Like a brother was how I always described Russell Sims. From day one, we hit it off like we’ve known each other our entire lives. He was the one who encouraged me to approach and stay in touch with WUGH-PD Sean Wilkinson for the internship I eventually achieved.
Russ, in an unexpected way, filled the void left wide open by my blood brothers. There was nearly nothing sexual about us becoming the best of friends. He showed up at a time when I was overdue for a strong example of what it means to be a man, the kind of man I wanted to be.
He was independent, brave, conscious and humble. I was grateful for Russ. He respected me man-to-man even though he suspected I was one of the gays soon after we first met.
It was the beginning of my freshman year at Rutgers. I was on my own for the first time in life.
There were a ton of mistakes destiny set forth such as partying almost every night on campus like there were no classes or responsibilities the next day and spending too much time thinking about what sex would be like with half of the basketball team.
On the first night of the school year, my suitemates paraded the halls on the floor of our dorm inviting all of the seemingly cool people to the smoke cipher they were having.
How my suitemates felt so secure about inviting some complete strangers to a party of people all doing drugs, mainly smoking weed, I have no clue, but they pulled it off.
About a dozen dudes were crammed into their room. I kept the door to my adjacent room locked because I didn’t feel as secure as my suitemates. They had turned off the lights then cut on the black light, closed the windows, shut the curtains and stuffed the crack under the room door with a damp bath towel.
Supposedly, the dampness would help absorb some of the smoke. For the most part, everyone just smoked weed while a few other dudes branched out popping ecstasy pills or tabs of acid.
One guy offered me a tab. I did my best to hold back on letting the disgust show on my face. Russ, sitting across from me on the opposite bed, noticed and got a good chuckle out of it.
He was the most aware of what was going on because he wasn’t into drugs or alcohol. In fact, he was a bit of a cornball at first glance. He wore these black-framed Aviator prescription eyeglasses and dressed as if he shopped off JCPenney’s clearance rack, but he was ultimately cool.
All the dudes in the room kept mixing and bouncing from one conversation to the next. I thought for a second that it was odd how no girls showed up, but they were probably just being cautious.
My suitemates did have an edge to their look. They either gave you the impression that they were going to legitimately run this town or violently run up in your house.
I learned that semester how cool they really were though considering how much we used to borrow so much from each other, including money, that whole school year.
That same first night, the one who looked like a 6-foot-2-inch replica of Reggie Bush gave me a shotgun I’ll never forget. The shotgun was not an actual lethal weapon although it caused some internal trauma.
Already shirtless, my dark-chocolate suitemate squatted down in front of me leaning forward waiting for me to meet him halfway.
He closed his eyes, turned the blunt around placing the lit-end inside his mouth then blew smoke in-between my puckered lips. Our mouths were less than an inch apart and, once again, I caught Russ chuckling at me. I could tell he wasn’t doing so to embarrass me. He wanted me to know, all in one look, that he had figured out my secret.
Russ was the first person I ever came out to. It didn’t happen that first night we met. It happened a few weeks later. Russ had this mind game he would play in which he would bring up sexual subjects and leave open traps in the conversation for me to fall into a confession about what I truly craved.
Knowing I could no longer lie to someone who made it clear he lacked judgment, I told him my truth.
“Dude, why’d you wait to tell me?” he asked as we sat in his car outside of the dorm. “You know I knew weeks ago.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re the first person who knows for sure though so you can’t tell no one, ok?”
Russ said, “That’s not me dude. I have a gay uncle so I know through him it’s not easy. I got your back regardless.”
After that, Russ and I talked about the ways of the world. The world would always remind me of my blackness so being gay made life that much more complicated. He understood my process of self-awareness and acceptance.
I had to figure out who I was in relation to the rest of the world. Some people, like Russ, would be supportive while many others would rather see me die. Through it all, I chose to live and, after the nightmares, I chose to fantasize.
“From time to time, I still think about what life would be like if I were straight,” I said to Russ.
“But, you’re gay Q.”
“I know man. I’m just sayin’.”
Russ said, “Sounds like you just wanna be normal.”
“Something like that, if only for a day, just fit in,” I confessed. “Have sex with a girl and it not feel like a chore, not feel so empty.”
“Dude,” said Russ taken off-guard, “for you to say sex with a chick feels empty proves you are g-g-gay, but I believe God makes no mistakes. People do though.”
“Do you think I’m making a mistake?” I asked.
“That’s none of my business. But just be happy dude. It’s your life. If slobbing up dudes makes you happy even though it makes me sick to my stomach,” he joked. “Then do you! Life is too short to be worried about what other people think.”
“Even if those other people happen to be your family?”
Russ replied, “Yo, my uncle went through the same thing about ten years ago when he finally came out the closet. It took my mom a minute to accept it but now his boyfriend is like a part of the family.”
“So let me ask you…”
“Ask me what Q? I don’t like the sound of this already.”
“Have you ever had thoughts about being with another man?” I asked.
“Ah shit, I knew you would go there eventually,” he said.
Russ sat straight up in the driver’s seat of his burgundy 1997 Mazda 626 Coupe bracing himself to be bold. He ran his hand down his long scruffy face before his moment of truth.
“You don’t have to answer me, ya know,” I said.
“Nah, I’m gonna be honest. You’ve been honest with me so it’s the least I could do in return, and, yes, I have had thoughts before.”
“Like hardcore gay sex thoughts?” I asked.
“No! Oh my God, this is crazy. I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” continued Russ. “I have only noticed when a dude is good-looking, then, I think to myself if I was a chick, I’d do him.”
I screamed out laughing at the realist confession I had heard up until that point. My respect for him cemented. Out of curiosity, I asked, “Did you think that about me?”
“No, dude!” he said with verbal regurgitation, but backtracked a little. “Ok, maybe I did for a hot super brief second, but we are definitely into two different things.”
After some nervous laughter, I set that topic to rest simply by saying, “I hear you.”