College is expensive.
The first thing I did when I returned home for the summer after my freshman year was to get a job. I wanted as many hours as I could get and after a little checking, I discovered that one of the local department stores was hiring for their men's department.
The department was one of the largest in the store and had about 15 people working in it, more women than men. All of the women were older, at least 40. The men were younger, between about 25 and 35. At 18, I was definitely the youngest of everyone. Although some of the older women could be cranky at times, everyone was easy to work with. The few guys were nice enough, but no one was looking to make life-long friends. I really enjoyed working in the store and I ended up working there three summers and two winter breaks.
A woman named Pat was one of my favorite people to work with. She was from Tennessee and had a strong accent. For some reason, it made almost everything she said very funny to me. Workplaces can get to be very gossipy, and the women very catty, but this place was not like that. Most of the time. About three weeks into the summer Pat said to me, "Do you think Qais is gay?" Although I thought he probably was, my instinct on such matters was always to conceal so I answered, "I don't know."
"I think he is. He hadn't said he is, but I can tell by the way he acts and the way he dresses."
She was right. Qais (pronounced Khice) was always perfectly quaffed and neatly dressed. Sometimes he even wore a purple dress shirt, which made him stand out from the rest of us who always wore white.
I had not worked with Qais very often, but when I did, I found him to be quiet and polite. He was also somewhat imposing. When he looked at you, he seemed taller than he actually was, and proud, but not arrogant. When he walked past you, you felt as if you should back up a little, to give him room. Not because he was a big guy but because it seemed like he inherently deserved special respect. It was like he was the unknown son of an ancient, royal line. He wore no crown and had no pretenses yet his pedigree still showed through.
Pat's question to me about Qais caused me to think more about him. I wasn't attracted to him but he definitely was an intriguing enigma. From that point on, whenever we worked together I spent as much time with him as I could, without being obvious about it. As I got to know Qais better, I grew to like him more and more. In time, I learned his story.
Qais and his family were Afgan refugees. Before the Soviets invaded Afganistan in 1979 his father was a general in the Afgan army and faithfully served both the king, who was deposed in 1973, and the civilian government that ruled from 1973-1978. The family was very wealthy and highly respected. Qais grew up in a house with servants to wait upon his every need. He was very spoiled but he knew no other life until the Soviets came. Then, everything changed. The Soviets took everything the family had and expelled Qais' father from the country. The family fled with him and were not permitted to take anything. With the help of some friends and relatives the family eventually made their way to Germany.
Qais was then 17. Due to the sudden and extreme poverty of his family he took his first job, at a McDonalds. The first night he worked he was forced to stay late and mop the floor; he had never worked before and he had certainly never mopped a floor. It took him hours. When he came home from work that night he cried. He cried for all that he and his family had lost, and because he had never felt so humiliated.
In time Qais learned to accept his new life. Although he was not college educated, he took his work seriously and did his best to help provide for his family. After about two years in Germany, the family moved to California. Qais' father then returned to Germany and sometimes to Pakistan, all in an effort to get any fraction of his former life returned. With his father absent, it was Qais' job to provide for the family. He, his mother, his sister and his young brother lived together in a small apartment.
Qais did not tell his story to me all at once, nor was his story very well known to others at work. Over a long period I would sometimes ask him about his past and only then would he tell me more. Sometimes it was hard to get him to be serious. After we became friends I learned that Qais had a very dry sense of humor. Often, he would make dead-pan jokes with me about different things, especially the crazy customers.
By the end of the summer Qais and I were good friends. I didn't communicate with him once I returned to school in September but we picked up where we left off when I returned to work in December and then again the following June.
About three weeks into that summer Qais said to me, "There is a birthday party with some people from work this Saturday night. Do you want to come?" Because I had been gone for six months I didn't know the birthday person, nor many of the people who Qais said would be attending. I was very reluctant. "Please," he begged, "It will be fun." So I caved and agreed to go.
The party was pretty tame but there was some beer and decent, danceable music. I didn't know many people but had fun anyway. When the party broke up, Qais had to drive me home because I didn't have a car. We piled into his car and I fastened my seatbelt. Then I looked over at Qais because he had not put his on. Answering the question apparent on my face Qais said, "Do you have a few minutes? I want to talk to you about something."
"Sure, I do. What's up?" I really didn't know what to expect. He wasn't acting particularly serious so I didn't think it was anything major.
"I want to tell you that I am gay. I hope you are ok with that."
There was a few milliseconds of silence while he looked at me for my reaction. I smiled, then said, "Qais...I hate to tell you, but I am not surprised."
We talked about his revelation for a few minutes and I made it clear that I was his friend no matter what.
As we talked, I considered coming out to Qais as well but I was a little worried that he might have a small crush on me. If I told him I was also gay then it could become awkward between us. I liked Qais but I didn't lust for him. The fact that we were alone together in his car further complicated the matter. Although I was glad to know Qais trusted me with his secret, I was ready to put an end to the night.
Qais wasn't going to make it that easy for me.
"Cam. I was wondering if you have anything to tell me?"
"Like what?" What is he getting at??
"Well...Do you think, maybe, you might be gay too?"
Holy shit but I didn't see that question coming. Not once, ever, had anyone asked me that question. I hadn't even planned an answer for it if someone ever did. And now I was forced to reveal myself or think quickly.
I just looked at him.
"I didn't mean to offend you if you are not."
"Actually Qais, you're right. I am gay."
He laughed. "I thought so! After I saw your dancing tonight I thought you might be gay."
"No, you dance so well. Most straight guys do not dance as well as you do."
"I can't believe you think my dancing is gay! Does everyone think that?"
"No, I don't think so. Only I could tell. I'm really good at figuring out whether someone is gay or not."
That made me feel a little better. But in truth I felt so insulted and self-conscious about the dancing that I had practically forgotten I had just come out to a friend.
Qais wouldn't let me dwell on his unintentional insult. He kept me on my toes, firing off one question after another. "Have you been with anyone?" "Does anyone else know?" "Do you like anyone?"
I answered all his questions truthfully, especially the one about whether I liked anyone. I suspected he was hoping I might say him but when I said, "Not really anyone," he didn't act hurt or make any confessions of his own.
I will always be glad he was so tactful about asking. I would not have wanted to hurt his feelings but I honestly had no sexual feelings for him at all. His somewhat subtle question provided him the answer he wanted, but at the same time, he kept it from ever being awkward between us.
As we talked more, I was so glad that Qais pushed me into confessing to him. He agreed to keep my secret and now I had my first gay friend. I could actually, finally talk to someone about how I honestly felt. Wow!
As he drove me home Qais said, "I should take you to some gay bars. Then you can see what it's like. Would you go if I took you?"
I thought about that for a minute. What could happen? Who might see me?
"Um, I don't know."
"Yes, you'll go. I'll be with you to make sure nothing bad happens."
"But I'm only 19."
"It's ok, they'll let you in. I know a place that will let you in."
"In the City. The Midnight Sun. They don't check IDs."
"Um, ok. I guess I'd go. ... If you don't meet someone and abandoned me there."
"I won't. ....So it's a date then? Next saturday?"
"Gaah! You're so pushy!" We often teased each other like that. "OK, ok. Next saturday. I'll go."
And so the following saturday night, I visited my first gay bar.