“And this is Silent Sam,” says a bubbly college sophomore called Ben. I’m a junior in high school, touring the University of North Carolina with classmates; Ben is our tour group’s guide. We approach a statue of a Civil War soldier. “It’s said that Sam will shoot his gun if ever a virgin passes him by. We’ve yet to see him move.” The group laughs and proceeds.
Fast-forward two years. I’m a freshman in my first week at the university. I’m sitting on the lawn of the North Quad with a mixed group of freshmen and upperclassmen. It’s midnight.
As the nation’s oldest public university, UNC is replete with myth and tradition. Take, for example, the legendary requirement that every freshman memorize the university’s pledge, should a senior demand its recital. Or the Old Well, the University’s hallmark, where students queue at the start of the fall semester to drink for a fruitful year.
Tonight I’m part of an uncommon tradition during which groups of seniors meet with freshmen at midnight to pass along university legend and wisdom. A dozen of us sit under the enormous 300-year-old Davie Poplar, “A tree whose roots touch every building,” says a nameless senior, “so that if it falls, so shall the university.”
“Annnnnd,” says a slender redhead sitting on the ancient stone bench under the Davie, “on this bench, if you kiss your beau, you’ll marry him, straight from his head right down to his toe.” She pinches her boyfriend sitting next to her. “So they say,” he says, “but that rhyme is not a thing.”
An obnoxious freshman speaks up. “Ha, yeah, so you have a statue at one end of the quad looking for sluts and a magical wedding bench at the other.”
The redhead rolls her eyes and looks toward Silent Sam’s eerie silhouette in the distance. “He has his secrets.”
Fast-forward eight months. I’m lying on the lawn under the Davie, face up, holding my STAT textbook overhead, in front of the sun, pretending to read. The spring semester is coming to a close.
“Hey,” someone says.
I move my book just enough to see who’s speaking, and angel backlit by the sun emerges a tree-sized man with a diamond-hard jaw.
Hi,” I say and scramble to sit up. I’m already nervous and don’t know why. I’m always nervous around cute boys, regardless of intention.
My friends and I saw you from across the quad,” he says and points to a group of men throwing a Frisbee. “You wanna come play with us?”
Other students are studying on the lawn, many nearer his group than I am. I look like shit so I know he’s not hitting on me, and I have no idea how to play Frisbee — are there even rules?
“We could use another guy.”
“I, uh, I really need to study.”
He kneels. “The way you were letting those pages hang doesn’t look like you were doing a very good job.”
“Yeah, I wish I could, but exams and stuff, y’know. I don’t have time to learn a new sport.”
“Hardly a sport, but I understand. Maybe I could teach you myself sometime.”
Fire. My face is suddenly on fire and I’m nauseous. He’s hitting on me? I’m so awkward in these situations. Maybe he’s just being nice. Yeah? Yeah.
“Is that a no?”
“No, no. I would love — I mean, like — I would like that a lot,” I say in my best attempt at nonchalance.
Four weeks later I’m standing near the end of Franklin Street, the town’s main drag, where my Frisbee player called me to meet tonight. By now we’re regularly having “casual sex.” Neither of us wants anything serious — we’re freshmen surrounded by sexual tension and unlimited freedom; bedfellows are aplenty. What’s more, he’s closeted to his family.
Still, and to be perfectly cliché, there’s something about him. He’s not just someone I sleep with. He’s thoughtful. He brings me pizza when I can’t afford food and we cook after-sex ramen when he’s hungry. We’ve even done laundry together. How much more intimate could you be?
Our routine is simple: he visits my dorm, or I visit his, we spend a few hours with the devil, and then we’re back on our own. Which makes tonight’s meeting on Franklin Street strange. Why here? Could he be surprising me with a date? No. That’s not us. We’re too young. He’s in the closet. But would a date be so bad? I like him. I really, really like him, and, closeted or not, I kind of — no, I definitely — want to know him better. Surely we can handle his family if we ever hit it off. So a date. Yeah. I’m good with that.
But how will we handle the bill? We’re both poor. Okay, I’m poor. But I wouldn’t want to not offer to pay, but then I don’t want to decline going; on the other hand, I mean, he did set up the date, so he’ll tell me not to pay when I offer and…where’s he gonna take me? And are we gonna kiss? And what if this does start something? What if we do hit it off? What if one day I marry him? What if—
“Hey,” he says. “You look dizzy.”
“Oh, hi, sorry, I was daydreaming or lost in thought or whatever.”
His eyes are red. He’s been crying. “I don’t know how to say this,” he says, “so I’m just going to say it. I’m dating someone.”
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. What?
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, I just—”
“No. Stop. What? You said you didn’t want to get serious with anyone because your family doesn’t know you’re gay. What the hell?”
“Yeah, I… uh… I’m dating a girl.”
My vision tunnels and I’m as nauseous as I was under the Davie — by the goddamned magical wedding bench — the day I met him, sans butterflies.
I can’t say anything. I don’t know what I would. I’m in shock and pissed off and heartbroken and feel sorry for him all at once. I have no words.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m really sorry.” He hugs me, in tears, turns and walks away, hands stuffed into his pockets, head hung low.
I watch him leave and replay all that we’d done, all of our phone conversations, how strict he was about keeping our liaisons secret, and it all comes together: he wasn’t sleeping around with other guys as he insinuated; he was baiting a girl into becoming part of a life tolerable to his family.
I watch him until he’s out of sight, until he disappears into the North Quad, where he’ll join the ranks of secret keepers, just past Silent Sam.