Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Wise Fools

Hands - MC EscherMy freshman year in college sucked like a giant sucking thing that sucks. I’ve referred to it obliquely before, and at some point I may go into more detail. But this post is not about that, it’s about my sophomore year. So here’s a quick summary of year one so we can move on: 1981, still mostly closeted, deeply depressed and occasionally suicidal, continually on the verge of flunking German, roommate from purgatory. That last was amongst the worst. A roommate from hell is at least interesting.

At the end of freshman year, I got almost the worst room draw lottery number possible. At my college, virtually all students live on campus in the dorms, so room draw is a big deal. The higher your number, the better your chance of getting a good room. And my number was shit. Because, you know, after a really sucky year, things can, in fact, get worse. I was really hoping I might score a high enough number to get a single room; my actual draw, about the 7th number from dead last, made me likely for post-draw admin placement. Probably into a triple on an all-male floor in that trashy dorm with the tiled walls, with two unfortunate and unknown roommates with numbers about as bad as mine. Yippee. Fortunately, Perry came to my rescue.

Perry was a really nice guy, whom I had met at the Carleton Gay Lesbian Community (CGLC) meetings I had begun attending about midway through my freshman year. When I joined, there were a total of three guys already in it, all of them older than I – Chuck, the president; his friend Michael, an African American man from Chicago; and Perry, a small town hick like me, but from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

At the one and only party the group held that freshman year, I drank most of a pint bottle of Southern Comfort (euhhh. To this day…) and finding that I was no closer to scoring with my original quarry, Chuck, I took Perry home. I wasn’t attracted to him beyond what Southern Comfort could provide, so this wasn’t the wisest move. We fumbled our way to drunken orgasms, staggered off to vomit in our respective lavatories, and put it behind us. More or less. It wasn’t exactly in Perry’s nature to completely give up, but I let him know pretty quickly that he didn’t have much chance. I was still on the rebound from the anonymous sex of my high school years, and I was still determined to find at least one guy I actually loved. Perry, nice as he was, wasn’t it.

Not that Perry was an unattractive guy. No model certainly, but not bad. But not my type. Smoker, for one. Sharp features, sharp chin, long sharp nose cleaving his face right down the center. Equally sharp shoulders and elbows – the guy was all angles. He dressed like a hick (which means we had similar wardrobes, heavy on jeans and western-cut pearl buttoned plaid shirts), and could never decide what to do with his straight mousy brown hair, or whether the mustache should stay or go (go. no question). When I first met him, he had the worst, the most atrocious, the most egregious perm. At the infamous party, he’d just had it all cut off and parted neatly down the center, or even the Southern Comfort could not have compensated for both that and the smoking. No way.

But mostly, what drove me from him emotionally and intimately was the same needy, small-town, hick mannerisms that I so despised in myself, and was trying to school myself out of. Small town boys don’t know how to behave with strangers, because they don’t meet many. So right out of the gate they’re telling you too much, trying too hard. Making unfunny jokes. Wanting you to know how much they like you, so way too much eye-contact, way too much flirting, that they swear is subtle, and um, no. Not subtle. Not at all. Kind of like this blog, I suppose.

Since I’d been so cool to him since the party, I was rather surprised when he asked if I needed a roommate for sophomore year. I said I’d think about it, and I did. The prospects were bleak, as I had absolutely no male friends at the end of that abysmal year. So I decided that as long as we could agree on some ground rules, this could work out okay. Rule One: No sex. I knew it would just complicate things. If either of us got emotionally attached when the other wasn’t, this year would be even more hellish than the first. Rule Two: See Rule One. Rule Three: No smoking in the room. He agreed.

Perry had a very good draw number. He had an outside chance of getting a single room in his class’ dorm lottery, but decided he might have a better chance at a nice room if he drew at the top of the freshman class with me. Which is what we did. We scored a great double in the small college-owned house called Faculty Club. This often-overlooked gem had only 5 rooms on the floor; one other double, the rest were singles. The lower floor was pretty much the same, and that was the house. Twelve units, with a kitchen in the basement the equal of any in the larger dorms, more than adequate laundry, and quiet. Wonderful, study-supporting quiet.

It turned out to be even better than we had hoped. When we moved in the following fall, we found that one of the singles closest to ours had been vacated by its original winner, and Michael, the black guy from the CGLC, was going to be right across the hall. Coincidentally, I’d just spent the week before classes commenced at Michael’s apartment in Minneapolis – a mutual friend, Katie, had suggested I contact him when I needed to return early to Minneapolis for a seminar. He kindly offered up his couch (futon, actually) and I’d really enjoyed getting to know him. He was graduating this year, and was finishing up a paid internship with Pillsbury. Michael seemed like the smartest man in the world, and, quite unintentionally, made me feel like the most naïve. Michael, the sophisticate from Chicago, quickly became our den mother, and we two small-town boys were eager scouts. It was gay boy heaven.

Not for sex, you dirty minded pervs. No, for comfort. For being able to be out, for one thing. I’d been awkwardly in the closet most of my freshman year; when I started coming awkwardly out at the end of winter, it did not improve my living situation in the slightest. Now, Perry, Michael, Chuck, Katie, and I could drop back and forth, dish the rest of the building, dish the boys we liked, dish the boys we didn’t like…you get the picture. Perry and I could actually be ourselves for the first time in our lives. Actually talk about what being gay was like. Was going to be like. We dealt with our smallish room by building lofted beds and pooling our storage. We even pooled our porn collection, but with Perry’s mustached cowboy fetish, there wasn’t a lot of his that I found appealing. We both got a lot better at socializing like normal people. We shared small town tales, and commiserated about nobody ever knowing where you were really from. Perry got it worse than me – coming from New Mexico, he got the packet for students dealing with English as a second language, and other resources for foreign students. We were at a quite reputable school, but apparently some of the support staff weren’t altogether clear on the difference between Mexico and New Mexico.

Perry was full of surprises at times. For a guy that wasn’t that attractive and not at all feminine, he’d managed to score with both of his straight roommates the year before, the knowledge of which always made me feel rather awkward when we ran into them on campus. Perry did tend to over share the details of his life. I knew his mother didn’t approve of his being gay, being of a particular religious stripe. I knew Perry was trying to figure out his own religious feelings, having been involved in the church since his youth. He also played the pipe organ beautifully – I remember how hard he worked to conquer a particular Buxtehude prelude for the spring recital. Speaking of which, what a revelation! Gangly cowboy sits at keyboard, makes tasteless joke about his fondness for pipes, turns to play, God’s own music pours forth.

And the one time about mid-fall just after we turned out the lights that Perry said “I’d really like to be close to you right now” I was actually tempted. But rules are rules.

Michael called our first meeting of the CGLC, which was still meeting at unpublicized locations the first two years I was there. After last year in the “yellow room” in the basement of the chapel, we had a brainstorm – what about the lounge at Faculty Club? Nice furniture, a few windows, almost but not quite off campus…this could be good. We ran our ad, and I even agreed to be the contact point for the new folks. Big step out!

Freshman year, I was the only boy, and Sue was the only girl to join CGLC meetings. This year was much better – we had two new freshman boys, and four new girls. As the year went on, membership grew steadily. One of the new boys was the infamous David, mentioned elsewhere, the other was Whit, about whom I have little to say right now. Oh, plenty to say over all, but little to say right now. At least Perry and I got the system for room privacy worked out in that little late-fall flingette.

Perry was there for me when Whit coldly dumped my ass right after winter term resumed. This was also the winter break in which Dad and I had our conversation mentioned in Dad’s birthday post, and Mom, uh, shouted some. So it was a big drama time. Whit was actually somewhat instrumental in the home drama as well, since it was a letter to him that Mom found and thereby discovered my big gay secret. So basically, my parents were pissed at me for a relationship that was over, as far as Whit was concerned, before they even found out about it. We were probably even studying situational irony in my English classes right then, too.

Perry and Michael were there for me when I needed to emote over that whole mess, anger and grief for the twin betrayals of both Whit and Mom. Their clarity helped mine, which resulted in a surprisingly well-written and effective letter home in which I expressed exactly what disappointed me about my parents’ response and what I hoped we’d be able to accomplish as time went on. They told me later that it was the perfect thing to do – it made it clear that it was not a phase, and was something I expected them to deal with, not avoid.

What Michael and Perry were to me were my first gay male friends. People who knew I was gay, and who were gay themselves, with whom I was not sexually involved (well, not really). Aside from Harry, they were the first gay men whose names I actually knew, and who knew my name. It was the beginning of the subculture for me.

With the gay group meeting twice a month in the lounge, and our little corner of the residence, we had managed to create the world’s smallest gay ghetto. Soon, other nascent queers were spending plenty of time in the vicinity, and that. Was. So. Cool. We became a de facto gay center of sorts, with planning, budgeting, and networking all happening in our rooms or in the lounge. David was around a lot, for reasons you can probably guess, and again, we’ll save that for another time. The saga of Randy, Whit, and David really does deserve a post of its own sometime. But this post is about Perry and Michael.

We thought we had it all figured out at last. We finally had learned how to be gay. And that was the best feeling in the world. When I think about where I was freshman year and where I was sophomore year, I have to say I wouldn’t be alive today without Michael and Perry, especially Perry. If the second year had gone like the first, I never would have made it. I’m a better person, because of him. Which is why it pains me so much to say that Perry isn’t around for me to thank him.

Most of you are probably smart enough to look at the decade that these events occurred and the date of this post, and put two and two together. But just in case it isn’t clear, this is my World AIDS Day post. Perry’s dead. Died 1987. He’d been out of college for three years. The first year out was hard for him – he was back to not knowing where he fit. He drank too much, and made some bad choices. Once he got sober, things improved rapidly for him, up to a point. He found his music again, his church again, and he found the right man. He quit smoking. They had six months together before he got pneumonia for the first time. The third time it killed him. His organ professor played the Buxtehude prelude at his funeral.

I lost touch with Michael almost immediately after he graduated in June of ‘82. The alumni magazine published the announcement of his marriage to some woman in 1985, but I wasn’t invited, and I wouldn’t have gone. For all that I learned from him, I guess I didn't know him that well after all. In 1989, the alumni magazine published his obituary. Michael and Perry. They weren’t the only two, but all I can bear to talk about right now.

The word sophomore is derived from two ancient Greek terms: sophos meaning wise, moros meaning stupid. I remember those days of thinking I knew everything, at last. I still had a lot to learn. It never occurred to me that I’d be learning so soon about the death of friends. It’s 20 years later, but I still remember you, and I’m still learning things you started teaching me then. In the spirit of the season, God rest ye merry, Gentlemen.

And, thank you Damion at Queering the Apparatus for reminding me why this is important.


damion said...

you're welcome Randy. Though I don't really know that I did anything special. I just really needed to scream.

Grouchbutt said...

Wow. You are such a good writer. I hope you are saving all of these posts somewhere to publish in a collection somehow.

. said...

Lord lord. I love reading your heart wrenching and vivid. I am so sorry about your friends. I graduated HS in 82 so I know about the fears. When HIV came on the scene it is what pushed me in the closet even further and then I got married. Regret? Sometimes...usually not. Keep writing dude!