MY HEART pounded hard against my ribs. Pressing a hand to my chest, I tried to slow my galloping pulse. Fear and excitement warred inside me, and my body felt tight as I turned toward the window and saw my family for what might be the last time. Leaving my newly adoptive parents seemed wrong. I’d lived with them for nearly seven years as their foster son before the adoption, and they were the only parents I knew. I wished they could be sitting in the seats across the aisle, but I couldn’t ask them to give up their lives just to go with me. Instead, they were watching the bus’s progress, still standing in the same place I had walked away from. I pressed my palm against the cold, smooth glass in a useless, childish need for comfort. Richard held Carolyn in his arms, his eyes dry but sad as he rested his cheek on top of her head. Carolyn, however, was crying as she pressed the side of her face into his chest, still watching the bus. I didn’t think they could see me because of the tinted windows, but I felt their devastation burning in my chest. My parents adopted me to keep me in their lives, and I walked away. Feeling horribly selfish, I tried to ignore the burn in my throat and my blurred vision, because leaving was unavoidable. The stale, dank smell of the bus, something like diesel fuel and old cheese, assaulted my senses as I tried to take a deep breath and pull myself together.
It almost worked, until I looked at Adam.
He was standing like a beacon among the few scattered cars in the lot. The way that Carolyn had one hand on Adam’s shoulder drew my eyes. It looked less like she was comforting him and more like she was restraining him from running along behind the bus. Adam was in the same clothes he’d worn the night before, and I could still see him slamming my bedroom door as he left, angry at my choices. Even though we’d only been friends for a few months, I would miss him so fucking much. As I sat on that lonely bus, I couldn’t help but wonder if Adam might have at least partially filled the gaping hole in my heart left by Jamie’s absence. I thought about us going to college and rooming together. Adam would have helped me with math, and I would have helped him with his English papers. We would have had bunk beds, and a new tiny dorm fridge next to his battered television. Each of us attending on scholarships, we’d have been broke but happy. I felt sad as I imagined us in each other’s arms, kissing and touching in nothing but our boxers as we relaxed on the lower bunk. Adam loved me; it was so clear in his face when he looked at me. I know I could have grown to love him if I’d just given us a chance. He was an easy guy to love. Trying unsuccessfully to force my eyes away from Adam’s tear-stained face, I wondered if he could have made me happy enough to live without Jamie.
The bus pulled out of the station, turning left onto Government Boulevard, and I felt sick. My palms began to sweat and panic took over as I lost sight of my parents and of Adam. I nearly bolted from my seat to plead with the driver to stop. In my mind, I could see myself clearly, as I begged him to let me off, telling him that I’d made a terrible mistake. Instead, feeling every bit like the scared teenage boy that I was, I pulled my feet up to rest on the edge of the bus seat. Holding my knees to my chest, I felt like just maybe, if I could pull myself into a tight enough ball, I could prevent everything from falling apart.
I had made my choice, forcing everyone, including Adam and my parents, to live with it. Deep down, I knew that they could not understand or agree with my need for Jamie. His parents had ripped him from my life to save him from our love for each other. Since then, I had been desperate to find him. I could see Jamie’s fear in every line of the letter he’d sent, which sat safely in my backpack. He had told me never to forget that he loved me, and I never would. So, I huddled on a stifling, cramped bus, leaving my family to find him, to be with him.
Jamie meant everything to me, and I was willing to risk anything to find him.
The grimy, tinted window offered a dark and bleak look at the world as the unfamiliar buildings flickered past like a slow-motion film. The bright midafternoon sun glaring in at me as we traveled west caused me to squint while my eyes traced the urban landscape passing by. I tried not to focus on the people I’d left behind. By losing myself in the scenery, I hoped to forget, at least briefly, the gnawing feeling in my chest and focus on the future. The journey had begun, and I needed to look forward not back.
Eventually, the urban sprawl morphed into greenery and sparse neighborhoods along the much larger highway that, judging by the sun, was heading almost due west toward California. A giggle from across the aisle reminded me there were other people on the bus. Sitting up a little straighter in my seat, my feet fell back to the floor and I really looked around for the first time since boarding. Passengers occupied a few of the seats, lined up in perfect rows like teeth around me. Closest, and most likely the source of the giggle, a girl about my age rode alone. A white plastic band kept her hair from her face, and her eyes were glued to the phone on which she typed furiously. She looked excited, almost carefree, and it made me wonder if maybe she was on her way to college for the first time.
I should be on my way to college. Walking away from the scholarship to the University of Alabama was one of the worst mistakes I’ve probably made. I just couldn’t bring myself to regret it—not yet. It was as if my life had split into two different lines, with the decision to go to San Diego at the very center of the divide. On one line, I would go to find Jamie, get a job, and learn to love the California sunshine. On the other, I would have stayed with Adam, lived in the dorms, gotten an education, and had a completely different life. Each decision we make as human beings fractures our lives onto a different course, and we have to hope that we’ve made the correct choice.
Logically, it made no sense at all for me to strike out on my own, barely eighteen, with nothing but a few grand in the bank. Odds were good that I would return home within a year, broke and wishing I’d taken that scholarship. My heart didn’t quite understand that logic, though, because every time I thought about heading to college without Jamie, my chest constricted so painfully that I couldn’t breathe. I had felt unloved and unwanted for most of my life, passed from one foster home to the next without anyone caring what happened to me. I was never quite cute enough, smart enough, or good enough. At least until I was sixteen years old, and Jamie Mayfield sat on my bed that day after school and told me that he loved me. My foster parents to that point had never even said that to me. I’m sure my biological parents had said it, but I couldn’t remember them. I couldn’t remember anyone having said it.
The truth was that he had made me feel special since I was eleven years old. It hadn’t mattered to him that I was the token charity case, the throwaway kid. Even when we were little kids, he had made me feel safe and wanted as we fought our way through life together. When he had told me he loved me, it was as if my life had finally started. It wasn’t until that day that I had really understood what love was. Nearly seventeen years was a very long time to live without that kind of emotional connection with another person. Deep down, I think that Richard and Carolyn had cared about me long before I got hurt, but I never knew. Jamie was the one who had taken that broken, empty boy and made him feel as if he was the most important person in the world.
No college, no scholarship, nothing could make me walk away from that.
Suddenly, a little face popped up over the seat in front of me and smiled. The boy couldn’t have been more than five, the perfect age for my class at Sensei’s dojo. I was going to miss working and having sessions at the dojo. My last class had ended the week before, and Sensei and I had said our good-byes. The moment was bittersweet because while I was moving on to different things, I was leaving the man who had taught me so much about life and about myself. It struck me that he was one more person that I was leaving behind, and I wondered if I’d have felt the same sense of sadness if I’d chosen to go to college instead.
I smiled at the boy and gave him a little wave before my smile faltered. His mother wouldn’t want him talking to the queer, and at any moment, she would pull him back over the seat like I was contagious. The boy’s little hand bobbed back and forth, waving as if he’d just met his favorite cartoon character. His black curls bounced with each bump the bus hit, and the light in his eyes made me think that the boy was probably having the time of his life riding the bus.
“Nicky, honey, sit down and don’t bother the nice boy,” his mother told the boy quietly while turning to give me an apologetic smile. A little stunned, I waved her off, and it occurred to me that I was finally at least a hundred miles from the hateful little town of Crayford. No one would know that I was gay, and therefore no one would have any reason to hate me, belittle me, or hurt me for simply being here.
It was the start of a completely new life.
Pulling the schedule out of my bag, I saw that we still had a couple of hours before reaching our first stop. Gazing out the window, I settled back in my seat. The landscape had changed to lush green acres dotted with dense patches of trees. At regular intervals, I saw highway signs, speed limit signs, and huge advertisements for fast-food chains, hotel chains, and one for the NRA that looked rather intimidating. I was considering starting one of my old, battered paperbacks when I saw another sign, blue with a fiery swipe of red. The bold white lettering caused my breath to catch.
Welcome to Mississippi—Home of America’s Music
I’d never set one foot outside of Alabama. No matter what different home I lived in, who my foster parents were, or what my situation was, I’d never had any reason to travel. That one simple sign staggered me. On one hand, I was incredibly excited that my journey had begun and I was on my way to find Jamie. On the other, it emphasized powerfully the fact that I was truly on my own. It was time for me to start making my own way in life. While Richard and Carolyn were legally my parents, they were in a different state and there would be no going back.
As I watched the miles ticking past, my thoughts turned to Jamie. Being ridiculously optimistic, I allowed myself to believe, just for a moment, that I would be seeing him in just two days. With a smile, I imagined the look of shock and happiness on his face when he saw me for the first time in over a year. His hair would be lighter from the California sun and maybe even a little longer like mine, but his eyes would be the same. That one look of love and excitement would be worth every minute of the two days I’d spent trapped on the bus, and everything that came after.
Shifting in the uncomfortable seat, I allowed myself to daydream for a long time about seeing Jamie again. I sat with my eyes closed and my arms around my backpack as I imagined his arms around me, and his soft, tender kisses. His face was clear in my mind as I thought about what we would do after I found him, what our apartment would look like, what jobs we might get. At night, we would come home to each other and eat pizza on the couch while we watched television; then later we would make love. The memory of our lovemaking flashed through my mind, and I savored it for just the briefest moment, feeling my body respond before pushing the thought away with a sigh.
In order to have that kind of reunion, that kind of life, I first needed to find Jamie.
Opening the largest compartment on my backpack, I pulled out the folded papers Richard had handed me that morning as we packed my stuff into the car. Unfolding the small stack, I smoothed the printed pages on my knee. The first few pages were from The Sunshine Center’s website.
The Sunshine Center
Curing homosexuality in a safe and nurturing environment
Director: Reverend Peter J. Carmichael
The Sunshine Center provides a safe and supportive place for men who wish to denounce their sinful and abnormal homosexual lifestyle choice, avoid the judgment of their creator, and come back to the light and love of Jesus Christ. The program is structured using a balanced regimen of masculine reaffirmation…
Jamie’s parents had forced him into a program to make him straight. From everything I’d ever read about homosexuality, I’d never thought that a cure was possible. “A balanced regimen of masculine reaffirmation….” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but almost at once, sick images filled my head. A boy, who looked disturbingly like Jamie, was strapped to a chair with electrodes stuck to his skin as he watched a screen flashing images at regular intervals. The first image was a naked woman with bare breasts and a knowing smile. Nothing happened to the boy. The second was a naked man with his cock in his hand, and the boy received an electric shock. His thin body went rigid in pain, and his eyes were wet with humiliation and despair.
Other images came, ones that I could barely think about, like those people forcing Jamie to have sex with girls. I didn’t think it was even possible. If he couldn’t get hard, couldn’t perform, then they couldn’t force him to have sex that would make him feel ashamed. Maybe then, they sent him back to the room with the shocks.
Desperate, I went back to the papers and continued reading.
The program is structured using a balanced regimen of masculine reaffirmation, counseling sessions, and social activities. One of the main goals of the program is to allow our participants the opportunity to bond with other men in healthy and non-intimate relationships that help to replace one lacking between the participant and his father. Another goal of the program is to introduce men to social activities without the distraction of sexual attraction. Extensive bible study and prayer is also strongly encouraged.
At first glance, it didn’t sound as horrible as I’d been imagining, with electric shocks and forcing Jamie to have sex with girls. Of course, it still had to be a fucking nightmare, spending all of his time being told that he was wrong, sinful, and abnormal. As I continued to read all of the ignorant, hateful things that those people, those so-called Christians, had to say about Jamie and me, I got angry. It would kill me if their brainwashing had robbed Jamie of who he was and turned him into some kind of soulless pseudo-heterosexual.
When I wadded the papers up and threw them back in my bag, I saw the envelope with Jamie’s letter tucked safely into an inside pocket. His letter said that he loved me and that he thought of me every day that he was in that fucked-up place. Obviously, their perfectly balanced horseshit hadn’t worked on Jamie. It made me feel torn, though. I was ecstatic that he’d fought and hadn’t let them change him. Jamie was perfect just the way he was, but it hurt to think that he’d spent almost a year alone with so-called Christians telling him that he was going to burn in hell.
Setting my backpack on the floor at my feet, I sighed and ran through the letter again in my head. He had written that he was leaving the Center the day before because I’d turned eighteen. I didn’t understand the connection, but that made me wonder if he would go back to his parents. If he did, Mrs. Mayfield probably wouldn’t be pleased that the Center’s cure hadn’t worked on her son. Maybe Jamie would pretend to be straight for them until he could get out on his own. Somehow, I didn’t think that would be the case. Jamie had never been able to lie to his mama. No matter what trouble we had gotten into, she could always read it on his face. The face that I wished, with almost a physical need, I could touch right then just to know that he was safe.
As I continued to worry about Jamie, I stared out of the dirty window, the landscape and the signs continuing to flash past. There were large stretches of wide-open grassy fields, more open space than I had ever seen before, occasionally decorated with cows or horses, and even fewer actual structures.
Suddenly, the world seemed to fall away in a huge chasm, and I heard the boy from the seat in front of me telling “Mommy, Mommy” to “lookit, lookit.” The sun was riding low over the enormous body of water, not quite setting, and I watched the beauty of the undulating ripples. A sign caught my attention as we passed, naming the surrounding body Lake Pontchartrain. The voice came over the internal speakers to tell us about the newly reinforced bridge we were crossing courtesy of the state of Louisiana after the last devastating storm. While I was musing about Jamie, I had missed the fact that we’d left Mississippi and entered Louisiana. The terrain was all starting to look the same.
The bridge spanned miles of the massive lake. It was nothing like the rivers that I’d been to with Jamie. It never seemed to end. The water just fell off the Earth at the edge of my line of vision, and I stared in wonder at its blue depths, distracting myself from the fact that I had spent the last few hours alternating between terrified and merely scared.
After a while, the trees and greenery started to give way to the neighborhoods that signaled an approach to civilization. We were coming up on the New Orleans station, and in a way, I was glad because it would give me a chance to stretch my legs. My ass was numb from the constant vibrations of sitting on the bus for three hours, and I really wanted to use a toilet that wasn’t moving. My stomach rumbled, as if it knew a stop was close, reminding me that I also needed to eat. Baton Rouge felt like a long way off, even though it was just another two hours, but I was a little more than paranoid about missing my return time. It was just past six in the evening local time, and we would have forty-five minutes before the bus left for its next destination.
Still, when the bus finally rolled to a stop, I couldn’t make myself get up.
“Kid, you don’t have to stay on the bus,” the gruff driver said as he stood up and stretched. “I’m going to be right outside; no one’s going to take off with your stuff.” He ran a dirty white sleeve over his forehead and took a step toward the stairs. I wasn’t sure I could put into words just how scared I was, but he seemed to understand. Running a hand through his short brown hair, his eyes grew kind as he walked back to the middle of the bus where I was. He hitched up his ill-fitting polyester pants, tucking the uniform shirt back in as he sat down across the aisle from me.
“Look, I don’t know what you’re running from,” he said quietly.
“I’m not—” I tried to protest, but he cut me off.
“I drive a bus, kid, I’ve seen enough runaways to know that you’re freaking terrified of somethin’. You’re going to have a hard enough time once you get to wherever you’re going. There’s no reason to make this part hard. Go get something to eat, use the john, be back here five minutes early, and you’ll be okay. Don’t talk to anyone, and if anyone gives you shit, just walk back to the bus. Christ, I got a kid your age, and I wouldn’t want him to be out on his own like this,” the driver said, shaking his head. “Take your bag if it makes you feel better; it’s probably all you have in the world.” Nodding to my backpack that was resting in my lap, he stood up and walked back to the stairs, descending them without another word. Looking around and noticing that I was the only one still on the bus, I got up and followed.
As I walked up to the station, I saw a huge building beyond, bigger than anything I had ever seen. It was still daylight, and the sun was gleaming off it, making it look like a flying saucer, but the top was white and the bottom sort of gray. I stood there for several minutes, even though my time in the station was limited, just looking at this huge structure and thinking how very big the world was outside of Crayford, Alabama.
The inside of the bus station was only slightly organized chaos, an overwhelming confusion of people and noise. Passengers carrying ungodly amounts of luggage rushed all around me, trying to get to their terminals or meet family or friends to go home. One guy whose pants were dangerously close to revealing something I didn’t need to see was struggling under the weight of a backpack strapped to his shoulders, a bulging duffel across one shoulder, a green grocery bag dangling uselessly from one arm, and a large orange and white cardboard box. He looked like some kind of child’s game whose objective was to stack as much onto the cartoon figure as possible before watching him topple to the ground. This passenger didn’t topple, but he did lose the box once or twice before getting to the door. Again, I was wasting time while I watched. Standing off to the side so that I wouldn’t be in the way, I looked around the station, trying to find somewhere where I could eat. To my left I saw a sign with an arrow pointing to the food court, so I hoisted my bag higher on my back and made my way toward it. Richard had instructed me to put my wallet in the bottom of my backpack and just carry a bit of cash in my pocket in case someone tried to rob me. He said walking around with a wad of cash was just asking for trouble, and I was glad I had taken his advice when I got to the zoo-like atmosphere surrounding the food stands.
There were easily a dozen different places, from Creole specialties to standard fast-food chains. Since I was small and my luggage was on my back, I navigated through the crowds much easier than most. Looking over my options, I decided on a pizza chain that I’d heard of and made my way through the crowd of people standing like sheep, almost as if they were waiting for someone to help them decide. I saw parents shooing teenagers off to the burger place while they went for Chinese, and one elderly couple who looked at their choices as if there was nothing digestible in sight.
As I ate the lukewarm, rubbery pizza, a young Hispanic woman, her long black hair flowing in waves down her back, walked past with a beautiful little boy held tightly in her arms. His dark brown hair and deep complexion framed his big brown eyes perfectly. I noticed that she kept looking back at a table nearly fifteen feet to my right. Glancing over, I saw that their luggage was resting on the floor under the table. She watched it as if it contained everything they owned. After she got their food, she balanced the tray precariously with one arm while she held her son with the other. Finally, she made it back to their table and looked relieved that their bags were there. Dropping the tray on the mostly clean surface, she held her baby in her lap while she opened up their food. Her shoulders were shaking lightly as she began to try and feed the boy small bites of a grilled cheese sandwich. Apparently, he had better taste or he was too busy people-watching because he squirmed and refused even one bite of the cafeteria-style cuisine. After the fourth attempt to feed him, she tried to give him some juice, which he pushed away hard enough to dislodge it from her hand. It spilled over the table.
“Mijo,” she sighed in a broken voice, and then to my horror, started to cry silently while holding the little boy to her chest. I wondered what circumstances in her life had brought her to the point where she was alone, desperate, and crying in the station with her tiny son. I couldn’t resist the desire to help her, so I threw my unopened bag of chips and my half-empty bottle of soda into my bag and grabbed a handful of napkins on my way to her table. Handing one of the napkins to her to wipe her face, I started to use the others to clean up the juice. The boy grabbed at my hand, smiling and laughing, so I gave him one of the napkins to play with, which made him happy.
“Thank you, you are such a good boy,” the woman said quietly as she started to calm.
“Sure,” I said noncommittally and threw away the soiled napkins as I checked the time on my phone. I had about fifteen minutes before I had to be back on the bus. Helping the young woman had taken longer than I had anticipated, and I still needed to use the bathroom before I re-boarded. Looking around quickly, I finally saw the signs for the restrooms and headed that way. The men’s room was much less crowded than the food court.
I noticed the strange man in the restroom almost immediately because he was just hanging out near the urinals, not using one, just standing there. He wore an old, stained hooded sweatshirt that at one time had probably been blue but had turned more of a muddy brown. His ripped and frayed camouflage pants barely came down to his worn tennis shoes. As I watched him, warning bells went off in my head, and all of those lectures from Richard about staying safe began struggling to the surface. I’d never seen a junkie before, but with the way he was only partially conscious of his surroundings, he definitely appeared to be strung out on something.
With one final look at the disheveled man, who had started to shuffle forward toward me, I decided to use the toilet on the bus. Turning quickly, I headed for the door just as the junkie asked another guy for spare change. The guy made some comment that I didn’t catch as I walked quickly back toward the waiting bus.
The stop in Baton Rouge was easier even though the station was in much rougher condition than the one in New Orleans. It looked as if it had once been painted a sickly green color, but the paint had faded long ago due to age, the weather, and a general lack of upkeep. It was sunset when the bus rolled in to the station, and as I looked across the street at the huge graveyard, I was surprisingly reassured by the sun’s fading light.
Heading to the small food court for something to drink, I noticed a young father who was starting to lose his patience with his two small girls at a table just a few feet away. Each of them had a carry-on bag sitting next to them on the floor, which made me think that maybe they were just there for a transfer, or a stop, like me. The two girls, who couldn’t have been more than five and eight, were working their way distractedly through a pile of chicken nuggets and fries. Changing tactics, he tried negotiation—“Come on, girls, we can take them with us”—and then “Don’t you want to see Grandma?” Finally, as the older of the two girls started to play with the advertisement on the wire salt and pepper shaker holder, he gave up.
“Let’s go,” he said, scooping up the remainder of the food into the Styrofoam container. He closed the two bottles of clear soda just as the younger girl started to cry. Grabbing his bag and the younger girl’s bag, he corralled them toward the terminals. The older girl looked back, saw me watching them, and waved.
Sick of trying to hit a moving target in the bus’s tiny bathroom, I even managed to make it past a rough-looking homeless woman and use the restroom at the station. On my way out, a girl who looked a couple of years younger than me offered me a blow job for twenty bucks. Flustered and stammering, I told her no and hurried back onto the bus. Once I dropped back in my seat, I regretted not giving her a few dollars. Of course, I didn’t have much more money than she did, and it was very likely that I would go through it quickly once I reached California, but I couldn’t imagine how desperate she must have been to sell herself like that.
I wouldn’t have let her touch me, anyway, because I only wanted Jamie.
In that moment, my need for him, to see him, hold him, and be held by him, was almost a physical pain. A burning in my chest and in my throat forced my eyes toward the window where no one else would see the way they had misted. Long, desolate patches of flat land changed slowly into swampland. I’d never seen a swamp, though we’d read about them in school, and I had a feeling that I would see a lot of things over the next few days that I’d only read about.
Lifting it up off the seat, I pulled my cheap, battered nylon wallet from my backpack and ripped open the Velcro. Digging into the back behind my state ID, I stroked Jamie’s picture before pulling it out. Still scared about being on my own so far away from home, I let Jamie’s shining sapphire eyes comfort me. We had been so incredibly happy in the picture, and his eyes were full of light, joy, and love. I missed him so much it hurt.
Bright neon lights caught my attention, and I looked up again to find the night sky lit up with all kinds of signs for casinos. According to the bus schedule sitting on the seat next to me, we were approaching Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was after ten o’clock, and I was starting to get tired, but I read each of the signs as they flashed past. I wanted to get a few hours’ sleep because we would get into Houston around one in the morning. Then there was a two-hour layover while transferring to another bus, so I needed to be alert. The problem was, I was too keyed up and, honestly, a little afraid. It was inevitable that I would have to sleep on the bus; I couldn’t stay awake for two days, but I just couldn’t relax enough in front of all of these strangers to sleep. I set an alarm on my phone in case I did actually manage to close my eyes. Not even getting off the bus for the five-minute stop in Lake Charles to stretch my legs, I wrapped my arms around my backpack to use it as a pillow and stared out of the window. For the next hour, I tried hard to rest. The scenery continued to roll past my wide, staring eyes.
Pushed back into my seat a little as we began to climb a large bridge, I found myself distracted completely from sleep. Illuminated by huge lights and adorned with a flag, the sign was almost a welcome sight.
Welcome to Texas.