Dear Teen Me:
There's a night I want to tell you about. New Year's Eve, 1996. Berlin. You're terrified.
This isn't the start of a spy novel, although I know you long for a life so exciting. Be patient. Adventures await. Right now, you're an exchange student, 16 years old, and going to a club with some friends.
Maybe this already happened? I'm not sure when you're getting this. If it already happened, I'm sorry.
If not, get ready. Maybe I can change how it went. Maybe I shouldn't. I'll leave that to you. You always did hate to be told what to do.
Anyway, NYE 1996, Berlin. Some of your exchange student friends decided that it'd be fun to spend New Year's Eve at a gay club in Kreuzberg. You and this South African guy, W---, were the only guys in the crew. W--- had never been to a gay club before. W---, in fact, vociferously denied being gay. You had also never been to a gay club before. You also vociferously denied being gay.
Never mind that most straight guys don't go around vociferously denying being gay. You thought you were convincing. Far be it from me to critique your acting. I'm a novelist, not a theater critic. I tell stories.
So let me tell the story of that night.
You went to the club. A long dark bar. Lasers and lights and some kind of planetarium décor on the ceiling. There was smoke and a Euro remix of Walking in Memphis that seemed to be everywhere in Germany in 1996. Your hair was bright green, alien green, and you spoke with an American accent and you were underage. You stood out.
Men bought you drinks, which you accepted, and wanted to dance with you, which you refused, blushing. You kept to the corners. You did not dance. You barely spoke. Your eyes were big as planets, taking it all in. You were a green-haired Aldrin on the surface of a distant moon and the aliens you found were like nothing you'd ever seen: Boys dancing with boys. Kissing. Laughing. Not the slightest hint of fear. Leaning against each other in ways you'd never imagined. In ways you'd never admit imagining.
You'd never known a gay person, never really even seen one that you knew. The image you had beaten into you since first grade at your testosterone fueled all-boys school back in the states was of mincing fairies and sickly AIDS patients. There were some of both at this club, but they didn't seem ashamed of themselves. They, like everyone there, were just guys, in every shade and shape, out to celebrate another orbit around the sun together. A blonde guy with Zach Morris hair winked at you and then threw himself into a scrum of other guys, some shirtless and gym pumped, others dressed in fabrics that shined and shimmered when they moved. Almost every inch of the club was filled with dancing bodies now, jumping, writhing, twirling bodies, good dancers and bad dancers and silly dancers and the music stopped. W--- was suddenly next to you as midnight approached, watching with his own astronaut eyes.
The whole room counted: "Fünf, Vier, Drei, Zwei...."
1996 became 1997 with confetti and smoke and a song you don't remember-something that thumped hard enough to reset your heartbeat-and everyone's arms wrapped around each other and you were buzzed and W--- turned to you and you turned to W--- and he really was beautiful, beautiful in a way you'd always wanted someone to be beautiful: kind and funny, tall, and broad shouldered with a crooked smile. His hands, suddenly wrapped around your hands.
The longing you'd long held secret for as long you could remember would not be denied anymore, needn't be denied anymore. You were in this crazy city, surrounded by boys just like you, who danced and sang and kissed unashamed and you did not have to be ashamed either.
W--- leaned toward you, head tilted, lips parted. You'd never kissed anyone before, girl or boy, and a new year and new you leaned right back in to him, lips parted and fingers entwined, and your first kiss welcomed 1997 and a new life opened up before you, with possibilities you'd never let yourself think of before. You weren't an astronaut any longer. You were a native alien, a resident of your own planet, not watching from your spaceship as reality passed you by. You could bring your whole self out now and kiss and dance be a green-haired boy who could kiss a beautiful South African in a gay club in Berlin, and from now on you would be the only limit to the life you could imagine and all because 1997 started with confetti and a kiss.
But that's not how it really happened.
I'm a novelist. Most of what I do is rewriting.
In the first draft of this story, the one that really happened W--- leaned in and you pulled away, turned your head, looked at a couple making out next to you and made a crude joke. W--- blushed and made some crude joke back, acting like he hadn't just offered you a world inside a kiss. You both knew what had happened and neither of you spoke about it. Ever. Inside, regret and shame boiled over. 1997 began with you not kissing W--- and hating yourself for not kissing him and hating yourself for wanting to kiss him more than you'd ever wanted anything. You still regret it.
You didn't kiss anyone for two years. When you got back to the states, you even dyed your hair back to brown. You stayed in a closet of your own making. You got angry and seethed in silence. You hid behind your eyes and watched reality happen to other people.
When you eventually did kiss a guy and let life open up to you, it really was all you hoped it would be and more. It wasn't just the kiss or coming out, though that was part of it. It was realizing you could be your whole self. That authenticity opened doors that you never knew existed. You had adventures all over the world; you fell in and out of love and then in again. You met people who had also felt like astronauts adrift and none of you could figure out why you hadn't found each other sooner. You had many wonderful nights dancing beneath man-made constellations and many more hair colors. Not all of them suited you.
So if you get this in time, take my advice. Kiss him. And maybe skip the orange hair in college. Or not. It really is up to no one else but you.
Alex London writes books for adults, children and teens. His YA debut, PROXY, a sci-fi thriller, is more autobiographical than he's comfortable admitting. A one time journalist who traveled the world reporting from conflict zones and refugee camps, he now is a full time novelist living in Brooklyn with his partner and their dog, who is the real brains of the operation. You can visit Alex London at www.calexanderlondon.com.
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