In the age of marriage equality and Caitlyn Jenner, it can be easy to imagine that coming out—whether to oneself or to one’s community—is no longer a big deal. But as Justin Sayre, a proudly gay writer and performer, explores in his new novel Husky, the processes of self-discovery and social negotiation that must precede any “I am X” statement is still incredibly complicated—especially for kids on the edge of adolescence. Husky tells the story of Davis, an opera-loving, big-boned boy who, faced with prospect of starting high school, must grapple with how he does—and does not—fit in with the world around him. In this excerpt, Davis joins his best girlfriend Sophie for a hangout, only to find their usual rapport disturbed by unexpected guests.
Excerpted from Husky by Justin Sayre, out now from Grosset & Dunlap.
When I get up the stairs to Sophie’s room, I can hear laughter already, and it’s not just Sophie’s. There are a few voices. And some of them are boys’. It’s not just the words that make me stop, it’s the sounds around the words. The sounds of something sort of hidden, something that I shouldn’t know. And it makes me feel bad. Really bad. So bad, I think about going home, just turning really slowly on my tiptoes and sneaking down the stairs and out the front door. But I wait. And wait. I don’t even breathe because I don’t want them to hear me.
Just when I can’t hold my breath any longer, the door swings open and there is Sophie, laughing and smiling, like nothing is different, like everything is funny and fun. And then she stops and screams a little because she gets scared that there is this boy in her hall almost turning blue from not breathing and not making any noise.
“What are you doing?” Sophie says after her scream, instantly nice to me.
From inside the door, Allegra laughs. “Who is it?”
“How long were you standing out here? Why not just come in?” says Sophie, pushing me into the room. The face Allegra makes is polite, I guess. Polite like getting hugged by your aunt who smells like ninety-seven cats and old Easter candy. She squirms out a smile and mouths hello, but the rest of the room is really quiet. All the noise, even the sounds around the sounds are gone, and it feels really bad, because I know I am the reason. And Ryan Julesning does the jock head-bob hello to me and Brian Keller waves a peace sign at me, and I want to leave but Sophie beats me to it.
“I have to run to the bathroom,” Sophie says as she runs out of the room. And I’m alone. With Allegra, who’s still trying to smile without making a face but can’t really help it because she is actually a bad person. And Ryan and Brian. Boys.
Being a good person, I try to talk. “So what are you guys up to?” I say, smiling, hoping that maybe I can lead by example. See, Allegra, this is what a nice person looks and sounds like. They don’t scowl or whisper, they say things loudly and with a big smile, even if they don’t mean it, which I totally do not. Allegra doesn’t smile back or even notice.
“I’m not a guy. Thanks.” Allegra smirks as she walks over to a chair and sits down. There are no piles of magazines in Sophie’s room today, like always. There’s nothing out of place at all. Even her clothes, which practically live on the floor, are gone. Folded and away, like Sophie was getting ready for something important. Was Allegra that important? Was Ryan? Was Brian? I know I never was.
The boys say nothing to me. Which is nothing new. I don’t really talk to a lot of boys. I have trouble with boys like this, tough boys. Boys who wear jerseys for teams they don’t even play for. Or sit with their legs spread three feet wide. And are really into speakers and calling people brah. They all seem nasty to me. Like they want to fight you all the time. Like at any moment you could say one thing and they could kill you. Or at least punch you. And that would be fun for them. I don’t live in that world.
Sophie comes back into the room, “Jeez, guys, don’t talk so loud.” Sophie’s noticed the quiet in the room, and she’s trying to make us all friends. It would probably be easier to turn us into dogs or cats. Or maybe unicorns. Something that was never real, ever. This is just as impossible.
But to make a joke, I say, “Jeez, Sophie, we’re not guys.” Which would be really funny if Sophie was in the room before, but she wasn’t. So Sophie sort of smiles to help me with this “joke,” but only in a way that makes me know she’s glad that I look so dumb. Ryan and Brian full-on laugh and slap hands about it because I just did something stupid, a punchable offense. I just called myself a girl. I didn’t even wait for them to do it. Allegra’s on her phone probably tweeting it to everyone else in the world just in case. All this is ruined.
“Where’s Ellen?” I ask.
“Oh, she’s hanging out with Charlie today. OOhaah.”
Sophie makes the they’re in love squeal, OOhaah. And Allegra laughs really hard like only she and Sophie know what that is. In fact, Sophie and I invented it in fourth grade, so Allegra’s just learning it secondhand. Ryan and Brian just nod along.
“I really think she likes him,” Sophie says.
“Like you like me?” Ryan jock-nods at Sophie. And Sophie blushes and says a no that is so fake, I don’t even know why she bothered.
“I think Charlie’s a dork,” I say. Loud. Too loud. Because everyone stops. Sophie looks over at me, with this whatareyoutalkingaboutbecauseyoushouldstoprightnow look. But I don’t, and I just keep going. “Like, with his weird Charlie walk, and that long neck. He’s like an ostrich.” And I start to do his walk a little, which I’ve never done, but it at least gets a laugh from Brian.
And Allegra says, “What else?” looking up, not wanting to miss me either failing or being a goof, both of which are valuable to her.
“Well, you know, like, his Charlie smile,” I say. And I sort of draw up my lips real tight in a perfect little V and then squint my eyes, just how I think Charlie looks when he gives me his doofy Charlie smile. Ryan laughs really hard, because I do really look silly, but I also do sort of look like Charlie. I don’t know why I picked him to make fun of, because he’s super nice and I actually hope Ellen likes him. It would be nice for her.
Allegra laughs again, so I sort of have to keep going.
“You’re funny, Davis.” Ryan laughs.
“Yeah.” Allegra smiles from behind her phone.
Everyone is smiling except Sophie. “That’s not nice, Ducks. I think Charlie is super nice.”
“You can be nice and have a weird smile,” I say back. “I’m just saying he makes that smile all the time.”
“Well, don’t do that in front of Ellen. Especially if she likes him,” Sophie says. Sophie’s angry with me, and that makes all of this just feel a lot worse.
I don’t know why I’m here. And I don’t know why Sophie invited me, if she just wants to yell at me. She didn’t yell, but you know. I was finally sort of fitting in and she had to stop it. And stop me. I don’t say anything for a long while after that. I just sit there and listen.
Sophie and Allegra look at cats, or people falling on the Internet, and they laugh. After the fourth video, I start to think that Allegra must really like to see things get hurt or people and animals not being able to stay where they are.
Ryan and Brian are yelling about basketball and showing each other moves or something stupid and tough. They get really rough, pushing and pulling at each other. I try to stay out of their way.
Ryan lifts up his arms to show how some basketball guy blocked a shot, and all I can see is that there’s hair in his armpit. A lot of it. Like one of Hannah’s dolls lives under there. It’s super gross. I mean, I know it’s supposed to happen, it hasn’t to me yet and I’m glad, but looking at it, I don’t want it to. It looks disgusting. And how do you put deodorant on that? Do you have to cut it? Do you go to a salon for that? I guess I stare a little too long. Because Brian slaps Ryan in the stomach and says, “Look. I think he has a crush too.” Brian laughs. And Allegra turns around for this part. And so does Sophie.
“Hey, what’re you, a fag?” Ryan laughs at me.
And I freeze. I don’t know a single thing to do. Not one. I don’t know what’s going to happen or what I should say, but something is about to happen, and I should say something. But I just don’t … and then:
Allegra walks over and hits Ryan in the stomach.
“He was staring at my pit, Allegra,” Ryan tries back.
“Eww!” Allegra says. “You boys are gross.”
“Because it’s disgusting. Put down your arms,” says Sophie.
“And say you’re sorry to Davis. That’s an awful thing to say,” Allegra says as she walks back to the computer.
Ryan and Brian nod, looking down at their sneakers, and mouth sorry to me, without even looking up once or meaning it. They don’t want to say it, and I don’t want them to either. It’s all a disaster that makes me hate Allegra even more. Why couldn’t she just let it go? That’s what you have to do with tough boys. Wait until they finish and leave.
The quiet of the moment is broken when Allegra’s phone dings.
“My mom just texted and everything is ready for our girls’ day!” And she squeals really loud and Sophie squeals too. And they both high-five and shake their hands together and they shout, “Birthday Makeovers! Birthday Makeovers!”
I Wait. And Wait. And Wait. And nothing happens. Sophie is going on a Birthday Makeover with Allegra. It’s a girls’ day, and even though I sort of awkwardly said I was a girl, I am not invited. Nope. Not me. Not the creepy armpit starer. Not the fag.
And Sophie sees me sitting there. And tries, I guess, to save me, but just makes it worse.
“It’s not even on my actual birthday,” says Sophie. “It’s just a girl thing. I mean, do you want a makeover?” This makes Ryan and Brian laugh so loud they sort of start pushing each other to get the other one to stop.
I say no, but no one hears me. Sophie’s trying to get the boys to stop and Allegra’s on the Internet and I say it out loud but no one cares.
The answer in my head is yes. Yes, I want a makeover. I want to be made into something else. Someone completely different from myself. Someone who gets invited places and gets the jokes on people’s phones and doesn’t feel weird about coming into a room, like, ever. Because the person I would become would be beautiful and popular and know everything about music and phones and Facebook or anything that is important to know to be popular and liked. And I would be all of that. If I got to go, I would be made over into that.
But I’m not allowed to go. I’m a boy. A weird, hallway-lurking, doesn’t-get-why-a-kitten-lady-falling-is-the-funniest-thing-ever, armpit-staring, fat-kid boy who listens to opera and will probably never have a phone because they are crazy expensive and Nanny doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. No day at a spa or whatever can fix that.