The letter was in an envelope in my pocket, folded in half. Even though I knew this would produce a crease, I figured a crease was better than walking into my professor’s house holding a mysterious envelope, especially with three other classmates arriving with me. “What’s that letter?” they would probably ask and what would I say? Which is why the letter was in my pocket.
The house was handsome, made of brick, and shrouded by trees. I arrived early (as I tend to do) and sat in the car for a bit killing time rather than be the first to ring the doorbell. Did I bring a gift? I wouldn’t have brought wine because I wasn’t old enough to buy wine yet. It’s possible that I showed up empty-handed, except for the letter.
Who else was there? I remember Michael, a frat guy in a black polo shirt with a toothy grin. I remember John, a tall, gawky, sort, also a frat guy, who might make a very capable journalist or politician some day. Ben, a redhead with a boy-next-door quality. And, of course, our hosts: Rick and Chuck.
Rick was a professor of English at our university (he would one day chair the department). The previous summer, I’d studied abroad at Oxford and Rick was there to teach a class on Shakespeare.
The first half of the summer, he was there alone. The class focused on Shakespeare’s comedies and we would read a play like “Comedy of Errors” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and then go see a production, either a local one performed by Oxford students or a professional one performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was as good an experience a person could have studying Shakespeare and Rick was a magnificent teacher.
We didn’t just read the comedies, we “unpacked” them. He used phrases like “liminal space” and “heteronormative.” He picked apart layers of homoeroticism in “As You Like It.” And me, being the dolt that I am, didn’t realize that he was gay until Chuck, his partner, showed up for the second half of the summer.
Seeing Rick and Chuck together was a transformative experience for me. Up until that point, I’d been struggling intensely with my own sexuality. I came out to friends and family the year before, but it hadn’t gone smoothly; I’d gone to therapy to try to “fix” things; the therapist herself was a dolt, but I didn’t know that at the time. So when I showed up at Oxford, that summer, I was “straight.” Or at least I didn’t talk about being gay.
But then Chuck appeared and no one batted an eyelash. All of the students my age, the frat boys (like Michael and John), the boy-next-door types (like Ben) were as nonchalant about Rick and Chuck as they had been about our other professors and their spouses. No, that’s not right: Rick and Chuck were cooler than the other professors and their spouses. Rick and Chuck were the ones you wanted to sit next to at a formal dinner, the ones you wanted to hang out with on the field trip to Scotland. While the history professor was a scold and the poly-sci professor a letch, Rick was incredibly genuine, open, and utterly himself.
So inspiring was my time with Rick and Chuck, so influential, that when I got back to school that fall I had a much clearer sense of myself and the possibilities in store for me. When I directed a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” I worked up the courage to ask out the actor playing Reuben, a freshman named Michael. He immediately dumped his temporary freshman boyfriend and said “yes.” When I showed up at Rick and Chuck’s for dinner, Michael and I had been dating for a few months and I’d never been happier.
Which is precisely what I’d written in my letter. I wanted to tell Rick and Chuck how much they had changed my life, how their presence at Oxford meant more to me than anything academic I had learned that summer. Simply being around them showed me how I could live a better life. I put that all in my letter which was burning a hole in my pocket as we all sat down to dinner.
It says a lot about this meal, a meal that happened over a decade ago, that I still remember much of it. I remember grilled swordfish with grill marks for our entrée. And I remember Medjool dates—fat, sweet, Medjool dates—served with dessert.
If we were to parse this meal Rick-style, we might view those dates metaphorically, like the pomegranate seeds Persepheone ate during her time with Hades; a forbidden fruit with mystical powers to cast a spell, a spell that resonates throughout a lifetime.
Also mystical: Rick and Chuck’s bathroom. Looking at their collection of Kiehl’s products, I was seeing into my own future. Who could imagine that one day I would have a boyfriend and an apartment with a bathroom filled with Kiehl’s products of our own? But it’s 12 years later and I do.
At the end of the meal, we all said our goodbyes and I handed Chuck the letter. I’m sure I was awkward when I did it, probably thrusting the letter into Chuck’s hand sloppily, saying something uncomfortable like, “I wrote this for you guys.” I’m sure my face flushed red as I walked out to my car and waved goodbye to the other guests.
Driving home, I kept shaking my head. “That was weird,” I kept telling myself. “Why did you write them a letter? Why couldn’t you just tell them that you’re gay and that you have a boyfriend and you found them really helpful in that process? Why did you have to do it in a letter?”
My mind was still racing when I finally got back to my apartment and opened my computer. And there, in my in-box, was an e-mail from Rick. I still have the first line memorized:
“Adam, we read your letter with tears streaming down our cheeks.”
Every so often, now, I’ll get an e-mail from Chuck giving me an update on him and Rick. The latest said they’re moving to Providence where Rick’s taking a position at Brown. They’re both still interested in food, proud of me and my food writing career, a career that very rarely asks me to use phrases like “heteronormative” and “liminal space.”
I think of Rick and Chuck any time I eat a Medjool date, more majestic than a regular date; plumper and richer and fuller and sweeter; just like the life I’m living today, thanks to them.
Categories: Personal Essays
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- The Food Section