The Return of My First Love
There have been quite a few starts since my first attempt to write about him. I believe I’ve run out of the fuel needed to keep our story hidden. But I’m afraid to commit to revealing who I was and what we did during those six years of living together. Spread across three decades, our saga began, layered with friendship, passion, and hope. It ended soaked in codependency, denial, and booze.
I didn’t admit to myself I was in love with ‘Robert’ until I said it to him over the phone, on the evening of December 24, 2018. Ringing him with the goal of backing out of being the best man at his upcoming church wedding, to a woman he’d married in a civil ceremony a few years before. The dam broke when my unintended confession fell out. Despite being an out gay man for 20 years, it wasn’t until that moment that it became clear I’d been squashing my romantic feelings for Robert. It seems since the dawn of our journey together, when we met in a theater class in 1990 in Tucson, Arizona.
I believe it was a dawning that first surfaced on a chilly southern Arizona evening in early February 1991. Robert and I were alone in the YWCA dance studio, rehearsing one of the dance numbers in Barbea Williams Performing Company’s spring production of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. I’d been struggling during the group rehearsal and Robert volunteered to stay with me afterward to go over it.
“…he casually placed his left hand on the mirror next to my head. The heat from his body warmed me…”
Dark, wavy hair spilled into his eyes when he took off his red baseball cap. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “Who knew all that was hiding under there? Is that why you’re always wearing a hat?” Robert smiled, pushing rewind on the cassette player. The whir of the tape bounced off the walls of the small dance studio.
“Who does your hair?” I went on. “I try to straighten mine to get that wave. But I can never seem to get it to look like yours.”
Robert chuckled. “My mom is white?”
“My mom is white.”
“Ah. Okay.” I scanned his face. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? Although he was several shades lighter than me, it never crossed my mind one of his parents could be white.
My damp, loose-fitting white t-shirt felt like a suction cup as I pressed my lean frame against the mirrored wall. I was wiped out but still hyped to continue. Robert moved towards me, leaning back to blow sweat from his upper lip. My eyes followed as he casually placed his left hand on the mirror next to my head. The heat from his body warmed me as I listened to him talk about the play.
Suddenly Robert shouted, ‘Look at this!’ as he bounded towards the center of the room. Pushing up my round tortoise-shell glasses, I watched as he hit play on the stereo. The original cast recording poured out of the speakers. And once more Robert pulled me in, fusing jazz, tap, and hip-hop into an impromptu routine. Besides playing football and baseball, he grew up taking dance lessons. Like his outgoing personality, Robert seemed completely unafraid of allowing his body to surrender to its instinctive rhythms.
“Come here.” Robert motioned me to him. I walked over and he returned to patiently guiding me through the number, encouraging me to follow his movements. Suddenly, a familiar tickling fluttered inside of me, joining us in the evening light of the rehearsal space. Robert’s well-formed arms and shoulders transfixed me as they glistened with sweat. His cut-off t-shirt and light grey sweatpants took in me, as they clung to his toned physique.
Feigning fatigued, I stepped back towards the safety of the mirrored wall. Robert bent down to catch his breath, his hair hiding his face. Then he straightened up and replanted himself in front of me, placing his right hand on his hip. My underarms itched. My nostrils flared. I struggled, sneaking looks at his full lips. Sweat trickled down my forehead from fear he could hear the pounding in my chest. I screamed inside, Stop it! Then I scurried away, my slender arm grazing Robert’s damp bicep.
“You alright?” he smiled.
“Yeah, I’m okay. I was getting a little cramped from leaning like that.”
“It was a scene that when I read it aloud, released tears of shame, from a darkness that had been stagnant inside of me for a long time.”
Robert and I met at the beginning of the fall 1990 semester at the University of Arizona in Tucson, as first-year theater majors. And the only black male students in the department. A Phoenix native, I was 20 and a transfer student from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where I’d spent three semesters as a journalism major. A year younger than me, Robert arrived at the U of A from the Midwest the previous year on a baseball scholarship.
Our exchanges were cordial during most of that fall semester. But it wasn’t until Barbea cast us in her production that we would know each other. Despite being quiet and reserved, I was drawn to Robert’s vibrant and confident masculinity, with our conversations being varied and interesting.
There’s more to our story, as we moved through the years. After dropping out of college in the spring of 1992 to pursue our dreams of becoming actors in Hollywood. For me, our journey during that time was a hazy one, laced with codependency and suppression. And it’s a history I never intended to share. That is, until it came out during the summer of 2018, through a writing prompt with The Missing Peace, a Los Angeles-based memoir writing group. When a long forgotten memory of Robert bled out of my blue pen onto white-ruled paper. It was a scene that when I read it aloud, released tears of shame, from a darkness that had been stagnant inside of me for a long time.
Through my admission to this part of my past, the founders of The Missing Peace encouraged me to accept that it’s okay to own my story. They also helped me to return to my first love of writing. My relationship with writing has been there since third grade, when my teacher praised me for using the word ‘aroma’ to describe the smell of the Thanksgiving turkey. And from that moment onward, those around me supported a career as a writer. I dreamt about it too. But it would take me many years to come to a place of being completely ready for it.
There’ve been moments over the years when I’ve attempted to pursue writing. But it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve understood that besides dreaming about it, I need to believe in it. Just as importantly, I need to come to a place of seeing that creating narratives has to be influenced by my own experiences and beliefs. Not by the ones I want others to believe I’ve lived. Seeing parts of my life in print helps me to accept and move through feelings and perceptions no longer serving me. They also encourage me to take pride in my accomplishments and my joys.
Through my passion for reading, I know that my story with Robert isn’t a unique one. However, I realize that if it continues to push up to see the light, then I need to share it. In chronicling my history with him, maybe I can aid someone in releasing shame that may surround parts of their life journey. The same as so many influential writers have done for me.