I used to think that I couldn't stand the "Gay for You" trope. I've since realized I enjoy it quite a lot, as long as it's done well. However, my first encounter with GFY was highly disappointing: a silly story with weak characters, dull prose, and no discernible plot. The frustration I felt helped to shape the vague ideas in my head about the nature of desire into this story.
Technically, Hanging Loose is not GFY, and when you read it you'll know why, but it should satisfy the cravings of those who hanker for this trope.
I woke on a lumpy futon, tangled in my sheets and a dilemma: what was I to do for the next two days? Switching shifts at the restaurant landed me with two consecutive days off, and I was stumped. A lethargic fly was doing figure eights in the limited airspace of my room. It probably wasn’t looking forward to a couple of humdrum days in North Hollywood any more than I was. Especially when the entire San Fernando Valley was smothered in summer heat like biscuits in gravy. The forecast predicted “highs in the nineties and sunny skies.” Not that they weren’t always sunny.
There were three of us guys sharing the apartment, but the dull silence told me that my roomies were off at their day jobs, acting classes, whatnot. I was on my own.
“Seems like a good day to take a trip to the beach,” I proposed to the fly. It did a kamikaze into the windowpane. I took that as tacit agreement.
About two hours later, I was at Venice Beach, inhaling cool, briny air. I could have gotten there faster if I had a car, but my wheels had kicked the bucket a few weeks after I’d arrived in LA. It’d been a miracle that the old clunker had made it that far at all. Unfortunately for me, LA was the place the word “sprawling” was invented for, and public transportation was nobody’s friend—a cranky neighbor at best.
Venice was nut-fuck crazy. The many beaches strung along the coast of LA have their unique identities, and Venice is the freaky one. It even has an actual freak show for good measure. This place exists to lure in visitors from other parts of the city, country, world—solar system?—and show them the wild and zany side of LA-la Land as promised by the shiny brochures.
The promenade swarmed with tourists and sightseers. It was like the great tuna migration. To feed on them were the street vendors, performers, and a wide assortment of shops that were not particularly sharklike… I groaned out loud as my simile deteriorated into a stinking mess. I left the whole steaming pile of it on the sidewalk and walked away, pretending I had nothing to do with it.
Anyway, it was time to have a proper beach experience. I strolled down to the ocean, where I stripped down to my swimming trunks—conveniently worn under my jeans—and waded into the water. And immediately waded the fuck out of it. It was colder than a penguin’s ass! Its icy bite was in sharp contrast with the sand, palm trees, and mercilessly bright sun.
“You need to jump straight in,” a beach urchin suggested.
His lips were blue, teeth chattering even as he demonstrated his own unsolicited advice. I chose to stay at the edge of the water, letting the cold waves lick my calves. Eventually I put my clothes back on and headed back to the promenade to see if I could score some reasonably priced beer. I could spend the day people watching and sketching. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of subject matter.
* * *
To say I missed the last bus back would be a fib, since I never actually made an attempt to catch it. I had just let time pass till it was too late. I figured I could spend the night on the beach, then spend another day loafing about before heading back to the Valley. Despite the strangeness of the local scene, it was still far more entertaining than the lone fly of my bedroom. What I forgot was another local peculiarity: the substantial temperature drop from day to night. Being the yokel I was, I didn’t think of packing a jacket into my backpack along with the sketch pad and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Consequently, even before the sun completely dipped under the horizon, I was shivering on a bench, wondering how I was going to get through the night.
When a guy stopped by my bench and said hello, I looked up with a touch of alarm. It evaporated at the first glimpse of him. The setting sun was behind him, and I couldn’t really see his features, but he looked like someone straight out of one of those surfing documentaries: he wore a black wet suit and had a surfboard tucked under his arm. He was about my height, his body was toned, and his shoulder-length blond hair framed his face in lazy waves. The chilly air didn’t seem to bother him one bit; anyone who’d surf in those frigid waters had to be used to it. The sun backlit him so he was surrounded by a numinous glow. The sight took my breath away for a moment. He should have been a painting: Golden-Haired Patron Saint of the Waves.
“Are you all right?” the apparition with the shimmering aura asked.
“I missed the last bus.” I divulged the half-truth through chattering teeth once I could talk again. It wasn’t exactly an answer to his question, but he got my meaning.
He nodded. “Long way. Oh, I’m Jez, by the way. Well, Jesse, but everyone calls me Jez.” The tail end of the board thudded in the sand as he leaned forward and stretched his hand toward me. I returned the gesture and clasped his hand without thinking. I got a better look at his face. His sun-beaten skin crinkled around his eyes as he smiled. I had read the expression “infectious smile” before, but until then I thought it was just literary confabulation. Not anymore. Catching his friendly grin, I couldn’t help but return it.
“Nathan,” I stammered. “You can call me Nate.”
“Do you need a place to crash?” he asked.
I blinked at him in surprise. He looked back at me, eyebrows slightly raised, appearing bewilderingly casual. The rational part of my mind told me that the sensible thing to do was to stay put and freeze my ass off on the bench. The truth was, I’d spent the past twenty-three years of my life doing the sensible thing and was getting pretty sick of it. A tingly sort of excitement fluttered in my stomach at the thought of doing something reckless like following a white rabbit down the rabbit hole. I nodded.
“C’mon,” was all he said as he hoisted the board under his arm and began to walk. I grabbed my backpack and rushed after him.
The house was a pale blue Craftsman bungalow, sandwiched between two other similar houses, only two short blocks from the beach. He motioned toward the sofa before disappearing into the farther reaches of the place. I cast a curious eye around. It was a style clash; most of the furniture was decidedly retro, except for the colorful throw over the sofa and a few other more contemporary elements. A couple of photographs on the wall, complete with their ornate frames, looked like something you’d either find at a flea market or inherit from your grandparents. The only really modern elements were the sizable flat-screen TV on one of the walls and the fair collection of DVDs shelved against another.
“Are you hungry?”
I spun around to see Jez in the doorway. He was sans surfboard and wet suit, redressed in Hawaiian-patterned Bermuda shorts and a faded T-shirt.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me,” I said, despite the distinct rumblings of my stomach.
He pursed his lips, silently mocking me. “I’m not worried about you. I’ll have dinner, and it’s as easy to zap two meals as it is one. I got a freezer stuffed full of microwave food.”
“Yeah, okay then. If it’s no trouble.”
He did a half eye roll. “Do you like Indian food?”
“I think so.”
“Aight. Feel free to find something on the TV,” he said and disappeared into what I assumed was the kitchen. I was hovering a little stiff and unsure for a moment, but then I kicked off my shoes and slumped into the sofa. There was a remote control on the messy coffee table. I kept clicking through dour-faced anchormen and inane commercials till I got to something without color. I still have no idea what the movie was, but it looked like something Mae West would have felt comfortable in.
Jez reappeared with two plastic trays and cast an approving glance toward the TV.
“Here you go.” Jez put a plastic tray of food in front of me. It was rice and something that looked like chicken in a reddish sauce. I tried it carefully. It wasn’t half bad.
“I didn’t know you could get frozen food this good,” I said.
“Not in the big grocery stores. You’re from the Midwest, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “Indiana. How did you guess?”
“You have that friendly but buttoned-up thing going on.”
Had I? I’d thought of myself more as awkward. I made an effort at conversation, at least.
“You always lived here?”
“Born and raised.”
I ran out of topics, and he didn’t press, so we finished our dinner in silence.
I threw surreptitious glances at Jez over my grub. He was a complete stranger who invited me into his home. For all I knew, he could have been a serial killer. After all, Ted Bundy was a real charmer. Jez looked a little older than I originally thought—in his late twenties probably, five or six years older than me. His honey brown tan was accentuated with sparse blond hair on his legs and arms. He was good-looking, but not in a movie-star sort of way. His nose was a touch wide with a small bump in the middle. His chin was slightly asymmetrical. Jez’s eyes, however, were striking: bright blue irises with dark rims and flecks. By the time he cleared off the remains and settled back on the sofa, I managed to work up the nerve to ask the one question that was bugging me.
“Do you often bring home strangers?”
He gave me a rueful smile and didn’t reply right away. “No, not these days.”
I caught something in his eyes, and for no reason, a shiver ran through me. Then he blinked, and it was gone. I might have just imagined it.
“You looked lost,” he said.
“Look, I’ve spent years driving along the coast, chasing the waves. I hung out with other surfers, drifters—all kinds of people. It was customary to offer help to anyone in need. Occasionally it bit you in the ass, but most of the time you met cool people, and they returned the favor. I keep forgetting how freaked out ‘normal’ people get when you do the same.”
He shuffled to the farthest end of the sofa as if trying to put maximum distance between us.
“I’m not freaked out!” I protested.
“Really?” he asked, clearly not believing me.
“Yeah, okay. I was a little, but I’m getting over it.”
I chanced a small smile to convey my honesty. He returned it in the shape of a toothy, wide grin. It suited him extremely well, made him about twice as good-looking. It was hard for me not to stare.
“So what brought you to the beach?” Jez asked.
“The bus.” It slipped out.
“Just wanted to see the ocean. I’ve been here for six months and haven’t seen it yet,” I added, embarrassed about my flippancy, not that he seemed to mind.
“What do you do there in the Valley?”
“Wait tables, stuff.”
Jez nodded and didn’t ask how I liked LA. That was good, because I didn’t have a short answer. He was quiet for a moment, lost in thought. Next, he stood and left the room without an explanation. He came back with a bong. I did recognize it right off; I’d seen them earlier in shop windows on the promenade. This was much nicer-looking than those—bright red with yellow swirls.
“Do you smoke?” Jez asked. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
“Sure, I do.” It wasn’t a complete lie; I’d smoked weed a grand total of three times before. It tended to mellow me out.
Jez filled it with icy water and then stuffed the pungent weed into the appropriate orifice. I watched him as he lit it and drew the smoke into his lungs. He held it there for a moment before letting it slowly out. He offered the bong to me, and I followed his example. I inhaled the smoke deeply and held it as long as I could. It was much smoother than any weed I’d smoked before; it barely scratched my throat. I exhaled and drew in another lungful.
“Careful, there.” He smiled at me. “This is strong stuff.”
No kidding. I went beyond mellow. Also strangely chatty. I don’t remember a whole lot of it, but I clearly recall going on and on about Cary Grant for some reason. There were also bits about my family, art school, and my ex-girlfriend, Jenny, who was now living in Chicago, probably with someone far cooler than me. In time I ran out of words, possibly in the middle of a sentence, and just stared at the TV screen. I tried to make my uncooperative eyes follow the action. There was a platinum blonde in a shimmering dress and a man in a tuxedo. It had to be romantic comedy, because they were arguing a lot.
Jez didn’t move from his end on the sofa, but somehow we ended up sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. I faintly remember Jez’s fingers over my buzz cut, lazily rubbing my scalp. It felt indescribably good. High as I was, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I fell asleep right there on the sofa, leaning against him.
© Lou Harper, June 2011
All Rights Reserved.