To the Desert and Back

Or, the summer when I met him

On a late July morning, just past 11 a.m., I arrived in Valencia, California with five hundred people my age. It was 2009, the summer before my junior year of high school, and this type of thing had happened before.

My parents have always shared a fondness for camp, and sending me to them. In the sports category, I had been enlisted in everything from water-polo classes to surfing lessons to tennis clinics. Once I had exhausted the list of sports to fail at, I began finding myself at acting retreats or drama programs or choir practice. Though less physically traumatizing, they were equally mortifying. At the end of every day, I always begged to not go back. Eventually, my parents stopped trying to make me.

Until this year. That fall, my high school arranged college counselor meetings for all its rising sophomores, designed to mark a first step in the long and daunting task that lay ahead. When it was time for my appointment, the counselor seemed personally distressed over my lack of extracurriculars. This was something I’d need to change before college applications were due. Schools don’t just look at grades anymore, she explained to me. They want you to be involved. They want you to participate. They want you to care.

She gave me a packet of brochures on summer programs for high school students. That night, I leafed through pages on summers in Oxford and literature courses in New Haven. All of it appealed in theory, but most of the deadlines had already passed, or seemed entirely out of reach. Except one: CalArts, a small art school in Valencia, offered a pre-college program to California residents. The deadline was a couple weeks away. I filled out an application.

At that point, summer felt far enough away; the program existed in an abstract sense, influenced by its glossy information packet and positive testimonials. I think I may have even felt excited.

Nine months later, my parents and I drove up Route 5, away from the familiar and towards Valencia. I was uneasy. Actually, I was terrified. My nerves grew as I tried to map out the next four weeks: I’d arrive, get out of the car, and my parents would leave—that’s as far as I could get; everything else seemed unclear. I began to think I may be the only one who didn’t know anyone else in the program, and couldn’t remember how exactly one befriends strangers. I realized that I’d probably have to eat alone. I wondered if the showers were communal. Who would I talk to on weekends?

Valencia is less a town and more a series of housing developments, outlet malls and miles of nothing.

My father announced we were fifteen minutes away. I placed my head against the window, and looked outside.

Valencia is less a town and more a series of housing developments, outlet malls and miles of nothing. A farming company created Valencia in the 1960s, and, as Los Angeles grew, it exploded into a bedroom community. Nearly everything was built at the same time. The streets are wide, the sidewalks feel new, and all the buildings share a plain, muted exterior. It could pass as a studio backlot—you half expect a craft foods truck to be around every corner.

Luckily, whoever built Valencia was careful enough to include a collection of artificial lakes and East Coast maples, making it easy to forget you’re in a desert, miles from any coast, on ground that should be dry and dead. When you walk down Main Street, misters are strategically placed to relieve you from the summer heat. Air conditioning blasts in every store. But at night, you can still hear the coyotes howl.

The CalArts campus sits atop a hill, looking over the rest of Valencia. There is one cinderblock dormitory and one main building that has convoluted hallways and tall glass walls. When we arrived, the campus was crowded with families lugging suitcases and artwork beneath the bright and hanging welcome banners. Everything hummed with excitement and friendliness. I stood near my parents, trying to navigate the room with as little eye contact as possible.

I’d have two roommates, the woman behind the registration desk told me, eyes reeking with enthusiasm. Here was my key, my welcome packet, and my lanyard. I could use the next hour to move-in, and then there would be a formal introduction to the program. Roadside breakfast churned in my stomach.

My first roommate was Aaron. When we arrived to the dormitory, he was settling into the bed by the window. Aaron was black and from Palmdale, another desert town outside of Los Angeles–he was studying cartooning. Aaron looked younger than me, and spoke with rounded syllables as if he was impersonating a child learning to talk. He had a light mustache that sat in odd patches, slightly unsure of itself. His mom and mine stood in the corner and joked about how I had never done my laundry before.

My other roommate was Deeno. He seemed to have no parents and no stuff and only a vague interest in getting to know me. He was tall, had a strong jaw, pointed nose, and long dark hair that made him look like a Navajo; his Spanish accent made it clear he was not. As I unpacked, he lay on his empty bed wearing a white beanie and corduroy pants, apparently unaffected by the 105-degree weather.

My parents said goodbye, reminding me to try and have a good time.

As the night moved on, and Deeno ran out of things to talk about, the conversations moved in another direction. “So,” Deeno asked, “How many girls have you guys fucked?”

The three of us stared at each other. Since we couldn’t use the internet or computers, we were forced to talk. Aaron flapped around the room, musing about an anime magazine he was reading while Deeno and I ignored him. Deeno was two years older than me, maybe the oldest in the program. He was from Bell, a notorious section of East Los Angeles. He could tell I was not, and began his introduction by making this clear. He told me only four (out of five hundred) graduated his class, and he was one of them. He told me about the gunshots he heard every morning. He taught me how to respond if you’re approached by someone in a place like Bell, how one indicates your gang affiliation, and the most effective place to stab someone with a 4-inch blade. He spoke. I listened.

As the night moved on, and Deeno ran out of things to talk about, the conversations moved in another direction. “So,” Deeno asked, “How many girls have you guys fucked?” Aaron blushed and looked down at his book. I thought for a second.

In seventh grade, I began my first relationship with a girl I met at a mall in the San Fernando Valley. Her name was Emily. I asked her out on the phone in a painfully roundabout way, while my best friend silently listened on the other line. When I saw her next, I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to kiss her.

A few days after our first date, my parents took me on a long trip across Canada. Once at a safe distance, I would send her long and enamored text messages about how much I missed her, about her eyes, about what she meant to me. But when I returned and faced having actual interactions with Emily, I broke up with her over the internet, citing a desire to stay single during the summer. That was just my style, I tried to assure her.

Really, the only thing that interested me about Emilywas her older brother, who surfed and had one of the most beautiful faces I had ever seen. He was tall and lean and tan. But even he wasn’t enough to keep that relationship going.

“A couple,” I said as casually as I could. Deeno grinned and nodded in approval.

There were maybe three things that kept my mind busy at CalArts. The first was photography. I had taken photo classes before, but never analog, and this was my first time in a dark room. Once inside, I could put on my headphones and focus on printing. It could be tedious and time-consuming, involving dozens of mistakes to get something right, with hours of frustrated fumbling just to print a single photo. But I enjoyed it, and slowly got better.

The second was the heat. It was always hot. The California desert is not really intended for life between the months of June and August—an oversight during Valencia’s planning process, I can only assume. By noon, temperatures could climb past 120 degrees. At night, the dry air fell to a precise 95. And the college had limited air conditioning. At night, we had to strip down and sleep pressed against the cinderblock walls of our room.

The third thing was Isaac. During orientation, I saw him from afar, walking across the campus with another student. Someone beside me remarked that she thought he was cute. Someone else responded that she’d heard he was gay. Both girls shrugged. I perked up.

Before this, I had never felt like I knew someone who shared this quality with me. It seems slightly odd considering I grew up 15-minutes from West Hollywood, attended relatively progressive schools, and even once spent an entire summer in Western Massachusetts. But it was rare, perhaps even never, that I met someone who was gay that I could relate back to myself. In West Hollywood, the men were strong and wore bright tank tops. In Massachusetts, they were farmers—and lesbians. At school, they performed in drama and only seemed out because they had no chance of hiding it. From a pure sense of egotism, each mold and model presented an inconsistency with my own thinking and understanding of myself, and I didn’t know where or how I fit.

I met Isaac when he sat down at my table for breakfast on the second, maybe third morning; he knew the person sitting across from me. As I picked at my toast, I heard him say he was from Northern California, in the self-appointed marijuana capital of the world. He was also studying photography, but in a different class than mine.

Isaac was handsome, but in a plain sort of way. He had thick, dark hair that flipped across his face. His skin was pale, slightly red, and looked like it could use a wash. He had a round face, a buttoned nose, and was of average height and build. His eyes were bright blue.

As he spoke, I tried to act casually, though I clung to everything he said: he liked Beirut? So did I. He hated the printshop teacher? Right on. He was walking to Target that afternoon? I needed toothpaste.

He wore something similar everyday: torn jean shorts, graphic t-shirts, or light flannels. In both his ears sat two, Tic Tac-sized gauges. Essentially, Isaac looked entirely normal. He looked like people at my high school, at CalArts, even, I thought, like me.

As he spoke, I tried to act casually, though I clung to everything he said: he liked Beirut? So did I. He hated the printshop teacher? Right on. He was walking to Target that afternoon? I needed toothpaste. We exchanged numbers before going to class, and he texted me later that day.

We began to eat lunch together, and soon my friends overlapped with his. This is what I had wanted, though my desire to get closer to Isaac wasn’t entirely clear. In many ways, I liked him; I looked forward to seeing him. I looked forward to talking to him. I wanted him around. But mainly, I was intrigued. I learned what it sounded like to be a gay 15-year old, seemingly honest and open. I learned how he met his first boyfriend and how he navigated high school. I studied him.

He also made me nervous. Up until this point, I’d been able to ignore my sexuality, keeping it somewhere foreign and far-off. It only appeared on nights I couldn’t sleep, when I stayed up calculating what constituted a phase or what it was supposed to feel like being with the opposite sex. It existed in online pornography, in the depths of browser histories and hidden bookmarks. It existed in silent, distance places that never overlapped with the light of day. Isaac represented a collision of these places—a collision I had intended to avoid ever since I knew the collision was possible. But still, it was nice to watch someone who didn’t share my approach.

Though I would sometimes wonder if he liked me—it was a question I had never earnestly considered before.

So while I allowed myself to get closer to Isaac, I also set up barriers. I rarely spent time with just him, preferring some sort of buffer between us. When we were alone, I’d create a narrative that warranted it: I wanted him to help me decide which photos to use in class, or everyone else I called was busy, etc. This was less about others suspecting my attraction to Isaac, or even him suspecting it, though both thoughts caused worry. Really, though, the main source of these hesitations came from myself. It was easier to ignore what I felt when there was a perfectly rational reason I was spending time with him. I could continue to hide without acknowledging the other option.

Though I would sometimes wonder if he liked me—it was a question I had never earnestly considered before. Once, he told me that he was interested in a guy from one of my classes, who he’d met briefly the day previous. I proudly assured Isaac that I’d put in a good word for him during my next class, all while my face burned and heart sank.

When Isaac did show hints of affection—when he’d rub his shoulder against mine while we walked to class, or shift closer to me during a lecture—I did my best to react with nothing. I doubt I even tensed up. I managed to ignore any advancement, any signal, any message with such agonized determination that I made myself still and inanimate.

After all, I had been doing this for years. Ever since I first realized I could feel something for the males around me—my best friend in middle school, the guy who sat beside me in chemistry, my girlfriend’s older brother—I knew I had to ignore what I felt. It was almost instinctual. I didn’t come from a conservative home. I never attended church, or sat through sermons on traditional values. I was never told that being gay was wrong. But I don’t know if I was ever told it was right, either. And I knew that something would change if I chose to tell others the truth. I might see a hint of disappointment in my mother’s eye, who often mused about her future grandchildren. I might witness a moment of hesitation from my male friends, who may wonder if I secretly longed for our friendships to be sexual. I might feel a quiet shock from all those around me, who now knew I had been lying and keeping my feelings hidden all along.

These changes, however slight, however subtle, felt almost worse than any direct or tangible rejection. It would change my world just enough so that everything looked the same, yet felt entirely different.

Weeks moved quickly. I settled into CalArts well: I figured out how to meet people. I got along with my roommates. I fell into the rhythm of my classes and schedule. The showers weren’t communal. I even became somewhat used to the heat. The days weren’t as glossy as the brochure made them out to be, but occasionally they got close.

In the moment, though, it never felt like the right time or place—either someone else was there, or he looked busy, or the mood didn’t warrant such a serious confession.

When the last week arrived, I began to feel an urge. It may have been lurking the entire time, but with time running out, I eventually had to acknowledge it: I wanted to tell Isaac how I felt. Well, ideally, I wanted Isaac to know how I felt, but without ever having to tell him, though I quickly realized that would be difficult to swing. That left me with the first option.

If I was ever going to tell someone I was gay, Isaac made the most sense. I thought we could stay in touch after we left the program. He didn’t know any of my friends at school. And I hoped, for the first time, I could be with someone who I actually felt for. I didn’t know anyone like him at home, and I didn’t know when I would meet someone like him again. I considered this my last chance, at least for while.

Everyone was emotional. We were busy with final projects, with our last critiques, and packing up our rooms. The campus became saturated with the dread of departing, but all I could really think about were the few hours I had left to spend with him.

On the final evening, we had an awards ceremony. I had looked for Isaac earlier that day, but couldn’t find him. Once the last awards were given, and we all shuffled out of the auditorium, I saw him across the room; I tried to convince myself he was looking for me too.

He seemed upset, or maybe he was just thinking about the program’s closure; his eyes were red. I asked if he wanted to walk around the campus before dinner—I wanted to see everything once more before we left in the morning. He agreed. The sun was beginning to set, and it was an unusually cool night for Valencia. I put on my jacket before we went off.

I made quips about the ceremony from before, and how Deeno hadn’t begun packing up his room yet. Isaac laughed, though I hated myself for making the jokes. He said he couldn’t imagine returning to high school in a few weeks. I sighed in agreement. I knew what I wanted to say next, but waited.

We ended up on one of the rolling lawns that overlook Route 5. Somehow, we stopped walking and sat down. It was a quiet spot on campus, beyond the main buildings, obscured by scattered foliage. Cars glided below us as we talked more about the next day, about leaving, about returning home.

There was silence at points as we both searched for words. My thoughts extended far past this moment. I went over all the things I wanted to say, what those words could lead to, what they would mean a minute from now, a day from now, the next year.

I wondered how I would say it: what the first word would be, and then the second, and then the third. I wondered if I could even string them together in anything coherent. I wondered if I’d cry.

I wondered how it would sound. Once, maybe a year previously, I had tried; it was on a night I couldn’t sleep. Barely moving, stiff and silent, I huddled under my covers, as if worried that even my desk or lamp might overhear . And then I said aloud, for the first time, that I was gay. The words barely came. They scratched. But then I tried again, a bit louder, a bit more formed. Again and again, I practiced, never at ease, but at least catching the lull and hum of this thought that had been so difficult to seize, and then impossible to ignore. I was practicing for a moment that felt far off, but that I knew would one day come.

The conversation moved, but then hit another wall; I’d used up any remaining small talk. I felt fear. Embarrassment. Frustrated. I knew that if I told him, he would understand, talk with me about it, and be receptive. But part of me worried that he would look at me strangely for not telling him sooner, or feel uncomfortable that I thought he was someone I could confess this secret. Each assurance made room for another hesitation.

I think he could tell I was struggling. He was waiting. He was being patient and maybe even hoping that I would finally speak my mind, and give voice to what he had been sensing the entire time, confirming that I liked him too. And I wanted to. I wanted to. I wanted to prove myself wrong. I wanted to feel something that wasn’t calculated or thought out or planned or safe. I wanted to surprise myself. I wanted those words. But instead I looked down, feeling the grass and picking the dirt.

He looked at me. I didn’t look back. I tried to force out a smile, but only made it half way.

“Let’s walk back and find the others,” I finally offered.

“You sure?”

“Yea,” I said. “It’s getting sort of late.”

I delivered my message; there was nothing else I could do. We got up and gathered our things. The sun had set. Campus lights flicked on. We walked back together. I had never felt so separate.

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