Bishop Hanscom sort of tolerated me being out. But they wouldn’t tolerate me bringing a boy to their Winter Formal, and I refused to play “take a girlfriend and have fun." Instead, The National was playing The Trocadero in downtown Philly, and somehow, through the power of indie rock, or the universe at large, I had scored a ticket.
No tux and corsage for me. I pulled on my tightest black jeans, a tight black tee, and black Doc Martens. I raked my dyed black hair half over my face; I lined my eyes and smeared them. I also added a rainbow bracelet to each wrist, because why not?
My mom had agreed I could ride SEPTA’s R-5 train from Malvern to Jefferson Station in downtown Philly, find my way to The Troc, see The National, and get myself home. She’d only sighed. “Be careful, Malcolm,” she’d said. “You’re all I’ve got.” Not many barely seventeen-year-olds have that kind of luck, or that kind of mom.
So while all my classmates lined up for pictures and talked about how awesome our barely-decorated gym looked, though it probably still smelled like someone’s feet, I parked my car and waited on an ancient bench next to triple rows of train tracks. At 7:28, with a roar and a whoosh and a mighty creak, a SEPTA train stopped. I hopped on, the only passenger, and paid a black-hatted conductor — no one manned the station’s ticket window past five-thirty. Darkened suburbia flickered by, all yellow and red light, until we reached the city, then finally Jefferson Station: 8:26pm, right on time. I hustled a few streets over to The Troc — I’d only miss part of the opener. A beefy-looking, punked-out doorman stamped my hand and waved me in.
The dimmed innards of The Troc reeked of cheap beer; my Docs stuck to its wooden floor. But I pushed to the front — my skinniness helped me wedge my way up through a standing-room-only crowd. Somehow, I found myself shoved against metal rails surrounding The Troc’s wooden stage. Luckily I’d peed before I waded into the vast, smelly crowd — no way would I give up my spot before The National came on.
People pressed in on every side, and I didn’t notice them, not until break between the opener and The National. Roadies were taking down one band’s gear and setting up the other’s when a guy next to me spoke. “I like your bracelets,” he said. Well, shouted. We had to shout if we wanted to talk.
I turned. He was as slim as me — probably, like me, how he’d wrangled his way up here — with long brown hair and big brown eyes lined in black. “Thanks,” I replied, and blushed at his code: he knew I was gay; he was gay; he thought I was cute.
He was cute, too.
He smiled. “Isn’t it cool to be right up here to see The National? Have you ever seen them?”
I shook my head.
“I’ve seen them play New York, but never somewhere this small. This is something really special.” He lit up when he spoke, a light that grew, radiating from his pretty eyes, drawing him up straighter and stretching his smile wider. “I like… the specialness in things, you know? Big special things, like a concert like this? Or little special things, like the old benches in the 30th Street Station, have you ever seen them? How many people do you think have sat on them and waited to go who knows where, you know? I like to sit on them and imagine it.” He reddened under the hot stage lights. “Sorry. I’m rambling? I do that. Mostly about weird stuff no one else cares about. I’m sorry.”
How could I fall in love with just a few sentences? I didn’t know his name. The crowd pinned us together: shoulder to shoulder, half of my chest to his back as I twisted to lean against the rail. “I’m Malcolm Teague?” I said, as if between his words and his body, I could hardly manage to find myself.
“I’m Weston Cassidy. Everyone calls me West. I’d shake your hand but, like, I’m sort of not able to move? Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m from Princeton.”
Of course. I’d met a cute guy, and he lived in Jersey.
“What grade are you in?” I hoped he was still in a grade.
He smiled a little. “Eleventh. What about you? I bet you’re in eleventh too?”
I tilted my head. “How’d you know?”
“I’m good at guessing ages. Where do you go to school?”
I rolled my eyes. “Bishop Hanscom. What about you?”
He rolled his eyes. “Princeton Prep. At least I live at home, I don’t board. If I had to board there I might die.”
West went to a school that offered boarding? More code: his school was expensive. Like, baby-you’re-a-rich-man expensive. West had money on a scale I’d never seen in a kid my age.
“Do you like The National a lot?” I fished for things to say, for ways to talk to this cute boy who kept pushing long hair out of his eyes.
He nodded. “They’re my favorite.”
“What else do you like?” That little half-smile: I could die on it. And he was pressed so close to me.
We talked some about music, books, and movies, then The National came on. West sang softly to every word. I tried to listen to the band, but his smell of good sweat and mint overcame the cheap beer; the crowd practically shoved my face into his neck. His hip poked mine; his hair brushed my shoulder. I turned to him at set break, when everything seemed to back off and breathe. “You have a good voice.”
“Oh no, oh no, did you hear me singing?” His eyes widened, and his breath smelled like candy. “I’m so sorry. I can’t help it. I always sing at concerts.”
I looked down. He wore tight jeans, dark ones. “It was cute.”
“Do you think so?” West spoke quietly, right in my ear. Maybe he meant something. Maybe he only wanted me to hear him.
I nodded without raising my eyes.
He sighed then, a sigh thick with frustration. My head snapped up. “I don’t know what to say!” He didn’t speak quietly then, but loud, loud enough that it turned a head or two. “You’re so cute, and you’re right there, and I have no idea how to talk to you. None. Everything I say sounds stupid.”
I swallowed hard. “You don’t sound stupid. I sound stupid.”
His eyes were wide. “You’re so cute. And you think I’m cute, don’t you?”
I probably pulled a deer-in-the-headlights thing. “Y-yes.”
“And you’re here by yourself too, aren’t you? You don’t have any friends in the back?”
I shook my head.
“Okay.” He bit his lip and smiled a little. “We’re here together, then.”
I somehow nodded and replied. “I’d like that.”
West smiled wide, his eyes big and bright. “Then let’s be boyfriends tonight. We’re here together and we’re already smushed like this. You don’t mind when I sing and I like that you’re smart and cute. And your hand’s right there.” Slender fingers brushed my palm. My breath caught at his unexpected touch as those fingers threaded between my own.
The National came back onstage. West didn’t drop my hand through their whole set, and they only provided a dim soundtrack as the crowd pushed me closer to him. But when the band launched an encore of “Fake Empire,” West turned to me. His lips brushed the delicate skin on my ear as he sang along. I held his hand and he sang my favorite song, a song that sent me longing to lose myself in a beautiful night-city, a dream-city of blurring light and shadow.
When the band finished, the crowd began to disperse, but West didn’t drop my hand. “Where are you going now?” he asked.
“Back to Jefferson Station, then to 30th Street Station to catch the R-5.”
“I’m going to 30th Street Station, too. Let’s walk to Jefferson and ride the train together.” We’d sweated through the show at The Troc, but outside, a harsh Philly wind whipped us into freezing. I dropped West’s hand and hugged myself. But West wrapped his arm around my waist. “Here. I’ll do this, and you do the same thing, and we’ll both stay warm.”
We almost ran to Jefferson Station’s blessed warmth. I moved away from West. He picked up my hand again. “We’re boyfriends tonight,” he said. “We hold hands.”
I summoned the courage to say it. “I’ve never had a boyfriend.”
West laughed. “Me either.”
I stared. “Then why are you so… I don’t know! You seemed like you were shy and now you aren’t at all!”
He shrugged. “I decided not to be shy. It’s easy when you decide not to care.” He tilted his head at me, his straight brown hair spilling down. “You should decide not to care, Malcolm. What would you do if you didn’t care?”
Everything inside me seemed to float perilously, ready to drop at any moment as I wrapped my arm around his waist and rested my head on his shoulder. When we hopped on the escalator, West’s arms went around me. He pressed against my back. I sort of melted on him. A train waited at the platform; we stepped on and sat in two plastic, scooped-out yellow seats. Our hips touched. When I turned to him, and he turned to me, and our chests pressed together. Then my face was in his hands, his pretty lips on mine. He kissed me gently, like I was something rare and breakable. My fingers tangled in his hair. West smelled like mint, and he tasted like candy, and for that one magic night, he was mine.