Bittersweet Ch. 01by3113©
You could say I had a bad experience. A really bad experience. It happened at the local college I was attending, in the dorms where I was living. I guess, if we're measuring the sweet with the bitter, I was lucky it happened at the end of the semester, but unlucky that it was just before the winter holidays. I was lucky that it was the very day or rather evening after I'd finished my final final exam, but unlucky that I was completely worn out from studying. Lucky, too, that I was thinking of transferring.
That it happened to me at all.... I can only say I felt really unlucky at the time.
I'd gone to bed early, exhausted because I'd been up cramming till the wee hours four nights in a row. It must have been around ten when my roommate, Beef, came stomping in. Beef is his nickname because, yes, he's beefy and in order to maintain his weight he keeps to a weird, red meat diet, no carbs. He's also drop dead handsome with thick blond hair, playful blue eyes and a body like a wrestler because, yes, he's on the college wrestling team.
I had a one hell of a crush on him, unspoken on my part, because I'm justifiably paranoid and in the closet. It was, on his part, absolutely unrequited. Beef was hetero, assumed I was too, and had a luscious girlfriend named Candy who was more devoted to him than he deserved.
Not that Beef wasn't a good guy in that competitive, top-of-the-pecking-order kinda way. He'd always been broadly friendly to me, inviting me to his wrestling matches, ordering up pizza for us (well for me. No carbs for Beef, remember?). He was accommodating enough as roomies went, wearing nose strips to cut down his snoring, picking up his dirty underwear from the floor if not his dirty socks. A regular guy, all in all. Until that night when I pushed his blinking red button by merely existing and launched every missile of self-protection he had in his arsenal.
Stomping footsteps and the slam of our door woke me. But it was Beef's bellow in my ear that shot adrenaline right to my heart.
"YOU'RE A FUCKING FAGGOT!" I came fully awake as my arm was jerked, so violently it nearly dislocated my shoulder. I should mention that compared to Beef, most guys are lightweights and compared to most guys, I'm a lightweight. I'm 5'9" in my stocking feet and have one of those damnable metabolisms that keeps me bone thin unless I chow down on tons of pasta. My jeans are always slipping off and my ribs are always showing. And any bully on the beach can kick sand into my face. It was no effort at all for Beef to yank me out of bed.
I was on the bottom bunk (yet another lucky thing, I guess), and ended up on the floor amid the dirty socks and textbooks staring up at my enraged roommate. His face was pink with fury and even with his teeth in that wrestler's grimace he was too handsome for words.
Until he kicked me in the ribs. "Agh! Beef, Jesus! What the hell?"
"You're gay!" he bellowed, kicking me again. There was this crack in his voice as if I'd stolen his car or slept with his woman. Raw betrayal. Humiliation. "You're fucking gay and you never said anything!"
I was scrambling to get away from his heavy boots, he snatched me up by the tee I was wearing and slammed me against one of the dorm room's thin walls. The crack in the plaster's probably still there.
"I-I didn't t-think it mattered," I stuttered. I was awake enough to be scared now, really scared. I'm not only in the closet, but I stay huddled in a corner behind the boxes of old clothes shivering in terror that someone will crack open the door in search of a sweater. I've had bad experiences before, you see.
Which begged the question, "H-how did you--?"
Beef slammed a fist into my gut, doubling me over. I fought for air. Damn, that hurt.
"A sister of a friend of your sister saw you at my match and mentioned it to Candy. That's how."
My baby sister, that is. When she learned the truth about me this summer, she responded, "Ew!" Which, reflecting on it, was one better than my kid brother's pimply, how-will-I-ever-face-my-peers disgust, "You're a fag?"
To which, my dear, sensitive dad had retorted, "We don't use words like that in this house!" What he meant, of course, was that my family didn't use the word "homosexual" in any shape or form, derogatory or otherwise. He was panting at the time because he'd just come after me with a belt. Dad wasn't usually physically abusive, he preferred psychological abuse, but when my mother showed him my secret stash of gay porno he lost it. He found me watching television with my sibs and beat the hell out of me. I was just short of my twentieth birthday and he whipped my back with a belt like I was dirty kid.
Energy gone, breathing hard, he'd flashed the mags so that everyone understood why I'd been punished and humiliated. Then he burned the porno in the fireplace and told me I had ten minutes to get out from under his roof.
I wasn't surprised to hear that my sister had told her friends all about the operatic moment, she would have wanted their sympathy. Apparently, one of those friends had told her sister, probably someone who had gone to high school with me. That sister had been at Beef's final wrestling match the other night, recognized my face, and informed Candy. Maybe the sister was an old acquaintance of Candy's. Or maybe she'd just seen me drooling over Beef as he held down an opponent for the count and, later, watched me hanging out with him and Candy. Maybe she'd thought she was performing a public service by letting Candy know. We gays are notorious for luring straight men away from their women, right?
Not that I blamed Candy for, thereafter, spilling the beans to Beef. The poor girl hadn't a malicious bone in her body and I was absolutely certain she'd done so quite innocently. I could almost hear the conversation now:
Candy: "By the way, Beef, you never told me Jase was gay."
Beef: "Jase is what?"
Beef: "Jase my roommate?"
Candy. "Uh-huh. Didn't you know? Gosh, I wonder if he has a crush on you...."
I winced just to think of it. Beef must have winced as well, which was why he was beating the shit out of me right now. I suppose I ought to have been grateful that he didn't have a belt. "You fucking cocksucker! You were eyeing me the whole time!" he accused. "When I undressed in front of you, and took a piss beside you...!" He punctuated his outrage by punching me in the jaw. I spit blood and tried to get away. But he kept a hold of me. I'd fantasized being pinned by Beef, but not like this.
"Admit it!" he demanded.
Fuck no. "N-no, no, you're n-n-n-not my t-t-type—"
"Like fuck." His fist got my eye this time. Sparks of pain all through my face and head. I groaned. I didn't understand. Was this the same guy who'd let me use his ipod? ("Listen to the party playlist, you'll love it.") Who'd given me his woolen scarf when he saw I didn't have one? ("Fer Christ's sake, keep it. You'll turn into an icicle.") Who'd invited me on late night road trips to sleazy dance clubs? ("Come on, man, all work no play....") Maybe gayness really was a disease if it could transform a relatively decent guy into such a monster.
Another punch to the ribs had me keeling over, sick to my stomach and just wishing it was all over. I was hearing shouting and running from the other rooms. We were making a lot of noise. I sure hoped help was on its way.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please stop, Beef—" Blood was dripping down my chin, soaking my shirt. I am not too proud to beg. Far from it. The screwed up way my parents raised us kids, with one eyebrow lifted as if we were always thinking filthy thoughts had left me, the miserable eldest, apologetic to a fault. And paranoid. Did I mention paranoid? I've never cut a day of class or walked against a red light for fear of being caught at it. And usually, when I ignore that paranoia, I pay for it. Like now.
I'd trusted Beef. I should have known. Prior to this, there'd been two memorable times I'd ignored my paranoia. One was when, instead of destroying my porno mags, I'd stupidly trusted that they'd never be found. The other time was when I'd gone down a dark alley with a stranger in hopes of losing my virginity. In my defense, I was closeted and desperate and he was muscular and good-looking. I'd thought, "He's gay. He knows what that first time's like. He'll go easy on me." Or, at least, that's what he'd said to me to get me down the alley. My paranoia had screamed at me to reconsider, but I'd followed my penis instead.
That evening, I sucked cock for the very first time, finding every bitter odor and flavor the most desirable in the world. Things started to go wrong, however, when I ended up leaning against a brick wall, my pants and shorts about my quivering ankles. I was expecting foreplay or at least lubrication. I got neither. The man just took me.
"Hey! Stop! Wait! Stop you're hurting me!" I screamed, when his engorged tip ripped past that first ring of resistance. He didn't stop. When I started to shout and struggle, he put a hand over my mouth and trapped me against the wall with his weight.
"You are the worst cocksucker I ever met, you know that?" he grunted, pumping into me so fast and deep I thought he was going to split me apart. "I deserve this. You deserve this."
Luckily, he wore a condom. Luckily.
"There," he said afterwards, as I sobbed against the wall, blood trickling down from my torn and gaping anus. "Broke your cherry for ya." He snapped off the condom, zipped up and whistled as he left me there in the dark.
Should have listened to my paranoia.
Now, I guess, I was facing the third momentous occasion that I'd ignored my internal warning system. And once again, I was regretting it.
"I never thought a thing, Beef, I swear, I swear," I gibbered, clutching at my aching ribs. The eye he'd punched was swelling shut. Beef was breathing hard, and I prayed he was finally tired out, but then he growled and lifted an arm. I flinched, but he went for the poster I'd put up of my favorite punk band. He tore it down. Then he swept through the room, systematically destroying anything that was mine: my coffee cup, my textbooks, my cd's. He even took a pair of scissors and ripped apart the scarf he'd lent me. I think he would have broken the desktop computer if it had belonged to me instead of the school.
And then he yanked open the chest of drawers and tossed my clothes out into the hall. It was then that I realized the door was open, had been open this whole time. With my one open eye I saw, to my mortification, that we had an audience. They'd been hovering. Now they backed away.
They all looked at me as if I'd earned every punch.
It didn't take Beef long to throw out my entire wardrobe. I'm a poor scholarship student and there isn't much: jeans, tees, sweaters, underwear, boots. I suppose I was lucky he didn't rip my clothes to pieces as well, or urinate on them.
I threw up my shaking hands as he reached for me again, but it didn't do any good. He had me up and hanging like a rag doll, my breathing shallow because my ribs were bruised maybe cracked, my swollen eye feeling big as an apple. He held me nose to bleeding nose and hissed a final warning.
"I see you in this building again, I'll break your cocksucking balls. I see you on this campus, I'll kick your cock-fucked ass. And if you ever come anywhere near me or mine you won't have a cock to piss out of, hear?"
He tossed me out like he'd tossed my stuff. I hit hard and tumbled. The door slammed and for a while I just huddled there, too broken and dazed to do more. Once my pulse slowed from racing to running, however, I took Beef's warning to heart and pushed myself up onto hands and knees. It was all I could manage at the moment. So there I was, in my underwear and a bloody tee shirt, beaten to hell, crawling after my things.
The crowd, which had parted around me, watched for a bit like villagers gawking at some poor bastard stuck in the stocks. I think some of them wanted to help, but those that did were dragged away by those that wanted no trouble. Guilt by association, don't you know. It's why my parents kicked me out. Not because being gay tainted me, but because it tainted them.
And now it tainted the whole dorm, like some foul odor. I guess I was lucky because no one else gave me any grief. But I couldn't get to my feet, and had to find and pack my duffle while still on my knees. My hands wouldn't stop shaking.
It was agony to get on jeans and the jacket. My shoulder protested and so did my ribs. I managed and duffle in arms, finally forced myself to get up and stumble downstairs. Cold hit me like the edge of a knife. Outside it was frosty and dark. Slushy gray snow covered the pathways and the air was misty, as if filled with ghosts. Everyone was inside the brick dorms, warm and laughing. I gazed up at all those lit windows and shivered. I hadn't thought to put on socks or my long underwear or my gloves. Only my jacket and wool cap. I was going to freeze to death if I stayed out here.
Shit. Now what? It suddenly occurred to me that I had nowhere to go. One or two guys might be willing to put me up for the night, but my paranoia said that the news of what had happened was going out right now via instant messaging and e-mail. Each and every one of my presumed friends would know the truth and I imagined their reactions would be similar to Beef's. At best, they'd slam their doors in my face, at worse they'd get in their licks.
"Hey, kid, you all right?"
Shit! My heart skipped. It was one of the campus police. I was so paranoid at that moment that I might have made a run for it if I'd been able. Instead, I dropped on my ass, right there on the icy ground, too woozy to move.
"Cripes, what happened to you?"
I sat there, teeth chattering, blood freezing on my face. The man talked into his radio and scratchy words from headquarters came back.
Then I blacked out.
When I came to I was in the emergency room. An overworked intern checked me out.
"Got mugged, huh?" he said. "You were lucky campus police came when they did, otherwise you might have lost your duffle and your wallet."
Lucky, yeah. I was so fucking lucky.
He lifted the eyelid of my good eye and pointed a flashlight into my pupil. The other eye, I realized with a touch, was bandaged.
"Where else did they hit you?"
I didn't correct his assumption about multiple assailants. Instead I directed him to my ribs and my shoulder and my jaw. He had me breath in and watched me wince. He moved my arm. "Lucky," he said again. "Just bruised, nothing broken. Take aspirin for the pain and get plenty of rest."
Rest, yes. There had to be a park bench or two I could sleep on.
"You're concussed," he added, "So I want you to stay a few hours more. Maybe till morning."
Well, that was fortunate since I hadn't anywhere else to go. "Thanks, Doc," I murmured and wondered if they'd give me breakfast.
I'm not sure what would have happened to me if that had been the end of it. I might have died on the streets. But lucky for me, another intern turned up to take my pulse and temperature.
"Hey honey." She was a round black woman with a decidedly southern accent. She brushed back my hair as if I were her son. Out of everything that had happened to me, only that friendly touch brought tears to my eyes. I felt one spill down from my good eye.
"Got beaten up, huh?" she said gently, "You want to report it?"
"I need to figure out where I'm going to go first," I murmured, and swallowed down more tears.
"What's that?" she said, her fingers timing my pulse. "Aren't you a student?"
"Yes Ma'am. Was. Semester's over."
"And aren't you going home for the holidays? We can call your parents."
"My parents...aren't speaking to me." Not since summer vacation, I thought miserably. It's how I ended up in a dorm this semester. With a roommate.
"Not even your mama?" she asked sadly.
"Child, are you saying you haven't anywhere to go?"
My face flushed and I turned my head away. "No Ma'am, I don't. I kinda got...kicked out of—of my apartment."
"Oh, honey. Is that what happened?" I don't know how. Maybe she'd just seen enough runaway boys and beaten up young men to know the symptoms, but those black eyes said she understood. She knew precisely why I was estranged from my parents, why I'd been beaten up but not robbed, why I didn't have any place to go.
"Yes ma'am," I concurred. "I haven't much money. Do you...would you know of any place? Just temporary? A shelter maybe?"
She sighed and rocked back, arms crossed over her white coat. "Shelters are all filled this time of year. But..." a glint in those black eyes. "There are these people I know who might be able to take you in."
"Anything would be welcome."
She went off to make a phone call. At intervals she returned to check on me and make sure I'd taken my painkillers. In the morning, the hospital pronounced me well enough to leave (and to surrender my much wanted bed). Discharged and with my duffle in arms, I boarded a bus. People stared at me, likely because I had a big, white bandage over one eye. My paranoia didn't believe it and I had to resist putting my arms over my head and screaming, "It's not contagious, please don't hurt me!"
I got off at the far edge of town where the homes are old, two-story numbers, the sort that Norman Rockwell would have painted back in the day. Following the directions given to me by the intern, I stopped at a white house that could have used a carpenter and a coat of paint. It was decorated for the holidays with lights under its icicled eves and a manger scene by one of the dwarf pine trees.
I checked the address several times to make sure it was right, then I walked gingerly up the ice-slicked path to the front porch. There was a holiday wreath on the door and a mat that insisted visitors were welcome. Pairs of old galoshes were lined up near one of the wide, square windows.
I stood there shaking, I mean literally shaking not from cold, though I was very cold, but from sheer, nervous exhaustion. Everything hurt and all I wanted was a warm refuge. But I couldn't seem to get up the courage to knock. Finally, I pressed the bell.
A woman of about sixty opened the door. She was a little plump, gold curling hair gone almost white. Hazel eyes sparkled at me from behind a pair of bi-focals. She was a petite thing and she gazed up as I gazed down. I knew what she was seeing, a pale, unshaven, unwashed, one-eyed young man, woolen cap pulled low over his ears and an over-stuffed duffle clutched like a teddy bear in his arms. I thought sure she'd slam the door. I would have.
Instead, she smiled at me. Beamed. There were still dimples in those soft, wrinkled cheeks. Forty-odd years ago they must have fluttered the hearts of many a heterosexual male. It was dizzying to be greeted like that. No one had ever been that glad to see me. No one.
"You're Jace?" She was wearing a forest green dress with a holiday pin of candy canes on her lapel.
"Well come in, come in. It's freezing out there."
I wiped my feet on the mat and we stepped into the inner warmth of the house. The first thing I noticed was the profound temperature change, which melted the frost from my eyebrows and eyelashes. After that, I noticed the smells, home smells. Something savory was cooking in the kitchen and pinecones were burning on the hearth. It made me hug the duffle with an ache that had nothing to do with my battered ribs. The house itself had hardwood floors broken up by crocheted area rugs and worn, simple furnishings. Comfortable. Friendly.
I set down the duffle and pulled my cap off my greasy black hair in respect. Nervously, I glanced about with my one good eye. There had to be a catch. There was. The entrance hall was decorated with a framed picture of Jesus. And I could see, out in the living room, that the Christmas tree was covered with doves, crosses, mini-manger scenes and angels.