Read: /fanˌtazməˈgôrēə/ (noun) - Bryce

It all started in a small town. A rural collection of townies on top of a hilly swamp land that flood every year. You'd think these lackluster citizens, as far back as our town’s founders, would have known better than to stick around. But who am I to judge? 

This medial Canadian town bore such little significance that its existence was more of an occupational nuisance to cartographers than anything else. Early seekers struggled to migrate to this community because the first map maker simply plopped the town randomly on his map, fearing no real consequence. And there never was any. 

    Eventually, the town received its official coordinates. Travelers from across the pond seeking affordable land and a safe community started to flood into this little hamlet. It became apparent, both to the citizens and your narrator, that a name for this burgeoning town might be useful. After no serious consideration, Thistler was chosen. 

    Thistler had what everyone could want. There was the local grocer that sold the cheapest steak look a likes this side of Lobo. This doubled as the best place for underagers to pick up cigs. There was Oak and Maple, the town’s central park with adjacent public pool. There were corner stores, shoe stores, Optometrists and Colonoscopy-ers, dozens of fast food chains, including two Timmies, and both kinds of churches.  

    Right down the centre ran Highway 22 and although quiet most days,  traffic would pick up Fridays and Sundays as Torontonians would descend from the city and their lofty condos, en route to the quaint pastoral grounds of rural Ontario. Often these city slickers would sneer as they drove through Thistler, mocking its lack of culture. But this is a rather erroneous mistake. Thistler, like every other small town, was brimming with culture just not one worth paying twenty bucks to view in a museum-or, as I would call them: Bourgeoisie pseudo-intellectual come as you are circle jerks. 

    Yes indeed, Thistler has its own highly maintained systems of cultural exchange and peer-review. Sitting around in concave semi-circles at precisely 5:30 every evening families would congregate around their television sets, oscillating between shovelling mouthfuls of food during “prime” time sitcoms, and spewing revelations of the daily gossip between the brief commercial breaks offered every 12.5 minutes of programming. It’s a process that operates rather efficiently, and one a social scientist once dubbed the Thistler Effect. 

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    Kicking snow and gravel as I sped off, I was a bit buzzed to be driving but far too sober to stay any longer. Drinking at Caleb’s became our daily retreat after surviving another day at the high school, but today’s game got out of hand. 

    It’s all a big fucking joke anyways. Try as we might, we have no real control over any of it. No real choice. The promise of hard work paying off keeps us going, but we are nothing more than maple seeds caught in the wind. We desperately cling onto our dreams of growing up tall and mighty in the orchard, but the wind blows and we are swept down the pastures, caught on the hind leg of a mangy wandering dog who, on a sweltering summer day, plunges into the creek where we are freed from, only to be carried by the current down to the outskirts and take root on a clay bank where regardless of our self-will to burst forth, our roots take hold in an inhospitable terrain that holds us back. But our self-denial keeps us focused on the promise of Spring and each year we continue our struggled growth for survival --yet we never break through the brush and reach the clear blue skies above. 

    And that’s why I, like every other Thistleonian youth, end up at Gardens Gardens Galore working a summer job, unironically. It's either that or our town’s “community college” Foresthill Factory, where all those lucky enough to graduate high school end up.  

    And that's where our very own narrator met Caleb. No, Caleb did not work in the greenhouses, but he did live just up the road and took advantage of the summer influx of youth to peddle his own greenery.  

    Pot was one of the few entertainment reprieves available to Thistleonians. One so ubiquitous that this one afternoon while in the pit behind the Dirty Derby -the only other bar in town- I ran into my aunt-grandmother who just came out from her Friday bingo across at the Portuguese-Canadian Hall. While chatting, I pulled out and lit a joint instead of a cig from my pack. Although one would think this would be the moment I would describe as feeling mortified, but no, that is reserved for after my second puff where Cecilia reached for the spliff and with the nonchalant grace of Audrey Hepburn said: “It's puff-puff pass”. 

    Things rarely change in Thistler and people were not all that different, except maybe Caleb’s fiery red hair. It was likely what first caught my eye. That, or the spliff dangling from his lips. And I was all out. Yeah, it was likely that thick and entrancing smell of pot hanging in the air that caught my attention. But his red hair didn’t help the matter. 

    I wish I could tell you that our’s was a story of discovery and adventure. That one day in reckless youth abandon we packed into his low rider Ford pickup and ditched the town for something better. Something more. Something different. 

    But like I said things rarely change in Thistler and I’m still working at the green houses, Caleb is still up the road. But I guess I did lie, because something did change. I stopped driving North up Bradley Road. 

    When you’re young, all the clichés are true. I fell hard. I was caught in a daze. Hell, I would have even scribbled his and my name inside little hearts over my notebook -well I would have if I bothered to attend classes. Alas, our love was but my own unrequited love. A chess match with no opponent. A one-sided dialogue that I’m now sharing with you. You poor fellow.  

Thistler doesn’t even have a real Beer Store. Unlike the standard large stores with their bright orange signs and efficiently laid out floor plans run by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Thistleonians had a small walk in fridge adjacent to the local grocer. Walking through the tight aisles with their tall stacks of two-fours and twelvers, Trevor flipped up his collar against the frigid air of the ice box. Seeing his favourite Budweiser, Trevor stopped a few yards short, instead reaching out for Carling. Can you venture a guess whose favourite this is? Ah, but can one really blame a star-crossed lover like our very own protagonist? 

Walking up to the counter Trevor instinctively puffed out his chest. Not a show of aggression, or a sign of inflated masculinity, but a desperate attempt to mask his own faggyness and pass within this town’s strict cult of heterosexuality. 

    Caleb’s farmhouse was a classic Yellowstone brick two-story with large wrap around veranda. The back mud room had a renovation in the mid 70s that attached to pressed ply lean-to. A treasure trove for the curious, it was filled with trinkets scattered on shelves, window sills, haphazardly hanging from the ceiling like a scavenged mobile, and stacked not so neatly leaving a twisting path that reached a beer stained pool table that had only 3 of its original legs. The fourth leg was fashioned out of a large branch from the Willow out back that cracked during last summer’s storm. Adjacent to the pool table was some semblance of a couch, a La-Z Boy chair, industrial electrician spool repurposed as a coffee table, and the Throne.  

    The almighty work in process was made exclusively of beer cases. I hated that chair. It taunted me. Although the Throne’s sole construction material was Carling beer cases like the ones I bring over a few nights a week, none of mine would end up in that pile. No, me and my empties would end up back in my truck, scuttling off before his real friends came over. But that’s okay. I didn’t like him when he was with them. I didn’t like me either. But he had a way about him that made it so it didn’t matter anyways. I would faithfully show up beer in hand and he would beam at me with a large toothy grin, and saunter over slapping his large arm over my shoulders leading me over to the couch where two shots of Jäger were already waiting. Where he was waiting.  

    We talked about everything and we talked about nothing at all. There was a comfortable ease between us. We would shoot pool in between rounds of shots. Beer bottles would start piling up along the electrician's spool-table, our only marker of time. Caleb had this way of looking at me. I would be caught up in another of my long winded stories that meanders here and there seemingly void of any real direction, and Caleb would just watch me. Look at me. See me. 

    @@Growing up a fag in a homophobic town requires bravery, it instils perseverance, but most of all it demands stealth.@@ You learn at a young age how wrong you are and failing at every attempt of being like them, you learn to fade into the background. It’s the only way to be safe. From bullying, from bashing, from desertion by everyone you know in this tiny town lost in the backwoods of a terrifyingly large world. But every time you hesitate, as you hold yourself back, you forget a bit about yourself. You start to only know yourself as this cold stealth shell. At Caleb’s, I would be mid-story and lose myself in this moment of sheer exuberance that let me escape the crushing tyrannical conformity of Thistler, even if just for a moment. And Caleb would sit and see me. 

    But it was all in my head. Unrequited love, remember? I know because I’ve hit on Caleb. A lot. Come on, we were young rambunctious teenagers. I’ve been to straight beer fests where guys would chuck in porn and everyone would pull one out. But with just the two of us, I would try to reach over. Try to grasp his slender dick standing straight amidst his fiery patch of pubes. He would always shove me off with a hearty laugh. I would mutter an embarrassed excuse, blaming the Jäger or Tequila or whatever was our poison that night. 

    It started out as every other night. He was just walking up the snow trampled path from the cow barn while I was pulling into his driveway. After throwing a few brewskies into the snow bank to cool down, we cracked into our first round. Piss warm beer, but we didn’t drink for its flavour palate. Caleb pulled out the pool cues, and not before long I had lost three games, slowly getting turned on by Caleb’s increasingly smug demeanour. Finally having enough, I retreated to the couch to pour another round of Bombay - we had just recently discovered the joys of gin. Liquid courage warming my fortitude, I told him about Kayla.  

    Kayla and I started fooling around a few weeks back and just mere hours before I had asked her out. To put it lightly, Caleb was pissed. He started reaming me out -and not in the good way. Accusing me of not being true to myself. Saying that I was masquerading as a straight person wasn’t fair to Kayla or to me. He went on and on telling me he couldn’t believe I would just give up on myself. That he didn’t want to see me like that. That he couldn’t see me like that. 

    And that’s when he grabbed me by the strings of my hoodie and pulled me into a deep, passionate kiss. The sour taste of stale smoke and gin flooded my mouth as his tongue pleaded with mine. 

    Then, he quickly shoved me over the pool table, forcibly ramming my freshly shaven face against the rough green pool table top. As my smooth cheek scraped against the surface, he unzipped his pants and pulled out his cock; his eyes demanding I drop to my knees. Trying to take his cock in one gulp, I gagged over his fiery red pubes I lustfully gazed at so many times. Just as my knees started to burn raw against the hard and cold concrete floor, Caleb shoved me off.  

    Buzzed and deeply confused, I was suddenly in his bedroom, naked and pushed onto all fours. With a quick spit on his enlarged head, Caleb gripped my shoulder and forced every inch deep into my resisting ass. I could hear his grunts with each heave and pull in and out of me. Just as I was starting to ease into his rhythm, he collapsed on top of me. His lips grazing my ear, panting heavily. He rolled over and quickly fell asleep. 

    And that’s when I started to unravel. Fear and insecurities quickly crept into my mind that was still swimming in post-coitus bliss. Caleb was snoring with his left arm dangling off the bed. A dribble of drool trickling down his lip. Fuck, even like that I found him irresistibly adorable. But, what did he think of me? Of what just happened? I so badly wanted to scoot closer and drape my arm over his broad and warm back. But, no. This was just a sloppy fuck. He was drunk and horny, that’s all.  

I quickly slid off the bed, gathered my clothes and ditched. I couldn’t bare what would happen if I was still there when he woke up.  

    Caleb would never love me. He’s straight after all. Sure, I’ve wanted him for a while and even hit on him a few times -okay maybe more than a few- but I always knew it was a silly crush on a straight guy. It was, wasn’t it? Of course it was. Caleb surely would have told me he was queer. We’ve been hanging out for nearly a year. Yeah, no. He’s definitely straight. And I can’t risk it. Risk this thing with Kayla. I actually have a shot at something more than a wet dream. Then suddenly I remembered: Shit! Kayla. Our date. I was only supposed to stop for a quick beer. 

I flipped open my cell. Kayla had messaged me three times. “Be there soon” I shoot back to her.  

    Stepping off his veranda, I stopped. Standing in a flurry of snowflakes I felt the cold biting the tip of my nose. The countryside looked hauntingly beautiful. And lonely. Quiet, cold, and masked by the blanket of snow.  

    Kicking snow and gravel, I skidded off. A bit tipsy but far too sober to deal with what just happened. The snow on the road made the drive to Kayla’s house a bitch, but that’s okay. It’s already February and Spring is almost here.