by Allen M. Price
Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me.
May 31, 2002. The air was light. The sun bright but setting. The pallid quarter moon peeking over the horizon. And Shawn and I were going out on what would be our first date in almost seven months. We hadn’t spoken since the second Sunday in October when we both agreed that it was all too much: going to grad school, interning and dating. It wasn’t an easy decision, for me anyway. I really wanted to be with him. But time just refused to let us be together. Deep inside, though, something told me that it wasn’t over. So after letting the months go by like a bird flying south for the winter, I decided to call and congratulate him on graduating from the Kennedy school. Well, when he picked up the phone and said hello, I just about hung up, worried that he might not want to talk to me. But after I said hey, Shawn, he enunciated my name with so much excitement there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he wanted to talk to me. Only to be confirmed minutes later when he asked if I’d go to an end-of-the-school-year party with him that evening.
The party started at 7:30, and I told Shawn I’d be at his place around sevenish. But I knew that I was going to be late when I remembered while driving on the highway that finding parking on a Thursday evening in Harvard Square would require circling, hunting for a spot. Fate had it that I found one as soon as I got there, right on Mass. Ave.
I jumped out of the car, slammed the door, fed the meter, tucked my hands in my pockets, and scurried down the sidewalk, through the many commuters and students and tourists, feeling sweat drip down the sides of my forehead with each footfall. The sweat wasn’t because I was nervous to see Shawn. The sweat was a symptom of my OCD. I feared bumping into one of them and contracting some sort of illness or disease. As soon as I stepped inside Shawn’s apartment building, however, the fear shifted, and a gnawing sense of panic gripped my mind. Will he still like me? I thought. What if I’m not the guy he liked before? What if all that he remembers me to be is no more? I couldn’t quell the thoughts no matter how tight I tried to hold to reality. They kept coming with each flight of stairs I climbed to his fifth-floor studio. But I pressed on. Paused in front of his cracked-open door, wiped the sweat off of my face, off the palms of my hands, onto my pants and then knocked.
“Come in,” Shawn yelled.
I gently pushed the door open, peeking in as it widened, and stepped inside.
“Hey,” he said, in his signature greeting that sounded like The Fonz.
“Hey,” I repeated back, but in a shorter, much punchier way.
“You look great,” he said, walking towards me. “I take that back,” he said, coming closer. “You look… fine.”
“Thanks,” I said, glad he couldn’t tell I had been sweating like a whore in church. Timidity prevented me from saying anything further, though. Between his baby blues massaging my face and a winning smile beaming across his face I was melting, inside that is.
“I just have to do my hair,” he said.
Then he leaned forward and kissed me. I wanted so badly to fall right into his arms, like I had fantasized about for the last seven months. But I stayed by the door and watched him walk off to the bathroom. When he started to gel his short blonde hair in front of the mirror I let my smitten eyes wander off to get reacquainted with the new yet familiar place. But everything was as it was seven months ago, just a little more clutter and a lot less space. His clothes were piled up on the couch and the leather chair next to the corner window with the red Jesus sticker stuck in the upper left panel; the windows still hadn’t any blinds on them. His desk, positioned in front of the two middle windows, had a laptop, printer, loose papers, and other stuff scattered all over it. Brazilian CDs lined the shelves of his wooden bookcase. The digital alarm clock he had set to go off every morning to NPR was on the nightstand. And a blue flannel sheet hung off of his unmade bed. Memories. Wonderful memories swept through my mind: me curled up against him as we lay staring out at the night sky, falling asleep in his arms, him falling asleep in my arms. An experience I hadn’t had with anyone before. Until Shawn I wasn’t able to fall asleep in the same bed with anyone. Until Shawn I hadn’t any idea how to fall asleep in another man’s arms. Until Shawn I didn’t even know it was remotely possible to wake up holding hands. But that morning when his alarm clock woke me up and I felt his fingers still folded in mine and then turned over and saw that he was sound asleep, I knew right then, right there that he was here to be more than just my man, more than my friend, or even my teacher. He was a sacred gift from Heaven that came to stop the crying in my soul. I took a deep breath, inhaling his scent saturating the air, and let out a long sigh. If only I had told him about my OCD then, I thought.
I haphazardly turned toward the bathroom to see Shawn peeking at me through the mirror. He smiled with his stop-you-dead smile. And I couldn’t help but smile back. Bottled up behind my smile, though, I could feel the words wanting to tumble. So I padded across the hardwood floor to the one open window and climbed out onto the fire escape. The setting sun was reflecting off of the Boston buildings. The quarter moon now lucid and rising through the variations of reds, purples, oranges and peachy colors in the sky. The relaxed air filled with the scent of budding trees. All of which relaxed my mind and produced thoughts of thanks to my Heavenly Father for bringing Shawn back into my life, giving me a second chance with him, getting me into Emerson College, and the chance to be a published writer. But my thoughts were short-lived when Shawn stepped out onto the fire escape, wrapped his arms around me and asked me if I was ready. I was, of course. I was ready for anything this man proposed. Well, almost anything. Because he was the epitome of the man I had been waiting for since the age of 16 when I came out. I wanted a man like Jesus. Someone whose love wasn’t based on physical beauty, whose whole basis for living wasn’t about acquiring and accumulating wealth but love and truth. By the time I graduated college, however, in 1997, I came to accept that—in a society where all I heard were politicians and preachers telling me, the country, the world that queers were sick, queers weren’t capable of love and those with AIDS deserved what they got—only a woman could have the kind of relationship I wanted with a man, and have it with a man as beautiful as Jesus. But Shawn changed that all when he passed my way the first Sunday in September 2001, three days before I started grad school.
It was at Avalon. While I stood by myself on the far side of the dance floor’s edge avoiding any possible contamination: my eyes massaging the shirtless muscular boys, my soul conceding to the lust, and the music coursing through my limbs. I saw this tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed man through the crowd smiling at me. He wasn’t shirtless. He wasn’t muscular either. He was thin, and wearing a maroon sweater with farmer jeans, not exactly typical club wear. But there was something intrinsically decent about this man. I could see it in his eyes regarding me furtively—sealing my confirmation, mirroring my dexterous dancing, but not enough to tempt him my way. So after 15 minutes I gave up and walked away, for it was ten of two in the morning and the club was soon to be closing. I started making my way through the crowd towards the doors when someone grabbed my hand from behind.
“I said to myself that if I saw you again I’d say hi,” a man said, in a deep voice.
“Hey,” I snapped, about to tell whoever had latched onto my hand to let go. But when I turned around I lost my edge. Faltered. Because it was him: the man I had given up on. And his blue eyes were putting me into a catatonic state. A state in which I can now say with partial surety resulted from the two Alabama Slammers I had had. At the time, however, my tripping mind was tilted by the reality that he had finally decided to trespass upon me.
“You walked away so fast.”
“Well, the club’s closing, and I gotta long drive home.”
“I made that mistake before,” he said, letting go of my hand.
“Not going up to a guy, and letting him just walk away. I’m Shawn.”
“I’ve been wondering what you’re nationality is,” he said, with a bit of reservation. “Are you Brazilian?”
“No,” I said, “but I’ve heard it all: Brazilian, Italian, Polynesian…. I’m a mutt,” I joked. “My dad’s Irish, my mom’s African American and American Indian.”
“It’s a nice mix,” he said smiling. Where’re you from? I hear a bit of an accent.”
“Rhode Island, but people say I sound like a New Yorker. How ‘bout yourself? I hear one as well.”
“I’m from Kansas. Where’re you going to school?”
He got me with that one, I thought. How does he even know I’m in school? I wondered, before deciding to just go with it. “Emerson. And you?”
“The Kennedy School.”
“Oh, nice,” I said, intrigued by the fact that he chose to say the name of the school and not the university. “I volunteered last year for a congressman back home in Rhode Island. He was running for the late John Chaffee’s seat. It was a lot of fun: making phone calls, sending out letters and emails….” I won’t bore you with the rest of my ramble, but will tell you that I went on until the music shut off and my voice thinned to the realization of my ramble. Meanwhile, he just stood there with a neutral smile upon his face, making me worried that I had bored him into a mindless stupor. But his eyes unexpectedly began to beseech me. His smile widened and his face brimmed and brightened with anticipation. I was unsure of what to say then, certain that if I started up again I’d never stop, knowing how I can talk. So I said to him, “I should go. I have a long drive.”
And he said to me, “Let me give you my number,” which he did after asking the bartender for a pen and writing it down on a napkin, but not before security told us and the knot of guys around us at the bar to start moving towards the doors. That was when we parted and he told me to call him sometime.
Well, sometime became twelve hours later. Labor Day. I called him and he invited me over to his place. Within minutes of my arrival we were sitting on his couch asking those arbitrary screening questions that strangers who have a romantic interest in each other often ask when first getting acquainted: full name, age, background, place of birth, hometown, upbringing, family, friends, education, employment history, accolades, accomplishments, aspirations while making sure not to give away too much too soon, or slip up and say something that might portray us in a negative light. Then gradually, after a couple of hours, Shawn, with a Midwestern accent, told me that he had never been in a relationship before, had never really dated before, that he wasn’t sure if he was capable of giving what a relationship required, that he had kept his focus on bettering the world, that that was why he was pursuing a masters in public policy. I told him that I had been in a relationship before, but that the man had cheated on me repeatedly and had given me two STDs, so I had stopped dating, stopped believing in gay relationships, had come to accept what society dictated, that that was why I was pursuing a masters in journalism. Then he put his hand on my knee, leaned forward, and he, we, well, let us just draw the curtain on this scene, shall we?
We became an item. And in so many ways Shawn was like Jesus to me. The work he did to improve Cuba and Cuba-U.S. relations, to strengthening civil society in Africa, Latin America and many Caribbean countries, to climbing into a dumpster and getting a chair out for a homeless man and then giving him $10. The patience he had when I called him every night before bed and peppered him with questions about why it took him so long to call me after I had left a message. The ability he had to soothe my fears when I worried that he might catch something from drying off with the same bath towel day after day, or when he wore the same jeans he had worn the day before. The way he was able to stop my grumbling about the rules we had put in place—phone calls were no longer than 15 minutes, dates were kept to a three hour maximum, and sex, if I was lucky, lasted for no more than 30 minutes—to balance out the stress of school, of him interning, and of my commuting. But he too was frustrated with the rules. Often questioning if it was all too much. Giving me the chance to calm his nerves. Unfortunately, the ability I had to calm his nerves I lacked for my own whenever I tried to tell him I had OCD. We were so new, so young in heart, for us to end without a real start would have just torn me apart. Besides I truly believed God had brought Shawn into my life, as I believe God brings everyone into our lives for a reason, and whatever problems arose because of my OCD, God would help me through. Which God did. Every time. An unyielding devotion I came to rely on.
But God’s wings of devout affection soared right over me when, while standing out on the fire escape wrapped in Shawn’s arms, Shawn took his hand off of the railing and began to caress my cheek with it. In one nauseating swoop my stomach coiled and clenched. My muscles writhed and bunched underneath my skin. My blood roiled with fear. And my mind turned into a tabernacle of terror that raced on to its own damnation.
I could smack you! I thought you wanted us to be together. I thought you’d be there for me. Why are you doing this? Why? Why now? It’s a motif. Can’t you see that? Look. There’s nothing there. You won’t get sick. Your skin won’t get infected. There’s—nothing—on—the—railing. Look! So back off!
My OCD voice, I call it, was trying to overpower my intellectual voice. And the two of them wrestled until one pinned the other down and forced me to say I need to pee. But I didn’t. I ran to the bathroom and washed my face until my anxiety eased. When I came out I found Shawn standing at the elevator. He didn’t smile or even attempt to hold my hand when I approached, which made me think he knew. But so many times before God had helped me hide my OCD from him. So what changed? I asked myself. And right then, as we walked pass poison ivy growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, memories of our last date came galloping back.
Shawn wanted us to spend the day hiking through the woods at Walden Pond. The woods, I said to myself, picturing poison ivy growing in abundance; bloodsucking Lyme-Diseased ticks burrowing their mouth into my skin; mosquitoes infecting me with West Nile virus; and all kinds of scavengers feeding on my carcass. The image sent a cold spasm through my body. No way was I stepping foot inside the woods. But I couldn’t come up with an excuse not to. Well, God must’ve heard my cry because while I was driving on the highway to Shawn’s, I got a flat tire. And after having to wait over an hour for AAA, I didn’t get to his place until early evening. I expected him to be upset when I called and told him, but as calm as a summer breeze flowing through a meadow, he suggested we just go to dinner when I got there. So that’s what we did, and it was by far the best time we had spent together. No stress, frustration, or worry; the intellectual voice and OCD voice twined sinuously together like two lovers Salsa dancing. No discussions about the news, politics, or even the events of 9-11, which in case you haven’t figured out by now took place the week after we met. And aside from our waitress, no one disturbed us. The night brought such tranquility that after dinner, we decided to take a stroll around Harvard Yard. But as we made our way through the Sq., hand in hand, we past by a house on the corner of Dunster Street that stopped me right in my tracks.
“Is this the house from Legally Blonde,” I asked, jerking Shawn back, “where Elle went to that party in a bunny outfit and made a fool of herself?”
Shawn essayed a little laugh, and said, “I can’t believe you remember her name.”
“I have that movie on DVD,” I said, with pride, letting go of his hand.
“This’s the Signet Society.”
“So it’s not?” I asked bemused.
Shawn sighed a hearty chuckle, put his hand back in mine, and we wended our way through Harvard Yard, over to The Memorial Church where he wanted to show me he attended Sunday Mass.
“It’s not the MCC I belong to in DC,” Shawn explained as we neared, “but Peter Gomes is minister and I like that he’s open about his sexuality.”
“Geeet outta here!”
“Geeet outta here.”
“Geeet outta here.”
“You say that one more time and I will,” Shawn joked. Then he said, “Sleep over tonight.”
I stood in silence, bewildered by his invitation.
“He’ll be performing the service tomorrow morning. Come with me and I’ll introduce you to him.”
I quickly said yes, ignoring the voice within telling me to go home. Only to hear it the next morning when Shawn’s radio alarm clock went off to some man talking about how colleges and universities had a moral obligation to address the issues of 9-11 in the classroom. Shawn remembered he had a paper due on the subject the next morning, and asked me in his Midwestern accent, which came out whenever he was upset or nervous, if we could go to church another time. So I agreed and left. We didn’t speak again until the following Thursday when he finally returned one of my many calls. He said he had spent the week catching up on work because of all the time we had spent together. Then he fell silent, making me be the one to ask the question he had been asking all along: was it all too much?
That question tugged at my mind with such force that by the time we had reached the party I had lost all sense of direction. I didn’t even realize to where we were walking. Not until we stood at the entranceway of the Signet Society and I heard Shawn ask me if I was ready. His words plucked at my nerves as though they were playing a Spanish guitar.
Shawn opened the door, and I followed behind: down the hallway, into the living room, through the crowd, as he introduced me to those he knew every few steps. The fear of shaking people’s hands and contracting something was nonexistent. My mind had been hijacked by the thought that perhaps I had fooled myself into believing Shawn and I was actually meant to be together. I tried to undo the manacles holding my mind hostage by looking around, but it was no use: all I could see was the other side of the looking glass. And so I just stood by Shawn’s side, mouthing only the traditional words of hello with each introduction, fearful that if I said anything more, my words would become a conflagration of undecipherable speech, and reveal to everyone the fool I had become.
But that fear dissipated when a man came up to us, put his hands on our shoulders, and said, look at these two handsome fellas. I was stunned to hear a man say such a thing publicly. Even more so when Shawn introduced him to me as the Reverend Peter Gomes. Did I hear this man correctly? I thought. Did a man of the cloth really just compliment us in front of all these people? I must’ve misheard him. No Reverend would ever say such a thing. Right? The reality behind that truth gave my mind the freedom to accept the truth behind the reality as I stood there listening to Rev. Gomes reference his homosexuality without guilt. And learned he was a man not hiding his sexuality behind a wife and 2.5 children. A man not using his religion as a subterfuge to articulate his less than honorable desires. A man not being pilloried by those around him but accepted and admired.
I felt like such a fool at that moment. Like a damn fool. And I pardoned myself and went to the bathroom. As I washed the germs off of my hands from all those I had shaken, I peaked up into the mirror ashamed of who was peering back. And I stood there for long minutes wondering if I’d ever be able to look and appreciate what I saw, to smile a stop-you-dead smile and not see someone else’s reflecting back. Realizing that the only way for that to ever be was for me to be me, the real me beyond the society I had allowed to define me. It was time. Ready, I was.
I came out of the bathroom brimming with bravado, void of any vision, letting intention be my foreground. Approached Shawn and Rev. Gomes heavily engaged in witty repartee. Clasped my fingers into Shawn’s and squeezed. Unwilling to let the OCD voice overpower the intellectual voice when I felt a cluster of warts on his knuckles. Or when Shawn sneezed and used our clasped hands to cover his mouth. Or even when Rev. Gomes asked him what his plans were after graduation, and Shawn replied that he had accepted a job offer from a DC think tank to be a country representative in Brazil, and would be moving there the first weekend in September. For I now understood the nature of the voices, and the spirit that influenced them.
Allen M. Price is a writer from Rhode Island. Excerpts of the book he is writing appear in River Teeth, The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang), Jellyfish Review, and The Coachella Review. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College. His fiction and nonfiction work appears or is forthcoming in Juked, Bayou, Sou’wester, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gertrude Press, The Adirondack Review, Columbia Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Muscle & Fitness, among others. An excerpt of his screenplay ‘Dark Ocean Night’ is forthcoming in The Louisville Review. His chapbook ‘The Unintended Consequences of Haitian Reparation’ appears in Hawai’i Review. His poetry is forthcoming in Common Ground Review.