Two figures huddle around a dim fire. Against the overwhelming darkness of the high desert night sky, they sit barely a foot apart. One, Mike, sits upright with his elbows on his knees, the other, Scott, lounges on his side, poking at the fire with a twisted stick. After a long journey across the state of Oregon and around the southwest corner of Idaho, they have set this camp up off a two-lane highway. The motorcycle they stole to get here waits patiently, just past the stretch of the fire’s light, for them to rest.
If ever there was a time for the Western film trope, where finally alone, around a fire with nothing but sagebrush for witnesses, two men usually trapped by unwritten laws of the pained silence of masculinity allow themselves a few moments for vulnerability, it would be now
Mike breaks first. I’d like a talk with you.
There were five of us: Sam, Andrew, Jonathan, Paul, and me. Though, of course, there were only four. Sam, Andrew, Jonathan, and Paul. I watched with something like hateful envy as they slowly trickled out of the closet.
Sam, the early bloomer, out in eighth grade. On the way back from a junior high track meet, met with an intense line of questioning from Truth or Dare, his back against the cool dew forming on the metal bus siding, he spoke his truth to thirty straight boys. I’m gay.
I felt the air squeezed out of my lungs, my heart pounding in my ears. The silence slamming into my chest as we all listened to the heavy hum of the diesel engine, winding through the two-lane highway choked in the thick pine forests of logger country, waiting for someone to speak first.
I thought suddenly of a story Dad had told me. As a kid, he and a friend had snuck into an empty house construction site with a box of matches. The friend told Dad how he had swiped them from his unaware parents, and in an effort to show off, took the matches out of their cardboard box and struck them one by one. The boy would let the flame crawl down the aspen wood grain as close to his fingers as he dared, before dropping them to the floor. An unwatched match caught an edge of something flammable, and the flame climbed up and throughout the partially built house. By the time the two boys noticed, it was out of either of their control. By the time the fire department came, a decent portion of the house was engulfed. Though he was not the one striking matches, simply an interested bystander, Dad too was punished, just for being there. The morale here was clear: don’t let yourself be near trouble, or you just might get dragged into it.
Sam was playing with matches and letting the flame catch where it will, even pulling and ripping at the plywood and 2x4s to feed the hungry fire. Trouble was coming for him. He knew it as well as anyone else.
If there was a fire, I knew I was close to it. Rumors about me had circled since the inklings of puberty among the other boys. I was too loud, let my hair grow too long, and was friends with too many girls. I tried changing parts of me, smoothing out the undesirable qualities back into my body. Talking quieter, keeping no girls as friends, but this protection was shaky at best. I tried to hold my home of wood, pallets, tarps, and twine together, but the fire Sam started had grown.
I ran, or as best I could, trapped on a two-hour bus trip. I shifted in my seat away from Sam and refused eye contact with him. We all stumbled awkwardly through the silence, the boys who had asked the question now regretting the knowledge that came with it. Finally, it was Sam who spoke, looking to another boy. Truth or dare?
The next day, word spread quickly. By the time his bus had arrived, everyone knew. When the boys saw him, they ran to their lockers, holding their backs tight to the metal. They whispered to each other and smiled wickedly as he got closer. Don’t let him get near you, he’s gonna try to fuck your ass!
He tried smirking, like he was in on the hurtful gag, but I recognized his pain. He made his way to his locker at the far end of the hallway before the boys let up their lock-down against the lockers. Still they watched him, like he couldn’t be trusted anymore, even to punch in his locker combo and get his books for class.
I said nothing to either group the entire day. I didn’t speak to Sam or the other boys, trying to play some middle ground I knew was wrong. With all the attention on Sam, I had escaped scrutiny. It was almost a week before someone called me a faggot again. I spoke to Sam even less than I had before, but was forever aware of his presence, careful to never again allow myself close to his flame.
I hadn’t sought out the film, but on my late-night visits to the college library, the title continually caught my eye. There, tucked among the dozens of DVDs on the metal shelves, a Criterion Collection box-set with white letting in a pink border: My Own Private Idaho.
I exercised my right as a college student in the library. Educating myself in the books I had been too scared to even ask about at public or school libraries, and the films the rental place in the corner of the small grocery store or gas station never bothered to buy.
My Own Private Idaho. Wasn’t that a B-52s song? And who ever made a movie about Idaho? A born and raised Idahoan, I had never seen a movie about my home state. It seemed that exciting things only happened in places like New York or Los Angeles, places so mythic and distant, they might as well have been Babylon.
I put the DVD in the crook of my arm and went to the front desk to check out what I’d gathered. I watched the librarian’s eyes over each title. Gender Trouble, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, My Own Private Idaho. I wondered if I should have been less deliberate in my reading and watching history. Throw in a car manual, or an Ernest Hemingway book, to throw off the clear slant my ever-expanding lists had.
In the movie, Scott shrugs to Mike’s request to have a talk, non-verbally ushering Mike’s words out of his mouth.
I don’t feel like I can be close to you.
Mike can’t bring his eyes up to Scott, but hears his sigh and imagines his eyes rolling. Annoyed by the inconvenience of it all.
What do I mean to you?
Mike, you’re my friend.
Andrew was the first to leave.
In 9th grade, heading to the bathroom during an after-school theatre rehearsal, I was pulled aside by a girl in my drama class. Are you going to the bathroom? Will you see if Andrew is in there?
I walked into the small bathroom and saw two pairs of legs in the same stall. I left as quickly as I could.
Andrew’s in there giving head to Michael.
I ran, or about as best I could, from her. From him. From them. I didn’t know if it was true, any part of it really. I didn’t hear anything, and only saw two pairs of legs in the same stall, but knew better than to investigate further. I couldn’t yet see the flame, but I smelled the smoke.
A week later, I got a call slip from the vice principal’s office. A teacher’s kid, I knew to fear administration interference in my life in any way. The man who wanted to talk to me was the same man who, once a year, reviewed my father’s teaching performance. To be brought in for discipline was a two-part hit, one for me, and one for my father, and the ripples in the home we shared were at least doubled.
I knew what it was about before coming in. The vice principal asked me what happened. I spilled my guts as fast as I could. He could barely keep up as I rattled off a moment-by-moment playback of the entire event.
I saw two sets of legs under the stall and turned and left I promise I promise I only heard what was happening from someone else I promise I promise.
I had not told everyone, cornering off the whole event into the deepest recesses of myself, trying to keep myself from even thinking about it. One of the three had spoken then, or told someone else who had, and when the sentencing came down about the whole event, I was the only one left unpunished.
Both boys, Andrew and Michael, were suspended, and the girl was given an in-school suspension. I didn’t want to know what was going to happen, but word trickled back to me through its various avenues. My own parents found out from someone else, a teacher expressing concern for how the event had affected me.
After their suspension was up, Michael and the girl came back, but Andrew transferred to another school. Somewhere across the state line into Washington. I kept him, and the event, in my mind as his previously-occupied seat became absent. I quietly hoped he was somewhere better. Publicly, I never mentioned his name again.
I know, I know man, I’m your friend, and it’s good to be… ya know, good friends. That’s a good thing.
I only have sex with guys for money.
Two guys can’t love each other.
Yeah, well, I don’t know… I mean for me, I could love someone, even if, ya know, I wasn’t paid for it. I love you, and you don’t pay me.
I brought the DVD back to my dorm, admiring the fake weathered edges and the soft pastels of the cover, and pulled the contents out of the box. The image on the fold-out case was a two-lane highway, telephone poles firmly shoved in the earth in equal intervals, cutting through rolling plains of farmland. It could be Idaho.
Flipping over the case to hide from the preying eyes of my roommate, I put the disc in my laptop. I had narrowly missed coming out several times to him, hiding rainbow buttons and queer theory books in my backpack or under my bed, like I was hiding something much more scandalous than Judith Butler. I didn’t even think about doing it or why I did it. Hiding was just a reflex.
I put the earphones in and tuned out my roommate, hunched shirtless over his computer, grunting and swearing from his desk as he played video games.
The film opened in the rain-drenched cities of the Pacific Northwest. For the first half, I watched two protagonists, Mike and Scott, travel between Portland and Seattle. Hustling, robbing, and reciting Shakespeare in buildings almost certainly condos now.
Then in the second half of the film, they travel to Idaho, the state of his birth, in search of a mother he has never known. After leaving her former residence empty-handed, and undercover of the encroaching night, they slip off the highway.
Scott is leaving him. Or about to, and Mike knows it. Scott’s twenty-first birthday is soon and he has announced his departure from his hustling sabbatical, back into the upper-class background he was born to, where he knows Mike will never be.
Under the open sky of southern Idaho, Mike allows a few moments of vulnerability to slip out into the space between their bodies.
I’d like a talk with you.
Word trickled out about Jonathan and Paul in their junior years, the same year they were going to school part-time at the local community college. They seemed strategic about the whole event, waiting until they were one foot out of the door anyway. Smart, I remember thinking, but never saying.
My responses to them were completely inorganic, almost alien, and followed the well-worn path I had constructed in myself. Never talking to them, looking at them, or bringing them up in conversation, but thinking constantly about them. Wishing for a secret means to communicate, to not indict myself in a ruthless court of public opinion, but to not be so alone.
Sam followed them to the community college the next year. In private, I envied them. Coeur d’Alene, where the college was located, might as well have been the Castro District, might as well have been all the pride parades in the world to me.
After Scott’s rejection, the two continue their journey for Mike’s mother. To a casino she used to work at. To Rome. To a farm in the Italian countryside. A dead-end appears in their pursuit, and out of money, they return to Portland as Scott’s twenty-first birthday looms on the horizon.
Upon their return, Scott rolls back into the folds of his upper-class life, and Mike, with no other options, returns to hustling. Eventually, spurred on by a few friends, Mike finds Scott at a black-tie party with his new fiancée downtown.
The group bursts in and reaches out to him, yelling across the distance of the room, and across the wide class divide between them. Scott, cleaned up, hair slicked back, looks unrecognizable from the shaggy-haired hustler they all knew.
At first, Scott refuses to even turn around to address their pleas. Only letting his eyes meet theirs for his scorn to reach its deepest impact. His rejection of Mike, and everything he comes from, echoing through the pin-drop silence, spinning and whirling through space and time from that darkness of an Idaho night.
Sam, Andrew, Jonathan, and Paul.
At best, I ignored them. A character in their lives so minor, I hold no space in their recollection of our shared years. At worst, I betrayed them, aiding in their de-humanization. Part of a faceless mass of deep pain from a past they try to forget.
By the time I came out, it had been years since I’d even seen any of them. I wanted to reach out, but again, I said nothing. As a later-blooming bisexual to a bunch of gay men who had moved on with their lives, most likely leaving any memory of my existence behind them, it didn’t feel right talking to them. About how envious I was of their strength. How sorry I was for not being stronger for them. How whenever I think about them, I still am overwhelmed with grief and shame.
We shared an intersection of a few years, bound together by identities and coincidences, of which I was an invisible participant. I wanted little more during those years than to talk to them, but took refuge in the peripherals of the threats of violence and hate that circled them.
Their presence, as out gay boys, created a space and time where there was seemingly none in my life. They created a small world in which I could imagine something like a future. Together, Sam, Andrew, Jonathan, and Paul, made existence a possibility. They created their own private Idaho, and years later, I’m still trying to make my own.
—Keegan Lawler (from The Offing)