Monday, December 10, 2007

Help From the Tribe

 For most of my teen years, I would take my dog Lilly out for a walk each morning.  We lived right on the edge of a beautiful college campus, which made the walk a pleasure, even at 6 fucking thirty am.  My sister Mary was attending the college at the time, and I had gotten to know some of her friends and acquaintances.  Mark was the one of  latter really, though one she thought fondly of.  I don't think I had ever been introduced to him; somehow I just knew his name.  One Winter I saw him every week day morning when Lilly and I were out.   

I had a huge crush on him.  Tall, dark hair, blue laughing eyes, one of those Celtic rogue faces I've always had a weakness for, I found him captivating.  Which of course meant I never spoke to him.  Never ever ever.  I don't remember if we even acknowledged each other on any of my morning walks, though later he said he remembered seeing me.  I was still firmly in my misanthropic, Daniel Boone, never-be-with-another-person phase, after all.  Besides, he didn't know me, what would I say to him, why would we have any reason to talk to one another?

Jump forward now two years or so: now a sophomore at this same college, I am sitting in the dorm room of a stunningly beautiful man, having been invited by him earlier that evening. We didn't know one another at all, but I had heard David was 'sexually ambiguous', he certainly seemed to be flirting with me, so when he invited me to stop by, I wanted to see where things might go. At no prompting from me, the subject of his sexuality quickly came up.  Unfortunately what he said was, after a period of questioning (apparently all in his head), he had come to the conclusion he was straight.  Bummer. Okay no harm no foul, I was still safe in my little closet.  

Then he began talking about his good friend who had graduated two years before, and I realized he was talking about Mark.  I mentioned that I knew who he was 
vaguely, and David said matter-of-factly "Oh, he's gay, did you know?"  

My head imploded.  

"No, I didn't know that."  He's gay?  That gorgeous, smiling, cheerful guy is GAY?  You couldn't tell!  I didn't have a clue!  He is so masculine! Mark was the first of my crushes to turn out to be gay, though in some cases I wouldn't know it until twenty years had passed.  At any rate right then
 I tried to play it cool, and David and Italked about other things until it was time for me to leave.     

When I got to my own room though, I found a note waiting for me from a first-year woman who had seemed to take a shine to me that term.  She wrote that she wanted to get to know me better, she hoped we could spend some time together, ending "P.S. Relax. I just want to be your friend." 


Somehow having this note follow immediately on the revelation about Mark proved too much for me to handle.  I went back to David's room to learn he had just called Mark and told him about me.  Mark had said "tell him to call me if he wants."  David had obviously been trying to coax me out, I now saw (why else would Mark say "tell him to call me"?).  So for the first time in my life, the words "I am gay" left my lips.  I told David he was the first person I had ever told, causing him to tear up a bit.  I felt like I had taken a leap of a cliff, there could be no going back now. As melodramatic as that sounds to me now, it was probably good for me to see it so irrevocably at the time.   

A few days into my Christmas vacation -struggling now to come out to my family- I got a letter from Mark.  Remember letters?  I used to be great at writing letters.  Email has changed things forever, I know.  ANYway, Mark congratulated me on coming out, said he'd help any way he could, and he hoped I'd feel comfortable writing back.  I, of course, did immediately.  That led to a regular correspondance and a friendship that proved to be a life-line for me.  All that six weeks I shared my thoughts with Mark, thrilled that I was finally able to tell someone how I felt, and not just anyone, but one of the guys I had pined over.  I never told him about my crush, though I doubt it would be news to him. At the time I had enough self-awareness to realize that he probably didn't feel the same way about me, so telling him would just make things weird and possibly end our correspondance.  Besides he lived in Chicago, six hours away, so letters and the occasional phone call was all we were going to have anyway.  Might as well make the best of it.  I don't know if I knew it instinctively or not, but what I needed right then was a big brother in the gay world.  I'm sure Mark knew.  

That holiday season I lived for those letters, and for a man with a job and a life, he was remarkably good about responding quickly to me.  Looking back on that now, I really have to marvel at that; I may have tried to limit myself to one letter a week, afraid of overwhelming him, but it seems like I was writing him constantly.  Yet he was always quick to respond.  

During that break I spent a few days looking after  a farm (just chickens, really) belonging to some family friends. The memory of staying there washes over this whole period for me, even though I think I was there less than a week.  The farmhouse was cozy, nestled in among trees; there was heavy snow on the ground, so I spent long hours sitting in the livingroom, staring out the windows at the nearby woods, the farmland, the animals.  Or I was gathering eggs, reading, writing, thinking, fantasizing, at night going out to see the stars unshrouded by city lights. It proved to be a well-timed nature retreat for me and Mark heard about it all.  

He even called me one night, once I was back at my parents' place.  I took the call in the most private place, my parents' room, reassuring myself that this was typical behavior for all of us with long distance calls, there was nothing suspicious in what I waas doing, they would just assume he was a college friend, which he was, after all,  so I didn't need to freak out and wonder if my parents could tell, oh dear god, that SOMETHING WAS UP.  Mark and I didn't talk long, and I barely remember what was said; the only comment I remember is him laughingly referring to 'people of our tribe.'

On Christmas day, Mom asked me if I was gay.  I sat down to write Mark about it the next evening, then thought "wouldn't it be great if I could tell him about coming out to my whole family in this letter?"  That thought was enough to get me to call the four of them together for my big announcement.  Mark told me later that this put me ahead of him in the coming out process, since he had yet to tell his very Catholic parents.  

Mark and I continued to correspond that Winter, though once I was back in school, I imagine my flood of letters abated some.  In the Spring he came back to visit me and David, and introduce us to his new boyfriend.  This was my first experience of hanging out with a gay couple, and it was thrilling.  They were so normal!  Watching them cuddle was mind-blowing.  David even took a photo of them napping for me.  

Mark and I fell out of touch, but maybe ten years later, after I had moved to Seattle, I wondered about him, and tracked him down in LA.  We began to write again, and not long after that he came to visit.  We were both single by this point, but I knew I wasn't his type (I don't remember the specifics now, but I think being over six feet and financially well-off were part of it) and was okay with that.  We still connected well, and were able to meet more as equals now.  A year or two later I turned my life upside down by moving precipitously to the East Coast, going back to school, and changing addresses twelve times in three years.  Sublets a-go-go.  Mark and I fell out of touch once again.  I've thought about him fondly on occasion, but this year I find myself remembering that December very vividly. I realize how blessed I was to have him to lean on.  A big brother was what I needed, and for whatever reasons, Mark was generous and kind enough to volunteer for the role.   I bet I was a exhausting at times, but he was never anything other than warm, welcoming, and supportive.  I think it's time to track him down again.  I want to know what he's up to.  And I don't think I ever thanked him.  


john said...

What an amazing story. I remember the first person I told, that I said "I'm gay out loud to". It isn't very many people, I could count them and even place them on an itemized list. But I do remember the first time I said "I'm gay out loud". I remember everything about it.

somewhere joe said...

Patrick, you're not gonna believe this. Last night just before going to bed I thought I'd check my email once more, and here's one from a friend, from New York, that I haven't seen or talked to in ten years.

"Dear Joe,

A weird question. Is this you?
It's Mary from St. Marks Pl..."

I'd say do it.

Patrick said...

Congratulations on getting the ball rolling, whatever it means to you. If you're like me, you'll remember that experience clearly for years to come.

What IS this? I'm getting very intrigued by our continual synchronicity. Is Mary someone you were a big brother to in some fashion? That would be even more wild, but just icing on the coincidence cake. Is her story one you feel like sharing with your readers?

tornwordo said...

You should definitely reconnect. I love that part about how the week at the farm washes over the whole period. So interesting how that happens.

somewhere joe said...

Are you sitting down? She used to call herself my "little sister." We were on a similar spiritual quest...

Will said...

I think you just did (say "thank you"), to all of us who now know what a great man and true friend Mark was and is to you.

If the pattern discernible in your relationship over the years continues, you might find that one of your readers knows him and has forwarded this post to him. ho knows?

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Wow, what a great story. Maybe if I had someone who acted as a big brother to me things would have turned out different.
Sure contact him, even my straight school friends that I just contacted were happy to hear from me, you two had an even stronger connection than just friends.


Patrick said...

Torn: in fact I think part of the reason I'm remembering all this so vividly this year is because something about the weather seems familiar.

Will: I hadn't thought of that possibility. Given the way things have been going recently, the most likely candidate will be Joe. I'm afraid to ask...

Joe, mo Petite Parapluie: That is just weird. Wonderful and weird. Did she contact you to thank you for you brotherly support in the past, or just to be back in touch? Either works.

Steven: yes, I was very lucky. I was somewhat aware of it then, but am really conscious of the blessing it was now.