“I met my soul mate,” I announced to my roommates and a couple of friends. “We talked all night long, and get this: when he was a kid, instead of making his G.I. Joe men fight, he made them have peace talks.”
“Is he gay?,” Lisa queried.
I paused at least 40 seconds before answering. “He’s sensitive,” I defended defensively.
(Eight years after the fact, I discover this: at a subsequent gourmet dinner cooked for us by the alleged soul mate, my friends passed a note under our faux finish oak table. It bore tiny check boxes below the fateful questions, “What do you think? Gay or Not Gay? Check yes or no.” The result was a 50/50 split.
He was gay, but that’s beside the point.
Will was one of those ill-fated romances that fades into unforgettable, um, friendship leading to hilarious road trips, mischievous scheming, and treasured mixed tapes. I still listen to his mixed tapes: the Sundays, Morrissey, Erasure. Okay, Erasure. I know, all right?
For our first date, he drove me downtown in his beat-up Honda Accord that he’d worked really hard to buy. Conversation was running smoothly, but I was nervous. We were at a stop light when we wrecked into our first awkward silence. I panicked.
Think fast, I said silently to myself. Okay, you know that he has a cat. You can either ask him how long he’s had his cat, or you could ask him how old his cat is.
What I said was, “So, how long is your cat?”
40-second pause. He looked at me and set his palms about 2.5 feet apart to illustrate his precious feline’s measurements.
We’re bonded for life then, and I was relieved to find that I could be safely and openly nervous with him.
We were heading downtown because of my freak pheromone. I’d told him about it, but he didn’t believe me. “Stick around,” I’d warned.
He believed that if there’s some freak pheromone experience to be had, it would definitely be in downtown Greenville, SC. He was spot on.
We visited the one and only thrift shop on Main Street in 1993. This was pre-Falls Park, before Greenville embraced the creative class. I bought a ring that looked like an abacus, and Will bought a fedora. I asked the clerk if they had a public restroom. He informed that it was for employees only but sent us up the street to the Hyatt Regency. I liked the Hyatt for its waterfalls and decorative pools. I took my shoes off to wade briefly, but this exacerbated my urgent need for a ladies room.
We entered at the second floor and heard a ritualistic drum beat. At the Hyatt Regency. We leaned over the balcony rail to see a flood of figures dressed in black robes. They were beating the floor with long, wooden staffs. Together, we looked to our right. There stood a hard-bodied female wearing a black leather bikini and spiked dog collar. She held a whip and looked quite sure of herself.
“See?” I looked to Will for acknowledgment that the freak pheromone was not merely mythical.
“Let’s go before we get strapped to the sacrificial alter,” he replied.
We crossed the street to Fudrucker’s. Will scooted into a booth; I walked briskly and awkwardly to the rear restrooms. I noticed more darkly attired devil worshipers, but I didn’t have time to worry about it.
I heard a ruckus. When I departed the lavatory, I saw that Will was ashen and seemed to be in some sort of trance.
I shook him by the shoulders and asked, “what happened to you?”
He pointed to a robed renegade in the corner.
“You see that guy over there?” he implored.
I nodded. “Of course I see him. He’s as solid as my pheromone.”
“Okay, now. You see that group of people over there?”
“Yeah. Just tell me,” I said, noticing that two of them were wearing t-shirts innocuously advertising a sci-fi convention.
“Okay. Well, that guy yelled, ‘Give me a K!'”
“They all chanted, ‘K!'”
“Then, he yelled, ‘Give me an I!'”
“They all chanted, ‘I!'”
“Give me an ‘N!'”
“They all chanted, ‘N!'”
“Give me a ‘G!'”
“They all Chanted, ‘G!'”
“Then [like a cheerleader], he called, ‘What does that spell?'”
They all yelled, “ELVIS!!!”
Will and I got chocolate chip cookies to go and left.
Pachelbel played over sidewalk speakers.
“Oh, do you like Pachelbel?,” he asked.
I thought he’d said, “Do you like Taco Bell?” I was hungry, and the cookie was not enough to satiate my growling stomach’s demands.
“Yeah! I would totally LOVE one of their beef burritos right now.”
He stares at me quizzically.
As we stand at the street corner waiting for the light to change, another freak stops his car, leans out, makes a grotesque face, and exclaims, “Moowaaaaaaaaaaaa” at us.
“See?,” I said more than asked.
Will and I were friends for a long time after he came out. Before then, we’d almost kiss, but something felt not quite right. One of us would always interrupt the moment. We talked about this later, how I’d look at him and feel raw unbridled attraction, but when I got close enough to smell him, there was nothing. No spark, no young adulthood, over-sexed need to grab him by the shirt and stick my tongue in his mouth.
One night, a week after Will and I had argued and stopped talking to each other for no real good reason, my friend Kasey showed up at my door with a bottle of Boone’s Farm Blackberry wine. “It’s from Will,” she tells me. “He sent me here b/c he needs to tell you something. He said you should have some of this first.”
I know what this is about. I drink straight from the bottle.
A bit later, I hear a pebble strike my apartment window. Then another. And another before I reach my front door to greet him. Will asks if we can go for a walk.
We head across the street to campus. He tells me, and I feel relief. Relief that we’re talking to each other, relief that we know each other, and relief that this typically “open as a book” guy can be fully open about this.
I remember a time at lunch when a bunch of Sigma Nus were at our table. They weren’t with us. They were just at our table. I loved eating in the dining hall. It had huge windows from floor to ceiling, about three stories high. You could see the full span of the lake, the swans, the miniature marsh that was forming from partially submerged cedar trees. The year before I matriculated, there’d been a MASSIVE food fight in there. White Merita rolls launched from wall to wall. Leftover mystery meat casserole hit students square in the face. I was mad at my parents for not conceiving me a year sooner so I could have been there.
But times were not so bright in the Furman cafeteria this semester. The frat boys (not my favorite of campus populations, as I established in “Far More Fond of Cabbage”), were discussing their views on homosexuality. Like the stereotypical bible beating, sorority-scamming cad he most surely was, one “brother” declared, “If I ever find a fag around here, I’ll make sure he transfers and never comes back.”
Proud and self-righteous, I slam my silverware down on my tray, stand up, and stomp away in indignation.
Will stays and commiserates like nothing said there is offensive.
As we stride toward the lake, I think about how lonely that moment must have felt for him.
Will tells me that he’s always had a girlfriend. Always.
His father is a Baptist minister.
He says that he’s had some sense of his sexual orientation since he was about six. I think back and guess that I have too. Well, come to think of it.
He’s tried experimenting sexually with women, but it felt so unnatural that he got physically sick.
“Seriously. I actually threw up. I always thought I could change. I’ve been going to Sunday school for a long time, and I didn’t think that God could possibly want me to be this way. He wouldn’t want me to be anything that would hurt my parents as much as this. I’ve tried now, and I’m ready to stop.”
Will is an environmentalist, a liberal, an animal rights activist, an obvious subversive.
Will is a devout man of faith.
I was the one who transferred. My dad lost his job. I only had a tiny scholarship, and private school was expensive. Will and I visited each other. We were only a few hours apart.
By that fall, he had a boyfriend named, Stephen. They stopped to kiss as we hiked somewhere on Paris Mountain. It seemed completely natural to me. How surprising that their affection didn’t phase me at all. But I still felt a tinge of jealousy when other women would flirt with Will. I let my mind settle on this only briefly and abstractly.
I was glad this happened during a weekend I was there. Stephen and Will enjoyed another PDA session in the Piggly Wiggly while we were there grabbing our traditional bottle of Boone’s Farm. His dad walked past our aisle. By then, Will and Stephen were only standing close and holding hands. We weren’t sure that his father, the preacher, had seen them. We waited and hoped that his dad would leave before we did.
We didn’t see the Reverend again, but the next morning, we found a yellow sticky note taped to the steering wheel of Will’s Honda. It read, “Will, I want you to know that I love you. No matter what. Dad.”
Will and I once discussed starting our own night-time poetry readings. Again, Greenville hadn’t yet become the mecca of underground, artsy coffee shops and riverwalk galleries that it is now. We would call these cutting-edge cultural offerings “Moonlit Musings.” I went on to start this series in Charleston. Will went on to make an important difference in the world. I thought he would.