Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
He arrived in great haste, remembering to turn sharply off of the paved road where there were no lights, tears streaming down his face. Words had been exchanged once again with his father, and though he didn’t really need the money, a crisp $20 bill had been thrust aggressively at him. The meaning was clear: take the money and leave me the hell alone. He knew instinctively that one doesn’t pick one’s parents, but sometimes that wasn’t consolation enough by itself.
Inside his yellow vinyl backpack was a compendium of gay pornography, magazines mostly, purchased downtown at the so-called “adult bookstore.” He always had to laugh at the word choice employed to disguise its true purpose. There wasn’t a single book on the shelf to be sold, but on the racks was a compendium of pornographic magazines sitting upright on worn wooden bookshelves—three packs in the shrink wrap. Behind them, against one back wall, was a collection of dildos and vibrators encased in thick plastic on hooks, and then more shelves—brand-new tapes stacked up neatly with cardboard sleeves still in the shrink wrap, ready to be sold.
To the immediate right side of the store were the peep shows. There must have been five or so of them. Faceless middle-aged men, full of singular purpose, frequented those. They never stayed long. They always walked up to the front counter, making no eye contact, requesting tokens, paid their money, received small copper coins, fed the machines, inserted every coin methodically, one by one, pushed the slot firmly into place, closed the door behind them, and fifteen minutes later emerged, sometimes still tucking fitted shirts into slacks.
But he always found such behavior filthy, and furthermore, he always wanted his onanism to be a private affair, or at least not so transparent. And yet, he had an exhibitionist streak, but preferred someone else’s nudity to his own. After taking his first few tentative steps outside the closet, he’d enjoyed the looks of profound shock his frank display of the naked male form produced on the faces of fellow dorm mates, most of which were young straight women. One had clutched her face in terror. “He looks like my cousin!” He enjoyed the salacious attention the reputation this gave him, most of the time.
He did not enjoy the verbal harassment his father provided—often when some new discovery was made—who he’d been sleeping with, mostly. He begged men to not engage in rough sex or to give him hickeys like hormone-crazed sixteen-year-olds. The bruises were difficult to explain away. He had been in approximately one fight in his entire life, where his absolute lack of upper body strength led to a humiliating stalemate. His mother was as hostile as her husband—she’d thrown away $50 worth of expensive underwear refused to reveal the location—as though that was enough to reverse and rescind who he was.
But again, here he was at Jenny’s house, Jenny the dyke, Jenny the perpetual risk taker, Jenny who had played toms in the drum corps in high school, Jenny who never disguised her lesbianism. Quite a risk in those days. If you mentioned her name to whomever had attended high school with her, you’d often get a pained, fearful look in response. This is where he ended up on many weekend evenings, not quite ready to return to the dorm, and seeking community from anyone who might understand.
Jenny never read books. She never talked about literature. She made no intellectual pretenses. And when he pulled out a copy of something, to quietly read to himself, she snapped. “Why the hell are you reading here?” He supposed it embarrassed her somehow, though he never figured out why. Books had always been his friends, since childhood, but he had strayed into unfamiliar territory with her. Maybe they threatened her somehow.
It was Friday night, and a lot of young undergrads like him went home on weekends or on dates that kept them up until early in the morning. In those days, few men were out at such a young age, and he was still too young to enter the city’s thriving gay bar scene without sneaking in, which was patrolled extensively to ensure that the club maintained its liquor license. He’d already been booted out once and warned not to try it again. He’d just missed the cut off. Had he been born a few years earlier the legal drinking age would have been eighteen.
He always justified his inaction by saying that the men he’d be interested in were probably waiting at home by themselves on Friday night, too. Though this was likely the truth, it didn’t make him feel any less lonely. He had yet to establish himself in a new city. After years of begging for a promotion, his father had received it, finally granted the ability to move to Atlanta, the promised land. No more robbing the accounts of existing businesses in the area to make his salary. He had dreams of finally expanding his customer base and achieving wealth. He coveted wealth the way only people who had never grown up with it did.
But by the time his son entered high school, at the beginning of his junior year, all the existing cliques and social circles had long been in place, rendering him essentially invisible, at least at school. He excelled in exactly one extracurricular activity, Academic Competition Team, essentially Jeopardy! on a team versus team basis. He was good at it and achieved one and only one friend, a freshman who hero-worshipped him, but who was regrettably straight.
While not at school, or with his hands on the buzzer at practice or a match, he slung java and lattes at the local shopping mall, a poorly ventilated kiosk where the smell of roasted beans soaked into his skin. Taking a shower at the end of a shift was essential and sometimes he found he had to shower twice to not smell like a coffee plantation. He’d at least met Jenny there, a mall rat if ever there was one.
Jenny had passed over her phone number, written on the back of a receipt for some clothing store, but the two of them knew intrinsically that they weren’t interested in each other in that way. Their behavior and reputations preceeded themselves and they couldn’t have pretended to be otherwise. One female co-worker, a kleptomaniac, who would soon find herself terminated for a variety of offenses, like stealing whole boxes of nitrous oxide chargers used to make whipped cream, and the curious disappearance of most of the flavored syrups. He stirred up the local closeted men who worked there, advertising without his consent that he was available and looking. They made their visits, but they were almost always much older than he was. Much older.
Jenny was the dyke that wandered the Western Hills mall all weekend. He was that gay man who worked at the coffee shop who seemed to always be on the clock, no matter how much he focused on his schoolwork. Everyone knew about those two. They were fixtures—always present, everyone seemed to know them by name.
Jenny was the alpha female in a group of roughly ten lesbians and a rotating band of gay men who were drawn into her orbit. You smoke like a broad, said one such man. This was because he kept his cigarette resting upright as he gesticulated about some point. At some point in the recent past, he started at a fresh smoke on the portico based outside. Jenny had either purchased or borrowed a camcorder and visually documented the proceedings of one girls-only sleepover. She showed this video a lot, I suppose because each of the girls dared to bare their breasts to the cameras, one by one. Even the most introverted member of the group finally acquiesced to peer pressure and reluctantly pulled her top down, figuring she might as well. She shrugged her shoulders, followed through, and swiftly pulled her shirt back down.
Not that it gave him much of a thrill, as much as perhaps satiate a curiosity. Parents, when their children were younger, would have called her a bad influence. It was not an unfitting moniker. Jenny was currently at war with an on-againoff-again lover named Debbie, who interrupted group gatherings with extended hostile phone calls that often dragged on for whole minutes at a time, forcing everyone else to entertain themselves for however long the two of them felt like tearing themselves and their odd relationship apart.
Jenny would always apologize with food. She was a short-order cook at a restaurant, and she made comfort food for whomever happened to be present. She was more than competent with a spatula and a frying pan, and could have been far more successful than that, but loved recreational drugs, never expressed any desire whatsoever to go to college, and was still too young to have any real sense of emotional maturity. She also was a reliable drug dealer to friends, though it could be said that she had few true ones, and in those days, following her lead, he used chemical substances to numb away his own pain, much as she did, but she took risks he never did.
He ate Jenny’s food with relish and prepared for a usual Friday night as the sole man present,. Everyone had paid the piper. You pay your money; you take your chances. One was never sure what would be offered that night, but everyone arrived with cash on hand. Jenny had ketamine tonight, to the novice a powerful hallucinogen usually used as a way to alleviate severe pain. When it came time to dose up, a solemn affair, person after person swallowed the pill with a dropof water poured in a cheap plastic, disposable cup.
He took the pill and waited for something to happen. For the longest time, he didn’t feel anything at all, and began to question whether he’d gotten ripped off. And then the white plaster ceiling began to glimmer with light, the image washed away to red-tinted brightness, with all its imperfections smoothed out perfectly like a fresh coat of white paint. That light gave way to vintage, grainy, silent film, soldiers from the first World War, marching noiselessly down a road filled with rubble, filing past the camera, carrying huge packs strapped to their bodies, rifles resting against their lean right shoulders, a perfect facsimile of period documentary footage.
And still the visuals continued, but they were identical to what had come before. The marching troops were seemingly stuck on a loop, trudging by, fifteen seconds at a time, resetting, replacing themselves in order, trudging by, walking past again. Even with his consciousness impaired to this degree, he had expected more.
He glanced around him. Bodies were spread out everywhere. Three on the couch, the rest on the floor next to him. No talking. Complete silence. He leaned over and saw Jenny cuddling some woman he had never seen before. Usually this was whomever she was sleeping with that night. This always happened when the drugs began their slow slide into inactivity. They would groggily drag each other up, hand in hand, retiring to her bedroom. This was Jenny’s pattern, every night. He looked again at the movie screen above him and noticed that the metaphorical curtains were slowly closing on the main feature. The image was quickly fading. But still, he could not talk, nor could anyone else.
He knew from experience that it took at least an hour to feel come down after dosing on ketamine. Everyone felt woozy for a long while. But eventually the conversation started up again. Jill, the most outspoken of the ten gathered who woreblack t-shirt that said, Queers Do It Better rose up, pushing the weight of her body up with hands against the carpeted floor, and asked him a direct question.
“So, what do you have to share with us tonight?”
She meant the collection of male-on-male pornography that was somehow his ticket into this gathering. Unlike the girls at the dorm, these women were unusually curious. He reached behind him and unzipped the backpack. A few sorted quickly, carelessly through the slick, glossy pages of magazines, but most wanted to watch his videos. It was difficult to know if this was pure fascination or arousal, but it was nevertheless what he added to the mix. It made him novel and different.
They were riveted the whole time, totally entranced. Part of it may have been purely spectacle. Amateur porn, produced at home with digital cameras, was years in the future. These were studio constructions, with coherent, if ridiculous plots. It was entirely possible that the kitsch was what grabbed their attention, and though he was no Freudian, he always wondered if it was due to penis envy on their behalf. Naturally, he would have never suggested as much. Eventually, he learned that they weren’t the first lesbians to find something oddly compelling in observing the act itself. Later in life he went through these tapes and found them heavily dated, full of histrionic and overacting men with mustaches, and an over reliance on slow motion.
Jenny’s attitude was curious. “Penises smell,” she spat out, contemptuously. And yet she watched every second in the same way as all of her disciples did.
He had his own peculiarities and contradictions. In time, he learned he was not the first to cross-dress. He’d been clandestinely purchasing lingerie for himself under the pretext of buying it for a girlfriend for the past several months. Nowadays, the term we’d use for that predilection is a “sissy”, but in those days, that was a bit too insulting and transgressive. That was a term you used when in the company of the familiar, the talkers in code. The outside world used it for emasculating purposes.
He’d been experimenting with typically female forms of dress, but always underneath male clothing. Yet, he felt no desire to become a drag queen, even in his fantasies. Furthermore, why not honor both the male and the female simultaneously? He wore men’s jeans, but made sure to paint his toenails too, and he felt the proper mix of the two, for the most part.
Rehearsing his best clueless straight man demeanor, he strode alone into a store only a few yards down from the coffee shop and was immediately solicited by a conventionally attractive and young blonde- woman behind a counter. Her placement was no accident. He knew the company hired eye candy, because they knew they could get away with it. The ugly girls were always consigned to the back of the store, restocking uncomfortable bras or checking inventory.
“May I help you, sir?”
Nothing made him more uncomfortable than this exchange. His mind was flooded with two primary fears, both of worst-case scenarios.
They know about me. I’m sure they do.
And, following that, Why do I have to be this shy?
The second fear never left him, ever, really, but in this pressure cooker of his own creation, he found that his admirable efforts to conceal his homosexuality tended leave. His voice crept higher than he was comfortable. He forced himself to walk ramrod straight, not wavering side to side.
Underwear, garter belts, bras, and stockings lay on circular-shaped tables for easy perusal. He made a great show being the heterosexual male brusquely shopping, which resembled hunting an animal: making a kill as quickly as possible, then dragging its corpse from the ground swiftly back home. His natural inclination would have been to solicit the sales clerk’s opinion about a particular shade or color, and tarry for several minutes, exchanging conversation, but he was on high alert now.
Aware of precisely what size, shape, and tint he favored, he stabbed at each item with his hand, grabbing resolute hold of each, until he was satisfied with his latest purchase. And yet, the informed consumer that he was, he was terrified the entire time, though no excursion lasted longer than ten minutes. The adrenalin rush he received lasted a good five minutes after exiting the shop. He always took a second bag with him, from another store in the mall, larger than the one he would receive from the store, sparing him needless questions and preserving some semblance of privacy.
With time, he’d formed an acquaintance with a “lipstick lesbian” who agreed to panty swap with him, after he shared his interested in drag. They were both about the same size and he was quite surprised at how eager she was to be accommodating, after she paid him little to no attention prior to that point. Maybe he’d needed to prove precisely how uninterested he was in the opposite sex. Perhaps she wasn’t quite sure that he quite belonged yet.
As the two of them sorted through her underwear drawer, she felt embarrassment when she came across a pair that had been heavily stained at the crotch by a particularly fruitful period. He knew he would never menstruate or bear a child. As feminine as he felt from time to time, he didn’t have adequate words or terms to ascribe to these feelings—or to easily separate how each gender manifested itself inside him. But neither did he feel particular sorrow that he couldn’t experience these particularly womanly experiences.
Neither conception, menstruation, nor pregnancy seemed particularly attractive to him. He listened to them complain about their own periods frequently, though in those days the notion of childbirth was looked upon flippantly by many gay women, much like marriage, as a matter purely for heterosexuals. America in the early 1990s was very different than it is today. The terminology used today only existed inside academia and theory back then. In those days, there were gays and lesbians, and that was it.
And the old guard, the yet-to-be-named Greatest Generation, still crabbily complained about how much they resented having to give up the word “gay” for any reason. He never knew why people living on the Greek isle of Lesbos never voiced similar grievances.
He grew older. He graduated college from Georgia State downtown. Four years passed quickly but he was still in the city that some still called Hot-lanta.
Jenny was long gone by then, last he’d heard she was headed south down the Florida peninsula,, so instead he switched over to pot and found a reliable dealer who was enrolled in the art college. He was a working-class kid from New Jersey, who used the proceeds from his vocation to purchase a shiny new Cadillac. To him, that was the epitome of class and privilege. He was a nice guy when he was sober, but when he was intoxicated, he quickly turned violent and had to be dragged home by the police. Alcohol was his drug of choice—he curiously never partook in what he sold—and would drink himself to death before he reached the age of thirty.
In college, he had a built a small reputation as a music critic for the school paper. Most of the big touring acts stopped in town, and he took in live music whenever he had the opportunity, sometimes scoring interviews with bands that came through the city. More than once he crashed an after-party pitched exclusively for women but forced his way in when backs were turned. Once he achieveda face to face interview with the erstwhile bass player of a then-popular Britpop group, an MTV darling of their time. He frequented every small club in town and considered being a professional music critic and writer, but quickly realized that making it in that profession required a benefactor and luck. He had neither.
Following graduation, he got an entry-level position at a cellular phone company and learned the art of fighting his morning commute’s stop and go traffic. He hated all of it: the persistent heat, the bugs, the fact that there were at least four different Peachtree Streets in hilly downtown, and how he always ended up taking the wrong one.
Time passed. Graduation was five years ago, then seven. It was the new millennium now. Everyone was up in arms about the unpopular war and high gasoline prices. He’d been blessedly taken off the phones and moved to processing bill claims. He was thirty now and his reticence and reserve left him suspect in the eyes of most of his co-workers. Only one of them, Courtney, made overtures of friendship. She made sure to mention that most of the people he worked for had been genuinely unsure what to make of him at first, but that she had come to his defense.
When he’d joined the local union, heput the latest representative on the spot by asking complicated questions. Once again, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He felt as though this was high school’s second act, once again the gifted kid in a room full of average students. Further up the chain of command was a man from Boston who took a shine to him, offering him promises of increased wages and maybe even union work if he could just wait his turn. The union had absolutely no power, though it surely acted like it did. Promotions never arrived. Members higher up the chain spent no longer than a year or two in one city.He felt severely disillusioned and considered rescinding his dues, though thought perhaps he might escape the corporate life for the peripatetic life of union organizer, even if it was a paper tiger.
The job was stressful. The office was run by a martinet, a man so petty that he pitched a fit if someone took a notepad from his personal secretary. During his breaks he fantasized about taking a baseball bat and breaking this strict disciplinarian’s kneecaps with it.
And he was reminded of the risks he ran as a more or less openly gay man. Security had been hired two years before his arrival. A man had been exchanging flirtatious inter-office email with another man, posing as a woman. When the truth was finally revealed, the offending man found himself beaten to a pulp outside in the parking lot the following day. Some offices would have tried to hide information like that from new employees, but moments of of unprofessional conduct were legendary within the company.
When he was too tired from work to troll the clubs, which was often, , he used the internet to scour his latest lover. One unusual Craigslist post was titled “Quickie.” He took this to mean the man in question wanted a brief encounter, and little else. He responded back and received a surprisingly prompt reply in return. He was to meet him at the Hard Rock Café in the tourist-heavy part of town in fifteen minutes. As such, he took off immediately for this encounter, completely misunderstanding the meaning and context of the word “quickie.”
He should have known better. The connection was made and confirmed too eagerly. He’d been told to look for a man of moderate height and build who answered to the name Michael, a brown-haired man who had been borrowing the cell phone of a stranger, some foreigner, who had reluctantly granted permission to use it. The foreigner was a German woman, and was desperate to regain possession of it. It struck him as strange that someone in this day and age did not own a phone of his or her very own.
But even he’d embraced one reluctantly, even with the employee discount, predicting correctly that they would become utterly indispensable with every passing year, darkly believing that they would cause unforeseen problems.
Michael gave directions to a house that surprisingly wasn’t far from where he lived, but he lived in a recently gentrified section of town that, only a mile or so down Boulevard SE, that quickly became rough and dangerous. The projects were on the right-hand side of the street, the medical center on the left, and the roadway terminated abruptly at the United States Federal penitentiary, where famous mobsters had spent time, as did some the FBI’s most wanted.
His desire for carnal pleasures led him here, and as he had grown up in the suburbs, he was simply too naïve to realize precisely where he was headed. Following his directions, they stopped in front of a house, exited the car, and then quickly entered through the front door. He was quickly ushered into a small bedroom where three televisions, lined up one by one, played gay porn simultaneously. Three handsome men in various states of disrobe lounged on the bed.
He wasn’t sure what to do next. Were they intending to start an orgy? Something was off. There was some kind of harsh and malevolent tension in the air.
So, when he felt hard steel pressed against his back, he didn’t have to guess as to what it was. This was, quite simply, a trap. One of the men brought out a used power drill set in orange plastic and offered to sell it to him for $80. Did he expect him to horse trade for it? He had never used a power drill in his life and certainly didn’t want one now.
He turned down the offer and the man got down to business.
“You and I are going to ride somewhere,” said the man, who held all the power and the control.
There were no street lamps in the area to illuminate us. In any case, they wouldn’t have done much good. He was too afraid to cry for help and knew that doing so would likely not make a difference. He didn’t have the courage to try to fight for control of the weapon, knowing that doing so was dangerous. After all, all the television programs informed you that to give in to the inevitable was your best bet with petty armed larceny.
He followed the man’s directions to a T, pulling over to an ATM, where he was asked to withdraw $300. He complied. Then, disguising the gun with his clothing, which was still pressed against the middle of his back, he commanded a stop at a convenience store. The man with the gun had him extract $40 more dollars from a freestanding ATM inside the store, in order to pay for a shiny watch housed inside of a revolving vending machine, which would not have required him to go to the counter to conduct the transaction.
By this point, he was so scared he began disassociating a little. The assailant drove him back to the house, whereupon the theif leapt out of the car and quickly ran down the block, signaling the night’s events were over. He turned the wheel sharply to the left and headed back up the Boulevard. He took stock of the evening. It could have been far worse. He could have lost more money, been shot, or even been seriously injured.
It had been, in many ways, the perfect crime. Reporting it would have done no good. He remembered the man’s face, he remembered Michael’s face, if in fact his name was indeed Michael, he remembered the faces of the tarted-up queens, but he had no names and no address to provide law enforcement. Doing so would require him to reveal his sexual orientation to the cops, which, though it was not against the law, might have granted him not much in the way of sympathy—a few might believe that he got precisely what he deserved.
Still in shock, he crawled into bed that night, and somehow managed to sleep.
Atlanta was his father’s city. It had never been his city. When a job recruiter came calling from Washington, DC, he couldn’t wait to leave the south behind. They even arranged his relocation: fully reimbursing him for his airfare and a van to take him and his few possessions to the apartment he had picked out with what little money he’d had left in the bank. There was some virtue, some freedom in poverty.
Back down South, he’d eschewed making large, bulky purchases. The most ambitious he had ever gotten was a glut of Ikea furniture, which he turned into bookshelves. He rented a furnished suite following graduation. The living room sofa did not belong to him, nor did the recliner. The closet had been built into the wall.
Hislargest possession was an inherited sleep number bed. He arranged for everything he hadn’t rented to be driven to his new apartmentand felt himself quite adult.
On his way to baggage claim at BWI airport—halfway between Baltimore and DC (the tickets were cheaper that way)—he saw a large man with a hand-written sign bearing his last name.. Indicating that he was indeed who he said he was, by way of driver’s license verification, this man e helped him lug his huge bag off the carousel and towards the dark blue shuttle bus. At the back of the bus, lying face down, was the sleep number bed—lightweight and low to the ground. The driver plopped the heavy suitcase on top, they both buckled up and drove off on a grand new adventure.
The office staff was small. He worked around four other young professionals, all about his age, each with significant ambition, but aware that the footprint they were leaving with the Democratic Party was not a particularly major one. The all lived together in a small rented space in Dupont Circle, which in those days was undergoing a major resurgence.
His job was not terribly complicated. They called it “recon,” short for reconnaissance. He was to e follow up with donors or potential donors using, very primitive electronic databases to monitor where people and organizations had previously contributed money. He was good at it. He had an office to himself, could shut the door behind him, send out electronic correspondence, or pick up the phone and simply dial the appropriate party or parties.
When he was done and sent his boss boss documented proof of what he’d accomplished, he logged out of his computer, turned off the fax machine, said a few perfunctory goodbyes to his officemates, and headed for home. In those days, Washington DC’s public transportation was quite good, more or less at its apex, so he’d even gone so far as to sell his car before moving. He didn’t mind being packed together like sardines with all the buttoned-down riders for thirty minutes twice a day.D.C. was a straightlaced, nose-to-the-grindstone sort of place, a place where tattoos and piercings were infrequent. Its residents might be politically liberal, but they were not born rebels.
With time and patience, he began to frequent the U Street corridor when he was looking for a fast lay, but he was really a serial monogamist at heart. He was invited to a party and thought he could mingle and maybe even find a partner. Unfortunately, etting the hang of it was difficult. He could be intensely overeager or supremely intimidated. Neither was a recipe for success.
But this time, he found someone who found his clumsy, fumbling manner “adorable.” The Metro stopped running on Saturday nights at 3 am, and unless he wanted to pay for an expensive cab ride, he knew he needed to catch it, and quickly. He was having to pinch pennies in ways he’d never before thought imaginable.
He hurdled up the stairs with a kind of nimble limberness that wouldn’t last, but for the moment he could leap two and three escalator stairs at a time, skidding onto the dark red tile of the platform, sprinting inside, two full seconds before the automated voice chimed and said “Doors closing.” He collapsed into a seat perpendicular to the entrance, vowing to make this the closest call he’d ever attempt, even though there was some sort of youthful thrill of achievement still present, not immediately evident until it passed that he had tempted fate by making it in somehow under the wire.
On his way out the door, he’d been handed a business card by the same man he was sure had found him too awkward to merit further contemplation. Underneath the centered text, in expensive ballpoint pen, had the words, “call me.” He examined the card further.
James G. Stephens. Master’s candidate in graduate school, Georgetown University. Political Science. The phone number listed on the card had been purposely underlined.
This definitely looked promising. He kept telling himself don’t fuck it up, don’t fuck it up. And he waited the perfunctory two to three days before calling, even though he knew anyone with half a brain was wise enough to see through that ritual, even though it was worse to seem overeager than to be obvious. The third day he called fafter work and was glad to hear the voice of James G. Stevens.
He inquired nervously, “Is this James? We met at the party Friday night.”
The voice on the other end laughed. “It’s really ‘Jim’. That’s what you can call me from now on.”
And then he asked, “Would you like to have tea with me sometime at the end of the week?”
That was onMonday. They would meet after work Wednesday night at a trendy tea bar with inedible food but strong tea.. carried their drinks and food with great caution down a steep spiraling staircase. Upon finding an empty table, they were able to finally talk.
Years later, he couldn’t remember exactly what they talked about. The acoustics of the room were terrible. Voices reverberated against the high ceilings above, making a din where one had to shout to be heard, even inches away. But what had been wordlessly agreed upon was the fact that enough physical attraction and basic chemistry existed for them to consider sleeping together.
Late that night, they arrived at his place made love for the first time. He’d never taken a man home because of his high strung and neurotic roommate, , but then, he’d never actually dated one, either. Precisely how deep his roommate’s feelings of revulsion went had never been broached until that moment.
Get out! He screamed at her, from some long-repressed part of himself. Not normally the picture of unrestrained fury, the volume and tone produced its desired impact. She fled immediately out of the front door.
He was immediately remorseful. Turning to Jim, he said, “I suppose I’ll just have to get a new roommate. She’s not an easy person to live with in the best of circumstances, but she’s never ambushed me like this.”
Jim gave the matter much thought. “Yes, I suppose you will. But don’t worry. You can stay with me until other plans are made.”
In his mind, he remembered that a few units were available a block or so further down Wisconsin Avenue. They were old and cramped, but across the street from a major bus artery. It was a quiet area and had stayed highly affluent even when other sections of the District had not. Several of his colleagues tried to save money by living in areas that were less developed and while that might have given them a little peace of mind with their bank statement, it meant a very long walk or a slightly shorter bike ride, if one was inclined to risk bike thef.
Jim was a native of the area and his parents lived in the generic suburbs of Prince George County, Maryland, north of the District, a fifteen-minute drive away. Both of his parents came by to pick the couple up whenever it was their turn to visit—they alternated Christmases and Thanksgivings with his folks. They were both PhD educated academics, she a native of Britain and he a native of Dublin, Ireland originally. Hehad a musical brogue, and his mother had retained her British citizenship, though she’d been born on the island of Gibraltar, near Spain.
She’d spent years as a professionally trained dancer in London, whereupon she met her husband. She followed her dream for a while, but eventually decided that a career as a teacher was a better way to earn a living. She welcomed her gay son. After all, years as a dancer had put her in contact with many gay men and she understood them innately in ways that many did not. Above all she wanted to make sure that her son didn’t get hurt.
At every family gatherin was a woman named Sheryl, who was on the administrative staff at George Washington University, where Jim’s father taught.. He taught Chemistry and Jim’s mother taught English at a less-reputable school in Northern Virginia, thought she was nevertheless quite competent at her discipline. Their knowledge of Atlanta was surprisingly minimal. Though they’d been living in the United States for decades, for them Atlanta connoted Gone with the Wind and the antebellum South.
When it was time to visit his folks, his mother surreptitiously purchased the plane tickets. Perhaps she was assuaging some of her own guilt in the process, but she knew her husband did not approve and never would. The couple could have afforded the cost themselves, just barely—Atlanta was a main hub for at least one airline—but she genuinely missed her son and tried her best to incorporate Jim into the family. She might not understand, but neither was she willing to cast him aside. Aside from sarcastic comments his father held his tongue. Good fences make good neighbors.
Jim’s mother took over as another maternal figure. They shared a dark, cynical outlook on life and a fascination with each other’s cultural differences. Jim had interviewed many Britons in college, and as a confirmed Anglophile, he knew more about the country than most Americans did. He provided his mother an ability to voice her own frustrations, particularly after a recent diagnosis of epilepsy, which effectively ended her ability to perform a lot of tasks herself. Her youngest son lived in Baltimore, not far away, and when convenient could take her where she needed to go, but the lack of her independence enraged her.
He adopted his Jim’s parents as his own.He and Jim related well to each other as only children.. Both sets of parents had given birth to them exceptionally late in life. Both mothers were forty and both fathers were forty-five. Consequently, by the time Jim and himself began to build year upon year of being together, both of their parents grew close to retirement. Jim’s parents decided to risk one in-person meeting with his folks, a dismal failure regretted by all as each couple characterized the other as strange It wasn’t traumatic, merely supremely awkward.No future plans were made.
He remained shy and reticent. Jim was the stronger personality of the two, but somehow, they made it work. Ten years later his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The first stroke rendered him unable to talk, which his son took as poetic justice. Bitterness aside, it was difficult to see him grow purple with fury to be unable to force out the words he so desperately needed the world to hear. The prognosis was dire. The cancer was terminal and aggressive. A cluster of stronger strokesput him in hospice care.
After two weeks his family waited, day in and day out, for him to die. It did not happen swiftly. He prayed as he had never prayed before for the end, but never lost his faith in God. Some with weaker faith would have cast theirs aside, as though God was the eternal trickster. There were times those gathered before him were sure he had drawn his last breath, only for him to resume again. It took fourteen days in totality, until around 1:30 in the afternoon for his body to finally give in to the inevitable.
His body, in accordance with his wishes, was cremated two days later. His remains arrived in a week, in an off-white, nondescript, perfectly square box. Despite the hard feelings he’d had for his father, there was something deeply insulting about the presentation of his final remains. No guildedgolden lettering, just the impersonality of a label produced by a laser printer, last name followed by first name. Curious to know how it looked, the family used a sharp knife to remove the wrapping, cautiously opened the box, and found it halfway full of fine, grainy, powdery, ash.
The box came with no instructions, but his father’s will had named two places for his remains to be scattered. One portion was to be spooned into the water of a lake in north Georgia, up in the mountains. The remaining portion was to be released into outer space. Securing that is a great privilege possible only for the ultra-rich or well-connected, but his connections with the Democratic Party had secured that. How ironic that his father—a man with such animosity toward democrats might have even thanked the opposition for his dying wish. It had been a favor to his son-- losing a parent at thirty-five was far too soon and men twice his age knew that much. For those who would forever be known, never by their face, but always by their name, Washington D.C. slowed down long enough to bow its collective head momentarily.
Kevin Camp was first published in essay form in a 2010 book entitled Quaker Rising, which included the written works of young adult Quakers across the United States and Canada. A second essay was published in 2012 by Friends Journal. His life story was included in religion writer Mark O. Pinsky's book "Amazing Gifts" which was published by the Alban Institute in 2013. He was awarded Honorable Mention by New Millennium Writings in 2015. In August 2019, a short story was published by Oyster River Press, "If It Gets Better, It Can't Get Much Worse." In May 2020, Kevin was published in a journal of the weird, misery tourism. His contribution was entitled "Messiah Online." Later that year, in November, "Messiah Online" was simultaneously submitted to Cough Syrup's "It's Working." short story section. In March 2021, his short story "Holding It Together" was published by The Summerset Review. In August 2021, his story "Bird Dog" was published in the magazine "A Thin Slice of Anxiety." He regularly contributes to the Community section of the metablog Daily Kos. A proud member of the Religious Society of Friends, Camp lives in Hoover, Alabama.