Sitting with a nearly empty popcorn bag in one hand, Miguel gazed into a crowd of eager city pigeons. Their heads bobbed incessantly, mulling around in disparate circles. He tossed a handful of popcorn and watched as a flurry of grey-green feathers descended on the scattered kernels. He slapped the butter-grease on his fingers over his thigh and unlocked his phone. It was just past noon.
Miguel scrolled through the opened Instagram page, careful not to double-tap any of the images. One post from the week before was an extravagantly over-edited photograph of an abstract painting, the shapes and colors of it rendered into a murky blur beneath the over-saturated Clarendon filter. He studied the caption: Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the Stars. #dailyinspiration #vanartgallery. The familiarity of the words washed over him and sloshed in a nervous wave of nausea in his stomach.
He clicked off the phone and smiled at his reflection in the clear black screen. Biting his lower lip, he used his thumbnail to pluck a popcorn particle from between his teeth. Angling the phone, Miguel checked that the others were clear of any debris, then pinched the pointed tip of his nose, repeatedly manipulating it up and down, side to side, before coming to terms with the slight curvature of its bridge. He returned his attention to the birds. A clean albino had joined the flock and lingered around the outside of the fray. Miguel stood and emptied what was left of the popcorn onto the pavement, then made for the other end of the park, crossed the street, and entered a Starbucks.
It was surprisingly empty for a Sunday afternoon. Miguel ordered an iced latte and took a seat in the corner. He removed a folded square of paper from his pocket and smoothed it out over the tabletop. The page had been creased and un-creased so many times that it was almost in tatters. It was covered from top to bottom with writing done in heavy pencil. Orange and yellow highlighter streaked from one end to the other at intermittent points throughout the page. His index finger glided across each line, moving deftly over every word before slowing down at a section which had been thickly underlined three times. As he traced, his lips moved to form the words: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” He cleared his throat and was about to read them again when he was interrupted by the scraping of a chair being pulled out opposite him.
“Hey there, handsome. Sorry I’m late.”
Miguel looked up from the script and smiled. “You must be Taylor,” he said.
“In the flesh.” Taylor sat on the edge of the chair and leaned in. “It’s so good to finally meet you. I know we said twelve but I—”
“Tall latte for Mikey,” a barista called.
“One second,” Miguel said. I think that’s meant for me.”
Taylor swirled a finger in the air in front of Miguel’s face. “Let me. I ought to get something for myself, anyway. Be right back!”
Miguel watched as Taylor’s bleached blonde ponytail bounced towards the counter. Taylor’s hair was much shorter in his profile pictures—the face smoother, more angelic, with eyes that were supposed to be blue, not green. He had downloaded the application on a drunken dare at a cast party two nights before. It’s the only way to meet anyone these days, especially in a cold place like Vancouver. He had protested at first, having moved to make a career for himself—to do anything that would get him out—and dating had been the last thing on his mind. But once there, the idea did sound kind of nice. The two of them matched almost immediately. They had exchanged a handful of texts over the course of one day before Taylor asked him out.
“Voila.” Taylor set the latte in front of Miguel and eased into the chair. “So, Mikey. I thought your name was Miguel. Are you some kind of catfish?”
“No,” he said. “It is Miguel. Mikey is easier sometimes.” Miguel slid the page to the edge of the table away from his drink, condensation rapidly appearing on the cup. He took the lid off the latte and drummed on it with his forefinger.
“But you’re from México, right?” Taylor asked, pronouncing a Spanish x and feigning an accent. “Miguel is spicier. I say you embrace it. Fuck the haters.” Taylor’s pale green eyes peered unassumingly at Miguel from behind a pair of round horn-rimmed glasses. There was a moment of silence, one apparently too long for Taylor’s patience. “What’s that matter? Catfish got your tongue?”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” Miguel said. “This is my first time.”
“What do you mean?” Taylor asked. “First time meeting someone online?”
“Well, yes.” Miguel blushed. “But I mean, it’s my first time out with a man.”
“Oh, no. I can tell.” Taylor laid his hand down and whicked constellations of droplets from the latte across the table.
“Is it that obvious?” Grinning, Miguel laced his fingers around his drink and lifted it to his lips, blinking coyly at Taylor.
“If only you could see how red you are turning right now. I don’t bite, much.” Taylor began to work a hangnail on his thumb, then looked around. “I think they’ve got my drink on the bar,” he said. “Be right back.”
No sooner had Taylor stood up and gone over to the counter than two women walked into the Starbucks. Miguel watched them intently. Their clothing accentuated their feminine features—both of them had their hair down, blonde and brunette strands cascading over either one’s shoulders. They were beautiful. He thought to himself how unusual it all was, how absurd, how unnatural, his family would say for him to be there with Taylor now instead of one of them. As the door eased shut a flock of seagulls cawed outside. Miguel closed his eyes and imagined himself, years ago, back on the beach in Los Cabos, staring into the deep expanse of crystal-blue ocean. A wave crashed in front of him and washed over his ankles. He watched the water retreating, felt the pulling tide dig rivets around his bare heels and toes. Bubbles formed on the surface of the sand all around him. He thrust his hand into the earth and retracted it, cradling a glob of dark grey mud. Some of it seeped between his fingers, dropping back down with a wet thud. As it thinned, he felt the familiar tickle of mole crabs attempting to burrow into his palm. Two men had run out past him, wading side by side into the water, when suddenly he found himself being yanked by the wrist up the beach. Malditos gringos! He heard. Come, Miguel. This is not for a young boy to see.
Miguel was awakened by a harsh snap inches from his nose.
“Miguelito? You there buddy?”
He opened his eyes and saw a concerned droop in Taylor’s face. “Huh?”
“You alright? What were you thinking about?”
“Oh,” Miguel said. “It’s nothing. Just, home.”
“Right,” Taylor said. “What part of Mexico are you from again? I forget.”
“Los Cabos.” Miguel was grinning again. “It’s weird. This is my first time being around seasons. None of this.” He threw a hand over his shoulder, pointing out the window behind him. It had darkened considerably outside. The sky threatened rain, if not a midday downpour. “We get none of this change.”
“So, what’s it like, then? I couldn’t imagine a year without fall. I think I’d go crazy without rain, even.”
“Well,” Miguel started. He looked upward and bit down on his tongue. “I wouldn’t want to say it’s always the same, but there’s not really a better way to put that. It never really drops too far below eighteen degrees. Summers are hot, though. Over thirty almost all the time.”
“Fall really came out right away. Yesterday I was wearing little shorts and a t-shirt.” Taylor said. He paused before continuing. “So…I have to ask you a question.” He had gone back to the hangnail. He absently peeled away the skin; it streaked halfway up the knuckle, the exposed flesh glistening rose. “When did you know?”
“You know, when did you know. How old were you?” Taylor asked. “Growing up on the beach, hot weather every summer—must have caught quite a few glimpses here and there, if you get what I mean.”
“I guess I do see what you mean,” Miguel said. He reached back and began to twist his earlobe. “It’s hard to say. Growing up where I did, being gay isn’t even an option. To be gay is like—” Miguel sliced a hand over his throat in one quick motion. “No way.”
“Yeah.” Taylor’s voice had taken a subtly sardonic tone. “I’m from the prairies. It’s very Christian out there,” he said. “Even just going on a date with a Mexican, let alone a Mexican guy, is unheard of in Saskatchewan.”
“Then you know.” Miguel cleared his throat. “It’s very confusing. All your life you’re told it should be a boy and a girl. Then, you think about it, and a boy and a boy doesn’t sound weird to you at all. It was never disgusting to me or anything like they kept saying it was.” He took a drink from the latte and set it firmly down onto the table, his voice grew more impassioned. “No one was out in my grade that I knew of. And definitely no one ever talked about having doubts. But I think the worst part was how confusing it was to hear the teachers, the way they’d talk to us. They could say some pretty hurtful things, but in the weirdest ways. I remember one time a teacher in grade three was telling us how, even though you should always be respectful, this is wrong and you should never do it. It’s like, you want us to accept the outsider, but never forget that they don’t belong? They’d tell us that people were gay because they were bored with their lives. Like they had done everything they had wanted to do in life, so why not try being gay? They said that’s the reason a lot of celebrities are gay, too.”
“So that’s why you’re an actor!” Taylor chuckled.
“That’s a whole ‘nother story,” Miguel said. “I loved watching telenovelas when I was a child. It always kind of got me that whenever there’d be a gay character he was only the butt of everyone’s jokes. It was pretty funny sometimes, though. And at least it kind of validated what I was feeling, you know?” Miguel cocked his head. “But it must not have been too bad growing up in Canada, though, right? Everyone is so open here. It’s like a dream for me compared to Mexico. I see all these flags, and that beautiful rainbow crosswalk down on Davie Street.”
“Yeah.” Taylor said. “You’re telling me.” He slid his hands off the table and onto his lap. He stared blankly into his drink.
Miguel’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He covertly slid it into view beneath the table. Jessica sent you a new message. He replaced it and returned his attention to Taylor. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s just—” Taylor rolled his eyes.
“Come on,” Miguel prodded. After a long moment, Taylor spoke.
“My father beat the shit out of me when he found out.”
“I was young. Very young. Grade seven.” Taylor did not look up. “It was like you, no one was out. But I was a very lucky-unlucky kid. A few other boys were like me, and we found each other, and it was so interesting to be exploring like that. We got to privately express it.” He cracked his neck and smiled at Miguel, then averted his gaze past him to some far off place out the window. “My dad used to pick me up from school every day. We were let out at three, but because of his work schedule he’d always come around four. He got laid off that year. And it just so happened to be the right day—or the wrong day, I guess. Anyway, he pulls up—and there’s the boys club.” Taylor closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “It was bad enough for him to see it happen, you know? But the thing about it that gets me the most even now is the silence in the car that day as we drove home.”
“You don’t have to go on if you don’t want to. I really didn’t realize it would be that way here, too.”
“Well, I pretty much kept it a secret after that. I met a boy and we moved out here as soon as we graduated from high school. I haven’t spoken to anyone back home since then.” He brought his gaze to Miguel, returning to the Starbucks from his memory.
Miguel was still playing with his ear. “So, if you don’t mind my asking—”
“Anything!” Taylor said. His tone had turned around in a snap, and he was smiling. Miguel noticed for the first time the crookedness of his lower front teeth. He was drawn especially to a dime-sized burn scar on his raised left cheekbone. “I’m an open book. Go on.”
“You said you’d moved to Vancouver after high school because you were with a boy.”
“So, what happened?”
“Ah,” Taylor sighed. He leaned forward and pressed the tips of his fingers together, steepling his hands in front of him as if he were about to say something profound.
“I’m sorry,” Miguel said. “Does that strike a nerve?”
“It’s kind of funny, actually,” Taylor started. “That guy. Brian. He went back.”
“Went back? To Saskatchewan?”
“Bastard.” Taylor pulled his hands apart and laid them flat on the table. “He got himself a girlfriend after me.” He took a drink and started laughing. “Now that is unnatural.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t get to have both.” Taylor shook his head. “I really just don’t get it. How’s that even a thing? Like, make up your mind already, you know?”
“I don’t really see why it matters,” Miguel said. He had taken his hand from his ear and placed it on the script. He gently flicked the corner of the page.
“Why it matters,” Taylor said. “Is because we have to put up with shit from straight people all the time. But if you’re bi you aren’t really gay. It’s so unfair that they can just change who they want to be, whenever they want to do it, and suddenly no one is going to pick on them anymore because they’re doing exactly what society expects, what everyone wants from them.” He leaned in much closer, as if he were about to try and kiss Miguel. “Bullshit, if you ask me. Good for you for finally making the switch.”
Miguel felt his phone go off again. He pulled it out over the table top, carefully tilting the screen away from Taylor, who was now gently sucking on the tender skin of his thumb. “Do you mind?” he asked. “I’ve got an audition soon, I want to make sure everything is still good.”
“Of course not,” Taylor said.
It was almost one. He opened the phone to see two messages from Jessica. Hey there, handsome. What are you doing tonight? His thumb quivered over the keyboard, but instead of typing a response he exited the app and promptly locked his phone. “Alright,” Miguel said. “I’m sorry, but I really should be going soon.” He picked the page up from the edge of the table and had begun to fold it when Taylor reached out and caressed his wrist. Taylor’s hand was cold and damp from the condensation on his plastic cup.
“But we really only just got going.” His lips pursed in an exaggerated pout. “This seems like a weird place to leave off. I’d hate to give you the impression I’m this intense all of the time.”
“I know,” Miguel said. “But I’ve got to be there right at one-thirty to demo this monologue.” He flicked his wrist back and forth, the folded square made a crinkling sound in the air. “This has been really nice, though.”
“Well, now I’m even more sorry for being so late. Would you at least take a moment to tell me what it’s about before you leave?”
“Okay,” Miguel said. “I guess I could spare five more minutes. But only that!”
“Thank you.” With both elbows on the table, Taylor laced his fingers and nestled his chin over the knuckles. He cocked his head. “So, what’s the part?”
“It’s for a Shakespeare play this little company is putting on downtown. It’s—”
“Do not tell me it’s Romeo and Juliet,” Taylor cut in. “We did that one back in high school and I got an understudy part for Tibalt. I never actually made it to the stage, and I’m no actor, but it was so much fun.”
“No,” Miguel said. “Not Romeo and Juliet. It’s the Merchant of Venice, actually. Honestly, I’d really prefer to find work breaking into film or television, but I need the money and the director has all but given me the part already.” He made like he was about to open the script again, but almost immediately re-creased it. “He wants to see me perform this monologue before I’m officially cast.”
“Very cool,” Taylor said. “You must have quite a reputation if they want you for the part before they even see you do it.”
“Honestly it’s probably got something to do with this.” He tapped the tip of his nose and laughed. “Sometimes they just want an actor who looks the part.”
“How do you mean?” Taylor asked.
“Well,” Miguel said. “The part they want me for is called Shylock. He’s this rich Jewish trader and basically the villain who drives a big part of the plot.” He rolled his eyes. “Problematic they’d choose me, right?”
“And don’t sell yourself short,” Taylor said. “I’m sure it’s because you’re great.”
“Anyway,” Miguel went on. “The monologue I’m reciting today is pretty intense. You know, being a Jew in the time of Shakespeare was like—”
“Being gay now.”
“—no good. Exactly. Shylock is constantly mocked by the other Christians, and despite being one of the richest men in Venice, he will never be respected or seen as equal, and he knows this very well. He’s constantly ridiculed, other people want to take him down in any way they can. Also, his daughter married a Christian man and converted, so not only is he an outsider, but there’s been this heavy betrayal waged against him.”
“You said he was a villain?” Taylor asked. He narrowed his eyes. “Honestly, he doesn’t sound so bad to me. I can see why he’d be so pissed.”
“Here’s the thing,” Miguel said. “His daughter converting is the last straw, and he vows to exact revenge. He has it out for Christians pretty bad. Shylock makes a deal with this man, Antonio, who has been especially terrible to him. Basically, he gives him a loan with the expectation that Antonio will default on it—and if he does, Shylock can maim him.”
“How dramatic,” Taylor said. “Good for him.”
“Well, it’s actually considered a comedy. He doesn’t get to do it, and things turn around on him completely in the end. That whole plot is supposed to be like a warning against revenge, and it’s not exactly being sneaky about it.”
Taylor flashed him a look of faint disappointment. “Sounds more like a warning against being different.
“That’s Shakespeare for you.”
“Well,” Taylor said. “I’m sure you’ll have fun with it anyway.”
Miguel furrowed his eyebrows and lowered his voice to a near snarl. “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
“You are too cute.” Taylor clapped Miguel on the shoulder.
“Thanks,” Miguel laughed. “Listen, I’m so sorry, but I really do need to get going now.” He stood and slid his chair in.
“That’s okay,” Taylor said, getting up as well. “Let’s do this again sometime, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Miguel said, not meaning it at all. He extended his hand.
“Break a leg,” Taylor said, ignoring the hand and going in for a hug. He gave Miguel a soft peck on the cheek.
“Thanks.” Miguel smiled and shifted the weight from one foot to the other, then back. “So…I guess I’ll see you, then.”
Miguel turned quickly to leave. Once outside, he crossed into the park. A chill wind came over him and he shivered. He tucked his hands under his elbows and continued on with his head bowed. The sun had come out from behind a cloud, but only for a moment and without giving off any warmth. On the pavement before his feet, a single white feather blew in the breeze.