I had never felt love before. I never felt like I deserved anyone. Yet here he was, giving me attention and a feeling of happiness that I didn’t know how to express … I wanted to thank him for helping me discover emotions and feel a sense of peace I wasn’t capable of previously. I just wanted to hold him and feel close in a way that I’d ached for but had never experienced. I didn’t know what it would feel like to hold someone; to feel his warmth while putting my arms around his body to find the awkward arrangements that were necessary to lie down with him. I remember looking at his face when he leaned in to kiss me; he closed his eyes. I didn’t. I kept my eyes open the entire time—studying—because I couldn’t believe this was real and needed every proof I could find.
It was my first kiss.
First love is an amazing thing. The newness of your feelings and the companionship that is built from witnessing these discoveries together creates a measure for the rest of your life of what love should be. Chris* was my first. When we were together I felt more sensitive and alive than I’d ever felt in my life.
His touch could cripple me. The comfort that came with trusting him after my total surrender left me vulnerable and exposed. After having protected myself for so long, I was now sharing intimate discoveries with someone at a time when the only thing I had to offer was me.
Perhaps it was more clear when I was heavier that there was something inside me I was trying desperately to protect. My inability to look in a mirror helped me to cope with how fragile my innocence was; it shielded me from the emotional violence that was very present in my life. I’ve accepted that there are times in life when denial can be necessary. My body was my most sacred possession. It was also the cause of the practically incessant torture I was suffering. Opening up and sharing it with someone was not going to be easy.
I believe there is a science to attraction. A person’s physical appearance can spark interest, but appearance alone isn’t enough for a sustainable relationship. I believe the reasons we find someone appealing are much more calculated than many of us are comfortable understanding. I now know why Chris was so attractive to me, although at the time I couldn’t explain it. Back then, it was impossible to be the person I wanted to be. I lived in silence, as a shadow of who I was capable of becoming. I needed to believe that this wasn’t how I had to spend my entire life. I also needed someone who could incrementally allow me to adjust my comfort level with receiving attention. I was used to feeling worthless, to being emotionally grey and numb. I needed hope. When I saw Chris I saw an angel. I saw someone totally engaged in life. He had a confidence that confused me and made me insatiably curious. He was the most androgynous individual I’d ever encountered. He wasn’t exclusively heterosexual and didn’t feel he had to hide to be more socially acceptable. He was loud, confident, and to my adolescent eyes he was completely devoid of the kind of fear that I was struggling with. There was also something about him that suggested suffering, or at least that he could understand the pain I lived with. He was real, and his level of need was at least as great as my own.
Chris and I had a huge amount of shame about sleeping with each other because of the stigma surrounding being gay. We were alone with these feelings and had no role models except for the people who used the words gay and faggot as an insult. After sex, every orgasm was followed with, “But you know I’m not gay, right?”
After the first time I had intercourse with him I was terrified that I had crossed a moral line. I spent days trying to understand what had happened. I only knew that for the first time in my adolescent life I felt safe being myself and he was the person I had to thank for it.
Chris felt safe with me, too, and sometimes when I woke up I would catch him watching me sleep, smiling. But he tried to fight what he felt. It reminded me of a light flickering before it short-circuits and goes out.
It took time to understand Chris’ emotional obstacles. I collected a mosaic of random moments from his history that showed a boy fighting demons foreign to mine. One week I learned he had been with dozens of people before me. Another, that he became sexually active when he was much younger. My mother had warned me that he was caught masturbating with another boy in a garage. I refused to believe her. This wasn’t the person I saw, or wanted to see. I loved him. I felt empty whenever I wasn’t with him and the second I saw him I could feel my skin go flush with hope. Being around Chris made everything in my life OK. He was the partner who could help me face the world, the sole being who knew everything good and bad about me because he alone knew my secret. He was the most beautiful person on earth because of all the hope he could offer. Through all my pain I found his light. He really was my angel.
I believe Chris loved me. We never said those words to each other, but his actions communicated a truth more real than any words. We continued spending more time together and slowly he revealed more about himself, as he felt safe that his past wouldn’t affect how I felt about him. I don’t think anything could have affected it, really. He could have confessed a crime and I’d still want to hold him, help him feel safe, and worry about the rest of the world later, when fear couldn’t control our thoughts.
One night when he stayed over he brought a bottle of alcohol. I didn’t want to drink, but he convinced me that sharing another adult experience with him could make us closer. So, I took my first drink … and my second, followed by my third and fourth. Once we were drunk, he said,
“I have to tell you something. I have to get away from here.” I was drunk and having trouble following him until he directly said, “They beat me.” “They” were some of the guys in his neighborhood.
I spent the rest of the night talking to Chris about what we could do to make him safe. The only solution I could even attempt required approaching my mom and dad, which I did the following day. It felt like participating in a board meeting upon the arrival of a heated vote. My mother sat off to the side and I was in front of my father to make my case for letting Chris come to live with us. My mom deferred this decision to him. While Chris waited in my room I explained how he was being attacked when he goes home, careful to not reveal that it was a hate crime. I tried to convince them both that we were his only hope. It must have sounded like a dramatic exaggeration that only a teenager would find rational. Still, my parents honestly considered my request before deciding against it. I felt devastated, but Chris took it even harder. He left my house like his body was a walking shell, emotionally empty.
That was a critical moment in my relationship with Chris; it reinforced his belief that he must be unlovable. He went into survival mode. He became defiantly rebellious with his independence. I remember the pride in his voice while speaking about being able to leave anyone, as if strength came from the ability to abandon a person. He shut down caring about love, and embraced his need to be destructive. It must have given him a valid reason to be unlovable, and reinforced his idea that love was only for the weak anyway.
I didn’t see Chris after that. I ached to see him, and often felt sick waiting for any news about what was happening in his life. I felt like I had my heart torn from me, but not yet broken. I still loved him and was terribly concerned about how he was managing. I kept hearing rumors fly around the school about his sexual conquests, and I couldn’t help being both hurt and feeling responsible for the blow that drove him to them. His reported boasts about his sexual frenzy were razors to my heart. He’d abandoned me and I couldn’t help but believe that all this self-destructive behavior was his way to both intentionally toughen his skin and hurt me for ever loving him.
The final cut came when I learned he’d been expelled from school. No one knew the exact reason why but the rumor was that he’d been caught with another male student. I remember the physical shock when I heard the news; I couldn’t focus or concentrate on anything. Whenever I made love to Chris it felt sacred. The surrender of control that came with it was so incredibly intimate that the idea of it being desecrated into something masochistic shattered my spiritual center. I fled school to go to his house. I had to see him; I had to get all the information directly from the source. My emotional pain was too strong and I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t in control of what I was doing and I just needed him. I stood at his door with my heart pounding until his mother, in hysterics after seeing me, started screaming through their closed window.
“HE’S GONE!! HE’S FUCKING GONE!! GET OUT!!! GET AWAY FROM HERE!!”
I stood there unable to move, feeling the death of all my passion. When I could move, I sleepwalked home and just sat in my room, trying to make sense of what had happened. I was overwhelmed. I just wanted to scream, I wanted to shout, I wanted to swing my fists at anything that was capable of feeling pain, but all I could do was sit there … sliding down with my back against two walls and collapse my face into my hands and hope that no one would hear my tears. I was crying from being punished for loving someone, and the pain I was feeling only increased my inability to talk about its cause. It left me more alone than I’d ever felt in my life.
Over time, I discovered another reason why I loved Chris. Finding it helped me understand an intricate simplicity hidden behind all the chaos. It taught me more about Chris than I ever knew with him right next to me. By any relative definition, Chris was beautiful. In some ways, I truly think he was too beautiful, and for exactly this reason he had sex introduced into his life long before it should have ever been there. I remember seeing lots of men at the beach the summers before I met Chris. They’d run along the sand or lay out in their bathing suits and I never noticed myself considering them until after I had physically discovered sex. To me, his conquests were a rebellion against what had stolen the control from his life. It was that need to rebel that gave him the ability to be loud, confident, and again, to my adolescent eyes, visibly absent from any kind of fear.
I never gave up on Chris. My conscience wouldn’t let me. My mind refused to rest until I had proof his life was OK. I didn’t know if anyone in his life would again see him as completely as I had. I loved him, and like a couple standing at an altar I’d already accepted that loving him meant being available whether it was to my gain or not. Oddly though, it was in a way. The strength I developed while searching for him gave me a heart stronger than most I know. I spent almost seven years looking for any trace of him because of how traumatically things ended between us. I remembered him mentioning his father once and telling me that the man was a preacher in the south. When Chris disappeared, I imagined that was where he was sent. Eventually, I found an address for someone with his last name. I had nothing to lose and not that many options so I mailed a long hand-written letter. About two weeks later my telephone rang. An average day turned into anything but as I spent the next four hours rediscovering someone whose heart had never really left me. He was married now; he had a baby daughter and another on the way from a wife he didn’t really mention in our entire conversation. We were both in our twenties now and he was supporting his family by working in a factory. I detected some joy in his voice when we talked about finding each other. Outside of those moments, he seemed to have these rehearsed answers that he’d been coached into believing himself. Somewhere along the line he had developed a thick accent and with it seemed to come the arrested development of his mind. It was almost like the gears that were turning when I knew him had stopped, then started again in reverse. He never returned to high school. I struggled to recognize the person I was talking to. Now, with a family at risk, it felt like his fate was chosen, and I was set free.
I still love you Chris, I always will. And I will always remember you as an angel.
*Patrick’s Note: Eight years after our phone call, by random chance I came face-to-face with Chris again. It had been half our lifetime since we last saw each other, and we both looked almost unrecognizable to the other. Even still, we each knew who the other was from the feelings we felt in the moment. Since our prior call, Chris left his wife and officially came out.