WARNING: The next two chapters cover some topics that will be troubling to some.
Again, I need to thank Adam Phillips, author of Crosscurrents (http://archerland.disbelieve.org/adam.htm) for his help with this chapter. Thank you also to Bill for his editing help.
Finally, as always, thank you to my partner. I love you more than words can ever express.
For someone whose life hasn't been dominated by fear, my reactions to the problems I faced in high school and college may be hard to understand. Fear as an everyday companion is not easy to comprehend from the outside. It's hard to relate to how paralyzing it can be. To compensate--even to survive--a person who fears around the clock has to deflect off into other states.
All my life I'd lived with fear as a constant. When the fear became too great, I'd get angry. That would get me moving. Then, when my anger caused people pain, I'd feel guilt.
This insane cycle was relieved only by alternating periods of numbness. I was afraid from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to sleep, and often throughout the night in my dreams. I'd cover over the fear with anger and guilt, and when it all became too much, I'd go numb. The only break from this madness was when I lost myself in playing the piano or in a book. Those were my only escapes into a world that was even vaguely peaceful.
It's difficult for me to express the extent to which I was devastated by being raped as a child. In the year after I told my parents about what was happening with my cousins, I attempted suicide three times. The first time was when I was ten years old. I tried twice again the next year. Not being believed by your parents about something like that--being blamed, even--is soul-murdering. You literally want to die.
After the last attempt failed, I was so emotionally exhausted that I closed up. It was as if I was living and breathing but nothing else was going on. I had done that for short periods before, but after my last suicide attempt, I didn't respond emotionally to anything for years. I had no personally-felt emotional core; I felt as though I was standing outside of myself observing my reactions most of the time. Something would happen and I'd think, "That should hurt" or "I should be happy," but I wouldn't feel anything.
Time does some healing. I began to thaw out some in the eighth grade; enough for me to want a new start in high school, enough for me to dare to hope that maybe I could be happy in high school. Because of this thaw, I was able to see Brian when he appeared in my world; I was able to let his warmth and his love of life and his friendship into my life. I'm not trying to say that no one had been there for me before. My piano teacher was an incredible friend and support. My godparents were good to me, and tried to get me to open up to them. My teachers through junior high were supportive, and my high school teachers were amazing. I just hadn't been able to see them, not in any way that helped me.
It was Brian who finally got though, more than anyone before, who always made me feel safe. Part of it was because of the thaw. Part of it was that this beautiful boy, with his loving, accepting ways, made his way into my heart almost against my will.
That last year in high school, though, my feelings for Brian came bursting out of me and into public view. Almost immediately after that, the life of deception I'd been living came to light and hurt Amy, and Mary and Brian, and my parents, and everyone around me. Guilty doesn't begin to describe how I felt after I was outed. That whole mess was pure hell for Brian's entire family, especially Brian and Mary, and for mine. To make matters worse, I'd used Amy and ended up causing her to lose friends. Amy never intended to cause that kind of mayhem, so I could never really hold it against her. In fact, she tried to fix it, but that isn't the kind of thing you can take back, even if you call yourself a liar, which she did. It's like a newspaper printing a retraction: it never really wipes the slate clean. It was the guilt more than anything that caused me to pull away from Brian and his family. I told myself that it was what was best for them, because I had become pretty difficult to live with. I was irrationally angry with everyone and everything and I was having a hard time not lashing out. I reasoned that the only recourse I had was to keep to myself.
Mary and Brian, of course, had other ideas. They kept trying to pull me back. The summer after we graduated, I was constantly torn between wanting to hold Mary and pretend we could just stay that way forever, and wanting to shake her and scream, "Don't you get it? I want to fuck your brother!!! How can you be okay with this?!"
With Brian, it was even worse. I was in a world of pain; I could see how much he was hurting too, and yet he was still there. When he held me that first night at his house, it was completely perfect and completely wrong, all at the same time. It felt so right but I couldn't stop the voice in my head that was telling me it was totally shameful. I wanted to let myself trust him; I wanted to trust both him and Mary. I wanted to let someone help me.
But I just couldn't.
My time in college had healed some of the surface wounds. I'd kept busy, made some friends, experienced a little loving, even made some peace with my sexual ambiguity. The pain of my past was still simmering away inside: All the unresolved turmoil, the unfaced feelings, the unsaid words. But I'd at least recovered to the extent that I could talk to Brian every two months or so without feeling totally ripped in two. Part of that was also due to my tendency to numb out when things got too intense, but a school-year's worth of distance between him and me and the events of the previous summer had helped as well. Still, our next point of contact was one I'd just as soon have avoided.
That summer I began working full-time at the AIDS center, and I added a half-time job doing crisis work with sexual assault survivors. As a victim of physical abuse, I felt I had some understanding of how victims of sexual assault feel, and I wanted this work. After graduation, the hellish schedule had eased, obviously. One full-time and one half-time job felt like loafing by comparison.
Brian Walker had gotten a summer job as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp nearby. He talked me into coming up during their counselor-training week to do a training about STDs and contraceptives. That was part of my job at the AIDS center, but I would have sent someone else if I could have. Brian and I hadn't spent any extended time-period together since I'd moved out, and that was one of the main things that had helped me get past the pain that thinking about him caused. I knew that being back in his presence would agitate things inside me. I also knew that it would hurt him if I said no, so I agreed.
If only I'd known what that one small decision was going to do to the next years of my life.
Brian had talked me into staying up at the camp for a couple of days; I'd shown up on a Tuesday night around dinnertime. Driving there, as I got closer and closer, my anxiety rose. I knew what seeing him again would do to me. Still, I felt I could handle it, and in any case, I had no intention of letting Brian see any kind of agitation from me.
When I finally arrived, he greeted me with his crazy, blinding grin, and a hug that seemed to go on forever. Immediately the old storms began to stir up, but at the same time it felt so good to hear that voice, to be held by those arms, to look into those eyes again. He went with me to dinner at the dining hall and spent a few minutes introducing me around, and that's when I met Neal.
Neal Danielson was one of the counselors. We made eye contact almost the second I walked into the dining hall. I couldn't help it; he was beautiful. Brian was determined to introduce me around to the counselors, and he'd gotten through most of them when Neal came up to us.
"Hey, guys," he said as he approached.
"Neal," Brian nodded, unsmiling. The slightly chilly greeting on Brian's part was uncharacteristic, and some region of my consciousness took note of it, but only dimly. My attention was mostly directed on this guy I hadn't met.
"Hey, is this Sam?" He reached a hand out and shook mine. "We've heard a lot about you, Sam; thanks for coming up."
"Not a problem," I said.
"C'mon, let's go get some food and grab a table," he said. "The food sucks but I promise my company will make up for it." He laughed, and motioned me to follow him. Brian shrugged, and the three of us got our dinners and sat down.
Neal was an entertaining talker, and when he listened, he almost swallowed you up. He wanted to know all about my work at the AIDS center, what I was studying in college, how long I'd known Brian. Some of those areas threatened to take me places I wasn't willing to go, but I was pretty deft at avoiding the tough stuff, and actually it was flattering to be listened to that intently. As we talked, occasionally Brian threw in a word or two, but for the most part, he couldn't get a word in edgewise. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and was actually glad Neal had insinuated himself into our dinner; I didn't really want to spend too much time talking one-on-one to Brian. I'd be able to navigate being around him if I didn't have to be alone with him.
I got up early the next morning for a run on the jogging trail, and ran into Neal.
"Hey," he said, as he saw me. "You're a runner."
"Can't live without it," I replied.
"Cool, me too," he said. "Wanna run together?"
"Sure, why not." I looked at him and he smiled. Something inside of me smiled too.
Neal lavished attention on me the whole time I was there. He was with us at every meal; every moment of free time we had, he'd find me and spend that time with me. If Brian started to head off with me somewhere on the grounds, Neal always seemed to show up.
I could see Brian's irritation level rise as it became apparent that Neal was going to be right there with me any time Brian had a moment to spend with me. He was always polite to Neal, though, so I didn't think anything of it. I figured Brian wanted some time for just the two of us; I understood on an intellectual level that he missed his best friend. But I was relieved that Neal was always there. I wasn't ready to be alone with Brian. I didn't trust my feelings or my ability to keep myself on an even keel with him. I still needed him to keep his distance; I knew I definitely needed to keep mine. Neal helped provide that distance.
Thursday evening came, and it was getting time for me to leave. Thankfully, I hadn't spent any time alone with Brian. He was with me as I was packing up my stuff, and walked with me to my car. As we made our way toward the parking lot, he was uncharacteristically quiet; in fact, he'd grown that way quickly over the past two days when he and I and Neal were together, and as we walked side by side now, this registered with me consciously for the first time. Before then, I'd been concentrating on making sure I was never alone with him.
When we got to my car I reached into my pocket for the keys. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Thanks for coming, Sam," as I got ready to climb in. I looked at him and he smiled. There was something just under his smile, though--something in his eyes. Seriousness, or sadness, or something. I didn't know what, exactly.
"No problem," I said, extending a hand. He let go of my shoulder, grabbed my hand, and shook it.
"I wish...I mean, we sure didn't have time to talk much," he said.
"Yeah, you guys kept me pretty busy," I replied uneasily.
"Well, that and Neal following you around everywhere you went."
He stared into my eyes; for a moment I stared back into his. Nobody spoke. There was an intensely uncomfortable moment where our eyes seemed to start the conversation that I didn't want to have, that I absolutely would not have.
I looked away. "Yeah, if you appointed him hospitality chairman for my visit, I'd say you did your job."
"It wasn't me," he said. "If I'd had my way..."
He fell silent. All of a sudden, the mountain of unsaid words, unresolved issues, unexpressed feelings seemed to loom over me, threatening to avalanche us both.
I felt my throat tighten up. At almost exactly the same time, I watched him take a deep, ragged breath.
Then, on a dime, the cloudiness in his eyes cleared up and he smiled me a full-brightness Brian smile again. "It was great seeing you." He grabbed my hand one more time, put his other hand on my shoulder again, and pulled me into him, until he had me in a full embrace.
I lay my head on him. Everything inside began to spiral out of control, but as quickly as he'd embraced me, he slapped me on the back and released me. "I'll talk to you soon," he said. "Don't drive stupid."
"Right," I replied, breathing steadily and deliberately as I tried to recover.
* * * * * * * * *
Neal called me at work that weekend and left a message. The two-plus days I'd been at the camp, I was struck by the rapport that seemed to develop between us; I thought I felt it going both ways--it seemed as though we both felt we'd made a new friend--and he'd said things about keeping in touch. I thought he was just being polite, though, so I was really surprised to hear from him.
I was flattered, too, if the truth be known. I felt Neal was everything I wasn't. He was brilliant; perfect-SAT-score brilliant. And as if that wasn't enough, he was gregarious and charming. He had loads of ambition; I guess you could even call him "driven." He had a third-degree black belt in Aikido and a second-degree black belt in Judo. On top of that, he was damn good-looking: Tall, with dark hair and eyes and a perfect body I couldn't help responding to, he oozed self-confidence from every pore. Something about him reminded me of a tiger: all graceful controlled power. He seemed perfect. Down below my conscious brain, I sensed danger in all that graceful power, but I couldn't deny that having his attention focused on me was a major turn-on. I couldn't fathom what he saw in me during our short time together at camp; I was short and insecure. Not only that, my soccer and track years notwithstanding, I was a nerd. At least that's how I felt about myself. So when he called, I was completely surprised. Pleasantly.
But that was nothing compared to the shock I faced as the days went by and he continued to call and then actually began coming to see me.
Initially, I was overwhelmed by all the attention. He'd show up with gifts. He was effusive--excessive--with his compliments. It made me feel that I was the center of his universe, sort of. It was inexplicable to me, but it was incredibly seductive.
I began going out with him. I'm not even sure how that happened. Things just gradually progressed. He told me he was developing feelings for me. He told me he'd never felt that way about a guy before, and that he wanted to see where it was going. For my part, I admitted to him that I was bi. And I told him I wanted to see where it would go too.
Other friends didn't have much to say about Neal. Or when they did, they'd say things like, "Are you sure this is a good thing, Sam?" or "I can't decide how I feel about him," but when I pressed the issue, they wouldn't elaborate. I told myself indignantly that people didn't think that a loser like me could make such an incredible man happy.
I'd been seeing Neal for a month when I got a call from Brian one Wednesday evening.
I picked up the phone on the first ring. Before I even had a chance to say "hello," I heard, "Hey, Sam, it's Brian."
I tensed; by now it was an automatic reaction. "Hi, Brian, how's it going?"
He said, "Oh, I don't know, maybe I should ask you."
"I'm doing okay," I said. "Busy. You know."
After a pause, he asked, "Anything special going on in your life?"
It was clear he knew. It was also pretty clear that he wasn't happy about it.
"You mean about Neal," I said quietly.
"Yeah, I mean about Neal," he said. I couldn't quite make out what I heard in his voice. It was enough to make me defensive.
"Okay; so what of it?"
"I wish..." He paused again. "I just wish you'd told me yourself."
"Look, Brian, I know we're friends and everything, and that we go back, you and me," I started.
He interrupted me to say, "He and I go back a ways, too, you know." Neal was from our home town and Brian had known him from our school days; they were in the same Scout troop. "He just sort of let it slip, all casual-like, but he knew he was catching me by surprise. I think he enjoyed it. I felt stupid that I had to hear it from him."
I felt myself blushing. At the same time, I felt my anger rising. I wasn't sure why. "I'm sorry you had to find out like that, but you're wrong about him. And anyway, I just don't know about telling you stuff about me...stuff like that."
"What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Well, look at how you're being."
"I'm not being anything," he said indignantly. "I just don't like hearing about my best friend from some...some person who ain't my best friend."
Best friend. The words filled me with a quiet joy at the same time they cut me like a knife.
I said, "Oh, really? That doesn't sound like what this is all about."
"What else would it be about?"
"Well," I answered, "How do you feel about it?"
He paused, then said, "I think it's fucked up."
"Why is it fucked up?" I asked, my anger ratcheting up a notch.
"Because when you were at camp, I...because I don't think you should...look, I've known him a lot longer than you have, and I just don't trust him."
There it was: proof, as far as I was concerned, that Brian couldn't accept my attraction to men. He was using Neal as a focus for not accepting my attraction to guys.
"He treats me just fine, Brian. He accepts me for what I am. And he doesn't get all freaked out because I think of him that way. I'd say it's a pretty welcome change."
There was silence on the other end of the line for far too long.
Finally, I heard him take a deep breath. He said, quietly, "Sam..." I heard pain in his voice. I felt a twinge of remorse. What I'd said was uncalled for, really; then, in defense, I got angry.
"Look, Brian, I know what it is; you're just freaking out because I'm seeing a friend of yours."
"What? Are you kidding me? That is so not what this is all about. And anyway, he's no friend of mine."
"If you say so."
"Fuck you, Sam."
My anger was reaching critical levels at this point. "Okay, well if that's not it, I know what it is."
He didn't respond.
I said, "You just can't handle the way I am any better than my parents."
"Don't you ever compare me to them," he said. His voice was calm but the menace was unmistakable. And the hurt.
"Okay," I said, trying to backpedal. "I'm sorry. I guess I just don't understand."
He sighed. "No...I guess you don't. Please, Sam, just...just be careful. I think there's more to Neal than just a...a great build and a kiss-ass way with people."
"Well, thanks for the advice," I said, "but I don't need you to protect me anymore, Brian. I can handle my own life."
"I know you can," he said. "Just don't forget, Sam; I still...I mean, you are still my best friend and I only want good stuff for you and I'll fuckin' mess up the face of anyone who messes with you."
"My hero," I said sarcastically, then immediately wished I hadn't. "Brian...I appreciate it, you know? But those days have to be over; I have to make them be over."
"So you keep saying," he said, adding, cryptically, "If that's how you want it, I'll do it."
I didn't know how to respond, so I just said, "That's how I need it."
"Okay," he said. "I'm sorry. But hey, it was good to hear your voice."
And when has it ever been anything but heaven--and hell--to hear yours, I thought. But what I said was, "It was good to talk to you. I'm sorry if I over-reacted. We're good."
"Well...I gotta go," he said.
"Okay. Call me next weekend and we can talk some more," I replied.
After we hung up, I thought about what he'd said. Once I'd managed to distance myself from the actual encounter, the content began to work on my brain a little. Brian's words stayed with me for the next hour or so: I don't trust him. Feelings I'd suppressed struggled to make their way to the surface, feelings that recognized and resonated with Brian's words, that saw in all Neal's tiger-like grace and power something vaguely predatory.
I dismissed those feelings with a shake of my head. People just couldn't handle seeing me get a grip on my own life. Brian was probably just taking a little ego-beating that my infatuation was focused on a guy who was even better-looking than he was. And he was having trouble adjusting to the fact that I didn't need him to lean on. That had to be it.
Neal continued dating me, showing up with gifts, treating me like a star-struck teenager treats a rock icon. Part of me soaked all this up like a dry sponge soaks up water. Part of me had other thoughts, but wasn't even sure how to articulate those thoughts. I chalked that up to the fact that I'd come from such a messed-up, homophobic background that I was trying to sabotage my own happiness.
And I was happy, wasn't I? I was flattered by all the attention, wasn't I?
I dismissed the deep underground chatter that murmured disagreement with that. I tried to go with the feelings of flattery.
As time went on, Neal seemed to become increasingly impatient with the attention I paid to anyone else in my life. It wasn't as though there were that many people in my life to begin with: I'd pushed away most of the former friends who remained in town; I'd more or less cut the Walkers out of my life; and the friends I had left, my roommates, and Diane, and Bryan and his girlfriend, they were all giving me variations of Brian's theme: "Something doesn't seem quite right." That just put me on the defensive and convinced me they were all just jealous that I could land a stud like Neal.
The internal dialogue kept getting louder, but I was determined not to listen to the side with the misgivings, the side that seemed to agree with what others were saying. Gradually I turned away from my friends and gave all my time to Neal. By the end of the summer, I was, for all intents and purposes, alone, except for my relationship with him.