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Two years earlier...
Sweat rivulets ran down my spine under the black graduation gown. I knew my clean, pressed white shirt with the required collar was drenched. And I hadn’t worn a t-shirt under it in the humid, ninety-five degree heat. My fellow college graduates literally baked under the raging sun as we stood in line across the street from Keller Hall.
Inside, family and friends fanned themselves with folded paper programs, listing the names of four hundred students about to receive their degrees from the University of Illinois School of Commerce and Business Administration.
All around me, young men and women buzzed with animated excitement, wiping sweat from their brows and chattering about future plans. I envied them. For me, graduating college was anticlimactic as I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had a business degree but no clue on what to do next.
Salty drops of sweat irritated my eyes, making them water. I pulled up the hem of my gown to dry them. A young woman standing next to me smiled.
“Emotional day, huh?” she said. I had shared a few classes with her over the years. I didn’t remember her name.
“I’m sorry?” I said, dropping the gown. It felt like a heavy wool blanket in the blistering heat.
“The tears. My mother and I had a good cry this morning too. It’s so cathartic, graduating. I think she’s more thrilled than I am to be finished. Fourth generation alma mater and all that.”
“Mmmm,” I mumbled, wishing I could just melt into the storm sewer and be done with it.
“Did your family find seats? My dad was here when the doors opened so he could get the best vantage point for pictures.” She beamed with family pride.
I could not think of a way to say my mother couldn’t even be bothered to make the four hour drive without sounding whiny, so I said nothing. I was the first person in my family to ever go to college, much less graduate with honors. I wasn’t surprised none of them thought my accomplishment was worth celebrating. Now if I were winning the Heisman Trophy, they would have rented a bus.
Someone spoke unintelligible words into a megaphone and everyone around me more or less lined up. It didn’t matter. Although I had no idea what he said, I would just follow the person in front of me like an obedient little lemming. An over-cooked lemming. God, it was hot!
When my name was called an hour later, no one cheered, no one clapped. The only person smiling was the short woman with orange hair and glasses dangling off the end of her nose waiting with my diploma. I walked across the stage, shook her hand, accepted the blue leather folio and exited, stage left. Instead of returning to my seat as instructed, I kept walking, right out the auditorium front doors.
Twenty minutes later, I was back in my dorm room, exhausted and irritable. I ripped off the heavy gown and tossed the funny hat on the bed. Both were drenched and starting to smell. I boxed them up for return. I needed my twenty dollar deposit back. I changed into a t-shirt and shorts after wiping the sweat from my body with a slightly mildewy bath towel.
It was over. I stared at the same cardboard boxes I had been schlepping up and down Interstate 57 for the past four years. All that work, all the late nights. For what? A piece of paper with fancy calligraphy?
A college diploma was supposed to be a big deal. It meant I was smarter now, or at the very least more employable. I pulled the diploma cover from the top box and opened it. It was empty. Just a small note tucked in one corner informing me my diploma would arrive in the mail in August, fourth class, bulk rate.
I sighed and flopped back onto the bed. College had been more about escape than education. A place to hide from everyone, including myself. The past four years had been a suspension of real life, where I could focus on safe, non-threatening activities and ignore the growing conflicts within. I might have had a degree now but I was still gay. And still very much alone.
The resident advisor interrupted my little pity party with a clipboard and forms to sign. He did a cursory inspection of the room, then nodded to himself and I signed where he pointed. We shook hands and he left. Time for me to go. The university was done with me.
I made two trips to the parking lot, stacking boxes on a hand truck. My eyes hurt from the glare of the sun. I returned the hand truck to the office, grabbed my last box and left the place that had been my home away from home, my safe haven.
I was staring at my beat up Ford Fairmont, hoping it would start, when one of the guys from my floor, Fred Thompson, put a hand on my shoulder, scaring the crap out of me. The box in my hands went flying.
“Oh, sorry, Jack. Here, let me help you with that,” he said. Together, we returned my meager possessions to their box. He brushed his hands off on the front of his shorts and looked at me with a strange expression.
“You got a sec?” he asked.
“Sure, Freddo, what’s up?” I replied.
“I just wanted to say it’s been great living with you and the other guys these past four years. I’m glad we all decided to stay in the dorms. It kind of kept us all together, you know?” He was looking a little teary eyed, which was not normal for him.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s been good, but I’m kind of glad it’s over now too. Aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m glad I’ve got my diploma, but I’m gonna miss the card games and pizza nights with my buddies.” He laughed as we both remembered some of our more raucous games. “Hey, what I wanted to ask you was, would you like to come up to my parents’ house in Schaumburg and stay for a week or two? You could maybe look for a job up there. I start my new job the day after tomorrow, so I won’t be around much, but you could use my car to go on interviews if you can line any up. It’s my mom’s idea.”
He seemed a little sheepish asking me this, like he was only doing it because his mom said he should. I had met both his parents on a couple of Parents’ Weekends, and they were very nice people. They always treated all of us guys to a great steak dinner on Sunday, which was a big deal. Steak was always better than another slice of pizza.
“Wow, Fred, that’s huge. But I don’t want to put your family out on account of me.”
“Well, it was my mom’s idea,” he repeated. “She was asking how all my friends did with college and I told her we all got jobs or were going to grad school—all except you. She asked me what we could do to help and I said I knew you really didn’t want to go back home. She said have him come up here, we’ll help him find a job.”
I was stunned. These virtual strangers were concerned about helping me find a job?
“Seriously, Fred? I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll come. If I know my mother, she’ll have interviews lined up for you before you arrive.”
How could I say no? “Okay Fred, you’ve convinced me. How do I get to your place though? I’m not sure my car will make the trip home today in one piece, let alone all the way to Chicago.”
“Take the Amtrak. It will drop you off at Union Station downtown, and then hop the Blue Line train out to O’Hare airport. I can get you from there.” He outlined a travel plan, most of which I followed. I was still shocked at the offer and not thinking too clearly.
“Okay, I’ll look into it and call you with a plan. Thanks, Fred. You’re a lifesaver.”
“Save your thanks for my parents, and only after you find a job. Then the pizza’s on you!” He laughed as he grabbed his backpack and headed for his car.
I know how it may have looked to the casual observer, but Fred was straight as an arrow. Unlike most of the other guys I hung around, he had at least three different girlfriends throughout college and, with one, it got very serious. He was even talking engagement but, as it often happens with young love, they wised up and acknowledged it was more hormonal than true love. They parted friends. I knew my virtue was safe with Fred. Too bad though, because he was kind of cute. And he had a killer smile.