SO FAR I’d made it halfway through the first semester of my freshman year at California Pacific, and you know? I had to admit that it didn’t suck. I know, I know, that was a bizarro thing to say about one’s choice of school, but there’s something you had to remember. CalPac was most assuredly not my choice of school. I made some very… I’ll call them colorful… choices the summer before my senior year of high school, and the gods of indiscriminate love rewarded me with HIV. It almost killed me—mostly because I neither told anyone but my brother and my boyfriend, nor did I seek medical care—but my parents made a decision that I resented at the time: rather than sending me across the country to Boston University, they spoke to the men’s crew coach at CalPac. Between their persuasion and some fast talking from my high school coach, the ever-awesome Peter Lodestone, I wound up going to the local private university in the Sacramento area with a full-ride scholarship so long as I stayed brilliant in the boats. Mom and Dad’s idea was that I spend my first year in college at CalPac as I learned to quote-unquote manage my condition, and at the end of that we’d discuss transferring.
I flipped out when they dropped this bomb on me, and I dropped an R-bomb on them in return. R-bombs. That’s what Michael affectionately called my rages. They’re like daisy cutter cluster bombs but involved words and caused a lot more damage. All my plans—all our plans, as Michael and I had our future worked out—gone, just like that. But my parents knew me well, surprisingly enough, or at least knew my temper, and to take the sting out of it, they made a contract with me: in return for my cooperation, they gave me a notarized promise that at the end of my freshman year I could transfer to the school of my choice. Or maybe the school of my choice that chose me back might be a better way to phrase it. At the time I felt so sure of my future. Row my seat, keep my grades up at CalPac while I applied to BU, and bide my time while Michael finished high school. As soon as he graduated, I’d transfer so fast people behind me would get pneumonia from the wind in my wake. Michael and I would stay on the same schedule on the East Coast. That was the Plan. I’d worry about NCAA eligibility later.
Oh, and then there was my father’s edict that despite the fact that they lived across the Yolo Causeway from CalPac, I would live in the dorms. That went over well.
“You’ve got to make the break, Remy,” my dad had said.
As I recall, I made a face. “Dad, no. I’ll be what, fifteen miles from home? How much of a break could I possibly make?”
“Trust me.” Dad snorted. I remembered that clearly. “Once you’re there you’ll realize we might as well be on the moon. It’ll seem like a world away, and one more thing—you can come home maybe once in a while, but under no circumstances will your mother and I allow you to come every weekend.”
“What? Why not?” I think I whined.
Then Mom jumped in. “That seems a bit harsh, Steven.”
“He’ll never make the transition to any kind of independence if he does, Dina. He’ll be more likely to drop out, and he’s too good a student to allow that. I can show you the research, if you want.”
“There’s research?” Mom had sounded surprised, and I didn’t blame her. Dad could be autocratic sometimes.
I still saw Dad nodding. “You bet there is, hon. This isn’t me being arbitrary, for once.”
“Then I agree,” Mom had pronounced before turning to me. “We want you to stay close to home to make sure you learn what you need to know about your HIV from Dr. Kravitz, not to create a state of permanent dependency.”
So there I was at CalPac and living in the dorms. There was one thing I was absolutely unprepared for when I agreed to all of this with my parents.
I loved CalPac.
No matter how much I held myself back, no matter how hard I tried to cultivate a “just passing through” attitude, no matter how hard I tried to remember that Michael and I dreamt of life together on the East Coast, I grew more and more attached to this small private school among the leafy greenness of Sacramento. That proved to be a major roadblock to my plans for escape, to the Plan. The campus was beautiful. Unlike some local schools I could name, the buildings at CalPac didn’t look like poured-concrete monstrosities or cheap interpretations of New England campus Gothic. CalPac’s campus was a place all its own, its architecture unique, suited to its environment, like the building committee actually listened to the school’s Architecture and Design Department instead of whatever was trendy when new buildings were approved. The result was a campus at peace with its host city and the surrounding geography. Okay, some of it stuck out. The Art Department owed a little too much to Dalí and whatever came after postmodernism, and the History Department looked like a Renaissance palace in the Florentine style, only smaller. The scale was all wrong, and it made me giggle every time I walked by. But mostly everything worked.
I hit my second roadblock not long after I moved into the dorms, only I didn’t know it. More of my obliviousness to everything that didn’t involve rowing shells and oars, I guess. This was hardly a revelation. Michael and Goff both had teased me about that for years, telling me I needed a keeper. I’d been counting on Michael fulfilling that role. I knew I would always find my way to the boathouse—whatever boathouse I was currently rowing out of—but the rest? I needed firm guidance, and how lucky was I that Michael liked to provide firm guidance? My pants always got a little uncomfortable when I thought about Michael and his firm guidance too much.
Anyway, my plan to bail when Michael finished high school also meant I at first held myself aloof from collegiate life, so maybe that’s why I missed all the signs that my roommate at the very least thought I was an asshole and more likely hated me. I promised myself I’d get my head out of the clouds one of these years. But the air was so much fresher up there….
I thought we had had a decent roommate-type relationship, although I had no real grounds for comparison other than what Goff, as I called my twin brother, Geoff, and his girlfriend, Laurel, told me. Okay, Laurel lucked out with her roommate. A month into the fall quarter at UC San Diego and, according to Laurel, she and Olive were as close as sisters. Goff and his roommate were taking longer to warm up, but that’s because Goff was pretty sure Craig was gay but hadn’t admitted it to himself, let alone to Goff. Goff knew that once Craig came out it would all be fine. I tried to caution Goff not to push the issue, but he brushed me off. After all, what did I know, I was only gay. I was sure Craig would be subject to all manner of “my brother and his boyfriend” stories in the coming months. The thought of meeting this guy made me cringe.
Anyway, Brady Watts and I might not have hit it off like Laurel and Olive, but we were at least cordial. Or so I thought until one afternoon. Brady and I waited outside a classroom in the Life Sciences building for our fresher seminar to start. CalPac trotted all freshpeople—yes, it’s that liberal and averse to gendered language—through a series of half-semester seminars. They were part breadth requirement and part help choosing a major and included the social sciences (boooring), life sciences, physical sciences, and humanities. CalPac was a semester school, so we started our fall semester in early August and ran sixteen weeks until the middle of December. We had barely started our second eight-week seminar, life sciences, obvs. I already knew that the life sciences were for me.
So anyway, a bunch of us were waiting for class to start, and I wasn’t the only one with earbuds in, listening to my jam. I was, apparently, the only one not blasting said jams.
I heard someone say, “Stuck-up asshole.”
That someone was Brady.
Ouch. I tried not to let it show. I clenched my jaw, instead.
Then I got angry.
It was not as if he and I never spoke. We both spent time in our room. He knew why I got up stupid early in the morning and why I went to the gym every afternoon. He knew where I was from, just as I knew he hailed from LA, hated Sacramento, and wasn’t adapting well to college. He knew I had a twin brother whom I missed terribly, and I knew he had a little sister who had died young from an anaphylactic reaction to antibiotics. The only thing I hadn’t told him was my serostatus. If I ever cut myself and bled everywhere, then I’d tell him that, too. What more did he want from me?
I shoved all of this aside. I had a class. I’d deal with my roommate later. Thank God I was a master of compartmentalization.
Later that evening, after I’d returned from weight lifting and seeing Michael, I faced Brady. It’s not like I had a choice. He glowered at me when I came back to our room.
Seriously, he looked up from his reading when I walked in. Then he went right back to his studying with the most dismissive glance ever. Not even Michael looked at me like that when we were on the outs before my senior year of high school. If looks could kill….
Of course, back then Michael had ignored me too studiously for it to count. Me, I’d shoved things into tidy little boxes in preparation for my first Youth Nationals.
I noted with a certain humor Brady was cramming for the next life sciences quiz. I barely cracked the book. I didn’t have to. I was acing the class. Like I’d told Mom once, Davis High had prepared me well for college.
After dealing with a duffel bag full of smelly gym clothes, I checked the dry-erase board to make sure everything on it was out-of-date. For reasons of its own, the housing office thought each room needed such an accessory. Personally, I didn’t care why our room had a dry-erase board. I merely welcomed a canvas on which to make my point. I started drawing and, after a few minutes, I felt Brady’s eyes on me. Mission accomplished.
Then I kicked off my shoes and sat down on my bed.
I smirked, looking up at the picture of a shapely male posterior and a doughnut with an arrow going through the hole in the middle. “It’s an asshole.”
“A what?” Brady acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about.
This wasn’t my first time around the block. When I wanted to make a point, I made it stick. “I’m not an asshole… you asshole.”
Brady flushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. I heard you before fresher biology seminar today.”
I met his eyes and then stared, unflinching, unblinking. I’d faced my own mortality. A snippy college freshman didn’t compare.
Brady started shaking and breathing heavily, only glaring at me harder. “Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to live with you?”
“Uh… no?” I wasn’t expecting that. I’d thought I was pretty easy to get along with. I kept my things on my side of the room. I was quiet and clean. What else could anyone ask for in a roommate?
“You never talk to me. Did you know that? We have no late-night dorm room bull sessions. We don’t go out for beers, we don’t get high together, you’re an asshole,” Brady continued.
I rolled my eyes. It’s a bad habit of mine, one I’ve never succeeded in breaking. “You do know I’m here on an athletic scholarship, right? We’re both underage, so don’t even talk to me about alcohol, and smoking of any kind—really? World-class rowers have the highest VO2 max of any athlete, and before you trip out at the thought of having to look something up and accidentally learn something, two things. One, putting it crudely, VO2 max is the measure of how much oxygen an athlete can extract from a lungful of air, and two, I really do have a shot of being that good. So yes, I’m that much of a straight edge, and no, we’re not going to bond doing any of that shit.” There went that eye roll again. “As for late-night bull sessions, we’d actually have to be friends for that, and calling me an asshole in public isn’t likely to bring that about in a hurry, either.”
“Can you even hear yourself?” Brady’s voice rose. “You’re so patronizing. It’s… it’s like you’re not even human or something. You’re this unstoppable machine who marches out and gets what he wants.”
I sighed. “It’s called having goals. You should try it.”
“You are such a… such an asshole!”
This grew more tiresome by the minute, only now I was losing my temper. “You’ve said that already.”
By this time he’d jumped up from his desk to confront me. We both realized at the same time exactly how much shorter he was. If he decided to take a swing at me, it’d be the shortest confrontation in the history of everything. Seriously, I had seven inches on him.
He looked up at me, hopefully reconsidering his plans for the immediate future. “I’m failing our biology seminar, and… and you never talk to me, and you’re gorgeous, and you don’t even look at me, and you’re probably some kind of fundamentalist creep who’s about to pound me.”
I stared at him. “I… what?”
Brady pointed at my neckband. It was a tight-fitting leather collar given to me by Michael, studded with metal. Hanging from it was a metal plus sign, plus for poz. A cross was the last thing it was, if only because I was pretty sure Mom’s parents were born Jewish. Since she was never bat mitzvahed, we’d lapsed hard. “You’re really, really wrong. My boyfriend lives in Davis. You’ve met him, so what the hell are you talking about?”
“That figures.” Brady slammed his hand into the wall.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Dude… you don’t know the half of me. If you did, you’d never say those things.” Brady exploded again and moved to storm out of the room, but I was lightning fast. I grabbed his arm. “Don’t go, not if you’re serious about help or getting to know each other.”
“And whose fault is not knowing each other? You bailed on those roommate mixers.” Brady jerked his arm out of my hand, but at least he stopped reaching for the door.
I sighed. “Those things are terminally stupid and you know it. You never would’ve learned the things you seem to want to know at those. I actually think you’re a nice guy. Or did. So you’re failing biology seminar. Did it ever occur to you to ask for help? Because I’ll be honest—I haven’t heard a thing out of you.”
He didn’t say anything at first. Then, “No.”
“Did you go to the tutoring center or talk to the prof?”
“Riiight.” I rolled my eyes again. “Let’s look at your quizzes. I’ll see if I can help, because there’s another quiz coming up, you know.”
So little Brady was gay. I hadn’t noticed any signs, but then again, he wasn’t made of carbon fiber and was therefore unrowable. I told him nothing else about my life, my condition, or anything else of substance, certainly nothing about Michael. After tonight he was on a need-to-know basis. Brady would have to earn his way in.