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Juan Alvarado Valdivia

Juan Alvarado Valdivia

Juan Alvarado Valdivia was born to Peruvian parents and raised in Fremont, California. His fiction, nonfiction and music writing have been published in The Acentos Review, The Bay Bridged, Black Heart Magazine, Label Me Latina/o, Origins Journal, Somos en escrito and Thread. His first book, ¡Cancerlandia!: A Memoir, received an Honorable Mention for the 2016 International Latino Book Award for Best Biography in English.

A Pedestrian Question

Well there goes LACMA, Gabriel wanted to say to his friend, Eric, as they motored down Wilshire Boulevard while a ferocious Mastodon song blared from the speakers. Eric didn't even slow the car to glance at the tourists and hipsters posing by the peculiar rows of street lamps in front of the museum. When they planned their summer road trip—their first one without their parents—Gabriel suggested a trip to LACMA or The Getty. The Getty had a landscaped garden, panoramic vistas of Los Angeles, and it was free. But Eric crinkled his mouth at Gabriel's suggestion. "Nah, dude," Eric said. "That sounds like some gay shit." Instead, they were heading to Hollywood to check out the Walk of Fame. Viewing art masterpieces was "gay" but staring at stars on slabs of concrete apparently was not. Gabriel couldn't protest, though. He also couldn't flick through SoCal's radio stations to discover some new music—something other than Mastodon, Static-X and all the aggressive music Eric had blasted during their trip. It was Eric's car. His music to listen to. And Gabriel was along for the ride.

Before long, Eric drove his dingy Hyundai into a parking lot near Hollywood Boulevard. As he stepped out of the car, Gabriel stared up at a tall building; they didn't have those in Fremont—the forgettable Northern California suburb they called home. Gabriel clopped along beside Eric in his flip-flops. He donned dark-blue khaki shorts and a button-down shirt. With his long eyelashes and boyish-good looks, Gabriel looked like the token Latino model for a summer-wear catalog.

A pair of young women sauntered in their direction. Eric straightened his baggy Oakland A's jersey. He stared at the petite blonde through his dark sunglasses. Coupled with his short spiky hair, Gabriel thought those glasses made his friend look like a bro-doucher in the making.

"I'd split her in half," Eric said, once the girls walked past them.

"Her friend was cute," Gabriel said, as though he were explaining that cars ran on fuel. Gabriel only said this because he knew Eric would expect him to remark on their appearance. By society's standards, both girls were physically attractive; Gabriel did not debate that. Their good looks just did nothing for him.

They turned onto Hollywood Boulevard, stepping past a parade of slow-footed window shoppers and sidewalk gawkers. As they approached a liquor store, Gabriel noticed two guys step outside. He tried not to stare at the statuesque one with crystal-blue eyes, broad shoulders and tanned arms. Sometimes he couldn't help it, even around his best friend.

After they toured the Walk of Fame and Dolby Theater, Gabriel and Eric puttered around Hollywood. Gabriel bought a Star Wars poster at a tourist shop. Eric purchased souvenir shot glasses even though they couldn't legally drink. At a smoke shop with a cardboard cutout of George Burns holding a box of cigars, Gabriel chuckled as they took turns posing with it, but then Eric stood next to it, pumping his fist to his mouth and pushing his cheek out with his tongue while making a slurping sound. Inside, Gabriel cringed, but he managed to laugh off his friend's antics.

Side by side, they ambled down Sunset Boulevard on their way to an In-N-Out Burger. Half a block ahead, they spotted a cameraman and a woman standing on the sidewalk outside a strip mall.

"Ooh, they're filming something," Gabriel said.

"What do you think they're filming?"

Gabriel and Eric picked up their pace. They could see that the young woman standing in front of the camera was holding a long microphone.

"Dude, I think they're interviewing people," Eric said.

"Thank god I showered today," Gabriel said, combing the side of his head with his fingers.

As they approached, the young woman turned to them. She wore a blue summer dress and bookish glasses.

"Hey guys, how's it going?" she asked.

"We're good," Eric said. "What are you filming?"

"The Jimmy Kimmel Show. Pedestrian Question segment. You two interested?"

"Hell yeah!"

"Okay, cool," she said, pointing the shotgun microphone at Eric as the videographer pivoted the camera toward him. "So, what are your names and where are you from?"

Eric leaned into the microphone.

"I'm Eric and I'm from Fremont, California."

"And I am Gabriel, and I'm also from Fremont."

"And, are you a gay couple or straight friends?" she said.

Gabriel looked at Eric.

"We're straight," Eric said, crossing his arms.

"Okay, thanks guys. Now, we just need you to sign some video release forms. This doesn't guarantee that you will be on the show, but we do need your consent to be considered."

She handed them clipboards and pens. Eric signed the bottom of the form without reading it. Gabriel hesitated. He read the disclaimer. Once Eric handed the clipboard back to her, Gabriel scribbled his signature.

Gabriel and Eric walked halfway down the block in silence. Though it was hardly observable, Gabriel noticed that Eric walked a step further from him than he had all day, or the day before when they strolled along the Santa Monica Promenade.

"Why do you think she asked us?" Eric said, a jagged edge in his voice. "Do you think we look gay to her?"

Gabriel furrowed his brow. Eric looked like he was ready to tailgate in his long denim shorts, high-top sneakers and baseball jersey.

"She's just asking that to everyone—or at least to groups of the same gender who walked past them," Gabriel said. "I think I saw that bit one time on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. It's like Jaywalking—they're asking people on the streets questions so their audience can guess their answer. I've seen them ask people if they'd ever had sex on an airplane."

"Okay," Eric said, marching down the street. "It'd be cool if we were on TV."

Gabriel was quiet as they approached the In-N-Out Burger. He had known Eric since elementary school. They had played on the same Little League baseball team. They became best friends during their junior year of high school when they had three classes together. Neither of them fit in with any of the cliques at school. They shared a mutual dislike of grade-grubbers, jocks, and the vapid pretty girls who relied on their good looks for their popularity. Together, they honed the art of sarcasm, as well as burping on cue. They both liked rock 'n' roll and attended their first concert together. They fell into being best friends. Neither one had anyone else.

After placing their orders, Gabriel and Eric sat on a bench to wait for their burgers. Gabriel watched Eric as he scoped out the line for attractive women. Once he spotted one—a Latina with taut, muscular legs—he nudged Gabriel in the side. Eric nodded in her direction. Gabriel glanced at her, then continued to stare at the workers by the pick-up area. Eric thumped Gabriel in the shoulder.

"What was that for?" Gabriel said.

"You barely looked at that chick I pointed out."

"So what? What's the fucking point? We don't live here so we're never going to see these people again."

"You can still look at them."

Gabriel rolled his eyes. "And what does that accomplish? There's good-looking girls everywhere. It's not a big deal. Maybe it is for you, but not for me."

They took their trays outside. Despite the umbrella above their table, the sunlight glared off the concrete around them. Eric slipped his sunglasses on as they ate.

"Where should we go after this?" Gabriel asked. He was trying to get past their uncomfortable exchange.

"Don't know," Eric said, taking a bite from his burger. Gabriel stared off at traffic on Sunset Boulevard. "We could roll around downtown or check out Venice Beach."

"Either one sounds good. It's hot as hell. Maybe we should hit the beach?"


Eric wiped his fingers on a napkin. He took a long sip from his drink. He watched Gabriel suck his milkshake from the straw.

"Dude—" Eric said. "Are you gay? You can tell me."

Gabriel could feel his stomach knot.

"I'm straight, Eric. Straight as an arrow."

Eric stared back at Gabriel. He felt uncomfortable sitting there—as if a hot, blinding spotlight shined down upon him. It reminded him of the time his mother told him that his father had asked her if he was gay since he never went out with girls. Gabriel snatched his cup of water. He slurped from the straw but stopped when he became self-conscious of how that appeared.

"You sure, man?"

"I'm sure."

"Then how come you never talk about girls?"

"Never? You think I never talk about girls? Do you even remember our junior year when I took Betsy to the prom, when we made out at the park afterwards? Is that not conclusive evidence for you, or are we gonna have to double back to the parking lot and hope we run into those two girls we saw earlier and see if they're interested in fucking us so you can see me stick it to one of them?"

"Okay, okay, dude, I get it," Eric said, rearing back, lifting his hands. "I'm sorry. Sorry I doubted you."

Gabriel recalled their junior prom. He remembered sitting on a bench at Marshall Park while he and Eric passed around a bottle of spiced rum. He could feel Betsy's eyes on him. He knew she wanted to kiss him when she took a slug from the bottle and smiled at him. Gabriel had never kissed a girl. He drank and drank to muster the courage. He never figured out why he felt so nervous—because it was his first kiss? Because he felt pressured to do it in front of others? Or because he never felt like kissing her?

Gabriel shook his head.

"Why are you bringing this up now?" he said.

"I don't know. Because that girl asked us if we were a couple?"

Looking away from Eric, Gabriel drank from his cup of water. They continued to eat without saying a word. Eric had never brought up Gabriel's sexuality before—at least so directly. For Gabriel, it felt like an eternal minute passed before Eric nonchalantly changed the subject and said, "We should hit up a record store before we leave town." Gabriel nearly spewed his mouthful of food to laugh. But instead, he simply thought, "Really? Really?" The dangerous, uncomfortable subject was not brought up again—as though the question had never been uttered.

Later that afternoon, Gabriel and Eric strolled down the Venice Beach Boardwalk. The sky was a cloudless blue. The beachside boardwalk was lined with palm trees. A stream of people walked up and down the sidewalk. Eric laughed when they passed a husky man with a long beard who sang John Lennon's "Imagine" off-key while playing on a rainbow-colored acoustic guitar.

"This place is crawling with freaks!" Eric said.

As they walked past a mural portraying Van Gogh's "Starry Night," Gabriel saw two young men holding hands. One was a thin Asian and the other was a fellow Latino. They both wore sunglasses, worn t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. What was remarkable about them was how unremarkable they seemingly felt to hold hands in public. Back in Fremont, Gabriel never saw gay couples holding hands. It never even struck him as a possibility, but there he was, wandering down the boardwalk in Venice while two young men a few years older than him casually strolled hand in hand for all the world to see—and they looked happy, smiling at all the sights they took in together. Gabriel had not known that gay men could appear so normal.

That evening, back in their hotel room, Eric peed in the bathroom with the door locked. With his back against the headboard, Gabriel browsed through photos he had posted on Instagram of their jaunts through Hollywood and Venice Beach. He grinned as he played the video he took of a skater at the skate park by the beach. He would have taken more photos and videos of him but he was afraid Eric would have thought that was strange even though he just thought the guy was really good—and he happened to be handsome in a rebel-skater way.

Yawning, Eric tottered out of the bathroom. He was dressed in the ratty clothes he wore to bed.

"Dude, I'm fucking tired," Eric said, flopping face first on his bed.

Eric rolled over to grab the remote control. He turned the TV on. Pointing the control at the screen, he watched a few seconds of each local newscast before clicking through the channels. "There's jack shit on," he said.

Gabriel set his phone on the dresser. He sat up straight and stared at the TV as Eric scrolled through the channel guide. His shoulders felt tight. He took a deep breath. He looked over at his friend.

"Have you ever known anyone who's gay?" Gabriel said.

"I don't think so. Why?"

Gabriel thought of the couple they saw at the boardwalk.

"Because I think I am."

Eric stopped clicking through the channels.

"Well I hope you don't think I am," Eric said, keeping his eyes glued to the TV.

Gabriel didn't know what to say. Eric turned to him with a hard face.

"Dude, that's some weird shit. Why did you tell me on our last night here?"

"You're my friend, Eric! My friend. If I am gay, do you think I'm going to sneak into your bed at night when you're asleep? Do you think that's what I want to do? Do you think just because you're a guy that I'm—interested in you?"

"And so why are you telling me now?"

"Because you asked me before and told me I could tell you!"

Gabriel could feel his heart thumping. Eric exhaled loudly.

"Okay, okay. It's just weird, all right."

"What's weird?"

"That you're gay! You're my friend—"

"And I still am. That hasn't changed."

Eric didn't look back at Gabriel. Instead, he stared off at a corner of the room. After a while, he took the remote control. With his lips pursed into a tight line, Eric continued to flip through the channels.

Hanging his head, Gabriel turned away.


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