". . . and so I figured that, since I start my internship at the University Hospital next week, I'll apply in July for the spring semester of medical school. I figured they'll be more likely to accept me once I have a bit of interning experience."
Zephyra ran out of breath. Mrs. Doyle – "I am not a women's libber," she had announced testily when Zephyra made initially the mistake of addressing her as Ms. Doyle – leaned back in her chair, twiddling a newly lit cigarette. "It sounds as though you have it all figured out," the counselor remarked. "What do you need me for?"
They laughed together in a relaxed manner. It was a beautiful June afternoon; soft sunlight streamed into the academic advisory office, making the mellow Victorian stonework at the windows turn golden. A couple of students walked by outside, carrying backpacks filled with books, and arguing over whether compact discs would ever sell as well as records. The campus, as was often the case, gave the appearance of being stuck somewhere in the last century. Zephyra – who came from a country town that actually was stuck in the last century – was not deceived by the pseudo-Victorianism of her university. Come nightfall, the university would shed its Victorian facade to offer all the excitement of the modern world.
"I just want reassurance that I'm doing the right thing, I guess," Zephyra told Mrs. Doyle. "I know you're miffed that I didn't apply for any internships before this year. . . ."
Mrs. Doyle waved the matter away with the hand holding her cigarette. "I understand that you had family crises to deal with during past summers. But I'm more concerned that you may be setting your sights too low. Don't let my boss know I'm telling you this" – she leaned forward, her voice entering into a mock whisper – "but our medical school isn't top-rate. With your grades, you could be applying to schools back East."
"Some Midwesterner you are." She tried to make her voice light, but didn't entirely succeed. "No, I like it here. I'm really not interested in living on the East Coast or the West Coast, even for just a few years—"
"And your family lives here in the Midwest." As her eyes gleamed perceptively through her large round glasses, Mrs. Doyle pushed aside the floppy disk and dot-matrix printout that held Zephyra's grades. "Well, I can't speak for the medical school, but I think it's very unlikely they'll turn you down. And with that internship under your belt, you'll have a bright future ahead of you. I'm glad," she added as she stood up and offered her hand, "that you were able to sort out those family crises, so that you're free to live your own life now."
"Yes," Zephyra replied, somewhat faintly.
Gary – known to his enemies as Starfucker, a nickname he had proudly embraced – was waiting for her outside, leaning against a neo-Gothic pillar and reading the university newspaper. Without looking up, he said, "Do you know that seventy-five percent of college students who claim to be virgins, aren't?"
"Why, because you've dated them?" She greeted him with a peck on the cheek. "Who stood you up this time?"
He glared at her over the newspaper. "It's Wednesday. Wednesday evenings are sacrosanct. At least, I treat them as such. I can't speak for you."
She slapped her forehead. "I'm sorry. I totally lost track of time." Tucking her hand around his arm, she asked, "Where shall we go this time, boyfriend?"
"The Triangle Bar?" he suggested with an arched eyebrow.
"Not even for you," she replied with a laugh.
"Oh, come on, you need to get out more, meet a nice woman—" He stopped as she punched him. "Ow! That's my kidney!"
"I should hope so. I'm an aspiring hospital administrator; I'd like to think I know that much human anatomy." She released him and twirled in a circle. "Wednesday! Beautiful Wednesday!"
"Better than Fridays or Saturdays?" He paused to remove and light a hand-rolled object that he had taken from a magenta box that was brightly labelled "JOINTS." A professor, passing by, did not so much as break stride.
"Much better. It's my date day with you." She boosted herself up onto the wall of the bridge over the campus pond and stood on its top, posing on tiptoe like a girl in a musical.
"God, you must be hard up for boyfriends." He leaped up beside her and took her in his arms.
"After the last one?" She rolled her eyes. "Lend me one, will you?"
"Sorry, you're not their type." He released her, jumped down, and offered her his hand in a svelte manner. With mincing stride, she climbed down, doing her best to look like the girl in the musical. He eyed her as she reached the ground. "You did that well."
"Oh, God, no, not here . . ."
But it was too late; Gary proceeded to leap back onto the wall. He proclaimed to the world in a shout: "I am seeking the man of my dreams!" Then he carefully climbed down. Mincing.
A few passing students stared, but not many. Gary was too well known by now, in his senior year. Zephyra, striving to stop laughing, said, "I am not inviting you home to Mayhill."
"What, you don't think your hometown would care for my cabaret act? I could do my butch act." He flexed his muscles.
"You'd be lynched either way." She tucked her hand around his arm again. "Believe me, the Town of Mayhill is not ready for you . . . or for anyone else who lives in the year 1984."
He cast her a curious look as they proceeded down the sidewalk in the quad, passing a group of geeks who were earnestly debating the relative merits of CP/M versus MS-DOS, whatever that meant. "You go back to your hometown often enough."
She shrugged. "I love my family. But as for actually living in that tiny little backwoods town . . . I'll be so glad to be interning here this summer. Mayhill is dead, dead, dead in the summer. And fall. And winter. And spring."
"The town is a senior citizen center?" Gary paused to wave his joint box in the face of the university's president. The president, long-suffering to Gary's ways, chose to ignore this provocation. Wisely, Zephyra knew, because a careful inspection of the "joint" would have shown that it was actually a herbal cigarette.
"Worse. It's a nursery school." She broke free and twirled around to face him. "It's Wednesday night. Our night. Where shall we go? Movies?"
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," he replied immediately. He could always recite the weekly offering at the campus movie theater, probably because he had half a dozen dates each week.
She screwed up her face in disgust as she walked backwards, continuing to face him. "Too gross. I can't believe they gave that a PG rating."
"The movie industry is talking about adding a new rating." As usual, he was up on the cultural news. "Sort of a PG-plus rating."
"PG-plus." She paused to dig her elbow into his ribs. "Just like you."
"Please." He looked down at her with amusement. "Rated R at least."
"Not around me, thank you very much. Pizza?" She pointed to the dining hall, which they were passing.
Gary consulted his wallet. After counting up the pennies, he agreed, "Pizza. I don't know where the money goes."
"Six dates this week?"
His mouth quirked. "Seven."
"There you go. Where do you find all those men?"
"You don't want to know." He took her hand into his. "Unless, that is, you're willing to let me take you to the Triangle. . . ."
Sated with pizza and Cokes, they retired to Gary's dorm room, reserving their energy for the dance club they intended to visit later in the evening. In the meantime, they lay on their stomachs on Gary's bed, leafing through the sex ads in The Advocate and rating the men in those ads.
"I don't know," said Zephyra as they reached the end of the ads section. "The guys I've dated have been all right, I guess. It's just that I can't imagine spending the rest of my life with any of them. I mean, they're fun to be with, but I don't really love them. I think love is important, don't you?"
She expected Gary to laugh, but he said in a firm voice, "Absolutely."
After a minute, he added, "What? Am I not allowed to love? Is that only a straight thing?"
"Gary," she said patiently, "you have a fucking chart in your closet, listing all your sex partners. A chart that's several feet long. The men you had sex with who are famous get stars next to their names."
He grinned. "White stars. White for when they—"
"Shut up." She rapped him on the head for good measure. "A fucking chart, Starfucker."
He rolled over onto his back, resting his head on his interlaced fingers. Dorm rooms were supposed to have single beds. Gary had replaced his with a double bed within half an hour of his arrival at the dorm in the previous September. "Zephyra," he said, his expression sober, "I've never gone to bed with a guy I didn't respect. And in these God-awful times, I never go to bed with a guy without asking myself, 'If the worst happened to him, and he had nobody else to take care of him, would I be willing to set aside everything in order to care for him? Would he be willing to care for me?'"
"You're still okay, aren't you?" she asked anxiously, running her eye over his skin.
"So far as I know. Don't worry about me. I've been using rubbers since '82; I should be okay." He rolled over onto his side, facing her. "So yeah, since you're the 'till death us do part' type, find a guy who you love, and who loves you, and stick with him. Put him before everything else in your life. And when you do— Oh. Fucking. Hell."
"What is it?" Zephyra twisted her head to see.
A man in summer shorts stood in the doorway of Gary's room. A young man approaching his mid-twenties – tall, tanned, and muscular. He had his hand up to knock on the half-open door.
"Tell me you're gay!" Gary nearly knocked her to the floor as he scrambled over her. "Please tell me you're gay!"
"Excuse me?" The visitor was understandably startled by this greeting.
"Oh, dear heaven, let you be gay. And if you're not, I swear I'll cut off my balls, take estrogen, and turn myself into a straight woman. Just let you be mine!" Gary went down onto both knees and opened his arms wide, imploring.
The visitor seemed at a loss for a response. Then he looked over Gary's shoulder, and his expression cleared. "Hey, Zeph."
"Hey, trouble." Smiling, she went up to him and hugged him. Then she turned and looked back at Gary, still on his knees. Gary was now glaring at her. She explained to him, "This is my brother Ken. He's not gay."
Gary gave her his "I will kill you for this" look and then bounded to his feet. "Not gay yet. So you're Ken? Zeph talks about you non-stop. You're her twin, right? I can see the resemblance."
For a moment – a brief moment – Ken's muscles tensed. She said quickly, "We do look like each other. We have the same nose."
He glanced at her, took his cue from her smile, and gave a relaxed smile of his own. "I suppose so. I haven't looked in the mirror enough to tell."
Gary, ever-perceptive, took out his lighter and fiddled with it. "Sorry. I suppose that could be regarded as sarcasm. I mean it, though – she's one good-looking gal, just like her brother."
She gave him one of her own looks. "I am not going to be the token female on your chart."
Ken joined in with their laughter. He would, even though he didn't know the joke.
"So!" Gary, having recovered his usual good humor, slapped them both on their backs. "Twin meets twin! What brings you to the big city, Ken?"
"Ah . . ." Caught off-guard, Ken fumbled a moment before saying, "I'm checking up on what unrespectable people she hangs out with."
Gary roared with laughter. Zephyra sighed inwardly. Two minutes, and already Ken had identified the type of jokes Gary liked and was doing his best to deliver. This wasn't shaping into a good visit.
"Let's go up to my room and talk," she suggested, placing her hand on Ken's arm. Ken looked immediately relieved – of course – but when she turned, she found that Gary was standing in their way, his arms folded.
"Sacrosanct," was all he said.
"Gary," she responded weakly, "that only applies to boyfriends."
"I don't recall you limiting it to boyfriends. In fact, I have a distinct memory that you told Brad to his face, quote, 'I'm afraid that your brother and I have a long-standing agreement to spend Wednesday evenings together. I can't release him from that promise,' unquote."
"You hate your brother!" she cried. "I was saving you from an evening of him telling you for the umpteenth time that you'd go to hell if you didn't stop sodomizing men!"
A freshman, blushing to the roots of her blue-dyed hair, squeezed past them. Ken's gaze followed her; she was dressed in a miniskirt.
"That is not the point." Gary's arms remained folded. "The point is, we have an agreement. We always spend Wednesday evenings together, come hell or high water."
Ken cleared his throat. He had a rather impressive way of clearing his throat; Gary turned to look at him immediately. Zephyra waited with dread to hear what Ken would say.
"Perhaps," offered her brother, "we could all go out together. That would be all right, wouldn't it?" He aimed his appeal toward Zephyra. Gary raised his eyebrows, waiting for her response.
She sighed. "I suppose so. As long as we go some place quiet, so that we can talk. Let me just grab my purse."
Fifteen seconds to rush to the end of the hall. Thirty seconds running up the stairs, to reach the women's floor in their dorm. Ten seconds to unlock the door. One minute and forty seconds to find her purse, which had hidden itself behind a stack of medical textbooks. Forty-five seconds to race back to Gary's room. She timed herself, her heart fluttering in her chest, as she wondered what she would find.
What she found, to her dismay, was Gary showing off his fucking chart.
"Police academy?" Gary looked her brother up and down. "Good choice; you have the build for it. And how was your time at Mayhill University? Any extracurricular activities?" His fingers beat a rhythm on the chart.
Ken looked at the chart, and then, being who he was, he responded to the hint. "Oh, yes," he said in a deep voice. "Very extracurricular."
"Any sort of activities I'd like?" Gary purred.
"Well . . ."
"Hi!" she said loudly. "I'm ready! Where shall we go?"
"Oh, Ken and I decided that while you were gone." Smiling, Gary pulled out another herbal cigarette and lit it.
Just what she didn't want to hear. "So where shall we go?"
"The Triangle, of course." Gary grinned at her, the beast. "I told you I'd find you a nice woman."
"This is a gay bar?" Zephyra went on tiptoe to peer past her broad-shouldered brother, who, as was often the case, seemed to be attracting a fair amount of interest from those present. Zephyra was used to that; she was not used to the interest coming from men.
Nobody swarmed over Ken and ate him alive, though. There was a slight break in the conversation as half the room turned to stare; then the men returned to what they had been doing, which was mainly discussing their favorite baseball team's chances that season.
"Yeah," said Gary, his voice deep with a note of satisfaction. "What do you think?"
"It seems so . . . normal." She looked again at the nearest male couple. They were discussing box scores, for heaven's sakes.
Gary turned his attention away from the room long enough to give her one of his dazzling smiles. "The most interesting interactions are taking place in the restrooms. Come on, let's get a bottle or three." He shifted his eyes to Ken, who was still drinking it all in.
Restrooms, Zephyra thought as Gary led the way to the bar counter. He had said "restrooms," not "restroom." There were indeed a few women in the bar: a couple of them were wrapped in each other's arms, swaying to the sound of Gary's favorite record: Gloria Gaynor singing "I Am What I Am." If one left aside the fact that the couples were male/male and female/female, this bar looked no different than any other bar near their university. Probably not even in the restrooms, she thought wryly, remembering a particular episode she herself had taken part in, late at night, in one of the bathrooms at her co-ed dorm.
She glanced again at Ken. Her brother had on his deer-in-the-headlights expression, but that was nothing to be surprised at; he was a small-town guy visiting the big city for the first time. Or revisiting it for the first time, she reminded herself. She dug her elbow into his ribs. "Hey. Good to be back?"
He turned his eyes, and they latched onto hers, as though sighting a lifebelt in a swelling sea. He smiled.
She took his hand and squeezed it, grateful for Gary's good taste in bars. There were far worse bars they could have gone to. They had passed some of them on the way.
"Not that one," Gary had said, waving one hand out the window as he drove with the other hand. "That's where the rough crowd goes. Nor that one," he had added as Ken looked over his shoulder at the bar for "the rough crowd." "That's where they hold drag shows. Fun to watch, but I don't want to take you too deep on your first visit to the big city. Here we go." And he had parked the car in front of the Triangle.
Now Gary was standing next to the bar counter, patting himself down. "Damn," he said.
"What's wrong?" she asked as Ken continued to clutch at her hand.
"Forgot my credit card. Here, could you get it for me while I order our drinks?" He tossed his car keys into Ken's free hand. "It should be in the glove department, or maybe under the front seat. Thanks."
"No problem." Ken gave one of his joyful smiles and departed, much to the disappointment of half the men in the room.
Zephyra looked at Gary. "Credit card. At a bar."
He grinned as he pulled her up onto one of the bar stools. "I wanted a few moments alone with you first. Your usual?"
She nodded. "And a cola for Ken. He doesn't drink alcohol."
Gary nodded as he dropped his jacket over the back of another bar stool and slid onto the seat, turning to order the drinks from a woman with a buzz haircut and no bra, who was wearing a sleeveless white tee-shirt.
Zephyra turned her attention back to the crowd. The men nearest her were discussing an upcoming parade, which might have been in reference to any number of celebrations; the city had multiplied parades in recent years, as ethnic pride took hold. Life was very different now than it had been in her early childhood, when riots between blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, had split apart the city. She dimly remembered that time – remembered being terrified that either she or Ken would become a victim of the rampaging mobs.
She could not remember whether Ken had sought to comfort her, or whether instead she had sought to comfort Ken. She didn't need the memory to know that some sort of comforting had happened. Always, from a very early age, they had tried to protect each other.
"You know what I think?" Gary said, handing over her drink. "I think I should make you your own chart. You've dated nearly as many men as I have."
"No way," she protested. "Gary, you go out with a new guy practically every night."
He shrugged. "I'm making up for lost time. I only came out three years ago. To you, first of all," he added with a grin.
She sighed. "On a date."
"On our first date, when you were trying to feel me up . . . or feel me down, as the case may be. So no more schoolmarm lectures about my dating behavior, please. You had half a decade's head start on me." He downed the beer in one fell swoop.
"I don't sleep with all my dates, the way you do."
"Hey." He stretched out his arms, showing off his chest. "Can I help it if I'm irresistible?"
"Look, you spend about five minutes getting to know these guys before you end up in the sack with them. You don't know them well enough to be sure they really want to sleep with you."
"Uh-huh." Gary swallowed the contents of a second bottle.
"Gary, I mean it. You make assumptions about the men you're interested in – you rush to judgment about them."
"Zephyra." Gary put his hand over hers and spoke quietly. "I know what you're trying to say, but I'm not rushing to judgment here. Your brother is gay. Accept it. Like knows like, and nobody looks me up and down the way he did earlier today, unless they're contemplating the meat under the clothing. Maybe your brother wasn't gay in your backwoods town, but here in the big city he's free to be what nature made him."
"What nature made him—" She choked on the words. "Gary, he's . . . he's. . ."
"He's small-town, not used to the big city. Yeah, I know." Gary took his hand away from hers. "Look, I promise to keep things at a PG level, okay? —What the hell . . . ?" He stared at a credit card that a hand had just placed in front of his eyes. "Where did you get that?"
"From your wallet." Ken stepped into view. "Your wallet was in your jacket. On the back of your stool."
Gary stared at the credit card, then at the wallet in Ken's hand, then at the jacket that had just been pickpocketed by Ken, then at Ken, who, by manful effort, was keeping a straight face.
Zephyra put her hand over her mouth, but a giggle escaped her. Gary looked at her, then threw up his arms in despair. "Okay!" he said to the ceiling. "Lesson for the day: Never try to put one over on a policeman." He took the credit card back from Ken, saying, "I'm headed for the john. You can have your turn with Zeph while I'm gone."
Amidst the hum and the tinny sound of "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" on the jukebox, someone made a lewd whistle, apparently in response to Gary's remark. Gary didn't hear; he had already disappeared into the crowd, but Ken's head immediately lifted, like a bloodhound on a scent.
Zephyra touched his arm; the muscle there had gone hard. "There are a lot of people here," she said softly. "Odds are, the whistle is aimed at someone else."
"How can you be sure of that?" Ken asked in an undertone, his narrowed eyes scanning the room.
"Because the men here aren't looking at me," she replied dryly.
Ken's expression turned, in an instant, from threatening to sheepish. "I forgot," he said simply. He turned his head, this time toward the pink triangles and violet balloons and rainbow-colored strips of crepe paper that were taped to the ceiling. "I know it's a cliché, but I feel like I should have Toto along with me on this trip. This definitely isn't Kansas . . . or Mayhill. What are the decorations for?"
"I've no idea. Maybe they hang from the ceiling all the time. Ken, is everything . . . okay, at home?"
"Sure." He turned his attention to her again. "I just wanted to see you, since you won't be coming home this summer. I wanted to tell you my news in person. I've been accepted into the academy."
"Oh, Ken!" She jumped off the stool and wrapped her arms around him, shouting with joy, and ignoring the stares from the crowd around her.
Ken hugged her tightly, pulling her off her feet as he laughed. "They were impressed by the recommendation from North – you know, the guy who has made me his trainee for the past year. And Zeph, North recommended me to his Chief. It's almost certain now that the Mayhill Police will hire me for a full-time position, if I graduate from the police academy."
She began to give a squeal of delight, then pulled back from him, abruptly aware of the implications of their surroundings. "Ken," she whispered, "you've been training with Mayhill's vice patrol. You're not going to have to . . . ?" She glanced uneasily at the crowd.
Ken smiled and shook his head. "Not even a citizen's arrest. Unlike back home, sodomy is legal in this state."
She was about to ask how in heaven's name he knew that, when Gary said behind her, "May I have this dance?"
She turned around, but Gary wasn't looking at her; he had his hand outstretched toward Ken.
Her brother hesitated. "I can't dance very well."
Family pride momentarily overcame her good sense. "That's ridiculous. You're a wonderful dancer. Go show Gary your moves." She shoved Ken lightly in the direction of Gary.
Ken looked relieved at this clear indication of how to handle the situation. Gary smiled at her. "PG. I promise." Then he led Ken onto the dance floor.
The dancing at the Triangle was considerably more sedate than at her university's parties. Zephyra watched for a while, sipping her drink, seeing how Ken grew more and more uninhibited in his dancing as he began to relax. Gary, keeping his promise, was not even touching her brother; they danced a yard apart, occasionally exchanging remarks that were hidden under the noise of the crowd.
"What would you like to drink?"
Zephyra jumped in place. She turned to see that Gary's bar stool was now inhabited by a young woman about Zephyra's age. She looked quite ordinary, dressed in a shirt and trousers with New Wave shades of pink and green. Her skin was the same shade as Zephyra's.
"Oh, um, no, thanks." Zephyra stumbled to reply. "I'm here with my—" She looked, but Ken was momentarily hidden the crowd. "With my best friend," she concluded, pointing.
"Oh." The young woman's eyes narrowed as she took in Gary's appearance: jeans and a white tee-shirt with "Pride" written upon it. "So you're a fag hag. Honey, no matter what you think, he ain't gonna sleep with you." She finished her beer and slipped out of her seat, leaving Zephyra struggling with a battle between anger and embarrassment.
Anger won out, as it usually did. She forced herself to sit down and take a long sip from her drink. When she finally looked up, she saw that the bartender was eyeing her.
"You put up with many remarks like that?" the bartender asked in a sympathetic tone.
Zephyra sighed. "Too many. Even my friends are puzzled as to why I spend so much time with a guy who's never going to be my lover."
The bartender took a moment to set aside the mugs she had been collecting. Then she took a small notebook and pen from the back pocket of her camo pants and wrote down a name and number. Tearing out the page from the notebook, she shoved it across the counter. "Here."
Zephyra stared at the paper. "Sorry, but I'm really not interested—"
The bartender unexpectedly dimpled. "It's my mother's number. She belongs to the local Parents FLAG chapter."
"I've heard of Parents FLAG," Zephyra said slowly. "Gary – my friend – tried to convince his parents to join."
"It's not just for parents." The bartender took up a rag to wipe the counter. "The F stands for friends. The local chapter has support group meetings. If you're interested, you could contact my mom. Right now, she's trying to find people who are willing to join the Parents FLAG unit in Saturday's parade." Seeing Zephyra's blank look, the bartender added, "Pride Day? In honor of the Stonewall Riots?"
"Oh, right. I think Gary said something about that." Zephyra leaned forward, interested now.
"Next week is the fifteenth anniversary of the riots. You might enjoy marching in the parade. Parents FLAG always gets the loudest applause of any group. We lesbians and gays appreciate our allies." The bartender grinned.
Zephyra slipped the paper into her pocket. "That's super. Thank you. My brother's straight, but maybe he'd also be interested in joining me—" She turned her head and stopped dead.
The jukebox music had momentarily ended. Nobody was on the dance floor. Nowhere in the room, as far as she could see, were Ken and Gary.
"My brother." She turned quickly back to the bartender. "And my friend – the one I pointed to before. Did you see what happened to them?"
"Your brother is the Charles Atlas imitation? They both went into the restroom a minute ago." The bartender turned away to take an order from an older man who had just stepped up to the counter.
Zephyra turned back to stare. She could see the door of the men's restroom from where she sat. The door was opening and closing, opening and closing, as a never-ending flow of men arrived and left.
"Damn you, Gary," she muttered through gritted teeth, and began to run.
The restroom wasn't quite as bad as she had feared. It was fairly well lit, and most of the men there were going about their business in the usual male manner of ignoring each other entirely. In two of the corners, couples were cuddling, entirely clothed. One couple was testing whether the sink counter could support their weight – but that couple too was entirely clothed.
She took all this in with a quick glance, as well as the fact that her brother was nowhere in view. She felt herself sag with relief. Her worst fear had been that Gary, enticed by the abundant male candy in the men's restroom, would simply abandon Ken to the untender mercies of the ravenous horde.
But it seemed that both Gary and Ken had come here for an innocent purpose: to use the stalls.
She became aware that most of the men in the restroom were staring at her now. At the urinals, there was the sound of pants being hastily zipped. "Hey, lady," said one man nearby, shaking water off his hands, "however butch you may think you are, this isn't the right restroom for you."
She ignored him; she was beginning to contemplate the dangers of Ken's path from the bathroom stall to the restroom door, particularly if he emerged before Gary. And how could she be sure that Gary was here too? Or that he would intervene if he saw Ken in trouble?
She began walking along the line of the stalls, ducking her head down to see under the doors. She would park herself outside Ken's door, she decided. She would be there for him when he walked through the danger zone.
There were whispers all around her now, though thankfully none of the men had come forward to grab her. Viciously, someone hissed, "Fag hag." She felt her face grow hot, but she didn't pause. She was still searching for her brother's unmistakable, tanned legs.
Then she stopped, her breath taken away from her. For a moment, she simply stared, as behind her, the whispered jokes about her activities as a fag hag increased. Then she straightened up, groped in her purse, brought out her wallet, pulled out a credit card, and used it to lift the latch of the stall door from the outside. She flung the door open.
Gary was still fully dressed. Ken was not; Gary had already proceeded as far as unbuttoning Ken's shirt and unfastening Ken's belt. He was now working on the first of the buttons on Ken's shorts. Ken was watching him, obviously uncertain whether he should help.
They both jumped in place as she slammed open the door. Ken turned his face toward her, the emotion upon it clear, but Gary missed seeing this, for he was staring blankly at Zephyra. She folded her arms and waited.
Finally, Gary collected his thoughts. He said mildly, "Don't you think you're being a little overprotective?"
The men behind her were silent now, obviously entranced by this drama. She said, "Gary, you promised to keep this PG!"
He shrugged as he pulled a cigarette out and stuck it between his lips. "PG Plus Love?"
His casualness, his blithe unawareness of the destruction he had been perpetrating, infuriated her. She grabbed Ken's hand. "Come on," she said. "We're going."
"For God's sake, Zephyra!" Now Gary was angry; he never used her full name except when he grew serious. "He's a big boy! He can make up his own mind – stop acting like an old mother hen!"
Several of the men laughed, and one of them crowed, "Fag hag loses cock!"
It was a mistake. A mistake on Gary's part, because up till that moment Ken had been turning his head to and fro, obviously torn between following his sister and following Gary. But with those words by Gary, and the laughter from the men, and that cruel commentary on what was happening, Ken transformed.
The restroom grew silent in an instant. Ken ignored the other men. Shaking himself free of Zephyra, he turned toward Gary and said in his deepest voice, "Don't you insult my sister."
He was half a foot taller than Gary. He also had muscles, and they were tightened now. So were his fists. Gary took all this in and threw his cigarette into the toilet in disgust. "I give up!" he cried. "You're both fucking crazy! You deserve each other." He made a dismissive gesture toward Ken. "Go home, little boy. Go spend time with your mommy."
She managed to pull Ken away then, before Gary could see the change in her brother's expression. A cough broke the stillness in the room. Zephyra turned.
The bartender stood in the doorway, holding the door halfway open. She said, almost apologetically, "I'm afraid this restroom is reserved for men. If you need a unisex restroom—"
"We're leaving," Zephyra replied. "Come on, Ken."
They departed, amidst mutters from the onlookers: "Screwy fag hag." "She's trying to get into our pants." At a certain point, halfway across the dance floor, Zephyra realized that she couldn't see; her eyes were filled with tears.
Ken realized that in the same moment; he took over the steering. Before long, they were standing outside on the sidewalk, lit by the bar's neon sign, coughing on exhaust fumes sent back by a headlight-bright evening bus. Behind them, in the bar, Gloria Gaynor sang "I Will Survive."
"I'm sorry," said Ken, the moment they managed to catch their breaths. "It's all my fault. I should never have come here."
She took a moment to return her credit card to her purse and to snap it shut. Then she said, "Ken . . . has this been happening to you in Mayhill?"
His miserable silence was an eloquent reply.
She sighed. "Why didn't you come to me for help?"
He didn't answer. After a while, she realized that he had, in fact, come to her for help.
She tucked her hand around his arm. "There's an open deli across the street. Let's split a sundae, and you can tell me all about it. Were they nice girls? Did you like them?"
They stepped across the street, oblivious to the honking horns, the music from the nearby bars, and Gary, standing in the doorway of the Triangle as he watched them go.
When she emerged from the academic advisory office the next day, she found Gary waiting for her outside, leaning against a neo-Gothic pillar. He was staring at the clouds, and for a moment she thought his appearance there was coincidence. Then he said, without moving his gaze from the clouds, "Walk you to the dorm?"
"Sure." She shifted the position of her backpack on her right shoulder. Gary, without saying a word, reached over and took the backpack from her.
After a few minutes of walking, she said, "If you keep engaging in all these knightly acts of courtesy, people will think we're engaged."
"Hey, I have an empty spot on my chart." He spoke in an automatic manner, addressing the clouds.
"Pass. I already told you: I don't want to be the token female on your chart."
"You're hardly token."
They reached the pond. Gary let the backpack slide off his arm onto the grass; then he leaned forward and dipped his hand into the water. The water soaked the cuff of the button-down shirt he had donned on this afternoon.
"Gary, I wanted to say I'm sor—"
"It's time I apol—"
They stopped, stared at each other, and then laughed. Zephyra reached over, flicked pond water onto his shirt, and said, "You first."
"Um . . . yeah." For once, Gary appeared nonplussed. He scratched his head, played some more with the water, took a few steps onto the bridge, and threw back a stray Frisbee that had landed nearby. Finally he said, "About my chart."
"Yeah. I've been thinking about what you said – about how I don't take the time to get to know men before I make snap judgments and jump into bed with them. I'm thinking maybe you're right. Maybe I should concentrate less on adding names to the chart, and more on getting to know the other person well."
His gaze remained fixed on the drifting clouds, heavy with undropped rain. Finally he added, "Your brother."
She sighed as she reached over to fiddle with her backpack strap. "Gary, he likes girls. He goes to bed with them."
"So he's bi. Don't interrupt my brilliant chain of thought." Gary's gaze followed the line of an airplane speeding overhead. "God knows it took me long enough to figure out the obvious. He's bi . . . but I'm not his type, am I? I jumped to conclusions about that, just like I always do."
She remained silent, wondering how to tactfully impress upon him that Ken had not the slightest interest in going to bed with a man . . . but would do so in an instant if he thought it would please Gary. Finally she said, "He likes you."
"Yeah. He likes me, and he's friendly. Real friendly." Finally Gary's gaze drifted down to her. "He has a hard time saying no, doesn't he?"
It took her a moment before she could swallow; her throat ached too much. "Yes."
"And so you're the one he depends on to say no for him."
She didn't bother to reply this time. Gary leaned forward, slapped his hands hard upon the bridge wall, and stared grimly into the water. "'Overprotective.' 'Acting like an old mother hen.' God, I can be so dense sometimes. I'm surprised that you didn't slap me, and that he didn't take a swing at me."
"Gary . . ." Her voice was shaking.
His head jerked up. He stared at her, and then reached out and touched her face. "Hey," he said softly, wiping away the tears there. "I am not worth this. Not Starfucker."
She shook her head, trying to control the sobs in her throat. "Not you. I'm not crying about what you said last night. It's . . . Gary, I'm not taking that internship this summer."
His hand dropped; his eyes flitted as he read her face. "And medical school . . . ?"
She shook her head. He stepped back, staring. Then he opened his mouth.
"No!" she said. "No, you have to listen. You were right. You were fucking well right last night. I've let Ken get too dependent on me. And I can't be there for him twenty-four hours a day. I can't be a . . . a Siamese twin to him. He has to learn to say no. I don't know how – maybe a psychiatrist could help him. But it's going to be hard for him, and while he's learning. . . I have to be there for him. I have to be there, and don't you fucking well tell me I'm being a fool to give up my education for him, because you don't understand. Nobody understands."
She was crying now, shedding the tears she had held in as she listened to Mrs. Doyle tell her she was wrong, listened to the head of the internship program predict an unhappy life for her, listened to all her friends tell her that she was being an idiot – that she had her own life to live, and that she shouldn't allow ties to her family strangle her. She should break away, let her family work out its own problems.
Gary was staring at her now. "Fucking A," he breathed.
"What?" She tried to brace herself against his assault, which she knew would be ten times harder for her to resist than the others.
"Fucking A," he repeated. And then, without warning, he grabbed her and kissed her on the forehead.
"You are going on my chart," he informed her as he squeezed her tightly. "At the very top, with a zillion red hearts, reserved for the very talented, very loving Zephyra Olson. Oh, man, I am so privileged to know you." He gave her forehead another kiss.
"What?" she repeated numbly, staring up at him.
"Me and all my talk about 'Would I be willing to set aside everything in order to care for him?' And you go off and do it. You give up all your educational plans to go home and take care of a brother who needs you. Gal, you are Plus Love incarnate."
She was half sobbing, half laughing now. "But I'm an idiot. Everyone says so."
"They're the idiots." He finally released her in the moment before he would have suffocated her with his tight embrace. "For you to love your brother so much . . . And he's crazy about you, that's obvious from the way he talks about you . . . Do you know how rare that is? Me and my family—" He made a gesture of disgust. "And here you two are, loving each other to so great a degree that both of you would fight for the other . . . Don't you dare go anywhere except Mayhill this summer. Don't you dare!"
"You understand!" She flung her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder. "I didn't think anyone would understand!"
"Yeah, well, I'm not just anyone." His soft voice was muffled by her hair; he held her tenderly this time. "I'm Starfucker, remember? I've got dozens upon dozens of men on my chart. . . . At least I can recognize true love when it happens to someone else. Now listen," he said, holding her at arm's length. "This won't be forever, whatever those fools think. You're going to help your brother get better, and then he can survive on his own, and you two can go off in separate directions if you want. Just think of this as a really, really precious time you're having together. Brothers and sisters don't usually get this type of time together. Even if they end up liking each other, they usually figure this out around the moment they both move away from home. So you two are special. You're lucky."
He smiled at her, and she laughed in response, feeling the joy fill her. "It's not going to be that much fun," she protested, attempting to insert a little realism into the conversation.
"Yeah, I know. It's going to be tough too, helping him learn how to do stuff he doesn't naturally know how to do." He took his lighter out of his pocket and played with it, snapping the lid on and off. "You know I've got that job as a gofer at a Hollywood film studio, starting in July."
"Yes, I know." She caught hold of his free hand. "Gary, you don't have to feel guilty—"
"I'll visit you. Every weekend. And I'll call you every night. You're not going to be alone, doing this. I'll help you through it."
She sighed as she released his hand. "Gary, you won't be earning the sort of money that will let you fly halfway across the country once a week. And you can't afford tons of long-distance phone bills."
He shrugged. "So I'll save up the money I usually spend on my fuck buddies and put it to better use. I told you: you're at the top of my chart now."
"Idiot." She reached up and put her palms against his cheeks, pulling down his head so that she could kiss his forehead. "Call me," she said. "Call me on Wednesday night. Every second Wednesday night. I'll call you on the other Wednesday nights. And we'll both save up our money so that we can visit each other once a year, on Pride Day. Okay? But you'd better call me on Wednesdays, boyfriend. I don't want to hear any excuses." She let her voice turn mock-stern.
He gave a bow, fluttering an imaginary hat. "Whatever you say. You're the expert in Plus Love, and I'm the grateful recipient. To hell with all those people who think you have to fuck someone to truly love them."
She drew her change purse out of her pocket and consulted it. "Pizza?"
"No way. I skipped my usual date tonight – I'm flush with money." He consulted his wallet. "I think I can afford to treat you to the local café."
"We'll treat each other." She jingled her change purse. "Deal?"