{Excerpt} Play It Forward by: Frederick Smith

Pay It Forward by Frederick SmithChapter 1

June 2009

Much of the trouble started when that video I made, but didn’t really make, hit the Internet.

I was on my second round of Grey Goose and tonics with my best friend Kyle and his longtime love, Bernard. It was a seventy-degree Sunday evening in June, just before the large rush of younger Black guys made their way into The Abbey in West Hollywood, just before the ambient lounge music transitioned to the current hip-hop songs. Though we enjoyed a good time out, we enjoyed it with the company of other thirty-somethings, and at a time of day when we could actually hear our conversations above the sound of music.

Kyle, Bernard, and I were this close to winding down our time together—as we all worked and had somewhere to be on Monday morning—when Bernard, troublemaker that he is, brought up the long-gone Clinton-Obama rift of 2008. He knew how to get me started and thus delay our departure.

“I still can’t believe you voted for that lady, Malcolm,” Bernard said rather loudly, his cocktail swirling but never spilling out of the glass in his left hand. “I am still holding that against you. You lost your Black card with me.”

“Oh gosh,” Kyle said and rolled his eyes. Everyone knew Bernard loved a debate…and trouble. Kyle could be equally dramatic. That made them a good match for the past eight years. “Here we go again. That was almost a year ago. Give it a rest.”

“No worries,” I said. “I’m not going to get into it. We all know Hillary was much more experienced and ready for day one on the job than Barack was.”

Bernard rolled his eyes and continued, “How can you say that? Most of her alleged experience was on her husband’s watch.”

That was when I noticed my phone ringing. A call from my sister in Indiana. A downer, much like the political debate Bernard was trying to reel me into again. I wasn’t feeling having this political commentary over cocktails, especially for an election competition a year behind us.

“Having that inside knowledge of how things work and how to make things happen is experience,” I said. “It’s called social and cultural capital, but it’s all a moot point. Election is long over. We made history and Barack is the man.”

“True, but I’m a long way from forgetting,” Bernard said with a laugh. Raised his glass to mine and we toasted. Political rivals in our minds, but friends because he loved my best friend Kyle. “To unity…and change.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I said reluctantly, and toasted with Bernard and Kyle. Noticed a lot of our thirty-something acquaintances were being replaced by twenty-somethings. That tended to happen just around seven on Sunday evenings at The Abbey. “The kids are starting to arrive, and I want to be gone before it gets too crowded and all that drama that comes with them starts. And I definitely don’t want to see anyone from LADS.”

“Amen to that, girl,” Kyle said and placed his almost-empty glass on a nearby table. “I don’t know how these kids stay out all night on Sunday, as if they don’t have to work or go to school on Monday. I’m already going over my to-do list in my mind.”

“Please, baby,” Bernard interrupted. “Most of them don’t have jobs. Trifling little things. So glad I’m not on the market now.”

Bernard kissed Kyle on the cheek, and they gave each other that look lovers give when they want to do couples things in bed later. I felt like quite the third wheel, though it’s something Kyle and Bernard would never say out loud. We’d been doing our Sunday afternoon meetings at The Abbey for years, even before Black people started taking over Sundays.

“I don’t know how they can afford these fifteen-dollar drinks like they do,” I said. The Abbey was known for its pricey mojitos and martinis of all flavors, but most people ignored the prices, as the bar was the best place to see and be seen in gay and gay-friendly L.A. We were all playing Hollywood, even if it wasn’t our reality. I’d exchanged my standard khaki pants and button-down for something a little more casual and Abbey-worthy. Hollywood, I could never quite fit the part or find myself paying for those designers and labels that many wore…just because. I’d never been the fit-in-just-because type.

“Okaaaay.”

“Most of them are pretending to be someone’s stylist, assistant, or an actor, or whatever,” I said. “You wouldn’t believe how many ‘models’ and ‘singers’ come into LADS for the free food vouchers…Oh, okay, go ahead and make out while I talk, guys.” I did air-quotes around the so-called careers of the young men I encountered in my day job.

Bernard whispered a sweet nothing in Kyle’s ear and pulled him closer. Eight years and still happy. Still making out with each other like day one, they looked like two chocolate drops joined at the hip.

As my friends hugged and kissed each other, out of the corner of my eye I could see a group of young brothas, probably in their early twenties, staring and pointing our way. First, I thought it was the rare surprise of seeing Black-on-Black romance in West Hollywood that caught their curiosity and attention. Black guys were friends, not potential love interests, in West Hollywood. I was sure none of them had had any Black romantic couples as role models, but then again I couldn’t assume anything these days. My work with young, Black gay men at the LADS organization opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone grew up middle class with two parents like I did. The job definitely challenged my upbringing and comfort zone. Nothing was a surprise. Anything could happen, and often did.

Much like it did when one of the twenty-something men, dressed in a black V-neck T-shirt, gray shorts, and black Oakland Raiders hat, nodded at me as a directive to walk his way. I excused myself from Kyle and Bernard, as they were on their way to third base and ignoring me at the moment, and walked across the room toward the massive fireplace near the front of The Abbey where brotha stood.

“Hey,” I said.

Didn’t know much else to say. His presence intimidated me a bit. Young, athletic, cute, masculine brotha. Definitely not the type that would put me in his target demographic. I knew he had to be a good ten years younger than me. But I wasn’t looking for any type of romantic relationship, so shyness and intimidation wasn’t necessary. As I got closer to him, I could tell he loved Hanae Mori cologne. Smelled good on him.

“Whaddup, bro?”

“Not much,” I said.

He held out his free hand to fist-bump mine.

“What you up to?”

“Just about to head out,” I said, deepening my voice, shortening my phrasing, performing masculinity. “Came in earlier with a couple buddies over there.”

“Damn, thas too bad,” he said and smiled. Nice set of pearly whites contrasted beautifully against his rich mahogany skin. “You looking good, bro.”

“Thanks,” I said, and replied like a nerd, “You don’t look so bad yourself. I like your cologne.”

This small talk on looking good was definitely a set-up for a one-nighter, since we hadn’t even exchanged names yet. After a couple Grey Goose and tonics, I could have been game, had brotha not looked like some of the clients I served at LADS. I wasn’t going to turn into one of those thirty-something midlife-crisis cases who got off on picking up guys who could be their younger brother, cousin, or worse yet, son. Back in my twenties and early thirties, when I was single and desperately looking for anyone, and working at the bank, I would have taken a guy like this home for the night. No questions asked. No background check. Sometimes no names exchanged. That was how I’d ended up with a string of exes whose lives were the social issue of the month. Now, I was happily single and looking for more than a one-night-only kind of arrangement. And I definitely wasn’t looking for drama or to help someone else solve their drama. That was only for work.

“Turn around for me, man,” he said. Snapped me back to reality from my dating flashback.

I smiled and said, “Excuse me?”

“I wanna see what you working with up close.”

“You talking to the wrong guy,” I said. “I’m not like that.”

“Oh, so it’s like that, then?” he said. “Thas okay, man. I seen your ass halfway across the room. I knew it was you. Thas whassup.”

He nodded and pursed lips at me. Like he was sizing me up. I knew the look, having been around the block myself over the years. But I didn’t know this young man, his history, health status, or motive for sizing me up.

“How about names?” I said, wanting to change the subject and get us on track to normal conversation. I’d pretty much determined I wasn’t going to do anything with him beyond The Abbey. “I’m Malcolm. You’re?”

“Just call me Compton for now,” he said and nodded.

“As in…from Compton?” I said, a little confused, and waited for a response or explanation. None came. I’m such a nerd at times. Silence. “All right.”

One of his friends brought back three drinks from the bar and handed two to Compton. Berry martinis in tall glasses.

“Take a sip,” he said. “I want you all liquored up tonight, man. Thas whassup.”

“Thanks,” I said, to be polite. “But no thanks. I don’t take drinks when I haven’t seen them getting made. And I’ve already had two. Gotta drive.”

“Two for me, then,” he said. Chuckled. Tossed the straw out of one drink and gulped down about half in one swallow. “You one of them proper niggas, huh? That’s cool. I know them proper niggas like you get freaky in the sheets.”

I hated the whole tired conversation about who speaks like what. Kinda like how who voted for whom in primary elections a year ago validated one’s membership in the Black community. I knew it—the talking-proper conversation—was a class thing, how people valued education as children, how people sized up community allegiance. But this was not the time for giving Compton a sociology lesson. Nor was I very keen on befriending a guy who, like many other young men without social skills, communicated his desires through sex talk and conquests.

“Compton, you don’t know me and I don’t know you,” I said. “I understand you’re young and probably don’t know a lot about how real men want to be treated and approached, but the talk about sex. Not so much.”

He put his berry martinis in an empty spot on the fireplace ledge and pulled out his iPhone.

“I know you well, Carlton,” he said and ran his fingers across the face of the phone. Even though we were almost twenty years past The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air TV show, the character Carlton was still synonymous with being a proper-speaking Black nerd, even though I didn’t think Carlton was a nerd.

My phone rang again. My sister, again, from Indianapolis. Must be urgent. No one calls long distance, over and over, without some kind of emergency. I knew something had to be up.

“It’s Malcolm,” I said, correcting Compton again. “Hold on a sec. I gotta take this. Be right back.”

I walked toward the patio door at the front of The Abbey. Just a tad quieter than inside, but quiet enough for a thirty-something not to have to shout in the receiver of a cell phone.

“What’s going on, Marlena?” I said. Don’t laugh at my sister’s name—our mom loved Days of Our Lives back in the day.

“It’s your nephew, that’s what’s going on,” she said. She sounded pissed off, once more, about Blake, her oldest son, my only nephew. Again, don’t laugh at my nephew’s name—my sister loved Dynasty as a teenager.

“What did Blake do now?”

“He’s still spending all his goddamn time on that damn Internet, meeting all kinds of strangers,” Marlena said. “I just walked in on him getting head from this boy from down the street he went to high school with…and the house reeked of weed. I can’t take it no more.”

My sister Marlena had always had a difficult time with Blake. Her other kids, the twin girls, were angels compared to their older brother, born in Marlena’s senior year of high school.

“So you’re calling me for what?” I said. I mean, I knew she needed to vent. Who wouldn’t, after catching their nineteen-year-old son getting a blow job from a neighbor.

“I’m tired of his Black ass…YOU HEAR ME, BLAKE, TIRED OF YOUR BLACK ASS…I SHOULD HAVE PUT HIM OUT A LONG TIME AGO,” Marlena yelled to me, and I assume, to Blake, who’d probably slammed his bedroom door and wasn’t paying attention to his mother. Why Marlena hadn’t followed though on our family’s “eighteen and out” rule was a mystery to me. We’d all known, including Marlena with her new baby back in the day, that it was expected we’d be out of the house after high school senior year, preferably at a college, but for sure working and in our own place.

“Hold on, Marlena,” I said. “Let’s talk about this.”

It was my standard line to use with people who were having a dramatic moment. I knew hearing themselves out would help calm them down.

“Ain’t nothing to talk about, Malcolm,” Marlena said. “I can’t put up with his trifling ass no more. I’m sending him out to California for the summer to stay with you, since he wants to be a rapper…AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS A GAY RAPPER, BLAKE.”

“You’re what?” I asked. I was sure I hadn’t heard Marlena correctly. The “gay rapper” thing threw me off a bit.

“I said I’m sending him out to California for the summer,” Marlena said. “What? You can’t hear now, Malcolm? Trying to play LIKE YOU DON’T HEAR ME LIKE BLAKE DOES?”

“Calm down,” I said. “Are you for real? Things that bad?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “You got a problem with it?”

Sunday evening, on a busy patio at The Abbey, wasn’t the time to go through the list of reasons why having my nephew stay with me was a bad idea. So I started with just a few.

“Hel-LO,” I said. “I’m working, busy all the time, running LADS, never home. And my place is so small. And what makes you think he’d want to spend his summer with his thirty-five-year-old uncle?”

And why would I want to spend my summer with a nineteen-year-old, when I see them every day at work? was what I really wanted to ask Marlena the dramatic.

“You work with the gays,” she said. “Maybe you can straighten him out. I mean, not straighten him out like that, but help him get his life on track. If anybody can show him the way, I know you can. I’m done. I’M DONE!”

“Why can’t he stay with Mama?” I asked.

“Mama’s old,” she said. “He’ll get over on her quicker than me, and she’ll just let her first grandbaby do whatever.”

“Marlena,” I said and sighed. “I’m far from perfect.”

“Please?” Marlena said. “I’m tired. I’m sending him out there.”

Compton walked out the patio door and toward me. With my sister putting me on the spot, and Compton looking kinda good in that black V-neck as he walked my way, I was ready to give Compton a one-night-only after The Abbey, or at minimum, a WeHo Hello in the parking structure around the corner. Sometimes, one-nighters aren’t just about the sex. Sometimes they’re a momentary denial to help get through life’s realities.

“Whaddup, man? You coming back or what?”

“Okay,” I said. And realized I’d answered both Marlena’s and Compton’s requests.

“Thanks, then we’ll talk tomorrow,” Marlena said, just as Compton replied, “Cool, see you inside.”

“Wait,” I said and realized I’d committed to both a summer with my nephew Blake and a continued conversation with Compton. Neither was of my own volition, but I knew it wouldn’t hurt to give Blake or Compton a bit of my time.

I met Compton in the spot where I’d left him a few minutes earlier, in front of the fireplace. He’d finished the first drink his friend had given him and was well into the second. All in a matter of ten minutes or less. Mess.

“Anyway, Compton, I’m heading back to my buddies,” I said. “Good meeting you. Have a good one.”

“Wait,” Compton said and wrapped his free arm around my waist while his hand drifted lower to my butt. “I wanna show you something, man. Look.”

I removed his hand and moved a step away. “I know what you want to show me,” I said. “Not interested.”

He put the iPhone screen in my face, his arm around my shoulder. Squeezed. If I were planning to sleep with him, it would have felt…sexy. His touch was strong.

I saw the homepage of an amateur X-rated site uploading, and then two seconds later, I was doing something pornographic with my mouth to…

“Oh my God,” I said. “Where did you get this?”

“It’s on GayClick,” Compton said and whispered / slurred in my ear, “You gone work my shit like that? I could use some bomb head.”

“Hell no, I’m not working your sh…” I said. “What site is this? How did you get this video?”

“Hold on a sec,” he said. “This is how I recognized yo ass across the room.”

Two seconds later, I was onscreen doing something pornographic squatting up and down over…

“What the hell?” I said. “I’ve seen enough.”

“Me too, but there’s about six or seven more,” he said and grinned. Slid a hand down to my butt and groped again. “You gone twerk that ass for me like you did in the video? Thas whassup, man.”

“Are you crazy,” I said and pulled away from Compton’s grasp. “You don’t even know me. That’s not me.” I knew it was me. But how…that was another question.

“You gone let me hit that, right?” Compton said. “Playin’ all Carlton and shit, but fuck like a porn star.”

“Fuck you,” I said.

“I like it when you’re hood like that,” he said as I walked back to Kyle and Bernard. Watched Compton and his friends looking at the screen and getting a kick out of those videos with me in them. Videos I never EVER made.

“I gotta get out of here,” I said. Felt like I was about to faint or vomit, but kept it together.

“Why? What’s up?” Kyle said.

“What did that kid do to you?” Bernard asked. “I’ll go fuck him up.”

And I knew he would. Kyle too. But that wasn’t what I wanted. Well, I did, but I also wanted to be able to return to The Abbey for future Sundays…years from now, after guys with iPhones with videos of me were no longer in the picture.

“I can’t show my face in here again,” I said. “I’m out.”

I walked through the crowd, past Compton and his friends who jeered and whistled as I whisked by, and out the front entrance of The Abbey. I’m sure they all thought I was some kind of porn star or sexual acrobat. Maybe back in the day, pre-2000s, like before camera phones, sex tapes, paparazzi, and things that lived forever on computers, that kind of reputation might have been cool because it was all just based on word of mouth and not based on technology that could create a permanent marker of your reputation.

Not today. As a man in my thirties. With responsibilities. Role modeling. Clients. And a nineteen-year-old nephew coming to L.A. to spend the summer with me.

I looked for “him” in the long line of men waiting to get in the club. Not my nephew. But the one who sold me out online. Sometimes he would make an Abbey appearance on Sunday evenings, when he knew I’d probably be gone home and he wouldn’t have to face me. He wasn’t in line. No sign.

Meant one thing. He was at his place with the one he left me for.

And that was where I knew I’d be heading before I went home to my place.

Chapter 2

On the way to his house, my mind raced with a million messages I’d given to the young men at LADS.

At the Thursday night LADSrap group, three days earlier, I’d facilitated a talk I titled “Click This, Hit That: 2009,” specifically on the issues and concerns that can come with an online presence and life, personal safety, and how the young men should exercise caution online if they ever aspired to do something beyond whatever they currently did to make ends meet.

“After all,” I said and looked around the room at young Black men of all shades and sexual orientations, “Barack Obama never thought in a million years he’d be president. And he most certainly wouldn’t have reached that goal if he’d ever sent or posted dirty pics of himself during his younger days on a computer or a cell phone.”

Some of the guys snickered and laughed. A sign of guilt, I’m sure, that they’d already sent or seen plenty of inappropriate pictures on their technology and gadgets. Reality check. That was just what young people did.

“But he smoked out, didn’t he? So your point is what, Mr. Malcolm? They didn’t even have cell phones or computers back in those days.” Question from the back of the circle from Sergio, a newcomer to LADS and LADSrap meetings. “Because in case you didn’t recognize, you’re talking to us born in the late eighties to mid-nineties, and online is where it’s at for our generation.”

I loved and hated the pointed questions I got from the men who attended the groups. LADSrap was a new discussion group created by my front desk assistant, and personal pet project, DeMarco Jennings. It was designed as a way to engage young men in current events in a not-so-preachy way. DeMarco was great at the engagement part. I wasn’t so great at the not-so-preachy part, but found ways to hold my tongue and make the weekly discussions a success.

“Sergio, keep it cute or put it on mute,” DeMarco yelled from the side of the room, with a bit of a neck roll punctuating the end of his statement. I loved how he said the things I was thinking. “Let Malcolm finish. Go on, Malcolm.”

“I keep it cute all the time,” Sergio said and stood up. He pointed to his T-shirt, one of the many he designed and then sold on the streets after the various gay clubs in L.A., with one of his Sergio-isms, No, I’m Not A Missed Connection…I Just Don’t Like You. “Thank you very much, DeMarco. I’m sorry, Mr. Malcolm.”

Because Sergio was new to LADS and the Thursday night LADSrap, I reminded him and the group that we came together to become smart and sexually empowered in our discussions and interactions. I reminded him and the group of our community agreements, specifically number eight, respect is important—sometimes we’re the only supporters we have, before returning to the conversation about videos, future goals, and how current decisions they made could impact all of it.

DeMarco, just to make a point to the group’s newcomer, recited the LADS community agreements, or steps to becoming a smart, culturally empowered, and sexually empowered young man:

LADS will learn to make smart and sexually empowered decisions for their lives and health.
LADS have the right to say no. No one is entitled to sex or a hook-up, no matter what they gave to or bought for you.
LADS respect that “No Means No” and never force, coerce, pressure someone into sex against their will.
LADS have a right to ask and know his sexual health status, the right to insist on condoms at all times, and the responsibility to know and disclose your health status. (That doesn’t mean you’re dirty if you request or disclose this.)
Just because he’s a top (and you are), or just because he’s a bottom (and you are) doesn’t mean you two can’t have a meaningful and long-term sexual or romantic relationship.
LADS don’t have to give him your online passwords, account numbers, or a rundown of your schedule when you’re not with him. Possession does not equal love—it might equal crazy.
Being smart, culturally empowered, and sexually empowered LADS means knowing who you are, but refusing to be confined by that knowledge.
LADS respect each other—sometimes we’re the only supporters we have.
LADS support the brotherhood and aren’t complicit in in tearing down the brotherhood by sleeping with, or getting involved with, men who are involved with someone else.
Love yourself. Remember your Black, LGBT, and Black LGBT history and elders by building upon their legacy of struggle and excellence.
After DeMarco’s reiteration of our rules, I continued with the discussion of videos and the future.

“Anyway, my point is that anything you make public about your life—emails or texts you’ve sent with pics, status updates, or any videos you’ve posted with your secret sexual talents can come back to haunt you,” I said and looked around the room at the participants. “And did you know any job or school you apply for can read your online sites to see if you’re someone they want?”

A couple of the guys wrote down notes (or were they texting?) during my talk, as DeMarco chimed in from across the room.

“Guys, I once made the mistake of answering one of those Fredslist ads back in my young and wild days of nineteen…not that I’m not young now,” he said and laughed. “And next thing I know, my picture ends up being used by all sorts of old men trying to attract young, cute men to their houses. It wasn’t cute.”

“I bet it wasn’t,” I said. “So I’m sure some of you know someone who has been burned by something they put online…Anyone got a story?”

“Do you have one, Mr. Malcolm?” Sergio said and smiled. “I’d love to hear about Mr. Malcolm’s online sexcapades.”

Some of the young men chuckled and perked up in their seats while waiting for my response. It was like this every week, no matter the topic, for conversation to lead eventually back to me. I knew it was a sign they cared and were learning something. However, looking back on the meeting three days earlier, my response now came to haunt me.

“Sorry, gentlemen,” I’d said and smiled. “But I would never do anything online that would harm or hurt my career or reputation. I’ve worked too hard for that. And I would hope you’d do the same with all the hard work you’re doing for your future goals.”

What a hypocrite three days can make.

As I pulled in front of his apartment complex, I said a little prayer. I’m not a super-religious person, but I knew calling in the wisdom and positive energy of a higher power was the only thing that would save him and keep me from being the top story on the eleven o’clock news.

Chapter 3

It wasn’t that Deacon and I had a particularly bad breakup. Deacon is “him,” by the way.

He and I could have remained friends, maybe even remained together, if not for the one he left me for. I don’t even like mentioning his name—the one Deacon left me for, or Deacon, for that matter. So I generally don’t mention his name unless there’s no other choice. Still, I couldn’t imagine why he would put our sex life on the Internet.

Deacon and I had two strong years together before things ended. We met when he was hired as a security guard at the bank where I worked before jumping into the world of social services and LADS. One of those community organizations that give young men in trouble second chances referred him to the bank’s minority outreach program, which I chaired.

Seeing that I was on the hiring committee, and chaired the minority outreach program that selected Deacon, I never should have crossed that line—and Kyle advised me from a legal perspective it was bad news—personally or professionally. But that security guard uniform, combined with the mystery of his blue collar life, brought out the Mother Teresa in me. I had to know more, thought we were doing the right thing by giving him a job and a chance in life, and soon found myself looking forward to the days he was scheduled to work in the bank.

Deacon told captivating stories and kept the professional staff all smiles during the day, which definitely kept our minds off the fact that he’d come to the bank through one of those organizations that gave troubled twenty-somethings a second chance in life. So I ignored family and friend advice about people never really leaving trouble behind, and took a chance during a work-related Friday happy hour. I put it out there in one of those truth-or-dare games young professionals play at happy hour that if I had to do another guy on staff at the bank, it would be Deacon the security guard. Two martinis will loosen you up and make you say anything. A late night sext / text message from Deacon the security guard will loosen you up, make you throw professionalism to the wind and your legs up in the air.

A year into our relationship, which we kept quiet to the people at the bank, my father died. That threw my world into disarray for a few months. I went back to Indiana to help with all the family decisions, and while there, decided to make some career changes in my life. None of these changes, I thought, necessarily affected Deacon, but nonetheless, he blamed them for our demise as a couple.

I decided to start LADS after reading what seemed like the millionth news story dooming the men of my community to a life of unemployment, incarceration, disease, illiteracy, or any other social malady. I jumped right in and decided to do something. No social work degree, just a business undergrad degree from Northwestern University and a liberal, kind heart and mind. No experience running a social services agency. But I knew something needed to be done, and done quickly, to address the issues facing my community. And since I had the means to do so, I acted on my compulsion. Maybe a little bit too quickly.

I quit my job at the bank going after delinquent customers and accounts and decided to use my life in a different way. Figured it was time to live up to my namesakes, Malcolm and Martin. Took the vacation, retirement, and severance money the bank job offered, combined it with the insurance my father left me and the grant money I’d applied for from the city and state, and started my own community organization. I named it LADS, in honor of the name my dad affectionately called me up until the time he died. I found a decent-sized space on Crenshaw Boulevard, south of the 10 freeway, in the heart of Black L.A., where I felt a group like this was needed. I just wanted to do something good and give back.

The plan was for LADS to offer personal, group, and career counseling, GED training, AIDS / HIV / health education, food vouchers, and a non-judgmental space for dealing with sex and sexuality issues. It was an organization for young men coming of age, and coming out of the closet. Yeah, that closet. Young, gay Black men.

Everyone thought I was crazy when I opened LADS, including my best friend Kyle and my family. Kyle couldn’t understand giving up a stable nine-to-five for a job with unpredictable hours that required some nights and weekends. My mother thought the young men I wanted to save weren’t savable and I was wasting the money our father left behind. My sister Marlena liked the idea, but worried for both my and the young men’s safety, since being young, gay, and from the inner city was a concept “we just don’t talk about,” including her son Blake.

Deacon worried our relationship away, thinking that every time I had a planning meeting for LADS, it was really a secret rendezvous with someone else. Once, he said he liked us working together so he could keep an eye on me and my schedule. So paranoid and threatened by my dream. But it turned out his paranoia was an indication of his own guilt about his own secret flings outside our relationship. That is another story for another time, but the words he spewed to me when I found out about his cheating stung forever: “Sorry, Malcolm, it just be’s that way sometime with us guys from the ’hood.”

I regularly tell the young men in LADS this: If you’re doing something positive—and really working at it, not just daydreaming of it—and he’s not supportive because he’s thinking only of his needs, while it can hurt to call it quits, you’re better off. Better to be single and alone than alone in a relationship. I hope they listen to me, because it’s the truth.

Something I knew I wouldn’t get from Deacon.

“Deacon,” I yelled outside his apartment door. Well, his new young boyfriend’s apartment, where Deacon moved after we split up. “Open the damn door, you loser.”

It was just off the swimming pool courtyard of the complex near Vermont and the 101 freeway, in a very working-class neighborhood. Like where people rode bikes and buses more than their own cars. I’d helped him move his few garbage bags of belongings here after the “it just be’s that way” conversation so he could be with his boy toy.

I wasn’t usually a fan of causing a scene, but knowing my sex life was now fodder for any voyeur around the world with a computer warranted one. A young couple and their toddler looked up from their pool-wading session to watch the commotion I was causing. I knocked, well, BANGED on the door continuously for two minutes until Deacon answered. I knew he had to be there. His bike was chained to his front porch railing, and that 1999 Maxima he just had to have, and I bought for him, was still sitting on cinder blocks out front—a reminder that Deacon the social-program loser never did follow up on anything, including fixing and repainting the car to sell at a profit.

When he opened his apartment door, I could see he was still living in luxurious bachelor-pad splendor. Pitiful, being twenty eight years old and being sprung by a twenty-two-year-old with no decorating taste. And if twenty-two did have taste, he most certainly didn’t have the ability or means to act on it. Bricks and cinder blocks served as a bookcase with no books, and a coffee table used more as a footrest than for coffee or knickknacks were the largest pieces of “furniture” in the room. Incense burned, irritating my eyes. An old tan futon, one that was in the spare bedroom of my apartment when I let him live with me, sat against the living room wall and was pulled out as a bed. I could hear Sade playing in the background. Clearly he was setting the mood for a romantic night with his new man, or maybe yet another man, who knew?

“What the fuck is your problem, Malcolm?” Deacon asked angrily. His do-rag strings flung side to side as he yelled. He was dressed in plain white boxers only and was happily dangling left down there. Yes, I looked. He looked good as always. Dark brown, lean, and lovely, in that way that non-gym-going guys from the ’hood look who don’t have to work out or watch what they eat. “And why are you here?”

“I’m here to fuck you up,” I said and did something I wasn’t raised to do. I socked him across the jaw. So much for the hand of God calming me or my tongue. Lord knows where that came from.

“Aww, snap,” he said. He rubbed where I’d hit him and stood stunned. I expected a return hit to come any second. So far, nothing. “Where you learn that move?”

“Chris Brown,” I said.

“Damn, boy,” he said. “You getting a little street cred from the boys, huh?”

“And you’re gonna get a lot more if you don’t take those videos down from GayClick,” I said.

“Get in here.” He grabbed me inside the apartment and yelled outside to the happy family by the pool, “It’s cool, y’all. It’s cool. He don’t know what he talking about.” Slammed the door behind us.

“They already know you’re gay,” I said. “Stop the DL act. That’s so 2005.”

“You’re sexy when you’re mad, Malcolm,” Deacon said and smiled, attempting to be charming. He moved in closer to me, rubbed his face against mine, and whispered in my ear. “You make me wanna bend you over a chair and take you from behind like I used to.”

I pushed him away from me. Maybe I had developed some street credibility since working with the young men at LADS. I’d certainly heard and seen it all since starting the work.

“I’m not playing…and I’m not here to sleep with you. Where are they?” I asked as I looked around the living room. Opened up the nearest hallway closet. “Where are the cameras?”

“Huh? What cameras?”

“The ones you used to videotape our sex life, you dumb fuck,” I yelled. “The ones you kept hidden in my apartment to record us…doing things.”

“Dang, Malcolm. Active imagination,” he said. “What story you been watching?”

“This isn’t a game. It’s my life.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Videos of what we used to do when we were together,” I said. “Some in your old apartment. Most from my bedroom. If I had known you were taping us, I never would have consented. Didn’t our time together mean anything to you?”

“Of course you meant a lot, Malcolm, but how do you know about any cameras or videotapes?” Deacon said. “That was my own private collection…for memories.”

“It was our sex life, and it was meant to be private.”

“And it is private, Malcolm,” Deacon said and opened his laptop. “I keep them all in a password-protected file, just for me to get off on once in a while.”

Once the screen lit and Deacon accessed his videos, I saw my secret and dirty past come to life. He’d saved almost two hundred videos, videos I never knew he was making. Filed, very simply, with each of his previous boyfriends before me, with easy-to-understand headings: ass, jack, oral.

I was disgusted.

When we were together and I loved Deacon, I had no problem sharing or showing him how much I loved him. We did it safely and we did it often. That’s what couples are supposed to do when they’re in love and like each other. But they don’t videotape without permission.

“Who else has access to your computer?” I asked. “What about the kid you live with? Has he seen these? You videotape him?”

“I never showed him. He has his own laptop. Yes, I make movies of us.”

“Well, someone has or had access to your computer, or else I wouldn’t be all over the Internet looking like a…never mind,” I said. “I need you to think really hard…a computer repair person, your little boyfriend, one of your or his friends?”

I asked Deacon to get up so I could see the evidence of our past together. He did, and I pointed and clicked at random video files. Just to see the Deacon and Malcolm show. In a way, I was ashamed of the video archive. I’d always been the good boy, the good son, the one who made everything right and did the right thing. I was trying to teach gay young men how to live their lives with dignity and esteem, including their relationships and sex lives. Seeing myself acting like a porn star, albeit with my at-the-time boyfriend, was something I couldn’t quite reconcile. I felt like a living paradox.

“Deacon, I have never been more disappointed than I am right now,” I said. “Why would you do something like this without my consent? Do you want to go back to almost-on-probation life?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll delete everything with you in it. Is that cool?”

“The damage has been done,” I said. “Oh, and by the way, whoever uploaded those videos only put the ones where I’m visible and you’re not. Pretty slick and deliberate move, I’d say.”

“I’m sorry, babe,” Deacon said and tried to reach for me. So sexy, but I wasn’t falling. Not this time. “Can I make it up? Break you off some before he comes home?”

“You’re duplicitous,” I said. “I have lost the last bit of respect I had for you, Deacon.”

“What?”

“Look it up,” I said.

“Snap.”

“I guess we didn’t mean anything to you?”

He stood silent.

And then I said the words I vowed never to say to anyone and that most Black men I know never want to hear, especially from someone they were or are close to.

“You ain’t shit, Deacon. You’ll never amount to anything.”

He put his hands around his face and nodded in disagreement. Like he was trying to figure out something. Like there was any way to fix my soon-to-be damaged reputation. Like he really cared anymore. I had to remind myself that Deacon left me because he was threatened by my latest career move with LADS.

“I’ll be right back. Gonna run to the bathroom.”

“Fine, I’m out,” I said. “You didn’t keep any backup files or videos anywhere else?”

“Nah, once I finally got them all on my computer, I destroyed everything. They take up too much space. There’s nothing else.”

“Fine.”

Deacon disappeared from the living room. I waited until I heard the bathroom door close behind him before I got started. Knew I had to work quickly, before Deacon returned and before his new boyfriend caught me.

I removed the cord attaching the laptop to the wall plug. I picked up the laptop and carried it to the front door. The young family that was wading in the pool when I arrived was nowhere to be found, which relieved me. Deacon and I probably scared them off. Good, no risk to them.

And with an ease that surprised me, I, the good boy, the good son, the one who made everything right and did the right thing, did something not so right.

I tossed Deacon’s laptop into the swimming pool, watched it sink to the bottom, and gave a friendly hello to Deacon’s new, young, and cute boyfriend as we passed each other through the apartment complex gates.

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Copyright © 2014 by Frederick Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this Excerpt maybe re-published without written consent from the publisher Bold Strokes Books, Inc. 

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