Upstairs I found the door to my room still closed, Doug’s open. I knocked on the door frame. “Just picking up my bag,” I said.
Henry, Doug’s roommate, looked up from where he was lying in bed reading The Economist. Four empty beer bottles stood on the desk next to his head and he had another in his hand. “Oh, hey Jonathan, I wondered whose that was.”
“Mine. Doug said I could leave it here while I wait out the love birds.”
“Ahhh, I see.” He sat up, putting his feet on the floor. He was in a pale peach polo shirt and camel-colored cargo shorts. “Hey, can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure.” I sat down on the edge of Doug’s bed so I could face him.
“What did your folks say when you came out?” Henry’s hair stuck upward in light brown wisps.
“You mean, did they approve?” I squinted at him, confused. Henry wasn’t gay as far as I knew.
“I mean, what did they say? Like, did they say you can be gay as long as you keep your grades up, or what?”
“No, really, okay, here’s what’s going on. My parents have decided to get off my case, finally, but only if I can keep my grades up.”
“Get off your case about what?”
“Everything. But especially drinking, and dating Oriental women.”
“Asian,” I said automatically.
“Oriental sounds prettier,” Henry said, “and so do the women. But I forget, you don’t know about women.”
I was still trying to relate what he was saying to his initial question. “Your folks have a problem with who you date?”
“Oh yeah, they’re ridiculous. My mother is such a WASP she thinks fucking them will turn my dick brown. Thank goodness my dad stood up for me for once! Convinced her I’m sowing my wild oats and will get it out of my system. She should calm down. It’s not like I’m going to marry one of these girls.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I’d known Henry since we were freshmen on the same hall. It wasn’t like I didn’t know he came from a lily-white, upper crust family. So did Doug and Scott. They’d all gone to elite prep schools, Scott in New York City, Doug and Henry in New England. All three of them had fathers who were in investment banking or the financial sector.
I was the only public school kid, the only one with a scientist father, and the only gay one. Usually I didn’t think about it. Until moments like this. The last thing I wanted to do was offend Henry at the start of our senior year and have to spend the whole year tiptoeing around it. But at the same time… I don’t know. I thought the university did a pretty good job trying to create a racially diverse environment and preaching the diversity message. I also don’t know how Henry could have done two years of political science without picking up at least a small clue about racism…? At that moment, though, I felt chilled by how casually he’d said it all. It didn’t sound “racist.” It sounded like he didn’t even have a clue he was being racist. Which I guess was what was so scary about it. It was like a bright light suddenly shone on it: Of course Henry was in favor of campus diversity: He liked fucking Asian chicks. “Do the girls know that?”
“That you’re not going to marry them. Asian cultures are really conservative about women’s sexuality–”
Henry cut me off with a slicing gesture. “Jon, Jon, Jon, you really drank that diversity Kool-Aid they handed out during orientation, didn’t you?”
“Respecting other cultures isn’t a bad thing, you know.”
“Respect, right. Listen to what a racist thing you just said! You drew a huge generalization about all Asian cultures! Where’d you learn that? A women’s studies class?” He made a pffft sound. “How many Asian women do you know personally? None? Well, I’ve known plenty so I think I probably know better than you. I’m not taking advantage of them, if that’s what you’re thinking. These are Ivy League women, Jon. Seriously. They’re not stupid. They know the only reason a guy like me is taking them out is to get some action between the legs. Hey, maybe those repressed cultures are why they go for a guy like me. They know once they get stuck in an arranged marriage it’s dinky dick forever.”
I didn’t point out that he contradicted himself by condemning my generalization and then making his own far more racist ones. I was about to argue when I realized two things. One, the more we talked the digger the trench between us was going to be dug. And two, he probably would never have said any of this if he hadn’t been drinking. We’d thought Henry overcame his “problem drinking” last year, but apparently being old enough to buy made temptation too great.
No use arguing with a drunk. And maybe he wouldn’t even remember this tomorrow. “Speaking of dick, do you know if Scott’s still in there?” I jerked my thumb toward my door.
“Don’t think so, man,” he said, but he looked skeptical. “I heard the door open and close a while ago. Then again maybe they were just going to take a leak.”
I checked my watch. “I gave them four hours. Do you think that’s enough?”
“Oh, hell yeah. We should set a standard or something though, if this is going to keep happening. Two hours should be plenty. Or you should do what me and Doug do: call the room, let it ring twice, then hang up, then call back again. That’s how I know it’s him. And I know if I don’t answer on the second call, he’s coming in, ready or not.”
“Huh. I guess that’s a good idea.” I stood and picked up my bag. “Thanks, Henry.”
“Anytime, my man.”
I decided to knock quietly on my own door. There was no answer. I knocked again, louder. Still nothing. I tried my key.
The room was quiet and dark. I clicked on the light: both beds were empty. Thank goodness.
I lay down atop mine. My fuse is really slow to light, which mean that now I was fuming. How the fuck could you waste a perfectly good ivy League education by turning into such an ignorant dickhead? It was just wrong. Besides, I’d had plenty of Asian dick and it wasn’t always dinky.
I was still lying there fuming when Scott came in. April, his girlfriend, was nowhere in sight.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“I don’t know, man.” He threw himself down onto his bed. “She’s so perfect in so many ways… and so fucked up in others.”
“Such as, after a date with one’s incredibly hot, blond, D-cup girlfriend one shouldn’t have to jerk off in the shower.” He sat up and reached for his toiletry kit with a sigh.
“I could leave you alone for a bit…”
“Nah, nah, I prefer the shower. I swear I use more conditioner on my johnson than on my hair.” He put his bathrobe on and shuffled out of the room in his flip flops.
I thought about jerking off myself while he was gone. I thought about the guitar player tonight. I would have much rather gone home with him than that singer who was like every other europop clone. He was probably straight, but that didn’t keep me from fantasizing, imagining him taking me home, reaching into my jeans and stroking me to hardness with those slender fingers…
The phone rang and I thought about ignoring it. But it had already broken my reverie. I picked it up.
“Jonathan? It’s your mother.”
I chuckled. I should have known. When I had been a freshman we had talked every Sunday night, when the long distance rates were cheapest. But that was years ago. “Yes, mom, I do still recognize your voice, you know.”
“Well, thank goodness for small favors. I barely recognize yours after three weeks with no word from you.”
“Is that all? Mom, you know I’m in school, right? You know I’m busy?”
“You could still take a little time to appreciate the people who are paying for your education, though. Honestly. Here, talk to your father.”
I heard her hand cover the phone, muffling the sound, but I clearly heard my father say, “What? Who is it?”
A moment later he came on the line. “Hello, Jonathan? How are you doing, son?”
“I’m fine, dad. How are things at the lab?”
“Oh, it’s hell in a handbasket over there, you know that. Ever since the breakup. You know.”
I did know. My father was a pioneer in telephone technology and had been at Bell Labs almost his whole professional career. He was the only person I knew who was excited to live in Edison, New Jersey—where I had grown up—because it was named after Thomas Edison. He’d loved Bell Labs in the seventies. But corporate stupidity had crept in after Congress had broken up the AT&T monopoly and the job had ceased to be fun a while ago.
My father cleared his throat in that “I’m preparing to say something difficult” way.
“I’m seriously considering leaving,” he said.
“The lab?” I asked, just to be sure. My father wasn’t big on giving full, detailed explanations of things. When I was a child that had frustrated me. He clearly knew so much about everything, but when I’d ask something like “why is blood red?” I’d get a pat “parent-y” answer or a “go ask your mother.” And yet he was disappointed I didn’t go into the sciences.
“The lab,” he confirmed. “You know that course I’ve been teaching?”
At Fairleigh Dickinson, one of the state universities. “Yeah?”
“Well, it’s still early days, but… there is a non-zero chance that I might be able to teach it at Princeton.”
“Really? That’s great!”
He made a startled noise. “You wouldn’t be upset that I’d be at your rival university?”
“What? Oh for pete’s sake, Dad, Brown has no rivals. You mean because it’s another Ivy League school? I could not care any less about that.”
“Well, good, because your mother already has her heart set on us moving closer to Princeton. I swear, in her mind, she has already redecorated the bathrooms in a house we haven’t even bought yet.”
“When will you know for sure?”
“The wheels of university administration creak slowly, as I’m sure you know. A few more weeks, I think. No doubt they’ll make me wait until the last possible moment and then ask me to rush to turn in my syllabus. Harrumph.”
“Your mother’s gesticulating impatiently at me. I believe she wants the phone–”
I heard the sound of rustling as my mother pried the phone out of his hands. “You should call your ex-girlfriend.”
“Didn’t you see? She’s on the cover of the Village Voice this week. Got herself arrested at an AIDS sit-in of some kind. I didn’t know she was a lesbian.”
“Okay, mom, first of all, a person doesn’t have to be a lesbian to protest for better AIDS funding–”
“The article says she’s a lesbian. Did you know that? Or did she just become one?”
“Mom, you know what? If I did know, I wouldn’t tell you. It’s none of your business.”
“She’s made it my business by going out with my son and being in the paper. Seriously, Jonathan, when are you going to learn once you make a matter public, it doesn’t go back to the private realm. Ever.”
I heard my father’s voice in the background, I think telling the punchline to a joke he was fond of that went something like: “But you fuck one goat…!”
“No, mom, that still doesn’t make my relationship with her your business.”
“You made such a cute prom couple, too. You two had everyone fooled. I feel better actually, knowing that she wasn’t into men. I used to worry that you were letting her down terribly, you know. Such a nice girl.”
“Even though she’s getting arrested at die-ins?” I couldn’t resist needling my mother a little.
“It’s a tragedy, what’s happening. An absolute public health tragedy, and more people better wake up and smell the coffee or who knows who they’ll be denying health care to next? It’ll be like Logan’s Run or something. Reagan’s Run. Only Republicans will have health care. Just you wait. Oh God I can’t wait to move to a liberal town. You should hear the idiocy they were spouting at the PTA meeting last night.”
I have no idea why my mother still went to PTA meetings when she didn’t have a kid in school. Glutton for punishment, I guess.
“Do you have a phone number for Sarah? Honestly. I think I want to go to one of these die-ins the next time they have one. Can I get on a mailing list or something?”
“Why don’t you call directory assistance in New York and ask for ACT-UP? They probably have an office. Wait, hang on, I might have the number here.” I had a sticker on the back of a notebook that someone had given me during Pride Week last year. “Yes, here it is. Call this number and see what they say.”
“And what do I say, my son’s gay and so it’s okay, I’ll be nice?”
“If you want. You don’t have to prove you’re an ally, mom. Just show up. There’s no membership card for gay activists.”
“Okay, all right, but you don’t have a number for Sarah?”
“I don’t. I have her mom’s number though.”
“Oh, I have that, too. But I can’t call up and be like Joan, I saw your daughter got arrested. That poor woman.”
“I don’t know, mom. Maybe Joan could use your advice.”
“On what, having a gay kid?”
“Oh, honey, you make it so easy. You’re the easiest son in the world to love.”
She clucked her tongue. “How can I complain? You get good grades, you never get into trouble…”
“But I could call more often.”
“Well, there is that. We miss you, you know. It was so nice having you here in August. Are you coming for Thanksgiving? Are you bringing anyone? You know it would be fine with us if you brought a friend.”
“Or a boyfriend?”
“Your father and I have talked about it, you know. We decided it wouldn’t make sense to treat you any differently than if you brought home a girl, of course. We’ll make up the guest room. No hanky panky. That’s equal treatment for all.”
I was grinning from ear to ear. My parents had approached my being gay like it was some kind of test on a good parenting challenge and they wanted to get a gold medal in the sport. They weren’t perfect, but they sure tried hard. I think she really wanted me to bring a guy home so they could hone their skills at gay parenting.
“I’ll let you know,” I told her. I didn’t have anyone steady at the moment. “Is Dad still there?”
“No, he went upstairs to watch the baseball game.”
“At this time of night?”
“Oh, he’s been taping them on VHS and doing some kind of a project marking the stats on graph paper. I have no idea why. Something about pitching. Well, you take care, dear. Let us know if you need anything.”
“I will. Night, mom.”
Good timing. Scott came in looking as red and steamed as a lobster. He collapsed in a damp heap on his bed.
“Old reliable,” he said, waving his hand in the air briefly before he began to snore.
I considered whether to go do the same. I’d come once that evening but now I had that nagging edge in my belly, putting me just on the edge of horny.
My last serious relationship had been in the summer, but by the end of July we’d broken it off and I’d spent August in New Jersey. If we’d stayed together, though, we still wouldn’t have moved in together. I’d already committed to taking the fourth slot in the suite. Well, seven more months of dorm living and then I’d be free. My plan was to move to New York City, if I could afford to, if I could score one of the prime editing gigs or maybe join a bunch of the other Brown alums who ran MTV? I had a couple of months before I had to start job hunting for real.
I probably should look up Sarah, I decided. Part of me wanted to be marching in the streets, too. That was half of why I wanted to go to New York, where it seemed so much of the battle was being waged. But part of me knew I wouldn’t be the one on the front line, being dragged to jail. I’d be in he back taking notes and taking pictures, writing the article about it. It wasn’t in my nature to want to be the story, but to tell it. I didn’t want to be the one on the stage or on the front page, unless it was my byline.
The phone rang. I picked it up. It was Stephen calling from the pay phone downtown. The bouncer at No Name was being lax tonight, he said. He must have been if he let them in. Stephen couldn’t have been more than nineteen and his boyfriend was a blond named Nils, fresh off a farm in New Mexico. Stephen exhorted me to come down and have a drink with them.
Fine. Might as well. I didn’t have class early in the morning and maybe that low-grade itch in my belly would get scratched. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Only one way to find out. I took a notebook with me so if they left early or got bounced I could always sit at the bar and look writerly, and see who I picked up that way. I think people think writers will be good listeners. Some are, some aren’t. Maybe I’d meet a guy who liked poetry, or who could discuss Foucault. Preferably without hangups.
(That’s it. Hope you’ve enjoyed seeing a bit more of where Jonathan came from. Back to Daron on Tuesday! -ctan)