Nick explains how the idea came to him: he’s only dated girls before, so he’ll never know what it’s like to be Rishi. He wants to try something new, something more exhilarating than drugs.
“Sounds stupid,” Rishi says. The sun paints the two boys in shades of amber as they leave the pizzeria.
Nick throws his hands in the air in his pretend-melodramatic fashion. “I’m just trying to understand—”
“Yeah, very nice of you, but let’s not do those dumb friendship-breaking things people do in the movies.”
“Nothing’s gonna break,” Nick huffs. “It’s not like we’re gonna fuck or anything.”
Rishi imagines his hands on Nick’s bare chest, sliding over his stomach to rest on the fly of his jeans. But any casual daydream will pale when compared with Nick’s schemes, Rishi knows this. Nick’s curiosity is intellectual rather than sexual, which in theory is fine, but if anybody can make public affection more dangerous than private intimacy, it’s Nick. “Experiment with strangers, not me,” Rishi says.
They pass the outdoor dining area of the local Italian restaurant. Couples enjoy spaghetti and clams and champagne on a romantic evening. Nick’s elbow brushes against Rishi’s.
Once they’re out of earshot from strangers, Nick says, “What’s wrong with us experimenting? I don’t care what people will say at school. Fuck them.”
They haven’t actually seen many classmates. And anyway, Rishi doesn’t care either. It’s Nick, class clown, debate team captain, and salutatorian, who could feasibly have a reason to care. And who keeps bumping into Rishi as they walk side-by-side, Nick’s forearm warm, his scent citrusy and sweaty and reminiscent of the pineapple pizza they had.
“Honestly,” Nick says, “it’s an experiment everyone should try.”
Rishi begrudgingly agrees: the world would be a better place. A nervous energy buzzes in his blood, and before he can doubt it, Nick bumps him again. He instinctively clasps his hand over Nick’s. Their fingers intertwine. Nick’s palms are smooth and clammy. He exhales loudly, then looks at Rishi and grins. Rishi scowls back.
Nick readjusts his grip. Tighter. His eyes narrow and he looks away from Rishi. Rishi follows his gaze.
It’s just random passersby. A man with his baseball cap down low. A woman in a sundress on the phone, swearing at whoever’s on the other end. A family busy discussing whether to buy their daughter heels so high. They glance at Nick and Rishi’s hands but don’t linger. Did they actually notice? Are they deliberately looking away so quickly?
“I’m watching for homophobes,” Nick says in a low voice. “And you know, I feel it. That fear. It’s crazy.”
Though Rishi’s throat is dry, he laughs. “We don’t live in the kinda place where we’ll be beat up for holding hands, Nick.”
“‘Cause I’d beat them up first.” Nick shows Rishi his other hand, clenched into a white fist.
Both their palms are sweating profusely. Around them, people stroll past almost like normal, except Rishi’s self-consciousness and awareness of others has skyrocketed and everything looks like an overexposed photo. He tries to smile. “You’re lucky you can try this. I mean, we’re both lucky as hell we can do this.”
Nick loosens his grip on Rishi, then squeezes twice, gently. He leads Rishi into a convenience store, where the cashier looks up at them, then looks back down without a flicker of expression.
“Wait, can you sit on the bench outside?” Nick asks. “I’ll be right back.”
It’s not really a question, since the warmth of Nick is gone and he’s run into the aisles before Rishi can even ask what’s happening. His breathing gets heavy, like his lungs are hopelessly trying to suck in more oxygen. Is this the end of something? But then: ah, convenience store, sudden secrecy. He tells himself it’s just Nick fancying himself clever as usual.
Rishi heads to the bench and sits, and when Nick comes back, he has a water bottle and a pack of M&M’s. Rishi shakes his head with a smile. The M&M’s are predictable, the water bottle a pleasant surprise. Nick sits next to him. Their thighs touch.
Nick’s brown eyes are honey-colored in the light. “Some water for you, and then”—he raises his eyebrows theatrically—“I’ll feed you these M&M’s.”
Rishi laughs, but he observes a large man in camouflage cargo pants enter the store, perhaps carefully avoiding looking at him and Nick. “Too public.”
“That’s the entire fucking point though,” Nick says. “Here, take a drink of this courage water and you’ll be all set.”
Rishi drinks for a long time. He hadn’t known he was so parched. The water is cool, refreshing, yet the hair on his arms stand on end and he wonders if he could just never stop drinking. But then the water bottle is empty, and when Rishi wipes his mouth and looks at Nick, there’s no judgement on his face at all. Nick doesn’t think there’s anything strange with chugging the whole water bottle all at once. It’s just how it is.
“Ready?” Nick asks, softer than usual.
Rishi hesitates, then nods. Nick carefully rips open the pack of candy and pulls out a red M&M. His fingers graze Rishi’s lips. A touch of salt and sweat and heat, then a burst of chocolate. Rishi bites down. He swallows. It’s nothing but a small sweetness.
Nathan Xie writes from Connecticut. His work appears in Every Day Fiction and he's a reader at Freeze Frame Fiction. He's on Twitter @sneaky_stabby.