On the bus from the suburbs to the city, the gold sequins on a cocktail dress caught the glare of the bus’s lights and refracted them onto the ceiling. Tim watched the lights above him dance, wondering what the nightclub would be like. Who he might find there. It was his eighteenth birthday, and he’d invited a bunch of friends for a night out. Four had shown up: Zane and Emma, because of course they’d turned up, and Nick and Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn was a nice surprise, because their only one-on-one interaction was a concert that Zane cancelled on. He was always sort of sure she thought herself too cool for him. Nick wouldn’t be here, he knows, without the dual pressure of Zane and Kaitlyn.
Emma and Zane, Nick and Kaitlyn. If Tim found someone they’d be a full matched set.
Why hadn’t he found someone already? The question brought up the kind of depression he’d get en route home after a party, when he was lying on Zane’s couch, pretending he couldn’t hear Emma’s moans through the walls. Answers came, rather than the longed-for inner silence: He hadn’t found someone because his chest was doughy and hairless, because there had been no other out gays at his school, because the area he lived in was too churchy, too outer-suburban. Because (chief of all) he was in some unnamable and unique way unlovable. He knew it was a ridiculous thought. He also felt that it was absolutely certain.
Emma had borrowed Zane’s denim jacket, and it made her look tiny in her little black dress. She leaned forward. ‘You okay, Tim?’
‘Yeah. Fine. Excited.’ He said.
He looked down at himself, dressed in skinny jeans bought after he noticed Zane had started wearing them to school, and an ironed white shirt with the little anchors on it matched with a pair of black Converse low-tops. He wished his arms were bigger, more toned so he didn’t have to stress too much about what he was wearing.
But these were insecurities to deal with at a lonelier time, and not on a bus headed to the city with his mates, tipsy already from the Pump bottle filled with vodka Zane had brought.
In the hour it took to get to Central Station, Tim drank so much he was giggling already. ‘I’m gonna find a man tonight, alright?’ he said to Zane.
Zane looked down at him and chuckled. ‘Sure, mate. Go wild.’
Once off the bus, they headed down Oxford Street, then to Club PRYSM. An online search around the gay clubs of Sydney had led Tim to the consensus that PRYSM was where all the twinks went, which was the identity category he’d belong to, if he ever got around to diligently using his gym membership.
Tim found himself stiffening and straightening himself up in a club line. He couldn’t wobble too much or he wouldn’t be let in. He stood behind a group of young men, all of them only a little older than himself, notably ectomorphic. Jealousy welled as he was herded up the line. (God, God, God, am I too drunk to get in?) At the door he produced his learner driver’s license after everyone had been okayed to go in, and the bouncer stopped him. ‘Have you had anything to drink, mate?’ The guy asked.
Crap. Shot down before he’d gotten out of the gate. His throat seized up. ‘Ah, a bit.’
A dubious eyebrow rose. ‘How much?’
‘Over how long?’
He thought of the bottle currently sitting in Emma’s handbag. ‘An hour, or so?’
He shrugged. ‘Alright, but take it easy.’
Tim paid and was metal-detected, before he stumbled through the revolving door.
He was in.
Inside, Zane was dancing. Red light haloed his body as he gyrated underneath a flatscreen alternating between the nightclub’s ads for upcoming underwear parties and the nearby all-night bathhouse. He’d look ridiculous if he had any self-consciousness in the way he moved, but he didn’t. Music and moving to it were natural parts of him. He played guitar, sang, and was starting at AIM in a few weeks. In his finals he’d gotten high-90s in both of his Music tests. Tim looked across a sea of young, skinny, long-limbed men standing about the place, trying to find the outliers. He felt enormous. A group of women giggled about the stages, one of them wearing a pink and silver sash reading ‘BRIDE TO BE!!’ Every now and again one of the women would glance at Zane, maybe wondering if he was too young for it to be decent. He didn’t look like a teenager, after all, he looked like a movie teenager, all clear skin and confidence.
Longing itched like a bug’s bite and Tim tried to swat it away. Not just longing for Zane, but longing to be like that. To be looked at like he was, to be lean and tall and beautiful.
Nick and Kaitlyn were entangled in each other by Tim’s side, kissing greedily. ‘You know, you could’ve stayed home if you just wanted to stare into space all night,’ Emma said.
‘Just warming up. I might need another drink.’
‘Come on, you’ve had heaps.’
Zane had bought them a round once they got in, the cider he’d chosen for Tim alleviating the post-vodka burning in his throat.
‘It’s my first night of drinking ever, right? Don’t want to half-arse it.’
She giggled, and rested her head on his shoulder. Only Zane had been friends with him for longer, and then there’d been phases where they’d been distant. At fifteen Tim had had his first drink with Emma, in a park near his house after he’d snuck away some of his mother’s Bailey’s. They’d talked about boys, which at the time had seemed revolutionary. Afterwards he’d ended up throwing up, with her telling him to get it all out. It would not be the first time this would happen, for both of them.
He held her close now and could smell the coconut shampoo from her straight dark hair. Out of the corner of his eye, Nick and Kaitlyn separated from their embrace, smiling like idiots at one another. He wondered at their relationship: Kaitlyn of the indie band fandoms, denim skirts, and pink hair, Nick of the football shirts and Xbox addiction. Sort of inexplicable, but then to Tim, most relationships were.
Nick wiped his mouth and looked to the dance-floor, where Zane was. ‘The fags are gonna eat him up,’ he said. ‘Oh, mate, I don’t mean you.’
‘He said he doesn’t like the word, Nick. Don’t be a dick.’ Kaitlyn said, before taking a sip of her beer. Nick rolled his eyes and leant forward, pulling his phone out of his pocket.
A man in a pink tank top approached Zane, and Zane grinned gamely as their bodies moved closer.
‘Is this what you wanted to do all night, Tim?’ Nick asked. ‘I mean, what’s the point of coming to the gay clubs if you’re not gonna get into it?’
‘Sorry, I’m just…preparing.’
‘Nick, he’s nervous. You know he gets nervous, it’s not right of you to pressure him like that.’
‘You’re not his mother.’ Nick said. ‘But sorry, Tim. I’m just making sure you’re having fun.’
‘Oh, look, he’s got one.’ Emma said. ‘Go Zane.’ The man dancing with Zane was close, now they were synchronized, it was like magnetism. But then they got too close and Zane seemed to freeze, before he darted back. The guy with the tank looked slapped until Zane said something to him— probably proclaiming his unavailability— then began to dance again, the other guy skulking off.
Tim pushed up his glasses. Alcohol churned in his stomach. ‘Nah, I’m gonna go dance,’ he said.
Nick thumped him on the back, like a friend. ‘Go dance.’
Emma let him take her by the hand, through the dancefloor, and then they were up onto one of the raised stages. There were eyes on Tim, he could feel them from the corners of the club. It was okay, though: he knew he could dance. He had practiced in the mirror, since he was sixteen, writhing to Gaga, Florence + The Machine, Björk if he was wine-drunk and in a particular way. Once he’d started, it felt like a curious sort of consolation for his body. It couldn’t kick or hit or run but it could move well to music. It’d been the shock of his Year Twelve formal, that Tim could get up and be one of the few boys to dance. He remembered the humour of it, at coming close to Zane on that parquet floor, locking eyes, grinning, feeling like he was transcendent and had left his graceless flesh vessel behind.
Somebody breathed down Tim’s neck. Emma danced, lost in her own world with a content smile on her face. When they’d met, Tim had been stunned that he’d met someone else with as much insecurity as he had. She had grown out of it, he hadn’t. But she had once shared his permanent state of self-scrutiny; she understood.
Tim felt a hand on his side, down his leg.
The fun Tim had started to have dissolved the moment whoever it was rubbed their cock against his thigh. He didn’t want to look at them. He needed a way out.
Tim broke away from the tangle of people, and headed towards the bathroom. Through the light, he got an impression of wide mirrors, a stale piss smell, and metal toilet seats. A sign on the back of the door of the stall he hid in bore a sign: ‘Cubicles for one person only. If you are found, both of you will be asked to leave. NO EXCEPTIONS.’ He wondered why someone would need to sneak into a bathroom stall with someone else until he heard the grunting from the adjacent cubicle.
Listening, he leaned over the toilet, sure he was about to panic-vomit. Everything was too bright, fast and loud. He heard an animal exclamation from the cubicle next to his.
Sex was absurd, from the outside. Smooth and without complication was how Tim dreamt of it, because it terrified him. Tender kissing, shirts taken off but slowly, none of this porny ‘Shove him against the wall and call him a faggot’ stuff. He wanted a fade to black, when it happened.
The pair left together, and then he was alone.
The door opened a bit after that, and then he saw Zane’s head over the stall. ‘Tim? You in here?’
Tim turned the lock on the door, and stepped out. ‘Hey.’
‘You alright, mate?’
‘Yeah. I’m fine. Just…A bit of a tiny panic attack, I think.’
Zane put a hand on his shoulder. He got a keen sense of Zane through it, of Zane and his strength. ‘Take as long as you want, Tim. But do you want to stay here?’ He asked, eyes wide with honest concern.
‘I don’t know. Fuck, sorry.’
‘Ssh, ssh, it’s fine, it’s fine. It’s your night. As long as you’re happy, we’re happy.’ Zane said. ‘We can do whatever you want to do.’
‘I’m gonna go sit down for a bit, but then I’ll be fine.’
Tim found himself where the group had started, the five of them watching the dance-floor and sipping from their cups. Zane got up to get more drinks, pulling his wallet out of his jeans on the way.
‘Are you alright, Tim?’ Emma asked.
He said nothing.
‘Tim? What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing. Nothing, honestly. I don’t know, I feel too ugly.’
‘It’s all inside your head,’ Kaitlyn said. ‘Just gotta act confident.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t really think this place is me.’
Nick sighed, and slumped back in his seat. ‘So, what is you?’ Nick asked. Emma put a hand on Tim’s knee.
‘I don’t know. Maybe I’m in a mood.’
Zane returned to the table, placing a cider before Tim.
‘There you go, mate.’
‘I reckon Tim should try and hit on someone.’ Nick said. ‘Make something happen.’
Emma giggled at the challenge. ‘Oh my god, yes,’ she said.
Tim looked at Nick, trying to figure out why he’d said it. He’d always been ambivalent about Tim, teasing him throughout the years in a slippery, half-joking fashion, but had warmed up to him considerably when he started dating Kaitlyn. The change happened a way that suggested there’d been a discussion about him being nice. ‘What, Nick?’ Tim asked.
‘Come on, Tim. It might be fun.’ Emma said. She laid on the leather with her legs crossed, Zane’s arm wrapped around her.
‘Maybe.’ He said.
‘Maybe you’d feel better after a cig.’ Zane suggested.
‘Alright.’ Tim said, reaching for his shirt pocket. ‘Anyone else?’
‘Alright.’ Emma said. ‘But only cos I’m drunk.’
‘You up for one, babe?’ Nick asked.
Zane led the way through the small gap between the dancers and the bar. There was a smoker’s alley behind the nightclub. Between the two brick walls, strung-together lights gleamed, like constellations.
Tim drew one of the cigarettes Zane had given him for his birthday, and took his lighter. As he did so, Tim noticed an old man in a loud Hawaiian shirt approach. He was bald, smelled of beer, and grinning. ‘God, it breaks my heart to see you kids smoking.’ He clapped a hand on Zane’s shoulder. Zane just laughed it off, backed away, and shook the guy’s hand.
‘I’ve got a girlfriend.’ Zane said, smiling.
‘Every game of soccer’s got a goalie,’ the guy said, but stepped back. He looked at the group of them, puzzled. ‘Straight clubs getting too boring for youse, are they?’ Could he not tell Tim was gay, just from sight?
‘Nah, mate.’ Zane said. ‘It’s his birthday, he’s on his first night out.’
‘Ah. Right. Big one-eight, then, is it?’
‘Yeah.’ Tim said.
‘Oi, oi, give him some advice.’ Nick said. Shut up shut up shut up, Tim thought. ‘Cos he’s shitting himself and he can’t relax.’
‘Can’t relax? But it’s a club! You come here to relax! Go, have fun, get some drink into ya, meet the love of your life.’
‘Can’t really get into it. Too much thinking,’ Tim said.
‘Well, did you come here to think or did you come here to do?’
‘Do,’ Tim said. ‘I think.’
The man rolled his eyes and moved on, maybe to harass another bunch of first-timers.
‘See, Tim? You’re…you’re embarrassing yourself.’ Nick slurred. His arms were folded, and tense. He leant on the wall.
‘Nick…’ Zane said.
‘Don’t defend him. He’s wrecking it, like he always wrecks everything. His fucking…overthinking bullshit. It’s a joke. We are at a gay club. This is made for people like you.’
‘Well, sorry for having anxiety. Maybe if you hadn’t spent belittled me all through high school I might be a little more comfortable with myself.’
Zane took a deep drag of his cigarette.
‘Oh, fuck off Tim, you know we like you. You’re so sensitive. Harden up.’
‘Get fucked.’ Tim said.
Kaitlyn was glaring at her boyfriend, and then looked at Tim. ‘I’m so sorry, Jesus Christ. Nick, stop being like this.’
‘Shut up. We’re only stuck here because of you. Did you know that, Tim? Zane made us come. We don’t want to be here. We have better things to do.’
‘Nick, you dickhead, you’re drunk, shut up.’
Tim wished she would wake up and stop making excuses for him. He decided then with firm resolve, he was going to hook up with the next good-looking guy he saw – the first one that wasn’t Zane. No, that wouldn’t do. The first achievable one he saw. ‘Whatever, fuck it. I didn’t come here to get caught up in your bullshit,’ he said. ‘I’m gonna hook up with someone here. Let’s try upstairs.’ He turned and went, unfurled the fists he wasn’t aware he’d made. Nick was offering apologies at his back but he couldn’t be bothered to respond.
Upstairs was less packed than downstairs, which was nice: there’d be less opportunity for crotch-rubs. He resisted the magnetism of the lounge that ran across the wall, knowing if he sat down or thought too hard he’d falter. What he focused on as he tried to dance was the boys. The really hot ones, the blessed athletic ones who didn’t look real in the same way advertisements don’t look real. It was like when he was little, looking at expensive video games in a store: nice to look at, but not for him. He’d spent his adolescence so far hoping that one day he’d blossom out of his boyish figure, but it hadn’t happened yet. He saw the way he walked in reflective surfaces at school (loose wrist, slight jaunt) and it made him panic: what if he was attacked?
Then, miracle of miracles: someone was looking at him! He was about his height, his slim body dressed in a denim button-up over tight black shorts. Tim wanted to move over, but found himself embarrassed.
Lights flashed on, and off, he became immersed and thought, fuck it.
‘Go Tim!’ Emma yelled, over the music. Tim was not delusional. The man was getting closer. Then they were dancing, Tim studying the other man’s movements, trying to keep up. He was ridiculous, and sure he could only hold the illusion of desirability for a second longer, a second longer, and another…
‘Those your friends?’ The guy asked, over the music.
‘Your friend single?’
Tim looked behind him. Zane was dancing again. ‘No. And he’s straight, so…’
‘Ugh,’ he said. ‘That’s so unfortunate.’ The man smiled at him, his hands deftly grazing his waist. Whatever he was trying to communicate with his eyes was something Tim did not know how to respond, he lacked the language, he could not help glancing away, a little to the right of his shoulder. Again Tim had to let that fuck it voice take over. He went in, stopping a moment before the kiss. The boy’s lips closed the distance. It was wet, and messy. Tim couldn’t believe it, it was happening, he’d wanted something and then got it. The other man seemed ready to drift away, only then he came in close. ‘Let’s go somewhere a bit more private,’ he said.
Tim pictured a hotel room, following the guy, his naivety shot down the moment the man pressed a well-manicured hand to the door of the men’s bathroom. It was empty, the man took him to the cubicle, then they were kissing. Tim kissed desperately.
Tim backed off for a moment. This was wild. More than wild. It felt dangerous. How had he found the confidence to do this? ‘What’s your name?’ He asked.
‘Leonard.’ He said.
‘I’m Tim,’ Tim said. ‘Is this…Is this how it always goes down?’
Leonard looked at him, puzzled. ‘Have you been out before? Clubbing?’
‘I only turned eighteen today, actually.’
‘Oh, nice. How’s that going?’ Leonard was nice, his dark eyes looking over Tim with amusement, but also indulgence.
‘Well, it just got a lot better.’ Tim offered. Too much? Leonard giggled anyway. He stayed on his side of the cubicle.
‘You’re so dorky.’ Leonard said.
‘Oh, okay. Ow.’
‘No, I meant in a good way. You remind me of this straight friend I had a crush on. He was cute, too.’
‘Is that in a good way, too?’ Tim asked. God: was it every gay boy’s dream to hook up with a straight mate?
‘Yeah,’ Leonard said. ‘But I’ve got you here now, don’t I?’
Tim went in for the kiss, only there was a horrible moment of heat in his stomach. ‘Wait, wait,’ he said, and then he turned sideways, and vomited into the bowl. His stomach pumped furiously, hot tears obscuring his vision.
His throat burned with a fierce ache. It was if a film had been pulled off of his eyes, rendering everything cheap and shitty. ‘Oh. Fuck. Shit,’ he said.
‘Aw, babe. Do you need…help?’
‘No, no, it’s fine. Fuck. Sorry.’
Someone rapped on the door, hard. Tim stood upright, again, wiping his mouth with toilet paper. His brain yelled at him to get out as soon as he could. ‘Nice meeting you,’ he muttered, before heading off.
He didn’t see his friends on the way downstairs, in fact he was barely thinking of them. All he wanted was to be outside. He got to the first floor and veered right, through the revolving doors, and out into the open city air. Light boxes and taxi-cabs came blurred through warm tears. Tim took a cigarette and smoked it, to give himself something to do.
Emma was the one to find him, smiling as she left the exit. ‘Hey.’
‘Hey,’ Tim said. ‘Sorry, is everyone looking for me?’
‘Nah, they figured you were having fun,’ she said. ‘I sort of followed you, though.’
‘Nice.’ He said. ‘Want a smoke?’
‘Sure.’ Emma said. He lit it for her. ‘Don’t wanna go back in?’
‘I hooked up with that guy and then threw up, while he was there.’
‘Oh.’ Emma said. ‘Want to go to another club?’
‘Not really.’ He said.
‘That’s okay.’ She said, reaching for her phone. ‘Had an alright night though, besides the vomiting?’
‘I don’t know.’ He said. ‘I’m so excluded. you know?’
She looked up to him, sympathy in her eyes.
He tried to keep himself quiet, but it was too late, he was going to gush. ‘It’s such a dumb thing to worry about, but I feel…I feel like I’m going to be single forever. I’ve just never thought about it much till tonight,’ he lied.
‘True. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels urgent. Like I’ve gotta prove something.’
‘I don’t know. Myself, I suppose. Don’t worry, it’s stupid. I’ll find someone and be in love with them and that’ll be that. Tim Newbridge will prove himself a being who can love and be loved.’
‘You’re already in love with someone, though, aren’t you?’
‘What? Am I?’ He asked. ‘First I’ve heard of it.’
‘What? Not Zane?’ He asked.
Emma said nothing, but gave him a look.
‘Shit.’ He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘Do you think he knows?’
‘Oh, definitely. But he loves it. I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s natural. He’s a great guy, I’m sure he gets it.’
Tim looked to the ground, overwhelmed by a flood of impotent longing, that much worse for being acknowledged. It was typical and stupid and also very painful.
‘Do you want to go back in, or not?’ Emma asked. ‘Just forget about it all. Nick couldn’t stop apologising, after you went, let’s just go back. For a moment. We can always go home.’
Tim looked at her, so obviously keen to get back to the music and the lights, shrugged and said, ‘Sure.’ They went back into the club. Tim danced. Tim writhed and gyrated and closed his eyes, letting a Robyn song catalyse his movements. He felt the music through his body and decided, this was good. He was fine. He pushed down the pain of unreciprocated love even though Zane was getting closer and he was aching for him. His drunken sense of being rapturously in the moment only mitigated by flashes of wanting and the terror that when he looked at men and felt desire it would always be like this.