The summer after my senior year of high school, I traveled to Europe for a last hoorah before college. I was 17 and a world away from Salt Lake City, the hometown that I had grown to hate desperately. Finally, I was getting a taste of what life would be like without the gaze of my parents’ eyes.
For the first time in my life I felt like I could be myself. I was on a one-month pan-European voyage. That I chose to spend that newfound independence on a nonstop European pub-crawl was beside the point. I was finally my own man. Being my own man, not having to answer to anyone allowed me to answer, for the first time, questions about myself.
Stumbling aimlessly through the streets of Amsterdam, I had finally come to terms that I was gay. It wasn’t as if it had never occurred to me before – it had, but I had never allowed myself to accept and embrace it. It was only when I removed myself from my environment that I could see things clearly.
On the flight home, I felt both sad and overjoyed at the same time. The realization that I was gay had been both painful and liberating. But, where was I to go from there? The future seemed so uncertain. I was a different Jason on the plane to Europe than on the plane back. I was frightened because I was unsure of who I was anymore, yet, at the same time, I was a bit relieved because I knew that my self-awareness was more acute than it had ever been.
My flight took me from Amsterdam to New York, with a brief layover before my flight to Salt Lake City. The four-hour stop in JFK airport was a fun novelty because I knew that I’d be returning to the city in less than a month for the start of freshman orientation at NYU.
Along with my discovery, I had also picked up a little smoking habit on my European vacation. After clearing customs, I dragged my suitcase outside to the curb and pulled out a slightly crumpled pack of French cigarettes. As I sat down to smoke, a large black woman in a customs uniform took the seat next to me.
“Want company?” she asked. I looked at her badge and the black firearm holstered neatly on her belt. “Sure, of course,” I said with a waver in my voice. I had not declared my cigarettes as I passed through customs and I was about two weeks shy of the legal age to smoke in New York.
Illicitness aside, it wasn’t too hard to make conversation. Somewhere along the way I mentioned that I would be coming back to the city soon, to go to school at NYU. The woman laughed and put a hand on my leg.
“Let me tell you something about NYU, ok? A good looking guy like you should be careful at that school. It’s nothing but faggots and pot smokers in Greenwich Village.”
My stomach dropped. I laughed uncomfortably and realized immediately it sounded forced. I looked down at my hands, took a long drag from my cigarette and responded politely, “I’ll keep that in mind.” My fellow smoker took her last drag and flicked her cigarette butt far into the street. “Good luck with everything, honey,” she said as she turned and left.
I swallowed hard and lit another cigarette. Did she know that I was gay? Now that I knew had it become blaringly obvious? Was NYU really full of other people like me? Was that a bad thing? Was I part of a group that should be cautioned? A million thoughts and insecurities flew through my head as I chain-smoked my way through the next hour.
By the time my flight to Salt Lake City began boarding, I felt sick. My body was tired from traveling. I felt nauseous from the nicotine and my head was reeling from my earlier conversation. As I boarded the flight, I asked one of the attendants for a motion sickness bag, fearing that I might actually have to use it. How, exactly, does one throw up gracefully during takeoff?
Over the next five hours, all I could think about was New York and this deviant group that I was about to join. Then suddenly, what was horror over the woman’s comment gave way to burgeoning excitement. So what if NYU was all faggots and pot smokers? Would that be such a terrible thing? If I had felt so alienated before, wasn’t it a good thing that I was going to be around people with similar interests? By the time the in-flight movie was over, all I could think about was how much fun I was going to have.
I woke up as the plane touched down on the runway. The familiar mountainscape outside was a comforting sight, but I couldn’t help feeling more out of place than I ever had before. I wasn’t the same kid who had left here a month earlier. Or maybe I was, but something was clearly different. And I was starting to think that different wasn’t such a bad thing.
Picking up my bag from the carousel, I walked outside. It was late evening and the air was warm and dry. I took a deep breath, stifled the urge to light up a cigarette, and walked across a few lanes to the passenger pickup area. As soon as my mom saw me, she came running. She grabbed me in her arms and swayed back and forth.
“Oh JC, I missed you SO much,” she said, fighting back a tear. “How are you?”
“I’m great, mom,” I said with a smile. Only after saying it did I realize it was true.
I’m From Blairsville, PA. “Always looking for something new and never confronting who I was dead on. It was easier to learn another language and culture than it was to dig deep inside and come out. It took New York City to finally make me confront myself and to forge who I am today.”
I’m From Elgin, TX. “Italy was a breath of fresh, cleansing air. I left a stronger and wiser individual ready to combat the injustices back in the States. Flying back into New York was, to put it metaphorically, a breath of polluted air.”
I’m From Madrid, Spain. “I had lost all hope, when I got to know a steward from China Airlines who came to visit a friend in the dorm once in a while. He spoke excellent English and appeared to be quite open and worldly, so I threw all my restraints apart and asked him directly: ‘Is it true that there are no homosexuals in China?’”