A few months ago, during October of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had gotten involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a chapter of an international nondenominational organization called Intervarsity. JCF had weekly meetings on Fridays with worship music with someone giving a talk about the Bible, and attending these was the extent of my involvement so far. I knew that there were also small group Bible studies and a few retreats every year, but I had not gotten involved in those yet.
As a relative newcomer to the group, I was still learning the etiquette. Some people stood up during worship, some waved their hands, some sat quietly. I was having trouble doing any of those right now because I had to pee, and I was not sure if getting up to use the bathroom during the music was frowned upon. I walked quickly to the bathroom as soon as the last song and closing prayer ended, and when I got back to my seat, Liz and Ramon, Jason, Sarah, Caroline, and Krista were standing where I had been sitting. I stood quietly next to Sarah. All six of these people had been in my dorm freshman year, and they were how I first knew about JCF.
“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said. “What are you doing tonight?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“We’re going to 199 Stone to see Dangerous Minds. You want to come?”
“Sure,” I said. “When does it start?”
“10. We don’t need to leave quite yet, but we should probably leave soon, to get there early.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good idea.”
A little while later, the seven of us left Evans Hall and walked to Stone Hall. Evans and Stone were right next to each other on Davis Drive, so we did not have far to walk. A division of the Associated Students organization called Campus Cinema used the large 400-seat lecture hall in Stone as a second-run theater on weekends, showing movies that had played in theaters a few months earlier but were not released on video yet. Tickets were three dollars, less than even matinee prices at actual theaters.
Two lines extended from the front of the building, a relatively short line of people waiting to buy tickets, and a longer line of about 50 people who already bought tickets and were now waiting for the earlier show to get out. The seven of us paid for our tickets and moved to the back of the longer line. “This is based on a true story, right?” Krista asked.
“Yeah,” Sarah replied.
I did not know a whole lot about this movie, except that it was about an inner-city teacher, and that the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” came from this movie. I only knew that song because of Mark, my younger brother who loved gangsta rap. I did not realize that the movie was based on a true story.
About five minutes after we arrived, more people trickled in and moved to the back of the line where we stood. At one point, I spotted a familiar face walking toward me, and my mind flooded with thoughts. What do I say? I have not seen her in a while, and our last conversation was kind of awkward on my end. Maybe I should–
“Megan!” I called out, waving, interrupting the voices in my head.
Megan looked around for the source of the person greeting her. She saw me and smiled. “Greg! How are you?”
“I’m doing ok. Classes are going well. How are you?”
“How’s your building?”
“It’s good. It’s a pretty calm group of people so far. There hasn’t been a lot of drama. I have to go, I need to find the people I’m meeting here, but hey, it was good seeing you!”
“You too!” I said, smiling. Had I been asked yesterday, I would have said that I was making progress in getting over Megan. When she mentioned two months ago that she was dating someone, I was devastated, but I did not think of her as often since I did not see her as often anymore. Last year, she was an RA in a dorm in the same campus residential area as mine, and I saw her frequently around the dining commons. This year, she was an RA in a different residential area, and I lived off campus.
As I stood there in line, I found that I could not help but wonder if Megan and this guy were still together. Maybe that was who she was meeting. To my knowledge, Megan had no idea how I felt about her, since I never knew how to tell girls that I liked them. In the time since I found out that Megan had a boyfriend, I had also found out that another girl I liked had a boyfriend; this was a common theme in my life.
I saw a crowd of people leave the building as the early show ended, and a few minutes later, our line started moving. We climbed up to the building’s front entrance, walked across the lobby, and then down the aisle of the lecture hall. “Is this okay?” Liz asked as she gestured toward a mostly empty row in the center section toward the back.
“Sure,” I said, nodding. The others assented as well, and we sat down in seven consecutive seats. I watched as advertisements for other Associated Students services flashed on the screen, mixed with a few silly announcements. “Want to learn to be a projectionist? So do we,” one of them said. I laughed.
I looked around me at people filling in the seats. I saw Megan and her friends walk past us; they sat three rows in front of us. I looked back up at the screen, watching the advertisements, occasionally looking around but unable to stop myself from glancing at the back of Megan’s head. She was talking to one of the people she came with, an Asian girl with shoulder-length hair; they were laughing about something. Megan put her arm around the girl and leaned forward, and they kissed on the lips. Megan pulled back, smiling, then leaned toward the girl and kissed her again, leaving her arm around the girl after their lips separated.
Wait, I thought. What just happened?
Megan never told me that she had a boyfriend. Her exact words were “the person I’m dating,” and apparently the person she was dating was a girl.
The movie started, and I tried to pay attention to what was happening on the screen. Although it was dark in the building once the movie started, I could still see the outline of Megan and her girlfriend cuddling. I tried to look away. Looking at her felt wrong. Not only was she in a relationship, but it was a same-sex relationship, and that she was not even into guys in the first place. I forced myself to watch the movie, at times even putting my hands over my face to cover just enough of my field of vision so as not to be able to see Megan and her girlfriend.
I became more absorbed in the movie as it went on, watching Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Ms. Johnson, struggling to connect with the city kids in her class and relate to their experiences. In one scene, the mother of one of the students called Ms. Johnson a vulgar name and told her that she should not teach these students to be academically successful. I could not understand how someone could possibly have such low expectations for her own child. I would have just as hard of a time as Ms. Johnson understanding the world that these students lived in, and she was much more patient with the students than I would have been.
At the end of the movie, Ms. Johnson’s character was unable to save one of the students from the dangers of street life. She seemed to feel that all her efforts were futile. Futility felt familiar tonight. All of my efforts to get closer to Megan, the late night conversations, sitting with her and her friends in the dining hall, exchanging birthday cards, the time we had lunch and hung out in her room, none of that mattered. I did the best I could, but I was doomed from the start just because I was a guy.
When the movie ended, people began standing and filing out of the theater. I realized that I could turn toward my friends so that Megan would be behind me, and I would not have to see her as she left the building with her girlfriend. But I also did not want to be conspicuous or rude about this. I stood facing forward as I normally would, waiting for the people around me to leave,and as Megan and her girlfriend walked up the aisle past me, I made eye contact with Megan and waved.
“Good night, Greg,” Megan said. “Have a good weekend!”
“You too,” I said, trying my best to act the way I always did, hiding the disappointment in my voice. I turned to my left, to the people I came with.
“What did you think of the movie?” Sarah asked.
“I liked it,” I said. “Sad, but that’s life sometimes. Sometimes, no matter what you do, things don’t work out.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Krista added. “But I thought it was cool how much effort she made to relate to the students.”
“It wasn’t bad, but there are already a lot of movies like this,” Jason observed. “Kids from rough neighborhoods and teachers trying to relate to them.”
“Yeah,” Krista agreed.
“You ready to go?” Liz asked me. I realized that I was standing closest to the aisle, so I would have to leave first in order for the others to get out. The crowd of people filing out had begun to thin, so I nodded walked toward the aisle. We stood outside in the cool night for a few minutes, talking about weekend plans and classes. Eventually, we all said our goodbyes, and I walked back to my car and returned to my apartment.
The next day was Saturday, and I did not have to wake up early for class. I lay in bed for over an hour after waking up, processing the events of the previous night. Megan McCauley was a lesbian. I saw her kissing a woman. Sometimes, in the back of my mind, I was still holding out hope in my mind that things would not work out with the person Megan was dating, and that I might have a chance with her. Last night had put an end to that hope. All it took was one look, last night while I waited for the movie to start, for what hope I had left to be put to death quickly. I supposed, though, that finding out the way I did had its advantages. Had I actually been brave enough to ask her out, she would have had to tell me that she did not like guys, and that interaction would have been awkward and embarrassing.
I put on a sweatshirt and went for a bike ride, trying to clear my head. I rode south on Andrews Road toward campus, intending to ride the entire length of the University Arboretum east to west. But as I approached, I realized that my route would take me right past Carter Hall, Megan’s dorm, and the North Area Dining Commons where we had met for lunch in September. I turned left on Fifth Street and entered campus on Colt Avenue instead. I did not want to ride past Megan’s building and think about her and her girlfriend in bed together. But it was too late; the thoughts were already there.
One look. All it took was one look to ruin my hope and my weekend. What if I had not looked up while I was in line and seen Megan outside of Stone Hall? Or what if I had made an effort not to look at her once I got to my seat? What if I had not gone to the movie last night at all? Then maybe I would have still been blissfuly unaware of Megan’s sexual orientation, and I would not have felt this awkwardness over having spent a year of my life having a crush on someone whom I did not even realize was not into guys at all. One look can turn happiness to sadness. That sounded poetic.
I stopped when I arrived at the east end of the Arboretum, behind the art and music buildings. Perhaps my mind was giving birth to another poem; I had been writing a lot lately. I did not like the “happiness to sadness” part, though. I continued riding my bike a short distance through the Arboretum and sat on a bench overlooking the small lake next to Marks Hall. The sky was blue, without a cloud in sight, but it was still January, and many of the trees in the Arboretum had shed their leaves. One look can turn summer into winter. No, that was not quite right. One look can turn the blue skies into gray. Iambic pentameter, very Shakespearean, but still not quite right.
One look can turn the daytime into night.
That was it. That was going to be the first line of my poem. Two years ago, in high school, we had studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I had become fascinated with their rhythm and rhyme pattern. I also found it interesting how much had been speculated over the years regarding who they were written to, or about, although I had not studied this in great detail. I continued my ride west through the Arboretum, thinking about how one look ruined my night last night, and how if I were to gouge out my eyes, I would not be able to see uncomfortable truths in the first place.
When I reached the oak grove at the end of the Arboretum, I continued on Thompson Drive across Highway 117 to the rural part of campus, past the sheep barn in the middle of the agricultural research fields. At the south end of Hawkins Road, I stopped again and stood for a few minutes. Olive trees lined both sides of the road. Behind me was Arroyo Verde Creek, with oaks and sycamores and various small bushes along its banks. Riding my bike on this route always made me feel so peaceful. Despite still being on a large university campus, I felt like I was miles and miles from civilization, not worried about girls rejecting me, or upcoming exams, or my uncertain future.
In Mr. Jackson’s AP English class at Plumdale High, we studied a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets in detail. Sonnet 29, the one that begins “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” was my favorite. Today I felt like I was in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes. Life just sucked sometimes. Shakespeare used fourteen grandiloquent lines of iambic pentameter to say, essentially, that when he felt discouraged, hopeless, or envious of others, he simply thought of a certain special someone, and having this person in his life was more important than everything that was bringing him down. Scholars had spent centuries speculating about the identity and gender of this special someone and the nature of his or her relationship to Shakespeare.
But, now that I took the time to get out of my head and think about things, there was no mystery to the identity of my special someone, or in this case, multiple special someones. Sure, I had never had a romantic partner. Megan had a girlfriend. Sabrina Murphy had a boyfriend. Back home, I never got anywhere with Rachelle Benedetti or Kim Jensen or Melissa Holmes or Jennifer Henson or Annie Gambrell. But I had people who cared about me, and that really was important. Sarah and Krista and Liz and Ramon and Jason and Caroline had invited me to the movie last night. Taylor Santiago and Pete Green and Charlie Watson always welcomed me to their apartment when I just needed to get out of my apartment and interact with human beings. I had my friends from the Newman Center, I was making new friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I made friends in my dorm last year, and I had a few friends from classes or just from seeing them around campus. Sure, none of these people was my girlfriend, but they cared about me, and in my darkest moments, they had been there for me.
As I rode my bike back home, I continued thinking of ways to put my feelings into iambic pentameter. I was now modeling my poem on Sonnet 29, using the first eight lines to lament the illusion-shattering experience of seeing Megan kiss a girl, but then reflecting on the positive things in my life in the final six lines. I wrote down what I had so far when I got home, then after making lunch and spending a few hours studying, I logged onto an IRC chat in one window with my poem open in another window, writing my poem as I waited for people to reply to my messages. I finished a little after midnight.
One look can turn the daytime into night,
A happy day into a tedious chore;
One misdirected glance, and all’s not right,
The ships I’ve tried to sink arrive at shore.
I think that I will gouge out both my eyes
And lay this possibility to rest;
No more will I see through some grand disguise
To find that things are not as I’d have guessed.
But then my eyes would shut to all the love
My friends have shown in times of great despair,
And blind I’d be to gifts from God above,
And times I’ve persevered when life’s not fair;
One painful sight is quite a modest price
To pay to live a life of things so nice.
Megan and I did not stay close for the rest of the time we were at UJ. I had of course not ruled out the possibility that she was bisexual, interested in both women and men, but that was not something I wanted to think about, and it was beside the point. Although I did not grow up with much exposure to the LGBTQ community or lifestyles, I did not reject her out of prejudice. We had already started growing apart now that I did not eat at the dining hall anymore. I also made less of an effort to stay in touch with her once I found out she was dating someone, because I knew she would not be interested in me. I did not avoid her intentionally; I still saw her on campus over the years and said hi occasionally. But we just ran in different circles, and sometimes people just naturally grow apart.
After this, I only have one more specific memory of an actual conversation with Megan. It was early in my senior year, her fifth year, when I passed her on the way to class. She told me she had two more quarters left to finish her undergrad degree, I told her about what I had done over the summer, and she told me that a friend of hers had done the same thing as me a few years earlier. Additionally, in 2014, I was looking at the website for a place where I had a job interview coming up, and I saw a mention of an employee named Megan McCauley . I do not know if it was the same person, but Megan’s degree was in chemical engineering, and this person’s position was related enough to chemistry that it was possible. No picture accompanied the name. I decided to let sleeping dogs lie and not try to figure out if this was the same Megan McCauley; it did not matter in the end, because I was not offered the job. If Megan and I are ever meant to cross paths again someday, I will cross that bridge when I come to it.