Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Kissing a Boy at the Bell Tower

Rock Island, March 1981

When I was in college, Bruce and I and some other English-philosophy-modern language majors hung out at a little bookstore off the student union. The manager, Adam Horowitz (picture is not him), was older, perhaps twenty-five, taut and muscular, surprisingly tanned, with an open, expressive movie-star face.  Not at all the sort of person you'd expect to spend his life selling science fiction novels.

Once an English major, he was expelled halfway through his junior year after a scandal that no one would talk about.  With no degree, no job, and nowhere to go, he got some faculty allies to help him open his little bookstore.

What scandal?  A same-sex affair, perhaps?  I asked Dr. Burton, the gay professor who held the infamous Handcuff Parties, but he didn't know

It made sense: Adam never dated girls, or talked about girls.  Actually, he never said much about his personal life at all.  It sounded like the hesitations, dissimulations, and omissions that gay people made in the Midwest in the 1980s to avoid revealing their "secret."  

But there was only one way to find out for sure: get him alone, and then zoom in for a kiss!  It worked with Fred, my boyfriend last year.

On a cold, drizzling Friday afternoon in March 1981, the campus was nearly deserted.  I had been alone in the bookstore for nearly an hour, studying Paleontology on the green couch by the western window, while Adam sat on his stool reading the underground Zap Comix.  This was a perfect opportunity!

“I'm heading over to the Comics Cave," I said in a tentative voice.  "Why don't you come along?  I don't think you're going to get any more customers today."

Adam stared at me in shock, as if I had suggested skinny-dipping in the pond behind Old Main.  "Um...sure, why not?" he said finally.  He wrapped on his coat and locked up the store, and we walked out into the blustery gray afternoon.  He talked nonstop about R. Crumb and Steve Ditko, and then of Little Nemo who explored Dreamland in the newspaper comics of a century ago, as if he couldn’t bear a moment of silence.

He was really nervous!  That must mean he was gay!

In back of East Hall, the path forked, left toward the Bell Tower and right up the heavily wooded ridge to 38th Street. Adam paused.

“Have you heard the secret of Bell Tower?” he asked.
“I don't know.  I’ve heard a lot of secrets since I came to Augie.”

“The Fratboys bring their dates there, because if you kiss a virgin under the bell, it rings. Thus notifying everybody up in Andreasson Hall that she is 99.99% pure.” He gestured toward the freshman girls’ dorm on the ridge.

"Cool!  Let's check it out -- I've never seen it up close before."

"Um..ok, I guess."  We turned away from the path, crossed the wet grass, and stood under the Bell Tower with its graffiti-blackened benches where Fratboys and their girlfriends kissed. It was very damp, and smelled of sawdust and brine.

“Did the bell ring for any of your....dates...when you were a student?”  I asked, deliberately avoiding the word "girl."

"Um..well, actually I never got a chance. It’s really sort of Fratboys’ turf. They have dibs on all Augie babes.  I was  a Head Case -- an English major."

"So you never heard the bell ring?  That's a pity."  I pressed my hand hard against his shoulder. I saw that he was beginning to blush.

But at that moment a professor appeared, trundling down from the ridge: short, balding, round as a goblin in a yellow slicker raincoat, with an umbrella shoved under his arm like a stage sword and a bulging briefcase at his side. I recognized him: Dr. Dahlquist, who taught American literature and journalism.

He flashed an odd, alarmed look at me, then at Adam. We said “H’lo” politely, but he brushed past us and walked on quickly, almost trotting, to East Hall.

Adam stopped and stared at his retreating form. The snub obviously bothered him.  I wondered if Dr. Dahlquist discovered Adam at the Bell Tower before, on another lazy Friday afternoon many years ago. I wondered who was kissing him then.

"Um...ok, you've seen the Bell Tower.  Do you mind if we take your car?"  He walked briskly toward the south, toward the student parking lot.  We drove to the Comics Cave and bought a few comic books, but he refused my offer of a milkshake at the Belgian Village.  He had a headache, he said.

I asked Adam for out for comic books several more times, but he was always "too busy."

Was he gay, and scared?  Or straight, and scared?  I had no idea.

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