Xìngbié; part 6 (of 12): Know who your Friends are

“Um… shit.”

Nat stood at the end of the lunch line with his tray, looking out at the cafeteria and feeling unusually confused.

He had no idea where to sit.

Fighting the knot in his gut, Nat looked for a familiar face. He spotted Gavin sitting with his friends at a table, but it looked like it was full. Besides, how awkward would that be? Sure, Gavin and he were friends, but they didn’t really share friends. Nat would just be intruding.

There came a tap on Nat’s shoulder. He looked around to see Emily, from his next period, standing there with a tray in her hand as well.

“Hey. Do you need a place to sit?” she asked.

“Yeah, kind of…” Nat admitted. He could already feel a blush coming on.

“Well come on then,” Emily told him, “There’s an empty seat at our table.

Nat followed her, giving only one last glance back at where Gavin was sitting and laughing with his friends. Part of him really wanted to be over there with them, but he knew that he was just being wistful.

“Hey there,” one of the girls said to Nat as he sat down, “I’m Julia.”

“I’m Amber,” the other girl added; she was in the middle of cleaning her glasses and didn’t seem to be paying that much attention to the newcomer.

“My name’s Nat,” he offered, “Thanks for letting me sit with you guys… girls.”

Julia flashed him a warm smile, while Emily retorted, “Well, we needed one more to fill out our lunch table quota anyway. Anybody would have sufficed.”

“You don’t have to be rude to him,” Amber scolded. Nat wanted to tell her that it was okay, but Emily beat him to it by sticking out her tongue at Amber. Amber responded by throwing a French fry at Emily.

Nat relaxed a little, only then realizing just how tense he’d really been. He took the opportunity to unzip his coat, fumbling with the unfamiliar zipper (why had he allowed his mother to talk him into getting a new jacket?) before slipping the whole thing off of himself.

“Ooh, that’s cute,” Julia cooed.

Nat looked down at what he was wearing and winced. It was a light blue top with ruffled sleeves and frills. I just won’t take my jacket off today, he’d thought when he put it on that morning, Nobody will see it.

“I… uh… er…” he stammered.

“It is cute,” Emily agreed, “Where’d you get it?”

“Macy’s, I think?” Nat replied.

“Wish I had a top like that,” Julia muttered.

Nat relaxed a bit more. Maybe he’d been worrying over nothing after all. His friends never seemed to be bothered by the things he wore, no matter how much he feared they would be.

He smiled and let out a small sigh of relief. For the first time in a long time, Nat felt like he wasn’t being judged.

()()()()()()()

Nat bobbed his head gently to the music coming from his phone as he looked over the clothes piled on his bed. He’d thrown a whole bunch of shirts and pants and whatever else he could find together and just started sifting through them. How could he have so many clothes and not remember having bought or worn them?

He picked up a tee shirt at random, a graphic tee with a picture of The Little Mermaid on it. It was from… JC Penny? The one at the mall? That meant that he would have got it… January? That sounded right. Had he ever worn it? He wouldn’t have bought something he didn’t plan to wear. And he wasn’t alone at the mall that day—it’s not like anybody wouldn’t have known about the shirt; so it wasn’t a secret.

But for now he threw the shirt to the side and picked up a pair of green cotton short shorts with the words “Laguna Beach” across the butt, which meant that they could have only come from one of the family trips to visit their grandparents. But their most recent trip had been in the fall, and Nat knew for a fact that he… he… something. Something was wrong here.

A knock at the bedroom door caught Nat’s attention. He pulled out his earbuds and asked, “What is it?”

“Honey, your friend is here,” his mother said through the door.

“Oh, coming!” Nat told her, cursing himself for forgetting that he was having company. He quickly grabbed as many things from the bed that he could and stuffed them into the dresser. He’d sort it all out later. Everything he couldn’t fit into the drawer he really quickly threw into the closet.

With that done, Nat scurried to the front door, where Gavin was just taking off his backpack and shoes.

“Hi Nat,” he said.

There was something different about the way Gavin looked at him though, and it took Nat a moment to realize what it was: Nat was dressed in a low-cut shirt and shorts, and literally nothing else. Gavin had never seen him wearing so little before.

“Oh… um, yeah,” Nat stammered, letting his hair fall into his face to hide the blush growing in his cheeks, “Um, I’m glad you could make it.”

To Gavin’s credit, he recovered pretty quickly from seeing his friend wearing surprisingly little.

“Yes,” Gavin said, “I was a bit worried that my parents wouldn’t like the idea. So, in your room?”

Nat nodded and motioned for him to follow, silently grateful that Tyler wasn’t around to spy on them.

He was, however, beginning to regret not tidying up his room a bit beforehand. It wasn’t filthy, but Nat hadn’t exactly been worried about keeping everything in its place. His mother was even beginning to warn him about how messy it was getting.

Once they were in his (It’s not that filthy, Nat tried to convince himself) room, Nat turned to close the door, but hesitated. Something told him that the door was supposed to stay open when Gavin was over. The thought didn’t quite ring true, but Nat obeyed it anyway.

He turned around to ask Gavin a question, but when he saw what Gavin was holding his heart skipped a beat.

“Sorry, it was lying on the floor,” Gavin tried to explain, holding the skirt out to Nat.

Nat’s mouth was dry. He needed to say something—that it wasn’t his, or at least that he’d never worn it. Something, anything, to keep Gavin from getting angry and storming out. He tried making the words come out, but it was no good.

But… something was wrong. Gavin wasn’t cringing at the skirt. He wasn’t looking at Nat with any kind of anger or disgust. He was just… holding it out for Nat to take.

So he did. He took the skirt from Gavin and held it in his own hands.

“Thanks,” he said, turning to the dresser and quickly shoving the offending article in there with the rest.

“Um, it’s a nice skirt,” Gavin said, “I mean… I actually think… you know… it’d look pretty good on you.”

Nat’s ears started burning. His face must have been a tomato.

“I know that you’re not exactly… you know, into that kind of thing,” Gavin said, trying to salvage this conversation, “You’ve got that whole ‘jacket and pants’ thing going on. It’s fine. I like it. I mean, I know it doesn’t matter what I think, it’s just…”

Nat didn’t say anything, so he continued.

“I just think… if you ever wanted to, it would look nice. Like maybe on a date or something?”

For a moment Nat didn’t respond. His stomach was awash with butterflies. After what felt like forever, he asked, “Is that official?”

At some point, they must have gravitated toward each other a bit, because Gavin was close enough to reach out and brush a hair out of Nat’s eyes before replying, “Do you want it to be?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s official.”

Nat was looking right into his eyes. They must have been an inch apart. He could actually feel Gavin’s breath. His stomach was turning. Slowly, Nat opened his lips, just slightly, and tilted his head.

Then he turned away and took a deep breath. He glanced over at Gavin, who had stepped back and started to look around the room, probably just as embarrassed as Nat was.

“So, um…” Nat began, looking for a way to change the subject, “Did you bring your books?”

“Yes,” Gavin said, “In my backpack. I guess my parents would like it if I actually studied while I was here.”

Nat cracked a smile at his joke. He was glad that their parents had agreed to let him tutor Gavin. It was the first chance they’d had since Valentine’s Day to really spend any time together.



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