I Love You, Johnny Darling
Jere’ M. Fishback © 2018
All Rights Reserved
My freshman year of college was about to start, and I felt certain I was screwed.
I lay alone in my fourth-floor dormitory room that resembled a prison cell: cinder-block walls painted taupe, asphalt tile floor, two twin beds, two Formica bureaus, two metal desks with chairs, and two closets. The showers and toilets were down the hall. Outside, a misty rain fell from a sky the color of dishwater. Weak light entered the room through a pair of casement windows framed by plastic drapes. The windows offered a view of a parking lot and a row of dumpsters.
I didn’t know a single soul on campus nor in the city of Gainesville where my school was located.
I could have felt sorry for myself, but what good would it do? I put myself in the situation—I made the choice to come there. Instead of staying at home and attending community college, I enrolled at the University of Florida, and now it was too late to change my mind. My mom had left me there two hours before—that was right after we unloaded my things from her car—and by now, she was probably halfway back to St. Petersburg Beach.
I’m Johnny Darling, and that’s not a nickname by the way. Darling is my legal name, and you can only imagine the shit I’ve taken ever since I reached seventh grade, and guys started getting cruel about qualities that made someone different in any way.
“Want to suck my dick, Darling? I’ll bet you’d love to.”
“Do you wear panties under your chinos, Darling?”
“Hey, Darling, will you be my homecoming date? I’ll buy you a corsage.”
And so on.
I was always slender, so it wasn’t like I could stop the taunts by slugging some guy who outweighed me by thirty pounds. I’d never even thrown a punch—I wouldn’t have known how to—so all the way through junior high and into early high school, I endured the crap.
I am also queer as a flamingo; I figured that out the first time I viewed a television show called Flipper when I was thirteen. The series starred a bottle-nosed dolphin and a sinewy blond boy named Luke Halpin who frequently appeared shirtless in the show. Mostly he wore only a skimpy pair of cutoff blue jeans. Luke had a washboard stomach, shoulders that bulged like softballs, and a chest that looked like it was carved from marble. The first time I saw him I grew so excited I thought I might bust through the zipper on my shorts. After that, I never missed an episode of Flipper during the three years it aired because—and I’ll freely admit this—I was insanely in love with Luke Halpin. He became my go-to fantasy whenever I lay in my bed at night and touched myself under the sheets.
But I digress.
This was 1969, and the world I dwelled in was not kind to faggots. The only way I could survive was to hide my urges and pretend to be straight. That way, I wouldn’t get my teeth knocked out. My sex life—and this was pathetic—was a tube of jelly and my right hand. In high school, I actually went on dates with girls to the prom and all, but never felt anything sexual when I held a girl’s hand or put my arm around her waist. Even then, I knew marriage to a woman wasn’t going to work for me.
Now, in the dorm room, I lay on the bed closest to the windows and wove my fingers behind my neck. I stared at the plaster ceiling, then at a cobweb waving in one corner. My hang-up clothes were stored in one of the room’s closets, while my folded clothes rested in a bureau. My manual Olivetti typewriter—it weighed twenty pounds—hulked on the desk I’d chosen to use.
Cool air wafted from a ceiling register, so at least the room was climate-controlled. I’d heard some dorms on campus didn’t even have air-conditioning and I figured the rooms in those buildings must have felt like ovens right then, so I had something to be grateful for. I wasn’t sweating and—
Someone rapped on my door, and my body jerked in response. Who could it be?
I turned my gaze to the door and hollered, “Come in.”
When the door swung open, three people stood in the hallway, peering into my room. Two were a middle-aged couple. The third was a slender guy my age. All three carried cardboard boxes.
“Hi,” the younger guy said. “I’m Ben Stonecipher, and I guess we’re roommates. Mind if we come in?”
I swung my feet to the floor and rose. Then I shook Ben’s hand after he put down his boxes. His grip felt firm and warm.
After I introduced myself, he pointed to the couple behind him. “These are my folks, Will and Sarah Stonecipher.”
Will Stonecipher looked like a doctor in a TV series: tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, a trim waist, and an easy smile. He wore dress slacks, a Banlon shirt, and leather slip-ons.
After he set down his boxes, he shook my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Johnny,” he said in a gentle baritone flavored with a Florida drawl. Then he pointed at his son. “Don’t let that guy give you any trouble this year, understand?”
Sarah Stonecipher looked at her husband and pursed her lips while shaking her head. Then she took my hand in hers. “You shouldn’t listen a word my husband says,” she said with a grin on her pretty face. Her prematurely gray hair was cut short like my mom’s, and she wore minimal makeup. Her yellow sleeveless blouse, white capris, and sandals flattered her slim figure.
“I’m sure you and Ben will get along just fine, as long as you don’t mind a little snoring,” she said.
When I glanced at Ben, he rolled his emerald eyes.
Will asked where I was from.
“St. Petersburg Beach,” I said, right after I released Sarah’s hand. “My mom drove me up here this morning.”
Will nodded while he looked around the room. “We’re from Merritt Island, on the opposite coast. Ever been there?”
I shook my head. In fact, I’d never even heard of Merritt Island.
“It’s not a tourist destination like your town,” Will said, “but it’s our home.”
All three Stoneciphers left the room to retrieve more of Ben’s belongings. They returned with clothing on hangers, an electric typewriter, a desk lamp, and a tennis racket in a wooden press, held together with thumbscrews. When they finished hanging the clothes in Ben’s closet, I felt a little embarrassed that Ben’s wardrobe was twice the size of mine. He even owned a navy-blue sports jacket with brass buttons.
Okay, I also owned a sports jacket, but it was a houndstooth number my mom had bought at a church thrift store, and it didn’t look good on me because the sleeves were too short.
Ben also owned a portable stereo record player, a Magnavox model, along with an entire boxful of vinyl LP records. He set up the player on a folding metal TV tray he’d brought. The player resembled a small suitcase. When Ben opened it up, the player displayed two speakers and a turntable.
“Well,” Sarah said to Ben with her hands on her hips, “I think that’s everything from the car. We have a three-hour drive ahead of us, so I guess we’ll be going.”
Ben nodded and his mom hugged him. Ben and his dad shook hands; then Will shook mine too.
“I’m very pleased to have met you, Johnny, and good luck in school.”
“You’ll have to visit us sometime,” Sarah said to me.
I nodded, but then I asked myself how Ben and I would even get to wherever Merritt Island was. Freshman at UF were not allowed to have cars, so we wouldn’t have transportation. We would be, in a sense, captives on campus for the year.
After his parents left, Ben started unpacking boxes. Some contained books; others held things like toiletries, socks, underwear, and T-shirts.
I sat on my bed, watching.
Ben was good-looking by anyone’s standards, an inch or so taller than me, probably six feet, fair-skinned with thick eyebrows, a turned-up nose, and full crimson lips. He parted his dark hair on the side. His voice was deeper than mine, also flavored with a drawl like his dad’s. He wore blue jeans, penny loafers, and a button-up shirt with the shirttail untucked and the sleeves rolled to his elbows.
I rubbed the tip of my nose with a knuckle. “When I picked up my room key, the lady behind the desk said we’ll need to get our sheets and towels from the linen room downstairs. They close at five.”
Ben nodded and glanced at his wristwatch—a gold model with a band made from alligator hide. “I’ll be unpacked in another half hour. Why don’t we go after that?”
“Sounds good,” I said. “Which bed do you want?”
He pointed to the bed I wasn’t sitting on, the one closest to the door. “I’ll take that one if it’s okay with you.”
“It’s fine,” I said while I cracked my knuckles.
After Ben arranged his typewriter and lamp on the desk I hadn’t selected, he fished a framed photo from a box and placed it on his desk as well, a studio portrait of four people: Ben’s parents and two boys who were dressed identical and looked like younger versions of Ben, maybe age sixteen.
“Are you on the meal plan?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, are you?”
Ben nodded while he placed a few books on his desk: a dictionary, a Bible, and what looked like a high school yearbook. “I wonder if the food’s any good. I guess we can eat as much as we want, so I hope it’s decent.”
After Ben finished unpacking, I helped him carry all his empty boxes down a stairwell, where we tossed them into one of the dumpsters we had seen from our room. By now, the rain had stopped, and Ben checked his wristwatch again.
“It’s only two thirty,” he said. “Feel like taking a walk around campus before we get our linens?”
I nodded. “My first class tomorrow morning is in a building called Peabody Hall. I checked a school map; it’s located in the northeast part of campus. Let’s see if we can find it.”
Our dorm was in the southwest corner of campus, and the first buildings we passed were pretty austere, built of red brick with awning-style windows and few architectural features. But everywhere huge trees soared thirty or forty feet: longleaf pines, multi-trunked live oaks festooned with Spanish moss, magnolias, sabal palms, and a Shumard oak with a rutted trunk so wide two grown men couldn’t wrap their arms around it. The sidewalk we trod on snaked through expanses of damp Bahia grass. Azalea and camellia shrubs hugged the flanks of most buildings we encountered.
I asked Ben where Merritt Island was located.
“Do you know the Kennedy Space Center?” he replied.
I nodded. “Some friends and I drove over there to watch the moon-landing launch, back in July. The night before liftoff we slept in my car in Titusville.”
“The space center is actually a part of Merritt Island, at its north end. Our property is close to the middle of the island and a short drive from the Atlantic. My dad’s family has lived there since the Civil War; we own citrus groves and also a beef cattle ranch. It was a great place to grow up.”
I thought of the little two-bedroom cottage my mom had raised me and my sister in, and the fact I had no idea where my father was or even if he was still alive. Clearly, Ben and I had come from very different backgrounds.
My last two years of high school, I’d worked at a gas station. Four nights a week, five hours per night, I pumped gas, checked engine oil levels, fixed flat tires, and performed oil changes. I drove a rusty Ford Fairlane to school, one I bought from a station customer for a hundred bucks. My cuticles, the free edges of my fingernails, and the whorls on the pads of my fingers all stayed perpetually black no matter how much I scrubbed them with Lava soap. My beat-up work boots looked like I’d dunked them in a grease vat, and the coveralls I wore to work were oil and sweat stained.
I could only imagine what Ben would have thought had he seen me back then. And what would he think of me in the days and weeks ahead, when he learned I didn’t have a pedigree like his?
As we approached the northeast section of campus, the buildings looked older and statelier, with mullioned windows and pitched roofs rimmed by battlements. Some were covered in ivy. Peabody Hall was a small building, really, just four stories with a gabled tile roof. Its western flank faced a broad and grassy plaza shaded by longleaf pines.
I glanced at my Timex wristwatch and realized it had taken us fifteen minutes to walk there from the dorm. My first class the next morning was at 8:00, so I’d need to leave the dorm no later than 7:45, maybe 7:40 to be safe. I didn’t want to be late the first day of school, now did I?
“Have you bought your books yet?” Ben asked while he studied the buildings around us.
“Not yet; I guess I will after classes end tomorrow. What about you?”
Ben nodded. “My mom drove me over here last week to buy them from the campus bookstore, and get this: when I checked out at the register, the cashier tried to sell me a beanie.”
“It’s a silly little orange-and-blue cap that male freshmen are expected to wear their first quarter.”
I made a face. “I don’t understand. Why?”
“So upperclassmen can pick on them—it’s a tradition here.”
“Did you buy one?”
Ben shook his head. “It’s not required, so why invite that sort of treatment from guys? I have more respect for myself than that.”
I decided not to buy a beanie either.
Back at the dorm, we had to sign a card for our linens: three towels, two bedsheets, and a pillowcase, all tattooed as university property. The little woman behind the laundry room counter had a moustache and a mole on her cheek the size of an M&M. Speaking with a drawl as thick as molasses, she told us we could exchange our dirty linens for clean ones every Thursday. If we lost anything, a towel or whatever, we’d have to pay to replace it.
Just before we made up our beds, Ben cued up a record on his stereo, an album I knew well, Surrealistic Pillow by the Jefferson Airplane, a San Francisco-based band. My favorite song on the album was “Somebody to Love.”
While we put sheets on our beds, Ben asked me about St. Petersburg Beach.
“I like it there,” I told him. “We live in a section called Pass-a-Grille. The homes there are older and our neighbors are nice. The beach is real pretty; the sand looks like table sugar and the water’s clear. I spend a lot of time at the shore when I’m not at school or working.”
I explained about the gas station.
Ben spread a sheet out on his mattress and tucked the edges under. “I’ve never had a job like that. Instead, I work for my dad in the groves or helping out with the cattle. He pays me a buck fifty an hour. It’s not bad, except in summer when the weather gets hot and the mosquitoes swarm.”
I shook my pillow into my pillowcase. “I know what you mean. Summers at the gas station were brutal ’cause I normally worked in the daytime when I wasn’t in school. The pumps weren’t shaded by a canopy, so I roasted while servicing customers.”
When Ben asked about my family, I wasn’t sure what to say. How to explain?
“It’s just me, my mom, and my sister, Tricia. My dad…doesn’t live with us.”
“Your parents are divorced?”
I nodded, then pointed at the framed photo on Ben’s desk. “I guess you have a twin brother?”
Ben lowered his gaze and rubbed his lips together. He held his pillow to his chest and fingered one corner while he spoke. “I did, but not any longer. He died in a boating accident last February.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That must’ve been tough for you and your parents.”
Ben worked his jaw from side to side. Then he looked up at me. “The whole thing was a nightmare. It nearly killed my parents—they’re still not over it—and to be honest, I’m not either.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I asked, “What was your brother’s name?”
“Charles but we always called him Chuck.”
“I guess you guys were close?”
“We did everything together. When he died, it felt really strange, like I’d lost a limb or something.”
Again, I didn’t know what to say, so I busied myself with spreading a cotton blanket on my bed. I’d brought the blanket from home. I tried to imagine losing my sister—we were pretty close—but I couldn’t even bear to think of it.
Ben cleared his throat. “Let’s talk about something else, okay?”
“Sure,” I replied, but neither of us spoke again for several minutes, and the silence that hung between us seemed as thick as tar.