Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 4.1]

I rarely went to large social gatherings, but one night a girl on my floor convinced me to go to an apartment party with her. Once there, she quickly ditched me. Someone handed me a plastic cup of beer. I stood near a plant in the corner of the living room, watching people and pretending to drink. One of the people I watched was a tall guy with buzzed brown hair, glasses, and a goatee. He was wearing an acid-washed denim trench coat that almost touched the floor and had on bright purple pants, a bright red button-up silk shirt, and a huge, bright yellow tie. He was standing up in front of a couch full of guys, clearly entertaining them with a very animated story; they were all doubled over, laughing.

What a character, I thought as I watched him and eavesdropped for a while. He seemed pretty hilarious, but a tad full of himself. He noticed me watching him and I didn’t try to hide it. When he and his friends went to get more beer, he swaggered past me. I reached out and poked him in the arm, and he jumped back in surprise, wide-eyed and not smiling, like I’d just punched him or something.

I stood on tiptoe and yelled at him above the chaos. “Where on earth are you from?”

“Philadelphia P-A. What’s it to you?” he smirked in a very thick Philly accent.

How obnoxious can you get?

I retorted, “Well, I figured it wasn’t from around here because of your obnoxious behavior…and that outfit…I didn’t know they made Garanimals for adults.”

The friends standing next to him laughed out loud, which made him say, “Oh. Hardy har har. You’re freaking hilarious. And seeing as how no one asked for your opinion…Why don’t you just shut your trap then, okay? Thank you and good-bye.” He smiled sarcastically and walked away.

Clearly, he could get much more obnoxious.

One of his friends, Brian, hung back and talked to me for quite a while. He seemed okay, and told me not to worry about Trey’s attitude, so I ended up giving him my phone number. Brian called the next night, and the next, but for some reason all I could think about was…Trey. So on the second call, I told Brian nicely that I wasn’t really interested in him. He asked me why not, and in a moment of courage, I disclosed that I couldn’t stop thinking about his friend, Trey, and that it didn’t feel fair of me to lead him on. Thankfully, he didn’t freak out. Instead, he passed my number over to Trey.

The next night, Trey called and bluntly said, “So what’s this I hear about you dumping my friend because you’re interested in me?”

Irked and afraid he was going to read me the riot act for hurting his friend, I said, “Just forget it. I’ve got to go.”

Trey muttered a confused, “Okay,” and we hung up.

The next night Trey called and spoke normally to me, as if we were old friends. We talked for three continuous hours. I found pretty much everything that came out of Trey’s mouth funny. He was a natural comedian, and to my surprise a great listener, as well as pretty sweet. Every piece of his wardrobe was a primary color, which he mixed and matched with loud, crazy ties. Yet he was just a white boy from a prep school in Philly who thought he was hip-hop way before all the white boys had the nerve to be hip-hop. Because hip-hop hadn’t even hit the Midwest yet, we Midwesterners thought Trey was just “original,” that he’d very creatively and boldly made up his own personal style. In his very thick Philly accent he used strange and funny phrases like “Eeeww, Paaarrrrrtay,” or “Straight up—yeah-a,” or “Yo-yo-yo…party in the how-ouse.”

Soon, lots of guys on Trey’s dorm floor were following him around and personally using his catch phrases. Many—unconsciously I’m sure—began picking up a noticeable Philly accent. One guy, PJ, even started dressing like him. Trey’s rap music, East Coast card games, and ability to make exotic drinking concoctions, like “Blue Goo” and “Bourbon Broth” were particularly impressive to his dorm mates. Almost every weekend, Trey hosted large, themed parties or “Century Club” nights, where you were supposed to drink a shot of beer a minute for 100 consecutive minutes. He delighted in dressing to the hilt—usually like a big pimp. I hated this and loved this about him. It was juvenile but outrageous. I loved his confidence and desire for self-expression and especially his high energy, just not what he focused it on most of the time.

Trey could be extremely bright and articulate when he wanted to be. His first roommate at college was gay and in his strong attempt to publically “come out,” he repeatedly put his “gayness” in Trey’s face. Trey’s tolerance eventually wore thin when his roommate tried to convince Trey that HE was gay also. After all, “All men are. They just won’t admit it.” Well, when Trey couldn’t get him to knock it off, he submitted a very well-written opinion piece on the topic to the university newspaper in which he railed against gays who came out and then expected everyone to treat them as a persecuted minority.

Personally, I wasn’t opposed to gays in the least—and neither was Trey—but he made some interesting arguments about subcultures and reverse discrimination, and I was impressed he had the guts to state such a strong opinion publicly about such a controversial topic—and on such a liberal campus. This act gave Trey a bit of notoriety and he received a lot of fan mail (and hate mail) for that article, all of which he took in stride.

Trey joined the dorm council and rallied for the funds to resurrect a dead radio station housed in the basement. He solicited talent from around the dorm and had his own daily nighttime broadcast where he DJ’d—as “Trey-Mac,”—playing hip-hop, rap, and dance music. Trey had a few public personas I could take or leave, but when I had him to myself, he was smart, engaging, funny, and able to go to deep places. He was a cuddler, too, and because of his larger size, whenever he pulled me onto his lap, I could sit for hours safe and warm in his arms. I genuinely enjoyed his conversations and our alone time together. He was always someone who gave more energy to others than he took.

I was also intrigued by his upbringing; it was so different from mine he almost felt like a foreigner. He was from a suburb of this huge northeastern city, had a brother he’d shared a room with his whole life, a little sister, and married parents who liked to party together. His extended family was tight-knit and they considered many of their neighbors to be family. All of his “peeps” were Catholic. Trey and his brother both attended an elite all-boy Catholic prep school, which may have explained his comfort with guys and awkward style with most women. Trey had a circle of five best friends back in Philly he’d grown up with. He referred to them as the “brotherhood” and called them regularly for consultation and advice. He spent summers working at a golf club and was one of the few people our age I knew who already had a resume.

Trey’s one and only girlfriend ever was a dark-haired Catholic girl named Kim, although they’d never actually gone on a date. His parents were best friends with hers, so they had been in each other’s lives a long time. Trey crushed on Kim for years, but she never reciprocated. It was clear from the way he talked about her that she’d been significant to him during his childhood and that he was still a bit bothered by the fact that she’d never given him the time of day. Trey confessed to me up front that he was a virgin. It was very refreshing to think that sex clearly wasn’t the primary driving force in his life. Having said that, we didn’t wait all that long to try it out, and soon it became a pretty regular thing. He worked hard to figure out how to pleasure me and he had a way of genuinely making me feel like my body was flawless. No matter what I wore or what my weight was that week, he acted like he wanted to ravish me. I soon became very comfortable being fully exposed to him. For the first time, I found myself craving someone and enjoying the extra dimension that being physically connected to someone, as well as emotionally, could bring to a relationship. The sex felt natural and mutual.

Pretty soon into our relationship, I discovered that Trey was unhappy with his major of biology. His parents expected a doctor in the family, so he’d begrudgingly enrolled in several science and math classes, which he then proceeded to skip on a regular basis. He was more motivated to attend his philosophy and religion classes, which sparked some very interesting conversations. On the topic of religion, he’d come at me passionately from all angles, sometimes phoning me out of the blue with a thought that had just come to him, one that he felt sure would convert me into a believer. Once he called an old priest from his school and handed me the phone! Nonetheless, when he was honest with himself, what Trey wanted to do with his life was graphic design, or something similarly creative. His parents balked at the idea, so he continued on the pre-med track, which landed him a 1.9 GPA at the end of his freshman year.

We kept in close contact that first summer. We wrote lots of letters, called every night, and even sent mixed tapes through the mail. Once I felt inspired to spend an evening cutting words out of magazines that reminded me of Trey, arranging and gluing them into a photo-frame bordered by hearts. A week later I received a “Day in the Life” video tape Trey had made of himself dancing, partying with his “boy-ees,” head-stand-beer-bonging, waving a huge foam finger at a Phillies game, and being interviewed about growing up in Philly, while driving eighty miles per hour on the freeway. The end of the tape included a rather heartfelt message reflecting on life and our relationship. I found myself mostly touched, but also a little embarrassed by his visible swashbuckling.

Mid-summer, I flew out to visit for a week. I was thrilled to see him, although right away I had this slightly out-of-place feeling. Trey seemed the same when we were alone, but around his family, he felt reserved. Although his mom and dad made an effort to welcome me and make me feel at home, they seemed to watch my every move. I swear I caught them exchanging glances with each other that I couldn’t decipher. They gently brought up the topic of religion and my parent’s divorce. They asked me if I wanted to have a big family. There was an awkward moment one night after Trey’s mom brought burgers home for all of us from McDonald’s. I unwrapped mine partially, exposing the top half of my burger, then folded the rest of the wrapper under it like Dad and I had a million times when we would drive around talking and eating our take out. Trey’s mom scoffed, jumped up, and put a plate in front of me, saying “You don’t have to do that here.”

Still, I knew it was perhaps even more important (to Trey) for Trey’s friends to approve of me. So, the second night, he arranged a “Frank Sinatra” party and invited the “brotherhood” and their girlfriends. The guys all showed up in suit coats and fedoras and passed out cigars. The girls were friendly, although a little stand-offish until they got drunk. The “brothers,” however, were pretty awful the whole night, basically ignoring the fact that I even existed. They stuck to all of their inside jokes and if Trey tried to come over to say “hi” or check on me, they made mocking kissy-noises and told him to “get his ass back to the game or get a fucking room.” They vied for 100 percent of Trey’s attention, every second. And as they power-drank, they expected Trey’s intense focus in every game of “beer pong” and “ass-hole,” and razzed him and each other mercilessly on every move.

At one point, one of the guys said something that hurt another one’s feelings and a beer went flying. The offended one got up and punched the wall, then ran out of the house. On cue, Trey followed him out and proceeded to talk to him for over an hour. Another brother took the offender upstairs, balking at his girlfriend when she tried to get involved. When everyone reconvened, it was clear they’d all been sobbing. Everyone made up with hugs and toasts and finished their card game as if nothing had happened. The night ended with the brothers linked in arms swaying, kicking, and crooning to “New York, New York.”

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