Oh, how lovers change
I never dreamed how easily.
For now I'm just a shadow
Of the boy I used to be.

-Nick Lowe
When I Write the Book

THE BOY I USED TO BE

by Raymond J. Aguilera

1

And that was the moment I knew something was . . . different.

He wasn't doing anything in particular, wasn't even aware that I was looking at him. He was just standing there, fresh from the shower, drying off with a towel. It wasn't particularly erotic, but I couldn't take my eyes off him, the way his arms flexed and bulged as he toweled off, the way tiny beads of water dripped down the back of his neck. If you saw him walking down the street, I doubt you'd call him "beautiful," but as he stood there, unselfconsciously, I couldn't help but think exactly that: He's beautiful. Weird moles, potbelly and hairy back. Strange marks on his back and dents on his forehead only vaguely explained to me as remnants of an abusive relationship. There he stood, rubbing lotion into the sandpaper heels that scratch the hell out of me and the one thing I wanted to say was, You're beautiful, baby. And I couldn't. Does he ever look at me like that? Could I ever make him happy the way he was making me happy just then?

Do you have moments when your life seems like a bad TV-movie? You know, the ones where the hero with the tragic flaw triumphs oh-so-predictably in the end? It was one of the first conversations we'd ever had, and I needed to bring the specter of my disability into the picture. Back then I was thinking of Michael as nothing more than a diversion, but I knew the issue would come up whether we had one date or fifty. My self-deprecation had already kicked in, so I dropped the bomb on the conversation. "And if I haven't scared you away already, I have a physical disability." To which he responded "That's supposed to scare me away?"

I shoulda known then that my poor little heart was gonna be in trouble.

I told him about my CP, my lack of balance, the fact that I was born two months premature. I made sure he understood that, for better or worse, none of this would ever change. What you see is what you get. He listened and nodded his head. A few days later we were talking and he casually mentioned a Cerebral Palsy factoid he'd picked up while researching CP on the Internet. I pictured him thinking about what I had said earlier and taking the time to find out more. I could barely repress the happy grin that was dying to come out.

Over the past year, my mom has taken up a crusade for me to date a "nice little Chinese girl." Oh, did I mention that they don't know I'm queer? Well, fuck . . .

One weekend when I was getting ready to visit my parents, Michael called and asked me out for Friday. Of course, his invitation postponed my journey home. When I finally arrived, late Saturday afternoon, their big question was why hadn't I come last night. "I had a date," I said bravely. My mom got a twinkle in her eye. "Is she a nice little Chinese girl?" I pictured Michael, with his goatee, his football-player physique, and the sparkly rainbow feather boa he'd strutted so happily at the Pride parade. "No," I said, and left it at that. The look in my eye must have said something, because mom dropped it and changed the subject. Does she know?

Part of me thinks she does, but just doesn't want to. I mean, this is the same woman who, when I told her so-and-so was gay, replied "You mean, like… gay gay?" I still haven't figured out what gay gay is, and how that might differ from the singular variety of gayness. My friend Bob loves that story, but then again, I'm pretty sure he's gay gay too.

So, what am I gonna do with this guy? He's adorable. He's smart. He's got good hair. He's a good cuddler. As far as I can tell, he's honest as a Boy Scout (more honest: at least he can admit he's gay). He's fun to talk to. Being near him makes me feel peaceful. Yet we couldn't be more different.

From what he's told me, school was a nightmare for him, whereas I'm the overeducated geekboy starting on a Masters Degree with no immediate real-world application. I always vowed I'd never date a smoker, but he burns through a pack a day. I get the feeling that academics (including me, by association) scare him sometimes. Owing to what sounds like some bad breakups, he's wary of anything that resembles a relationship. Sometimes, I want nothing more than to take him home with me and keep him there forever. When I see him, I'm happy. When he leaves, I'm sad. I don't know what I want from him right now, but it would be nice if I could call him my boyfriend. Even if it was only once.

Yet sometimes I find myself pulling away from him, and I can't quite figure out why. Have the sparks of attraction fizzled? Does the fact that I know what brand of toilet paper he buys—and that, without his inhaler he snores like a goddamned lumberjack—mean that we've gotten too close? Have we descended from heady passion to the mundane level of existence where he's just a guy and not the beautiful angel I think he might be? Or is it something more sinister? Am I falling in love with him and so afraid of that prospect that I have to push him away? For no good reason, I get suspicious and jealous and bitchy. When his cell phone rings I concoct fantastic stories about who's on the other end. If I find myself in the neighborhood of a bar I know he goes to, I scan the street for his car (all the while reassuring myself that I won't freak out if I see it parked outside).

He hasn't given me any reason not to trust him, but I find myself getting suspicious anyway.

So far, my friends all seem to like him. Last week four of us headed to San Francisco to see the indie-pop band of the moment. Michael had no idea what they sounded like, and judging by the Celine Dion in his CD collection, I wasn't sure this was the kind of band he'd appreciate. Still, his ability to roll with the punches is one of the things I like about him. We drank, we laughed, and eschewing any semblance of rock-show cool, we danced. As the band ripped into an old funk song, we shook our moneymakers alongside the indie kids standing stoically in their natty thrift-store sweaters. Yeah, we got our share of strange looks, but fuck 'em. We were having a good time.

2

It's been a while since I started writing this; some things have changed. For one, he is my boyfriend now, and even though we both stutter over the word every now and then, it's true. Lately, we've even begun to express what I'm pretty sure is love. He doesn't say it as much as I'd like him to, but neither do I.

Some of my fears have faded a bit. For one, I'm not so concerned about someone else swooping in and snatching him away from me. I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but things have come together for us, gelled a bit. I feel a lot more secure, and I think that's been positive for us both.

This weekend, we went to Reno to visit his family. Friday night we went out to the casinos and, for the first time, it happened. I had been able to avoid it so far. We'd talked about it, played out the scenarios, but it finally happened. It's true what they say: there is a first time for everything.

Walking down the street, la la la. I had a couple of beers in me, along with the happiness that comes with a weekend away. We're cruising along, and-BOOM-I trip on a crack in the sidewalk and hit the ground. All I could think of as I headed for the concrete was, Goddamn it! I made it this long, why now? I scrambled to my feet and looked around to see who else had witnessed my grand act of physical gracelessness.

"Oh my God! Are you OK?" Michael asked as he grabbed my arm. I gave a feeble sort of nod. Physically, I was fine. Emotionally, I was looking for a small, dark hole, someplace I could crawl into and die. He asked me again if I was OK. I told him I was fine, praying that it would magically become the truth. We walked a few more steps in that most terrible kind of silence before he stopped and turned to me.

"I know you're embarrassed and just want me to forget about it, but are you OK? Really? What about your hands?"

"I'm fine," I said, holding out my palms for him to see. They were stinging a bit, but other than my bruised pride, I hadn't sustained any damage. We walked along in awkward silence for a few minutes. I didn't know what to say. Aside from my embarrassment, I was fine, but what was he thinking?

At that moment, I was afraid to know what he was thinking.

I'm a very independent guy. I'm intelligent, I'm funny, and thanks to the miracles of hair-products, I daresay I am able to attract a decent share of admiring looks when I put in the effort to do so. All in all, a pretty good package, one I feel comfortable presenting to the world on most days. Then my disability reaches out and smacks me, just to make sure I don't forget what I really am, and all of that hard-won (and carefully crafted) confidence goes flying out the window.

Who was I kidding? Michael is handsome and strong and desirable. Then there's me, the helpless, clumsy cripboy who can't even manage to walk down the street without making a spectacle of himself. How could I ever hope to compete against all the other bodies that are so much closer to perfect than mine will ever be. Will I still be attractive to him after he's had to pick me up off the ground for the umpteenth time? Will he grow tired (or worse, ashamed) of my limp, my scuffed shoes, my scraped knees. I know that he worries about my physical safety. I can see it in his eyes as he scans ahead when we are walking together. Right now, I think he does it out of genuine concern, but will my disability end up a burden to him?

I tentatively reached out my hand and grabbed his thumb. I gave it a squeeze and he squeezed back, hard. The world seemed back on an even keel again.

As I sit here writing this, I'm not really sure where I'm going. When I started this piece, I was full of questions, about where we were going and how much I should open myself up to him. There are some things I wish I could take back, erase from the record of this budding relationship, like a few dating fuckups on my part. But despite all that, things have progressed. Some of my questions now have answers that seem to satisfy us both.

3

A couple months ago, I came out to my parents. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and for the first few weeks things were not going well. The question "why" kept coming out of my mother's mouth. Why was I telling them? Why couldn't I just keep this information "up there," in the Bay Area (where I think my mom figures everyone is gay)?

We didn't speak for a few weeks and when we did all that came out of it were hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Since then, however, things have improved. My mom even went down to Barnes and Noble and bought the book Ellen's mom wrote after she came out. I can't imagine the courage she must have needed to walk into that store, find the queer books, and buy one. (My parents live in a city where being anything other than a married heterosexual with a sensible car is looked upon with grave suspicion.)

They haven't expressed any interest in meeting Michael yet. I'm not sure when, and if, they ever will. My mom, of course, immediately took up the position that this "gay thing" must be a phase I'm going through. She was convinced I was just "experimenting" with something new. My assertion that any "experimenting" had happened a long time ago didn't make her feel better. It just seemed to traumatize her more.

I'm pretty sure my parents assume that the evil gay man that corrupted their son was forcing me to come out. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I was waffling about telling them, Michael tried to talk me out of it. He told me I should wait until I was absolutely sure I wanted to tell them. In the end, I wasn't totally ready, but I did it anyway. As I explained to my parents, I got to a point where I was no longer able to put up with myself. I felt like not telling them was disrespectful to my relationship with Michael, and that was unacceptable to me.

After we started talking again, we had a family powwow. They said they were going to try to be OK with "this situation." My dad talked about how they didn't necessarily agree with "this lifestyle," but he couldn't tell me what he thought "this lifestyle" entailed. I saw the pain in his eyes and it made me feel bad. If he was going to be suffering like this, I felt like I should at least be doing something heinous and deviant. I didn't have the heart to tell him that the "lifestyle" he finds so difficult to confront consists largely of renting movies, eating take-out, doing laundry, running errands—all the same, mundane stuff that makes up his life. Still, I guess his reaction is understandable. My parents have no frame of reference when it comes to gay people, other than the flaming queens the talk shows love to trot out to simultaneously titillate and horrify middle-America with their indulgent, scandalous lives. As much as I'd like to report something equally exciting, the most indulgent and scandalous thing Michael and I did this weekend was split a desert after a huge meal with some friends.

Recently, we went dancing. He's not exactly the dancing type (although I have to admit that the Michael Shuffle is unbearably cute), but my birthday was just around the corner, so I played my trump card. After a few drinks, my gimpy ass was moving across the dance floor. I was having a good time, not caring that my lack of coordination was now on vulgar public display. All of a sudden, Michael grabbed me and dragged me off the floor. He tried to cover up that guilty-little-boy gleam in his eye by swooping in for a kiss. "What's going on?" I asked.

"Nothing, Baby," he said, pulling me close. He was selling, but I sure as hell wasn't buying. Tilting my head up, he started to come in for another kiss, but I held back just enough to let him know the jig was up. "Do you really want to know?" he asked reluctantly.

I nodded my head. I wasn't sure exactly what was up, but I knew something was.

"You were dancing right next to my ex."

Before he knew what happened I spun around and headed back toward the dance floor. I was dying to get a chance to size the guy up. I turned my head back and shot Michael a mischievous grin. The last thing I heard before the sounds of the dance floor drowned out his voice was "Ray…COME BACK HERE!"

Getting into the groove, I sidled up to the guy. OK…he's taller than me, but other than that, he seemed pretty unremarkable. I feigned getting lost in the music, bumped into him, muttered a quick apology, then found a spot where I could watch him through the mirror behind the bar. He obviously knew who I was, because I could see him pointing me out to the guy he was dancing with.

When I made my way back to the other end of the bar Michael looked at me tentatively. "Whatever…" I said, grinning from ear to ear. He followed as I pushed through the crowd back to the dance floor. Being the sore winner that I am, I danced up a storm to make sure that Mr. Ex saw us together. I even managed to look him dead in the eye once, before swooping in for the most passionate kiss I could muster while dancing at 130 beats-per-minute and simultaneously not spilling my beer. My relationship with Michael is not a contest, but at that moment I relished victory nonetheless. I was proud to show the world my prize. I poked Michael in the belly, beamed at him and threw my hands in the air in a moment of exquisite happiness.

We're different people, from different places. That used to worry me a lot. Do we have enough in common? Can I hold his interest? Can he hold mine? Lately though, I've come to realize something: We are different people…and that's one of the things I enjoy about him. We learn from each other, and I think it's safe to say that we're open to each other's experiences. It's a pretty good bet that without Michael I wouldn't have gone flying through the Nevada desert on a dirt bike. But I did. And I loved every second of it. I probably wouldn't have had the courage to wear big-ass rhinestoned sunglasses to see Elton John in concert, belting out "Tiny Dancer" at the top of my lungs; I loved every second of that, too.

I think I've also opened his eyes a bit wider. The other night, we were snuggling and struggling with the fact that, no matter how hard we try, someone's arm gets smooshed in the middle. "My next boyfriend's gonna have only one arm," I teased, "that way this won't be such a pain in the ass."

"Babe," said Michael, "considering the circles you run with, that's definitely a possibility."

©2002 Raymond J. Aguilera


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Raymond J. Aguilera lives in Oakland, California.
He and Michael spent last weekend putting together a new gas barbecue grill.