Image Credit: Casey McClelland
I have always been incandescently gay. My homosexuality is a part of me but also a companion, a thing outside myself: born with me, but growing independently. It manifests as a nasal voice, slim wrists, as that “gay gaze”—the way men catch my eye. These are things I cannot erase and as a result, when people encounter me, they think about whom I sleep with. There’s something about an obviously gay man or lesbian women, or even potentially transgender person that makes many people stop and stare or whisper to their companions. They think about who we have sex with and how. Because being demonstrably queer is to be instantly sexualized.
Where straight people aren’t instantly defined by their sexuality, queer people are. We’re thought of in regards to sex acts. There are so many historical and cultural spokes on this wheel, but for me, I can feel it when people see me walk or hear me talk. And it works both ways. For “accepting” folks, its suddenly acceptable to ask what how many penises I’ve seen, if I’m a top or bottom, or about how many threesomes or sex parties I’ve been a part of. For the less sex-crazed, I’m at least an expert on the male form, and surely I’d make an excellent friend for their daughter, sister, niece, or cousin. For the unaccepting, I’m instantly a sinner, guilty of masturbation and sodomy and probably worse. Their curiosity slowly sizzles my skin, like sunburn.
Ever since I first accepted this, it’s brought some people to me and pushed others away. Early in life, as the only openly gay teenager in a small, rural town, I attracted a bevy of closeted companions through the sheer force of my gayness alone. I wasn’t a trailblazer as much as I simply lacked the gear to walk any other trail. I also scared just as many off, those who didn’t want to be gay by association. It took a long time to grow completely comfortable with my inability to conceal what should have been a private part of myself.
And though I’ve grown comfortable, it’s an ambivalent comfort. There are days I’d love to hide, to “pass” for straight, but I don’t have it in me. Even when I deepen my voice and flatten out my expressions, there’s something that shines through.
My parents recognized this early and when I finally tumbled out of the closet at the age of sixteen, they took me on a “coming out tour” so that I could be around other openly gay people. We went to New Orleans, to Orlando, and to Provincetown. I still remember walking up Commercial Street the summer before I turned seventeen. My parents alternated holding my hand as I marvelled at the leather-clad daddies, the Muscle Marys, the twinks, the twunks, the hunks, the delightfully average. Some were holding hands, some were kissing, most were laughing and smiling. I was flabbergasted and I’m sure my parents, a police officer and a nurse from rural Pennsylvania, had never seen anything like it, either. They wanted me to feel comfortable, like I belonged, but with each trade-off they each gripped my hand tight and tighter, eager to protect me from predators.
What they failed to realize was that the men on Commercial Street weren’t whom I needed to be protected from. In fact, what all of the adults in my small Pennsylvania hometown missed was that there was no use in protecting their young men from without, because the real predator was already set up within the system. He’d been hiding in plain sight. And the thing that saved me was that incandescence, which I now see as a product of privilege: the privilege of being born to open-minded parents – the kind of middle-class Republicans who don’t seem to exist anymore – and the privilege of having the gay part of myself not only recognized but also protected.
Taking Mr. Curry’s AP English class was a kind of rite of passage for the intellectual youngsters of Meadville, Pennsylvania. Mr. Curry was seen as a teacher who could have easily taught at the college level but had instead chosen to gift his talents to the public schooling system. He wore bowties, sweater-vests, and eyeglasses with circular red frames, his old-fashioned appearance standing out starkly against Meadville High’s recently remodelled bright, blocky interior, which itself eerily resembled the inside of the county jail. Mr. Curry gave off an air of distant condescension, which made his stamp of approval or listening ear that much more rewarding to those who received it.
Mr. Curry’s class was early exposure to collegiate expectation, a jewel in the crown of our school’s college prep curriculum. By the time my senior year rolled around, I was ranked near the top of my class and ready to go to college. I was already taking classes at Allegheny College, the local liberal arts university, and I was sure that Mr. Curry’s class would be the perfect experience to transfer me from the shackles of childish high school to the sophistication of college.
In September of 2002, I was assigned to the second seat in the center row of Mr. Curry’s first period class, directly behind my friend Leanne. Every year, Mr. Curry picked a favorite. It was well known and considered significant in the community hierarchy, so all of us, myself included, entered the class eager to impress him.
I’d known many of Mr. Curry’s favorites over the years, which might seem coincidental, but ours was a very small community. The first I’d known of was Jack, the brilliant son of my parents closest friends, the Rohans, had been chosen as Mr. Curry’s favorite a few years before. Jack was a gifted athlete, attractive and muscled in an All-American way. An easy smile, solid muscles, a confident, but approachable masculinity. The Rohans were a working class family with four intelligent and beautiful children: Dan, Jack, Claire, and Vanessa, and I’d grown up with them as an extended set of siblings.
The second “favorite” I knew of was Bob, who had been my brother’s best friend growing up and who was, like Jack, a friendly, well-muscled athlete of above-average intelligence. Bob had been Mr. Curry’s favorite two years before I joined Mr. Curry’s class. The year before, Mr. Curry had two favorites: Trace, another athlete in the line of Jack and Bob, and Meg, one of my very best friends. Meg was beautiful and strange: blonde-haired and blue-eyed with a morbid streak and an exhaustive knowledge of art history and old movies.
In fact, all of these favorites were beautiful, smart, and at the very top of their classes. One of the rewards of being Mr. Curry’s favorite was an excellent college recommendation and all of them had ended up at very good schools. However, being Mr. Curry’s favorite was more than a classroom pursuit. He was known to invite his favorites over to his house for games of Scrabble and to employ them for minor jobs. More than once, I drove past Mr. Curry’s house on Chestnut Street to see Jack, Trace, or Bob out front, shirtless, chopping up a stump or emptying an eve, and Meg told me all about how Mr. Curry had hired her to install drawer-liners in his kitchen.
In our class, the list of those in contention to be Mr. Curry’s favorite quickly narrowed. Leanne, who was competing for valedictorian (which would have instantly caught Mr. Curry’s attention), had so busied herself with social justice rallies and saving-foreign children initiatives that she had no time for extracurricular sucking-up. Though I wasn’t in contention for valedictorian, I was ambitious and, having been out of the closet for two years, had learned a bit about manipulating men, gay or straight. I fancied that I could quickly learn what a man in authority wanted and give them exactly that. Though I wasn’t the most gorgeous or the most brilliant, I could arrange myself into a facsimile of someone who could be mistaken for such. And that’s what I attempted to do. On Meg’s advice, I made my knowledge and adoration of classic literature known. Knowing of Mr. Curry’s support of athletes, I wore clothing that showed off my semi-athletic frame.
And I’d come into contact with Mr. Curry before. I’d been in several local stage productions, and Mr. Curry’s signature laugh, a forced, theatrical thing, could always be heard from the audience on opening night.
Though Mr. Curry was not a physically large person, his attention in the classroom could overwhelm a student. Leanne, on more than one occasion, was reduced to flustered sweating and would excuse herself in a flurry of anxiety. I relished it. I completed my homework with vigor and demanded to be called on. When he’d give a small, sly smile at an intelligent response, butterflies would ignite in my stomach.
Mr. Curry was not an attractive man, and I realize now that this was by his own design. He was so innocuous, so asexual, that suspecting him of foul play of any sort seemed crazy. His saggy face and balding head gave him the appearance of a wrinkly baby bird. And his aforementioned style of dress, a mixture of Mr. Rogers and Edwardian librarian, would have served as an ice bath for any sexual frisson.
But he did have three distinct characteristics: his voice, which sounded like the creak of old floorboards and was punctuated by that full-bodied laugh; his jewellery, particularly rings, which featured dazzlingly large gemstones; and the light and intoxicating scent of pipe smoke that followed him everywhere he went. Those characteristics blended to make him mysterious, piquing the interest of imaginative and intellectually curious students. For me, it was this, along with his method of dispensing his approval, small smiles and dry quips meant only for the object of his attention, which really caught me in his web.
Looking back, I find it noteworthy that I do not recall a single lesson from Mr. Curry’s class. Though I remember every assignment from the comparatively maligned Mrs. Gregorzewski’s Junior English class (her homey charm and distracted style were no match for Mr. Curry’s biting wit and piercing gaze), I can’t remember a single book that I read for Mr. Curry’s class nor a single assignment, save for the exhaustive final.
After the first month of my senior year, it was clear that I was Mr. Curry’s favorite. He’d allowed me to use the computer in his classroom whenever I liked and had invited me to his upcoming Thanksgiving gathering of returning favorite students, even though it was still months away. This caused a bit of a rift between me and my classmates, but it was so warm in Mr. Curry’s spotlight that I didn’t care.
In mid-October, I went on a college visit to Oberlin College. It was a liberal arts school about two hours west of my hometown and I’d set my sights on it. My host for the weekend was a student, a black football player named Anthony who dragged me to his football practice and then ambivalently showed me around campus. That night, he’d insisted on sleeping with his dorm room window open. I lay there on the floor, cold and miserable, doubting that Oberlin was where I wanted to go. Then Anthony said, his voice just above a whisper “If you’re cold, you can share the bed with me.”
Share I did. When I asked Anthony why he’d made that first move, he said it was because he could tell I was gay. It wasn’t the most romantic disclosure, but I was willing to take what I could get. As soon as I returned home from the weekend, I told everyone about my new relationship with a black college football player, which was a big deal in very-white, very-straight Meadville High School.
I could feel the difference when I returned to Mr. Curry’s class. I hovered by his desk before the beginning of the period to engage in a bit of banter as we usually did, but he refused to look at me. Instead he stared down at his fingernails, which I noted were well manicured by awkwardly long, and coupled with his audacious rings made his hands look like those of an old British monarch. Everyone else had taken their seats, and as I turned to join them, Mr. Curry said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You have several hickeys on your neck. You must have had an eventful trip,” his voice crumbling out like kindling sinking into flames.
Red-faced, I went to my desk and sat down. Leanne, already a defender of those weaker than she, sputtered at Mr. Curry, “I don’t think that is appropriate!” Mr. Curry had, however, spent the semester learning how to avoid Leanne’s front row stare and incessant hand raising, and brushed her off.
I had a very high school sense of righteous indignation for the rest of the day until shortly before final bell, when I was called to the principle’s office. The principle, Mr. Deshner, was a beacon of kindness and one of the few openly gay men I’d ever met. He’d also been quite kind to me personally, taking me under his wing in the careful, distant way required of the publicly homosexual at that time. This was the small-town America of the early George W. Bush years, and the fear that grips so many now, false or not – fear of losing their traditions, their freedoms, their country, their morals—was on conservative minds. This was before there was much homosexuality on television or in mainstream cinema, and certainly not different types of homosexuality. It was the age of the private lesbian and the discreet gay.
Mr. Deshner looked uncomfortable as he sat me down to scold me for tarnishing the reputation of our school by engaging in inappropriate behavior on a college visit.
Horrified, I asked him what he’d heard, and he refused to comment.
“Let’s just leave it at that, Michael,” he said, his forehead sweating. He obviously didn’t want to discuss anything concerning my sex life. “Don’t do anything like this again, or there will be consequences.”
I started to cry, feeling embarrassed and persecuted, and he gave me a hard look.
“You’ve got to be more careful,” he said gruffly, making sure I met his eyes, and I knew he was right, even though it felt unfair.
My favorite status removed, I watched as a beautiful blonde classmate named Amanda took my place. They met in his classroom over lunch and between class periods. He called on her in class and guffawed at every response. It was high school; everyone’s love lives were common knowledge, and I personally knew of at least five people in our AP English class who had engaged in far riskier sexual behaviour than anything I’d come close to doing with Anthony. On top of that, Anthony and I were dating. It wasn’t as if I was just out screwing every liberal arts dorm host in the tri-state area. Still, Mr. Curry’s knowledge of and public reporting of my sex life made me feel like a slut.
I poured my efforts into college applications and my fall and winter sport, which was swimming. I had swim practice every day from four to six, but this had been complicated by the ascension of my doppelganger, Luke.
Luke was a year behind me in school and when we’d first become teammates, when I’d been a sophomore and he a freshman, we’d had a friendly relationship. He’d been about six inches shorter than me with the same build and a strikingly similar face. His looked like an exaggerated version of mine: his eyes a bit rounder, his nose a bit straighter, and his lips a bit poutier. But over the next year, he grew four inches, his body became lithe and toned, and his speed in the pool had surpassed my own. He was also straight, making him a prettier, faster, straighter version of me.
At the time, I told friends that he annoyed me because of his condescending way of. In addition to his looks and sexuality, he was also intelligent, sensitive, and approachably religious. I knew that he wasn’t that religious, as I sang in the church choir with his aunt and rarely saw him out in the congregation. But, as a straight, athletic young man, he was able to be open in his beliefs. I, as the only gay in the village, could attend church and inspire forgiveness, but sacrificed my ability to really engage because my very being was actively sinful.
It was clear that Luke didn’t annoy me so much as he made jealous. I dedicated myself to passing Luke in the pool, but I never got close. As fit as I got, Luke was fitter, and his form was far superior. Every swim practice was a reminder that Luke was like a slightly better model of myself.
Soon it came time for me to apply to college. I applied “early-admission” to Oberlin, which was a way of indicating that it was my top choice, and then applied to a bunch of the country’s best schools with the local Allegheny serving as my back up, though I told myself I’d sooner die than go to college in my hometown. I wanted out. Though I knew I’d fallen out of favour, I had gotten straight As in Mr. Curry’s class and was heartened when he agreed to write me a recommendation. He even looked pleased when I asked, that gleam I’d previously been so familiar with returning for just a moment.
Leanne had done the same, though she, too, sat well outside of Mr. Curry’s favour. He seemed to have special disdain for her scatter-brained form of genius. All frizzy brown hair, sweat, muscle, and manic action, Leanne was beautiful in motion, her positivity and energy infectious. Her intelligence was obvious but also inviting. She was the cool, blonde Amanda’s polar opposite.
As it does in Meadville, fall faded into winter very early and by mid-November we were already weeks into grey skies and foot-deep snow. I attended Mr. Curry’s Thanksgiving gathering as Meg’s date. I drove to her house, just a few blocks up from Mr. Curry’s, and knocked on the door.
She was wearing a white, eyelet-lace dress with a built in corset. She had woven herself a crown of ivy to wear on her head and her cascade of thick blonde ringlets fell down from it. She wore a stunning purple shall, and when I commented on it she rounded her lips into a perfect red “O” and hissed, “It’s the color of royal blood.”
I almost cried. This was very Meg. It was such a thrill to see her, and I was sure she could see the happiness in my face. She twirled, showing off her dress, and then screeched as she remembered something important.
“Darling! I’ve transferred to Oberlin! I start in January!”
I nearly fell over. I was going to be going to college with my hot, black, football-playing boyfriend and my best friend?
In a flurry of joy, we leapt out into the snow and walked down the street, the snow-covered rhododendron looming along the side of the road. We reached Mr. Curry’s fashionably late and knocked on the door.
Mr. Curry opened the door and I saw on his face the same expression that I must have worn when I’d greeted Meg just a few minutes before. His smiled reached his eyes, a rare genuine smile, and he looked years younger. It was the first time I’d seen any of myself in him, and I felt like he’d stolen something from me. When I died there would be one smile I’d never smiled because he’d taken it before I had the chance. His smile told Meg the things that I wanted to tell her: that she was so smart, so interesting, that I was so happy to be her friend. How could such an off-putting man express affection with a mere smile? My smile was tentative, my reactions overthought, my affection expected rather than bestowed.
“Hello, you old wind bag,” Meg said, moving in for a hug, which shocked me. How could she be hugging a high school teacher? But she was a college girl now; I supposed the rules were different.
His eyes moved to me and any joy abandoned quickly vanished.
“You can put your shoes in the kitchen,” he said, and turned back into the house.
Meg and I walked into the main room, a bookshelf-lined parlor that was trying way too hard to look professorial, to find a small group of students from Meg’s year and a couple from my year gathered around drinking red punch from plastic cups. I wasn’t surprised to see Amanda there, but I was surprised to see several other classmates who I hadn’t realized were far enough into Mr. Curry’s favour to score an invite. Several welcomed Meg as she rounded the corner after Mr. Curry but as soon as I entered the room went silent, as if my presence was either a surprise or interrupted a conversation that couldn’t take place in my presence, such as a conversation about me.
My face reddened and, being a well-read, dramatic, homosexual high schooler, I felt like I was wearing a scarlet letter. It was the second time, following Mr. Curry’s hickey announcement, that I worried that other people were thinking about me having sex. How I must look, how I must sound in the act. There had obviously been some mention of my time with Anthony, probably the younger students bringing the older students up to date on my indiscretions, and when they saw me, with my face flushed from winter snow, they were thinking of me fucking a big, black football player. Or rather, being fucked by one. Surely that was what they thought, and I didn’t have the wit or vocabulary at the time to tell them that Anthony was a receiver on more than the football field.
Meg and I only stayed a short while, eager to slip away to meet our own friends at Perkins, Meadville’s only 24-hour diner, and drink coffee late into the night. At Perkins we ran into Luke, who was with Vanessa Rohan, my almost-sister who was now in ninth grade. Vanessa was stunningly beautiful, nearly six-feet tall, full-lipped with dark, wild hair and black eyes. Vanessa and I had been friends since the day she was born, our souls forever linked by our big imaginations and sensitive hearts. We’d spent our childhood together exploring the cemetery where her father had been caretaker while our moms gabbed on the back porch and went to Tupperware parties.
It incensed me to see her with Luke. He was gorgeous, of course. His clothing fit him perfectly, sweater hanging off him like he was an Abercrombie mannequin, whereas my chest and butt were too big and made my clothing alternately skin-tight and baggy.
I joked with Vanessa that I would tell her father, making sure Luke overheard. Meg and I went to the back of the restaurant and sat at a big table, waiting for our other friends. Meg asked if I’d gotten Mr. Curry to write me a recommendation and I said I had.
“Ask him if you can read it,” she said.
“They are really flattering. I’m sure that’s why I got into Oberlin. It said that I was one of the top three students he’d ever had. Top three! I’m sure that was hyperbole, but it was lovely to hear.”
I still remember that as my first exposure to the word hyperbole and I think Meg was mistaken to use it. I am sure that Mr. Curry loved Meg, possibly for the same reasons I loved her. Her beauty, her wit, her lightning fast quips, and her piercing, pale gaze that could catch you and freeze you in a second. Her affection was such a heavy, intense entity that when she bestowed it on me it added bulk to my own confidence.
The final swim meet of the year was my final chance to beat Luke. I failed once again, but that wasn’t the most significant thing about that final meet. As Pete, the weird coach I’d known since I’d been in the second grade, recounted stories about me and my fellow graduating seniors over the pool’s intercom, I heard a distinctive laugh rumble out from the bleacher. There, in a surprisingly suburban green LL Bean coat, was Mr. Curry, nestled in between several groups of parents, watching me and the other swimsuit-clad students.
In February, Anthony dumped me for a man in Croatia he’d met in a chat room and I also received notice that Oberlin had denied me entry. And that was just the beginning of the suffering. Each morning before Mr. Curry’s class, Leanne and I embraced in the hallway, crying as we shared with each other the rejections we’d received from colleges around the country.
One day, Meg’s advice popped back into my head and I asked if I could see the recommendation that Mr. Curry had written me.
“Of course,” he said, his voice cracking oak. “Just stay after class.”
After class, he pulled up the letter on his computer and allowed me to read it. Where Meg had been in the “top three” students Mr. Curry had ever had, I had been in the “top half.”
Once again, my face burnt hot. The top half of students? I didn’t even know if half of students from my graduating class would even be applying to college.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, tears flowing.
“Michael,” he said, and I turned. He hadn’t spoken directly to me in months. “You need to learn to control your emotions.”
I’ve always had trouble summoning words in times of conflict. My throat tightens, and back then, I used to worry about people seeing me cry. I knew that I needed to escape before I just crumpled. I fled the room.
The next month I made the incredibly poor decision of rekindle my relationship with Joel, my first boyfriend, a basketball player from a rival school. He was handsome but dumb, but I was feeling emotionally frail and I hadn’t appreciated during our first go around that his cock was absolutely enormous. It was secret romance publicly and privately, because Joel was in the closet and also because our first break-up had been so bad that I feared my father would kill either him or I if he found out we were seeing each other again. I relished doing something, however misguided, that was out of everyone else’s view. There was no one around to judge my actions, to imagine me doing whatever it was teenage boyfriends did. I wanted Joel, and whatever me and Joel consisted of, to be free from anyone else’s imagination. Particularly Mr. Curry’s, as he seemed to take pleasure in identifying and exposing our most painful teenage moments.
On Valentine’s Day, Joel’s school came to play my own. I went on a date to Arby’s with Leanne and then we went to the game together. During a time out, our school mascot, a bulldog, came out and comically attempted to romance all of the cheerleaders. It was funny because we all knew that the tragically earnest Ben Jones was inside the bulldog costume and this was likely the closest he’d ever get to true love. As the bulldog fell over, his chances at love smited by the swats of pom-poms, I heard a loud chuckle roll out behind me. I craned my neck to see Mr. Curry watching the bulldog intently.
Leanne and I clutched each other as we watched the rest of the game. I kept my eyes on Joel, who shot me wonderfully obvious looks that made me feel like Molly Ringwald. After the game, I met Joel out behind the school, by the faculty parking lot. I don’t think Joel had any real feelings for me, but he had a determined, if warped, sense of what one was supposed to do in a relationship. He’d told me he’d loved me after the first time we’d slept together, even though this followed our first meeting (at McDonald’s) by about an hour. He’d bought me extravagant Christmas presents our first December together and, after cheating on me with a guy from his youth group, had told me “It was only physical! It didn’t mean anything” which is very awkward coming from a sixteen year old, even if you are also a sixteen year old. But Joel’s relationship duty required that he do something demonstrative on Valentine’s Day, which I’d emphasized to him was also my half birthday, and he’d kissed me square on the lips outside the school after the game.
A few people saw, and Joel didn’t seem to care. Which was new. But I remember wanting to protect Joel, thinking about how his dad was a pastor and how his school was very religious. I pulled back and whirled around to see if we’d been spotted. There, walking behind a group of parents, was Mr. Curry, watching.
A few weeks later, I approached Mr. Curry’s desk in class to dispute a grade. I recall getting a 97% without any markings as to what deficit the paper had that required a 3% shave. As soon as I got to his desk, Mr. Curry sniffed the air, flicking his nose up as a snake does its tongue.
“Michael, you smell like marijuana,” he said, his voice a stage whisper, like branches clattering on a cold day. Titters and giggles burst out in the classroom. It was well known that my brother was a pothead but there was no such stigma attached to me. I’d never even had a drink, let alone smoked anything.
I was momentarily stupefied. Then rage consumed me. Even then, I could tolerate a certain amount of bitchiness, but I couldn’t abide lies.
I didn’t engage Mr. Curry. I marched into poor Mr. Deshner’s office, and he looked up, startled, as I marched into his door.
“Mr. Curry accused me of smoking pot!” I squeaked out. When I was under attack, my throat tightened, rendering me unable to speak. Tears flooded down my face.
“Well, did you?” Mr. Deshner asked, serious.
“No,” I mouthed, and then took a seat.
Mr. Deshner didn’t know quite what to do, so he called my father, a school board member, telling him I was distressed and needed to be picked up from school. By the time my father arrived I had regained my composure and was ready to strike.
I demanded an apology and, in turn, my father demanded an apology. Mr. Deshner called Mr. Curry to the office and for the first time I could remember he looked chastened. I was shocked by how brittle Mr. Curry looked next to my father, who was of a similar age but was pulsing with life.
“I am very sorry, Michael,” Mr. Curry said, his voice no more than splinters.
Mr. Deshner advised me to avoid one-on-one contact with Mr. Curry. I went to class, of course, but did not visit the classroom in between periods. If I had a grade to dispute, I was supposed to go through Mr. Deshner, though I received only excellent scores after that.
I was accepted at Allegheny College and enrolled, though I felt like a failure.. In truth, Allegheny was an excellent school, but I imagined that I’d only gotten in there because I was from Meadville. There had been many solid Meadville High School students who had attended Allegheny before me, but that hadn’t seemed extraordinary, not to me, because they’d stayed in Meadville when there was a whole world out there.
On the very last day of school, we all signed each other’s yearbooks. Mr. Curry had so many requests that he said that if we wanted him to sign ours we’d have to leave it in a pile on his desk and collect it after the following period. For some reason, I did, and when I returned I found the message:
Unless you learn to control your emotions, you will never amount to anything.
I went to Allegheny and loved it, quickly moving past any feelings of inadequacy. Afterwards, I moved to London for graduate school. While there, Vanessa came to visit me. She was studying abroad in Poland and flew over to stay with me for a week.
We caught up about everything. We’d fallen out of touch over the years, though we’d kept apprised of each other’s activities through our parents. Vanessa was still dating Luke. They’d been together for about five years by then, which was a shock.
“Why Poland?” I asked her over beers at one of my favorite pubs, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which was right by campus.
“The art,” Vanessa said in her distracted way. “And, after Luke and Mr. Curry came back from Europe and said so much about the typical places I wanted to go somewhere different.”
“Wait. Back up. Luke and Mr. Curry came to Europe together?”
Her beautiful dark eyes grew wider. “You didn’t know? They did everything together. Luke was Mr. Curry’s favorite his whole senior year, and then Mr. Curry took him to Europe for like a month.”
“Wow. He must really be Mr. Curry’s favorite,” I said, sipping my pint.
“They’re really close,” she said. Then, out of the blue, she added, “They even slept together.”
Now, this should have come as more of shock. I should have spit out my beer and said, “What the hell?”
But I remember how muted my reaction felt. How absolutely obvious it seemed. Also, Vanessa was meeting Lori, the girl she was cheating on Luke with, the following week in Paris, so there really wasn’t a big conversation to be had about fidelity either.
“How does that work?” I asked finally. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“No,” Vanessa said, surprised. “He wasn’t his student anymore or anything. It’s all really beautiful, actually. I mean it was awful for me. I had Mr. Curry for class and he hated me. But it was beautiful.”
Once again, I couldn’t muster a ton of surprise. And you had to know Vanessa to take the “beautiful” comment with the proper incredulity that you needed to. Vanessa is a creature of the forest and of the air. She’s a free-loving wild woman that forgets to eat and can spend hours arranging dried flowers for a photograph that no one will ever see. I’m sure Luke gave her some account of it, something involving candlelight and old buildings and art, and in some way it came across as beautiful to Vanessa. I couldn’t see it, couldn’t adjust my view of Mr. Curry in any way that would inspire thoughts of beauty, but I also knew how sensitive Vanessa was, that she picked up frequencies that I’d never be able to hear. So I left it at that, not wanting to offend but also not wanting to understand.
Several years later, I was home in Meadville from Hong Kong, where I was living with my new fiancé, Simon. Simon had met Vanessa and Lori, now her girlfriend of several years, a couple of times and we were all wonderful friends.
Simon and I were staying with my parents and we invited the ladies over for drinks. They were preparing to move to Prague together and we all felt worldly and fabulous and wanted to toast ourselves.
It was late in the evening when Vanessa and Lori arrived and I was shocked when Luke showed up at the door with them. He looked awful. He’d gained about thirty pounds since I’d last seen him and his hair was receding. Worst of all, his personality, so annoying and forceful in high school, was gone. His presence was slight despite his larger size. I felt uncomfortably pleased by this. I had only improved since high school. My body was leaner, my face more angular, my personality more confident. I had a great job and I was in love. I finally had the upper hand.
Apparently Luke and Lori had gotten quite close during a period when Vanessa had cheated on Lori with a guy named Kent, and now the three of them were the best of friends. Vanessa operated in an alternate universe where things like this happened.
We sat around the table and drank wine and caught Simon up on all of the shared history he didn’t know about any of us. Luke brought us an engagement present, which I unwrapped. Handcuffs. Simon looked to me, expecting it to be some kind of inside joke. I shrugged. It seemed inappropriately sexual.
Later, I’d think back to the handcuffs and what a perfect and awkward view they gave me into how Luke viewed same-sex couplings. How appropriate handcuffs must have seemed to him after his experiences with Mr. Curry, over what must have been manipulated silence and negotiated gifts.
Luke was living in Dubai, working in business. Simon noted how we wouldn’t be visiting, not that we’d been invited, because homosexual acts were illegal there.
It seemed to make some kind of painful sense, that Luke would go somewhere that a man couldn’t touch him.
Eventually the subject turned to Mr. Curry.
“I heard he retired,” I said. I hadn’t actually thought about Mr. Curry in quite some time.
“He did,” Luke said. “Now he’s president of the school board.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “How on Earth could he have been elected publicly? In Meadville? He’s such an elitist,” I said. I couldn’t believe that a working class town like Meadville would elect someone like Mr. Curry to office, but then I remembered how ardently all of the parents of his students were in their view of him.
Luke bristled. “He wasn’t the biggest fan of you, either,” he said.
I blushed, worried I’d overstepped. I’d forgotten about their close relationship. Still, I was curious.
“Why didn’t he like me?” I asked. “Do you know? I was his favorite at the beginning of my senior year and then just flipped a switch and we were like arch-enemies.”
Luke laughed, but he looked sad. “He told me about that. It’s because you were so gay. He was worried that people would suspect him. Which you now, in a town like Meadville…” his voice dropped off.
Mr. Curry was worried about me attracting suspicion to him. Luke thought it was because he was worried people would find out he was gay, and maybe that was partially true. But the real truth shot through me like lightning. Gay was just the tip of the iceberg. I knew that to be gay was to be sexualized. If people saw Mr. Curry as gay because he was associated with a gay student, they’d naturally wonder if he was having sex that student.
That’s what he was so afraid of, because he was having sex with students.
After that, I thought about Mr. Curry more often than I would have liked. And I felt a degree of sympathy for him: that he was born or made into what he was. What a curse, to have such attractions. I don’t know the science behind it, because who wants such things on their search history in a post-Snowden Trump America? But it must be like having the compulsion to kill. It horrifies those of us who aren’t born that way, but I can only imagine the fear and isolation that comes from having those thoughts. Who could you turn to for treatment? Or even just to talk?
But to have the feelings is one thing. To indulge them with such calculation–there is evil in that. Mr. Curry had set up a conveyer belt at Meadville Area Senior High School, one that delivered him a new batch of impressionable young men year after year.
I’ve also considered his victims and how it is that I wasn’t one of them. I have been protected by being outwardly, unavoidably gay since I was six years old. And I’ve been protected by the people in my life: by my parents, by Mr. Deshner, by Leanne, all because they knew I was gay and loved me in spite of it, or even because of it.
I think of Mr. Curry’s favorites, the push and pull they must have felt between being made to feel so special and the fear they must have felt at his advances. Mostly, I think about Luke. Luke, who looked so broken. Luke, who moved to a place where sex between men is illegal. Luke, who, at times, seemed like a better version of me. The only difference between us, or the only one that mattered to Mr. Curry, was that I was demonstrably gay and Luke was not.
A few weeks ago, after I’d written these memories down but had yet to decide what to do with them, Leanne was visiting me and Simon (now my husband) in Georgia to help us out following the adoption of our son, Leo. We were relaxing on the couch, both playing around on our phones after a day of assembling baby play pens and washing hand-me-down outfits.
“Oh my God,” Leanne said. “Did you see this stuff about Mr. Curry on Facebook?”
“No,” I said, my stomach tightening. What was I feeling? Guilt. I knew what the story was going to be, and I only hoped it wasn’t a recent victim. I hadn’t told anyone what I knew about Mr. Curry. How could I? Nothing I’d observed was illegal. All of his “favorites” had been, as far as I knew, over eighteen.
Leanne texted me a link to the original Facebook post, which had been shared over a hundred times.
The post was from a man who I’d never met, but who Facebook told me I had a few friends in common with. He was inspired by the brave women of the #MeToo movement and decided that it was finally time to tell his story. That story was heartbreakingly familiar to me.
At one point in my life, I was ranked amongst the top of my class. By 10th grade, 2 colleges had accepted me. My future was bright. But that was all taken away from me by a heinous predator. My home room teacher tricked me into helping him work at his house. I was a poor kid who lived in the projects. The perfect victim for a monster. I am not going into detail here about what he did to me. I was only 15 years old. I will tell you, my life path took a sharp turn. No longer was I interested in school. I started self-medicating so to dull the angst. By 11th and 12th grades, I missed more days than I went. Eventually failing out altogether. I was able to start a family only after leaving the town that caused me so much pain. And tried to forget about him. That doesn’t work. I have a loving wife and 3 beautiful daughters, but the pain I feel inside does not allow me to be everything they need. He has drilled into every aspect of my life. Then social media happened. I see even friends heap praise on this predator, unaware of the evil he is capable of. And my heart sinks. I feel the pressure on my chest. It is hard to breath. I blame myself for every boy he molested after me. I am truly sorry. I can allow it to continue no longer. And I vow to make sure the legacy he leaves behind is not of the hero he is made out to be, but as the monster he is. Richard Curry, you will steal from me no more.
Dan, whose younger brother had been one of Mr. Curry’s favorites and as Vanessa’s brother had been around ever-suffering Luke for years and years, hadn’t heard a thing about this. That was how thick the silence around Mr. Curry was.
And that was when it finally hit me. This wasn’t a perfectly circular story about how my early acceptance of my homosexuality protected me from a predator. This was a story of criminal silence, a crime that I was complicit in. It had been over ten years since Vanessa told me about Mr. Curry and Luke and nearly eight years since Luke told me why Mr. Curry avoided me. In the years since, Mr. Curry had served on the school board and had travelled to “help disadvantaged children” nearly every year. A quick Google of his name revealed that the school district had just approved a large donation that would enable Mr. Curry to take laptops to disadvantaged children in India.
My silence allowed Mr. Curry to continue. And what’s worse is that unlike the heroic women of the #MeToo movement, I wasn’t emboldened to share my story when the tide started to turn. I didn’t realize the depth of my mistake until a stranger bravely told his story.
My incandescent homosexuality forced shadows away from me, and drove monsters into the deep. But those shadows found another place to dwell, and those monsters found another shore. And I helped them. Until today.
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Mike McClelland hails from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband, his (new!) son, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. His short fiction collection, Gay Zoo Day, was released by Beautiful Dreamer Press in September 2017, and other recent work has appeared in the Boston Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and Permafrost. He is a graduate of Allegheny College, the London School of Economics, and the MFA program at Georgia College, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. Find him online at magicmikewrites.com.