WORK BY MICHAEL A. VANKERCKHOVE
He’s supposed to call in an hour.
This is killing me. I want this to happen. Why shouldn’t this happen? Whatever—whoever—this is….
We have some time. Let me catch you up.
V-A-N-K-E-R-C-K-H—They can’t—or won’t—fit my entire last name—firstname.lastname@example.org. My first e-mail address. *Sigh*
V-A-N-K-E-R-C-K-H92@wmich.edu: I log onto the intercampus VAX computer system, the primitive orange glow of words and the cursor lights my face in an otherwise unlit-from-the-inside tiny room which passes as my dorm’s computer lab. My eyes take comfort in the street lamps and Christmas lights in dorm windows across the street reflecting off West Michigan snow. I am nearly 24 years younger. My hair is about twelve inches longer.
Open Forum: The intercampus online discussion board in the early hours of the Internet with topics—Items—ranging from the silly to the serious to the sublime. The Poetry Item, the Theatre Item, the Chess Item, the Religion Item, the Word Association Item.
The Say Anything Item….
In which one can—say anything—to anyone, or about anything. By name or pseudonym. Free speech that is prone to abuse—but never is. Even if in an instance it sends the heart into the air without a safe place to land.
This night, in the week before finals and a blend of anticipation and dread of the holiday ahead, I read the following:
“I would like to ask Mike Van K. if he’s seeing anyone.” Signed, ‘Nobody.’
“To Nobody: e-mail me!” You are somebody. And isn’t that what we all need?
A couple nights later, back in the darkened computer room, drunk on a combination of Strawberry Hill Boone’s Farm, Mad Dog 20/20, and 5 O’clock Vodka consumed at the Theatre Department Christmas party, I log on again.
Shelly Wall—I love her name! Shelly Wall has posted: “Oh come on! We all want to know!”
“Well, for all your curiosity, and so you can all get on with your lives, No, I’m not seeing anyone—male or female!”
The next day, Nobody finally responds: “I don’t think I can.”
“Nobody: Please! Curiosity is flowing out of me!”
Nobody’s male gender is confirmed when he sends me an anonymous Trans—as in Transmitted Message, a caveman’s combination of e-mail and Instant Message: “I’m seeing a girl and she has a girlfriend on the side. So, I’m wondering what it would be like to have a relationship with another guy. When we’re together, I feel very comfortable with you. If you could figure out who I am, it would be a lot easier for me.”
Wow! Okay, so I know this guy, and have hung out with him. And he’s chosen me—me—for his first foray into man-on-man love. I’m flattered! Who the hell could it be?!
Adam F.? Nope.
Rodney B.? Denied.
Another online session: My take-no-bullshit-lesbian friend Jen VAX phones me. (That’s where the entire screen is split in two and you type in real time with someone. Of course you can’t do anything else while you’re doing this. Technology really has come a long way since then.) I tell her all I know about this secret admirer of mine.
And she says, “I know who it is.”
“Enlighten me or die.”
I need confirmation, however. I Trans Todd: “Is it you?”
Jen comes over and we have a Meaningful Late Night Dorm Room Conversation, the heart-on-the-sleeve kind where we discuss religion, sexuality, the future, where the exact content may not be remembered, but the emotions linger onward forever. All this so as to not wrap myself up in dirty sheets and obsess the night away about Todd’s short dark hair, the full set of facial hair he’s recently grown in, his adorable smile, his deep dark eyes, and geek & freak chic.
Okay, confession: Until all this went down, until the suggestion of Todd in this light was planted in my brain, I didn’t really think anything of him. That sounds bad. I mean, I didn’t think in terms of Him and Me. Together. Like that. He’s always been this cool guy we hang out with, ya know. But now he’s all I think about.
The next night, bursting, I call him—on the regular phone—and leave an answering machine message. I call our friend, Jeremy. “Is it Todd?” Just as the second “d” in his name bounces off my tongue, I hear his voice in the background. I don’t know who he’s talking to. Jeremy gives me a negative.
Click-tap-click, I hear Jeremy on his computer—he’s so lucky to have his own. He says he has Nobody on VAX phone. “What do you wanna say to him, man?”
“Tell him I don’t like being fucked around like this! Don’t pique my curiosity and then hold back! Tell him not to worry about how I’ll react.”
“He’ll call you in an hour.”
The phone rings.
“I am Nobody.” Todd’s voice.
“So, my girlfriend, you know, Susan?”
“She just broke up with her girlfriend, and, well, she’s the only person I can see myself with right now, ya know.”
“I just wanted to let you know I find you very attractive.”
“She was with us in Jer’s room, so I couldn’t….”
“Yeah…. Hey, we’ll get together after Christmas and just talk about everything, okay?”
The first weekend of the new semester: I trek across the deep snow and deep freeze of campus to Todd’s dorm.
(He makes laser blast sounds.)
He and Jeremy are in the middle of watching Return of the Jedi. I sit next to Todd. Close, closer, closest. The Ewoks dance the finale and Jeremy goes back to his own room.
Finally, we talk. But this is no Meaningful Late Night Dorm Room Conversation. We talk about what can only be described as Stuff, where the lingering feeling is hallow and cold.
I do stay the night. He has no roommate. What we didn’t say—don’t say—is concentrated into what seems like years of holding each other. Tight. No space between our bulges in black denim. We remain silent and still. Both afraid to do or…
If there is a time not to be afraid, this should be it. Or at least fear shouldn’t matter. Nothing can happen when both are silent. Or even if one of us is. My millions of words and wants teeter up and down in my brain and don’t know when or where they’ll land.
We sleep in separate beds.
I wake up a few hours later hoping the weather has closed school again. No luck. I leave Todd to sleep and head down to the cafeteria—one I’m not used to. Coffee. An egg sandwich. And Tater Todds—Tater Tots. Unshowered, unshaven, wearing the same clothes as yesterday, I head to my campus office job with a trace of Todd’s cologne as my only hint of personal hygiene.
I walk through the dark winter morning very, very slowly. I am very, very sore. And the new layer of ice beneath my Doc Martens is dangerous. Definitely not a safe place to land.