Tourist season at Lake Wallenpaupack means a break in the monotony of Alexi’s life. They’ve been secretly advertising the ice cream parlor they work at through the Foodspotting app, hoping that will bring even more customers. One such customer is Eli, a recent addition to the area with a bright and open disposition that Alexi is drawn to immediately. And since Eli is demisexual, Alexi welcomes him into their friend group of other queer twenty-somethings.
The more Alexi gets to know Eli, the more smitten they are. If only they didn’t have crippling self-esteem issues, problems at home with their dad, and enough emotional baggage to fill a freight train. They’re desperate to get out of that rut so they can have space in their heart for someone like Eli. After years of playing a passive role, making the first steps towards change might prove too much for them.
Eli paused to watch a wren hop down by the path, peck at something, then stare at the oncoming humans and dart back into the nearby bushes. “Do you get used to it? Like, does all this nature just seem boring the longer you live here?”
“Not always,” Alexi said. “It’s funny to watch people who live in the city freak out when they see a fox or a snake, especially if it’s like a brown snake that’s more likely to piss itself if you get too close instead of trying to bite you. Which is not to say that you should get too close to it because if you get close enough it will bite you, but it’s not venomous.”
“Wow.” Eli searched around at his feet. “I’ve been thinking about like, getting one of those field guides for local fauna and coming out here to see what I can see.”
Alexi chuckled. “Live here long enough, you won’t need a field guide. I couldn’t tell you the exact species of bird or snake or fish that live around here, but when you’re young your parents or your teachers or some other adult will point out what’s safe to approach and what you should avoid.”
“I need an adult then,” Eli said. “You guys will have to do.”
Alexi grimaced. They blew out a big breath. “Oof, I don’t know if we’re adulty enough to count as actual adults. We’re mostly teenagers who started doing adult stuff but haven’t passed our adulting tests yet. That’s why we stick together; with our powers combined, we almost equal one functioning adult human.”
Eli laughed. “Good thing you all stick together, then.” The two of them were almost at their cars when he cleared his throat and asked, “Did any of you ever date? Y’know, being the only openly gay people who live here year-round?” He laughed again somewhat awkwardly. “I mean, that’s either a stupid question or a rude question and I’m sorry, just ... curious.”
Alexi shrugged. “We’re not actually the only queer people around here, we’re ... the only ones our age who actually want to hang out with each other. But yeah, Pat and I dated. In high school. We were both into alternative rock and emo fashion and trying to stand out, and eventually we figured we’d stand out more if we were dating and flaunted how happy and healthy our relationship was compared to everyone else’s.”
“And we actually made a good couple, for a while. Went to concerts when we could, she’s the one who taught me how to do my nails properly, she was there for me through ... a lot. Then I went to college, discovered a few things about myself, and asked if we could see other people for a couple months just to, I don’t know, test our love?” Alexi kicked a twig in their path. “She was and is my best friend. Those few months proved we were better off if that was it.”
Less than a month into their “experimental phase,” Alexi’s mom took a turn for the worse. Alexi tossed all relationships and even college itself aside to come home and help their dad take care of her. She didn’t last long. Alexi didn’t regret their decision because they would have hated themself forever if they weren’t there to say goodbye. But after that they emotionally withdrew for a long time and focused almost entirely on working to pay off her medical bills and the mortgage on the house. Pat had remained a good supportive friend; Alexi just couldn’t love her the way they used to.
Eli reached his car first. He stood with his thumb on his keyfob, but didn’t push it yet. “Do you think it’d be weird if I ... Forget it.”
Alexi stared. “What, do you want to ask her out? You can try. I know she’s on OKCupid if you want to try your luck there first, make a profile and see if it matches you two.”
“It’s ...” Eli sighed, then smiled. “Yeah, okay, thanks.” The lights on his car flashed with a little chirp. “As always, I enjoyed chatting with you.”
A possibility hit Alexi like a hydroplaning semi. They dismissed the thought immediately. Eli had had plenty of opportunities to ask them out, or even flirt with them. The closest the two of them had gotten to flirting with each other was sharing an ice cream sundae. And Alexi listening to the early cut of Eli’s ASMR. And Eli telling Alexi about his parents and his sister, which he hadn’t even told the rest of the group despite his normally open nature. And Eli taking every chance he got to tell Alexi how much he liked talking to them.
Maybe it wasn’t such a stupid idea after all.