Andrea

by Bob Chikos

Not all love stories are about romance.

An Illinoisan attending East Tennessee State University, I met Andrea in my first semester French class. Immediately, I couldn’t stand her.

Our textbook had pictures of French people smiling. One classmate asked, “Why are they smiling?”

“Because they’re happy they’re not in America,” Andrea interjected.

You sit there with a full belly criticizing this country. I thought. My grandpas fought in World War II for your freedom, you brat!

But it got better.

I couldn’t connect with my peers. Only Andrea and the professor got my humor.

Like the old guys from The Muppet Show, we’d comment to each other about the others in the class, like the time a fellow, frustrated at learning French words, said, “Well, why don’t they just speak English over there like we do over here?”

Because then it wouldn’t be French.

The professor asked where I have lived. “Bob, Où habitiez-vous?”

J’ai habité à Illinois.” (I’ve lived in Illinois.)

Oh, c’est bon! Andrea, Où habitiez-vous?”

J’ai habité à Brazil.”

Brazil? Très interéssant!

I wondered if I heard her right. After dismissal, I asked.

“Did you say you lived in Brazil?”

“Yeah. My dad was a missionary in the Amazon.”

I raised my eyebrow, then she rattled off several sentences in what sounded like fluent Portuguese.

Blue-eyed, with a round face of a Dutch girl cartoon, she said people in the Amazon marveled at her blonde hair. Everywhere she went, people would pat her head for good luck. The barber would put her clippings in a plastic bag, purportedly to use in a ritual.

“Is your dad still a missionary?”

“Naw. My parents don’t even go to church anymore. My dad works in a tire factory now.”

Her small, metal-roofed house had wood-paneled walls, a large Ansel Adams photograph of a mountain range, and several professional-looking photographs.

“These are nice photos. Where’d you get them?”

“I took those.”

One was a black-and-white photo of a bare-chested boy, about three, wearing sunglasses.

“Who’s that?”

“That’s Rocky,” she smiled. “I volunteered at a hospital and he was a little boy with cancer.” Her eyes lowered. “He died a while back.”

Andrea was with me the night I turned 21, as were the class drama queen Lynsy and my roommate Todd, our designated driver.

At our table, the topic of kids came up.

“I can’t wait to have a baby and be a mom,” Andrea said. “I think I’d be a good mom. I’ve even got a tattoo for when it happens.”

“Don’t you need to find a husband first?”

“A woman can raise a kid by herself. You just need a man to help create it. Wouldn’t you do that for someone?”

“No.”

Todd pretended to enjoy the karaoke singer.

“You wouldn’t? Even if you didn’t have to take care of it?”

“I know there are situations where that’s not possible, but ideally, kids should have two parents.”

She turned to Todd. “What do you think about that, Todd?”

Forced to take a stand, he said, “I agree with Bob.”

She raised her glass, “Well, here’s to being a man and all the privileges that come with it.”

Later, half-buzzed, we sat in Andrea’s old Jeep Wagoneer and waited for Todd to finish his pit stop.

Andrea, in the back, hunched herself up in her seat and pulled the bottom of her shirt up.

My God! What’s she doing?! I thought. Is she that drunk that she’s taking off her clothes?

She showed her belly. In the faint parking lot lights, I saw a ring of flowers, encircling her navel.

“I told you I had a tattoo. When I get pregnant, I want to watch that ring grow as the baby grows inside me.”

Next was Tu La Fe, a dance place where freshmen demonstrated they couldn’t handle independence.

The mulleted DJ in a NASCAR T-shirt announced, “Ladies! In ten minutes, we will start our wet T-shirt contest! Come on down and sign up!”

“Come on, Andrea, do the wet T-Shirt contest!” I yelled over the pulsating music.

She hesitated.

Emboldened, I got gutsy. “C’mon, it’s my birthday!”

I could read her thoughts: I don’t want to but I will if that’s what you want.

I sobered quickly, ashamed. “Andrea, I was joking.”

We left as the contest started.

—–

We rotated cooking at Andrea’s house one day each week.

I brought to Tennessee my Mr. Food Cooks Like Mama book. As Mom taught me, I dated and commented on each recipe the first time I made it.

10–10–95 Cheesy Baked Fish: “Good stuff. Andrea, Lynsy, and I liked it very much”

I remember that night. She didn’t have a table so we ate in chairs with our plates on our laps. Mickey, her chihuahua, cleaned our crumbs.

One night, when Lynsy couldn’t make it, we heard a knock at the door. Andrea opened it and allowed in a young man, wearing plaid shorts, a plain white T-shirt, and sandals.

“Hey, how’s it going?” she said, bewildered.

“OK.”

“Mike, this is Bob.”

He nodded at me. “I can’t stay long. I just came to get the TV.”

He unplugged the TV, cradled it in his arms, pushed the door latch with his elbow, walked down the porch steps to his car, put the TV in the backseat, and drove away.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“That was my ex-boyfriend. He drove all the way from Auburn, Alabama to get his TV.”

“That’s pretty weird.”

“And the thing is, he’s living with my parents, rent-free.”

“Your ex-boyfriend lives with your parents?”

“We were living together at their house, then I broke up with him and he didn’t have a place to stay, so they said he could keep living there.”

We sat in silence until she finally broke it. “Know what? I’m glad he came over. He probably thought we’re doing it. Screw him!”

––

When I couldn’t get home for Thanksgiving, Andrea invited me to her Uncle Marty and Aunt Emma’s house, along with her extended family from Alabama.

In the family room, I noticed a woman by herself, about 30, with tinted glasses. She lay on a couch and stared at the ceiling while listening to a Walkman.

“Bob, this is my cousin Ava,” Andrea said.

“Nice to meet you, Ava,” I said, extending my hand.

“Uh, Bob, Ava has severe autism. She won’t respond.”

I sat next to Ava.

Ava pushed buttons on her Walkman over and over.

“Does she listen to the songs?”

“Not really. She pushes buttons like that all day long. She goes through batteries like you wouldn’t believe. But the funny thing is, she has different tapes of the Everly Brothers with the same songs and she can tell the difference. She’ll get all upset if it’s not the right Everly Brothers tape.”

Andrea sighed, smiled, excused herself to get a drink.

I smiled at Ava, then pretended to look at the senior portraits of Marty and Emma’s kids.

Click. R-r-r-r-r-r. Bye Bye Love.

Pppt!

I felt spit on my cheek.

I looked at Ava. She grinned.

Pppt!

She spat at me again!

Click. R-r-r-r-r-r. Bye Bye Love.

“Ava, don’t spit on me.”

Bigger grin. Pppt!

I rose and stood in the center of the room, out of range. Ava continued to grin.

Andrea returned with a Coke.

“Scared!” Ava whined.

“What’s she scared of?” I asked, worried of an accusation.

“Oh, she knows a few words but she doesn’t usually get a response out of them, but when she says, ‘scared’, Aunt Emma and Uncle Marty say, ‘Ava, what are you scared about?’ so she knows she’ll get a reaction.”

——

After dinner, Andrea sat with her hard-of-hearing grandma.

“Your friend seems nice,” Grandma shouted, “and cute!”

“Thanks, Grandma. I’m sure he’d appreciate that.”

“How long have you two been dating?”

“Oh, we’re not dating, Grandma. We’re just good friends.”

“I sure hope you will find a man who can make you happy.”

“Thanks, Grandma, but I don’t need a man to make me happy. I’m happy spending time with you.”

——

Since high school, when I first grasped the enormity of death, I had struggled with crippling anxiety. One night, it became unbearable. I walked off-campus to the only safe place I could think of.

Knock-knock.

Andrea opened the door in her pajamas, confused.

“Sorry for bothering you,” I said.

“No, come in. What’s wrong?”

“It’s just . . .” I started to cry. “I’m so . . . scared. I’m going to die. We’re all going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it!”

“Do you want to go for a ride?” she asked. “You might feel better.”

She threw a jacket over her PJs and grabbed her keys and wallet. As she drove, she said, “I don’t think I’ve told you before, but I get anxiety, too. In high school, I once had a panic attack during an assembly and the teacher made me stay there, but she let me stand in the back of this dark auditorium. I was freaking out in my mind. It was the worst time of my whole life.”

We talked. Rather, I talked and she listened.

She pulled up to a mountain lookout where a downed tree served as a bench. We gazed at Johnson City’s lights far below.

“What do you think happens when you die?” I asked, fearing an honest answer.

“I think you just die.”

“You don’t believe in God?”

“Nah. I mean, I wish I did, but I don’t.”

“Then what’s the point of life?”

She sighed. “You’ve got to make your own point, I guess. Experience as much as you can while you can and make the world a better place for the next people to come.”

I didn’t like her truth, but I respected it. It was an honesty I wasn’t getting from my fellow Christians.

This had been a typical conversation with them:

“I’m afraid of what really happens when we die.”

“No need to worry about that. You’ll go to Heaven— if you believe.”

“But what if we’re wrong?”

“The Bible says—”

“I know what the Bible says. How do I know it’s right?”

“You just have to put your faith in the Lord.”

Ignorance truly is bliss.

——

“That Jesse’s kinda cute,” Andrea said, near the end of French class.

“Invite him over for dinner.”

She, the strong feminist, turned inward with a bashful smile. “Naw.”

“Hey, Jesse. Come over here,” I said.

Jesse, confused, came over.

“On Tuesdays, a bunch of us get together at Andrea’s for dinner. Wanna come?”

“Sure. Sounds great.”

“Come around 6:00 for cocktails.”

“Oh, I’ll have to pass on the cocktails.”

Andrea and I warily looked at each other.

“You don’t drink?” I asked.

“Oh, I can drink with the best of them, but I’m on an anti-seizure medication, and I’m not supposed to drink while I’m on it.”

Andrea and I gave each other relieved looks.

——

Mr. Food’s entry from that night reads, “1–23–96 Chuck Wagon Buns. Really delicious, like a taco sloppy Joe. Jesse from French class really liked it.”

I made dinner ahead of time but got out of the kitchen when Jesse arrived to give the impression that Andrea had cooked.

After dinner, Andrea excused herself to go to the bathroom.

“See that desk over there?” I asked Jesse.

“Yeah.”

“There used to be a TV on it. One day, Andrea’s ex-boyfriend came over and hauled it away. It was the craziest thing. But Andrea says she got the last laugh because he probably thought we were together.”

“Oh, you’re not? I thought you were.”

“Oh no, we’re just friends. You have a girlfriend?”

“Not at the time, no.”

“Well, we won’t be able to watch TV tonight, that’s for sure. Nothing on anyway, right?”

“I guess not.”

Andrea came out. I winked and nodded at her.

——

2–20–96 Crispy Onion Rings: “Turned out well. Kinda greasy, though. Batter sunk while frying.”

Another mess. This one involved oil all over the stovetop. That night I slept on the couch while Jesse and Andrea retired to the bedroom.

I quickly became the third wheel. Soon, they were spending every moment with each other. I was jealous but also proud that I helped bring them together.

When they went on weekend trips, I’d have the house to myself. I just had to take care of the pets. Once, when they returned, I jokingly told Andrea that Mickey spent the whole weekend underneath the bed, puking.

“He talked me into giving him a whole bottle of tequila. He said you do it all the time.”

“But what he didn’t tell you is: it’s one of those little airplane bottles.”

After another trip, they took two steps into the house and Jesse said, “Well go on, show him!”

Andrea’s extended her left hand, dangled her fingers, and showed a tiny diamond ring. A first — my first friend to be engaged.

——

10–8–96 Seashore Fettuccine: “Really good. Creamy tomato-ey with imitation crab meat. Delicious! Cooked @ Jesse and Andrea’s”

It was now “Jesse and Andrea’s.” They had married in the summer of ’96.

——

When we graduated in December ’96, we sat together, listening to an ancient congressman bloviate through the commencement address. I had adorned my cap with “C Y’ALL L8R!” My farewell to the South.

By the fall, Jesse had a job teaching English at a high school, and Andrea taught kindergartners.

After marrying in 2000, I brought my bride Aileen to my old stomping grounds to show her around, but mostly to show her off. We visited Jesse and Andrea and hiked the Appalachian Trail. Jesse said, “Since we have summers off, we’d like to hike the whole trail and make a book. Andrea will take pictures and I’ll write.”

We went to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, meeting Uncle Marty, Aunt Emma, and Ava. The waitress took our drink orders.

“I’ll have iced tea,” Aileen said.

“Sweetened,” the waitress asked.

“Yes, please.”

I leaned over. “I think you should get unsweetened and add your own sugar. It’s really sweet down here,” I advised.

She looked at me as if to say, So this is how marriage is going to be?

“No, it’s OK. I’ll have sweetened,” she said.

When the waitress served our drinks, we stopped our conversations and looked at Aileen.

The tea registered on her taste buds, signaling impending diabetic shock. A new but smart husband, without saying “I told you so,” I offered to switch with my unsweetened.

After dinner, Aunt Emma said, “Your wife is lovely. You’ve done well!”

——

Living six hundred miles away, it was hard to stay close. In 2002, we had a baby and wondered when they’d have theirs.

I came home from work on a Tuesday in early June with a message from Uncle Marty on my machine.

“There’s been an accident,” Uncle Marty said between sobs. “Andrea’s in the hospital. Please call.”

I called and reached Aunt Emma.

“Is your wife there with you?”

“Yes.”

“Andrea was in a car accident. The doctors said there’s nothing they could do. They took her off life support this afternoon.”

Silence.

“Are you there?” Emma asked.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“She was on her way home after school — it was the last week of the year — she was on a winding road and a woman in oncoming traffic crossed into her lane and hit her head-on.”

I exhaled. “I’m so sorry.”

“And I don’t know if you heard, but she was six months pregnant.”

Oh, God.

“They thought if they kept her on life support long enough they might be able to save the baby, but they couldn’t.”

Is this your punishment for nonbelievers?

“I heard you had a baby recently. A daughter, right?”

“A son actually. He’ll be one in a few weeks.”

“This was a boy, too.”

Another first. My first friend to die.

I thought about that tattoo, and how, at least for a few months, she got her wish to see it grow.

The news story online said she was loved by her students — only someone who didn’t know her would need to be told that. I imagined the principal fighting tears, trying to tell the kids in a way they’d understand.

The other driver escaped with only a bruise and a minor ticket.

I was enraged by the lack of vengeance. When I spoke with Jesse, he was very matter-of-fact about it, like someone who has relayed a story three hundred times. “It was an accident, Bob. They happen all the time. Usually, they’re not deadly, but this time it was.”

He was right, but it took years to accept it. I started thinking of the other driver not from my perspective, but hers. She made a mistake that she will have to live with for the rest of her life. No guilt is worse than self-guilt.

And then I thought about Andrea. Would she want me to be enslaved with anger? Hatred? Of course not. She would want me to do what I’ve been doing ever since: forgive and move on, enjoy life, and make the world a better place for the next people to come.

——

Bob Chikos spent two-and-a-half of his most formative years in Johnson City, Tennessee. Today, he is a special education teacher, speech team coach, and is involved in statewide educational policy. He lives in Cary, Illinois.

Read “In a Closet in a Dorm,” also by Bob Chikos.

“Andrea” was originally published in Spindrift Art & Literary Journal.

In a Closet in a Dorm

by Bob Chikos

I crouched in my dorm room closet while my roommate Clyde was in the bathroom. After he returned and lay on his bed to read The Federalist Papers, I bided my time. The longer I waited, the more scared he’d be.

Two minutes. God, it stinks in here, I thought.

Three minutes. Getting hard to breathe.

Four minutes. I can’t stand it much longer.

Five—“RAAAAAH!” I blared as I opened the closet and jumped out.

I could almost see gray hairs sprout as Clyde’s eyes bulged from their sockets.

He returned to his book, trying to act nonchalant. “Ever got caught playing with yourself in a closet,” he asked.  

“No.”

“Safe place, isn’t it?”

——

Six months earlier, I had graduated from my community college in the Chicago suburbs. With my grades and awards, I could have transferred to just about any college in the country.

I chose East Tennessee State.

What was I thinking?

After living my entire life in the Midwest, I wanted to plunge myself into an entirely different culture – the Bible Belt – and live among their natives. Besides, all accredited colleges are pretty much the same, right . . .? 

. . . Right?

Johnson City was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever set eyes on. Small mountains bordered the campus, and they blazed orange in October. I smelled a spicy-sweet combination of allspice and vanilla in the air— some fragrant bush I’d never been exposed to in Illinois. Southern accents on the girls somehow made them even cuter. I pictured myself someday coming home with one to meet dear old Mom and Dad.

I eagerly anticipated college culture. Dorm conversations into the wee hours about the meaning of existence. Late night pizza runs. Spontaneous road trips. Pranks.

What I found instead was a campus in which most students went home on weekends, businesses closed on “The Lord’s Day,” and mediocre classes were taught by jaded professors stuck in an academic Gehenna. The only partying took place in frat houses. I refused, on principle, to pay for friends.

Most of the friendly sorts in my dorm were in one – or several – of the Christian clubs. I attended their events. Good clean fun.

But I couldn’t understand their hang-ups. Once, I had learned an African tribal planting dance and showed it to a small gathering outside a women’s dorm. In the dance, you touch one calf to the back of your other leg’s knee, then repeat with the other leg, while putting one hand atop the other and thrusting them downward, as if you’re using a gardening tool to make holes in the ground. It was less erotic than the Hokey Pokey.

But Darla, the hall’s director and a member of the Faith House, stormed out of the dorm screaming, “Stop! Just stop!”

“Stop what?”

“Stop that dancing!”

“Why?”

“We have rules about lewd behavior.”

I hadn’t been aware that some Christian denominations consider dancing sinful.

On another occasion, at dinner, a group of guys discussed bands. Abe mentioned Queen. “They’re all right,” Jonah said, “but Freddie Mercury was just a f——t.” He forked a chunk of pork chop into his mouth.

My jaw went slack. “Does it matter that he was gay,” I finally asked.

Jonah looked me sternly in the eyes. “He was a f——t,” he repeated. “And now he’s dead. He’s just a dead f——t And now he’s burning in Hell.”

“What do you have against gay people?”

“They go against God’s will. AIDS is God’s punishment for being gay.”

“It’s just who they are.”

“It’s a choice,” he replied.

“How can you choose who you’re attracted to?” I scanned the cafeteria and spotted a reasonably attractive man. “I mean, I can look at that guy over there in the No Fear shirt and say, ‘That’s a good-looking guy,’ but I don’t want to have sex with him.”

I surveyed our table. Although the other guys were nice, they clearly shared Jonah’s mindset.

Eli intervened. “All I know is you’ve got to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The others nodded in agreement.

Later that semester, the school paper ran a story about a student who was also a drag queen. The student had been receiving death threats. I read it while Clyde cut Eli’s hair in our room.

“Surely, you’re against death threats, right?”

“Of course,” Eli said, as Clyde clipped the sides of Eli’s hair. “Although, if he’d just stop dressing as a woman, he’d probably stop getting death threats.”

——

Growing up in Illinois, I had had different early lessons in tolerance.

When I was seven, my older brother loved watching reruns of Soap, the first show with a prominent gay character.

“Mom, what’s gay?” I asked.

“It’s like when a man wants to marry another man.”

“Can they do that?”

“No, but they can be together just like they’re married.”

A few years after that, my brother discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“Mom, what’s transsexual?”

“It’s someone who wants to have an operation to change their body from a man to woman or the other way around.”

“Why would they want to do that?” I asked, unable to comprehend.

“Some people just feel they were born into the wrong body.”

And that was that. As good of an explanation as anyone could give in the early ‘80s. I went through junior high and high school aware that gay and transgender people existed, but I was far too self-conscious to dwell on anyone other than myself.

——

In Tennessee, I sensed an odd mix of pride and paranoia on that campus. The region was overwhelmingly Christian, yet they spoke as if they were an oppressed minority.

They won’t let us pray in schools!

Stores say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”!

They teach—gasp!—evolution in schools!

Harlan bought into all of this.  

Harlan was five-foot-five and roly-poly with feathered brown hair, beady eyes, and a contagious baby smile. He worked at the mall at Johnson City (which was aptly named The Mall at Johnson City). A Spanish major with dog-like hearing, we would entertain ourselves by whispering phrases from farther and farther distances – twenty, thirty, forty, or more yards at a time, and he would repeat them to us with perfection. 

Over time, Harlan’s demeanor became dark. He’d lurch down the hall in his black satin jacket and khakis after work, head down, before quickly closing his door behind him. He’d extend his room’s phone cord into the hallway and whisper three-hour conversations with his hand cupped over the receiver.

One night, I walked by the lounge area – a seldom-used alcove that separated the two wings of the dorm – where Harlan sat cross-legged on the floor next to the couch. 

“Have a seat,” he said.

I sat on the hard, gray carpeted floor, the scratchy brick wall propping my back.

“What’d you think of that program tonight at Faith House?”

That night, the Faith House held its weekly meeting. I had attended the Faith House less and less often, as fire-and-brimstone sermons became more frequent.

A common ritual at Faith House was someone would speak about a sinful past, such as drunkenness or premarital sex, but through Jesus, they had been saved. This night’s topic was homosexuality.

“I think you know where I stand, Harlan.”

“What did you think when I said I knew for a fact that it was going on at our campus?”

“It goes on everywhere.”

He pointed to himself. I realized he couldn’t say the words. It was as if saying them out loud was the actual closet door— the one thing that separated a gay person from someone who does gay acts.

“I don’t care. You’re still my friend,” I said.

“Are you gay?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well, you give off gaydar. You know that, right?”

“What’s gaydar?” I asked.

“It’s a vibe you give off that makes people think you’re gay. You’re in really good shape, you use hair gel, you’re smart.”

“Not because I’m never with a girl?”

“Pfft!” he scoffed. “A lot of gay guys have girlfriends. That’s called a beard. You know – a disguise.”

“Do you want one to disguise that you’re gay?”

He put his finger to his lips to silence me. “Don’t call me gay,” he whispered. “I’ve just made some poor choices.”

“You feel bad that you’re attracted to men?”

He leaned far to his left, he almost lay on the floor. He looked down one side of the hallway, then rolled over and looked down the other. He rolled back up into sitting position.

His beady eyes stared into mine and his lips pursed. “I’m waiting on test results.” His eyes glistened as they sank to the floor. He sniffled. A single tear ran down his left cheek.

In my ignorance, I wondered if tears carried HIV.

I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, man.”

A month prior, Clyde had put up a poster in our room. A black-and-white public service announcement. The kind that is typically seen in a high school nurse’s office, with wisdom like a rendering of a fetus smoking or a teen girl holding a baby with the caption, “Change the world, not diapers.” Clyde’s poster showed the front, minus the head, of a young woman in a chair, legs crossed, with the caption, “There’s a simple way to prevent AIDS.” Easy answer.

I had so much confusion then. At the time, HIV was practically a death sentence. People, from celebrities to a French teacher at my high school, were dying at alarming rates. Treatments were hit-or-miss.

I also knew that, fair or not, the most impacted group was gay men.

Harlan told me how he hid. His family didn’t know. Guys in the dorm didn’t know. He was careful to compartmentalize his life. The only ones who knew were the men – most of whom he didn’t know – and his Pastor Jim, and now me.

I had met Pastor Jim once. I made it a policy to accept invitations in order to collect experiences. Looking back, that policy had gotten me into far too many boring church services, with false promises that I’d “visit again real soon!”

Pastor Jim was proud that he wasn’t a bigot. In the Sunday school prior to the service, he went on a far limb and boldly stated that racism was wrong. To give an example, he said he approved of interracial marriage “in some cases.”

“What did Pastor Jim say?” I asked.

“He told me that Jesus loves me, but I must stop. He gave me this.” He pulled back his left sleeve to reveal a thick rubber band around his wrist. “See what it says there? Romans 6:23. Every time I get an urge, I—” and he pulled up on the band and let it smack his wrist, leaving a red mark.

I could see the letters, its black ink smudged.

“Romans 6:23. For the wages of sin is death,” he said, placing a finger on his right temple. “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, understanding the basics of Christianity, but not its intricacies.

“It means if you sin, you will die.”

“Harlan, we’re all going to die.”

“No, I mean you will die-die. You’ll be cast into the fires of Hell.” He sniffled. “I don’t wanna die,” he sobbed, like a baby starting a tantrum. “I don’t wanna go to Hell, Bob. I don’t want you to, neither!”

——

A week after he came out to me, Harlan sat in my room. He stared at the tiled floor and said, “I had another relapse.” Then he pulled the rubber band and let it smack his already-welted wrist. “I gotta wait another six weeks to find the results.”

He slowly shook his head. His voice was deeper, raw from crying. “I hate myself.”

We sat in heavy silence. After a full minute, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

We sat in silence for another minute, then he said, “Three weeks ago, I was at the clinic. They had to freeze genital warts off me with liquid nitrogen. Do you know how incredibly painful that is? Otis was there. He held me down while they did it.”

“Who’s Otis?”

“A guy.”

“A nice guy?”

“Yeah, he’s a nice guy.”

“Why don’t you date him?”

“I can’t, and you know why.”

——

Six weeks later, I stood in my dorm, door open, speaking on the phone to a girl who had zero interest in me.

Harlan knocked. He mouthed, “It’s not positive,” and made a plus sign with his fingers while shaking his head. Then he made a negative sign with one finger, nodded his head, and mouthed, “It’s negative!” His baby smile was back.

That was the last time we spoke about it.

At the start of the next semester, I noticed the rubber band was gone.

By the end of the semester, I graduated. I lost contact with Harlan for good.

——

More than twenty-five years later, I watched Boy Erased, a movie about a young man who was put through conversion therapy. Afterward, I got snoopy. I found Harlan on Facebook. He looks happy. He still has feathered hair, beady eyes, and that same baby smile. Behind him in the picture is a man— I wonder if it’s Otis.

I also looked up Darla, the hall director who wouldn’t let me dance. Her most recent post was a lovely picture of her, holding a bouquet, beaming, with her smiling wife of fifteen years standing at her side.

——            

In college, I never had meaningful conversations about existence. I didn’t go on any spontaneous road trips, and I didn’t bring home a belle to dear old Mom and Dad.

But I did prank someone by coming out of a closet, and hopefully, I made it easier for someone to peek out of theirs.    

——

Bob Chikos spent two-and-a-half of his most formative years in Johnson City, Tennessee. Today, he is a special education teacher, speech team coach, and is involved in statewide educational policy. He lives in Cary, Illinois.
 
Read “Andrea,” also by Bob Chikos.
 
“In a Closet in a Dorm” was originally published in YAWP.

Truants

by David Armand

It was 1995. My friend Matt had just gotten his drivers license that past summer and his mom’s old car, a gray Honda Civic with a hatchback and a stickshift in the center console. It had a tape deck, and he would drive to our house listening to Metallica and Megadeth and Pantera and AC/DC, the speakers in the door vibrating the tinted windows in their metal frames as he drove up our gravel driveway.

My mom didn’t want my brother and me riding in the car with anyone, but she had known Matt for years and he had spent many weekends at our trailer in Folsom, so sometimes she would let him pick us up on his way to school. There was something thrilling about riding to school in your friend’s car like that, pulling up in the grass lot where the older kids parked their trucks and hung out smoking cigarettes before class.

We were in tenth grade that year, and I hadn’t gotten my own license yet. Usually we’d ride the bus to school or my mom would take us if we woke up late. In fact, she had dropped us off that morning when we decided, just after second period, to skip the rest of the day.

My brother and Matt and I all met in the commons area next to one of the Coke machines and told a couple of our friends we were leaving, probably just to see what their reaction would be, but more likely to elevate our status to that of people who actually did things like skip school in the first place. We didn’t have anywhere to go, anything really to do, but it felt important that we were leaving that morning.

After the bell rang and a few students were still left in the hallways, running toward their classrooms so they wouldn’t be marked tardy, Matt and my brother and I walked out the side entrance and to the parking lot. We moved quickly, but also as though we were supposed to be doing that, trying to avoid suspicion by seeming confident and in control, like we knew where we were going and why we were going there.

No one saw us as we climbed into the little car, and Matt turned on the radio and rolled down the windows. We pulled out of the school and headed down Highway 21 toward Covington.

“What do y’all wanna do?” Matt asked, yelling over the windrush and the music. My brother was riding up front and I was sitting in the cramped seat in the back so I had to lean up for them to hear me.

“Jenn skipped school today, too,” I said. “We could always go to her house and see what she’s up to.”

Jenn was a girl whom I was somewhat dating, though we hadn’t actually gone on any dates. I was really more infatuated with her than anything else, and I think she probably just liked me out of boredom. She had come over to my trailer in Folsom a couple of times when my parents weren’t home, staying at my neighbor Stacey’s house and then they’d both sneak through the woods when it was dark so we could hang out.

But I was so young and nervous I didn’t know what to do once she was there. We would sit on the sofa and make out for a while, and when she got up and pulled me into my bedroom, easing into my tiny bunkbed and then reaching up for me to get on top of her, I would think of a reason to leave the room or otherwise just climb in next to her and keep making out. I could never go any further than that.

Jenn wasn’t older than me, just more experienced, and I was intimidated by her. Once she had sat on the trampoline in my back yard and asked me to bite her neck. Stacey was there with us, and Jenn had asked her to bite her neck too. So we both sat there with Jenn between us as we bit her flesh and she sighed with what I guess was some kind of pleasure. At fifteen everything feels so confusing and weird, it’s hard to say what is going on at any given time. I was simply overwhelmed by my feelings for Jenn and I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t attracted to her, but I also didn’t want her to think I was scared—which I was.

Even though she had tried to get me to sleep with her, and even though God knows I wanted to, I was afraid—not of disease or pregnancy or any of the things they warn you against in school. I had no moral objections to it. I was a fifteen-year-old boy. All I thought about was sex. But when it came down to it, I was terrified. Scared I wouldn’t know what to do, how to do it. That I would be no good at it, and would thus be humiliated.

I remember one time being at my grandmother’s house of all places, sitting on the sofa next to Jenn underneath a blanket while we feigned watching a movie on TV. Stacey was there too, sitting on the other side of Jenn as Jenn reached her hand over to my leg and started rubbing my jeans. I was immediately turned on, and I knew Jenn could tell. She moved her fingers over me slowly, feeling me with her palm lightly brushing over my jeans, but never taking her eyes from the movie on TV. I tried to lean back into the sofa, to let myself ease into what was happening without anyone noticing.

Jenn moved her fingers up and down, slowly, but she kept her hand on the outside of my jeans. The movie kept playing, and Stacey pretended not to notice what was going on. I was sweating now. My stomach felt tight, clenched in on itself. Something was on the verge of happening. And then Jenn just stopped. She looked at me for a moment before turning back to the movie. And that was it. I knew what it could be like with her but I wouldn’t know for sure, she seemed to be saying, unless I made the next move. But I never did.

And now here I was trying to convince Matt to drive to her house.

Matt said, “Man, I don’t wanna go over there. I can’t stand her.”

“What do you care?” I said. “We don’t have anything better to do.”

“Shit, dude,” he said. “I guess we can pick her up. I don’t know, but I don’t want to hang out at her house all day.”

“Yeah, that’s fine, man. I doubt she’ll want to either,” I said. I had thought maybe Matt could drop me off over there, and Jenn and I could be alone. Her mom was at work and who knew what could have happened? But I also knew it would be a betrayal to Matt and my brother to just ditch them like that. Besides, they could have just left me there, and I’d be stuck. It wasn’t worth the risk.

When we got to her house, Jenn was sitting outside on the front porch smoking a cigarette; it was as if she had known we were coming. I watched her as she stood up and walked out to the driveway where we were waiting in Matt’s car.

“Hey,” she said. “What are y’all doing here?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just driving around, I guess.”

Jenn dropped the cigarette on the gravel driveway and rubbed it out with her tennis shoe. Then she bent down and picked it up and stuffed it in the pack. She put it in her back pocket, making a square against her tight jeans. I looked away, but could still see the reflection of her long legs in the car’s sideview mirror. I was hoping she’d come with us, wherever it was we were headed.

“Do you wanna come with us?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “That’d be cool. Just let me go get my purse real quick.”

“Okay. Cool.”

I could sense Matt tensing up; he had probably been hoping she wouldn’t come. Then I watched Jenn through the sideview mirror as she walked back up the driveway and then onto the screened-in porch. A little dog barked from inside the house.

“Shit,” Matt was saying now, more to my brother than to me. “I wish she wasn’t coming.”

My brother didn’t say anything, just sat there looking out the window. I don’t think he liked Jenn either.

Anyway, Jenn got in the small car and Matt had to lift his seat forward and nearly press his cheek to the steering wheel so she could climb in to where I was sitting. Once she was in, Matt put his seat back, closed the door, then slipped Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon into the cassette player and turned it up loud. He had two big speakers stuffed into the trunk, just under the hatchback window behind Jenn and me. I could feel the bass vibrating against my neck and back and shoulders.

Then he pulled out of the driveway and turned onto Tyler Street, heading toward downtown Covington.

“Can you please turn that down?” Jenn said, tapping Matt on the shoulder.

“What?”

“Can you turn it down?” she said again.

Matt didn’t answer her, just dialed the knob a bit to the left so the music wasn’t as loud. I could see him through the rearview mirror rolling his eyes. Then Jenn scooted closer to me. Nobody said anything.

We kept driving.

Finally my brother said something about the new Super Wal-Mart that had just opened. Until recently the only Wal-Mart was down the road, closer to the interstate, and it was a pretty small store as far as Wal-Marts go. You couldn’t get groceries there or anything like that.

But this new Wal-Mart was supposed to be gigantic, and none of us had been to it yet.

“Y’all wanna go?” Matt said, looking at Jenn and me through the rearview mirror.

I looked at Jenn, who just shrugged. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s cool with me.”

So we drove up Highway 190 and turned in to the sprawling asphalt parking lot, climbed out the car, and walked inside. The whole time I kept looking around to make sure we didn’t see anyone we knew. I kept feeling on edge since we were supposed to be in school. I didn’t know if cops could bust you for that or not, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

I was also worried that Jenn might try to take something from the store without paying for it. She often bragged about the clothes and tapes and movies and makeup she would steal from the mall in Slidell when she went there with her other friends. It was just something else to do out of boredom, I guess, but I didn’t want to get in that kind of trouble if I could avoid it.

Matt and my brother went to look at the tapes in the music section, and Jenn and I walked around somewhat aimlessly. I remember being amazed that there was a McDonald’s in the back of the store. An actual place where you could sit down and eat food. I had never seen anything like it. It seemed phenomenal at the time.

After a while, though, we got bored and I could tell Jenn was starting to get restless. Fidgety. She kept sighing and rolling her eyes, looking pouty. Then she said she wanted to go back home before her mom got there; and anyway we needed to start driving to Folsom to meet my own mom at the bus stop. Our plan was to tell her that we missed the bus and that Matt just gave us a ride home. We were feeling pretty good about the whole idea, like we actually might pull it off.

But after we dropped Jenn off at her house, then drove up Highway 25 back to Folsom and got to the bus stop, my mom’s car wasn’t there like it should’ve been. I knew the bus hadn’t come yet so maybe she was running late, I thought.

“I guess we can just wait,” I told Matt. “She’ll probably be here in a minute.”

“Yeah,” he said, then just turned the radio back up and looked out the window. He still seemed irritated with me for having to hang around Jenn all day.

A minute passed. Then ten. Then twenty. We had already watched our bus come and go, depositing its load of kids to walk the rest of the way home or otherwise get in the car with their parents, like we were supposed to have done, but our mom just wasn’t there.

After a while, we decided to drive back to our trailer to see if anyone was home, thinking that maybe some line of communication had gotten crossed earlier. I was starting to feel nervous though. And this feeling was only intensified when we pulled up the long gravel driveway and saw that my mom’s car wasn’t parked where it was supposed to be. In fact, no one appeared to be home at all.

“Shit, man,” Matt said. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” my brother said.

“Let’s go back to the bus stop again,” I said. “Maybe she’s there and we just missed her or something.”

“Yeah,” Matt said. None of us knew what else to do.

So we drove back to the bus stop, and this time we saw my mom’s car right away. She was already rolling down her window and staring at us. She didn’t look happy.

“Hey, Ms. Gretchen,” Matt said as he pulled up alongside the idling car, smiling, trying to play everything off as best he could.

“Get y’all’s asses back home,” my mom said.

“What?” my brother asked, looking over Matt and through the rolled-down window.

“You heard me, son. Get your asses home. Now.”

I sort of slouched down in the back seat, not saying anything. There was nothing to say. Somehow it seemed she had figured out what we had done.

Then she pulled away and turned onto Highway 25, heading north toward our trailer, driving fast. Matt followed her.

“Man, we’re fucked,” I said. “She looked pissed. I wonder how she found out.”

“I don’t know,” Matt said. “But y’all are gonna be in some shit now, dude.”

We pulled up in the driveway behind my mom’s van, which was still running. I could see her sitting inside still. Then we got out of Matt’s car and started walking toward the porch. My mom got out and followed us and just as we got to the first step going up, she slapped Matt across his cheek. Not hard but enough to scare us. She never hit my brother or me and now she was hitting our friend.

“Where in the hell were y’all?” she said.

“What?” my brother said.

“Don’t ‘what’ me, Bryan. I went to y’all’s school and y’all weren’t there. You made me look like a complete moron.”

“We got a ride home with Matt,” I said, still trying to hold on to the lie of the original story we had planned to tell. “We missed the bus.”

“David, don’t lie to me. Y’all didn’t even stay at school today. I went to check y’all out because your grandfather had a heart attack this morning.”

“God, which one?” I said.

“Your dad’s dad.”

“Is he okay?”

“They don’t know. He’s in the hospital. All I know is that I get to y’all’s school this morning and the lady at the desk calls your classrooms, and y’all aren’t there. ‘Sure they’re here,’ I told her. ‘I just dropped them off a little while ago.’

“‘Well, ma’am, they’re not in class. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe they skipped?’

“‘Skipped?’ I told her. ‘My sons don’t skip school.’ The lady just laughed at me. Do you know how embarrassing that was?”

“Sorry, Ms. Gretchen,” Matt said.

“Just get your ass home, Matt. I don’t want to hear anything from you right now at all.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Matt said, looking down at his shoes. His cheek was still red from where my mom had slapped him. You could see the marks from her fingers on his face. “Later, y’all,” he said to me and my brother.

“Later,” we said.

Then we watched him as he walked back to his car and drove away. My mom’s van was still running, and my younger sister was sitting in her car seat in the back.

“Y’all don’t have time to go inside,” my mom was saying now. “Everyone’s still waiting at the hospital.”

“Is he okay?” Bryan said.

“I told y’all I don’t know, son.”

“Is Dad there?” he said.

“Of course he is.”

“Does he know we skipped school?” I said.

“Yeah, David, he knows. I had to call him to tell him why we couldn’t be at the hospital until later. That y’all’s asses weren’t where you were supposed to be when I came to get you.”

I didn’t say anything. There was nothing else to say. And so the hour-long drive to the hospital was quiet and tense. Plenty of time to reflect on what we had done and where we were going and what might be about to happen.

***

My grandfather managed to hang on for a little while after that, and my dad was too distracted to say anything to us about skipping school. It felt horrible though. It probably would have been better to just get in trouble instead of quietly feeling selfish and immature and irresponsible like that. And to know that everyone in our family knew it, too.

But no one else said anything about us skipping, and we eventually decided to leave when the doctors said there was not much more they could do. My dad stayed though, and when he came back home later that evening and I asked him how our grandfather was doing, all he said as he stood in the doorway was, “He’s gone, babe.”

Then he looked away, still holding the screen door open with his arm, but I could tell he was sobbing. His eyes were red, and his mouth quivered slightly. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry like that. And it didn’t seem to matter anymore that my brother and I had skipped school that day, had gotten caught, and had embarrassed our family.

This was something important, and I still remember how my dad put his head in his hands that night. The sound of his crying, how it echoed and bled through the thin walls of our trailer. Like something that was trying to get away, to escape from the place where it had been trapped for too long. Even if leaving meant it could never come back. Or if it did, nothing would ever be the same again anyway.


David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He has worked as a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. From 2017 – 2019, he served as Writer-in-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he is currently assistant professor of creative writing. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. He has since published three more novels, two collections of poetry, and a memoir. His latest book Mirrors is forthcoming from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.