In the autumn of my senior year of high school, my heart was broken for the first time.
Debra was a junior, a vivacious and silly girl, with freckles, porcelain skin and wavy hair. She was hanging out with Allan when she got to know me. We decided this was it, and fell fast in love. We held hands, wrote each other notes, the works.
She lost her virginity on the floor of my family’s den. My family was asleep. I built a fire. We had wine. It was so perfectly romantic.
My then nine-year-old brother discovered us the next morning, asleep, naked on a blanket. Poor Debra was mortified—she was a good girl, forever to be considered a slut by my mother.
Debra became the first woman with whom I had sexual intercourse on a regular basis.
I say “regular basis,” but that’s not quite right. See, she had a reason she wanted to lose her virginity that night—her parents were moving her to Seattle at the end of the semester. And she wanted to lose her virginity to someone she loved as intently as we loved one another.
We had a month remaining in which to be lovers.
Our friends became co-conspirators, sneaking me into the girl’s dorm, pretending she was at a sleepover when she was with me, anything we could dream up.
Just as intensely as Debra loved me, so too did she worship Donnie.
Donnie was much admired, without question the most talented actor in our school. I scarcely knew him—we had a few classes together—but everyone extolled his sense of humor. He was also very handsome, with blond hair, blue eyes, chiseled features. He was rail thin.
A skinny blond funny boy—those were my best attributes too. I was a little threatened by Debra adoration of Donnie, but he was gay, so I had no insecurities about our romance.
Debra desperately wanted Donnie and me to be friends. I was game, though the circumstances felt forced.
One evening, I saw him in the window of his dorm.
“Evidently we are supposed to be friends,” I called up.
“So I hear,” he replied. “We’ll see, huh?”
Debra’s last night came too soon. Donnie arranged for me to sleep in his dorm room, though I would actually be sneaking over to the girl’s hall.
Debra’s roommate slept elsewhere. Debra and I stayed up all night, talking, making love, crying.
At dawn, I crept back to Donnie’s room. I feel asleep on the floor.
Donnie woke at eight, and took Debra to the airport. She didn’t want me to do that.
When Donnie left, his friend Chuck felt me up as I slept. I stopped him. Geez, how insensitive. Chuck was a creep.
Donnie didn’t care for Chuck, but he felt responsible to watch out for the other gay kids.
The deflowering of Debra, and our subsequent torrid romance, was the soap opera of the season. Everyone followed it, and expressed their regrets to me when she was gone.
It also identified me the boy who could put an end to a girl’s virginity. Debra’s friends queued up. I was suddenly having a lot of sex.
One night, Donnie and I sat on a porch, watching a party across the street. We talked about Jesus, we talked about Tom Robbins. And just like that, we were friends.
I told him about my experiences with Allan. I had told no one else. He was touched that I confided in him, and asked all the right questions. It felt great to have him to talk with about how mixed up that felt.
He took me to my first gay bar, a small dive called Belle’s. We were underage, but that was no problem. I had free drinks and we danced. Donnie never drank.
It was only a matter of time before we were having sex.
The first time, in his dorm room, he blew me. He complained that it took so long to get me off. Think of it as staying power, I said.
The truth is, though, I was nervous. Donnie was gay. That struck me as somehow different than being with Allan, because we were both straight. Allan and I loved each other, but it was always pretty clear that our primary sexual partners were women.
It would be a while before I understood bisexuality.
Donnie and I traded notes throughout the days at school. He put his notes in interesting containers—a cup, a found envelope, a chocolate box. They grew increasingly elaborate in format, requiring me to open secret panels, or to fill in blank areas to read the full text.
I opened up to him in our correspondence.
Donnie fell in love. That scared the hell out of me.
A group of us went skinny-dipping at my house one night. It was late, and by some miracle, my family did not wake up.
We wound up in my room, splayed about naked on the floor, in pitch darkness. I was massaging Jamye, slipping my finger inside her.
Her sister wanted a massage too, so I rubbed her. It was nonsexual, as we didn’t go there.
Anyone else? I offered.
Donnie signed on. I straddled his buttocks and ran my fingers up his spine, branching outward along his muscles. He squirmed under me. He raised his ass. My hand traveled between his legs; he was hard.
Elsewhere in the room were the sounds of couples kissing. I could hear Peabo coo soothing words to Jamye’s sister.
Donnie was sucking me. Loud, wet and fierce.
His mouth felt so good on me. But I worried about the noise. If anyone heard the sounds of sex coming from this corner of the room, they would know it was us. I would be outed.
I lay back and stretched myself to reach Jamye. Her head was near mine, her body stretched in the other direction.
She was asleep, or feigning sleep. I found her face and kissed her lips. She pretended to sleep through it. I scooted back to suck her nipples, loudly. Donnie stayed on me as I moved, sucking me, loudly.
I wiggled to her hips. I raised a leg so that I could get my mouth down on her. She moaned softly and ran a hand down my chest, to my belly.
I stopped her hand before she reached between my legs. There would have been a surprise there.
Donnie worked me until I was about to come. I stopped him.
Light was coming in my window. The sun was rising.
I saw my friends off.
Once Donnie confessed his love for me to his best friend Michelle, she set her sights on me. It was a stupid thing, but she wanted anything he had.
She was a gorgeous black girl, and I was easy. We started having sex.
Donnie was hurt. His letters to me were filled with betrayal and anger. And, perversely, with the tenderest expressions of love.
He loved me too intensely. I didn’t know what to do with him.
He would be pissed at me because of Michelle, but forgive me immediately when I agreed that his new favorite song, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” was insanely great.
After graduation, Donnie moved to New York. I came up to see him often. It was a twenty-four hour trip by train, each way, but I couldn’t afford to fly. I was working for minimum wage in a movie theater.
I came to know the city through his eyes, by his side when I was here, through his words in the letters he wrote.
In the summer of nineteen-eighty-five, I was in New York with my parents and grandmother. After being a good tour guide all day, I was given the night off to hang out with Donnie.
He gave me a sex tour of the city. We were twenty-one.
He worked at the box office of a gay cinema in Times Square.
At his theater, men watched porn projected on a vast screen. I saw men walking onto the stage and going behind the screen. “Where are they going?” I asked.
“Behind the looking glass, Mary. Come on.”
I followed him. We walked along a narrow corridor behind the screen; looking up, I saw porn actors, seventeen feet high, as projected light.
We went upstairs. There, we found a park, created from stage props and Astroturf. Men were having sex on park benches. I had never seen men have sex, and now I saw dozens of them.
Donnie held my hand as we toured around.
He took me to a few of his haunts. We ended up at the Anvil, in the meatpacking district. We walked into a bar with a dance floor. Go-go boys in jock straps danced on the bar, and many of the dancers were shirtless. We swam into their midst to dance.
After we were good and sweaty, he took me downstairs.
Porn was being projected on a screen, as men blew each other on plush sofas.
We sat as far as we could from the action. As we talked, a man came over and jerked off in front of us.
Donnie took me further.
There was a narrow corridor, lined with men. They turned and smiled at us as we approached. It was pitch black at the opposite end.
I decided I had seen enough.
Back at Donnie’s tiny studio, we kissed as his roommate slept.
He asked me to keep my socks on as he blew me. Why, I wondered?
He wanted me to fuck him. He had just started to bottom. No, I can’t, I can’t.
I was just too freaked out.
I cabbed back to the hotel. My family was more than freaked to see me drag in at sunrise. I escaped into sleep.
Five years later, I was out of college, and Lucy and I moved to New York. Donnie, of course, was still here. Debra had moved to the city as well.
Donnie helped us unload the truck when we moved. We hung out as I settled into the city.
I was well into Lucy then, and certainly not up for sex outside of that relationship. Donnie never brought it up. We were good as friends.
One afternoon, I met Debra for coffee. We had a high time talking and catching up. We were both thrilled to be back in a place where we could be friends again.
After a while, she said, “I should get going. I told Donnie I’d visit him in the hospital.”
I knew what she was going to say next. I had to pretend otherwise. I had to.
“Hospital? What happened?”
Nothing had happened. I knew.
“Hank . . .”
“Donnie has AIDS.”
He had not told me.
I went with her to the hospital.
I saw Donnie almost every day for the next two years.
On the morning he died, I was in a cab, racing to the hospital.
It didn’t matter if I was there when he breathed his last. His family was there. Our friends were there. He was already doped to incomprehension. I had already been with him through the worst of it.
I needed to be there.
The cab’s radio was much too loud. The sun was too bright. The sky was shrill.
Three blocks from the hospital, the song on the radio ended. I heard the opening tones of “Tainted Love.”
He was gone.
I don’t believe in omens, but he did. Donnie delighted in good endings.
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