Casey Melville is about the best friend anyone could ever ask for. Though he’s straight, in this excerpt he helps Jonah Fischer come to terms with what it means to be gay by taking him to Alta Avenue, the gay district well known to readers of Frat House Troopers. The results are touching—and hilarious, of course.
Casey pulled his car into the first parking spot he found on Alta Avenue, right where the rather prim map he’d consulted online last night told him the “alternative district” began. He put the car in park and shut off the engine.
“So, this is it,” he said to Jonah, who was surveying the street through the passenger window.
“It’s not what I expected,” Jonah replied.
“What did you expect?”
“Well, every time you see gay people on the news, they’re wearing dresses with feathers or dancing in speedos on floats.” Jonah peered through the windshield.
Casey burst into giggles. “That would be pretty fucked up, man. Think about the traffic around here if they all traveled on floats.”
Jonah laughed, though he sounded a bit more anxious than his friend. “You sure you want to do this?”
“It’s what we came for. No one here knows us, and no one will ever find out we were here.” Casey nodded encouragingly and opened his door. Jonah did the same, and they stepped out of the car.
“I gotta put some money in the meter,” Casey said, patting his pockets. “Did you bring any gay money?” He winked at Jonah, who rolled his eyes and handed Casey all of the straight coins he had in his pocket.
“There. We can be gay for”—Casey squinted at the meter—“exactly two hours.” He turned to Jonah. “If you feel the need to be gayer than that, we can always come back and feed the meter.”
“Are you going to keep doing that?” Jonah asked. “Because I might have to kill you.”
“Sorry, man. Just having a little fun. You know, feeling kinda happy and gay.” Casey saw the glare Jonah was sending his way and recoiled, genuinely startled. “Okay, no more jokes. Got it.”
Jonah grinned. “Well, maybe a few more. You’re awesome to do this with me.”
Casey smiled, pleased to see his friend’s mood lighten for the first time in days. “So, our first stop should be right up here.” He pointed to the other side of the street on the next block up.
“Wait, you planned this out? Like an itinerary?”
Casey nodded, uncertain whether this was something Jonah might view as an intrusion on his prerogative as a sexually questioning individual. “I thought it might be helpful. I didn’t know we’d end up here so soon, though, so I hadn’t really gotten it all nailed down. I mean, do you like gay Thai food or gay Indian food?”
Jonah closed his eyes and shook his head. Then, without warning, he threw his arm around Casey’s shoulder and pulled him into a sudden hug. “Best best friend ever,” he whispered.
“Save it for the float, bro,” Casey replied, deeply thrilled to have made his friend happy. “Onward!” he called, and they walked to their first destination.
They soon found themselves in front of a large bookstore called, as Casey had discovered in his research, Pen is Mighty.
“Look how they repeated the name and ran the letters all together,” Casey said to Jonah as they looked at the front of the bookstore. “See how it looks like it says Mighty Penis? Hah! How gay is that?”
Jonah looked at him, eyes bugged out. “Casey, you can’t just say that, especially not here!”
“I didn’t mean gay like stupid, stupid. I meant it like ‘appropriate considering the target market and neighborhood demographic.’ Jeez, you need to lighten up.” Casey shook his head scoldingly at his friend.
Jonah rolled his eyes and sighed. “Let’s just go in, okay?”
They walked through the door and stood in the two-story atrium with blonde-wood shelves reaching from floor to ceiling.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a bookstore—even a straight one,” Casey said as they took in the scale of the place.
“Let’s try not to look like farm boys, okay?” Jonah pointed toward the center of the store. “This way?”
“Your call, chief.” Casey smiled and followed along.
They walked into the center of the store, from which two stories of shelves radiated like spokes. They stood and looked around and had no idea where to start.
Casey was undaunted. He marched up to the information desk and waited for the young man with the Clark Kent glasses to finish consulting the computer about the book he held in his hand. Finally he looked up, and did a double take when his eyes landed on Casey.
“Well, hell-lo,” he said, sliding along the counter on his rolling stool until he was directly opposite Casey. “How may I be of service, sir?”
Casey had never understood what people meant when they said someone had “undressed me with his eyes.” Now he did. The clerk looked him up and down, lingering over areas Casey suddenly felt his clothes were inadequate to cover. He shook off his insecurity and forged ahead with his question.
“Where is your how-to section?” he asked.
“How to what, then?” the clerk replied.
“Um, how to be gay, I guess? It’s for my friend over there.” Casey tipped his head over to Jonah, who was still turning slowly around, absorbing the size and complexity of the place.
“Riiiiiight, your friend,” the clerk said with a smile. “Okay, let’s get your friend the information he seeks. Follow along, cutie.” He came around the side of the information counter and gave Casey another once-over. “Hmm. Sure it’s just for your friend?”
“Oh, about 99.9 percent sure. But thanks for the creepy look,” he said with a sunny smile that clearly intended no offense.
“We’ll see,” said the clerk with a wink. He headed across the hub of the store, tapping Jonah on the shoulder when he reached him, signaling Jonah to follow. The three of them climbed the staircase to the second level and arrived shortly at a section of the store where several rows of shelves radiated out from some conversationally arranged couches.
“Now this is the sexualities section. Here we have lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, polyamorous, cisgender, transgender, and, well, other.” He pointed to the shelves on the left and then moved his hand, making chopping motions, as he swiveled to the right. “So moving into the gay section, we begin with ‘Am I gay?’ then on to ‘Why am I gay?’ to ‘Hell yeah, I’m fucking gay so deal with it!’ down there at the end. Then on this shelf we have ‘What kind of gay am I?’ to ‘How do I have gay sex?’ and finally ‘Why does no one want to have gay sex with me?’, which honestly, you two are not going to have to worry about for many many years. With me so far?”
Casey, eyes spinning a bit, nodded gamely. Jonah seemed hardly to be breathing.
“Great. Now next row over we have the coming out section. Coming out to Mom is this shelf—and those four over there. Coming out to Dad is on the next two shelves, and then on down through grandparents and second cousins, and finally rich uncles who might cut you out of their will if you’re gay. Got that?”
The boys nodded helplessly.
“Then finally, we have gay culture, gay cooking, gay travel, and gay automobile maintenance. We used to have a gay fashion section, but now that’s just basically the fashion section on the lower level. It’s fabulous. Any questions?”
Casey could only shake his head. Jonah was reading titles on the shelves with increasing alarm.
“Okay, so…,” the clerk said, trying to catch Jonah’s attention.
“Jonah,” Casey said. “His name’s Jonah.”
“Okay, Jonah. There’s really only one question you need to ask yourself, and the answer will help you more than all of these books. You know the feeling you get in your tummy when you look at your friend here?”
Jonah looked at him quizzically.
“Hang on, let’s get this right. Here, you….” He pointed at Casey.
“My name’s Casey.”
“Casey, great. Okay, Casey, take your shirt off.”
“Do you want to help Jonah, or not?” the clerk demanded. He crossed his arms and tapped his foot imperiously.
“Yeah, I do. He’s my best friend.”
“Then off with it. Just for a sec.”
“But…,” Casey stammered, looking around. There were no other patrons in the section, but still.
“Take it off! Now!” ordered the clerk, in a commanding tone Coach Woody could never hope to attain.
Casey crossed his arms and whipped his shirt off.
“Oh, fuck me,” the clerk whispered under his breath. He shook it off and turned to Jonah. “Now, Jonah. You know the feeling you get in your belly when you look at Casey? Be honest now, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
Jonah looked at Casey, the friend of his entire life, and his eyes slowly ran down the lithe musculature honed by years of wrestling. He nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said in a small, pained voice.
The clerk smiled warmly. “Thank you, Casey. If you insist on being fully clothed, which is, I assure you, a loss to humanity, you may put your shirt back on.” He turned back to Jonah. “I know you’re confused and anxious because you don’t understand what’s inside you. That feeling is the truth, Jonah. No straight man could have answered that question in the affirmative. But you felt it, just like I felt it, just like most of the men here would have felt it.”
Jonah looked at the clerk, panic in his eyes.
The clerk continued, his voice low and gentle. “It wasn’t put there by the left-wing media, and it wasn’t put there by Satan to lead you astray. It wasn’t put there by your mom loving you too much or your dad being distant. It didn’t come from anywhere—it’s a part of you. It’s the most ‘you’ thing that’s in you. It will always be there, just like it’s always been there. You can try to ignore it and tamp it down and hide it, but that won’t make it go away. You will be happier, and healthier, if you listen to it and accept it as part of your life. You know this about yourself, Jonah. You know it.”
Jonah’s eyes welled up as he shook his head slowly under the onslaught of the clerk’s monologue. The clerk matched his cadence with nodding, and he laid a hand on Jonah’s arm. That seemed to be the last straw. With a stifled sob, Jonah slumped as if the head-shaking refusal had exhausted him. He closed his eyes, forcing tears from them, and then nodded slowly. He looked over at Casey. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Casey came to Jonah and pulled him into a hug. “No. You’re Jonah. Never be sorry to be who you are.”
“I’ll give you two a moment,” the clerk whispered, a tear running down his cheek as well. He backed away and walked off down an adjacent aisle.
“Happy now?” Jonah muttered into Casey’s ear.
“Gay now?” Casey muttered back. Then he broke into giggles.
Jonah slapped him on the back of the head but then held him tighter. “Thank you,” he said. “I keep saying that, but I can’t say it enough. I can’t believe you did this.”
Casey gripped his best friend more tightly. “I love you, man. I want you to be happy, and to be happy you need to be yourself.”
Jonah took a deep breath and released his hold. The friends stepped apart and wiped their eyes.
“You know, I don’t think I need any of these books,” Jonah said.
Casey’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?”
“Nah. If I get lost, all I have to do is ask you to take your shirt off. Apparently, that’s the only guide I need.” He grinned.
“Think what you’ll learn when I take my pants off,” Casey replied with a wink.
“Let’s save that for when we’re someplace a little more private, okay?” Jonah said with a laugh.
“Deal. Now can we get some gay lunch, please?”
“You got it. Let’s go.”
They walked back down the stairs to the main floor of the bookstore and stopped at the information counter where the clerk was beaming at them from his stool.
“Thank you,” Jonah said, extending his hand.
The clerk took it and shook it gently. “People say that coming out is the most difficult thing they’ve ever had to do, Jonah,” he said with a smile. “But you’ve done the hardest part—you came out to yourself. And to your best friend. Nothing will ever be as hard as what you’ve already done. You’re home, Jonah. Your new life—your real life—starts today.”
“Yeah, happy gay birthday, buddy!” cheered Casey with a wink. He slung his arm around his friend and they walked out of the store together.