Derek breathed the vapor in as he watched the technicolor parade pass by. He felt the tightness of his lungs and the mild itch at the back of his throat.
It never went away.
He’d heard people say that it would, but it didn’t.
He just got used to it.
He let it out through his lips like an inaudible whistle. He watched the white cloud vanish in an instant. Vapor disappeared much faster than cigarette smoke. Sometimes he missed the smoke.
Someone was waving at him.
Derek lowered the vape pen and looked out into the crowded street. Natalie and Mina were there, waving at him as they marched past. Derek waved back smiling. Mina was wearing a rainbow patterned hijab and laughing like she’d lost it completely. It was her first Pride, and she was so excited.
Derek loved those two.
He saw the beer can sailing through the air before Natalie did, and she must have seen it on his face because she managed to get an arm up in time to keep it from hitting her face. Still, she and Mina, and about four others between them and the thrower were splattered with cheap beer.
The guy who had thrown the can yelled something at them. Something racist or homophobic, maybe both, but Derek couldn’t quite make it out.
Natalie certainly could though, and by the look in her eyes, Derek was sure she was about to rip the guy’s arm off and beat him with it, but Mina grabbed her around the waist and laughed. She whispered something to Natalie, and Natalie laughed and kissed Mina while giving the guy on the sidewalk the finger.
That was a lucky guy. Natalie could have actually killed him without much effort. Mina had in all likelihood saved a life just there.
Derek joined the folks booing and hissing the asshole, but didn’t stick around in case any fists became involved. He wasn’t in the mood.
It happened every year. Something like it at least.
It had happened the one year Derek had decided it was ok to march.
Nobody saw who threw the bottle. Derek couldn’t remember if it was beer or wine. He felt like a wine bottle would have been too awkward to throw accurately, but it had certainly felt bigger than a beer bottle.
He’d talked to the police before getting in the ambulance. They’d taken his statement, looked at the head wound, but that was it. This sort of thing happened every year, and nobody claimed to have seen who threw it.
Besides, one officer pointed out, what had he expected to happen?
Derek hadn’t been sure how to answer that. Not stitches, he might have said, but he didn’t.
It did happen every year. And while many of Derek’s friends told him that it would get better, it didn’t.
He just got used to it.
Derek took a hit from the pen again. Pride had made him uncomfortable ever since then. Made his head itch where the scar was.
Still, his friends loved it, and he loved them, so every year he came downtown to celebrate with them.
He ended up in a bar with Mina, Natalie, and a friend of Mina’s named Rakim. They drank, they laughed, they danced a bit. Mina kept finding excuse for her and Natalie to go off somewhere for a bit, leaving Derek and Rakim by themselves. It was clearly deliberate. This was a set-up if ever there was one, Derek was sure of that. He might even have gone for it on any other day. Rakim was tall and handsome, exactly Derek’s type. Slim, curly dark hair, a close cropped beard. He looked like he ought to be on the cover of romance novels. On top of that he was funny, and he smiled so easily. He worked in some music store around the corner and made some really interesting recommendations. Still, Derek just wasn’t feeling it. Not now.
He could definitely see himself falling for Rakim, but his scars were itching, and he knew he had to say goodnight. He made sure to get Rakim’s number, and the name of the music store, and he definitely wanted to call him.
Maybe when his head was in a better place.
The walk home took him past where the parade had been. There were still pockets of festivities there. People whooping and hollering, declaring loudly to the night what Derek was reluctant to admit to most people. He wasn’t ashamed, just….
He didn’t really know.
It was hard. Harder than it should be. And sometimes it was just easier if people assumed you were the default.
“Hey,” somebody called, “Hey fag!”
Derek’s blood ran cold. He knew he wasn’t exactly Randy Savage levels of macho, but he hated that word.
He kept walking. He didn’t speed up, he’d learned from a very young age the lesson rabbits never did: if you run, they have to chase you. So he took a draw on his pen to settle his nerves and he just kept walking.
The shouts behind him spanned the usual complaints. He was ruining the country; he was going to hell; how he was going to catch AIDS and die horribly. He tried to ignore it. That’s was what people always told him to do.
“Just ignore them.” That was the advice. Usually from straight people.
But their voices seem to be following him; getting closer. Vague bile about him ruining the country was replaced with graphic declarations of what happened to “cock-sucking fags like you.” Derek wondered what Natalie would do. No, he couldn’t kill anybody. He should keep going. Fighting them was a bad idea and home wasn’t too far.
So he kept walking, kept pulling on the vape pen nervously, until he reached the door to his apartment complex. He half expected someone to grab the door before it closed behind him, but he heard the automatic lock click and beep behind him. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
That hadn’t happened to him before. People had yelled at him, but he couldn’t remember anyone following to harass him. He considered calling the police for all of a moment before shaking his head. They wouldn’t be any help.
He walked up the stairs, worried this would join the list.
The things he just got used to.
He fumbled in his pockets. He put his keys on the hook by the door, his pen in a little wooden dish on the coffee table, his phone he tossed onto the bed. Then he came to the business card. He’d almost forgotten he’d had it. The business card for a music store downtown with seven digits and a name on the back.
He looked at the card for a long while. He thought of how fun Rakim had been earlier. How great it had felt to talk to him, to laugh with him, even just to look at him.
Then he thought about the beer can, and the wine bottle, the yelling from the street corner and the voices that followed him home. All the things he just got used to. All the things that made him wary of being out around Pride.
All the things that made him afraid.
He picked his phone back up and and texted Rakim.
He still didn’t think he was comfortable being totally out this time of year, but maybe, just maybe, that was something he could get used to.