“Oh shit, I think I’m IT,” I mumbled under the thumping music. Stumbling out of the third club that evening, I started to regret my decision to eat that brownie earlier.
“Ren, can you—this way,” Nick said, yanking my arm to save me from the curbside that threatened to trip me. He threw his arm around me, cradling his armpit around my intoxicated body. He was sweaty. I was sweaty.
His plain white shirt had been stained with the activities of the night, but he still looked good. Nick had this way of putting clothes on that highlighted every inch of his perfection– even his stubble had a way of being perfect. Nudging him, I put my phone into the pocket of his sleek black pants and handed him my ID, which he placed into the inside pocket of his ripped jean jacket.
We had grown up together. He was my best friend—through all the heartbreak and trauma, he had held me together with the two arms that now led us through the dangerously active stream of people swaying and swallowing their sins. We both knew we would never work out, and I liked knowing that he would always be in my corner—especially on nights like this.
He was tired of the what ifs, the who else coulds, and the no one has evers. Camped out in his apartment, we’d draped sheets—layer by layer—and laid in the mess that I had made for myself. We laid inside of the finite fort; Nick stood up; cracking the roof into a half circle.
“just so you know there is always an out”.
Sunken into my sorrows and the grey beanbag, I grabbed the salt and vinegar chips and sighed. stargazing at the colorful posters plastered on the walls, Nick grabbed his acoustic guitar and nonchalantly strummed slow songs to sooth me. Occasionally, he would hum, and I would rant until his caring croons drowned me out of my ears. But today was different.
Earlier, he had grunted and groaned through my two-hour rant before handing me the brownie and saying, “Look Jaren. It’s the first Friday of the new year. If I’m being honest, I don’t know if she’s worth it, but this brownie definitely is.”
Nick just always knew what I needed. Now, we were surrounded by groups of sweat-stained adults hysterically laughing and screaming about nothing of importance, and I needed that. I needed to get away from my problems. I needed her to not matter for a night.
I strained my eyes to read the street signs, but I soon gave up when I realized that my senses were being held hostage by too many influences. The nonsense blurs around me made the most sense. Nick pulled me closer.
“Oh wait, I’m IT,” I remembered.
I was always it.
In third grade, I had liked this girl. I fought the heteronormative values inside of myself for a good part of my eighth year on this planet before accepting the fact that I was attracted to boys and girls. In high school, being on the women’s basketball team, ‘curious’ girls would approach me all the time. Flirting and throwing themselves at me, they seemed to conclude that I, Jaren Anderson, was it. It being the exception—the woman that they would love for the rest of their lives.
However, they were average, and I got bored easily.
None of those flings prepared me for the adult world, which would explain why I was in Austin, Texas on the corner of San Jacinto and Sixth Street, high on sativa, and trying to forget about the problems of my current relationship.
“Nick, Nick, Nick,” I chanted. He was wobbling but focused as he trucked through the trashed streets of Sixth. Turning to me, he sighed. I annoyed him when I was under influences, but he was the one who had fed me the brownie. I could tell by his firm grip, which held me against his warm body, that he felt responsible for me, and I appreciated that.
“Yes, ma’am?” he said, pushing his way through two hefty guys.
“What do I countdown from?” I asked. I knew I was IT; however, up was down and down was sideways. He stopped moving and looked down at me. His bushy black eyebrows furrowed under his corrugated forehead. He was so kind. If only Hailey treated me like this…
“Ten,” he sighed. He knew what I was doing. Every time I was high while on Sixth Street, all I wanted to do was play games. Two months ago, it was Red Rover, which was so intense that Nick walked away with a concussion. Last month, we played Tag, which was the reason I had developed shin splints in such a short period of time. However, tonight’s game of choice was Hide-And-Go-Seek, which Nick hated with all his heart.
I could tell he didn’t want to ruin my night, and from the way that he scanned our surroundings, I could tell he still felt responsible for me.
“You’ve got to go hide, Nick,” I begged as I used my hands to cover my eyes.
Hailey and I had started talking in May. She was complex and put together—I was simple and broken. I swore up and down that this was different; it was like she had known me before.
I had taught myself to stop caring about the world around me—even tried to isolate myself. Then, Hailey appeared, and she just fixed me.
Once I had left a note to my girlfriend at the time saying that I was going to Florida with my ex-boyfriend for a week. When I got back all she had to say was, “did you see Mickey Mouse?”
Last week, I had had friends over for our annual Christmas potluck. I had slept until Hailey had woken me up in the late afternoon with a phone call saying she was coming over in an hour. I had mentioned that I was going to clean the kitchen before she came over. However, after taking a warm shower, I had drowsily fell back into my bed.
My phone had rung loudly in my ear, causing my half-dressed body to jolt to its feet. I wrestled with some wrinkled clothes and ran to the door, excited to see Hailey. She walked in and saw the kitchen barring evidence of the wild night before. She stood there: arms crossed, and lips pursed, in silent protest to the mess. She refused my attempts to take her to my room and shrugged off any apologetic remarks and kisses that I had for her.
Giving in, I sluggishly shoveled half eaten plates of food into the trashcan, absent-mindedly wiped down the counters, and angrily swept up crumbs from the crevasses of the kitchen. Once I was done, she kissed my cheek and skipped into my room.
She had this high standard—something no one had ever had for me—that I soon began to hold myself to. My temper tantrums were calmed, unbelievable attitudes were erased, and guarded heart was putty. She handled me, and she did it very well.
“Nick? Nicky, is that you?” a voice rang out into the drunken void. Nick grabbed my hand and twirled me out of the sea of strangers and onto the sidewalk. The momentum of my long brown twists caused my head to keep twirling, sending my senses spinning.
My eyes locked onto a skimpy tree that protruded out of the empty sidewalk. The subtle breeze was making the leaves shimmy and shake to the music of the club next to us. The bass pounded its rhythm into my head, and with each beat, the outline of the leaves would become more defined. Each feature was vulnerable and raw and open to interpretation. The colorful lights of a nearby club flickered and I was lost in the cacophony of beats, colors and lines. I closed my eyes to take it all in.
A hand grabbed my lower back, jerking me back to the corner that Nick and I stood on.
My sight recalibrated to find Nick rejoiced with these strangers who had approached him. Their bodies ebbed and flowed like waves as the conversation erupted between them—forming smiles as they laughed. Giggling and flailing, their bodies and limbs wrapped around each other effortlessly. There was love.
There was no love—or maybe there was. Hailey was complicated. She raved about her personal progresses and marked her calendars with success. She presented well—almost like a statue that had been carved and cared for. Despite being five feet and four inches, she towered over anyone.
Her features and the sun must have been under contract because it was criminal how well they worked together. Her copper skin reflected golden hues that would gleam off her amber eyes. Her presence could light up the darkest parts of anyone. Her dimples rested just below her cheekbones, inviting beaten souls to have a moment of safety. She emulated the kind of perfection that only exists inside of our minds in the loneliest part of the night, or in the earliest parts of the morning when she put it on.
She cared a lot about image.
“This is my friend, Jaren,” Nick yelled as he pulled me into the semi-circle of strangers. My eyes rolled around in my head, searching for something to cling onto. A hand reached out and grasped mine—grounding me.
A wave of heat flooded my face, as my sight began to refocus. I was staring into the face of a young man. From the cut in his cleft chin to the hooded arch of his eyebrows, he was well-defined. His warm brown eyes reminded me of my morning coffee—charming, accepting, and tempting. His round lips parted as he spoke, but the white picket fence in his mouth took my focus with no intention of giving it back.
His other hand lifted to support our handshake that was lasting far too long, and his rustic cherrywood skin tone matched mine. For a moment, I was lost, and his rough hands were a road map.
“Jaren, this is Terrence,” Nick snickered. I stared at Terrence, searching for words that I would never find.
“Nick, do you want to help me get her into this club? She looks like she could use some water,” Terrence proposed, gesturing to Chupacabra Cantina. Nick assessed the situation. He didn’t want to leave me, but I could tell by the way his eyes lit up when these people approached him that he had been drowning in my sorrow with me. He just wanted me to have a good time, but he and I both knew that I was still a burden to him.
With a nod and a wink, Nick gave Terrence permission to take me inside. Putting his arm around me, Terrence let out a deep hearty chuckle that pleasantly shook me.
Nick always knew what I needed.
I was shocked when she had said it first. I had fought every cell in my body to not let it slip out. It was probably the most difficult part about being around her, especially when she did things for me.
One sunny June morning, she showed up to my apartment with a brown paper bag in her right hand and a giant smile plastered across her face. It was Sunday—which meant my family was in San Antonio, at grandmas’ brunch, feasting on barbacoa tacos and sipping on Big Red.
She had driven all the way down to the Southside of San Antonio to the little family owned hole-in-the-wall restaurant and brought the tacos to me.
In July, I was the last one in my apartment to get mono. Quarantined, weak, and bedridden, I suffered. Until, she came over with her dead mother’s minestrone that her mom had perfected over the years. Hailey spoon fed me and held me. I hadn’t slept for days, but that night I remember melting into her chest and feeling safe.
It was hard to not fall for her.
“Jaren, do you have your ID on you?” Terrence questioned. My mind snapped back, and my eyes drowsily looked down at my outfit. I ran my hands up and down the curvature of my body. I hated this bralette; it had this white lace the scratched my arms when they brushed against it. Even though the gold accent complimented my belly button piercing and my shoes, it was a useless piece of clothing that barely held up my breasts. The black skirt that I was wearing had a slit in the side that gave my legs room to breathe; however, there was no room for my ID there either. Patting my sides, my mind struggled to recall anything.
“Ni-Nick has it,” I slurred. Turning around, the world was moving slower than I remembered. Man, I really regret eating that brownie.
“I love you, but I’m not ready to start saying that yet. You know my dad’s side of the family is very homophobic—and I’m their favorite! I’m not ready for them to know—I don’t want to—I can’t—I-I-I love you and that’s all,” she concluded. I had been there once, so I understood.
I reassured her all the time that I didn’t need people to know about us. I had just recently become comfortable with allowing the label ‘bisexual’ to describe a part of me that had always been there. So, I censored parts of myself for her comfort.
I kept the public affection to a minimum, never stared for too long, left a decently sized space between us when conversing, and kept my sly remarks in text messages. I tiptoed around my sexuality for her, but it always felt like I was regressing. I had left the closet a while ago and had no intention of going back.
I had gone back—back to where Nick and his group was.
“oh, am I IT?” Nick shouted at me.
“I’m not even done counting, yet,” I replied, scoffing at his impatience. He greeted me with open arms and an embrace that submerged me in a sea of warmth. When I resurfaced for air, he flashed his grin and pulled my ID out from his jean jacket pocket.
“Since when are you from Illinois?” Nick asked.
“Since my cousin let me borrow her ID,” I said, extending my arm in his direction. Nick flung his arm upwards, then sideways, then downward as I threw my body weight behind each lunging attempt to retrieve my ID.
“Okay, Kristina—here,” Nick said, reading my cousin’s name off the ID. He handed me the card and winked, shooing me back to the line where Terrence was awaiting my return.
As I approached the front of the line, I studied the ID. The picture and I were eerily similar. The deep brown eyes and plump lips mirrored mine—in shape, position, and coldness. It looked so much like me, but it wasn’t. It was like looking into a mirror and feeling like you’re looking at someone else live your life for you. Staring into the blank expression of the card, I felt as empty as she looked.
The security guard nudged my shoulder, and I handed him the ID. Terrence had already been checked, and he was waiting for me at the doorway.
“Have a good night…” the security guard said, trailing off as his eyes ran up and down my body. I nodded half-heartedly in acknowledgement, and he stepped aside, handing me back the new identity that I had assumed.
Weaving my arm with Terrence’s, and we walked into the club.
I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I would go in public and feel different. I wasn’t Jaren. I was constantly scanning my surroundings—looking for a monster that I had left behind. A monster that I had overcame so long ago that I forgot what it looked like.
I was searching for judgement.
I was looking for the slight raise of an eyebrow, a glaring side-eye, or a flash of disgust across someone’s face. I was constantly on the lookout for someone to judge me and my interactions with someone that I cared about.
Image was everything to Hailey.
In the beginning, I had felt like I was hers. It had been easy to get along and tackle obstacles in our way because we were free to be ourselves—free to think for ourselves. But now it was complicated.
We loved each other, but that wasn’t enough. Hailey needed the world to love us too. It didn’t matter if my dignity was compromised, or if hiding a part of me hurt. It just didn’t matter to her.
I wasn’t Hailey’s girlfriend; I was her secret.
“Ready or not, here I come!” I shouted over the blaring music.
I scanned the wall of tightly packed people in front of me, trying to find an opening to slide through. I slipped through a tight crack, only to be greeted by the glaring lights of the television screens that hung from every corner of the bar. Blindly, I stumbled into a poorly placed table that people had gathered around to scream lyrics at each other in unison. I slid past them, grabbing Terrence and pulling him into a slightly bigger opening.
Immediately, I started moving through the club. Slowly trudging through the crowd, the weight of the brownie and the world caught up to me. I threw my head from right to left, searching for something that I was never going to find. It seemed like I was always searching for something that would never be found in places that I didn’t really want to be.
The sauna of a club overwhelmed me as I swam through the sweaty sea of sound. Turning to check on Terrence, his cool demeanor wasn’t affected as he effortlessly towered over the crowd. His eyes scanned the ocean. Holding onto my hand, he took the lead and my body was along for the ride. Moments later, the sea of people opened to an airy spot on the dance floor.
“I’ll be back with the water,” Terrence said as he flashed his smile in my direction. “Stay here,” he commanded and was off to the bar.
“He’s so sweet,” I said aloud before I could catch myself. Slightly swaying back and forth, I started to scan the club for a place to sit down. Something caught my eye.
It was Hailey.
She was sitting on a man’s lap, encased by his broad shoulders that naturally held her in place. She rolled her hips around as he sat back and stared in amazement at the little effort it took for her to steal your gaze. Laughing, she whirled her body around to face the man.
My legs started moving, abruptly at first, then calculated. Swaying with the crowd, my was like a View Master.
Click. She’s grabbing his face.
Click. She’s starring into his eyes
Click. She kissed him.
Click. They smile.
When her head whipped around, we made eye contact. I was 3 steps away. She froze, assuming her statuesque pose under the blacklight glow.
“You’re IT,” I said plainly before scolding myself.
I should have known she would be hiding in the closet.
About the Author
Hypatia Sorunke is a writer from San Antonio, Texas. She’s currently a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, double majoring in Plan II and Black Studies. Her words are new to the world as she has always been a writer, yet she hasn’t always written. With that, she hopes to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing post-grad.