Terry sat while Craig got the coffee going. While it dripped, Craig got mugs and sugar from the cupboards, then sat across the small table from Terry.
“I'm sorry for all that back there, Terry. I kinda lost it, in a lot of ways. I owe y'all an explanation, but can it wait until the coffee's done?” Terry nodded.
When the coffee was finished after what seemed like an eternity of looking at each other, Craig poured them both a mug and spooned sugar into his. He cleared his throat.
“When I was growing up in Mississippi, my family moved around some. Dad finally landed in a small town where the local church needed a preacher. Dad had done some preaching when he was younger, and he sort of fell into it again. The church folk liked him and we stayed. I went to elementary school there and my older brother and sister went to high school there.” Craig and Terry both sipped their coffee. “Dad was Hardshell Baptist, very strict fundamentalist. I'd had some urges and thoughts, and worked hard to purge them, to be good. I was tormented. Most of the time, really; looking back on it. I looked at men when I shouldn't have. One day, my dad caught me looking at my neighbor when he'd taken his shirt off and was pouring water over himself to wash the heat off. He blew up. He grabbed me and beat the tar out of me. I was big, even then, but dad was bigger. He called me a 'spawn of Satan' and vowed he'd beat the devil out of me, to save me from damnation and hell. He and mom watched my like a hawk after that. They'd walk in on me when I was taking a leak or a dump, or when I was taking a bath. I had to come home directly from school. The only place I got to go alone was down to the grocery store, and I had to be right back. If I even glanced at a guy, I got a beating. They even got my brother to watch me.” He stopped and looked Terry squarely in the face. “They didn't save me from hell, they put me in it.”
“When I finished high school, there was a crisis. I wanted to go to the junior college in Biloxi and get certified as a physical therapist. One of the people at church was a PT and talked about how satisfying it was. I thought it sounded like a cool profession and I liked helping people, and since someone in church was a PT, how could it be wrong? Boy, was I ever mistaken. My folks were dead set against it. I know now it was because I'd be out from under their direct supervision, but they said it was because I'd be risking my soul by touching people... touching men. They just KNEW I'd be touching men in 'that way'. So, no college for me.”
Terry interrupted, “That's awful!”
“Oh, it gets better. I got desperate. I knew I'd kill myself if I stayed there much longer. I ran off. I took what money I had saved secretly and I hitched to Biloxi that August. I enrolled at the junior college, and since I was eighteen, I didn't need any parent signatures. I just put down 'deceased' on the forms. I got a part time job and rented a room from a nice old woman close to the Sonic where I worked. And I met a guy, Bart, a really nice guy. He worked at Sonic, too, and he had an apartment. He asked me to share with him and split costs, and I did. We got along great. I wasn't interested in him in that way, we were just good buddies. It was nice just having someone to hang out with, and not have to keep looking over my shoulder or watch every move or word out of my mouth. I think for the first time in years, I relaxed.”
“I wasn't all that smart. Hell, face it: I was ignorant and sheltered. My folks knew I wanted to go to Biloxi, I'd begged and pleaded with them about it for months. So they knew where I was likely to be. I don't know why they took so long, but about three months later, they showed up in Biloxi. They guessed I'd go to school, and there was only one junior college in town then; so Dad bullied the registrar's office at the college into giving him my address. “
“We were painting the bedroom I slept in, so I'd moved all my stuff into Bart's room while we finished that. It was kind of hot still, and we both had our shirts off and were painting the ceiling. We were horsing around, dabbing paint on each other, and in busts my dad and mom. Mom took one look and started weeping and wailing. Dad stormed into the other bedroom to get my things, and of course, he saw all my stuff, and all of Bart's stuff, which he knew wasn't mine, all together in one room. Bart hadn't made the bed that morning, either. Dad put two and two together and got seventeen. I thought he was going to have a stroke. He ordered mom to get my things and he decked me with one punch. He chased Bart out of the place and he and mom dragged me out to the car and threw my clothes in the back and drove off. Bart called the police, but by the time they got there, we were long gone. “
“My God! What did you do?” Terry shook his head in amazement.
“We didn't go home. Dad drove like a bat outta hell, and every once in a while, Mom would turn around and yell at me and then start crying again. We wound up at some sort of house out in the countryside, really remote country. It was some sort of treatment place, but I didn't know that then. He ran in and got a couple of guys to come out and guard the car while he went inside with my mom. About an hour later they all came out, I was manhandled out of the car and into the place, and they drove off. It turned out to be a fundamentalist 'treatment center', where they promise to cure gay people, re-program them.” Seeing the appalled look on Terry's face, Craig stopped and sipped some more coffee. “Ever see the movie, Clockwork Orange? That comes pretty close. I was in that prison for almost four weeks.”
“Jesus Christ! What did you do? How did you get out?”
“Well, for all their lock-step discipline, they were lax in some ways. And it turned out that one of the night attendants wasn't so holy, after all. I was able to cheek the sedatives they made you take each night. They were too busy praying to notice I hadn't swallowed. I saved them, and when this night guy sort of showed some interest in me, I worked out a plan. I chatted with him, and offered to watch things while he took a leak. That worked out. I didn't 'try anything', like getting away, so he kind of trusted me. Well, he was interested in me, too; so it was kind of easy. Couple of nights later, I mentioned that my shoulders were sore, and he offered to give me a massage. Actually, he was pretty good at that, but his hands lingered a little too long, if y'all know what I mean. I looked up at him, and thanked him and offered to get some coffee for us both while he got comfy and then I'd rub his shoulders. His eyes lit up, and I got the coffee, put the smashed up sedative pills I had in it, and loaded it with sugar so he wouldn't notice. I gave it to him and he drank it while I gave him that shoulder rub. In about fifteen minutes he passed out. I took his keys and got the hell out. I'd seen him use his keys on the alarms, so I knew what to do. “
“ I was lucky, there were only three cars parked out back, and his keys fitted the first one I tried. I was sweating bullets as I started it and drove out, I just knew someone would hear and call the police. But I got away. I ditched the car as soon as I got to the highway, and hitched back to Biloxi. I was afraid they'd call out the state troopers, but I was of age, and hadn't signed any papers or anything, there was no consent on my part. So I guess they were kind of leery of calling out the cops. I don't know if they called my folks then or later. I never talked to my folks after that, so I don't know.”
“I went to Bart's place, and bless his heart, he gave me some money and called a school buddy who lived in Chicago. I took the Greyhound up there, and crashed with Bart's friend until I got a job and a place. I worked different places and finally got enough money together and went back to school and got certified as a PT. I paid Bart back out of my first paycheck as a PT.”
“I was really spooked by anything having to do with sex or men. In spite of all the bad stuff that had happened, I still did believe it was a sin. Believed, I mean. It's weird, I know, but I still thought if I tried hard enough, I could return to grace, as my mom put it and everything would turn out all right. I worked, saved money, kept to myself. Then I met this guy. Oh, God, did I fall hard for him. All my resolve to 'be good' melted in a flash. We moved in together and when he got a job offer out here, I followed him. Turns out it was a bit more than a job offer. I came home one day and found them. They were going at it like crazed weasels. Well, that sort of soured me on 'gay relationships' permanently, I guess. I told myself it was for the best, that God was telling me this was wrong and that I could walk away from it all. I'd be alone, but I'd be safe... and saved.” Craig drained his mug.
Terry put out a hand and put it over Craig's hairy paw. Craig stiffened, and then relaxed and did not completely withdraw his hand.
“Did you ever hear from your family” Terry asked?
“No.” The short answer was laden with bitterness. Terry gave Craig's hand a squeeze.
“I promised myself that I would not get involved with any of this again. Please don't think it's anything y'all did, or that you aren't attractive. You are, if you can accept my word for that. You're as handsome as all hell, talented, and you have a nice, easy way about you. You seem like a good person... it's... it's just me.”
Terry struggled to get up with the cane and motioned Craig back in his seat. He shoved his chair over so it was next to Craig's and sat back down.
“Listen to me. I know we've just met, and you really don't know that much about me. But I think you develop an instinct for how people are, especially if you're gay and you're trying to pass. You say you think I'm a good person. Well, accept that for a moment and believe what I am going to say.” He put his hand on Craig's thigh, felt the solid muscle and warmth, and the flinch.
“Oh, please.... don't.” He looked steadily at Craig. “There is nothing wrong with who and what you are. I'm not a religious person, but I worked with a client once who said, 'I'm fine the way I am, God doesn't make junk'. I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. If you believe in a God that directs all creation, then that God made you. You are right and natural. You are the way you were meant to be.”
“I wish I could believe that. But everything I've been taught tells me its wrong.”
“Taught by whom?'
“My dad, and my mom. And the church.”
“Ah. The man that knocked you out, the one who dragged you out and threw you into a car; the woman who conspired with him to kidnap you, the people who incarcerated you in what amounts to a fundamentalist gulag and drove off and left you there. Those people.” Terry looked at Craig's handsome bearded face. “Do you really think they are the voice of God?”
Craig was silent.
“Look inside yourself. You've had some experiences, one just a few minutes ago. What does your body tell you, what does your mind tell you? When are you happy?”
Craig struggled to speak. “When I'm with.... with guys, I guess.”
“When do you feel most sad or alone?”
“When I was home, in the bedroom, wondering, knowing someone was listening or watching... waiting for me to do something bad.”
Do you think your God, any god worth his salt, wants his creations to be miserable? I think everything on earth, gays included, sex included, was put here for a reason. Not everyone is good, and not all things that happen to people are good. But we all have the potential to live up to our possibilities. You've overcome some pretty harsh treatment and turned out to be a decent guy.”
“OK. It's hard for me to think that way, but I can see some of what y'all are saying. But queers aren't natural, are they? I mean, what about kids?”
“You notice any shortage in the world's population lately, Craig?” Terry sipped his coffee, then continued. “Look, you don't think that someone with blue eyes is 'unnatural', do you? But they aren't the norm.” Terry paused. “Not everyone gets married. Not everyone who does has children. Even in the animal world, there is room for variation. 'Natural' covers a lot more ground than we admit. All I'm trying to get across is that you are as natural as anyone else, you have as much right to happiness as anyone else.”
There was a long pause. “I guess I've got some thinking to do. Can I make y'all a deal?” Terry nodded. “I'll stay and work with you, exercises and therapy and such, get your leg back to full mobility. I'm a damn good PT, I can do that. In exchange, you and I talk a lot more about this. Deal?”