Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Out and Running

The more I think about it, the more I realize that in addition to the all out war someone's little nasties have waged upon my immune system in the last few days (one of those buggers in which one wishes to drill a hole in the side of their head as to allow the fluid to drain out), I've been hit by a heavy wave of nostalgia. You know how it goes. You hear the song that reminds you of your first real love and dig out old photographs and play the song over again and smile fondly, maybe shed a few tears. You're making out with your new lover, and you're suddenly transported back to a place and time where you're anticipating your First Real Kiss. You're driving around town and you see the movie theatere you went on your very first date, and smile, anticipating his return, because you know when he does he will take you, as he always does, to that same movie theatere. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks of her first real love in this way. Whenever you pass your alma mater, those memories come back in one bittersweet moment, and you remember homecoming dances, the prom, and those first, scary kisses. I've been thinking about my high school years a lot lately, even before I caught wind of this questioning of the definition of marriage thing going on in Massachusetts and the weddings in San Francisco. A dear friend e-mailed me a link to pictures from those three days that made me cry. They made me feel proud. Most of all, they made me think about high school, and the kids I knew.

I attended high school in a small town in which I've become convinced virtually everyone knows each other through no more than five people. Before the classes under me came along no one was out, but I did kept hearing rumors about a girl in choir. I didn't know what she was, and no one said the word that I recall, but I knew Julie was different. I remember being intrigued by this difference, wondering exactly what set her apart from the rest of us. Looking back, she always seemed to be in her own little world, but there had to be something else. It wasn't until the day she and another girl publicly announced they were much more than friends, I began to wonder who else among my friends could possibly be one of them.

Years later, this list of suspected queers would come in handy, as one by one nearly all of them came out, including a few I never suspected. Of course, not everyone will publicly announce themselves. Some people never come out. My friend Steve is one of these people. While everyone knows he dates boys, he never made a public service announcement to the rest of us. Didn't get an e-mail, didn't get a fax, no press release was issued on the 5 o'clock news. No one really seemed to care. Then there are the people who never come out.

My memories of high school are infused with my memories of sophomore year, the year during which I learned very difficult lessons about myself and other people. Sophomore year completely and utterly changed me forever. It was the year I would learn what friendship isn't, and would prepare me for my junior year, which taught me what it was. It was the year I got my first kiss, though I wouldn't get my first real kiss until literally the last hours of my third semester of college. Without enduring the trials of sophomore year, I would simply not be the person I've become. It was the year the arguably most notorious boy in our school became my friend. It was the year he asked me to save him a dance at homecoming, and because of that boy, my world has never been the same. When I remember high school, I most vividly and painfully remember sophomore year, which makes me think of Rich, and that's when waves of nostalgia really hit me the hardest, and the tears begin to fall.

Rich was one of those people everyone knew, but no one really did. One of those guys you either wanted to be him or do him, and usually it was both. Rich was the perfect balance-he was tall with rugged good looks and a million dollar smile, slightly built with big, beautiful hands which looked as if their sole purpose was coaxing music from a piano or giving back massages to girls in our biology class. At the same time, he was charming beyond belief, understanding, and enjoyed intellectual pursuits. Rich gave the best advice, told the best stories, and you always wanted him in your group for a project, if only for those reasons. At the same time, he had an air of mystery that had a lot of us asking questions that no one seemed to be able to answer. I was curious about him. I had never known anyone like him, and all I wanted was a chance to get to know him, if only to see if he lived up to his reputation.

I was overjoyed when I learned he would be joining us in not one but three of my classes sophomore year of high school. For three periods a day, English, Biology, and History, I took that chance to get to know Rich for myself, though not nearly as well as I would have liked. He made you feel as though you were the only person alive when he smiled at you, but you could still walk away and feel like you don't know him at all.

Rich had a profound effect on my life. He was the first person in my life who really understood me. When a mutual friend of ours died at the end of the year, Rich was the one who understood why I came to history class in tears the next day after choir, and gave me extra hugs when I was ready for them. I remember the day I gave him a big white notebook, filled with at best mediocre but earnest 10th grade poetry. Rich was the first person to really read my writing, understood what I was trying to say, and urged me to keep at it. After much finagling, Rich gave me my notebook intact, he told me I shouldn't ever stop. I haven't shut up since. While I'm the first person to volunteer to read at the circle I attend religiously every month, I would never, have ever done that before or since. Rich was the first person I could really trust with that side of me I didn't like others seeing. Handing your soul in the pages of a notebook (and in the form of very bad poetry) to another human being is scary business, but I knew I could trust him with my little secrets. I would learn in the years to come that Rich had a number of secrets of his own.

I attended the homecoming dance alone, but found friends with whom I could ogle the cute boys. I'm something of a wallflower, but I was delighted to turn around at one point and find Rich standing there. We made our usual small talk before he said he had to go back to a woman friend he was escorting. Before giving me his customary goodbye hug, Rich asked me to save him a dance. Five years later, I'm still saving him one.

In addition to the goings on with Rich, sophomore year also reminds me of two other souls who each had very different effects on me. I spent a lot of that year completely within the vise of a girl who was once my closest friend, became one of my greatest teachers without knowing it, and reminds me to this day of everything I don't want to be. I became inexplicably depressed that year, and writing with Rich's encouragement was the only way I got out of the year at least somewhat sane. I didn't even know I was depressed until one day in May, five days after my sixteenth birthday, I got what I call The Big Wakeup Call, which occurred on the day a friend of mine died suddenly of Reyes Syndrome. I remember the moment clearly: when a very close friend hugged me when her memorial service was over, something inside me snapped. For the first time in my life I was consciously aware of what I was doing. I was able to see the former friend for who she really was, and the person to which she had changed me, and I didn't like any of what I saw. I knew at that moment that something had to change. And change I did. I vowed to rid my life of her and everything that reminded me of her. I vowed to join activities in which she was not involved, namely the drama club, something I had always wanted to do because I had always loved theatere, particularly musical theatere. I did. And through another friend I would meet three months later, I would rediscover parts of myself I had never known existed.

In the next year or so, I saw Rich rather sparingly, much less often than I wished. I had heard all the rumors that one by one, he was having fallings out with his closer circles. I saw him at our junior prom and he told me once again how much my writing had meant to him, that I should never stop. (I had considered stopping, because the girl from whom I had successfully distanced myself was the one who started me going, and my mission had been to eradicate everything in my life that reminded me of her, and that included writing. I didn't stop. And its all Rich's fault.) I playfully reminded him he still owed me a dance, he said he would collect later that night. I'm still waiting for him.

The last time I saw Rich, it was late in my senior year. I was having dinner with a group of friends from choir, when I noticed a very familiar male human having dinner with one of his girl friends. We talked for a while over Sex on the Beach (his) and cherry cokes (mine), when the night was winding down and I was preparing to go home, he again brought up my writing, telling me that I should go into journalism. When it came time to say goodbye, I thought little of it, naively thinking that since the area we live is such that we were bound to run into each other again. He gave me a funny look and asked me how I wasn't just as sure our paths would never cross again. At that suggestion, I could only hold him, kiss his cheek, and send him off into the night.

Something curious happened between the last time I saw Rich and my first semester of college. Seemingly overnight, our school went from having exactly two people who were out (both of whom had graduated by this time) to where everyone I had ever suspected (and more than a few surprises) who had gone to college was out (with the exception of two), and everyone I knew who had told me he or she wasn't entirely straight, it was more or less common knowledge. One of my close friends still trapped in high school purgatory (who isn't completely out to everyone quite yet) told me that even though more people are open about it now, high school is still a very scary place for people who are different, regardless of their sexual proclivities, and it made me realize why so many people with whom I went to school waited to come out in college. Which brings me back to Rich.

Over the next year or so, I heard rumors from old mutual friends how he had moved to Miami, briefly came back, and promptly left again. I also heard numerous speculations as to why he had left, but I didn't want to believe any of them. Why would Rich, arguably the most notorious kids in our school, with friends coming out of his ass, just pack up and leave for good because of a falling out with his roommate. Something about this smelled rather fish-like, and it wasn't until my first semester of college when I reconnected with an old mutual friend of ours. The same day she announced she was a lesbian (Which threw me for a loop, let me tell you, I must have the World's Worst Gaydar.) she told me the reason Rich left town was that he announced he was gay and didn't want to deal with the repercussions. It struck me as both absurd that he would think his friends, which he had many, would simultaneously abandon him because he was who he was, and understandable, because although I haven't lost friends because of my sexuality, I know the reality of loosing friends for stupid reasons and being afraid of it.

Rich was right. I haven't seen him since that night we last said goodbye, and I'm not likely to see him again. By chance I ever do, I will tell him I love him, I've always admired him, and with a deep breath, I will tell him that he wasn't the only queer in our history class. I will tell him he's the reason I'm still writing, and that my first collection of writing is his. I will tell him just how knowing him changed my life. I will tell him the truth about myself. And I will remind him that over five years later, I haven't forgotten he still owes me that dance.

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