"So I was thinking... would you want to go with me to Antigua tomorrow?"
David's offer caught me off-guard, not only because of the short notice, but because our courtship was approaching levels of giddiness with which I was unfamiliar. David is generous and ingenious, gorgeous and charming, spontaneous and silly. He is the type of man I had imagined myself ending up with before I reclassified my requirements as preferences lest I wind up perennially single. Now, not only was I dating my pencil-sketched ideal man, he was inviting me to Antigua for a lazy, sun-soaked weekend.
Our beginning was casual and modern. I impulsively added him on Facebook after seeing a handsome photograph. I challenged him to a game of Words with Friends, sparking a fierce, months-long rivalry. On a lark, I invited him to meet me for a cupcake. Our connection was instantaneous. He shared my passion for high and low culture, my absurd sense of humor, and my addiction to cream-cheese frosting. We were both in floundering relationships -- his a decade-long, off-and-on entanglement at a crossroads, mine a six-month flare-up cooling to its embers -- so we settled for a friendship freighted with romantic tension.
David and I met when summer began, and by the time it ended, we had concluded our previous engagements and were dating in earnest. But we kept things as casual as our feelings would allow and refused to assign labels or set parameters. We weren't adhering to some smug, hippy-dippy notion of love without conventional boundaries; there were practical considerations at play. As we had both recently ended relationships, we were mutually afraid of becoming the "rebound guy."
To further complicate matters, David had accepted a job that would soon relocate him from Atlanta to Philadelphia. He suggested I join him in Philly so we would have a chance to explore our connection without the limitations of distance. I was open to the idea, but we were both realistic. It was a major consideration, and moving was contingent on my ability to find work in an unforgiving job climate. We resolved to enjoy each day and resist the urge to think ahead.
When I told my friends David was whisking me off to the Caribbean, they insisted this meant we had entered a new phase of our relationship. This wasn't a friends-with-benefits sort of trip, they said. I didn't disagree, but I bristled when they referred to him as my boyfriend. I tried in vain to explain the nuances, to make the case for why our informality was so vitally important, but I was drowned out by a chorus of "Joshie and David sitting in a tree... "
Once we arrived in St. John's, I looked forward to enjoying a few blissful days in David's company, not having to field questions about labels, expectations or what the future held for us. Then again, I didn't anticipate the attention we got. No one seemed to know what to make of us. I couldn't blame them. It's safe to say that if you asked a hundred people to draw a picture of an American gay couple on vacation, few of the pictures would look like David and me. We're not the white, slender dandies who have become representative of what a gay couple is.
We're both what most would consider conventionally masculine, are not especially fussy about clothes and are generously proportioned. He's biracial, born of a Haitian father and white mother, loves to talk football and swaggers like a sailor on shore leave. I'm black, with a bald head, fortified paunch and kinky beard that earn me relentless comparisons to the rapper Rick Ross. As we interacted with others, I got the impression that gay couples probably weren't uncommon there, but a couple like me and David might be.
The phenomenon wasn't immediately noticeable. We arrived at our all-inclusive, beachfront resort, the owners of which pride themselves on the volume of couples who choose it as a honeymoon destination. Nary an eyelash was batted when David checked us in, specifying our preference for a king-sized bed. I wasn't surprised; these were hospitality professionals, after all. Surely we weren't the first same-gender couple they had registered.
But the interactions with the staff and guests got more interesting as the weekend progressed. One day, as we enjoyed an intimate, seaside lunch under a thatched-roof cabana, a pair of female staffers arrived to top off our water and engaged us in casual conversation that began to resemble the world's most courteous interrogation.
Their questions were directed primarily at David, whose striking features and gregarious demeanor make him a flytrap for single women and their matchmaking mothers. They alternated their questions, asking where he was from, what he did for a living, and of course, if he was single. He deflected the last question with humor, saying he had four girlfriends waiting for him back in the States.
The older and bolder of the pair saved the best for last: "Do you guys work together?" "Yes, we work together," I said, and David smiled and agreed. It became our private joke. Everyone is someone else on vacation, and we were male colleagues who came to get work done while cohabitating in a premium beachfront suite in Antigua. For the rest of the trip, when we spoke with fellow guests at breakfast and they asked what we had done the night before, we would go into an improvised bit about how we had gotten some work done on "the Peterson account," rehearsed our sales presentation, and knocked out some of the PowerPoint slides.
Another night at dinner, we struck up a conversation with two sisters who had immigrated to the United States from Gambia. The older sister asked how we knew each other, and we glanced at each other before he blurted that we were friends. When David told her that he was living in Atlanta but preparing to move to Philadelphia, she offered me sympathy. "I bet you're going to miss your friend when he moves," she said with a knowing smile. I admitted that I would. I thought of an old Bill Withers song: "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)"
David and I walked the beach back to our suite and discussed our feelings. At that point, the only declaration of love had been mine, and I'd made it in the clumsiest way imaginable: over the phone, after a couple tumblers of vodka-spiked lemonade as he struggled to hear me through background noise. I decided the next morning that it hadn't counted, as true as it was. He hadn't reciprocated. He knew he was falling in love, and had cryptically admitted as much, but was afraid of what that meant for our situation.
For a moonlit stroll on the beach with the man I'd fallen in love with, it was bittersweet. The trip that was supposed to give us respite from the reality of our precarious situation had instead thrown it into sharp relief. We had been saying that our subterfuge was about principle, about enjoying the privilege of not having to constantly explain ourselves, a privilege straight couples take for granted.
But the underlying reason was that we couldn't explain what our relationship was to ourselves, let alone the beachfront busybodies. I feared the memories we were making could be the only ones I'd have. Suddenly, the labels that seemed needless in our real lives felt important during our tropical sojourn. I wanted to tell everyone that David was my boyfriend, in case I never got another chance to introduce him that way.
As if he read my mind, David told me how much I meant to him, and that the trip did represent a progression, even though we were still figuring out where that progression would lead. The tide ebbed, and he kissed me. Then I was calm. I felt like we would figure it out.
Our weekend was exquisite, and when we returned, our relationship continued apace as he prepared to move north. He graduated from thinking he loved me to saying it out loud. He told me he wasn't seeing anyone else and that he hoped I wouldn't either, and I asked the same of him. The label still doesn't seem to fit right, so we're not wearing it yet. But I've accepted a job in Philadelphia so we can continue to explore our connection, and as I've prepared to move, I've thought quite a bit about that night on the beach in Antigua.
I have the urge to call David my boyfriend sometimes, not to provide ourselves or others with a neat framework for our relationship, but because labels convey a sense of continuity, of a status that has been attained and can't be stripped away. What I really want is not to call David my boyfriend, or my partner, or anything in particular. I want to be guaranteed that I can love him for the rest of my life.
Such guarantees don't exist. Not for boyfriends, or life partners, or husbands and wives. To love someone is to assume the risk of losing them, and assigning labels doesn't do anything to mitigate that risk. If and when David and I do decide to give each other a label, it will be an honorific, not a binding contract.
All we can do is what successful couples have always done: a lot of talking and listening, compromising and being present to every moment we have together. If I'm fortunate, there will be lots of those moments. I'm most looking forward to the next vacation, where we'll tell our fellow guests that we landed the Peterson account and are going to celebrate by making out in a shaded hammock.