Place: San Diego, California
I’d like to say that I knew what I was doing once I’d figured out I was gay. But I didn’t. It wasn’t like I had many options to choose from to help me out.
There was no internet; there wasn’t much in the way for a gay teenage boy to find other boys like himself. The best hope you had was to see a gay rag (the local gay newspapers and handouts) while in the gay part of town (in my case, Hillcrest in San Diego) where there would be notices of men looking for other men/boys to meet, or some group meeting somewhere for whatever. There was a whole world out there that I wanted to explore but how I found out about them was pure happenstance.
Growing up in the late sixties and early seventies there wasn’t much to see that said I belonged somewhere.
One of the few images I had for queer representation of my young gayboy life was Billy Crystal’s character, Jodie Campbell, on Soap. Despite the humor of the show, and the great over-the-top performances, Jodie started out as a fiercely proud gay man but was quickly and purposefully migrated to being a gay man gone straight. This only helped underscore that while we had a major win in seeing someone like me represented on TV, I would only find true happiness if I decided to go straight. This served to add more confusion just when I thought I’d begun to find myself.
Other queer oriented characters and stories started to follow, but Soap broke that in a big way in 1977. Up to then if there was a gay character, it was a guest spot which usually ended tragically. Soap dealt with the same issues but did it through over-the-top humor.
But I wasn’t completely in the dark about the possibilities. I’d been devouring the works of John Rechy (The Sexual Outlaw, Numbers, etc – more on him and what he meant to me in another post) that fiercely detailed what sex between men could be like. I was a teenage boy. My hormones were raging. But it was more than that. Rechy satisfied my growing queer awareness of what my body could do, but not my heart.
And it wasn’t like I didn’t have gay men around me at that time. My tia (aunt) had been going to gay clubs and had even married a gay man and lived in San Francisco for a time. So, queer men were around me growing up, especially when she was around. Tia was a connection to where I was going to go in life. She was a bridge into that world that I wanted to be a part of, but eyed it from afar. Though at this point in time, I wasn’t ready for that just yet.
But her being in my life gave me my love for dance music. My very first album was Thelma Houston’s Any Way You Like It, which featured the Grammy award winning dance classic, Don’t Leave Me This Way. That song title would prove pretty damned prophetic at this stage in my life.
You see, high school is crushing for a gayboy. And I use the term “gayboy” purposefully, as a noun, because I think that encapsulates how we aren’t just any other boy. It demonstrates the division and isolation we feel from the rest of the world moving about us. I always mentally used it that way. I knew I was separate. It wasn’t that I was leading a lonely existence, either. I had numerous friends in school, well, more like good acquaintances that I got along and spent time with. But there was always a veil of separation. Whether I was causing that feeling isolation or not, didn’t matter. I just knew I wasn’t part of them.
I know most teens go through the trauma of trying to find themselves sexually. That’s part of the game; I get that. But for gayboys (and girls, I imagined as well) it is doubly hard because the most you have to go on that there are others like you (at least back then) was the barest of whispers about someone being a fag, queer, whatever. Your gayboy radar was working overtime just to pick up any random signal that there was at least one other person in the 600+ kids at your high school who was like you. Then you had to hope they didn’t spurn you because an association with your gayboy status on campus might make them sink to another level of social hell.
Choir wasn’t an option for me. Not really. It was run by a devout Mormon musical director who peopled the guys in the choir from within the members of his church. So there was a whole lot of magical-underwear-wearing boys in that class. A good collection of them were jocks in various sports as well. The local Mormon church sits right next to my high school. I was told by one of them that their church does that purposefully. There are church related things that they are required to do before school, so the church often establishes a location very close to the local high school. Ours just happened to be next door.
So why go on about the Mormon boys? Well, here’s the thing: they were nice guys. They were solidly into the music we did – mostly of a classical nature (one of the few high schools I knew of that annually performed Handel’s Messiah at Christmas every year – I knew that score backwards and forwards by the time I graduated). But I digress. I only mention it because they were nice to me, despite the gayboy aura that followed me around. Some of them were hotties, too, and I’ll admit to a lingering eye during rehearsals or prolonged conversations I really didn’t want to have, but did, just so I could be near them.
But choir was emphatically for the straight kids – there was no escaping it, either. It just reeked of boy/girl shit. So, while it was a haven of sorts, allowing me to feel I was in a safe environment, it left me feeling quite bereft of any happiness I could find in having some boy for me. Relationships were springing up all around me in that class. I was the lone salmon swimming downstream while they all went the other way to get their spawn on.
Drama, on the other hand, well, that was another story entirely. There were whispers of gayboys there. There was a clique in my drama class of stoner kids who all did the midnight shows of Rocky Horror Picture Show. I became enamored with one boy in particular.
His name was Tim.
It wasn’t that he was over-the-top male model material, but that was totally part of the appeal. He was kind, for the most part. He was just like every other boy out there, except I heard about his sexual exploits through the drama rumor mill of his being with this boy or that one. He never really talked about it himself. But he never denied it, either. That was more than enough for me. Hell, he could’ve been straight or just queer-questioning at that time. I was just removed from him enough that I couldn’t get the 411 on him to make sure of anything. It was maddening. But I had to try get closer, if anything, just out of friendship.
There was just one problem. And it was insurmountable, too. He was of that collection of kids that were just starting to make itself known. It would become better defined in the late eighties and nineties as being alternative. But he was a stoner, a full on rock n’ roll sort of guy. I admired him from a distance.
It all started two years before. We did a show together – Any Number Can Die. It was a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot. Somehow, I was magically cast in it. I was a freshman; I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I’d been in shows before but this had a whole new level in that it was with kids I saw every day. That was a new experience for me. I stumbled, a lot. But, hands down, it was one of the best times I’d ever had in school. That play brings back many memories, mostly because it was riddled with so many production problems (at some point I’ll detail them because this play, more than any other, colored my professional life in so many ways, but I’ll save that for another posting). If I remember it right, he played Chuck and I was Carter Forstman (you can read about the play from the link above).
This play was when my path first crossed Tim’s. He was in the play as well. We only had one scene together. But it was an ensemble scene so I was one of many in it. Not really any way to be as near to him as I’d’ve liked. Best part? I got to see him change into his costume every night. And you can bet I looked. Without fail. He was a tanned, lithe but toned boy. His dark hair only emphasized his brilliantly vibrant eyes with long lashes. Radiant eyes. He was about four inches taller than my 5’7″ height. Easily 6’1″ or 2″. He wasn’t a homely boy, far from it; but he wasn’t drop-your-shit-and-follow-him-off-the-end-of-the-planet gorgeous, either. I liked his normal, average, good-looking, well, look about him. I desperately needed normalcy where my heart was concerned. Tim fit the bill. I only got to interact with him before or after rehearsal whenever we all hung out.
You see, I knew even then, despite how much I liked him, it would never be. For starters, it was rumored that he was into another boy in drama who liked to do the production work. His name was Mike. I did my best to be cordial to him, but inwardly, I hated the guy. He wasn’t good enough for Tim. This despite my knowing that they were always around one another. Mike wasn’t even remotely agreeable looks-wise. Well, not to me, at any rate. I am sure now, looking back on it, it was colored by my liking Tim so much that I emotively made Mike ugly. I think I put that on him. I took delight in taking him apart, seeing every flaw and mentally exploiting it. It’s just how it worked out in my head and heart.
I loved to hear Tim laugh. It was the sweetest thing to my ears. He was affable, got along with everyone, and he was a decent actor. All wins in my book. So when Any Number Can Die closed, I slid into a funk that I wouldn’t see him after school as much unless I got cast in another show. He was a year ahead of me so I knew I had three years to try to become his friend. I worked tirelessly to get into shows, especially if he was cast – which he invariably was. Most times I didn’t make the grade for what the director was looking for. So, on those shows I did production, just so I could be there. It’s amazing how motivated a teenage boy can be when a spark of sexual interest was there.
Tim never really saw me. Not really. Not in all of the years we were in school together. If he ever did, it was because we had to do something together to put the show on. But it was at arm’s length. Pleasant, but never close. Not like I wanted. I was an oddity to him, that was for sure. I was sure he knew about me, about my being gay, but he never gave me any indication that we clicked on that level.
To be honest, I never really stood a chance. That clique of Rocky Horror kids was pretty fucking unbreakable. They were in, and I was most definitely out. I suppose I could’ve gone with them, sorta weaseled my way in, but I knew that would’ve been seen as extreme by them and would’ve made any real chance very awkward.
While a teen’s life is often steeped in pools of awkward, you did everything you could to avoid it.
You see, I was doing everything cliché that a fag boy should do – only for older fags, gays who were already out in the world and going clubbing. I wasn’t there, yet. So for me, it was just awkward and misplaced.
I wasn’t into sports, I sang and danced, and horror of horrors, I liked disco. And everyone was shitting on disco when I was in high school. There were stadium events that brought in crowds of people to burn disco records for fuck sake. I knew that wouldn’t make me popular with the kids my age. And I knew how to dance. I got my groove thing on early in life. I’m half Latino; it’s sort of the law. But those Rocky kids, they couldn’t keep a beat in dancing if their lives depended on it. That was evident every year when the drama department did its annual musical show. I got the dancing; I could move easily on stage. But even though we were all striving to learn our performing craft, that clique was comfortable in their barely able to get through it dance skills. Just one more way I was out of it.
Thinking back on it now, I sort of wish they were mean to me. At least that would’ve given me an out. I could ignore them instead of spending those three fucking years pining to be one of them so I could get closer to Tim. But they were nice, though they mercilessly teased me about my liking disco.
I even tried in my junior year to get into what they were listening to: Blondie was big. And Blondie had provided me with a way to get closer – Heart of Glass – their bona fide disco hit. That band became my gateway. It was the lone spot where I could connect with them. I bought Blondie because Debbie Harry and crew were going to give me access to that clique once and for all and then I’d show Tim what a great guy I was. That was the plan at any rate. I had no way of seeing just how horribly I would embarrass myself before Christmas was over.
They would still tease me about disco, but they let me peripherally hang out with them. I went to a few of their houses to woodshed stuff we were doing in class. Sometimes Tim was there; other times, not. I even started hanging out with a couple of girls in school my brother called the rocker chicks because I figured listening to it more, I’d have a broader understanding of what Tim and his friends were into. So my musical tastes began to evolve and change. I didn’t give up on my R&B, soul, jazz or disco; I just expanded my musical tastes to include other music. Queen, Heart, Led Zep, Stevie Nicks, they were all added to the mix now.
My gayboy heart and mind exploded. He was so fucking hot and aside from his burgeoning rock n’ roll career, he did musical theater! (His performance in Pirates of Penzance on Broadway (and the subsequent film during the early 80s only solidified this in my mind). He was every gayboy’s wet dream. Well, to me, at any rate. I began to see the draw to these men, these rock gods. The slick, highly polished, synthetic fabric era of disco began to crack and crumble for me. Things were breaking through. Rex was a big part of that.
My celebrity crush of Rex Smith aside, you see, I pined for Tim because he represented what I thought I needed at that point in my life: someone who was kind, someone who laughed a lot, someone who everyone else thought was cool and liked to be around. I was drawn like the proverbial moth to the light he carried just because he was so confident without being cocky. I realize now that perhaps he wasn’t so confident in everything he did, but that’s the way it appeared to me back then. His gayboy rumor oddly didn’t follow him around campus; he got along with everyone. He was never bullied or teased like I was. He had a magic that I desperately wanted to understand. Actually, I needed to understand. My safety in my senior year might depend on just that.
I didn’t care that other kids in school classified him as a stoner first – and some days he came to school with eyes clearly bloodshot from it (he had beautiful eyes, too). He was golden to me. He was comfortable in his own skin. Not many kids knew how to exude that. Fuck, I aspired to do that. I figured if I got close, I could learn it, too. Be a cool kid by the time I graduated, and Tim would show me how.
By this time I had a driver’s license, and I had a car. It was a fucked up Opel Kadet piece-of-shit, painted boat blue (no, really, it was painted with marine quality boat paint – it was so blue it practically glowed and had the oddest texture to it if you touched it) but it was mine. It got me to and from my part-time job at a gift store in a newly opened indoor mega-mall. Sometimes my parents would even let me take the family car, which was infinitely more respectable. So I could get around. This was the winter of my junior year, and I knew I only had a few more months to get Tim to see me. I don’t know why I was obsessing as much as I was. But it just was.
As Christmas drew near I thought, why don’t I buy him something that said, hey, I sort of like you and would you be my friend (and not just some passing drama student acquaintance)? At this point, I’d take friendship if it couldn’t be anything else. I’d heard that Tim had moved out of his parents’ house. It was said that he had an apartment just down the street from the high school. I didn’t have any confirmation of why Tim had suddenly moved out of his parents’ home, but there were whispers that he had to get out. I guessed that his relationship with Mike had gotten their attention. That was what I’d overheard, but never was able to confirm. There were some terse conversations between Mike and Tim that I’d observed. Something was up. But anyway, I found out where he lived. And miraculously, I found out what apartment number, too, though I can’t recall with any clarity how I did that. Necessity being the mother and all that rot, I suppose. But find out, I did.
So there I was, working in a gift shop and making new friends outside of school. They were all twenty and thirty somethings who worked there and to my great surprise, they treated me like I belonged, even if I was only seventeen. That was a cool thing and very new to me. I began to see my way out of the social hell that was high school – even if it was somewhat in the distance yet for me. I was often in charge of unboxing shipments and checking inventory on lines either being discontinued or added to the current lines. I had responsibilities now, well, as meager as they were at seventeen. But my life outside of school had started, and yet, my affections for Tim only grew more desperate as the winter break edged ever closer.
Just after the thanksgiving holiday a new shipment arrived that my boss was eager to get out onto the floor. They were large rock n’ roll artwork images that were inspired by the Frank Frazetta style.
They were mounted on highly polished wood with a layer of lacquer on it that had to be at least a half-inch thick.
Tim was a hard core rocker boy. So I hatched a plan to buy one of them for him and give it to him for Christmas. And that’s what I did. I spent the $40 or $50 bucks on the fucking thing, which for a teenage boy at that time was a lot of money. It was massively huge, too, just larger than a movie poster one-sheet (2’x3′). And it was sort of heavy.
It sat in my room for like a week. I’d wrapped the damned thing and had it facing the wall at the foot of my full-size waterbed (it was the era where those were still in fashion and I had one). I kept asking myself, “What the fuck are you doing? He is so going to see through your shit and know that you’re letting him know you like him.” Well, that’s what I kept telling myself. But the heart wants what the heart wants, ya know?
So three days before Christmas I finally decided I was going to do it. School was out. He’d probably be working any way. I sat in his apartment’s parking lot with the thing in my back seat for like an hour or so. I was beginning to worry that someone might let management know someone was loitering in the parking lot.
“Fuck it.” I was going in.
I pulled the fucking thing from my car, trying desperately to come up with some sort of excuse on why I was giving him something when I never had before. So while I lugged the damned thing down the walkway to his apartment, I finally came up with something.
There I was. 21B. I stood outside the door for like two or three minutes, debating if I was really going to do this. I rang the doorbell. Just as I was about to chicken out, the door opened and there he was, standing barefooted in jeans and a loose fitting black Ramones t-shirt, surprised as shit to see me. I just stood there, this big fucking present in my hands (I hadn’t even had the smarts to set it onto the ground – I was holding it (it weighed about 25 to 30lbs)).
“Hey, (he said my name), whassup?” Still taken aback on why I was there and what was I doing with this big fucking present in my hands.
I spied over his shoulder just beyond him and everyone of those members of his clique was there. Mike was there, too. Damn him.
I stuttered out my reply. I wasn’t as cool or as collected as I thought I’d be. I’d fucked up; this was wrong. I was doing it all wrong but the spotlight was on me. No way out, now.
“Uh, well, you see, every year I put my friends’ names in a hat and I draw one out and buy something for them for Christmas. This year it was you. So, uh, yeah, here.” I handed it over to him. He had it in his hands for just a second before Mike took it from him and into their apartment. I could hear them all whispering about it. It may have been innocent enough, but it felt like they were all making fun of me and what I’d done. I wanted to leave. I wanted to get in that fucking car and drive and drive – maybe right off into the ocean.
“Wow, okay, uh, thanks? You uh, wanna come in?” (It was cold and sort of damp out – which was unusual for sunny San Diego).
I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t take the stares, the whispers and glances that would go on around me.
“Uh, no. That’s okay. I see you have people over. I didn’t mean to intrude. I just, um, wanted to make sure you got it before the holiday.”
He smiled softly. On some level I think he saw past everything I’d said. But he didn’t say or do anything to let me know that, just a small twinkle in his eye, imaginary or not, that I desperately clung to.
“Have a nice Christmas.” And I turned and left. He stood there for a moment before closing the door.
I sat in the car for well over five minutes just letting the tears of embarrassment pour out of me. It was a silent cry, an angry cry. I bared my heart and put what I felt out there. In true Tim fashion, he was kind about it. I don’t know if they had a good laugh at my expense after he closed that door. I don’t know what he thought about it. No one ever said another word about it when school began in the New Year. It was like it never happened. Hell, he could’ve taken one look at the damned thing and chucked it.
I don’t know.
I never will, I suppose.
He was still kind to me, if a bit more distant. He was moving on. Something happened between him and Mike and I heard he was living alone now. Maybe it was nothing more than roommates and I’d dreamt up the rest? I didn’t think so. But even I had to admit I didn’t have all the facts, just hearsay and some small gossip. Fragments, really. The group, his little clique had started to break up. They were all there but seemed to unplug as a cohesive group. They stopped going to the midnight showings of Rocky Horror, or if they did, it was separately. That was my impression anyway. Hell, maybe I had it wrong. The end of school year came. I heard that Tim was going into the Air Force and would be moving to Washington.
That light he had was going somewhere else. The end was drawing near like a bullet train and I knew he’d be gone, off to the world as I would be the year after – flung far and wide.
The pay-off? When it came time to pass around annuals to have our friends sign, I came up to him in drama and asked if he’d sign my book. He smiled softly, took my book and penned something while I wrote something in his. I didn’t repeat my blunder of being mushy in what I wrote. It was something innocuous like Best of luck in life or something equally inane and uninventive. He handed me my book and I returned his to him.
I didn’t read it just then, too afraid of what he wrote. I figured it didn’t mean anything to him. I’d convinced myself this was all me. I was making this into something it wasn’t. I think he knew how I felt about him on some level. Maybe not to the extent it was, but somehow he did.
I walked away from that class. It was the end the school year and I had several friends graduating. Most of my friends in school were upper-classmen. It’d always been that way. I had a few people in my current year who I as on friendly terms with, but a good chunk of them were graduating that year.
I got to the far side of the campus and scrambled like mad through the book to find what he wrote.
It was two lines:
Have a great summer.
I’ll probably regret saying this but – disco rules!
I smiled. We never were close. We never shared any real special moments – other than my awkward and embarrassing Christmas offering – but in that moment, he saw me, and he was kind enough to give me something. It was small, almost nothing really, but it meant so much. In that he gave me something I carry to this day. It doesn’t hurt to be kind. It doesn’t hurt to give something back. In that moment, when his book was exchanged with mine, he saw me. And it mattered. I’ve always tried to do that moment justice.
It is something that I really needed when another moment of unrequited love reared its awkward head.
But that’s for another time.
– SA Collins