This was about sex.
They stood, the two of them, in the small bedroom on the fourth floor of the fraternity, the door carefully closed and locked, the desk light turned to the wall to dim its light. This was as private as things got at Northwestern University, or any college, for that matter. As intimate, as quiet. For days the two young men had been exchanging furtive glances, eyeing each other at the dinner table, peering down the hall, and, above all, staring in the shower room. And now they stood motionless in the narrow chamber, one next to the single bed, the other by the door, each of them silently daring the other to act first or at least say something, anything.
Sure, this was about sex, and it was making Todd sick. Brown-haired and handsome in a rugged, youthful way, seemingly always cool, even happy, his entire stomach now seemed to have caved in on itself, tightening his gut painfully. Oh, God, this wasn't what he wanted out of his life, was it? Hell no. He was the guy with the broad shoulders and quick legs, the captain of the frat-house intramural football team. All fall he'd been dating one of the cutest girls on campus. He'd worked so hard at making sure everyone liked him. Which they did. And now, biting his lip, he appraised the situation. There were clothes strewn everywhere: jeans on the bed, a gray sweatshirt tossed on a chair, socks and underwear all over the avocado shag carpet. But those were merely yesterday's clothes, and lanky Pat, his blond hair pulled into a ponytail, was still dressed. Thank God. Just get the hell out of here, Todd told himself.
But he couldn't force himself to move because his body was telling him something entirely different from his mind. It was as if there were two parts of him, each at war with the other. To be sure, this power that was surging in his loins was everything Todd hated about himself. Christ, he should just turn and run. Run right to his shrink. Or should he even tell his therapist about this? Would he be horribly disappointed in Todd, or would he merely shrug and turn up the electricity on the aversion-therapy gizmo and really shock the hell out of Todd whenever he visualized a naked, aroused man?
"I can't help it," said Pat, the first one to shatter the crystalline silence. "I . . . I want you again."
As much as Todd wanted to forget, they had done it before, twice to be exact. Todd now slumped against the door, horrified by what he felt, paralyzed with fear that others might find out, and yet overwhelmed with an animal urge to take this young Pat and wrestle him naked to the floor. He closed his eyes, clung to his silence. The walls up here on the fourth floor were so thin, nothing much more than Sheetrock and a coat of paint dividing the rooms. Everyone could hear them, couldn't they?
"I like doing it, you know, with guys. I can't help it. I . . . I just do. I mean, I just can't control it." Pat paused, shifted awkwardly on his feet, rubbed his right shoulder, and asked, "What about you?"
Todd opened his eyes, stared across the dimly lit space, and saw Pat's tempting image outlined in front of the single, large window. No. Don't get into this. Hold back.
"Oh, come on, loosen up," urged Pat. "You don't have to be so uptight about it. Have you been down at the gym at night? You should see all the guys down there. I mean, there's even a couple of guys from the club hockey team hanging around in the showers. And have you seen what's going on down at the beach? Man, everyone's got a sexual secret."
Todd had always wanted just one thing in life: to be straight. He'd have given anything not simply to have this torture subside, but to be normal and accepted. If his father ever found out what lurked in Todd's head and what he'd actually done a handful of times, dear God, the old Pole would really go into a rage. And if he'd been dipping into the vodka Todd would get the crap beat out of him. Perhaps even the belt.
"Fuck, it's happening right here too. Right at the frat house. I've done it with one of the other guys here, you know. Someone who's crazy for me." Pat pleaded, "Come on, say something."
"Listen, I . . . I . . ." began Todd, but then cut himself off when he heard one of the guys shouting downstairs.
"It's okay," said Pat in a soft, soothing voice. "The door's locked."
Right in front of him Pat started to lift off his sweater, pulling one arm from the sleeve, then the next. Todd knew this was the last moment he could escape, yet he stood there, both captive and captivated.
"Just relax," continued Pat.
In an instant the sweater was gone, one sleeve flung over the back of the yellow plastic molded desk chair, the other draping to the floor and onto a stack of biology books. Todd was paralyzed, his eyes fixated on Pat's hands as they slowly moved down his old plaid shirt, unfastening one button at a time and unveiling a perfect chest, that of a swimmer, sleek and smooth and muscular. Then finally the shirt was rolled off the shoulders and not flung, not tossed, but slowly dropped onto the green shag. His heart charging with lust, his mind churning with confusion, Todd stared at the long arms, the flat stomach.
"You like?" taunted Pat.
Sure, he did, but still Todd didn't move and couldn't bring himself to verbalize his lust. He stood rigid across the room, braided with desire and guilt. And then Pat started unfastening his jeans, the metal button at the top, the zipper. Todd swallowed, heard more steps somewhere down the hall, a voice or two, but paid no attention, unable to conceive that just on the other side of the old, battered door, over thirty frat boys were going about their business, some listening to Cat Stevens, the pensive few listening to Judy Collins, a couple of guys torturing a mouse, and a handful of others huddled out front around a grill, barbecuing some hot dogs on coat hangers as the chilly December winds gusted. No, all of that was another, distant world, totally blocked from this dark, carnal den. Todd felt the desire rising painfully in his crotch and watched transfixed as Pat continued his strip show, shedding his worn jeans, stepping out of them, and then standing there in his Jockeys, his own excitement more than evident. Oh, dear God.
Todd took a deep breath and realized he couldn't hold himself back anymore. He took a step forward, opened his arms. In an instant the nearly naked Pat was in his arms, and Todd clutched the other young man, pulling him against himself as hard as he could. No, he couldn't stop himself, never would be able to, and he ran one hand down Pat's spine and under the elastic band of his cotton underwear. If this is so wrong, thought Todd, his eyes drifting shut as he kissed Pat on the ear, why does it feel so right?
Pat groaned and said, "Oh, my God, you feel good."
Todd was so nervous, so excited, he could only moan, "Yeah."
Something hit the window. A branch, he assumed. Todd opened his dreamy, lustful eyes. Looked up. But instead of a wintry, spindly, leafless branch tapping the glass, he saw a figure pressing against the window and a shocked pair of eyes staring back at him.
"Oh, shit!" shouted Todd.
The face, that of one of his fraternity brothers. It was Greg, the guy from the room next door. Short. Stocky. Glasses. A big face. As if he were flying among the trees, he hovered right outside the window, looking right at Todd and Pat. Shot with fear, Todd hurled Pat back, pushing him out of his arms, trying to distance himself, desperate to make it appear that this was anything but a homosexual love scene.
"Christ," growled Pat, "he's out on the fire escape!"
Outside in the cold, Greg screamed the alarm: "Homo alert!"
A tidal wave of panic overwhelmed Todd. He saw his future. He knew what was going to happen. This was exactly what he'd been so terrified of. And now Greg knew the truth. He was going to tell everyone. Todd would be kicked out of the fraternity. He'd be shamed out of school. His parents would find out. This was the end.
The adrenaline coursed through Todd's veins. There was no doubt Greg had seen everything and recognized Todd, and in a mere instant Todd's body blossomed with sweat. He spun around, tripped over a shoe. Just get away. Just get out of here. And he half-fell as he clambered to escape. Reaching the door, his trembling hands fumbled with the lock.
Behind him, Pat was charging toward the window, furious and shouting, "Get out of here, you asshole! Leave us the fuck alone!"
Todd ripped open the door, glanced back one last time, saw Pat trying to lift open the window.
"Todd, I can't get the window up!" yelled Pat in a panic. "Help me!"
As Todd stood in the doorway, Pat turned around and their eyes locked. For an instant everything seemed to freeze in disbelief: Is this really happening? Overcome with terror, however, it never occurred to Todd not to run away, not to beat a cowardly retreat, and he darted into the hallway. Greg lived just there, in the room to the right, the one with the open door and open window. Hearing footsteps from that room--shit, who was in there?--Todd spun around and dashed the other way down the hallway. And immediately stopped. The next door, Kevin's room, was opening. A bunch of guys screaming with juvenile gusto was about to burst out.
"Get the faggots!"
"Pat's doing it with some guy!"
Todd guessed that these guys had been in on it too, perhaps listening through the flimsy walls. Right, they'd been on one side of Pat's room, Greg on the other. On a boring night just before finals it was a conspiracy to trap and rid the fraternity of queers.
There was a small door right in front of him and Todd heaved it open. Not a closet but a narrow staircase. The back stairs, totally dark. Todd was rushing so quickly that he missed the first couple of steps and tumbled forward. Catching himself on the railing, he paused, heard Pat slam his door as the herd of frat boys charged his room.
"Open the fucking lock, Pat!" shouted one of the guys as they started beating on the door.
In the dark Todd scrambled to his feet and raced down, not stopping at the third floor nor the second. He just had to get away. Away from the truth. When he reached the first floor he didn't head out into the main living room, where someone was watching television and others were playing Ping-Pong. No. He couldn't let them see him so panicky, so blistered with sweat.
The back door. He tore through the small hall behind the kitchen and then out the rear of the house. Hurling open the door, he was hit with a gust of frigid air. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and slumped against the side of the building, his right cheek pressing into the brick. Oh, shit. He clutched himself. There was no way Greg hadn't seen what was going on. There was no way Greg hadn't spied Todd nibbling on Pat's ear or caressing his ass. And there was no way Greg wasn't going to tell the entire world.
Opening his eyes, Todd stared at the frozen ground covered by a mere inch of snow. As he stood there, paralyzed with any number of horrific thoughts, something fell from above, slipping through the air and landing on the ground a mere foot or two from him. Not a snowflake but a chunky cigarette butt, hand-rolled and one end still burning an orangish-red.
Suddenly a scream cut through the cold night air. Todd looked toward Sheridan Avenue. Seeing nothing, not even a car, his eyes darted to the side toward a clump of trees. He heard it again. Another terrified plea. Following the sound more closely, Todd looked up. The fire escape was directly above him, a mishmash of black steel climbing back and forth the entire four floors of the fraternity. And way up there, right at the top, shadows were dancing in the night. He couldn't see, couldn't tell in the dark, who was up there, if there was one guy or two. Wait. He stepped away from the building and to his horror saw more clearly. Holy shit, someone was dangling and twisting from the fire escape, scrambling to hang on.
A figure that dropped free.
Dear God in heaven, they'd thrown Pat off the fire escape. Hurled him right out. Todd watched in horrified dismay as the figure hurtled downward, shrieking all the way, his shirt and pants flapping, his body arched and tumbling like that of a tragic diver.
And finally it ended, that moment that seemed to stretch forever. The cry ceased with a thud, followed by the deep, cold silence of the night.
Standing there in a helpless moment that lasted far too long, Todd stared at the body lying facedown not ten feet from him. Barely able to breathe, Todd understood that the guy was dead. It was the way the body was so horribly twisted and so pathetically still. Todd wasn't sure whether he wanted to vomit or scream for help. Or run. If they had done this to Pat, what would they do to him? Perhaps come after him and drown him in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan?
Wait, he realized, this can't be Pat. This person's fully clothed.
Trembling, Todd's feet slid through the thin snow as he moved closer. If not Pat, then who? Leaning forward, trying to see the face smashed against the hard ground, Todd saw the glasses, recognized the hair. Holy shit, it was Greg.
And the question that the campus cops would ask over the course of the next week was, thankfully, not whether or not Todd was gay, for the dead frat boy had carried that secret to his grave. No, the question they would ask was whether Todd had witnessed an accident. Or murder.
Excerpted from Tribe by R. D. Zimmerman. . Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.