I pushed away the first man I ever truly loved. He was a mystery to me. When I was a Junior in high school, I met him backstage at a musical I was performing in. Our mutual friend had wanted me to meet him because, like myself, he was interested in pursuing acting. He was handsome in a way I could only ever dream of being. He had sharp, dark features that complimented his tan skin, and he had eyes that were hypnotically green.
Once we had met, it was as if he had always been there. He ended up joining the same clubs as I did and we instantly formed a close friendship. I had never been close friends with a boy before, and the male camaraderie was beautiful and new to me. I ended up doing everything with him. We would speak on the phone, walk to each other’s houses, ride our bikes, and occasionally even do homework together.
I was always grateful of his company. He transfixed almost everyone that he met with his good looks and biting wit. It was a mystery as to why he would want to spend so much time with me. I was the boy who had never heard of tweezing his eyebrows. I was the guy who wore gym shorts and sneakers to school every single day. He, on the other hand, was the boy with good looks and the entrancing personality.
Months after we met and became inseparable, I spent the night at his house for the first time. He introduced me to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and taught me how to cook popcorn on the stove. After talking in bed for hours, it began to thunder and storm. Frightened, he asked me if he could curl up next to me. “Sure,” I said, my heart beginning to race. With him pressed against me, we continued to talk, and touch, and rub. It was the first time I had ever truly allowed myself to explore my sexuality, and I loved it.
When I woke up in the morning, a paralyzing panic swept across my body. “I need to go home for, uh, breakfast,” I said, grabbing my clothes and fighting back the urge to throw up. In my paranoia, I figured that my entire school would know what I had done with him by Monday morning. “What we did was, uh, okay, it’s just not for me, ya know? I wanted to see if I liked guys but I realized that I don’t, I’m so straight,” I told him before letting myself out his front door and walking home. I spent the rest of that weekend trying to come up with explanations to tell my friends when they asked me what I did this weekend. I spent hours saying it over and over again — “Nah, bro, I’m straight” — in my bathroom mirror until even I was convinced.
All my planning was pointless though, he never told people about what happened between us, and it filled me with a false sense of confidence. I felt like I had gotten away with something, and that made me feel strangely confident.
And thus began a long cycle in which we would enjoy each other’s company physically for a few weeks at a time before I would become a coward and tell him, “It’s best if we stopped.” In between periods of fooling around, I would remind him that I had no feelings for him by dating girls. I even wound up really caring about some of the ones I dated. It just never fully seemed to work in the way he and I did. With women, I was always on edge, but with him I was free. I laughed louder than I thought I could.
The idea of us being together, like most things that are good for me, such as exercise and vegetables, was always rejected. As the years went on, and I matured sexually, there was no denying that I had a strong attraction to his body, and more importantly, his mind. Although we would hang out almost every day, I would only give him the romantic, physical attention we both craved when we were alone and the lights were out. Once we were finished, I would spoon him, lean into his ear and whisper, “You know, this is just a physical thing for me, right? We’re just friends.” He would reply, “Oh, I know, we’re on the same page.”
After knowing him for so many years, I knew he was lying. For once, I felt powerful and in control of my situation. I wasn’t afraid of him telling anyone, because we had built a strong trust with each other. A trust I was betraying every time I asked him to lie to me about his feelings. I knew that I cared for him, but the fear of being outed was smothering. Every time a beautiful daydream of he and I having a life together seeped into my brain, it was immediately crushed by the memories of taunting that had followed me throughout school. I felt disgusted at myself. I had let the words of my peers seep into me so deeply that it had become ingrained in me to push away what felt good and right for me. I pushed away someone who loved me, and I loved them, all because of the deep shame that I had come to associate with physical attraction to men.
One October afternoon during my sophomore year of college, after a particularly beautiful night we spent together followed by a morning in which I made him breakfast, I panicked. I felt like I was getting in too deep. I felt like if I started to come out, I would immediately find myself in a serious relationship. I told him I thought we should stop being physical with each other. “But we can still be best friends!” I told him, trying to keep him playing by my rules. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he told me no, and that he was done being treated like a toy, but I was. I had expected relationships to end, but I had never counted on a best friend turning their back on me. I was naïve in thinking that by keeping him under the “friend” label that I was making the two of us impervious to damage.
Two months after we parted ways, I became violently sick. After blacking out and throwing up outside of my school’s library in front of a sorority girl bake sale, I was taken to a clinic and immediately underwent testing. After a few particularly grueling weeks of doctor, procedures, medicines, and paper-thin white sheets covering my shaking body, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. Which, in laymen’s terms means that my body is trying to destroy my intestines as if they were a foreign object.
Although it’s not usually a fatal disease, I spent most of the following semester inside my apartment recovering. I became manic with the idea that my intestines would eventually need to be surgically removed and I would be reduced to being wheeled around everywhere with a bag of my own shit attached to me. I put on ten pounds from the steroids meant to shock my body into remission and became too ashamed to wander outside my room often. I became depressed and often thought about killing myself with the large quantities of the medicines that were keeping me alive.
For the year I was recovering, I waited by the phone for him to call. I waited, hoped, and prayed that he would text me or show up at my door; just to make sure I hadn’t OD’ed on iron pills. I felt like Ryan Gosling’s character in The Notebook — but less sexy and sicklier. I knew I had no right to expect him to be concerned with me. I had gone years convincing myself I only liked him as a friend, but it suddenly felt like I lost something much more compelling than friendship. I knew he was angry with me, and he had a right to be, but I had never felt more abandoned and scared for my life.
I wanted nothing more than for him to tell me he was there for me and that I would get healthy again. Eventually, I did get better, but it was without him by my side. It’s been a little over a year since the last time we spoke, and I have made peace with what transpired between us. We had loved each other in a way that I didn’t understand, but it was intoxicating and powerful and terrifying. It was something I didn’t try to understand at the time because that would mean having to validate it, and validating it would mean facing it. He’s moved on since then, and I’m happy for him that he has.
I lost him because I treated him like a static object. I treated him like he would always be there –because I assumed best friends stuck with each other forever like Romy and Michele. My youth had given me plenty of insecurities but no shortage of naivety when it came to friendship and how to treat people like a decent human being should. I tried to manipulate his feelings and only see them in the scope of my own. I never allowed myself to really consider him, to think deeply about how he may have felt about our arrangement. I’m not claiming that this moment significantly changed and shaped who I am.
I still run away from boys who are nice and right for me because I’m still a coward. I still put more stock into holding hands and sharing secrets than I do with sharing my naked body with someone. To sit here and preach to everyone reading this that I’m a changed man would be awfully smarmy of me. My only genuine advice I feel in any position to offer is this: If someone makes you feel things you didn’t know you knew how to feel, and is able to successfully make you sit through The Rocky Horror Picture Show, try to find a way of telling them.
image – The Notebook