By the time I returned to the dorm the next morning, some of my courage had left me, if not my conviction; I was still energized from my self-discovery and yet I felt disembodied approaching the front doors. Fortunately, a college dorm during exam week has an altogether different feel to it than at any other time; bizarre and even inappropriate quirks of behavior are completely overlooked. My bursting through the doors and bounding up the stairs, all the while grinning like an idiot, would seem altogether expected behavior from someone who had just aced a tough exam (or even failed one, for that matter).
I felt an urge to get back to my room and...what? I couldn't say. I wanted to be in my room and look at it through new eyes; I wanted to be the new me in the place where my former self lived. It was rather disconcerting. My heart pounding in my chest, my lungs starved of oxygen, and my legs rubbery, I made my way down the hall. I paused in front of my door and held my key in my hand as I stared at the number before me.
A few of my floormates walked by, apparently on their way to the caf. They caught me staring at my door.
"That's your room, Rick. Just try the key."
"Everything will be okay," added another, as if he was talking someone down from a ledge.
I went for fake anxiety. "But what if I open the door and there's nothing there?" I said loudly and panicky.
They all laughed as they continued down the hall. I smiled at my own over-dramatization and went into my room. I took a deep breath and leaned back against the door. I heard frenzied keyboard tapping from Rich's room. Giving myself no time to think, I walked through our bathroom to his room.
"Hey, Jeff, what's up? Listen, I'm gay and I have a crush on you." I stopped to look in the mirror in the bathroom and half-laughed at the lunatic proposition my mind projected; I went into his room and threw myself onto his couch without saying anything. He continued to type without looking up.
His hair disheveled (for him), he was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. There were ashes on his desk and on the floor, the ashtray overflowing. I got up and picked up the ashtray, emptied it into the garbage, returned it to his desk and helped myself to a cup of coffee. I sat back on the couch savoring the moment and the coffee. We still had not spoken. A friendly silence. A comfortable silence.
I glanced at him over the top of my cup, trying hard not to stare. He took a drag off his cigarette, reading something he had just written, his lips moving slightly, his brow furrowed in concentration. He was completely oblivious of me.
"Stop staring at me," he said, never taking his eyes from the screen, "you're making me nervous."
I almost choked on my coffee. "I don't think I've ever seen you look so studious," I said, sarcastically. Or so goddamn gorgeous, I thought. He had obviously been up all night; there were books and papers strewn about his always-tidy room and the close quarters carried the tang of sweat, prolonged concentration, and stale smoke. An altogether intoxicating smell; in the haze of it I imagined myself walking over to him and stripping off his t-shirt and rubbing his shoulders.
"God, that feels good," he would say, reaching up and squeezing one of my hands.
I would lean down and kiss his neck...Jesus! I thought, get a grip. Rule number one: there will be no fantasizing about your best friend in your best friend's presence.
"What?" I asked, realizing he had said something.
"You do that a lot, you know that? You're always drifting off in thought when someone is talking to you. You're going to make a great husband some day. I asked you to proofread my paper for me." He was smiling at me over his coffee. He always had me proofread his papers, from the day he found out I was an English major and had scored an almost perfect 790 on the verbal portion of my SATs.
"Sure," I said. Glad for the distraction, I picked up the pages he had printed and leafed through them. I did a cursory overview to get the gist of the thing, read it once more quickly to get a better idea of the main ideas, and then settled into an earnest sentence-by-sentence dissection. I was circling and making notes for a few minutes before I realized he was staring at me.
"What is it?"
"I love how you do that," he said.
"Do what?" I asked, genuinely perplexed.
"It must be a concentration thing. The way you read something over a couple of times before zeroing in on it. A shark circling before the attack. I can practically see the lasers coming out of your eyes."
His admiration was sincere and so, of course, embarrassing to me. I reacted typically.
"That's a mixed metaphor," I said. "Sharks don't have lasers."
He went back to his typing without saying anything. I finished proofing just as he finished typing.
"Done. How is what I have there?" he asked, indicating the papers I was holding.
"Excellent, as usual. A few cosmetic changes and you should have your comfortable C+."
"Perfect. God, I pity those overachievers who can't stop at `good enough.'" He leaned back, taking one last satisfied drag off his cigarette before stubbing it out. He had probably been through four drafts of his paper. He was a relentless perfectionist.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Now I take a fifteen-minute hot shower while you make the changes for me and print up the final draft. Then we go grab some lunch, drop off my paper and head up to `Rasputin's' for an afternoon of beer and pool. Next, we proceed to an evening of drunken debauchery that will render all our former exploits as worthy of `The Temperance Society's Tea and Crumpet Social Moment.' How's that for starters?"
"Sounds good," I said, "but it makes for a difficult encore."
"Well, we'll just have to burn that bridge down after we fall off of it."
* * *
Ten hours and a vast amount of alcohol later we were seated across from one another at our favorite dive bar to end the evening. Normally, it would be sometime after one in the morning when we stumbled through the doors of `R.I. Red's,' most usually with a co-ed or two in tow.
Red was a local legend somewhere between fifty and eighty. He owned a dimly lit, homey place with the best jukebox on campus. Behind the bar he kept an aquarium that looked like it was filled with dollar bills. The unwary patron was invited to throw in a dollar and guess what the `R.I.' stood for. If he guessed right, he would win all the money in the aquarium; a wrong guess cost the buck. No matter what the guess (unless is was the anemically reiterated `Rhode Island'), Red would clang this huge bell behind the bar and shout at the top of his considerable lungs, "Weeee got ourselves a fuckin' win-ah he-ah!" (In the case of `Rhode Island' he would snatch the dollar, growling, "Drinks are double-price for you for the rest of the night.") Then he would bring the aquarium over to the lucky winner. All the bills were taped to the outside of the aquarium, not in it, but there was occasionally some loose change at the bottom. I once was returned sixteen cents; I considered the eighty-four cents well spent for the split second look on Red's face at one of my better efforts: "Rectum Inserting."
We had started so early and drunk so much that it was before eleven when we had decided it was time to wind down. Red laughed when we came up to the bar without women on either side of us.
"All the sorority girls studyin' tonight, boys? Or are your peckers just in desperate need of a night off?"
"Jesus, Red," I slurred, "weren't you ever nineteen? I don't ever give my pecker a night off, especially when I go home alone."
He laughed uproariously and slapped the bar with a giant paw. "First one's on me!" he yelled, his typical compliment for giving him a good laugh.
Rich and I settled into a booth, both absently tapping to the loud music, when I decided to lay some of the groundwork for my big announcement. I told him I was breaking up with Stacy.
"You're a fuckin' idiot."
"Thanks for the support. I need that."
"Think about it for a sec. You honestly think you're gonna do better than Stacy? She's funny, sexy and laid-back. Th' hell's wrong with you, boy? That sorority slut give you a case of the clap that went to your brain?"
I was pissed, drunk, and suddenly jealous. "I figured you'd be happy," I snarled, "this gives you the chance to take Stacy out. The two of you practically fucked when you met. Now you can do it with a clear conscience."
He looked at me as if to make sure he had heard correctly. "Is that what this is about? Are you breaking up with her because we had fun together? Man, you are one sorry motherfucker. Have you ever heard of cutting off your nose to spite your face?"
"Have you ever heard of cutting off your dick and shoving it down your own throat?" I snapped back, churlishly.
We stared at one another for an instant before erupting into laughter.
"No," he said, still laughing and wiping away tears, "I never heard of that."
After a moment, I turned serious. "I admit I was a little jealous of how much you two liked each other, but I was proud, too, and more proud than jealous. This doesn't have anything to do with that. She is a great girl, I doubt I could find a woman half as cool, but when you don't love someone, you don't love someone, and you can't make yourself into what you're not."
He looked across the bar and seemed to go far away in thought. He even rubbed his chin. "No, you certainly can't," he said softly. "You can't be something you're not."
He looked at me strangely and was on the verge of saying something else, but thought better of it. I felt a strange panic at the way he was looking at me. My god! He knows! My breath came up short. I could actually feel my eyes widening. I'm not ready for this! Please don't say anything!
Mercifully, he started down another track. "When me and my Stacy broke up," he said, "I thought I would never find anyone like her. Maybe I still do. But, the thing is, um..." he hesitated. "The thing is," he finally continued after four or five heartbeats (mine still pounding), "the thing is, I'm really, really fucked up. I'm gonna need a cab to the door. Do that have that kind of thing?"
My laughter was more of relief than anything. "No," I said, "but now that you mention it, I bet Red would hire a rickshaw for us."
"You selfish bastard, a rickshaw would be fine for you, but what about me?"
I tried to wrap my drunken mind around what he was saying, but I couldn't. Why couldn't we both ride a rickshaw? Because I was gay, and he knew it? I was staring at my beer, trying to think way too hard, when he cuffed me.
"Hey, goddamnit. I said, what about me?"
"Why can't you ride in a rickshaw?" I asked, sounding morose.
"Because," he said, triumphantly, "I need a richsaw!"
We laughed like idiots and I mentally slapped my face and told myself to get over the paranoid thought process. Christ, was I going to spend my time looking for double meanings in everything? Obviously, there was nothing different about my relationship with Rich; he certainly wasn't acting differently. I shook my head and resolved to grow up.
"You're right," I said, "a rickshaw is a terribly discriminatory vehicle. Perhaps we can hire a `richardshaw,' then we can both ride."
"Isn't he an actor?"
"'Richard Shaw.' I think I saw him in Pygmalion."
"Yeah, well, summer stock hardly pays the bills," I said. "You've got to supplement your income carrying drunks to doors."
"Red!" Rich shouted across the bar, "Hey, Red! Hire us a Richard Shaw! We want a Richard Shaw!"
"You goddamn catamites!" Red roared back, "There will be no male prostitutes in my joint!"
Howling with laughter, we slapped the table and clanked our glasses together before draining the last of our beer. We headed out into the cold December air, pulling the collars of our coats tight to our throats.
The cold was almost sobering. The streets were quiet; most students still on campus were studying, most students who had finished were already gone. A light snow was falling, dancing in the streetlights, disappearing near the ground, magnifying the quietude. The accumulated snow was only a day old, giving the campus the clean, pristine feel that only a northern winter can. An occasional car passed, splashing melted snow and thin slush to the curb. Startled snowflakes swirled dizzyingly in the headlights, and the Doppler sound-effect made the quiet more profound when the car's noise faded into the receding red glow of the taillights.
I tried not to think of it as the quiet before the storm.
Rich threw his arm around my shoulder. "What a great night, what a great term."
"Amen, brother," I said, "amen.'"
He took a deep breath. "You know, I, ah..." he trailed off.
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing," he said, after a few seconds' pause. He sounded almost angry.
"C'mon," I said, "out with it."
Again, he paused. "Aw, shit, there's only a few things worse than a maudlin drunk. Anyway, you've been a great friend to me. Okay? That's all. You're a great friend."
"You too," I said, lamely.
Another deep breath. "And I hope you know you can tell me anything, and it wouldn't affect our relationship."
I could hear my breathing again. I started to feel a little queasy, like I could feel the earth spinning. I wanted to say something, but cotton wadded my mouth.
"Just like," he blurted out in a rush, "I know I could tell you anything, and it wouldn't matter to you."
"Exactly," I said. "That's precisely true. Exactly. Couldn't be more true." I sounded like a fucking idiot.
He wasn't paying attention. He didn't seem to be satisfied that he had said what he'd wanted to; I could sense that there was more. Only now, I wasn't so sure that he wanted me to tell him anything, more that he had something he wanted to tell me. I waited for him to go on, but again he seemed to think better of saying anything else.
"Well," I said at last, "within reason."
"What do you mean?"
"For example," I said, sounding very serious, "there are certain things you could tell me about yourself that would have to change the nature of our relationship."
"What kinds of things?" he asked soberly, responding to my tone.
"Like, if you told me that you were a psychopathic axe-murderer who mailed victims' body parts to different parts of the country in zip-lock bags, that would necessarily change things between us."
"How so?" he asked, pretending to be affronted.
"Well, for one thing, I wouldn't be able to share your hobbies with you anymore."
"See, these are the kinds of things that we should have talked about at the start of the term." He made his voice go dead flat, continuing, "Now I feel betrayed by you, just like all those others betrayed me. And call it a character flaw, but I just can't let betrayal go unpunished."
"You do that a little too well," I said. "Remind to check your room for sharp objects."
He laughed, but it was a forced laugh. I could sense that there was something he wanted to say, but the moment had passed. I thought I would give it one more shot.
"Serious now," I said, "you are my best friend. You can tell me anything."
Silence, slightly uncomfortable. He cleared his throat. "All right, then, we have established open lines of communication and can tell each other anything."
Too much sarcasm there. The moment was definitely gone.
"Right," I said.
"In that case, I just want to tell you that you are a complete asshole."
"At least you can't criticize me for not finishing what I start."
At that we both laughed, and joked and punched arms the rest of the way home. Whatever it was would probably come up another day, and whatever was on his mind was surely going to pale in comparison to what I was going to tell him. It was just as well. I needed more time to prepare myself; my heart-pounding, heavy-breathing routine every time I even thought the subject would come up told me that.
We got back to our dorm sometime after midnight. There were still a few people up studying or worrying or both. We did our best quiet-drunk routine, slamming into walls, laughing obnoxiously, and loudly telling each other to shut the fuck up. By the time we got to our floor, our R.A. was waiting for us. We were standing in front of my door, since Rich never took his keys when we went out together, when the lecture started.
"I'm on duty tonight," he said. This meant that if there were any problems anywhere in the dorm, regardless of the floor, he would get called first. "I've been getting calls for ten minutes about two loud drunks. I should have known it was you." He was trying to look angry, but I knew that we were his favorite residents.
"Now, Allen," I said. His name was Charles Schwab, but he hated both `Charles' and `Chuck' and he especially hated the stupid jokes he got when he introduced himself. His middle name, unfortunately, was `Aloysius' so that was no help. I decided that `Allen' was close enough to `Aloysius' and started addressing him as that. Everyone else on the floor picked up on it, and soon enough, `Allen' was his name. He couldn't have been happier. "You know as well as we do that we suffer from a severe alcohol dependency. Ordinarily," I tried to say, but it came out as `ordinaly' I was such a mess, "I would be the first one to take responsibility for my actions. However..."
Allen was shaking his head. "Jesus, you guys are drunk. Even for you. Go to bed." He turned and left us standing in the hall.
"Well," I said, turning to Rich and trying to focus on his swimming face, "that was certainly rude."
"Some people simply have no goddamn social graces," he belched, "whatsofuckingever."
"Hmm, true," I said, stupidly nodding my head half a dozen times. I added, "However, I must admit, it was an excellent suggestion. This undulating floor is making me ill. I would like to lie down in a nice, comfortable spinning bed and pass out."
"Secondidid," he slurred.
We stumbled through my door and Rich collapsed into my bed. I stood staring at him as he began snoring almost immediately. I started to lie down next to him, thought better of it, shrugged, and took off his shoes. I threw a blanket over him and made my way to his room. As much as I would have enjoyed sleeping in his bed, there was no way I was going to try to climb the ladder into his loft. I threw myself down on his couch and passed out.
Sometime in the morning I woke with the same blanket I had covered him with covering me. He was up in his bed. He must have woken up in the middle of the night and made his way back to his bed, quite disoriented I'm sure, seen me on his couch and figured out what happened. Then he went back and grabbed the blanket to cover me before going to bed. I noticed then that my shoes were off, too. I smiled to myself and went back to sleep.
* * *
At lunch the next day, we were both still bleary-eyed and semi-catatonic.
"How the hell did I end up in your bed?" he asked. He sounded almost embarrassed.
"You took two steps through the door and fell," I said. "You weren't exactly conversational at that point, so I figured the hell with it and crashed on the couch."
"Oh." He smiled, sheepish. "Sorry about that."
"No problem. It's not like I would have noticed the difference between a bed, a couch or the floor last night. Jesus, I was hammered. By the way, did we stop by a pet shop on the way home?"
"A pet shop? I don't think so. Why?" he asked, sipping his coffee.
"'Cause when I woke up this morning it tasted like I'd had a hamster in my mouth."
He rewarded my humor with a spray of coffee. I liked to catch him off guard, but my timing could have been a little better. I wiped coffee from my face and shook my head. He was unapologetic, still chuckling.
"So, is your deal with Stacy going to affect your plans to come down to Florida for a few days?" he asked, after his laughter had died.
He was going down to Boca Raton to spend the break with his parents. They were both retired professors who went south every winter. Their place, as Rich described it, sounded palatial. Rich's father had family money; evidently being a professor had been sort of a hobby for him.
Initially, I had planned on going down to spend the week between Christmas and New Year's with him. For the past day or so, I had been trying to figure out a way to back out of the trip. I didn't want to tell him about myself in that setting, at his home with his parents, and I was nervous about being alone with him in a relaxed, tropical atmosphere. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but I was actually afraid of being on the beach with him, seeing his body, feeling the warmth of the sun, the sounds of the ocean. It was a recipe for self-torture. I wanted desperately to go; I wanted desperately to stay away. Now he was handing me a perfect excuse not to make the trip. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to kiss him or strangle him.
"Actually," I lied, "I was just thinking about that. I'm not sure when or how I'm going to do this. And I would feel pretty shitty if I pulled a `I-don't-want-to-see-you-anymore-but-I-can't-talk-now' routine on her. She deserves better than that."
"Yes, she does," he agreed. "I guess just play it by ear. I was really looking forward to having you down there to break up the monotony of drinking all night and lying on the beach all day recovering with pina coladas hand-delivered by beautiful women wearing the closest legal thing next to nothing."
That pretty much settled it for me. I could almost handle the thought of seeing him in next to nothing for a week, but having to spend that time pretending to drool over women with him would be too much.
"Yeah, I feel bad at the thought of making you suffer by yourself like that. But you're right, I'll have to play it by ear."
I was relieved and he seemed genuinely disappointed, but, I thought, almost relieved, too. Probably it was just my paranoid imagination again; thinking that he was relieved his friend he thought was gay wouldn't be with him to cramp his style. I forced the thought from my head.
Later that day I had new doubts when he told me he had been able to change his flight and was leaving that night instead of two days later. I got unreasonably angry. Here I was, postponing going home to break up with my girlfriend so I could spend a couple of extra days with him, and what does he do but run out on me. After I calmed down a bit, I had to laugh at myself. I was acting like a stereotypical selfish lover. He was going to spend Christmas with his family, for Christ's sake, where did I get off thinking he should be spending more time with me? Like I had any right. I gave myself another mental slap and told myself to grow up. Jesus! I had always thought of myself as very mature; was I going to have to start everything all over?
I went to find Rich to find out what time he wanted to leave for the airport. It would be an unspoken by-product of our friendship that I would be taking him.
"What time's your flight?" I asked.
"Eight-twenty," he replied.
"Okay," I said, "so you want to leave here around six?"
He hesitated. "Um, well, actually, Tort said he'd take me."
Tort. Karl Tortchec, a nice enough guy, if looks, brains and personality didn't count for anything, to borrow a phrase from the Coen brothers. Tort was a natural-born, knuckle-dragging follower who seemed to find a hero in Rich. Rich treated him with the friendly disdain an emperor might treat a particularly loyal, moronic subject. I felt like I had been punched, which I recognized immediately as an over-reaction, but I couldn't help myself. How could he not plan on me taking him to the airport? It was no big deal, I told myself. But it was a huge fucking deal. This went against every natural bond of our friendship. How could he do this to me? And why was I reacting like a goddamn chick? I thought I was going to cry.
Instead, I shrugged. "Whatever," I said. "I guess I'll just take off myself, then."
We stood staring at each other for a few seconds, uncomfortable. Us! Uncomfortable! That did make me want to cry. What the hell was going on? Then, in an instant, I knew. He does know about me. He's telling me things have changed. He's not my best friend anymore. He was glad I wasn't coming to Florida, and he was glad to be taking off a couple of days early, so he wouldn't have to be around me any longer. It was so obvious that I knew it wasn't just paranoid imaginings. My best friend was rejecting me. Although I had told myself to be prepared for the worst, I wasn't. I had to leave. Fast.
I stuck out my hand. "Well, have a great trip and a great break, and I'll talk to you when we get back."
He looked at my hand for a second. I flashed back to that day that seemed so long ago (three months!) when I stared at his hand like it held a snake.
He shook my hand, lifelessly. "Yeah, you too," was all he said, and then turned and busied himself with more packing.
I left in a daze. It was five in the afternoon and the early night-sky was rapidly bleeding light. The clouds were high and dark, threatening. There was no wind, but the air was biting. It hurt to breathe. I realized it wasn't just the cold that was making my lungs burn. I got into my car and my shoulders began to heave. I felt completely alone. I drove for ten minutes and made it to a lonely stretch of road. I pulled over and cried like I hadn't cried since I was a child. This sucks, was all I could think, this hurts so bad. I realized also that it was a harbinger of things to come, and that I better toughen up in a hurry if I was going to survive.
Here are your choices, I told myself: face all the rejection you are sure to receive, and come away stronger for it, or curl up into a suicidal ball and wallow in how unfair life is. I thought of Nietzsche (whom I had read at Rich's insistence): `Anything that does not kill me makes me stronger.' No one ever died of a broken heart—or almost no one, anyway. I started to feel better; felt my strength and resolve returning. So you were rejected by your first crush, so what? That happens all the time. And if he is too much of a jerk to accept you for what you are, then fuck him. His loss, damn straight.
I wiped the tears from my face and drove on. I decided on the way that the first person I would tell would be my brother. Since he and I were not very close, I wouldn't be risking a lot; I would be able to handle his rejection better than Rich's.
And there was still the slight possibility that I was wrong about Rich. After all, he had reacted badly when he and his Stacy broke up, and he had been trying to tell me something the night before, I was sure of that. Maybe he just had something on his mind and I was reading too much into his distance. Maybe it had nothing to do with me. Maybe he was just the kind of guy who didn't like to make a big deal out of good-byes. Since I had made my self-discovery I had been a little too sensitive, a little too inclined to read too much into the things people said and how they acted. It was a natural reaction on my part, I allowed, but one I would have to be on guard against.
By the time I got home I felt back to my old spirits. My mother was so glad to have `her baby' home that she had cooked one of my favorite dinners for me: linguini and white clam sauce with homemade garlic bread. Even my brother, Dave, back for a few days already from his school out east, seemed genuinely happy to see me. We drank lots of wine and I told them all about my classes and the new friends I had met.
"All right, enough with the social registry. Out with it: what about your grades?" My father had listened, slightly amused, as I recounted a few stories, but his real interest was in my studies.
"I think I had a pretty good term," I said, "but grades won't come until next week or so."
"Define `pretty good,'" my father said.
"I'm pretty sure I got a four point," I said, matter-of-factly.
"In which class?" my brother asked. "Freshman street-crossing?"
Goddamn was he funny. What an asshole.
"I meant for the term, smart-ass."
"You four-bagged the term?" he asked, incredulous.
"I know it drives you crazy that not only am I better looking than you, and a better athlete, as well as our parents' favorite, but I think it's rapidly becoming apparent that I'm also smarter than you. Is it even for sure that we're brothers? Maybe one of us was adopted. Mom? Dad? Any edification you can offer?"
"I'm pretty sure at least one of you is mine," said my father.
"Stop this nonsense right now," said my mother, "or I'll start going into detail on how you both were conceived."
"Well, there goes my buzz," I said.
"Mine, too," said my father, earning himself a back-of-the-head slap from my mother.
My brother was looking at me and smiling. He looked...proud? "Hey," he said, "nice going. It takes discipline at any time to ace a term. It takes even more so the first term of your first year." He switched over to Foghorn Leghorn voice, "Ya did goo'—ah say—ya did good, son."
Added my father in a lame Porky Pig, "Ibidya, ibidya, k-k-keep up the good work."
I sat back and smiled, enjoying the warm embrace of my family. I reflected on how a single day can encapsulate the highs and lows of a lifetime. I'll be all right, I thought, I'll be just fine.
* * *
Later that night, after my parents had gone to bed, my brother and I sat in our downstairs den, drinking more wine. I was playing music and we were chatting amiably about school and our futures. We were actually enjoying each other's company, a rarity. I didn't want to spoil the moment by getting into anything too deep, but when he provided me the opening, I figured there never was going to be a really good time to say what I wanted, so I might as well get it over with.
"So, you going over to Stacy's tonight?" Dave asked
"Actually, she's not even home yet. But now that you mention it, I have to get up my nerve to talk to her about something that means the end of our relationship."
He looked like I had slapped him. "The end of your relationship? What could you...oh, Jesus," he said. "You fucked around on her and didn't wear a rubber? You tell me how smart you are and then go and do something stupid like get a dose of the clap or...you didn't get someone pregnant, did you? Oh, man, please tell me you didn't knock up some sorority slut."
"No, I didn't knock up a `sorority slut,' as you so graciously put it. That's a little stereotypical, don't you think? In fact, I met a very charming sorority girl a few weeks back, but that has nothing to do with this. I almost wish it did, though. It would be a lot easier than the truth."
"Did you fuck her?"
"What? Fuck who?"
"The charming sorority girl you met."
This was starting to get a little frustrating. "Yeah, we slept together, but that's not the point."
"Did you date her?"
"No, we just hooked up one night after we had met in a bar. But that..."
"So you meet a `charming sorority girl,'" he did the annoying finger-quotes, "and you buy her a few drinks and then fuck her. Can you even imagine what would've happened if you'd have run into a really slutty one?"
I had to laugh. I usually found his Stone Age they're-all-whores-and-the-ones-who-say-they're-not-are-lying-whores routine pretty tiresome. But like all cavemen, he could be amusing at times, too.
"All right," he said, after I stopped laughing, "if it's not another woman, then what could come between you and Stacy? Let me guess...another man?" He laughed at his own sardonic humor, and expected me to. I simply looked at him blankly until he became uncomfortable.
He cleared his throat. "Seriously," he said, "what could..."
"No, really, what..."
"I'm gay," I repeated. It was the first time I had spoken those words to another person, and it felt strange on my tongue. Strange, but not completely unnatural.
Dave only stared at me. He looked a little ashen. "But," he said, "what about..." he trailed off, still staring at me. "You're serious," he finally managed.
"I guess I wish I wasn't, but it's not like I have any choice."
"But you do!" he yelled. "You obviously do because...because..." and then he burst into tears. He actually buried his face in his hands and sobbed.
Of all the reactions from him I might have imagined, that would have been the one I would have least expected. He continued to cry until I said, "Why are you crying? I'm the one with the problem."
"That's why I'm crying, goddamn it. Do you have any idea what you're saying? You're so matter-of-fucking-fact like you're telling me it's raining! Do you have any idea what this means? You don't just tell someone you're gay, goddamn it!"
He was starting to scare me. It was like he was becoming unhinged.
"I haven't had time to perfect my routine," I said. "You're the first person I've told."
He stopped crying and sat up. "I am?"
"I'm not sure," I said, honestly. "You're my brother, and even though we've never been that close, I still love you and what you think matters to me."
"That's the first time you've ever said that."
"What do you mean, `is it?' You know it is."
"It's our Scandinavian heritage," I said. "We're cold people."
"Do you know why we've never been very close?" he asked, ignoring my jape. "Because I've always been jealous of you, that's why. Everything always comes so easy to you: grades, sports," he hesitated, "... women. Everything. I bust my ass to get to the `A' level of everything, and you just cruise along with no effort and get the best of it all. I always thought it was unfair."
"If you had any idea how hard it is to make it look this easy, you wouldn't be jealous."
"And you're so fucking witty. That really pisses me off. It's like you're a nineteen-year-old goddamn Hawkeye Pierce."
"Is there anything about me that you do like?"
"That's the point. I really do like all that stuff about you. I'm proud of you at the same time I'm jealous, and I know I'm the reason we've never been close."
I wasn't sure yet where he was going. Was he getting ready to gloat? Or had he just decided it was too much to handle and was changing the subject? I waited, holding his stare.
"And now you come to me with this...news about yourself, you talk to me like a brother, and I feel like I don't deserve your confidence. So now I want to be a brother to you, only I don't know how."
"I don't think there are any manuals on it," I said. "You just do what comes natural. I already appreciate the feeling of support I'm getting from you. And the fact that you took the news so hard told me all I needed to know about how you feel about me."
"So...how long have you known?"
"Honestly, I just found out this year. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. I am definitely not one of those `I knew there was something different about me since I was five' kinds of people. I think I buried my emotions very deep so I wouldn't have to confront them until I was ready. This year I was ready."
"And...how did you, um...find out?"
"My relationship with Stacy. She's totally cool, totally sexy, any guy would give his eyeteeth to be with her. I wasn't happy, so I started to ask myself why. How could I not be happy with Stacy? Was it because I wanted to screw around with every woman on campus? That would've been the most obvious reason. But that wasn't it. After I let myself think about things freely, I realized I wasn't happy with Stacy because there was a man that I wanted to be with. That pretty much confirmed it for me."
"And this...guy...is he...?"
"No, he's not. He's a friend, but I get the feeling that he suspects something, and we might not be friends when I tell him."
"Then he's not a true friend, and fuck him," my brother said with some vehemence.
I smiled. "That's what I think, too."
A thought occurred to him. "Does that mean that you've never actually, never..."
"...had sex with a man?" I finished for him.
He blushed slightly. "Not to pry, but yeah."
"No, I haven't."
I was actually enjoying his stream-of-conscious questioning. I liked being open with him, and I was touched by his tenderhearted curiosity.
The next thought was written on his face before he said anything. He winced as if remembering a time he slammed his finger in a door. "What about mom and dad?"
"I'm pretty sure they're both straight."
He laughed harder than the joke deserved, stopping abruptly. "No, seriously, how are you going to tell them? Mom will just be so sad because of what a hard life it will probably be and dad won't believe it."
I guessed we were brothers, after all. "I really don't know. I'm inclined to let that one go for as long as I can. Eventually rumors will start getting back to mom and I think she'll be happier living in denial, at least for a while. Dad would just plain think it was an unseemly topic of conversation, and never want to talk about it."
Dave nodded his head. "I think you're right, there."
I could tell there was a lot more he wanted to ask me about, but I was getting tired and hoping he was, too. He read my mind. "Let me ask you one more question, and then I have to go to bed and think about everything you've told me."
"Shoot," I said.
"I know that you and Stacy had a great sex life, and you can obviously turn on the charm and convince chaste college women to follow you back to your bed, not to mention the fact that you haven't even slept with another man yet...so isn't it possible that you're not completely gay, or that this is kind of like a phase or something?"
"It's a possibility that I not only considered, but actually kind of hoped for. There's no escaping something that you know is true, though. Think of it this way: you know you're straight, right? You know it in your heart and mind?"
"Well, I know I'm gay."
"But you've had sex with women, and enjoyed it, right? If you were completely gay, wouldn't that be impossible?"
"Not at all. Think about if our society was made up of mostly gay people, and you're straight. Growing up, all your friends are gay, all the role models you have are gay, and your church, your society, and your peers all tell you that being straight is wrong and abnormal. I'm asking you to imagine this as you know yourself to be in reality. Don't you think you would try to fit in and be normal? You, a heterosexual male, David Jefferson, you would sleep with men and maybe even enjoy it, most of the while knowing that what you really wanted, the desire you could not escape from, was to sleep with a woman. If you were the same person sitting here right now, but living in that society, you'd still know you were straight, right?"
He looked thoughtful for a moment. "I guess when you put it that way, I can see how you know what you know."
"I'm kind of amazed that I kept it from myself for as long as I did."
"I'm not," Dave said. "The way you described every person, role model and peer as telling you your natural instinct was abnormal makes me feel ashamed."
"Don't be. We don't get to choose our epoch, we're just victims of it."
"True. At least you're not a witch in Salem."
"Or a Hutu where the Tutsis live, or vice versa.. Comparatively," I said, "I've got it pretty good."
Dave stood up. "Would it be forcing it if I wanted to give you a hug?"
"Not at all," I said.
And for the first time I could remember, my brother and I put our arms around one another. Then we called it a night.