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Jordan O’Neill isn’t a fan of labels, considering he has a few. Gay, geek, a librarian, socially awkward, a nervous rambler, an introvert, an outsider. The last thing he needs is one more. But he when he realises adding the label ‘asexual’ might explain a lot, it turns his world upside down.
Hennessy Lang moved to Surry Hills after splitting with his boyfriend. His being asexual had seen the end of a lot of his romances, but he’s determined to stay true to himself. Leaving his North Shore support group behind, he starts his own in Surry Hills, where he meets first-time-attendee Jordan.
A little bewildered and scared, but completely adorable, Hennessy is struck by this guy who’s trying to find where he belongs. Maybe Hennessy can convince Jordan that his world hasn’t been turned upside down at all, but maybe it’s now—for the first time in his life—the right way up.
Context: Jordan is attending his first asexual support meeting, along with his best friend Merry, where Jordan finds the guy from his bus, whom he’s admired from afar and dubbed ‘Headphones Guy’ (Hennessy) is running the meetings.
I didn’t even notice that the room had cleared out. Merry had pulled up a chair at my side, but Hennessy sat with his knees between mine, holding my hand while I cried.
I fucking cried.
Through my stupid, traitorous tears, I caught the end of a silent conversation between Merry and him, my Headphones Guy.
And then Merry rubbed my back before she walked out, and Hennessy squeezed my hand. “She’s just gone to get you a drink of water,” he said gently.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” I said, wiping my face with my free hand.
“Because it can be overwhelming,” he said. His voice was calm and soft. “Because it can be life-affirming and scary as hell, all at the same time.”
I nodded. “I don’t want another label, you know? Because I have enough. I have more than enough. Too many, probably, you know for a geeky book-nerd gay man with so many levels of social awkwardness Freud would need an elevator, but the labels fit. And I hate that they fit. Everything that was said here tonight was like it was said for me, like I was saying those things. I didn’t want this to happen,” I said, shaking my head, fighting more tears. “I wanted to come here and, well, that’s not exactly true. I didn’t want to come here at all; it was Merry’s idea. She suggested that I look into what being asexual meant. After my 683rd failed attempt at a relationship, she thought maybe I should see if I ticked any boxes on the ‘How To See If You Could Be Asexual’ questionnaire on Teen Vogue, and after I realised that I could almost tick all the boxes, I decided I didn’t want or need another label. So then I had to come here tonight to shut her up. I was going to prove her wrong and then I could go on living my best life being not asexual but just a gay man who didn’t actually want to have sex. A socially awkward, geeky book-nerd gay man,” I amended through more tears, “who doesn’t actually want to have sex. I’m sorry for crying. I wasn’t expecting the emotional dump, but I wasn’t expecting to feel so… lost and found. Like I once was lost but now I’m found, kind of like the song, which is cheesy as fuck and I didn’t mean it to sound like that. I just didn’t realise how hard I’d been trying to fit in with the real world, trying to be normal, when my normal was here all along. Because I really am asexual and it hit me like a metric fuckton of bricks that there’s actually nothing wrong with me.”
And then there were more tears.
“Because that’s my truth, even if I thought there was something wrong with me, and fuck knows I’ve been told there was, many times,” I said, wiping my face. “But there’s not. I’m asexual, and that’s my motherfucking truth whether I like it or not.”
Hennessy smiled at me. With his perfect lips and perfect teeth, his pretty blue eyes, and three-day scruff. He looked so different without his headphones, like seeing someone who normally wears glasses without them. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, still smiling, still holding my hand.
“I’m sorry, were you not here for the geeky book-nerd gay man with so many levels of social awkwardness Freud would need an elevator conversation?”
He laughed at that. “I believe I was, yeah.”
“Sorry about that. I tend to babble a lot when I’m nervous. And swear. Well, I say fuck a lot even when I’m not nervous. I don’t have Tourette’s or anything, I just like the word fuck. The noun and adverb, even the adjective, not the verb obviously because I’m asexual. Apparently. So there is definitely no actioning of the word.”
Hennessy chuckled. “No actioning of the word, got it.” He still had a hold of my hand, and I liked it. As in, really liked it. My Headphones Guy was holding my hand, and he was smiling at me, in what I think was not in a bad way. I mean, his smile was kind and his eyes were smiling too, if that was even possible. I mean, no it wasn’t possible—eyes could not physically smile, I got that—but damn, they sure looked happy.
“How are you feeling now?” he asked.
“A little weirded out,” I answered. “Not gonna lie. I didn’t want to admit the asexual thing to myself for a long time, and I’m thinking it will take some getting used to. Like breaking in a pair of Doc Martens, ya know? Like they’re uncomfortable and tight and basically kill your feet until they’re the most comfortable shoes you’ll ever wear. They become like a second skin, and I’m pretty sure this whole asexual thing will be like that.”
He made a thoughtful face. “I like that analogy.”
“And it’s even weirder, because you’re my Headphones Guy and I had no idea you’d be here, but here you are and now you’re holding my hand and I cried in front of you, which is not how I wanted our first meeting to go. Believe me. I had visions of it involving me not being so… well, so me. And doing all the talking, because I tend to talk a lot when I’m nervous, which I think I’ve said already—”
“I’m your Headphones Guy?”
Oh fucking fuckity motherfucker. “I said that out loud, didn’t I? To your perfect face, and what kind of perfect name is Hennessy, by the way? Because—”
A loud peal of laughter broke through the door when a couple, a guy and girl, stumbled into the backroom, their arms around each other, obviously intoxicated and handsy and half kissing, half laughing, until they realised the room wasn’t empty.
I shot to my feet and pulled my hand away from Hennessy’s.
“Oh, sorry guys,” the girl said.
“Didn’t mean to interrupt,” the guy said. He took his hand off her arse to wave it. “Keep doing what you’re doing. We don’t mind. We thought this room was empty.”
“We weren’t doing anything,” I said quickly.
“Excuse me,” Merry said, sliding in around the drunk couple. She held three bottles of water. “Sorry, it took forever to get served. They’re really busy.”
I’d never been happier to see her. “Oh, thank God.” I grabbed her arm and turned her back toward the door. “We need to leave. I called him my Headphones Guy to his perfect fucking face.”
Merry shot Hennessy a look and held out a bottle of water for him. He took it, still smiling, though somewhat confused. Then Merry looked up at me as I dragged her to the door. “To his face?”
“What was I supposed to do? You left me unsupervised!” I stopped at the couple who were still standing in the doorway, and only just then I realised what the guy had meant when he said they thought the room was empty… “Oh praise baby motherfucking Jesus, I hope you have antibacterial wipes.”
Now Merry was hauling me out through the crowded pub. I yelled back at the couple, hoping they’d hear, “At least wipe it down afterwards, we have meetings in there!”
We burst through the crowd onto the street and Merry looked up at me and sighed. “What else did you say?”
“What didn’t I say?” I answered. “I was a mess, crying all over him because of the whole asexual thing, thank you very much. Then I was nervous and we both know how well that ends. And I think I might have told him that he was my Headphones Guy, that he had a perfect face and a perfect name, because who the fuck calls their kid Hennessy, and now he thinks I’m a raving lunatic because you. Left. Me. Un. Supervised.”
Merry cracked her bottle of water, took a long drink, sighed, then hooked her arm around my elbow. “He really is very good looking,” she said as we began the walk back to my flat. “I can see why you’ve been crushing on him forever.”
I took a swig of my water. “Fucking hell, I wish this was wine. Where is Jesus when you need him?”
Merry hummed a happy sound. “I’m proud of you for going tonight. It wasn’t easy, but you did it, and you faced it head on.”
“I cried like a motherfucking baby.”
“Because you realised it’s okay,” she replied. “And it is.”
“Can we not talk about it right now,” I mumbled. “I need to get my head around a few things, I think. And see what makes sense when the dust settles.”
“Sure thing. Is Angus home tonight?” she asked.
Angus was my flatmate. And if people thought I was weird, then Angus was a one-man what-the-fuck show. Maybe that was why we lived together so well. In three years, there’d never been one issue between us. He worked as a painter, and I think all those fumes had left some irreparable damage because he was dopey as fuck. But he paid his rent, his share of the utilities, bought his own food, didn’t eat mine, and he respected boundaries. He was also a shameless bisexual flirt but was so bad at it and so clueless about it that it was almost sad, in a Shakespearean Comedy of Errors kind of way. The easiest way to describe him was as Hugh Grant’s flatmate in Notting Hill, only Australian instead of Welsh, because everyone replied with “Oh” and a smile and a nod. And it was a true and fair comparison. They looked nothing alike but were still basically the same, and he would even sometimes parade the flat in his tighty-whities while he was waiting on something in the dryer. He’d once harboured great fondness for Merry, in a futile attempt at wooing her. She’d explained to him she was a lesbian, and he said that was perfect because he was bisexual, and she’d then had to explain that wasn’t how any of that worked at all. I’d almost needed to draw Angus a diagram to clarify that one, and in the end, I still don’t think he understood. So, and this was said with great affection, he wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box. But, he was polite and kind and had the biggest heart in the world, and he was possibly one of the greatest guys I’d ever met. I’d even probably call him one of my best friends. I didn’t have many, so that was quite a statement.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Should we see if he wants some pizza?” Merry asked.
“I think it’s safe to assume that’d be a yes.”
So, two wood-fired pizzas later, we went back to my flat and met a very enthusiastic and grateful Angus. He was bingeing Orange is the New Black on Netflix, so we joined him on the floor, ate pizza, drank a few beers, and I tried really hard to forget my night.
“You’ll never guess who was running the meeting,” Merry said, throwing me holus-bolus under the bus.
I groaned and Angus’ whole face brightened. “Joel Edgerton!”
“What?” Merry asked, somewhat startled. “No. It wasn’t Joel Edgerton.”
He tried again. “Clover Moore.”
Merry squinted at him, then obviously remembered how she phrased it. She’d asked him to guess. “No,” she said. “The Mayor of Sydney was busy. It was Jordan’s Headphones Guy. You know, the guy on the bus that he’s mooned over for six months?”
Angus slow-turned to me, with a comically surprised expression. “Nooooo.”
“There was no mooning. I did not participate in any mooning.” I was horrified.
Angus’ eyeballs almost exploded out of his head. “You mooned him?”
Merry nodded as she bit into another slice. “Not that kind of mooning. He did not show him his naked arse. If you moon over someone, you daydream over them.”
“Ohhhh,” Angus said, nodding slowly.
“I did not moon him,” I said indignantly. “Butthole or daydreaming or any kind of astral body. Jesus, fuck. Where is my dignity?”
“I dunno man. Did you lose it?”
I slow blinked. “No, it’s around here somewhere.”
Angus smiled. “Cool. So did you speak to him?”
“He did more than that,” Merry said, smiling as she shoved the crust of her pizza slice into her mouth.
“Shut up.” I grabbed another piece of pizza with as much aggression as I could. “I’ll need to find another bus to catch home and possibly move suburbs. Cities even. I haven’t decided.”
“You’ll be fine,” Merry said.
Angus frowned. “Jordan, are we moving?”
I wouldn’t ever admit it to anyone out loud, but I did like how he assumed if I moved, he’d be moving with me. I patted his leg. “No, mate. We’re good.”
“Phew,” he said, smiling and taking another slice of pizza. “You want another beer?”
“Sure.” I smiled up at him as he stood and headed toward the kitchen. “I need all the help I can get with forgetting this clusterfuck of a night.”
“Jordan, you’ll be fine,” Merry said.
She said the same thing to me on Monday at two minutes past five as I was almost hyperventilating at the bus stop. “Jordan, you’ll be fine. He’s a nice guy. You have nothing to worry about. Unless he’s not on the bus…”
“Oh motherfucker, why would you say that?” I took some gulps of air. “What if he’s not on the bus? What if he moved suburbs to avoid me? And now he’s joined the witness protection program, his name is Hans Solo Gruber and he’s an intergalactic German terrorist smuggler, living in the Nakatomi Cantina—”
Merry gave my arm a shake. “Jordan. Stop it. Get on the bus. Say hello to him.”
I made a high-pitched sound that surprised even me.
Merry smiled. “I’ll call you tonight.” She nodded over my shoulder, and I turned to find the bus right fucking there.
I had no choice but to get on. I swiped my Opal card and didn’t want to scan the faces. I truly didn’t, but of course I did. There he was, sitting halfway up, headphones on. And of course I had to walk past him, and just as I made my way through the crowd, he looked up. Then he did a double take, and he smiled. Then he grinned and nodded and pointed to his own head. “Headphones Guy.”
I nodded. There were no spare seats near him, so I stood there like a loser. It took me a second to get my brain to work, and Hennessy pulled his headphones down to rest around his neck. “Um, yeah. Hi. I’d always wondered what music you listened to. I would guess it’s some ultra-cool indie band that no one has ever heard of or some underground jazz-fusion mix that won’t hit mainstream for another five years. But then I saw you listening to something that made you upset last Thursday, or maybe it was something completely unrelated to your eclectic music taste. I don’t know, that’s not really my business and that’s not why I’m bringing it up. I just, well, I saw you upset and then the next day you saw me upset, so I guess we’re even—”
He stood up, our fronts almost touching, and the bus jerked and we brushed against each other and I thought I might die. He was a fraction taller than me and I could get lost in those eyes and that smile should be a federal offence. “My stop,” he said, nodding toward the door. Other people were now lining up to get off the bus, and I was holding them up. He was still impossibly close to me. “And it’s not music I listen to. It’s audiobooks.”
“Audiobooks?” I whispered, like he just announced his undying love for me. My heart, my heart was about to explode. I was sure I had cartoon hearts in my eyes.
“Flowers for Algernon,” he whispered. “It’s what I was listening to.”
“Daniel Keyes,” I breathed, looking right into his eyes, our faces an inch apart. “That book… Ow, my heart.”
He let out a quiet gasp. “You know it?”
“I cried like a baby.”
“Me too. Every time.” He grinned, our gaze broken by the rush of people trying to get off the bus, and Hennessy turned and stepped off, leaving a void in his place. I fell into his now-vacant seat, pretty sure by the way my head spun that I hadn’t breathed since I got on. And he stood there on the footpath with his head down, and he pulled his headphones back on and popped his coat collar up around his neck to protect him from the wind, looking seven different realms of handsome. And I thought for sure I’d blown it—again, with the incoherent babbling. But as the bus pulled away, he looked right up at me and smiled, all shy-like and timid, and I breathed the only thing worth saying. “Motherfucker.”
The old lady I was sitting next to gaped at me. I shrugged, not even the slightest bit sorry. Okay, well maybe just a little sorry. But he smiled at me. Hennessy goddamned smiled right at me, like I was the reason for his happiness.
“Flowers for Algernon,” I said to the lady who was now scowling at me. She didn’t understand the enormity of this revelation, but I knew who would. I pulled out my phone, hit Merry’s number, and didn’t even give her time to say hello, though I did try and keep my voice down. “It’s not music he listens to in his headphones. It’s audiobooks. He reads books, and not just any books, Merry, but classics. Well, modern-day classics and holy fucking shit could he be any more perfect?”
“New phone, who dis?”
“I’m not even kidding right now,” I replied. I ignored the daggers Mother Teresa was giving me because of my colourful language. “His grandfather didn’t die, and he wasn’t heartbroken by some incomparable Adonis that I’d have to track down and kick in the shins. He was crying because of the book. Guess which audiobook he was listening to that puts him the stratosphere of cool? Guess!”
“The Social War by Simon Mohler Landis.”
I stopped like I’d teleported to an alternative universe, blinked, then sputtered. “What the actual fuck, Merry. Who hurt you?”
She laughed. “I don’t know which book he was listening to, but I can only assume you spoke to him?”
“I made him smile. In a good way. And you haven’t guessed the book. You’ll never guess but, oh my God, Merry. He just became a twelve on the scale of one to ten on perfection.”
“This will be over a whole lot quicker if you just tell me.”
I grinned, even just thinking about it. “Flowers for Algernon.”
There was a long beat of silence. “Oh.”
“I know, right?”
“That explains the tears.”
I sighed happily. “It does. It tells me so much about him. Plus, I spoke to him. Like actual words, in somewhat semi-coherent sentences. Unlike The Social War by Mohler Landis. Jesus Christ, Merry. We need to talk about the credibility of your bibliophilism.”
She laughed again. “So can we stop calling him Headphones Guy now he has a name?”
“I think so. His name is kind of perfect, don’t you think?”
“Okay look, Jordan, I’m just going to say this at the risk of you having a freak out on the bus, in public, but I don’t want you getting way ahead of yourself so here it is. Yes, he’s gay. He’s even asexual. We know this. He said he was. What we don’t know is if he’s seeing someone, dating, or married even. Or what he does for a living.”
“What difference does his job make?”
“What if he’s an undertaker? Or a hitman?”
“Undertakers and hitmen need love too, Merry. Probably more than other people.”
She snorted. “We’re talking about this tomorrow, okay?”
Hmmm. “Fine.” I ended the call, determined once I got home I’d do some social-network stalking. How many guys living in Sydney called Hennessy could there possibly be?