When I became a man, I put away childish things.
— 1 Corinthians 13:11
We’re on a dirt road in the cotton fields, sitting in the back of his Plymouth. It had been my idea to stop and look at the sky, and it doesn’t come off like a sneaky move now, because the moon is full and bright and gorgeous. I’ve been playing along but I wish he would make his move. This is the part that’s always kind of boring. He’s nice, though, and good looking, maybe around 35.
It’s a balmy Louisiana night in 1975. And I’m fourteen years old.
Everything goes as planned, and he gets me home on time so no one suspects. But he was a lot more nervous about it than I was.
And that was the routine during my teenage years. I had given up trying to mess around with other boys because it took forever to talk them into anything and I didn’t want them to freak out about it. So, I got involved in community theater productions during the summer, playing bit parts or working the spotlight, just to be in the company of gay men. Then it was just a matter of getting some time alone with them.
My strategy for getting laid worked with some regularity, and it never occurred to me there might be something inappropriate or perverse or even criminal about it. Ah, but that’s the catch. It never occurred to me.
People tell me the criminal ramifications most certainly occurred to them. They say I was molested or abused, and that it was the very definition of the word “statutory.” They say I was dealing with adults who had the capacity to know better. And, most bruising to my ego, they tell me that my seductive charms were irrelevant, and that perhaps it was they who were manipulating me.
Now, at fifty years old, I wonder if my teenage memories are trustworthy, and if it mapped an adulthood in ways I’ve failed to acknowledge. Before I became a man, before the failed relationships and the HIV and the drug addiction, there was an adolescent traveling side roads with strangers and taking dangerous walks in public parks. And it is that boy, not the legion of adult accessories, who fascinates and saddens me.
Was my fate sealed in the cotton fields of Louisiana?
The men I coaxed to those dusty roads aren’t villainous to me, and I still can’t allow them to be left dangling in guilt and shame. I won’t reduce them to simple pathology.
I met Jim in August, right before my freshman year in high school. The summer musical was “1776” and I was a stagehand. It was practically an all male cast. It was a busy summer.
After a matinee performance one afternoon, I asked Jim for a ride to a pool party someone was throwing for the cast. Once inside his car I told him I forgot my bathing suit and could we stop at his place so I could borrow one? What followed was a pitiful half naked fashion show in his bedroom, and a brief, furtive encounter between us.
Afterwards, I happily got back in the car but Jim wasn’t talking much. He got real quiet as soon as we were done.
He had driven a few blocks when Jim let out a kind of cough, like he was trying to stifle something and it burst out anyway. I looked over and his whole face was wet.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I had seen men in rather personal situations, but I had never seen one cry.
He pulled the car over and turned it off. Everything suddenly felt quiet and important.
“What is it?” I asked in a careful voice. “Am I in trouble?”
He was searching the car console for something and found a packet of Kleenex. He held it in his lap and started to speak while he opened it.
“I’m twice your age, Mark,” he said into his lap. His eyes were little cups of water, spilling. He turned to me. “You’re fifteen years old. I’m twice your age.”
His mathematics meant nothing to me. He looked like he was trying to read my mind. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know what he wanted. I sat there and said nothing.
He turned away and gulped back more tears. And then he asked the most mysterious question of all.
“Don’t you… just want to be fifteen, Mark?”
I had no idea what the man was talking about. I sat staring at him with my mouth open. I was completely stumped. Seconds went by and the car was silent.
My confusion seemed to disappoint him, because he shook his head slowly and looked back out the window. He was still very upset.
He wasn’t simply crying, they tell me now. They insist he was deflecting his own criminal guilt by blaming me for not acting my age. They tell me that he was the one who must have trapped me and I don’t even know it.
Either way, I think Jim got more than he bargained for. I think he was a little frightened by the manipulative and unemotional fifteen year old sitting in his car that afternoon. And I think it saddened him because he cared about me.
And sure, I felt trapped all right. I remember feeling trapped in his car, where things were not going as planned, because after ten minutes we’re still parked on the side of the road and Jim won’t stop crying. I am staring at my shoelaces because I can’t imagine a grown guy would want anyone to see him like this. He must be so embarrassed. And I wish he would start the car, because the party is going on and there’s probably lots of people having fun around the pool and I really want to be there.
I finally look over at him and he’s blowing his nose. Maybe that means we’ll get moving again, I’m thinking. Jim doesn’t say anything else but he does finally turn the ignition and the car rumbles to a start.
I’m so relieved. I really want to see what’s happening at the party.
The sounds you hear are the clicks of people unsubscribing to this blog. I know this is a difficult piece (my own partner advised me not to post it), but since I’ve written about so many challenging aspects of my life — HIV, drug addiction, sexuality — I felt compelled to share this. I’m still unable to judge my own actions or those of others with much clarity. If you are are trying to overcome childhood abuse, please consider contacting the Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA). — Mark