Chapter 2: Welcome to College
I don’t say anything to him and proceed to take a seat. He recognises me, then he doesn’t, then he does. The class is too full for an uncle-nephew reunion, it would be an attention magnet, and we both know better than to disclose that we know each other. Uncle Jay starts the philosophy class and I open my notebook. I keep my head down, my pen going and my attention on my page.
A quarter of an hour into the lesson, everyone looks up. Even me despite my ‘head down’ rule. Frat boy alert. Uncle Jay doesn’t look too pleased at the fact a student is late on their first day. Said late student has a sheepish grin on his face that falters when he notices me. I continue to stare at him even as uncle Jay gives him a first-day rebuke, but divert my attention to the board when he walks past, taking the desk behind me.
The class goes by, uncle Jay and I waiting until the room clears out. I hop onto one of the desks at the front, a lunatic smile on my face.
“Florida? That’s where you left to?”
“How about you don’t question life and give me a damn hug?” he opens up his arms, too impatient that he drags me off the table into his asphyxiating grip. “I have a question. Why did I have to find out my nephew is fucking gay through Leah?”
“Leah?” I pull back baffled.
Uncle Jay laughs, patting his hand down on my back. “She knows how to pick up a phone and ring number after number telling everyone ‘Tommy is gay’. It’s funny because when I left she couldn’t even talk.”
I press my lips together, realising what he’s said. That’s how everyone knew? Mum’s contacts are nice people who wouldn’t gossip to their teen kids who’d spread the news that a homosexual was in their halls, but who’s to say Leah never accessed Dad’s contacts? I’ve met his friends - they seem like the type.
“Mum kept your number?”
“You know what she’s like. Cautious. Probably kept it in case she ever needed me. She hasn’t needed me once.”
I raise my eyebrows, an oppressive feeling developing in my chest. “Have you ever needed us?” I flip the table. I’d even set it with the finest gold cutlery but I’ve never had to confront uncle Jay, contrary to Mum who has had to, and I’ve never felt the need to hate him that much despite what he’s done. Gold would be a little too superfluous anyway. “It’s been four years. I knew you were leaving but no one told you to fully disappear. Why haven’t you called?”
“Phone numbers go out of service?”
“Mum’s number is still perfectly in service,” I cross my arms. “Visited?”
He sighs. I feel his defence wall tumble and watch the camouflaged sorrow in his heartbreak through onto his face. “You know what happened. I don’t want to re-dig that grave and haul up that manky coffin, or open it up to see that crooked skeleton.”
I nod my head but judge him harshly. “No excuse. I’m your nephew.”
“It’s cool,” I readjust my backpack on my shoulders. “I’ll get over it. Four years without you: every damn philosophy class with you. I expect easy love. Raise my grades and I’ll consider forgiving you for dropping off the face of this Earth.”
“That’s a motherfucking deal.”
“I’m beginning to think you rubbed off on my dad,” I mentally criticise his explicit profanity.
“I rubbed off your dad.”
“Salt in the wounds,” I grimace. “I’m gonna go back to the dorms until my afternoon literature lecture. I’ll see you next class. Words of advice - don’t use killing people as a metaphor. ‘Murderers on campus’ has a strike through it like you being around for the last four years of my life does.”
“Child, let it go.”
I grip the door handle, smirking. “I’m dragging this out real nice.”
He shoots me the middle finger, a laugh erupting from me. The old days are dearly missed.
Head down, earbuds in, I’ll be fine. It becomes a mantra in my head as I walk across campus. Being in class is one thing. One stray comment from an audacious prick gone off on a tangent would result in a mouthful from uncle Jay. Homophobia will never be the sugar in his tea. But outside, exposed to all the observing eyes, anything could happen. One person nicknaming me the gay kid is all it’s going to take for the label to spread like a nasty wildfire.
Anxiety crawls all over my body, its mites biting into my skin. I should go and find my people but with that comes the risk of revealing myself. I don’t want to. Head down, earbuds in. I’ll be fine.
I end up bumping into a body, the person tripping and ripping out my earbuds in the process. I grab her just before she drops. She sets her eyes on me, an embarrassed smile plastered on her face.
“Sorry,” she hands my earbuds back, her touch lingering.
Her flushed cheeks are entertaining. Mortification and attraction to a no-go zone is why her face is a crimson red, I assume. She just doesn’t know I’m a no-go zone. If I wasn’t gay, I’d consider myself crushing on her. Probably because she’s the one other face I’ve properly looked at other than uncle Jay and that frat boy who caught me staring, and she’s very pretty. I shouldn’t go for looks anyway.
I realise that she’s a sorority girl when I glance at her friends, some who stare at us, in the background, grouped up with several frat boys, one of whom is said frat boy who caught me staring. I look back at her, ready to go.
“That’s okay,” I give her a tight smile and leave, but she grabs my wrist and pulls me back to face her.
“I purposely crashed into you,” she says, shy girl blush fading like a stain in the wash. “I’m wondering why you’re walking with your head down when you’ve got a drop-dead gorgeous face?”
Compliments I don’t get every day, the toppling of being introverted at times. I immediately take a liking to her, platonically of course. Not because I like to be fed flattering remarks to quench my occasional hunger for body image related compliments - I’m pretty confident with my looks - but because she thinks I’m straight.
“Do you want to come to the frat party the boys are throwing this Friday as a ‘Welcome to College, Fuckers’ gift?”
“Um,” I try to think of a decent response. It’s an obvious decline, but she could be a potential beard. I look around, eyes locking on another pair. They’re his. I snap my eyes back to her. “No, thanks.”
I start to leave again but expectedly, she’s pulling me back for a second time. “I never got your name, handsome.”
She’ll be a good potential beard if I don’t find myself getting annoyed at being touched by her repeatedly. She seems kind, flirty, but she’s still a stranger.
“Tommy,” I tell her, and that seems to be enough for her to let me go, no other questions lined up, and she doesn’t tell me her name, expecting me to go on a wild goose chase for her. Any guy would, looking at her face. Just not me.
I make the mistake of glancing towards the group of frat boys one last time and catching his eyes again. It takes me two seconds to figure out that he’s about to approach me. I hold my breath as I walk and imagine being cooped up in bed safely with Aiden’s just-about-tolerable presence in the room - if he’s not in a class right now.
I consider myself lucky when the guy is reeled into another conversation with the rest of the boys and sorority girls.
A conversation he manages to wiggle his way out of.