October 31st, 2010 - Christopher Gonzalez
I like to think the five of us drove to the 7 Floors of Hell together, by which I mean J. drove her father’s car and I sat on the passenger side, running my mouth, talking shit. That’s accurate no matter the year, my shit-talking at someone else’s side.
I wanna say we stopped for dinner at Steak ‘n Shake first, but that’s likely a false memory, too. Maybe it was actually the Applebee’s across the street, or the Taco Bell across from that. Any restaurant in Steelyard Commons, which was named for the hub of metallurgical and scrap plants towering over the Cuyahoga River, in its deep backyard. I was switching between glasses and contact lenses around this time so, depending on the night, when I looked up at the smokestacks I’d either see clear flames or a kaleidoscope of blues and oranges, this constant reminder that I could never quite settle into my surroundings.
I would be shocked if we didn’t smoke Black & Milds in the parking lot that night, so I’ll say it’s true. In my five-day tenure of being 18, I must have made at least three trips to the gas station after school to pick up a pack. We always bought wine-flavored because they allegedly tasted the best, though all I remember is a dulled funk that stuck to my throat and made me gag. H. taught me how to freak them while waiting for the bus home; I never managed to do it on my own.
But, OK, for sure, this was around the time we started using “bangtastic” to describe anyone we found attractive, regardless of their gender. Waiting in line for the first haunted house, we whispered to each other that he was bangtastic and she was bangtastic. A true jackpot was seeing a couple, their hands intertwined, and deciding that, objectively, they were both bangtastic. I can’t remember who started it, either J. or I did, but it caught on quick. I should be clear: we didn’t cat-call anyone. We always said it in whispers, and maybe that’s also bad, but at the time it felt like I was pulling off a heist, getting to call another guy cute without saying the words out loud. Without being sincere about my own fragile desires. My internal monologue was a drawn-out pendulum swing between straight and gay because discourse around the very notion of bisexual boys in high school was so toxic it didn’t really exist.
(I wanna say I was a good friend to my friends, most of whom were girls and much more unapologetic about how they moved through the world. I was the only dude in the group, which wasn’t a problem and should never be a problem, but there were times I’d build up a wall to hide from being seen as too soft or too emotional, being seen as myself. Maybe in the last four years I’ve started to see light penetrate the cracks of that wall, or at least I hope so.)
I can’t leave out the fact that, at school, my friends and I had collectively developed crushes on a number of teachers, because they were white and kind to us. They seemed so much older, too, and put together (well, except for the one), but now I’m about three years younger than they were at the time and I understand their lives must have been in shambles. Dear, God. How could they not have been? Embarrassingly, I pined hard for them. For our English teacher who wore flowy dresses, the finance teacher who launched insults with a smirk, our algebra teacher with ginger sideburns, and my AP chemistry teacher who looked like a young John Goodman. He taught us jack-shit about chemistry, but through him I learned that one could, in fact, exist as fat and attractive and funny and confident.
I could have loved myself more. But I didn’t know that kindness wasn’t only for others.
I wish I could tell you more about the actual haunted houses. Their layouts and themes. The number of blood stains. If we met a man with a loud chainsaw. If house seven was as scary as the first. Does anything beat the first? I can’t say for sure, trust me. Certainly scarier going through it than to look back on it.
Christopher Gonzalez is a fiction editor at Barrelhouse. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Best Small Fictions 2019, Little Fiction, The Forge, Split Lip, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. His debut short story collection, I'm Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from SFWP. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, but mostly on Twitter @livesinpages.