Nancy tells him he ‘deflects from serious situations using humor.’ Steve tells him he ‘is stupid.’ Mike thinks that he’s just funny. That’s it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with only being able to buckle down and be serious once in a blue moon. Really, there isn’t. Okay, maybe there is, but he can be serious around Will, and around Nancy and sometimes Steve and… around... Will, and Nancy, and sometimes Steve.
He decides he’s going to come out to the Party using a joke. After a lot of long, hard thought (read: zoning out of movies and thinking about men), he’s come to the conclusion that he’s gay.
At first, he thought he liked both. He went crying to Nancy- good, progressive, left-thinking Nancy- and she introduced him to bisexuality. And he really did think he was, at first. He had crushes on girls and guys growing up… but then he got feelings about s-e-x and the idea of getting anywhere near a breast repulsed him. He ended up breaking up with El on the grounds of ‘I just don’t like you that much anymore, sorry. I still love you as a friend.’ She hurled a book at him, which in retrospect was well-deserved, because he did sound kind of douchey. He’s never been very good with girls. He wasn’t kidding when he said that he views them as a different species.
Nancy thinks that’s ‘kind of misogynistic’ and ‘you should work on developing your view of the world, try and move past your biases and prejudices’ and Mike thinks that she should ‘stop using fancy words that she learned in college that he doesn’t know the meaning of’ and then she hurls a book at him too. He proceeded to call her homophobic (for throwing the book) and she said that being gay doesn’t excuse you from shitty behavior and he said that he thinks that it does.
He honestly thinks that maybe the world needs to stop setting him up to get books thrown at him. It’s like the 20th century equivalent of getting stoned, except Mike maybe actually deserves it.
Nancy and Steve have spent the past month trying to de-convince Mike of coming out with a well-placed witty remark on some ordinary afternoon. They (read: Nancy) say that he has to learn how to face serious situations seriously. Of course, Mike’s stubborn as an ox, which he got from Nancy, so that means he doesn’t care how bad of an idea they think it is.
Right now, the party is all lying around, wasting away the time until Mike’s parents come to pick him up. He’s not excited to have to go to Milazzo’s and pretend to be fancy for an evening while his friends get to hang out all night long and gorge on cheetos.
“I’m pissed off,” Lucas gripes, tossing a cheeto up in the air and effortlessly not catching it in his mouth. He doesn’t even bother to pick the cheeto up off the floor, which means someone’s going to step on it later. But hey: not Mike’s house, not Mike’s problem.
“Why?” Mike asks. He isn’t actually that interested. He’s trying to design a campaign right now.
“Girls suck,” Lucas says.
“Nancy says that that’s an inherently misogynistic statement,” Mike says.
“Nancy isn’t here, and it’s true. I don’t understand them.”
“Nancy might not be here, but we are,” Max butts in, jaw set squarely in defiance and gesturing between her and El.
“Yeah, but- you’re not, like-” Lucas tries, and doesn’t actually finish, hoping that his shitty vague hand gestures convey anything of meaning.
“No, you’re real girls, it’s just, you’re not like other girls.”
“Yeah, we are,” Max says.
“Well, like, yeah, you are, but- you’re not. I understand you guys because you’re my friends.”
“We are literally dating, Lucas.”
“Yeah, but there’s a difference between Friend Max and Girlfriend Max. I’m not talking about Friend Max, I’m talking about Girlfriend Max. I’m talking about romance.”
Will groans, “can we not? ”
Mike snickers, “talking about girls is so passé, right, Will?”
Will nods solemnly, “exactly. Talking about girls is so last year.”
“It’s all about boys now,” Mike says, and he didn’t even realize, it just slipped out. He was focused on his campaign. He’s just hilarious like that.
Of course, everyone freezes and nobody laughs, which wasn’t the plan. I mean, c’mon. To be fair, it wasn’t that funny of a joke, it’d really only be funny or a joke if he wasn’t actually gay, but regardless. Read the room, guys.
Everyone is now staring at him, and he feels himself get itchy. He puts down his notebook, and starts worrying the silver Star of David hanging around his neck.
“Uh, can we pretend that instead of that I came out to you guys with a witty, sharp joke, that you all laughed at and we all moved on from?”
“What do you mean, come out? ” Will says, sharply, and honestly- color Mike surprised. Of all people to be homophobic, Will?
“Ta-daa, I’m gay,” Mike says, with an unenthusiastic set of jazz hands.
“Is this some sort of joke?” Will asks, very sharply, yet again, and like jesus, Will, cool it.
“Well, I am actually gay, like real life into dudes, but also I wanted to come out in a way that was way funnier than that.”
“You don’t- you-” Will splutters.
“Jesus, cool it, Will,” Dustin says, “you’re the last person I’d expect to be homophobic in the party. Except maybe Max. But like, come on, dude, he’s still Mike.”
“I’m not-” Will struggles, “I’m not homophobic! It’s just, don’t joke about this kind of stuff! It’s a real problem that people struggle with and you’re… making light of it!”
Mike’s mood turns sour. He knows that Will, sensitive and sweet as he is, can sometimes be a little insensitive and not sweet. He doesn’t mean to be, he just is, sometimes. (He gets that from Mike. More than a decade of friendship rubs off on you.)
“I’m not making light of anything, Will, you think I haven’t struggled with this? I’d get disowned if my parents found out. When I told Nancy for the first time I cried for like, three hours. It’s a big deal to me, I just- I didn’t want to make it a big deal with you guys. Because this is like- we’ve been through enough big deals together to last us a lifetime and I just kind of want us to not have any more big deals together. So don’t make this a big deal, please?”
Will seems to cool off a little at this. And jeez, way to make a guy spill his guts when he really didn’t want to. He’s only ever talked to Nancy and Will like this. And now everyone’s seen him be vulnerable ? He can’t have that.
“Sorry, Mike. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m really sorry,” Will apologizes.
“It’s fine,” Mike says, really just wanting to get over it and get back to joking about it.
“It’s fine, Will. Anyways,” he turns to the rest of the group, “what’s with the radio silence over there?”
“Jus’ shocked, that’s all,” Lucas mumbles around a mouthful of cheetos.
“We support you, Mike,” Dustin says, clapping a hand on Mike’s shoulder.
“Gee, thanks. Anyways, misogyny, am I right?” he says, because he doesn’t need an individualized letter of encouragement from everyone. He knows they’ll support him.
“No, no, no. I’m grilling you about this,” Max says, pointing all accusatory. She has a humorous lilt to her voice and the corner of her mouth is twitching up, and it puts Mike at ease. Will still looks like a kicked puppy. Or like he kicked a puppy.
“Fine. Proceed,” he says, with all the regality of an 18th century french aristocrat, waving his hand loosely in the air.
“How long have you known?” She rests her elbows on her knees, interlacing her fingers and squinting at him. He mimics her stance.
“That I’m gay or that I like boys?”
“Are they independent events?”
“Okay, then, both.”
“That I like boys? Since I was twelve. That I’m gay? Last year.”
Max nods contemplatively, releasing from her stance to sink back into the couch and cross one leg over the other.
“Do you like anyone?”
“Not presently,” Mike answers. Which is a big fat lie.
Because he’s, y’know: in love with Will. As you do.
“Well that’s boring,” Max scowls, “I thought we’d get to hear all about your crush, then I’d get to use you having Feelings and Emotions as blackmail. Man.”
“Even if I did have a crush, what makes you think I’d talk about him?”
Max shrugs, “I don’t know. But if you ever want to talk about it with me, I promise I won’t actually blackmail you. Hey, we can complain about guys together!”
“Don’t you already do that with El?”
“Well, yeah, but that’s one more person that I can talk to about the stupidity of the male species.”
“I am a member of the male species. And I’m not gonna talk about boys with you, dipshit,” he says, but he’s already mentally filing away Max as one of the people on the list of ‘people he can talk to when Mark Polowski takes off his stupid, ab-obstructing t-shirt in gym class, and then he pops a boner and has to excuse himself to the bathroom.’
That list? Currently just Max. It would have had Nancy on it, but he tried talking to her about it once- she stopped him when he said the word ‘boner.’ Apparently, she didn’t want to hear about her younger brother’s explicitly sexual thoughts, whether they’re for a man or not. He’s trying to get Steve on the list, because man, he’s horny. Steve understands. Steve has been, and continues to be, horny. They’re both teenage boys, I mean, c’mon.
“We all know you will. El wasn’t going to, and then what do you know? You break up with her and she comes over to my house and we’re talking about boys. I’m magnetic, dude.”
Then the conversation moves back to girls, because now they’re talking about Mike breaking up with El, and then that moves on to Max dumping Lucas for the twelfth time last week, and then Lucas starts complaining about girls, man, that’s the kind of shit I’m talking about!
Of course, he does end up talking to Max. No matter his verbal protestations, he knew internally that he would- and so next week, Max is climbing in through his window (Which she didn’t actually need to do- she just says that it’s ‘dramatically appropriate.’ They shouldn’t have let her join drama club.)
“So, what’s the sitch?” Max asks, once she’s settled in his desk chair and he’s lying upside down on his bed.
“Mark Polowski is so hot, man.”
“Oh, so you like Mark Polowski?”
“Nah- he’s pretty stupid. Once I asked him if he did the stoichiometry worksheet and he asked if stoichiometry is a sport. I don’t like him, not like that. I do lust for him, though. I saw him at the grocery store today, and summer has deprived me, and I forgot how hot he is.”
And even though Max grimaces at the word lust, she soldiers on. Champion of gay rights.
“Every time he takes off his shirt during gym class I pop a boner and it’s really embarrassing and I always pretend to stare at Melanie’s tits so that nobody suspects anything but man, those abs are delicious, ” he whines, a little too loudly considering his parents are just downstairs.
“That’s- easily the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard come out of your mouth. Not because you’re gay, it’s just gross. Mike Wheeler isn’t supposed to have Feelings, or Emotions, or worse yet, Sexual Thoughts. But you do, and that’s gross. Also, Mark Polowski? I figured Will was more your type.”
Ah, shit. He doesn’t really want to talk about this, but his mouth really, really does, so he’s talking. He doesn’t really want to be doing what he’s doing right now, but he’s doing it.
“Will is my type. Mark Polowski is just some eye candy, man,” why is he talking about this he never talks about this, “god, Will is just. He’s so good, isn’t he? Every time I see him I do this stupid, stupid ass thing where I breathe in really quick and soft because he’s so beautiful. Then he got rid of the bowl cut and started acting like he’s as pretty as he is and… man, I just love him.”
Max looks floored. Oops?
“I had no idea you felt that… strongly,” she says, spinning in a circle on his chair.
And maybe, five months ago, talking to Max like this might be awkward, but… they stay up the latest out of the Party, and you tend to get close to someone when you’re talking about everything and anything at four am while everyone else around you is dead to the world.
“Well I do. I’m- shit,” he wipes his sweaty palms on his basketball shorts, “I’ve never said this to anyone before.”
“Not even to Nancy?”
“Of course to Nancy. Nobody else, though, because she doesn’t count, because I tell her everything after that week in sixth grade. It just felt… I never felt like I needed to talk about it to anyone else, sometimes I just want to talk about it, but I don’t mind not talking about it. Sometimes I feel like I need to tell Will that he’s the most beautiful person in the world to me or else I’ll die, but that really only happens sometimes.”
“That’s… okay, that’s pretty cute.”
“I’ve loved him for like, forever.”
“That’s an exaggeration and we both know it. Since when have you actually liked him?”
“Damn, that is forever. You think he might like you too?”
Mike blushes profusely, but he’s not sure if it’s the fact that his head is hanging upside down or because he’s embarrassed. Either way, he hoists himself up.
“No- just. No. Probably not. Even if he was gay, he’d… I dunno. I look like a frog, Max. A fucking amphibian.”
“Kind of. But in like, an endearing way. Like it’s kind of cute. You’ve got killer cheekbones, and once you let your hair get curly you started actually looking kind of good. In a platonic way. Lucas is the only man for me.”
“That really isn’t comforting. And is he really? The twelve times you’ve broken up with him don’t seem to say the same thing.”
“Oh, shut up,” Max punches him on the arm.
They sit there for a couple of moments.
“Did- uh, did the guys say anything about me? Once I left?”
He doesn’t want to admit that he’s nervous, but… he is. They’re his best friends.
“Yeah. I mean-” she rushes when his face falls, “like, nothing supremely bad. They said some weird shit that I told them off for saying, but they weren’t grossed out or anything. Lucas asked if that meant you were gonna start acting fruity all the time-”
“I know that. Dustin wondered if you’d ever had a crush on him, and I told him that he had a face only a mother could love, and he said that Suzie highly disagrees. Will- didn’t say anything. And, uh, El asked what ‘gay’ means. I don’t know how she lasted this long not knowing. Did nobody tell her? I mean, seriously. She was in foster care, not under a rock.”
Mike mulls over the information supplied to him by Max.
“Will didn’t say anything? Anything at all?”
“No, but he looked kind of antsy the whole time. I radioed him and asked what was wrong the next day and he just blurted ‘I’m homophobic.’ Which was funny. I laughed for like, half an hour. Anyways, I called him on his bullshit, and he told me that he just doesn’t wanna talk about it. That it, quote, ‘doesn’t matter,’ because quote, ‘it’s not like it’ll happen anyways.’ Five bucks says he likes you.”
“Don’t,” Mike pauses, “put ideas in my head. Then it might get urgent. Like you know when you’re on a roadtrip and you don’t need to pee, and then someone says that there won’t be any stops to pee, and then suddenly it’s like every five minutes you need to piss or you’ll die, even though you can last for hours without peeing when you’re at home doing nothing? It’s like that. If you say it might happen… I’m gonna get desperate.”
“You aren’t already?”
Mike punches her on the shoulder, “shut up.”
She joins him on his bed, and they lie down side to side, feet on his pillows and heads at the foot of his bed. For a long, long while, they just let the sweltering summer heat sink into their bones, and try and follow the quickly-rotating fan blades with their eyes.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving him, y’know?” Mike says, quietly.
The teetering-on-the-edge of boisterous feeling of earlier has subsided. Now they sink into the quiet, the serious, the strangely serene feeling of just thinking. Earlier, Mike was just word-vomiting- now, he thinks carefully about his sentences. Lets the poet in him shine through in a soft conversation with a good friend.
Nancy would be proud of how little he’s using humor to deflect right now.
“You might not, man. People fall out of love. It’s not like he’s the only one for you.”
“No, I- I know that. I don’t mean that he’s the only one for me. I think that my love for him is always gonna be there in some way or another, you know? Like… it’s just so ingrained in who I am, by now, that it’s just… it’s me. I’m not Mike if I don’t love Will, you know? And I’m sure I’ll fall in love with someone else, down the line- I just don’t think I’ll love them the same way I love Will. That’s not a bad thing, and I won’t love them less, just not the same. Like, loving Will is the foundation, and then everyone I love after that is a brick in the house.”
Max takes a solid second to think.
“It’s not good to base who you are on another person. I don’t think you’re not Mike if you don’t love Will. You can be Mike without Will.”
Mike shakes his head, “it’s… I don’t know. I don’t think I can be.”
“I think you can. And you know, it’s not the end of the world. It’s never gonna be. You’ll live, you know? You can be Will without Mike- Mike without Will, I mean, bleh- you can . I think you can.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I guess you’re right. Maybe my life… maybe it is bigger than Will.”
Max sighs, turning over so she’s facing him.
“Blessèd be the Lords of Love,” Max says.
Mike laughs, ruffling her cropped hair, “blessèd be the Lords of Love.”
Later that night, when Max leaves again, he hears shouting coming from downstairs. It’s just his mom, so she’s either yelling at his dad or having an argument over the phone.
He can’t hear what they’re arguing about. And he doesn’t want to know; he pops in a mix that Will and Max made for him ages ago in an attempt to acclimate him to their weird, sad, post-punk new wave gothic alternative whatever music.
He and Max had shot the shit for a couple more hours, scored by some of his classic rock records turned way down low. Then Max clambered back out of his window, almost slipping twice, then his mom started shouting.
Eventually, his dad starts yelling too. The shouting continues until the front door opens, and Nancy steps in. Then it stops abruptly, and he can hear a muffled ‘what’s going on?’ since his window is open and she’s still standing in the doorway, door ajar.
Having Nancy back is good, even if it’s not for much longer. Summer vacation is nearly through, and he’s lucky she even decided to come back for summer break, instead of staying in California to work.
He missed her a lot during the school year. He found himself picking up the phone nearly every other day to talk to her, racking up the phone bill. When his parents started limiting his phone calls to one a week, no more than two hours each, he had to turn to Steve for consolation. It’s not quite the same as his sister and her comforting presence. Like a balm to his burn.
There’s a while where he can’t hear what they’re talking about. Once in awhile Nancy will raise her voice, but then quickly lower it again. Then there’s silence, and he can hear Nancy stomping up the stairs.
She throws his door open, fuming.
“Did I do something?” Mike asks.
Her face softens.
“No, no, of course not. How was today?”
“Good. Max came over.”
“Yeah, mom and dad told me. Listen,” she worries her lip, knitting her brow together in a display of concern. She glances down the hallway furtively, then gently closes his door.
“Mike, I-” she perches on the edge of his bed, putting a delicate hand on his shoulder. Very motherly.
“Mom and dad… heard what you and Max were talking about earlier. About you liking boys. I just wanted to warn you. They’ll talk to you about it on Saturday, probably. I’ll make sure to be here. I just want you to know that… that I’ll be on your side the whole time. Okay?”
Mike bolts up, feeling like he’s about to throw up, “shit, shit, shit… I thought they wouldn’t be able to hear me from downstairs.”
“Mom says she came up to ask if you and Max want snacks, then she heard you guys talking and… Mike, I’m sorry.”
He’s speechless. He- is this a badly-written fanfiction, or something? Everything was going so well, or so decently, or whatever, and then the next moment his whole life is just going to end. He can’t face their judgement. Not his father’s, and certainly not his mother’s. He needs to get out of here before Saturday.
That spurs him into action.
“Nance, I- I need you to take me to the city with you. I need to leave. I need to go. I can’t… I need to leave. I need-”
He stands up, striding over to his backpack and emptying it of all the weird shit it’s accumulated over the summer.
“I need to go,” he repeats.
“Mike- no, calm down. Mike. Mike,” she gets up and strides over, rubs her hands up and down his arms, gently tries to guide him away from his backpack and back to his bed.
“Mike. Listen. I know this feels like the end of the world, but you’ll survive. You’ll be fine. I want you to at least wait until Saturday. Wait until you talk to them. And then,” she looks like she’s trying to make a hard decision in the amount of time given, which isn’t enough to make a hard decision.
It’s like she’s trying to swallow down the words, but throw them up at the same time- rejecting and suppressing the hard corners of consonants and the round openness of vowels. They stick in her throat. Mike sits there, her hands stilled on his arms, staring at her and hoping she gets on with it before he jumps out of his skin and walks out of Hawkins, muscles and tendons slowly falling off and trailing behind him until he’s nothing but a skeleton. Borne by the power of his fear, instead of sinew and structure.
Finally, she speaks, and he’s spared the embarrassment of walking around devoid of flesh.
“If… if you wait until Saturday, and then you decide you still want to leave, I’ll take you with me when I go. I won’t leave earlier than planned, I still want to stay here until Monday, but you can leave with me. I’ll… god, this goes against everything I’ve ever been taught, but you can come.”
She holds out her pinky.
“They’re really going to talk to me about this on Shabbat? Really?” he wonders out loud.
“Don’t ask me why they decide to do the things they do. Kind of the total opposite of everything Shabbat is supposed to be,” she lifts her hand off his back. He feels guilty for ruining her last Shabbat with them before Thanksgiving break. She was looking forward to it.
When she leaves the room, looking back over her shoulder with upset written all over her face, he buries his face in his pillow and screams.
He waits in nervous anticipation for Saturday. At the crack of dawn on Friday, he gets up and drives to the quarry. Then he sits there for twelve hours, writing, and thinking, then he goes back home, eats dinner, and passes out. That’s it.
Twelve hours, is, apparently, a lot of time to think. He doesn’t think he’s ever thought that much in his whole life, but there he sits, mulling over the words of his sister and Max and Steve and everyone he’s ever talked to. And there he realizes that maybe- just maybe- what they say has some merit to it.
Maybe loving Will isn’t the end of the world. Maybe leaving Will isn’t the end of the world. Leaving Hawkins isn’t the end of the world, either, it’s just an expansion. Just making his world bigger, which is the opposite of the end of the world.
And sitting on the edge of the quarry, chucking pebbles into the dark water some fifty feet below him, he has a strange moment of clarity. That so much of this stuff that matters to him now won’t matter in a year or two. That it doesn’t matter what people think about his being gay, that it doesn’t matter whether Will rejects him or not, that it just doesn’t matter. That life is about throwing yourself headfirst into scary shit because maybe, there’s a chance that it’ll make you happier. That he’s been hurt, and he will be hurt, and he’s going to continue to get hurt. That it won’t stop. That it’s useless to try and protect yourself from getting hurt again, because that weird in-between that he feels so much- not happy, but not sad, either- is so much worse than feeling, and that he should try and eke out any ounce of happiness he can find. However temporary that is. Because happiness isn’t a state of being, just an emotion. That contentment is what you strive for- once you’re content, then all you do is hope to feel every one of your emotions and take your good days with the bad.
That last one may have been Nancy’s words, said to him over winter break when she brought weed back from California and they got baked on the rooftop.
The clarity doesn’t last, because his emotions strong-arm his philosophical greatness back into its little box. All he feels is fear when he takes the drive home, and when he pulls into his driveway he thinks that he might be willing to do anything to keep from getting hurt.
While he lays in bed, waiting for sleep to claim him, he wonders: shouldn’t this be the build-up? The anticipation? The rising action? But there’s no rising action. His mom comes and kisses him on the forehead, says goodnight, even if her smile doesn’t reach all the way to her eyes. His dad knocks on his door frame, leaning his head into the room and nodding at Mike, the way he always has. There should be awkward tension permeating the house- the deadly calm before the storm. It shouldn’t be this weird. This normal.
The next morning is painfully, painfully normal, just like the night before. They drive the hour it takes to get to the nearest synagogue, sit through service, and then drive the hour it takes to get back. Ted recites kiddush and have a cup of wine in their fancy wine cups (everyone except Holly, because no matter how traditional his parents are, they refuse to let their six-year-old drink.) His mom puts the challah on the table, and Holly pours nearly a bagful of chocolate chips and syrup on the bread, because she’ll throw a fit if they don’t let her. He eats the meal with his whole family (it’s Shabbat, after all!), Holly kicking him under the table and stealing spoonfuls of his cholent until he dribbles a forkful of maple syrup in her hair and neither of his parents notice.
His mom drops Holly off at the Horowitz’s, so she can have more cholent and challah and maybe even gefilte fish and so she doesn’t hear the imminent shouting, and Mike feels like his heart is going to grow legs and step out of his mouth and walk the hell away. He kind of wishes it would. Just a little bit.
Then his mother comes back. Shit.
“Mike, can you come downstairs, sweetie?”
He wants to not respond. He wants to yell fuck off, then shove all his clothes in his backpack and climb out of the window and run the hell away.
Instead, he manages a quick, “sure, Mom, give me a sec.”
He just needs the second to compose himself and then promptly perish. He can’t talk if he’s dead on the floor.
But he ends up stomping down the stairs, anyways, because apparently you can’t will yourself into a heart attack. The fuck is up with that?
Originally, he was planning on feigning ignorance. Asking them what’s wrong? innocently. He doesn’t really have it in him.
“Sit down, please.”
He pulls out a chair, dumping down his string bean body.
His dad opens his mouth, but Mike cuts him off.
“Let’s cut to the chase. I know that you heard Max and I talking last night. I know you know that I’m…” he takes a deep breath, “gay. But I want you to tell me what, exactly, you heard.”
She tells him.
“Sweetheart, we’re worried about you. Being homosexual isn’t right. It’s fine right now, lots of people go through a phase like this, but it isn’t natural. It shouldn’t last. When I was your age, I went through a phase like yours- I couldn’t rebel with my grades or how I dressed so I rebelled in a way that my parents wouldn’t find out about. I went around with girls, and it wasn’t right, but I grew out of it, and I settled down with Ted.”
“It’s not a phase. And I’m not doing it to rebel. Why would I do it to rebel? That’s stupid. I’m just… the way I am.”
“We still love you, son. We just don’t love your choices,” Ted speaks up, instead of letting his mom do all the talking.
“It’s not a choice. Why would I choose this? That’s stupid,” he says, echoing himself. He has a habit of repeating himself
“We’d like you to go to therapy. I’m sure we could find some sort of specialist- someone that can help you overcome this,” his mom says, grasping his hands where they’re folded on the table and looking sickeningly earnest.
He pulls his hands away like they’ve been burned.
“No. No. You can’t make me do that. You can’t make me go to conversion therapy, ” he spits out the words like they hurt to speak. His eyes sting and water.
“You’re being irrationally emotional right now, Michael. You’re old enough to speak to us like an adult,” his father says.
“I’m not being irrationally emotional! I’m being the perfect amount of emotional for the situation at hand!”
Nancy pauses in the doorway, “I thought you two would wait for me to be here to have this discussion.”
“It doesn’t concern you, Nancy,” Karen says, sharply.
“It does. I’m part of this family too.”
“Son, I’d like you to think about this. We don’t approve of your behavior, and you need to shape up. We’re willing to abide by you continuing to live here- we aren’t going to turn you to the streets just because of some teenage rebellion- but we want you to get a girlfriend. And we’ll be setting up an appointment with a therapist in the near future, and we expect you to go. We’d like you to be more observant of religion, I’m sure it’d be healing. Otherwise, there will be consequences,” his father says.
“More observant of religion? You’re starting this argument on Shabbat. Nancy’s last Shabbat with us for awhile.”
“We don’t want this to be an argument, Michael,” his mom says.
Mike doesn’t know how they’re treating this like he got in a fight at school. He always knew that his parents didn’t hold high opinions of those queers , but he hoped that maybe they’d surprise him.
They didn’t. This is exactly what he expected.
Not the worst case scenario, no- not cast out on the street, or anything. But still bad.
They argue on a loop- Karen saying it’s not right, we’re worried, Ted saying I’d like you to start taking interest in a sport, and find a nice girl, and stop participating in such emasculating activities so often, and Nancy retorting there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just a kid, being gay isn’t wrong, and Mike mostly crying and yelling, I won’t do it, I won’t do it.
They don’t get anywhere with the conversation. It doesn’t proceed at all- it’s like they’re in a roundabout but they never take an exit. Mike stomps up the stairs in tears when Karen cuts off the conversation to go pick up Holly. Nancy hurries after him.
“I want to go. I need to leave. I’m going with you to California,” he says, stone-cold and unquestioning. His face is blotchy, tears still streaming down his face in torrents.
“What will you even do there? Mike, listen, I don’t think going to California is the brightest idea. They took it better than I thought they would, especially with how angry they were on Thursday,” Nancy puts a hand on his back that he desperately tries to shake off.
“I’ll get a job and I’ll live with you until I can afford an apartment. I can’t stay here, Nancy, they want me to be someone that I can’t be. I don’t like sports or girls and I never will and I won’t be going to some homophobic quack that says I can be cured! I won’t! I won’t I won’t I won’t-”
“You’re acting like you’re five, Mike,” Nancy says. Her tone isn’t warm- it’s chilled to the bone.
She shakes her head, “stop throwing a tantrum and grow up.”
Mike screams into his pillow.
“You promised! You pinky promised you’d take me! You promised! You-”
“Shut up, Mike. Just shut up! You’re just working yourself up! The more you scream and cry and throw a fit the worse you’ll feel. Take a minute to calm down. Don’t make any big decisions when you’re this emotional. I told you I’d take you because if I didn’t, you were going to do something stupid and irrational- ”
“You lied? You lied to me?”
“No- well, yes! I really only meant it if it was the worst-case scenario- if they got violent or if they kicked you out or something, or-”
“You don’t know what it’s like, ” Mike bites out, unknowingly parroting Nancy’s words to Jonathan from a couple years previous.
It seems to strike a chord with Nancy, and she melts.
“You’re right. I don’t,” she sighs, “I’ll… I’ll think about it. You need to think about it too. Make sure that you’re absolutely sure about this.”
He doesn’t lift his head from his pillow when the weight on his bed lifts and he hears her footsteps fade. He doesn’t lift his head when his mom calls him down for Havdalah. He doesn’t lift his head when his mother comes up after Shabbat ends, everything down to the sound of her footsteps radiating concern.
The next day, his mom comes into his room several times to check on how he’s doing. He ignores her every time, turning to face the wall. He feels the bed dip down, and then she sits still for a couple minutes, then she leaves. He doesn’t come down for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner, just periodically gets up to piss and then mope back to his room.
He feels like he’s floating around inside of his skin. Just a little too small for the body that holds him, like he’s got extra space that needs to be filled. Like every time he moves, he’s just sloshing around below his epidermis.
The seventh time she comes in, she finally opens her mouth to speak. She reaches over to stroke his hair, but he flinches away from her touch.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. We were unfair to you yesterday. I didn’t mean to be so… harsh. Ted didn’t either. Please forgive us.”
He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t flinch away again when she reaches over to stroke his hair. He almost feels normal again. Almost feels like he’s not sloshing around, drowning in his own body. He focuses on his breathing and her hand in his hair and her voice, when she starts speaking again.
“I don’t understand this, sweetie, but I’m willing to try. I understood, once upon a time. I’ll try and get your father to try his best, too. It’s just a shock, is all. I know that we’re not always the best for you, but we really are trying. We grew up in a different time- the fifties and the sixties weren’t quite as accepting as right now. I’m sorry. I’m trying. I love you,” she leans down and kisses his temple, and he thinks he’ll miss her when he leaves.
If you see this, it means I’m gone I’ve left for California with Nancy. I have some explaining to do thing to tell you. (Don’t worry, I’m leaving a letter for everyone else, too. You don’t have to bear the bad news.)
Basically: I’m in love with you. I know you wouldn’t want me to to cause me any pain, so don’t worry, you didn’t. It was a good type of love. I didn’t pine for you, and it didn’t hurt. It never will.
That’s a lie. I totally just lied to you. It does hurt, it always hurts, but. Whatever, I guess.
Nancy always tells me that you’re my first love, but that you aren’t gonna be my last love. That I’ll get over you, one day.
I don’t want to cut you or the others off, so I’ll try and call as often as I can and send letters as often as I can. I’ll miss you, and maybe I wouldn’t have done something like this a couple of years ago- I would have just stayed and faced the consequences. But now my life is more than just you and my friends. It’s more than just people. And I’ll meet new people. Not comparable to you guys, no, it’s different, but. I don’t know. I guess I just need to get out.
There’s a chance you’ll never see this letter. If everything goes well with my parents, then you won’t. Maybe some distant time in the future, I’ll show you this, maybe. Anyways, just know that if you’re reading this, everything went to shit with my parents. We’ll be leaving on the fifth, so I’ll be giving these to Steve to give them to you guys on that day. My parents are talking to me on Saturday, so that gives me one-ish days to try and find a way to say goodbye to you guys. I don’t want to leave you guys with have a letter be my last goodbye. You guys, and you especially, mean more to me than that. I hope you know that even if you’re not my whole world anymore, you still mean so much to me. You used to be my whole world, you know that, right? You’re not, anymore. Not in a mean way, god that sounds so mean, it’s just that I’ve grown. We’ve all grown. And sometimes I look back on pictures of us, and those little home videos that you used to take, and I think of how proud I am. Of me, and of you, and Dustin and Lucas. And El and Max, too.
God, this isn’t really related, but I’m kind of laughing because I just remembered that one stupid ass video of us. We were in fifth grade and we were trying to film some bogus news report but I was dressed up in this cheap halloween store pirate costume and you were wearing a sheet as a toga, but you didn’t have any normal sheets so you had to use a fitted sheet. And you’re saying something, and I’m saying something, and then you say ‘and in other news, Julia Child and Freddie Mercury were found in their secret joint London apartment in a compromising position- way closer than kissing!’ and I turned to you and just went ‘there’s something closer than kissing?’ and you had to explain what sex was to me. And it’s all right there on tape. You’re supposed to be the innocent one, William Byers, not me. You’re so deceptive.
I’m just glad that I’m strong enough to leave, I guess. That I can leave, even. I don’t want to tell you guys that I’m leaving in person, because I know you’d try and convince me to stay, and I know that I would. But I can’t. I won’t. Not if things go badly with my parents.
(Also, I’m pretty sure I’d just make jokes the whole time, because I’m shit at confrontation, and you guys definitely wouldn’t appreciate me making a joke and then fucking off to California.)
The more I think about the decision, the more I second-guess myself. But it’s, that’s how life is, isn’t it? Maybe if I don’t like it in California I’ll come back here, live in a box on the street or start couch-hopping.
There’s so much more I want to say to you. I have to learn how to say it first. Maybe I’ll be a poet, then I’ll send you prose that says everything I need to say to you. Maybe by then I’ll already have forgotten everything I need to say to you.
I suck, man, but I love you. I love you a lot. I love you so much, Will. Don’t you ever forget that. Don’t you dare.
Lots of Love,
Michael Ari Wheeler, your best friend and veritable greatest admirer.
P.S. I’m writing this at the quarry, and so all those water drops you see on the paper? Not tears, man. That’s spray from the quarry. Because that’s physically possible.
The car is cold.
They’d left early in the morning, long before the sleepy town of Hawkins could fully wake. For the summer, the morning is surprisingly cold- nipping through the fabric of Mike’s thin t-shirt.
And Mike feels free. His whole life is ahead of him- he can see his future stretching out in front of the four-door sedan, taking the form of a grey one-lane highway disappearing at the horizon. He’s always been restless. Always felt uncomfortable with comfort. He’s always wanted to get out of Hawkins and stretch his wings someplace big enough for his ambitions.
But then they cross the state line. As the flat expanse of the Illinois countryside rolls past his open window, his heart slowly sinks. The feeling of freedom begins to fall victim to the overpowering stench of loneliness. And slowly, all he feels is cold.
He’s always wanted to leave his life behind. Why does that suddenly hurt so much?
He reaches into the back, searching blindly for his jacket. His hands find the fabric, and he slips it on in a futile attempt to warm himself up. The numbness persists.
He fumbles with the snap closure on the hidden breast pocket of his jacket, and slides out the thin notebook he keeps stowed there for emergencies. A piece of paper, cream-colored and neatly folded, slips out. It definitely wasn’t put there by him. Curious, he unfolds it.
It’s me, Will.
Listen. I don’t want you to get mad at him, but Steve gave me my note early. He told me that I’d probably be the best one to convince you to stay. He’s probably right.
And listen. I’m not as good of a writer as you, and I can barely even understand what I feel half the time, much less put that shit on paper. But I’m willing to try, if you’re willing to consider.
I love you, Michael Ari Wheeler, and yes, the same way you love me. No, this isn’t an attempt to convince you to stay, I honest to god mean it. And I’m not ready to be with you (maybe soon?), and after I write this letter I’m going straight back into denial (that part’s a joke), but I thought it was worth mentioning.
Here comes the part where I try to get you to stay: dude, you’re 16. And I’m willing to bet your parents’ opinions will change, if you try to change them. Please stay in Hawkins. Please please please please please. Be a kid a little longer. You don’t need to be so damn grown up all the time, Wheeler.
This is kind of a big deal, you leaving. Didn’t you say you didn’t want any more big deals with us?
And I just want to say this:
Being gay isn’t the end of the world. Being 16 isn’t either. You’re only this old once. Give it another try, would you? California will still be there when you graduate. The world isn’t gonna shrink down to the size of Hawkins in two years.
P.S. I’m sorry I snuck this into your notebook but I needed to put this a place you’d definitely find it. I didn’t read anything, I promise. If you leave me, I’m kicking your ass, Wheeler.
P.P.S. you never found a way to tell us goodbye, which I’m pissed about. Because I’m writing this the night before you leave and I snuck into your room (sorry, I know that’s technically breaking and entering) to put this in your notebook and you haven’t said goodbye and I doubt you’re waking us up at four in the morning to say goodbye so screw you Michael.
Looks like he owes Max five bucks.
Mike can’t breathe; his lungs are being held by a vice. The frigid morning air pouring into the car is prying tears from his eyes.
“You okay, Mike?” Nancy asks, eyes fixed forward and hand fiddling with the radio.
He thought there was nothing for him in Hawkins. Nothing but his friends, and his mother, and Holly, and the arcade and his memories and love and support and- and- the willingness to try. To try. And it’s not everything, but it’s a hell of a lot. It’s a hell of a lot for someone who doesn’t even try.
His future is lying ahead of him, stretching away to kiss the horizon. But it’s not the future he needs to live just yet. Because behind him, stretching to a little town called Hawkins, lies his past, his present, and the little slice of future he has left there.
He hasn’t even tried to live it yet.
“Nancy?” He asks, voice small. Far too small for a big pond like California. Small enough for a sixteen-year-old whose wings are baby down, who’d plummet if he tried to fly the coop.
“Can you take me back?”