08/23/2012 05:51 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

How Things Like This Happen (Part 1): The Origins of Cowardice

Cowardice. Betrayal. Societal indictment. Character study. Misguided trust. A gay love story gone awry. A tragedy. It spans over two years and gives a whole new, diabolical meaning to the belief that love is a transformative experience.

I met Liz while we were both in law school. I thought nothing in particular of her initially. She was a sweet, confident, charming Southern belle with a bit of zest that I took a liking to. She had a tone to her voice that gave the impression that she knew exactly what she was talking about on any given topic, or at least was only going to discuss what she knew in order to make such a tone believable, as it always was. She reached out to me just before a Halloween party I was planning, for suggestions on a couple's costume for her and her boyfriend, Matt. Flattered that she sought my counsel and was making an effort to establish rapport, I googled some ideas and sent some images her way. Halloween came and went, and although I'm sure I bumped into them briefly, I can't even recall seeing Liz or Matt at the party.

My first memories of Matt are a bit murky. I tend to flirt -- it started out as a defense mechanism, sort of putting my sexuality out there for the world to see before the world could have a chance to shame me for it, as I felt it had done my entire adolescence, when even I was not ready to accept it. My flirting with any given straight guy was, unbeknownst to him, a litmus test: Is he comfortable in his own skin? Is he tolerant? Does he have a sense of humor? My girlfriends have told me that they love this quality about me, because I character-test guys for them. I had already performed the "test" on Matt in a platonic, playful manner at a party we'd attended months after Halloween. At another party, he happened to be nearby when I flirted with a mutual friend of ours, Rich. Observing that Rich did not even attempt to entertain my flirtations (the test had been run on him before, and he'd passed; I just liked seeing him slightly unnerved whenever I repeated it), Matt said something to the effect of, "See how comfortable I am in my own skin? That guy can't even play along, and he's a Democrat." I walked off thinking nothing of the exchange besides feeling admiration for a man who seemed comfortable with his sexuality.

The first time Matt and I hung out alone was at his suggestion. A week in advance, he made a rather unexpected request to hang out with me without Liz and my roommate Mia around, and given my previous experience with this overly self-assured type of guy, I was bewildered. What was this kid after? Maybe I'd find out that night.

Around 10 p.m. Matt came over. We chatted in my living room and watched TV. Close to 2 a.m., his phone rang. It was Liz.

"I'm at Grant's," he told her. "We just got back from downtown. Gonna hang out here for a bit. Should be home by 4."

Matt and I continued to hang out in the living room. I was drunk, high, and nervous with anticipation. Why was he here? Why had he lied to Liz about having been downtown when he'd been in my living room for four hours? Why did he want to hang out for another two hours?

I wear emotions on my face, and he could tell I was puzzled.

"Look, I know what you're thinking," he said, "but I couldn't just tell her I didn't want to be home with her tonight. I didn't know how to tell her I needed a break and really just wanted to hang out with you, so I told her we went downtown. If I had told her I just wanted to hang out and watch TV, she would've wondered why I couldn't just do that at home."

After hanging out a few more times, I reached out to make plans again, sensing that Matt wanted the same thing I wanted. When he didn't respond, I decided I was done with this situation and deleted his contact information from my phone. "Better to end this now before it gets messy," I thought.

One night, a little after 11 p.m., as Mia and I were hanging out in our house and sharing a joint, I received a text message. I ignored my phone, deciding it better to wait until my high came down to respond to any kind of text message. Besides, I didn't recognize the number. At midnight, my phone rang. "Who the hell thinks they're important enough to call me on a Tuesday night this late?" I thought to myself. I checked the screen and only saw a phone number, not a name from my contacts. I answered, wondering who the hell it could be.

"Hello," I said in the stern, professional voice of someone who has no idea who is on the other end of the line.

"Hey, can I come over?"

"Who is this?" I asked.

"It's Matt. I'm close to your house. I just got out of a concert. Took some E. I'll be there in five minutes. Don't tell Liz." He hung up.

Mia went to bed, and Matt came over. We chitchatted until I confronted him.

"Why didn't you write me back last week?" I demanded.


"I texted you and sent a Facebook message, and you didn't respond. Did you get them?"

"Yeah, but..." -- stutter, stutter, inaudible bullshit -- "and the movies." None of what he said could be framed as a convincing, nor could it even be framed as a sentence.

I sat fuming, letting silence take over for five minutes that seemed more like 50, staring at the TV screen.

"I gotta go," he said, finally. He stood up from the wooden dining-room chair where he'd been sitting and extended a hand. Confused, I extended my own, with a look that must have betrayed anger, sadness, and pure bewilderment. We shared an awkward handshake, weirdly our first ever.

He walked to the door, then walked back to the chair, as if pacing.

"I'm sorry, I just, I gotta..." He extended his hand again and quickly took it back, perhaps realizing we'd already shaken hands. Then he went back to the door.

"What are you doing?!" I damn near yelled in fury. "Give me a hug!"

I walked over to the door, which he was visibly having trouble unlocking, and extended my arms for a hug, hoping to end this momentary lapse into awkwardness and take us back to friend mode. I wrapped my arms around the upper part of his back as he embraced the middle of mine. We shared a hug.

Then something happened, something I may have wanted but had given up on: He wouldn't let me go. When I began to loosen my embrace, he tightened his, holding me longer -- three seconds, five seconds, seven seconds. At some point, I, too, tightened my embrace. Ten seconds. Our cheeks touched as he slid his arms up and down my back. We were chest to chest, my heart beating so violently that I thought it would burst through my sternum and lodge into his spine. The stubble of his face slowly rubbed against mine, in opposite directions, like tectonic plates passing just before the rumbles of an earthquake, as what lies beneath manifests itself on the surface. "This is it," I thought to myself. "We're going to kiss."

And just like that, our cheeks parted, his arms loosened, and his body separated from mine. He was out the door and gone.

To be continued...

All names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.