First Love

FirstLove My first week at Ricks College started just two weeks after I returned from my Mormon mission in January of 2000. I spent my last months as a missionary in rural Delaware, and I just no longer gave a shit. By the end, I was going through the motions, knocking on the doors and following the rules, for the most part, but I stopped praying, studying the scriptures, and journaling. I realized by that point that a cure for homosexuality was just not possible, no matter how dedicated I was or how many people I converted.

I lived at home with my mother and little sister during that first semester. I slept in my old bedroom, four walls that felt so familiar. The same painting of Jesus on the wall, the bookshelves full of bagged and boarded comic books, the same clothes in the closet. It smelled the same. The air hit the walls in the same way. But I was different. I was 21 now.

I got a full-time job working at a call center for a pyramid company, a place where customers signed up to receive monthly orders for a fee, as they worked on signing up new customers on a monthly basis so they could unlock new benefits. The shifts were busy, but they paid a bit above minimum wage, and I needed the cash. Full-time school plus a vehicle and insurance and gas money, well, it was going to add up over the next few years.

And so on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I drove the 45 minutes from Shelley, Idaho to Rexburg, Idaho in my little two-wheel drive red truck. It performed well enough, except when going up hills, or in wind, or in the snow, but I made it work.

I signed up for 15 credits that first semester. I’d start with the basics, working toward my declared major in Social Work. I had English, History, Introduction to Acting, Men’s Choir, and a Book of Mormon class.

It felt amazing to be on campus. There was an energy in the brisk winter air, a group of like-minded youth, people who mostly looked like me and believed the same as me. The buildings bore the names of prominent Mormon leaders from the past. It was common for classes to begin with prayer and sometimes hymns or a scripture shared that was relevant to the chemistry or classic literature or algebra lesson. In this learning environment, we already knew that the Book of Mormon was true, there was no need to debate about it, so a study of the American Revolution could automatically, and without argument, include the history of the Nephites. I was hungry for knowledge. And, if I’m honest, for escape from myself.

My best friend, Jesse, from high school was already a student there. We got together for lunch every day I was on campus. After lunch, we headed out into the courtyard where we could, and I quote, “Scope on girls”. We used a 5 to 10 rating system for the girls that walked past. I know it was supposed to go one to ten, but we seemed to have an unspoken agreement that putting anyone below a 5 felt cruel. Mormon college girls everywhere. Blondes and brunettes, tall and short, leaner and heavier. We commented on the ones who wore too much make-up, or the ones that didn’t realize how pretty they were, on the ones who seemed to have good solid testimonies and sweet spirits. We laughed about how some of the girls were probably there to get married, but how they likely wouldn’t find anyone before they turned 21 and so they would just end up going on missions themselves. Once in a while, we saw a girl as young as 18 or 19 pushing a baby carriage, walking toward married student housing. Jesse said he couldn’t wait for that, finding a girl to carry his children. He said that, but I knew what he meant, that he was very excited to be able to start having sex and hopefully soon.

One day, over lunch, Jesse asked if we could sit in a remote corner of the lunchroom so he could talk freely. He was wearing a green t-shirt with wolves on it, and it was very tight. He had a muscular chest, big shoulders and arms, and an insane smile. I made sure I was looking right into his eyes as he talked, but that wasn’t necessarily easier. His blue eyes were piercing. He was so damn handsome.

“Dude!” He always called me dude. “So there is this girl Ava from my science class. She’s a total 9. Blonde hair, perfect lips, amazing body. We were flirting and she gave me her number and we texted a bit and then Saturday night she basically booty called me. She told me to meet her in the Gardens. She had to sneak out cause it was past curfew at the dorms, but we met there and made out for like two hours. And then like back in my car for another two hours. It was the hottest make-out I’ve ever had, like ever. She kept like sucking on my tongue, like it was a popsicle. Like I was just sitting there forever like ‘bleeeeeh’ and she’s just sucking on it. It was weird but awesome. And then she had to hop the gate to sneak back in. It was so so hot. I think I’m going to ask her to the dance this weekend, but I’m going to have to wear like four extra pairs of briefs over my garments cause I’m totally gonna end up getting hard dancing with her and that would be so awkward if she noticed. Dude, it was so amazing. How about you, have you been macking on any girls, or are you still part of the VL Club?”

I put on my familiar grin, the same one I’d been using since high school in conversations like these. VL Club stood for Virgin Lips Club. And yes, I was still a part of it. “I just haven’t found the right girl yet.”

Jesse rolled his eyes. “Dude! How long are you going to wait! You’re 21 and you haven’t even kissed a girl yet!”

He kept talking, listing all the girls from high school that he remembered, girls that, according to him, I could have made out with if I wanted to. But he didn’t understand. He couldn’t. It was him I wanted to make out with. I met Jesse when I was 15, back when things at home were going so bad. He transferred into school my sophomore year, half-way through the semester, after his parents’ divorce. He was super cute. And he was nice to me. We hung out all the time. He considered me his best friend. I hadn’t really had one of those before. And the next two years had been full of video games and movies, double dates, pizza, church activities, and sleepovers. He talked about hot girls constantly, and always wondered why I didn’t. There were times back then when he would sleep over and share a bed with me. He’d lay next to me and my heart would thump so hard in the darkness. I was aware of his body right next to mine, his breathing. He slept in a pair of briefs, that’s it. I could just reach over and grab his hand, or his leg, or his—And the very thought of that had always left me nauseous because I knew it was so wrong. I just wanted him. I wanted him to notice me. I wanted him to want me in the way that I wanted him. But it would never happen. It couldn’t. I was broken, designed wrong. I couldn’t ever let him know how I felt. He’d never be making out with me in the gardens on a Saturday night and bragging about it the following Monday. I’d never suck on his tongue like a popsicle in his car. He’d never go on a date with me and wear four extra pairs of briefs to hide his arousal. He wasn’t gay. He was normal, and I was the one who was broken. I was in love with a guy who couldn’t possibly love me back, and I was so ashamed that I couldn’t even talk to God about it. I couldn’t even put it in my journal, because what if my future kids read this about me. This was cruelty in its sharpest form, it felt like. It felt unbearable.

Jesse hit my arm with a closed fist. “Dude! Where did your brain go just then? Look over your shoulder, ten o’clock. There are like eight hotties all at one table, all of them are eights or above. Let’s walk over there and introduce ourselves.”

I looked over. The girls noticed us looking and some of them smiled, Jesse and I smiled back. I turned back to Jesse. “Look, I’ve got a paper due in English, actually. I should head to the library and finish it before class.” There I was with another excuse about why I wasn’t dating women. I was so used to lying now, to others and to myself, that it didn’t even feel like lying anymore.

Jesse punched my shoulder a little harder. “Priorities, elder!” He still called me ‘Elder’, a term he had used during his own missionary service to the other guys around him. It was almost a term of affection for him. “This is what is going to happen. This weekend, we are going on a double date. I will set you up. Me and Ava, you with one of her roommates or something. And you will finish that date with a kiss. You’re just gonna lean over and kiss her right on the mouth when she’s least expecting it. And I will watch you do it. You got it?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” I laughed outwardly, but the second I walked away, my smile died right there on my face, and a deep furrow settled between my eyebrows. I remembered being 11 years old, a full decade before, and my best friend Jason at the time making me stay after school and shoot basketball until I finally made a basket from the free throw line. I’d been making excuses, finding reasons not to play with him because I hated sports, but he told me I wasn’t leaving that blacktop until I scored one basket. “We’ll make a man out of you yet!” he had said to me then. Or my brother, when I was five, telling me I had to kiss a girl to be a real man. Or my mission president just a few months before saying that the Lord had a beautiful wife in store for me as a reward for being a faithful missionary. It all felt eerily similar to Jesse trying to force my first kiss. “And I will watch you do it,” he had said. I walked away from that conversation, deeply angry and horribly ashamed.

That weekend, I got mysteriously ill and couldn’t make it on the date. The rest of the semester passed. We continued scoping out girls at lunchtime. Jesse went through a few girlfriends. I moved to campus and became Jesse’s roommate, sleeping one bed over from him. And I started drowning myself in everything. I worked full time. I took 18 or 21 credits at a time. I auditioned for school plays so I could perform in the evenings. I went on dates and to dances and I was perfectly respectful to every girl, but still no kiss. I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t scared, I just wasn’t wired for it, it grossed me out. I respected women, liked them so much, but there was nothing romantic or chemical for me there. I desperately wanted to be cast as the romantic lead in a school play so that I could force myself to finally kiss a girl, but it never happened. In fact, I wouldn’t kiss anyone until I was 27, and that would be the girl I would marry. We dated for six years, off and on, and I kissed her for the first time on the night that I told her I was gay.

Jesse and I went on to be roommates in college for the next three years. He slept in his underwear, he walked around nude, he had girls over. And in time, I somehow just got over my crush. It went away, it died inside me like my hopes for a future where I would be happy. Being gay wasn’t an option, and I couldn’t make myself straight, so what else was there except to keep going on, lying and being sad.

In 2004, Jesse got married to a gorgeous woman from California, and I was his best man. I stood at his side smiling, posing in the photos. At the reception, he pulled me aside and gave me a huge bear hug. “Dude!” he whispered. “I got married! I’m about to get so laid!”

And I was happy for him. How could I not be? He had it all now, the wife, the temple marriage, the future eternal family, and the best friend still at his side, cheering him on. The best friend that he knew better than anyone. The best friend that he didn’t know at all.

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Seattle Part 10: Goodbye, My Lover

February, 2015

I was hopping up and down with excitement at the airport. Like literally hopping, bouncing up and down in the air. It was a private joke between Matt and I. When I asked him what he loved most about me, he said it was how I hopped when I saw him.

The joke had started a few years before. I’d gone to Las Vegas with friends for a weekend. One night, after a few drinks at a club, I’d danced with a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed man in a leather jacket. We’d flirted, made out, laughed a lot, and then traded phone numbers. After weeks of chatting, he’d come to see me in Salt Lake City. Before his arrival, I’d texted that I was so excited to see him that I couldn’t hold still, and as he’d pulled up, I’d been hopping in the yard, making him giggle. After that, I’d hopped every time we’d seen each other.

Prior to this, the last time I had seen Matt was nearly a year before. I met him in St. George, Utah, in the middle of an insane blizzard. He got out of the car, and I just seized him in a hug, and we stood there, holding each other for several minutes as the world blustered around us. After that, we went inside and made love and just held each other. He could light me on fire with his touch. After that, we’d had yet another passive argument about why our relationship wasn’t working, and why it couldn’t (the distance, the kids, he needed to finish college, he wasn’t ready, he cared too much, it hurt me too much to be so far away and have so little time with him), and he drove away, and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again.

Matt got off the plane, and found me hopping, and we hugged and kissed and laughed. I always felt so perfectly complete when I was with him. I felt attractive, desired, loved, accepted, like everything would be okay.

Over the next three days in Seattle, we talked, drank coffee, hiked to waterfalls, window-shopped, danced, had drinks, and ate everything. We snuggled at night and kissed in the morning. And yet again, I realized how perfect life with him felt. He stopped to pet every puppy, he reached for my hand when we walked, he had this way of looking me right in the eyes and making me feel safe. But I knew he’d be gone again and that it would all fall apart. Again. We’d already done this perfect-weekend-only-to-say-goodbye thing so many times, so many times.

After our hike to the waterfall, we got a table overlooking the falls, and ordered coffee. He smiled at me. God, he was beautiful. He looked me in the eyes.

“You seem happy here. In Seattle.”

I looked down, sighing. “I wanted it to be perfect. I did. But I hate my job. I haven’t made friends like I had hoped. And I’m lonely, a lot. I miss the kids. I–” I looked back up. “I miss you.”

He nodded, understanding. “I hate Vegas. I hate living there. I hate who I am there.”

And I surprised myself. “We talked about you coming to Salt Lake to live, lots of times. And you never felt ready. You never were ready. But what about–”

“What about what?”

“What about Seattle? What if you came and gave things a try here? What if we started here together, with a blank slate?” My heart pounded in the silence.

He shook his head, quickly. Too quickly. “I can’t.”

“You haven’t even thought about it. Matt, why not?”

“I can’t. I’m not ready. And I have thought about it. Ever since you’ve moved here, I’ve thought about it. I miss you constantly.”

“I miss you too! This could be something! Why can’t you? Why can’t you give it a try?”

He sighed. Deeply. Painfully. “I wouldn’t be easy to be with.”

I rolled my eyes. “I can handle the challenge.”

“No. I’m not ready. You’re eleven years older than me. You’ve done so much with yourself. Your writing, your career. I haven’t done anything with my life. I work part-time. I have years of school left. I can’t.”

“Matt, it isn’t a competition! Aren’t we worth a try?”

“Of course we are. But not yet. I’m not ready.”

It was the same conversation we had had a hundred times. We would reach a stalemate, and then it would get too painful to stay in contact, knowing it couldn’t go anywhere. I had kids and responsibilities. He just wasn’t ready. So we would stop texting. Months of silence would follow, and then one of us would finally reach out, and we’d make plans to see each other again.

“I–I think I thought that you wouldn’t come to Utah, for whatever reason. But I think, deep down, I think I hoped you might come here.”

He looked surprised. “Am I why you moved to Seattle? That doesn’t make sense.”

“I–no. I moved here for me. I just think, subconsciously, I think I hoped you might want a fresh start with me. I think deep down I thought that maybe we could finally be together.”

“I’m not ready,” he repeated, and then the coffee came.

That night and again the following morning, we made love again. He was leaving in just a few hours. In the car outside my apartment, I felt my heart break. I turned to him, my eyes brimming with tears.

“I’ve never said this to you, not out loud, but I love you.” I meant it, and he knew it.

“I love you, too.” He said it softly, his eyes turned toward the floor. He reached over and took my hand.

I looked away. “You say that. But you’re going to leave me today, and I have a feeling I’m not going to see you again.”

“I’m just not ready,” he said. “I have to find me first. It’s Vegas for now. I can’t leave yet.”

I drove him to the airport and kissed him goodbye. And as I drove away, tears leaking down my face, I knew that it was time. There was nothing for me in Seattle. It was time to start planning my return to Utah.

A year later, while I was in Las Vegas for business, I stopped by the place where Matt worked. A tattooed girl with long black braids worked behind the counter. I explained I was there to see Matt. She responded with enthusiasm.

“Matt! Oh, I miss him! He moved two months ago. He met a guy last summer, and they just got a place in San Francisco together.”

And as I left, I realized that although I hadn’t been holding on tightly, it was finally, finally time to let go.

Piranha: Reflections of First Love

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?

The first time you drove to see me, from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, a six-hour cut through desert and mountains, you listened to Lana Del Ray on repeat. You told me how her voice took you someplace else. She was your muse, you said once.

And so, when I sat down in a coffee shop today to write about something else, and one of those songs came on, one of those I know used to make your soul sing, my fingers stopped working for a minute, and my mind started working backwards, to all those little memories we created together.

I remember the last time I saw you, working at your little juicer in the Nevada hills, adorable in your apron. I hadn’t seen you in a year, and I knew we were all wrong for each other, but there was always a place in the back of my heart where we would set aside all of the complications and differences and just work it out. I entered the shop to surprise you and you instantly made me melt, all over again. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, you told me you were with someone else, and I bid my final farewell, then sat in my car and sobbed for an hour before I could drive away.

I remember our last real weekend together, holding hands in the rain and walking the streets of Seattle while talking about plans for the future. We pulled on stocking caps and, side by side, ascended to the top of a waterfall, where you just held me, and when a dog rushed by with its owner, you got that low growl of adoration in your voice as you looked at it in longing, muttering “Puppy!” with unbridled enthusiasm. We sat in the car later, and I told you “I love you” for the first time, and you said, “I love you, too”, and I told you not to say that unless you meant it. And when I wondered if we might be together, you shook your head and said you weren’t ready, and my heart broke, and  that night, with our arms and legs entwined and my head on your shoulder, you held me tight, and I somehow knew it would be the last time.

I remember months before that, when I sat in frustration, waiting for your text message back. There had been longer silences lately between us, as far away as the hundreds of physical miles, and though I missed you, I refused to reach out, just like you refused. You seemed to want me to prove that I could be with you. You needed some sort of bold gesture. But I had children, a job, and child support payments, and you wouldn’t move to be near me, and so we would wait, both of us, stubbornly, for the other to make the first move. And then I’d get lonely, or heartsick, or perhaps drunk, and reach out with how much I missed you, how much I wanted to be with you. We would fondly text for a few days, and then fall back into the same pattern of stubborn silence. And I remember feeling, even in those times, that no one would ever be able to make me feel the way you did.

I remember seeing you in St. George, Utah, during a massive blizzard. You drove to see me for a day, agreeing to give it one chance. You wore a leather jacket and you’d grown a beard, and you wrapped your arms around me as the snow tried to stab us, and we just held each other for five minutes, and it felt like home. We went inside without speaking, and we made love, and we just lay there laughing and feeling amazing, and you muttered “God, I missed you” under your breath. And then we had diner at some terrible cafe, and  you could barely speak, telling me how this couldn’t work, how you just weren’t ready, and then you left, too soon. But I held on to that hug in the snowstorm for weeks afterward, clutching it close, refusing to let it go.

I remember hopping on the porch the first time you drove up to see me, unable to contain my excitement, like a child on Christmas morning. We’d been texting back and forth for weeks, and during your family vacation, you’d locked yourself in the bathroom while everyone slept so that you could just keep talking to me that much longer. You made me feel desired, like I was worth it, and that week I paraded you around in front of my friends, eager to show off this beautiful, authentic man, this brilliant person who was there with me, not, them, but me. And you didn’t care about my baggage, my kids or my divorce, you only wanted to make me smile, and everything was just perfect, giving me a taste of a life I had never thought possible.

I remember meeting you that first time, in the Piranha club in Las Vegas. The room was full of men. My friends were all drunk and paired off with others in the club, dancing in corners, and there you were, blonde and blue-eyed, with dimples, in your button-down sweater and jeans, laughing with friends. We made eye contact, multiple times. I danced near you, hoping you would join me, and I took a shot or two for courage, then you finally approached me. We yelled our names out loud to each other, and danced, trading phone numbers as our friends’ gave us thumbs’ up signals of approval. We kissed and danced and held each other, to Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and we both commented on how amazing it felt to find a connection like this in such a place. I went to sleep that night with you on my mind.

I wonder about you sometimes, Matt. Last I heard, you had moved to San Francisco with a new man. And I truly hope you are happy. I long ago deleted any and every way to contact you. I wiped out your phone number and Email so that I couldn’t reach out to you in a moment of vulnerability and see history repeat itself. You aren’t on social media in any format, so I can’t even be tempted to look you up. And the distance helps. Because what you represented to me then, you can no longer represent.

Like you, I’m with someone else now. He loves me, and I love him, and he makes me feel the way that you used to, except there aren’t long silences in between the snowstorms and waterfall hikes. There is no stubborn heel-dragging, no doubts that he wants to be with me, no apologies that he just isn’t ready. He’s some of the things you were, with his own wonderfulness on top of all of that, and he’s consistent, an adjective you lacked in your character composition.

Yet every time Lana Del Ray comes on, I’ll likely always think of you. Her voice is haunting, as your presence always will be. I’ll always think of finding a first love at the age of 32, one that would stretch on for years without resolution. I’ll think of headiness, of passion, of hopping, of waterfalls, of juice, of puppies, and of being held in a snowstorm.

And I’ll think of piranhas, silvery, slick, and sleek, until they expose their fangs.

Piranha