers he has due on Monday. Should.
Jeff’s sitting on a falling apart sofa in the backyard, and when the girl next to him gets up Byron takes her place.
They’re both a little buzzed. The twinkling fairy lights cast a pretty glow over the whole party. They talk about Hemingway because Jeff’s reading it for the class that Byron did last year. It’s all that Byron imagined college might be. A party at someone’s house, drinking, a boy he likes sitting beside him talking enthusiastically about authorial intent. He almost doesn’t need anything else. Almost.
“You’re different to how I remembered,” Jeff says, later on at the party.
“I would hope I’ve changed since I was in middle school,” Byron laughs.
Jeff smiles, “Nah, dude, it’s not just that...”
“I’m gay,” Byron says without pre-thought. The sentence sits out in the open, awkward and echoing.
“That’s…” Jeff begins, he seems to lean closer, “the coolest thing I’ve heard.”
He is leaning closer, he leans so close that their lips touch and only then does Byron catch up. He lets his body find Jeff’s and lets the kiss be more. He puts one hand on Jeff’s shoulder and the other on his waist. Jeff feels warm through his clothes. His lips are a little chapped and his hair tickles Byron’s cheek. He smells inexplicably of sea salt and he tastes like terrible beer.
His brain writes terrible undergraduate poetry about how Jeff is the past and the future all at once.