The Boy Next Door

Marc was almost exactly the boy next door. He lived just down the street from me growing up. We went to the same elementary school, we waited at the same bus stop. We used to host Bus Stop Olympics with the other kids, where we would perform various athletic feats while waiting to go to school. Most feats involved jumping over the ditch behind the stop.

At school he was one of my best friends, and the other kids would taunt us. Elementary school boys and girls both have cooties, so it was strange for a boy and a girl to be so close, and to joke so often. Marc and I never understood their accusations. We were just friends.

The line separating school districts ran right next to our houses, and we ended up going to different junior high and high schools. But Marc still lived just down the street, and he would come visit me after school and during the summer. His visits were always an unplanned surprise. My family poked fun at us, because it seemed strange to have a young boy just show up asking about their daughter. Marc has always been a great piano player and a fantastic musical improvisor, and he would play my parents’ piano when he came to visit. My grandparents came up to stay with us every summer, and grandma loved listening to Marc play. For years, whenever I’d talk to my grandmother she’d ask about Marc. She always wanted us to get married.

Sometimes Marc and I would play games in which he would be improvising on the piano and I would strike a key in the middle of the piece at random. He would immediately pick up on it and adjust the tune to incorporate my arbitrary note. Sometimes I would make up a story and he would compose a soundtrack. Sometimes My mom would shout out a composer and and Marc would improvise a piece in that composer’s style.

And sometimes we wouldn’t do anything at all. Marc would just hang out while I worked on the computer. Marc loved to draw, and he would create detailed doodles of architectural designs. Sometimes he would draw pictures of me. At Halloween Marc and our friend Peter would be the only kids in the neighborhood willing to walk to the far end of our driveway to go Trick-or-Treating. My sister was sure he was in love with me. In college when I wrote a play featuring a complicated romantic relationship between a boy and a girl who were long-time friends, my mom was sure I was talking about Marc. I wasn’t, but that’s a different story.

Marc and I went to the same college but lived in different dorms. He was on the other side of campus and it was the farthest we’d ever lived from each other. We stayed close for awhile, but after some time we developed our own interests and our own friend groups. We still saw each other, but not as often. College ended and I knew Marc had moved away, but I wasn’t sure where or when.

And then one day, some ten months after I had last spoken to Marc and even longer since I’d seen him, I received the following message in my Facebook inbox:

Subject: oh hay

 Hi Katrina,
I miss you and hope all is well. Also, I am gay.

muah,
-Marc

My boyfriend was in the room when I read the message. He had heard many stories about Marc. He asked me how I felt about it.

“I’m surprised,” I said. “…but not shocked.”

What had been more shocking were the photos I saw of Marc popping up on my newsfeed. He was buff. Very buff. Marc had always been a very skinny guy. Suddenly he looked like a bodybuilder. And he was living and working in Washington D.C. It would take me another three years and a trip across the country, but eventually I managed to visit him.

DogI parked my car about a block away from Marc’s D.C. apartment, and ran into him on the street while he was out walking his roommate’s dog. “Sorry,” he told me, “but he had to go poop.” Marc looked at the dog, then at a bag in his hand. “Let me throw away the poop and we can go inside.”

Taking a dog out to poop may seem like a strange detail to include in this story, but you have to understand that I have never met anyone else who talks the way Marc talks. There’s something gently musical about it that I can’t quite explain. Which means no one pronounces the word poop like Marc does. And I knew as soon as I heard him say it that despite the years we’d spent apart, his huge physical transformation, and his coming out of the closet, he had not changed one bit.

Inside Marc cooked up some pasta, explaining that there were really no good restaurants in Washington D.C. We talked about his life and his job, about my trip and my travels. We talked about segregation and how when you take the train from his apartment into the city you can watch the passenger load change from black to white with each stop. Eventually the conversation moved to the unavoidable topic of his life changes. He told me that when he came out, it was easy to tell the people he casually knew, and he dreaded telling the people closest to him. Peter and I were the last people he told. “I think I was afraid that it would change how people viewed me,” he said.

Coming out paralleled his physical change. He told me that after being skinny his whole life, he realized that he just wanted to be big. He was tired of being a scrawny guy. He’d always wished he was bigger. And he always pretended he didn’t care, because having lots of muscles seemed like it was a shallow desire. “I told myself I was above all that,” he said, “because I thought people would think less of me if I paid too much attention to something so superficial.”

Eventually he realized that this was something he really wanted, and it was stupid for him to be something he didn’t want to be. So he changed. He worked hard. He still works hard. He has to spend a lot of time at the gym and pay close attention to his diet, but he’s finally happy in his own skin. “I get a lot more attention now,” he said with a sly and embarrassed smile.

“From men?” I asked.

“From everyone,” he told me with a grin.

It’s good to see Marc so happy.

Ted's Bulletin EditedI spent the next day on the National Mall and came back in time to get dinner with Marc. He took me to one of the few restaurants he finds worthwhile, explaining that he mostly liked it because they had “adult milkshakes,” a menu item that makes him giggle. I told him I still didn’t like alcohol, but that I’d give it a try. He said he didn’t like alcohol much either, but he liked these. The shake was among the best alcoholic drinks I’ve ever had, but it still took me all of dinner to finish it. Marc suggested that he and I might both be “super tasters.” He asked how I felt about coffee, grapefruit, and carbonated water. I hate all three.

“It’s the bitterness,” he said. “I don’t like any of those things either.”

Over dinner we talked about writing, about music, about everything. Marc is still one of my best friends, despite our years apart. And we picked up right where we had left off, despite all the things that had happened in those years. He’s still just the boy that lives down the street and comes over in the middle of the day because he’s bored. He’s still strange and sweet, and he’s still my friend. I never thought Marc’s sexuality would change how I see him, but I worried the time and distance might. It didn’t. We are the same as we always were and I miss having him around.

Even so, it’s probably best that we don’t tell my grandmother. I think she’s still holding out hope.

American Road Trip Playlist

Some years back my friends and I went to Yakima for a weekend. We had to take multiple cars, and I offered to be one of the drivers. I spent hours crafting a lengthy and diverse playlist and burning it to several CDs. My friend Jon, on the other hand, insisted that his car listen to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive for two hours straight. Jon claimed that it was the ideal song to play on repeat during a road trip, and believe it or not the reports from his passengers corroborated this. I was thinking I might test it out by listening to the song on repeat while driving the length of an entire state. A small state. Like Rhode Island.

But since I can’t listen to the Gibb brothers nonstop for four months, I need a few more hits on my playlist. Imagine what a waste it would be to take off on such a grand adventure without a soundtrack. Here’s my list so far:

1. 1000 Miles Per Hour by OK Go

If there’s one song that has been on my road trip playlist since the first day I heard it, it’s this.

Something about the chorus just makes me want to abandon all my plans and drive off towards the east.

2. Rock’n Me by the Steve Miller Band

This is one of those classic songs that you might not realize you already know.

3. Route 66

I’m still looking for the best version of the song Route 66, since my travels will take me along the old highway. There’s Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry of course, as well as what always seems to be an oddly ironic cover by the Rolling Stones. I would have sworn Ella Fitzgerald did a famous recording of it, but it’s possible I’m just remembering Natalie Cole.

4. Lost and Found by Katie Herzig

I’m still considering this one. It starts to have that road-trip-freedom vibe near the end, though if you pay too much attention to the lyrics it is about something else entirely.

5. Cruz by Christina Aguilera

For the absolute, straight-forward, “I’m outta here” ballad.

Doin' It for the People

6. Sault Ste Marie by Mick Sterling with Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

I picked up a live recording of these guys several years ago at at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, MT. While I love the whole CD, the song that I want to put one when I’m driving late at night is “Sault Ste Marie.” I credit this song wholly and specifically for why I’m even bothering to go to Sault Saint Marie on this trip. I didn’t know the place existed before this song. I can’t find the live recording anywhere online, but you can listen to a preview of the studio version on iTunes.

7. The One I Love by Greg Laswell

Because every playlist needs something chipper but bitterweet.

8. Down in the Valley by The Head and the Heart

One final song that was added to my list recently also has the benefit of coming with a road trip themed music video. Though I’ve never been a specific fan of The Head and The Heart, it will be nice to know that I’m bringing a little bit of Seattle with me the whole way.