The Amazon Trail
I always thought I’d suffered my first few weeks of college. It was horrible, I was completely unprepared, but I survived. Instead of getting on a train and taking Tyler Clementi’s long jump, I got on a train and went to my big brother’s office to announce that I was quitting school.
What was I thinking? What did I expect my brother to do? Was I thinking? No; I was just feeling and what I felt must have been similar to what drove Tyler off his bridge: despair, fear, hopelessness, humiliation, shame, blinding desire, loneliness, desperation. You can’t think when you’re a seething vat of emotions and hormones. You can’t make a good decision. You just want to end the pain.
Like Tyler, I was assigned a straight roommate my first semester. Like Tyler’s roommate, mine lived in a world so extremely foreign to me we could have been different species. She wanted to become a fashion designer, marry a nice boy, move back to Pennsylvania and raise a family. I wanted to become a writer, fall in love with a thousand girls, move back to New York City and drink like Dylan Thomas.
Instead of web cams back then, we had gossip. I dressed like someone out of the Beebo Brinker stories in Bermuda shorts, knee sox and Oxford cloth shirts. I was the only student, female or male, to bring my bicycle to campus, and listened to FM radio jazz, not rock and roll. Like Tyler, I was just plain different. I learned later that the other students shunned me, made fun of me, whispered about me. There were three of us weirdos on my dorm floor. I was the queer one, although in 1963 nice girls barely knew what that meant.
The first night in our new lives, my roommate and I went to a freshman mixer together. It was packed, loud, filled with that foreign gender, boys. I backed off, lost the roommate, left immediately. Outside, on the strange campus that still appears in my nightmares, I was as alone as any being on this planet had ever been. I was as alone as Tyler Clementi. Thank goodness the romance of the bridge - Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge, Walt Whitman’s “Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold, Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul” – was not a romance that drew me. I simply knew I would get nothing but confusion and misery from four years in the alien land of hetero-college and that I would do better on my own.
On the other hand, I suspected those years were not the worst thing that could happen to a young gay. College was a privilege. The relative cloistering might have been a cosseted cushion between childhood and the demands of adulthood. It was not. Maturity gives us an anonymity and freedom to crash and burn that’s hard to achieve in the micro-world of school. Tyler knew he couldn’t stay at Rutgers and escape the condemnation and ridicule his roommate’s boorish video-assault would bring. Maybe he hadn’t been through and hardened by castigation and bullying before. Clearly, he had fewer defenses than I had.
Already, I’d toughed out the schoolyard hounding. Already, I knew there was a community out there, if I could just get to it. Already, I was on medications to still my fears. And I reached out to my semi-sensible brother who reached out to my sensible father. I said nothing about being a pariah. How can you tell your family a thing like that? I only told them I wanted to get a job and live in the city, that college was a waste for me. At my father’s urging, I gave school one more try.
My poor innocent roommate avoided me. Complained about my drunken late nights. Never came back after that first semester. An artist down the hall invited me to room with her and we’re still fast friends. I found a sort of girlfriend and spent many weekends in the city, feeling like an outsider in the gay bars, but the gossamer thread of my soul at least could anchor there.
Oh, Tyler, how I wish I, or someone, could have been your guardian angel through those hellish weeks. Mine was a straight male upperclassman named Jonathan who liked my writing, hung out with me and impressed my tormentors with his motorcycle, marijuana and getting kicked out of Columbia University. The other weirdo girls left school, but I made it through. I was lucky: Jonathan and his anti-establishment literary friends, all my elders, took me under their wings and kept my victimization from going viral. They became my life-saving, not lethal, bridge.
Copyright Lee Lynch 2012