Sometimes a person walks into your life and changes everything. Sometimes you don't even know them. It's as if they're made out of air, dispensed by time, planted in the river just to bend the stream.
His name was Darren. To say I didn't know him would be an understatement. In high school, in the late 1990s, in the suburbs of Southern California, I spent a lot of time on AOL. I became chat-room friends with someone who was my age, who had my same first name, who lived in San Francisco. After graduating high school, I took a train up to San Francisco to meet him IRL. Darren was that guy's friend.
We went out for pizza in the Castro, which blew my mind. This was before internet dating, before apps, before Manhunt, Grindr, and Scruff. In the '90s, if you wanted to meet other gay people, you had to physically locate yourself in a place where lots of gay people were and then walk around. It was impossible to imagine, walking through the Castro, that all these different guys were gay. Even that guy across the street in the business suit? Just then, the guy in the business suit would turn and give another guy a kiss as he got into a taxi. There were stores that sold rainbow wind socks and penis-shaped swizzle sticks. There was a Starbucks with only men inside.
The AOL friend's friends met us for pizza. One of them was Darren. He was a decade older than me. He was smart, mathy, worldly, cynical, soft-spoken, experienced, and interesting. He was moving to Seattle to go to graduate school in pharmacology at the University of Washington. His boyfriend (my age, also eating pizza with us) was moving to Seattle with him, to be an undergraduate at UW. Staring at Darren's face had a funny effect on time. Our conversations went on and on. We talked for two days straight.
Then we were hanging out on a beach, preparing to say goodbye, while airplanes flying in and out of SFO went by overhead. Darren was saying that he and his boyfriend were probably going to get a two-bedroom apartment near UW and look for a roommate.
"What if I were your roommate?" I asked.
That seemed like a silly question to him—after all, I was supposed to go to University of California, Santa Cruz, and classes started in two months—but he said, chuckling, "Well, that would make looking for a roommate easier."
I was dead serious. Neither of my parents was able to cosign on the financial-aid forms for UCSC, and I was worried about how I was going to pay for it. Plus, I'd visited UW before, because my grandma lived in Seattle, and I'd wanted to go there, mostly because of the reading room at Suzzallo Library, and I had applied as an out-of-state student, and I had been stung by the rejection.
I called my grandma to ask what she thought of me moving to Seattle instead of Santa Cruz, establishing residency, and applying to UW again. She thought it was a "fabulous" idea. I asked my mom, who was (like me back then) a born-again Christian, what she thought about me moving to Seattle, and she asked why I would want to live with gay people. I told her that I wanted to convert them to Christianity. As ludicrous as it sounds, she bought it. I called UCSC and told them I wasn't coming, and the administrator on the other end of the line sounded shocked.
I wasn't consciously aware of what I was doing. My subconscious knew exactly what it was doing. My body knew where it needed to be before my brain did. My body knew it needed to be outside of California, knew it the way a plant knows about light. A transformation was about to occur, and somehow my insides knew it would not be able to occur in California. Being in California meant being subjected to the soft surveillance of my family, and it meant answering to all my old selves. Plus, I was an uptight, God-fearing 17-year-old, and Santa Cruz did not seem like a good place to me. Santa Cruz seemed like a detestable horde of left-wingers and nudists and drug users. (It now seems ideal.)
That flight to Seattle was like stepping off a cliff, and being in Seattle was like a free fall: a funny feeling in the stomach, fresh air, the shock of freedom. Darren picked me up from the airport. He had spiky blond hair, an earring, and confidence. He was calm. He wasn't uptight about himself the way I was. He wore flannel shirts and boots and had a truck. We both liked Automatic for the People by R.E.M. He also introduced me to less-well-known bands. Every time he spoke, my heart did a dance.
A week after I got to Seattle, in 1998, I told Darren I was gay. He was the first person I ever told. We were standing outside our apartment in the U-District, right along I-5. We could see, in the distance, the tops of downtown skyscrapers.
"I'm flattered you're telling me first," Darren said, holding his cigarette away from his body and looking me in the eyes. "I know how hard it is to say the words."
"Could you tell?"
I wanted him to say that he was surprised, that I seemed so straight, but he smiled gently and said, "I kind of figured. You did move up here to live with us."
The official reason I swerved so unexpectedly up the West Coast was my deep-seated desire to go to UW, assisted by my grandmother's proximity and enthusiasm, but Darren was the real reason. I would have followed him anywhere. I wanted to model my life after his. I had that thing many people have when they fall for someone: I wanted to be him. And if I couldn't, I wanted to build my life with him. Granted, the boyfriend wasn't going to make that easy. But don't relationships end all the time? Things fall apart—right?
Darren set up a futon in my room for me to sleep on. He gave me a dresser to put my clothes in. He taught me how to ride the bus, how to pull the cord when you wanted to stop. We didn't have buses where I grew up.
Sharing the apartment with his boyfriend was a bummer. Not the boyfriend personally—he was actually hilarious, a drag performer, etc.—but the existence of a boyfriend was a bummer. I felt jealous, and I felt guilty for hanging out in the apartment we shared, because I was a third wheel. If only I wasn't there, they could have alone time in front of the TV.
Sometimes I would hop on a bus going downtown and walk around Westlake Center and Pacific Place, just to give them space. One evening around dusk, three weeks after I'd come out to Darren but before I'd told anyone else, I boarded a 71 bus headed downtown. It was a double- bodied bus with one of those accordion midsections. The padded bench at the very back seemed kingly, what with all the legroom, so I sat there.
"Got a dollar?" a man said.
"C'mon, a dollar," the man said, sitting down next to me.
I didn't know how to extricate myself, whether to respond, what to say. "I don't have any money, sorry. I work at Blockbuster." I'd transferred from the Blockbuster I worked at in high school to a low-ceilinged, flickeringly lit Blockbuster in University Village.
"Got a problem with Mexicans?" the guy said.
"You don't like Mexicans."
"What? That's not true. I like Mexicans." I'd had a crush on a boy in high school who was half-Mexican, half-Chinese—not that I was going to mention that.
"No you don't. And you've got money."
"No I don't. I make minimum wage."
He could sense my nervousness. I'd never lived in a city before, never had to fend off any situations like this. He'd gotten me talking, which meant I was an easy mark.
"Then give me your watch."
Three other guys, friends of his, sat down on either side of us, and one of them pulled out a knife and held it up to my leg. It was a small knife, but it was enough to get the job done. The tip glinted in the light of the bus.
"My dad gave me this watch," I practically yelled, frantic to attract attention. "You can't have it," I wailed. If I could get someone, anyone, to turn around, maybe the guy wouldn't stab me. The bus was almost full. But the other passengers sat perfectly still, facing forward. Not even a glance my way. I felt betrayed by their neutrality.
I leaped out of my seat, depriving the man with the knife the opportunity to sink it into me. I found a seat farther up, so that there would be passengers behind me in case the guys got up and followed me to my new seat and stabbed me to death.
The guys got up and followed me to my new seat. Another passenger even got out of the way, to let the harassers crowd around me.
"Please. I have nothing. Please don't hurt me," I said.
"Are you a cocksucker?" the main guy asked.
How was I supposed to answer? How could he see my secret? Was it that obvious? Was it radiating out of me?
While I tried to think of a response, he punched me. Hard. He clocked me on my right cheekbone. He hit me hard enough that the left side of my head slammed into the window. Two kinds of pain, blossoming across my skull. I couldn't believe the sensation, which was less like pain and more like separation. I felt—I imagined—my face splitting. My head was two halves moving in different directions. I tried to see my reflection in the glass, to confirm that that's what was happening, that one side of my face was sliding toward the ceiling of the bus and one side was sliding toward my lap, but it was too light outside to see myself in the glass. In the unreality of the moment, I thought I had to hold my head together with my hands to have any hope of my face staying in one piece.
The bus driver, having heard the crack of my head on the glass, stopped, the back door opened, and the assailants escaped as the driver walked back to where I was sitting and asked if I was okay. I told him I was trying to keep my face from separating. He asked if he should call the cops. The guys were already gone. The bus was crowded. I said not to worry about it. He offered me an extra bus transfer. I had no need for an extra transfer, but I accepted it, to make him feel better about wanting to make me feel better.
I expected a fellow passenger to say something, maybe even apologize for not intervening, but as the bus got under way again, silence prevailed. My shock at being punched rivaled my shock at the silence. So this is Seattle, I thought.
I held it together until I got off the bus downtown, then I started sobbing. I walked around until the tears stopped, then got on a bus headed back home, my head pounding. I couldn't call my parents because I'd just been gay-bashed. It was either that or an attempted mugging with a shamefully accurate slur thrown in. I couldn't call my grandma for the same reason, or anyone back in California. There was no one on the planet I felt comfortable talking about it with. Except Darren.
He made me tea and gave me bags of frozen vegetables to hold against my face. He told me that the gray and purple bruises I had for weeks looked tough. He gave me advice about aggressive panhandlers: Don't say a thing. He gave me advice about the bus: Never sit at the very back. He gave me a book that made coming out easier: The Best Little Boy in the World by Andrew Tobias. He was a friend, the first friend I had in this new world, on the other side of the cultural divide from the fundamentalist Christians who constituted my previous reality. He helped me shed my skin.
Three months after the incident on the bus, I met my first boyfriend. I went home with him the day we met, and never went back to that apartment in the U-District. That boyfriend was Darren's age, and he took on Darren's role: He became my guide to adulthood. Once I was on boyfriend island, I didn't see Darren much anymore, which was probably good for his relationship. They ended up staying together another five years. I may have lived with Darren for only four months, but he had a bigger impact on my life than almost anyone.
• This piece appears in the 2018 Queer Issue as “That One Roommate.” See also: “That One Serial Killer” by Dan Savage, “That One Drag Queen” by Jinkx Monsoon, “That One Writer” by Sophia Stephens, “That One Filmmaker” by Chase Burns, “That One Coworker” by Trisha Ready, “That One Teacher” by Katie Herzog, “That One Parent” by Jing Jing Wang, “That One Radical Faerie” by Marc Castillo, “That One Songwriter” by Eli Sanders, “That One Spouse” by Natalie Wood, and “That One DJ” by Charles Mudede.