The first time I said "I love you" out loud and actually meant it was on my high-school stage in the spring of 1966. Of course, there was the time I told my friend Sally that I loved her. We were 5. This felt a lot different, though, because I could literally feel that gush of greasy hormones seeping out of the pores on my forehead. And if we were discovered, it would end badly. I was either going to have pimples all over my face the next day from the adrenaline rush, or, most likely, there would be some name calling and a push from behind in the hallway, just soft enough to keep me on my feet, but strong enough to make me drop all my books and whatever else I was carrying around that day. After all, this Alabama in the mid-'60s, hardly an enlightened time in Dixie history. This is where George Wallace stood at the steps of Foster Auditorium to block the integration of the University of Alabama. Although my town in northern Alabama had its share of eccentric bachelors wearing ascots, I'm fairly certain that blatant homosexuality would have been looked upon as a grievous sin indulged in by perverted Yankees, a group that I found myself clinging to for a supportive hand and emotional survival.
He was playing the piano backstage after a rehearsal of one of those fine high-school plays that only family and friends come to see, while you pray that don't mess up and thereby embarrass yourself in front of everybody. I think it was West Side Story. The cast and crew had all but packed up and found their rides home. We were alone, or at least I thought we were. Joey, my beloved, was sitting at the baby grand. He looked right at me and started playing "Michelle" by the Beatles. He sang:
I love you. I love you. I love you.
That's all I want to say.
Until I find a way,
I will say the only words I know
That you'll understand.
"I love you, Joey," I said under my breath. "Do you love me?" His eyes told me that the feeling was mutual. Our secret moment ended when a short girl with blonde hair, so straight that it looked like it had been ironed, entered the stage from behind the curtain. Joey stopped playing and looked down at the piano keys. I felt shame, but also a new and amazing sense of self.
The school year ended, and the following year, our senior year, Joey was sent to a private school in Atlanta. That year there were other boys I loved from afar. Sometimes I sneaked into the boy's locker room after football practice to catch one of them naked. David, a track star who already had developed a swagger and personal style that included Polo shirts and Bass Weejuns, would smile at me as we passed each other in the hallway. Nothing ever materialized, though, so I satisfied myself listening to "California Dreamin'" and plotting my escape back to California, where I thought I would be accepted by the flower children and their "free love" cohorts. It wasn't until years later that I learned that "free love" didn't apply to homosexuals, only to heterosexuals who were not monogamous.
Joey and I crossed paths again during our first year of college. I finally got up the nerve to talk to him when I found him sitting by himself in the basement coffee house of the Student Union Building one night. Our gayness was still very much a secret.
"Joey, I think I have this sickness," I said. "You know, a sickness for you."
"It's just a stage, Gary," he told me. "We will get through it."
"Well, one thing: Do you have a sickness for me?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said as he shook his head.
That was the last time we spoke to each other.
There was a parting gift that I gave to him: two lines of a John Greenleaf Whittier poem written on paper carefully wrapped around the stem of a daffodil. It read:
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
One time in the '90s, I found an Internet site with some of his personal stories. I contacted him via email. In his response he told me that I had always been "over dramatic." I could imagine his smile, though, as he signed off as "your 1960s pitty-pat."
Needless to say, I no longer look at myself as a "sick" person, but that was the message that I got back then. I know that today there are more people who are accepting of LGBT people like me. But I'm reminded that there are still small-minded people who make the rules and set the standards for others to live by. There are still teens out there who are scared and carrying the same shame that I carried many years ago. Those are the teens I think about now. I think about Joey too, and I wonder how our lives might have been different had we been allowed to live as ourselves.