The Stranger

I could see Bill's* eyes tracking mine in brief furtive glimpses between scrolling lines of green code.

We were 12 years old and seated next to each other at a beige school computer in homeroom. We'd started talking that October, never looking at each other when we did, for no other reason than the alphabetizing that seated us at the same table.

All preteens are ridiculous pupae, and his particular affliction was that he looked perpetually sullen and pouty, perhaps because his face was composed primarily of cheeks. As for myself, I pulled my socks up too high and talked like a tiny Carl Sagan. None of the other boys in the class could make any sense of us, and we made none of them.

Bill disliked everything, and I was disliked by almost everyone.

Most mornings, we'd sit at the computer, him describing video games he wanted to play and me doing my best to program them with my limited knowledge of BASIC. In 15-minute increments over the course of a year, we built a rudimentary dialogue-branching computer game.

The story was about two wilderness explorers, connected only by intermittent radio signals as they attempt to rescue each other in a hostile forest. There is obviously no deeper psychological meaning to our collaborative arrival upon this storyline.

Our interactions stay with me because they felt so furtive and heart-pounding. I was used to being socially unhappy; I was, after all, president of the computer club, an organization that under my stewardship became dedicated to the strenuous avoidance of human contact. As far as I was concerned, terror was simply to be expected as a normal part of any conversation. But I felt a new alarm at our exchange: We were like two rabbits who had just sensed the rumble of a tractor over their den.

It was my first time experiencing gaydar, and I was baffled. What was this strange new sensory input? It wasn't quite friendship and wasn't quite attraction—it was a sort of sad sympathy, an understanding of living outside of what boys ought to be. It was as though we each carried a magnet we'd never noticed before, and were still unable to locate and name.

I had no idea then what it meant to be gay, or what it meant to feel kinship with another who was befuddled by gender. But I knew what it was to be afraid of those things.

There are only three times that I can recall Bill's eyes meeting mine. The first time was as I coded, catching the glint of his eyes looking past the screen's green text into mine.

The second time was right before he attacked me, five years later.

Once we were adrift in high school, Bill and I discovered cause for mutual disgust. He managed to unscramble the rules of teen masculinity with the help of some new sports-oriented friends who did not much care for me.

They might have been surprised to learn that I disliked myself nearly as much as they did. Their distaste reminded me of my own self-loathing, only they were freed of the misfortune of actually having to be me.

I often wondered if I reminded Bill of himself.

We did not speak much after choosing our high school tribes. His people fashioned armor out of football gear and muscle; my group guarded ourselves with ironic detachment. Once, crossing paths in an empty hallway, I thought we might exchange words; instead, he slapped the books out of my hands and kept walking. That was probably the only interaction we had for the entirety of 10th grade.

Because of our last names, we were often placed in the same required courses. In gym class, he boasted to friends about how he was building muscle. I still didn't know much about what it meant to be gay, but I knew what it was to crave the attention of men. I still felt the pull of the magnet in that moment—the pull that I'd felt for the first time sitting next to him in homeroom and was increasingly noting when around other boys. I'll never know if he felt it from me, or if the force had grown repulsive to him, or if his field had faded altogether.

Meanwhile I cultivated a pastiche of fruitcakery. He wore football uniforms to school, and I would shake my head and think, "What on earth could possess a person," while carefully protecting my painted nails.

"Why are your nails painted?" asked one of the other boys in the locker room one day.

"I just like it," I said.

"Are you gay?" he said.

"Yes, but that's not why," I said, for some insane reason that I can't even begin to explain.

I saw Bill's head snap around at the far end of the locker room. It was a long, curious stare, disbelief with a hint of a smile, that I recognized as eager and hopeful from five years of distance. Then his friends moved toward me, and he joined them, once again avoiding eye contact.

There's nothing quite like having a dedicated group of abusers, especially when you're perfectly capable of feeling ugly without any help from them. The only thing more dispiriting than being informed by a football team that they don't care for your faggoty mincing is being informed by way of their fists.

Toward the end of my junior year, I got a little better at interpreting my gaydar's magnetic pull. There was a boy in the music program who loved Kate Mulgrew and attempted to give me a makeover, and another in drama club who shared my interest in massages.

At a parents-out-of-town house party that spring, I sat next to one of my friends on a bed. We'd spent the evening darting our eyes at each other and then away and then back, and eventually a girl on the lacrosse team who knew more about us than we knew about ourselves grew sick of this standoff and shoved us into a bedroom. By then, I'd come to recognize the signal of furtive gazes and of alliances with girls that never led to romance, but I didn't know what to do about it.

As the party careened around us, we inched closer and closer, then rested heads on shoulders, then turned our faces for a kiss.

Now I knew.

A few years ago, a high school friend e-mailed with the news of Bill. He was speeding, and news articles mentioned an elevated blood alcohol level at the time of his death.

This was the third time I can recall our eyes meeting, and it was again through a computer screen. There was an image of Bill alongside the article, and although I hadn't spoken to him in over a decade, I immediately recalled in his eyes the conversations I wished we'd had.

I didn't know him—certainly not as a man, and not much further beyond the 12-year-old boy.

I do feel certain that we shared a sympathy of some form, and then later a harsh discord. We were boys searching for our place among boys, and although we grew more separated with every passing year—first by lines of code, then the tense air of the locker room, and eventually the yawn of death—he was the first to help me to understand my place among men. He was the first to direct me, from a vast distance, toward feelings of affection. He was my first hint that someone might return my signal in the wilderness—inexact, obscure, and imprecise until the moment of a kiss. recommended

* His name and a few minor identifying details have been changed.