AND THEN THEY CAME...
College, Confusion, and
a Case of Crabs
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“I’ve got crabs,” I thought to myself in disbelief -- for the millionth time -- while sitting on a plastic folding chair at UCLA's Student Health Services. I’d noticed the itching two days before, but thought I’d just forgotten to shower off all the soap before rushing to my class on Milton one morning. Then I noticed the dark spots on my white Calvin Kleins the next day, creepy critters moving about like invading insects from a horror movie.
I shifted in my seat, embarrassed, while trying to keep my situation a secret from the others students waiting nearby. “My first college trick, and I get crabs.”
Growing up in San Diego before smartphone apps and the internet, I’d pray every day to be uprooted from my mundane world so that I could finally release the real me. I wanted friends, parties and adventures, to spend hours writing scripts and stories, or brainstorming ideas for comics and TV series with other creative people.
I was also 21 and living at home. I wanted the guy who’d been too frightened to emerge in high school or junior high to finally come out and start meeting men -- real, muscular, sexy men. I wanted to get laid. A lot.
This isn’t to say that I was a virgin like the Blessed Mother or anything. I’d been out to myself since I was 15, and by the time the UCLA acceptance letter arrived I felt pretty experienced in gay male culture. I’d had a boyfriend, a collection of tricks, and some solid friends. I was cute, which helped get my foot in the door for gay-related activities, and while I hadn’t done the circuit scene I had gone clubbing ‘til dawn and done drugs a couple times. But none of my family or church friends knew any of these dirty details, so this whole second life I lived was covered in lies. College, I knew, would change all that.
Scratch, scratch, scratch... I just never thought it would involve a "social disease."
My first college roommate was a gay guy named David, and we lived at the Catholic Co-op. That might seem odd, but I'd been active in the San Diego Catholic youth programs so I was comfortable being queer in a religious community. David had come out while living there the previous year and was currently in that very loud rainbow-rainbow-rainbow pink-pink-pink triangle-triangle-triangle phase, so everyone at the house was accustomed to queens.
To be clear, I wasn’t a queen like David -- I was just gay. And I was no longer Richard -- I became Rick! Shorter to write, butcher to say, and an amalgam of who I was and who I would be. The new name, along with an update of clothes, a decision to work out, and a surge of consistent confidence would prevent me from ever feeling the shame I'd felt as a child ever again!
Then these visitors showed up.
The saga of my creeping crawdads began one month and one day after school began. I was leaving the offices of TenPercent, UCLA's gay newsmagazine, when I passed a tall, muscular white guy with soft brown hair and a cute smile.
CONTACT! Point-five seconds; we both knew we were gay and interested!
WHAM! Three minutes later Mack -- which isn’t his real name but he gave me crabs so I’m going to call him that because I am a good person -- pinned me to the bathroom wall in Ackerman Union and we started making out. His body was heavy against mine, and I felt myself growing hard. But this was a busy place, and as soon as the first dude came in to piss we had to stop.
So a date was made. His place (since I couldn’t hook up at the Catholic Co-op) and I’d bring the entertainment.
That night, David and I sat on our beds like junior high girls, cross-legged, drinking Cokes and discussing this mysterious man in rapid snatches of conversation. "He's beefy," I said.
"Oooh, beefy!" David exclaimed. At 20, David had had sex only once, and kissed only three guys besides that. Compared to him, I was the gay stud of the universe. I liked that feeling, so unlike the awkwardness I'd felt talking about "hot chicks" back home. David sat on the edge of his bed, enraptured, as though somehow experiencing penis by proxy.
"Brown hair, great smile..."
"I love brown hair," he said, swigging from his can, never taking his eyes off me.
"And a fine ass..." My roommate was about to pop. "Bubble butt."
"OhmyGod!" his voice shot to a higher octave, shaking the windows. He put the can on the floor and batted his fingertips on his knees. "And you didn't get his name?" David seemed more frustrated than me. "I bet I know him!"
This was probably true. David knew everyone on campus, and for some reason that thought annoyed me. But I brushed it off. I was the one going on the date. Not David.
* * *
“This is my favorite Wonder Woman episode,” I said as I slid the Columbia House VHS tape into the VCR at Mack’s apartment. “Technically, it’s a two-part episode. ‘The Feminum Mystique,’ guest starring a then-unknown Debra Winger.”
Mack just stared at me with a slight smile, amused but not interested.
“I think season one was the best because she spends more time as Wonder Woman in these episodes,” I continued nevertheless. “And there’s so many fun moments. Like in this one, she pushes the XPJ1 so the Nazis can’t steal it. I mean, it’s Lynda Carter actually pushing the plane!” I realized how giddy I sounded and tried to chill out a little. “You’ve seen the show before, right?”
“Yeah. It’s cute,” Mack said. “Want some more wine?” I nodded, but for an instant I felt hurt, as though he’d just dismissed one of my best friends. In a way, he had. Those old Wonder Woman episodes had been my escape growing up, and Diana Prince my powerful, wise sister. She had secrets -- just like me -- and we both knew that when we unleashed our real selves we would be more powerful than any of the people in our lives.
But there was one thing more powerful than Wonder Woman: My horny 21-year-old dick.
Sadly, our little sex fest was a bust. From Mack frantically clearing a path to his futon, to wine spilling on my new UCLA t-shirt, nothing fit my fantasy. My only relief came when Mack offered me a scratchy towel he'd found in the corner of the room, watched me dry off, and then escorted me to the door -- video tapes in hand.
A week and a half later, and now sitting in a white, sterile examination room decorated with posters for preventing STDs, I waited, pissed at myself for having given in to an urge that wasn't really worth it. Deep down I'd known that. My imagination had overruled my intellect and I was blinded into believing this dumpy, boring guy fit into my new "comfortably confident gay" personality.
“Never trust a guy who doesn’t like Wonder Woman,” I thought as the doctor entered.
CONTACT! Point-five seconds and we both knew the other was gay. It wasn't a cruising glance, but simply the acknowledgement that only one gay person can give to another.
Immediately I felt relieved. He was gay, he'd understand me, so there was no need for shame.
"Okay, says here you think you've got crabs." I nodded energetically, trying to keep a positive attitude. I probably looked like I was excited about them or something. "Anything else?"
"Not that I know of," I said, because at that moment I realized I didn't know what else could possibly be crawling down there besides those sharp-taloned creatures of the night.
"All right, then, drop your trousers and get up on the table." He put down my file and began washing his hands. "Now you don't have to tell me, but it'll help if I know some details about you."
I bent, untied, and pulled off my shoes while trying to maintain balance. "I'm gay," I proudly proclaimed, knowing this was what he was asking. My pants slipped off, and as the doctor grabbed his gloves I whooshed off my Calvins (worn for special occasions) in one fluid pull.
"You understand this is confidential..." he said with a snap of latex.
I nodded, standing in socks, shirt, and nothing else, butt barely visible under the hem of my shirt. I suddenly felt stupid.
"On the table?" he said, in case I'd missed it the first time. I hopped up, wondering how to look casual and helpful. Fortunately, I didn't need to do much because the examination went quickly, confirming my theory that the critters were crabs. We also checked for testicular cancer because men don't do it enough, and finally for anything that shouldn't be there. Thankfully, all was normal, and with the exam over I dressed.
"Are you aware of the various gay outreach programs on campus?" the doctor asked.
"Oh, Sweetie," I said without thinking, using the witty gay banter I'd grown accustomed to throwing out at parties, "I am the gay outreach on campus."
The doctor looked at me over the tops of his glasses, past the physical form that had gotten me so far in the queer world, and right inside me with the eyes of a man who'd seen too many students die of AIDS or have the rest of their lives encumbered by genital warts and herpes. He was one of the survivors whose task was to educate, and it wasn't an easy job.
In that instant I was naked again. He didn't give a fuck who I was or who I pretended to be. He knew me only as a student who stood there with an STD and was in need of help.
Without any words, his look simply said, "Yeah, and your outreach got you a crotch full of crustaceans. You're so cool!"
I was silent, and so was he. I let loose an uncomfortable laugh, and he returned his paperwork. Then I heard a chuckle, and he looked back up, smiling. "That's a good one... You've been out for a while, huh?"
I smiled, but I was shaky and needed to leave the room quickly. "Well, call this number if you need anything." I took it. "And Rick," he said as I exited, "nice meeting you."
Outside my facade dropped, my hands shook, and I hurried away from the hospital and through the botanical gardens toward Hilgard Avenue where the Catholic Center stood at that time. The sun was shining and the weather beautiful. It felt nice being in the sunny warm winter of Los Angeles… until I started shaking like a chill wind had passed through my clothes.
And then they came.
Tears suddenly rolled out of my eyes, burning. I could talk a good talk and I looked right for the game and the name "Rick" fit the picture, but I was still a lost, young, immature, awkward fool. Only now, when I thought I had it all together, did I see that I was nothing more than that same scared boy from San Diego, crying, alone in a park.