Our term continued in much the same fashion as it started. My roommate got out of his housing contract; I kept a single room. Everyone on the floor got a kick out of the Rich Jefferson suite. To make matters a little easier, I starting going by `Rick,' a name that I formerly hated. But in keeping with the new me, I liked having a new name. Rich and I developed a unique friendship; we became almost literally inseparable. I didn't realize how much time we spent to together until I heard us referred to as `Frick'n'Frich.' That's what the guys on the floor started to call us by about the second month of school; apparently, like Sam'n'Eric from Lord of the Flies we were thought of as one person.

My former best friend I hardly saw; he had pledged a fraternity. It was an unthinkable move for the guy I knew the year before, but I guess I wasn't the only person redefining himself that year.

My girlfriend and I talked less and less, and seemed to have less to say the more time in between conversations. I started to miss her less, which I took as a bad sign rather as one of resignation or maturity. Plus all those nights of wenching were starting to take their toll; I had remained faithful to her so far, but I knew it was only a matter of time before my raging hormones took over. I couldn't imagine how Rich was able to stay faithful to his Stacy. There were times when I thought he was going to end up having sex in whatever bar we were in; there were more than a few times that he would have had a willing partner, I'm sure.

Finally, late in the term, when Stacy and I had gone over two weeks without talking, it happened. I met a woman I couldn't resist.

Rich and I were doing our usual routine when someone came up to me and threw a drink in my face. That had never happened to me before, and for some bizarre reason I got a kick out of it. The woman who had done it seemed totally taken aback by my reaction: instantaneous laughter.

"Why the fuck did you do that?" I asked, still chuckling as I wiped my face with a cocktail napkin.

I was then equally surprised by her reaction: she blushed, and taking another napkin she wiped away what had dripped down on my neck. It was incredibly sensual. I was completely turned on.

"Because you're a jerk," she said, but not without some affection.

"As it so happens, I can't argue against that, but since you don't know me, how would you know?"

"I know your type," she said. "I've seen you and that other Casanova in here about ten times. That was my best friend you were just hitting on and blew off. What are you, too good for everyone you meet?" She said the last with a little more anger, like she was remembering why she doused me in the first place.

"No, actually I suffer from an inferiority complex. I think everyone I meet is better than I."

"No one who uses pretentiouly correct English thinks that, so you're a liar, too."

"Only when the truth would make me sound like an insufferable prick."

"So you admit you think you're better than everyone?"

"Up until about two minutes ago. If I buy you another drink will you promise not to dash it in my face?"

She shrugged. "Life is filled with risk."

I liked her immensely. We spent the rest of the evening verbally sparring, and by closing time, I had convinced her to come out to breakfast. The only downside was that Rich seemed really upset.

"That bitch threw a drink in your face and you end up buying her drinks all night and inviting her to breakfast?" he asked, sounding incredulous.

"Yeah, well, we've been playing nice since our original encounter. She's cool. You'll like her."

"And what about Stacy?" he blurted.

"Yours or mine?"

"Don't be an ass. Are you going to cheat on your girlfriend?"

This was such a strange reaction from him that I didn't know how to respond. I went for confrontational.

"You've cheated on your girlfriend with every part of your body but your dick. I don't think you're in any position to judge me. Besides, Stacy and I are through." I knew it was true, although Stacy and I hadn't discussed it yet. Just saying it out loud for the first time made it real, though.

"Bullshit," he fairly snarled, "you would've told me about it."

"I can't believe I'm having this conversation with you. Get the fuck out of my face."

"Fine," he said, "just don't come crying to me in the morning with a guilty conscience."

That was so out-of-left-field that I had no response. He looked at me for a few heartbeats, then literally whirled on his heel and left.

"Does this mean you're not joining us for breakfast?" I called after him.

"Fuck off," he yelled back without turning.

My new friend came back from the bathroom to hear the last of the exchange. "What's up his ass?" she asked.

"I have no idea," I said, truthfully. I tried to shrug it off, but it was bothering me more than I cared to admit.

Breakfast was a semi-tortured affair, since I couldn't revive my enthusiasm for witty banter and repartee. But my companion stayed in good spirits and finally cleared away whatever resentment toward Rich I was feeling.

By the time we got back in my car, I wanted to have sex both because she turned me on and to spite my asshole suitemate. We got back to my dorm at around four in the morning. We had the advantage of drunken flirting all night, so the sexual tension was ripe enough to smell.

We fell through my door kissing deeply and continued to lip lock while we stripped away each other's clothes. It felt good to have a naked woman in my arms, but at the same time I felt a little nagging something at the back of my mind. I was pissed at Rich for trying to make me feel guilty, but soon my desire overcame any doubts and I slipped inside of a woman other than Stacy for the first time in over two years.

Later that morning I drove her back to her sorority house. 'Christ,' I thought, 'I've fucked a sorority girl; there will be repercussions.' Fortunately, we were both so zombied from too much booze and lack of sleep that we parted with little more than a mutual `see ya.' That actually made me feel more attracted to her, as she seemed too secure for the `Will you call me?' routine.

I got back to my dorm intent on crawling immediately into my bed. I was surprised to find my suitemate sitting in my room.

"So, did you have fun last night?" he asked in that snotty tone people use instead of saying, `I'm still pissed and have something to say.'

"As a matter of fact, I had a great time. Thanks for asking."

"Do you plan on seeing her again?"

"I don't know, and why do you care?"

"I don't," he said. "If you want to fall for some sorority bitch's line of crap, that's your business."

"Okay," I said, "the surreal portion of this conversation is over. What the fuck is wrong with you? You sound like you're jealous. It's not like you can't have a little strange any time you want to."

He shot me a look and without saying anything he got up and left. Exhausted, I fell into bed and decided I would figure this one out later.

. . .

Things were different for a couple of days, then he came into my room and said he needed to talk. He looked like he was going to tell me someone had died. He seemed so sad that I just wanted to hug him. I had been going crazy for two days trying to figure out why he was so pissed off at me, and trying to figure out why it was driving me so crazy.

"I'm sorry," he started off, "for being such a dick. Things have been really strained between me and Stacy, and, well, we broke up."

I was stunned; they seemed to have such a great relationship, at least from the phone conversations that I overheard.

"Jesus, Jeff, I'm really sorry," I said, automatically reverting to our shared nickname.

"Don't call me `Jesus Jeff,'" he replied, studying his folded hands hanging between his knees, "it's too much responsibility."

At least I knew he wasn't going to die of a broken heart. "When did this happen?"

"That night at the bar when I gave you a hard time about that sorority chick. I didn't say anything at the time because I didn't know if it was really over. I feel really shitty for not telling you and acting like an ass...I'm sorry," he said.

"Stand up," I told him.

He looked like he was going to ask why, then silently stood. I put my arms around him and hugged him close.

"You're my best friend," I said. "You can tell me anything. Then you can still act like an ass, and I won't have to worry that I've done something to piss you off."

He gave me such a sad smile then that it almost broke my heart. I hated to see him hurting, yet I felt a strange kind of satisfaction, too. How cruel, I thought, how unlike me. I had never experienced any kind of schadenfreude even with people I disliked, much less with a friend. Later, things would make sense, but then I was confused. I knew enough to do one thing for him, though. He was going home that weekend and I had planned on going with him, but I could sense he needed to be alone.

"Speaking of break-ups, I talked to my Stacy and I'm going to meet her this weekend to talk about where we stand," I lied, "so I can't go to your place with you."

I had been right; I could see the relief on his face, quickly replaced by concern. "Now I feel like a self-absorbed jerk," he said. "I've been so wrapped up in my deal that I haven't been there for you."

"You are a self-absorbed jerk," I told him. "That's why we get along so well."

He smiled at that, a real smile. "`Birds of a feather,' you mean?"

"No, you idiot, opposites attract."

At that he threw back his head and laughed his wonderful laugh. I felt better; he seemed to, also.

In one of those coincidences that almost brings me to accept the idea of fate, my girlfriend called me that afternoon. After we exchanged chilly hellos, she got right to the point: she wanted to talk face to face, could I come home this weekend? I told her I was planning on it anyway, so it would be a good opportunity to clear the air. Then she threw me: she told me she missed me and loved me. We made our plans to get together and said our good-byes.

I spent the next few days worrying about my friend and wondering what was going to happen with my girlfriend. I didn't really want to break up, but I knew things were heading in that direction. And what was bugging me about my concern for Rich? There was something nagging at me, but I couldn't bring it to the surface of my mind. Then I relaxed, knowing that it would come to me if I stopped trying to force it.

That weekend my girlfriend surprised me. She confessed to cheating on me, which should have made me hypocritically jealous, but oddly did not. She also told me she realized how much she loved me, and that she wanted us to work. Would I forgive her and try a fresh start?

"That's a lot to throw at me all at once," I told her. "How am I supposed to respond?"

"Honestly," she said.

So I did. I told her that I felt we had a chance if we both put an effort in, but that it was pointless if we weren't both committed. She agreed, and produced a plane ticket for the following week.

"I bought two tickets," she told me. "One for this weekend and one for the weekend after next. I want to come and see you at school. How does that sound for commitment?"

Her conviction convinced me. We spent a great weekend together and parted looking forward to the weekend to come.

When I got back to school Rich seemed like his old self. He asked how things had gone for me, and seemed genuinely pleased that he was going to meet my Stacy in a couple of weeks.

"We'll have a ball," he said. "How does she feel about threesomes?"

"We've only tried it once," I replied, scratching my chin. "Unless you count the time with the circus midgets, but that was more of an orgy. Then there was that time with the Shetland it still a threesome if one is an animal?"

"I use a very liberal standard to define my threesomes, so yeah, I think two people and a pony counts."

"There you have it,'ll be a ball."

. . .

The next couple of weeks dragged by, until the Friday of our weekend arrived and I went to pick up my girlfriend at the airport. I had the strangest sense of foreboding as I drove, but put it out of my mind. For some reason I thought I would get there to find out that she wasn't on the plane and had changed her mind. Again, as I reflected on it later, I came to identify the subconscious thought pattern, but at the time I was clueless.

My doubts were eased when she came bounding out of the gate and into my arms. This will be a great weekend, I thought, spending it with my two best friends.

Rich and I planned to take Stacy to dinner and then show her how we partied at State. My floormates had planned a bar-night, so later we would meet up with a whole group of fun-loving crazies. We arrived back at the dorm to find Rich mixing up a pitcher of vodka martinis, our regular Friday start up.

"We ran out of vermouth," he said, by way of introducing himself to Stacy, kissing her on the cheek and handing her a glass, "so I added a little liquid plumber. Hope it's all right."

"Actually," she said, flashing an incredibly warm smile, "I find it enhances the buzz and has the added benefit of really cleaning out the system."

The two of them looked at each other for a few seconds and then burst into laughter. It was like they were old friends. I shouldn't have been so surprised, since they were both a couple of inveterate flirts; this was definitely a case of `birds of a feather.'

"Excuse me," I said, fumbling with my girlfriend's bags, "do you two know each other?"

"If we did," said Stacy, "you wouldn't have been the one picking me up at the airport."

"Oh, shit," said Rich, still smiling at my girlfriend and talking to me, "your dad called while you were gone. Your mom's in the hospital, and they want you to come home immediately. I'll make sure Stacy has a good time and gets back to the airport Sunday."

"My mother died when I was five," I lied.

"Turns out it was just a coma," he said, fully cognizant of the fact that my mother was alive and well. "She just woke up and is asking for you. It should be a real It's A Wonderful Life moment for you."

"I won't be able to stop thinking about you," said Stacy to me, never taking her eyes off of Rich.

"Bastards," I exclaimed.

We all broke up laughing, and kept laughing the whole weekend. I was slightly jealous, which I found both mildly disconcerting and mildly enjoyable; I could never remember feeling jealous before, so I promised myself I would examine my feelings very closely after the weekend was over. The surprise of my conclusions is something I still think about with bemusement.

Later that night when Stacy and I lay in bed together, we talked about all my new friends she had met. Of course, she really just wanted to talk about Rich.

"How come you didn't tell me how good-looking he was?" she asked.

"Gee, honey, I don't know...somehow it sounds a little odd to tell your girlfriend that you have the best-looking guy on campus for a new best friend."

"He is, too," she said, not the least bit self-consciously. "He's probably the best looking guy I've ever seen. Next to you," she added, not even trying to sound sincere.

"Oh, shut up," I said, smiling but feeling that little tinge of jealousy.

"I'm sincerely jealous," she said. "You should see the way women look at the two of you."

"I know," I said, trying to sound offended. "It makes me feel so objectified."

"You're an ass."

"I'm not the one lying in bed with my boyfriend talking about other men," I chided her.

"Point taken," she said, rolling into my arms.

The rest of the weekend went by in a blur, until it was time to take her back to the airport. Since it was early December, we knew we would hardly have time to miss each other before we were home for Christmas break. Still, I was sad to see her go and that strange foreboding came over me again as she walked through the gate to her plane. Not that it would have saved me from what was to follow, but I should have paid more attention to that feeling.

. . .

The following couple of weeks were spent preparing for final exams, which would finish the term on the Friday the week before Christmas. My four classes had finals on Monday and Tuesday of that week, which meant I had effectively three extra days of vacation. Rich was also finished on Tuesday, since he had three classes and only two finals (his third class had a term paper instead of a final).

Since Stacy wasn't getting home until Christmas Eve, I knew I would end up staying at school, partying my ass off to celebrate the end of a very successful term. In two of my classes I had set the curve and could tank the final and still get an `A.' In the other two classes I was carrying `A' averages which meant that studying for the final would involve an hour or two of review. This was going to be a fun December.

And it was. Rich and I were back to our old form. We probably spent five nights a week at the bars and usually went to a movie one night and out to dinner another. I didn't reflect on it a lot, but I never spent so much time with anyone, not even my girlfriend. It was odd how we never got tired of each other's company.

Finals came and I aced all of them with minimal effort. Rich had to spend one extra night finishing his term paper, which meant Tuesday night of finals week I was on my own. None of my other friends were finished yet, so I decided to book a Jacuzzi suite in one of the downtown hotels and treat myself to an indulgent night of relaxation. Besides, I knew I had some things to think about, even if I wasn't sure what exactly.

I checked in around seven that evening and opened a bottle of wine. I listened to some Brubeck while I filled the tub. To this day, I find a bottle of good red wine and repeated playing of Take Five will create the proper atmosphere for self-discovery. As I sat in the tub luxuriating, I reflected on my life.

Things were great. I was an all-A student, I had made lots of new friends, including a friend that I thought would be my best friend for life, and I had a very cool, beautiful girlfriend to boot. So what was that little pinprick nagging at the back of my mind?

I thought back to the start of the term, how I first met Rich and how we got to be friends. It seemed I had grown up so much in those few short months. I thought of seeing Rich for the first time and how physically striking he was. Funny how I hadn't really thought about it for a while, but it was almost as if I had a crush on him when we first met. That was a stupid way of thinking about it, I thought, but how else would I describe such a visceral reaction?

Then I starting thinking about Stacy and how we came close to breaking up. There's another strange thought: I wish we had. I sat up in the tub, shaken. Why did I just think that? Because I wish I didn't have a girlfriend, that's why. It hit me like the proverbial ton: I wasn't happy in my relationship with Stacy. But it wasn't as if I wanted out so I could play the field; I never even called that sorority girl back, and she was a lot of fun. Then what the hell was it? Most obviously to me, I didn't miss Stacy. I wasn't even in a hurry to get home to see her. Odd, but I had just spent about every night of the past three weeks with Rich and I missed him more tonight than I did Stacy. I guessed that meant it was time to end my relationship with her. I sat back in the tub and started to relax again. So that's what had been bothering me: I wanted out of that relationship. How can we be so blind to the obvious?

I turned then to the why. I wasn't happy with Stacy, but why? She had a great personality, we had a lot of fun together and had great sex, too. So why did I want to dump her? I told myself to be honest, what reasons would I have to break up with her? Well, for one thing, she wasn't Rich, and...what? What did I just think? `She wasn't Rich?' Why the fuck would that pop into my head? I sat back up and felt my heart racing. What the hell was I thinking? You just noticed how you missed Rich more than her, I told myself, what does that tell you? Yeah, but Rich and me are buds, of course I miss him. No. Not, `of course.' That's not normal. You don't sit in a hot-tub and miss a guy with whom you've just spent practically every waking moment of the past three months. Not unless...not unless you think of him as more than a friend. Jesus! I was starting to freak myself out. I got out of the tub, wrapped a towel around my waist, and poured another glass of wine.

Okay, calm down, breath deeply, slowly. How about the jealousy thing? Yeah, that's right, I was a little jealous of the fact that Stacy was so obviously attracted to him. I remembered actually thinking about him and Stacy getting together, and it bothered me. That's normal: who wouldn't be bothered by the thought of his girlfriend sleeping with his best friend? Then a sneering little bastard voice popped into my head: yeah, but really you were jealous of her getting to sleep with him, not the other way around.

Holy Shit! Can that be true?!

And why weren't you jealous when she told you she had cheated on you?

All right, slow down here. So, you think your best friend is attractive, isn't that pretty much a rule of all relationships? We gravitate towards people we find attractive, so what?

Sneering Bastard Voice: that's fine, but you don't think he's just attractive, you think he's absolutely gorgeous.

All right, goddamnit! I think he's gorgeous! So fucking what?!

SBV: ...and you miss him.

Yep, I do, so what again?

SBV: ...more than you miss your girlfriend.

I said that already and even recognized that it wasn't quite normal, you're not helping!

SBV (dead calm and quiet): ...and you want to kiss him.

I sat in stunned silence as my breathing and that last thought reverberated in my ears: ...and you want to kiss him. Ohmigod, ohmigod, it's true...but that means...

SBV (softly and sadly, like a friend gently breaking news): You're gay.

NO! I can't be gay! I don't want to be gay! I have a girlfriend, goddamn it! How could I be gay? No, it must be a mistake...

I stood up. I sat back down. I stood up again. Jesus Christ, I thought, you live with someone for almost twenty years, and you don't know he's gay? I started laughing, rather maniacally, which had a sobering effect. Man, no wonder I couldn't put a finger on what was bothering me...I didn't want to!

Although my brain was threatening sensory overload shutdown, I knew I had come too far and crossed a threshold: I had to carry this through to a certain conclusion. I began replaying the past three months in my head.

I went back to meeting Rich, and having a crush on him (I admitted it to myself). Then drifting away from Stacy...and not regretting it. Spending more and more time with Rich, and happy about it. My strange sense of satisfaction when Rich and his girlfriend broke up. Telling Stacy we had a chance, but only with effort and if we were both committed: we did have a chance, if I continued with my effort to deny my feelings and committed myself to living a lie. Then the foreboding at the airport: I wasn't afraid she wouldn't be on the plane, I was hoping she wouldn't be. My lack of jealousy at her cheating on me; my jealousy at the thought of her and Rich. The foreboding again after dropping her at the airport: even then, I must have known what the nagging feeling was. Subconsciously I knew that if I listened to my inner voice it would be the last time I would see my girlfriend as my girlfriend.

I felt very calm, very relaxed, the weight I had not even been conscious of had been lifted. I began to make sense of the patterns in my life, and wondered why I had stayed hidden from myself for so long. Given the society I lived in, the church I was raised in (Catholic), the way I was taught to think, I probably did the healthiest thing I could for myself: I sublimated my feelings to an unrecognizable depth. I was, in a way, proud of myself. I hid from myself until I was psychologically able to handle the truth. I had to break free from so many different confining mores and philosophies that I needed the time to forge a mental panoply to take on all the slings and arrows that would surely now be headed my way. I smiled. I felt empowered. I felt almost ready to handle this challenge.

Almost. What was I going to do about Rich? It was one thing to admit these feelings to myself, but how do you tell your best friend that you're gay and, by the way, attracted to him? Was it fair to him? Would it be fair not to say anything? All my confidence in all other areas of my life was no good to me now. I had no experience to go by, no means of balancing a comparison between different courses of action.

I thought back to how I had considered the way I was redefining myself. Little did I know then that I was laying such a major cornerstone for radical change. I thought of some of my old friends from high school and what they would say: "Did you hear about Rich Jefferson...Jeff? He goes by `Rick' now...and he's gay!" Would they be as shocked as I was? Did any of them know or suspect?

And was I going too far in my thought pattern? I hadn't even kissed another man, much less slept with could I even be sure I was gay? I shook my head. I knew what I knew. I felt the truth of the thing when I thought about it. I thought about kissing Rich, about holding his naked body next to mine, about feeling his shoulders, his chest, his washboard stomach I had admired as he stepped out of the shower. I looked down at my erection and smiled grimly. No doubt in his mind, anyway. Jesus, I was rock hard and hadn't even considered anything overtly sexual.

I lay back in bed and uncovered myself completely. My masturbation fantasies almost invariably involved two women, usually by themselves; sometimes I joined them. After I had met Rich, for the first time I had fantasies of two men (me and him) with a woman. Probably those fantasies had started to wake my new consciousness, because although Rich and I were clearly defined, the woman was always faceless and anonymous.

Now I removed the woman from the picture and considered just Rich and me together. Putting my lips to his for the first time was almost enough to induce my orgasm. I held back, and let my fantasy encompass everything that two men could enjoy together. The intensity and pleasure was beyond my experience; whatever doubts I may have had about my sexual orientation evaporated in an explosion of imagined tastes, sounds and experiences. Incredible. This was what passion was.

I cleaned up and went back into the Jacuzzi. I still had a great deal to consider, but I was so comfortable with the rightness of my self-revelation that I felt like I was thinking clearly for the first time in my life.

First off, back to Rich (didn't I wish!). What should I tell him and how should I tell it? I was worried because as I considered it, we really had only known each other for a few months. How well did I really know him? What if I started to tell him and it was too much for him? What was I risking and what would I be losing? I knew enough to know that not everyone in my life would be accepting.

My mother would be so saddened for me because of society's rejection of my lifestyle, my father would probably be incredulous, and my brother and I, already slightly estranged, would likely end up no longer speaking. Of my long-term friends I was philosophical: some would shrug, some would reject me, and some might already know. Since you don't keep all your friends all your life, it's best to know early on whom you can count on.

Then there was the question of how `out' I wanted to be. I decided I needed time to adjust to my new reality before I started any radical confrontations. I wasn't going to live a hidden life in the closet, I decided, but neither did I have to take out ads and make political statements. At least not a first. But should I tell my family before anyone?

No, the first person I would tell would be Rich, and I would wait until the moment was right. Since we were so close, it would have to come up eventually. If it ruined our friendship, there was only six months left in the school year when we got back from break. If our friendship survived, then it would thrive, and make my new life that much easier.

Resolved, I got out of the tub and went to bed. Always a sound sleeper, that night I felt like I was sleeping on air. I woke the next morning as rested and refreshed as I could ever remember. My new life had begun.