It was on Shadow Mountain that Colt, Sky, and I fled during my second month of working in Yellowstone National Park. Up the mountain and on our barren camping spot, we stumbled around, drunk off pints of stolen liquor, and built a fire. When Sky fell asleep, I stared at Colt’s body after he suggested through slurred words that we take off our clothes. I happily licked, pawed, and kissed his pale skin, already accustomed to unrequited affections and shadowy confessions.
I had come to Yellowstone to work a seasonal summer job. The 36-hour Greyhound bus ride to get there was torturous, but my mother’s disapproval added bricks to the wall blocking me from her.
“You think you’re so smart for taking a shitty job on the other side of the country? You should be preparing to graduate college in a year. You’re a dumbass, just like your father, and look what ended up happening to him,” she hissed over the phone. “Good luck.”
Even with the lousy $300 paycheck, the rattling water pipes that woke my coworkers and me at night, and getting caught drinking underage, I couldn’t admit defeat. As a Black man, going to a predominately white university had given me many friends, but I was still keenly aware of how love-starved I was, despite the fact that I’d had hookups and crushes. Every boy was too white, too shallow, or too afraid to be with a man. With every white pair of lips I kissed, I wondered how many Black boys they had kissed in return. The thought froze my body, stopped me from admitting feelings for anyone in a serious fashion (other than Liam, the film major that went on one date with me and then started dating my friend, a girl). No one had trained me in the sport of finding love as a gay, Black man trying to live wildly in a white world—not even my older brother, who is gay as well.
So it was refreshing to meet Colt and Sky, both blonde-haired and rambunctious. I liked to go on long walks with Colt after nightfall. He talked about graduating high school in Michigan, his excitement for being on the other side of the country, and all the plans he had. I didn’t like it when he talked about his ex-girlfriend or the new coworker that he was dating. It was disarming how much he opened up to me. I smiled beside him, thinking of all the things that he would do.
So much happened that summer. I got my first blowjob from a coworker I realized that I didn’t really like the next morning but I thought, “Well, at least it happened.” During my fifth week at the park, my friends and I drank peach schnapps and sat on a blanket in front of Lake Yellowstone. I had been caught drinking underage the week before and walked into court with all of my other (white) coworkers with the same charge. Colt was the only person I really wanted to confide in.
“I feel so stupid," I'd say. "My mom’s right. I can’t do all the same reckless things as these white kids. My father went to prison, then died. I don’t wanna be a repeat of him.”
I couldn’t decide whether it bothered me or not that Colt didn’t respond for a while. I sighed, staring out at the stars above the massive, black lake. Then he leaned into my chest and hugged me as he said, “I’m not trying to make a move or anything. I just need to do this.”
The next week, we went to Shadow Mountain. Colt’s roommate, Andrew, liked to hang around and talk politics. I’m not exactly sure when Andrew started to fixate on me, inviting me to hang out with him after work to talk about politics, but it started to happen. One night after heavily drinking, I fell asleep in his bed alongside him. Halfway through the night, his lips and hands searched my body. His erection rubbed against me until I jolted up and excused myself to the bathroom.
Andrew and I didn’t talk about it the next day, unlike Colt making light of our naked fling. The joke at least meant that my interest in him wasn’t invisible or revolting to him. A few nights later, Andrew wandered into my room drunk. It was impossible to move as I listened to the silence of him using my body, or maybe the silence was coming from me. It was shocking how desperate he was to find my flesh. Colt was tall, confident, and smiley. Andrew was short, had a nasal quality to his voice, and always seemed to be trying to prove himself.
After the summer, I left Yellowstone confused and emotionally exhausted while jammed in the backseat of my coworker’s car, prepared for our road trip to California.
Weeks later, I got a letter from Andrew, which basically answered the question I’d asked him when he’d come into my room that second drunken night, “What do you want from me?” The letter detailed how insecure he’d felt about his intellect growing up, how afraid he was of being attracted to men, and how I had helped him liberate himself. He only wanted me to be happy.
Did Andrew even know what could make me happy? Did I even have a clear idea of it myself? And if so, did I even have the courage to say it out loud?
The next year, I found my courage. I marched through a rain-soaked street during a demonstration I helped organize for Eric Garner. I also crawled onto my friend’s floor on many drunken nights and sobbed about how alone I felt.
Colt and I eventually began talking again, but I never pressed him about how the previous summer ended. The next year, I took a summer job in Montana and answered his drunken phone calls.
“I just wish you were here in bed with me,” was his tune one night. He would always apologize after, saying with a chuckle, “I gotta stop getting drunk like that, but you know I talk to all of my friends that way, right?”
My stomach dropped as I ended my last phone call with him. Months before, I’d gone on my first trip abroad and visited Andrew while he studied in Budapest. On my second night there, after we shared a bottle of vodka, I vented to him about my loneliness.
“But I think you’re beautiful,” he slurred to me with crossed eyes. He leaned in for a kiss and I shoved him back. He kept trying to kiss me all the way to the guest bedroom where I was sleeping.
Looking back on that summer in Yellowstone, I realize the error in my ways. There was no romance in white men using their hands and words to take claim on what they wanted while leaving destruction in their wake. This queer universe I’d embarked upon had to mean more than wading in amorphous love in the shadows. What had I gained from being silent with them? What had I gained from being so silent with myself?
I don’t want to live in the shadows or margins anymore. I deserve more, my Black body and all.
Sign up for the Well+Good TALK: Love Out Loud, celebrating pride as the fight for equality continues, on June 23, 2021.
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