Townes Coates reminds us of the days before the internet provided more straightforward ways for gay boys to connect.
I did not know Joshua well, so the phone call was a surprise. We had worked together on an arts project in our high school, but it was more an acquaintance than a friendship. Outside of school, we rarely crossed paths. We did not live close by and usually socialized in different circles.
There is an exquisitely awful phase in a teenage boy’s life when hair begins appearing on the upper lip and a decision must be made about when it will be shorn. It is a strange and wonderful time, an illusion of manhood whose fullness and follicle heft seems to increase as he gazes in the mirror. He wants both to wear it as a badge of honor and cut it off, beginning a ritual that will rule his life ever after. Only later will he see the sad and wispy adolescent mustache on another boy and wince at the memory of strutting around with his own.
That was how I imagined Joshua in the abstract: a walking, occasionally talking, wispy mustache.
This time, he was talking on my phone. It was the summer before my senior year—his junior—and I was seventeen. I had seen him in a group a few days before and had mentioned, I recalled afterwards, that my parents were going away for the weekend. He called late morning on that Saturday and asked if I had a VCR.
My father was an early and active adopter of all things electronic. In the early 1980s our home was an audio and video lover’s dream. By the time Dad died a few years ago, it was difficult for me to figure out how to simply turn on the television without awakening stacks of other components whose green, blue, and amber displays gave no clue as to their purpose. The basement, to which so many items had been retired over the years, was a graveyard of tangled cords and Acoustic Research speakers, outmoded videodisc players and dusty turntables.
Yes, I told him, I definitely had a VCR. Dad had bet on VHS over Betamax when I was in the eighth grade, and even by that time it was looking like the eventual victor. I asked Joshua why he wanted to know.
“I ordered a tape, and I don’t have a VCR and I was wondering if I could come over to your house and watch it.”
This struck me as a little strange. Why would you order something you did not have the capacity to enjoy? But even so, it seemed sort of plausible. It was still the early days of home video, even if it was old hat in my family. I said okay.
“Great,” he said. “I’ll be over in an hour.”
I recall thinking as I hung up the kitchen phone that he would only have my address from looking me up in the school directory. The little cul-de-sac on which we lived might have required a map to find, and he had not asked for directions. I considered calling him back to tell him how to get there, but realized I had no idea where my own school directory was, much less any idea of his parents’ names to make a start on the white pages.
How quaint all of this seems in memory: VCR. Betamax or VHS. A rotary phone. Maps. White pages. Like the turntables in the basement—mostly obsolete now.
In precisely an hour, Joshua rang the doorbell and I invited him in. He was wearing neatly pressed shorts and a button-down shirt; I felt a little unkempt. I noticed that he looked clean-shaven and somehow more mature. He also seemed a little nervous.
I offered him a beer (not that I drank it myself, though I took one) mostly because it seemed like the sort of thing that teenage boys did when parents are absent. He accepted and took a couple of small sips. I was no better at faking an appreciation for beer than he was. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then I turned on the TV and the VCR and showed him where to insert the tape.
“Do you want to watch it with me?” He seemed a little more agitated now. “I mean, if you’re not busy … ”
“No, sure. That’s fine.” I put in the tape and hit the play button, then sat back on the sofa on the other end from where Joshua was stiffly perched.
“I um … saw an ad for this in a magazine and I thought it might be kinda cool to see.”
An idea began to form: Joshua had sent off for a porno. At this point, I’d only seen—well, briefly—one hardcore film. I’d been with friends in downtown Richmond, one other boy and two girls, and on a mutual dare we paid admission to the Lee Art Theatre on Grace Street. We’d entered the back of the theatre to find John Holmes straddling the chest of Seka on screen, each of whom had assets that were less likely to excite teenagers of our generation than to inspire a rush of new and horrific insecurities. We exited quickly.
And here I was in the comfort of my own home, no parents around, and …
The first images appeared on the television screen. It was a scrawny young guy looking at himself in the mirror, as desperate and insecure and unhappy with himself as I often felt. Joshua, a few feet away, was frozen.
Within moments, the scene had changed and a beautiful, chiseled man strode into the spotlight, shirtless and smooth and focused on the dark, hard object of his desire. He unselfconsciously straddled it, lowered himself, and began pumping.
This was a promotion for an exercise machine called Soloflex. I had seen those magazine ads, too.
The shirtless, muscular man worked out smoothly and powerfully. It was beautifully filmed and remarkably homoerotic in its study of the male form. And it was at that moment when everything came together in my head. Joshua would never be brazen enough to bring over a porno. But this was something different, somehow even more direct yet socially defensible.
His eyes were locked on the screen. He would not look at me. In a horrible, narcissistic second, I felt superior. This was a seduction, I decided, and I was the object of Joshua’s desire. I was a year older, more experienced, and knew a thing or two about the passions that young men could share.
At that point I had already had a…well, not a boyfriend. But another schoolmate, a year ahead of me, had established through mutual friends during my sophomore year that I might be open to carnal possibilities. I was one of the drama kids; it was not a big stretch. It took very little negotiation, mostly a ride in his car one evening when he pulled over in a secluded spot and we kissed with some passion, with the promise of more to come.
Walt was unquestionably more experienced with guys than I was, and we embarked on a series of after-school rendezvous at his house. Having a teenage boy’s mercurial complexion, no one ever commented on my reddened, razor-burned cheeks from my aggressive making out with this hirsute 16-year old with the sensual mouth. I refined my few existing sexual skills and acquired new ones, and Walt was always relaxed and playful and easy to be with.
I add, only parenthetically, that Walt reportedly grew up to be a pillar of a fundamentalist church with a wife and children and a job attacking abortion rights and electing anti-gay politicians. The Walt I knew was an experienced and very skilled cocksucker, and I suspect still is.
As fragile as my teenage ego could be, I liked the fact that some guys desired and came after me. I sat back, enjoying the video and waited for Joshua to make his move. Let him do a little work and earn it, I thought.
And he sat there, his legs crossed awkwardly, back straight, pressed into the corner of the couch in my parents’ den. I glanced over occasionally, and his eyes never seemed to leave the screen. I tried to shift my position a little, stretching my arm across the back of the sofa—not invading his space, but being a little more inviting.
He didn’t move. He hardly seemed to breathe. I started to get irritated. After all, this guy brought over this video of a half-naked, sweaty man to watch it with me when he knew my parents were away. It was like sharing a 1960s male physique magazine, chock full of posing straps and sexual potential, with twenty years of technological advancement. Still Joshua did not move.
Finally the video ended. The screen went black. Joshua stared at it for another long moment and looked over at me. I looked back and tried to look confident and intriguing. He bolted up from the sofa.
“Well, thanks. That was cool. I … thanks, I appreciate it.”
He was fumbling with the VCR. I got up and stood next to him. “Relax. I’ll rewind it.”
“No, that’s okay. It’s fine. No problem. That’s okay.” I was standing right next to him. He could lean right into me, brush against me, turn and look at me standing inches away.
Instead he located the eject button and grabbed the tape. “Thanks again,” he said, and began walking toward the front hallway.
I followed him to the front door. “Thanks again,” he repeated, as he reached for the outer door.
“Joshua?” He froze. I thought about what to say. What came out was, “No problem. See you later.” And he was gone.
In the stupidity particular to teenage boys, I stayed mad at him for a while for his lack of follow-through, for not making me feel good, for not affirming that I was a worthy object of desire. We hardly saw one another in the school year that followed, and when we did he avoided eye contact or conversation.
It was years before the whole thing came back to me, before I understood what had happened, and knew why he was there and what I should have done.
It was a plea, not a seduction. I was supposed to understand and make him feel accepted instead of mortified. Tenuous as it was, I had confidence that he did not; I could have kindly, gently started him on a path to find it himself.
Gay kids of our generation rarely bonded, or at least were circumspect in our public association. We circled warily, always a bit concerned that appearing too chummy made the target on our backs that much larger. Yet in private, if we ever got there, we had the chance to explore who we were or at least make one another feel less like the only one. I might have done that for Joshua.
No one our age was coming out back then. There were no websites, no alliances; no one was telling us that it gets better. We only had secrets and coded messages and desperate hope. Had I been more generous I might have won a place in a sweet, if eye-rolling, memory in his middle age. But I was not, and that alone is worth a bit of regret.
I apologize, Joshua. I should have kissed you.
Image credit: Andres Rueda/Flickr