I once knew a boy called Richard. “Richard?” you say, “I must know more!” Never let it be said that I don’t know how to scoot my reader to the edge of his seat.
After thirteen years in San Francisco, I am now back where I started, in Colorado. Denver, to be quite precise. Nineteen blocks from the house I grew up in, to be even more so. When I visit the old neighborhood in San Francisco, a Big Gay Memory of some kind lurks around nearly every corner. First dates, tearful good-byes; here is where I ignored the drunken heckling of a passing mendicant and slipped the ring on my husband’s finger, and there you see roughly where my pants hit my ankles while stumbling home from a particularly memorable Dyke March. Yes, fond memories at every turn. Who are you to judge me?! Oddly, though, even though I grew up here, in Denver there is really only one such corner. Probably due to its proximity to Cheesman Park, the one place in 1980s Denver that two men might not be harassed for holding hands, I had more than one Big Gay First (of most of which I’ll spare you the cowboy boot-related details) on the corner of 9th and Gaylord. Richard’s mother worked with my aunt in Washington, D.C., on the staff of a Congressman from Oklahoma, and we had more than one Big Gay Adventure (last one, I promise) in the District, but when I think of him, I always remember him standing on the corner of 9th and Gaylord. Where, in jean shorts and a cardigan sweater, he would secure his place in history as the First Boy Who Ever Kissed Me.
Until just the other day, in the aggregate over the past twenty-however-many years I have probably thought about Richard maybe five times, for a total of maybe ninety seconds. I can barely remember what he looked like, other than the jean shorts. Which might have been khakis. And the auburn hair. Which might have been blond. He was exceptionally thin (as was I for about eighteen months out of my entire life, including these), he smoked, and, working my way closer to my point, he scared the hell out of me. Not because he was mean or abusive or a reckless driver, but precisely because he was gay. And he wasn’t just “gay,” OK? He was a flaming queer, and there was no way to be around him without being found out as Flaming Queer by Association. That my homosexuality was the worst-kept secret since the invention of the wheel was of little concern to me at the time — the point is, it was a secret, and one which Richard did not have the good manners, or the right shoes, to keep. My sister knew him; my cousins knew him; if we were so much as spied together walking down the street, the jig, such as it was, would be up.
My psychic says that my spirit guides would like to see me write from a place of greater vulnerability than I ordinarily do, which I think is why they have brought memories of Richard to the fore, blurry and disorganized as most of them are. I have been out of the closet now for more years than I was in it (which my parents and some of my friends might classify as “none”), and have made choices in my life around being able to live openly. I work in a job where my gayness is assumed and unchallenged; I hold hands with my husband in public; I write gay porn. I’m Out, I’m Proud, and I have a tendency to skip the chapter in my Coming Out History in which I was scared to death to ever be either one of those things. That Richard had no fear was unhelpful, for I clung desperately to mine.
We met on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and my instant attraction to him — my gut recognition of what he was — repulsed me. When his father remarried and moved to Denver, he immediately came to visit, tracked me down, and we took long, meandering walks around Capitol Hill. He was only minutes older than me, himself still a teenager, but vastly more experienced and somehow fancied himself in a position to Sugar Daddy me into his arms. When offers of physical delirium failed to entice (a sure sign that I had yet to discover my true self), he’d tempt me with improbably glamorous getaways. The Bahamas, or some such Caribbean Paradise, was a favorite proposition of his. How the hell he suggested we would get there at 17 — where we would stay, all that — I can’t even vaguely fathom anymore, but I have a crystal clear memory of him using tropical wardrobe ideas to sweeten the pot. Specifically, he was enamored with the idea of the two of us strolling hand-in-hand along some sumptuous beach or other wearing cardigan sweaters (it was 1988, after all), but backwards, dazzling locals and tourists alike with our daring and backless panache. He actually dangled that, like, you say you don’t want to run away with me, but try and resist this!
The only other memory that’s even reasonably clear is the one of us standing one afternoon on the aforementioned corner. We were holding hands, which terrified me in broad daylight, but he was laying it on the line, and he insisted I stop pretending. He was in love with me, dammit!, or so he proclaimed, and this silliness about me not being gay could no longer be tolerated. For that was the best I could muster, even then. “I’m not gay.” I couldn’t have attempted anything so flagrantly false as “I’m straight” without guffaws issuing forth, probably from both of us. Come to me was the gist of his presentation; I can’t my reply. And he didn’t really need to ask why, as I was quite literally shaking with fear.
Of what, I am now at a loss to say. I have insistent memories of AIDS around him, although I can’t place them. I’m sure he wasn’t positive, or at least that he hadn’t told me as much, for in those days I would have been too scared to touch him had I known. Had an older lover of his been diagnosed? Died? I don’t even think it was that dramatic; he was openly gay and sexually active, and in my 1988, Gay Plague-addled brain, AIDS would necessarily ensue. Puberty and the apex of the AIDS epidemic overlapped for me, and every Gay Future of which I could conceive involved having sex and then dying in a hospital bed as a result.
But even the absurd fear that his love would kill me strikes me now as too concrete. As a cop out. All I was really afraid of was admitting the truth about myself out loud. Of having to face up to the fact that I was “different,” and that my life might include hurdles because of it. I knew I was gay. I was on the damn swim team; I was transfixed at every practice and every meet, and not by the signs enumerating the Pool Rules. But lusting after a brick shit house in a Speedo was a thing easily managed. A love unrequitable, and therefore easily kept hidden, at least it if I didn’t mention T– B–’s name in every third sentence (which I most emphatically did). Letting Richard in would have been a very different affair. It would have involved being seen in public with a twink (an aversion I shortly outgrew) and being labeled. It would have involved being known. And that’s the part of this saga that it pains me the most both to remember and to recount: not only that I was crippled by my fear of my own self, but that I had no good reason to be afraid. My family is irreligious and not socially conservative; my parents had gay friends. My friends were drama geeks and singers and in the damn French club; we didn’t label it overtly, but they knew I was gay. They knew I wanted to be a fucking flight attendant: what exactly was I hiding, and from whom?
When Richard asked me that same question, I couldn’t answer it. He eventually asked me point blank, “You know you’re gay, right?” and I told him yes. So… “I’m not ready,” was the best I could offer him. “Well,” he said, “I’m kissing you anyway.”
I remember two things. One: I was actually quaking with fear. Like, couldn’t talk because of it. I had friends that lived on that very block, and that they would come screeching around the corner in their Jeep at any second (which they did not) was a foregone conclusion. And Two: it felt amazing. I had only recently been kissing on one particular girl, and found it unsatisfying to say the least, but this… This was real; this was what lips that wanted each other tasted like. I couldn’t give myself to Richard — I never saw him again — but I knew in my quivering soul that I would never kiss a girl again. That if there was ever to be Love with-a-capital-L in my life, it would come from another man or from nowhere. I’m not trying to act like I didn’t struggle to come to terms with what this would look like; my college friends know well that I did. But Richard showed me that there could be no other way for me to live my life. He scared the shit out of me, but he eventually scared the Honest out of me, too. He scared me so much that I learned exactly how abysmally being afraid sucks. I was so afraid of his feelings for me, and of my feelings for him, that I was able to see that I was going to need to find a way to rid myself of that fear if I was ever going to be able to live inside my own skin.
Richard once met Natalie Merchant in a record store (ah, the tie-in). He was a devout fan, and I have never been able to listen to 10,000 Maniacs without him at least flashing through my memory. This song, and specifically the version in this video, serendipitously captures the feelings I’ve been trying to tap into about Richard. From here, my memories are even washed in the same golden glow. Those were days; I do remember. I am both blessed and lucky to be gay, and Richard knew, when I didn’t, that by touching me, he would help something grow and bloom. In me. While I’m sure she would never in a million years be able to unearth the memory of meeting him, Natalie Merchant conveys in this video what Richard once tried to impart to me with kisses and sweet nothings about backless cardigans: when the opportunity presents itself, you want to be able to get out on that stage, accompanied by a handsome man in a suit if at all possible, dance without fear in front of anybody who cares to watch, and tell your story.