By MADELEINE CRUTCHLEY

 

New York. It was a fresh start, with a bold name. As Riley was pulling his bags out of the taxi, he noticed that the air felt different. It wasn’t heavy, there was no burden hanging over him and he couldn’t feel the weight of his secret pushing down on his shoulders, like at home. The business and complexity of the city was daunting, but inviting. He had always wanted to feel like a part of something, something important.

He was welcomed into the beautifully bright world of Greenwich Village. It smiled at him, encouraging him to join in the fun. In the crazy neighbourhood, tucked away in the west side of Lower Manhattan, Riley was drawn into a culture completely different to the South. People at home crawled around like bugs, but the people of New York flew like butterflies, flaunting their bright colours. He began to smile more, laughed with the unique and daring people he met within his first weeks.

He fit in well with the new crowd. Sure, he still had an air of innocence and nervousness, but people respected him and valued his opinion, something he wasn’t used to. New York made his hometown look boring and old-fashioned. Riley realised his move was changing him and he didn’t really have a problem with it.

On a slow moving Monday morning, after a long night of Sunday soirées, Riley was hit by Sal flying around a sharp corner. He was glowing. His eyes burned into Riley’s and read every inch of him.

“Newcomer, huh?”

“Uhhh…”

His knowing grin scared Riley. A predator in disguise, it was so inviting, surely too good to be true. After exchanging a few words Sal was interested. He handed him an address.

“Be there on Friday.”

Riley mumbled a reply, but Sal had disappeared before the words tumbled out.

Riley’s mind could not stop working. Anxiety bubbled in his brain, his inner fight for acceptance at an all time high. His parents in Arkansas were harsh and very old-fashioned. If they knew about the late night phone calls Riley and Sal shared that week, he would never hear from them again. They still lived with prejudice against the minorities and dismissed the idea of alternative sexualities. Riley hid his feelings, dated pretty girls and brought them home to meet the family. He avoided stereotypes and locked his broken, confused heart away.

Being able to breathe was dangerous; he didn’t feel the need to repress who he was. He was scared he would say something by accident and be cut off from his little sisters forever. It was already hard enough, leaving them behind. Sal was a mistake he couldn’t afford to make. Sal had comfortability way beyond his reach. Sal had invited him out Friday night. And Sal was gay, as was Riley.

It was late when Riley left the apartment. His stomach was in knots. Nervousness, curiosity and fear swirled in his stomach. Trying to comfort himself, he dug the address Sal had given him out of his pocket.

“Hey, Stranger!”     

“Wha-?”

Riley jumped. Sal slipped out of the shadows.

“So you’ve decided to join me?”

“Are you following me?” Riley questioned.

Sal shook his head and grabbed Riley’s arm. He pulled him down the street.

“I’m gonna show you something that will blow your mind, Ri.”

His smile was infectious and ‘Ri’ gave in.

“If I break anything I’m blaming you!”

Sal grinned and then hurtled down the footpath, dragging Riley with him. They rushed past drag queens and crossdressers. Riley couldn’t believe what he was seeing. They were all so proud, providing a show for anyone brave enough to look. Sal came to a stop outside a bar. Riley looked up. ‘Stonewall Inn’ was plastered above the door.

“This is a gay bar!” Riley cried, outraged.

Sal nodded and chuckled.

“Let’s have some fun.”

There was no time for a breath before Riley was shoved inside.

“Stop it, Sal! Let me go!”

Sal pouted. He yelled something that Riley couldn’t hear over the blaring music and pushed him over to the bar. Frustration built in Riley’s chest, he felt as if he was going to explode.

“I’m not ga-”

“Bartender!” Sal shouted.

He wrapped his arm around Riley. It was only rested for seconds, before Riley shook it off. He turned to protest to Sal again, but he was cut off. Sal leaned in and whispered:

“Set yourself free, Ri.”

He passed him a drink from the bar and and waited. Riley glanced at the glass. Sal flicked his hand upwards, gesturing for him to drink it. Riley put up the front he used in Arkansas and put the glass back on the countertop.

“I’d rather be spitting blood, Sal.”

Suddenly, the lights came on and the music stopped.

“Police!”

Riley stepped as if to leave. Sal reached out and stopped him. With a straight face he shook his head. His appearance seemed so different to his usual state. He was pale and his hands were shaking. He looked younger, more innocent. Shocked, Riley stepped back.

“What’s happening?” he whispered.

“It’s a raid. They check up on our bars, find any excuse to arrest us and then roll out.” 

“Our bars?” Riley asked.

“Gay bars,” Sal clarified.

A drag queen across the dance floor drew Sal’s attention. She was being handcuffed, scuffling with the men in blue. The police methodically scoured the floor, checking ID’s and searching the bar. Riley and the other patrons all waited quietly for a painful 20 minutes, remaining patient. There was a sigh of relief as the police left the building, dragging some of the unlucky ones with them. Riley sensed that the crowd was angry and marched out, baffled by the events inside.

As he got closer to the door he heard screaming from outside. He burst out of the Inn to see a woman being dragged to a cop car. She was crying out about her handcuffs and looked as if she was in pain. Riley stepped in to help, but before he could a police officer strode over and hit her in the head with a club. She doubled up, her eyes rolling back in her head. The crowd that had formed around Riley shared a gasp, unmoving and rooted in shock. Anger that had stemmed from the years of oppression was boiling over.

“We have pride!” a man cried out, breaking the silence.

“We have pride!” another said.

Sal stepped next to Riley, taking his hand.

“We have pride!” Sal shouted.

Riley was drowning in the crowd. With his mind overcome with emotion he spoke up, determined to finally fly with the rest of his people.

“I have pride!”

The crowd consumed the police, setting their pride free and standing up for themselves. Tears stemmed from Riley’s eyes, the beauty of the moment too much for him. Violence ensued and fires were lit but he had never felt so free.

 

This article was submitted for The Common Room, a place for all young people to share their views. Got something to say? Everyone’s welcome – click here.

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For more LGBTQ+ related stories, head to our Rainbow Youth section.

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