The eyes were incredible, but ultimately it was the smile that stayed
I'd grown tired of that burnt stuff they sold at Finnegan's, so I decided
to get my morning Joe at the local deli instead. That's when I first
saw him, standing at the checkout when I walked in: Tall, lean, raven
black hair, unshaven. But then someone called: "Roy."
"O, hi fellas." It was a couple of guys from work at the
coffee bar. We started yapping about the latest campus gossip
this one fired, this one hired; do you believe they moved the bursar's
office again? that kind of stuff.
I was trying not to look, but there was that vague sense of his presence
in my peripheral vision throughout the conversation. Even though my
buddies knew I was gay, I'd have felt awkward being so obvious in front
of them. I hate seeming desperate. I mean, really: I'm 50 years old
and the guy at the register is 21 or 22 if he's a day, and a student
at the college to boot, which I found out when one of my colleagues
said, "Hey, Rashid. How are you? Didn't know you worked here."
"Yeah, just till the summer." (Dimples. Chiseled jaw.)
"Then grad school?"
"Yeah." (Angular neck. Middle Eastern accent?)
"Here at Delmar?"
"No. Cal Tech. It's near my sister in L.A." (Gentle, grainy
voice; some nice contours beneath the chocolate brown work shirt.)
Then he turned to me and the other two and said, "Rashid's one
of our best math majors." And added, "Bet he'll be at Jet
Propulsion one day."
That's when we made eye contact. Rashid was smiling, a glint in his
irises (mahogany brown). He had this incredibly thick, wavy hair and
absolutely sculpted face. My heart tripped, stumbled, regained balance.
Hopefully, no one noticed.
He scanned the side of my cup. "That's one twenty-five, Professor."
"Professor? How'd you guess?"
"I've seen you on campus."
(I thought, How the hell did I miss you?) I handed over a couple of
bucks. He made change, and when he placed the coins in my hand, he smiled
that smile that came to mean so much that still does a year later.
After our trip. After he left for California. Even after he calls me.
For the next four months our first meeting was last October
I made it a habit to go to the deli before classes. That is,
until his work schedule shifted to nights early in February. Then I
changed my routine. Suddenly, it was midnight snacks: pints of low fat
Ben and Jerry's or reduced fat Lay's potato chips or lime-flavored diet
Once he joked: "You come in so early and then again so late at
night." He must've thought I was still drinking that morning coffee.
"Do you ever sleep?" The smile.
"Yeah, just a workaholic, I guess." I almost blushed. Shit,
even after a few months of pleasant chitchat, I still felt so fucking
self conscious around him.
There was the age thing. Even if he were gay, which would be my wishful
thinking, I was twice his age, for Christ's sake. Then I found out his
family lived in Pakistan, so there was the whole culture-religion thing.
Muslim. Maybe anti-gay. Immediately, I saw myself beat up and castrated
by his buddies in a back alley somewhere. Fear sucks.
But I kept showing up for those late night snacks and kept imagining
asking him out on a date, maybe going to the Pakistani restaurant in
Huntington for a taste of the homeland. I imagined he'd like that. I
imagined a lot about Rashid.
As spring began to unfold and the nights became warm enough, I'd walk
the half-mile or so from my campus apartment and often found him outside
the store smoking rich-scented, unfiltered cigarettes. Once I joked:
"Bad for you."
That smile: "I know. A habit from Chital."
"In the mountains near the Afghan border."
"Oh. Not a great place these days, huh?"
"It's not too bad. We mind our business."
"Hey, that's always best, right?" I laughed nervously, walked
in, and grabbed some pretzels and a soda. I felt guilty because my first
thought was, Shit, he's a terrorist. Then I lectured myself: Everything
so extreme. Always jumping to conclusions. He's not a terrorist, for
Christ's sake. Just a guy attending school in America. I almost said
aloud, Damn, I'm really losing it.
Then at school: I'd be teaching a story about loneliness; I'd think
about Rashid. I'd be showing scenes from a film like Seven Years
in Tibet; there was Rashid. I once took one of my freshman classes
to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the medieval arms and armor
collection, because we were reading Beowulf. After the official
tour, some of us walked through the Asian and Islamic exhibit halls
on the second floor. There was a young couple. The guy was a twin to
Rashid, and I actually found myself trembling for a second.
Jesus, I thought. Get a hold of yourself. Think about dating someone
your own age. And someone who's gay, for Christ's sake. I laughed at
After Kurt I hadn't gone out with anyone. That was nearly ten years
ago. A few one-night stands, but mainly I just buried myself in work,
ignored the loneliness, jerked off a lot, and did nothing to make matters
I was the tireless arts and humanities professor of Delmar College,
next in line for the unofficial "Mr. Chips Award." Devoted
to his students, never too busy to talk, a high priest in the service
of learning. Loved. The guy always called on to help out because they
knew I'd never say no. On the front cover of the college catalogue;
not once, but three times in the last five years. I even made it onto
one of their TV commercials. Well-learned, unpretentious, down home.
Yeah, all around great guy, Roy Thackery, that's me.
They never imagined me beating off at one in the morning in my empty
bedroom, dreaming of holding someone. No, not me holding someone, but
someone holding me.
That's a difference. A big one.
And that's the part they really never guessed because I never let them get beyond the carefully honed persona.