My failure with Aaron and his friends—what I thought of for months after as “my disgrace,” for which I would atone by trying to conduct myself half-successfully at Berkeley—helped to frame everything that followed. It persuaded me that adult life held challenges and surprises that I hadn’t even thought of. A week and a half later, when it came time to move into the dorm and register for classes, I was nervous, but only to a realistic degree. It wasn’t a matter of if I would make a fool of myself, but when. So what? In this case, I was undertaking a challenge that thousands of other students had survived. I would too.
Naturally then, in my very first decision about school, I made yet another blunder. The family that my dad had arranged for me to stay with in San Francisco in the days before I could move into the dorm—the Blights—included a son my age named Dale. It turned out that, like me, Dale would be a freshman that year at Berkeley. The first day I met the Blights his mom suggested that we ask the university to assign us as roommates. It was the last day we could submit a request like that.
Dale seemed like an okay guy, but I was afraid to have him for a roommate, because his dad was my dad’s friend and former law partner. That meant that when Dale found out I was gay, got freaked out, and told his parents, my dad and then my mom would probably be the very next people to hear about it. My mom already worried about me too much. As for my dad, to get him to accept anything that diverged from his plan, you had to be able to explain why it would be advantageous. How was I going to do that? In the meantime, I didn’t want him using my financial dependence on him to try to control everything in my life.
I ended up shooting Mrs. Blight this bucket of bullshit about how Dale and I would benefit from not rooming together because then we would each have at least two friends—our roommate and each other. The worst blunder was that I delivered this unconvincing shower of crap with Dale twisting right there beside us, his feelings visibly mangled. A pale, nerdy twig of a kid with glasses, his claim to fame in high school had been being president of the Math Club. I should have guessed that he’d never had many friends. I had stopped at noticing that he wasn’t Aaron. As I was swinging the smelly bucket his mother’s way, his pale lips hardened into a line that said, “I told her not to ask him. No one chooses to hang out with me.”
Mrs. Blight started saying stuff like, “Well of course we don’t want to cramp your style, Nathan. We just thought it would be good for Dale to learn more about relating to his peers, and besides he could help you with studying.”
After I had squelched the roommate idea, I felt so guilty that I really did make an effort to get to know Dale some. Surprisingly, it paid off. He showed me around San Francisco and Berkeley, helping me to learn the buses and subways and figure out where to shop for stuff. Dale had a dry sense of humor that helped me forget my worries. I soon discovered that he never told his parents anything important. He would have thrilled me as a roommate, unlike the ones I ended up with.
There was also a surprise for me in an unopened part of my luggage. When I got to San Francisco, I found, waiting at the Blights as promised, the stuff my mom had shipped from home—my typewriter and three large boxes, mostly containing clothes. Having these fresh clothes to wear, I hardly touched the stuff in my backpack. San Francisco seemed refrigerated and the duds I had brought from L.A. were for hot weather. So it wasn’t until after I had moved into the dorm that I got around to emptying my pack to wash everything and put it away. There, in the bottom of one of the zipper pockets, I found a folded up piece of paper with this note scrawled in pencil:
Nathan, I’m really sorry what happened to you. Please call me in a few days.
It was signed “Bret,” and he had written out his phone number below.
The day after I found the note, I pulled the phone into my room and shut the door, putting a towel across the crack at the bottom for soundproofing. My heart was doing jumping jacks as I dialed the number. A woman answered. When I nervously asked if I could speak to Bret, she had me hold on. I heard another extension pick up and Bret’s voice yell, “Mom, you can hang up now.” Fumbling, then a click.
“Hello?” he murmured.
I felt dizzy. Would he even remember my name? Obviously, he could no longer be expecting my call. Almost certainly he would have a more negative attitude toward me than when he wrote the note, because he would have heard Aaron’s account of what a jerk I was, physically brutalizing him. And God knows what Colby would have said to explain what Aaron had seen happening between us at the train station. My mouth felt like a tongue depressor had immobilized it.
“Bret,” I managed to say, “it’s Nathan. Nathan Mayer. The hitchhiker. From Highway 101. Near Ventura. It was a few weeks ago…”
The silence lasted a few seconds. Bret’s snort of laughter made me glad even before I could be sure he wasn’t laughing at me. “Nathan, I knew your voice from the first sound you made. I was just waiting to see how long you would go on over-identifying yourself.”
Elated to hear his friendly baritone, I actually started to tear up. I guess I had been feeling pretty alienated since moving into the dorm. Dale was in a different dorm, and so far we had only seen each other a couple of times.
“You won’t believe it,” I bubbled, “but I just found your note. Normally, I would have emptied out my pack right away, but a lot of stuff was going on and I got sidetracked.”
“It’s okay. I was afraid you were so disgusted with what all happened that you wouldn’t call. You probably wish you had gotten picked up by somebody normal.”
“Why? I’m not normal.”
“Nathan, it’s not safe for you to go around being so innocent. You’re totally normal. I realize you’re gay, but that’s not what I mean. A certain number of people are gay or bi. When you got into that jalopy of Aaron’s, you crossed over into the twilight zone. Everything touched by Hank is like that. I just hope it didn’t mess your head up too much.”
“I don’t think so. I do know that I can’t forget about it—even when I’m asleep. It already feels like a long time ago, but it also seems more real than being here at school. You guys gave me a taste of something I’ve always dreamed about, even if I failed in it.”
Bret sighed. “What have you always dreamed about?” His voice sounded so plaintive that I shivered. The whole left side of my body remembered how it felt to have him lean into me.
“I … think we shouldn’t talk about it. It might make you feel uneasy around me.”
When Bret spoke again, he sounded like someone older—someone very familiar with disappointment. “Nathan—are we even going to ever see each other again? Are you planning to visit L.A. to see your aunt and uncle or anything? ‘Cause I’m down here for two more years at least, till I graduate high school, and you’re up there.”
“I wasn’t,” I admitted, “planning to visit them.”
“Then please just tell me. What have you got to lose?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I don’t know. I just do. Maybe I want to hear about somebody else’s dreams beside Hank’s.”
“Okay, this time maybe it’s true that I have nothing to lose. But before I start, I just want to say that I really like you and I hope you have the amazing, happy life you deserve.”
“Jesus, Nathan, you sound like you’re about to jump off a bridge!”
“That’s what it feels like. Being here is really weird to me. There’s no one I can talk to. See… when I saw the three of you go by in the car, and at that second when you all looked up and noticed me standing there, lightning struck me. I didn’t know anything about y’all, but I felt like I had been waiting for you my whole life. I couldn’t tell too much from that quick glance, but something spoke to me—well actually there were two things. The first is that you were all really good-looking guys. Just to be around you turned me on. But the other thing worked more subtly; I got a much stronger sense of it once I actually got in the car. None of you had that hostile, frightened edge that handsome guys almost always wear. Do you know what I mean? It’s a look that says, ‘Stay the fuck away from me.’ It says, ‘You don’t know me, and you never will. Keep your faggot hands to yourself,’ and I think it says that before it even knows if you’re gay or not.”
“I thought Aaron acted pretty cold and distant to you in the car,” Bret observed.
“No, he was the opposite. I had barely climbed into the car before he’d looked into my soul and read me like the phone book. He knew everything about me, and he wouldn’t have done that if he wasn’t considering that he might let me get to know him. See that’s exactly what guys usually won’t do.”
“Okay,” Bret allowed. “Where does the dream come in?”
“The dream—well it’s really more of a fantasy.”
Bret snickered. “I knew it!” he laughed.
“When I got in the car and started to see what y’all were like and how well you treated each other, I wanted to be your friend too. I wanted y’all to like me—well, actually, to love me—because I could tell it would be easy for me to love you. I didn’t even know if any of you were gay, but I thought if you were… What if we could be really friendly and affectionate with each other, all of us in any of the combinations?”
“Sounds like an orgy,” Bret stated, his voice neutral.
“No, it’s not like that! I guess it could be like that once or rarely, but the dream is more relaxed. Like we might all be hanging out together, watching TV, and if I wanted to cuddle up with someone I could just do it. Or we could all cuddle up together.”
“What would happen at the commercials?” Bret had a laugh in his voice, so I knew he wasn’t too disgusted with me thus far.
“At the commercials, somebody might tickle someone else, or caress them.”
“Or suck their cock,” Bret suggested.
“Yeah, that too,” I admitted.
“What if you were left out of the action sometimes? Wouldn’t you get jealous?”
“I don’t think so. Not if I knew that everybody loved me.”
“What would we do besides watch TV?”
“Well this is just for illustration purposes.”
“We’d have to eat. And sleep at night.”
“And otherwise we just lie around and tickle and caress each other, while pretending to watch TV?”
“I guess that’s about as far as I’ve thought about it,” I admitted.
“Okay. I’m in!” Bret said, then burst out laughing.
“What?” I couldn’t tell what he was laughing at.
“Nathan, it won’t work. Someone would need to go out to buy the food. And earn the money. Who’s gonna vacuum up the crumbs and change the sheets? Plus people would get jealous of each other. It especially wouldn’t work with Aaron and Colby. Aaron has to have a boyfriend who will swear to always take care of him and never, ever hurt him. And Colby is too busy reassuring himself that he’s straight to do more than just drop by once in a while to get his rocks off.”
“He’s not entirely straight, is he?
“From what I heard, he answered that question for you at the train station.”
“I feel so bad about that. I liked Colby a lot, but I did have the impression that he only went after girls. In fact, I liked it better that way, that he could be straight and I could be gay and we might still be friends. Where I come from, straight people all think gays are evil and depraved. But he was respectful of me from the beginning. But then when he did that at the train station, and Aaron saw him kissing me in some hidden alley—”
“He kissed you in an alley?” Bret interrupted.
“Yeah, what did you think?”
“From what Aaron was saying, I just thought he kissed you on the train platform, sort of a hug goodbye.”
“I wish! We had gone into a weird deserted alley with garbage cans in it around the corner of the building from the tracks. There was no reason for anyone to be back there other than to shoot up heroin or something.”
“Oh man…” Bret commiserated. “But then how did you end up back there with him?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “He just said something like ‘Let’s see what’s back here’ and I went with him.”
“Nathan, you have to be more suspicious of people. It’s not smart to trust people too much.”
“I’m trusting you,” I remarked.
He sighed again. “Cole’s not a bad person. And I don’t think what Aaron saw necessarily made him think worse of you. Cole told Aaron that he had no right to complain about it after Aaron himself drove you away by being so suspicious and critical. Cole also claimed that he was testing to find out if you really wanted to be with Aaron, or if you were just trying to get laid any way you could.”
“Did he say which it was?”
“He said you practically threw up in his face when he kissed you.”
“He said that?”
“Yeah. Isn’t it true?”
“It’s true, but I don’t see why he would admit it. It doesn’t make him look very good, does it?”
“It kept Aaron from tossing him out of the car right onto the 101.”
For half a minute, we both considered that possibility in silence.
“Well anyway,” Bret continued, “this dream that you think is so unusual—isn’t it really just what most guys want, except straight guys would want to do it with girls? The only thing different in yours is that you want the people to all be friends with each other. What’s that for?”
“Well it’s not the kind of thing you’d do with your enemies. And to do it with guys you didn’t know—that’d be weird. It has to be about love and not just sex. Being accepted and actually trusted by a group of guys. Besides, we couldn’t have sex all the time—or even most of the time. We’d have to rest. So being friends we could talk and play games, because we’d have stuff in common.”
“Mmhhh,” Bret mumbled, noncommittal.
I needed to ask. “Are you gay, Bret?”
“I don’t know. I’m not only gay. My brother gave me a pretty complete education in sex. I told you he showed me about gay sex—everything about it—and most of that felt pretty good, but he also helped me get dates with girls. Like I mentioned we double dated sisters a couple of times, and before I got my license, whenever I had a date he would drive us. I’m still technically a virgin with girls, but I’ve messed around with them enough to know I can get really turned on. Hank used to say he would fuck anything that moved, and I think I might be kind of like that too, except I don’t want sex to be something that’s just to build up my ego like it was for him. I don’t care that much about proving that I can get people to do whatever I want. I want people to still like me afterward. Hank didn’t care if he had enemies, but I do.”
“I don’t think you could ever be like that. You’re the only one who didn’t upset me.”
“You didn’t mind me hanging all over you in the car?”
“No I loved it, and anyway you were asleep.”
There was a silence.
“You weren’t asleep?” I cried, finally getting it.
“Not at first,” Bret laughed. “You fell asleep and I kind of took advantage of the situation, and then after you woke up and then went back to sleep again I thought I might as well join in. I didn’t have it in mind to drool down your shirt, though.”
A streak of joy went through me. Regular guy Bret had intentionally snuggled me! “Wow, Bret. Maybe I should come to LA to visit my aunt and uncle after all.” I was kind of kidding and I think he could tell it.
“I wasn’t thinking about sex,” he said. “I just wanted to cuddle and be comforted. I really missed my brother. I still do.”
“I have a feeling Aaron and Colby would gladly have cuddled you every day and night. Wait a minute. Is that why I wasn’t allowed to come upstairs? Were you sleeping with them?” Now I was starting to feel royally pissed.
“No, man. It was nothing like that. Colby says he’s 85% straight and he wants to make sure everyone he knows believes it. As for Aaron, he thinks I’m a virgin in every way and I need to keep it that way. I don’t know for sure if Aaron and I will stay friends, but he’s protected me like a brother ever since he was my tutor. I don’t want to be the one to ruin it. Anyway, they’re both way too old for me. They’re focused on figuring out what to do in adult life while I’m still just trying to survive high school.”
“I really liked Aaron,” I said softly. “He seemed so smart and mature. And careful. I liked that about him, even if it got me kicked out.”
“Well just keep in mind that he isn’t going to go along with your four friends fucking by the TV fantasy,” Bret emphasized.
“I don’t care about that. That dream is just to get me through the hard times until I get a real boyfriend. That’s what I want the most.”
“Will you try to see Aaron again?” Bret asked.
“I’ve already seen him.”
“We passed each other in Sproul Plaza. He looked like he wanted to say something, but I decided not to get into it. I just nodded to him.”
“You’re not interested in him any more?”
“What good would it do? He made it clear how he felt. We’re not right for each other. Anyway, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for a boyfriend.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Nathan. You’d be a great catch. If not for Aaron, then for somebody.”
“You’re making me feel like I should get some courage and go to a meeting of the gay students group here. I’m just so scared to go. My roommates seem pretty anti-gay—especially one of them. And I’m worried about my family finding out. But now, talking to you, I feel more like I should go anyway.”
“I think you should go. You might meet somebody. You could make a friend. You’re easy to like. You can be careful who finds out.”
“Maybe you’re right. Bret, I swear you’re saving my life. But we haven’t talked about you. I’m worried what it’s like for you at home without Hank.”
“It’s not great, but I also don’t have Hank making everything fifty times more complicated than it needs to be. Seeing to it that everything is always about him. I’m getting along better with my parents than before, and they’re getting along better with each other. I’ll be okay.”
The silence didn’t feel awkward anymore.
Bret asked me to call him again before too long and tell him how I was managing. I said I would.
“And meantime,” he teased, “if you do decide to start up the TV watching league, let me know.”
“God, Bret. We’d better get you a girlfriend as soon as possible. If you go around talking to gay guys like that and you’re not taken, somebody’s liable to grab you up and spirit you away someplace.”
“Yeah—I’ll risk it.”
“Thank you for writing me that note, Bret. You’ve really made me feel better.”
“Okay, call me again,” he said, and hung up.