By T. Richard Williams


This cry is overstated; I'm an editor, after all, and recognize purple ink when I see it. The sentiment is excessive, blowsy, loose . . . But I am willing to blurt it out, if only to myself. Blurting is a form of bravery. I'm just catching on to that fact. Arriving late, as always.

— Carol Shields



The eyes were incredible, but ultimately it was the smile that stayed with me.

Like this:

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. Especially then.

Like this:



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 cola.

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."



"Where's that?"

"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 myself.

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 any better.

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.