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Published in the United States by Dutton Books,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
To David Leventhal
(for being so close)
To Tobias Huisman
When I was little, my dad used to tell me, “Will, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” This seemed like a reasonably astute observation to me when I was eight, but it turns out to be incorrect on a few levels. To begin with, you cannot possibly pick your friends, or else I never would have ended up with Tiny Cooper.
Tiny Cooper is not the world’s gayest person, and he is not the world’s largest person, but I believe he may be the world’s largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large. Tiny has been my best friend since fifth grade, except for all last semester, when he was busy discovering the sheer scope of his own gayness, and I was busy having an actual honest-to-God Group of Friends for the first time in my life, who ended up Never Talking to Me Again due to two slight transgressions:
1. After some school-board member got all upset about gays in the locker room, I defended Tiny Cooper’s right to be both gigantic (and, therefore, the best member of our shitty football team’s offensive line) and gay in a letter to the school newspaper that I, stupidly, signed.
2. This guy in the Group of Friends named Clint was talking about the letter at lunch, and in the process of talking about it, he called me a bitchsquealer, and I didn’t know what a bitchsquealer was, so I was like, “What do you mean?” And then he called me a bitchsquealer again, at which point I told Clint to fuck off and then took my tray and left.
Which I guess means that technically I left the Group of Friends, although it felt the other way around. Honestly, none of them ever seemed to like me, but they were around, which isn’t nothing. And now they aren’t around, leaving me utterly bereft of social peers.
Unless you count Tiny, that is. Which I suppose I must.
Andbutso a few weeks after we get back from Christmas break our junior year, I’m sitting in my Assigned Seat in precalc when Tiny waltzes in wearing his jersey tucked into his chinos, even though football season is long over. Every day, Tiny miraculously manages to wedge himself into the chair-desk beside mine in precalc, and every day, I am amazed he can do it.
So Tiny squeezes into his chair, I am duly amazed, and then he turns to me and he whispers really loudly because secretly he wants other people to hear, “I’m in love.” I roll my eyes, because he falls in love every hour on the hour with some poor new boy. They all look the same: skinny and sweaty and tan, the last an abomination, because all February tans in Chicago are fake, and boys who fake tan—I don’t care whether they’re gay—are ridiculous.
“You’re so cynical,” Tiny says, waving his hand at me.
“I’m not cynical, Tiny,” I answer. “I’m practical.”
“You’re a robot,” he says. Tiny thinks that I am incapable of what humans call emotion because I have not cried since my seventh birthday, when I saw the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven. I suppose I should have known from the title that it wouldn’t end merrily, but in my defense, I was seven. Anyway, I haven’t cried since then. I don’t really understand the point of crying. Also, I feel that crying is almost—like, aside from deaths of relatives or whatever—totally avoidable if you follow two very simple rules: 1. Don’t care too much. 2. Shut up. Everything unfortunate that has ever happened to me has stemmed from failure to follow one of the rules.
“I know love is real because I feel it,” Tiny says.
Apparently, class has started without our knowing, because Mr. Applebaum, who is ostensibly teaching us precalculus but is mostly teaching me that pain and suffering must be endured stoically, says, “You feel what, Tiny?”
“Love!” says Tiny. “I feel love.” And everyone turns around and either laughs or groans at Tiny, and because I’m sitting next to him and he’s my best and only friend, they’re laughing and groaning at me, too, which is precisely why I would not choose Tiny Cooper as my friend. He draws too much attention. Also, he has a pathological inability to follow either of my two rules. And so he waltzes around, caring too much and ceaselessly talking, and then he’s baffled when the world craps on him. And, of course, due to sheer proximity, this means the world craps on me, too.
After class, I’m staring into my locker, wondering how I managed to leave The Scarlet Letter at home, when Tiny comes up with his Gay-Straight Alliance friends Gary (who is gay) and Jane (who may or may not be—I’ve never asked), and Tiny says to me, “Apparently, everyone thinks I professed my love for you in precalc. Me in love with Will Grayson. Isn’t that the silliest crap you ever heard?”
“Great,” I say.
“People are just such idiots,” Tiny says. “As if there’s something wrong with being in love.”
Gary groans then. If you could pick your friends, I’d consider Gary. Tiny got close with Gary and Jane and Gary’s boyfriend, Nick, when he joined the GSA during my tenure as a member of the Group of Friends. I barely know Gary, since I’ve only been hanging around Tiny again for about two weeks, but he seems like the normalest person Tiny has ever befriended.
“There’s a difference,” Gary points out, “between being in love and announcing it in precalc.” Tiny starts to talk and Gary cuts him off. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. You have every right to love Zach.”
“Billy,” says Tiny.
“Wait, what happened to Zach?” I ask, because I could have sworn Tiny was in love with a Zach during precalc. But forty-seven minutes have passed since his proclamation, so maybe he’s changed gears. Tiny has had about 3,900 boyfriends—half of them Internet-only.
Gary, who seems as flummoxed by the emergence of Billy as I am, leans against the lockers and bangs his head softly against the steel. “Tiny, you being a makeout whore is so not good for the cause.”
I look way up at Tiny and say, “Can we quell the rumors of our love? It hurts my chances with the ladies.”
“Calling them ‘the ladies’ doesn’t help either,” Jane tells me.
Tiny laughs. “But seriously,” I tell him, “I always catch shit about it.” Tiny looks at me seriously for once and nods a little.
“Although for the record,” Gary says, “you could do worse than Will Grayson.”
“And he has,” I note.
Tiny spins in a balletic pirouette out into the middle of the hallway and, laughing, shouts, “Dear World, I am not hot for Will Grayson. But world, there’s something else you should know about Will Grayson.” And then he begins to sing, a Broadway baritone as big as his waist, “I can’t live without him!”
People laugh and whoop and clap as Tiny continues the serenade while I walk off to English. It’s a long walk, and it only gets longer when someone stops you and asks how it feels to be sodomized by Tiny Cooper, and how you find Tiny Cooper’s “gay little pencil prick” behind his fat belly. I respond the way I always do: by looking down and walking straight and fast. I know they’re kidding. I know part of knowing someone is being mean to them or whatever. Tiny always has some brilliant thing to say back, like, “For someone who theoretically doesn’t want me, you sure spend a lot of time thinking and talking about my penis.” Maybe that works for Tiny, but it never works for me. Shutting up works. Following the rules works. So I shut up, and I don’t care, and I keep walking, and soon it’s over.
The last time I said anything of note was the time I wrote the fricking letter to the editor about fricking Tiny Cooper and his fricking right to be a fricking star on our horrible football team. I don’t regret writing the letter in the least, but I regret signing it. Signing it was a clear violation of the rule about shutting up, and look where it got me: alone on a Tuesday afternoon, staring at my black Chuck Taylors.
That night, not long after I order pizza for me and my parents, who are—as always—late at the hospital, Tiny Cooper calls me and, real quiet and fast, he blurts out, “Neutral Milk Hotel is supposedly playing a reunion show at the Hideout and it’s totally not advertised and no one even knows about it and holy shit, Grayson, holy shit!”
“Holy shit!” I shout. One thing you can say for Tiny: whenever something awesome happens, Tiny is always the first to hear.
Now, I am not generally given over to excitement, but Neutral Milk Hotel sort of changed my life. They released this absolutely fantastic album called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and haven’t been heard from since, purportedly because their lead singer lives in a cave in New Zealand. But anyway, he’s a genius. “When?”
“Dunno. I just heard. I’m gonna call Jane, too. She likes them almost as much as you do. Okay, so now. Now. Let’s go to the Hideout now.”
“I’m literally on my way,” I answer, opening the door to the garage.
I call my mom from the car. I tell her Neutral Milk Hotel is playing at the Hideout and she says, “Who? What? You’re hiding out?” And then I hum a few bars of one of their songs and Mom says, “Oh, I know that song. It’s on the mix you made me,” and I say, “Right,” and she says, “Well you have to be back by eleven,” and I say, “Mom this is a historical event. History doesn’t have a curfew,” and she says, “Back by eleven,” and I say, “Fine. Jesus,” and then she has to go cut cancer out of someone.
Tiny Cooper lives in a mansion with the world’s richest parents. I don’t think either of his parents have jobs, but they are so disgustingly rich that Tiny Cooper doesn’t even live in the mansion; he lives in the mansion’s coach house, all by himself. He has three bedrooms in that motherfucker and a fridge that always has beer in it and his parents never bother him, and so we can sit there all day and play video game football and drink Miller Lite, except in point of fact Tiny hates video games and I hate drinking beer, so mostly all we ever do is play darts (he has a dartboard) and listen to music and talk and study. I’ve just started to say the T in Tiny when he comes running out of his room, one black leather loafer on and the other in his hand, shouting, “Go, Grayson, go go.”
And everything goes perfectly on the way there. Traffic’s not too bad on Sheridan, and I’m cornering the car like it’s the Indy 500, and we’re listening to my favorite NMH song, “Holland, 1945,” and then onto Lake Shore Drive, the waves of Lake Michigan crashing against the boulders by the Drive, the windows cracked to get the car to defrost, the dirty, bracing, cold air rushing in, and I love the way Chicago smells—Chicago is brackish lake water and soot and sweat and grease and I love it, and I love this song, and Tiny’s saying I love this song, and he’s got the visor down so he can muss up his hair a little more expertly. That gets me to thinking that Neutral Milk Hotel is going to see me just as surely as I’m going to see them, so I give myself a once-over in the rearview. My face seems too square and my eyes too big, like I’m perpetually surprised, but there’s nothing wrong with me that I can fix.
The Hideout is a dive bar made of wooden planks that’s nestled between a factory and some Department of Transportation building. There’s nothing swank about it, but there’s a line out the door even though it’s only seven. So I huddle in line for a while with Tiny until Gary and Possibly Gay Jane show up.
Jane’s wearing a hand-scrawled Neutral Milk Hotel v-neck T-shirt under her open coat. Jane showed up in Tiny’s life around the time I dropped out of it, so we don’t really know each other. Still, I’d say she’s currently about my fourth-best friend, and apparently she has good taste in music.