It might have been a few seconds, or a few minutes. Bryce seemed to lose all track of time. He had never considered black people beautiful before, but the only concept which his mind seemed capable of grasping at this point was how beautiful the guy standing in the doorway to the bathroom was. The man was about his own age, height, and weight, but had skin the color of rich caramel, not real dark, but definitely African-American, with black hair with a tight wave to it, and liquid brown eyes. While his brain attempted to digest what he was seeing, Bryce's body seemed incapable of movement. He just stood there, mouth agape, gazing at the other guy like some kind of idiot.
The visitor sounded concerned as he said, "Hi! I'm Damon. I guess we'll be sharing this bathroom, so I thought we ought to get acquainted."
That broke the spell. Somewhat. "Um, ah, hi!" Bryce stammered. Great! He sounded like an real dork for sure. Belatedly, he noticed the other guy's hand stuck out, which he took and began pumping.
That physical contact got them over the initial hump. Damon gave a sigh of relief, perhaps having feared he was encountering someone who would not relate to a black person at all well, avoiding any physical contact. Bryce did not consider himself at all racially prejudiced. In fact, he had decided that he was very much opposed to biases based on race and ethnicity after listening to a diatribe from one of his uncles when he was deep in his cups at a family gathering many years ago. In this, he was also influenced by the teachings he had received in church and school, as there was no doubt about where the Catholic Church stood on that issue, and most of his acquaintances back home went along. No, it was not race, but social status which created divisions among his peers. Still, the number of black persons with whom Bryce was personally acquainted was exactly zero. There were none in his exclusive neighborhood back home. There were some at the high school he attended, of course, but not in the groups with which he associated. Sure, he had been in the same classroom with blacks, and had eaten in the same cafeteria, but he was not sure he had ever had a one-on-one conversation with a black person. That, plus the fact that his first impression of Damon was his sheer beauty, left Bryce speechless.
"Um, can I have my hand back?" Damon asked with a grin. His grin revealed dazzlingly white teeth, which only added to his beauty.
"Oh, sorry!" Bryce said, blushing at his faux pas. He found he had been pumping Damon's hand too energetically and far longer than etiquette dictated while his mind attempted to take in the boy before him. Great! Now he must seem even more of an imbecile in the eyes of this visitor. "Um, Come on in." He stepped back, inviting his neighbor into his room.
"Thanks," Damon replied, stepping across the threshold. He looked around. His attention was captured by the computer on Bryce's desk. There sat his great laptop computer, with lots of extras, and what appeared to be the largest display on the market. "Nice laptop," he commented.
"Oh, yeah. I figured I would need that for my work here at the University," Bryce responded.
"Top of the line," Damon commented. "Seventeen inch screen, and I'll bet you get great resolution on DVDs. You watch movies much?"
"Um, some. Didn't bring any with me, though."
"How about music? How's the sound quality?"
"Great! I love Mozart, so I've got a CD of his horn concerti, and all the symphonies, and the "Requiem," of course. I've also got the four big operas, complete." Bryce came to a halt. He could tell Damon was not sharing his enthusiasm. "Then, I like bagpipe music, so I have a CD of that, too," he concluded lamely.
"Too weird," Damon said dismissively. "Nothing, ah, more contemporary?"
"No. You can get that on the radio. It all sounds the same to me," Bryce admitted.
"This stuff all sounds the same to me," Damon responded. "I can see we won't be sharing CDs much. But hey! I can forgive you that." The black boy continued his visual tour of Bryce's room. No posters. Everything neat. A bookshelf already stuffed with books. He sighed. Not much to form a common bond for conversation. "How about lunch?" he asked.
Bryce was having difficulty digesting all this. Sharing? Forgive? He felt he had been judged and found wanting. Not a common or agreeable experience for him. But despite his hesitations and confusion, he found that he welcomed the idea of lunch with Damon.
"Yeah, I'm starving. You know where anything is?"
"Sure," Damon assured him. "I've been here since Sunday, and I had to eat. Campus cafeteria okay by you?"
"Yeah. Lead the way," Bryce agreed.
Bryce made sure his corridor door was locked, then followed Damon back through the common bathroom to the connecting room on the other side. There, his senses were assaulted by a jumble of colors and shapes, all tossed together covering every available space and spattered on the walls, so that he got no real sharp image of anything. He did not have time to disentangle these impressions, as Damon continued on through, directly to his door, and out into the corridor. Allowing Bryce to exit, Damon then locked his door as well, and they clattered down the stairs and outside.
The walk across campus from their dormitory, Clay Hall, to the student center where one of the campus cafeterias was located, took them along shady, tree lined brick walks. Bryce had not yet had an opportunity to experience much of the campus, so he took this in, along with the person beside him. As they walked across campus, Bryce noticed that Damon wore clothes which looked good on him, but were not at all the expensive label items he had in his wardrobe. In fact, they might have come from Walmart. Bryce fell a step behind looking at the campus, but this gave him an unexpected view of Damon's tight ass. He could see the muscles at work as his neighbor strode along. Damon looked good in his tight fitting jeans, regardless of where they came from. And his tee covered some pretty impressive development in the chest area as well.
What the hell am I thinking about? Bryce asked himself. He quickly caught up with Damon, keeping alongside him, and looking ahead.
"You say you've been here since Sunday?" Bryce asked, more to take his mind off other things than for any other reason.
"Yeah. Rode in from Chicago. Been here a day and a half, so I at least know where to go to eat," Damon responded.
"What kind of wheels do you have?" Bryce wanted to know. "I've got a killer Mustang back in the parking lot."
"Um, no wheels, man. When I said I rode here, I meant on the big grey dog."
"Big grey dog? What's that?"
"Greyhound, man! Transportation for us poor folks."
"Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean ... Oh, shit!"
Damon flashed his killer smile again. "No sweat. You rich dudes with your cars and designer clothes have just got to learn to put up with us ordinary folks. It'll be good for you. Broadening, you know?" As he said this, Damon fingered the collar of Bryce's polo shirt.
"Uh, yeah. Sure," Bryce conceded. He felt odd, having the other guy touching him like that. There was a stirring in his loins which he did not want to acknowledge. He glanced down, averting his eyes and gathering his wits. As he did, he noticed that, wherever Damon got his jeans, his shoes were definitely not Walmart. They were top of the line sneakers by Prada, and must have cost a couple hundred bucks. "Maybe us rich kids could learn something about shopping for sneakers," he shot back.
Damon actually blushed. Bryce was not sure black guys could blush, but Damon certainly did. He did not turn red, just got darker.
"Okay. You hit my weak spot. No more hassle about rich guys," he conceded.
"That's okay, actually. It's my family that's rich, though they prefer 'well-off.' I didn't earn any of it myself. If you're one of the 'poor folk,' I assume you're on scholarship."
"Right. An academic scholarship," Damon stressed. "Not an athletic scholarship. I might be poor, but I'm not dumb. I'm going places, man," he said with a determination Bryce had not noticed before. "Without thisacademic scholarship, I couldn't even afford the shitty community college in the neighborhood where I grew up. Besides, folk who go there don't go anywhere else. I want out of the projects, man." There was that determination again.
"I understand," Bryce mumbled.
"No, you don't," Damon insisted, stopping before entering the building to which they had been headed. "You really don't understand about the projects unless you've lived there. It's a dead end, man. It's nowhere."
"I'm sorry," Bryce said. "I was just trying ...."
"Just trying to be nice to the poor boy from the projects? Well, forget it. I'll make it on my own. I don't need pity."
That set Bryce off. "Well, fuck you! I was just trying to be friendly, asking about your scholarship, and you dump this whole shitload of stuff about projects on me. I'll find my own lunch."
Bryce started to walk away. But Damon grabbed his arm, and spun him around. For a moment, Bryce thought they might end up in a fight, but Damon quickly removed that fear.
"Look, man, I apologize, okay. I didn't mean to jump down your throat. I guess I'm super sensitive about ... you know ... my background, and stuff. We're going to be sharing that bathroom, so we might as well get along. Don't walk away from me."
Bryce smiled. "I'm here. You don't need to hold me down," he said, looking at the iron grip Damon had on his arm.
Damon released him. "We okay?"
"Okay," Bryce confirmed. "I think maybe we come from two different worlds, though. There might be other sensitive spots. If I start in on something, give me a little warning next time, okay?"
"Okay. Same for you."
There it was again. Like in the room. As though there were anything that needed explaining about Bryce's background. It was so ordinary, so middle America, so normal. The idea that there was any parallel between his world and Damon's seemed absurd to Bryce. And he had not yet heard the greatest differences.
Some of that came as they sat in the cafeteria eating an unexciting lunch. Damon began. "So 'well off' neighbor, tell me something about your family."
"Nothing much to tell," Bryce insisted. "Pretty normal, run-of-the-mill stuff. Mom and Dad at home when Dad's not in his office, older brother in law school, sister at college, and me, the baby." That last was added with something resembling a smirk. He hated being called the baby at home, but here it did not seem to matter. Maybe being on his own was already beginning to have an effect.
"Man, you don't know just how UN-normal that is. I can't think of a single family I know that fits that pattern," Damon responded.
"Really? I thought most families were like mine. What's yours like?"
"Hoo, boy! Okay, you ready for this? Like I said before, I lived in the projects. There's my mom, my brother, and three sisters. There's no father." Seeing a questioning look on Bryce's face, Damon sighed and explained, "Okay, I know all about Sex 101. There had to be a male somewhere along the line, a sperm donor, but I repeat, there is no father. No one there in the home. Besides, each of us has a different last name. Wait! That's not entirely true. Vanessa and Wanita have the same last name. Their dad stuck around for almost two years. My last name's Watson, and I guess there's a father's name on my birth certificate, but I never met the bastard, and I don't want to. So, five kids, four last names. How's that for your normal, all-American family. But, in case you've been too isolated to notice, I might be more 'normal' than you. How many kids live in a home with both natural parents? Not many."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to raise awkward questions. Is this something else I shouldn't talk about?"
"Oh, what the hell!" Damon responded, giving a great sigh. "I shouldn't be so sensitive about this. I didn't chose my family. I didn't chose to live in the projects. I'll probably be asked about this a million times before the semester is over, so I might as well get used to it. And, for what it's worth, I know you're not trying to embarrass me, so let's forget that part," he continued, reaching out and touching Bryce's hand as he did. That touch seemed important somehow.
"I'm a mean son-of-a-bitch," Damon continued, and seemed to mean it. When he saw the skeptical look in Bryce's eyes, he went on. "I know. It doesn't look like it when I get all emotional about the projects and my family. But I had to be. If you're not mean, you don't grow up in the projects. I had to be mean enough to send guys on their way with their tails between their legs, or else I would have been everybody's fuck boy. You know about that?"
Bryce shook his head in the negative.
"If you're weak, puny, shy you get picked on, from the time you can walk until the time you die. It's a vicious place, the projects. One reason I want to get out of there. By the time you get to be eight, ten years old, some brute decides he likes the way your ass looks, and he grabs you, and fucks you bloody. After that, whenever some blood gets horny, and there's no broad around, you get fucked. If you're lucky, somebody drives by and shoots you before your brain turns to mush from some disease. Happens. Not for me, man. I was as macho as they come. I kicked ass. I didn't want no goon shooting his infections up my ass."
Bryce sat there amazed. He was not sure whether Damon was telling the truth, or spinning a tale to impress him. He'd never encountered anything like this in his entire life. Then, out of nowhere, a little anomaly struck him.
"You said 'no goon.'"
"You said you didn't want 'no goon' shooting his infections up your ass. That's the first time you used incorrect grammar. I'm wondering whether you really come from these projects you talk about at all."
Damon bridled, an angry looks crossed his face, then he collected himself and grinned like he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Okay, fair question. I slipped there because I was getting excited again. I think it's fair to say I speak three languages. I picked up some Spanish from some of the Latino guys in the projects, and let me tell you that is not normal, either. Us brothers and the Latinos don't usually communicate except at knife point. But I'm not your normal brother, either. Then, as you indicated, I can speak what passes for standard American English. I learned it as a second language, mostly from watching the tube for hours and hours. My native language is the patois of the projects. Please note my use of the word 'patois,'" Damon said, striking a la-dee-dah attitude which caused Bryce to laugh. "But if I talked that way, you wouldn't understand most of what I said. Not unless you were putting me on back at your place."
"Putting you on? I don't remember anything about language," Bryce protested.
"You said you didn't care for most pop music. You're not a secret hip hop junkie are you?" Damon grinned.
"Oh, shit no! I don't understand even half of what they say, and I don't appreciate most of what I do understand. And I don't think that qualifies as music under any definition I've ever seen."
"My point exactly. If I was sitting here talking in my native tongue, you wouldn't understand most of what I said, and what you did understand would most likely offend you. I can talk the talk. I had to to survive, just like I had to be mean. I was different enough already. I avoided gangs. No tattoos. No body piercings. No other self-mutilation. I actually liked school and reading, 'though I had to keep that to myself. I mean, shit! I was already peculiar enough. If it got out that I liked school, my ass was cooked. Most of the guys who started school with me never finished high school. Some of them are dead. Get laid and get high. That's all they're interested in. I want more. And to get it, I had to be different. Believe me, I'm never going back to the projects," Damon said, again exhibiting that hard determination Bryce had seen before.
"So, you got a scholarship, and here you are," Bryce commented, trying to ease the situation.
"I got an academic scholarship. I'm smart. I got street smarts, as is proven by the fact that I survived, and I got school smarts, as proven by my academic scholarship," Damon proclaimed. "I'm going to be a lawyer, so I signed on as a Political Science major. And you? What are you planning to major in?"
"History. I've always been fascinated by the past, and how it influences us today. Some days, I feel like I know people who have been dead for two or three centuries better than the people around me," Bryce replied, grateful for the shift in subject matter.
"Weird, man. But, if that's your thing, more power to you," Damon conceded. "I never found much in the past that appealed to me. My folks never seemed to win. I'm looking to the future. I suppose you're one of those guys who have a family history to be proud of?"
Thinking of his Mayflower and FFV associations, but not wanting to push any more of Damon's buttons, Bryce cautiously replied, "Yeah, I guess. Some of my relatives are more into that stuff than I am. It's more the past in general than my past that interests me."
"Okay," Damon backed off. "History and Political Science are not totally different. I guess we may be in some of the same classes, at least this year."
"Could be. I don't know my class schedule yet," Bryce admitted. "I'm supposed to see a faculty advisor on Wednesday."
"I came down here and pre-registered a couple of months ago," Damon said, obviously thinking Bryce very remiss in not doing the same. "Look, here's what I'm signed up for."
He showed Bryce a schedule of classes which listed History 101 (which Bryce had as an AP course in high school), College Algebra (which Bryce also had as an AP course), Political Science 101, Biology 101, Freshman Orientation, and Physical Education. The one interesting listing was English 201, for a total of 18 credit hours. Damon proudly explained that his SAT score exempted him from Freshman Composition. Bryce did not mention that he had AP English Lit, which exempted him from the sophomore sequence as well. He could possibly share his Biology, Freshman Orientation, and maybe the Political Science class. He seemed to remember that Political Science was one of the options for some requirement for his major. He noted the sections and times. But not PE, as that was Beginning Soccer.
"You interested in soccer?" he asked.
"Don't know a thing about it," Damon confessed. "Not something generally played in the projects, except by some of the Latinos. But I always thought it looked cool when I saw it on TV, so I signed up. If I get to be a lawyer – no, scratch that. When I get to be a lawyer, I'll have to know about such thing."
"I've been playing since I was in pre-school," Bryce stated. "I was on the school team in high school. We won the state my senior year."
"Cool. You can help me with my homework then," Damon concluded.
The two boys walked back to their dormitory, talking about nothing in particular, but enjoying each other's company. They parted in the corridor, but promised to get together again soon. It was strange, Bryce thought. They had almost nothing in common, and yet he liked being with Damon. The boy had a determination, a toughness, a focus, that Bryce found lacking in himself.