I watch George as he fiddles with his jacket and repeatedly taps the glass of his cider.
“I’ve never done this before. You know, meeting a guy for a drink.”
It’s a Thursday night and the bar is quiet. The sounds of Chapel Street’s traffic and nightlife pour into the venue. Dimmed lighting and soft ambient music set the scene.
“I’m happy I’m here though.”
George is 17 and in year 12. According to his fake ID, his name is Angelo. We’d been talking for a couple of weeks now online, but tonight is our first meeting; a date. He darts his eyes around the bar. His mind seems elsewhere.
“So does anyone know you’re here, George?” I ask.
“Not a soul.”
We start the small-talk (his late train, the weather, Tinder) but after a couple of drinks, the conversation turns towards his school. I listen to George as he talks about the pressure to succeed at school, to be “one of the boys”, to fit in. “I haven’t had sex with a girl yet. I feel like I have to.” He’s worried that people might be getting suspicious.
He tells me that his school formal is next week and that he’s taking a girl named Chelsea; in fact, he told his mum that he was seeing her tonight. “I don’t know,” he says, looking down at his feet. “I still see myself having a wife and kids, so it’s confusing.”
We pause. “I’m jealous of you dude,” he continues. “It’s just… I can’t do it. You’re out of school, you’ve travelled. School’s all I know. There’s this mentality at school, you know, this pressure.”
I see a lot of similarities between George and my 17-year-old self. Closeted, confused, confined to the playground and destined for a wife and kids.
I remember the uniforms, the timetables, the exams, the parties and the pressure. I remember being surrounded by people calling each other ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’. I remember scrutinising every movement and word, and avoiding big group situations, in an attempt not to reveal myself. I remember hooking up with girls. I remember the desperation to blend into the crowd, to be “one of the boys”. I remember leaving for Europe, after I’d finished school, prompted by a need to escape and to clear my head.
When I was in year 11, the school captain at the time stood in front of assembly announcing that he “wasn’t gay”. He said that, even though it “wouldn’t bother” him if he was, he “just wanted to clear the air” that he wasn’t. He met his boyfriend the following year, and has been with him ever since.
I look at George now, under the dimmed lighting. What is it about school that makes us feel suffocated?
“It doesn’t really affect me being ‘in the closet’,” he finally says, breaking my train of thought. “Anyway, I’m kind of used to it. It kind of suits me. It’s what I want at the moment, I guess.” He looks into his empty glass. I nod. With all the pressures of high school (SAC’s, eighteenths, studying, exams, schoolies, formals…) who’d have time to face this? I sure as hell didn’t.
“I wish I could though, I just can’t.”
“It’s okay. It’s normal,” I say, finishing my last bit of my cider. “Just take your time. It’ll sort itself out eventually.” I think back to the moment when I had returned from Europe, free from the schoolyard and finally ready to live my truth.
“You’re not alone, George.”
I check the time: 12.50. It’s getting late; I should probably go. We kiss goodbye out on the street and I wish him all the best for his formal next week. He drives away in his Uber.
* * * *
The following day, I find myself on the train home during peak school hour. A tsunami of pubescents flow into the carriage, with bags covering the floor, body odour rife and personal space a foreign concept. A group of young boys sit across from me, each fighting for a seat and trying to get a word into the conversation. They’re talking about someone’s sixteenth party. What they’re going to wear, how they’re going to get there, who’s going to get them beers.
“I don’t know if I can be bothered coming tonight,” one of them says. A blond-haired boy with his bag hanging from one shoulder. “I’m not feeling too well.”
“What, as if! Don’t be gay!” one of them shouts, before the group erupts into laughter.
I sigh. I look out the window and picture my school captain denying his sexuality. I picture George wearing a suit, driving to Chelsea’s house and wrapping his corsage around her wrist.
It’s oddly sunny for a winter’s morning, but something feels different today. An overwhelming expanse of greyness surrounds me. Concrete buildings confine me. Mortar, stone, brick. I feel 17 again.
Copyright © 2016 Louis Hanson