Because I’m cursed with introspection and curious (like my namesake) about how people change, I’ve often tried to nail down the start of my transformation from fundamentalist to whatever radical leftist label you want to assign to me today. (I choose Liberal, myself.) I think it began to happen my first semester in college at Georgia Southern.
My friends were surprised when I told them that I planned to live in the dorms at college. They thought I should just live at home.
I thought that going to school in my hometown was going to be bad enough. I couldn’t imagine living at home, too.
The change began with a prediction. “Russell, you know that your roommate will smoke, drink, cuss, and party all night long.” This was back in the 80s before we knew that second-hand smoke was bad for you.
After a brief pause, they added, “Yeah, or he’ll be gay.” We laughed because we knew these thing could never happen. I had, after all, requested a non-smoking roommate on my housing form. That, of course, would cover me. I moved into Lewis Hall on Friday, August 22, 1986.
I moved in early so I could attend Band Camp. As one of the two male members of the color guard, I needed the extra time to learn the routines. So for almost three weeks I had the most sought after possession on an over-crowded campus: a room of my own. Unfortunately, my solitude didn’t last long.
One evening after class, I returned home to find the other half of my little room occupied. The prediction proved prescient. My roommate arrived smoking, drinking, cussing, and partying all night long. He didn’t stay long; I’m sure he wanted to be rid of the wet blanket who prayed for him every night. My solitude returned, but it was even shorter this time.
I walked in one night while Seth was hanging a reproduction of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
“Oh, uh, hi, I’m Russell.”
“Seth. How’s it going?”
“Good, so you’re the roommate. To tell the truth, I had gotten used to being here by myself, but I’m sure you’ll be an improvement over the last guy.”
Seth smiled and said, “Thanks for the warm welcome.”
“Sorry,” extending my hand at last, I added, “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Same here.” We shook hands.
“So what’s this?” I asked, pointing to the art.
“You don’t know Seurat? This is Sunday Afternoon on the Island. Didn’t you see Farris Bueller’s Day Off?”
“Nope, I haven’t seen too many movies. This is cool though” I added.
“Yeah, I’ve always liked that the little girl in white is the only one looking out of the picture. Even though her mom’s there, she’s not watching her, and she’s not holding her hand. She’s not even under the parasol. She’s in the light. She’s pure. She’s free. There’s even been a musical written about it. It’s called, Sunday in the Park with George. The characters all come to life in the play.”
I looked at him with a what-have-I-walked-into-here expression on my face and struggled to come up with, “uh, You know my first name is George—you’ve thought a lot about this.”
“Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it?” He didn’t notice the expression on my face. “So, what’s your major?”
“English, I think; officially I’m still undecided, but freshman comp is great so far. How about you?”
“Oh yeah, I didn’t know there was a theater major.”
My expression from earlier seemed to freeze on my face for a while. “So,” I finally manage, “do you want to act?”
“Na, I’m a playwright. I’ve had a play produced off-Broadway.”
“Oh-Kay.” I looked back at the Seurat hoping for clarity; but the closer I looked, the less clear things became.
We actually got along. This surprised us both as I was a fundamentalist Southern Baptist and Seth a Catholic atheist. He was a writer; I wanted to be a writer. He didn’t seem to mind me too much whenever that astonished look fell off my face, and I wasn’t trying to save his soul.
“You’re not so bad,” Seth told me one night while he was writing. He liked to write lying on his stomach in bed with the light pulled down close. He always had a peaceful look on his face when he wrote. It was a look of contentment. It was a look of fulfillment. It was a look of love. I think it was the only time I really saw that look on his face the whole year.
“Gee, thanks. What a relief.”
“You’re just inexperienced.” He was right; I was, but I had intended it that way.
Seth continued to expose me to new things like Calvin and Hobbes— a comic strip about a boy and his loyal tiger. I surprised us both by laughing out loud at the scene of Calvin racing toward his doom in their red wagon. Seth suggested replacing the Bible verse I had posted on the door, and I agreed. That astonished look appeared on his face for a moment. Humor makes strange bed-fellows.
Approaching the Thanksgiving break, Seth received something that he was truly thankful for. “ELLE published my interview! They published it!” he shouted to no one in particular. He ran back to the room to make some calls. His mom needed to hear.
As he hung up, he tossed me a copy of the magazine and said, “Take a look at page 26.”
“What is this?”
“It’s a magazine, dumbass. Look at page 26!”
“What kind of magazine?” I asked looking at the cover with leery eyes.
“Fashion, now will you turn to page 26?”
“Fashion? Who reads fashion magazines?”
“Fine, if you’re not going to read it . . .”
“. . . Page 26, page 26 . . .”
That look became permanently etched on the stone that I call a face.
There, smiling back at me was Seth, with his blond hair and stock black turtleneck. Evidently, the play that he had written in high school and submitted to a contest for young playwrights had been produced “off-Broadway,” and ELLE had written a six-inch column about him. The first sentence was all I read. The rest, for me, was obliterated. “Seth, a resident of Savannah, GA., and an openly gay atheist, has already had a play produced off-Broadway.”
My roommate was gay.
“Hey man, this is great. Uh listen, uh—I’ve got to run. Band practice tonight.” I grabbed my rifle and flag and left. As the door shut, I thought I heard Seth say, “get me out of here!”
Christmas break came and went, and I took my time getting back. Dad and I had several arguments over my returning. In the end, my desire to be out of the house won out over dad’s fear of Seth’s orientation. When I did finally return one night, I walked in on Seth cutting pictures out of magazines. The pictures had the common theme of bare-chested men. He was taping them up on his side of the room in a mural. Seurat was still hanging, but its vivid color and light had been eclipsed. Seeing that look on my face again, Seth asks, “Too much?”
“No Seth, its fine.”
Art, beauty, and humor weren’t working their magic as often anymore. There was a serious undercurrent to everything between us. It was tense, and it was easier to stay away from each other.
The mural stayed up.
Seth was being noticed on campus. He was actively involved in the theater department and had an important role in the fall production of Merlin, a play about the life of Christopher Marlowe; and his poetry was being published in the student art magazine. He was also being noticed on the hall. Although Seth was a night owl, usually coming and going late at night, occasionally he would get cornered by the resident jocks living three doors down. They had noticed the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that Seth had posted on our door; and, more importantly, they noticed the mural.
I came back to the room one rainy afternoon hoping, as usual, that Seth wouldn’t be there. As I approached the door, I noticed that something had changed. No longer was the Calvin and Hobbes strip on the door; or rather, it wasn’t facing the right way anymore. Someone, and I was certain it was the jocks three doors down, had turned the strip over and on the back written in large black, angry letters, “BURN IN HELL, FAGGOT.”
I stared at it for a minute. I stared at it for another. I was torn: I was frightened by the hatred in the message, but I still believed that my roommate would indeed do just that. Another minute passed, and I was still standing there. A volley had been fired. It wasn’t the first shot, and it wouldn’t be the last. The violence forces me to pick a side. Will I threaten or be threatened? I stood there, paralyzed. This was one of those irrevocable moments, but I didn’t know it then.
I left the message on the door and went inside the darkening room.
Seconds later there was a stillness outside the door. I wasn’t sure how I knew it, but I was certain that Seth was reading the note. There was laughter down the hall: humor’s dark side. The stillness was swallowed by the whirlwind a moment later. The war had come to our door. The door burst open. A backpack flew into the room. The shreds of the strip soon followed. Seth stood on his bed ripping down the mural. The whirlwind continued until it absorbed Sunday in the Park. The print became a projectile aimed at nothing—aimed at no one. Seth stood alone, fighting a battle he thought he’d left behind. Afraid to fight alongside him, I left to wander in the darkness outside our window.
Weeks passed and the quarter ended. We avoided each other more than ever. He had been staying with a friend; but after the last exam, we were together again packing up.
“Going home for the summer?” I asked.
“Na, New York.”
My look was back again, but it’s different this time. A small smile followed. “I hope it’s a good trip.”
“I think I’m going to stay.”
“I thought you might.”
“So, what about you?”
I walked over and took down Sunday in the Park. One night while he was out, I got tired of seeing it on the floor. It didn’t belong there, so I hung it back up. Our room needed its peacefulness. I looked at it again. I was too close. The light was still there, but that was all I could see. Maybe that was all I needed to see.
“Oh, I’ll be here reading, maybe doing a little writing if I can ever figure things out.” I handed the print to him. “Who knows . . . god knows I don’t.”
Seth looked at it: somehow, he always seemed to see things in it that I couldn’t.
With the light shining off the scene onto his face, Seth looked up at me and smiled.
We stood there and finished packing.