“I can’t believe it’s here,” Thad said, spinning around with his arms open wide. He kissed his laptop screen in an exaggerated fashion and a loud smack reverberated off the exposed brick walls.
“I’m so confused. It’s just a Broadway show? Of your favorite play?” Thad’s roommate Sam asked.
“Uh!” Thad pretended to faint in horror. Sam laughed, and Thad popped back up. “Angels in America is not JUST a broadway play. It was written by one of my personal heroes.”
Sam flopped onto Thad’s bed and scrolled over the show details on the laptop. “Ohh, sounds wonderful. Can I come?”
Thad shook his head vehemently. “No.”
“It’s something I need to do alone.” Thad grabbed her hand. “Not that I wouldn’t love your company.”
“I get it.” Sam smiled reassuringly. “Okay, I gotta run. I have a date with that guy that has jealousy issues and bad tattoos.”
Thad laughed. “Sam!”
She was already half out the door. “Bye! I’ll text you if I’m not coming home!” she called out, flipping her light purple hair over her shoulder.
Thad added a single ticket to his cart for both parts of the play for the following afternoon. He would be at the theatre from noon until 10 pm, but it was worth it. He smiled to himself and ruminated on how full circle life could be. He thought back to his small, conservative hometown in Connecticut.
He was thirteen when he was first shown a movie in health class about how all gays eventually die a painful death from AIDS. That had been traumatizing, to say the least.
By fourteen, he convinced himself that being gay meant being single forever and then dying alone from a terrible virus. The idea seemed almost comical to him now, but in those years, it had fueled his anxiety and depression. He had been bullied, lonely, and terrified to be himself. Once, in gym class, a kid hit him so hard with the ball his nose broke. Through the gushing blood, he told the nurse it was an accident, lest she tell his parents the real reason he was being picked on. Instead, he came out to his super-liberal grandparents who were supporters of the arts and lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.
He felt safe telling them. One of his earliest memories was shopping with his grandmother at Barneys. It was a breezy summer day in the city, and he saw a cool model walk by on 5th Avenue with a colorful scarf tied around her neck. Inside the store, he picked up a pink and peach Hermès scarf and turned it over in his hands, admiring how well the two colors flowed together and imagining all the different ways he could wear it. Abruptly, his mind flashed to the boys in his grade spitting on him in gym class and calling him a faggot. He dropped the scarf like it was a scalding hot pan.
His grandmother came over and kneeled down next to him. She put a hand on his head and patted him softly. “Thaddeus, you know boys don’t only have to like blue, right?”
He had been sixteen when he made the coming out call to them, and they were thrilled.
“You have to come with us to this fundraiser for gay artists next weekend in SoHo!” his grandmother said after his big reveal. “Have you ever met any other gays?”
“There are three of us at school,” Thad said. “Total.”
“Take the Metro-North in on Saturday,” his grandfather said. Thad felt him nodding over the phone. “We’ll pick you up from the station.”
Thad set the phone down with a trembling hand. He looked in the mirror into his soft brown eyes, red-rimmed from crying. But he didn’t feel sad anymore—he was excited and a little nervous. Could this be the point where his life finally started getting better?
That Saturday, Thad sat in a nearby parking lot waiting for his train. He noticed a CVS in the adjoining lot and a jolt of excitement went through his body at a spontaneous thought—he had always wanted to try putting on makeup but had never felt safe enough. He ran into the CVS and carefully picked out foundation and concealer to match the shade of his ivory tone. He loved looking through the options and realized he never had more fun at a convenience store.
The large woman at the register looked him up and down. “Is that it?” she asked. Her voice overflowed with judgment. He knew what she was really asking: is that for you?
“Yes,” Thad squeaked.
He sat in the parking lot and slapped the concealer on his face, nerves prickling through his body. I’m going to be safe, I’m not going to be hate-crimed for wearing makeup. I’ll be safe in the city, he repeated to himself.
“Thaddeus!” his grandmother called out from their white Mini Cooper convertible. “Thaddeus, over here!” She waved a pink scarf in the air.
Thad hopped in the backseat. His grandfather gave him a solid nod in greeting and started the car.
“This is for you, Thaddy,” his grandmother said. She handed him the pink scarf and turned around to give directions to his grandfather.
Thad turned the scarf around in his hands, just like he had as a kid. It was pink with a few splashes of orange and quite similar to the Hermes scarf from all those years ago. “Thank you, Grams,” he said, his voice catching.
She turned around and winked at him. “I think that would look lovely tied around your neck.”
The fundraiser was in an artist’s loft in SoHo, and it was more grand and marvelous than Thad imagined. They stepped through the oversized wooden doors into a world beyond Thad’s dreams. There were gay couples everywhere he turned—they were holding hands, whispering to one another, showing affection and kissing in public. Gays in groups made jokes and laughed boisterously as if they weren’t afraid who would hear. As if they weren’t afraid to be seen. There were gays in makeup; gays in drag. Thad wanted to cry and yell in triumph. Something in his chest felt like it was burning bright. For the first time in his life, he knew he could belong somewhere.
A man in bright purple eyeshadow and a suit walked up to a makeshift podium in the corner of the loft. He carried a cordless mic and stopped to pat his face before speaking. “Thank you all for being here today and for your generous donations. Please give a warm round of applause for our guest speaker, the one and only writer and creator of the hit play Angels in America, Tony Kushner!”
The room erupted in applause and whooping. Thad stood with his grandparents and drank in the scene. He couldn’t believe it. Angels in America was a text he had held close since age thirteen. Tony Kushner was his hero. He was so out and gay and just unapologetically himself. And people were celebrating him for this. Not just the gays at the party, but all of the straight people as well.
As Thad looked around the party, one thought echoed in his mind. This revolutionary thought would stay with him and shape the person he would become: these people aren’t afraid to be themselves, even when an entire country is telling them not to be.
Thad felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into his grandfather’s dark blue eyes, which were clouded with tears. “We’re proud of you, Thad.”
“Tickets?” chirped a broadway employee.
Thad handed over his single ticket. “Just one.”
“Right this way. You’re center orchestra near the back. Head in through the second door on this level.”
Thad took a moment before crossing the threshold. It had been nearly ten years since he had first discovered Angels in America. Now, here he was, living on his own in New York City, stepping into the Neil Simon Theatre to see his favorite play, written by the man who had inspired him to live authentically, even when it felt like everyone was against him.
Thad sidled into his row, stepping over a middle-aged woman dressed in a long, diaphanous gown and pearls. “Sorry,” he said.
The woman smiled. Her face looked kind and wholesome. “Don’t worry about it, honey. That’s part of the fun of broadway.”
Thad smiled back as he slid into his seat.
The brilliant red curtains rose and the play began. The production was beautiful, and the play was angry and messy—just like Thad remembered. It shook the audience to its core and begged for their empathy with the AIDs crisis.
At the end, Thad’s favorite character, Prior, marched to the front of the stage. “You are all fabulous creatures,” Prior said to the audience, breaking the fourth wall. “Each and every one of you. And I bless you: more life.”
Thad’s eyes welled up. At that moment, he thought of the timid, lonely kid he used to be. He remembered terribly long nights filled with tossing and turning, wondering if he would ever feel accepted in this world. Then he thought back to the life-changing moment at the SoHo party when he realized how important it was to be authentically himself even when it was hard—especially when it was hard. He began to sob. He cried for his pain, and the pain of so many other scared, utterly alone kids struggling to feel like humans worthy of love. But he also cried for his triumph, for finding his home here in New York—a place where everyone was accepted, no matter how they identified.
Before he knew it, he was crying into the middle-aged woman’s bosom as she stroked his head. “There, there,” she repeated.
Her chest smelled like honey and chamomile, and Thad knew she would let him stay there as long as he needed. Because that’s what New Yorkers do. Despite the stereotypes, despite the tough exteriors, New Yorkers care for one another. And no matter what you are: black, white, gay, straight, Mexican, Indian, fat, skinny, tall, Asian, trans, bi… when you’re here, you’re one of us.