I have always preferred the bittersweet in art. Elegies, requiems, the pain of unrequited love. Melancholy melodies. A happy ending brings an immediate warmth, but it pales in comparison to the bittersweet, those that linger and still bring me a sort of joy. Above all I romanticize longing. It seems that I have always been this way, and there may be endless explanations for this predisposition: adolescent depression, homosexuality, familial pain. Perhaps even more influential were my first experiences of love.
We were an odd pair, but then I have always loved being one of an odd pair. Anthony might not have felt the same way, but it’s too late to ask now. My intentions were less than honorable, but I was very young then. I don’t think I caused him any harm.
I met him during my senior year of high school, through Rebecca, who sat next to me in Spanish class. Rebecca was the type of girl who wasn’t popular in high school but who would grow into a stunning woman. She wore glasses over her beautiful blue eyes and who would match slinky black leggings with a surprisingly maternal blouse. She had a low, husky voice, and Brooke Shields eyebrows, back when Brooke Shields was young. Rebecca and I became friends by writing on each other’s notebooks as we sat side by side in class. Notes regarding the peculiar teaching style of Senor Delgado, who would suddenly interrupt a vocabulary lesson to warn us of the dangers in eating canned food. “Little shavings of metal, they get in the food when you open the can.” Everyone would glance around at each other and he’d say, “It’s true!”
Rebecca drove a beat-up silver Cabriolet, which was more than I had. She’d give me rides home and I suppose I knew that she had a crush on me, but I hadn’t gotten to the point where I could tell girls that I preferred boys, so instead I’d say nothing and hope they wouldn’t try to kiss me. If the pressure of their unspoken expectations increased to uncomfortable levels, I’d simply slip away, leaving the friendship without ever really saying good-bye.
But Rebecca was full of surprises, and that’s why I stuck around. She lived in the Whittier neighborhood, in a large dilapidated house just off of Lyndale Avenue. It was two stories high and each side was painted a different shade of pastel: lime and lemon and pink and sky blue. Looking at it reminded me of Neopolitan ice cream. Or sherbert. We’d climb an exterior staircase to the second level and enter through the back. And then you’d see the piles: all the newspapers stacked chest-high, boxes of junk, old appliances, bags and bags of bulk dry goods, small hills of clothing. A narrow trail ran through the house. I spent many hours in that house, but I never even saw the first floor. I assumed it was just more of the same, probably even worse since nobody went down there. It wasn’t filthy, just unbelievably crowded. The effect was overwhelming; it would have taken a year’s worth of weekend garage sales to make a dent in the mess. Perhaps the idea of even starting proved too dauntless a task. The piles just encouraged more piles: an accumulation along the path of least resistance.
On my first visit, Rebecca’s mother was sitting in the front room watching television. She lay back in a vinyl armchair that was covered with a threadbare, floral-patterned blanket. She was obese; nearly 350 pound if I had to guess. She wore a shapeless housedress and blue slippers that hung from her toes. She had stringy brown hair and glasses and shiny skin over her nose and forehead. And a big, easy smile. Her husband had left many years ago. She welcomed me in and from that day forward talked to me as though I had been hanging around the house forever.
I peered across the dim room towards the television. Shafts of daylight pushed through the cracked blinds. Rebecca’s brother, Jason, was sitting on the couch playing Frogger. He was a big guy, mid twenties, wearing a tracksuit and a baseball cap. Rebecca had told me that Jason was the only white member of the Disciples, a notorious street gang that had emigrated north from Chicago. He preferred to be called J-Z. “Wassup,” he said when Rebecca introduced us. He didn’t look up from his video game, and it was the only time that J-Z ever spoke to me. A Newport smoldered in the choked ashtray beside him on the couch. His greasy hair fell in ringlets down the back of his neck. Later, when I used their bathroom (another stockpile of bottles and boxes) I peeked inside their medicine cabinet and realized that J-Z was using Jerri Curl.
I squeezed past the boxes in the hallway, and made my way back to the living room. I passed the bedroom that Rebecca had gestured towards as hers, and saw the mattress on the floor; a tornado path of clothes scattered about. By this point I was both intrigued and repulsed by Rebecca and her multi-colored house. It was a far cry from my orderly, middle-class life. Sure, I had two gay parents, but this family was something else. I felt like an anthropologist discovering a new tribe. I also felt like I didn’t want to sit down or touch anything. I was rapidly reaching my saturation point, and was about to tell Rebecca that I had to go home, when Anthony walked in.
Anthony was an inch shorter and two years older than me. Skin the shade the café con leche, with pale green eyes. He had a dusting of hair on his upper lip, and a white V-necked t-shirt pulled down over his compact torso. He wore an old pair of pale blue boxer shorts, and his thick brown hair was ruffled and sticking up a little from the top of his head. He had just woken up from a nap, and came in yawning and scratching his stomach. Rebecca introduced us. “Hi, Mike!” he said. He had a gap-toothed smile.
Rebecca later told me that Anthony was half Italian and half Native American, that he was a high-school drop-out and a friend of her brother’s. Anthony had been kicked out of his house last year and had been living with Rebecca’s family ever since. As I watched surreptitiously, Anthony sat on the couch next to J-Z and picked up the other joystick. I decided to stay.
I’ve always wondered how sexual attraction develops, how our preferences for certain characteristics or body types grow or fade over the years. For me, there’s always been the element of “opposites attract”. I was scrawny growing up, and always preferred guys who were bigger than me. I liked guys who were a little rough around the edges, more outgoing, less introverted. Is it elitist of me to admit a taste for working-class men? Back then I associated a raw sexual energy with men who knew how to work with their hands. An ideal husband would be creative and literate, but when it came to animal attraction these qualities mattered little. As a matter of fact, they still don’t.
It seems that some of my sexual tastes were cemented early on, and have changed little over the years. As a sophomore in high school I participated in a cultural exchange program and traveled to Léon, Nicaragua with twelve other American teenagers. 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. The family I stayed with gave me the largest room with the softest bed. They fed me, played me music, and answered all of my near-illegible questions with good humor and kindness. The barrio was a tight-knit community, and every evening people would gather around their front steps, to talk and to listen to the one radio that the “rich” neighbor across the way owned. We Americans were minor celebrities, and everyone wanted to meet us. They hated our government for funding the Contras, those false revolutionaries, but every American they had met were liberal, peace-lovers such as ourselves, and they treated us well. Léon was outside of the war zone, so we were protected from that danger, but everyone we met had lost sons and husbands and friends to the war.
I would sit out at night in front of the house and the neighborhood boys would come by to ask questions, sing along to the songs on the radio, and impress me with karate kicks to each other’s heads. Late one night a boy named Alfredo, a couple of years older than me, seemed to take a shine to me. He lived four or five houses away, and would come up each night to the steps outside our house. Somehow we became friends, in spite of the language barrier. My Spanish was meager and his English nonexistent. But he was charismatic and funny, and to my fifteen-year old heart, very, very sexy. Dark skinned, with a light dusting of hairs on his upper lip, and cheap polyester clothes pulled over his compact frame. He told stories of machismo, of encounters with wild bulls and beautiful girls. He would act out various scenarios so that I could follow his stories. He’d slow and repeat a word with precise annunciation until I understood or until I paged through my Spanish-English dictionary for the translation.
I still remember the exact moment my attraction turned to full-blown adolescent love. I was sitting on the steps and he was standing in front of me when suddenly he placed both hands on my knees and rested his weight there, and told me another story. I can’t for the life of me remember what he said. I was so undone by the physical gesture that I could only sit there and look up into his face, his bright white teeth flashing around his words. It was the first physical contact I had with a boy whom I found attractive. There was a greater ease in physical affection between men in Nicaragua, as in many other countries. No other boy had ever touched me in that way, and though I knew Alfredo was straight, I fell in love with him.
We spent several more nights hanging out like that on the steps; the warm dark air, palm trees rustling above, the radio music drifting from down the block. Nothing more. No sex, no kissing, just friendly affection between two boys, affection that meant different things to each of us.
I have a picture of the two of us that was taken the day I left for home. He has his arm around me and is smiling. I’m looking a little shell-shocked. That morning, as our bus pulled away, I looked out the window and saw him, waving energetically and jumping up and down. As we rounded the corner, I lasted about five seconds then burst into tears.
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 Nicaragua. 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 for a solo return trip. One day a letter arrived for me, the airmail 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. One day, riding in a truck headed for the war zone, he 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 twelve days I spent in Léon. 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. He was simply my first crush. When I returned home, I found myself staring at Latino boys. There weren’t that many to choose from in Minnesota.
It was a year later when Anthony walked through that door in his boxer shorts. He had an unselfconsciousness common among straight boys; an ease inside his own skin. I was nothing but self-conscious, and coming to an age where I wanted to distance myself from my family and my upbringing, from the safety and privilege awaiting me in a future of education. In Rebecca and her extended family, I found a little mystery and danger.
I’m not proud to admit that I used Rebecca in order to spend time with Anthony. Eventually he and I formed our own friendship, one that didn’t require an intermediary, and although the three of us spent many days together over the next few months, Anthony and I often made separate plans. For some reason he enjoyed my company. I had my secret, ulterior motives, but I was so afraid of discovery that these motives never came to light. Most likely they only registered to Anthony as friendly attention. We had almost nothing in common, and I suppose our differences made the attraction that much stronger. He was extroverted and immediate, he lived fully in each minute, and he laughed all the time, with a goofiness that I found sexy.
I also craved that little bit of danger, shreds of which I found on the edges of the Disciples. They had a central house off of East Lake Street, behind the McDonald’s, and Anthony took me there a few times. He wasn’t an initiated member (part of the initiation required the member to be beaten severely by the entire gang), but his friendship with J-Z gave him certain privileges, and thus by extension I could hang out at that house, though no one there seemed to pay me much attention. My white-boy adrenaline would kick every time I stepped into the house, but I loved it. I bought my first rap albums that year: NWA and Public Enemy and Ice-T. One night a man ran into the house, out of breath, a pistol in his hand. “Cops are after me,” he said, and he was ushered into the back bedroom, where they held their members-only meetings. Later someone told him he’d have to get rid of his bright white tracksuit. “Shit, man, I just bought it,” he said. That was about as dangerous as it ever got for me. Not long after, the cops raided the house while Anthony was there, and they had everyone lay down on the ground for a good hour while they searched the house. Later that week I was walking downtown with Anthony went he spotted a cop on the corner and went right up to him. “Hey, remember me?”
The cop looked at him a little suspiciously.
“You raided our house last week. I was on the ground the whole time. I recognized your shoes.”
The cop had to laugh. “Staying out of trouble?”
I felt that my proximity to this danger somehow lent me street cred; it urbanized me, gave me a sophistication that my classmates would envy, should they ever learn of my involvement with a street gang. But I could never shake the reality of my difference from Anthony and the others. I was going to college in the fall. I was dipping my toe in the waters of danger, knowing I’d never fall in. I was, for lack of a better word, slumming.
Naturally, Anthony was completely straight. He even had a girlfriend, though in all the time we spent together, I never met her. I still remember when Rebecca told me that Anthony was a screamer when he had sex. That fueled my fantasies for several weeks.
One weekend when my father and his partner went out of town, I asked Anthony if he’d like to stay over. That night we drove around the city in my father’s Jetta, and ended up crossing the Mississippi River to the Saint Paul side, where we parked along a quiet street. Anthony had brought some bottle rockets, and we walked down to the shore and lit their fuses, holding the Coke bottle so that they launched over the water. I watched the sparkling arc of their trails until they fizzled or burst. One plunged beneath the surface of the river and detonated there, a bright flash of light under the dark water. We didn’t stay long, afraid the people who lived in the mansions along the river would call the police. In the car we split a Newport, Anthony’s brand, blowing the smoke out the windows.
We ended up back at my father’s house where I concocted a ridiculous story about how all the sheets from my bed and my brother’s bed were in the wash, so we’d have to sleep in my father’s bed. Anthony didn’t seem suspicious; he went along with it good naturedly, as he did most things. But he never put the moves on me, and I was far too scared to initiate anything, and while he snored beside me I lay wide awake all night, heart thumping, till finally I passed out from exhaustion.
That was the summer after graduation. In the fall I was leaving for college in Florida, and my imminent departure lent the summer a romantic shade, of things coming to a close. He told me, in a rare moment of disclosure, that I had inspired him to go back and finish high school.
It was my final week in Minneapolis. Anthony and Rebecca took me out for a final night of driving and laughing. He bought a bottle of tequila and the two of us proceeded to get plastered. Rebecca, who was driving, took a couple of sips. We ended up at the Rose Gardens, along Lake Harriet. It was my favorite place to go when I’d sneak out at night with my headphones. I would lie on my back on the grassy hill and look up at the jumble of constellations. I suppose in my drunken state I wanted to share it with them.
The tequila loosened me up, and I was singing a song, something by the Fine Young Cannibals. It was a sad song, naturally. Even at eighteen I was a melancholy boy.
Somehow Rebecca and I ended up slow dancing, there in the dark garden, while I sang.
When at first you left
I thought I’d surely die
I couldn’t see the future
without you by my side
I didn’t have the best signing voice, but nobody stopped me. Rebeccad held tight to me, I could feel her pulling closer, her warm breath against my neck. But I kept my head turned away from hers, looking over her shoulder. Anthony lay on the grass a few feet away, watching us dance. I could see his smile, even in the dark.
Later that night I passed out. They drove me home, to my father’s house, and Anthony literally carried me inside and stayed until I was able to make it to my bedroom. A few minutes later, as I was trying to brush my teeth in the bathroom, I lost my balance and stumbled backwards, landing awkwardly against the toilet and cracking the basin open. Water spilled everywhere and then my father woke up. But that’s another story.
In my foolish, adolescent heart, I thought it awfully romantic that Anthony had carried me inside. I was that young.
A couple of months later, when I was in Florida at college, Rebecca called me. I had given her my friend Kelly’s number, as I had no phone of my own. I remember sitting on Kelly’s floor with her ridiculous pink phone in my lap when Rebecca told me that Anthony had been at home trying to get high, sniffing Scotchguard from a plastic bag. He lurched out of his bedroom into the crowded hallway of that pastel-colored house, clutching his heart. He died there on the floor.
I am happy to say that none of my other crushes, nor boyfriends for that matter, have ever died. And it’s been years since I fell for a straight boy. I wish I could say that I never fall for unavailable men, but it seems we all have a few of those to endure. It’s the unrequited attractions that hurt so beautifully, but only from this end. I don’t romanticize the ones I’ve hurt, because for me there’s no longing there. It’s an adolescent urge, to create a tragic art out of the loss of those two boys; to find greater meaning in something simple. As if in memory I could conjure something more from them, something beyond a desire for friendship.
Poor Rebecca. To this day I deceive her. Whether it’s wishful thinking or a trick of memory, I don’t picture her with me in that garden. Although I know it’s not true, I picture Anthony, his arms wrapped around me as we shuffle drunkenly in a circle to that song, my voice sounding better with each passing year.