Fight or Flight
No one here.
Dani turned around and headed down the opposite hallway. He ran past the rows of identical lockers; he waded through remnants of celebratory trash and abandoned homework; he didn't bother to glance at the numerous banners that congratulated the Class of '06. In a few hours, these would be the remains of his past at Duane Street High School.
No one here either.
His blue Chuck Taylors skidded on the slippery floor as he halted before a wall. Dead end. He was beginning to think Spence wouldn't show he was beginning to think scary thoughts. Spence sometimes worried him and he wasn't quite sure why. He wiped any unsavory images from his mind and ran down the next hallway, annoyed by the maroon gown flapping around him.
Oh thank God.
There he was, but not how Dani had pictured he would look. With his gown crumpled on the floor beside him, Spencer was leaning against the wall, bent over and breathing hard. It was a frightening sight; he clutched at his chest and gasped for air, eyes wide and searching the floor frantically. After a moment, he looked up at Dani, who stared back, unsure of what to do.
"Wha... what's the matter, Spence?" His voice came out slightly shriller than Dani was hoping.
"Dani." Spence tilted his head back and his eyelids slid shut. "I'm... dizzy." He tried to sit down slowly, but lost control and collapsed onto the floor in a heap. Dani ran towards him and knelt down, keeping a little distance.
"Are you okay, Spence? What's wrong?"
"I'm having... a panic attack," he panted, and a wave of fear passed over his face again. He grabbed Dani by the front of his gown and held on tightly, as if his friend would slip through his fingertips at any moment.
"Um, okay buddy, it's okay, it's okay." The repetition offered Dani some comfort, but his friend simply trembled and struggled for composure, pressing his back against the wall. Dani touched his shoulder and Spencer blinked with the slightest flicker of relief. One of his hands released and he ran it through his sweat-soaked hair.
"I think... it may be passing..."
Dani sighed mentally, but remained concerned. "Do you... you get these often?"
"No. Yes. Sometimes, lately. I-"
A distant cheer came from the open window above their heads. Dani stood up - almost being instantly pulled back down again from Spence's grip and saw the graduation ceremony beginning. Hundreds of parents sat crammed together before a large platform, where a giant colorful bird was displayed as the school's emblem. The students were a sea of maroon and gold, and a wide fountain full of glimmering water was off to the side, bubbling happily.
"It's starting," Dani said quietly. Spence curled up in a ball, his face contorted with distress. He looked on the verge of tears.
"I don't think I can go out there," he whispered, panic-stricken. Dani knelt down again, alarmed at his friend's behavior. Usually Spencer was the picture of calm it was why he succeeded in almost every aspect of high school.
"Please, Spence, tell me what's wrong. Why are you freaking out on me, man?"
"What's wrong? What's wrong?" Spencer's voice grew steadily louder. He whirled on Dani, and though he sounded angry, his eyes betrayed him; Dani had never seen him so frightened. "I'll tell you what's wrong. I-" He stared at Dani's bright eyes and bright hair and bright teeth and looked nauseated.
"I think I'm gonna be sick," he finished, and looked away.
Dani sighed and made himself comfortable. "Well, I'm not going out there. Not without you. You don't wanna go, than neither do I."
Spence rubbed his face with his hands in disbelief. "You don't understand."
"No, I don't. I want to, though."
"Just go without me! Fucking leave me here!"
Dani thought about it. "Nah," he said shortly.
"God, why are you being so fucking patient? I'm sick, can't you see that?"
Dani half-smiled. "What are you talking about, Spence? You're smarter than everyone, you're the best ballplayer I know, you're going to Stanford... You've got it all, man. You're not sick.'" He laughed. "You're the farthest thing from sick there is. You're too good at life, man."
Spence snorted in disgust. "You're just like the rest of them."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Spence didn't respond right away, so Dani hit him lightly in the arm. "I'm your best friend; I'm not like anyone else."
"You're just like the rest of them," Spence repeated bitterly, without looking at him. "You think just because I'm a good student, a good athlete, and because I'll probably be a good worker some day and a good husband or whatever, then therefore I'm a good person and happy and everything's always great with me. Well fuck you, that's what I say. Fuck all of you."
Dani sat in silence. He wasn't quite sure how to take that. Part of him was offended Spence lumped him in with the others, those who made assumptions because it was easier than the alternative, and part of him was disappointed to realize there was some truth to it. Dani had always felt like a screw-up and a slacker in comparison to Spence, though his friend never allowed him to think that way for too long, and therefore didn't stop to consider Spence might go through similar feelings of insecurity. Spence had always been there to give him a hand and drag him kicking and screaming to responsibility what could he need from Dani?
"Okay then," Dani said slowly. "If you've got problems, tell me one."
Spence sighed and looked at him. "Riddle me this, Batman: where was I on prom night?"
Dani opened his mouth as if to answer, then stopped. "Uh...?" he shrugged.
Spence nodded as if this somehow satisfied him. Dani waited for further explanation. When none came, he hit him in the arm again.
"Ow! You're gonna bruise me, dammit."
"Stop being so mysterious and tell me your damned problem, would ya?"
Spence sighed again, but complied. "I spent prom night alone. Y'know why?" Silence. "Because I had a panic attack in my bedroom and couldn't bring myself to leave the house."
Dani looked down and said nothing. He allowed blonde strands of hair from his bangs to cover his eyes, ashamed that he didn't know of his friend's suffering.
"So you do get these often." Spence nodded. "When did they start?"
"Um, I think during the PSATs."
"What? That's why you rushed out of there? I thought you had diarrhea!"
Spence looked as if he could've laughed if he hadn't been so miserable. "Nope."
Dani scratched the back of his head. "But you aced the PSATs, and the SATs. Why would you freak about them?"
"See, that's the problem. People don't realize that there's a lot of pressure involved in looking like you're not under pressure. When others expect you to have no problems, it doesn't make the problems disappear. It just forces you to internalize them."
Dani flushed, conceding to the truth of the statement. "You sound like a shrink," he said.
"Well, I've been reading up on them. Considering getting one for the summer, before I go off to school."
Several moments of silence passed between them. Finally, Dani spoke up.
"I'm sorry I didn't know about... about you on prom night."
Spence nodded. "You only know what I choose to show you," he murmured. "That's as close as we ever get to people."
Again, Dani didn't quite know how to respond to this.
"And if you must know... I'm terrified." Spence took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm really, really scared to go off to school."
"But why? You're a responsible guy. School is your thing. I'm the one who should be nervous... which-which I am, sort of."
"Yeah, high school is my thing. College is different. Here, I'm a big fish in a small pond. At Stanford, who the hell knows? I may be eaten alive."
Dani rolled his eyes. "Spence, you're not the type of guy to think that way. You're gonna be a doctor you know this stuff. Now cut the bullshit and tell me what's really bothering you."
Spence looked mildly startled. He stared at Dani a long time in the eyes.
"What are you so scared of, Spence?"
A particularly loud cheer was emitted by the ceremony. Dani stood up and looked out the window. Spence sat still and looked up at Dani.
"I'm scared to leave you," he said finally, voice barely above a whisper.
Dani smiled bitterly and didn't remove his eyes from the window. "I'll be fine. You don't have to worry about leaving me behind." He narrowed his eyebrows, squinting, the sun nearly blinding him. "Your buddy will be a-okay."
"I said I'm scared to leave you," Spence repeated firmly. "I don't want to be across the country without you by my side. I... I need you in my life, man."
Dani swallowed, his throat suddenly quite dry. "I'll always be a phone call away," he said, keeping his voice flat and steady. He was vaguely aware of being concerned where this conversation was going.
Spence sighed for what seemed like the millionth time.
"Wouldja stop doing that?" Dani demanded, turning to look at him. "It's getting on my nerves. You're just sighing because you're not saying what you really want to say!"
"You don't know me," Spence shot back. "You don't know anything!"
"Oh, I don't know you?" Dani's voice grew louder. "I don't know my best friend since middle school? I don't know that you threw up on the Tilt-o-Whirl in ninth grade and together we told everyone it was Andrew? I don't know you've wanted to be a doctor since you had your tonsils removed and decided working in a hospital was where you wanted to be?"
"Okay, Dani, that's not-"
"I'm not done yet, dammit! I don't know that you got rejected on Valentine's Day three years ago and you haven't asked out a girl since? I don't know your favorite team is the Yankees, your favorite food is pizza with mushrooms, and your favorite show is House M.D.? I don't know that you're the only reason I did okay on my SATs, and the only reason I'm graduating today?" He caught his breath and looked his friend in the eye. "Tell me man, what else don't I know?"
Spencer smiled, but his eyes were sad. He pulled his knees up against his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs, the shoelaces of his brown Chuck Taylors falling untied. Dani sat down beside him again and waited.
"You don't know why I had a panic attack on prom night."
"No, I don't." Dani watched him: watched his eyebrows twist together in thought, watched the light beam off his glasses and send lens flares against the walls, watched his jaw clench and his Adam's apple move up and down. "Tell me."
Spence squeezed his eyes shut and spoke quickly. "I spent several hours that night torturing myself over whether I should go to the stupid fuckin' dance, or go to your house and tell you once and for all how I feel about you." He let out a brief, hoarse laugh and covered his face in his hands.
Dani thought about this. "How do you feel about me?" he asked quietly.
Spence ripped his hands away. "I love you, man. Jesus!"
"Well, I love you, too, man."
"No, Dani! I'm fucking in love with you!"
"Oh." Dani could hardly say he was surprised the way this conversation had been skirting around all afternoon. "How long have you felt this way?"
Spence blinked. "Since the eighth grade." He smiled to himself. "I was having a horrible day, and I got on the horrible bus, and all of our horrible classmates were taking up all the seats... but there you were, saving a seat for me in the back with a broad smile on your face. Your hair was shining so bright it was blinding."
He shook his head of the memory and returned to reality. "So I've been painfully in love with my best friend for years, I'm moving across the country, and I'm scared shitless about the whole thing. I'm just not in the mindset to celebrate our graduation today. Okay?"
"Okay," Dani said, and grinned. He then leaned forward and wrapped his arms tightly around Spencer, bringing him into a hug. He felt Spence stiffen uncomfortably for a moment and then relax into it, gripping him back. Dani brought his friend closer, pressed chest against chest and held him tighter, breathing in the scent of his hair and sweat and clothes. He smiled and pressed his lips into his shoulder.
"I love you, man," Dani said again.
Spence sighed slightly. "I know you do."
"I hope so."
Dani and Spence sat in their graduation gowns on the front steps of the school, watching the ceremony from a safe distance. They passed a cigarette between them and said nothing. David gave the valedictorian speech to much applause and the diplomas were passed out. The event was coming to a close.
Dani gazed at Spence out of the corner of his eye. He looked considerably more relaxed after having gotten so much off his chest; Dani had no idea how to take Spence's feelings for him, or what he felt in return. All he knew was that the two were best friends and always would be, no matter how far away they lived from each other, and he owed a lot to the guy.
It was because of this that Dani decided to make this day not only memorable but happy for Spence, and stood up suddenly. He pulled his gown up over his head and deposited it on the grass. He began unbuttoning his undershirt and stuck a foot in Spence's face.
"Take off my shoes."
Spence glanced up at him questioningly, but did as he was told. Dani removed his shirt, pants and socks, the hot humid air of summer breathing against his bare skin. He looked around and nodded in determination.
"Here, hold onto my glasses."
"Dani, what the hell are you-"
"This is for you, Spence!" he declared, and yanked down his boxers as he ran toward the concentration of people. The voice of the principal came into earshot as he got closer.
"...And with that said, congratulations, class of-"
"BAAAANZAAAAIII!" Dani screamed, running stark naked past the audience and jumping into the fountain. The water was knee-deep and streamed around him as he danced and splashed, making a big show of it. He felt himself exposed and open and free, and forgot to be embarrassed. In his own way, the gesture was a salute to Spence.
People gasped and stood up, staring at him. After a moment, Ben and Milo jumped down from the stage and went to join him, then more and more until half of the graduating class was dancing in the school's fountain (though most of them fully-dressed). Gowns were shed and smiles abounded.
Spence watched from his post, distant from his friend and yet not at all feeling alone. This was better than the traditional tossing of the hats; this was better than anything had been in awhile. And at the center of it, a boy with hair shining so bright it was blinding.