Friday, April 18, 2014

Remembering Stephen

[I’m posting this reflection tonight because I feel it is time that I do it. We are on the verge of the Feast of All Souls, and perhaps the spirits are in the air. This piece is raw and unedited. I am inviting you in to my creative process, as this piece will morph over the next few days and, if you want, you get to watch. Either way, thanks for reading.]

I remember where I was when I got the news. I know that sentence sounds a little trite like the sentences that start so many short stories, but this time, this is how I recollect how the story starts. Well, sort of.

Perhaps the story starts like this. I was hanging out in my dorm room on the 4th Floor of McManis Hall at Wheaton. I was über-fortunate to have a single room on “Mac 4” that year. It was late afternoon – around the time that I heard the news. Stephen was carrying a couple of suitcases (or perhaps there was three suitcases). I had never really decided whether I had crush on Stephen, but I was certainly intrigued by him. And so I was happy to see him on Mac 4. I thought that perhaps I would be able to chat with him for a while and get to know him a little better, something that I had wanted to do for two-and-a-half years at Wheaton, but never had the guts to.

Stephen fumbled with the suitcases while knocking on the door of the two guys who lived across the hall from me on Mac 4. I was still in my room when Stephen was knocking on their door, so I went out to see what was going on in the hallway. There was Stephen, tall, lanky and fumbling with the suitcases. I seem to recall that they were green and plastic. He knocked and knocked on the guys’ door and it was clear that no one was home. He and I then looked at each other and there was no chit chat. He looked at me intensely, with his eyes wide open and asked, “Hey, José. Do you mind if I leave these with you for Kirk?” I was happy he knew my name.

“Sure. No problem. I’ll be sure he gets these.” I don’t know whether those were my exact words, but I’m sure it was something like that. I’m sure I was trying to be as polite as possible so to get his attention; to let him know that I was really a friendly guy and not always an angry tyrant. But Stephen didn’t have time to chat, much to my proverbial dismay. As soon as he left the luggage with me, he hurried down the stairs. And as he reached the first landing on the way down, he stopped and looked at me. And even though this look only took a fraction of a second, it was seared into my memory forever. He was worried, he was concerned, there was an element of fear, and urgency in his look. It was as if his eyes reached out to me somehow. I could feel the intensity, and the various texts that were forming behind his eyes, but he never spoke them. He only asked, “Are you sure you’ll remember to give those suitcases back to Kirk?”

“Yes, of course I will. Don’t worry. I’ll give them to him as soon as he gets home.” And as soon as I spoke those words, he continued to hurry down the stairs. I wanted to ask, “Is there anything wrong?” or “Are you sure you’re okay?” or “Do you want to come in for a second?” But I didn’t follow up. I stood at the top of the stairs waiting for a moment, hoping that he would return. I didn’t run after him because I didn’t want to seem desperate or that I was chasing him. All things homosexual were against the rules at Wheaton.

And so, when I heard the news, my spirit knew before I did. I was in the Student Activities office late in the afternoon. I was dressed as a re-poser prep. Not one thing about who I was and where I came from was preppy. And yet, when I got to Reagan-era Wheaton College, in the mid-1980s, I became a prep. That afternoon I was wearing an oxford shirt, an deep ocean blue wool sweater, brown khaki pants and loafers. I was at an IBM typewriter typing my notes from some class when a female student entered the space where I was sitting. I think there was a third student there with us. I don’t remember the female student’s name. She looked like she was subduing shock of some sort. It was not entirely acceptable at Wheaton to show strong emotion. She grabbed her heart with her left hand and explained, out of the blue, “There’s been an accident.” Again, my spirit, knew. But my head, and the rest of myself, started asking reasonable questions.

There were so many euphemisms at Wheaton. Evangelical Christians know how to mask what they really mean, how they really feel, better than anyone else. “There’s been an accident.” Bullshit, I thought. What on earth really happened, I started thinking. I started trying to decipher Wheaton code. An accident. Hmm. What could that mean? Something had just happened that made this young woman pant for breath and yet she was calling it an accident.

“There’s been an accident and a student got hurt.” Well, what happened? Was it a car accident? An accident in the lab? This young woman was a student leader in the College Union. CU at Wheaton was staffed with “those crazy and zany people” who were supposed to make college life “fun.” And yet, this poor young woman could not articulate what she was feeling. She could not tell us what she knew. Something happened, it was not pretty, she was freaking out – albeit in a control, dignified, Protestant manner – and could not release the words.

“A student has been hit by a train and is not doing very well.” My spirit knew who it was and what had occurred. But I kept asking questions. And this young woman had no answers to my questions.

Shortly thereafter, Wheaton’s information super-highway began dispensing all manner of details about the accident, but no one was releasing what happened. In the end, what happened was that a young man waited by the train tracks in silence. The entire time as he waited, he has his hands clasped and was praying – he had his hands clasped praying with a greater intensity, like Jesus before He was betrayed, I’ve always envisioned. He was hiding behind a bush praying; his prayers engulfed his entire soul. As soon a the train approached, he placed himself in front of it and waited for it to end his life, to take him to the eternal embrace of G-d. [The second movement of Górecki’s Symphony #3 is carrying my words right now. It is a moment of divinity. I feel as if this moment is sacramental.]

The train engineer blew the horn, imploring Stephen to leave the train tracks, but Stephen would not move. “That boy just wanted to die,” the train engineer later told a local newspaper. And so he did. That afternoon, Stephen took his life. According to the newspaper report, his remains were strewn about the tracks and surrounding area. Stephen wasn’t “hurt,” he was dead.

But for me, really, this story begins at the beginning of the academic year, in the fall of 1987. I have no idea why I returned to Wheaton that fall. My spirit, my soul, the totality of my person was elsewhere. I had no desire to be bound by Wheaton’s rules, to deal with Wheaton’s blanche brand of evangelical Christendom. I was over Wheaton’s gentile, blame-the-victim racism and homophobia, but something tugged at me, strongly, to return to campus for another six months of winter. Yes, six months. Fall? My ass. To a Cuban-American boy from Miami, 50-degree temperature is winter.

In the summer of 1987 I let my hair grow out, got my ear pierced, and had my first unfortunately too-innocent homosexual experience. I suppose I returned to Wheaton so that I would be safe, I would be chaste and fight against these sinful, homosexual desires. And so I found myself back on the 19th Century campus in August of 1987. True to my newly pseudo-liberated queer self, I channeled Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. Literally, my first words on campus that fall were, “What a dump!”

That school year, 1987 – 1988, was a strange one at Wheaton. The General Counsel of the college, a Latino, had an affair with a decidedly hot art professor. Both were married. Scandal. Yawn. Later that school year, two seniors who were in love ran away from the College to celebrate their “perfect love” for each other. And, that fall, the weekly campus newspaper decided to run a series of articles about homosexuality on Wheaton’s campus. For me, it was almost like reading porn.

But what struck me about these series of articles was the openness of an anonymous Wheaton student who was profiled in these articles, a young male. Week after week, readers of The Record were treated to uncharacteristically well written accounts of this young man’s reflections about his attraction to men, about his first, 17 year-old, sexual encounters with other males (I was insanely jealous), and how he struggled to live a chaste life at Wheaton. As much as I wanted to know the identity of this fellow student, I could not bring myself to try to pry it out of the reporter who was writing these stories. Of course, students were speculating right and left as to whom this young man might be. I confess I had no idea. There were several boys I hoped it was, but I didn’t know for sure.

One thing I knew for sure, I could not tell a soul at Wheaton about my “same sex” attractions. The sages in the Student Development department were notorious for being “understanding” with one hand and exacting punishment with another. I thank my Cuban “edge” for keeping me from having to deal with their individual and collective Victorian social ethics. So that academic year, I only told one person about my “homosexual tendencies,” and she turned out to be a lesbian.

But after Stephen died, I could not stop thinking about the identity of the boy in the articles. I also knew, perhaps intuitively, that one could not defame a dead person. One day I decided to ask the reporter who wrote all of the homosexuality articles. I told her that she didn’t have to tell me, that my respect and cariño for her would not be altered one bit. But I also told her that it didn’t matter too much, because if it was Stephen, he was dead now and it didn’t matter. She confirmed it, “Yes, it was Stephen.” I was twenty-one years old when she revealed to me that it was Stephen in those articles. I am now 43 and this is the first time that I reveal, publicly, that I knew that the young man who killed himself that Spring afternoon on the train tracks in Wheaton, Illinois, was Stephen and that he was gay.

After Stephen killed himself, there were several “memorial services” where students mourned and the College chaplain assured us that Stephen was in Heaven. Students took turns at the microphone proclaiming Stephen as their “best friend.” So many students felt they could have saved him in his last moments. “Had I just talked to him” the sentences typically began, and then ended with some sort of life-saver scenario. I attended those meetings and services silently. Stephen was only an acquaintance of mine. I admired him from afar and hoped to he his friend some day. And, oddly, I think perhaps that happened after he died.

During the time of campus-wide mourning over the fact that a student had decided to end his life, not one mention was made that Stephen was gay. Not one student, not one administrator. No one asked the question, “Did we kill him? Did we create a culture, a community on this campus where a student could not be who he was? Did we create a space for him here where he could be free to cry and release his pain without taking his life? Did we love him and embrace him and tell him that was wasn’t a dirt sinner needing therapy or the exacting discipline of the College’s administrators? Why couldn’t he talk to anyone at the counseling center without his parents finding out? Are we satisfied that we are the type of community that loved, embraced and celebrated a young man as vibrant, talented and loving as Stephen?” We never asked any of those questions. Ever. Even his “best friends” on campus never mentioned the fact that Stephen was gay after he died.

I returned to Wheaton for my final academic year the following fall. It was August 1988 and I was okay with being at Wheaton another year. Only two more semesters and then I was off to save the world.

Three other students and I chose to take an on-campus apartment for that school year. I even drove a 1985 Chevrolet Monza to Wheaton that fall. At least I’ll have some wheels, I thought.

I was the first one to arrive at our Terrace apartment. There were two bedrooms with two bunk beds in each room. I chose my room and then chose my bed. I started to accommodate my room and unpack my wares when I noticed that there were unfolded cardboard boxes between my mattress and the bed springs. There were also several unfolded boxes under the bed I chose. I looked at the unfolded boxes under my mattress first. The name and address on the boxes was Stephen’s. All of the boxes under my bed also had Stephen’s name. At the moment I made that discovery, the phone rang. That’s odd, I thought. No one really knows where I am yet. It was the campus operator. A student I knew.

“Hello?”

“José?”

“Yes. Who is this? Is this Laura?”

“Oh my god, José. Do you know that you have Stephen’s old apartment?”

“Yes. I just found out. And, apparently, I’m sleeping in his bed.” I explained my discovery to her. And at that moment I felt the connection with Stephen that I had wanted while he was alive. I will bet my house that I’m not the only one who has never forgotten him. Perhaps he will enjoy some sort of resurrection as we have these discussions about violence and gay youth. I don’t know whether Stephen killed himself because he was gay. I do know that we never asked ourselves questions-from-the-gut about who we were being when he died. It is never to late to ask those questions.

Stephen, I love you and never stopped praying for you.

Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine;

et lux perpétua lúceat ei.

Requiéscat in pace.



Amen.

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