The Wind at Our Backs
by Rick Leidenfrost
I was hitting the after Christmas sales at Heritage Park Mall near my Dad’s house in Oklahoma, with my niece and nephew in tow, who, like me, were visiting my Dad for the holidays. Jeff and Jami were arguing over a sweater – not whether or not to buy it, but whether or not it was the exact one they had gotten their grandfather the year before. I half listened as I searched the pile, finding only XXL’s or colors and patterns I wasn’t interested in. A thin man of about my height and a few years older walked up and was looking at me.
“Excuse me” he said. “Didn’t you used to be . . . ? Isn’t your name . . . ? Aren’t you . . . Rickey?”
It took only a second to recognize him, though I hadn’t seen him in twelve years. So much can happen in a second. Relationships can begin or end, jobs are accepted, accidents occur, and major decisions entered into which can uproot home and family as you know it. In this one second of my life as I looked at Noah, I forgave him everything: his lies, his choices, his inability to be what I needed him to be: the man of my imagination and dreams who would have the strength, courage, and intelligence to walk his own path at my side.
Beyond simply recognizing him, I realized, completely, before I could smile and say hello, he was profoundly ill. He was no longer the blue-eyed All American who had driven me to distraction during my first year of college. Instead, his emaciated body read like a medical chart, with his prognosis writ large for all the world to see. His hair was no longer the thick sandy blonde; his cheek bones were too pronounced; his face, thin and guant. This was 1992. There was little doubt what his appearance meant.
“Noah” I managed to say, and dropped a sweater back onto the table. This was the face of the first man I’d fallen in love with – the tenor who had gotten me into trouble as I accompanied the chorus, because I was staring blankly toward him when the choir director shouted me back into the room. “Rick! Stop daydreaming and play the alto part already!”
“Mom! ” Noah called to a woman a few racks behind him. His mother walked up. “This is Rick . . . ? Remember . . . Rickey? Rick . . .” Then he turned, embarrassed, toward me and said, “Don’t tell me your last name. I know your last name. It will come to me.“
I smiled and looked at his mother, who smiled back at me. It didn’t come to him. “Wilson” I said.
“Wilson!” he repeated and squeezed my arm in apology. Then, to his mother, “Remember? Back at Oscar Rose? He was that great pianist? When he played, it was just like . . . glass.” His mother showed no recognition, but smiled back at me and said it was nice to meet me, or see me again, whichever it was.
There was no reason for her to remember me. We had only met me once. She had come home from her job at the insurance company and found me in the living room of her house. Noah and I had been driving through her neighborhood when he said he needed to stop by and use her restroom. He had used his key to let us in and headed to the bathroom, leaving me alone, in the living room, which was kind of awkward as his mom came home and our first meeting was with me standing as a complete stranger in her living room. She hadn’t been cold to me, but it was clear, whoever I was, that I was another line item on her growing list of concerns for Noah.
But twelve years later, there we were again, among the half-off sweaters at an after Christmas sale. She looked the perfect Midwestern mother in her buttoned cardigan and glasses, the uniform of the last soldier who would be standing beside him when he would eventually lose his private war. Her eyes, too, looked tired, like they had already seen the carnage of his battles, and her faith in God would not be enough to keep her unharmed in the battles ahead. I would drop by and see her the following Christmas, which would be her first Christmas without him. I would tell her how lucky Noah was to have such a supportive mother. She would be embarrassed by my words. “Love the sinner but not the sin!” she would say, and go to the kitchen to get me another piece of fruitcake.
“Where are you living?” I asked Noah as his Mom made her way to another table.
“I’d love to see you! Can I come see you?” I asked.
He smiled and hugged me. “Clark!” he called to the salesman, whom he apparently knew. “Can I borrow a pen?” He gave me his number. I said goodbye to his mother and promised to call the next morning.
Jeff, Jami, and I left the mall, and I took them bowling and for pizza, as promised. I managed to be a reasonably attentive uncle, settling a dispute over which pizza we should order and agreeing to bowl with them even though my heart wasn’t in it. Still, as I waited my turn to get a few pins down or watch the ball drop off to the gutter, I was distracted by memories of Noah and deeply saddened by his situation.
When I was 18, I graduated high school and, a few weeks later, had my first homosexual experience with a colleague I worked with at a local department store, the same night I was Best Man in my best friend’s wedding. For the next weeks, I’d wanted to kill myself, mired in shame and guilt for finally acting on what I was. I ended up confessing what I’d done to my oldest brother, a minister. He prayed with me, and, for a few weeks, met with me at his house, on Saturday mornings, to pray and read the Bible. Both of us grew frustrated quickly as no miracle arrived from heaven to take my attraction away.
A friend noticed I was not myself, and I ended up confessing to her what I had done. She had sworn herself to secrecy and promised to tell no one. Instead, she called the friend for whom I’d been the Best Man who was now beginning his newly wedded life, a whole state away. He showed up at my house unexpectedly one afternoon, called me onto the front lawn, and asked if there was anything I wanted to tell him. When I said no, he said he knew about what had happened with the colleague from the department store. He had driven from Arkansas to Oklahoma to confront me. My “experience” had defiled his wedding night. Rather than it having happened quite randomly, as it had, he felt as though I had chosen that night deliberately – the same night as his wedding — and that I had, at least in my head, had sex with him, rather than the guy from the department store. He wasn’t entirely incorrect. He was a year older and we had spent much of high school together. He talked to me about girl problems; I fabricated girl problems to talk with him about. We did doughnuts in the snow of empty parking lots in his Mustang; we stayed over at each other’s houses; we wrestled together and sat next to each other in church. After the confrontation on the lawn, we would try to stay in touch for several years, but it was a conversation we’d never quite recover from.
After that, I privately sought out reparative therapy at Oklahoma Christian Counseling Center. Nobody forced me to go. Nobody made me. Nobody even knew. Like my brother and my best friend, the psychologist prayed with me – that I’d be free of the lies of thinking I was homosexual. This man listened to my life history, my feelings of always having felt different from my brothers, and my shame at having awakened in adolescence to being attracted to other males. Each session would end with him praying earnestly beside me that I would be set free. He would smile at the end of each prayer and give me new Bible verses to focus on when the attraction arose.
Every Friday morning, I would sneak off to Oklahoma Christian Counseling Center. I was attending Oscar Rose Junior College and living at home, having decided, right after graduation, not to go on a piano scholarship to Ouachita Baptist University as planned. Instead, I decided to stay at home, not being ready yet to leave my younger brother. Our mother had died not three years earlier, and I wanted another year with him before leaving home. I would go, instead, to Oscar Rose, and, in time, figure out what to do beyond that. Within weeks of making that decision, Oscar Rose called me and offered me a job as an accompanist through their work/study program.
As the semester ended and Christmas approached, I told my therapist there would be too many family members coming and going for me to be able to come to therapy unnoticed. I told him I would start back again in as the spring semester started, after getting into the routine of my new classes and my accompanying schedule.
In January, as the semester started, there, in the tenor section of the chorus, was Noah. After the first rehearsal, I stammered a hello. I had no idea if he was gay, though I completely hoped he was. All I knew was that I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and there weren’t enough verses from Genesis to Revelations to keep me from doing so. I stared at him, every chance I got, and spent a good deal of my focus trying not to stare. I tried, simply, to be casual with him. I had no skills for making a new friend, let alone for knocking at the door of a forbidden world. But I came up with an innocent and foolproof plan: I invited him to church. Church was my world, where I was a pianist for three services a week. It was stupid, perhaps, to invite him there, but, even more stupid, he came. And started attending regularly. And so it was, amid the chorus of an Oklahoma junior college and the sanctuary of a Southern Baptist church, it all went down between Noah and me.
My plan worked brilliantly. Noah started coming to church, then, after a week or so, he invited me over for dinner on a Saturday night. I was excited when I got there because he had a close friend over – an unmistakenly gay friend, who was over weight, stylish, and wore eye make up. Noah was trying to signal to me that he, himself, was gay, and he was doing so by inviting me into his home. Noah was five years older than me. He already had a nursing degree and was working as nurse, but he had chosen, recently, to go back to school for a music degree.
His house was a two-bedroom ranch on a typical street in Midwest City. Inside, though, it was far from typical. It was immaculately kept, decorated in neutral colors with beautiful lighting, and it had a fresh clean smell about it. While Noah grilled our steaks outside, his friend gave me a short tour of the two-bedroom house. He explained that Noah’s roommate, Jack, was on business for six weeks in Dallas. Jack’s room had a double bed, and Noah’s was a day bed in the smaller of the two bedrooms. It was exciting and terrifying to be brought into this world of track lighting, cocktails, and miniblinds.
A few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Noah was supposed to be coming to church with me again He called, shortly before I was leaving for the service, and said, casually, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know. It’s supposed to snow tonight. I was just thinking . . . you know? It might be easier if you stay over. I mean, I live closer to school. You know? If you want.”
I stopped moving. I casually tried to say “Sure. That’s a great idea.” I hung up and looked at myself in the mirror of my dresser. I grabbed a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a toothbrush, rolling them up and not even bothering to put them in a bag.
After the service, I couldn’t wait to get back to Noah’s house. As I sat on the sofa, I had little patience for chit chat. He asked if I wanted something to drink. I said water. He got some for me. I drank it, then said something like, “Boy, am I tired.” And so we headed to bed. There was no question, no discussion, as we brushed our teeth, but that we would be sleeping together in Jack’s bed. We silently agreed on that logic.
As we lay in the dark, with the shadows of the miniblinds on the walls, I rambled on for what seemed to be hours, excited to be in the same bed with him, but not knowing, at all, how to initiate anything physical. It crossed my mind that, perhaps, I wasn’t even reading the situation correctly. Finally, I led the conversation to talking about my own perceptions about people. I told him I was really good at understanding people – who they are, what they’re about.”
“I agree,” he said. “You are.”
“Like you, for example,” I said, my heart pounding.
“Yeah. I can tell a lot about a person. Like you, for example . . . “ I trailed off, staring at the ceiling, feeling his heat only a few inches from my side.
“Oh. You know.”
“What do I know?”
“Come on. You know what you know.”
“But how do you know you’re right?”
“I just do.”
“You might be wrong.”
“But I’m not. I haven’t known you that long, but I know you.”
Before I could offer a further incoherent explanation, he turned toward me and said, “Oh you do, do you?” and turned over, moved his torso onto mine, and began kissing me.
And so it happened.
I felt none of the shame I’d felt after that first experience after my friend’s wedding. Instead, I felt loved, and I loved what he made me feel: proud that I was daring to be in this bed with him; grateful that I had won the affections of this talented, beautiful tenor; fortunate that this good looking, ambitious young nurse, so focused in his life, already, was returning my affection for him in spades. We slept little that night, but I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect or safer space than that first night we had together.
A couple of days later, as we were driving down the streets of Midwest City in his Camaro, I was in mid-sentence when Noah simply reached over, placed his hand on mine, and held it. And I completely lost my sentence. My thought, my language, everything was gone for me in that moment and was replaced by something I had not seen coming. In the privacy of my own thoughts, I had allowed myself numerous sexual thoughts since I had realized my young desires in seventh grade. I had several girlfriends during my high school, each with whom I’d held her hand. Never before, though, had I known how much I, myself, needed my hand to be held.
Noah explained to me, over the next few days, that he and Jack “used to be together.” They had broken up, though, because Noah was no longer wanting to be gay. He wanted, instead, to get back to church, to make his life “right with God.” So Noah had broken up with Jack, even though they were still living together. He hadn’t expected to meet me.
A couple of weeks later, in early February, the strangest thing happened. Sometimes, when Oklahoma is not the “Oklahoma where tornadoes come sweeping down the plains,” it can have some of the most beautiful weather imaginable: blue skies and massive, white cumulous clouds, all framed by a landscape which seemingly stretches forever, where the land and the horizon meet the sky. And sometimes, in Oklahoma, you get a day or series of days which belong to a different season altogether. This day was one of those days: 84 degrees and brilliantly sunny, smack in the dead of winter. We did not know that a blizzard would hit, three days later, and snow would remain on the ground until late March, even beyond the official start of spring. But on this wonderful, sunny, February Friday, after our morning classes ended and I had no classes to accompany that afternoon, Noah gripped the steering wheel of his Camaro and turned to me, as if having the most brilliant epiphany of his life.
“We should go for a bike ride!” he shouted. Mesmerized by his charm, I told him there was only one problem. I didn’t have a bike. “I’ve got bikes!” he countered, already accelerating to get us back to his house faster.
Noah loaned me a pair of cut off jean shorts and tank top, and, thirty minutes later, we were mounted on bikes and headed devil-may-care into wherever our feet would peddle. No plan, no destination in mind. We simply aimed our bikes north on Midwest Boulevard, and, within minutes, left cookie cutter houses, Kmart, and WhataBurger behind us. Although I had grown up in the suburbs of Oklahoma, I had never ridden a bike in the country before. And it was incredible. The sun on our faces, beautiful farms whizzing by, even the faint smell of manure on the wind were all that was necessary on that day of freak weather in February. The sound of the bike wheels whirred along and were gently amplified off the blacktop, beyond the barbed wire fences, into the passing pastures. The only other sounds were our voices and laughter occasionally rippling across the landscape. We were college boys owning the world, in that way college boys think they can and frequently do.
In under forty-five minutes, we suddenly realized we were over twenty miles north of Midwest City, so we decided to turn back. As we did, we realized something we had failed to notice. There had been an imperceptible and powerful tailwind driving us, propelling us into the country, miles away from Midwest City. As we faced our bikes into the wind, we could barely balance them, let alone pedal. Determined as we were, we tried, and our leg muscles strained and burned with each downward thrust. The wind increased, and our eyes squinted against it. We had spoken so easily as we had laughed at the cows and horses on the way out of town, but now we struggled even to hear each other. Where it had taken us under an hour to get out of town, it took us over an hour to travel back even one mile. We collapsed, exhausted, near a mailbox at the end of a long gravel driveway leading to a farm house. Panting, we considered our options. It was mid-afternoon. At this rate, it would take us another 19 hours to get back to Noah’s. Our only hope was to call someone, but who? I hadn’t told my Dad anything about my new friend Noah. He wouldn’t be off work for another hour or so, and it would seem odd to him that I’d jumped on a bike and headed into the country with a guy I barely knew. Finally, my grandfather seemed the logical choice. He had a pick up, he was retired, and he was usually home in the afternoons. Noah and I walked our bikes along the graveled driveway to the farmhouse. We knocked and asked to use the phone. I agreed to call “collect” having not even realized we were that far outside the local area code of Oklahoma City.
My grandmother answered. I had been afraid she would think what I had done was reckless, foolhardy, and dangerous. Instead, when I told her we were twenty miles outside of town and couldn’t get back because of the wind, she laughed as if she might never stop. I held the phone away from my ear and said to Noah, “The sound of a worried grandmother.”
My grandfather picked us up about an hour later. We put the bikes in the back of his truck, and he drove us back to Noah’s. I sometimes wonder what my grandfather thought, that day. I suspect he knew what was what, as he picked us up. He suggested that I come back with him to his and Granny’s – to come visit for a while. It registered for me that he hadn’t offered that Noah could come. I thanked him for picking me up, but, instead, I said Noah and I had plans. That night, we went and saw Melissa Sue Anderson from Little House on the Prairie in a slasher film called My Bloody Valentine. We screamed, laughed, and spilled popcorn as we watched Mary Ingalls be a teenage serial killer.
The morning after I’d bumped into Noah at the mall, I stepped over Jeff and Jami who were lying on the floor in front of the television, eating Fruit Loops. Holding the small piece of paper with Noah’s number, I headed to the phone in the kitchen and dialed him. The phone rang once, as if Noah were waiting for the call.
“Hello?” he said.
“Rick,” he said, almost with a sigh.
“Good morning!” I replied.
“You sound like you just got up”
“I just woke up. What time is it?”
“Listen. There’s something I need to say . . . “
“Okay,” I replied, already sensing something odd in his tone. I glanced at Jeff and Jami, who were mesmerized by George of the Jungle.
“It made me really sad to see you yesterday” Noah continued.
“Oh. I’m sorry” I replied.
“And I know it’s disappointing, but I don’t think I should see you.”
“The thing is, my doctors don’t want me doing anything that upsets me, and I was really sad and upset after seeing you yesterday.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s just — . You were just so wonderful to me back then. And I was horrible to you.”
“No you weren’t,” I said, trying to erase the truth of the past.
“You know I was. It’s all I could think about yesterday. I didn’t sleep well either.”
“I just can’t risk going back to the hospital, you see?”
“No. Of course not.”
“If I go back . . . “ He didn’t finish.
“I know. I get it. Truly, I do.”
“I knew you’d understand.”
“But, listen. I go to Boston every summer. To see Jack. Remember Jack?”
“Sure. I remember Jack.” So he was still in touch with Jack.
“And I’ll make him drive me to New York City to see you. Which he will do. Because I’ll make him.”
“Ah,” I managed to say. “That sounds . . . great!”
“I’ll be in touch, okay?”
“And I’ll see you this summer.” I couldn’t respond. “Okay?” he repeated.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Now give me your address in New York, so I can write you.”
I gave him the address, said goodbye, and hung up the phone. I walked over to a cabinet, opened it, looking for coffee filters. I found them, put them on the counter, then looked back at the phone. Having lost my mother at fifteen, I had learned, very early, never to accept promises from the dying. I walked back to the paper with his phone number on it and dialed the number again. This time, his mother answered, but I had the clear feeling Noah was in the room.
“Oh, hi,” I said. “Mrs. Spiva?”
“This is Noah’s friend, Rick. Rickey? The one you saw yesterday?”
“Yes, Rick. What can I do for you?”
“Oh. May I speak to Noah, please?”
“Oh. Uh . . . Noah’s not here . . . right now, Rick.”
“He’s . . . not there?”
“No. He’s . . . gone out.”
“Are you sure? I was just talking to him a couple of minutes ago.”
“Oh? Let me see. Can you hang on for just a moment?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
She covered the phone, and I could vaguely hear her whispering and Noah responding. After a moment, she got back on the line. “Rick?” she said.
“I’m so sorry! He’s in the bathroom. I thought he had gone out, but he was in the bathroom. Is in the bathroom.”
“Would you like to leave a message?”
“I’ll be glad to give it him. When he gets out.”
“A message . . .Yes. Thank you. Tell him for me, please, that I thought of one other thing I need to tell him. Just one other thing”
“Just one other thing you need to tell him?”
“And it’s really important?”
“Actually, you know what I’ll do?”
“Just tell him, I’ll call back in a few minutes.”
“When he’s out of the bathroom.”
Noah took the phone from her and got back on the line. “Rick?” he said.
“Okay, listen. I listened to you. Now I need you to listen to me.”
“Rick, I’m not supposed to get upset.”
“I know that. So here’s the deal. Noah, I don’t want you to be sad whenever you remember me.”
“You told me, while ago, you were sad and upset after seeing me. But I need to tell you .. . Don’t be, Noah. There’s no reason for it. What’s past is past. And there is nothing for either of us to be sad or upset about any more. Nothing. Do you hear me? I’m not saying this to upset you. But I can’t have you remembering me like that.”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “It means so much that you called back to say that.”
“And I know you didn’t sleep well, last night, but if you’re up for lunch, I’d love to just spend a little time with you.”
“I don’t know.”
“We’ll agree to stay away from all potentially upsetting topics. Just two old friends, enjoying each other’s company.”
There was a pause, then a bit of a sigh on his end of the phone. “Fine. Pick me up in half an hour.”
“Half an hour?”
“We’ll go for a walk around the mall, then have lunch somewhere.”
“Okay. Of course.”
“Just kidding. My treat!”
“I don’t mind paying — .”
“I was joking. Of course I’m paying! Don’t get me upset! My doctors tell me I have to be really careful not to get upset! Because if I get upset – “
“Oh, for God’s sake!”
“Pick me up in half an hour. “
“And don’t be late!”
“Oh, my God!”
“I have to go now.”
“Yeah, you do that!”
“I’ll see you in a bit.”
I drove to his mom’s house, where Noah was waiting at the door. I waved to his mom and opened the car door for him. As we got in the car, he looked at my coat and said, “Wow, what is that?”
“What is what?” I replied.
“I noticed it yesterday,” he said, pointing at my coat, a discount Army officer’s special from a church thrift store north of New York City. “Can’t you afford a decent coat?”
“Hey. I like it.”
“If you say so.”
I let the moment pass, not wanting to upset him over something so trivial as a coat. I drove to Heritage Park Mall, intentionally keeping the conversation light. When we got to the mall, we slowly walked its full length, circling through the jewelry department of one store, the fragrance counter of another. Noah wanted to know how things had gone for me after I left Oklahoma and moved to Seattle to study with a conductor at Seattle Opera. He was surprised and intrigued by the two years I had gone to school in London. A lot of people at the mall seemed to know him by name, saying good morning to him and asking how he was – the woman at the jewelry counter, a security guard, the guy at the sunglass hut — and I realized his walking there was a daily ritual. I was enjoying the stroll and felt so good to be with him when he got snarky about my coat again. “Is it even warm?” he asked. “It hardly looks like it could be warm.” Again, I let the comment go and intentionally kept the conversation up and light.
We ended up in a restaurant. Finally, face to face, I could see how happy he was to be out with me. The walk had helped. It had given him energy. I looked up from my menu and found him staring at me.
“What?” I said, almost giggling.
His eyes gleamed. “Remember the nickel?” he asked.
I laughed. Oh, yes. I remembered the nickel. I most certainly remembered the nickel. I was surprised he brought it up because I would have placed it on the top of the list of things that could upset him. But now, it seemed, he was ready to laugh about it.
A week after the bike ride we had taken, Noah “broke up” with me, because Jack was coming back from Dallas. He seemed genuinely conflicted but said it was the right thing to do. He emphasized, again, that he had broken up with Jack because he wanted to get back to church and stop being gay. Being with me, instead, wasn’t fair to Jack, he said. Or to me, he said. He said it was wrong of him to pull me into “the lifestyle” and suggested, instead, that we both fight against it. He assured me he wanted nothing else to change, and that he wanted us to stay friends in every way. I was devastated and didn’t believe him, but I was surprised at how sincere he was in keeping to what he said. We still saw each other, almost every day. He still waited for me after classes. He still came to church with me. We talked, hung out, went for lunch together, and he’d call me during his down moments at work so we could chat about whatever had happened since lunch. The physical aspect of our relationship had changed, but nothing else had.
A month passed, the snow began to melt, and, as we headed into the first weekend of spring break, we realized that neither of us had made any significant plans for the break. After church that Sunday morning, both of us grew even more disappointed in ourselves because our church college and youth groups were going to Six Flags Over Texas, as well as some other adventures, including ice skating at the newly opened Galleria Mall. Neither of us had booked spots on the bus or otherwise made arrangements to go. Suddenly, though, Noah realized we could drive ourselves there. Dallas/Ft. Worth was only four hours from Oklahoma City. We could buy our own tickets for Six Flags. We could be independent and join up with the group when we felt like it. I was thrilled at the thought of going to Ft. Worth, because my favorite aunt and cousin lived there. I even suggested to Noah that we could probably stay with them, and Noah said it sounded like fun.
Auntie was thrilled we were coming, and she made us a wonderful spaghetti dinner. I had always been close with her, but she had become a watchful second mother to me, after Mom died. Auntie loved Noah, and we laughed all throughout dinner. She was happy to see me laughing with a friend like Noah. I realized, years later, that she intentionally gave Noah and me the choice of sharing a bedroom, or one of us could sleep on the sofa. “Whichever” she said, casually, while putting the leftover salad into Tupperware. Every gay kid needs that aunt.
As we headed to bed in the guest room, Noah turned off the lights and got in bed with me. This time, there was no talking. We simply picked up where we had left off. There was no talk about what it meant. Both of us were so happy during those few days in Dallas/Ft. Worth. It was a great spring break, and, the next week, we were back to our routine of grabbing physical moments during breaks at school. But, now, Noah didn’t want Jack to find out, so I came to know Jack’s routine really well – when he’d leave for work, when he’d return home. Jack seemed to accept me without question as simply another friend of Noah’s. I even started arriving at their house in the morning, ten minutes after Jack had gone to work.
Then, one Saturday night in April, Noah and I had gone to see my younger brother as Baby John in West Side Story. It was a great production – stirring in its story, beautifully sung, amazingly danced – passionate Oklahoma high school kids pretending to be the gangs of New York. When we got back to my Dad’s house, we realized the movie of West Side Story was also on tv, so we lay in front of the television watching it again. It was one of the most comfortable moments Noah and I ever had in my house. My brother was at his cast party and my Dad was at his girlfriend’s for the evening. Noah and I were free to lie side by side on the carpet, his arm around me, watching, for a second time that evening, as two New York gangs once again kept Tony and Maria apart. It was the safest I’d ever felt with Noah. With his arm around me, I knew I could take any pain the future dished out, as long as Noah was at my side.
My phone rang in my room at the back of the house, and I went to answer it. It was Jack, asking if Noah was there. I hadn’t realized Jack had my number, but, apparently, he did. I said yes. Then, as an afterthought, I asked if anything was wrong. He said no. He just needed to ask Noah about something. I went and told Noah Jack was on the phone. He got up and went down the hall to my room as I continued watching West Side Story. About fifteen minutes later, I realized Noah had been gone for quite a while. I went down to check on him and found him with his face in his hands. I sat down beside him and tried to get him to tell me what was wrong. He could barely talk.
“I need you to know,” he finally said. “No matter what. I will always love you.”
There was a tone in his voice I’d never heard, something in the way he said those words that made me know, this time, we were done. I asked what had happened. He started an explanation that made no sense – something about how Jack had found some porn of Noah’s, which was proving to him that Noah wasn’t really trying to give up being gay. I said that didn’t make sense. Again, he said, “I need you to know.” Then he got up and left. I didn’t follow. I didn’t go screaming after him. The screams would come later, though I didn’t know it at the time. Instead, I sat on my bed as his car started and backed out of the driveway, the headlights flickering for a moment on the walls of my room as he drove away.
He said he would call the next day, but he didn’t. He wasn’t at church for either service. He also missed chorus that Monday morning. Monday afternoon, though, he called – saying, again, that we couldn’t be physical any longer, and that he was trying, again, to give up “the lifestyle.” Something had changed in him, though, or maybe it had changed in me, but I no longer believed him. I told him, instead, he should just be honest with me. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I said he should tell me he and Jack were back together.
Noah became indignant and angry, insisting that we couldn’t have a friendship if I didn’t believe him, insisting that I was crazy to think he and Jack were back together. He even said Jack was hoping we could all be friends. The fullness of that insult came when Jack called me, out of the blue, the following week. Jack, himself, was inviting me for dinner – just the three of us. Dinner and drinks at their house, first, then we’d go see Swan Lake at Oklahoma City Ballet. I was enraged, feeling violated that Noah had allowed Jack to call me, entering, uninvited, into the privacy of my room. I was listening to Jack on the same phone Noah held when Jack called him and said whatever it was that ended with Noah getting in his car and driving away. I was about to come clean and tell Jack everything. But then I noticed a nickel on my dresser. I picked it up, turning it with my finger and thumb as I answered questions for like what I liked to eat and if I’d ever gone to the ballet before. I told him I’d love to come to dinner.
And so I did. That Saturday, we had dinner, the three of us, at Noah and Jack’s. Jack asked what I’d like to drink and I said a martini. Noah looked shocked and a little worried. I’d never had a martini, but somehow it seemed the right drink to go with my plan. And the night went exactly as I had planned. A few hours later, at the ballet, I was more than satisfied with myself as Jack sat between Noah and me. I smirked but managed not to laugh because there weren’t really enough dancers to do Swan Lake justice. They kept having to exit one side of the stage, then run around and come grande jetteing from the other side again, making it look like there more swans on the Oklahoma Ballet lake than there really were.
Early the following Tuesday morning, I borrowed a car from one of my brothers, a car which neither Noah nor Jack would recognize. I parked it about half a block from their house. and waited until minutes before I knew Jack would be leaving. I had arrived at this time, many times after Jack had left, but this was my first time arriving before, and my timing had to be perfect. I got out of the car, so nervous I locked the keys in the car. Still, I walked to the house and waited just out of view, around the corner of the garage, waiting for Jack to open the door. When it opened, I stepped onto the porch and walked to the door. I smiled and said good morning to Jack, then stepped past him, into the house, through the door which he, now in shock, had just held open for me. He asked if anything was wrong. I said no. I just needed to talk to Noah. I walked toward Jack’s bedroom, their bedroom.
“Noah! Rick’s here!” Jack called as I walked down the hall. He followed quickly behind me, down the hall, stammering and inventing a lame explanation. “He slept in my bed last night, and I slept in his. My allergies were bothering me and the window doesn’t open in my room. But his does. So that’s why.”
We arrived at the bedroom, where I simply walked in and sat down on the bed as Noah was turning over, trying to figure out what was going on. “Hey” I said.
Jack continued, but now to Noah, “I was just telling Rick. Thanks for letting me sleep in your room last night. Sleeping with the window open really worked, but now I feel like I’m getting a cold. I should probably take something for it. But – anyway. I should go.” He stood there, for a moment, and none of us said anything. Then, finally, Jack broke the silence. “I guess I better.”
“Thanks, Jack,” I said. “Feel better.”
He stood a moment longer, then turned and left. I waited to hear his car start and pull away before saying anything.
“Anything you want to tell me? I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he replied, wiping his eyes in a poor performance of waking up.
“You sure about that?”
“Wait. Why are you here?” he asked.
“Just – be honest.”
He sat up, indignant. “Are you kidding me? You still think — ? You really have to stop this.”
“So you did not sleep with Jack in this bed last night?”
“You heard! He slept in there.”
“Yes, because of his allergies.”
“Geeze, you don’t know how this makes you look when you keep doing this.”
“No. I don’t care any more how it makes me look!”
“So you’re not?”
“And you never have been?”
He sat up, and touched me on the shoulder, as if comforting a distressed child. “No,” he said. “Why won’t you believe me?”
“I feel so fucking stupid!” I shouted.
“Don’t!” he said. “It’s okay.” And he stroked my hair. And I let him.
“I’ve done something really bad,” I said. He stopped stroking.
“God I feel so humiliated!”
“What?” he asked, not without alarm in his voice.
“What a fool I’ve made of myself! Because when I was here the other night, you know, for dinner? I was so certain the two of you were sleeping together again that I did something horrible.”
“God, I regret it already! You know what I did?” I asked, pointing toward the other bedroom. “I put a fucking nickel up under the comforter in that bedroom, between the sheet and the comforter. And you know what? Because you slept there on Saturday night, and Sunday night, and Jack slept in there, last night, you know? Because of his allergies? I am going to walk into that room and pull back the comforter, and that nickel is gonna be staring me in the face. In the exact same place I left it. Imagine how humiliated I’m going to feel! Because if anyone has slept in that damned room since Saturday, that nickel will have been kicked off the bed. It will have fallen on the floor, and you will have simply picked it up when you found it, thinking nothing of it. But it will not be under that comforter. Will it?” My voice started to shake. “Because you slept in there? On Saturday night? And on Sunday night? And Jack . . . “
I shook my head, controlling my breaking voice.
There was silence for a second, then he screamed, “You had no fucking right!”
“Maybe not, but I don’t care,” I replied. I stood, walked to the closet, and opened it.
“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted.
“I need a hanger.”
“I need to break into my brother’s car.”
I smiled across the table at him. “Are you kidding? Of course I remember the nickel!“
“I was so mad at you,” he said, smiling.
“I didn’t expect you to be happy about it. Can I ask you something?”
“Ask away” he replied.
I looked at him, then opened the menu again. “Never mind. Not important.”
“What did you want to ask?
“I just . . . never understood what was motivating you back then . . . what was true and what wasn’t . . . why you did what you did.”
He thought for a long moment, as if searching through the files of memory, trying to find the folder of our history. Then he looked at me and smiled. “I still don’t understand” he said.
“Fair enough” I replied, and went back to my menu.
“Remember. It’s my treat!”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Now don’t upset me! I’m paying and that’s that! Because if I get upset — “
“Oh, for God’s sakes! I’ll order everything on the menu if it’ll make you happy!”
“I don’t need to be that happy!”
He looked up and down the inside of the menu, and I remembered how handsome he had been. “What are you getting?” he asked.
“Dunno yet. Burger?” I replied. “Yeah. Probably a burger.”
I still don’t understand would be the closest I’d get to an apology for what had passed between us. We would never talk of how things got worse after the nickel. In John, chapter 8, it says “For you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I wanted the nickel to make me free. Instead, it exposed how trapped I was. I wanted to be free of him, but he was now enmeshed in both major areas of my life – at church and in my music world. In February, when things had been at their best between us, I had arranged for Noah to go with me to an opera camp where I would be working again as an accompanist for most of the summer. But as the summer approached, I begged him not to go. I was terrified that, when he was away from Jack, we would once again fall back in with each other. I was terrified, more, that I would try to engineer it. Regardless, he refused my request not to go. The day we arrived at the camp, I learned there was something worse than falling back in with him or feeling his rejection that he was honoring his love for and commitment to Jack over me. Instead, he physically hooked up with a baritone named John, and they remained sexually involved for the rest of the summer. What’s more, a few nights later, they each hooked up with two sopranos at the camp and had sex with them throughout the summer, also.
Noah’s and John’s bunks were less than 15 feet from mine in a large, rustic loft at the top of an old barn. I became painfully aware of Noah and John’s whereabouts at all times. They and their girlfriends would go on outings together, then, unbeknownst to the girls, Noah and John would go off on their own, after making out with the girls for a while. And all that summer, the four of them were swimming in lakes and meeting in twosomes and foursomes. I lost my appetite and my ability to sleep. I lost weight and my sharpness as an accompanist. The summer started with me furious at Noah. It transitioned into the greyest of depressions.
One night, I was awakened by a spectacular thunderstorm. My own bed was on a porch off the main loft, with three sides of windows all around me. Lightning was cracking everywhere, and I could see it striking trees near me in the woods. My first thought was that I needed to get away. My second was that I should stay and let it kill me. If I were simply incinerated by a freak accident of nature, surely even God couldn’t consider it suicide. It didn’t happen though. With each passing day of summer, I felt less and less, and seemed to be disappearing. I had little reaction left in me when Jack arrived with three of his and Noah’s gay friends, as a surprise for Noah, for the final five days of the season. John made himself scarce, but Noah introduced Jack and the gay friends to Belinda, who seemed not to notice they were gay, and Jack and the gay friends seemed not to notice that Belinda and Noah had been sleeping together all summer.
After our lunch, when Noah and I got back to his mother’s house, he asked me in. He took my coat and told his mother we were going to hang out in his room. As we walked into his bedroom, my eyes immediately went to a collection of framed photos, carefully arranged on a bureau. One photo in particular caught my attention, but Noah didn’t notice as I looked. He said he remembered something he needed to tell his mom and left the room. I stepped toward the photos on the bureau. I had forgiven him so much, but, there, among the most loved people in his life, was Belinda, the girl he had sex with all that summer. I’d forgiven him for having loved other men besides me, but it had not crossed my mind that the relationship with Belinda from that summer, twelve years earlier, would be among the primary friendships he’d hold dear.
Noah came back in the room. I casually asked about her, and he said they were still good friends. They were in constant touch and had visited each other frequently through the years. He said he was tired and needed to lie down for a while. I said I should go, but he said I should stay a bit longer, if I didn’t mind him shutting his eyes for a bit. I said of course not. I’d be more than happy to stay.
He lay on his bed and closed his eyes. I sat in a chair, staring at the photos on the bureau. I studied his walls, his room, and, finally, him. With his eyes closed, I was free to see how horribly far he had declined. He seemed thirty pounds lighter and thirty years older. I looked at the bones of his hands, and remembered his prior hands so vividly. His feet, his hair, his skin, his voice, his laugh, his touch. I wondered what unseen wounds were lurking below his shirt and jeans. I could not see, nor did I want to see.
One of us would survive this epidemic; one would not. I would start my career as a teacher in September. He would die in October. We would trade letters, many times, from January to September, but I would learn of his death through his mother. She wrote me a short note, just before Thanksgiving, because she “knew [I] would want to know.” She was right, of course. I did.
As I looked around his room once last time, I realized I would have no one with whom I could share my grief when he passed, no one to whom I could say, This is what he was to me. And what was he, really? There are no words in our language to define what one young, confused man is to another young, confused man, especially when all of society and culture conspire to keep them apart. His boyfriend, his friend? No word can define what I unwittingly became as Noah cheated on his commitment with Jack and he turned, instead, (or in addition?), to me. No words can describe the darkness I had succumbed to when I confronted him, late one night of that summer, and we came to blows on a moon lit, two-lane highway, a quarter mile from the opera camp. I looked again at Belinda’s picture. How did she see or define me – then, or was I even significant enough in her world to need to define me now? And what was she? To him, to herself, or to me?
I stood and walked over to the bed. I wanted to get in it with him, to hold him one last time. He might allow it; he might not. I might regret it; an act so intimate might be the wrong thing.
“Hey” I said instead.
He opened his eyes. “Hey” he replied.
I told him not to get up but said I needed to go. As is frequently the case when someone dies over time, heaven was already in the room. Part of his soul had already left, though the rest would have to suffer another ten months. He insisted on walking me to the front door. I told him not to, but he insisted. As we got to the living room, we thanked each other for such a wonderful day. We promised to write; we promised to stay in touch.
He hugged me and said “Get home safe.”
It was awkward to remind him, but, finally, I had to say, “I just need my coat.”
He smiled and looked at me softly. “What coat?” he replied.
“What do you mean, what coat? My coat.”
“I don’t remember you having a coat.”
“The one you’ve been bashing all day!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Mom! Rick can’t find his coat! Have you seen a really ugly Army coat lying around?”
“Now just a second!”
From the kitchen, his mom called, in words that were completely unbelievable. “Coat? What kind of coat?”
“Army coat!” Noah shouted. “Kind of a putrid green color!”
“Is he sure he was wearing it when he got here?”
“Are you sure you were wearing it when you got here?” Noah echoed.
“Noah!” I laughed. “I want my coat!”
“Well, we don’t even know if your coat ever existed! So, I guess — .”
His mom entered in the kitchen doorway. She was holding a beautiful, thick, blue, goose down-filled coat, hooded and three-quarter length.
Noah repeated and finished the sentence he’d started. “So, I guess — you’re just going to have to take this one!”
“Please, take it. You’ll need it. I’ve worn it maybe twice.” His mother handed him the coat and went back to the kitchen.
“I can’t take your coat, Noah!”
“You will take this coat or I’m going to get upset.”
“I’m not saying you should get upset.”
“And it’s not good for me to get upset! Because if I get upset – “
“Oh, my God! Do people really let you get away with that?”
Noah’s mother shouted from the kitchen, “You’d be amazed what it gets him!”
It was snowing as I made my way down the sidewalk to my car. I started the car, then got out and brushed the accumulating snow from the windshield. It dawned on me, why he had given me the coat. There would be no articulated apologies. How can we apologize for that which we don’t understand? Noah could send me, though, into my future with a skin that had belonged once to him – something, however symbolic — to keep me warm.
I write this, now, a few days before I turn 53. Noah died at 35. Whenever I remember him, my memory lands, always, on that day in February when the weather changed from freezing winter to shimmering freedom and possibility, and two sons of Oklahoma took to the open road with the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs. I have the life, now, I wanted with Noah. I just don’t have it with Noah. I have an amazing husband who has awakened, in our marriage, dreams great distances beyond dreams I had as a boy in Oklahoma: a home in suburbia, career, family, community, and a marriage now recognized in Oklahoma, 23 years after Noah passed.
We were propelled by something beautiful and unseen, that day, and left our laughter imprinted on the blue skies and wheat-colored prairies of Oklahoma. Something beautiful was behind us during that ride, but, now, I understand what was against us as we turned our bikes and headed back against the wind. All the forces of a time and generation opposed us, in a world not nearly ready, and, perhaps, is not ready still. Regardless, the wind is once again behind us, and we are prompted forward, always, not only by the progressive gusts of change, but by the ever constant winds of the past: those lost and those buried, who dreamed dreams before ours, who hung their confusions on the clotheslines of a nation that they may be seen, now, and help give order to a great chaos.