In retrospect, it was a mean thing to do.
Who are we kidding? We knew then and there it was mean. Dean and I had locked ourselves in his room and Ryan was outside pounding on the door wanting to be let in. We weren’t going to let him in. Though none of this had been talked about directly or explicitly, Dean and I had an unspoken understanding. We were on this side of the door, and Ryan wasn’t. Somehow we knew he shouldn’t come in.
It was on one of those long, hot summer days. How old were we? Maybe ten or twelve, tops. I was a regular guest at Dean’s house, probably more often than he was at mine. His family had a cool house and a great pool, and I’d ride my bike over most summer days. In those days before today’s “helicopter” parents, we kids would just come and go as we pleased, getting around the neighborhood on our bikes. Moms were in the background but for the most part left us to our own devices.
On this particular day Ryan had been invited to come over and swim with us. He was a kid from school we’d grown up with and liked well enough, but I’m not sure how he ended up coming into the picture this particular day. Maybe our mothers had orchestrated it, given that Ryan’s family only over on the next street. Why not go over and swim with Dean and Nate, someone had probably suggested sensibly.
Though he disrupted our routine a bit, we didn’t mind Ryan coming over. We swam and had a good enough time. But then when it was time to go inside and change, that’s when the trouble started.
Dean and I had developed a post-swimming routine where we’d go into his room, strip out of our swimming trunks, and lay around on his bed naked. I can’t remember how this routine started or how many times we did it – it may have only been two or three times, or maybe it had been many more. This was one of those times, only we hadn’t invited Ryan to join us in our pastime. He was outside the room, pounding his fists on the door, screaming to be let in. We couldn’t tell him we were inside naked, but whatever reason we also didn’t think we should invite him in. Eventually he started crying, which surprised me, and at that point I think Dean and I realized how mean we had been.
Apparently Ryan’s mom eventually called Dean’s mom to discuss what happened. I wonder what it’s like for a mother to receive a phone call like that, and have to talk to one of her peers about something like this. How do you explain this kind of behavior, how do you justify it? What do you say? Dean’s mom was really angry with us, but none of us had the words to explain what had happened and why.
When Dean and I would lie on his bed naked after swimming, that was the extent of it. We’d lay there and talk, sneak glances at each other’s dicks, but otherwise just hang out like any other day. We never did anything remotely sexual, and I don’t think I would have known what to do anyways. I think I had a vague idea of what gayness and homosexuality was, but hadn’t even begun to connect the dots with what we were doing here. We never talked about what we were doing, whether it was weird or wrong or anything. We just had an unspoken understanding – but to call it an “understanding” is also a stretch, since I don’t think either of us at the time fully understood the implications of what we were feeling. For whatever reason we sensed Ryan didn’t fit into this particular scene, and should stay on the other side of the door.
Years later, Dean would be my friend who would steal a copy of Playgirl for me. Not surprisingly, many more years later we’d both eventually come out as gay. But during these years growing up, hanging out together naked, and later colluding over the acquisition of Playgirls, we never talked about it. Was it a tacit understanding? And did we share this understanding with any other boys?
* * *
When high school came, my family moved and I had to start over making new friends. One of my first friends was a guy named Patrick. Patrick was a handsome and rather effeminate guy. He was as bad at sports as I was, and eventually we became friends. When he turned sixteen his parents got him a brand new VW Cabriolet. He told me that when he and his mom had gone shopping for cars, they took Polaroids of him sitting in each car, and they chose the car that they thought he looked best in. Though I couldn’t put it into words, I had a sense of things and felt we had the kind of shared understanding I’d had with Dean.
One day though Patrick threw me for a loop. He showed up to school looking flustered, and said he hadn’t been sleeping well and had been really horny. I wasn’t sure where he would be going with this, but I prepared myself and waited. To my surprise, Patrick said, “I just wanna go fuck a girl so badly.” I was dumbstruck, not only because he said he was wanted to have sex with a girl, but also because he used the word “fuck.” Neither of these were consistent with his personality. I felt confused, and a bit betrayed.
But back then there were no out gay kids at school. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance like there is nowadays. So even though I think we all recognized each other, either consciously or subconsciously, we didn’t act on any of it. At least as far as I knew.
* * *
In the film Moonlight there’s a scene where a bunch of boys meet up in a classroom and form a circle. They each unzip and start a circle-jerk. Now, I’d heard of circle-jerks when I was in school but couldn’t understand how such a thing could ever happen. Do boys actually get together and jerk off together? Wouldn’t that be gay? It seemed inconceivable.
But I wonder if there was a bunch of under-the-radar going on (“DL” in current speak) that I wasn’t aware of. I wasn’t the most socially savvy kid, so maybe it was going on and I just didn’t figure it out. Maybe Patrick had been testing me, and I’d failed to take the bait. After all, that’s how it works in the porn flicks!
Dude #1: My girlfriend’s out of town, and besides she never gives it to me anyway.
Dude #2: I can help you out buddy.
I’ve had other guys tell me they had quite a bit of dude-on-dude action in school, even guys who were in school the same years I was. Conner Habib wrote a series of essays describing his various encounters when he was school-aged. My own partner tells me how he got it on with guys from the wrestling team. So now, after the fact, I know it was happening. I just hadn’t gotten clued in myself.
But we were gay kids, and we knew it whether or not we said anything or did anything at the time. Years later, I’d find Patrick’s photo on a volunteer bulletin board at the STOP Aids Project in San Francisco. Yep, gay. And Dean and I have been in touch decades later through Facebook. Yep, also gay. But at the time we just didn’t have the words for it… or at least the courage.