It is St. Patrick’s Day, 1989, and I am fifteen years old. On that Friday evening, Demetris, a friend from school, is at a party. I am known as a social butterfly because I am outgoing and funny, and make people feel comfortable without being terrible. Demetris, a year older, also possesses these traits, and perhaps this is the crux of our friendship. Though I am not at the party; rather, I am at home watching TV—Moonlighting or Cheers or Murder, She Wrote or The Golden Girls—cradled inside the four walls of my small bedroom in the tract home off Euclid Avenue in southeast San Diego that my parents bought ten years before I was born. I was an unexpected baby, making an appearance only after my father returned home as a Navy man with the conclusion of the Vietnam War.
I turn off my television and fall asleep. Demetris never makes it home. Indicative of the violence surrounding young Black men, especially in Southern California, especially then, while crack and gang violence are reaching their apex in our communities, he only adds to the growing statistics. Word on the street is someone pulled out their pistol and fired off multiple shots to the sky. Showing off. Dangerous, but innocuous. No intention of malice or harm or worse, but as the axiom goes, what goes up must come down, and a bullet did, screaming through the air on its descent, striking Demetris in the head, killing him instantly.
Demetris was never an athlete, but he could’ve been. He was fast. You’d see him speeding around the quad during lunch, racing after girls, or before or after the day’s run of classes, being silly, being himself. His friends ran track and played football, but he never did. He wasn’t tall, though above average height, and he wore shorts that ended just above the knee where his long, thin legs jutted out of their fabric openings and ended in a pair of the latest sneakers. His complexion was dark; his skin had a smooth, matte black sheen to it; his face held a pair of bright white eyes and a kind smile. He reminded me of Tupac, same physicality and gregariousness, and D—as we were both known, being Black men sharing that illustrious initial, in fellowship with Dennises and Daryls and Darrens—had the sense of humor of someone who didn’t have to try very hard to be so funny.
We have Spanish together, and on Fridays, game days, our teacher, who wears thick polyester suits with wide lapels in the garish colors of 1970s kitchen appliances—avocado greens, harvest golds, muted rusty orange-browns—with textured neckties knotted at the throat in Windsors as big as a fist, pulls out his accordion from his office and straps it on to root for the Crawford Colts: Potros, potros, rah rah rah! Demetris leaps to his feet, sending those among us who shoot hoops and play football and tennis and lacrosse to sure victory unsolicited by dancing, pumps his fists toward the sky, and shakes his hips in between the rows of student desks, his slender legs whirring about like an egg beater.
When I think about D, this is how I remember him. I don’t like to think about what happened on St. Patrick’s Day, who was there, or if he suffered. I don’t think about crime scene tape, or his body growing cold under a sheet with the red and blue lights, perched on the top of police cars or the coroner’s van, oscillating around in circles, keeping time like a pocket watch while residents peered through windows from their apartments and homes wondering what went down, and who was it dead this time.
By the time I am eligible for my driver’s license, there is a litany of friends in my circle who have been victims of violence: Spencer, on his way home from football practice, has a round from a 9mm Glock, shot from a passing car, that goes clean through his calf and out the other side; Malcolm wears a keloid scar on his face that starts at his earlobe and stretches down the length of his jaw like a chin strap, after getting jumped by some other dealer’s crew after school; Chris, standing in front of a taco shop in Ocean View—which, despite the name, is neither near the ocean nor holds any views worth talking about—catches a barrage of bullets in his trunk that leaves him in the hospital for weeks, and this is the second time in two years that he’s been shot. Every time I look up, there’s another name I know in the paper, a friend of a friend, shot in front of the 7-Eleven, or on their way home from Taco Bell, or when leaving the barbershop. But Demetris is the first person I know who has died.
It is 1989 and the summer between freshman and sophomore years of high school. I start hanging out with Brian. We both attend Crawford High, and are in the same class, though our paths never cross during freshman year. We both like college sports and hip-hop, and we shoot hoops at Oak Park Elementary because there is nothing else to do and it keeps us out of trouble. Though it's only been six months, it feels like forever since we lost Demetris. Brian and I shop for mixtapes and the latest Air Jordans at the neighborhood swap meet. I do not remember how Brian and I build a bridge to friendship, but so distinct is the impression, I only know that there was life before Brian and then there is everything else after. Brian is a bit taller than me, but not by much. His skin is a tawny shade of caramel. His father is white, his mom is biracial with roots in Japan. He looks like he might be Mexican, or perhaps Indigenous. His hair is jet-black and, in combination with his hazel eyes flecked with gold, fuels my mind, and it quickly breaches new places that I cannot ignore. He is both a lightning bolt and a clap of thunder. His presence in my life is the clear demarcation of when everything changed.
I am confused. I am not like that because I can’t be. I have a gay cousin, who is fabulous, no doubt, but he is gay. He’s sassy and wears tight trousers. He listens to Joy Division and The Cure, spent a semester abroad, and I am pretty sure that he and his roommate whom he brings around on trips home from college are fucking. I’m all Public Enemy everything; played my Straight Outta Compton cassette until it broke and gummed up the workings of my boom box. I wear my Dickies baggy and rock black high-top Chucks. No, I can’t be.
But, I think, you are. I am.
I think more and more about Brian from the time I wake up to when I return to bed at night—especially at night—when it’s late and I’m alone. I focus on the hollow of his throat below his Adam’s apple, and the spray of hair that peeks out from the top of the chest underneath. Reluctantly at first, I let my fingers explore my own body, wishing on everything holy that it was his flesh instead. Night after night, in the darkness, I find pleasure in the tension that creates sparks between the things I thought I held sacred, as well as in between my thighs—between what I thought myself to be, and who I really am. I finally deduce that the feeling that swells when I think about him, which is so ferocious I can’t think about anything else, and which I have not previously been able to articulate, is love.
I am terrified.
It is January 1991 and my senior year in high school. Brian and I head down the hill for lunch in his Toyota and split orders of carne asada fries. We spend a lot of time together debating what category of music Bad Brains falls under, and if Michigan can go undefeated once the season takes off. We are inseparable. But I also harbor salacious thoughts about Brian and what I wish we could do together in private. Whatever he wants. Touch me wherever he wants. Kiss me wherever he wants, taste me, fuck me, fill me up, whatever he wants, drink until I am empty, whatever he wants, but only if I can return the favor. Let me reciprocate, let’s play house, let me open you up, let’s get lost inside each other, find where you end and I begin, dance in that space where our boundaries blur and commit ourselves to figuring it all out, figuring it all out together.
But I know he is not like me. This is never going to happen, and my tarnished heart is all my doing. It never had a chance, this will never come to fruition, and it’s not fair. No. He has a girlfriend who’s nice enough, but I hate her. I keep it all secret, and the fantasies sit in the pit of my guts like a block of concrete that both consumes me and weighs me down. Throw me in the water, and I’d sink to the bottom. I am ruinous.
It is the first time I think about taking my own life.
Two months later, a grainy videotape shot by a bystander surfaces that shows five Los Angeles police officers using their tasers and batons on a man after a high-speed chase. The footage is eighty-one seconds long and captures a total of fifty-six horrifying kicks and swings administered by law enforcement to the man for speeding on the 210 freeway in the San Fernando Valley. The footage unravels me. I know of similar stories from my peers, and though I am a decent student and don’t run the streets or partake in anything too egregious, let alone illegal, I know that some of my friends do. I wonder, does any of that matter?
My cousin grows frail and weak, and eventually succumbs to the virus. I wonder if there’s something to be gleaned from his passing. I become withdrawn, and I posit that he saw something in me then—either the way I spoke, or how I held my hands, or how I stood in line at the ice cream truck—that revealed what I am only now discovering about myself and that made him take me under his wing. On my birthday he always gives me yellow gift certificates for Tower Records. He introduces me to Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club; I stumble into punk rock, grow into hip-hop, and all of this is very formative as I am now firmly ensconced in my teenage years. I find kinship on the weekends with straight-edge skaters, BMX bike riders, and dirty, beach-rat surfers, all of whom question authority.
We pool our money for burgers at Hodad’s on Newport Avenue and buy Nag Champa incense across the street at The Black. The salt from the ocean air mixes with the sweat on their athletic skin and becomes a third, greater, delectable thing. Collarbones and biceps strain under the fabric of thin threadbare tee shirts, should they bother wearing one at all, the heft of their hindquarters and privates nearly offensive in their suggestions barely contained behind hand-me-down Levi’s denim. I catalog each and every carnal snapshot as my glances linger, maybe sometimes a little too long, but never missing a chance to add each image to my rapidly growing cerebral Rolodex.
My mental state continues to deteriorate, and my friends, Rob, Hutch, Sam, Trevor, Hassan, and, of course, Brian are concerned, but ill equipped to do anything about it because they are seventeen-year-olds and not therapists. I talk myself into the mindset that I am not suicidal because the truth is, I don’t want to die. I quite like life; I watch the trailer for the sequel to the Terminator movie from the 1980s—the antagonist, a slick, slippery, liquid metal android robot badass—and would very much like to watch it on the big screen. I want to stick around. But this is coupled with the fact that I am in deep emotional pain and I want it to end because it is relentless and unbearable. One night, without much thought, I whip the thin blade of a hobby knife from my father’s workshop across the inner part of my wrist and it feels like a paper cut. But it is also the first time in a long time that I feel something other than shame and regret and uncertainty about myself, wondering what Brian’s tongue tastes like.
It is April 1991 and my eighteenth birthday. It passes without much fanfare, though my deep depression has driven my friends away because I am not fun to be around. Classes resume after spring break, and I overhear how my buddies spent their time at the beach, recalling incidents that they laugh heartily at now in the time before first period over crumb donuts and McMuffins, activities from which I was excluded. I don’t see that I and my dour demeanor are the catalyst for this, so I find places to sit by myself before class and during lunch where I can hide and weep in silence.
Brian and Sam grow closer, and I observe this from a distance. They knew Demetris, too, but I don’t know if they think about him as I do, how he was there one day, until the day when he wasn’t. Because they both are of mixed ancestry, they affectionately refer to one another as hapa, and I wince because this is something that binds them and keeps me on the outside. Sam plays baseball and at that he’s good; and he also raps, at which he isn’t. Before I sink into the shit, I challenge him to battle a couple times, and despite his losses, when I am declared the winner in the quad he smiles big, clasps hands, and pulls me in for that half-hug guys do in order to show affirmation and emotion but in a way that doesn’t question one’s masculinity.
I am convinced that I am the end of the family line, the last of the Jefferson boys, and the sentiment only ratchets up my paranoia. In hindsight, it seems so mild. My parents never spoke of grandchildren or ever impressed upon me that it was my responsibility or obligation to keep the lineage going. But my brother is autistic, my father an only child, and the cost of sullying the name of my family—who fled the South during the civil rights movement for better times, hell bent on getting as far away as they could from magnolia trees stained with blood and the lingering, unforgiving scent of burned hair and flesh—is not lost on me. It feels like trauma is everywhere, like it’s ancestral and organic and flows through our veins next to our plasma, along with the genetic information that determines our eye color, hair texture, the shape of our noses, all pumping through the four chambers of our hearts, and in the white blood cells that finally surrendered and took with them the last bit of life from my cousin. How dare I selfishly indulge, and for what? Faggots can’t procreate. This notion becomes the sand I swallow, the grit I snatch up within my shell and dwell on until it turns into a bitter black pearl, the origins of the concrete block.
I don’t tell anyone about this perturbation nestled in tight inside my body, between my intestines and spleen and guts, fighting to make room in a person slowly losing his grip on reality. To me, this growing secret is so obvious. Why can’t they put together the fact that I’ve never had a girlfriend, never talked about young women in that way teenage boys do, which is to say in that place between dismissive and objectifying. I am so sick of the bullshit I see in the streets and in my community. Friends are dropping out of school to get caught up in the drug game, police are overzealous in response, and others still establish gang ties, and every single weekend, among all of these entities, the acts of violence grow exponentially. The deaths feel like an epidemic.
I am convinced everybody knows about my problematic fucking thoughts, about Brian, the Ocean Beach friends, about the guys in the Sears catalog underwear section or Montgomery Ward Sunday-morning newspaper circular inserts, airbrushed to high hell. I don’t need to see their bodies, their musculature, or their dicks outright; the impression, both literally, and figuratively, is enough to get me turning my own crank, and there is no going back.
My civics teacher asks me to stay after class. He’s a student teacher from San Diego State and isn’t much more than a handful of years older—four, maybe five at the most?—than us seniors. He is a mousy white guy with light brown hair that matches his brown eyes, and he seems outdoorsy. He is nice enough, maybe because of our proximity in age, but he also wears a lot of Patagonia and in between classes he talks about hiking, camping, and going to the zoo, all of which I find to be dull and uninteresting.
How are things going?
I couldn’t be better.
Is that right?
Are you sure?
I wonder what he’s getting at, while he gnaws on an apple with his rabbit teeth.
If you’re going to do this shit, he says firmly, grabbing my arm and turning it over to reveal the fine lines of red on my wrists usually sequestered by sweatshirts and sweaters, then you want to cut along the vein, not across it. These little scratches? These are bullshit, man. They aren’t going to get you anywhere close to bleeding out.
Time stops. I look him in the face and imagine that I go white.
That’s what you want, right?
I am without words.
Listen, being a teenager is hard, and high school sucks, and there’s so much going on with the cliques and the pecking order, right? But I’m going to tell you something, and it doesn’t leave this room.
I’ve been made.
I mean it. I need your trust, Derrick, because it could mean my job.
The hairs on my arms and neck bristle.
Fine, I give you my word.
Okay, so you’re not the only one, and I know it feels like it, but . . .
His voice trails off, and I squint, searching for clarification.
. . . you’re not the only one, man. He places his hands on my shoulders and looks me in the face with an intensity that I feel I don’t deserve. I’ve been there, and I know it sucks, but you’re going to get through this, and you’re going to be fine. But you gotta listen to what I’m saying, and you gotta believe me.
He pulls a trifold wallet from the back pocket of his cords and behind dogeared business cards reveals a photo of himself and another man at the pinnacle of some spread of brown rock and ruddy clay dirt, an expanse of bright blue sky behind them, their arms around each other’s waists with a relaxed posture that suggests an intimacy then still foreign to me.
Okay? Is this making any sense now? I really miss the old you, he says. You’re a good kid, but this whole semester, you’re just so sad. It’s killing me. So don’t do anything stupid. You keep my secret, and I’ll keep yours?
I shake my head yes and slowly fall back into time again.
Now get outta here. He drops his tone to a whisper: We’re everywhere. You’re gonna be fine.
I try my best to swallow the knot taking up residence in my throat. I do as I am told and make my way out. When I look back, he nods, raising the browning apple to the sky like a talisman.
It doesn’t happen instantly, but it also doesn’t take long, the idea fermenting in my head that there is something inside myself worth fighting for.
One afternoon I come home from school and find my parents standing at the screen door of our house, which is yellow with white trim, a yard full of hibiscus flowers, roses, fuchsia, bougainvillea, and twin palm trees just inside the perimeter of the waist-high chain-link fence. They look like a Black remix of Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, and there is genuine concern combined with silent worry on their faces. My friends have talked. First among themselves, before going to our teachers, who have then consulted with each other, before bringing in the vice principal, who then calls my folks.
We have our obligatory conversation in the living room that I play off and navigate around, telling them I am fine. They say I’m withdrawn, which is true; I chalk it up to being hyper-focused on getting into college and the pressure to do well, especially if I can earn a scholarship and relieve any financial pressure on them. Maybe I should relax a bit, I suggest, not be so hard on myself. They grudgingly acquiesce. Suicide never comes up. Under no circumstances do I let on about the facts behind my true inner turmoil. Though, by this time, I am starting to wear away at the concrete block, armed with the visibility of my civics teacher, whose classroom I occasionally visit before or after school and who in confidence asks me to call him Andre. I spark the idea to myself that, if I can get through the rest of the school year, if I can just graduate and leave all of this behind, I will be fine.
Another afternoon a week or two later, and I drive home from school in the 1985 Ford Escort that my cousin, the sister of my deceased gay cousin, handed down to me for my birthday. Looking up at the house, I see my mother bursting forth from the door, one hand doing its best to gather her pale green housecoat at her waist, the other flying high about her head as if she is trying to keep bats at bay. She’s screaming with such fervor I can’t make out her words. It is out of character and, in the moment, I start to worry, but just as the sentiment begins to break, the driver’s side door of the car is yanked open. In a blur, I am snatched out, and splayed out onto the ground by a force that feels supernatural. It happens quickly, my head on the concrete, my arms contorted around my back, and then just as quickly, I am yanked up from the ground by my crotch and smashed up against the front fender of the car.
Turn him loose! Turn him loose! my mother screeches. She’s at the fence, having barreled down the sidewalk, past the flowers and across the lawn. Over the course of my life, I will never see her face express itself as it did that afternoon. My father flies out of the house, banging the wrought-iron door nearly off its hinges behind her, and it is only then that I see the colored lights of the police car as they pirouette: red, blue, red, blue. There are two police officers, one white, the other Black, and it feels like the cop, the one whose face looks like mine in a neighborhood and sea of faces that look like ours, who snatched me from the car and is now having his virtue and his very existence questioned by my mother, is acting out in such a way to impress his partner. It is as if our race, which might be seen as a connection between us, means little, certainly not as much as one tethered to any blue code among law enforcement, reinforcing that he has no problem taking down young Black men, especially in the “Fuck the Police” era.
It comes down to a misunderstanding. A suspect and a crime for which I, my description, and my vehicle matched well enough for the aggressive swoop on behalf of San Diego’s finest that makes me think of the video that the whole world recently saw, and of Demetris, whom I miss dearly, and all the violence and trauma and death that seems to define my world and the lives of men whose faces look like mine.
It is June 1991, and I graduate high school. That summer, I don’t tell Brian how I feel about him, exactly, but I do tell him I am gay. The second person I ever tell other than myself. The third to know after Andre figures it out, or maybe the fourth after my cousin, now long since gone.
I can’t imagine you’ve been carrying all of this, Brian says. All this time?
Yeah. I guess I have. All this time.
I shrug, and he catches me when my knees give out. I got you, he says, steadying me back onto my feet, I got you.
It is August 1991, and I begin commuting across town in my Ford Escort to San Diego State University. I want to become a writer. I have two classes with Brian, mandatory general education requirements. He wants to teach high school.
It is June 1992, Pride Month, and I make out with a man for the first time. He is in the Navy and grew up landlocked on a farm in the Midwest and can’t believe the enormity of the ocean. I smile, because I grew up with the Pacific Ocean as my backyard and take its expanse for granted. It is the first time I am cruised—Balboa Park, between the zoo and the space museum. The kisses start out sloppy before we fall into a rhythm. It is worth the wait.
It is August 1992. Brian has dropped out of school due to money issues and finds a full-time job delivering beer to liquor stores and bars. The drifting apart is inevitable.
It is October 1995. My mother is having routine gallbladder surgery and is diagnosed with nearly always fatal pancreatic cancer, which they don’t discover until they begin the procedure. I am bereft. She dies before Thanksgiving.
It is December 1997. After a year off to grieve before resetting myself, I graduate with a degree in literature.
It is July 1998, and Sam commits suicide. He is twenty-five years old. I wonder, then and still, what led Sam to such a drastic act, especially given my history with depression and subsequent management of the ailment. Brian, whom I haven’t seen or heard from in forever, is the one who calls. We promise to keep in touch and to catch up soon, maybe over a beer. He agrees, it’s been too long.
It is the last time we speak to each other.