Two weeks ago, cool air, late June. Sweatshirt weather.
I sat shotgun in my boyfriend’s sister’s car, tipsy on beer and relief. My boyfriend was in the backseat, letting the open windows do most of the talking. This was Southern Indiana, where the roads ride the ridges past pink scraps of sky stitched between the trees, and the valley views fly but are too humble to soar.
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My First Real Boyfriend lived with his parents, but we were never formally introduced.
I say MFRBF because I’ve got secrets. Cornfields full of secrets. A shock-value high school romance too specific in its details for me to ever feel comfortable writing about it publicly. No matter how much I want to. I can be intentionally vague. He wasn’t out. I was. He fell in love. I didn’t. He would never leave Topeka. I would. And then did. And was better off for it.
I met MFRBF at the University of Kansas, 33 miles (and an entire world) away from where I grew up. He’d grown up in Lawrence, and like a lot of townies, still lived at home.
Simply having a boyfriend I could be with in public was intoxicating. We spent most of our time in my autonomous dormworld. Socks on doorknobs, guest passes at the cafeteria, holding hands on the porch, out and together, for everyone to see. It wasn’t penis-born-panacea, but given where I’d been the year before, it was close.
In his world, things were darker. He was out to his parents, factually, but at that stage, they weren’t comfortable with it. I still slept at his house occasionally, smuggled in under cover of dark, our breathy, late-teenage fumblings drowned out by a near-constant Spice Girls soundtrack. The ghosts of MFRBF’s current and my past shames haunted us in the night, waking and waiting until the coast was clear before I went to class. I only saw his parents once, my name offered in passing as he hustled me through the living room, eye contact barer than minimum.
We lasted three months before I broke up with him. Not just because he lived at home. Or because he had me read an autobiography of Geri Halliwell. Mostly, I dumped him because we were 19, didn’t know what the fuck we wanted or were doing, and were not a good match.
Boy meets boy, both boys happen to be gay, OK looking, and—at least at first glance—not on methamphetamines, so boys date because there aren’t many options and are afraid of dying alone. MFRBF, of course, may feel differently. Such is life.
Three months, two revenge-y nicknames, and one finals week after our breakup, I met and fell for Danny “Thompson.”
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I don’t always call him my boyfriend, these days. Sometimes, I call him my partner.
Not all the time, but with increasing frequency. We’re too old and too serious to just be boyfriends. But partners? I don’t know. It’s scary. Even ignoring the implications of the Emotional Seriousness Caste System.
Partner. I dread saying it to semi-strangers, hoping they’re aware enough to know what I mean. All the implications. “No, Vanessa von Barista. Not business-stuff partner. Butt-stuff partner. The kind of partner you’re perhaps uncomfortable with.” Not that I’m comfortable with it, either.
The word itself is poor. A label fraught with semipermanence and gendervagueness.
Even with practice, it fails to comfortably roll out of my Rube Goldberg machine brain and onto my oversized tongue. I’ve outright hated the word at times, raged against it to captive-ish audiences in unnecessary and generally alcohol-fueled soliloquies.
But two years in, I have to accept it’s the best word Capital-S-Society has for me to use. An inevitably imperfect lexical pitstop. The space between gaydating and gaywhatevercomesnext. A word that will do. For now.
Indiana is the place my partner will always think of as home. He grew up in a small ranch house just south of Indianapolis, the last of ~100 kids in large Catholic home, cowpasture and cornfield adjacent. He’s one of the few members of his family who left the state.
We’d come back to move forward. To meet his brothers and sisters and cousins. All ~4000 of them.
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Danny lived in a suburb of Kansas City, 40 miles (and a socioeconomic world) away from my cramped, A/C-less summer sublet in East Lawrence. He studied dance instead of going to college, and because apparently I had a type, still lived at home.
Meeting “The Thompsons” was one of the best things that could have ever happened to a young gay man. They were a big enough family that there was literally no avoiding them. Five kids, two parents, BFs and GFs galore, all of whom welcomed me from the moment we were introduced.
“The Thompsons” set a near impossible standard for “What to Expect from Your Lover’s Family.” Danny’s parents were present but unobtrusive, discreet in a way that kind of shocked me. They looked me in the eye, laughed at my jokes, asked my opinion. I ate their food, slept in their home, did inappropriate things with their son in their basement. I played soccer with his brothers. Went out to eat with his sister and her fiancé.
Looking back, it may have been too much of a good thing. I wasn’t just dating Danny, I was dating all of them. We went to KC Wizards games together, for fuck’s sake. I was drunk on family.
We lasted nine months before he broke up with me. Not just because he moved to New York to dance, and then back home because he ran out of money. Or because he loved me in a way that he didn’t feel like I returned. Mostly, he dumped me because we were 19 and 20, didn’t know what the fuck we wanted or were doing, and were not a good match.
Boy meets boy, both boys feel like they’ve been waiting forever for their lives to start, and—at least at first glance—mistake the desire they see reflected in the other boy as something different from what it actually is—being in love with the idea of being in love, so boys date because all the books they’ve read and movies they’ve watched have convinced them to believe in destiny. Danny, of course, may feel differently. Such is life.
Seven months, ninety-two “let’s just kiss and cuddle but we are DEFINITELY not getting back together” nights, and one “I got a job on a cruise ship” later, I met and fell for Brian “Nall.”
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Going to Bean Blossom was his sister’s idea.
We were staying at her house on the outskirts of Nashville, a small, craft-and-lawn-artsy town in Brown County, Indiana. We drove north, past the turn into her neighborhood, climbing the slope through tree tunnels and the settling dusk. She wasn’t ready to go home. I don’t think I was, either.
The deed was semi-done. We’d just finished having dinner at Big Woods Brewing Company with six of his family members. Pizza, beer, stories, and questions. Two brothers, two sisters-in-law, one sister, one nephew.
My partner has already met my family. He’s survived a Thanksgiving and a few random dinners, coming out of the experience(s) mostly unscathed. Parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, niece, and nephews. Even a cousin or two. It was fairly straightforward. They came to us.
It took us longer to get to his family, partially because of distance, but more because of history.
His story isn’t necessarily mine to tell, at least the parts that don’t involve me. I’m already toeing a line writing as much as I have about him. My constant and cloying need to communicate, even with strangers, isn’t something he shares. And I respect that.
What I can say is that I’m the first person he’s brought home.
The first person he’s wanted to.
Or at least, the first that was willing.
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I met Brian “Nall” late at night on campus, next to the shed by Potter’s Lake, 1 mile (and a world of online chatting) away from my four-bedroom apartment on Kentucky Street. He’d grown up in Wichita, and like a lot Kansas kids who didn’t know what to do next, came to KU for lack of a better option.
I met his parents on our fifth date. It sounds too soon, but it did not feel too soon. We had already crossed more intimate lines. On our second date, I got food poisoning and threw up. While we were having sex. He still had me spend the night. I think it was already love.
It was late July and everyone in Lawrence was moving, the 5-7 day period where apartments were vacated, cleaned, and turned over, forcing almost every student in town into technical homelessness. I knew “The Nalls” were coming, and was falsely confident in my ability to win them over. They drove up with an empty trailer so Brian could temporarily store his couches back home. I came over to help everyone clean. They weren’t cold but they weren’t warm. I felt like a failure.
Exposure and time bridged the gap. I spent two Christmases at their house, sleeping with Brian in the basement, exchanging presents, even awkwardly going to Midnight Mass. Things were never perfect between us, but we grew to like each other, maybe even came to a place I’d call understanding.
We lasted twenty months before he broke up with me. Not just because [thing I am too embarrassed to admit, involving the Rare Book Room at Powell’s in Portland]. Or because [thing I am not willing to write about him because he’s still dear to me]. Mostly, we broke up because we were 22 and 23, didn’t know what the fuck we wanted or were doing, and couldn’t figure out how to stop being selfish.
Boy meets boy, boys have an instant chemical and emotional connection, and—at least at first glance—mistake having that chemistry for the end-all predictor of a relationship’s success, so both boys neglect to do the hard work it takes to maintain and grow healthy love. Brian, of course, may feel differently. Such is life.
Ten years, six somewhat significant emotional entanglements, and one absolutely heartcrushing disappointment later, I met and fell for my partner.
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We pulled into Bean Blossom, skirting the construction barriers at the main intersection and passing the Dollar General. The air smelled old and deep. Chlorophyll, honey and dirt. My partner’s sister turned into the lot at the Bill Monroe Music Park Campground, our apparent destination.
She started to tell me about the bluegrass festival. I listened to her but didn’t listen.
I hadn’t met everyone at dinner. The ones that I had met were kind. They looked me in the eye. They asked me questions. I left them feeling happy, like I’d done well. Or at least well enough. Handshake hellos turned into hugged goodbyes.
Of course, there were still others out there in the Indy-verse. Some of them, I’d meet within days. Some of them, I’m sure I’ll meet later. Everything in due time. And other tritenesses.
Meeting someone’s family will always be hard. At 19, at 20, at 34, at 67. I don’t know if the labels involved make it easier or harder. Gay, straight, boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé, partner, husband, wife. If love is love is love, then a mess is a mess is a mess.
I sat in the front seat and listened to my partner and his sister talk. To me, to each other, to themselves. The sun had fallen behind the hills and the campground lit up with fireflies. Their talk filled the car, then the parking lot, then all of Bean Blossom. I tucked my thumbs inside the sleeves of my shirt and listened until they had nothing left to say.
She turned the car and we drove home in the dark. We said goodnight in her living room. Went down to the guest room in the basement. Climbed into bed. On our chosen sides. The window was open. I lay on my back, listening to the frogs in the ditch at the base of the hill.
I used to think meeting a boyfriend, a partner’s family was about gaining their approval. With MFRBF, Danny, Brian, I went in thinking of it like a performance or a test. Would they like me? Would I survive? Would the person I am be enough?
And in the restaurant, in the car, in Bean Blossom, I let myself entertain the old notions. The selfish falsehoods. Even though I knew better. Even though I knew this trip wasn’t really about that. Or about me.
There is nothing in my hopes or my fears or my past that is more important.
I don’t think I’ll ever really know how it made my partner feel. He’ll tell me or he won’t. We don’t own each other’s secrets. We don’t own each other’s hearts. We share them. We share the things we’re willing.
His first might prove to be both of our lasts. It might not. It does not feel naïve to hope.
I’ve slept in basements before. Side-by-side with people I loved and did not love. In beds and homes I had no claim to. For me, this sleep was not new. But for him?
This sleep had been coming for decades.