"It's been a crummy first day of you not being here in crappy old Wheaton, Maryland. If there is any place more boring on earth to spend a sweltering summer by my goddamn self, I can't think of one . . . the sheer deadliness of our little 'burb is really starting to bug me out." - Hal, Tale of Two SummersI was researching Wheaton Plaza online last December when I stumbled on Tale of Two Summers, a 2006 young adult novel by Brian Sloan set in Wheaton. As uncomfortable as I felt rummaging through the Young Adult section for this book, I felt even stranger reading about all of these actual places that I have actually visited.
Tale of Two Summers is the story of two sophomores at Einstein High who've grown up together in Wheaton and, for the first time in their lives, have to spend the summer apart. Chuck, a classic over-achiever with a flair for the dramatic, enrolls in a theatre camp at the University of Maryland, while his best friend Hal, lazy, cynical and recently out of the closet, stays at home to get his driver's license.
The conceit, at least for the first half of the novel, is that Wheaton is VERY VERY FAR from College Park, so Chuck devises a blog (called "Tale of Two Summers") to communicate with Hal. While he starts off complaining about how boring and uncultured Wheaton is (seemingly ignorant that CP is like, seven Metro stops and a transfer away), Hal's perspective quickly shifts when a dashing French parkour enthusiast named Henri literally falls into his lap outside of the [former] P&G Cinema.
They become fast friends - erm, "friends with benefits" - and Henri introduces Hal to a new side of Wheaton, taking him downtown to visit a sex shop, a Moroccan coffeehouse, and a gay bar called De Lounge. Henri's curiosity (and pot-smoking habit) start to chip away at Hal's frustration with his life, his shitty suburban upbringing and his sexuality.
"On his suggestion, we headed across Veirs Mill Road into the heart of downtown Wheaton. Yes, that's right-Wheaton! (Cue horror-movie music.) . . . Sure, downtown Bethesda's cool and Silver Spring is even manageable, with that new minimall and movie megaplex . . . but crappy ass, nowhere-central Wheaton? I think not." - Hal and Henri leave the confines of Wheaton Plaza"A gay bar? In Wheaton? Surely you jest," I say, laughing as I read. But then, a few weeks later, I was pumping gas on Georgia Avenue when I looked across the street and, lo and behold, there was De Lounge. (How many times have I been to Paul Kee Restaurant next-door and never even knew it existed?) It's especially confusing that Sloan name-drops so many real places in Wheaton while fudging everything in College Park, where Chuck lives in St. Ann's Hall and updates the blog at McKibbin Library. You'd think the University of Maryland was trying to shut him down or something unless he made up the buildings on campus.
I used to avoid Young Adult fiction when I was the right age for it, so I don't know if there have been other books written a) about Wheaton or b) with a gay protagonist, but I appreciated both thoroughly. It's nice to see writing about Montgomery County, even if it doesn't lend itself as a backdrop to literary masterpieces like New Orleans in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Books are just one way that we develop our local culture and establish ourselves as a diverse, vibrant place to live. It took Hal a little while to figure it out, but he came around.