Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Don't Call Bruce "Gay"


Rock Island, December 1979

My best friend at Augustana College, Bruce, didn't realize that we were friends.  He thought I was just another member of the Bookstore Gang, the group of comic book-science fiction-Monte Python fans who hung out at the Student Union Bookstore, but never had real conversations and never saw each other socially.  A casual acquaintance, a "school friend" at best.

Bruce also didn't realize that he was my connection to the daylit world, an interpreter of all those alien heterosexual folkways and mores.   In fact, he often tried to fix me up with girls, or assumed that I was hot for whatever girl I happened to be chatting with.

I chose him because:
1. He was an English/drama major

2. He didn't date much, so I didn't have to hear the play-by-play of nights of heterosexual excess.

3.. He was not cute, tall and skinny, with a mop of unruly hair and a sharp, angular face.  So there would be no weird sublimated attraction.  (This guy will give you an idea.)

4. He was pro-gay, at least in theory, though he roiled when someone insinuated that he might be gay.

He flew into a rage when you called him "Brucie" or anything that sounded similar.

The Fratboys soon got wise, and took to saying:
“Are you busy?”
“Do you bruise easy?”
“Do you think Diana Ross is too bluesy?”
Or my favorite, “I bought a new record, Strange Brew -- see?” They never tired of seeing Bruce redden with rage.

So all hell broke loose that December night with Leanne.

Leanne was a junior drama major, plump and aggressive with thin sandy hair.  In December of our sophomore year, she invited me to a new Chinese restaurant in Moline, the next town over, and I invited Bruce.  I didn't realize that they were old enemies, but they sniped at each other constantly.

Later I heard that last year Bruce won the role of Algernon in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest over Leanne’s best friend, a senior who would be auditioning professionally soon. Was she still angry about that?  Or maybe she thought this was a date, and resented Bruce's intrusion.

After kung pao chicken and sniping, we drove through downtown on the way back to Augustana.  As we neared JR's, Rock Island's gay bar, Leanne said "Shall we stop?  You in the mood for a slow dance, Bruce?"

"What are you talking about?"  Bruce asked from the back seat.

"That's your bar coming up, isn't it? Wanna duck inside for a quickie?"

““It’s not my bar! I’m not even old enough to drink yet!”

He didn't realize that  it was a gay bar!  Leanne slowed down. “I didn't mean that you owned it, dear,  I thought you were the entertainment for the evening."  She flashed a limp wrist.

I saw Bruce's face reddening in the rear view mirror. Now he got it. "Eat me!", he yelled.

"Better ask one of your friends to do that, dearie."

Bar next to JR
“That’s it! Stop the car!” Bruce shouted.  He snapped off his seat belt and opened the car door while we were still moving. Leanne skidded to a stop in front of a sandwich shop on the next corner (it seems to be an Irish bar now).

“You can’t get out here,” I told Bruce. “We’re two miles from the school. It’s cold out.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

"I've got a better idea.  We can both get out, and call my brother to pick us up.  I'm getting kind of carsick."   I got out of the car and slammed the door.  Leanne sputtered for a moment, then zoomed off.

I went inside the sandwich shop and asked to use the phone, while Bruce stood on the corner, sputtering a bit himself.  "Where'd she get the idea that I was gay?" he asked when I returned.

"I don't know," I said.  "What's the big deal?  I thought you were in favor of gay rights."

"Well, sure, gay rights.  But...but...what if word gets around?"


I remembered Rocky High, where hanging out with a guy with muscles was a sure sign of heterosexual identity.  "Just find a jock to hang out with, and no one will suspect you."

The "accusation," oddly, served to strengthen our friendship.  We began talking on the telephone almost every night, first talking about how ludicrous it was for Leanne to think that he was gay, and then moving on to other things.  Like Fred -- Bruce became the only Augustana friend to meet my ministerial-student boyfriend.

But he never figured it out.  When we invited him over for dinner at Fred's apartment, he said: "Cool pad! Does Fred ever let you bring girls over?"

See also: Bruce Travels Forward in Time to Bring Me Guys



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