As part of a pride month series, a story by: Dan Fitzgerald
I was seven the first time I fell in love. It happened one afternoon at my neighbor Andy’s house. Andy was a year younger than me and new to the neighborhood. His dad was our mailman and his mom was a Jehovah’s Witness who frequently knocked on our door to talk about Jesus. My mom would eventually make us sit in silence and pretend we weren’t home until she left. Andy loved the Yankees and was exceedingly boring. He never had much to say and went into catatonic state if the topic of conversation deviated from sports or Nintendo 64, often emitting a blank stare that made me feel like we were in an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. Nonetheless, if hanging out with him for a few hours was what it took to avoid my mom and her spring-cleaning, then so be it.
After about an hour of non-stop Nintendo play, I grew restless.
“Wanna do something else?” “We can play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.”
It was clear I would have to suggest an activity. “How about a movie?”
Andy’s parents had just acquired a copy of “The Titanic” on VHS and he was enamored with it. If this movie could provoke Andy to express verbal praise, then it had to be good.
“The ship sinks, you know.” He disclosed in a humdrum voice.
“Yeah, dingbat, I’m aware.” I wanted to say.
We popped in the movie and within five minutes my life was forever changed. There he was in all of his blond-haired, blue-eyed glory- Leonardo DiCaprio. I was completely transfixed. Was this the reason Andy liked the movie so much? For the next three and a half hours, I reveled in Leo’s every move. He was passionate and spoke with an unassuming confidence. I could have given two fucks if everyone on the ship violently drowned as long as he made it out unscathed. That’s what made the ending so unbearable. Andy didn’t understand my indignation for the film’s outcome or my infatuation with its leading man.
“Yeah, he’s cool.” Andy said.
Cool? Cool didn’t even scratch the surface. As far as I was concerned, he was a deity. I wanted to meet him and find out everything there was to know. What was Hollywood like? Did you always know you wanted to be an actor? Maybe we had similar tastes in music and shared a love for Golden Retrievers. My mind raced with the idea of us meeting one day and, subsequently, getting along like we had known each other for years. Old pals with hilarious inside jokes.
That night I tried to make sense of my emotions. I had never been taken by anyone like this before. He was hijacking my thoughts. I was apprehensive, of course. Part of me knew what I was feeling wasn’t run-of-the-mill. Andy sure didn’t see what I saw, but then again, Andy was half robot. I decided to put Leo and the way he made me feel on the backburner. We were learning long division in math class and I didn’t have time for self-analysis or an unwarranted obsession.
Seventh grade was a groundbreaking year for our class. People began coupling off. The term “talking” became a part of our vernacular and everyone seemed to be doing it. Becca Sheridan was “talking” to Tom Rant. Lauren Gardner was “talking” to Ricky Pratt. Amy Fisher was “talking” to Dylan Keller but he ended up leaving her for Cassie Evans. She was devastated. Our middle school was slowly turning into a telenovela.
“So, Dan. Are there any girls in your life?” My family often asked.
I had always liked girls. In fact, I had many friends who were girls. I loved talking to them but wasn’t sure I wanted to be “talking” to one in particular. This bothered me.
One night while my family was asleep, I crept downstairs to the communal computer and typed the phrase, “Am I gay?” into Google. A quiz popped up, promising to answer the harrowing question that had plagued me for quite some time. I was confused when the first question asked what my favorite vegetable was. I didn’t see how this correlated with my sexual preference, but I definitely wanted to steer clear of any phallic shaped veggies. After answering more extraneous questions, the answer finally read, “You’re gayer than Liberace!” I had no idea who Liberace was but the accusation had me concerned. A lump filled my throat as I sauntered back upstairs. I couldn’t help but worry about my future. Could I really be gay? Definitely. Did I want to be gay? Absolutely not. Being gay came with baggage I wasn’t ready for. Plus, could an online quiz really determine my sexuality? Maybe I was a late bloomer and would start “talking” to girls once I started high school. There were so many questions and none of them could be addressed with a simple answer. Time would determine my fate.
That winter I remember watching the Golden Globes with my family. Leo won for best actor and yes, seeing him smile and gracefully accept the award reassured me that I could, in fact, be gayer than Liberace.
The summer before my junior year of high school, I waited tables at a café by the beach called The Barbaric Bean. It was my first real job and I was wracked with irrational fear. A couple named Joe and Margie owned the café and were exceptionally nurturing to the staff. Joe was also a minister at a nearby church and Margie provided musical assistance during his sermons. They often serenaded me with a line from an Irish ballad. Their eyes would widen as they sang, in unison, “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.” In other words, they were awesome.
One day we were particularly busy when I was assigned the outdoor section of tables. This really tested my skills as a waiter and considering I didn’t have any, I quickly fell behind.
Stacy, a sassy co-worker who wore fake nails and had a Lil’ Wayne quote tattooed on her back was asked to assist me. The next hour was a murky blur of faces and orders that seemed endless. When the crowd cleared I went inside to pour myself a drink. I turned the corner and Stacy appeared before me holding a folded napkin.
“A guy at one of my tables asked me to give this to you.” She smiled, waiting for me to open it in front of her. The note read, “You’re cute. We should hang out sometime.” Scribbled at the bottom was a number and the name Johnny.
“Of course the first number I get is from a guy.” I joked, throwing the napkin into the garbage. Stacy giggled and began making herself a Chai Latte. While she was distracted, I snatched the note out of the trashcan and slipped it into my back pocket.
As soon as my shift ended, I walked down to the beach and unfolded the napkin. I typed the number into my phone. This was it. The anticipation was unbearable.
“Hey, it’s Dan from the Barbaric Bean.” “Hey! Sorry, I wanted to talk to you in person but you looked busy.”
We made small talk. He was eighteen and getting ready to leave for college in Manhattan. His family owned a summerhouse near the café and were originally from up north. He seemed normal enough. “Will you send me a picture of yourself?” I asked.
He replied with a blurry selfie, revealing him to be moderately handsome with defined cheekbones. He was brunette with freckles and green eyes. He was no Leo but most people in suburban New Jersey weren’t. “My place is free tonight.” He added.
Around nine o’clock, I set off on my bike to meet Johnny. My palms were grotesquely sweaty. I could barely grip the handlebars. Bob Segar’s “Night Moves” bellowed from my electric blue iPod Nano. The cool breeze and smell of the ocean helped sooth my nerves just enough not to turn around. I pedalled up to the oceanfront house and knocked on the door. I was in complete fight or flight mode. Every inch of me wanted to haul ass back to my bike. I knew once he came to the door and let me inside there was no turning back. It would be real.
Johnny was roughly six foot two and had the body of a ballerina. He was so thin, Kate Moss would have inquired about his diet. He shook my hand and shot me a warm smile, closing the door behind us.
His house was decorated with lavish vintage furniture and smelled like my MomMom & PopPop’s basement (major boner killer). Awkward family photos filled the walls along with action shots of a much younger Johnny doing gymnastics. We sat on his couch and he asked me about music and school. He was calm and soft-spoken, but it didn’t matter. I was a wreck. I could barely form a sentence. I wanted to be engaging but my nerves wouldn’t allow it.
“Do you want to make out?” I offered, interrupting him.
I couldn’t sit through this torturous small talk any longer. I needed to fast-forward to the nitty gritty. I came here with a strict agenda in mind, after all. Getting to know Johnny and forming a relationship wasn’t registering as an option. He was merely the catalyst I needed in help me confirm my truth. What I’d do with that truth afterward was still up for debate.
Johnny smirked, trying to hold back a full-fledged smile or maybe even a laugh. He could sense my noviceness. We held each other’s gaze for a second and then he leaned in, kissing me and running his fingers through my hair. A rush of heat came over me and my face felt hot. My heart was beating at intervals I wasn’t familiar with. My thoughts raced a million miles per minute. It was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.
Kissing a guy was more rough-and-tumble than kissing a girl. There was a power dynamic I hadn’t experienced before. We traded off being dominant and submissive in an exchange that felt somewhat innate. It was like playing a game of tennis with someone who had a similar strategy. We continued kissing and eventually found our way onto the floor. Johnny was now on top of me, as we aggressively dry-humped. He proceeded to take off his shirt and I quickly followed suit. Within seconds we were completely naked. He was packing major heat, which took me by surprise considering his narrow frame. We continued to roll around in sheer euphoria, touching each other until we both came laying side by side. Truth confirmed. He turned his head to face mine in a playful way. I averted eye contact.
“I should go.” I mumbled, jumping up to find my clothes. “Already? You just got here.” Johnny seemed hurt but I couldn’t articulate the overwhelming feeling of shame I was experiencing. I felt detached and completely scandalized. The thought of going home and seeing my parents made me want to vomit. I had to get out of there and fast.
Johnny walked me to the door and told me to call him sometime. I never did.
I didn’t come out for another three years after my experience with Johnny. I never saw him again after that night, either. I’ve tried looking him up on Facebook in recent years to no avail. A lot has changed since then. Not only in my personal life but in the world around me. While I’m still a work in progress, I’m happy with the direction I’m headed in. I look back at that seven-year-old kid and want to give him a hug. I’d assure him everything will turn out okay. I’d tell him that one day he’ll be living out his dream in Los Angeles and working in film. That his family and friends will love him unconditionally regardless of who he chooses to love. I’d tell him that he shouldn’t let shame or self-doubt get in the way. I’d also tell him that Leonardo DiCaprio will finally win an Academy Award for Best Actor and that he’ll still give you the feels 20 years later.