In 1992, love was everywhere. Kurt married Courtney, Bowie married Iman, Whitney married Bobby. Sinead O’Connor brazenly stared her way into the hearts of rebellious teens everywhere by ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on national television.
But me? I was coming off of a perpetually stoned high school stint of being gay in a one-stoplight, conservative college town. Pre-internet. My one and only romance was the brief affair I had with a depressed Colgate University neuroscience major who ended up dropping out early. And besides a few creepy interludes with the Agriculture teacher, I had no sense at all that I could be considered attractive by anyone.
But then came community college in Syracuse, New York. Named after the “Greatest Greek city and most beautiful of them all” by Cicero, the town boasted a large population of wasted college students, a thriving, straightedge hardcore scene led by local celebrity band Earth Crisis, and an uneasy alliance between goths and ravers orchestrated by the district’s DJs.
And much to my shock, dudes in the big, wild city of Syracuse totally wanted to sleep with me.
Closeted frat guys, vegans, one of my professors, hippies who always carried acid, the local twink rapist, boys with too much black eyeliner, and ones with glow sticks affixed to their brightly colored backpacks—I ran through them all, taking whoever I could in an effort to make up for four years of watching everyone around me lose their virginity in what felt like sped-up motion, while I’d stood still in the center of it all.
But like anyone who suddenly starts to get everything they’d always wanted, there was one person I couldn’t have. His name was Robby, and he was a tan skater with Cobain hair, a perfectly round nose, eyes that crinkled when he grinned, and a tendency to wear overalls with nothing else underneath. He claimed to be bi, but A) he had a girlfriend named Tina and B) I was pretty sure he was just faking it to impress her, because she said she was bi too (I believed her, though). He wanted to be a fireman and I was unused to ambitions of heroic bravery, much less from someone who looked like he’d stepped out of the pages of Sassy. He was my ideal, and I fell hard.
I met him and Tina in a gay youth group I sporadically attended, and while it was weird to have what was basically a straight couple hanging out with the rest of us, I didn’t care because he was so damn cute. At one point our group leader decided to take just the boys on something called a “men’s weekend retreat.” Our van full of 16-19 year-old selves arrived at the rented campsite late, and when we walked into the mess hall, you could hear the proverbial record scratch. About 100 guys, all well over the age of 45, looked up from their dinner trays like they’d just seen dessert saunter in on legs. Robby and I instinctively reached for each other’s hands.
We were assigned to a cabin with a man named Mickey—an 80s relic with wild white corkscrew hair who’d gotten rich selling art in Manhattan before retiring upstate. He’d brought along his boyfriend, a much younger (but still older than us) greek guy. On the first night they pulled out a huge bag of weed laced with angel dust. After smoking, Robby and I spent the entire night quaking in terror next to each other on the floor as we listened in the dark to Mickey and his boyfriend do things to one of the other boys we’d arrived with. I knew I was in over my head.
After that weekend I stopped going to the youth group and didn’t see Robby around much anymore. I’d gotten my grades up enough in community college to get into an actual state school just outside of New York City. I spent my last summer in Syracuse canvassing door-to-door for NYPIRG environmental causes. I still slept with whoever looked at me right, but it was no longer an ego-boost. I did it because I felt like it was what was expected of me, and worse, what I expected of myself.
On my last night in Syracuse, my NYPIRG friends held a going away party for me. I walked home alone around 3:30 AM, drunk but oddly clear-headed, hyper aware that I was leaving this world behind and about to enter a new phase of my life. There was no traffic so I walked right down the center of Westcott street, one of the city’s main drags. Orange sodium lights buzzed, and there was a late-summer haze covering everything. I heard wheels speeding across concrete behind me, and I knew it was Robby before I even turned around. He rolled up beside me and flipped his board up into his hand.
He grinned and said something like, “Hey, long time.”
I told him I was moving away from Syracuse in the morning and he nodded. “That’s good,” he said. “You shouldn’t come back. You can do better.”
He dropped his skateboard, put both hands on the side of my head and kissed me. We stood there, making out in the middle of the street until the world turned bright with the glare of oncoming headlights. Pulling apart, he grabbed his board and we ran to the safety of the curb. Without a word, he winked at me before skating off into the night. I turned and walked the other way, not needing to watch him go because it was the perfect moment. That one kiss, wanted for so long, was a parting gift from the city itself, letting me know that there was something bigger out there for me. And in keeping with the rules of the universe for offering up signs like that, I never saw Robby again.