I realized I was gay right about the time I turned eight and noticed that I lingered for just a beat too long every time a shampoo ad—that expanse of exposed neck, the resulting glossy mane—came on the screen. In an unfortunate turn of events for any budding homosexual, I had this realization while living smack in the middle of Central Florida, amidst the “it weren’t no Adam and Steve that God put in Eden” Southern Baptist crowd.
What sustained me was poetry. I lay beneath my knee-tented sheets, reading love poems with a flashlight until the batteries died, trying to learn the great mysteries that I hoped awaited me. Ten years of this, pure feeling—unassociated with any specific person or situation—welled up in me, just waiting for the right woman to come along and tap it. (So to speak.)
And, then, college: a famished stumbling from the desert into the welcoming neon lights of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Women were everywhere—and praise be the Baptist’s god, they were not the rolltop Reebok, acid-washed mom-jean, wife-beater wearing “is that a truck-driver or a lesbian” women from my homestate. Gluttony ensued: first, it was the tour guide I had met during my prospective campus visit; next, the tour guide’s boss (after which I had a nightmare about my mother sitting in bed between us, shaking her head and saying, “Oh, Jessie; you’re supposed to sleep with the people in Admissions BEFORE you get into the school!”); and on and on. Through it all, though, my heart kept its own counsel. This was fun, but it certainly wasn’t love.
But second semester, it happened. While spending the night for a basketball tournament thirty minutes outside of New York City, a friend and I snuck out the back of our hotel and hightailed it to the bright gay lights of downtown Manhattan. We first tried the fabled Meow Mix—the door opening to the most beautiful women of all time, the lights shining down upon us, the music—and then the meaty hand of the bouncer stopping us in our tracks with its demand for IDs. Another bar, another rejection. Finally, we were directed to the divey Henrietta Hudson. (“They’ll let toddlers in there.”) After leaning for hours against the rear barroom wall approached by no one, I jumped to the right to avoid the back of a pool cue to the face and slammed into the woman beside me, spilling her drink.
After much red-faced apologizing, I somehow found the self-possession to offer to buy her a replacement (the first drink I had ever bought in a bar). She was there to celebrate her graduation from med school. She had a sweet, growly little voice, dirty blonde hair, gray eyes, and a hand that kept finding its way to my arm every time she wanted to make a point. Amanda. She had me from “Ouch; what the hell?”
The next week, she moved to New Hampshire, where she was studying for the state boards and working crazy doctor hours in a private practice. Still, we managed to find time to talk every night. This was prior to cell phones and before I owned an answering machine; so I found myself turning down nights out with friends to stay in my room to be there when she called.
When she said she was so busy she hadn’t been eating well, I went shopping for her groceries and prepared a feast. When she said she wished she could see me every day, I went out and bought a box of Ansel Adams postcards and, on each, copied out one of my favorite love poems of all time. I chose them carefully—Neruda, Rilke, Adrienne Rich’s “Untitled (Floating Poem)”. I sent a postcard a day, hoping she would conflate the poems’ beauty, their infinite sensitivity, with me.
In the five months we dated, we only saw each other a handful of times, each visit the result of a 3 1/2 hours each-way trip by me between upstate New York and New Hampshire. I drove those highways crazy with the need to be with her, accumulating speeding tickets like keepsakes. One morning, on the road back to New York at six am to make a ten o’clock class, I ended up driving through a blizzard, so exhausted I had to keep the heat off and my hand pressed to the freezing glass of the window in order to stay awake. Yet, I never even questioned if such extremes were worth just one more night in her bed. The all-consuming yes of it was obvious.
In a way, this long-distance set-up was the ideal way for my overblown love to take hold. At such a distance, she could be the Odette to my Swann, Proust’s transparent envelope into which I could stuff a decade’s worth of speculation and desire. I came to her with my chest stretched wide almost to the breaking point, my hope undiluted and powerful enough to gloss over any and all of her imperfections. But the final straw did finally arrive on the day of my nineteenth birthday.
It was supposed to be her first visit to me, and I spared no effort to make sure it wouldn’t be the last: I held indulgent friends hostage with a “possible first outfit” montage; I cleaned not only my dorm room, but the surrounding hallways. But, at the last minute, she called to say she was too tired from studying to make the trip. Suddenly, all the hope in the world wasn’t enough to cope with this slight. Every excuse, every instance in which I had been called upon to give again and again while she did nothing but take came rushing back to me. I was done and I told her so. Much crying, all on my part, ensued. But somehow, thankfully, I stayed firm in my resolve to keep things ended.
Amanda, I have had many relationships since then—good, bad, and occasionally wonderful—but none of them have I been able to approach with that same open-hearted romanticism that characterized my relationship with you. From your phone calls, which have come roughly every six months since we broke up more than ten years ago—Just calling to say hi and see how you are!”—I know you’re now living in St. Thomas with two dogs and a new girlfriend, making tons of money and saving the bulk of your enthusiasm for playing pick-up soccer games and drinking beer on the deck of your boat.
So, Amanda, I’m writing to say I want my innocence back. You and I both know you have no use for it.