Years later, when asked about Welton, Neil would remember spending the majority of his final year kissing his roommate Todd Anderson.
Neil wasn’t really sure what they were doing. He’d only experienced a handful of chaste kisses before this year. Once when he was ten, with Rebecca Kincaid from down the street. Once with a girl Charlie had set him up with on a spectacularly lackluster double date. And one admittedly less chaste kiss with Charlie himself in 10th grade, a moment they mutually decided to blame on smuggled gin the next morning. But somehow, despite his lack of experience, despite the fact that they were best friends (roommates, for chrissakes), kissing Todd quickly became Neil’s new hobby.
To be honest, Neil didn’t actually remember how they’d first kissed. Maybe it was after a club meeting, emboldened by Keats and a few capfuls of irish whisky. Maybe it was the evening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream , when he’d been so relieved to make it through the show without his father finding out that he’d wept. Maybe it was the moment their bedroom door had closed on the first day of the semester, the first time they’d seen each other after a claustrophobic three-month summer vacation.
Neil didn’t know for sure because he’d imagined every possible scenario before they first kissed. Many, many times over. Neil couldn’t even pinpoint the moment when Todd, his shy roommate, had become the most important person in his life. Had there ever been a time when the sight of Todd’s gentle smile hadn’t made Neil’s heart ache?
Of course, he could probably just ask Todd. He was the sensible one, always remembering to push a chair under the door handle. Sure, Neil could talk them out of any situation, but Todd would ensure they never got in them in the first place. But Todd was also a romantic. Neil looked over at him. He was “studying” on his bed, Latin textbook open on his lap, watching the green-gold leaves sway on their boughs outside the window. Maybe Todd heard the silence from the typewriter Neil was supposed to be working at, because he turned to look back. He smiled and returned to his Latin.
It was September, 1960, and Neil Perry had never been in love. He wondered if it might feel something like this.
In October, Neil and Todd often went out to run lines by the lake. They’d done it last year too, back when he’d done Midsummer . Back before all this had started. They sat on the dock as they rehearsed, the gentle creak of water against wood rocking in rhythm with the iambic pentameter. Henley Hall was putting on Much Ado About Nothing this semester, and Neil had managed to snag yet another featured role, this time as Claudio, the naive soldier who believes he’s been betrayed by his fiancée Hero.
Neil jumped to his feet as they came to the climax of the scene. He shouted his speech out over the water, arms spread wide to either side of him.
“‘But fare thee well, most foul, most fair! farewell,
Thou pure impiety and impious purity!
For thee I'll lock up all the gates of love,
And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang,
To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm,
And never shall it more be gracious .’”
Todd quickly scanned his own script, mumbling the lines so they ran together like watercolor paints.
“‘ Hath no man's dagger here a point for me? ’ And then Hero swoons. Claudio sure is fun, isn’t he?” Todd said sarcastically, looking up from his script. “I don’t get it. Why aren’t you playing Benedick?”
“I can’t be the lead everytime, can I? Who knows, maybe they’ll do Hamlet next spring.” Neil dramatically raised his hand as though holding a skull. “ What a piece of work is a man! How noble in — ” He suddenly stopped to look at Todd curiously. “Wait, what’s wrong with Claudio?”
“Forget I said anything,” Todd said, raising his hands innocently.
“No no, I personally would love to know why you hold my character in such low regard.”
“Come on , Neil...”
Neil gave him a cheeky smile and crossed his arms expectantly.
Todd rolled his eyes, then spoke. “Well, he spends the entire first half of the show obsessing over how much he loves Hero, right? But then the second he even suspects she might be interested in someone else, he completely loses it. Even though no one trusts the guy he hears it from. I dunno, I guess…I guess I just don’t think someone who clearly knows nothing about love should spend so much time talking about it.”
“You know a lot about love then?” Neil grinned and kneeled so they were face to face. He saw Todd’s face redden.
“I didn’t mean that , I just meant, um…well...” He trailed off as he looked at Neil, his eyes soft and his lips barely parted. If they were in their room, instead of in the open maw of campus, Neil might have kissed him. He had a sudden, crazy thought. Todd’s an expert in love because he’s in love with me . But that made no sense. After all, they were friends. And sure they’d fooled around a bit, but who hadn’t with their best friend, right? Never mind that this wasn’t the first time Neil had wondered something similar. Whenever Todd said something quietly insightful in class or laughed a bit too hard. Whenever Todd’s gentle fingers grazed his skin...
Neil’s confident gaze must have wavered, because Todd snapped suddenly out of the spell. He held up his script with a nervous smile. “I think we should get back to the play. You need the work.”
“That’s for sure.” Neil sat back down beside Todd, nudging his knee as their legs dangled over the water. “Where were we?” Todd mimed Hero’s little swoon and they both laughed. Let’s leave the love to Shakespeare , Neil thought. We’re fine just as we are.
November swept through campus like a rumor. At first you could only see the signs here and there, in rusty leaves and loose Thanksgiving plans. But all too soon, it was everywhere. By then, there was no escape from what Neil ominously called “the bitter end” — college plans. The Dead Poets stood as follows:
Charlie had his eyes set on the city, co-ed colleges only. “The where doesn’t matter, pal. It’s all about the who . And the who I’m looking for doesn’t go to an all-boys prep school.”
All Ivys for Cameron. “We have high expectations here, and the least I can do is live up to them.”
Knox would be focusing on Vermont and New Hampshire, almost exclusively. “There’s just a lot here that I haven’t explored. No, I don’t know where Chris is going. Why do you ask?”
Meeks was applying just about everywhere, and Pitts was applying almost nowhere. “It’s like Charlie said. Being smart isn’t enough, you’ve got to find the right fit.”
So where did that leave Todd and Neil?
“I’m not sure.” Todd mumbled, “Jeff’s at Princeton, but I’m not even trying for the Ivys.”
“I think it’s good to be self aware.” Cameron nodded.
The other poets glared at him. “What? What did I say?” Cameron exclaimed. Charlie grinned at Neil.
“But we all know where Dr. Perry’s going, don’t we boys?” Everyone already knew the answer to this one. “Harvard!” They all laughed before Neil even had the chance to open his mouth. Neil laughed along weakly. This script had been written for him years ago. He had a role to play as Welton’s so-called golden boy, even in front of his friends. Well, if there was one thing Neil knew he could do, it was act.
He shrugged sheepishly. “Keating says there’s a really strong theatrical spirit there.”
Meeks, who lived in a suburb of Boston, nodded. “It’s true. A lot of shows that start in the city end up transferring to New York.”
“I bet you could get in too.” Neil smiled, nudging Todd with his shoulder.
“No way.” Todd said. As always, he didn’t like the attention to be on him for more than five seconds.
“Then how about Boston University?” Neil insisted. “I know a guy who went there a few years back, and he seemed to love it. You’re more than brilliant enough to get in. And I think you’d really like Boston.”
Neil didn’t mention that Boston was less than a 10 minute bike ride from Cambridge. He didn’t need to.
The week leading up to winter finals, the dormitory was empty. Pretty much everyone was in the common room with their heads shoved into a book, trying not to cry over Latin conjugation. Neil heard faint voices from down the hall. If he focused hard enough, he even thought he could hear Charlie bossing someone around. Neil smiled to himself, and picked up the program from last week’s play. His whole cast signed after the show—some had written little notes beside their signatures.
The door opened, and Todd stumbled in, dumping textbooks onto his desk and slipping out of his worn oxfords. He locked the door behind him, from force of habit more than anything. Whoever thought that we would become a habit? Neil wondered. The thought alone made him smile.
“Get any good work done on the front lines?” Neil called over from his bed. Todd smiled.
“More than you, I guarantee.” Todd flopped onto his own bed with an exhausted groan. He covered his eyes with the back of his hand to block out the dim lamplight.
Neil continued flipping through the pages of his program. He laughed with surprise at one he hadn’t noticed. “The girl who played Hero left me her phone number.”
Todd moved his hand from his eyes and rolled onto his side so they were facing each other. “Are you going to call her?”
Neil felt his heart flutter unexpectedly. “Well, that depends. Would that make you jealous?”
Todd looked back up at the ceiling. “No. It’s none of my business who you call.” Neil got up and walked over to Todd’s bed, kneeling so that he was eye level.
“So you wouldn’t be jealous if I took her out?” Neil asked. Todd sat up.
“Obviously not.” He looked a bit irritated, and then embarrassed by his irritation. Well , Neil thought, he won’t be irritated for long. Neil leaned in closer.
“And you wouldn’t be jealous if I did this?” Gently, so gently, he pressed his lips to Todd’s neck.
“No.” Todd whispered. Neil felt Todd’s pulse, the steady thump familiar and moving, like the rhythm to his favorite song.
“What about this?” Neil kissed him softly, lingered just long enough that when he pulled back, Todd followed compulsively.
“Especially not that.” Todd said breathlessly. Neil grinned and sat down on the bed beside him.
“That’s all I’ve got.” Neil laughed, shaking his head. “You’re sure difficult to impress, Todd.”
“Try harder,” Todd smiled, and then they were kissing. Neil loved the way Todd kissed him. Gently, two hands cupping Neil’s face like he was holding something fluttering, delicate in his hands. Neil was used to people treating him like he was an unstoppable force of nature. Not like he was something precious.
Maybe Todd was a bit jealous, because tonight felt different. Neil was usually the bold one, the passionate one who left love bites like garnets on Todd’s neck (“You better find a new hobby next semester or I’ll be in scarves until June,” Todd chided last week after a particularly enthusiastic encounter). But tonight it was Todd who deepened the kiss, open-mouthed and needy. When Todd nipped his lip, Neil let out a surprised little huff of breath. He laughed shakily.
“It’s a bit hot in here, don’t you think?” Neil whispered.
“Way too hot.” Todd agreed, and pulled his respectable knit sweater up over his head, where it promptly got caught. They both laughed as Neil helped him pull it the rest of the way over. When they’d finally wrestled the sweater off, Neil smiled. “Welcome back.”
“Nice to see you again.” Todd smiled back. The apples of his cheeks were flushed pink, the sweetest shade Neil had ever seen. He brushed his thumb against Todd’s shoulder. The skin prickled with goosebumps. Neil suddenly felt shy. He looked out the window, where just through the blinds, he could see tiny snowflakes fluttering down.
“Now I feel bad, you’ll freeze to death.” Neil apologized with an embarrassed laugh.
“Good thing the radiator’s on.” Todd smiled, and Neil’s heart melted as he leaned in to kiss him again.
They’d kissed loads of times before, and they’d kiss a million more times if Neil could help it. So why did everything feel different tonight, more intense? Hold it together, Neil thought, or you’ll say something you’ll regret . Then Todd’s fingers were in his hair and it felt so good he forgot to think at all. The world was flipping upside down. Neil’s cells were rearranging. Under his skin, he felt earthquakes rumbling, zero gravity, the Big Bang. Did Todd feel it too?
“I want to see you over winter break,” Neil whispered desperately before he could stop himself.
Todd stared up at Neil, his lips a bit swollen. “C’mon, you know that can’t happen.”
“Why not?” Neil asked, bringing his lips back to Todd’s throat.
Todd laughed incredulously. “Uh, where do I start? First of all, you know my family won’t let me do anything, ever, if Jeff hasn’t done it first.” As Todd spoke, Neil began to trail kisses down his chest, light and quick. “Second, aren’t you supposed to be finishing up college applications over break?” Neil dropped kisses all down his stomach and his waist. “And that’s not even mentioning your...um, your…” Todd’s breath hitched as Neil lingered at his hip bone. Neil smiled and reached for Todd’s belt buckle when Todd sat up so fast he almost fell off the bed.
“Hold on a second.” His cheeks were flushed. Neil sat up on his knees.
“You don’t want me to?” He asked gently.
Todd rushed, “No, no, I do, I definitely do.” He laughed at his own eagerness, a lock of blond hair falling right to the middle of his face. Neil’s stomach ached with longing. “It’s just—I mean, you doing... that ...it won’t change the fact that I can’t see you over break.” Todd took Neil’s hand in his tenderly.
“I know. I just really wish you could.” Neil pressed a kiss to Todd’s wrist, traced the long, mysterious lines on his palm. He knew the name of the curved indent at the top—the heart line. His friend from Henley Hall had taught him that. He looked up suddenly. “What if we run away before break then?”
“Well sure, if it’s before break that changes things.” Todd smiled playfully. He searched Neil’s face and his eyes widened. “Wait, you’re serious?”
“Of course I am!” Neil insisted. He continued rapidly, almost bursting with excitement as a plan tumbled out of this head, fully-formed like Athena. “We sneak out all the time for club meetings, don’t we? Therese, you remember her, she was the fairy queen in Midsummer ? Well, she graduated last year and supposedly has this great apartment downtown. I know she’d let us stay over. We could go to a party, or a bar, or a jazz club. Wouldn’t it be great if we came back looking like real beats?” He laughed. “Nuwanda would lose it.”
Todd shook his head in disbelief. “ You’ve lost it. There’s no way we could make it out without being caught, not during finals.”
“Well, hypothetically, if I could figure out a way, are you in?” Neil asked.
Todd bit the inside of his cheek, and tilted his head, at once doubtful and intrigued. He let out a little puff of air. “Well sure, hypothetically...” Todd gave him a warning look. “ Hypothetically .” Neil could see the whisper of a smile in the corner of his cheek. Neil wanted to kiss him again, but instead he just grinned.
“Then I’ll make it happen.”
THE DAY BEFORE WINTER BREAK
15 hours before they were set to head home for winter break, Neil and Todd got food poisoning. They were a miserable pair, sweating bullets and shaking all over. Pitts, who’d had food poisoning over Thanksgiving, told the teachers that after he’d puked his guts out a few times and slept completely uninterrupted, he’d awoken feeling just fine. The teachers ordered them straight to bed. No one would bother to monitor them too closely tonight—what trouble could they get up to when they could barely sit up? What a shame that they’d have to miss the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, who were set to play a post-finals concert to celebrate another great semester.
By 8, all the students and teachers were sitting in the chapel waiting for the orchestra to begin. Neil peeked his head out of their door, then smiled back at Todd, who was stuffing their beds with pillows to make the crude outline of two sick, sleeping boys.
“The coast is clear,” he whispered. Todd nodded, grabbed their coats, and they sped down through the empty halls and out into the night.
“It’s kind of scary how easily you can make things up,” Todd said as they ran past red brick walls and thick colonies of evergreens.
“An actor has to be able to think on his feet!” Neil shouted, leaping into the air. They laughed as they ran, completely and utterly free.
They weren’t able to find a jazz club when they made it downtown, so they snuck into a sleepy bar. Todd was only a month into 18, and Neil wouldn’t be there for another week. Sitting at the bar with their bare faces flushed from running, their coats flipped inside out to hide the Welton crest, they looked their age. Still, it was a slow night, and they’d clearly come a long way. The bartender took pity and slipped them each a glass of the weakest ale he had on tap.
At the bar, Neil sipped his beer slowly and listened to Todd. Todd spoke about his parents, about Jeffrey, about Balincrest. Off-campus, he seemed freer than he ever had before, more relaxed. Here, he wasn't constrained by the expectations of being the other Anderson brother. He wasn’t trapped with a head full of thoughts his tongue wouldn’t let him get out.
Neil listened and listened, completely hypnotized. He wondered if he’d somehow gotten drunk off of his weak beer. He had all the signs. He felt dazed and dizzy and euphoric and god , Todd’s eyelashes looked so long. And even though he’d found his voice in the past year, it was still so soft. Unassuming, it beaconed Neil to lean in. You’re not drunk. You know exactly what this is, a voice in Neil’s head whispered, but he pushed it away. He wanted to stay right where he was for just a bit longer, swept up in the swaying cadence of Todd’s voice.
When they got to Therese’s flat, their host was sitting at the kitchen table, flicking smoke off a cigarette and reading a book. When Therese saw Neil, she gestured for him to come forward with her cigarette and kissed him twice, once on each cheek. She was almost comically beautiful, with jet black hair and piercing blue eyes like Elizabeth Taylor. He wondered if Todd noticed. She caught Todd’s eye and nodded for him to sit down. She offered them both cigarettes. Neil shook his head no, but Todd took his politely.
“How is that?” Todd asked, peering at the cover of her book, The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan.
“Good,” she smiled. “Very good. And also about a Therese, if you can believe it.”
Neil laughed. “Gee, you really took that self-obsessed actor thing to heart, didn’t you?”
“I learned from the best.” Therese grinned and set her book down. She took another long, glamorous drag of her cigarette and then clapped her hands together. “Alright boys. I’ve only got one bed in the guest room, so which one of you is taking the couch?”
“Oh, we can share.” Todd looked at Neil suddenly and then back at Therese. “I mean, um, because we’re roommates.” Todd nervously stubbed out his unlit cigarette. He looked defeated. “I can take the couch.”
Teresa reached out a hand and squeezed Todd’s fingers. “It’s okay. I know all about roommates.” She smiled lightly and looked at Neil with a wink. “I’ve had a couple myself.”
They stayed up laughing with Therese late into the evening. She stirred cocktails and read their horoscopes from a palm-sized blue book (“Scorpio and Sagittarius...how unusual ”). Every story she told had a punchline that made them laugh so hard their eyes filled with tears. Neil watched Todd talk and laugh, his smile unabashedly wide. Neil sipped his gin and tonic, strong and sweet, and fondness threatened to overtake him. If it did, he wouldn’t care.
Later that night, Neil closed his eyes as Todd traced his cheekbones, his jaw, his lips with light fingers. In the darkness, Neil stopped being himself. He was just a hovering soul grounded by Todd’s gentle touch.
“What do you want from life, Neil?” Todd whispered.
Todd had always been a bit pensive, caught in an inner world he kept sealed up tight. But in the past few months, he’d started to let his curiosity slip through the cracks. Once it was out, it was insatiable. These days when he wasn’t studying (or not studying with Neil), he spent his free time borrowing strange and unusual poetry collections from Mr. Keating. Not just the Romantics, but newer things—Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs, Jean Toomer, e. e. cummings. He was becoming someone who asked questions.
“I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” Neil smiled. “And I want to be an actor. I want to be free. I want to be with you.” That hadn’t felt so vulnerable in his head, but when he said it out loud, let it hang there in the dark, it felt like he’d just cut open his chest for Todd to peer inside. He couldn’t play this off as mere friendship or even lust. Neil had just confessed to something else entirely, something he hadn’t even realized he was admitting.
After a beat, Todd said softly, “Me too.” The tenderness he cradled those two words with made Neil’s heart clench.
“You want to be an actor too, huh?” Neil asked with a cheeky smile, trying desperately to gloss over the vulnerability that had caught him so off guard. His voice sounded weak under the heavy thrum of his heart.
Todd surprised Neil by pulling him into a tight hug. Of all the things they’d ever done together, this strangely felt the most intimate. Neil wondered when he’d last been hugged. He couldn’t remember.
Neil breathed in the soapy smell of Todd’s hair, and closed his eyes. I love you, Neil thought. And he really did.
He only talked to Todd once over winter break, when Todd had called to wish him a happy birthday on December 20th. It was a particularly pleasant surprise considering he normally didn’t celebrate his birthday until he was back at school with his friends. They rarely called him on the day itself, busy preparing with their parents for the holidays or working extra shifts to build up pocket money for the new semester. I love you , Neil thought as Todd updated him on his lonely days in the Anderson’s sprawling Connecticut house. “They were already out to dinner by the time my train got in. Jeffrey asked them to wait but they were just too excited to have him home.”
“Sure they were.” Neil said sympathetically. I love you , he thought. He might have told him if his father hadn’t been in the corner of the room, silently monitoring the length of the call. Neil’s birthday wasn’t a good enough excuse to stop college prep, not when he was this close. I love you , Neil thought again, like a prayer. And I’m going to tell you when we get back.
January passed in a blissful haze. The frigid weather forced everyone indoors most weekends, and that meant more time with Todd. By February, Neil spent more nights curled up in Todd’s bed than his own.
“It’s such a waste. Maybe we should get a third roommate,” Todd joked one night.
“No way,” Neil grinned, wrapping his arms around Todd tighter. “I’m keeping you all to myself.” I love you, I love you, I love you.
And yet, in all that time, Neil hadn’t been able to get the words out. The winter air had frozen them solid on his tongue. He was starting to think that any confession was a bad idea. He didn’t really even know how Todd viewed their relationship. Sure, on a physical level they’d abandoned all pretenses of a purely platonic relationship ages ago. But what’s a little kissing between friends? Shit, he’d only been able to pin it down as love a month ago, and they’d been at it for almost a year! Well , he reasoned, if he feels the same way, he probably already knows. And if he doesn’t, we’ll be in college in a few months.
And maybe he was in too deep, because the thought scathed his heart on the spot.
By late March, there was no escaping the bitter end. Several acceptances had already flooded in. As they shivered under blankets at the end of a club meeting, Neil finally (reluctantly) breached the topic. The lineup was this:
Fordham for Meeks and Pitts. “Who knows what we’ll study. But we’ll be roommates, maybe.” Neil caught Todd’s eye and smiled.
Dartmouth for Knox. “Originally, I thought I’d be able to visit Chris on the weekends, but it looks like she’s going to California. Figures.”
The “school of life” for Nuwanda. “Greenwich Village. A summer of sex and jazz, drinks flowing, utter bohemia.” He smirked. “NYU can have me in the fall if they can handle me.”
William & Mary for Cameron. “In some ways, I think it’s even better than an Ivy. No offense, Knox.”
BU for Todd, to Neil’s pleasant surprise. He’d hoped Todd would apply there but besides the one time he’d mentioned it, they never brought it up again. Todd grinned as Meeks clapped him on the back. “I think there’ll be a lot to keep me busy around the city.” Todd said. I love you , Neil thought.
And Harvard for Neil.
Of course, they’d all expected it. Still, Cameron managed to appear genuinely taken aback. “Bit unfair with your math scores, don’t you think?”
“Luckily the admissions team looks for personality as well, Cameron,” Charlie sneered.
Charlie got up, holding a beer above his head like a champagne flute. “Here’s to our Ivy Leaguers, who tricked the board into thinking their brains were as big as their balls.” Everyone laughed and raised their bottles. “And here’s to the Dead Poets Society. We made it out, men!”
They cheered and whooped and Neil felt fuller than he had in a long time.
Back in February, Neil made the responsible decision to sit out Henely Hall's spring production of The Importance of Being Earnest (and he’d been a shoo-in for Algernon, too). By April, with college applications long finished and the play two weeks away, he was perfectly miserable. To bear with his loss, he’d decided to tackle Oscar Wilde’s entire backlist. Luckily for him, Mr. Keating prayed to the church of Wilde, and was happy to dust off his collection for an enthusiastic student. Neil was currently nose deep in a well-worn copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He heard Todd silently slip into the room, and called to him excitedly, eyes glued to the page.
“Listen to this! ‘I have been right, Basil, haven’t I, to take my love out of poetry, and to find my wife in Shakespeare’s plays? Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth. ’ That sounds a bit like you, doesn’t it?” He looked up with a flirtatious grin. Todd didn’t respond, just sat at his desk holding a sheet of paper.
“Is the great poet composing something?” He laughed, and playfully leaned in to snatch the paper.
Todd pulled it away and turned to him suddenly. “Can you just stop?” He snapped. “Not everything’s a joke.”
“I didn’t say it was.” Neil said defensively, wounded by this unexpected anger. They were quiet for a second, and Neil went to the windowsill to sulk. He felt like maybe he should apologize. He looked at Todd, who crumpled the piece of paper in his fist and tossed it in the wastebasket.
“Was it really that bad of a poem?” Neil asked gently after a moment. Not an apology, barely even an olive branch. But something.
Todd kept staring at the wall. “It wasn’t a poem.” He sighed. “It was an acceptance letter to Columbia University.”
Neil got up. “Todd, that’s amazing! Why didn’t you tell me you applied to Columbia?”
“I don’t even know why I did.” He said miserably. “I'm not going.”
“Wait, hold on, hold on, that makes no sense. Everyone went there! Kerouac, Ginsberg. You’re guaranteed to be a poet if you go! I don’t understand how you could pass—” Todd looked over at him, and he suddenly recognized Todd’s hesitation, his misery. He did want to go to Columbia, desperately. But there was something holding him back. Well. Someone.
“This is unbelievable! Todd, you can’t give up Columbia for…this.” Neil pointed loosely between the two of them. Neil wasn’t usually at a loss for words, but he was struggling to calm down enough to express himself. If he couldn’t find the right thing to say…well, he didn’t know what would happen. “You have a real chance here, a chance to do something!”
“This is something.” Todd said defensively.
“Well, obviously it’s something .” Neil said. “But Todd, if you gave up something you really loved because of us, I would never forgive myself. Or you, frankly.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Todd said to his desk, “Because that's going to happen either way.”
It took Neil a second to process what he’d just said. Had Todd just..? Yes, he thought so. In his roundabout Todd way, he’d just admitted the words Neil had been trying to say the past four months. Shit, if there was ever a time to seize the day, it was now.
Neil took a breath. He fished the crumpled acceptance letter from the bin, straightened it gently on the desk. Then, he pulled a sheet of paper from Todd’s desk set, grabbed the fountain pen, and kneeled beside Todd’s desk to write. He felt Todd’s eyes on him.
“Um...what are you doing?” Todd asked, too surprised to be angry. Neil waved him away, scrawling quickly on the paper.
“I’m writing you a letter. The sooner we start the habit, the better.” When he’d finished, he signed his name in his tiny, blocky print. He cleared his throat and read from the page:
You won’t believe the girls they have in Cambridge. I’ve just about forgotten you, I’m so driven to distraction. How are things in New York? I hope you’re not overthinking everything. Knowing you, you probably are. I hope you’re writing poems that will stir things up over there. Knowing you, you probably are.
P.S. I’m not letting you give this up, so don’t give up on me. I’ll still be here in four years, counting down the days until I get to touch you again.
When Neil finished reading, he folded the letter up into a little square and slipped it gently into Todd’s shirt pocket, letting his hand rest there. He spoke, his voice shy. “That wasn’t too bad, was it? You think you can handle that for a little while?”
Todd smiled. The misery had drained from his face, leaving only the fond glow that never failed to make Neil light-headed. “I think I can.” Neil leaned in to kiss him but barely caught Todd’s ear as he rushed over to Neil’s typewriter to write his own letter to the Columbia Admissions Office. Todd laughed as he typed, pushing Neil away playfully when he peeked over his shoulder.
Over the clack of the typewriter, Neil breathed a sigh of relief. He’d done it . In his own roundabout way, Neil had told Todd he loved him. And Todd, always listening, had heard him loud and clear.
“What are you going to do about Todd?” Knox asked as he, Charlie, and Neil walked back to the dorm from Calculus. Todd had told everyone about his change of school at the end of the club meeting the night before. They couldn’t have cheered harder for Todd if he’d found a way to make Hellton co-ed. But now, after the dust had settled, Neil was surprised that the questions were bound his way.
“What do you mean?” Neil asked distractedly, checking his watch. Todd was planning to mail off his letter to Columbia after class, and Neil wanted to make it back in time to go with him.
“I mean, are you two going to...you know.” Knox shrugged. “Stay together?”
Neil looked up from his watch and froze. There was a long pause, and some tenth graders who’d been walking behind the trio cursed at their sudden stop.
Charlie whistled. “Well done, Knoxious.”
“You knew?” Neil asked, staring at Knox.
Charlie smirked. “Come on, pal. You and Todd come straight home after class, and lock the door every night. You’re either doing drugs or messing around, and if you were doing drugs you’d share them with me.”
“Wait, you knew too?” His eyes flickered over to Charlie.
Knox put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Neil. We all know.”
It rarely happened but Neil was shocked. He took a deep breath and nodded, before looking once more between the two of them. “Okay. Right. And the verdict?”
Charlie shrugged. “There are weirder ways to get it up than with your roommate.”
Neil felt a deep sense of relief wash him from head to toe. His heart was full of something he’d only once been able to put a label on. He felt it for Charlie, that crazy sonuvabitch who reinvented himself once a week into someone even bolder. He felt it for gentle Knox, so sensitive to love that he’d notice it in a moment and follow it to the end of the earth. He felt it for brilliant Meeks, shy Pitts, even square Cameron. He’d felt it for Todd even before they’d become something more. He loved them, each and every one. Absolutely and completely, without judgement or expectation, they were the loves of his life. Neil had to grin or else he might cry.
Neil clapped Knox on the shoulder before raising a teasing eyebrow at Charlie. “So you and Cameron never...?”
Knox laughed and Charlie shuddered. “Don’t even joke about that.”
All of June, Neil felt time slipping away from him. Every time he laughed with the guys at a club meeting or held Todd, he felt a little piece of himself getting stuck in the past. Let this moment stretch on and on forever , he pleaded silently to anyone or anything who might be listening. But suddenly it was the last day of English class, and they were saying quiet goodbyes to Mr. Keating. And then it was the final Dead Poets Society meeting, and they howled poetry to the moon like mourning dogs. And then it was the night before graduation.
“So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” Todd murmured into Neil’s wet hair, his fingers tracing hypnotic swirls at the nape of his neck. They were half-naked and happy in Neil’s bed, Neil’s head resting on Todd’s chest, rising and falling with his gentle breath.
“Oh, we’ll smile and shake some hands like good Ivy Leaguers.” Neil turned his head to bite Todd’s bare shoulder. “At least until we sneak back to the dorm and sin in private.”
“Sounds like fun.” Todd said, and kept brushing loose fingers through his hair.
“And then you’ll miss me like crazy and mail me depressing love sonnets all summer.” Neil teased.
“And you’ll pretend to read them for a few months before tossing them.” Todd smiled.
“And you’ll start up with your beatnik roommate at Columbia.”
“And you’ll fall for the first blue eyes you see at summer stock auditions.”
“And then I’ll send you a desk set for your birthday.”
They both laughed. When it died down, they were quiet. Neil let himself fall back under the spell of Todd’s gentle breath. In, out, in, out. But it wasn’t quite the same. They were joking, but there was something true and scary in their words, something that hurt.
“What are we going to do?” Todd smiled sadly. It was barely a question. Neil didn’t even know how he would answer if it had been one. Neil was the one who was supposed to have his life together, to have this great future in front of him. The future had always looked mysterious and a bit intimidating, but for the first time in a long time, it looked bleak.
“I don’t know.” Neil sighed. “I wish I did. I really pulled you into a mess this time, huh?” Todd reached down to cup his cheek. His eyes were so warm, and he had that faint little smile that drove Neil crazy.
“Don’t be such a hero. I was the one who kissed you first, remember?” Todd teased. His eyes widened when he saw Neil blush. “Wait, did you actually forget?”
Neil sheepishly buried his head in Todd’s chest. “I’ve been daydreaming about you since the first day we met. I can’t always remember which scenarios made it to reality!” Todd laughed then, so hard that it made Neil’s head shake. Neil showered Todd in apologetic kisses.
“I’m sorry. Tell me about it.” He pleaded.
Todd shook his head with an uncharacteristically wicked smile. “Uh, no . You’re lucky I’m not sending you to Charlie and Cameron’s room for the night.”
“Show me then.” Neil whispered. He kissed him again, right below his ear, grinned as Todd held him closer. “Please?”
Todd leaned in. Just as their lips touched, Neil felt him smile. “Just a warning, it wasn’t very memorable.” Todd kissed him deeply, as if he couldn’t believe his luck, as if he could never get enough of him. It was the kind of kiss you can’t dream up, the kind of kiss you never forget.
When it ended, Neil hid his red face behind his hands. “I’m such an idiot.”
“But I love you anyway.” Todd whispered. Neil pulled back his fingers and grinned.
“Say it again.”
“I love you.” Todd said without hesitation. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Neil laughed and held Todd tight. “I love you, too.”
On the day of graduation, Neil woke up before Todd. His sleep had been easy, dreamless, and entirely too short.
He looked at Todd, whose blond eyelashes fluttered like dragonfly wings every few seconds. What was he dreaming about? Whatever the dream, Neil hoped it was beautiful. Neil kissed the top of his head, and gingerly slipped out of their bed and into the real world.
On his way out of the school, Neil stopped to look at the trophy and portrait case in the main hallway. As he looked at the boys in their dated uniforms, he could still hear their whispers echoing low through the hollow corridors. Carpe diem. Seize the day. He thought about their own class photo. Would it ever end up sealed behind a glass case? When future students raced by it, would they even notice the tall boy in the corner labeled N. Perry?
“You’re up early, Mr. Perry.” Neil startled, but when he whipped around, he was greeted by the face he’d hoped most to see.
“Good morning, Mr. Keating,” Neil said. “I’m grabbing breakfast with my parents before the ceremony, and thought I’d make a quick stop.” He looked back at the class photos, crisp and pristine despite their age.
“I remember when you took us here on the first day of school.” Neil smiled at the memory. “After that lesson I thought you were just about the most interesting person I’d ever met.”
“And now?” Mr. Keating raised an eyebrow.
“ Well… ” They both laughed.
“To tell you the truth,” Mr. Keating said after a moment, “I had no idea what I was doing back then.” Neil looked over at him in surprise.
“Truly.” He continued. “Looking back, that lesson was a bit irresponsible. Carpe diem is a powerful sentiment, but it can be dangerous.”
Neil thought back to Charlie’s ill-fated co-ed crusade last year. He thought of his own time acting at Henley Hall. What would have happened to him if his father had discovered his secret? A cold breeze blew through the hallway. Neil shivered.
“I suppose you’re right.” Neil agreed quietly. “But when I think about the ways I’ve changed—the ways we all changed—I don’t regret anything. I hope you don’t either.”
“Mr. Anderson has really become someone extraordinary, hasn’t he?”
Neil looked over to Mr. Keating, who was still looking at the trophy case with the gentlest of smiles on his face. Neil realized with a start that he could tell Mr. Keating anything. Neil looked back at the trophy case too, and saw his own smile in the reflection. “I think he probably always was, sir.”
“Wise man.” He turned back to Neil, eyes bright. Everytime it struck Neil how young his eyes looked. “Well, I suppose you won’t want to keep your family waiting.”
“Oh, right. Goodbye then, I guess.” Neil said. But he didn’t move. If he moved, he realized suddenly, he would start crying. “I feel like I should say something more, but I don’t know what. What do you say to someone who changed your life?” Neil laughed tearfully.
“You don’t say anything. You just keep making them proud.” He smiled.
Neil smiled back.
“Take care, Mr. Keating.”
“Take care, Neil.”
At the restaurant, Neil watched his father order.
Mr. Perry looked at the menu, looked around at the other tables, looked back down at the menu. He ordered Eggs Benedict, the second least expensive specialty on the menu. Neil noticed his father always did this when they went to a nice restaurant. Never the least expensive. They still had appearances to keep up. When the waiter came, he ordered for Neil’s mother as well, fruit salad and a poached egg. Neil wondered what his mother would have chosen for herself. He ordered a coffee.
As they ate, they stumbled through the kind of stilted conversation you make at holiday parties with cousins twice removed.
“How was your final year?” Mrs. Perry asked. It was great, Neil thought. I did another secret play and I ran away the week before Christmas. Oh, and did I forget to tell you I’ve been sleeping with my roommate?
“It went well.” Neil said mildly. “You know I’m graduating third in the class?” His mother smiled and patted his hand. He looked over at his father nervously. Mr. Perry shoveled a bite of hollandaise-soaked ham into his mouth with little interest. He dabbed his mouth with a napkin and looked sternly at Neil.
“Have you started planning your course load for Harvard yet? I don’t want you to miss a required class because you weren’t smart enough to make a plan.”
Neil wondered if he should tell them his real plan. What he really wanted to do. He thought back to what Mr. Keating had said, about the danger of carpe diem . Was the risk worth it? He’d just have to see. He took a deep breath.
“I’m thinking I’ll take a theatre class there.” He started carefully. “I could fit one in my schedule really easily, and still stay completely on track.” He breathed in again and smiled in spite of himself. He’d finally done it. For the first time in his life, he’d told his father what he wanted.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” His father said, going back to his meal. “You’re pre-med. You don’t have time for that. Even if you had time I wouldn’t allow it.”
“But I got into Harvard,” Neil said dumbly.
“Exactly. And I’m not letting you throw away a second of your education.”
“I don’t understand.” Neil looked quickly between his parents, as if he was expecting one of them to crack a teasing smile. They just kept looking at him with that hollow distance. Neil felt a warm pulse beginning to throb in his head. “You made me drop everything I loved, but I did it. For chrissakes, the least you can do is let me take one acting class!” Neil laughed in disbelief.
Now he had his father’s attention. And his mother’s. And the couple’s at the table next to them. His father put down his silverware and leaned over his plate with a fierce whisper. “Don’t speak to me like that, Neil. If you’re going to throw away everything we’ve worked for, then you can pay your tuition on your own.”
“You know I can’t do that. I’d have to drop out.”
“It’s your choice.” His father said flatly.
Neil stared. All those hours of studying. The hiding, the lying , doing anything to make it through. All to please them . And at the slightest burst of independence, it suddenly meant nothing? “Can you even hear yourself? You’d rather have me give up my place at the best school in the country, the school I only applied to because of you, than let me be myself for a single moment?”
His father looked around as the other diners curiously peeked up from their meals. He picked up his fork and knife again as if he hadn’t just broken Neil’s heart. Always keeping up appearances. Always controlling the only things he could—Neil and his mother. As he watched his father pick at his egg, glancing at the tables around them, Neil didn’t feel anger or disgust. Just pity.
“I’m going to live my life the way I need to, even if you don’t approve. And if that means no Harvard, fine.” Neil said gently. “You don’t control my life anymore.”
His father stood up so suddenly he knocked a water glass over. The look in his eyes was horrible, indescribable. It was anger, sadness, dejection, disgust, fear. Maybe even something that had once been love. Mr. Perry walked out of the restaurant. Neil’s mom looked nervously at her son, then followed her husband out.
A waiter came over to the table to ask if he would like the check, with a tense smile that said leave now . Neil nodded, fished out some money he’d meticulously saved away, and left. Graduation was in an hour, and he still wasn’t dressed.
Commencement was tasteful and dull, like every ceremony at Welton. Perfectly tailored to make mothers cry, fathers proud, and little brothers fidget. Cameron gave a nice enough salutatorian speech, if a little cliché.
“Why’d they give it to him when you’re the one who's always doing plays?” whispered Benny Pearson, the boy sitting on Neil’s left.
“Politics,” Pitts whispered back from Neil’s right. Neil smiled, but was glad he hadn’t placed higher in the class. He had nothing more to say this morning.
Only once did Neil dare to look behind him to see if his parents were there, but the crowd was so thick with red-faced men and well-dressed ladies that he couldn’t tell. Mr. Nolan called out his name. When he crossed the stage with his robes billowing around him, he felt like the ghost of a boy once called Neil Perry. Until he heard Charlie’s whoop, Meeks’ laugh. Until he saw Todd’s smile, crooked and sweet, and so in love it made Neil’s knees tremble.
After the ceremony, Neil waited in the arched side entrance where he’d first met Todd. He waved when Todd sleepily emerged from the chapel. “Did you enjoy the ceremony?” Neil asked, leaning against the stone archway.
Todd rolled his eyes. “Immensely. I’m not sure what I loved more, sitting in a hot room for 2 hours while Nolan droned on about how well our tuition is spent, or counting how many times Cameron said ‘excellent’ in his speech.”
“Definitely Nolan,” Neil laughed. “I lost count after the 5th.”
Todd smiled. “At least Meeks gave a good send off speech.”
Todd pulled his graduation cap off to comb a hand through his messy hat hair. Neil wanted to touch him, run his fingers through the smooth blond locks. But in this public space, that was almost impossible. Neil noticed Todd’s tie was crooked, probably from fiddling with it during the stifling ceremony.
“Your tie’s a bit loose.” Neil said, pointing to it. Todd looked down and back up. “Here, I’ll fix it.” Neil took a step forward to tighten it. As he did so, he could hear Todd’s breath go a little shallow, see his eyes flutter half-closed. God, Neil wanted to kiss him. Maybe he would, just very quickly—
“What a great ceremony, huh?” said a familiar voice. Neil and Todd pulled apart immediately, both a little red. Cameron came up to them and clapped a friendly hand on Neil’s shoulder.
“Excellent , you might say.” Neil nodded, and Todd stifled a laugh.
“Oh, I would definitely say that. Listen, Neil.” Cameron said, turning to him with a very serious look. “I just want to clear the air between us.”
“How so?” Neil said, raising a confused eyebrow.
“I think we always viewed each other as rivals, which is a shame because I always saw you as a good friend. This,” he gestured to his shiny gold stole embroidered with the word Salutatorian in black thread, “means nothing. It’s all about the connections we make, you understand? I hope you remember that at Harvard.”
“Thanks, pal. I will.” Neil stuck out his hand and Cameron took it with a self-satisfied smile. He said a quick goodbye before running off to presumably give the same speech to Meeks, whose Valedictorian stole fluttered in the breeze.
“What a guy.” Todd said, staring after in disbelief.
“Good old Cameron.” Neil smiled. “I really think he’ll find his people in college.”
Already people were trickling out of the corridor. Neil wondered when he’d see them again. If he ever would at all.
“Um. What comes next?”
It wasn’t surprising Todd asked him. After all, he was always the one with the plan. But now he wasn’t sure about anything. They’d planned to spend their last few hours at Welton locked in their room, packing for as long as they could. But in a shocking move of compassion, Todd’s family had already started moving his boxes out while Neil was at breakfast. This was it.
“I guess we say goodbye for now.” Neil said.
“I guess.” Todd agreed.
They stood there, neither making the move to go. “You have my phone number, right? I’ll give you the dorm number when I get to school, and my address,” Todd said. Always the sensible one.
“Of course. You gave me all that.”
They stood there for a second, waved at the last family in the corridor as they disappeared. Still they didn’t move to go. “I hate this.” Todd blurted out.
“Me too.” Neil sighed.
“This is so stupid. Just kiss me.”
Neil didn’t have to be asked twice. He pushed Todd against the brick wall and kissed him more desperately than he ever had before. It wasn’t graceful or poetic at all. It was reckless and sad and dangerous and feverish and frightened. Todd broke the kiss, his face still in Neil’s palms.
“Run away with me.” Todd said breathlessly.
Neil grinned. “Hypothetically, or for real?"
“For real. Don’t go to Cambridge. Come to New York with me and become an actor. Or I’ll come to you and be a poet or a teacher. It doesn’t matter. Be with me.”
Neil nodded. “I’m in. When do we leave?”
“Wait wait wait, that was too easy.” They both laughed.
“I’m not going to Harvard, Todd.” Neil gazed into his eyes. “I decided this morning.”
Todd looked as if he was not sure whether to be concerned or pleased. Neil shook his head with a smile.
“It’s a long story, I’ll explain later. Do you really want this?”
“I want you .” Todd whispered, gently touching his forehead to Neil’s.
“When did you get so forward?” Neil said fondly.
Todd smiled. “I know the meek shall inherit, but I thought I might speed up the process.”
Neil laughed and kissed him again.
It was June, 1961. Neil Perry knew he was on the precipice of something great.