Account of my "year off" from college.
Whenever someone asks me what I did in the murky space between my sophomore and junior years in college, I used to answer passively that I spent the year abroad. I don’t know why I adopted this strategy, without fail I would then be asked where I had gone, what I had studied, and what I thought of the locals. I never constructed an artificial story about the fantastic greens of Ireland or the overrated cafes of Paris, and instead coughed up a clarification – “Well, no,” I would laugh, “not exactly abroad. I mean that I went to Syracuse for a year.”
Syracuse was hardly abroad for a student attending an upstate New York College, only about half an hour’s drive away. The answer fleshes out easily enough from there – I was tired of the small, isolated sea of popped collars from the latter and wanted to dive into the bustling urban university setting of the former, but still be able to see my friends upstate. That usually satisfies the questioner, but if I happen to find myself confronted by a career inquisitor, I go the extra step to say that I was suspended for a semester of terrible academic performance, due to, at least in small part, a combination of mono and depression (and the effects of the resulting array of antidepressant medications).
That’s always enough information, where a red flag pops up behind me and the questioner realizes that he is going too far, this path cannot lead to pleasant party conversation. In awkward attempts to return it to a lightness comfortable for acquaintances, the conversation then twists over to my happy return to the shining ivory tower upstate, where I am teased for two more years into opening my mind until my babysitters push me out and my classmates perfect their corporate smiles and move into modest Westside apartments.
So once I answer where I had gone, I
rarely have to then get into what I did there, or what I thought of the locals. Whenever I confront someone else with similar questions, I always make sure to push a little harder than other people who have asked them because, as my New England upbringing has taught me, what a person glosses over is the meatiest part of their story.
Once I was suspended, I shuffled around my parents’ house in Connecticut, with a week spent lying in bed with a mono relapse. I spent the remaining time jogging to the end of the road to lose the weight I packed on from the antidepressants, or online skulking in gay chat rooms and searching for an apartment. I searched around Syracuse because I did, in fact, want to be near friends at my tiny school, and because my family evenings at home with the Fox News channel created nightmares where Bill O’Reilly would out me in an interview and I would wake up in a cold sweat. At the time, I wasn’t out to many people, only a couple of close friends and fraternity brothers, and so I focused on searching for sympathetic, or even likeminded, roommates. After a false start with a chin-studded speed enthusiast, I hit gold with a young gay couple who had just moved into an apartment complex in Syracuse and were looking for a roommate to help them with the bills. It was a little far from the university (part of my laundry list of readmission requirements to my tiny college was to attend classes and walk out with a B average or better), but otherwise I thought it was perfect. I would acquaint myself with the gay lifestyle and make a couple of friends.
My Explorer packed with duffle bags and a disassembled twin bed, I hugged my mother and shook hands with my father as they wished me good luck in Syracuse with my new roommates. I found the building easily enough, a dirt-brown three story box with a badly lit parking lot in back. I called Joe, one of my roommates, on my cell phone when I saw the building, and he and his boyfriend Trevor came out to wave me into the lot. From the time I ended the call to the time he left the apartment in defeat months later, I don’t think Joe ever stopped talking. He was the first to come up to the SUV and say hello, asking how the trip was, how I was, how the trip was, wasn’t it all exciting? His girlish enthusiasm belied his thuggish attire – baggy jeans starting halfway down his CK boxers, and a white sleeveless t-shirt clinging to his thin frame. Throughout our time together, I would struggle to piece together Slim Shady with his effeminate twin who practiced his drag routine in the living room, tottering across the carpet in heels like a drunk man in stilts.
Trevor was more my speed. He spoke lower and moved more deliberately than Joe did. Instead of jumping in front of the car, just begging for me to mistake the brake for the gas, Trevor sauntered up with his hands in his pockets, smiling and nodding a hello.
While Joe skittered back into the building to make sure there was a clear path to my room, Trevor and I began unloading the car. After nearly hitting a loose toddler wandering the hallway, we maneuvered my mattress through the doorway and into the apartment. I noticed a dank smell that always made me think of the 1970s (maybe it had something to do with rotting shag carpet), and a black futon mattress lying flat on the ground. I asked Trevor where the frame was, and he laughed in response, saying that buying the frame was Joe’s job. I laughed with him, not knowing that I laughed because the frame would never come.
The futon mattress was the main piece of furniture in the apartment, stationed in front of the television and to the side of the rickety desk that held Trevor’s laptop. For a short while after moving in, I naively sat or lay on the mattress while watching TV, unaware of its dual purpose as Joe’s makeshift love nest after he and Trevor broke up. Off of the main room was a short hallway that led to their (Trevor’s) bedroom, which contained only a double bed and a particle-board dresser, my bedroom, and the bathroom.
Within three days of the move, Joe and Trevor broke up. Having known them for less than a week, I wasn’t about to search for who was at fault. I didn’t know either of them well, and it wasn’t my place to take a side. The night of their split, while I was watching a movie on the little TV in my bedroom and drowsing on my bed, Joe burst in yelling, intent on dragging me, kicking and screaming if need be, into the middle of the argument. His approach of whining and shouting, coupled with occasional fits of hysterical flailing, made me side silently with Trevor.
“That bitch!” Joe exclaimed, blocking my view of Empire Records. “That slut!” Liv Tyler was seducing Rex Banning while she brought him his lunch, and I began to feel the scene pull me in more than it had a moment ago. “Andy, are you listening to me?”
I rolled my eyes, feigning empathy. “What happened Joe?”
“I looked at Trevor’s profile online, and it said he’d been active today. He changed his picture, and some bitch IMed me thinking I was him. Can you believe that?” I found that I could, if I tried hard enough, but I didn’t tell Joe that. Instead, I thought of a way to get Joe to leave without asking directly.
“What were you doing on his profile?” I said, hoping that I knew Joe well enough that he would find the question insulting and take the signal to leave me alone with my movie. He did.
“Fine, whatever. I’ll just leave both you bitches here to fuck yourselves.” Everyone was a bitch to Joe; he even used the term for self-identification. Trevor didn’t come out of his room to join or watch Joe’s fit, which I took as a cue to sit back and let Joe scream himself to exhaustion. After a couple of minutes spent jumping in the hallway, shaking his fists and spitting up tears, Joe settled down.
“My mom is coming to pick me up,” he said, panting.
Joe’s mother lived in another part of Syracuse, and I heard her voice on the intercom a handful of times, waiting to ferry Joe between home and the apartment before he moved out for good. I never saw her, so was left to imagine her as an obese, disheveled woman by how she screeched into the intercom. My picture of her became all the more fantastic, and bordered on terrifying, when I woke at eight in the morning months later to hear her and Joe spitting vulgarities at each other as they packed up his belongings and he disappeared from the apartment. The walls shook as she lumbered about on the shag and Joe moved quickly beneath her. He hadn’t told me he was moving, so I just waited with shallow breaths in my bed until the door slammed and the apartment returned to silence.
The morning after their breakup, I feared that the fissure in Trevor’s and Joe’s relationship would translate into a higher rent for me. I didn’t yet know of Joe’s mother, so there was no part of me that worried the bogeywoman would burst suddenly into the apartment and rip through it toward my hollow door. I hung around the apartment doing Tae-Bo and watching daytime court shows until Trevor came home from work (he was the one of the three of us who held a job at the time), and I asked him what the breakup meant for life in the apartment.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said in his low monotone, “we knew it wasn’t working out. Joe’s coming back. He got angry because I told him he needed to get a job.”
“So you’re not broken-up?”
“Oh no, we broke up. It just wasn’t working out. But he still needs to get a job.” Aside from running up a sizable phone-dating bill, with the monthly phone payments in Trevor’s name, I discovered that Joe hadn’t paid a cent toward rent since they’d moved in. He and Trevor had worked out a system where Trevor would take care of Joe’s costs until Joe found a job, while Joe would play homemaker and have dinner ready when Trevor came home at night. To my knowledge, dinner was only prepared once, after which Trevor began stopping off at Subway or McDonald’s.
Joe returned the next night while Trevor was on the computer and I was watching TV. He walked in with a tall, lean kid named Chris, who had a barcode tattoo on the back of his neck and wanted to head down to the Carolinas to become a dancer. He also claimed to be the city police chief’s callboy. I looked at Trevor, expecting a reaction of shock or anger, but instead, without turning from his computer, he calmly asked Joe if he’d gotten a job.
“Actually, I did,” Joe snapped. He went on to explain how his cousin had hooked him up with a position at Burger King; apparently competition was so fierce in entry-level food service that internal contacts were the only way to go. Hookups or no, Joe held the position for less than two weeks, deciding soon after that a job just wasn’t worth all the work. Personally, I thanked the gods of fast food for the day he decided not to show up anymore; thereafter the apartment would no longer reek of fatty grease and deep-fried foods.
Joe introduced us to Chris, bringing him into the living room as if he was dragging a purebred about the dog show floor. Chris seemed nice enough, and he lived on the next floor up with his mother and a clutch of little sisters, so I wondered why he would attach himself to the shrieking little troll that was Joe. I found myself asking the same question of the other guys that seemed to follow Joe home from wherever he went, and soon learned my first puzzling fact about the shallow side of gay sexuality – that little troll had a big monster, an endowment that got you farther in the dating scene faster than any less tangible qualities. Depth was frivolous and boring, and dare I say, on the far side of fabulous.
The four of us played video games until the wee hours of the morning, when Trevor and I decided it was time for bed. The two of us broke off to our rooms, leaving Joe and Chris alone in the living room. I can recreate what happened pretty accurately, having unwittingly stumbled into every stage of sex and foreplay between Joe and his countless partners (my only trouble arises from creating a face to go with the sprawling body parts), but I’ll leave it that he and Chris got busy. I still didn’t know very much about either of my roommates, and became frustrated with how committed Trevor was to taking everything in stride. He showed no outward signs of anger, jealousy, or insult toward Joe’s promiscuity.
I soon found that I had misjudged the situation in a couple of crucial ways. First off, I intoned that Trevor’s stoicism toward their breakup was a defense mechanism, where he bottled up all of his adverse feelings and smiled at Joe and Chris through gritted teeth, when in fact he didn’t care what they did with one another. That next night I answered a knock at the door to find a tall young black man standing in the hallway, slouched as though trying to lean into himself. “You Trevor?” He tossed his chin at me, flicking each word with his lower lip. Before I could answer, Trevor appeared behind me in the doorway. “Jason?” he said. He looked Jason up and down, from the flat brim of his Yankees hat to the toes of his leather boots. Jason’s gaze remained fixed on Trevor’s face, all of his confidence and anxiety focused into white-hot beams along his line of vision. Trevor and Jason exchanged a muffled “sup” in greeting and went into Trevor’s room, where the guttural noises of sex were drowned out by Jay-Z and humming bass.
My second mistake was using my sisters’ long-term relationships with their boyfriends as the template for all meaningful relationships. As of now, they have both been tethered to their respective boyfriends for three years and counting. It’s pretty standard length of time in a family of five year courtships, which, since everyone is a good Catholic, means a long wait on the shores to the unexplored realm of sexual gratification. Religion did not bind Joe or Trevor from sleeping with whatever each man wanted, although they both picked slowly through Syracuse’s budding crop of college-age boys. Joe or Trevor would come home, a young, bright-eyed Chris or Jason stepping in his shadow. They would mumble hellos if I happened to be around (we are a very polite people), and then go off to screw each other.
While the apartment began to turn into a revolving door of sex, with boys sometimes passed between my roommates like kisses of greeting in dance club doorways, objects scattered throughout the rooms twinkled subtle connections to religion. There were no effigies depicting goat gods pouring wine atop an all-male orgy, but instead a couple of crucifixes, a rosary, a statue of a meditating Buddha, and the Book of Mormon. Joe claimed to be a Christian, but for all his obscenity-laden exclamations to the Christ, I knew at heart he worshipped the Wishnik figure that beckoned him from the mirror with boas, wigs, and heels. Trevor, on the other hand, had come to SU from Salt Lake City, the capital of Mormon, Inc. He wrestled with his faith with such sincerity and self-loathing as to make my own struggle with Easter-Christmas Catholicism (so-named for the countless patrons who only grin and bear the inside of a church on those two holidays) seem trite and overwrought. The brass Buddha resting on my dresser became an idol of pretension and vanity, a trendy action figure celebrating my base knowledge of an agreeable, alternative spirituality.
Mormonism, however, was as much a piece of Trevor’s life as breathing or orchestrating a one-night stand. He was eager to talk about his faith, to replace my confusion or misconceptions with a compassionate opinion, and I drank in his words. Not completely. It would be more accurate to say that I sipped them, gargled, and spat them into the sink when he turned his back. At first, I thought we came from similar households, with large families (where “large” equals nine children in Utah or three in New England) and an emphasis on religion. As Trevor began to explain the Mormon tradition, the difference between his faith and mine swelled like the disparity between our congregations of siblings.
Trevor outlined Mormonism with no hint of irony or self-consciousness, for which I felt jealous. One cannot mention the Roman Church without conjuring images of persecution, inquisition, or pedophilia, and I often thought that maybe I took the devil’s way out by giving up painting pleasant colors on the Church’s rotting walls. Of course, I quickly noticed one striking similarity between the Pope’s Bible and Mr. Smith’s Book of Mormon: homosexuality is wrong. There was also one striking difference, at least where Trevor was concerned: Mormons have a strike team of suited men going door-to-door to enforce their rhetoric.
Of the little information that sunk in, not among which included the Mormon hierarchy of heaven, which was not really a hierarchy and where everyone ended up free-floating gods, I had learned that Trevor was a priest in his Church. The title does not reflect the prestige or duties inherent in its Catholic counterpart, but is in fact a step above confirmation that requires considerable work and dedication to earn. Trevor obtained his title by living among impoverished Jamaican immigrants in London while spreading the good word of Mr. Smith. It was in these neighborhoods of dirty water and violence that the skinny boy with curly hair and glasses began to struggle with his previously latent sexuality.
When he wrote a formal letter declaring his homosexuality to his parents in Utah, which he asked me to look over for readability and grammatical errors, Trevor wrote a similar letter to his Church that I was forbidden to read. His letter to his parents began a stilted email correspondence back and forth, which resulted in their tolerance if not their blessing, but the letter to the elders, high fathers, or clucking church ladies (whoever intercepts the official Mormon mail) resulted in a phone call and a series of appointments with some combination of the aforementioned individuals. Trevor disappeared to a number of meetings with local Mormon officials, but eventually felt unsatisfied with their clandestine response to his honesty and began avoiding them.
One night, while I yelled at Joe to hurry his ass up if he wanted a ride to Charades (a local dance club where he performed his grotesque army-man-in-heels routine to “War, what is it good for?”) and Trevor lay reading in his room, I heard a steady rapping at the front door. I thought little of it, readying myself to mumble a hello to a twenty year-old with frosted bangs and downcast eyes before waving him on to Trevor’s bedroom. “Joe, seriously, move it, or you’re gonna walk!” I yelled as I waded through the shag toward the door. I was completely bluffing, at this point if I didn’t bring him, I’d have to brace for hours of Joe whining in my face, and fight back his bulbous nose and dark eyes, hollowed by his pre-show cocktail of ecstasy and cocaine. I wasn’t about to let him borrow my car again; I’d woken one morning to hear him squawking about how it tugged as he drove, only to later find that he’d driven it around town with the parking break on. I hoped that the person at the door wasn’t here for Trevor, and was instead one of Joe’s red-eyed, elfin friends waiting to bring him to the club.
I opened the door and stared breathlessly into the dark suits of a pair of pale specters. Their vacuous eyes and blank expressions led me to conclude that these two men must have escaped from the graveyard down the hill and could barely contain their twitching thirst for brains. That, or they were FBI agents who’d caught onto us and were intent on covering up our gay commune before Mulder and Scully could investigate its supernatural significance. In such moments of surprise, my mind always flashes first to outlandish explanations, because, I think to myself, this could be it, the point where something really happens! But no.
“Good evening. We are here to speak with your roommate, Trevor. Is he in by any chance?” The one on the left spoke, and his calm tone, not spiced with any hint of drama, yanked me back down to earth. I knew that the best I could hope for was a mundane version of the latter scenario.
I turned to holler for Trevor, but bumped into Joe, his face smeared in garish shades of green eye shadow and flesh-toned lipstick, reeking of chalky concealer that I would later get scolded for classifying as a “faggy” smell. Tight fatigues clung around his squat frame, and he leaned forward, his knees clicking together atop his open-toed stilettos, to squint at the suited figures in the doorway. “Jesus, bitch, chill yourself out. I’m done already. Who are they?”
“They’re here to see Trevor.” I said.
Joe studied them more closely. “Both of them? Aren’t they kind of old? I hope that bitch at least gets some cash out of it.” Whatever qualities he lacked, Joe made up for with an entertaining wit. He turned to me, lowering his voice. “Did I tell you? Chris said that asshole cop tossed him out yesterday, didn’t even let him get all the clothes he’d bought for him, all Abercrombie shit. I mean, what the hell is that old man gonna do with them? Probably rewrap them for the next boy he catches giving hand jobs in back of Charades.”
I was aware that the Mormons were still standing there, blocking Joe from his nightly wonderland, and probably becoming aggravated, or at least uncomfortable. “Shut up,” I said to him. I called out to Trevor before Joe could retaliate, and then stood before the men wearing a thin grin and studying the floor.
Trevor walked out of his room, and his eyes widened as he spotted the men. I took his expression as a hint to herd Joe out to the car. “I’m taking Joe to Charades, then I’ll be back,” I said.
Trevor looked at his watch. “It’s only seven o’clock. He’s going now?”
“Uh, duh,” Joe interjected. “We all practice before we go on. We have to set up and run through the show.”
Trevor turned back to the men in suits, and asked me if I was going too.
I hesitated. “I wasn’t going to.” I got enough of Joe’s performance from the living room, and I found a sizable gap in personality and interests between myself and most people I’d met in my few nights out at a club. But I knew Trevor needed some time alone with the suited men. “But, I can. Yeah, I think I will.” I just hoped that when I got back, I wouldn’t find Trevor slumped in a corner, his head cracked open where his visitors had gobbled his brains like coconut meat.
Charades didn’t open for a few hours, and I didn’t want to sit around the darkened runway and watch drag queens gallop through their routines and shoot coke up their nostrils. I dropped Joe off outside and told him I was going to the mall. “Come back later, you haven’t seen my show yet,” he said. I thought of all the times I’d seen his show while shuffling from my room to the kitchen, but told him I’d think about it. “Good luck if I don’t see you. You can get a ride right?”
“Sure,” Joe said. I didn’t expect to see him in the morning; a friend he spent the night with would drop him off tomorrow just before dinnertime. Then, he would decide whether or not to don his glamorous Burger King shirt and hat and wait for his mother to shuttle him to the night shift.
As I drove away from the club, I realized that there was no reason for me to go to the mall. If I was going to wander aimlessly by myself, it seemed better to do it in the car, where I could explore instead of merely wait for time to fall away. With the mall still fresh in my mind, I decided to head toward Carousel and then make my way back to the university. Caged fields of asphalt and concrete bordered the mall on one side, which I followed up through the mall parking lot and back around past the train station. I was still getting a handle on my surroundings at this point, and found it both relaxing and helpful to my navigational skills to go out on occasional tours of the area. I followed the highway and took the off-ramp by the university. I had only driven around the university a couple of times, and I tried to solidify the directions that swam inside my head like drifting pools of cooling wax. I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but I was familiarizing myself with the area and starting to move well by feel. I passed the large fraternity houses and rode up the steep brick hill, and the small blue house that I would move into after Joe left the apartment and Trevor decided to live with a future boyfriend.
The start of the fall semester at SU solidified both me settling into my new apartment, and the beginning of my break from it and my roommates. After a couple more meetings with the Mormon investigators, Trevor severed his ties with the Church and searched for another steady relationship, which he found for a few months with a beak-nosed music student named Carl. Joe became increasingly erratic, sometimes talking about “going back to school,” but spending most of his time sleeping in unfamiliar beds and coming home at dusk. Once I found my footing, studying for classes and dating an IT major at the university, time began to slow down. My introduction to gay couples had been turbulent and dramatic, where members of the club scene shifted and collided like floating sheets of ice. After only a few months abroad, I’d experienced the colorful culture of gay club life through Joe, and Trevor’s unique struggle to define his sexuality while grasping hard at his crumbling faith. Upon my return upstate the following year, I would sit in the dorm lounges and listen to other students express how their lives had been changed by British pubs or Australian beaches, and I would nod and say that nothing like that had happened to me in Syracuse. And if they asked me why I went there, I would start explaining the differences between the upstate campus's rural isolation and Syracuse’s bustling urban diversity.