It was the fall of 1993 when Jey Connors began his first semester of college at 18. His hair was straight and parted in the middle. He wore a simple white shirt over blue jeans and similarly white sneakers. It was a chilly day at Varoona University. Varoona U wasn’t his first nor his second pick but it was the one that accepted him. Which was good enough for him. For the next four years, these dorms would be his home. He was going to be sharing a room and hoped his roommate was one he could get along with. Jey opens the door and finds a dark-skinned man roughly two years older than him already in the room. He sat on the edge of one of two beds wearing jeans and a sleeveless shirt waiting for his new roommate.
“Hey, I’m your roommate Hal.” He greets with a salute.
“Um, Jey.” he replies with a short bow.
“Nice to meet you Jey. So, what are ya here for?”
“Astronomy mostly.” Jey replied before sitting down on the free bed. Unpacking his suitcase in short order. “What about you?”
“Art, you could say we’re the AA dorm room.” Hal could tell from Jey’s blank expression that his joke failed miserably. “Yeah, not my best joke but whatever. I’ve had worse first impressions.”
“This is going to be a long semester…maybe I should just commute…Maybe…” Jey thought to himself. Not realizing he was lowly muttering to himself.
“Dude, are you okay?” Hal stood and approached his new roommate. Concerned about his well-being.
“Huh?” Jey snapped out of his thoughts and glances over his shoulder at Hal. “Yeah, just thinking.”
“Don’t think too hard, you might drive yourself crazy.” Hal smiled.
“Oh…” Jey was surprised calmed by Hal’s simple words. “Um…thanks…I’ll try.” It was surprisingly easy for him to smile. Even if it was a small one.
“Good.” Hal stood up and stretched before jumping back onto his bed. “Whenever you’re done I’ll give you the tour.” Jey simply nodded and continued unpacking.
Weeks passed but despite their somewhat pleasant introduction, the pair had been distant at best. Their schedules keeping them from interacting beyond the occasional passing by. When their free time did sync up, it’d usually leave Jey wishing he had chosen to ignore him.
On one chilly October morning, Jey remained sealed within his covers. He had no classes that day and intended to stay where it was safe and warm. “I should get up soon…need to eat something…” Jey thought as he curled up tighter in his cover. “But I don’t want to get up…” He attempted to force himself back to sleep but the aching of his stomach forces him to sit up. “Hal?” he noticed his roommate still there as well. Lying in bed and drawing.
“Finally came out of your cocoon eh?” Hal joked.
“I could see how tight you were wrapped in those covers from here, dude. I’m honestly impressed.” Hal said to no reaction of any kind. “Had any plans today?”
“Just make something up.” Jey thought. “Yeah, I had some homework to do.”
Hal squinted his eyes suspiciously. “You’re lying.”
“Yeah, you have a habit of looking away whenever you talk to me. But when you’re lying you do this really creepy eye contact thing.”
“I don’t do that do I?” Jey thought. “I’m not lying.”
“See, you’re doing it again!” Hal jumps from his bed and grabbed Jey by the shoulders. Forcing them to be face to face. “What color is the sky?”
“Blue.” Jey replies with his eyes drifting to the side ever so slightly.
“Is the sun a star?”
“Obviously.” he replies annoyed.
“Do you have homework?”
“Yeah.” his eyes refocus straight ahead. Looking directly at him yet seemingly focused on what was behind him.
“Ha! I knew it!” Hal let go of Jey proud of himself. He placed his left hand on the side of his waist and points dramatically at Jey with his right. “No way of getting out of it this time. We’re doing something roomie.”
“-No buts. Just get dressed.”
“So much for giving me a choice…Always being so forceful and outgoing. Just because he wants to do something and be all happy and excited doesn’t mean that I can…that I will…But the more I fight the less he’ll listen…” Jey lamented. Resigning himself to his fate. “Fine…” he sighed before starting to get dressed.
“Don’t get too excited or anything.”
“Is he gonna just keep bothering me about every little thing?” Jey wondered.
After several begrudging minutes, the pair leaves their dorm for the cafeteria. Eating a quick awkward breakfast then making way for the Recreation Center. Most people would go beyond the campus for a fun time. Making the usual people present those who came for a change of pace. To relax with music, tv, or use a gym that wasn’t exclusively used for classes. For a select group, it had something special. An arcade with five cabinets; Xtreme Warriors, City Crisis II, Eternal Knights, DBZR: Dragon Buster Zero Returns, and Ocean Masters. Without even entering the building, their ecstatic shouting could be heard from outside.
“What did he get me into?” Jey thought before getting stopped by Hal.
“Thanks for coming with me. But trust me, you shouldn’t just stay inside the room when you aren’t in class.”
“It’s not like I don’t leave the room…I just…don’t have a reason to go out much…” Jey thought. His brow furling slightly.
“That’s all I wanted really. I know this isn’t usually your thing. But I’d really appreciate it if you joined me. You don’t have to stay if you don’t like it. I just want you to try. Either way, the choice is yours.”
Jey contemplated his options before responding. “…I guess I could go in.” He was already here. Might as well stay.
Hal gleefully threw his left arm around Jey’s shoulders. “That’s the spirit! I promise you won’t regret this!” With Jey in tow, they enter the Recreation Center. Once there, it became clear where the noise was coming from. There was a literal crowd of excited students surrounding Xtreme Warriors & Eternal Knights. Two fighting games that had gained a considerable following. Their excited cheers only matched by their trash talking, cries for a rematch, and shouts to play next. “Don’t worry about those guys. They’re loud but they aren’t bad guys…usually…”
“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea…” Jey began to hesitate.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going for those guys. We’re going somewhere else.” Hal continues past the arcade lobby with Jey still under his arm. Leading to a side room with a dozen computers. There a smaller but just as enthusiastic crowd had gathered. Taking up half of the room and 8 of the computers. “I’m not a huge gamer but I figured you might enjoy having something else to do.”
“Thanks.” Jey smiled slightly. “Um…could you let go of me now?”
“Hmm? Oh! Right! My bad, dude.” Hal removed his arm for Jey’s shoulder.
“What are they playing?” Jey asked curiously. He was almost immediately enamored with the game before him. It appeared to be a first-person shooter but one where the players were mechs. The particular match going on was taking place in a snowy mountain stage.
Seeing how interested Jey was pleased Hal greatly. “Genesis, came out earlier this year. It’s an FPS, a first-person shooter. You play as a really dope giant robot. Then you shoot the other giant robots by yourself or in a team.”
“Um…do you think I could try it?”
“Go for it dude, the more the merrier.” Hal extended his arm towards the nearest computer. Letting Jey sit before he navigated the menus. Opening up Genesis for him. “Have fun.”
This was the moment Jey found his true calling. Learning the mechanics and improving came naturally to him. He barely even noticed his anxiety or sea of worries. As time went on, his visits became a daily occurrence. Weeks blending together as he spent more and more time playing Genesis.
In his quest to improve, Jey had joined several forums in search of information. Initially, that was all he did while on the forums. But over time he began exploring and trying different forums. Talking and engaging with different types of people. The main one he frequented was the Fairy Tale forum. At a glance, it seemed like a forum meant for people into the discussion of classical fairy tales. But with enough digging one would discover it was the cover for a gay chat group. One where they could be themselves without fear and meet others with similar interests safely. Jey, who was already withdrawn and self-conscious, had never had a proper outlet to express or even consider such feelings. But now that he did, he made sure to sneak in some time to message his online friends. Namely, one named Shred_Head who had caught his attention. They talked frequently and had begun to get closer. Even if he didn’t always get Shred_Heads humor, Jey couldn’t help finding himself attracted to him.
(4:00:18PM) Shred_Head: What’s up dude?
Conveniently, Jey had his own plans to attend to as well. Hal had wanted to meet him instead of practice and unfortunately, Jey failed to talk his way out of it. Jey waited outside of the Rec Center for his roommate for about 7 minutes before he finally arrived. Racing as fast as he could with his inline skates. Sliding to a halt a few feet in front of Jey. “For a guy on skates, he really took his sweet time.” Jey thought to himself.
“Sorry about that. Took forever to find my gear.” Hal apologized. Dropping the duffel bag strapped across his chest to the floor.
“Couldn’t you have just walked?” Jey sighed.
“Yeah, but I needed practice. Been getting a little rusty.”
“You practice?” Jey snarked.
“Hah! That was actually kinda good. I’ll let that one slide.” Hal smiled proudly. “Anyway, I bet you’re wondering why I wanted to see you now instead of letting you practice.”
“No duh. Not like you basically yelled it at me.” Jey thought.
“Well wonder no more!” Hal knelt down and opens up the bag. Pulling out a skateboard and handing it to Jey. “Tada! Your very own skateboard. Even got some pads and a helmet for you too.”
“You got this for me?” Jey asked surprised.
“Yeah, I mean if I didn’t then the guy I got it for is gonna be really upset I gave away his stuff.”
“But why?” Jey couldn’t fathom why the roommate he barely knew would do something like this. “Hey!” he blurts out as Hal pokes him in the stomach with his right index finger.
“You’re getting a gut.”
“What?” Jey looked down and rubbed his somewhat noticeable stomach.
“I know I wanted you to get out more but you just switched one room for another. It’s good that you’re having fun but you really need to take care of yourself better.”
“I’m not fat…” Jey mumbled lowly.
“No, just a little doughy.” Hal hands Jey his new helmet. “I mean it couldn’t hurt to lose a little weight. But I mostly just thought it’d be something cool we could do together.”
“If you wanted to hang out you coulda just asked.” Jey shook his head. Grabbing the helmet and putting in out. His elbow pads and knee pads following shortly after.
“Dude.” Hal knocks on Jey’s helmet.
“You’ve been ditching me every time I tried. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were avoiding me.”
“Have I really been doing that?” Jey was so single-mindedly focused he didn’t realize his avoidance of Hal had become a daily occurrence.
“Duh, that’s why we’re having this conversation right now. Aren’t you supposed to be smarter than me?”
“You’re so annoying sometimes.” Jey muttered in Mandarin.
“Huh?” Hal said dumbfounded.
“I don’t know how to use a skateboard. You wasted your money.” Jey takes off the helmet and hands it to Hal who simply pushes it back.
“Well then, I’ll just have to teach you. Sensei Hal is on the case!”
“Shifu.” Jey sighed.
“Dude, do I need to get you subtitles?” Hal once again had no idea what Jey said.
“Sensei is Japanese. I’m Chinese.”
“Oh, my bad. You never actually said before so I just assumed…Hey! I got an idea.” Hal got suddenly excited. “I teach you how to board and you teach me Chinese.”
“I don’t think that’s a fair trade.” Jey thought. “But I don’t even want to know how to skateboard.” He says to Hal dismissively.
“Uh huh…” Hal glances at the elbow pads and knee pads still being worn by Jey. “You say you don’t but you’re still wearing some of the gear I got you.” Jey wanted to respond but had nothing. “You don’t have to try so hard to get out of things you know. If you don’t like it we can stop. All I ask is that you try, okay?”
“…I guess it couldn’t hurt…” Jey agreed to learn from Hal. “Were you serious about learning Mandarin?”
“Why would I say something if it wasn’t true?” Hal seemed perplexed by the concept of lying.
“Because you just want to get my hopes up.” Jey said in Mandarin.
“Is that my first lesson?”
“No, I’ll figure something out later.
“Okay, I’m trusting you Shifu.”
With a new activity to bond over; the roommates gradually became less distant. Going from mere acquaintances to actual friends. Both taking slowly to the lessons the other gave them. It was still a nice diversion from both of their daily routines of class, homework, and visiting the recreation center. When winter break finally came, Jey found himself one of the few people remaining in the dorms. Luckily, he wasn’t alone. Hal, like himself, chose to remain rather than return home.
“Can I ask a question Jey?” Hal asked, turning lazily onto his side so he could face Jey from his bed. His head supported by his right arm.
“What is it?”
“How come you’re still here?”
“Why are you still here?” Jey replied defensively.
“No real reason for me to go. Ro and Darcy both went home and my parents…Yeah, we aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye right now.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Jey sits up and gives Hal his full attention. “Um…what happened?”
“Do you have any siblings?”
“Yeah, an older sister and a younger one.”
“You know how siblings argue sometimes? Imagine that except with a lot more punching.” Hal sat up and put his arms behind his head. “Haven’t said it before but I’m adopted. So my older brother and I don’t get along a lot. Usually, we just argue but this was one of the times we ended up actually fighting. I mean I won but I still feel bad for it. Part of why I’m in the dorms in the first place.”
“I…I never knew…” Jey felt bad for his continual inability to actually try and learn more about Hal. Never considering what lay beneath his upbeat exterior.
“Eh, it is what it is. Some things you just can’t help.”
“Um…it’s not the same thing…but I’m not so great with family either. My older sister Ester was…is the favorite. I don’t think she even notices how much our parents prefer her over us. Leanne, my younger sister, gets clingy with our mom. I guess it’s normal for kids…But she takes it to a new level of clinginess. Then there’s me…” Jey looks down and to the side. “Ji the Second, Ji Jr, Ji II…Dad really wanted a son and then was disappointed when he got one. He wanted me to follow more of our heritage but mom wanted us to grow up normal. Whenever I’m around it doesn’t go well…” he retracted further inward as he spoke. “Can only imagine how much they’d hate me if they knew more about me…”
Hal gets off his bed, sits next to Jey, and puts his right arm around his shoulder. Pulling him close. “I may be a screw-up but it doesn’t sound like you are. Just stuck with a really bad hand. Either way, you still turned out pretty good.”
“Thanks…” Jey replied lowly. Though he didn’t want to push Hal away, his body reacted on its own. Slowly moving away. If Hal learned about his attraction to men it could end badly. “Think I’ll go out for a bit.” He stood and searched for his cold weather clothes.
“Oh, okay. Guess I’ll catch you later.” Hal stretched and returned to his half of the room. “I know things really suck sometimes Jey…But you gotta just try and keep on moving through it. Even if it’s hard and hurts a lot.”
“Do you even believe your own words? I mean it is what it is after all. Life sucks and it’s just going to stay that way. If you thought things would improve you wouldn’t be so accepting of this.” Jey lashed out at Hal without thinking.
“You can be a real dick sometimes you know that?” Hal leaves with a disappointed look on his face.
Alone, having exploded on the one person who seemed to take a genuine interest in him, Jey’s heart was heavy and full of regret. “Why did I say that? I didn’t mean it…I just…I’m such a screw-up…” Out of desperation and loneliness, Jey turned to the one person he felt he had left.
(8:33:10PM) Bun-Bun: Hey, you there?
Jey wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing or if he even should be doing it. But at this point, anything was a good distraction. He had talked about it with Shred_Head before but he was nervous at the thought of actually taking that step. He didn’t want to return to risk running into Hal again. He wasn’t sure he was fully ready to meet Hal again. He wanted to apologize but part of him feared the response. There was still time to back down but he didn’t want to. Especially if his close friend really was real. Throwing caution to the wind, he puts on his jeans and hoodie then leaves for Varoona’s Statue.
In old myths, the tale of Varoona was one that led to many debates. For many, she is a witch with a history of turning those who displeased her into all manner of objects. An unruly trickster who acted on the slightest whim without care for if it was justified. For others, she was an innocent woman burned at the stake as a witch. But in their paranoia, created a true witch. One who would see those who would cause pain to others turned into objects. Objects to be used and discarded at a moment’s notice. But for the founders of Varoona University, there was a far different version of the tale. That Varoona was not the witch, be it a mischievous or vengeful one. No, they believed that Varoona was a beautiful siren. One who graced travelers with her artistic gifts. A well-meaning, if somewhat mischievous, soul who wanted nothing more than to spread knowledge. While depictions of her have varied, the one chosen for Varoona U was that of an angelic woman. Her naked frame wrapped beneath massive feathered wings. Blurring the line between being part of her body and a dress. In one hand rested a book of sheet music and the other quill. The stone statue stood in the center of campus in front of a fountain that was seldom active during the winter months.
Jey could see his breath in the cold air as he walked to his destination. He wondered what Shred_Head was like as he passed people on their way to the parking lot. The most he got was vague descriptions like he was athletic and slightly above average in height. Similarly, he only shared that he was fairly short and working to lose weight. It was cold but was he overdressed? Underdressed? Would he care about how he looked? His mind raced and his body slowed. He just barely made it in under 15 minutes…where he found Hal leaning against the edge of the statue waiting.
“Hal?” Jey was surprised to see his roommate and unsure how to converse with him still.
“Jey? Funny meeting you here.” Hal seemed amicable on the surface. But Jey remained on cautious.
“Yeah, I was gonna meet a…” Jey hesitantly spoke. Still not wanting to let in onto his reasoning for being there. “…friend.” It wasn’t a lie, it just lacked full context.
“Same.” Hal crossed his arms and continued waiting. The wind and their breath was the only sound. As with many times in the past, it was Hal who spoke first. “Part of me didn’t expect you to actually come. I mean Bun-Bun? That’s a pretty silly screen name.”
Hearing those words, Jey knew immediately that the man he fell for and the roommate he barely tolerated were both one and the same. But how? How did he not notice this sooner? And planning to sleep with him so suddenly after their argument? Him not realizing they were the same did put his mind at ease though. “I like rabbits okay. It was the first thing I thought of…” No matter what he thought, all he could do was try to hide his embarrassment and keep the situation from becoming more awkward.
“It’s cute.” Hal pat Jey on the shoulder. After the conversation before coming here, he had suspected that Bun-Bun was actually Jey but needed to confirm it directly. “If I knew it was you I wouldn’t have bothered asking to come out here and just asked at the dorm.” he jested to lighten the mood.
“This isn’t weird for you at all?” Jey asked meekly.
“A little.” Hal responded honestly. “But it’s also really convenient. So Bun-Bun, should we head back to your place or mine?” he smiled but only got a groan. “Come on, we both know you liked that one.” Now that they knew who the other was, Hal felt infinitely more confident in his questionable jokes.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Jey sighed still somewhat in denial.
“So we’re still on then?” Hal asked more directly.
“You’re not mad at me?” Jey turned to Hal and looked him in the eyes sincerely.
“A little, but I’ve had worse. Besides, you made it clear how bad you felt and that you wanted to apologize. Not to mention to brownie points you got as Bun-Bun.” he gently nudges Jey to follow as he begins their walk back to their dorm room. “Probably safer to talk there ya know?” Hal receives no arguments as they return to their dorm room in yet another awkward silence. Though this time it didn’t feel as bad as it normally did. “So Bun-Bun, anything you wanted to ask me now that we’re here?” Hal sat down on his bed. Patting the side next to him for Jey to sit.
“Where do I begin?” Jey sat down hesitantly. His eyes avoiding Hal’s once more. “Did you always know it was me?”
“Not really. I did notice you guys were similar but didn’t make the connection. But I didn’t really suspect it until after our talk tonight.”
“You really don’t care about my looks? I mean I’m not that tall or that fit…and we aren’t even close to being the same race either.”
“Nope, I kinda like it actually.” He leans to the side and bumps Jey with his shoulder. “I know I’m hot but am I too dark for you?”
Jey shook his head no. “You could probably get anyone you wanted…Don’t think many people would give me a chance.”
“I know the feeling. Least you got me.”
With a charming smile and passionate kiss, the pair began a night of passion neither would forget. At first, both were somewhat uneasy but soon grew more comfortable with the other. For Jey, losing his virginity to the love of his life was a dream come true. But as happy as he was laying in Hal’s arms there was a dark cloud still looming overhead.
“Does this mean…you know…Are we…a thing now?” Jey asked pulling closer to Hal’s toned chest.
“Is that what you want?” Hal glances down at Jey and rubs his shoulder gently.
“Yeah…” he lifts his head up to look straight at Hal. “You know we can’t tell anyone right?” As much as he loved Hal and wanted to be open about his feelings. It was still unsafe to do so. At best they’d just be ridiculed but at worse, their lives were at risk.
“I already get stares. Why should this be any different?” Hal replied flatly. Being the adopted black son of an Irish family, it was only natural people would take notice and stare.
“It’s just safer this way.” Jey defends. Concerned for both their wellbeings.
“I guess you’re right.” Hal sighed and gets out of bed. Getting dressed once more. “I’m gonna go for a walk.”
“Oh, okay…” Jey responded lowly. Though he had the best intentions, he once more upset Hal without intending to. “I really am a screw-up…” Jey waited for Hal’s return but eventually fell asleep. When he awoke, his roommate had still not returned. “Did I really upset him that bad?” his mind began to spiral inward. Questioning everything he said and did the night prior. Amidst his mental spiral, he hears the sound of keys as the dorm room opens and Hal returns. A small carrying cage held firmly in his right hand. “Hal?”
“Oh…I didn’t expect you to be up this early…Kinda ruins the surprise…” Hal says disappointed. “Oh well.” he puts down the cage and opens the gate that kept it closed. Letting out a small white bunny. “I got a bun-bun for my Bun-Bun.”
“Seriously?” Jey hops out of the bed with surprising speed and begins petting their new pet. “Why? I thought you were mad at me again.”
“Nah, I just needed to think. I know we can’t go public but that doesn’t mean we can’t still do stuff in private.” Hal kisses Jey on the forehead. “And when we aren’t doing that or work we got a fuzzy buddy to play with.”
Time and time again Hal had gone out of his way to show kindness to Jey. Even when he thought he didn’t deserve or want it. This latest sentiment being enough to bring a tear to his eye. “You idiot…how did you even afford a bunny?”
“I have my ways.” Hal sits next to Jey and wraps his arm around his shoulder. “Also Ro owed me one.”
“I should put some clothes on shouldn’t I?” Jey puts his new pet down and lets it hop around the room freely.
“Please, clothes are overrated.”
“Are you always going to be like this?”