James stands in the hallway, staring at the open door to the Q&A room, wondering why he’s having so much trouble working up the courage to walk the last few steps.
Just pretend you’re in the wings, waiting to make your entrance onto the stage...
But he knows it’s not the same. This is real life -- his life, not something or someone he’s pretending to be -- and he can already feel his rehearsed introductory lines slipping out of his brain in his nervousness.
A group of people walk past him, chatting casually, and he notices one of the guys glance at him for a bit longer than the others. He pulls his overcoat a little closer around him, feeling strangely vulnerable, for some reason. He concentrates instead on his lines. My name is James. I am an actor. I identify as bisexual. My name is James. I am...
His concentration is broken by a loud voice echoing down the hallway behind him. “C’mon! We’re going to be late!”
He turns, subtly, so he can see the approaching people: A girl in a black dress, her hair streaked with an obnoxious shade of orange, running down the hallway, followed by a girl in a pink t-shirt, her hair puffing up around her head.
“Babe, you don’t need to run. We’re...”
The first girl stops in front of him, making eye contact and grinning at him. “Hi!”
He swallows, and reminds himself that he should smile. “...Hi.”
“Sorry about her.” The second girl has caught up, and smiles at him. “She’s just really friendly, and has no sense of personal space.”
He looks between the two of them, sensing only friendliness in their gazes, and allows himself to relax a little. “It’s fine.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m...”
“Are you going to Q&A?”
“You should come with us! You don’t have to be queer. Come be an ally with us! Well, not with. For. Whatever.” She grabs his hand, and he thinks he’s too shocked to put up any resistance.
The other girl shakes her head. “Babe. You can’t pull random people from the hallway to meetings like that. Also you’re making him really uncomfortable.”
James pulls his hand away, grabbing his arm reflexively. “It’s okay. I was... I was heading there anyway.”
“Well, then come on! We’re going to be late.”
The first girl grabs his coat and pulls him toward the door. He allows himself to be guided, feeling like he probably needs that push, despite the person providing it. The second girl follows behind, looking at him apologetically.
“Sorry about her. I’m Liz, by the way.”
“I’m James.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m...”
“Hi James! I’m also Liz!” The first girl drops his coat and he takes advantage of the situation to pull it tighter around himself. “Liz G. She’s Liz B. But you can just call us both Liz.”
He watches as she practically bounds into the room, letting a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, and trying to force his heart to slow down. Liz -- the other Liz -- stands beside him, smiling in a way he finds reassuring. “Nervous?”
“I know this won’t help at all but... you shouldn’t be. Everyone is friendly.” She eyes him for a bit. “Also not everyone is like my girlfriend. So don’t worry about people being particularly... in your face, like that.”
Liz reappears at the door and grabs Liz’s hand. “C’mon!”
Liz smiles at him again before allowing herself to be pulled into the room. James follows behind, forcing his feet forward, one in front of the other.
The room is full of people, chatting away, and he tries to pretend they’re just his audience. He spots the guy from the hallway, earlier, who sees him and grins. He reminds himself to smile, and seem friendly, but finds a spot in a corner as far away as possible from him.
Some guy with an authoritative look in the middle of the room clears his throat, and everyone turns to him. “Ahem. Welcome, everyone! It looks like we have some new faces here today, after the Student Org Fair last week. I’m...”
A guy stumbles through the door, larger and scraggly, but looking very self-confident. “Hi! Sorry. Am I late?”
“Slightly, but welcome!”
“Oh! Did I miss introductions? I’m Dan! I like the cock.”
There are some snickers, and James catches Liz -- Liz G.? -- beaming at him. The guy at the front shakes his head. “Welcome, Dan. Please find a seat. ...Or a place to stand.”
James doesn’t notice his hands are clenched, perhaps in some futile wish that Dan picks any other place in the room but this corner, until Dan looks over at him, grins, and heads over to stand next to him.
“Anyway, as I was saying. I’m Zack, and I lead the organization and also these meetings. However, these weekly meetings are only a small part of what we do. We arrange several events a year, and can put you in contact with resources for whatever you need. This room also is a safe space for you... if you just need to get away for a while, or need help with anything, please feel free to utilize this room.”
He smiles and looks around at everyone. “Anyway, let’s do some introductions. Please tell us your name and as much or little as you’re comfortable sharing. As I said, I’m Zack. I’m a senior, majoring in mathematics. I’m cisgender, and identify as male, and I’m gay.” He looks right at James and nods, and James feels like he wants to disappear into the ground. “Since we’ve all already met Dan, over there, let’s start with you.”
James plasters on a smile, and reminds himself to use his stage voice. “My name is James. I am an actor. I identify as bisexual.”
“Heck, yeah!” Dan, standing next to him, punches him in the arm. “Can I claim this one, Zack?”
Zack shakes his head, seemingly annoyed, while the girl to James’ right introduces herself. He doesn’t catch much of the rest of the introductions, or the rest of the meeting, instead focusing on his breathing and fighting his instinct to further withdraw inside himself.
After what feels like an eternity, the meeting ends, and most of the students disperse. Dan stands in front of James and grins.
“Why, hello there, James. You’re hot.”
Liz G., suddenly beside him, giggles and throws her arms around Dan’s neck. “Hi! You’re fun!”
Dan grins and gives her a huge hug, seemingly not minding when she continues to cling to him. “Why hello there, yourself. Liz and Liz, right?”
Liz B., standing besides James, nods, looking at him not entirely approvingly.
“Is that short for Elizabeth?”
Liz giggles again. “Mayyybe.”
Dan laughs. “That’s funny. My middle name is Elizabeth. I think my parents were expecting me to be a girl, after having two boys.”
He laughs again. “Yes, although when you say it like that, you make it sound like I did something wrong.” He turns back to James, grinning. “But there’s still time for that. Hi!”
“Excuse us. James and I were going to talk.” Liz B. brushes past them, toward the door, looking at him sympathetically.
“Uh huh. Stealing my new boyfriend from me already, Liz?”
Liz G. giggles. “You wish. She’s gay. And also mine.”
James shakes his head, following Liz into the hallway, with a strong sense of gratitude.
He stands there awkwardly while Liz smiles at him. “I feel like I’ve misrepresented things, now, earlier. But, uh... most people really aren’t like Liz. Or Dan.”
“It’s okay. ...Thank you.”
“You did look a little.. overwhelmed in there, though.”
He shrugs. “Don’t do well in crowds. But felt like something I needed to do.”
She nods. “Well, I hope we see you again next week, but I also won’t blame you if you choose to never come back.” She looks at him for a second. “Although... do you want to get dinner sometime, and talk? Coming out can be difficult, and somehow I get the feeling that this kind of was it, for you.”
He nods, realizing for the first time that his heartbeat has returned to normal. “Yes. And that would be nice.”
She pulls some paper and a pen out of her purse, scribbles something on it, and hands it to him. “Send me an email. I promise I won’t bring Liz along.”
He nods, and she smiles at him again before walking back into the room.
James stares after her, at the doorframe, for a bit, feeling somehow better about the whole thing, and especially about having finally admitted that part of himself publicly. He looks at the piece of paper in his hand, and feels himself smile, unforced this time. Even if he never comes back, at least one good thing came of today.
And it’s always possible Dan won’t be here next time.