First Loves and Emotional Roadkill

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Nothing feels quite like your first love. And nothing hurts quite like their rejection.

I befriended Ron at the end of my first year of high school.

He was from a small town and the youngest of three brothers. The elder siblings also attended the same high school and all three were triple threats: academically excellent, athletic and good looking. Around Ron, he had a circle of amazing people — all beautiful, smart, athletic and accomplished in their own right.

And then there was me. I don’t know what sparked our friendship at first. I think it was that we were both sensitive, smart boys who didn’t exactly fit into either the nerd or jock cliques that we floated in. Well, I was (much) less in the jock clique, but Ron lived in both worlds simultaneously. We were neither socially inept nor dumb douches, and that made us a little unusual.

Most of the people in this circle were girls. It seemed easier for girls to be sensitive, smart and athletic without feeling the need to divorce a part of their identity to conform. They were all beautiful in their own ways: a model, a genius, a hippie, a couple of good girls. The boys in the crew were more stereotypically high school, jockish, loud and endlessly boisterous — except for Ron and I.

We bonded over Proust and Khalil Gibran. We smoked weed I procured from my aunt’s string of young Jamaican suitors. We sat in parks and stared at the stars and just talked. Over that next summer, Ron took a job and we hung out daily — hitting amusement parks and drinking beers semi-surreptitiously in my parents’ house. We started smoking (also on the DL) and met each other’s families. I think our harried parents were grateful that each of us had found a good, stable friend.

By the time we started our sophomore year, we were as close as two people could be. This was far and away the most intimate relationship of my life to that point, despite the fact that it was absolutely devoid of anything sexual. Though I was experimenting with other boys, and trying to understand my budding gay sensibility through books, Ron and I rarely even talked about sex — let alone sex between us.

When we were 17, our parents let us take a road trip from Toronto to New Orleans and Houston. We traveled with our friend, Shawna, who was the hippie chick of our crew. Her estranged father lived in Texas, so it seemed the perfect justification to jump in my family’s 1986 Olds Delta 88 station wagon (paneled, natch) and drive down to the Gulf of Mexico. Because we were good kids who got great grades, our parents let us go.

I longed for this trip because I saw myself as the Ginsberg to Ron’s Kerouac. He was the broodingly handsome and brilliant object of everyone’s affection, and I was the nerdy intellectual Jewish kid grappling with my identity. I was a huge fan of the Beats and had intuited that Kerouac and Ginsberg had an affair that remained a secret because of its shamefulness.

I drove, I always drove. We made our way down to Houston fueled by cigarettes, cheap coffee, and classic rock on FM radio. About two thirds of the way down, we stopped for the night in Mississippi. We had been driving in a freak snowstorm on the gorgeous Natchez Trace Parkway, silent for hours as the car slipped on the icy roads. I was exhausted from the nonstop concentration required to drive in that environment. The southern states clearly weren’t ready for winter, so the highway authorities dumped tons of dirt on the wet snow. This just created muddy ice, making things even more dangerous.

We chose a cheap motel in Jackson — 2 beds as was our custom. One shared by Ron and I, and one for Shawna.

“I need to get a snack,” I said to the two of them after we dropped our stuff in the motel room. It was a red-shag affair haphazardly strewn beside a gas station and Waffle House. The bright ceiling lights illuminated the cigarette burns on the carpet and my friends’ tired-looking eyes. The freeway buzzed less than 200 feet outside the door as I opened it to walk outside.

The snow was taking its toll on the other drivers as well, and I could hear skidding and honking and dull thuds as I walked to the greasy spoon for a bite.

I returned, fortified by some bacon and french toast, marveling at how banally cheap everything was down here in Mississippi. I opened the door and stepped inside the room.

Ron and Shawna were in bed together, obviously having sex under the covers.

I flushed a shade of red matched only by the carpet, and muttered “well ok then” under my breath as I turned and walked back outside.

I was furious. I didn’t understand my emotions but I was so upset. Mad at Ron for breaking our bond of togetherness, and mad at Shawna for inserting herself into our trip. I didn’t have the faculty at the time to realize, but I was jealous. Not of Ron, but of Shawna. She had what I didn’t, the one thing that separated Ron and I from true love.

A vagina.

Well, also boobs. Big ones. I had mine removed just a few years before, and had never missed them until precisely that moment.

I was jealous in what I think of as the most classic of all gay senses. I walked around the building in a daze, the anxiety building and then receding every time something weird would catch my eye.

“How could he do this to me?

“OMG there’s a guy dressed in a deer outfit!”

“Did they want me to see them doing it?”

“Wow, that dude is crazy fat.”

“I’m such an idiot for trusting them.”

“Cigarettes are $.99/pack?!”

Mississippi’s weird and pronounced Americanness showed up, oddly, at just the right time. The absurdity of the situation eventually seeped into my thoughts, and I calmed down. I knew I had to go back sometime, and I was just completing my 80th orbit around the building when I opened the door to Room 3.

Ron, smiling sheepishly with a cigarette in his long, slender hands, spoke first.

“Hey Gabe, you seem upset. Something wrong?”

For a second, I thought he knew. Maybe he was fucking with me, sleeping with Shawna right in front of me to taunt or belittle me. I thought I knew him well enough, could trust him sufficiently that he wouldn’t — couldn’t — do such a thing to me. Despite my fear, I reminded myself that Ron was a good guy, and that he’d never hurt me. I tried to come up with the words, to say the things I felt at that moment, but I couldn’t.

“It’s no big deal, I was just caught off guard that was all.”

Shawna watched us both from the bed, covers pulled up to her chin. The young germophobe in me wanted to yell “Noooo….not the bedspread…it’s touching your face, you’ll die!!” but I had to focus. This icy road was even more dangerous than the Parkway we had just driven down.

She stared but said nothing, and I returned my gaze to Ron. His head was cocked to one side, and I knew he was not buying it.

I couldn’t speak. My throat swelled, my palms were sweaty, 100% of my energy was focused on how to get myself out of the jam that my deeply buried feelings had boiled into a thick, sticky mess.

He took another drag off his Marlboro light. “Ok,” he said flatly, “cool.”

I didn’t understand what was going on, and neither did they. I knew that Ron had had plenty of sex with the girls in school — he was the most handsome and brilliant guy in class after all. But because we never spoke of it, and it wasn’t really in my face, this was the first time I had to confront his sexuality in all its confident honesty — the precise opposite of being a closeted homosexual. It was intimidating and suddenly, searingly, real.

I was lucky and breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over. They asked no followup questions, and I offered no insight. That night he slept in her bed. I’m not sure I’ve ever forgiven her.

The rest of the trip was uneventful and generally lovely . We dropped Shawna off in Houston and drove down to the Texas-Mexico border. For the first time, we slept in the huge trunk of the 88 — it was big enough for two 6’ boys to stretch out and sleep comfortably (no touching!). When we woke up in the morning to the sounds and sights of the Gulf of Mexico, the beach just beyond the rest area where we had slept, I thought I had reached the denouement of my buddy comedy. We sat there for hours, just smoking, looking at the beach and breathing deeply.

My sense of panic and loss — at nearly having been outed and losing Ron to a girl — receded with each passing wave. After some 1:1 bonding time, it felt like we had put the weird motel behind us.

We picked Shawna back up, and proceeded to New Orleans. There, we sat at too small tables in smoky jazz clubs, drinking coffee and stiff whisky drinks, letting the improvisational music bring us a sense of peace. You could still drink in bars at 18 in the Quarter then. We were 17 but I looked 35, and encountered no resistance from the bar staff.

I imagined a world of jazz and poetry and Allen together again with his buddy Jack. There, in that moment, it — and we — were beautiful and time stood still. That’s only happened a few times in my life, each one featuring a man whose love I thought I had, but didn’t. It felt so good to be lost in the rhythm of a place that didn’t know me, but seemed to accept me just as I was.

We left the Crescent City with our hearts full of love and art.

Soon, the school year ended, and I graduated. Ron and my closest friends still had another year to go. I went away to university, and for the first 6 months everything was normal. Ron and I talked almost every day by phone. It always started with “How’s your day?” followed by a story of teen self-discovery or adult college escapades. It didn’t escape me that we behaved like old married couples in Romcoms — filling our time with banalities, marking the days as they went.

In my absence, he started spending a lot of time with our friend Mark. I was jealous, but major changes were happening for me too. I came out of the closet — first to my then girlfriend, Beatrice, and then to my mom, sister, my best girlfriend from high school and university chums. By the time Ron went away to school at McGill that following year, I had come out to everyone important except him.

Our phone calls had become less frequent, shifting from a daily to a weekly cadence. Still, they persisted into my second — and his first — year away from home.

Calling him at school was quite a chore. There was only one shared phone on his dorm’s floor, and so reaching him always required talking to one of his floormates.

“Hey is Ron around” became one of my most frequently used phrases.

This would invariably be followed by a kid yelling down the hall in full voice, “Ron, phone call for you.”

No one ever took this opportunity to tell me about their life story or to inquire about the guy who was always calling Ron. I put it down to a lack of curiosity, because if I was picking up a party line, I’d definitely want the T on whoever had just called.

But usually, they’d just let the phone hang off the wall and I’d listen to the kids walking by, talking loudly in English and French, while I waited for him to pick up the receiver. I did this so often, and got so good at it, that I’m an expert even today on interpreting a muffled butt dial.

“Hey, what are you doing this weekend,” I asked innocently during one crisp day in October.

“No big plans, just school,” he said. He sounded quiet, perhaps a little lonely.

“Well I’m coming to Montreal and we’re hanging out,” I said. His mood seemed to lift.

We discussed plans. I’d crash on the floor of his dorm room in a sleeping bag, and we’d spend the weekend doing cool Montreal things: bars, clubs, bagel shops. He seemed genuinely excited to see me.

I, on the other hand, was nervous. In the process of coming out, I had repeatedly turned my attention back to that night in Jackson, Mississippi. Every time I’d think of it, the blood would rush to my face, all hot, urgent, jealous embarrassment.

I now understood that I was in love with Ron. Coming out had eventually provided clarity about that. And now, as a proud, 19 year old queer man who wore pride rings and 2QT2BSTR8 t-shirts, it seemed imperative that I tell him. In my mind, I thought my suppressed feelings for him had driven him away from me. That he himself might be carrying around some frustration or concern for me, and that I’d somehow ruined our friendship by being too jealous of his other friends and the girls in his life.

Desperately, I wanted him to understand the real me and for us to reconnect.

I flew up to Montreal, and went directly to his tiny dorm room. I threw the sleeping bag on the floor, and we were right back in chatty best friend mode. We left, had some poutine and a couple of pints of beer, and came back to the dorms in the late afternoon.

The sun was long through the gothic windows. Ron’s face was lit in deep orange as he sat on his bed, me at his tiny desk.

“There’s something I want to tell you,” I said.

He looked at me with that same half-cocked, quizzical look I knew so well.

“I’m gay,” I said with more excitement than the moment warranted. My heart was pounding in my chest and I was thrilled to be able to unburden and reconnect with my best friend as honestly as possible.

He took a long beat.

“Oh. Ok,” he remarked, not quite nonchalant, but also not entirely freaking out.

I missed the signals in the noise. I wanted to tell him so badly, but I didn’t notice how uncomfortable he was. He had shifted his weight and now his angular jaw was lit from the side, almost like in a noir film. I couldn’t see his eyes.

“I wanted to apologize to you for all those times I acted weird,” I added. The next moment was so crucial, so important, I knew I had to say it out loud before it overwhelmed me and I chickened out.

“I realize now that I was in love with you. I know you can’t reciprocate it, and that’s ok, but I just wanted you to know.”

I’m not sure what reaction I was expecting. I think as with many things related to coming out, the purpose of the act is less about the receiver and more about the giver’s need to unburden and declare themselves. Ron and I had been best friends. I had confided everything to him — and he to me — except this. He had never judged me, and I didn’t expect that to change. I had hoped it would bring us closer and close the gap that was slowly yawning between us.

He didn’t speak. My heart was beating out of my chest. I looked down, to avoid his gaze, and when I looked up, he had shifted again, his face clearly illuminated in the last dying moments of sunset. He was crying. I don’t think I’d ever seen him cry. We had talked about lots of things that were deeply upsetting and sad, but we never shed tears in front of each other.

After a minute, he looked at me and said “Thank you for telling me. That must have been really hard.”

I took this as an affirmation, and we hugged. I suggested we go out and get plastered, and so we hit one of the university’s most popular pubs. Ron drank with even more gusto than usual, and I celebrated my sense of profound relief with more than a few beers.

We returned to the dorm and collapsed in our respective beds. He fell asleep almost immediately, but I didn’t. I looked out the window at the moon and the treetops of Montreal, and let my gaze return to Ron’s chest, rising and falling so slowly. Somehow, the ache I thought was gone had returned.

“You did good. You are lucky. He’s a good friend.” I said to myself to try and calm down. Repeating things makes them true, and I wanted truth more than anything. Eventually, the butterflies receded and I was enveloped in the overheated warmth of the dorm mixed with my hope for better days ahead.

The next morning we shared a big, basic breakfast, and I said my goodbyes to him before hopping on a bus back to the airport, back to Toronto, back to university. I smiled the whole way home, and when I disembarked at the downtown airport in Toronto, I remember walking to the train with my head held high in the gayest possible way. I had the love of my family and friends, and I was working on myself. Life was great.

I called Ron as usual the next week, but he wasn’t there. I wrote a letter, he responded, everything seemed fine. Another week later, again, no answer. On the fourth week he was the one who picked up the phone in the dorm, and we had a terse but friendly conversation.

“How are you doing? How was your day?” I said, hoping our usual rhythm would still be there.

He answered my questions. I was so excited to hear his voice, just to connect with him that I chose to ignore the fact that his reactions were monotone, lifeless.

“I’m good. School’s been busy you know,” he said resignedly.

I wanted to ask him if everything was OK between us but I really didn’t want to know the answer. So I didn’t. And that created an opening in the conversation. He took it.

“Listen, I should probably get going and finish this homework,” he declared.

“Ok buddy. Talk soon?”

He didn’t respond to my question. He just said, flatly, “Yeah, sure. Bye.”

That was the last time we spoke. My calls, letters and eventually emails went unanswered, so I gave up. I wrote him off as a casualty of my coming out — a necessary loss for a greater good. But it was also a classic form of dissembling — bury the hurt beneath a honey badger’s veneer and put it out of your mind.

Some years later, I found his name online, listed under the law firm where he was now a junior attorney. I wrote a long, friendly email to his email address, and 2 weeks later I got a reply. It was wan and full of platitudes. He talked about our mutual friend Mark and how they were the best men at each other’s weddings. I hadn’t known that they even got married — Ron was not on social media.

I was so glad to see his name in my inbox, that the final line of his letter fully and completely knocked the breath out of my chest. It said,

“Well anyway, nice to catch up with you.”

Politeness can be a weapon. And in this moment I knew there would be no drink for old times sake, or — better yet — a roadtrip to somewhere filled with jazz and memories. We’d never sit on the porch and laugh about the good old days, as the songs of our childhood had predicted. We’d never compare notes about the great novels, checking them against the reality of our lives.

We were Jack and Allen again, at the end of their road. Our shared stories, the manly love that bonded us, now gone. The remarkable face of a man I thought could do anything, be anyone — but always with me by his side — now consigned to my memory.

Since then, I’ve loved fearlessly and with all my soul. I’ve never let myself be cynical about love, believing — as I do — in the universe’s abundance. But a piece of me died on that last and final phone call we shared. It’s like a wound that scabbed over, but I can’t stop myself from picking at it. So it’s never fully and truly healed.

His was the first cut. And as I now understand better than I want to, the deepest.

Author and Public Speaker on Gamification, The 4th Industrial Revolution, the Future of Work and Failure. More about me:

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