Our conversation last night about limerence has me thinking about some of the boys I’ve carried torches for over the years. I think the first, years before I was able to admit my sexuality, was Alfredo.
I was 14 when I joined nineteen other high schoolers for a cultural exchange project to Nicaragua. This was in 1985, smack in the middle of the Contra War. We stayed in Leon, the second largest city in Nicaragua, far south of the battles and relatively safe. The project organizers had set us up with families in a small villa outside of downtown; a neighborhood that was benefiting from the project’s donations of supplies and labor. Dirt floors, occasional electricity, cold water, chickens in the courtyard. Toilet paper was a luxury and as such, we brought our own, along with t-shirts and other gifts. It’s hard to articulate how welcomed we were made to feel. The contras were not an army acting for the benefit of the people; quite the opposite. Nicaraguans loved us; the liberal peace-loving Americans who visited their country, but they hated our government. Go back and ask them to stop, they’d say. Every family had sons drafted into the war against the Contras, everyone knew someone killed. The family I stayed with gave me the largest room with the softest bed, fed me, played me music, answered all my near-illegible questions with good humor and kindness.
There were three daughters in the household. No boys. However, I would sit out at night in front of the house and the neighborhood boys would come by to ask questions, play me more music, impress me with karate kicks to each other’s heads. That kind of thing. Late one night a boy named Alfredo, a couple of years older than me, seemed to take a certain shine to me. Given my remedial Spanish, he took it upon himself to act out stories for me (few people spoke English). His stories usually depicted brave acts involving angry rushing bulls or the possibility of fighting the Contras when he turned 17. At certain points he would stop and repeat certain words in Spanish for me so I could understand more. I was sitting in front of him and he would lean over with his hands on my knees and his face near mine; his teeth bright, his eyes shining. I will never forget that; it was the first physical contact I had with a boy whom I found attractive. The cultural differences our countries had about physical space and proximity, him being that close to me, intensified that attraction.
We spent several more nights hanging out like that on the steps out front of our houses; the warm dark air, palm trees rustling above, the radio music drifting from down the block. Nothing more than that. No sex, no kissing, just friendly affection that to a scared fourteen-year old meant the world to me.
I cried when I left. He saw me off with the others, waving energetically and jumping up and down, “Bye, My-kol.” As friends will attest, I was not the same when I came back. The shock of re-entering a world filled with everything, combined with the distance from my first infatuation, left me sad and wistful. In some ways I had felt more welcomed, more treasured, than I did in my own family. I talked constantly about going back, and I began to save my money. I wrote a whole notebook full of poetry about my trip. I was arrested for the first and only time at a demonstration in downtown Minneapolis against the U.S Intervention in Central America. I wrote letters to my exchange family and to Alfredo, and they wrote back. I think my friends had a hard time understanding the intensity of my feelings for Nicaragua, probably because I could not yet articulate the passion I felt; the passion for another boy.
A year passed, I had some money saved and was negotiating with the project organizers a solo return trip. One day a letter arrived for me, the air mail envelope a small kick in my heart, my name drawn in cursive on the front. It was from my exchange family. My Spanish had improved over the year, and I began to decipher the formal greetings and news within. Which is to say that it took me a few moments and several re-readings, to understand that Alfredo had been drafted, and in a truck heading for the war zone, was ambushed by the Contras and killed.
In retrospect I can see that there was something about my inexpressible sexuality and the warm, immediate intimacy I had felt in Nicaragua that combined and intensified every moment of those ten days I spent in Leon. Which is ironic, given that homosexuality is not particularly accepted there. Alfredo most certainly would not have welcomed the true extent of my feelings for him. At the time, however, I would not have been able to articulate such feelings. I just wanted more, I wanted it again. Another boy’s hands, gripping my knees. It was enough.