Emilio Cabral

The first time I met Ben was at a Juilliard summer dance intensive for high school seniors. We were pas de deux partners, and our instructor, a tall Black man with a thin face and close-cropped brown hair, was always yelling at us because Ben wouldn’t stop gushing over the book he was reading—something vaguely dystopian about a protagonist who falls in love with a boy who just happens to be his mortal enemy. I wanted to ask if bringing up a queer book was his way of flirting with me, but I asked him if he thought the two boys would end up together instead.

Ben laughed—a sound as delicate as a wind chime. “I’ll tell you when I finish it.”

    The next time I saw him was on a Friday in October, during a weekly ballet workshop for low-income youth my dad taught in Brooklyn. There had been a lot of RSVPs, and my dad brought me along to corral the toddlers whose parents only brought them for the free child care while he worked with the older kids. I was explaining first position to a little girl whose golden-brown braids were held together by dozens of bobby pins, when she stuck her tongue out and ran off towards where my dad was working with a group of teenagers on the far side of the room. We were in a small studio that my dad paid the owner to reserve for us each week, so the little girl made it to him before I caught up with her.

“Sorry, Dad,” I said, tugging on my ear.

“Don’t apologize, Sebastian,” he responded, smiling down at the little girl wrapped around his leg. “Gia just misses her favorite ballet teacher. Isn’t that right, Gia?”

Gia laughed and nodded her head before raising her hands. Without hesitation, my dad reached down and picked Gia up, placing her on his hip. It was strange to see him so happy to be dealing with kids. He’d never been like that with me when I was little.

“Take a break, everyone,” my dad continued. “I’ll take Gia back to her friends.”

The seven teenagers he’d been working with muttered “thank you” under their breath and headed for where they’d left their water bottles, but a boy a few inches taller than me, with broad shoulders and light brown skin, stopped and turned around to face me.

“Were you at the Juilliard summer program this year?” He asked, running a hand through his chestnut brown hair.

“Yeah,” I answered slowly.

The boy grinned, exposing a singular dimple that sent a pang of something achingly familiar through me. “I knew I recognized you!”

“Ben?” I asked, blushing. “I didn’t know you lived in Brooklyn.”

“I don’t,” he answered. “I live in Baltimore, but I’m here for the weekend visiting my cousin.”

“Are they here?” I asked, looking around the room for someone with Ben’s sharp cheekbones and green eyes.

“No, she’s at work. I saw one of your dad’s flyers on my way to pick up some food from the taqueria up the street and came here instead.”

I ducked my head. “Well, I’m glad you did.”

Ben winked. “Me too. But why didn’t you tell me your dad is John Ledger?”

He said my dad’s name with the same mix of awe and disbelief that everyone who’d ever seen him dance on stage did.

I shrugged. “Because you said it like that. Besides, you were too busy talking about that book to let me get more than five words in all summer.”

Ben smiled at that—the sort of crooked smile that showed off his dimple while also being much more charming on someone as absurdly attractive as him than a perfect one would have. “Speaking of the book, the answer is yes.”

I frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“The two boys. They ended up together.”

    My family lived in a brownstone on the Lower Westside of Manhattan. When I didn’t have school or ballet practice, I would sit and look out the big bay windows at all the college students racing by on their bikes. With jackets tied loosely around their waists and the wind in their hair, they always looked so carefree. When I was seven, I’d try my best to catch their attention. No matter how hard I waved, though, they never looked at me or the house. They’d seen hundreds just like it since their first day at Columbia and would see hundreds more before they graduated.

Ben, on the other hand, couldn’t stop staring at everything from the spirals carved into the windowsills, to the gold plating on the doorframe. Watching him take everything in, I was suddenly embarrassed by the fact that, compared to most people, my family had a lot of money. My parents were the best dancers The New York City Ballet ever had, and my grandpa—a former historical fiction writer—would have been happy to pay our expenses for the rest of his life if we’d needed him to.

“Your house is wicked, Seb.”

I blushed at the nickname. No one had ever called me that before. “You really think so? It’s not too much?”

“Oh, it’s definitely too much. But I like that. It’s the kind of house you’d think the owners would never let anyone into.”

He was right about that, but it had more to do with my parents’ concern for me than their concern for the house. Houseguests were distractions, and my dad loved to say “there’s no room for distractions in dance.” I’d dissolved dozens of friendships over the years because my parents thought they took up too much of my time. Although, I suppose that having houseguests wasn’t a distraction when said houseguest was good enough to be handpicked for a Juilliard summer program.

“Thanks again for coming,” I said, ducking my head and putting my hands into the pockets of my jeans. “You didn’t have to say yes, you know.”

“Wrong,” Ben responded. “When a cute boy invites you to dinner, you can’t say no.”

He said it so nonchalantly that I couldn’t tell if he was flirting with me, but it was more fun to assume he was. It made him the first boy to see my messy black hair, my big ears, my pinched face, and decide I was worth it.

The inside of my family’s house was even more gilded than the outside, and I carefully cataloged Ben’s reaction as his eyes skipped over the ballet trophies, signed portraits of famous prima ballerinas, and the crystal chandelier hanging in the living room. There was no disgust in his eyes, though, and when he whispered “wow,” I smiled.

My mom was at the kitchen counter, stacking plates next to two large cardboard boxes of pizza from the Dominoes up the street, but my dad and my grandpa were both sitting at the dining room table and smiled at the sight of Ben.

Everyone always confused them for siblings, but I never understood why. They had the same black hair, the same pale skin, and the same dark blue eyes—hovering somewhere between indigo and navy—that the girls at school said I was lucky to have inherited, but there was something fundamentally different about how those features manifested in each of them. My dad was the perfect ballerina: cold, lithe, and unattainably gorgeous in a way that made people jealous. My grandpa, on the other hand, was an open book: warm, a little worn from age, and the kind of handsome born out of small endearing imperfections like his crooked front teeth. To me, they couldn’t have been more different.

“So, Ben,” my grandpa said, glancing at me as we took our seats at the table. “How do you know Sebastian?”

“We met at Juilliard this summer,” Ben answered, leaning back just enough to lift the front legs of his chair off the floor.

My grandpa frowned. “You’re a dancer then.”

“Don’t say that like it’s a bad thing,” my dad said, jumping in.

“It’s been years since Sebastian had anyone over,” my grandpa continued. “Did you know that, Ben?”

Ben let the front legs of his chair fall back onto the floor. He was looking everywhere but at me. “I didn’t.”

“Grandpa,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose, “you’re embarrassing me.”

“How?” my grandpa asked. “It’s not your fault you aren’t allowed to have friends.”

He and my dad had been no stranger to disagreements ever since he moved in with us after suffering a heart attack the year before, but my grandpa had never been so outright hostile before. I opened my mouth to ask if he and my dad had been arguing before Ben and I walked over, but my mom floated in from the kitchen, balancing the stack of plates in her left hand and the two pizza boxes in her right.

“Dinner is served,” she said, frowning pointedly at my grandpa. “I would have cooked something, but I didn’t know you were coming, Ben. I hope you like pizza.”

Ben smiled and my mom melted at the sight of his dimple. “Pizza is my favorite food group, ma’am.”

My mom laughed. “Please, call me Evelyn.”

Her arrival didn’t defuse the tension at the table, but it did distract Ben, and so my dad and my grandpa were free to snipe at each other while he asked my mom about what it was like to dance for The New York City Ballet. As she launched into the story of how she fell for my dad during Sleeping Beauty rehearsals, Ben leaned so far forward in his seat that his t-shirt rode up, exposing the waistband of his underwear. Blushing, I looked back up just in time to catch my mom giving me a mortifyingly obvious thumbs up as she asked Ben about Maryland and his experience at the Juilliard summer program.

I’m sure other moms were also great at embarrassing their seventeen-year-old sons, but I doubt it was as personal for them as it was for her. While my dad was an only child raised by a rich, single parent, my mom grew up helping her parents raise her younger siblings in a two-bedroom apartment in Miami, Florida. At every moment, she had someone that needed her to bust their chops and put things in perspective. Since my parents never tried having more kids after me, my mom took it upon herself to fulfill that role for me too. It was my dad’s job to keep my dancing on track, and her job to keep me focused.

“So, Ben,” my mom said after we’d all finished eating. “What are your intentions with my son?”

I groaned. “Mom, why do you have to make things weird?”

“I’m just asking an innocent question, Sebastian.”

“Well, Evelyn,” Ben said, looking me up and down. “Between you and me, I’m not quite sure yet. He’s plenty cute, and he’s got those big blue eyes, but he’s a little prickly for my taste.”

“Prickly? I am not prickly.”

My grandpa laughed. “Don’t get so defensive, Sebastian. “You get it from your dad.”

“At least I’ve given my son things,” my dad muttered.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it that,” my grandpa fired back.

“Sebastian,” my mom said, all traces of laughter gone from her voice, “why don’t you give Ben a tour?”

I hurried out of the dining room with Ben on my heels, but we weren’t fast enough to avoid hearing my grandpa yell something about my dad treating me like a cash cow. Ben shot me a sympathetic glance, but I shook my head and kept walking until I got to my room. After Ben walked in, I slammed the door shut and threw myself face down on my bed. A few seconds later, the bed lurched beneath me and fingers brushed against my arm. Slowly, I turned my head to the right and came face to face with Ben.

“Sounded like things were getting pretty intense out there,” he whispered, his breath ruffling my eyelashes.

“It’s nothing,” I responded. “Happens all the time.”

“It can’t be easy for you.”

“I don’t even notice it anymore.”

Ben arched an eyebrow. “Why don’t I believe you?”

“Because I’m a terrible liar,” I answered, burying my face in the covers again.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I sighed. “Not really.”

“We won’t talk about it, then,” Ben responded, threading his fingers through my hair. “Is this okay?”

“More than okay,” I answered, glad the covers hid my cheeks.

We’d touched each other quite a bit during the summer for our pas de deux, but the weight of his hands against my hips hadn’t quite felt the same as the soft pressure of his fingers. At Juilliard, touching had just been part of the dance. But as we lay on my bed, I almost believed Ben was my boyfriend. That he wasn’t just passing through town. That he loved me.

“Is it true that I’m the first person you’ve had over in years?”

Ben was lying on the bed in the guestroom of his cousin’s apartment in Brooklyn, watching me go through the books he brought from home. They were all dystopian novels, but one sported a cover with two boys in torn-up clothing, staring at each other from opposite sides of a chasm.

“Is this the book you were reading at Juilliard?” I asked, holding it up.

Ben nodded. “And do your dad and your grandpa always argue like that?”

“It looks like a good book,” I continued, putting it back down. “I’ll have to borrow it before you go back to Baltimore.”

Ben frowned at the mention of his hometown. “I didn’t invite you over to talk about books, Ben.”

“Well, I told you yesterday that I didn’t want to talk about it,” I snapped. “And you said that was fine.”

Ben shrugged and ran a hand through his hair. “That was before you jumped at the chance to get away from whatever toxic shit is going on in your house right now.”

The certainty with which he diagnosed my familial situation annoyed me. How could he say my family was toxic when he’d only been witness to one dinner? All families argue, and mine was no exception. That didn’t mean I needed him to save me.

“And who said me coming over had anything to do with my family?” I asked, frowning. “Maybe I just wanted to see you.”

Ben grinned, his dimple taunting me. “Well, that’s a given. But those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, Seb.”

I rolled my eyes and took a step back from the bookshelf. It might have been his cousin’s guest room, but it felt so distinctly “Ben” for reasons that I couldn’t quite place. Maybe it was the way the dresser was lined with empty gum wrappers, or maybe it was all the art hanging on the walls. Either way, it was strange to think about how the room would be stripped of its contents when Ben left—made sterile until the next time someone needed to use it.

“These are amazing, Ben,” I said, pointing at a portrait of an old lady with brown skin and dark blue hair. “Where did you find them?”

“I didn’t,” he answered. “I painted them.”

With his long arms, oversized white t-shirt, and a pair of tortoiseshell glasses he hadn’t been wearing yesterday, or at Juilliard, Ben definitely looked the part of an artist. But it was hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that the hands which had supported my weight during lifts were also delicate enough to paint the art pieces on the wall.

“How do you have time to paint and dance professionally?”

Ben sat up and laughed. “Who said I paint professionally? It’s just for fun, Seb.”

I sat down next to him on the bed. “And your parents are cool with it taking time away from your dancing?”

“My parents are accountants, Seb. They could care less about my dancing as long as I’m getting scholarships.”

“Must be nice,” I muttered.

Ben frowned. “Not really. It would be nice to have parents that cared about what made me happy.”

I ducked my head. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, well, I guess I’m a little jealous.”

“I thought you didn’t have anything to be jealous of,” Ben responded, blinking a little too innocently.

“You’re an ass.”

Ben wiggled his eyebrows. “What was that about my ass?”

“How can you go from being so serious to making such awful jokes?” I said, letting my head fall until my forehead rested against his shoulder.

“That’s a story for another day, Seb,” Ben answered, his voice getting uncharacteristically quiet. “Today is about you,” he added.

Ben said “today” in that casual, lilting way he said almost everything, but it echoed in my mind. Could I really open up to someone who wasn’t permanent? Someone who, in less than two days, would be sleeping in another bed, in another room, in another house, in another state?

“You saw my dad yesterday,” I answered slowly. “He and my mom have been training me for a spot in The New York City Ballet since I was three years old, and that means I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies. Any time, actually,” I added.

“That’s fucked,” Ben responded, with a little more heat than I felt the situation warranted. “But I guess that’s why I’m also the first person you’ve had over in years. Damn, for a second there, I thought I was special.”

I laughed. “The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, Ben.”

“Hey,” he said, leaning towards me, eyes flickering down to my lips, “that’s my line.”

    Somehow, making out with Ben turned into him dragging me to 3 Dollar Bill, a gay nightclub in Brooklyn a few blocks away from his cousin’s apartment.

I tried arguing at first—my parents would have killed me if they found out—but how was I supposed to mount a defense against the boy who had just traced the seam of my mouth with his tongue? It only took Ben a few seconds, and a few kisses pressed to my jaw, to get me out the door and into the throng of people swarming the sidewalks that afternoon.

“This is a terrible idea, “ I hissed, looking up at the club’s neon yellow sign, decorated with cartoon rainbows and cocktails.

“It’s probably my best idea ever, Seb,” Ben corrected, throwing an around my shoulder as the line of people wearing ripped skinny jeans and mesh tops in front us moved forward.

“I don’t even have a fake,” I said, fighting the urge to lean into Ben’s side.

“Sneaking into a club is a teenage right of passage.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Ben frowned. “Well, I’m here to fix that,” he said, pressing a kiss to the top of my head. “And you don’t have to be scared to lean into me Seb,” he continued, waggling his eyebrows. “No one here will care. They’ll just be incredibly jealous of you.”

“Shut up,” I fired back, cheeks burning as I stepped forward, letting his arm fall off my shoulder, to close the gap between us and the people in front of us in line.

Standing there, surrounded by people laughing, friends taking pictures, and couples making out, my mind drifted back to Ben’s apartment. I wanted to tell him that he was the first boy I ever kissed, that the scraping of our teeth and the clumsy hands I ran through his hair as he cupped my face were because I’d never done that before, not because I was a bad kisser.

But as we got to the front of the line, and Ben leaned forward to whisper something in the bouncer’s ear, I decided that telling him was not an option. There was no way I could put that pressure on a boy just passing through my life. For all I knew, Ben had whirlwind romances with random boys all the time. Telling him about my inexperience seemed like a sure-fire way to make it obvious that I was more invested in what we had than he was.

“Come on, Seb,” Ben said, turning towards me and wrapping a hand around my wrist. “Eugene here is letting us in.”

“Really?” I asked, forcing my eyes away from Ben’s hand.

Eugene grunted and opened the door. “Hurry up before I change my mind.”

“Thanks, Eugene,” Ben said brightly, pushing past him and into the club with me in tow.

The hardwood floor was completely obscured by feet outfitted in everything from converse to Chelsea boots, and the crush of bodies pressing in on me felt more appropriate for a moshpit than a club in Brooklyn. Strobe lights flickered along the walls, turning people’s faces various shades of purple and pink, banners of various drag queens hung from the rafters, and boys wearing nothing but jockstraps danced on wooden tables scattered throughout the room.

Ben let go of my wrist and spun around to face me, the strobe lights turning his eyes a mix of green, purple, and pink.

“What do you think, Seb?”

“I think this place is a health hazard,” I answer, watching a man who looks like he’s in his fifties slip a twenty-dollar bill into the waistband of a dancer’s jockstrap.

“Your shots are up to date, right?”

“I think so.”

“Then you’ll be fine,” Ben said, laughing and wrapping his arms around my waist. “Stop thinking and just have fun.”

“I think my dad just passed out in the living room,” I whispered, the corner of my lips twitching upwards.

Instead of responding, Ben spun us out into the center of the dance floor and buried his face into the crook of my neck. A Lorde song started blasting from the speakers and we were suddenly surrounded by people on all sides. Denim and leather-clad bodies pressed against me, and a drink slipped out of someone’s hand and splattered all over my shoes. But it didn’t matter because I only had eyes for Ben.

When we danced together at Juilliard he was the perfect ballerina. His turnout was impeccable, his footwork was amazing, and the control he had over his body was something even I couldn’t replicate. On the dance floor at 3 Dollar Bill, though, Ben was a completely different dancer.

His hands slipped beneath the hem of my shirt, running along the small of my back, and he ground our hips together in time with the beat drop. He threw his head back with every roll of his shoulders, the strobe lights glinting off the hollow of his throat. Dancing with him made it hard for me to be self-conscious, and, after a few seconds, I closed my eyes and started dancing too. Just letting myself get lost in the music.

“Seb,” Ben whispered in my ear. “Do you want anything to drink?

I opened my eyes. “But I’m not twenty-one.”

“Neither am I. But no one here cares.”

“I’m good,” I responded, shaking my head. “But if you get something, I’ll try it.”

“Well that depends on if I let you,” Ben said, winking.

As he walked over to the bar, pushing his way past a group of older men out of place in their crip suits, I could practically feel the people around me looking him up and down. Strangely enough, I wasn’t jealous at all. Even if Ben had eyes for any of them, he wouldn’t be around long enough for them to do anything about it. The fact that his stay was temporary was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that I was the only person in New York City who’d get to experience this exact day, this exact weekend, with Ben.

My entire life, I’d been conditioned to think that a stable career, critical acclaim, and lasting success were the most important things in life. But standing in the middle of 3 Dollar Bill, watching Ben lean over a dirty countertop and sweet talk a surly-looking bartender, I couldn’t help but think that maybe my parents were wrong.

Yes, Ben was leaving. Yes, I probably wouldn’t ever see him again. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t take pleasure in remembering him for who he was to me at that point in my life. I would never have to watch him fall in love with someone else, or fall out of love with me. He’d always just be the boy who danced a pas de deux with me one summer.

“He wouldn’t budge,” Ben said when he came back empty-handed.

“Heartbreaking,” I responded, smiling. “How can I cheer you up?”

Ben smiled at that, his singular dimple flashing. “You already have,” he answered, wrapping his arms around my waist again. “Now dance with me.”

We danced until midnight. Until my parents started blowing up my phone. Until the bartender kicked us out because we were the only people left. Out on the sidewalk, with the streetlights shining down on us, Ben flashed his crooked smile, threaded his fingers through my hair, and brushed his lips against mine.

Emilio Cabral is a sophomore from League City, Texas studying Creative Writing. He enjoys bird watching, karate, and reading Sally Rooney novels. He hopes one day to see his name on the spine of books in the young adult section of Barnes & Noble.