My first ever boyfriend died this week. Those are strange words to write. We were kids when we met in junior high school. And we were barely adults when he died. I mean, sure, 39 is an adult. But it’s still too damn young to go.
When someone you once loved dies, you remember things.
I remember staying after school to watch his JV football practice. I’d walk for two miles afterward to my father’s shop to get a ride home. I can’t imagine anyone letting their child do that today. But this was 24 years ago.
I remember a weekend party in someone’s basement. I was 13 and we kissed for what seems like an eternity now. Adults don’t make out like that. Who has the time? But time was all we had back then.
I remember giving him my virginity in the 9th grade. I was 15. A child, really. But I felt so grown up at the time. His leg was broken and he was wearing a cast. We did it in his bunk bed — that’s how young we were: bunk beds. He was home from school because of the leg, and his older brother was making grilled cheese in the kitchen. I skipped class, showed up with balloons for the leg, and left no longer a virgin. We’d go on to laugh about this whole scene for years.
I remember driving home with him from one of his hockey games and getting pulled over because I was speeding. He had juvenile diabetes and while the blue lights flashed behind us, he told me to tell the officer that we needed to get home so that he could take his insulin. This was a lie, he was good at lying, and I went with it. The officer let us go. There was no way to know at the time, but what saved me from a ticket that night was what would eventually take his life in the end.
I remember spending five hours in the car on a cold winter night, listening to the radio and talking about life the way only teenagers could, about the ways of the world and the interconnectedness of it all. The sky was bright with moonlight and the silhouette of leafless trees led the conversation. It was all connected. The naked trees and our teenage selves, had the answers to it all.
I remember he was the first person to encourage me to write. I’d share my words with him, and he told me I should become a writer.
I grew up with him. Not in the typical sense of growing up, not the usual way people use that phrase. But I grew into myself — my very young self — with him over the years. He was caring and funny, and I felt safe with him.
He was one of the first people to know I liked girls. At the time, he initially thought that was cool. As time went on, he realized more fully just what it meant that I liked girls. And so did I.
Eventually, I went on to sabotage our relationship, something I repeated with friends because I felt like a fraud. I loved him, I did. I loved him for being the person I first learned the initial workings of my body with. I loved him for igniting the confidence within me to write. And I loved him for his loyalty. To this day, I don’t think he told anyone that I was gay, at least not before I did. But he deserved better than a fraud of a girlfriend, and I was a fraud, so we ended it.
I didn’t want to be gay in high school. So I went on to sleep with other guys, including some of his friends. He did the same, sleeping with other girls, some of which were my friends. We were kids, and that’s what kids did — or so I thought at the time.
And then we eventually drifted apart, weaving in and out of each other’s lives for years.
He somehow got in touch with me when I came out in my mid-20s. He called me, laughing and telling me it was about time. He said I was writing those chapters to my book and I didn’t even know it yet. He was right.
I found him again some years later still, at the bus stop in our hometown. He stood there with his great big smile and said, “A!” That’s what he called me, A. It was like no time had passed, but we were both older and it showed. We exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch. And we did, which surprised me because people always say they’ll stay in touch but never do.
The last few years I heard from him more and more. He had questions about my fertility journey and he liked to talk about his own struggles. We were lucky to have each other to confide in. I grew into myself with this man who was once a child with me. He was crude and untrustworthy at times, very much like myself, but he had been there for me during a very uncertain time in my life and provided some of the only stability my young self had known. I found comfort in our reconnection.
He encouraged me, again, to write a book, even suggesting a title for it: Naked Trees. It was a nod to the time when life was simple and we thought we had all the answers. He’d tease me — a left-leaning, liberal lesbian — for having lost my virginity to a conservative Republican. We were kids, I’d joke back, we all made mistakes. But he wasn’t a mistake, and he knew it. We both knew it. We spoke of him and his son visiting my wife and me on the island were we live next summer. We spoke of many things over the years.
But mostly, we spoke like we had time.
A few days before he died, I dreamt something was wrong. It had been a few months since we spoke. So I texted him.
Thinking of you. You good?
He died the next day. I never heard back from him.
I’m grateful that I had the chance to tell him that I had really loved him, even if it was in the only way I could. I’m grateful that he understood me, even if he liked to joke about what a mess I was. I’m grateful that he found his way into so many of my life chapters, however unplanned that was. And I’m so sad that he won’t be there for the next ones.
But mostly, I’m grateful that I’m among hundreds of people who have a story or a shared memory they can tell about this man who was never tamed, always vibrant, and gone far too soon. I hope he lives on in all those stories, and I hope that they will be proudly told. For him.