TWICE in my life, I’ve walked into a situation and known everything was about to change.
I was thirteen the first time. I walked into Mrs. Pearl’s classroom on the first day of eighth grade and scanned the rows of desks to find prime real estate. I saw an empty desk right in the middle, and as I made my way towards it, I noticed a dark-haired boy I’d never seen before sitting at the desk next to it. And I just… knew. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Oblivious, he stared forlornly out the window.
I slid into the empty desk. “Are you new?” I asked him.
He blinked and turned toward me. I almost fell out of my chair as I realized how handsome he was. He gave me a brief once-over before eyeing my shirt warily. It’s possible I was wearing a bright turquoise shirt with the collar popped up. It was the early nineties, I was thirteen, I don’t know. He said, “Yeah, I’m new.”
“Cool. New to town or what?”
“No, I….” Then he stopped talking.
“I went to Harlan Prep before this.”
We public school kids had made an occupation of making fun of the kids who went to the tony prep school a few towns over. This kid did not strike me as the prep-school type. He looked too Latino, for one thing; I know how that sounds, but it was fairly common knowledge that Harlan Prep looked basically like the headquarters for the Aryan Nation. In other words, it surprised me that this guy was a prep-school refugee, but then I realized I was sitting next to an expensively appointed kid, that the shirt he had on probably cost more than every piece of clothing on my body combined. “Oh,” I said.
“But I mean, I didn’t flunk out or anything. I wanted to come to public school.”
I laughed, more out of nervousness than anything else. He really was a good-looking guy. “Good Lord, why?”
He shrugged. “Cuz I’m not like them.”
I assumed he meant the other kids at Harlan, so I didn’t question him. I had some guesses about why. That, and not being like the other kids was a feeling with which I was familiar. Instead, I said, “Well, welcome to hell. I’m Drew, and I’m happy to be your tour guide.”
He chuckled. “I’m Rey.”
And with a handshake, our fates were sealed.
BECAUSE he was handsome and charming, it didn’t take Rey long to become the toast of the school, the guy everybody wanted to be friends with. I couldn’t tell you why—maybe it was some kind of blind allegiance formed because I was the first person who reached out to him at his new school—but he stuck by me all through that year and beyond. When we were freshmen in high school, someone wrote “GAY!” on my locker in black marker, which led to other kids contributing other fun words in pink spray-paint and leaving a purple feather boa draped over the combination lock.
The perpetrator of the original crime was a not-especially-smart member of our class, so it didn’t take much for us to find him. We had a confrontation one afternoon during which the kid started calling me all manner of horrible names. Rey offered to beat him up, but I didn’t want to cause more trouble, so I told him not to, right there in the hallway in front of a dozen other students. Rey punched the kid anyway, giving him a bloody nose. I draped the feather boa around my neck like an Olympic medal. Nobody messed with me for the rest of the school year.
WE BOTH had crappy parents. In retrospect, that seems an odd thing to base a friendship on, but I think that we found something in each other that was lacking at home.
Rey was talking his father into letting him go to public school the same summer my father finally took off. Good riddance, I thought at the time. My dad was the kind of pop psychologist who did guest shots on talk shows a lot. The key to his success was tilting his head and looking sympathetic. For extra fun, he’d relate his own experiences to his patients, but often these were experiences he’d never actually had. He talked a good game on TV about how to raise kids, but his parenting ever since that summer he walked out mostly involved sending me cards on my birthday. To this day, I still get a card, often a few days late, with a ten-dollar bill stuck in it like I’m a fucking five-year-old. And I’ll never forget when, about a month after I came out to him, my father was on an episode of Oprah about parents struggling with their children’s sexual identities. He actually said the words, “I have a gay son, so I understand what you’re going through.” I wanted to shout and throw things at him. I did, in fact, pull off my shoe and toss it at the screen. It bounced off and lay impotently on the floor. “You don’t know shit!” I shouted at the TV. Mom ran in then to find out what the commotion was, but all she had to see was her ex-husband’s face. “That man,” she mumbled. She gave me a kiss on the cheek before leaving the room again.
Rey’s absentee parent was his mother. Rey called her a “free spirit,” which I think was his code for “flakier than a croissant.” After his parents split up when he was five, she would flit and flitter in and out of his life, usually to swoop in and play The Cool Mom for a week or so before taking off again. I adored her when I was a teenager—she told these completely insane stories about her travels around the world and she let us drink beer—but it took me a while to understand what her long absences did to Rey. His father wasn’t much better. He meant well and obviously loved his son, but he owned North Jersey’s largest manufacturer of toilet paper and paper towels, a job that kept him busy upwards of seventy hours a week.
I at least had my mother, who was probably the best parent a boy could have asked for. She went a little above and beyond when I told her I was gay, joining PFLAG and buying me boxes of condoms long before I was ready to do anything with them, but she was always accepting and supportive. I suspected at the time that this was why Rey started spending the night at my place with increasing frequency. I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to stay in my dilapidated old house when he lived in this gorgeous mansion on the other side of town, but then, I always preferred to sleep at my house too.
OF COURSE now, all these years later, he’s not just Rey, he’s Reynolds Blethwyn, star of stage and screen, and the summer we both turned thirty, he was on everyone’s radar. He wrapped the third season of his hit evening soap and then flew off to the Czech Republic to film an action movie. The press loved him to pieces.
The press also loved a juicy bit of gossip, which meant that as Rey’s star rose, so too did the frequency with which his name appeared in conjunction with some crazy rumor. Rey was pretty good at letting it all roll off his back, but I found the whole experience kind of surreal. Then again, I knew all about worshipping at the altar of Reynolds Blethwyn; I’d been doing it longer than anyone. Sure, I’d think when I saw the gossip rags on the newsstand, you all love him now. But I loved him first.
It was an altogether different rumor, though, that really got me into hot water that fall. The fallout from that rumor was the second time in my life that I knew everything was about to change.