Is it ok if I call you that even though we never kissed? I hope so because that’s what you were to me. I can finally see that now through the clear lens of time polished by the fine grit of too much anguish and suffering. We should have been together, should have shared so much more than we did, but the circumstances of time and place just wouldn’t allow it. It’s ok though. Time has closed the gap between us. At least in my mind.
Look at me, I’m rambling like a blushing schoolboy, just like I promised myself I wouldn’t. But what am I supposed to say to you after all these years? How can I make you understand how important you were to me, even though nothing ever happened?
Do you remember that day as clearly as I do? Probably not. Maybe it wasn’t the pivotal moment that I’m making it out to be. Maybe all this will only awaken in your mind a flash of light and memory, and maybe you’ll smile and call me silly for making so much of it.
It was the beginning of fourth grade I think, and after four years we were still not used to the itch and scratch of starched, blue Catholic school shirts and ties. We clawed at the collars after kickball at recess and tore off the plaid nooses as soon as the last bell rang.
Billy came bursting into class that day and the commotion snapped all our heads up from the burning concentration of long division. He was panting and laughing and could barely contain himself. You came in after him with red cheeks too, grabbing his shirttail and trying to stop him in vain. I could see your fear, could see that you had been begging him not to tell all the way up from the damp basement lavatory, up the three flights of ancient steps, crying “please don’t tell, don’t tell, don’t tell…”
But he was bigger than you, a sports jock even then, and faster, so he just laughed and sang as he taunted you up the stairs, “I’m gonna tell, I’m gonna tell, I’m gonna tell…”
And then I saw your shoulders slouch in defeat as you stood there on the stage as he rang out the proclamation that would call me home.
Two years before, in the high noon of East Coast summer when the air wrapped itself around me thick and hot, I had my theater debut. It was acting camp and it was the first time I had been pushed out of the nest on my own. My mother handed me off to a young woman of sixteen years and left me there bewildered and teary eyed.
“There, there,” the young woman said and ushered me into the auditorium filled with the strange offspring of unfamiliar neighbors who wore funny clothes and smelled like Vienna sausages and wet dogs.
The workshop teachers, in bellbottoms and ponytails, divided us into groups that just made me feel more alone and afraid. I couldn’t understand why the other children seemed so happy as they imitated the instructors, making animal noises and burping sounds and funny faces on cue. Every time my turn came, I just sat there silent, covering my face and wishing I would disappear.
But I didn’t disappear and before I could protest one of the instructors stuffed a little white card into my hand and pushed me, along with all the others, into the long line that led up to the stage. On the card was a single word written in thick black letters and it felt heavy in my hands as I waited for my turn.
“You just get up there and act out the word for us,” the young woman said. “And remember: Don’t tell us…SHOW us!”
When she pushed me out from stage right into the glare of unwanted stardom, I froze. I looked down at my word, then back up at the hundred little faces that stared at me with wide, expecting eyes. But nothing came. I knew what I had to do but I couldn’t do it. The image of the pose I should make burned in my mind’s eye, but I was so choked with fear that all I could do was stand there hugging my sides, rocking my self back and forth while I looked down at my dirty sneakers and giggled.
“Shy!” a little girl shouted.
“Laughing!” another voice came.
One of the actors, a tall, deaf, bearded Jesus, came to pull me off the stage and out of sight. He was mute and so signed to me what to do. With a happy, encouraging grin he pushed me back out into the light. But still I stood there frozen, more afraid than before, terrified of being laughed at, of getting it wrong, as if even then I was afraid of being found out, as if even then there was some terrible secret that I was keeping from the world.
I felt the mass and heat of a body behind me. It was Jesus and he firmly grabbed my hands by the wrists and lifted my arms up until they were curved and flexing.
“STRONG!” came the cry in unison and they laughed while I cried as I melted back down into the crowd.
But I didn’t feel strong at all, not that day and not the day when Billy burst into the classroom shouting:
“Jonathan just kissed me in the bathroom!”
A chorus of twenty ten-year old voices pealed with laughter, reveling in your shame as your arms dropped to your sides and your head hung down.
“Quiet, quiet!” shouted the nun, darting in and out of our desks like a one-woman riot police. But there was no controlling us. We all knew what Billy meant; we had whispered the word a hundred times in hushed giggles on the playground and pointed out who was and who wasn’t. Now it was out and the class laughed and pointed their fingers at you and so did I. Better you than me, I thought.
I want to tell you how sorry I am about that. I’d like to say that if I could, I would travel back in time and trade places with you. I would do every thing I could to take away all that humiliation and embarrassment. I would take you into my arms and lead you out of there, away from the catcalls and the firestorm of shame. And then I would squeeze you hard and wipe away your tears and tell you over and over until you finally believed it:
“It will be ok, don’t you worry. I promise. Everything will be ok.”
Two years went by and finally we graduated from old Saint Mary’s. Then it was off to public school, junior high and the real world for us. We stayed in touch for that first year, but gone were the sleepovers that you and Billy would come to on hot summer nights. Do you remember those? We camped out in the attic of Dad’s garage, daring one another to show it. But no one ever did. I remember how you smelled, the sweat of your armpits both revolting and enticing. I remember too, watching you breathe in the moonlight after you fell asleep, wanting so bad to pet your soft cheek without knowing why.
But then the day came when I realized what that feeling welling up in my belly had been all about. It tore and clawed at me to get out as I rubbed and rubbed against anything and everything within my reach: shag rugs and blankets, plush animal toys and trees. I tried to hump the world, humped it raw all to the tune of the visions of all the girls I’d come to know, imagining them in all their soft and bumpy glory. But nothing ever happened, and all I ever got was chaffed and sore.
Still I kept at it, diligent to the end until one day the memory came flooding back. There you were in the dark damp basement of St. Mary’s with Billy standing at the urinal, whistling with his fly unzipped. Then, as if possessed by some mischievous spirit and in some fit of uncontrollable glee, you leaned in and kissed him, wet and warm on the cheek.
I saw him in my mind as he pulled back in shock, and as he did I came full of force and pleasure and golden light. The revelation that boys could love boys came in the form of a tidal wave that flooded over my bed sheets, and I didn’t know whether to jump up for joy or run away in terror. When it was over I cleaned up that glistening and mysterious pool of me, head still spinning from the mad delight of it all, knowing that once and for all I was a different creature.
I don’t mean to embarrass you but I thought about you every day after that. As the months went by my crush became an aching and it threatened to squash me like a bug. I had to do something. So one summer day I picked up the phone, palms sweating and body shaking. When you answered I could hardly move my lips and the air leaked out in a thin, squeaking “Wanna come over?”
“Sure!” you said and my heartbeat went rat-tat-tat like a snare drum tapping out the staccato rhythm of lust.
It took you almost two hours to ride your bike all the way from New London, and I spent the whole time staring out the window, waiting for you to roll around that corner. By the time you arrived I must have looked a terrible mess: pale, sweating and trembling with fever. You let your bike fall into the fresh cut grass and walked towards me through the thick air of summer that was filled with the love song of birds and wind and ocean.
“Wanna look at some dirty magazines,” I blurted.
“Sure,” you said again and I thought “This is it; it’s really going to happen.”
So up to my room we climbed with me holding your hand, and I pulled out the stash of Hustlers and Penthouse that I had long ago pilfered from my Dad’s closet. We lay out on my bed and flipped through the glossy pages together. You sneered a little in disbelief that people’s bodies could really do things like that. Your naiveté filled me with a surge of confidence, and I was sure that you would do anything I asked.
“Do you know how to masturbate?” I finally said in an overture of love. It was a great leap into the unknown, and I waited, afraid to move or even breathe, as the birds and the grass and the ocean and the wind all leaned up close to my window and waited too.
“No!” you said with your face twisted into a contortionist act of disgust. “That’s a sin!”
Did my face twist then too? Did you see my watering eyes filling slowly with disappointment and disgrace? We were on stage again, but this time it was me that everyone was laughing at, pointing their fingers and crying, pansy, pansy, he’s a little pansy in that singsong revel that every generation learns anew.
My heart broke right then and there. You weren’t gay at all. You didn’t want to have anything to do with me. And so it was you that stood by me that day as I took my first step into the closet and it would be years before I saw you again.