with Featured artwork: “Black Paper” by Temo Svirely, acrylic marker on paper.
Before Mike, I had experimented a lot with both men and women. But I was either too drunk or too scared or too repulsed to enjoy it. The one night I spent with Mike was a revelation. Oh, this is what it can be like! It wasn’t love, but it lived down the street. Now, at least, I knew what to shoot for.
We were both on the cusp of 21 and in the same fraternity. This was 1972 and gay sex was definitely taboo. Not only was it against the law, the president of the university, a rabid segregationist, also hated queers. He had a network of spies on campus, those he either paid or blackmailed into aggressively turning in fellow students suspected of such aberrant behavior.
You had to be careful. I was. Mike wasn’t.
He was reported for coming on to the wrong person. There was to be a formal hearing.
Mike promptly feigned illness and left school, going back to live with his aged parents in State Line, a Mississippi town of no more than 500 souls.
From there he wrote to me. He was desperate. He said I was the only one he could talk to. To please keep him informed of what was happening. That it was all a huge mistake. He had only been fooling around. He had considered suicide, but now believed all this would blow over. To Please, Please, write him.
I didn’t. But I still have the letter.
I must have left it lying close to the phone. The word CORSAGE is scrawled across the back of the envelope. The note was a reminder to call my blind date for the spring formal and ascertain the color of her gown.
Remembering to get the right corsage was a priority. Responding to Mike’s plea wasn’t.
At the girl’s dorm, I had my date paged, and joined the other waiting boys, taking a seat where I could view each girl as she descended.
Soon a large girl with a full-moon face appeared. Sweat broke out on my brow. And then my date called out my name. I kept perfectly still. No one in the room knew me. To take this moon-faced girl to the formal, with all my fraternity brothers looking on would be humiliating. What would it say about me as a man? So what if my date had bought a brand new, powder blue gown just for the dance? No way I would ever be able to live this down.
I continued to watch silently as the girl scanned each boy’s face expectantly.
Seconds ticked by like hours, and she kept waiting on the stair. I watched as her expression shifted from hopeful anticipation to puzzlement. Then to concern. And on down the scale to panic.
Finally, as her face registered complete and total humiliation, she bolted back upstairs, I suppose in tears.
I dropped the corsage in the garbage outside.
Mike’s funeral was a few days later. I went with the other fraternity brothers. We listened reverently as the Baptist preacher artfully obscured the cause of his death by invoking the mysterious ways of a God who would take a soul so young, a brilliant man with so much promise.
As we paraded from the church and back to our cars, an elderly woman approached, and I heard her ask one of my frat brothers, “Is Mike’s friend, Johnny, with you?”
It was Mike’s mother.
Everyone looked my way, as the frail, gray-haired woman in black silk walked up to me. Her eyes were red and raw.
She smiled and reached into her purse. “Mike left this on a shelf in his room,” she said, as she handed me a sealed envelope. “It’s addressed to you.”
She asked me to let her know if it contained any clue as to why he had taken those pills.
“Yes, ma’am, I will,” I promised, slipping the envelope into my coat pocket.
When I was alone in my room, I opened the envelope. The letter was dated the day before the suicide, May 9, 1972, which happened to be my twenty-first birthday. The day I became a man.
The tone of the letter was upbeat. He said he was changing schools. A fresh start, that’s what he needed. He hoped he hadn’t scared me off with his desperation. He wanted to remain friends.
Thirty years later, I was going through some papers, and I came across the letter, the urgent plea from a beautiful boy I had once known. I have learned that guilt, shame, and even a broken heart can be deferred. But not forever.
It’s as if Mike is still listening for my answer, along with the girl on the stair, and so many others whom I’ve left waiting for me to stand and say, “Here I am.” To give an account for myself.
Perhaps they will keep calling out for me as long as I live, sounding through my life like sonar from ghost ships, echoing through the hollow places of my soul, forever beckoning me back to that point of indecision, to those moments when I sealed myself off from humanity.
And somehow I know I need to answer, and do it honestly, with unclean hands and words that do not justify. If there is a responsibility to the past, I suppose that is the debt that I owe.