Chris Pichola will be heading into uncharted waters when he steps aboard an Atlantis cruise in February to celebrate his 21st birthday -- not just because he'll be surrounded by 3,700 gay men on his first-ever gay holiday. The real surprise? Time off from his überbusy life.
A junior at the University of Maryland, the energetic 20-year-old leads a frenetic life with four part-time jobs and one full-time boyfriend. A self-admitted ''Type A,'' Pichola says, ''I need to be busy.''
You might recognize Pichola from Halo, where he works as a barback on Wednesdays and Fridays. He also works as a resident advisor and lifeguard on his College Park campus. And if that weren't enough, he's recently signed on for a gig at the newly opened Hollywood Tans in downtown D.C.
The perks sweeten the deal: The RA position pays for his room and board, Halo gets him into the over-21 gay scene and the free tanning is nice prep for the upcoming cruise.
Pichola's schedule can leave little time for his boyfriend of just over a year, Mike, a farmer, who raises buffalo in Culpepper, Va. (Who knew?)
''He thinks it's great that I have such a great work ethic,'' Pichola says. ''But he wonders, 'If you're working so much, where's the time for me?'''
The two met through a mutual friend at Halo last October. After a series of group dates chaperoned by friends, the two found themselves alone one night watching television. ''I've been wanting to have you by myself for a while now,'' Pichola recalls Mike whispering into his ear.
''It wasn't supposed to happen,'' Pichola notes. ''Neither of us was looking for a relationship. I'm in college, he was busy with work, but everything just fell into place.''
Pichola credits their open communication as the glue holding their relationship together. Too often, he adds, people look for something, think they've found it, but it's not what they expected. His advice: ''Be friends first and see where things go.''
It's counsel he's surely shared with the students living on his hall. As resident advisor, Pichola is often called upon to deal with the varied dramas of dormitory life -- from busting under-aged beer-pong games to counseling the heartbroken. The best part of the job, Pichola says, is helping other people. ''They tell you things that you wouldn't expect them to tell you.''
He's also a resource for other gay students, proudly sporting a ''Safe Space'' sticker on his door, indicating a safe zone for gay students. One student approached him last year wanting to come out. ''It's nice to know that people feel comfortable with me.''
His open-minded attitude is something he shares with everyone on his hall, gay and straight. Pichola says plenty of the straight guys are curious about gay sex, and playfully rib him: Chris, how can you do that?! ''I'm very open with them,'' Pichola responds. ''If they're going to ask me questions, I'm going to tell them like it is.''
A naturally gifted student, Pichola has always excelled in school. He was the valedictorian of his high-school class, and now averages a 4.0 at Maryland, where he's majoring in elementary education with an emphasis in math. Pichola hopes one day to be a middle-school math teacher.
''I originally wanted to teach, but the money held me back,'' Pichola says. ''I went to school as a business major, took my first econ class and realized I hated it.''
The thought of returning for a second semester of classes he dreaded forced Pichola to switch majors. It's a good thing: Teaching runs in his family. His mom teaches first grade, and his older sister teaches kindergarten.
Pichola has no illusions about how tough teaching can be. He's been a substitute teacher back home in Charles County, Md., and the kids put him through the hoops. ''Kids know how to play with substitutes,'' he says with a laugh.
After he graduates in 2008, Pichola plans to apply for a position in the Montgomery or Fairfax school systems. Eventually, he'd like to get his Ph.D. in education and maybe work on a board of education.
Pichola comes from a supportive family, although one that struggled with his sexuality when he first came out at 16. Pichola's parents asked that he not tell his younger brother that he was gay, but his brother found out after witnessing an argument between Pichola and his dad.
Pichola later explained to his brother, ''The reason Dad and I are really tense is because I think he has underlying issues with my gayness.''
Although Pichola suspected he knew, his younger brother was still surprised. ''It didn't bother him,'' Pichola says. ''My brother is very, very laid back.''
In some respects, his parents are more skeptical. Their motto, according to Pichola, is: ''You can be who you are, but don't be flashy about it and don't let people know.''
When Pichola came out in high school, they worried that his teachers would retaliate against him by giving him poor grades, trying to knock him from his position at the top of the class.
He dodged those bullets and actually dated a bit in high school. His first boyfriend lived in Bel Air, and they would see each other on the weekends. Though Pichola didn't feel comfortable telling his dad where he was going, he always told his mom. ''My relationship with my mom is extremely strong,'' he beams. ''My mom is the world to me.''
His connection to his maternal grandparents is also rock solid. He counts among his happiest memories the summers he spent in Ocean City, N.J., with his grandparents and cousins.
He doesn't talk to his grandparents as much as he'd like, having reservations about telling them he's gay. ''My grandmother is an amazing person to talk to, and I want to tell her about Mike and my friends, but I have to withhold that information,'' he says. ''It's hard because it feels like I'm lying to her.''
Pichola never planned to tell his dad he was gay, but his father stumbled across an e-mail Pichola had written to a boyfriend and confronted him that night. It was a sleepless night.
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The young man found an easier time of it in the gay bars. Under 21, his choices were limited to Apex and Nation, but he had his fair share of fun. On the night before his 18th birthday, Pichola went to Nation and sat in the parking lot until midnight, and then went inside for the first time.
He stood against the wall the entire night. ''I can't believe that was me,'' he laughs. ''Now, I'm a social butterfly, I guess.''
No doubt this served him well during the Coverboy runoff. When voting began, a co-worker helped him print address labels with ''Vote for Chris'' on them. ''I actually did campaign,'' he says. ''Some people might think that's tacky, but I had a fun time with it.''
Win or lose, Pichola will be on hand at Halo to offer a friendly smile and help clear away those empty glasses in a city he loves. ''I think D.C. is an awesome city,'' he says, ''It's very professional, diverse and very gay-friendly.''
If granted one wish, he adds, ''I wish my immediate family would realize that I am so content with who I am, and so happy and proud of who I am. I wish they would be as happy as I am with me.''
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