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Junior year ends with a bang. They get out of school and take off for the shore. There’s beer and fireworks. Jeff is a seventeen-year-old guy, so of course he thinks this is the most exciting combination ever. It gets late and he’s maybe had a few more drinks than he really should, but these things are all about ratios and he’s content to sit in the sand and leave the fireworks to other people. The question is what’s the more interesting show: watching Claude and James shoot off firecrackers or watching Mike hit on this tan leggy Jersey girl.

The latter, clearly, because freshmen are boring, and Mike’s his best friend. Maybe the girl will have a cute friend and they’ll all come over here and he’ll get to make out with somebody. As long as he doesn’t have to move. Moving would be a bad idea. He can’t feel his bones.

Making out is probably not gonna happen, because Mike is striking out with the girl. She frowns, then laughs at whatever line he tried on her. Jeff wishes he could hear what they were saying. Mike isn’t good at talking to girls; listening to him try is fun. Jeff would have had a better shot because he’s taller and has great hair, but he doesn’t want to get up.

The girl goes back to her friends, and Mike stalks over and collapses into the sand next to Jeff.

“Smooth,” Jeff says. “You’re a regular stud.”

“Fuck off,” Mike says. “I wasn’t trying that hard.”

“Yeah, she wasn’t that great,” Jeff lies. He’s a good friend.

“At least I was trying instead of slouching around like a drunken lump.”

“I was hoping your girl would have a hotter friend who’d fall my way. I was counting on you to bring the makeouts to me.”

“You’re pathetic.”

Jeff shrugs. He knows Mike doesn’t mean it. “Maybe you should make out with me instead?”

He’s mostly teasing. It must have been the wrong thing to say though, because Mike gets quiet. Jeff tries to think of something he could say to make things normal again, but doesn’t have a clue.

“Man, you’re really wasted,” Mike says.

Jeff nods in agreement.

“What’s gonna get you in more trouble, getting home drunk, or staying out late enough that you’re sober?”

It’s a good question.

“Both?”

Mike laughs at him. “You’re just a mess. It’s a good thing I’m here to keep an eye on you.”

“Yeah.” It really is.

X X X X X

Jeff gets ten kinds of grounded. It’s okay though, because Mike has been a fixture for so long that his parents don’t even try to stop him from coming over. And this early in the summer all he wants to do is play video games and sleep past noon. He can party in August, for now it’s cool to hang.

It’s almost July when shit hits the fan. Jeff had gotten to the point where he was starting to feel punished, because no parties mean no girls. Jeff would love a chance to talk to a pretty girl. He’s dying to try to get involved in a sexual situation that involves another person.

He’s bored and desperate enough that asking Mike if he wants make out almost seems like a good idea. He probably would if Mike hadn’t already been acting strangely, keyed up over something he isn’t sharing with Jeff. That sucks; keeping secrets isn’t buddies. Maybe he’s bored too, only that doesn’t make sense because Mike isn’t grounded. He could could go meet girls or hang out with their other friends if he wanted.

Jeff misses girls. They smell nice. He doesn’t miss their other friends much though, because why would he need other friends when he has Mike? Their other friends aren’t that great anyway. Or maybe he is good at lying to make himself feel better. Or both.

X X X X X

When Jeff’s parents sit him down at the dining room table for a serious talk he assumes it’s going to be about his behavior. He’s preparing himself for a solid scolding but instead they start talking about the economy. Jeff knows that there’s a recession. He heard about it when the news came on after the thing he had been watching and he couldn’t find the remote. It was this thing that was happening to other people.

He doesn’t get what they’re saying at first, but with repetition he understands: the company his father works for decided to close down its operation in Philadelphia. His dad isn’t losing his job, but is getting relocated. To Columbus, Ohio.

His parents are calm as they tell him this. He wonders how long they’ve known. They must have kept any rumblings from him, or maybe he just hasn’t been paying attention.

He’s going to leave everything that matters — his friends, his school, Mike, every person and place that he cares about. It’s going to be a whole new world of strangers and strange places, which he’ll have to get used to all on his own.

His phone buzzes. He checks it, hoping for some good news, but it’s Mike wondering your dad too?

He hadn’t even considered this, but their fathers work together, that’s why they’ve known each other forever. It makes sense that Mike’s family is a part of this too. He gets it now that he’s able to see past how much it’s gonna suck for him personally.

He texts back yeah, it sucks.

The whole thing is terrible, but there’s something comforting knowing that he won’t be going through this alone.

totally. we’re leaving for LA next week.

Los Angeles. Los Angeles is not Columbus, Ohio. They’re very different places, that are in fact fairly far from each other. LA?!?!? He’s not going to freak out.

Yeah, you?

columbus fucking ohio.

He’s texting under the table while his parents drone on about moving plans and educational opportunities and other stuff he doesn’t care about.

that’s terrible, Mike texts back, followed quickly with, come over?

Technically, Jeff’s still grounded. And his parents are still attempting to draw him into their conversation about silver linings, but he can’t listen any longer.

He stands up abruptly and starts walking to the door. “I’m going to Richie’s.”

His mother stops him, but just for a second, pulling him into a hug. It’s still strange to be taller than her. “This isn’t the end of the world, sweetheart,” She says. “Have a good time with Michael—a good responsible time—and then come home with a positive attitude. Believe me, Ohio isn’t the end of the world.”

Jeff has to disagree.

X X X X X

Mike and Arnold are already waiting for him outside when he’s walked the three blocks between their houses. “I had to get out of there, you know?”

Jeff nods his understanding.

They wind up walking along the circuital suburban subdivision roads. Every place they pass reminds Jeff of some aspect of their shared childhood, scraped knees and trick-or-treating, every turn has another memory. They wind up at the edge of the development, in a field that was supposed to be more houses until the developers ran out of money.

“This sucks so much,” Jeff says.

“Totally.” It’s their senior year, they’re supposed to do this together, they’re supposed to graduate together. They’ve been educated side by side since they attended the same neighborhood preschool. They actually walked past it tonight. Every time Jeff has imagined graduating, it has been with Mike standing beside him in the same plastic robes and stupid hat. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

“When are you leaving?” Mike asks.

Jeff shrugs. “Don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention to the details.”

“We’re leaving next Tuesday,” Mike says. That gives them eight more days. That won’t be enough.

X X X X X

Jeff spends the next week orbiting around Mike. He helps him pack up his room, taking down the glow-in-the-dark stars they’d hung together when they were nine, and patching the hole in the wall that totally wasn’t his fault. He knows he should probably be starting the same deconstructive process in his own room, but he and his mother aren’t leaving for Ohio until later in the summer, giving him plenty of time for denial. Besides, it’s way more important that he spends time with Mike now, because who knows how long it’ll be before they get to hang out again.

“Christmas, maybe?” Mike is neatly wrapping cords together. Jeff’s helping. He knows he’ll probably end up throwing all of his own electronics in a box to get hopelessly tangled. “If there isn’t too much family stuff? What’s in between L.A. and Columbus?”

Jeff doesn’t know. He had been surprised to learn that Ohio was so far east. He had always thought it was more central, probably because it was so boring. “Plains? Corn?”

“Aren’t there some mountains? We could go skiing.”

They both know they won’t get to go skiing. They’ll have to spend the winter holiday visiting grandparents, not doing something awesome together. Jeff’s glad Mike’s pretending it’s a possibility.

“You should come out over spring break. We could go to the beach, enjoy the California sun. That would be a real nice getaway. What’s the weather like in Ohio anyway?”

Jeff has no idea. He bets it’s terrible.

Jeff gets home late that night, tired from taking apart furniture, but unable to sleep. In just a few more days they’re going to have most of a continent between them. Jeff’s accustomed to distances that can be walked. He guesses that the main reason he hasn’t been freaking out is because he hasn’t really understood what’s happening to them.

He understands now though, in the dark, alone. He understands that they’re going to be apart, far apart, for the first time ever. It’s not a good place for him to be. Sleep won’t come. He wishes he was ten years old and lying on Mike’s floor under the glow in the dark stars, where he could reach out and shove at Mike. He wishes Mike was right there, not seven whole blocks away. Although soon enough, seven blocks won’t seem so far at all.

His parents have waived his grounding due to extraordinary circumstances, so he’s free to attend the going away party some of the guys are throwing for Mike. He’s too tired and sad to really enjoy it, but not showing up would look odd. He’s been promised a party of his own later in the summer, but he knows it’s really just an excuse to throw another party, and it’s not like it’ll be fun anyway. Not with Mike already gone.

The best parts of the night come in red solo cups. He does get to pity-mess-around with Crystal. That’s pretty cool. They’d had math together last year and he’d spent half a semester flirting before giving up. Apparently leaving the state in a matter of months makes him more appealing. He wonders what it says about him that he’s the sort of guy pretty girls are okay with making out with only when they know he won’t be sticking around.

Going off with Crystal is the only time he leaves Mike’s side in the entire night. Mike is stuck playing the leader and good friend, giving bro hugs and promising to keep in touch. Jeff can just sit there drinking shitty beer, slouching further and further against Mike as gravity starts fucking around with him. If Mike notices how Jeff’s clinging he doesn’t care.

They walk home together at the end of the night. It’s most of a mile, but it’s nice out, clear skies, with the moon hanging low. They’re quiet as they walk, stumbling against each other some in the dark.

They part ways eventually, at an intersection with a flickering street light. Jeff is already nodding his goodbye when Mike pulls him in for a loose hug, saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

Tomorrow is the day before the last day.

“Of course.” There isn’t anything that could keep him away.

“Great.” Mike’s smile is understated and seems more honest than anything Jeff had seen on display at the party. Jeff turns to go. Mike’s quiet “goodnight” echoes through him as he staggers home.

X X X X X

Jeff heads over to Mike’s as soon as he wakes up. They spend the whole day together, duct taping boxes shut and hanging out. They’re hardly saying anything, but the proximity is nice. Jeff stays for dinner. They devour delivery pizza on paper plates. Afterwards he calls his parents to let them know he’s spending the night.

They stay up late talking about nothing, giving each other as many words as possible in the time left. Maybe they should be talking about something important, but they just babble about movies and sports and kids they knew from school. They do try to sleep, eventually. Mike’s room is already empty. They lie down in sleeping bags on the floor. The stars are gone, but Jeff can see the outlines of where they had been, empty spaces left behind where the sun hasn’t faded the paint. It looks wrong.

Jeff wants to be able to fix things, put the stars back up, or cover up the absences, but he can’t. He can’t make Mike’s room right again because it won’t be Mike’s room after tomorrow.

He’s surprised by how easy it is to fall asleep. It seems like he should fight to stay awake to make every moment count, but his body disagrees. He’s out almost as soon as he closes his eyes, but wakes up feeling unrested. He wonders if he should be blaming the floor or the situation.

Mike’s family is going to start driving across the country in a matter of hours, and the last second preparations are frantic. Jeff does his best to stay out of the adults’ way while staying as close to Mike’s as possible. Soon everything is ready and it’s time for them to leave.

Jeff trails behind Mike out to the driveway. They have to say goodbye now.

Jeff looks at his feet. “Um, I guess I’ll miss you. And stuff.”

“Yeah,” Mike says. “Keep in touch, alright?”

“Of course.” Jeff forces himself to make eye contact because Mike has to see how much he means this. “I’m going to miss you so much.”

Mike hugs him suddenly, fiercely. It’s a real hug, not a bro hug, and it lasts for a while. Mike says, “You know I’ll miss you too.”

Jeff doesn’t want it to end, but eventually Mike’s dad honks the car horn and they have to pull apart.

X X X X X

The rest of the summer is miserable. This might be his own fault. He’s slowly, very slowly packing things up. He stays up late playing video games and wasting time on the internet, which means he’s sleeping til two in the afternoon, which makes his mother frown. She’s isn’t around much, busy sorting out her own transplantation.

He has too much time and not enough distractions. He could hang out with other people from school, but it seems pointless since he’ll be gone soon enough. They’re alright guys, but he isn’t feeling particularly social.

He gets postcards from Mike from all across the country. The first is from Columbus, Ohio. Jeff doesn’t think it’s funny. Then from Oklahoma, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon. Jeff wants to hang them up in his room but doesn’t because he knows he’d only have to take them down again in a month.

The postcards don’t say much. Jeff learns more from the texts Mike sends, which ponder the fields that take up the middle of the country, Arnold’s car behaviors, and eventually the desert of the Southwest. Even though the postcards don’t provide any news, they do make a gesture. They let him know that Mike is thinking of him as he travels further away, and that he cares enough to the scribble half nonsense notes and find stamps. Jeff doesn’t like how much this means to him.

Even though he’s mostly avoided his friends, they do manage to throw him a going away party. It can’t be stopped. Going to this party won’t be the worst thing in Jeff’s life by a long shot. There will be beer.

It’s loud. He looks for Crystal, hoping that she’d be willing to mess around again, but it seems she acquired a boyfriend over the summer, given the slab of man hanging off her arm. Good for her. Other people should do what they can to stay happy.

He winds up on the back porch with Danny, who’s leaving too, but for college, not for fucking Ohio. Lucky bastard. Talking to Danny is better than talking to one of the other guys because they’re in the same state of premature nostalgia, missing a place they’re still inhabiting for a little longer. Jeff thinks that Danny’s lucky that he still gets to have this life during the summers. When Jeff leaves, his connection to this place will be over and done. Even if he does wind up in Philadelphia again, it won’t be the same because Mike would still be gone.

Danny doesn’t interfere directly with Jeff’s plans to feel sorry for himself, but the way he’s talking isn’t making it easy.

“Places are places,” Danny says. “That doesn’t make them unimportant, but they’re much less important than people. People are everything, really. You should hold onto people, distance be damned.”

Jeff knows that this speech is rooted in the epic breakup Danny was involved in at the end of the year, but it connects to his own situation. When he thinks about it (which is all the time, even though he tries not to think about it at all), he won’t miss the everyday details of his life here, streets and classes and history, but he will miss his friends, Mike most of all. Only Mike’s gone too, so who gives a damn about the rest of it. If somehow he got to stay here without Mike, maybe that would be worse. He can feel the empty spaces in a single evening of his old life with Mike gone. If he had to suffer through a year of this, the holes would become visible and blinding, instead of just a subtle suck of spirit. He bets that Mike’s absence could swallow the good parts of living in Philadelphia whole.

X X X X X

Ohio could be alright. It could mean a fresh start, free of expectations and empty spaces. He could embrace the change instead of dwelling on the way things were supposed to be. Yeah, Ohio could be alright. Maybe.

X X X X X

Ohio is the worst place ever. This isn’t hyperbole, but something Jeff knows. He can feel it in the air and see it out the windows. Moving to Ohio is the worst thing that has ever happened in his entire life.

His new room isn’t smaller or bigger than his old room, but it’s a different shape and he can’t find a way to make his things fit comfortably. He doesn’t know anyone. It’s true that he had lived like a hermit for most of the summer but there were still people texting him to go do things and sometimes he got dragged out against his will. The only people he knows in Ohio are his parents, who are busy with their jobs and dealing with the new house. He has a few weeks left before school starts (new school, new people, senior year, sure to be a party) and spends them doing exactly nothing.

Nothing of consequence anyway. He rearranges furniture so many times he’s lost count before he gives up. His room looks like a warzone, but the mess disguises how the pieces don’t fit right. He eats a lot of burnt toast before realizing the settings got all messed up in the move and it’s just a matter of turning the dial down from seven to three. This is what his life has come to: toast is a big fucking deal. Ohio is the worst.

The best thing in Ohio is Skyping with Mike, unless you don’t count that as a thing in Ohio but whatever, it’s just the best, and Ohio is the worst.

This doesn’t change when school starts, but it does mean that there’s less time for him to waste. Classes and homework fill a lot of time. His grades are the best they’ve ever been because there isn’t anything to distract him. It’s good because he’s a senior and his GPA could use a bump up before college applications are due.

He had been looking forward to being a senior in Philly. He had spent four years watching the special events that preceded graduation and looking forward to his own turn. Now he’s living through twelfth grade in a new city with radically different rituals. He wanted to play Assassins with Mike, not go on a hayride with Rick Nash. He doesn’t want to do anything with Rick Nash.

Jeff isn’t sure if he actually hates Rick Nash, or if he just really hates Ohio and Rick Nash is just tainted by association. Rick Nash is the class president and the captain of the badminton team and Jeff’s neighbor across the street. He’s pretty sure he really hates Rick Nash.

Rick Nash is trying far too hard to be his friend, which is creepy because it should be really obvious that Jeff is a horrible friend and no fun. Rick Nash just doesn’t care. They take the same school bus and Rick Nash always talks to him while they’re waiting in the morning, or walking home in the afternoon. Rick Nash will come over to invite Jeff to things like pep fest or baseball games, functions that require showing spirit for a school Jeff can barely tolerate. His mother always lets Rick Nash in and when she hears the invitation he knows he won’t be able to get out of going. He can’t lie and say he already has plans and she’ll look disappointed if he simply says he doesn’t want to. His mother would love it if he were friends with Rick Nash, or anyone really. His mother would love it if he went out and did anything other than sit in his room.

Jeff doesn’t want to be friends with Rick Nash or anyone else. He wants to graduate in quiet, solitary misery. He was supposed to graduate in Philly with Mike, but that isn’t happening, so everything is ruined, and there isn’t much point trying to salvage the year.

It seems that Mike doesn’t feel the same way. Which is fine. Just because Jeff hates his life that doesn’t mean he wants his best friend to be miserable too. Mike’s happiness is one of the few things that makes Jeff less unhappy, so that’s good.

When they Skype, Mike talks about his cool new friends in L.A. Mike never actually uses the word cool, but they’re in L.A., and they’re friends with Mike, so they must be cool.

Jeff isn’t jealous.

He’s just bored.

Fuckin’ Ohio.

He can’t wait to get out of here.

X X X X X

Jeff is applying for colleges. The main requirement is being someplace that Mike is applying to, and also not in Ohio, anywhere but Ohio.

He should probably apply to places Mike isn't applying to, because what if they can't be as good friends as they were? It seems the same on Skype, but Skype isn't the same as hanging out. Jeff is pretty sure that Ohio isn't doing anything for his personal growth, but California is the type or place that could change a person.

Mike could become a really lackadaisical surfer dude who says things like "Hang ten brah," or whatever actual surfer dudes say, which is probably different than what Jeff imagines surfer dudes saying based on what he’s seen on TV. Mike could get "self-actualized," like someone from his mother's magazines. Southern California is big on self-actualization, at least that's what Jeff's heard. Maybe he’ll become a Hollywood actor person. Last time they talked he did say one of his new friends was into theater. It could happen.

Or even if Mike is still the same for now, he could still change. Even if they go to the same college and they manage to be the same kind of best friends there's no guarantee that Mike won't find something new and leave Jeff behind.

X X X X X

Winter break is the worst. Jeff had never imagined that days off could be so miserable. He gets sick, which would have been unpleasant anytime, but this is timed so he doesn’t even get to miss school. It amounts to two unbearably long weeks alone with all of his feelings and no distractions. He watches a ton of terrible television and sleeps too much, ODing on rest until he’s perpetually tired. It’s just that he doesn’t want to get out of bed because there isn’t anything in Ohio worth getting out of bed for. He can use his laptop in bed to Skype Ritchie. And then when everything gets to be too much, his pillow is right there to cry into.

Winter break could get called a low point, except things never get any better. By the time break is through, he has accepted how terrible his life in Ohio is and decided to suffer through it with what little dignity he left. He figures out how to be stuck in Ohio while really not being anywhere at all. He doesn’t feel the same stabbing pain as before, and while the numbness isn’t a real improvement, he can live with it.

X X X X X

In February Jeff’s dad’s job gets transferred again.

His parents sit him down in the living room for what is obviously going to be a serious conversation. He thought that maybe it was going to be some kind of intervention about his recent role as the prince of angst.

Only no, his dad’s job got transferred to Los Angeles, California, where Mike is. His parents have to repeat themselves like five times before Jeff starts to believe that it’s actually happening, because this kind of miracle doesn’t happen in real life. It would make a lot of sense in a movie, a move that had to stick to the Hollywood ending, but this is his life. He’s had a lot of time recently to watch bad movies and think about how implausible the happy endings are, but this is his actual life, where he’s going off to Hollywood to be with his best friend. It’s really fucking surreal.

If there is one redeeming quality about Ohio, and he’s not sure there is, it has to be this moment. He had been so unhappy, so fucking forlorn, and now he’s not. The clear contrast between the pitiful disaster of the last months and what he’s feeling now is beautiful.

There isn’t much time for packing. His dad is supposed to start work next week, so they’ll have to just throw stuff together before they fly out. His mom is staying around a while longer, getting various ducks into rows. They actually asked if he wanted to finish the school year in Columbus, which was such a ridiculous idea that he had to laugh at it, deep hysterical sobbing laughter that shook his whole body. It took a while, but after he caught his breath he was able to translate fuck no, it’s Ohio, take me to Richie right now, into parent appropriate language.

He should call Mike right away, but he doesn’t know what he’d say. He’s really happy and knows he’d probably sound really dumb and sappy, and it’s not like Mike would make fun of him for that, but he doesn't want to go there. If he talked to Mike he would probably try to articulate his feelings and then he’d know what his feelings are specifically, not just thrilled to be leaving Ohio. That could get...messy. Maybe even snotty

Not wanting to cry is a perfectly fine excuse to text instead. This is the kind of big deal that really should involve verbal communication, but whatever, Mike isn’t going get pissed over his bad manners. He spends a lot of energy trying to think of the right words to send but ends up going with my dad’s job moved to la. see you monday.

Mike doesn’t text him back for what seems like a very long time. There could be a lot of really good reasons for this. He might be asleep or at a party or driving or who knows. Jeff isn’t codependent enough to get worked up over not getting a reply back right away. That would be weird.

Eventually Mike texts back and it’s only one word: seriously with no punctuation. Jeff notices the time between the two messages is actually only seven minutes.

yeah this is actually happening. i mean, like, wtf really? but not looking gift horses in mouths or w/e.

He has to explain some more before Mike actually believes him, but eventually they’re on the same page, both stupid excited about getting reunited. Jeff shoves his clothes into suitcases, stopping frequently to text. Their messages get increasingly jubilant and incoherent as it gets late. Jeff is about to go to bed—fucking different time zones, that won’t matter soon enough—but then his phone chirps and he has to see what it says. It’s from Mike, of course, and all it says is I can’t fucking wait.

X X X X X

Mike skips school and meets them at the airport. Jeff lets his dad deal with renting a car and getting their bags together and stuff, which is pretty irresponsible, but whatever. Best friend time is more important.

They hug at the airport, obviously. It starts as a typical bro hug, but then it’s so much better, and Jeff doesn’t want to let go, but has to. He holds on tighter and longer than is normal, but nothing about this situation is normal. He has to be sure this is real.

Jeff is taking this day for himself. It’s Best Friends Reunion Day. He’ll start settling in for real tomorrow. They ditch his dad with the baggage, heading to the parking lot where Arnold is waiting for them. He’s super excited to see Jeff, or maybe he’s just thrilled to get let out. Either way he’s bouncing around, letting Jeff pet him, and reciprocating by drooling everywhere. Jeff has never enjoyed dog slime more in his life, he’s too happy to care if it’s weird.

He rubs Arnold’s ears and murmurs, “Good dog, good dog.”

Mike says, “He missed you,” and Jeff knows they aren’t just talking about the dog. “Yeah, I missed him too.”

They go to the beach because that’s the thing to do in L.A. Jeff loves the ocean. He’s used to the Atlantic, but his first impression of the Pacific is pretty damn great. They throw sticks for Arnold and just hang out. They don’t talk a whole lot, but it isn’t like Jeff is a talkative person.

They stay out later than they probably should—there’s school tomorrow, Jeff’s first day—but if they leave….

Parting for the night, even knowing they’ll be reunited in the morning, would still be a separation, and they’re so sick of that.

They sit on the beach. It gets cold at night in February, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but is; Jeff didn’t bring a coat. He expected better from California. Instead he leans into Mike, even though the angle’s awkward; he’s grown even taller since Philly, while Mike hasn’t. Arnold is snug at their feet. It’s easy to breathe and he can’t think of any reason to be unhappy.

The sky over the ocean is dark, black meeting navy blue, just a sliver of moon. “Seems like there should be stars,” he says.

“There’s smog,” Mike says. “And light pollution.”

“Still, I want there to be stars."

Mike laughs, “I guess in L.A. all the stars are busy walking around.”

Jeff laughs too. “That’s terrible." He punches Mike in the side. "That’s just terrible, Richie.”

“Whatever, you missed me.”

Jeff did.

So whatever.

He has his best friend back. He’s allowed to be happy. It’s different, and nice. He’s happy. He isn’t gonna poke around and ask questions about why that is, because it’s obvious. He’s this happy because he isn’t in Ohio.

X X X X X

Jeff has to start school the next day. There’s something universally terrible about high school. He could have figured it out on his own, but he’s damn glad he has Mike to show him the ropes. Mike has already made friends who seem intent on being Jeff’s friends too.

Not just one friend, but a whole clique of friends, who have inside jokes about dumb things they did earlier in the year. They’re nice. A little odd maybe, not like the friends they had in Philly, but still, nice. He likes them better than Rick Nash. That isn’t saying much. Jeff likes just about everyone better than Rick Nash.

Mike’s new friends are different than the friends they had in Philly who were all about sports and parties and video games. They’re really nice. They’re involved in stuff, like theater and debate. They lead clubs. Mike’s new friends help out in theater tech. Mike’s new friends wear GSA buttons. Mike’s new friends help with the school’s recycling program. They’re quieter, and that lets Mike be quieter too. It suits him. Jeff has never had much to say, but now there isn’t any pressure to be loud.

Mike’s new friends are nice enough that Jeff doesn’t really care about the difference, not really. This kind of different is better than Ohio: Mike’s here.

Things are a little bit different between Mike and Jeff too, kind of, maybe. It would be unrealistic to think that things would be exactly the same. The slight discomfort from early in the summer before everything went to hell is back again.

Mike’s new friends are nice, but they’re making it weird. They’re looking at Jeff like they have expectations. He wonders what Mike said about him. He doesn’t exactly like the way they’re eying him. He doesn’t know what to make of the way they eye the spaces between him and Mike.

They’ll look at him, and then they’ll look at Mike, and then their faces will say something that Jeff misses, and Mike will make a face that says not now, guys, which Jeff can read because it’s Mike. And Mike must know he can, because they’ve always been good at reading each other, so Mike must know that Jeff knows there’s something. There’s definitely something. Jeff just doesn’t know why, or what, or anything.

It shouldn’t be this way. Mike is his best friend.

There don’t need to be any not nows. There shouldn’t be any not nows. Jeff is here for whatever Mike isn’t saying, whatever it is that Mike and his new friends are hiding away.

It’s kind of odd, but Jeff can’t get too bothered, because no matter how many awkward moments happen, it’s still better than Ohio. Anything with Mike is better than Ohio. After Ohio this discomfort hardly registers. He knows misery, and this isn’t it.

Jeff knows that he’ll get told whatever it is that Mike isn’t saying eventually. He can be patient and enjoy what he has.

X X X X X

Jeff doesn’t know how long the not knowing would have lasted if they were left to their own devices. He doesn’t find out, because Mike’s new friends are only kind of nice, the kind of nice that isn’t patient, the kind of nice that meddles.

It’s Jeff’s fourth Saturday in California, and they’re going to the beach. They’re gonna hang out and have a bonfire and maybe drink, Jeff doesn’t know. He knows that Dustin and Nicole are picking him and Mike up around two. It’s good to carpool. Or whatever. Jeff is just going along with their plans.

The drive is fine, boring, but whatever. L.A. traffic. Jeff already knows enough to hate it.

They get to the beach. Jeff gets out of the car. Mike gets out of the car. Arnold tumbles out after them. They shut their doors, and Jeff hears the locks engage. Dustin rolls down the passenger seat window.

“So, this was a setup,” Dustin says. It seems like he’s trying to project authority - there’s something weird going on with his eyebrows. Nicole is beaming from the other side of the car.

“It’s for your own good,” Dustin says. “We’ll be back later. You better have told him by then, Mike. Or else. I’m not taking you home if you don’t get this figured out. You’ll have to sleep on the beach or whatever.”

Jeff believes him. He’s hasn’t known them for long, but Dustin and Nicole don’t seem like the sort of people who joke around about interfering for the greater good. If they say they aren’t coming back until Mike and Jeff talk it out, then they aren’t coming back until it’s all talked out.

It’s okay, though. There’s something that needs fixing; hopefully this will do the job.

Mike leads him out of the parking lot and towards a picnic table, where he shoves Jeff towards one bench then walks around to sit on the other side.

They don’t say anything.

Mike looks scared. At least that’s what Jeff thinks it is. It isn’t a familiar expression, but it’s Mike, Jeff feels like he knows enough to guess.

“We don’t have to talk about it,” Jeff says.

He would be happy to just sit here with Mike. Anything secret can stay that way as long as Jeff can stay where he is.

“No, we do,” Mike says, and that’s that. If Mike says they have to talk about it then they’re going to talk about it.

Jeff nods.

“Not right now though,” Mike says. “In a minute.”

Jeff nods again. Mike can take all the time he wants.

It’s a beautiful afternoon. It’s warmer than it was a month ago, but still not the California heat that Jeff expected. This close to the water there’s a cool breeze, carrying the scent of salt water.

Jeff can watch the clouds float by and the waves roll in. It’s something to look at, beautiful really, but not enough to distract him from the fact that they’re going to talk about something big.

“So, I guess I can’t put this off any longer.” Mike’s picking at his fingernails. “It’s good you’re here. Even if it means I have to tell you, it’s really good you’re here.”

It’s a conversation of stops and pauses. Jeff has to piece meaning together from Mike’s sentence fragments and hesitations. Jeff doesn’t say anything, afraid to interrupt Mike once he gets going.

“I didn’t realize — I wasn’t sure — I didn’t know how to tell you that I might, only might, only maybe. Then I knew, really knew for sure, only I still didn’t know how to tell you.”

Jeff wants to move so they’re sitting next to each other, so they’re closer, instead of sitting across from each other like they are now, but he doesn’t think it would make things any better.

“I like guys.” Mike says it fast, like it stings to get out, but it’s clear enough that Jeff understands.

Jeff lets it hang between them, waits until the words dissolve into a silence that he can fill with his reaction.

“You’re still my best friend. Always. Whatever.”

“Yeah.” That was never a question for either of them. “I know.”

“No matter what,” Jeff repeats. He doesn’t know if he’s saying this for Mike or for himself.

“Yeah. And that’s why it mattered—it matters that I tell you the right way, in person, not on the computer or on the phone or whatever.”

Jeff doesn’t know if he sees it like that, but it isn’t his confession.

“People at school know,” Mike says. “Not everybody, I didn’t, like, shout about it, or whatever. But people do.”

“That’s good.” That must have been hard, but maybe not. A new school, a new beginning, no history. They both got to start over this year, and apparently Mike decided to take advantage of that opportunity.

“Yeah, it was.”

Jeff wishes he had known about this all along so he could have helped.

Mike looks up from his hands on the table, and Jeff smiles at him.

This is a big deal, clearly, or at least it’s a big deal to Mike, so Jeff is going to treat it as such. But honestly, he’s relieved. He thought that Mike was going to say that he was dying or didn't want to be Jeff's friend anymore, something really seriously tragic.

Mike liking guys is not a huge deal.

On a scale of not-good-things from one-to-Ohio, gayness doesn't even register.

“I really was going to tell you this summer,” Mike says. “I was about to tell you. I was trying to tell you. I didn’t know how. I don’t know how.”

Jeff doesn’t know what to say to make this easier. He’s bad with words; they both are. He reaches out to put his hand on Mike’s shoulder and feels him sigh.

“You’re doing fine.”

Mike still seems unsettled, which is understandable, but Jeff just wants to make it all better. He wants to make them all good again.

“It’s all fine. It’s all better than fine. We’re back together again, yeah? So there’s no way things can’t be good.” Jeff really does believe this.

“Yeah.” Mike smiles, just barely. To someone else it might just look like one of his non-expressions, but Jeff knows it’s a smile.

Jeff kind of wants to make Mike smile all the time, but not really, because he appreciates Mike’s angry scowls at other people and the way his eyebrows creep together when he’s trying not to say something that will make him sound like an asshole.

Jeff even likes the slightly bashful frown Mike has after he fails at holding his tongue and says something that makes him sound like an asshole. That one’s familiar.

Because sometimes Mike is an asshole, and apparently he’s gay, and also he’s Jeff’s best friend, and really, only that last part matters.

They spend a while hanging out on the beach. Dustin and Nicole show up after a couple hours. Mike complains about their trick the whole ride home, but not with any real venom. It worked, they got Mike to tell Jeff, which was what had to happen.

After that, things are better. It’s warm, and people are cool, and Mike is there. This is the happiest Jeff has been in ages.

He doesn’t trust being this happy. Something’s going to happen and change things again. At least now, after Ohio, he knows he’ll get through whatever it is. Nothing can be as bad as that.

X X X X X

He does get a talking-to at school the next week. He has homeroom with Jonathan Quick, so he spends the first fifteen minutes of the school day being gently interrogated.

“You’re cool with it, right?” Jon asks. “With Mike being out at school and everything?”

“It’s fine,” Jeff says. “I mean, it’s kind of different, but it’s Mike, so... it’s cool.”

“It must seem kind of sudden, or whatever. If there’s anything you want to talk about, we could talk about it.”

Jeff must be missing something. He doesn’t know why Jon asking questions, but he guesses he doesn’t know Jon very well. Maybe this is what passes for interesting gossip out here?

“I mean, it’s Mike. Of course I’m fine with whatever.”

“That’s good, that’s really good. It’s good how chill you’re being,” Jon says, which sounds loaded, like there’s still something Jeff is missing.

“Look, Quickie, I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but Mike is my best friend. He’s the greatest. I want him to be happy. I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me here.”

“That’s how he talks about you too,” Jon says. “All fall we heard stories about my friend Jeff in Ohio; my best friend Jeff said; one time Jeff and I; Jeff thinks. Like that. Richie was pretty stuck on you.”

Something gets warm in Jeff’s chest. He likes hearing that Mike cares. He might not care as much as Jeff does, but he cares enough that people notice.

“At first we thought you were the boyfriend, with all the Skyping, and missing, and general pining. That would have made sense. Then Mike told us that he hadn’t come out to you yet.”

“Yeah, well.” Jeff doesn’t know what to say about that.

“It’s weird,” Jon says. “Richie talks about you so much, but you don’t say a whole lot. Before you got out here you were probably in more conversations as a subject than you are as a participant now.”

If he had talked about anything to anyone in Ohio he probably would have talked about Mike. He doesn’t see why this is noteworthy. Jeff doesn’t have a lot to say, so he just shrugs, “Everyone tells stories.”

“And it’s totally normal that you’re in all of Mike’s stories.”

“Sure, we’re best friends.” This makes sense.

Jon smiles crookedly. “You both like saying that. It’s kind of sweet.”

“So?”

“Even if you and Mike aren’t together, you’re giving me and Jaclyn some competition in being creepily close. Hopefully other people will figure this out and start giving the two of you shit about it too.”

Jeff doesn’t think there’s much chance that could happen, but it’s fine if Jon wants to think so.

“You’re just both so happy to be reunited,” Jon says.

Jeff nods. He’s very happy.

“It’s sweet. Maybe sickeningly so, but whatever.”

Jeff shrugs.

“Whatever,” Jon says, taking out his math homework. “It works for you. As long as you’re happy, who cares if it’s weird.”

Jeff’s lucky; his happiness doesn’t disappear, it just becomes more complicated.

X X X X X

Jeff and Mike go to a party, which is fun. Parties in L.A. — at least the ones Jeff has been to — are different than parties in Philly; everything is different from how it was in Philly. Jeff isn’t sure if this is an L.A. thing, or a new friends thing, or a being a senior thing, but he likes it alright. Things are a little bit quieter, people drink a bit less and what they’re drinking is a bit better quality.

They go to a party, which wouldn’t mean anything, but things happen at parties sometimes. Jeff knows that from all the high school movies he watched in middle school. According to the movies, parties are the sites of big-time drama. His experience disagrees. Parties are mostly people sitting around and drinking cheap beer. That’s all this party is, really, except that Mike likes guys, and Jeff knows this, and after Ohio he still has a hard time letting Mike out of his sight.

They arrive together, but they don’t stick together all night; they are capable of being more than three feet away from each other. He doesn’t really like it, but it’s something they can do. Jeff gets to talking with Dewey about their health class, and Mike wanders off to get another drink.

He’s been gone awhile, and Jeff totally isn’t worried. Mike’s across the room talking to some guy Jeff doesn’t recognize, but Jeff can recognize what Mike’s trying to do. Jeff has watched Mike flirt with people, and apparently he's not much better with boys, but he’s definitely flirting.

That’s weird.

Or well, it makes sense that if Mike’s interested in guys he flirts with them. Jeff understands this on a theoretical level, but that isn’t the same as seeing it play out at a party.

Eventually Mike will get a boyfriend. When that happens, Jeff should be happy for him.

He really is okay with the gay thing, but…

He doesn’t like the idea of Mike having a boyfriend.

He doesn’t like the idea of Mike having someone who matters more to him than Jeff does.

He shoves that thought away fast, something to ignore until they aren’t at a party surrounded by people, or maybe forever.

He leaves Mike flirting with a stranger and goes to find his own drink. He wants to be less sober with his thoughts.

X X X X X

He makes it through the evening, but it’s all he can think about when he’s trying to sleep that night. He isn’t really drunk, the world’s just a little bit spinny.

The idea of a girlfriend never bothered him. He’s never felt threatened by the idea that Mike might meet a girl who would replace him. Girls were for the things they couldn’t be for each other, but that isn’t true anymore, because Mike likes guys.

The conclusion he’s coming to, very slowly, reluctantly, is that just maybe, possibly, he isn't okay with Mike having a boyfriend who isn't him.

This is maybe just a possessive best friend thing, because he could totally understand being overly invested in Mike on a platonic level. Mike is pretty much the most important person in his life. Jeff is comfortable admitting this, especially after the year they had. This year proved how much they depend on each other, and how terribly miserable they are when they’re apart. Mike is Jeff’s best friend. Mike has been Jeff’s best friend since forever. Jeff wants Mike to be his best friend until the end of time.

That doesn’t mean he’s interested in Mike like that.

But it doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in Mike either. Because, like, he knows that Mike is good-looking, but he always thought that that was just a friend thing, and an obvious fact, because Mike is great, and of course that means he’s handsome.

If he knew a girl who was awesome like Mike he’d want to date her properly, with flowers and everything, which isn’t something he’s ever wanted before. He’s always been interested in girls because they look nice, and smell nice, so it feels really nice to be close to them, especially if they’re up for making out. But if he could find a girl like Mike it wouldn’t just be about that, he’d want to be around her all the time. If he could find a girl that awesome, he’d probably want to marry her, to make sure they were together forever.

The difference between dating a girl like Mike and actually dating Mike is that Mike is a guy, and Jeff isn’t really into that.

Or at least he hasn’t thought about it before.

The good things about girls are really obvious. He never had to think about why he liked girls. He likes the way they look and the way he imagines they feel. Pretty girls make him dizzy sometimes, make him tongue-tied, make him blush. He knows he likes girls.

He guesses there are good things about guys too. He likes how Mike is really solid. He’ll push Jeff around sometimes, and Jeff will push back. He can jump on Mike without worrying about him getting hurt, which he wouldn’t be comfortable doing with a girl. There’s a different physical dynamic between dudes, and Jeff is kind of into it.

But really, the idea of spending time with someone else’s dick is kinda unsettling. It isn’t something he’s thought about before. Actually, it may be less weird than having sex with a girl. He doesn’t completely get what girls have going on down there. Everything he knows is secondhand knowledge, from porn or gossip. He knows how dicks work; he has one. He likes his dick, how it fits in his hand, how touching it makes him feel. Liking someone else’s dick, (liking Mike’s dick), isn’t the most impossible thing ever.

If he could be interested in Mike like that, he could ask if Mike wanted to go out. Then Mike wouldn’t have to get a boyfriend, and Jeff wouldn’t have to get a girlfriend, because they’d have each other, and really, that’s all they need.

He shouldn’t go into this blind, though. He should try to find out if this would actually work for him.

Basically, the thing to do is watch gay porn.

He’ll admit that this sounds like a dumb idea, but it isn’t, not really. He doesn’t want to bring this up with Mike if it would stop working the first time either of them got a boner.

So, gay porn.

Is a lot like straight porn. There’s a lot of it free on the internet if you know where to look, which Jeff does. What Jeff realizes is that he thinks gay porn is just as interesting as straight porn because it’s people having sex, which isn’t something Jeff is having, but would like to. Gay porn might be better, because it’s new.

So he would probably be okay with Mike’s boner.

He wishes he had figured this out earlier. It would have given him something to think about in Ohio other than how miserable he was.

So gay porn is a thing that he’s into, which must mean he’s at least kind of gay — bisexual, whatever you want to call it. Which doesn’t seem all that surprising. He hasn’t really thought about it a whole lot, but it doesn’t seem odd. So he’s kind of bisexual, and that’s weird, but not as weird as having a humongous crush on his best friend, which is awkward, and not something he really knows how to deal with.

X X X X X

He thinks he spends more time looking at Mike now, but maybe he’s always looked this much, and what’s different now is what he sees.

Mike doesn't seem to notice, or if he does he doesn’t mind.

Mike looks at him too. They spend a lot of time looking at each other, and this isn’t new. They're best friends, best friends look at each other, it's cool.

Or maybe it isn’t, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Ohio, so Jeff isn’t complaining. Being awkward close to Mike is better than being anything far away from him.

Maybe it’s a bit different.

It makes the earlier conversation with Quick make more sense. Jon might have been warning him not to break Mike’s heart? Which is new. But alright.

Jeff doesn’t want Mike to get his heart broken. If anything Jeff should be the one doing the threatening, warning off anyone who looks like they could get close enough to do any damage. He doesn’t think he’d be any good at being threatening and protective, that’s more Mike’s thing, but he’d certainly try.

That might be weird, but he wants Mike to be happy. Wanting your best friend to be happy is normal, isn’t it?

Sure, if that’s all there was to it. But Jeff would totally try to fight someone over Mike’s honor. He probably wouldn’t do very well, and actually, Mike probably wouldn’t even let him. But he’d try, and that’s something.

So they’re not really normal best friends. Like Jon said, they’re the kind of best friends who other people assume are a couple, which is weird.

It isn’t just Jeff — they’re weird about each other. It’s a two-way street of awkward staring and standing slightly too close — Jeff knows it’s too close to be normal, but he doesn’t want to move away, and Mike doesn’t seem to mind, so whatever. It’s fine. They’re weird. They’ve always been a little bit weird.

If they were dating, things would basically be just like they are but with making out and sex stuff, which would be really cool. But they’re basically dating. Jeff has come to terms with that.

It’s typical for them go out to eat, and their feet will knock together under the table, and they take turns paying for dinner. Mike will give Jeff a ride home, and the only reason why it isn’t a date is because they don’t kiss at the end. If these nights out were dates with a nice-enough girl Jeff would be aiming for second base by now.

Everyone they know thinks of them as a unit. They’re basically dating; they should probably start calling it that.

It’s scary, because Mike is Jeff’s best friend in the whole world. It’s scary because this could change that. Jeff kinda knows how bad his life is without Mike in it, because of Ohio, but even then there was text messaging, and Skype, and the knowledge that Mike was missing him too. If this ruins everything, Jeff will be all alone.

But asking Mike if he wants to date for real probably won’t ruin anything, because they’re basically dating already. It should just make things better.

Jeff just has to get up the nerves to ask Mike out, which is terrifying. It makes him feel nauseous. Not because he thinks it will go badly, but because the idea of being afraid of any interaction with Mike makes him feel seriously ill. Mike is his best friend, Mike is supposed to be safe. Jeff has to remind himself that even if Mike doesn’t want to date he’ll still be Jeff’s best friend. Their friendship survived Ohio, they can get through anything.

He decides to ask Mike out at the beach. They’ve spent a lot of time close to the water in their friendship. He doesn’t have to make any special plans, it’s normal for them to take Arnold out so he can run around on the sand.

They tire the dog out, then settle down on a bench to watch the waves crash in. Jeff isn’t going to get a better opportunity to make a fool of himself than right now.

“So, you know how all your friends thought we were dating because of how weird you are about me?” Jeff asks.

Maybe that wasn’t the best way to put it. Mike doesn’t exactly like being reminded about how he’s a total weirdo. Jeff forgets this sometimes, because he thinks that Mike being weird about him is cute. Yeah, cute, that’s the word. Jeff thinks Mike is cute, which is why they’re having this conversation.

“Yeah,” Mike says. “I know they thought that. Are they giving you a hard time? Because I can tell them to fuck off.”

“No. Well, kind of, but I don’t mind it.”

“So?” Mike really seems to have no idea why Jeff is bringing this up. He seems embarrassed that this is even a thing.

“So, I think that maybe we should really go out. Because that’s basically what we have been doing, since like, forever. And I think you’re cute.”

Mike is quiet, and Jeff doesn’t hold his breath. He wants to, but that would be a cliché.

“You think I’m cute?” Mike asks, not sounding too surprised, but like he’s going to give Jeff so much shit for choosing that specific adjective.

Mike might be fiercer than the word cute, at least to the rest of the world. But Jeff sees everything, the way Mike is with his dog, the way he is when he doesn’t realize anyone is in the room, and yeah, that’s cute.

“Totally. I think you’re totally cute.”

“Yeah. I —” Mike seems to be having a hard time getting words out. It’s okay though, he’s managed the one word Jeff really needed to hear. After a pause and some steady breathing Mike goes on, saying, “That sounds good. Let’s do that. Let’s go out.”

Jeff isn’t actually surprised. He was pretty sure Mike was on the same page. He feels a lot better now that it’s out there, now that it’s agreed that they’re doing this. It’s like gears clicking together and pieces slotting into the right places. It feels like the world works better than it did a minute ago.

“That’s cool,” Jeff says.

“That’s cool?” Mike repeats, almost indignantly.

“That’s awesome” Jeff says, with the proper degree of reverence in his voice. Mike still elbows him in the side though, which is pretty much to be expected.

They start shoving at each other, because that’s what they’ve always done. There’s a half second where Jeff freezes, remembering that Mike is his boyfriend now, maybe he should be nicer to him, but Mike takes advantage of this lapse to shove Jeff off the bench. Of course, he has to pull Mike down with him. They tumble onto the sand, disrupted when Arnold gets up and sticks his cold nose into the commotion.

They roll, roughhousing. Jeff’s taller, but Mike’s stronger, and he knows what he’s doing. Mike winds up on top of him, knees planted on either side of Jeff’s hips, pinning Jeff’s wrists to the ground.

This would have been awkward a week ago, hell, this would have been awkward an hour ago. But now Mike’s his boyfriend, or whatever. It makes sense that they’re this close. It feels right.

Jeff has stopped struggling, but Mike hasn’t stopped holding him down.

“Hey,” Mike says, and Jeff never wants to look away from his face.

“Hey.” Jeff can’t think to do anything but copy Mike’s words.

“You think I’m cute. That means you want to kiss me, right?” Mike asks.

Jeff gulps. “Yeah. I would. If you want.”

“I want,” Mike says, and starts to lean close. Jeff has known Mike for a damn long time, but he’s never paid this much attention to the color of Mike’s eyes before.

Mike moves closer and closer, slowly. Jeff’s breaths are faster and shallower. There are only inches between them now. So close. His breath is warm on Jeff’s face as he say, “I want, but not on the beach where anyone could see.”

That makes sense. Jeff can deal with that.

“So, are you ready to head home?” Mike asks.

Jeff takes in a sharp breath. “Yeah, alright.”

Jeff is ready to stand up and go, but Mike surprises him by leaning in instead and pressing a short firm kiss to the corner of Jeff’s mouth. It’s over before Jeff can really register what’s happening. Jeff brings his hand up to his face to touch where Mike had kissed him, like it’ll feel different, which it doesn’t. There’s no reason why it would. He’s still recovering from the shock by the time Mike is standing and holding out his hand to help Jeff to his feet.

Jeff doesn’t let go of Mike’s hand for the whole walk home.

X X X X X

Jeff is so happy.

Some people will say that everything happens for a reason, and that suffering just makes the reward sweeter, and that the journey is just as important as the destination. Jeff is pretty sure they’re full of bullshit. But if somehow they’re right, he has to admit that he’s happy enough not that the whole miserable in Ohio thing was almost worth it.

(He is never going to get over being miserable in Ohio. It was scarring. He will be resentful until he dies.)

But he isn’t in Ohio in anymore. He’s in California, with Mike, who’s his best friend and his boyfriend. They have great friends who meddle because they care. School’s going fine, and they get to graduate together.

They’re going to get the senior year that Jeff always imagined they would, or at least parts of it.

A lot of that is scary and stressful. There are senior projects to finish, and acceptance letters to compare. They’re kicking around a few different possibilities, hoping to stay somewhere in Cali. California has been good to them so far, and he doesn’t want to uproot himself again.

It’s a lot to think about, which is what allows one of the big senior milestones to creep up on them.

Jeff had half-noticed the sign in the cafeteria for prom tickets, but he didn’t really think about it. Or well, he thought they were ignoring it.

It comes up in conversation because Jon and Jaclyn are campaigning to be prom royalty. Jeff is a little bit surprised, because prom seems a little bit too normal for them to care about, but it starts to make sense when he realizes that for them it’s another race to run. They’re competitive with each other, and with the world at large. The two of them trying to sway the entire senior class just for a win is their idea of a good time.

Lunchtime involves a lot of strategizing about posters and reaching out to different cliques, which all sounds kind of crazy, but apparently it makes them happy, so whatever. Jeff isn’t judging, he’s just amused by their enthusiasm.

Jaclyn turns to Jeff and says “You have to vote for us, alright?”

He finishes the chewing the bite of sandwich he had taken, swallowing before saying, “You know I would, but don’t you have to go to prom to vote?”

That brings the conversation to a sudden stop.

“You’re not going to prom?” Jaclyn asks, scandalized.

“Well…” Jeff doesn’t know.

“We haven’t talked about it,” Mike says.

“You should go to prom,” Jaclyn says. Next to her, Jon is nodding in agreement.

Mike turns towards Jeff with a serious look. “Do you think we should go to prom?”

“Um.” Probably. They don’t dance, so it’s basically paying a lot of money to drink gross punch and listen to bad music surrounded by people they don’t necessarily like, but it’s senior prom. It’s supposed to mean something, or at least it does in stories. “Maybe?”

“You should really go to prom,” Jon says seriously.

Mike leans in to talk to Jeff, asking, “Do you want to go to prom?” His tone is somewhere between earnest and put-upon.

What is Jeff supposed to say to that? It’s senior prom. It’s the only time they’re going to get to do this. It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a cliché high school experience with his favorite person ever. “Yeah, I want to go to prom with you.”

“Okay, fine,” Mike says. Then he stands up and starts walking across the commons.

Jeff doesn’t know what’s happening really, so he just sits there for a moment before getting up to follow Mike.

Mike has a head start, but Jeff has long legs and walks quickly, darting through a crowd of underclassmen to catch up with his boyfriend. He shoves into Mike’s shoulder so Mike knows he’s there. Mike pushes back, but keeps on walking towards the folding table where student council members are selling prom tickets.

“Are you buying tickets right now?” Jeff asks.

“Yeah, I might as well get it over with,” Mike says, making it sound like an ordeal, which it really isn’t.

“We don’t have to go to prom if you don’t want to.”

“No, I want to.”

“Are you sure? Because you don’t really sound like you want to.”

“No. I really want to.”

Jeff is not convinced. “I really, really want to go to prom with you. It’s just... prom. It’s a big deal. I get to go to prom with you.” It is a little bit surreal. But Jeff’s okay with that. “It’s good. Get tickets now. Because then we’ll have tickets. Because we’re going to prom.”

“Yeah, we are,” Mike says.

They’re in the middle of everything, but Jeff doesn’t care. He throws his arm over Mike’s shoulder and pulls him close — not for long, just for a second, but Mike is warm and solid and real. They’re actually here, together. They’re actually really lucky. A couple of months ago Jeff was in Ohio, and now they’re going to prom together.

X X X X X

They go out to dinner with a bunch of their friends. Mike had grumbled something about how it could just be the two of them, that they could do coupley and romantic if they wanted, but it seems more fitting to do the big group thing, with tables pushed together and a shared limo. The two of them are going to stick together past this, for a long long time hopefully, but there won’t be many more chances for this exact group of people to be together.

There’s dancing, prom is a dance, technically that’s the whole reason why it exists. There isn’t a lot to do but dance or sit against the wall and watch other people dance. Jeff isn’t big into dancing. He isn’t good at dancing, not even close. Mike’s worse, and he hates it more.

It’s kind of nice to sit next to each other in banquet chairs, knocking their knees together and making fun of people. It’s a mean thing to do, but it isn’t like they’re going to see most of these kids after graduation. Their classmates choose to grind against each other where everyone can see. They deserve to be mocked. Jeff really enjoys hearing Mike say mean things about other people.

A slow song comes on, and Nicole comes over. She’s been insisting all night that they have to dance at least once, or else, and now’s as good a time as ever. Slow dancing isn’t that hard, and it’s dark enough that they can pretend that no one is watching, so it’ll be alright.

They stay on the periphery of the dancefloor, away from the crush of bodies near the DJ. Jeff doesn’t really mind this. He can stand here, shifting his weight back and forth, with his hands on Mike’s hips. He doesn’t mind it all. It’s actually awfully nice. If it weren’t for all the other people and the lame music Jeff thinks that he might be able to like dancing, as long as it means keeping his hands on Mike.

After that they dance a few more times, getting dragged out to spin around with their friends, laughing until it’s hard to breathe. They drink a lot of water, and some seriously disgusting punch. Quickie and Jaclyn are named Prom King and Queen, because they’re crazily competitive, and they wanted this. It’s a good way to end the evening, on a victorious note.

They aren’t going to the afterparty. Jeff’s sure there is one, with lots of people drinking spiked punch and hooking up. Jeff remembers hearing about the afterparty from last year’s seniors back in Philly. It had sounded so fucking cool then, positively epic. He had said he’d help plan their afterparty in Philly, but obviously that isn’t how things turned out. He hopes it turns out alright anyway, and the guys there all have a really good time, except not really, because he doesn’t really care.

Jeff and Mike aren’t going to the afterparty. That’s not who they are in California. Now they’re a couple, who are friends with people who don’t afterparty like that, with an actual party. They’re friends with people who afterparty by heading down to the beach.

It’s kind of romantic, with the moonlight, and a bonfire, and the ocean. Jeff sits close to Mike and tries not to worry about how he’s getting sand on his nice pants. It almost reminds Jeff of the end of the year party in Philly, but he’s actually happy this time.

He thought he was happy last year.

Maybe he was, but not as happy as he is now. Mike is his boyfriend now. And Jeff is much more aware of his happiness now, after being miserable for so long. That’s the best thing about Ohio — now he appreciates everything he has.

He’s really happy here. He has a few beers, and slouches further into Mike’s side. They have cool friends. The later it gets the louder Mike talks. Jeff doesn’t have to say anything, he can just smile and nod. He doesn’t even have to listen if he doesn’t feel like it. He can just stare at the moon reflected in the water and be grateful about how he’s here instead of in fucking Ohio.

X X X X X

It’s late when they get back to Mike’s house. Thankfully the dating development didn’t take away their sleepover privileges.

Mike’s room here isn’t like the one in Philadelphia, there aren’t the same relics of a childhood home, no stars on the ceiling. But it’s still his best friend’s bedroom, his boyfriend’s bedroom, and it still feels like home.

The two of them and Arnold are sprawled on the bed, too tired to move.

“I feel like we should be doing something more awesome than this,” Mike says.

“I dunno,” Jeff says. “This is pretty awesome.”

“Yeah, but like, this is prom night. And we’re cuddling with my dog. That’s a little bit lame.”

Mike and Arnold weren’t in Ohio, and Jeff missed them. This is really, really an alright way to spend an evening.

“Like, isn’t prom night supposed to be a big deal? A rite of passage or whatever?”

“What you mean is, aren’t we’re supposed to be having sex?”

Mike inhales. “Yeah. I guess that’s what I mean.”

“I dunno about you, but I’m pretty wiped out,” Jeff says. He’s having a hard time keeping his eyes open. “Being asleep sounds really nice. And your parents are across the hall.”

“True. But it’s prom night.”

“So?”

“I don’t know. It just seems, like, anticlimactic.”

“Maybe.”

Sex on prom night might be the big moment for a lot of stories, but maybe not for theirs. It took so much to get them here, lying in the same bed, that what they do in it doesn’t matter so much. This time last year they were just best friends, looking at the Atlantic Ocean, and that was alright. Then there was Ohio, which wasn’t alright at all. And then somehow they wound up where they are, boyfriends, best friends, looking at the Pacific.

“I’m really happy here,” Jeff says. It seems like he’s saying this all the time now, but he doesn’t mind. It’s true. He’s really happy. “Just lying here with you is awesome.”

“Yeah,” Mike agrees.

“I want to have sex with you. But not tonight. Maybe next week. We should be able to get the house to ourselves for hours next week. Or after school is out. We’ll have all summer to have sex in empty houses.”

“That sounds...really good.”

It does.

It sounds a hundred thousand times better than Ohio. Every single part of his life right now is at least ten thousand times better than Ohio.

If they’re lucky this last year is going to be a funny story to tell at parties when they’re old. It’s a good story, about being pulled apart by circumstances but figuring things out anyway. There’s even a perfect Hollywood ending, slow dancing in a hotel ballroom. Only that isn’t where it ends.

Now they’re at home, talking about sex they aren’t having. This isn’t an ending either. They’re going to fall asleep soon, but the story will continue into the next day, through morning breath and toaster waffles. There’s graduation, and summer, and college in the fall, and a lot of life left after that.

Jeff doesn’t know where it’s going to take them. He sure hopes it’s nowhere near Ohio. Right now he’s pretty sure he wants to be this close to Mike. He knows he’s young, and that maybe he’ll change his mind, but he doesn’t think he will. He knows how bad it hurts when Mike isn’t close, and he never wants to do that again. A Hollywood ending isn’t good enough; he doesn’t think this ever has to end.