He and I were lovers but I didn’t know it.
It was an endless summer after our senior year, before life got serious. He and I and my girlfriend spent long days, into the blessed still hours after midnight, carelessly creating episodes of frolicky nothingness or talking about deep questions, which was itself a kind of make-believe, like children dressing up in their parents’ clothes. A threesome – strange only as I think about it now – not a twosome plus one, but a threesome somehow bonded together in that timeless moment of friendship and, it now seems, love.
He was handsome, not just good looking, but like a Hollywood prince charming. His clothes and grooming were impeccable. I am not sure if he could really play the piano, but with his stately bearing and beautiful hands, he cut a dramatic figure as he sat down at a party and played the first seven bars of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. I never heard him play beyond those seven bars.
His volatile moods were even more dramatic. His high spirits levitated a party. When he was low, like the time he kept chanting, “womb rhymes with tomb,” the effect was gravitational.
Among his theatrical talents was courtship. At one point, he had a British girl in tow – all I can remember now is a mass of curly blonde hair, elaborate springtime dresses, and a posh accent. “He is all I ever wanted,” she sighed. I was invited to tag along on a Visit to the Parents. The paterfamilias was a mad sort of Englishman. Tone deaf, he nevertheless loved to play the piano, loud and free-form, crashing about in joyful cacophony.
Later, my friend got a girl pregnant. She was wonderfully attractive – looked like the young Jacqueline Kennedy’s prettier sister – and had a mysterious aura of wisdom about her, not of mature judgment but of the Sphinx who knows the ultimate secret.
He married her and tried to be a good husband and father. I was in his living room as he had gotten (impeccably) dressed for work and was burping the baby. Up came pale yellow pudding, staining his perfectly ironed white shirt. His eyes rolled upward in hopeless ennui.
To support the three of them, he commuted thirty miles each way in a charming ancient Renault with a city horn and a country horn. The car had sputtered to a stop and I drove him to the garage to hear the verdict. Repairs would cost more than the car was worth. He broke into tears. Theatrical flair and real life weren’t getting along.
Soon, now married to the female member of our summer triad, I was off to Chicago for grad school. We still saw him on trips home. On one visit, he had a male friend in tow as he and I visited the scenes of past larks and misdemeanors. The friend sat in the back seat, sullen. I wondered about that, but didn’t have a clue.
Subsequently, there was marital dissatisfaction. “He makes love like a woman,” she said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “That’s the only way I can describe it,” she replied. “It just feels like doing it with a woman.” He spent “too much time” with his buddy. “It’s not a woman,” she said, “but it’s the same as if it were.” Later we heard he and she had split up.
After that, we lost touch. A few years later, when my own marriage unraveled, I needed all the friends I could get. I got his address (near San Francisco), and wrote to him. With typical impetuousness, he wrote back and mailed his letter before finishing mine. “I am writing you about what you are writing me” – perhaps he thought I was going to say I was now gay. His impetuous letter suggested that we get together when I was next back home (in southern California).
I met him in his hotel room. He was shirtless in hip-hugger jeans. I didn’t know what to make of that but warmly hugged him. He seemed disconcerted. Maybe it was more demonstrative than he had expected or it was too obviously a non-erotic hug. He promptly put on a shirt.
We visited old haunts and talked. His post-divorce advice was to “have lots of sex.” “That’s what I did after my divorce. I got a lavender suit and came out as a flaming gay and hit all the clubs.” After a while, he had settled down with a lover. “I don’t know how to make money and he does,” he explained. I asked what the guy looked like. “About your height.” Is he thin or what? “About your weight.” Talking clothes, I asked what kinds of pants would look best on a plump guy like me. He recommended Gentleman Jeans – “that’s what my guy wears.”
Our visit concluded, I dropped him off at the airport. Tears were streaming down, tears I did not understand. Dry-eyed, I hugged him good-bye. I never heard from him again. Recently, I googled his name and found only one mention – a memorial fund in his name.
It was only after our final visit that, for the first time, I understood: he had been in love with me. Whether it was tragic or pathetic or touching or just one of life’s disappointments, I don’t know. But I do know that a lost first love can hover over a person for a life-time.
It is an honor to be the recipient of such a love. It is a precious thing, a sacred thing, to love or to be loved. We tend to think of the sacred as something we ascend to in our Sunday finest or in druggy epiphanies around the campfire. But the sacred is in the warp and woof of everyday lives, involving not just lovers, but friends too, and strangers to whom we owe kindness, and it is present in the privacy of our own thoughts and feelings.
What prompts me to write about this now? He came to me in a dream: we were in the Navy, and he wanted me to write a report for the Secretary of the Navy to tell the stories of male lovers. I saw that he considered the two of us to be among the lovers and I was aware that, since it was an unrequited love, his request put me in an awkward role.
But I wrote the report, which told the stories and added, “Some love relationships are not sexual.”
Even in the dream, I was aware that, by writing a report, I could not live up to the bond his love had put us both into. His love had created an asymmetrical relationship. There was no way it could be “lived up to.” No way then, no way now, no way in a dream.
But it can be honored and cherished, and remembered here in guiltless penance.
Image: Screen shot, scene from the film, I Love You Man