For some reason that I’m not entirely sure I can explain, while surfing from site to site doing research on Scwhinn hybrid bicycles last night, I found myself on the website of the college I attended. It was a bizarre place to land during a search for something completely unrelated. The kind of thing that makes you wonder if your subconscious is taking over while your hands are at the keyboard.
I hadn’t thought about that chapter of my life in years. Although, just a few nights ago, I did dream about a classmate with whom I had a complicated almost relationship. His name was David. We were both eighteen, and were attracted to each other from the start, but pretended we weren’t and spent most of the following year as enemies, before winding up as friends. We kept in touch for a little while, then lost contact. From time to time, I’ve wondered how he was doing. What his life was like. Where he was living.
Also, I’ve wondered what might have happened if we had acted on our mutual attraction. He used to talk all the time about being gay. About wanting to march in a gay pride parade. About wanting to spend the summer on Fire Island. It was a favorite subject of his, but I don’t think he’d ever had sex with another guy. Neither had I.
The primary difference between us was that I would never have said any of those things out loud. For that matter, I would never have said any of those things to myself.
The dream about him was of a moment that actually did happen. He and his roommates had thrown a wild party, the kind where everyone got smashed and passed out. I awoke early the next morning, having fallen asleep on the floor in the living room. David was asleep next to me. Half on, half off the carpet.
I took a few minutes to study him, first checking to see if any of the others were awake. There were people sprawled on the couch, on the floor, and curled up in the armchairs. Nope. All eyes were closed. I was free to gaze at David safely, without fear of being caught.
He was handsome, I’d always thought as much. It was interesting that he fell asleep right next to me. Since I had no memory of falling asleep, he must have been awake longer than I was, and so chose to lie down and close his eyes where he did. Had he been watching me sleep, as I was now watching him?
I wanted to gently wake him and whisper that there was room on the carpet, and since it had gotten chilly during the night, and we were without blankets, he should wrap his arms around me. I wanted to, but did not. If I was afraid of anyone just seeing me gaze at him, imagine how I felt at the thought that everyone would wake up when the sun poked through the windows to find the two of us in an embrace. Instead, I quietly made my way through the apartment to find the bathroom, and then returned to the spot on the carpet next to David, and went back to sleep.
It was odd to return to that moment in a dream. Now, after all this time. While I was on the college website, I looked through the photos of alumni, to see if I could find him. No luck. I signed out and went to bed.
While lying in the dark, wondering about having stumbled onto that site, I remembered another guy I hadn’t thought about in years. A guy who was far better looking than David, and who posed a far greater threat of romance, and who left me with a far more potent source of regret. A regret I carried with me for so long that I had forgotten it was there.
What was his name? I had no idea, even though I used to fantasize about him when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty. If only I’d known how close we came to being lovers. If only I’d appreciated the chance he had given me. My life might have taken a very different course. Was it Roberto? Rocco? Something with an R. Something sexy. When I opened my eyes this morning, I had it: His name was Renato.
The first time I saw him was in the pizza parlor across the street from the school. He was seated at a table with a group of my friends, so I joined them, and took a place in the booth, right next to Renato.
He looked like an underwear model, and was with a guy who also looked like a model. Were they buddies? Boyfriends? There was nothing about either of them to suggest they might be gay, other than the fact they were so good looking, which was a stereotype I’ve often found to be untrue. As I’ve said many times. The best looking guys, contrary to popular belief, are usually straight.
Renato had dark hair, which he wore in a 1980s pompadour. Think Stray Cats. He had dark eyes. A straight nose. A chiseled face. He was wearing a leather jacket, and I was immediately intimidated by him. Just a year earlier, back in high school, this was the kind of guy who would have picked on me. Now I was sitting next to him at a table full of friends, and he had his arm on the back of the booth, almost as if it was around my shoulders. Anyway, I could pretend.
At one point, when someone said something funny, I leaned back while laughing much too loudly. The back of the booth moved a bit and his hand got pinched. He winced, “Ouch!” and jerked his hand away.
I was mortified, and apologized, and thought he’d be angry. Instead, he smiled warmly at me, and said it was okay. I fell for him right then.
He wasn’t in any of my classes, but I do remember him taking a dance class with me one day. It must have been a make up class for one of his that he missed. What a rush of pleasure I got from seeing him in tights. Then another, when he leaned in close and whispered in my ear, “I want to tear her clothes off, with my teeth.”
He was referring to one of the attractive girls wearing spandex, but there was no way not to imagine him doing it to me.
Other than that one time, I only ever saw him in social settings, and then only surrounded by our mutual friends. Until the night a bunch of us were hanging out on the stairs on one of the upper floors of the beautiful old building in Manhattan. The original architecture suggested this was not designed as a school, but may have been a private mansion. Great big windows, thick moldings, impressive sweeping banister on the staircase.
We were having the kind of conversation college kids have. Politics and religion and the meaning of life. Without noticing it, Renato and I got locked into a private discussion, seated next to one another on the same step. We covered a lot of territory in words, and I must have been lost in his eyes, because at some point I looked around and realized everyone else had left. We were alone for the first time.
I got nervous. A guy like this had never given me the time of day. I was never accepted by the popular crowd. The jocks. The tough guys. No one, really, not even the other misfits. In the months since graduation, I went through a physical transformation, as some teenagers do. I blossomed.
The problem with the ugly duckling tale is that after you wake up to find you are a swan, you don’t know how to be a swan.
When I made all these new college friends, some of them would tell me I had pretty eyes, or great hair. I thought they were ridiculing me, which is all I had ever known from other students.
So sitting there, with the very handsome Renato, and hearing him say that the pants I was wearing looked good on me, I was afraid to believe he meant it. My heart was racing at the thought that this beautiful swan might actually be attracted to me.
My skills at courtship were non-existent. As we left the building, I was rattling off a stream of nonsense about how I couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants, so I kept groceries in a suitcase in my room. Which was true, but hardly the thing to discuss at a moment that had the potential to turn romantic. The idea of what could be happening between us was too much to accept, so I guess I had to sabotage it, in the most comic way.
The college did not have a dormitory, but there was a YMCA within walking distance, where a few of us stayed. Renato lived in the city, so he walked with me as far as the subway station. We said goodnight, and I floated the rest of the way back to my suitcase full of groceries.
Then there was the time he came to one of those wild parties, a long train ride deep into New Jersey. He arrived with a guy. Renato usually had a girl on his arm, not surprisingly, so I was keenly interested in observing his manner with this guy. I watched them sharing a joint. Renato flipped it into his mouth, with his tongue. Then he passed the smoke to the other guy, through a French kiss.
That was a remarkably sensual thing to do with another man. Perhaps Renato was gay, after all?
Late at night, as the party was winding down, we took part in a discussion about sex before marriage. There was a female classmate on my side of the debate. She was a very pretty girl who, like me, was a virgin. We were arguing that just because we hadn’t had sex yet, doesn’t mean we can’t imagine what it is like. Renato, it should go without saying, was on the other side of the debate. He cocked his head every time his eyes locked with mine.
I’d fallen asleep on the window seat, and woke to find him standing over me. How long had he been there? Was it still night? How had he woken me? Had he touched me, had he crooned softly in my ear? I wanted this moment to linger, me half dreaming of a handsome prince, him gazing down at me with that exact expression on his face.
It was not night, though. It was morning. Time to catch a train back into the city.
That other male friend of his, the one he was with in the pizza parlor when we met, had dropped out of school. He was heading to his home state. By car. Renato mentioned that he might go with him, which would mean dropping out of school himself. Which he did, even though I’d tried to talk him out of it.
About a week later, I bumped into him on the street. He had a girl on his arm. I was surprised to see him, believing that he had left town. Had the road trip been cancelled? Did he drop out of school for nothing? There was so much I wanted to ask him. He seemed remarkably casual.
“Hey, don’t you ever check your messages?”
“At the Y, where you’re staying. I came by and they said you weren’t in, so I left you a message.”
My heart leapt, but I could hardly make sense of this. He had come to see me? When?
There wasn’t time for much more than that, as he and his girl were walking in the opposite direction from me. We were merely exchanging a quick hello. He put his arm around my shoulder and told me to check my messages.
Well, I must have sprinted to the hotel. Arrived at the front desk, panting.
“Do I have any messages?”
I was a timid kid. Not at all assertive. Speaking to the clerk behind the counter would normally have been a daunting challenge. Not today. I might even have had the courage to ring the little silver bell, had the man not noticed me right away. He reached over to the wall of little mail slots and handed me a small slip of paper. It was the pink copy from one of those “While you were out” form pads.
There was his name, in his handwriting. He had checked the boxes for all the categories.
Please Return Call
Will Call Again
Wanted to See You
He circled “Urgent,” and added a row of exclamation marks. “Wanted To See You” was underlined. Twice. Which was adorable. It may as well have been a love letter on Valentine’s Day.
I read it over and over. The only missing thing, and this was a frustrating missing thing, was his phone number. He had forgotten to give me his phone number. How was I supposed to call him? Then I noticed the time he had been by. Even more frustrating. Painfully frustrating. After a quick calculation, I realized that I had been there!
The YMCA was set up very much like a college dorm. Once you got past the security guard and the front desk clerk, the elevators took you up to your floor. The boys were on one side, with one bathroom for all the rooms. The girls were on the other side, with their own bathroom. (Some of the boys would use the girl’s showers early in the morning, since they had more stalls, and they were cleaner.)
There was one pay phone, in the hallway, by the elevator. The way it worked was simple. Someone’s mom called. Whoever happened to hear the phone ring would answer, then go knock on the person’s door to tell them they had a call. It was the same for visitors. They would be stopped at security, the front desk would ring up to the floor.
Whoever answered the phone when Renato was in the lobby, urgently wanting to see me, did not knock on my door. I was there. In my room. No one told me I had a call. Either that, or the phone went unanswered, and Renato was told I was not in.
I never saw him again. Here was the regret I carried with me for so long that I had forgotten it was there. Along with the pink slip of paper, which I kept in a cigar box, safely stowed in the drawer of my night stand. If he had made it up to my room that night, what might have happened?
It seemed pretty clear he had paid the visit with the intention of making love. We would have sat on the bed together, since there was only a bed and a dresser in the tiny room, listening to music on the radio. He would have had every opportunity to kiss me. It would have been my first kiss, and I have no doubt that I would have said yes to anything he asked.
No matter how resolute I may have been about my religious upbringing, I don’t believe for a moment that I would have stopped him. Not when he was everything I secretly desired. How could I have said no? He was a couple of years older, was incredibly handsome, and sexy, and was well aware of his advantage over me. He would have made his move, and I would have let him.
Here’s how I can be sure of this: When I read that pink slip of paper, I did not feel relieved that I had avoided a potential danger. That I had narrowly escaped having sex with a man. Instead, I was crushed. Devastated. A chance to realize my fantasies of him had slipped through my fingers, and was lost forever.
When I think back on that now, from the perspective of having lived for so long without romance, I cannot believe how close I came to leading a different life. As a different person. I stayed innocent a lot longer than most. It took years before I could entertain the notion of kissing a man. More years before I could imagine having sex with one. An actual boyfriend took longer still.
Physical transformation short lived. On the inside, I went right back to being a misfit. Once an ugly duckling, never a swan.
None of that would have happened, with just one kiss from a handsome prince. The pangs of if only. He would have changed my world. If only I’d had sex with Renato. At eighteen. If only I’d gotten his message.