This essay didn't make it into my novel, Land of the Losers, but if you like what follows, feel free to get a copy.

Of all the emotions I experienced in my first stint of grad school, one of the most frequent was how terribly busy I felt.

I considered myself quite lucky to have been accepted into my program, to be sure. The previous year involved some unlucky coincidences which complicated my application. My laboriously-filled documents to the university had gotten lost (thank you FedEx!) and I needed to re-apply with only a few days to spare. At the same time, my senior seminars were piling-on the work, I had to make long distance phone calls, pull all-nighters and beg professors (again) for letters of recommendation... the whole thing turned into a miserable ordeal and even today, I still feel glad that it’s been long over with.

Throughout my young life, education had been the central organizing principle of everything up until then. My parents really knew how to crack the whip: grades, test preparation courses, SAT scores, GRE tests, extracurricular activities that would look outstanding on an application... these were 90% of the parental demands which were placed upon my siblings and I. Getting a B on a big project or an important test was a badge of everlasting disgrace. Part time jobs, sports and hobbies were decent add-ons for me, but they couldn't interfere with school.

But after getting my acceptance letter for grad school in the mail, it all felt worthwhile. I could finally celebrate how my hard work had all paid off and now I was really getting somewhere.

But on the dating front, I was barely making an inch of progress. I kept running into obstacle after frustrating obstacle.

It wasn't because I wasn't social or I didn't have any friends; I actually had some pretty amazing friends. It wasn't because I dressed poorly or had poor hygiene; who wants to look and smell like a slob? It wasn't because I was lazy or unemployable; if I needed money, I always managed to find some kind of job to earn it. And no one I ever cared about called me a loser, either. Indeed, the people of my parents' generation always seemed to act as if I had my head screwed-on straight and had made pretty good choices for my life. I was pretty self-sufficient, too. It’s not like I only subsisted on pizza and beer.

I knew I wasn’t bad-looking. Sure, I was average height, maybe somewhat forgettable and a bit on the skinny side, but ugly?? No, I wouldn’t have called myself that.

Best of all, in my senior year of high school, I’d had a really fabulous girlfriend. I knew from experience that I possessed some good qualities. That fact alone was a decent confidence-booster.

And I didn’t expect kudos for any of that. I didn’t expect congratulations for being a grown-up with a good sense of direction in life. I didn’t expect accolades for being myself. I didn’t expect pats on the back simply for existing. I did, however, want to get a little something more out of my romantic relationships, and I was never really able to quite get it.

For whatever reason, I had an annoying tendency to repeatedly attract a certain type of woman in my twenties. She would accept invitations to hang out, be taken to entertainment and restaurants, or have coffee or cocktails. And she would apparently have a good time, laugh, chill, have decent conversations and tell me what a great time she had...

Those are surely complements, right? I was really getting to know someone on a deep level. I was really forming a special kind of connection. Emotional intimacy and communication seem important, yeah? They liked me, I thought. Why else would they seem to have a good time hanging out with me?

Their complements always had a certain kind of semiosis and, at that point, I wasn't able to decipher the real message lurking behind their sexuality-free complements: "I find you useful and amusing, eunuch."

And after a few weeks or months of not getting that message, because I was such a great “friend” and “listener,” they would open-up to me to tell me all about the dudes that they’d been fucking.

Boy howdy, was I ever missing-out on a ton of fucking.

They didn’t really seem to say many positive things about these fuckbuddies, either. Often, I’d hear that these other men were “jerks,” in their words. Selfish, arrogant, no ambition. Losers. They only wanted her for filthy sex and didn’t respect her for who she “really was.”

Those other men weren’t thoughtful, unlike me. They were unsophisticated pigs, unlike me. They couldn’t cook, unlike me. They were dumb, unlike me. They didn’t remember their birthdays, unlike me.

Maybe her parents didn't approve of him. Maybe her friends didn’t like him. She couldn’t get the unthoughtful, irresponsible, unambitious bastard to actually notice her and give her the kind of commitment and love that she wanted, etc etc etc. And “Why can’t he be more like you??” she might wail in exasperation.

Eventually, I’d say what I’d thought was clear: “But but… I thought we were dating??”

“Well, uhm, like…yeah, I really think you’re great and everything… but I don’t think of you in that way. You’re such a great guy…” Ugh, Jesus.

They felt safe and comfortable telling me stuff because I was "different" and "comfortable" to confess their innermost thoughts to. Also, I was spending quite a few dollars on food and entertainment for them, so that might’ve also had something to do with it.

Then, maybe a little later, some of these women would excitedly call me up: “I have a boyfriend now! I met someone last night and we just clicked!” At that point, I would either be discarded or happily informed that I was still allowed to continue entertaining her regardless, so I shouldn’t feel too bad about being relegated to the outermost fringe of her personal asteroid belt.

… God, my life sucked. I wish they’d just told me from the beginning that they only wanted free meals and free entertainment. It would’ve felt way more honest.

And I swear to God, those chicks were able to complain so damn much about their fuckmates. That is what being a "good listener" gets you.

I remember one whip-smart gal in college with whom I’d have long dinnertime chats with and all-night bullshit sessions in her dorm. I thought her personality was a perfect fit for my own. She delighted in our repartee and our similar senses of humor and how we had so much in common. She felt totally comfortable telling me her innermost thoughts, like how much she loved fucking basketball players.

In her senior year of high school, she proudly bragged about how her boyfriend towered over her and how he was super-awesome in bed and horny upon demand. And she'd point-out the basketball players at our college whom she wanted to fuck because they reminded her so much of him.

It was really disappointing for me, since I thought we'd gotten along extraordinarily well. I spent a bit of time in her friendzone in the foolish hope that she’d notice me. Eventually, I sadly resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't ever going to get any kind of real relationship with her. But what really got on my nerves was how she eventually started making snarky little gripes about how "all the men on campus are either taken or gay!" And she would say this at me, with a straight face, while sitting right next to me. The first time this happened, I let it slide—hey, we all say dumb things from time to time, right? I pretended I didn’t care and let the conversation go elsewhere. But the second time it happened a couple of days later, I got irritated.

"I swear, all the men on campus are either taken or gay!" Sneer.

"You know I'm not gay, right?" I felt myself struggle to keep my growing temper on a tight leash.

"Huh?" She blinked.

“I’m NOT gay. You know that, right!?” I asked again, more forcefully.

"Huh? Uh, except you, I meant." She mumbled it with some annoyance. As if she'd totally forgotten that I was straight and had a penis. Didn’t I know that a good orbiter should just nod along and happily concur with everything?

"You're not complaining about 'men,' you're complaining about basketball players!" I sputtered ineffectually, to no avail. Really, it was kind of a pathetic rejoinder. It felt like charging across no man’s land at Verdun while angrily waving a sharpened stick at the Huns.

I started avoiding her like the plague after that. She probably didn't even notice. I was a nobody to her. I was just some companion who was there to entertain her and easily forgotten once I was gone.

Because I possess two eyes and two ears, repeated incidents like that one helped me ascertain that these gals weren't exactly saving their virginity until "Mr. Right" came along. Some of them were proudly getting dick on demand before and after coming to me for meals, entertainment and talk-therapy. You know, all the nonsexual kind of interactions that they'd want to get from a gay best friend who’d reassure her how desirable she is and laugh with her about what stupid idiots men are.

In the depths of my ignorance, I often thought that’s how “dating” went: you were out there trying to meet people. Just keep being social and a bit flirtatious, keep showing the best version of yourself. Sure you’ll fail occasionally and inevitably, but only until you find a mutual attraction with the right person. Just work on self-improvement, keep trying and you’ll eventually “click” with the right someone. And I think I had a really decent attitude about it for the first 5 or 6 years.

But my blissful state of Blue Pillery eventually began to reach its end.

It was my first year of grad school in which I got one of the rudest, most painful, Reddest Pills of my life. It was a horrific dose of medicine, but it was probably necessary.

I never actually met the man who unwittingly fed it to me. But I suppose I owe him a dubious debt of gratitude. I'll never forget him. His name was Nushawn Williams. Or that was the alias he used at the time.

His story came as a sharp belt in the face with a sock full of shotgun pellets. Furthermore, I was fairly uncomfortable actually talking about this contentious topic at the time, so I never mentioned it to anyone. In addition to the usual embarrassment, it would've left me open to accusations of racism, misogyny and stoking fear against people with HIV. The combination of all these factors gave me the heebie-jeebies and felt too risky to broach, so I largely kept my mouth shut and dealt with it in exasperated silence.

I shall save myself some trouble and quote Wikipedia...

"Nushawn Williams (born November 1, 1976), also known as Shyteek Johnson, is an American convicted sex offender who admitted in 1997 to having unprotected sex with numerous girls and women after having been told that he was HIV positive. New York state and local public health officials stated that Williams had sex with up to 47 women in Chautauqua County and 50–75 in New York City. Williams said in a news interview that his actual number of sexual partners was up to 300."

...Mind you, this news hit the airwaves after I'd spent the previous few years trying to claw my way out of varying types of friendzones. This Williams fellow must've been a real smooth-talker with a magic radioactive glowing cock swinging between his mighty striding godlike legs.

Why would he knowingly spread HIV like that? Based on news reports, he was in denial about the diagnosis and maybe he brutishly reasoned: "if I was really sick, how could I manage to fuck so many women??"

But here's what really flummoxed me... by all reports, he was openly a dangerous-seeming character. He didn't act like a friendly, smart dude. He didn't pretend to be a polite gentleman. His appeal wasn't having a "great sense of humor" and "confidence" which suckered naïve little starry-eyed ladies into a false sense of security and glamour about who he was. Oh no.

He was right up front and unvarnished: He was a criminal. He bragged about it. He joked about it. He wore on his sleeve. Lawbreaking was all part of his swaggering, macho appeal, and the ladies still didn't seem to care. Did none of that actually matter??

My reaction, for weeks after this, was: "Ladies, do you really hurl yourselves at a man like that? Really? REALLY, now??"

I think the ordeal even gave me a headache at one point.

Again, I shall defer to Wikipedia...

"Williams, a native of Brooklyn, led a life of crime since his childhood. The son of a drug-addicted mother, Williams dealt drugs and robbed from the elderly.[2] Prior to his HIV-related conviction, he had three previous convictions for various street crimes. ... Numerous reports indicate that Williams was a crack dealer who bragged of his gang-related activities and had a history of violence against women, including many of the women he infected.[4][5] Williams' braggadocio and violence belied the ease with which he attracted women of all races and socioeconomic classes,[5] though most of his victims were those with socioeconomic or emotional problems. News reports make numerous mentions of his charming interpersonal style with women. Women quoted in news stories often pointed to Williams' ability to make them feel special and loved, even while exercising violent control over their actions. In the case of his youngest victim, who was 13, Williams reportedly pursued a relationship for several months.[5]

...You read that right. He was busted for raping a 13 year old. I might have not been the bestest, awesomeest dude on the face of the planet-- and I am still not such a person today-- but by Satan's red ass, I’ve never inflicted atrocities upon children.

Do I really need to say such a thing? Declaring "at least I'm not raping kids!" is a pathetic kind of self-affirmation, isn’t it. There are all kinds of preferable boasts that you could say before you'd descend to that level. Let us have some standards.

Still, the nagging question of “What’s wrong with me?” wouldn’t go away because the news stuck in my brain. I wasn't as desirable as a dude who was openly dangerous, controlling and violent. I really had trouble wrapping my head around that. It just didn't add up. Was I really less worthy than him?? What magic technique did he have that I didn’t?

In addition to everything else, did he at least have some other talent? Like, could he cook a really delicious mulligan stew after dumpster-diving?

What was his pick-up line? "Hi, I'm a violently-controlling drifter and I like to rap. Wanna have a three-way with me and your friend?"

And that might've elected a flirtatious laugh and a playful slap across the forearm nonetheless. "Oh, you're SUCH a kidder! Hee hee! My place or yours?"

In my mind's eye, I imagined the county health officials standing before the TV cameras, waving a blown-up picture of this person, saying "For God's sake ladies! Insist on a condom! Or better yet, STOP SCREWING MONSTERS!"

"HE'S SO HOTTT!" all the ladies at home would swoon with lust. They'd get on their knees and start licking their TV screens. "NOW I WANT HIM EVEN MORE!!"

Dozens of women in a conservative, rural county were throwing themselves at this dude. They had both eyes open. They knew he was bad news. He probably could’ve had “I WILL MURDER YOU” tattooed across his forehead and they still wouldn't have gotten enough of him. The whole thing sprained by brain. What the hell is wrong with this picture?

As if to share in my confusion, the media couldn't fully process the dynamics either. Sometimes, it seemed as if they were running a kind of damage-control by handing-out poorly-concocted Blue Pills. A contemporary sample from Newsweek illustrates these observers' confusion quite handily. It reads as if the educated, savvy, compassionate reporter was unable to fully accept what was going on. Her morbid, sneaking admiration for Nushawn and her cognitive dissonance cannot help but manifest themselves repeatedly.

“SHE KNEW HIM AS ""FACE'' AND thought he was cute. ""He was like, "What's up, baby? You look so good, you are so pretty'.'' This was sometime in October 1996, a month after Nushawn Williams was told he was HIV-positive. Andrea Caruso was 17, a pudgy little blonde with a long history of emotional problems and a devastating lack of self-esteem. ""I wanted love and he showed me love. He made me feel like I was the princess of his castle,''

Awwww, see? She wanted LOVE. She lacked self-esteem. It wasn't because she was horny. And no other man had ever attempted to show her love before, surely. Right? She felt like a princess in his den of drugs and booze and cum-stained mattresses. As real princesses are wont to do.

Ugh. This whole disaster is just infuriating, but we must forge ahead nonetheless...

"Nobody knows exactly what brought Nushawn Williams to the town, --(The easy pussy, maybe?)-- but it is clear that he soon established himself as a relentless seducer of women. He had charm and, to a generation mesmerized by gangsta rap, a menacing form of glamour. ""He was from the big city,'' says Tonya, 18, who lived with Williams but says she never slept with him. ""Anybody from out of town gets a lot of attention around here, and he got a lot of at- tention from the girls.'' Williams sold pot and crack from a variety of shabby apartments and claimed to be a member of the Bloods. He wore the right clothes--Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss, Pelle Pelle--and showered his girlfriends with little luxuries. ""He was It--everyone wanted to be a part of him,'' says Sherry Wright, who lived next door. ""He had his own place, drugs and alcohol, and it was a place to have fun.'' Wright, who is married and the mother of eight children, marveled at the constant parade of local girls who flocked to Williams's door..."

It almost feels as if the author of this paragraph wants a little taste of Nushawn herself, doesn't it? You can practically hear her panties starting to soak.

Tonya "lived" with Williams but never "slept" with him? Really now? I take that as meaning that the two of them only fucked while they were wide-awake and she would sleep elsewhere because there were already six other girls crammed onto his bed.

I should point out an additional detail here: I had actually been to bars in that county on more than one occasion in the 1990s-- I have distant relatives in neighboring northwest Pennsylvania and visited the Chautauqua Institution for a few summer lectures and concerts. Despite being "from out of town", I can honestly say that I never received any disproportionate doe-eyed innocent "Goll-lee you're from the big city??" accompanied by fluttering eyelashes from young lasses. It might've had to do with my average looks and my failure to wear a backwards baseball cap, swagger truculently, say "bitch" a lot and carry a snubnosed Ruger SP101 in my waistband, but who is to say?

This gets even better. And by that, I mean it gets worse.

"...Those who knew Williams well say he had a vicious temper and a habit of beating his girlfriends. ""Everybody knew how he treated girls,'' Tonya said. ""But they all thought it would be different when it came their turn...''


Years later, that line still comes as an icepick to the skull for me.

I can’t make light of what happened to those people because it's a complete catastrophe. But these victims nonetheless seemed so... enthusiastic to be with that victimizer?

We’re all supposed to feel compassion for victims, but how much compassion can you really feel when the victims were all so very happy to jump into the shark pit surrounded by red flashing DANGER: SHARK PIT signs?

It was only natural for me to have made some comparisons with my own life. Like how I was barely getting to first base with the women I liked the most. Meanwhile, this woman-beating repeat-offending hobo was out there doing... that stuff??

"Hi, Miss-- I'm a grad student at State University and I'm going on an internship to Taiwan this summer. Can I get you a drink?"

"Outta my face, geek! I wanna get in line for the violent disease-giving thug!"

Elsewhere in the reportage, we find this nugget…

"The weird part is that Williams apparently ignored the warning that he was HIV-positive."

Yeah that's the weird part, isn't it. So odd that a psychologically-unbalanced, impulsive bad boy act like a psychologically-unbalanced, impulsive bad boy. So odd. So peculiar. Women shouldn't find a man like THAT attractive, right? For everyone knows that women only love upstanding, morally-upright, progressive-minded gentlemen who are respectful listeners with good career prospects and who wear pink hats at gender equality rallies.


By the way, do you suppose any feminists ever sought him out to deliver stern lectures about sexism and rape culture and objectifying women and all that jazz?

Of course not, they probably would've been lining-up to fuck him too. So that he’ll see the light and turn into a good man through the transformative power of liberated vaginas.

Naturally, there was a lot of public outrage about Williams. After the authorities threw the book at him, politicos like Rudy Giuliani could ride the tide of anger, preen before the cameras, flaunt their law-and-order bona-fides and bray for ever-heavier books to be thrown. Some laws about HIV confidentiality were modified and this raised concerns about the effects on health reporting and so on. I'm not an expert in such matters, so I can't rightly say how any of that turned out.

Still, I couldn't help but get depressed about the whole thing. As a grad student, I guess I was too boring. Or not good looking enough. Or not tall enough. Or not something enough. God help me, I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. And, what's more, no one could even tell me what I was doing wrong. Why women will deign to eat free meals with me, but not go any further than that.

“Men like Nushawn are who women truly love.” I concluded. “They want a man like him. They want to have his children. They will contentedly follow him straight to hell, with both eyes open, fully aware of where they could end up.”

It was a raw, jagged, painful dose of medicine that stuck with me like few other life-lessons would.

As sick and twisted and weird and morally clueless as it might sound, I think I still have to say: Thank you, Nushawn. Thanks for showing me reality, at long last. I still loathe what you did. I really do. You're probably still locked up somewhere and that’s for the best. You probably don't have a lot of light in your life and there’s probably no way for you to read this. Despite everything, despite all of the pain and destruction and irreparable tragedy that you dealt out, you unwittingly managed to demonstrate an awful truth that I probably needed to know.

And I wouldn’t have believed any of it if it hadn’t been so terribly real.