Ethan is old money and he lives amongst his kind in shared housing at Dalton University. He’s on the swim and he seems to be well-liked. He’s also deep in the closet and has no plans for coming out anytime soon–his father locked that door and threw away the key. Living across the hall from him is Orlando. Orlando’s family is poor and it’s thanks to the scholarship he’s on that he’s rooming in the same house as Ethan. To help his mother and sister out, he plays poker after hours and sends them the winnings, but he never tells them the truth about where it’s coming from. Orlando is not in the closet, not that he’s taking out full spreads in the paper, but he’s not doing anything in particular to conceal the fact that he’s gay. Even though there’s only a hallway between them, Ethan and Orlando are merely acquaintances. But one day, after running into Orlando, Ethan asks him if he can help him out with his Economics studies, Orlando being at the top of the class and all.
One study date turns into several and they grow beyond simply being housemates, but they aren’t exactly friends yet. Ethan, who’s constantly struggling with what’s expected of him, falls a part just a little when he finds out that Orlando is gay. They both have their own circumstances to consider and getting cozy with someone doesn’t really fit at the moment, but that doesn’t stop either of them from thinking about it.
Things are happening in Ethan’s life and he can’t cope, so he gets drunk. When he gets back to the house, he knocks on Orlando’s door and then kisses him. At first Orlando is into it, but he stops because Ethan is not completely in control of his faculties. That night neither of them get much sleep. The next morning, Orlando goes to talk to Ethan; he’s confused about a lot of things, but he doesn’t want to just let things go. What I really appreciated about this confrontation scene was that Orlando asked Ethan if he was gay and Ethan really didn’t know because he never let himself think about it. Following that, Orlando told Ethan that he liked him, but that Ethan needed to get himself sorted out and come to terms with whatever he was dealing with. This, for me, is much better than the seldom seen outright rejection and the too common choice of a character putting up with the nonsense only to get fed up later. Orlando went on to tell Ethan that once he figured things out, they could see where things went between them, but until then, the only thing he could offer was friendship. I don’t know why romance writers often default to making their characters stupid when they could have them make level-headed decisions in the same way that Orlando did on both his and Ethan’s behalf.
Eventually Ethan settles his heart and this was another part that made me happy with this story. After Ethan admits that he’s gay, he and Orlando discuss going further in their relationship. Orlando is straight up with Ethan about the changes that will come about if they go further–he doesn’t necessarily give him an out, but he wants Ethan to consciously decide his next steps. It’s great because usually it’s just all passion and “I want you so bad” and “I’ve wanted this for so long” and people just slip into these crash-boom relationships and never really think about the consequences. That always comes after. So it’s good to see Orlando being upfront about how their choices will affect them as people, as friends, and what that will mean for their relationship.
Ethan’s Dad shows up at one of his swim meets and takes him out to dinner afterward. His dad is leading the conversation and at one point he tells Ethan that it’s good that he doesn’t have a steady girlfriend because he should enjoy himself while he’s young. Then his father starts going on about his brother Jack, Ethan’s uncle, and how he drove the uncle out of the family because he was gay. This isn’t news to Ethan–it’s been years since it happened–but this is a topic his father feels strongly enough about that he’s inclined to rehash it over dinner with his son. Meanwhile, Ethan sinks further and further as he hears it. The talk about playing the fiend and the consequences of being gay in their family is the father’s way of keeping his son on the straight and narrow–pun intended after the fact. After they part ways, Ethan realizes that he’s too weak to stand up to his dad, so he breaks up with Orlando because it’s not fair to him. I was crushed, but Orlando was really strong. He told Ethan that he will walk away, not because he agrees, and not because he doesn’t think there’s anything between them, but just because Ethan asked.
Orlando isn’t all that social, but the girl he hangs out with invited him to go to a party with her. Ethan’s at the party too and when he sees Orlando he tries to kill a few birds with one stone and does something so awful (for so many reasons). After Ethan’s display, Orlando jets from the party. Eventually Ethan wakes up to reality, though. He realizes that he can’t keep hiding himself and that he can’t live without Orlando, so he tries to get him back. And again, this story does something right. Orlando just gives it to him straight and tells Ethan that he misses him, although he wishes he didn’t, but he can’t just take his word for it. He tells Ethan that he has to show it, prove to him that he’s ready to be who he really is, because he can’t be in the closet with him. I am all about the straightforwardness, how the dialogue is getting them through their issues. Sometimes, too often, really, you’ll get a lot of spectacular anger and throwing things and all the extra drama. I mean, there’s definitely some drama here, but it’s not all that extra stuff that just heightens the mood for no reason. They’re pretty level-headed about this, about coming to terms with things and not just going left or right just because that’s what they feel in that moment. They’re really thinking about what it’s going to take to be okay.
I don’t know (or remember) what their majors were or which year they were even in, but for Ethan’s sake, I kind of wanted him to wait until he finished his education so that it was paid for before coming out–to his dad, at least–because his dad certainly was not going to pay for his gay son to continue his higher learning on his dime. I know that’s putting things off, but it’s strategic. I’d hate to see him left in the lurch. Especially since his passion is art, though I know that’s not his major. I just wish they could be practical. On the other hand, I know the weight of a secret can do terrible things to a person and living without being able to be yourself can break you, so I’d hate for him to suffer needlessly. So, I don’t know, I like them, so, whatever it takes, I just want them to be happy.
And of course they were. Ethan came out to his mother and her side of the family first. It was unexpected and adorable. I’m pretty certain that they have a chance at a real happily ever after.
However, as much as I liked the story, there were two things that bothered me. First, I will forever think just a little less of any book that includes “I let out a breath that I don’t realize I’ve been holding” or variations there of.
Yep, it’s in this book, too.
And second… This notion of wanting a “gay best friend”–a comment made by Orlando’s friend–I hate it. When I read stuff like this, I can’t help but wonder what the author was thinking. If it’s going to be in the story, I need it to be addressed and resolved–some other character needs to say that it’s not okay. When that failure is not rectified, it’s a problem. Unless someone having that kind of mindset is integral to the narrative, it should not be included. And this is definitely not that kind of story. Can we stop treating marginalized folks like accessories or like they can fill a slot in someone’s Pokédex. Enough with the tokenism.
So, if it wasn’t for those things, I’d say this was a rather good story. And it is, but these things sour the experience. I think the worse thing about both parts, but especially the latter issue, is that you can remove them and nothing about the story would be lost. They were completely unnecessary.