How They Met

A collection of stories about love from the New York Times bestselling author of Every Day. They met on a plane / at Starbucks / in class. It was a set-up / it was random / they were dancing. It was love at first sight / it took time / it was a disaster! Many of the stories in this collection started out as gifts for the author's friends. From the happy-ever-after to the unrequited, they explore the many aspects of the emotion that has at some time turned us all inside out and upside down.

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1. The Alumni Interview

It is never easy to have a college interview with your closeted boyfriend’s father. Would I have applied to this university if I had known that of all the alumni in the greater metropolitan area, it would choose Mr. Wright to find me worthy or unworthy? Maybe. But maybe not.

Thom took it worse than I did. We had been making out in the boys’ room, with him standing on the toilet so no one would know we were in the stall together. Even though I was younger, he was a little shorter and had much better balance than I did. Dating him, I’d learned to kiss quietly, and from different inclinations.

He found the letter as he searched through my bag for some gum.

“You heard from them?” he asked. I nodded. 

“An interview?”

“Yeah,” I answered casually. “With your dad.” “Yeah, right.”
The bell had rung. The bathroom sounded empty. I

looked under the stall door to see if anyone’s feet were around, then opened it.

“No, really,” I said.
His face turned urinal-white.
“You can’t.”
“I have to. I can’t exactly refuse an alumni interview.” He thought about it for a second.
“Shit.”
I had almost met Mr. Wright before. He had come home early one day when his office’s air-conditioning system had broken down. Luckily, Thom’s room is right over the garage, so the garage door heralded his arrival with an appropriately earthquakian noise. Thom was pulling on my shirt at the time, and as a result, I lost two buttons. At first, I figured it was just his mom. But the footsteps beat out a different tune. I did the mature, responsible thing, which was to hide under the bed for the next three hours. Happily, Thom hid with me. We found ways to occupy ourselves. Then, once Thom had moved downstairs and the family was safely wrapped up in dinner, I climbed out the window. I could’ve gone out the window earlier, but I’d been having a pretty good time. 

The trick was getting Thom to enjoy it, too. I wasn’t his first boyfriend, but I was the first he could admit to himself. We’d reached the stage where he felt comfortable liberating his affections when we were alone together, or even within our closest circle of friends. But outside that circle, he got nervous. He became paralyzed at the very thought of his parents discovering his – our – secret.

We’d been going out without going out for three months.

I’d picked my first choice for college before Thom and I had gotten together, long before I’d known his father had gone to the same school. Thom couldn’t believe I wanted to go to a place that had helped spawn the person his father had become.

“Your dad wasn’t in the drama program,” I pointed out. “And I think he was there before Vietnam.”

It helped that my first-choice college was in the same city as Thom’s. We’d vowed that we wouldn’t think or talk about such things. But of course we did. All the time.

We were trapped in the limbo between where we were and where we wanted to be. The limbo of our age.

The day of the alumni interview, we were both as jittery as a tightrope walker with vertigo. We spun through the day at school, the clock hands spiraling us to certain doom. We found every possible excuse to touch each other – hand on shoulder, fingers on back,  stolen kisses, loving looks. Everything that would stop the moment his father walked into the room.

He gave me a ride home, then drove back to his house. I counted to a hundred, then walked over.

Thom answered the door. We’d agreed on this beforehand. I didn’t want to be in his house without seeing him. I wanted to know he was there.

“I’ve got it!” he yelled to the study as he opened the door.

“Here we go,” I said.
He leaned into me and whispered, “I love you.”
And I whispered, “I love you, too.”
We didn’t have time for any more than that. So we 
said all that needed to be said.

I’d never been in Mr. Wright’s study before. The man fit in well with the furniture. Sturdy. Wooden. Upright. It is a strange thing to meet your boyfriend’s father when the father doesn’t know you’re his son’s boyfriend – or even that his son has a boyfriend. It puts you at an advantage – you know more than he does – and it also puts you at a disadvantage. The things you know are things you can’t under any circumstances let him know. I was not ordinarily known for my discretion. But I was trying to make an exception in this case. It seemed exceptional.

Thom stood in the doorway, hovering. 

“Dad, this is Ian.”

“Have a seat, Ian,” the man said, no handshake. “Thank you, Thom.”

Thom stayed one beat too long, that last beat of linger that we’d grown accustomed to, the sign of an unwanted goodbye. But then the situation hit him again, and he left the room without a farewell glance.

I turned to Mr. Wright as the door closed behind him.

I can do this, I thought. Then: And even if I can’t, I have to.

Mr. Wright had clearly done the alumni interview thing a hundred times before. As if reciting a speech beamed in from central campus, he talked about how this interview was not supposed to be a formal one; it was all about getting to know me, and me getting to know the college where he had spent some of the best years of his life. He had a few questions to ask, and he was sure that I had many questions to ask as well.

In truth, I had already visited the campus twice and knew people who went there. I didn’t have a single question to ask. Or, more accurately, the questions I wanted to ask didn’t have anything to do with the university in question.

Thom says you’ve never in all his life hugged him. Why is that?

What can I do to make you see how wonderful he is?

If I told you the way I still smile after he kisses me, is there any possible way you’d understand what he means to me?

Don’t you know how wrong it is when you wave a twenty-dollar bill in front of your son and tell him that when he gets a girlfriend, you’ll be happy to pay for the first date?

And then I’d add:

My father isn’t like you at all. So don’t tell me it’s normal.

I am not by nature an angry person. But as this man kept saying he wanted to get to know me, I wanted to throw the phrase right back at him. How could he possibly get to know me when he didn’t want to know his son?

Taking out a legal pad and consulting a folder with my transcript in it, he asked me about school and classes. And as I prattled on about AP Biology and my English awards, I kept thinking about the word transcript. What exactly did it transcribe? It was a bloodless, calendar version of my life. It transcribed nothing but the things I was doing in order to get into a good college. It was the biography of my paper self. Getting to know it wasn’t getting to know me at all.

Sitting in that room, talking to Mr. Wright, I knew I had to get all of my identities in order. I realized how many identities I had, at a time when I really should have been focusing on having one.

“I see that you haven’t taken economics,” Mr. Wright said.

“No,” I replied.
“Why not?” he harrumphed.
I explained that our school only offered one economics class, and I had a conflict. A complete lie, but how would he know?

“I see.”

He wrote something down, then told me how important economics was to an education, and how he would have never gotten through college – not to mention life – without a firm foundation in economics.

I nodded. I agreed. I succumbed to the lecture, because really I didn’t have any choice. Judgmental. I considered the word judgmental. The mental state of always judging. His tone. I knew he wasn’t singling me out. I knew this was probably the way he always was.

There were times I had gotten mad at Thom. Argument mad. Cutting-comment mad. Because his inability to be open made me a little closed. I didn’t want to be a conditional boyfriend. I didn’t want to be anybody’s secret. As much as I said I understood, I never entirely understood.

Can’t you just tell them? I’d ask. After they became the excuse for why we couldn’t go out on Saturday. After they became the reason he pulled his hand away from mine as we were walking through town – what if they drove by? But then I’d feel bad, feel wrong. Because I knew this was not the way he wanted it to be. That even though we were sixteen, we were still that one leap away from independence. We were still caught on the dependence side, staring over the divide.

It was different now, bearing the brunt of his father’s disapproval.

I understood. Not all of it. But a little more.

“. . . too many of you students ignore economics. You dilly-dally. You spend your time on such expendable things. Like Thom. You know Thom, right? No focus. He has no focus. He wouldn’t be right for this university. You show more promise, but I have to say, you need to make sure you don’t spend time on expendable things. . .”

And suddenly I was sick of it.

I looked to the door and saw something. A shadow in the keyhole. And I knew. Thom had never left me. He was on the outside of the door, holding his breath for me. Trying to keep quiet. Staying quiet, because his father was around.

I was sick of it.

The economics lecture was over. Mr. Wright didn’t alter his tone when he asked, “What are your interests?” 

“Your son in my room,” I said.

“Excuse me?”
“The sun and the moon,” I said. “Astronomy.”
Mr. Wright looked pleased. “I didn’t know kids liked 
astronomy anymore. When I was a child, we all had telescopes. Now you just have telephones and televisions instead.”

“You couldn’t be more right, sir.” I nodded emphatically, as if I believed for a second that he hadn’t watched television or spoken on the telephone as a child. “A telescope is a fine instrument. And there’s something about the stars. . . .” I paused dramatically.

“Yes?”

“Well, there’s something about the stars that makes you realize both the smallness and the enormity of everything, isn’t there?”

Thom had first told me this as we lay on our backs on a golf course outside of town, too late for the twilight, but early enough to catch the rise of the moon, the pinprick arrival of the stars. His words were like a grasping.

Now here was his father, agreeing with him, through me.

“Yes, yes, absolutely,” Mr. Wright said.

I looked to the keyhole, to Thom’s shadow there. Knowing he was near. Speaking to him in this code.

Saying to his father what I’ve said to him. 

“Sometimes I wish we could open ourselves up to each other as much as we do to the sky. To the smallness and the enormity.”

This time, I lost Mr. Wright. He looked at me as if I’d just spoken in an absurd tongue.

“I see,” he said, looking back at his notes. “And do you have any other interests?”

Must interests be interesting? That is, must they be interesting to someone other than yourself? This is why I hate these interviews, these applications. List your interests. I wanted to say, Look, interests aren’t things that can be listed. My interests are impulses, are moods, are neverending. Sometimes it’s as simple as Thom holding my hand. Sometimes it’s as complicated as wanting to be able to hold his hand in front of his father. That want is an interest of mine.

“I swim,” I said.
“Are you on the swim team?”
“No.”
“Why is that?”
“I like to do it alone.”
“I see.”
He wrote something else down. Not a team player,

no doubt.
“Thom is on the swim team,” he added. “I know,” I said. 

“Very competitive.” As if that was the marker of a fine activity.

“So I’ve heard.” I had grown so tired of competitions. Of sacrificing the nights of stargazing in order to make the paper self as impressive as possible.

“Do you know Thom well?” Mr. Wright asked.

“We’re friends,” I said. Not a lie, but not the whole truth.

“Well, do me a favor and make sure he stays on track.” “Oh, I will.”
It had now gone from uncomfortable to downright

fierce. He picked up my transcript again, frowned, and asked, “What is the GSA?”

I tried to imagine him coming to one of our Gay- Straight Alliance meetings. I tried to imagine that he would understand if I told him what it was. I tried to think of a way to avoid his shiver of revulsion, his dismissive disdain.

Thom had tried to signal him once. Had left the pink triangle pin that I’d placed on his bag after a meeting, and he hadn’t taken it off when he got home. But it hadn’t worked. Mr. Wright had brushed right past it. He hadn’t noticed or hadn’t said. When all Thom wanted was for him to notice without being told.

“GSA stands for God Smiles Always, sir,” I said with my most sincere expression.

“I didn’t know the high school had one of those.” “It’s pretty new, sir.”

“How did it start?”
“Because of the school musical,” I earnestly explained.

“A lot of the kids in the musical wanted to start it.” “Really?”
“It was Jesus Christ Superstar, sir. I think we were all 
moved by how much of a superstar Jesus was. It made us want to work to make God smile.”

“And the school is okay with this?” Mr. Wright asked, his eyebrow raising slightly, a vague irritation in his voice.

“Yes, sir. It’s all about bringing people together.”

“It says here you were on the dance committee for the GSA?”

I nodded, imagining Thom’s reaction behind the door. “I was one of the coordinators,” I elaborated. “We wanted to create a wholesome atmosphere for our fellow students. We only played Christian dance music. It’s like Christian rock music, only the beat is a little faster. The lyrics are mostly the same.”

“Did Thom go to that dance?”

“Yes, sir. I believe I saw him there.” In fact, he was my date. Afterward, we had sex.

“It also says you were involved in something called the Pride March?” 

“Yes. We dress up as a pride of lions and we march. It’s a school spirit thing. Our mascot is a lion.”

“I thought it was an eagle?”

“It used to be an eagle. But then our principal’s kid saw The Lion King and got hooked. You know how these things work.”

He did not look amused. “Do you march in costume?” “Yes. But we don’t wear the heads.”
“Why not?”
“Because we’re proud. We want people to know who

we are.”
“It says the Pride March is tied to Coming Out Day.” Damn. The transcript might as well have been written 
in lavender ink.

I faked a laugh. “Oh, that. It’s another school spirit thing. First day of the football season, someone dresses up as a lion and comes out from under the bleachers onto the field. If we see its shadow, we know the season will be a long one. If not, we know it’s pretty much over before it’s begun. The whole school gets really into it.”

“I can’t recall Thom mentioning that.”
“He hasn’t? Maybe he thought it was a secret.”
“I know what’s going on here.”
Mr. Wright put down the transcript.
Now it was my turn to say, “Excuse me?”
“I know what’s going on here,” Mr. Wright said again, more pronounced. “And I don’t like it one bit.” “I’m sorry, sir, but . . .”

He stood up from his chair. “I will not be ridiculed in my own house. That you should have the presumption to apply to my alma mater and then to sit there and mock me. I know what you are, and I will not stand for it here.”

I wish I could say that I hurled a response right back at him. But mostly, I was stunned. To have such a blast directed at me. To be yelled at.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t figure out what to do.

Then the door opened, and Thom said, “Stop it. Stop it right now.”

Now Mr. Wright and I had something in common – disbelief. But even though I had disbelief, I also had faith. In Thom.

“If you say one more word, I’m going to scream,” he said to his father. “I don’t give a shit what you say to me, but you leave Ian out of it, okay? You’re being a total asshole, and that’s not okay.”

Mr. Wright started to yell. But it was empty yelling. Desperate yelling, mostly focusing on Thom’s foul lan- guage. While he yelled, Thom came over to me and took my hand. I stood up and together we faced his father. And his father fell silent. And his father began to cry.

As if the world had ended. 

And it had, in a way.

I could feel Thom shaking, the tremors of that world exploding. As we stood there. As we watched. As we broke free from limbo.

And I wanted to say, All you really need to get to know me is to know that I love your son. And if you get to know your son, you will know what that means.

But the words were no longer mine to say.

Except here. I am writing this to let you know why it is likely that you received a very harsh alumni interview report about me. I’m hoping my campus interview will provide a contrast. (Thom and I will be heading up there next week.) I do not hold it against your university that a person like Mr. Wright should have received such a poor education. I understand those were different times then, and I am glad these are different times now.

It is never easy to have a college interview with your closeted boyfriend’s father. It is never easy, I’m sure, to conduct a college interview with your closeted son’s boyfriend. And, I am positive, it is least easy of all to be the boy in the hallway, listening in.

But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s this:

It’s not the easy things that let you get to know a person.

Know, and love. 

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