Dex was flat out on his bed that Sunday morning, staring at the ceiling. He was dressed for church, and just killing time now till his Mom was ready to go.
He looked around the room, thinking about the posters he’d put up on his wall since meeting Alex. Only posted because they were pictures of guitarists, sure, inspiration, but they were all guys, weren’t they? No supermodels up there. And they were all good looking guys. And why did he have that poster of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, huh? Because none of them had shirts on?
“I can’t be gay,” he said out loud, but barely, mouthing the words with even less force than he mustered for singing. Four words that had so many meanings. He couldn’t be gay, because it wasn’t allowed, he’d be despised by everyone he ever knew. He couldn’t be gay, because real gays are flamers, queens, that guy Jack on “Will and Grace.”
He hadn’t gone to Alex’s house yesterday, after his early morning shift at the warehouse. For weeks now, he’d been getting off at 11 and meeting Alex for breakfast. He snorted to himself, his dark sense of humor still with him – how gay was that, fucking brunch?
Yesterday he just…didn’t show up. Didn’t call and cancel. Couldn’t face his friend, and couldn’t face telling him he couldn’t face him. Couldn’t stand to lie, and couldn’t stand to tell the truth.
Sexual feelings weren’t new to him, of course. He’d been masturbating like a pro for years now. He got a raging boner, and he took care of it. The feeling itself was so good, and the boners so automatic, that they didn’t need any stimulation to come, so to speak.
He thought about a day a few weeks ago when he’d hung out with his old friends, one of whom had just gotten a fast Internet connection, not like the dial-up the rest of them were still stuck with. They’d immediately gone to some porno site, where they couldn’t see much without a credit card, but there were enough little clips for free to give you the idea of what lay behind the paywall.
Sure, he’d gone home and jerked off afterwards. But was it to the women he’d seen onscreen, or to the looks on his friends’ faces, the loose slack faces of young men in lust? Had he spent more time looking at them looking at women than he’d spent looking at the screen himself? He hadn’t thought about it at the time, had just…run home and serviced himself. When the others asked him if he’d jerked off, he’d said “Hell, yeah!” with all the enthusiasm he could muster, and even got in on the jokes as they high-fived each other, as he said, “I just jerked off with that hand aha hahaha!” and everyone freaked out.
But he wasn’t gay. He’d just proven it. Right?
Laycee had been after him for a year now. She flaunted herself in the halls, rubbed up against him as he passed, and even managed to get her locker assigned near his this year – he didn’t wanna think about how she’d done that. She’d made a project of “gettin’ him,” and failure was not an option.
Dex had always tried to be real nice to her; he hadn’t yet discovered that being real nice could only encourage someone. He was…put off by her forward ways. Repulsed would be too strong a word, but there was something about her wanton sexuality that seemed just…wrong to him.
But in a blind haze, he’d called her at last yesterday, and asked her if she wanted to go out that night. His mom was so thrilled he was going out with a girl at last that she let him borrow the car.
It didn’t take long for them to skip dinner, and the movie, and park in the woods and have at it. Dex was so aflame he probably could have fucked a sheep at that point, and only once did the image of Alex enter his mind. That was when he’d put the condom on, of course, and just as the attempt was making him soft, the memory of him and Alex talking about sex ed brought the face, the body, the eyes, the heat of Alex into his mind, and suddenly he was hard as a rock again…
She seemed a little disappointed that he used a rubber, Dex could tell. But there was no way he was putting his baby batter in a girl. No, the odds against him leaving this town were bad enough, without him getting stuck with a kid. Then he’d never, ever leave.
Dex was no fool. As he lay there on the bed, he knew what would have happened without the thought of Alex. He would have gotten soft and looked into his date’s blurry, expectant eyes, and made his apologies. It was Alex he’d gotten hard for.
But he’d lost his virginity, to a girl! That made him straight, right? No matter what he had to think about to accomplish that. Right?
He heard his mother shouting downstairs. “Come on, Mike, dammit. You never go anymore.”
“Hell no I don’t go,” his father shouted back. “It’s fuckin’ football season.”
“Football ain’t on till noon for a reason, you know.”
“You want me to miss the pregame show?”
“DEX! Let’s go!”
Dex rolled off the bed, looked in the mirror, adjusted his tie, and clamped his Dallas Cowboys ball cap on his head. He’d have to take it off at church, but he was damned if he’d take it off before then. Just because he didn’t want to play football didn’t mean he didn’t love watching it.
He had to laugh. What kinda queer would be a Dallas Cowboys fan, right?
They had a special guest speaker at church that day. Pastor Neil Panko was a leading force in the movement against gay marriage…oh wait. He wasn’t against anything. No, he was “for traditional marriage.” Smile, smile, happy face. The verbiage about how gays were “hellbent on destroying marriage” was reserved for the pre-election flyers sent out from faceless groups with Orwellian names like “Family Research Council” or “National Organization for Marriage,” that put out frenzied EMERGENCY ALERTS about what the gays were up to now, at the end of which they asked, “Won’t you please consider making a generous donation of $35, $50, $100, $500 or even $1,000 if God has given you the means to help NOM elect marriage champions?”
Karl Rove had engineered the upcoming 2004 election to be a referendum not on George W. Bush, not on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not on the stumbling economy, but on gay marriage. If you could get enough Christians to the polls to vote on constitutional amendments against gay marriage, well, of course they’d also vote for W.
In Mississippi, Amendment 1 was on the ballot this year. “Marriage may take place and may be valid under the laws of this state only between a man and a woman.” And Pastor Panko was beating the drum around the state to make sure it not only passed, but passed overwhelmingly – to “send a message.”
Dex was at church today, as he was so rarely anymore since he’d met Alex. He was here because he thought it would help. If God could take away these thoughts…just…take them away, well then, He surely existed no matter what Alex said.
The Pastor was a good-looking man. So many preachers were so buttoned-up, so…waxy. Their faces were tight and shiny and yeah, Alex was right, they had “Devo hair” – so much hairspray on their perfectly parted coifs that it looked like a plastic shell on their head, a life-size Ken Doll wig.
But Pastor Neil was different. He was athletic, lean, a little bit of five o’clock shadow already accenting his jaw. He had an animal energy as he left the pulpit, taking the microphone with him, leaving the stage and walking among the people. His dark eyes shone brightly, and he often ran his hands through his dark hair to keep it out of his eyes. He kind of looked like Alex, Dex thought, if Alex would ever be caught dead in slacks and a tie.
“Now there are so many people out there who say this is all about hate. Well, it’s not.” He shook his head to a chorus of ‘amens’ from the usually quiet parishioners. “It’s not. If you love something, and you defend it, that doesn’t have to mean you hate the people who are attacking it. No! And I’ll tell you something. I don’t hate the gays. I don’t want to change them.”
He was coming down the aisle towards Dex now, and their eyes met. Dex’s body responded to the heat in his eyes. “I love them and I forgive them. And you know what?” he asked Dex directly, standing only a few feet away. “I don’t think you choose to be gay.”
The crowd murmured, shocked.
“I don’t. I think maybe you’re born that way. But some people are also born with murderous rage in their hearts, too, but they don’t go kill anyone. Some people are born with a thirst for liquor, a genetic predisposition to it. But they don’t drink.”
“Yes!” the crowd said, behind him now.
“But you can control it. You can refuse it.” His eyes bored into Dex’s, as if seeing everything Dex had ever thought, ever wanted. “You can’t pray away the gay. But you can pray away the urge to sin.”
Pastor Neil walked away, and Dex shivered with the shock of it. The man’s eyes had said it plain as day – I know you, because I’m just like you.
He waited till the crowd receded before he went up to Pastor Neil. “Thank you for that,” he said, extending his hand.
Pastor Neil smiled, knowingly, not taking his hand. “You’re welcome, son. Did that help you some?”
Dex dropped his hand. “Yeah. I think so.”
“You can fight this,” Pastor Neil whispered. “I’ve fought it, and I’ve won. Now see,” he smiled, “I would love to shake your hand, young man, or put a consoling hand on your shoulder, but I know what that would do to me. So I avoid it. That’s the way you control it.”
“I screwed a girl last night,” Dex blurted for no reason he could fathom.
Neil smiled. “That’s good. If you can do that, that’s good. You’re gonna…” He looked around, made sure nobody was in earshot. “You’re gonna have lust in your heart for men,” he whispered. “But you can fight it. If you can redirect it, that’s good. Get married, son, have kids. Hell,” he laughed, scratching the back of his head. “I don’t know anyone with a couple of kids who hasn’t given up on sex anyway.”
Dex laughed, thinking about how many years it had probably been since his own parents had done it.
In the car on the way home, he was surprised to realize that his sense of blissful relief was short-lived. All he could think about was trying to shake Pastor Neil’s hand, and being rebuffed. This, the idea that he’d never even touch a man again…it filled him with a profound sadness and sense of loss he couldn’t even describe.
“Let me out here,” he blurted.
“What? What for?”
“I forgot, I told Alex I’d come by.” He got out of the car and nearly ran to his friend’s house.
Alex opened the door, surprised. “Hey.” He didn’t ask Dex about Saturday. Didn’t need to, Dex could see.
“I gotta talk to you.”
“Sure. Come on upstairs.”
In Alex’s room, Dex took the desk chair for the first time, instead of taking his usual place on the floor, against the bed, next to Alex.
“I’m not gay.”
“Okay,” Alex said, a neutral statement, designed to encourage Dex to go on. His parents had taught him that, of course, not the school system.
“And I wanna be your friend. But…nothing gay, okay?”
“Sure. Friends.” Alex stuck his hand out.
Dex hesitated. But he couldn’t do it, couldn’t go as far as Pastor Panko. Couldn’t retreat into a shell that thick, that cold.
He took his friend’s hand. “Best friends. Forever.”
“Yes,” Alex said simply.