My first night in the dorms at Liberty University, I brushed my teeth in the bathroom while my roommate, Steve, undressed in the room, his hairy body illuminated by the stark bathroom light and the soft moon. I wondered what our first night together would look like. I hadn’t shared a room since I was thirteen, and I’d never shared a room with a stranger. My parents made fun of me because I went through boxes of tissues quickly. They joked that my roommate would have to put up with my constant nose-blowing, but I could never tell them the tissues were for jerking off.
“Are you cool if I sleep naked?” he asked.
I paused. I came to Liberty to learn to control my homosexuality. I couldn’t tell him my secret sin. I didn’t want him to hate me or be afraid of me. He held the power to report me, which I assumed could start the process of getting me kicked out of school.
“You can do whatever you want,” I said.
He turned and took off his shorts, baring his fuzzy ass before slipping under the covers. I didn’t see underwear crumpled in his shorts on the ground. “I just hate wearing clothes,” he said.
I wished I could be more like Steve. I had tried sleeping naked before, but I couldn’t fall asleep because I’d get horny, then cold. I climbed onto my top bunk, the white sheets silky smooth over my thin mattress, nothing like the comfort of Burt’s dorm bed. So much of my body had been locked inside itself. The only person who I had been naked with was Burt, who I saw over the course of the summer.
The sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, twilight, both dark and light. The moon pulled my blood toward itself, like any body made of water, toward its sin nature. The moonbeams seeping through the windows cooled my skin in the late Virginia summer. I pulled a tissue from the box I had set next to my pillow.
“Do you have tissues up there?” he asked. “May I have a few?”
I handed him a few tissues.
“I’m so glad you have these.” He blew his nose, mumbled something about allergies, and within minutes, he fell asleep. I wished I was using the tissues how I normally did. I missed a man’s body against mine. I missed the water of our bodies pooling together under the influence of the moon in broad daylight.
At the beginning of September, the guys in the dorm filed into the RA’s, Cam and Rob’s, apartment for hall meeting at 10:00 p.m. We crowded into the common space with most guys posting up along the wall, some standing near the door for a quick exit. I sat on the floor with my back to the wall watching Cam tower in the center in a tank top and shorts.
“I didn’t know I was here for the gun show,” Bryan said in his Yankee voice.
A pocket of guys wooed. Cam held out his hands in an attempt at crowd control. Rob said, “Hey, guys, stop it,” from the back like a mom who already repeated herself twice.
I heard a story about Rob where he pranked another RA by calling him up into his room for a meeting. When the RA arrived, Rob was doing push-ups naked. His ass cheeks probably tightened like a tanned, waning moon, his dick brushing the tip of the carpet with each dip. “No homo,” he probably said.
“We’re doing something different tonight,” Cam said. He explained tonight was about being pure men before God. He motioned to a roll of large, black trash bags. He said if we had any booze, inappropriate magazines, porn, crude music, tobacco, weed, anything, to throw it away and that he wouldn’t report us. The point was to be godly, blameless men and to take out the trash, to place what was dark in the dark bag. He set bags outside each apartment.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “We’re all sinners here.”
Rob stood up and paced toward the center, still in his clothes from the day, straight jeans and New Balance sneakers. He announced he and Cam were available if any of us needed to talk to them about anything, tonight or any night. Then he canceled prayer groups.
Everyone retired to their rooms. Steve immediately removed his shirt. His chest hair reached up to his shoulders and down to the waistband of his sweats. I grew curious about combing my hand through his landscape, feeling the hair in the webs of my fingers. I imagined they were soft like him.
“Are you taking out any trash?” he asked in a mocking way, perhaps noting the cheesiness of the metaphor.
I couldn’t throw myself away. The guys would probably praise the ones who brought their soft or hardcore porn, pictures of lovers back home, forward. “Oh, dude. She’s nice.” “Look at the tits on her.” “I’d like to bring that home to mom.” I knew if I came forward with photos of men or with a confession, the guys would banish me. I imagine returning to my room, blood spilling from my mouth, my nose, and my eyes, jokes about the fag who to touches me gets AIDS. Reporting homophobic violence would require me to confess my homosexuality. I had to figure it out myself.
“No,” I said to Steve.
“I didn’t think so,” he said.
I brushed my teeth and climbed into bed. Steve took off his pants and slid under his sheets.
Thoughts flashed like strobe lights in gay clubs I’d seen on TV. Should I start being honest about my same-sex attraction and having sex with Burt? If confessing my sins would cleanse me from unrighteousness like the Bible said, I had to purge, but no way in hell did I want to.
Out of control of my own lips, perhaps desperation, I said, breaking a whisper, “Hey, Steve?” I could open my mouth and the words would flow from my lips like The Great Flood in Genesis. I heard the soft rising and lull of his chest. “Steve?” A little louder.
I leaned over the bed’s edge. Steve glowed in the cool moonlight from over the mountains. I hadn’t found him beautiful before the moon showed me. He lay on his back, blanket to mid-chest, one arm under, one arm over, eyes shut and mouth closed, asleep. Somewhere outside, I heard a liquor bottle shatter.
After my mom left both me and the church, she developed alcohol and cocaine addictions. She called me on the walk up to my fourth-floor apartment on a Friday afternoon in early fall. She sounded sober. I had skipped my Biblical Worldview class. I leaned over the wooden rail toward the gray silhouette of the mountains behind campus.
I hadn’t told her about having sex with Burt or that I had been curious about men. When I was a twelve, my stepdad took me to see Troy in theaters, and Mom asked me to recount all the details of Brad Pitt’s ass. I remember a scene where Agamemnon’s army kidnapped a girl and bound her to a pole in Achilles’ tent. At night, he untied her and lay on top of her, naked. I wanted to be her.
I leaned into the cool mountain breeze. It pulled at my hair, like Achilles hand on the girl’s scalp. Mom told the story of her friend who sneaked a guy into his dorm while everyone attended Convocation, the thrice-weekly mandatory church service. While the RA checked rooms, he walked in on her friend, whose legs were up in the air, getting fucked missionary. When she told the story, I envisioned myself in the scene as the friend, giving myself over to someone, to Burt, to Cam, to Steve. I pressed my pelvis into the slats of the railing to hide my growing erection.
The way she said the story ended was that the friend knew he was getting kicked out, so he looked at the RA and said, “Can I at least finish?” The RA, shocked, agreed and shut the door.
I humored her with a fake laugh. As funny as the story was, I didn’t plan on having sex with a man again. I needed to get my homosexuality under control.
“So if you’re going to have gay sex,” she said, laughing. “Don’t get caught.”
After hanging up, I walked the final flight to my room. Steve sat at his desk along the wall facing away from me. Naked. His ass showing through the chairs wide opening. My erection pressed against the tight denim clutching my legs.
Cam and Rob posted a sheet of paper on their apartment door called the Beat Sheet. In hall meeting they explained that in order to shame sexual sin, we were to place a tally next to our name whenever we masturbated.
“We should not be using images of women for our sexual pleasure,” Rob said. “Lust is man’s most common sin, and we need to learn how to combat it.”
Then, I would’ve done anything a man from the church asked of me because I wanted to be a good Christian, yet when I saw the Beat Sheet, I resolved from the beginning that I would not participate. What I did when I was alone was no one’s business, whether I prayed, did homework, or jerked off. Seeing that guys had been marking tallies by their names, some as many as five in one day, angered me. The Bible implies sex before marriage is sinful in 1 Corinthians 7: But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. So Cam and Rob probably thought that controlling our lust meant protecting our future marriages.
As the week progressed, the lines on the Beat Sheet grew longer until it looked like a bar graph. When Cam and Rob examined their research, I bet they thought of new ways to eradicate sin in order to make us blameless before God. Why were they so obsessed with perfection? They said we must follow Jesus’ example because Jesus was perfect. Moses disobeyed God, and God prohibited him from entering The Promised Land. Hosea married a prostitute. David, “a man after God’s own heart,” murdered and fornicated. Each example I thought of confused me greater.
At twilight, a small group met in the RA’s common area to discuss sexual sin. I attended with one of the leaders who invited me. Rob turned on a dim lamp to keep their light in and the moon out. Eric, a burly upperclassman and soccer fanatic, resisted breaking down into tears and confessed that he had been lying on the sheet.
“It’s a lot more than what I put down,” he said, hunched over and broken. “I was too embarrassed. My pride held me captive.” He apologized over and over. Then cried. A few guys knelt beside him, laid their hands on him, and prayed silently.
I became both wary of and bought into Liberty’s beliefs. The school’s doctrine stated that man was born with a sinful nature, and so we could not undo what was part of who we were. I wanted to be cured of my homosexuality, or at least know what it meant in regard to faith in God. I didn’t have the resources to search for answers. Someone with more knowledge would have to point me down a path to somewhere, which would require being honest with myself and with others about who I couldn’t stop myself from becoming. Watching Eric, someone hairy and tough, bite his lip and take deep breaths to avoid sobbing revealed to me the soul-eating nature of keeping secrets. If Eric cried after lying for a week, how long until I threw myself at the feet of Cam and Rob after nightfall, draped in the bloody light from the streetlamps? I began to seriously consider taking out the trash.
In Old Testament Survey, to about two hundred students, Dr. Ed Hindson addressed each chapter of the Old Testament and provided commentary on each story’s role in the portrait of the ancient text.
I sat near the back next to a dorm mate. We opened our workbooks and Bibles to Genesis 19. Dr. Hindson read aloud about the men of Sodom wanting to rape the angels who came to visit Abraham’s nephew, Lot. He read, The sun had risen upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar. Then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens. So He overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.
“That’s right.” Dr. Hindson chuckled to himself. A grin snaked across his face and curled. Then he said, “God burned all the faggots.”
Blood rushed to my ears, the room vacuum-sealed. My pulse reverberated in my ears. I sweated underneath my polo. My hands and feet grew hot. My body turned to fire. At the time, I didn’t consider how no one commented on how Lot offered his daughters to the men to be gang raped in lieu of the angels. When we arrived at the Book of Judges’ Chapter 19, Hindson would not comment on the Levite who handed over his concubine to the wicked men of the city who “raped her and abused her throughout the night.”
I didn’t know how to sift through the slur, the self-pleasing manner of his delivery, and what potential dangers awaited students like me in the classroom. I locked this fear and anger in the closet in the back of my mind so I wouldn’t have to face it.
I knew I was a faggot. All I knew about how God felt about faggots was that He killed them.
Before bed, Steve and I sat at our desks writing papers for our general education courses. I worked on a narrative of how I came to faith in Jesus Christ and my current relationship with God, a dull story, probably starting with, “I have had faith in God since I was five years old.” I attended a fundamental Baptist school in New Jersey from Kindergarten to seventh grade before my dad moved the family to Georgia. Church had always been a part of my life, so there wasn’t a defined moment where I decided to believe in God. Many students, though, chose to share the lifestyles and addictions God saved them from, but I had no interest in sharing.
As I wrote, a voice in my head kept whispering to write about my same-sex attraction. He sounded like a forked tongue scraping sandpaper. Write about the man you used to watch through the window, he said. Write about the porn you’ve watched since you were eleven. Write about having sex for the first time weeks ago with Burt. Share how you fantasized about the pastor’s son, the boy from the worship band, the choir director, your father’s best friend. I believed the voice belonged to the demon of my homosexuality. I ignored him again and again. He persisted. His shadowed fingers tightened around my throat. Black closed in around my eyes, and I woke on the floor, shaking and sweating. Steve turned sideways in his chair, ready to help. A roommate from our apartment threw our door open.
“What happened?” he said. “I heard something fall.”
I stood and brushed past the roommate. I ran out the main door, running from the demon who attacked me, who knew me, who wanted to ruin me. I ran down to my car. I turned the ignition and blasted chilled air on my moist skin. My vision zeroed in and out, I could barely breathe.
He tried to choke me, I thought, stunned at the realness of his hands. Dear God, I prayed. Please save me from this. I feel like you’ll hate me if I can’t change. What I didn’t know then was that I was experiencing my first panic, my body trying to split itself in half, the blood from the water.
I don’t remember how long I sat in my car praying for deliverance. I lay in the backseat on the deep red fabric interior like laying in a pool of my own blood. Eventually I ended back in my room under my sheets in the dark, unable to think of anything but the demon beside me and the fact that Steve slept naked somewhere underneath me.
The next day, I climbed into Cam’s car to go to dinner. The stereo system looked like the one in my mom’s car, the one she fiddled with when she drove with the pint of vodka in the door compartment, or in a paper bag between her seat and the emergency break.
We decided to eat at Sonic across the border of the far west end of campus. I could see our breath in the car and going to the drive-in meant we could stay warm. I rubbed my fingers against my sweaty palms and then on my jeans. The restaurant’s radio station played JoJo’s “Get Out (Leave).”
I sipped my root beer. “Remember when you and Rob said we could come to you if there was anything we wanted to talk about?” The familiar rushing of blood to my hands, my fire body. Why did it seem like I inched closer to hell?
“Are you all right?” he said. His biceps bulged as he lifted the burger to his mouth.
The floodgates of my throat started to open. If I were to tell Cam my secret, would I avoid the pain Eric endured about lying on the Beat Sheet? If I didn’t tell him, would I be subject to more demonic oppression? I imagined my secret growing inside me until I exploded the black goop of my sin and my demon—my trash. I dreaded the straight man’s response to faggots. I had seen and heard news stories of homophobic men beating gay men. Murdering them.
Were straight men following God’s example of killing faggots?
“I need to tell you something,” I said.
Was AIDS really God’s new burning of Sodom and Gomorrah?
“I don’t really know how to deal with this,” I said.
Did God really punish people for their nature?
“I struggle with same-sex attraction.” My secret sin was out, and I told one of the most attractive men I knew.
Cam nodded. He said many guys, and girls, struggle with same-sex attraction, that it didn’t make me a freak. He said I needed to learn how to overcome it.
I didn’t know anyone else who struggled with this sin. Even if Cam knew other same-sex-attracted people, I continued to feel alone. I still didn’t know where to begin the quest of overcoming my sin.
As if reading my mind, Cam said, “There’s a support group on campus called Band of Brothers if you’re interested.”
I wasn’t interested. Hosting a gathering of men with same-sex attraction was like bringing a keg to an AA meeting. If a boy asked me on a date, I would emotionally rupture. I needed to work through my attraction in small doses so it didn’t become unbearable, so I could still function as normally as I could. I would learn how difficult love could be when I allowed myself to like a boy for the first time. I would learn how much I needed love from my friends when the church asked me to leave, friends who prioritized my happiness and didn’t leave me.
Cam and I drove back up to campus. He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I grew hard between my legs. He told me everything would be okay, and I let myself believe him.
Hall meeting fell on Cam’s birthday in December. The guys trickled in as usual, sitting on the counter or the floor. Cam took to the center of the room for announcements wearing a long-sleeve tee sporting the school’s football logo and team name—the Liberty Flames. He glanced around the room.
“Where’s Steve?” he asked. Then he looked at me, “Where’s Steve?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Cam and I trusted each other. I trusted him with my sin, and he trusted me to pray about it and seek guidance. When he addressed me directly, I felt he understood the trust we shared.
The door opened. Steve stood in an unbuttoned, white linen shirt, naked, with his guitar positioned in front of his penis. The guys cackled like hyenas as Steve strummed and sang a parody of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” slowly walking into the center of the room in front of Cam. Naked in front of everyone.
You’re beautiful. It’s true, he sang.
Cam’s face turned blood orange, the bloodiest face I had ever seen. He covered his eyes with his hands to hide from everyone staring and laughing as the naked man sang. Steve kept his composure and crooned as if to a lover. When he finished, everyone cheered. Cam instructed Steve to go put pants on.
When he left, Bryan asked me if he was naked all the time.
“No,” I said. “Just sometimes.”
Steve returned. Hall meeting continued as normal. I just wanted to go to bed or journal or take a hot shower and relax. I didn’t care for the obligatory Bible lessons and reminders of how we must work to be God-fearing men. I didn’t like anyone telling me what being a man meant because I didn’t want to be like the other men I knew.
Cam clapped his hands together to focus our attention.
“Last thing, guys,” he said. “We should be conscientious of how we present ourselves in the dorm with our clothing or lack of it. Someone could be struggling with homosexuality and we don’t want to be a stumbling block to them.”
The guys raised their eyebrows, and some blurted out, “What?”
Bryan pointed at another guy sitting on the floor toward the center of the room, his best friend on the hall. “Jon, are you the closet queer?”
“Guys, stop,” Cam said. “I’m just saying it’s something to be mindful of, not that anyone is.”
The blood squeezed out my organs and up to my head, the tips of my ears bright and aflame. I had been crossed, betrayed by someone who spoke strongly on behalf of Jesus but kissed like Judas. Crucifixion was considered the most shameful way to die and wasn’t specific to Christ’s death. The empire hung common criminals for an audience. Liberty University left fags to hang on their own crosses on their own hill. If Cam played the role of Judas, it was I who became the Messiah.
Steve and I lay in our beds after hall meeting, my body still in shock, Steve’s body still naked under his white sheets. The orange glow of the street lamps bled into the moonbeams shining through the blinds.
“Do you know what Cam was talking about with that homosexuality stuff?” he said.
I paused. This could be my chance to tell Steve the truth like what had almost escaped me months ago in this same position, above him in bed. I could be honest with him, my funny, talented, and kind roommate. No water sloshed against the floodgates of my throat. No tightness in my chest threatened me in the face of the question like before. It was just us in my moonlight, separated by a mattress and the soft confession of my body.
I took a deep breath. “No,” I said. I turned over to face the wall.
Andrew Hahn has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk, Chronotope Magazine, Crab Creek Review, Rappahannock Reivew, and Lunch, among others. His chapbook of poems GOD’S BOY is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in March 2020. “Trash” is an excerpt from his memoir manuscript THE LIBERTY BOYS.