“Standing on the street unsure of where I was…what I’d done the night before…I, I didn’t know what else to do, but call my mom,” Atwood said as he looked down at his hands in his lap, gently caressing his left thumb between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. He was embarrassed to recount his drunken and sexual escapades to this stranger sitting across from him.
She sighed deeply. “I’m glad you’re finally opening up, Atwood,” she said “This is our third session and I want to ask you again to tell me what you hope to get from seeing me?”
“Help,” Atwood responded. He found the courage to look her in the eyes. His were pleading. “I need help figuring out why I spiraled out of control. I feel broken. I need to be fixed.”
“I don’t like that word ‘fixed,’ Atwood.” Her voice was passive and gentle, free of judgement. “You don’t need to be fixed. You’re not broken.”
“Then why do I feel that way?”
“I understand that you feel like you need to be fixed. I just want you to understand that you’re not broken. You experienced something that you’ve never experienced before. You accessed a part of yourself that you didn’t know existed. You—“
“—I lost control of myself.” Atwood interrupted, his tone frustrated, on the verge of anger. This was the most emotion he had allowed himself to show her so far. “I lost sight of who I am and what I wanted for myself.” His agitation was growing. “And for what? Meaningless sex and binges on drugs and alcohol? I flunked out of my first semester of college. I got arrested. All of those things the result of a hook up I had with my best friend who admittedly was just using me to see what sex with a guy was like. I want to know why that one experience caused me to fall into a hole so deep that all I could do was walk in circles, pushing myself to drink more, smoke more, have riskier sex.”
“Have you seen Kinlin since you’ve been home?”
“No,” Atwood responded quickly, his voice louder than he intended. “And I’m not sure I want to. I don’t know how I’ll react.”
“It’s okay to not know.”
“I don’t like not knowing.” He was beginning to calm down.
“When you told me about the dream you had where you’re in the boat and Bobby and Kinlin are both there. The dream that turned into a nightmare. They both tried to drown you, but it was Kinlin holding you under the water by himself at the end. I don’t want to get all mystical on you, but water can signify the unknown.” She saw Atwood’s reaction. “I know, you don’t like the unknown, but hear me out.”
“Okay.” Atwood sat in the chair across from her still churning his left thumb.
“Drowning can represent your fear and being overwhelmed by emotions. You weren’t out yet and didn’t even realize you had a crush on Kinlin when he made a move on you. You wanted that sexual experience just as much as he did, but for different reasons that you weren’t aware of until later when you realized you had the crush on him. I know that it may be hard to understand, but your subconscious was expressing your struggle with coming to terms with being gay and having a crush on your best friend. Bobby’s presence in your dream was just another manifestation of your confusion and fear relating back to Kinlin.”
“But why would that crush and its ultimate rejection lead me to run down the path of sex that I chose?”
“I don’t know, Atwood. That’s not for me to say. I think it was a way for you to not deal with Kinlin, your feelings for him, or what happened between the two of you. But the more you talk about it the more we can try to understand together.”
“This really sucks,” Atwood said as he took a breath and released it loudly, noticing the digital clock on the desk.
“That’s all the time we have for today, Atwood.” She smiled at him, her attempt to put him at ease as he left her office. “See you next week.”
“What happens if I see Kinlin?”
“That’s up to you, Atwood. You can run away from him or acknowledge him. You have to figure out how to keeping living your life even if that includes an uncomfortable silence. You have to make room for the possibility that there might not be a future for the two of you as friends. You have to decide if you want to forgive him, and maybe yourself in the process. But all of that is up to you. We’ll talk more about that next week, okay?”
“Thank you, Dr. Capwell.”
He left her office feeling the same as he had after his two prior sessions: like he was working overtime to untangle the big ball of Christmas lights that his jumbled thoughts, feelings, and images turned into after talking to her. He wished his brain could coil everything into nice, neat stacks, but that would be too easy.
The damp chill of December hung in the Ryland air as Atwood closed the car door. He did what he’d done hundreds of times before, looked in the direction of Kinlin’s house to see if his car was home. Old habits do die hard. Atwood’s breath caught in the back of his throat. He saw Kinlin across the street and froze. Kinlin waved, hesitantly. Atwood stared at Kinlin’s anxious face almost as if by force. He realized he was still holding his breath. He released it into the cold Massachusetts air watching it swirl away from him like fog rolling off the water. He raised his hand and waved back, a gesture of hello that was as unexpected to him as his eyes refusing to look away.
Kinlin began walking toward him. Atwood stayed frozen to the spot where he stood in his parents driveway. His hesitation at how to proceed kept him there. He didn’t know if he should walk toward Kinlin or run inside his parents house. He wanted to run, to avoid, to refuse any conversation. You can run away from him or acknowledge him he heard the voice of Dr. Capwell in his head. As Kinlin reached the edge of his own yard that force that connected them after so many years as friends took over. Atwood’s feet started to move before he could stop them. He met Kinlin in the middle of Winthrop Street.
“Hi,” said Kinlin, a look of uncertainty on his face.
“Hi,” replied Atwood, wanting to avoid eye contact, knowing Kinlin could see his dread and fear.
The moment they stood facing each other seemed like an eternity. It was months in the making. The tension was palpable. Atwood didn’t know what to say and the burden was taken away from him as Kinlin started to speak.
“I have to just say this,” he started. “I have to say it while I have the courage.” He took a deep breath, exhaled, and started. “All these weeks of you not talking to me made me realize something. I miss you in my life.” Kinlin paused, regarding Atwood before continuing. “I saw someone on campus that looked so much like you that I ran over to him without even thinking about how improbable it was that it was you and I hugged him.” He stopped talking as if to let his own words sink in. “I hugged him. Who does that? He looked at me like I was an idiot. I was completely embarrassed and apologetic. He was a good sport.” Kinlin shook his head. “I ran away from there as fast as I could. I wanted to tell you that happened, but I couldn’t. I also couldn’t tell you that my roommate kissed me, out-of-the-blue, at one of our fraternity mixers. I was taken by complete surprise. It must have been like how you felt when I...when I kissed you our last night in Ryland.” Kinlin’s pause this time was for Atwood. In the hopes that he would say something, anything. Atwood said nothing. “I liked it. I think it’s because I like him. I don’t know. It’s all so confusing, Atwood. What I do know is that part of me wished it was you. I wasn’t nice to you. I said things that made me sick to my stomach after I said them or wrote them. I refused to deal with myself and my feelings. I’m sorry, Atwood. I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. I do like girls. You have to understand that. I’ve realized that I think I like guys too. I don’t know.”
“Just stop,” Atwood finally spoke, erupted. “I was so hurt by you. You made me so angry. I did a lot of stupid things over the past three months. Things that I will get past, but are going to cost me. For one, I have to repeat the semester. Me. High school honor grad, Beta Club officer. I flunked out of my first semester of college.” He was shaking his head at the words, hearing once more his story as he said it out loud. He laughed a cynical laugh at the outrageousness of it. “I drank too much and I smoked too much pot. I thought I was trying to get over you, run away from you. So does my therapist. But I think I was really running from myself. You were constantly present in my mind, a memory that refused to fade. I didn’t want to deal with you…or with me. I can’t tell you how many guys I hooked up with and closed my eyes and visualized your face.” Atwood saw the reaction of shock on Kinlin’s face. “I know. It’s fucked up. But I did it. I have strong feelings for you. I think I might actually love you, but that’s from years of knowing you. What I do know is I could never be with you.” Atwood saw the sting of his words in Kinlin’s eyes. Part of him was happy they’d hurt Kinlin to hear as much as they’d hurt him to say.
The silence that fell between them when Atwood stopped speaking was thick and uncomfortable. There was merely the vapor from their breath surrounding them, but that air was so dense that even their history couldn’t cut through it.
Atwood began again, “I tried to pigeon hole you. You know? Put you in a box. The only way I could deal with what happened between us was to make myself believe that you were gay…and that you were lying to yourself about your feelings for me. I needed to put you in that box with a label otherwise I couldn’t wrap my head around why it happened.
“Okay,” Kinlin responded, desperately hoping Atwood was working his way toward words about forgiveness.
“Now you tell me you think you’re attracted to both guys and girls. Okay? That’s confusing-”
“-It is confusing,” Kinlin interrupted.
“-But,” Atwood raised his voice to talk over Kinlin, “you’re attracted to who you’re attracted to. Who am I to limit you or label you?” He shrugged his shoulders as Kinlin looked at him with bewildered anticipation. “You said to me in an email months ago that you thought I was gay and would tell you when I was ready. In a moment of anger I did finally tell you, but I was so angry with you that I couldn’t give you the same courtesy. I’m sorry I did that to you.” Atwood’s words were matter-of-fact, emotionless, not quite the forgiveness scenario Kinlin had imagined.
“I’m sorry for treating you like a science experiment and less like my best friend,” responded Kinlin.
“Okay,” replied Atwood.
“Do you think we can ever get back to a place where you say to yourself, I wonder what Kinlin is up to? I wonder if he’d like to hang out?”
“I don’t know,” Atwood responded shortly. “Right now, Kinlin, the love I once felt for you has been overtaken by hate.”
“Hate?” replied Kinlin, his voice choked with the pain that Atwood could see on his face.
“Yes. Right now I hate you.” Atwood started to cry. He couldn’t stop himself. “My frustration and anger and confusion feel like they’ve been thrown together in a blender. They’ve banged around my head for so long, that the end result is hate. My hurting has turned to hatred. And you’re the object, the source, the reason.”
“Atwood, I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”
There they stood in the center of Winthrop Street. Two young men crying. A gulf of enmity and confusion from one reckless experience between them. In that moment as Atwood Ross and Kinlin Grové stood staring at each other, they were no longer the childhood friends who’d grown up across the street from one another. They were men who could not escape their experience. Whether their friendship would mend or not was up to time and time didn’t always heal everything the way you’d expect. Sometimes it just marched on sending friends in different directions.
©2014 Michael Rohrer