Neil wished he were gay. Sultry piano jazz filled the air as he swayed cheek to cheek with a handsome man. The room was full with gala attendees and Neil had come alone to the party that night hoping to meet someone. And he had. His dance partner was hot. Or so he tried to convince himself. The man wiped his mouth off in disgust and called out Neil’s straightness after their passionless kiss. Unkind words flew as the man’s fear rose. This alarmed Neil as he thought that the guests at the party had progressive views. It seemed that he picked the one guy who was heterophobic. Earlier that night, Neil had eyed a straight couple making out behind a fern plant. That would not happen in his hometown. Neil left that night, once again feeling like he did not fit in. He just wanted to be normal.
High school was a blur to Neil. The years could not go fast enough. Everyone around him was gay and those that Neil suspected of being straight kept silent. Hushed whispers behind his back were evidence that he was suspect. ‘Hetero,’ some would groan under their breath. When some guy would ask Neil to a school dance, he obliged. It was a game. Maybe they could turn him gay and then he wouldn’t have to deal with being different.
Neil did not confide in any of his friends. Not only did he have a hard time accepting that he was straight, but if he shared his secret with anyone, it would not be long before the whole town would know. Except for a couple of friends, he was alone. And even they did not know the whole truth. Others would laugh and make fun of him when he would gesture or blurt out an overused phrase. It was worse when he would break into a musical song, slightly off-key. Neil was used to being teased. His tactic was to go on about so and so’s cute ass while out of the corner of his eye, he would spy the curves of a woman. Unfortunately, most of the girls in school were lesbians. If he kept quiet, he could fly under the radar of just gay enough. He almost had himself convinced.
His two moms loved their straight boy. They knew from the beginning that he was straight, but left it up to him to express it. When they sent him off to college, they encouraged him to be out and proud while his church was not interested in accepting someone with his morals. In college, Neil was introduced to a church through a friend. He had grown up in a church in which they openly accepted everyone but he was exploring his options. In his eyes, there was still a slight possibility that he could be gay. The way his college church interpreted the path of higher living was through a homosexual lifestyle. Against his mothers’ wishes, he attended an intro to being gay class. There, the teacher pulled out words, phrases and parables about how being straight was a sin. If it were not shifted in an individual, they would end up in hell. The class only pitted Neil stronger against himself and he found that he did not have the strength to finish the course. A few years later, it turned out that the head male minister at that church was having an affair with a woman. This made national news.
“I don’t know what was up with that guy, but he was cute.” Neil moaned explaining his night at the gala with the handsome man.
“Would you stop?!” Cindy demanded. “He was an asshole.”
“I think I’m bisexual,” Neil commented.
Cindy blurted out a laugh. “If you’re bisexual, then I’m straight.” They had become close friends after working together at an advertising agency. Even though the advertising world had a tendency to accept all types of lifestyles, Neil had not officially come out as straight at work. One of his co-worker’s had recently been under the radar of office gossip. Why was he in his forties and still single? They assumed he must be straight. It turned out that he had cats.
The waitress complimented Neil’s spiky blonde hair with pink highlights as she set their mugs on the table. Neil could hardly keep his eyes off the gap between her teeth. A simple red rose tattoo blushed the edge of her full, round bosom under her flowered button down shirt. She smiled at him. Was she straight? He felt a tingling in his heart. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She mentioned that her name was Carmen if they needed anything. Her glossy brown eyes lingered in Neil’s mind as she glided away with her ballet flats tapping the wooden floor.
Cindy rolled her eyes. “Dude, give it up. Why not just go for women?”
“Then we’d be competing,” Neil teased. Cindy was gorgeous with her long blonde hair and sky blue eyes. She always had hot girlfriends.
“Hah!” Cindy shook her head back and forth. She pursed her lips in thought. “You’re scared of them, aren’t you?”
Neil shook his head no but then bobbled his head like maybe. He felt safe around women when he knew they were gay, but if he found that they were straight and attractive, he resisted. It was everything he did not want . . . and wanted.
“It seems that everywhere I turn I get bashed . . .why can’t I just be me?”
“That waitress . . . she has the hots for you,” Cindy nodded towards the barista counter.
“She’s not a lesbian?” Neil wiped powdered donut from his crisp aqua button down shirt. He looked at Cindy, trying to contain his excitement. His straidar was not always right.
“No, didn’t you see the message in the tea leaves?” Cindy furrowed her brow. “Sometimes you are so blind.” She shook her head from side to side.
“What did it say?” Neil cut into her sentence with urgency.
“She wants to go out with you.”
“You got that from tea leaves?”
“No, I’m kidding. I could just tell. She’s not into me. All eyes were on you.” Cindy took a sip of tea and raised one eyebrow.
Neil had sexual encounters with women. The relationships usually did not last long because one or the other could not deal with the social pressure. Even though, now in his mid-twenties, Neil still sometimes wavered with wanting to have a relationship with a man, he knew deep down that it was time to accept that he was different.
The last girl that entered his life appeared to be the change he needed. They had a playful, communicative relationship that he thought might last. He fell deeply in love. Even if they could not marry, at least they could happily cohabitate. Laws in other states were starting to observe heterosexual marriages and he hoped that one day his state would follow. Heterosexual couples could even be spotted raising kids together. Slowly but surely, seeing a man and woman walking down the street hand in hand or kissing was tolerated. Neil dreamed of raising kids one day. But then out of the blue, his girlfriend split. She could not do it. The relationship ended because she was too scared to tell her parents. Her two dads would have died if they knew they had a heterosexual daughter. She would have been disowned. Neil’s heart was broken. It was the first time that the ache was so strong he did not think he could go on. There was no future, only the past. He was now finally free of that pain but it did not make up for the fact that he was scared of women.
“I love your purse, where did you get it?” The waitress eyed Cindy’s purple handbag hanging on her chair. Carmen poured more hot water into their mugs.
“Around the corner at the vintage shop,” Cindy motioned out the window.
Carmen nodded and then grinned at Neil. Her long fingers with painted tips held the teapot with such care. The silky dark hair on her arms gave him the chills. It was sexy. Neil wanted to say something witty. He opened his mouth and she stopped to listen. “This is good tea,” he blurted out. His eyes went from her groomed brows down to her luscious, red lips. She blushed and glided away.
Neil mentioned to Cindy that the lease on his apartment was about to expire. He was thinking about finding a new apartment in ‘boys and girls town’, a neighborhood that supported the straight lifestyle. Cindy encouraged it and took it as a promising sign that he was finally on the right path.
As they decided to leave the tea shop, Neil took the initiative to pay the bill and ask Carmen for her phone number. He was done with the guy game. With his heart thumping out of his chest, he approached her. She enthusiastically gave him her phone number and told him that she looked forward to going out. He felt like skipping away but refrained. Neil walked up to Cindy who stood by the door talking to a woman.
“I’m engaged.” The lady smirked and held out her finger to show off her large, glittery ring.
“Wow,” Cindy blurted out but then regained her cool. “Oh, that’s nice . . .congrats.”
“My fiancé picked out the ring, she has amazing taste.”
Cindy noticed Neil behind her and with a quick good-bye, pushed her way through the door to outside. Once out of earshot, she told Neil that she went to high school with her. Cindy seemed disappointed as she really thought that the woman would amount to nothing. And yet, now the gal was getting married.
Neil furrowed his brow. “Jeez, you act like getting married makes you someone.”
“Sorry,” Cindy brushed Neil’s arm. For a moment she forgot that he did not have the basic right to get married. “But she was a bitch in school.” Cindy had high self-esteem until she encountered situations where she felt inadequate. Then she would rant about all her lacking qualities. Her favorite was to moan about not being Hispanic. It was a Hispanic lesbian’s world.
“Will you please sign this petition?” A man with a clipboard stood on the corner of the busy intersection as Neil and Cindy passed by. Someone asked what it was about. The man responded in disgust about allowing heterosexuals to serve in the military. This should be outlawed! The man raised his finger in the air and then asked for signatures.
“Why?” A bold woman asked the man.
“Well . . .the risk of sexual predilection, of course. A heterosexual act could create an unacceptable risk to the morality of those with high standards.”
Neil and Cindy paused to watch as the woman started to argue with the man. Her daughter was straight and serving the military. The man was shocked that she had uttered those words out loud. Was the mother proud of her daughter? Their voices slowly raised octaves as passersby scrambled to avoid the altercation.
“I thought this was an old conversation. What the hell?” Cindy furrowed her brow. “I swear, only when I’m with you do I see straight bashing. Are you attracting it?”
“Some people are still holding on . . .” Neil’s voice trailed off.
“He must be straight,” Cindy chuckled.
“Either that or a Boy Scout,” Neil snorted. Cindy blurted out a laugh. As a youth, Neil’s mothers convinced him not to join the Boy Scouts because of their policy banning straight members. It was a sore spot as Neil felt like he missed out in the spirit of community.
“Let’s get out of here,” she tugged at Neil’s elbow. Neil was grateful that he never had an inclination to serve in the military. He had given up the thought of working in any type of public service after his experience with the scouts.
Neil pulled out Carmen’s chair so she could take a seat. His pheromones went into high gear after getting a whiff of a sweet flower scent. She had mentioned in the car that she had just purchased the perfume and did he like it? He could barely contain his excitement.
Even with some of the stares they were getting, he was proud to be seen with Carmen. Neil was out to impress. He took her to a swanky new restaurant that had multiple star reviews on the Internet. It was called Stark and all the food they served was white in color. In fact, everything in the restaurant was white – the walls, floors, chandeliers, tables, chairs and even the martini shakers. No dark liquor was served and they watched as the bartender theatrically mixed up a drink with smoke pouring out of it.
“Are we in heaven?” Carmen giggled. Neil smiled. He felt like he was. Carmen took his breath away. She wore a pink strapless dress that showcased her large, plump breasts. The red rose tattoo on her chest matched her bright red lipstick. He watched as she removed her knitted shawl from her smooth delicate shoulders. His heart pitter-pattered. She looked even better than Neil remembered.
The waiter bounced up to them and made small talk, teasing them after he found out that it was their first date. Neil was relieved. After ordering food, they relaxed into conversation. Carmen talked openly about her family. When she was fifteen, her parent’s divorced because one of her moms finally came to grips with the fact that she was straight. It was painful, but it was then that Carmen came out as straight, too. Her brother followed shortly after. This overwhelmed her lesbian mother. The family, including the grandparents became divided. But then her lesbian mother realized that if she wanted to play a role in her children’s lives, she had to accept that they were straight. There were many nights of crying and asking the kids if they were sure. Maybe they were too young to know? There was no doubt in Carmen’s mind that she was straight. She had known since she was a young child. After declaring the truth, Carmen quit all sports and took up knitting. She was tired of being teased that she threw the ball like a boy. Neil wanted to jump for joy once he knew that family would not be a hurdle.
The waiter danced over and placed their meals in front of them. “I’m thinking about going back to school,” Carmen said between bites of her leek and cauliflower risotto. “To become a doctor.”
“A medical doctor?” Neil nearly choked on his white wine. One of his mom’s was a doctor and he knew the struggles that she had dealt with.
“I know, that was my mom’s reaction,” Carmen smiled. “I’ve been volunteering at the hospital and love it.” The problem with being a doctor was that they were only paid if the patient remained healthy. A sick patient meant no compensation. The drug companies were constantly trying to get doctors to prescribe less medication. But Carmen was not one to be persuaded by the views of nay saying around her. Coming out as a straight girl was the hardest thing she had ever done. Everything else since was cake.
“You don’t want to stay at the coffee shop?” Neil asked. He poked at his whitefish topped with mashed potatoes and lychee.
“No, I want to prescribe less pills to counteract the increasing demand to numb one’s mind,” Carmen stated.
“You should do it then,” Neil smiled. Maybe she could make a difference. And after all, it was only their first date. If they stayed together, he would rather be with someone happy than with someone chasing money or prestige.
“Have you always wanted to work in advertising?” She asked as she sprinkled white pepper onto her food.
“No,” Neil paused as his white fork hovered in front of his mouth. He took a bite and chewed. “You’ll laugh . . .”
“Ok,” Carmen smiled. Her eyes lit up.
“I’ll tell you on our next date.” He reached for the horseradish and added some to his fish.
“No way! Now . . . ”
“A makeup stylist,” Neil mumbled as he pursed his lips, trying not to smile.
“What? I didn’t hear you . . .” she sang as she wiped her mouth with the white linen napkin.
“Yes, you did . . .” Neil narrowed his eyes. She had a huge smile on her face and he knew she just wanted to hear it out of his mouth again.
“Haha!” Carmen clapped her hands together once and kept them together in prayer under her chin. She leaned into the table. “Really?”
“I knew you’d thought I was crazy.”
“Do you know any stylists?” She reached for her fork and poked at her white plate.
“Yes, we do photo shoots and commercials at work . . .that’s what got me interested.”
“So, start asking if you can help.” Carmen shoved a cauliflower into her mouth.
“Mmmmm, I don’t know . . .”
“Why don’t you go for it? Because you’re not gay?” She joked.
“No,” Neil nearly choked on his bok choy. He paused. “Yes . . .”
“Really?” Carmen cut him off. She popped her eyes open in surprise.
“I’ve been harassed by gay people my whole life. Why would I want to go into an industry with them?”
“Ok,” she smiled.
“Haven’t you been harassed?”
“No, but I’ve accepted myself as I am . . .”
“Once you accept yourself, others will, too.”
After a few months of bliss with Carmen, he decided to invite her home to meet his parents. Even though he felt lingering fear about showing her off to his small hometown, with Carmen he would be invincible. Neil drove up to his moms’ house and parked in the driveway. If anything, residents of the town would know that he was successful. He drove a new electric car. Carmen had proudly presented him with a round, colorful swirled sticker. It represented all people as one and was the logo for the straight lifestyle. Neil immediately placed it in his back window. He was ready to be out and proud.
“Aren’t we going in the front?” Carmen asked as Neil held her hand and pulled her to the side of the house. He leaned her against the beige siding in between the bushes and kissed her. She caressed the back of his neck.
“You’re irresistible, I’ve been wanting to kiss you the whole car ride,” Neil murmured. Time stood still in their magical embrace. “I love you,” Neil said as he pushed away from her. Carmen looked deep in his eyes and smiled. Love you, she purred. He grabbed her hand and pulled her around the corner. They heard whispers and noticed a couple of little heads on the other side of the car.
“What the . . .” Neil moaned. Maybe he had been too cocky. The kids had quite obviously seen the swirl sticker in his back window and were destroying his car because of it. He still was not accepted in his town. Carmen walked up to them, which took the kids off guard.
“Hey, what’s up?” She asked. Four little frightened eyes popped wide open.
“We’ve never seen a car like this,” one of the kids muttered. “It’s nice.”
“You like the car?” Neil walked up to them. They both shook their heads yes.
“Yeah, it doesn’t make any noise.” One boy remarked.
“It’s so cool!” The other boy shouted.
“Wanna ride later?” Neil crossed his arms and smiled. The boys jumped up and down with excitement and then ran home. Carmen grabbed Neil’s hand and squeezed it.
Carmen and Neil were greeted with warm hugs as they entered the house. It turned out that his moms’ had invited a couple of his high school classmates to dinner to visit their old friend. They had lost touch. Neil walked cautiously into the room. High school memories flooded his mind. They were the guys that he hung out with but had no clue about him being straight. He smiled sheepishly at them as they came up to him. Neil shrugged his shoulders. He was about to proclaim to them that he was heterosexual but one friend cut in before he could say anything.
“Com’on, we always knew you were straight.” The guy chuckled as he hugged him.