For the roughly five years after my mom passed away, from junior year of high school then through three different undergraduate institutions, a quick tally comes up with at least a dozen trips to the emergency room. Of course, some of these were for bona-fide emergencies, but way too many times I ended up in the back of an ambulance because of –for lack of a better word –“escalations.” In this case, at the 1983 Buckeye Boys State at Bowling Green, I had run into a doorjamb…
The American Legion’s Boys State and Girls State programs select two students from each gender to spend a week sleeping in dorms and learning about the workings of government. I’m assuming I got the gig because of my essay; I had been fine-tuning a piece on the subject of “following the rules vs. following your conscience” for inclusion in all sorts of applications that I was filling out at the time. For the American Legion, I tweaked it so “a just society, like America, will have rules that agree with people’s consciences, so we can be comfortable following the rules.” During the day we ran our particular facets of local governance. On the first day, I was elected Mayor of my city, The City of Herbert in Wagonseller County. No one else ran. Each evening at assembly we were treated with a talk from a prominent Republican of escalating importance, ranging from a State Senator all the way up to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who helicoptered in basically to tell us that Canada sucked. “The Mounties can open your mail!”
This was the first time I had ever been away from home in an all-male, sleep-away setting. I never did well in all-male settings. Usually, I quickly got labeled as The Fag, even though I assured everyone, including myself, that I liked girls. Then I would end up crying in a small room away from everyone else. So this week, I coped the only way I knew how –by overcompensating and being more rambunctious. I ran into the doorjamb during an epic water fight, by the way.
My roommate that week was Dan, who was on the cheer squad at his school. Because of this activity, he had amazing upper body strength, which he demonstrated by doing pull-ups from a sprinkler system pipe that ran the width of the room, in his tightey-whiteys. He also had amazing eyelashes. We had an instant rapport and stayed up talking until 1am that first night.
But the best thing about Dan was that, as part of a cheer squad at his school, he could get us to the other side of the Bowling Green campus where a cheerleading camp was being held. “Yeah, it would be nice to get some while I’m stuck here,” I convincingly replied when he revealed that he had access to the ladies. I had no idea what “some” meant; nonetheless, we made nightly visitations to the forbidden cheerleader zone. Some of the other guys from The City of Herbert in Wagonseller County would tag along. Dan admonished them to “be cool” while I stood just behind his neck, nodding in earnest agreement and noticing peach fuzz. Everyone had to be nice to Dan because of his access, and, in turn, they had to be nice to me because Dan and me were a team. “C’mon, I’ll get you some personal introductions,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulder as we marched towards the women. “You two wanna head back to the dorm?” joshed one of the other guys. Dan didn’t move his arm.
Dan and I both had the same natural rapport with girls, which was to say something funny then give a little “aw shucks” shrug when they laughed. They always laughed because Dan and I were coming up with some hilarious stuff about stray cheerleaders walking by. The other guys weren’t nearly as funny –jokes need to be aimed at the eyes, not the chest. I felt comfortable around his cheer friends as I did around the carful of Michelles I drove to school all of junior year. When we got back to the dorm, Dan and I would stay up wondering why the other guys couldn’t just be cool around girls. We also recounted our best lines and offered each other tweaks for the next time we used a particular line. He didn’t sleep with a blanket.
As the week wore on, however, I grew more and more disillusioned with the workings of governance. I know I got in there on a platform of following the rules, but in practice the “rules” were a crushing drag. First of all, the “State Highway Patrol” was constantly fining people fifty Boys State Bucks or whatever the fake money we were forced to use was called for walking too fast in public. Next, the State Health Director, who was the other student from my school, repeatedly cited The City of Herbert in Wagonseller County for having a messy bathroom. “C’mon, cut me some slack, Ken,” I whined to him. “The rules are clear,” he just kept on saying. Then there was the math. All the math. Apparently, government was nothing but math, especially when you’re dealing with Boys State Bucks. I got called before the State because I just decided to “mint” fresh Boys State Bucks because it was easier than doing math. “That’s what they did in Weimer Germany, and you know what that led to.” Finally, on the third night, during the evening assembly, my city was chosen City of Day for Wagonseller County. There were three cities in each county, and every city won City of the Day for their particular county at least once during the week. Apparently, I didn’t show enough “respect” for the banner bearing the name of my city when I held its staff like a pole vault pole and high-stepped enthusiastically up the aisle back to my seat after picking up the award on stage. I was pulled aside by one of the Legionnaires who expressed his concern that because I treated a yellow satin banner with the name Herbert on it like sporting equipment, I must also then be habitually mistreating the American Flag. “People died for that flag, and you just think you can do whatever you want with it!” I assume he wasn’t talking about the Herbert Banner.
When we got back to the dorm, the Townsfolk of the good City of Herbert decided to celebrate their win like all cities do when they win something –they rioted. I don’t know how it started, but within fifteen minutes of returning, a massive water fight broke out involving a few water pistols (which suggests some premeditation) and lots of plastic cups filled with water. We were just running around soaked and dumping water on each other’s heads. I was ducking into a doorway when I caught sight of Dan getting four cups of water dumped on him simultaneously and his white T-shirt with the expected results. I swear things slowed down so much for this split second that our eyes locked, and he smiled. A tickle rose in my abdomen just below my sternum, and –what the hell –I felt a tingling in my loins. So many gears were grinding in my brain, so many hamsters running off their wheels, that I froze.
Then I heard a loud “Hey!” behind me. I turned around to see a cupful of water heading towards me, so I instinctively ducked out of the way. And right into the doorjamb. I went down. Hard. I blacked out momentarily.
When I came to, people were gathered around me. Dan was cradling my head, looking at me, and telling me everything was going to be all right. Water dripped from the tip of his nose into my face. I swear his head tilted a little bit like heads do when they’re about to be involved in a kiss. I thought my chest would explode. I was spinning, and not from the head injury.
“Hey, Chris… Buddy. You with us?” It was one of the counselors kneeling down next to me. I snapped out of it and looked around. Several guys were standing around looking at me, some were nodding, some were laughing, some were doing nothing. But they were all doing something in common. They were judging me. They knew. They had seen the “moment” between Dan and me. It was a “moment,” right? Because I was definitely under the impression it was “moment.” It wasn’t the head injury, right?
But the more I saw those faces, the more they twisted into judgment. I could see even the slightest disapproving shake of heads, the smirks, the knowing side-eyes. I felt like I was falling backwards. Looking up, the crowd around me began to stretch towards the ceiling, which itself was washing out into a bright light. I was surrounded by a ring of Druidic standing stones –judgy, hostile Druidic standing stones. Nothing good ever came from finding oneself on their back in the middle of a henge. That’s when folks got their entrails ripped out. In slow-mo, the counselor looked up, twisted his face, and spat, “He’s gay!”
That’s what I heard. I heard, “He’s gay!” There was no way he could’ve been shouting my name, Chris Fay, to someone off to side, who was, say, on the phone to the paramedics. There was a lot of murmuring going on, so he could’ve been saying a lot of things. Horse Hay? Display? Last Day? I just filled in the blanks, and it came out as him outing the injured kid.
Later, as I learned more about the bipolar I had grown up with, I came to realize that I had developed a tendency to extrapolate from just a single point of information about people’s intentions and motivations. How exactly that happened is a topic for another essay, but to this day, all I need is one sliver of a grimace, most likely the result of a badly chosen cheese, and I will have a complete dossier on how that person has been angry at me for weeks. “I mean, did you hear how he was speaking to me at Jeff’s party last week? He was all short and clipped to me. He’s still mad because I texted him twice last Friday. He can’t come right out and say, ‘Chris, stop bothering me!’ No, he’s gotta do that nice guy act. Also, lots of one-word texts. What’s wrong with sentences? I labor over complete sentences, and all I get back is ‘lol.’ Lol? What did I do to piss him off? Dick.”
I have gradually trained myself not believe these well-crafted backstories. Whenever I’m confronted with some information that I can’t or don’t know the complete story behind it, I still spin wild yarns. For instance, in a gay bar situation, I still think everyone making eye contact with me wants to smack me with a 2×4 or at least give me a good talking to. There couldn’t possibly be another reason a dude in a gay bar would be making eye contact with me. But now, I take a step back and think for a few moments about what’s really happening. I figure out how I’m distorting the information, and then I come up with a rationale response, which is invariably the least interesting thing that it could possibly be. But this process takes a fair amount of time, and I now respond slower to people much of the time, especially in stressful situations. I can lead to pauses in conversation. So, I naturally assume that they think I’m stupid. Then I’ve got to figure out how I distorted that. You have no idea how impressive I am in a job interview.
So, yeah, in 2014 I ‘m perfectly capable of figuring out that the last thing most crowds gathered around my limp, broken body are concerned with is my sexuality. But back then, I was going to get my faggot entrails ripped out and divined for signs of further faggotry. I needed an out.
And that out came in the form of two paramedics with biceps from the Bowling Green Fire Department. I was going to have to leave with them in order to escape my fate. So, even though I was perking up by the time they showed, I made a conscious decision to rely on the training I received in my 8th grade health class, which was mostly devoted to first aid, and I began to mimic as many of the symptoms for a concussion that I could remember. I drifted in and out of “consciousness.” I slurred my speech. I complained about a ringing in my ears. I have no idea how I managed to dilate my pupils, but apparently that did the tricks, and I soon found myself being wheeled out on a gurney.
I was safe. For now.
In the back of the ambulance, one of the paramedic began to ask me a standard battery of questions. “Do you know where you are?” was the first. I paused for effect, staring at the ceiling, noticing its utilitarian white. “In… in… a bathroom?”
“You think this is a bathroom?”
“A moving bathroom?”
“Okay, where is this moving bathroom?”
He was buying it. I was going to get amnesia. After all, it works on sitcoms. The worst that would happen would be a wacky misunderstanding. The Bowling Green paramedic asked again, “Chris, do you know what town you’re in?”
“Columbus?” He bought it.
We arrived at the emergency room, and they let me rest in a bed for a while. After a while, they brought a phone to me. It was my dad. “Hi, dad,” I said weakly.
I unloaded and blubbered, “I don’t know where I am! I don’t know what I’m doing! What am I?”
“I have amnesia, and I want to go home. Come get me, Dad!”
“You don’t have amnesia. How do you know who I am?”
“You’re staying up there. The doctor told me you’re fine. Just a little shaken up.”
“But, I hate it here. Everyone’s out to get me.”
“Suck it up. Get some rest. Do what the docs say. I’ll see you on Saturday.”
And with that, I soon found myself back in the dorm in the middle of the night. Dan was asleep when I came into the room, and he only shifted slightly as I got into bed. Yet, I could sense that he was awake.
The next day, Boys State was slightly different. Yes, I still had to deal with the State Highway Patrol, and my classmate was still spitefully fining The City of Herbert for a messy bathroom. However, things changed at night; the cheerleader half of the campus was now off-limits to everyone, even those who had inside access. So there was no more reason for the guys to be nice to me as the guy attached to the guy who had access because there was no more access. I spent the rest of week keeping my head low.
Dan changed, too. While he still was cordial, he became more distant. I think he was keeping his head down also. Maybe people did notice something, and he felt it best to be quiet. Maybe he was sad he couldn’t see his cheerleader friends any more.
A little over a year later, while I was away for my freshman year of college, I received a letter from Dan. My heart skipped. I waited for my roommate to leave before I opened it. After the standard greetings, he got to the meat of the letter: “I just wanted to share with you the good news…”
My heart sank. I knew that use of “good news,” especially “the good news.” The letter continued, “…about a group of people who have helped me face my sin and find love in the Lord.”
I think all of us who were keeping that secret or trying to understand where these feelings were coming from had our ways of dealing with it. I had head injuries and concussions. Dan found another way.