THE whole thing started on the first day of my senior year at Caswell College in Danesboro, North Carolina, home of the Wildcats, when I first laid eyes on Whit. There I was, sitting pretty: popular, a little bit of a badass, a jock of the “track-pack” variety. Not the quarterback or the point guard, but certainly higher in the social strata than any scrawny freshman could ever aspire to. Whit was lean and awkward, all wrist bones and spiky dark hair. He’d been in college for about four minutes—he still had the dorky orientation folder tucked under his arm, first-day jitters buzzing like bees through the crowd as he climbed the steps to the main entrance of the building we called All Hall, where most classes were held.
See, I thought I’d heard someone call my name, so I turned and looked, and there he was, backpack falling off one shoulder, the red folder marking him as cannon fodder for upperclassmen.
Our eyes met, and the buzzing feeling, that adrenaline spike, focused on me. His eyes went wide and his mouth opened, and he was just a kid, right? What was he, eighteen? Maybe nineteen? But I didn’t look away. I didn’t trip him, like Spew (short for Stuart Pugh) or Sammy Pitt (you can guess what his nickname was) would have done. I didn’t nudge him aside with an admonition to respect his elders or look right over him the way we tended to do with underclassmen.
Any of that could be forgiven; for that matter, it was pretty much expected.
Instead, I stared at him, and he at me.
“Hi. It’s Tucker, right?” he said. His voice didn’t match the protruding wrist bones, the nervous shuffle from one foot to the other. He sounded deep, smart… confident. A real contradiction. “Tucker Locke?”
He stuck his hand out like we were grown-ups meeting at the sixteenth hole, like there weren’t a couple hundred students parting around us like we were an island in a flooding river.
“I’m Whit Jamison,” he said, and I found my hand pumped and squeezed. He had long fingers. “I went to Southern High too. You were a senior when I was a freshman.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t remember you.”
“No reason you would,” he said. “I was, like, three feet tall then.”
“Tucker Locke,” I offered. Then I felt color climb up in my cheeks. He’d already said he knew who I was. I chalked it up to my own first-day jitters. I put my sweaty palms down to the same thing. I had a harder time explaining the way my heart jumped in my chest, or the way I kept looking between his eyes and his mouth.
It was a moment, nothing more, but it set something in motion that ended up defining the entire year. Hell, my entire life.
My memories of senior year go something like this: classes, being hungry enough to eat a bear, cross-country training in the fall, competing, eating some more, track training in the spring, meets, studying. On the weekends I’d drink on Saturday nights and then go to church on Sunday mornings—a minor dichotomy compared to the other part of my life that year: meeting up with Whit late at night. When I think about Caswell, I think about the noise in the halls, the tap of fingers on keyboards, and the way light filtered in through the classroom windows. When I think about Whit, it’s always of nighttime and heat, the way his breath caught when I touched him, the slick slide of his tongue. Light and dark. I separated the two as completely as I could.
Those eight dizzying months of secrets and discovery came to an abrupt halt when my two worlds collided on the Friday night between final exams and graduation. I’d walked a fine line from September to April, living one life for everyone else—my friends, my teachers, my parents, my future clearly mapped—and another in stolen moments with Whit. What did it say about me that those few hours with Whit were the happiest of my life, but I couldn’t bring myself to let him into any other part of my life?
Whit invited me to the movies. Like, you know, a date. A simple enough request, he seemed to think. “It’s just a movie, Tuck,” he said when he asked. “Come on, you’re graduating. Live a little,” he said.
He didn’t understand. I’d been doing exactly that: living a little. Stealing time, taking something for myself before the real world came knocking. Every time we found an hour or two to be together, the world brightened, even in the dark.
I told him I had other plans, hanging out with a bunch of seniors at Stuart Pugh’s house, a little pre-graduation party. He looked at me intently, and I thought he’d push it, but then I slid my hand up the back of his T-shirt and that took care of conversation.
But it turned out Spew and Spit wanted to go to the movies too. Their girlfriends even rounded up a date for me—a redhead with pendulous breasts named Martha-Dunn Dewey who I’d known since kindergarten. Trust me, if I’d wanted to date her, I’d had plenty of opportunities. I went along—what else was I supposed to do? I even held her hand as we walked up to the ticket line at Danesboro’s only fourplex. At nine o’clock on a Friday, a bunch of people were milling around, and the line stretched down the sidewalk.
And of course, three people ahead of us in line stood Whit, his back to me. It hadn’t occurred to me that he’d come by himself because I’d never have done that in a million years. But that’s Whit for you, that’s the kind of guy he was.
When he got to the ticket window, his voice carried when he said, “One for Scorpion King.”
Spit leaned over and spoke loudly enough that I saw the words strike Whit in the back of the neck. “Hey, who knew fags liked action movies?”
My spine straightened, but before I could say anything, Spew chimed in, “Maybe he wants to bend over for The Rock.”
Shut up! I wanted to say. Shut the fuck up!
But then Martha-Dunn curled her lip up and said, “Ew, that’s gross. Don’t even make me picture that.”
I watched as red swept up from the back of Whit’s collar all the way to the tips of his ears. He turned, and his eyes narrowed on Spit and Spew, then widened when they landed on me, on my face, then on my sweaty hand, still clutching Martha-Dunn’s.
I wanted to run, but I felt like I was made of stone.
I should have stood up for him. Obviously. That goes without saying. Hell, I should have stood up for myself, because I was like him, just like him, only I didn’t have the balls to say so. I didn’t have the courage. We’d been meeting in secret for months because I couldn’t bring myself to give him up, but I couldn’t stand beside him, either, and take the kind of licks he absorbed every day just for showing up and not pretending to be something he wasn’t.
I should have done something, but I didn’t.
I didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything. He stood there for a second; then he went into the theater lobby, the back of his neck still red, while Spew and Spit laughed at their own stupid jokes.
He was waiting for me—his cheeks on fire, his mouth set, and his eyes ablaze—when I came into the lobby a few minutes later, with Spew and Spit behind me.
No. Just… no. Nothing good could come from whatever would happen when that unholy trio came together.
I took a hard left and veered off into the concessions line, shaking off Martha-Dunn with a curt word about getting popcorn. I ignored Spew’s shouted, “Yo! Tuckeroo! We’ll save you a seat.” And I ignored the feel of Whit’s gaze on my back.
The brightly colored board above the concessions stand showing enormous packages of Skittles and Milk Duds and Twizzlers blurred as I stared at it, my heart thumping in my chest.
Then, from behind me, I heard, “Your friends are assholes.” Whit’s voice, soft and familiar.
No argument there, but I couldn’t make myself say so. The candy board blurred even more. I blinked a couple of times and dragged in a breath.
“Why didn’t you just tell me you were coming with them? With her?” Whit asked.
My heart thudded again. “This isn’t the time,” I gritted out through my teeth. Not the time and not the place, not in front of all these people. Couldn’t he see that?
“Then when?” he asked, and he must have taken a step forward, because I swear to God, I could feel him up against my back, his breath warm on my neck when he whispered, “Why can’t you just be with me? Just once. Tuck—”
“Back off,” I snarled. I meant it literally, physically, right then and there. I was so scared and so angry I could hardly breathe. I felt trapped, afraid of what onlookers would see, sure that somehow they would know what we’d been getting up to, that it was written all over me in some kind of invisible, pornographic Sharpie. But I meant it figuratively too. I took what I could get; why couldn’t he do the same?
When I finally worked up the courage to turn around, he was gone.
The movie sucked. In the back row, Martha-Dunn offered to do the same, rubbing her tits against my arm, but I declined, probably more politely than the brush-off I’d just given Whit.
Whit and I never talked about it. We never touched again, either. It was as if it had all been a dream, as if I’d never held him, never kissed him, never felt him tremble, hot under my hands.
We passed each other a couple of times over the next few days, but I studiously avoided eye contact. I knew what I’d see: the same disappointment I saw when I looked in the mirror.
I know now that I blamed him for my own failing. I let fear define me. That was the main difference between us—he met life head-on, and I ran at the first obstacle I encountered.
I graduated a week later and moved to Richmond a week after that. I spent the next six months studying for the LSATs like my life depended on it, which I guess it did.
My parents thought I was (finally) being industrious.
They had no idea how far I was willing to run.
And that’s how the whole thing ended.