OK. Pretend it’s 1987.
George Michael wants to be your father figure. Bill Cosby is America’s favorite dad. And a 6-foot-1, 135 pound, acne-riddled geek named Billy Konigsberg sits alone in a corner of the hallway at Riverdale Country School, scribbling lines in a notebook.
He is miserable. He wants to die. Sometimes he sits on the radiator in the bedroom of his mom’s Upper West Side apartment, staring out at the courtyard below, wondering how far the needle can be pushed without him popping. Wondering what it would feel like to plummet and smash into the ground. He thinks about running away to Los Angeles to become a hustler. That way, he’ll feel something other than this bone crushing pain that he feels every day of his life.
He’s known he was gay for a few years now. He’s told a few people at school. This girl Liz in his math class blushes every time she sees him, because being gay is “disgusting.” This guy David he used to hang out with and play basketball with keeps telling him to “eat a pussy for once.” He wrote that to Billy in his sophomore yearbook. Some of the guys who used to be his buddies, guys he used to play stickball with, have moved on to cooler people. His mom has just found out he’s gay and is devastated. So is his stepdad. He’s afraid to tell his dad, because so far, every time he’s told anyone, it’s blown up in his face.
So yeah. Maybe being a hustler might work. He could fall in love maybe, be taken care of.
The truth is, Billy was too much of a coward to do that. And thank God he was. Instead, he scraped through his high school years in a heavy depression.
And his senior year, he picked up a book called Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. And the world opened up for him. He read about a bunch of misfits who create their own family on Barbary Lane in San Francisco, and even though it’s just fiction, he feels a little like he’s with them, like they are his friends. He reads a young adult novel called All-American Boys about a gay football player, and he sees himself in it. He’s a good baseball player, see, and before that book, he has no idea that being an athlete and being a gay guy are remotely reconcilable. He reads a scathingly funny novel called Eighty-Sixed that is about AIDS, and even though it’s hard to handle the pain and anger of the book, it makes him understand that he’s not the only one feeling pain.
These books don’t make his life perfect, but they help him survive. He hopes that someday, he can write a book that can help a kid survive, too.
So now it’s 2013. Billy is Bill. He’s happy and healthy. He writes books for teens, especially for LGBTQ teens. Once in a while he hears from someone who sounds a lot like Billy would have, 25 years ago, and he’s glad to know that his words have helped that kid feel a little bit better about himself. Or herself. He imagines the way the radiator felt against his legs on those cold, numb nights in New York City, all those years ago, and he imagines it radiating hope up into his spine, and by extension, into the spine of the kid who’s written him. He hopes to God it’s enough.