Rich was my best friend during my eighth-grade year. We met at a Guadalcanal Diary concert at the Washington & Lee University pavilion. I was thirteen and snuck under the rail into the beer garden. I was doing my best Drew Barrymore impersonation, coaxing sips of everyone’s beers. Rich was the first person to hand me his cup and let me finish it. He fetched more beer for me but counted so I wouldn’t go home trashed. He was always counting.
I started hanging out with him almost every day. We went on drives through the mountains and played squash. We talked about philosophy and music. He challenged me in ways that kids my age just didn’t. Their primary concerns seemed to be kissing and sports.
Since I’d already gone through the whole spin-the-bottle phase in sixth grade with older kids, I was bored. Besides, my peers were doing polite peck-on-the-lips stuff. When I learned to play, we were doing tongues and feeling boobs.
The first time a girl French-kissed me, I pulled away and said, “That’s disgusting!” Kissing girls never really grew on me, apart from the taboo thrill of sharing intimacies late at night, after curfew, with the constant threat of a sweeping police floodlight. For some gay men, the allure of that rush is intoxicating throughout their lives. While I totally understand that, I was pretty much over it by eighth grade.
Rich treated me like a peer. He listened to me in ways that no adult ever had. I could talk to him about punk, cry about my family, and bitch about how meaningless school was.
The first time he called me his little brother was the day I started writing. I filled notebooks with precious, all-caps accounts of every conversation, hug, and fight that we ever shared. I logged the number of Diet Cokes and beers we had between us. I wrote down what albums played on our drive to the 9:30 Club in D.C. to see Marshall Crenshaw, the Slickee Boys, and Pianosauras, a band that played toy instruments. When the band smashed up their miniature guitars at the end of their set, Rich retrieved a fretboard for me.
Because of the beer, I knew I couldn’t tell my friends about him. I didn’t want him to get in trouble. A friend of my parents lived near Rich and had already told my father she smelled beer on my breath. The next night I threw rocks at that bitch’s window almost hard enough to break the glass. But my parents still didn’t know what was going on. Mom was my go-to girl, the parent to ask for permission on most matters. She had an inkling.
Nights I saw Rich, we’d listen to obscure records, drink beer, and talk. We talked about literature. He gave me a copy of A Catcher in the Rye. We talked about my future. But mostly, we talked about my family. Rich rarely spoke of his own background. To this day, he remains somewhat of a riddle.
I was limited to three beers on a school night, which was all for the best. My family’s colorful shenanigans were definitely enough to inspire excess. Beer was great therapy, and it never got out of hand. Rich taught me to drive right after I turned fourteen. His car was an automatic and it was much easier than the time I’d tried driving a stick shift with Shelley and Regina, all drunk.
About a year into our friendship, Rich and I were inseparable. He picked me up from school sometimes and took me driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains. What with all my family’s drama, he calmed me down on several near-suicidal occasions.
He was the big brother I’d always wanted. My three brothers were so much older and left home long before I could have much of a relationship with any of them.
I hugged Rich almost every night before I walked home from his apartment. If I’d been crying, the hugs lasted a long time as he blew cool air on my neck. Then, whether I was upset or not, they just lasted longer.
This was one of our longest hugs. R.E.M.’s Chronic Town EP was playing on Rich’s stereo, which automatically flipped over cassettes at the end of each side. We’d already heard the twenty-minute album three times that night, but we just let it keep going.
“Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, don’t get caught,” repeated the singer.
The window shades were all the way down, as they always were. We were both shaking, and our hands slowly slipped down each other’s backs.
“Gentlemen, don’t get caught.”
We didn’t kiss. We could feel the hard-ons through our pants. We’d felt these same protrusions for months. A few weeks before, I had hugged him goodnight while wearing a pair of shorts and popped a mortifying tent in his front yard. Finally, our hands came to rest on each other. We unzipped and finally, tentatively, we touched.
“I could live a million.”
We stroked each other slowly, then frantically, like dogs. We’d been living with this unnamed tension for a year now. We couldn’t hold off any longer.
“We stumble through the A . . . B . . . C . . .”
My cum hit two metal folding chairs by the window. It sounded like a bird falling to its death on a tin roof, then bouncing. Comets dancing with broken feet. We laughed as we wiped it up later, my first evidence that there was a life outside the city limits of Lexington, Virginia.
That album goes everywhere with me. Every time I see it, I buy it. I have it on vinyl, CD, and cassette. I never tire of the murky lyrics, most of which I can’t make out. Obscure, muddy, buried—the perfect soundtrack of a burgeoning adolescence. That embrace was the most mutual, consensual sexual act I’ve had in my entire life. Everything since has felt less pure.
Intergenerational sex saved my life. When I started having sex as a teenager, the daunting questions that ricocheted inside my skull ceased to be rhetorical. If it hadn’t been for sex at such a young age, my questioning phase could have stretched on for years, and that would have gotten really tedious.
Sex with an older man probably sped up my coming-out process by years. If it hadn’t been for Rich, I might have turned into a mopey Goth kid. The horror, the horror. Had our relationship been discovered, Rich could have done time in jail. During the time we were having sex, it never dawned on me that he was literally risking his freedom over me.
American culture’s only frame of reference for sex with minors is abuse. I don’t deny that abuse occurs, but this should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. A blanket approach that criminalizes all sex between adults and minors undermines the fact that for many gay teenagers, sex with an adult can be a beautiful, life-changing experience. It was for me.
I sought out sex with older men time and time again as a teenager. I had fumbling sexual encounters with other kids as a preadolescent, but they always left me unsatisfied. None of us knew what we were doing, and our shame and fear overwhelmed any joy of discovery. Kids should have the opportunity to discover their sexuality, whatever it may be, during puberty. That’s not to say it won’t shift around as they have a variety of sexual experiences through their lives. Puberty is the ideal time for parents and teachers to let kids know they’re not going through these developmental stages in isolation.
Adults have a responsibility to be visible and available to young gay people. Access to adult worlds, especially those of gay adults, kept me from becoming a suicide statistic. We’re separated by cultural terror. My relationships with adult gay people, sexual as well as platonic, knocked a solid ten years off the time it takes many people to come out. Young people desperately need mentors apart from the airbrushed celebutantes they’re fed by TV. Sexual awareness must be a natural part of puberty.