One of my friends has a TikTok habit of late, and recently sent me this one.
Oh, it’s funny, of course. But it also set me to thinking, and eventually I realized why. My first huge crush in high school had a look and a voice and a mien very like those of the man who does all the talking in this video. Same gingery hair, same build. Same air of quiet confidence that you just know is well founded in experience. Same edge of menace so carefully restrained you could almost miss that it was there at all, except that everything about how he carries himself says of course. Of course. That would’ve been frightening as hell if he’d ever aimed it at me other than for play, and I never once was even for a moment afraid that he would. Never once needed to be, and it wasn’t the only thing I loved about him, but it certainly was one of them.
And why not? Lot of people spent a lot of time and effort to put me through a lot of hard times as a kid. Oh, I’d learned to defend myself, eventually—learned over a school year spent in a harder place than my hometown, learned so thoroughly and well that, when I did come home, it only took a couple months for all my old bullies to learn they weren’t going to be bullying me any more. I had learned how to be more serious than they could handle—than anyone could handle—and that was good, that was far better than what had gone before, but it was still hard. I knew I could take care of myself if I needed to, and when I was with him I knew, I knew, that I wouldn’t need to. He was in some ways the most frightening man I have ever known in my life, and some of those same ways were why he was also the most trustworthy. When we were together I was never afraid of anything.
He started his truck with a switchblade, and once put his fist through a quarter inch of oak. Sometimes I’d ride in the truck bed—always volunteered to, after the first time, when there were too many of us to fit in the cab. He didn’t go easy on account of I was back there. Instead he went hard, bounced me off the sheet steel just for the hell of it. Or maybe not just. Sometimes I had bruises after, but they were just bruises, and I never minded. Or maybe I was a little proud of them. For all the swearing I did through the open back window, I never asked him to take the turns even a little less sharply, or to steer away from potholes instead of into them. He seemed to respect that, and of that I was most certainly proud.
His mother once took me aside and very seriously asked me to try, if I could, to rein him in a little, because his parents were worried about him. She took me for a sensible young man, and I didn’t know how to tell her that one of the things I loved about her son was that I never quite knew where things would go next. I didn’t know how to tell her there were things I loved about him. So I said I would try, and then didn’t.
One day later on, after high school, we stopped in on a friend who turned out not to be home, and for the sake of it I climbed up on top of the van he’d been driving since he wrecked the truck. He jumped in the driver’s seat and took it straight to the freeway, had me clinging to the roof rack eating bugs and spitting laughter at sixty miles an hour for however long it took to go from one exit to the next. He and my mother got along like a house afire, despite how fiercely protective she’s always been of me, or maybe because of it. Pretty sure I never saw the need to mention to her that time on top of the Aerostar.
Of course you understand that he could have had me with a word. With a look. But no look and no word ever came and I still don’t understand why. I was out by that time—came out partway through my senior year, not because I had decided to, but because someone asked me a question about a rumor that’d got around and I thought ‘what the hell’ and gave a true answer. Still don’t understand why that, either, but it worked out really well for me. You wouldn’t expect that of a Catholic school, but if it’d been the usual kind of Catholic school I wouldn’t have given a true answer at all. Not long after I came out, the head of the cheerleading squad stopped me in the stairwell and spent a while telling me how brave I’d been, and that she was proud of me. That wasn’t weird at all, either. That was just the kind of place it was.
So it can’t have been that he didn’t know. And we did spend a great deal of time together, as much or more at his instigation as my own—which you also might not expect, unless you remember what it’s like to have a high school crush. Most of the anime we knew about in those days was just Toonami DBZ, on the TV at the bar where we went to shoot pool and play shuffleboard and eat cheese fries after school let out. But years later when I first heard about ‘notice me, senpai,’ I felt it, because I felt it.
Maybe it was just that cherry trees are hard to come by in west Tennessee. Maybe it was that he didn’t see how I felt about him, or maybe it was that he wasn’t interested in me that way. Or maybe it was something else. The only past romance he ever spoke of—most rarely, and something in his mien when he did so strongly discouraged any further inquiry—when he did speak of that love he’d had and lost, he spoke of her. So maybe he saw something in me that I hadn’t yet seen in myself, and would need a couple decades yet from then to even start to figure out.
If so, he’d hardly have been the only one. How many clues do you need?—how many times for something to happen like for a friend to say, unprompted, that they regard you at least as much a woman as a man—before you start to cotton on? In my case, evidently quite a few! So maybe that was it, and he never did figure out what to do about it. Or never did want to do anything about it. But I don’t know if that’s likely, either; it’s been a long time, sure, and nostalgia is a hell of a thing, but I don’t think I am inventing the recollection of something between us that was trying on both sides to be something more than friendship.
He had a copy of Snow Crash, and so did I. I’d read it, several times. He never had. It took me a long time to piece together that this was because he had a very hard time with printed words. It took me a long time because he never talked about it except in the most oblique of ways. He was, I think I eventually understood, deeply ashamed of it, and looking back I think that must belong ultimately to his father. I don’t remember ever seeing them speak to one another, but I remember plenty of times seeing them do the other thing. It was a good book. He’d have enjoyed it as well as I did, I think, if he could have.
I wish I’d thought to offer to read it to him. I don’t know how I’d have thought to say it, or if in that callow year I could’ve done anything by it other than mortify him. Whatever else I was in those days, I was certainly the gods’ own fool, in the way I think only an eighteen-year-old redneck queer ever can be. But maybe, just maybe, if Hermes and Asherah had conspired together to lend their favored idiot a moment in which to speak winged words for the sake of love, I could purely by dint of eumiracle have somehow got it right. Probably not—almost certainly not; with the way I was in those days, it damn well would have needed a miracle, and even a miracle needs a little space in which to be born.
I wish I’d thought to try.