[Note: I wrote this mostly in 1997. I didn't know then that Lou had died in late 1996. I didn't find out until early 2000. I've decided, as a memorial, as a small gesture of love and respect, tragically too late, to leave this as it was when I wrote it. There's an update below.]
50 years later, the first thing it comes to mind to say about him is that he was beautiful. Though I don't know whether I can characterize the type, exactly, it seems clear that Louis, who was my first real boyfriend (I prefer this word to "lover") was also the first exemplar of my patterns of loving men, of a type of person who met some vague, unarticulated bill of particulars for me. Those qualities applied not only to him, but also to several other love interests in my life.
If in addition I pour into the cauldron several of the great infatuations I've had over the years, I find again and again the same cluster of qualities or types in the potion. One result of several periods of psychotherapy has been to identify and understand patterns associated with my affective connections, in which the aesthetics of the person and of the situation were prominent factors.
With that in mind, Louis's beauty was both a focal point and a turning point for me, when we were 11 (he was four months older).
I have not seen him nor talked to him for 34 years now -- it was at our 10-year high-school reunion -- though I located him late in 1994, thinking I would call him on his 60th birthday. When I last saw him, he was married (and still is, to the same lovely woman, I've learned) and had kids. He was gorgeous then, and I would be surprised if I didn't still think so, though who knows what he would look like now. In part, of course, it was an inner beauty, something about a person that usually doesn't change the way our skins and bodies do.
In the fall of 1947, it was the potential loss of beauty that energized or catalyzed my feelings of attachment to him, which had been there in budding form since the year before. He had an accident one day in gym class. We were playing football (ugh!) and he made a particularly heroic attempt to catch a long pass. High up in the air, he was upended by colliding with another kid and with his whole weight behind him, crashed face-first into the asphalt playground, directly in front of where I was standing. He was badly hurt: scraped up, his nose broken, blood gushing forth. It was a miracle, actually, that he didn't lose all his front teeth or break his neck, for he had fallen with terrific force.
But I'm already ahead of the story. Louis was in my 6th-grade class when I transferred to Franklin School the year before. He was a dark-haired, good-looking boy with an easy, friendly manner and a terrific smile. He had one of those natural athletic bodies I have so often admired from afar. I was completely in awe of him. I pined away terribly that summer between sixth and seventh grade, wanting to be with him all the time, even though we were in fact together quite a bit.
It's very hard to disentangle analytically the various forces at play in the attraction I felt. There was surely a hormonal aspect, sex-energy itself having started to rise in response to puberty. But sex-energy of the same-sex type had by this time already been asserting itself for several years. In light of later experience, lasting down the decades to the present, it seems to me it was primarily an aesthetic response. He was beautiful, somewhat in the way music is beautiful; there was an element of self-transcendence, a blurring of ego-boundaries, something of that sort.
The beauty here was tangible -- touching has always been extremely high on my list of gratifications -- but also intensely visual. Maybe with Louis this aesthetic urge manifested in its purest form, as far as men (boys, at that age) are concerned. I want to look at and to touch the love-object person, more in a sensual way than an sexual way, really. It's contour, surface, mass, strength, movement, litheness, quite a sculptural response, all things taken together.
I'm not sure I know what it was about me that attracted him in return. There was a strong buddy element, certainly, for though he was outwardly relaxed and easy-going, and certainly friendly, he didn't have many friends. I can't account for that, and it's something we never talked about. It may have had something to do with his being an only child. I do know that I wanted him to want me, to want to be with me: I recall feeling joy when he sought me out.
We certainly had many interests in common, however, and one of them was amateur radio. We were handy with such things, and we built simple receivers, went to local electronics junk sales to get likely-looking parts, and put together what we could from them. Although I never got a ham radio license, he did: W9LWR (his initials, though we called it "Let's Wash Rusty, the Dirty Little Puppy Station"). We spent enormous amounts of time in these pursuits.
One day we were at my house, fooling around with radio stuff, and it came time for us to do our (separate) paper-route things. We had been lying across the bed in my room. He stood up to go. Then he said, "But before I go..." and lay right down full-length on top of me and kissed me passionately on the lips. I was completely stunned by this, even though I was head-over-heels in love with him already. The kiss was an utter transport, like a dream come true out of the blue. After that we kissed each other often, because he clearly liked to, and so did I.
I can't convince myself -- at the time I tried to -- that it meant anything like the same thing to him as it did to me. It was nevertheless something, and I had not been the instigator of it. That too would become a theme in several of these great passions.
Though there were sexual overtones in much of what we did together, it never really went beyond occasional touching, as though we were merely curious to hold each other's dicks, rather than gripped by passion or by hormones. We never had more overt sex together, for example masturbation. For all I know he may have been a virgin, though I was already having an ongoing relationship with my sex-buddy Rollie. Lou and I never discussed any of this. Like that first kissing incident, he was the instigator of our sexual touching activity. I was then somewhat passive about such things, because after all I knew it was subject to social ostracism.
In high school we both dated girls, but we always double-dated and nothing much ever happened with the girls other than going to sports events, to the movies, or necking in some lover's lane. I'm not sure about him, but it never went beyond mild petting with our girlfriends, as far as I was concerned. We'd take the girls home, then often go somewhere, not to make out, but just to talk. The girls got rather the short straw in this exchange, I realized years later.
It's odd, I think, that I can't remember now what we talked about on those occasions. It can hardly have been anything very important, because the plain truth was that I was fairly naive about the real world and would remain so until I got to college. We didn't talk about families much, either, since mine was such a mess and though his parents were very nice, they were what I saw as a touch too good to be true. We didn't talk about other people or about politics or about school, that I recall. I guess it was always just about whatever it was we were doing.
We just kind of drifted along, which I was more than glad to do, actually. Then one day we were in math class -- solid geometry, I think -- putting problems on the board, when I made some sort of endearing remark to him. He turned to me with the oddest look on his face -- the scene is still vivid in my memory -- and said, "What's the matter? Are you queer or something?" To this day he's the only person who ever said that to me.
I would not have recoiled more if he'd doused me with a bucket of scalding water! I don't think I said anything at all, but in that split second the entire universe of affection and love crashed down around me. We never discussed it, but the love relationship was over at that instant, utterly demolished. I think it also set up a fear of betrayal that has never completely gone away, though of course it has been overlaid with much additional experience of a very different sort.
Afterwards we were friendly, but we were never again close. I threw myself headlong into music and resolved never to fall in love again. The resolution didn't last, of course, but I think the shock and the apprehension about sudden and complete abandonment did remain, and would be a factor in every subsequent love affair, even when, as did happen in some of them, I was the active agent in ending it.
Now that I'm older, I think of past love affairs partly in terms of the residues of them that have stood the test of time for me. Lou was part of realizing that not liking football and not being any good at baseball did not consign me to being unathletic. I had learned to swim as a very young kid, but for some reason didn't count that. One summer (we were 12, I think) Lou and I took up tennis and for the better part of the next two years were total tennis maniacs. I think we were fairly good. We also played a lot of basketball, which I didn't like as much -- team sports didn't appeal to me -- and I wasn't too bad at that, either. I'm not sure what profound implications might be found in the fact that I loved basketball if it was just the two of us shooting buckets and horsing around.
We both attended the University of Illinois in Urbana, and we saw each other there a few times, but we never had classes together and it seemed to me neither was any longer very comfortable with the other, though it's hard to say whether he might have shared that perception. We went swimming at the gym a few times, and in those days men swam nude. By this time my sexuality was much more fully developed and I felt a stronger strictly sexual attraction to him than I had earlier. A visual image of this sort is hard to put into words, but it comes down to something like: that guy looked really great in his bare body.
The year we were 21, I moved from Urbana to Madison, but he stayed on and eventually got a PhD in Economics. Quite a few years later, long after our high-school reunion, I learned that he was a full professor, presumably in the Economics department, at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I think we had a one-time exchange of letters, then more years went by.
The year we turned 50 I thought I would call him, but he was no longer at the UW-Milwaukee and no one still there knew where he had gone. As I mentioned above, it was another 10 years before I located him again. It seems odd in retrospect that he spent a longish time living only 75 miles from me and neither of us made a move to see the other. When we saw each other at age 28, the high school reunion event, he was entirely friendly, we sat across the table from each other for the banquet phase and talked about work-related things, mostly.
I would love to know how his life has turned out. I know he's still married, or was two years ago, because I did in fact call his house to wish him a happy 60th, but chickened out when Silvin (I'm sure that was her name) answered the phone, and I hung up without saying anything. Their kids would be grown and probably have kids themselves by now. What on earth took them to Nevada, of all places?
Does he ever, like me, recall those times, and if so, what does he think about them? Does he remember our going roller skating a lot, or playing countless games of tennis followed by vanilla milkshakes at a particular store on the way home? Does he recoil from any of these memories, or has he suppressed them? All sorts of questions.
Since I still maintain some flair for the dramatic, I've been thinking I should one day roll up to his house unannounced on my motorcycle and just walk into his life for a brief visit. But to get the benefit, if any, in such a gesture, one has to be prepared for the possibility of a less than warm or enthusiastic welcome, and (so far) I'm unwilling to commit my energies to that.
It's true that "scalding" is the right metaphor for what I experienced that day in geometry class, and that we were never close again. And maybe we couldn't have been.
But it's so painfully obvious now that all through what I wrote earlier and in what I've felt many, many times when thinking of him, that innerly I always wanted that horrible moment to be washed away, to be neutralized, for an unbearable fracture to be made whole again somehow, sometime.
As much as anything, I feel like a complete idiot for never really trying -- in all those years -- to take the initiative by getting in touch with him, at any number of junctures along the way. There's a thousand things to say, and believe me, they're coming to me in a flood, so I scarcely know how to begin. The ironies, the turmoil, the deep regrets, these are like some kind of drowning.
Well, for one thing, a month ago I was at the 50th-year reunion of my high-school graduating class. In my account of the reunion, Lou figures in a central way among the many memories dredged up by being back where I grew up. Not least, it was during the reunion that finally I opened myself up to the grief of his having died and to the realization that some inchoate yearning within me -- the desire to heal up a scarred thing in there -- could no longer involve seeing him or talking to him again. Though the intensity of those times has long been submerged, it's intense enough on a visceral level, for all that.
I sometimes think the greatest of all my character flaws is procrastination. After letting his Milwaukee period and his 50th and 60th birthdays go by without pursuing it -- not to mention that I could have done so on countless non-ceremonial days as well -- I finally, at the time of his 65th birthday, did send a card and a note. One thing the note said comes from the last paragraph of the earlier writing above, that I'd thought of roaring up to his house, unannounced, on my motorcycle.
Some weeks went by, I forget how many. One day the mail brought a card. That the envelope was written in the hand of Lou's wife Silvin gave me an odd shiver of foreboding and I didn't open it right away. When at last I did read Silvin's note, there it was. The bald fact was a heart attack in the night while asleep. Gone, just gone.
I truly cannot imagine what it must have been like for Silvin and their three sons. So many images crowd the mind. I'm more than a little accustomed to friends and lovers dying -- the HIV epidemic has seen to that, 64 names on my list, more grief episodes than anyone really needs -- but the shock of this death was way over the top.
My reunion story talks about the recent release of grief over Lou's passing, pent up these three years and more, ending with "there's much more to the story, of course," and this is some of that "more."
In her note, Silvin told me that Lou would have loved it if I had arrived on my motorcycle, that he had a big Harley and one of his favorite things was roaring around on the mountain roads, that he would surely have wanted to do that together. There, I must admit, my heart simply broke under the weight of missed opportunity. I'm not big on self-pity, which I think is a real bad thing, but nevertheless I keep thinking: how could I have messed this up in such a way, in such a pointedly damning and ironic way?
I know myself to this extent, at least: I would have wanted to talk to him about those years, to scrape away time's overlays and see once again what it was we -- not just I -- felt. In 7th grade, in 8th grade, in 9th and 10th grade, on the steaming tennis courts, holding each other in paper-route hallways, and kissing, oh yes, kissing. I know what I felt and I always wondered what he felt, felt just then, just there, and after?
Perhaps it was the fear of disillusionment, that I might discover he didn't feel much of anything, not on the level of intensity I did. But perhaps he did, after all, and did (or didn't) ever review it in his mind years later.
Did he tell Silvin at any point, perhaps when she and I met? Did he ever tell their sons that when he was a boy, another boy had loved him, they were the best of friends, and perhaps he loved him back or thought he did?
These are things I would have wanted to know.