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The Moon & The Fag

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Apart from my first and last semesters of college, I didn’t socialize much on campus during my years at Brandeis. I didn’t relate to much of what college-age kids were talking about or going through – I wanted out, and I wanted out as quickly as possible. For such a supposedly progressive group of people, so many were so immature. Yet there were glimmers of hope, along with the possibility of friendship in that first semester, so when I started hanging out with my next door dorm mate Tony I thought I might have made a friend.

He was from the south – New Orleans I believe – and he had a smooth Southern drawl and a bit of charm that matched his earnestness. Don’t misunderstandI did not have a crush, I did not have an infatuation, and it was clear that Tony was very straight. At that time I was still pretending to be too, with a girlfriend from high school still in the picture. Tony didn’t have anyone, and he also wasn’t confident or courageous enough to ask anyone out, even if he was rakishly handsome in his way. So that left us alone, and together.

There’s no set way for how a friendship develops, particularly between two young men. A few shared walks to class, a couple of shared dinners, and the usual freshman dorm ice-breakers and monthly meetings are sometimes enough to spark it if it’s ever going to happen. Living next door aided in that too – so much of life occurs due to sheer proximity. We passed each other first thing in the morning, and last thing in the evening. In boxers and t-shirts, in glasses and mussed hair, in hope and in dread. He also had a dick of a roommate whom we all pretty much disliked, and I had a roommate who was hardly ever there (and whom I loved for it.) In some ways it was only natural that we’d become friends.

He also had a fondness for pop music and for guessing which songs would hit the top of the charts. At the time, Ace of Base was big, but the latest entry from Mariah Carey was also about to begin its Billboard climb. Tony was thrilled with ‘Hero’ and proclaimed it the next big smash. While never a big Mariah fan, I did enjoy the song, though I wondered if it would make it to Number One. Of course, it did. (To this day that and her Christmas song are about all I can stand.) ‘Hero’ brings me instantly back to that late fall at Brandeis, when I was first starting to awaken to the fact that I’d made a new friend. And it was a guy – a straight guy – something rather rare in my female-centric cloistered world.

 

There’s a hero
If you look inside your heart
you don’t have to be afraid
of what you are…

Now, it sounds like Tony could very well have stood on the gay side of the Kinsey scale (Ace of Base? Mariah Carey?) but believe me, he most certainly was not. There was incessant talk of hot girls and breasts and butts and sometimes it was all I could do to hold my tongue to stop the flow of objectification that spilled from his southern mouth. It was never mean-spirited though, and never degrading – it was simply child-like and unrefined. In short, it was the stuff of straight guys – and it fascinated me. More than that, though, it taught me that I could be friends with someone who didn’t share all my politically-correct beliefs. No one was perfect, as I was finding, and you had to take the bad with the good because sometimes it was worth it. We challenged each other, and those challenges often led right to the verge of real arguments, but in the end we could agree to disagree and still walk back to the dorm together and meet up the next morning. This was new for me.

There’s an answer
If you reach into your soul
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away…

By November of that year, I was finally getting the hang of college life after a couple of questionable months. I’d whittled my class-load down from an initial overly-ambitious schedule to just four courses (one of which was Water Aerobics – much more inviting at the end of August than in the first chill of November). I also had two difficult science courses, the first being Astronomy (which I also took with the hope it would be an easy pass of looking at the stars, not counting on all the physics and equations involved). In addition to the math, however, we did get to go outside and look up at the night sky from the roof of the observatory building.

Around us, the campus laid in quiet wait, and in the distance the glow of Boston once again beckoned to my desire. Above, the sky opened up and revealed more of itself as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. The moon, brilliant if only halfway in light floated in a corner, while the belt and sword of Orion stood at an angle. There was a brisk wind, and we hurriedly plotted things out on paper, took some measurements, and soon were set free by the professor. I walked down the stairs and back to my dorm. The hissing of the radiator was the only thing that greeted me in the darkened room. That hiss could be the loneliest sound in the world. Outside, the branches of a pine tree shifted shadows from a streetlight. I popped down the hall to see if Tony was around. There was no answer to my knock, and I went back to my room. The mark of a friendship is the dejection you feel when they’re not around. I put on the stupid Mariah Carey song and smiled. Maybe a guy could be a friend and a hero and I didn’t have to fall in love with him.

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive

So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.

For his part,  I’d like to believe that  Tony felt similarly about me. Neither of us had a large circle of friends, and his southern friendliness was somewhat shocked by our cold northeastern indifference. We were both outsiders for vastly different reasons. He was on a pre-law track, and I was about to default to a degree in English and American Literature (hence all the science and water aerobics courses [?]) While we didn’t share any classes or interests, we had started sharing dinners at Sherman Hall, and spirited conversations that ranged in topic from Madonna to racial divides. I think each of us thought that he had the upper hand, and when that happens you sometimes create an unintended equality between friends that results in a mutual admiration. It’s so much easier to think better of someone if you actually believe that you’re better than that someone. Yet as misguided as we both may have been, that didn’t mean the burgeoning affection wasn’t real. Of course, I don’t know that for sure. I haven’t seen Tony in about eighteen years. Maybe he just didn’t want to eat dinner alone.

It’s a long road
When you face the world alone
No one reaches out a hand for you to hold.
You can find love
If you search within yourself
And the emptiness you felt will disappear.

In the way that it has often happened in my life, all it takes is one person – one friend – to galvanize me into confidence and serenity. Just knowing that another person out there cares, and is willing to come up to you across campus to say hello and have a chat about the day – it eases any loneliness in a way that no other source of strength can match. This was in the time before the bromance was an acknowledged part of life, a time when guys kept their distance for fear of being thought gay. It was only 1993, and it feels like a world away.

As November ripened, and we neared the Thanksgiving break, it was dark when we headed out to dinner. The first brisk days and nights that hint of winter to come are not always unwelcome, and I wrapped my arms around each other, pulling my coat close. We sat down to a warm dinner and talked of holiday plans. My drive in Thanksgiving Eve traffic would likely be just as long as his flight south. I realized then that I might miss him. I was just getting into a new way of life when suddenly I’d be whisked back to Amsterdam, to the past, to the town I’d tried to escape. Tony was excited to be going home, though, and I was happy for him. He missed Louisiana, he said. His friends and family. Even when it’s less than ideal, there’s no place like home. We finished our meal and dropped our trays off near the exit. Pulling our coats on, we met the night and the cold and hurried up the hill back to our dorm.

As we neared Usdan Center, the moon appeared from behind a stand of pine trees. It was glorious, almost full, and I said innocently, my recent Astronomy class still in my mind, “Hey, look at the moon,” as I pointed to the sky.

He paused in his stride and looked at me quizzically, in the way he sometimes cocked his head and questioned something I said. “You’re not going fag on me, are you?” he asked, rather seriously, and without a laugh or a smile.

Somewhere, the joy and hope I’d thought I was finding in another person froze. Something shifted right then for me, not only in our friendship, but in the rest of my world, and for the rest of my life. Something died in me. The little amount of faith I held in humanity diminished just a little bit more. And I felt someone I trusted – someone who was, or had already become, a friend – slip away. I waited for him to qualify the remark, to offer a joke or something to take away the sting of what he had said. I’d been called a fag before, and I would be again, but never by someone I considered a friend. Never someone so close.

I’m not one who usually cries, but at that moment, in the instant the words came out of his mouth, I wanted to cry. I swallowed hard instead, and then insisted of course I was not a fag, even managing to embolden the lie with a convincing laugh. I explained that I was merely commenting on the moon and what I’d learned in Astronomy that week. We were quiet for a few moments, then separated and went our ways. I think we both knew then.

The Lord knows dreams are hard to follow
But don’t let anyone tear them away
Hold on, here will be tomorrow
In time, you’ll find the way.

We had a few more dinners after that, and carried on outwardly in much the same way as before. But after Thanksgiving break, I stopped going to dinner with Tony. I wanted to be alone then anyway. I was coming to terms with the fact that I was gay, and even if I wasn’t, I knew I couldn’t be friends with someone who could use the word ‘fag’ so flippantly even if it he didn’t mean it, even if it didn’t mean anything. Words matter – at least they do to me.

After winter break, when snow was on the ground and trudging through campus proved both depressing and difficult, it would have been nice to have someone to bear the burden, shoulder to shoulder, but when he knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to grab dinner, I repeatedly bowed out. He stopped knocking soon enough. When our first year was over, and my parents had loaded the last of my things into the station wagon for the ride home, I didn’t say good-bye to Tony. I’m not even sure where he was that day, because I had honestly stopped caring.

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.

Somehow, I never saw Tony for the next two years. It’s strange, as Brandeis is a relatively small college, but I was keeping to myself, lying in wait until I could get into Boston and away from college guys who equated looking at the moon with being a fag. He may have nudged my closet door closed completely, but in the ensuing months it only made me want to kick it down more.

In my last semester, I saw him for the last time. It was at this time of the year again – November or December – and I was waiting for the commuter rail to go into Boston – where I had just moved. He was getting off the outgoing train, and I remember watching him walk down the steps and thinking I knew him from somewhere. He flashed the same puzzled recognition before we realized and recognized. We exchanged hurried pleasantries and caught up a bit. I noticed how his eyes traveled down my outfit: a velvet scarf tied around my neck, and a top coat in black wool. His gaze focused on the velvet.

“That’s an interesting… scarf,” he said with the slightest bit of derision. It looked like he wanted to say more, but he didn’t. I wanted to say more too, but I followed his lead. It was almost dark, and the wind was picking up. We said our good-byes, and when the train pulled away I watched him cross the tracks as I stood there waiting for the next train to Boston. The velvet scarf fluttered behind me as I stood facing the wind.

There comes a time when you have to be your own hero.

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