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Need Walks at Night

When I was fifteen I began sneaking out of the house at night. I’d just returned from Nicaragua, a ten-day exchange trip during the Contra War. My parents, long divorced, lived a mile apart in south Minneapolis, and each of my bedrooms was on the ground floor. That spring my excursions were brief, a quick trip down the alley and back to smoke a Camel, which my parents and I were pretending I didn’t buy. I turned sixteen, and as spring gave way to summer and my nights lengthened, I’d walk a few blocks to Lake Harriet, and lay on the grassy hills above the Rose Gardens. Most nights I’d follow the long slope down to the fountains at the gardens’ center, where I’d take off my shoes, roll up my jeans, and wade in a slow circle, my mind returning, again and again, to the family I’d stayed with in Léon, the mother who’d sliced mangos for me in the morning, the rooster strutting around the back yard, the youngest daughter giggling and hiding from me behind the battered rocking chair. I believed then that they had treated me better than my own family ever had. I believed that my family didn’t understand me, which allowed me to break their rules. Soon I snuck out nearly every night that summer, for an hour or two, with my headphones on; a tape of acoustic Chilean music – which rendered me hopelessly nostalgic – on an endless loop.

Across the road from the Rose Gardens was an enormous cemetery, over two hundred acres of rolling hills. One night I found a hole in the fence, and I crawled through and walked among the tombstones and the trees, watching for the headlights of security cars that cruised the graceful, curving roads. Every night I avoided people and cars, kept to shadows and quiet streets, anything to sustain my solitude and the sense of space, freedom, my mind grasping memories with cool fingers and holding them before me: the barrio at night, the tinny music from the radio across the street drifting up towards the rustling palm trees, florid love songs and raucous cumbias; the boy down the block, Alfredo, who had stood outside my family’s cinderblock home each night and called my name, who’d thrown his arm around my shoulder and babbled to me in too-quick Spanish. And though his affection had been chaste, the feel of his arm had electrified me, and bound me to him. But I could not yet call it by its name – infatuation – and it would be years before I do so. My memories of Léon were always of those nights, and they breathed in the space and freedom I pursued through the dark streets. I wandered for hours till I grew tired, till my mind played tricks and I imagined that he was with me.

Soon I had no choice. Thirty minutes, an hour after my parents went to bed, I’d stare at the walls of my room till my lungs grew tight, and I’d have to crawl out into the cool, quiet air. I grew bolder, walked farther, sometimes clear downtown, five miles away, where I’d sit on the steps of a plaza on the Nicollet Mall, and watch the lights of Orchestra Hall shimmering in the water that spilled down the sides of the fountain. One night a man in a three-piece suit sat down beside me there, and we talked for an hour. He told me his wallet had been stolen, but he never asked me for money. He didn’t ask me for anything, just talked. I saw that he was merely sad, and lonely, and when I left I gave him a twenty, and hurried away before he could give it back. Another night I walked downtown to the Metrodome, where my friends Ren and Nicky were camped out for Bowie tickets, hours before anyone else got in line, and I sat next to them on the sidewalk and we bitched about our families. Later, Ren, barefoot in a peasant dress and shawl, stood up and swayed to some private music, till I thought of Stevie Nicks, and I sang what words I knew to “Gypsy,” thinking they’d laugh, but they didn’t, and I kept singing, softly, just to see her spin. Summer lengthened into fall, and my chronic melancholy hummed nightly to the smell of leaves in the gutters, leaves on the shore of Minnehaha Creek or the Mississippi River. I grew ever bolder, and walked streets a skinny white boy my age had no business walking, and one night a man asked me if I was “selling rock,” and I shook my head, misreading his desperation as confirmation of my toughness. I walked away, already forming the story I’d tell my friends: the night I was mistaken for a dealer. No one ever messed with me on my night walks, as if I was being watched over by something; no doubt it was only my youth.

It turned cold, and still I walked, in a too-thin coat, hatless, my hands shoved in my pockets, my breath trailing up in the orange glow of steet lights, in the hard clear light of the moon. Some nights that winter I walked by a bar downtown on Hennepin Avenue, whose name – The Gay Nineties – I’d seen in the weekly paper my father had around the house after the divorce. I could not admit to myself what I was doing, could not admit that I wanted something I was years from naming. I went on some instinct, my feet taking me by the bar, just “on accident.” One night, late, an hour after last call, a scrawny man in a leather jacket stood shivering on the sidewalk out front, alone, and as I passed him he asked me for a cigarette. “Thanks,” he said as I handed him one. His voice was high, queeny; it made me nervous. “What’s your name?” he asked, as I flicked the lighter. His mustache nearly covered his thin-lipped smile.

“Mike,” I said, and when he bent forward into the light his eyes held mine, and my thumb on the lighter’s button trembled. The cigarette tip flared into an ember.

“Mike,” he said, inhaling the smoke, “what are you doing tonight?” I glanced away, down the empty sidewalk. My eyes met his again. At that moment he reminded me of a creature from a fairy tale, a withered elf on a forest path, tricking travelers with clever questions out of something they loved, something they needed.

“’Night,” I said, and turned.

“Wait!” he called. “Mike…”

I kept moving, staring ahead, shoving my hands back in my pockets, putting space between us.

“Where the fuck are you going?” he screeched. “You fucking faggot! Where the fuck are you going?”

My panic pushed me on, faster.

“Fucking faggot!” He screamed, his voice the only sound on the empty street. “I hope you fucking die! I hope you get AIDS and fucking die!”

His terrible voice clung to me as I turned a quick corner, his words echoing off the buildings on Fifth Street. I turned the volume up on my headphones, and focused again on Léon, on the rustling palm trees and the warmth of an arm across my shoulder. But the man’s voice flickered bitterly through my head, corrupting these memories. What kind of man would… I caught myself wondering, but my mind withdrew from the image it summoned: a dark, smoldering pit at his center. The cold wind stole inside my jacket and stroked my neck, and I hurried, head bent, the five miles home.

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