by Arik Bjorn
So it began. A long flight from the Windy City to Athens, the beginning of a summer time-traveling from the Temple of Asclepius to the Kingdom of the Nabataeans. For both students, more than anything, it was as much escape as education—though neither yet knew this about the other.
The university required all students in the group to wear matching powder blue T-shirts to the airport. “Blanchard in the Holy Lands.”
The graduate student, already buckled into his aisle seat, defiantly wore his T-shirt inside-out. The undergraduate student stuffed a canvas bag into the overhead compartment and wondered how to proceed past the rebel to his window seat; he squeezed by and settled himself in.
The undergraduate stared out the small portal, observing fuel and luggage teams rolling by on the tarmac. He fell easily into his cockpit fantasy: someday it would be him sitting at the controls, pressed uniform, testing instruments and preparing to pilot a giant aircraft down a runway and up into the clouds. No longer a passenger, but an aviator. His boyfriend called him Icarus. His secret relationship was the reason he had signed up for a summer abroad; it was getting too intense. Darius wanted to follow him home for the summer. Parents, pastors—someone—was bound to find out. There was always safety in distance, with air beneath your feet.
A flight attendant broke his daydream. “Sir, you need to fasten your safety harness.”
“Oh sure,” the undergraduate responded.
He realized the graduate student was sitting on his right belt strap. The undergraduate tugged at it slightly. “Um, excuse me.”
The graduate student lifted his flank to loosen his neighbor’s belt. He turned to face the undergraduate, “Taylor, right?”
“Yeah—” Taylor cut short his words. His fellow student’s face was sunken with grief.
The graduate student cleared his throat. “Taylor, if you don’t mind, I’m very tired. I’ll probably sleep the whole flight. Let me know if you’d rather change seats so you can move about.”
“No, it’s okay,” Taylor answered. “I love the window. The sky above the clouds is endless.”
The graduate student seemed to consider the deep meaning in this reply, then placed a sleeping mask over his face and disappeared all the way to the Aegean.
They landed in Athens in the morning and lost several hours to obligatory customs clearance and hotel check-in. The group gathered mid-afternoon for an initial excursion to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, one of several dozen walks down antiquity lane to come. Taylor was fairly ignorant of classical history—though Poseidon he knew as the sea god with a trident.
The group of several dozen students and professor chaperones ranged the site. While several tour guides rambled on about the Peloponnesian War and Sparta, students began the natural process of selecting peer circles.
Taylor felt he had limited time to choose between a small clique of straight-laced conservatory students he already knew or perhaps some rat pack that might adopt him. The latter would likely ditch the full group for evenings of carousing—despite the threat of expulsion any kind of bacchanalia presented. (Blanchard College offered a world-class dry education.)
Taylor surveyed the ancient grounds, studded by slabs of marble. The despondent graduate student from the airplane was nowhere to be seen. Taylor asked a French horn player whose father was the college vice provost.
“Geez, that guy?” the music student snorted. “Don’t you read his column in the college newspaper? He’s as friendly as a Dostoyevsky novel. He once got suspended for refusing to attend chapel. Plus, I’ve seen him smoking off-campus. Better steer clear.”
Taylor lingered between several forming social rings, still holding out to be drafted by a less starchy group. He rounded a giant Doric column and spied the graduate student sitting alone on a nearby hillside. He seemed to be plucking blades of grass.
Something drew Taylor. He wandered toward the hill, compelled: moth to lamp.
Taylor sat to the left of the graduate student, not wanting to interfere with his view of the cape sunset. The graduate student acted unaware of his presence.
“Sorry,” Taylor managed. “You just seemed…sad.”
Taylor could see now that there were tiny blossoms scattered amongst the grass. The graduate student picked one and rubbed the flower between this thumb and forefinger.
“Did the tour guide show you Byron’s name carved in the temple?”
Taylor picked a flower himself. “Yeah. He was a poet, right?”
The graduate student looked up and watched the sun drop from a cloud like a red yolk and touch the watery horizon.
“Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep…”
“Wow,” Taylor sighed. A few moments passed. “So why are you so…”
The graduate student balled up another flower and tossed it; its light weight carried it no further than his feet.
“Near violet flowers,
I buried my sorrow
in a sepulcher carved
of Poseidon’s marble.”
“Is that Byron too?” Taylor asked.
“No.” A tear rolled down the graduate student’s face. “Me.”
Taylor reached out and touched the graduate student’s arm. “Gil, right?”
Gil nodded. Undeterred, the tear rolled and dropped onto his chest. “Somewhere over Europe my divorce became official. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone. If you don’t mind, I’d like to sit by myself some more. Thank you. Taylor.”
Taylor stood, “Right. Yeah, don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”
Taylor walked back down the slope toward the temple grounds. Gil had a secret too.
Several days later, the group visited Mycenae. It was a Blanchard in the Holy Lands tradition for students to enter the beehive tomb, form a circle and intone “Amazing Grace.”
Taylor resisted holding hands with other males during school functions—a rather common act at an Evangelical college. He was afraid that by doing so, his sexuality would be betrayed. He worked hard at pretense; the fear of exposure was rooted.
To his left stood an undergraduate named Joy, another conservatory coeval. He reached out and grabbed her eager palm. To his right stood Gil. The graduate student had taken Taylor under his wing. They had already shared a covert night out in Athens; Gil had introduced him to ouzo—about a half-bottle more than Taylor ever again wanted to see. They made it back to the hotel without anyone discovering their absence.
Taylor felt he could trust Gil; still, he gripped his hand tightly. Yet Gil offered Taylor the limpest of hands. Taylor was perplexed. He clutched Gil’s hand tighter; it felt like grabbing a heavy corded rope.
Halfway through the first verse, Taylor turned his head. Gil was not singing; his lips were pursed tightly. Taylor relaxed his hand, then finally let Gil’s drop. Gil half-smiled.
When the group finished singing, Gil grabbed both of Taylor’s hands tightly and whispered fiercely, “How dare anyone force Christian hymns upon this ancient pagan grave!”
That night they drank copious amounts of Alfa beer and a full pack of Karelias. They were joined by two others whom Gil let into their fold. Taylor wanted to confide to Gil so desperately. But he didn’t trust the other two students. It was one thing for an Evangelical to drink, and another to accept someone like himself.
On the way back, Gil and Taylor fell behind the two other students.
Gil grabbed Taylor’s shoulder. “You know, the first time I went to Haiti, I was fourteen. We were in a rural village, and I took an evening walk with one of our translators. Pitch dark, the smell of burning fires. Cactus fences lining the road on both sides. It took a few minutes to adjust, but eventually you learned to see by moonlight. Halfway through the stroll, Mathew, the translator, reached out and held my hand. I almost shit myself. ‘Fag!’ I thought. Next day, I noticed that Haitian men—friends—always hold hands while walking together.”
“Huh,” his drunk companion managed. Terrified.
Gil slapped his friend’s shoulder again. “Cultural differences, Taylor. Cultural differences.”
About two blocks from their hotel, Gil reached out for Taylor’s hand and gripped it strongly all the way to the hotel entrance.
In Jerusalem, the group was housed for a full month at an Evangelical college built into the Gehenna side of Souleiman’s Wall. Things changed; Gil became markedly distant. Only once did he venture out with the rat pack, and that night he became violently drunk. Gil was thrown out of two night clubs before the group decided to suspend the night; it took the three of them to pull Gil back from a drunken onslaught against an Israeli military checkpoint.
The only bright moment the first two weeks in Israel was when Gil showed up one day with four pairs of jelly shoes for the rat pack. “Either men just wear these here,” he laughed, “or the women have very large feet.” All four rat packers wore the jelly shoes on a daytrip to Har Megiddo. “Gentlemen!” Gil declared. “There is no greater footwear for the apocalypse!”
Taylor worried about his friend. For several nights, he followed Gil, who wandered the labyrinth of the Old City, off limits to those who did not reside on the ancient Wall. Some nights Gil plopped down on a dusty stone slab and pulled out an harmonica and played until Taylor tired of hearing him and returned to the college. One night, Gil spent several hours in the ancient Roman Catholic cemetery. Another night, Gil found a stray kitten and brought it back to the college garden secreted in his leather bomber jacket. The next morning, the helpless animal was discovered by a huddle of oohing students; one of the college staff members finally adopted it.
When the Blanchard group moved on to Jordan, Gil approached Taylor. “Don’t follow me here, okay? It’s too dangerous. Things will be different when we get back to Jerusalem, I promise.”
One evening in Amman, Taylor heard one of the professors and Gil in a heated argument. Thereafter, Taylor spent most of his time in the company of his conservatory friends. Gil disappeared from the group altogether in the Israeli resort town of Eilat. He reappeared again in Jerusalem and offered no explanation to anyone, except to approach Taylor, hands clasped, “Here we are again in the city of David.” He kissed his friend on both cheeks.
Just like that, everything was back to normal. The rat pack resumed its carousing. Taylor was glad to abandon his virtuoso clique. If he heard one more conversation about “The Goldberg Variations.”
Toward the end of the month, the Blanchard in the Holy Lands group traveled north for several days. On the bus, one of the professors announced a full day of free time at Galilee. When they arrived, Gil asked Taylor if he wanted to take a paddle boat onto the famous body of water.
“Just the two of us?” Taylor asked.
“What are you worried about? It’s not really a sea; it’s just a lake.” Gil produced a small pocket New Testament. “Let’s go find some fish!”
They paddled, bike-like, until their thighs ached.
“I can’t go another foot,” Taylor confessed, out of breath. He looked back and could not even identify the shore from which they had departed.
“Me neither.” Gil handed Taylor his Bible, removed his shirt and shoes and plunged into the water. He emerged to the surface and shook water from his head, “Come on in!”
“What about the boat?” Taylor asked.
Gil offered his foot. “Tie the mooring rope to my leg.”
Taylor hesitated, “But…”
“Jesus, Peter, get your ass out here! Hand me my Bible.”
Gil floated on his back and read several Galilee passages. The call of the fisherman. The calming of the storm. Gil was explaining that Mark was the only Gospel to note that Christ slept on a pillow in the vessel, when a sortie of Israeli warplanes screamed overhead.
Gil continued spieling through the sonic interruption, but Taylor splashed at the water, “No! Just watch!”
For the next half-hour, the military jets roared overhead, conducting various awe-inspiring maneuvers. Taylor and Gil floated on their backs, mesmerized.
“Heaven,” Taylor uttered. “I’m in heaven.”
“You said you wanted to be a pilot.”
“You have no idea,” Taylor replied. “I want to fly. I don’t ever want to touch the ground again. I want to be outside myself forever and touch the sun.”
“Ah,” Gil observed. “Thou art Icarus.”
Taylor thought of Darius. Of the terrestrial reality from which he had flown all summer. Of the two jets overhead, entwining around each other, like mating eagles.
“I’m gay, Gil.”
Gil closed his eyes and felt the warm water of Galilee holding up his being.
Taylor could not stand the lack of a reply. “Well?”
“Indeed,” Gil offered. “And so.”
Taylor stopped floating and began treading water. “What do you mean ‘and so’? I’m gay. I like men. And that damned book you’ve been reading says I’m going to hell. And so do our professors and most—shit, all—of the people in our group. But all I want to do, goddammit, is fly an airplane!”
Gil continued floating on his back. “Out of a group of 60 people, you’re nearly the only person who has shown me any kindness all summer. Beyond that, you’ve kept my secret. I don’t give a shit who you’re attracted to—other than that it’s an important part of who you are. But if you need me to get mad, I’ll burn down some Cedars of Lebanon with you.”
Gil lobbed the New Testament into the vessel and reached out for Taylor’s hand. “You’re my friend, Taylor. Fuck the rest. You’re missing the show.”
Together the two friends floated, hand in hand. Watching metal hawks twist and afterburn in the cerulean sky. Cord and paddleboat and two men, and a wet New Testament. Upon ancient waters where a messiah once tread.