Although I was 16 and knew nearly nothing, my heart had sense enough to start racing the moment he took the seat next to me on our tour bus.
William, as he introduced himself, was tall and handsome, and his hair had a slight red tint to it as if it were burnt around the edges. I guessed he was maybe a year older than me, although it was hard to tell because all the Namibian students wore the same uniform, a polo shirt and khaki pants.
“You’re from the United States!” he announced upon sitting down. “New York or Los Angeles?”
“Chicago,” I said. Now on my third week in Africa, I had learned this could not pass without some explanation. “It’s in the middle of the country.”
It was the kind of school field trip that seemed perfectly natural during the boom years of the late '90s. My cohort of 15 high schoolers had traveled through South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland. Namibia’s dusty capital, Windhoek, was our final stop — and on this, the second-to-last day of the trip, our group leader launched a last-ditch effort to get us to actually interact with African people, by offering the students of a local school seats on our bus for a lift across the city.
“Chicago.” William’s Adam’s apple rode up and down on the word. “I have heard of it, and I would like to go there. I’m nearly finished with my studies, and I’ll travel. I’ll do it when I have the money.”
Delivered as it was to a well-off American sitting in an air-conditioned bus, William’s comment felt pointed. But he kept it light after that. We spoke for a while about whether or not Chicago was colder than certain European cities. Straying from the foreign-language-textbook dullness of the conversation, I noted how the muscles and tendons in William’s arms differentiated themselves as he moved his hands.
“And you,” he asked. “What are you traveling for?”
It was a good question. While the tour had some vaguely defined educational goals about international understanding, these lavish receptions undermined anything but the shallowest impulses to travel. We wanted adventure, extra stamps in our passports, to be somewhere our classmates hadn’t been. I wanted all of this as much as anyone — but more than that, I was just happy to be in places where I didn’t seem like a fag.
I found it difficult to believe that I was gay. This itself is pretty difficult to believe, in retrospect. My dossier included all the stereotypes: a secret love of show tunes, zero athletic ability and even a drag turn as a baroness in a fourth-grade German play. More to the point, there was the matter of my sexual desires. As young as 9, I found myself looking thirstily at the illustrated men’s underwear ads Marshall Field’s ran in the front section of the Chicago Tribune. That tendency didn’t abate with age, and had increased by what was to me a frightening order of magnitude by the time I reached high school.
But I was a good kid, a high achiever, judicious and careful. I couldn’t imagine I was something as out there as a homosexual. I grew up in a relatively accepting community and I didn’t fear being outcast or disowned; I just didn’t want to disappear into the unexplored country of gayness, with its strange language and shadowy customs.
Sometimes I thought that my desires were simply a phase, a stop on the way to normalcy. Sometimes I thought I could correct myself by weaning myself off thoughts of boys and towards girls. And sometimes, most of the time, I just hoped against hope it would disappear and I would just be normal.
Around the time I started high school, my father had on his nightstand a novel called "The Man Without Qualities." Although the book was unreadably long with a title that practically advertised boringness, the phrase stuck with me. It was the state to which I aspired.
This self-erasing impulse is what led me to Africa. The winter of my junior year of high school, my friend Natalie had found out about the trip, and I took to the idea immediately. Africa seemed like the perfect place to be the nonindividual I wanted to be: a place so foreign, with people so different, that I would become just some American, a traveler. My gayness would be bleached out by the sub-Saharan sun.
Over the trip’s three weeks, I was the man without qualities, as I imagined him. In Soweto I refused to giggle with everyone else at the condoms available for free in every restaurant bathroom; on safari I stayed as silent and watchful as a meerkat while my cohorts laughed and whispered around me; walking on a smoky hill in Swaziland, I asked our guide dry questions about the tiny country’s monarch.
From bustling, run-down Maputo to the windswept veldt, it was gratifyingly easy to lose my personality once I was out of my milieu. (Chalk it up to naïveté that I never noticed how firmly planted in my milieu I remained, my group’s American privilege being a moveable feast that glided through southern Africa in chartered buses and prop planes.) By the time we rolled into Windhoek, no one had ever been happier to be a cipher. I had no desires, only observations about the landscape, and my little identity problem was the furthest thing from my mind. After our conversation had died, William and I rode in silence through Windhoek, past empty, sandy parks dotted with scrubby palms. In the stillness, my heart was still racing for a reason I couldn’t identify.
And then William identified it for me. He grabbed my leg hard, just above the knee.
“I’m not like other boys,” he said in a tone without any helium. There was no need for him to speak — I got his meaning when he touched me and, without meaning to, I leaned in against him hard. But nearly as soon as he had spoken, I was ready with a denial.
“I am,” I said reflexively. “I am like other boys. But that’s OK with me. I mean, it’s OK that you’re not.”
William looked at me, slightly surprised. “That’s good. That’s nice. People here aren’t like you, with even normal boys being OK with — boys like me.”
I smiled to show him there were no hard feelings, I just wasn’t that way. “What’s it like in Windhoek? I mean, to be gay,” I whispered with as much matter-of-factness as I could muster.
“Not very good. There is a youth center, but people found out and started throwing bricks through the window, so we meet in secret now.”
“That’s awful,” I said. But if my voice betrayed any concern, it was purely for myself. I already had the last minutes on instant replay. Had William fingered me as the trip’s sole homosexual immediately upon entering the bus, or had that just become clear upon talking to me?
“My parents do not know, my friends don’t." Neither did mine. “I could never tell them. This is why I need to go to America.”
“It’s better there,” I said stupidly, and turned towards the window. All the progress I had made out here was imaginary. Culture, geography, school bus, chartered bus, none of it made any difference: Even teenagers the world over could tell what a fag I was, which meant I really was one.
My speeding heart didn’t slow after William took his hand off my leg, or even after he left the bus. He was still a threat: In the evening we’d be visiting William’s school, for a barbecue in our honor. I wished as hard as I could that William wouldn’t be there. I didn’t want to talk any more about how he was gay, didn’t want anyone to see me with him.
But when night came and he didn’t show up at the barbecue, I wasn’t relieved. I was disappointed — and finally, my shame reached me. Not shame that I was gay, but something worse: Someone braver than me, and in far more dire circumstances, had asked me for help — not even help, really, just a little fraternity — and I refused it outright. I had pushed him away just to hold on to my nonidentity.
Had he showed up at the barbecue, I could have made good and told him the truth about me. He would have been the first person I had come out to. I could have talked to him, or kissed him, or — well, it wasn’t a possibility anymore.
As the sun set on our farewell barbecue, I watched Kim, a young teacher who had come with us on the trip, flirt with an Angolan French teacher with solid arms. His hand lingered in hers when he handed her a beer. Soon, he was leaning over her with his hand on a wall, and she was moving in toward him.
It looked like something I wanted. Something I might someday deserve to have.