The moment Tan stepped across the threshold of McGill University in downtown Montreal with Ayla at his side, he was transported back in time. Logically, not in any literal sense. It was almost cliche—the stereotypical university setting from a Hollywood movie like someone had covered the classic stone buildings with creeping ivy for the perfect shot. Students lounged on the sprawling, picturesque lawn under enormous leafy trees.
“What do you think?” Ayla said, her light French-Canadian accent noticeable. She had been born in Quebec, unlike Chord. She stood beside Tan, one hand shading her dark eyes from the summer sun and a cup of Timmies coffee from the shop across the street in the other. Her standard power suit was missing, replaced with white capris and a moss green peasant top.
Tan surveyed the campus. Even during the summer, students, professors, and the general public crowded the lawns. Just off Sherbrooke, it was sure to attract visitors looking for a break from the city. The luscious grass threatened to lure him with its sirens call.
Shoving his hands into the pockets of his cargo shorts, Tan rocked back on his heels. “Can I take a nap?”
Ayla smacked Tan across the back of his head. “We’re here to see if you’re interested in pursuing higher education, not encourage your languorous hobbies.”
“Alright, alright.” Wincing, Tan rubbed his tender skull. She had been their manager for less than a week, and she was already comfortable enough to abuse them.
Not that she hadn’t been before; older sister of their bests friend and all. The paperwork hadn’t even been signed yet, but the band was confident this was going to work out. The only thing they worried about was what if she regretted walking away from her future. The LSATs were in two weeks. She could still change her mind and apply to law school.
Tan glanced at Ayla out of the corner of his eye, still enthralled with the green. “You completed your undergraduate here?”
“Mhmm…” Ayla looped her arm through his and dragged Tan further into the grounds. “Allow me to give you the insider’s tour. I’ll even include the best places to nap on campus. Then we’ll have lunch. Your treat.”
“Of course.” Tan rolled his eyes at her, but allowed himself to be carted off.
By the end of the tour, Tan was sprawled face down on the grass outside the Redpath Museum. He let out a pained groan. His feet ached, his mouth was dry, and his stomach protested. They had walked every kilometre of the enormous campus.
“You’re a monster,” Tan whined, but Ayla only laughed at him. She was standing close by, looking flawless and fanning herself with a handful of pamphlets.
“Well?” Ayla crouched beside him, lest the grass stain her perfection.
Tan folded his arms under his head and propped up his chin so he could stare across the impressive grounds. The question became, was academia really for him? His parents expected a great deal from him, but he’d never placed himself in their vision of his future. He’d asked Ayla to show him around to feed his own curiosity, and now, he only had more questions.
“I don’t know,” Tan answered. But this time, instead of an overwhelming sense of panic and hopelessness, he was excited. He had options. He had choices. He just needed to find the right path for him.
Ayla stood up and offered a hand to Tan. “Good,” she said, tossing her chestnut hair over her shoulder. “You’re not supposed to know. You’re supposed to find out.”
A direct flight from Montreal to Vancouver in fair conditions is just shy of five hours. By the clock of Tan’s brand new iPad, only on the market a month ago, the flight had been in the air for five hours and three minutes. The pilot had announced seconds ago that they were preparing for landing. By Tan’s estimation, they would touch down in twenty minutes.
The cabin was brightly lit for the day flight. If Tan was so inclined, he could lean over Chord and see the sprawling Fraser Valley. But he wasn’t. Two hours ago, Chord had fallen asleep. His head had plopped onto Tan’s shoulder. At least he didn’t snore, but there was a thin string of drool dampening Tan’s Foo Fighters’ t-shirt.
Kian was still in Montreal with Ayla. During a week break in their schedule, Tan had decided to fly home for a few days. Chord had jumped on board with the idea, but Kian had opted to stay and finish his summer school work. In two weeks and six days, they would be flying to Europe. Munich would mark the beginning of their first European tour. Tan wanted Kian to be with them.
Tan shook his shoulder to rouse Chord. “Wake up, Briar Rose.”
Yawning into the back of his left hand, Chord sat up. His eyes were heavy with sleep, and he rubbed them tiredly. “Fuck you, dude.”
“No, thanks. You’re not my type,” Tan said. He powered down his iPad and shoved it into his Death the Kid messenger bag. “You know what they say. Two bottoms don’t make a top.”
Chord sputtered. “Did you just…”
If he cared, Tan might have been insulted that Chord wasn’t laughing at the joke, but the fact that Tan had made a joke. He had a sense of humour. By the time the stewardesses came around for their final check, Chord was still bent over, clutching his stomach as he laughed.
To the layman, a picture-perfect North Delta split-level rancher with a well-pruned flowerbed, and a Japanese Maple in the front yard, was not intimidating. Tan begged to differ. For the last nineteen minutes, he had been standing on his parents’ front stoop, mentally preparing himself for the confrontation at hand.
Since leaving on tour, Tan hadn’t answered a single call or email. He had consciously avoided any form of communication with his parents. His father had even tried a text message. It had read something along the lines of ‘your actions are childish.’ And Tan agreed with that assessment, but that didn’t lessen the fact he’d rather not listen to what an epic disappointment he was to his family.
Before Tan had summoned enough courage to knock, the door opened. His mother must have been watching him through the lace curtains over the front bay window. No words were exchanged. She simply motioned him into the house and closed the door behind him.
Tan dropped his messenger bag on the floor beside the couch, taking a moment to study the sitting room as he took a seat on the loveseat. Nothing had changed. Everything was exactly as it had been the day he had been chased from him home. The potted Areca Palm was a little more massive, beginning to encroach on the arm of the rocking chair in the corner.
Meanwhile, his mother bustled around the kitchen, preparing tea as she did for any guest that entered the house. The kettle whistled faintly before being snatched off the heat.
His father had to be home. Both cars had been in the carport, and it was Saturday. Neither of his parents worked weekends.
His mother reappeared with a tray of tea. She handed him a steaming blue cup with little white flowers and sat down on the couch across from him with her own. On the wall over her head hung a crucifix.
“Are you well?” his mother asked after several minutes of prolonged silence.
Tan nodded, and his mother sipped her tea. He could hear the tick of the clock mounted on the wall over the stove in the kitchen, and the ceramic bottom burned the palm of Tan’s hand. An awkward quiet settled over the room until it was interrupted by the creak of his father descending the stairs behind him.
His father settled into the seat beside his mother and coughed into a closed fist. Now that he was there, Tan realized he still wasn’t sure what he needed to say.
“I know neither of you approves, but I love what I do.” Tan was a little taken aback by how startled his parents appeared by that admission. He leaned forward and set his tea down on the table, which his mother immediately lifted and placed on a coaster. “You threw me out of the house when I was fifteen, and if it wasn’t for Kian-”
His father scoffed. “That boy turned you queer.”
“Homosexuality is not contagious, you narrow-minded, ignorant twat! I’m not even gay!” Glancing down, Tan realized he was on his feet, hands curled into fists at his sides.
His parents were openly gaping up at him, and his mother’s tea was dangerously close to spilling over the lip of the cup. He’d never raised his voice to them. Not even when they had been accusing him of heinous acts against God and humanity. Tan had no faith in an almighty creator. He based his faith in science and fact.
As Tan quietly took his seat, his mother set her own tea on a coaster and politely cleared her throat. “So, then…” she said.
Tan didn’t know how to answer that. It wasn’t even a question. Or a statement. It was an awkward form of an invitation to divulge and cleanse the deepest parts of his soul. But he couldn’t.
He wasn’t gay. He wasn’t straight either.
One morning when he was ten, he’d woken up with the understanding he was different. The promptly decided it was an issue for another day. He’d literally procrastinated his sexuality. What did it matter who he was attracted to? Men or women. He wasn’t particularly inclined either way.
“I don’t know what I am,” Tan admitted. He clenched his hands around the edge of the cushion and sank into the plush back of the couch. He stared at the steam rising out of his cup of tea. The vapour formed billowing patterns of strange swirls. “If I cared to, I could find a label to slot myself under, but I don’t. What I do understand is that you may never accept my career, or even me, but… I want to be happy.”
Tan’s mother lay a hand on her husband’s knee. “We just want you to reach your full potential,” she said. Her husband nodded in agreement. “With your mind, you could save the world.”
“I don’t want to save the world!” Tan shot forward in his seat, arms extended as if he could somehow present them with the inner workings of his mind. The mind they had such hopes for. “Not everyone has as lofty aspirations. Did you know Ayla walked away from law school to take care of her brother? She did it because that’s what she wanted. She loves Chord. And I love music!”
Tan was on his feet now, hands pulling at his hair because his parents were staring at him like he was speaking a dead language. He inhaled through his nose and dropped his hands to his sides.
“Every night, I touch the lives of hundreds of people—complete strangers. I may not be saving the world, but I’m inspiring it. And that’s enough for me,” Tan said. He wasn’t going to convert them. They couldn’t understand. “It should be enough for you.”
Tan lifted his bag off the floor and walked out of the house. He could hear his parents calling after him, but he kept walking. The strap of the bag dug into his shoulder, but he felt lighter.
The sun was low in the sky, evening birds chirped in the trees, and Tan hiked the two kilometres to Kian’s house. When he knocked on the door, the sun had already sunk below the horizon.
The door swung open, and Kian’s mom wiped her hands on her flour-dusted apron before she threw her arms wide, welcoming Tan into a warm embrace. “Welcome home, kiddo. Hungry?”
He wasn’t, but that wasn’t going to matter to her anyway.