I’m going through a manic craft attack, and yesterday, looking for more storage for my growing hoard of art supplies, I emptied an old shoebox (for the urban trekking shoes I bought for a trip to Israel I never got to take because: Covid, but never mind), and there were a bunch of old photos I had “lost”, among them three or four old snaps of my bestie for two or three years, from maybe the age of 10 to 12: Chad. He’s the one on the left in the pic up there^. (That’s me on the right.)
Cute kid, right? I think we must’ve met at Christian Camp somewhere in rural Indiana, which I attended in my tweens, at the very dawn of the 1980s, and he was already incredibly fierce. Some people are just so much larger than life from the get-go, and he was like that: force of nature type, even at that age. I think I was probably attracted to his spirit-bling, and he may have been the first to see me in the light of it, and embrace me with the exuberance and love of that light. But it didn’t feel like something that ever happened — I don’t have a story about how we met — whatever it was it just always was.
I’m sure he was the one who first said hi, though. He was very demonstratively affectionate. I wasn’t used to that. I come from a family of broody introverts. You can see in that photo how uncomfortable with even the most basic gesture of public affection I was, and how unworthy I felt, how distrustful of exuberant demonstrative love. I love this picture, taken in front of the camp sign with a bunch of kids in my cohort, where Chad’s look is almost defiant. I’m smiling in that way I’ve learned, that self-effacing reaction to my parents’ frustration whenever they were forced to say “I love you,” something my mother still says like she’s just sucked a lemon. I’ve always felt like the correct response is: “I’m sorry?” And maybe to offer her a palate cleanser. Like: “sorbet?”
But he’s fierce here. This is serious, this gesture, this moment. He is rescuing me.
Now, this photo^^, an ancient proto-selfie probably taken with one of those old disposable box cameras, was taken back at our bunks, and you can see the difference. There’s no shame here, no self-effacement. No one is sucking lemons. We’re sharing in the exuberance and joy. I should say: there was nothing sexual in our relationship. I know that many queer kids have early experiences of sexual play with peers. This was not the case with us. This relationship, though, like all relationships where affection is abundant, free and flowing (rather than a burden and obigation that dimishes and depletes) was as profound an awakening to something I had only had an inkling of (from books mostly) up to then: not just the possibility of love, but it’s true-life existence. So, in a way (a big way) Chad was my first love.
After a couple of years connecting at camp, we drifted apart. As you do in your teenage years, I “put away childish things,” and “grew out of it.” I didn’t think of it as a first love for a long time, because for a long time there was no second or third love to compare it to. Chad was filed away under “childhood friend,” and relegated to vague, and vaguely embarrassing memories of summer camp, along with campfires, smores, cheesy sing-alongs, and moments giggling uncontrollably under the covers back at our bunks to the annoyance of our fellow campmates. Through his high school years Chad remained exuberant and fierce, glorious and chaotic, bright and brilliant for all the world to see, while I tried on disguise after disguise, most as ridiculous as Peter Seller’s Clouseau in the old Pink Panther movies, desperate to come off as something someone could love, utterly forgetting that I already was.
Well, you know by now we’re working up to a tragic ending, right? I googled him and found an obituary from 2013. I don’t know the cause of the death, but where there’s no mention of a freak accident or a valiant fight against cancer, … but I don’t want to make any assumptions. Reading through the tributes, I saw a picture emerging of that beautiful boy who was a lot of very lucky people’s first love.
And I felt Pride.