It was liberating to share some of my burdens online with a supportive e-community, and it was incredibly therapeutic to talk to others about my past and to know that because of the "distance" the Internet creates, I didn't have to worry too much about my honesty and openness coming around to cause me trouble. As shy as I am, I nevertheless found it easier and easier--and more important all the time--to disclose things about myself and my past to others, in ways that I simply couldn't offline.
I also began to discover that there were many others who were doing the same thing. Oh, sure, there will always be fakes. But there were also a lot of people like me: They weren't creating false selves online; they were bringing to light aspects of themselves they'd been afraid of revealing, or unwilling to reveal, to their offline worlds.
A surprising number of the first-person narratives at sites like Nifty have been written under just these circumstances, and I expect that anybody who's had a past even remotely similar to mine can understand how important and healing it is to be able to be honest with a group of readers that won't punish them for their honesty as the offline world might.
Duane was one of those guys, sort of. After Drew's Yahoo! group went MIA, a number of the key players there gathered at Duane's group to continue our e-friendships. Duane's online stories were a mixture of fact and fiction. At first I assumed that they were entirely autobiographical, though he'd never claimed they were. When the subject came up, though, Duane was immediately upfront with the fact that the stories were fictional. They used people and situations from his real past, but most of the events narrated had never happened.
I found myself returning with greater and greater frequency to his group and posting replies to things his members had said. Simply because of the online absence of Drew, I invested more into the other online guys than I might have otherwise. And since we were congregating at Duane's group now, I began to spend more time getting to "know" Duane.
I hadn't been visiting his group for very long when I noticed a change in the tenor of his posts. They began to be darker, more fatalistic. In spite of the annoying jokes.
I was in the middle of an IM chat with Tony one night when he mentioned that he was also in the middle of a chat with Duane, who was apparently in pretty bad shape. I decided to check in on him, so I took a deep breath and sent him an IM. After navigating the various screens that got us added to each other's "Friends" lists, we started chatting, and thereafter I found myself spending many nights having IM conversations with him.
Duane's "chat presence" was strange. He'd hop on and start talking about inconsequential things, rattling on and on--the equivalent of two strangers on a bus talking about the weather--then out of nowhere he'd begin talking about how utterly miserable he was, in his marriage and in life, hiding his sexuality. After the initial sense of dislocation, I'd try to jump onto his track quickly, and we'd have some pretty serious interaction, then he'd suddenly log off without warning. I came to find out later that whenever his wife came into the room, he'd hide all evidence of his online activity; hence the abrupt departures.
As time went by, my heart went out to Duane. Even though I couldn't relate personally to his burdens, I knew what it was like for life to beat you down, for loved ones to be the source of your difficulties, for secrets to isolate you from everyone else. As our conversations grew deeper, I came to understand that there was an incredibly good, sensitive man under the goofy persona and the judgmental remarks he made about others. I wished that I could help him; but I could hardly help myself through my own difficulties. So I just "listened." And as I did, I began to like him more and more.
In February, a new guy showed up at Duane's group, a guy whose screen name was "bothroadstaken." It wasn't a name I'd ever seen before, but the quality and style of his posts left no doubt in my mind that it was Drew.
I began to think about him again, for the first time in a while. What the hell had happened? Why had he nuked his group and his e-mail account? And why was he back?
I mentioned the new member to Duane one night as we were chatting. He was cryptic at first, and then finally told me that "bothroadstaken" was indeed Drew, and that he'd been in touch with Duane, and Duane alone, of all his former readers, since a couple of weeks after he'd vanished from the Internet.
"What happened?" I asked Duane.
"I can't talk about it," he wrote.
"Okay," I replied. If anybody understood about the importance of keeping confidence, I did.
Apparently, though, Duane was disappointed that I hadn't pried it out of him, because after about two minutes of conversation on another subject, out of the blue Duane wrote, "It was a couple of things. Drew's wife is pregnant and he decided he needed to say goodbye to all this gay stuff; and also, he had a scary encounter with a reader."
A chill went through me as I imagined the possibilities. I'd had scary encounters with psychopaths myself.
"Why's he back, though?" I asked.
"He realized he can't run away from himself. His wife knows all about him, all about all sides of his sexuality. Has for years. Since before they were married, even. Wish I had that kinda balls," he wrote.
"Yeah," I replied.
"It's like this," Duane continued. "His wife said she knew he needed to express that side of himself and he shouldn't cut himself off from people he could talk to about it."
"Will he tell people he's back?"
There was a pause before he replied.
"I don't know. I don't think he knows either yet."
"Is he going to keep working on Rip Current?"
He fired back, "Whaddya think I am, the Answer Man?"
That made me grin. "Well, thanks for telling me," I typed.
"Don't tell anyone else, though," he replied. "I told him I'd keep his secret."
"I will too," I said. "But the more he posts, the more likely it is that people will recognize him."
"I know," Duane wrote. "He's such a nerd. Weird combination for a jockboy."
I typed in a "LOL" and smiled to myself. Drew and I had never "talked" much, but it gave me a warm feeling to know he was around again. If it weren't for him and his story, I wouldn't have met all these people, and I wouldn't have had the guts--or seen the means--to reach out to Brian.
Melodrama seemed to run rampant at Duane's group, from the first day I'd stepped in, and it was beginning to beat me down. Shortly after that IM conversation with Duane, two of his members, Tony and a guy named Rick, were generating a conversation-thread in which Tony had made a crude remark that caused Duane to fly off the handle at the two of them. He responded with a scathing and cruel put-down which cut Tony to the quick, and he did it deliberately. That, in turn, made me angry. I knew that Tony was a little on the oversensitive side, and I knew that Duane knew that as well.
I sent Duane an e-mail in which I told him that his reply to Tony was out of line, and that if he'd gotten angry about what Tony had said, he should have just said so, without making it as vicious and personal as he had, especially since he knew that Tony wasn't trying to be offensive. I told him that I hoped he managed to get his head together, but added that what he had done was not acceptable to me. As time had gone by, I realized I was getting less and less out of his group anyway--the bulk of the worthwhile interactions I was having came from e-mails and chats with people I'd met through the groups--so I deleted my membership.
I got an e-mail from him very quickly, asking me to return. He pleaded with me to understand that he'd had a very bad day when he'd popped off at Tony, and added, "surely you've had those too, and ended up saying things to people you've regretted; shouldn't my friends be able to cut me some slack when I screw up?"
He had a point; I replied that of course everyone was entitled to the occasional screw-up, and that I'd rejoin his group if that's what he wanted; but I felt constrained to add that blasting off at someone was a bad idea and that in my opinion he really needed to start talking to someone about all that was eating him.
His reply was pretty cryptic, but he starting chatting with me on IM a lot more after that. At the heart of much of his stress and grief, I knew, was the fact that he was miserable in his marriage, and just couldn't cope with hiding his real self from his wife anymore.
Over the course of several IM conversations, I came to a clearer understanding of Duane's life-situation, and I came to understand the anger, bitterness, and grief that gave rise to the occasional outbursts of prickliness in his posts. We began to develop a solid e-friendship.
Tony, in the meantime, had had some time to "sit with" the chapters I'd sent him about my relationship with Brian. A number of the guys at these Yahoo! groups were interested in writing, and particularly in gay-themed narrative. Several of them had begun thinly-disguised or not-so-thinly disguised stories of their lives. Others had written completely fictional stories, based nevertheless on real people. After Tony had read through what I'd sent him a few times, he began bugging me to post it to one of the gay-themed story sites. He even offered to be my proofreader and editor.
I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about that idea, but one aspect of it grabbed me: I loved Brian so much. And I had so much gratitude for what he'd been for me in my life, and for his willingness to be my friend again. Part of me wanted to be able to say that out loud where people could hear it. Posting my story on the Internet might be a way to do that, a way to thank Brian in public for everything that he was and had done for me. Even if I didn't admit the story was true.
What I'd sent Brian was from the heart, but it wasn't particularly polished. So, I reworked the first four chapters with Tony's help, and wrote an additional one, and posted them to an online story site. I presented the story as fiction; I didn't want readers to get too close. Tony wanted me to start a Yahoo! group like Duane's, because he was convinced that readers would come, and would hang out. So I set one of those up too.
I never expected the response I received: I started hearing from readers right away. And my group had a couple of hundred members very quickly.
I was totally shocked that anyone would even want to read my story; that they'd want to join a Yahoo! group and discuss it was completely beyond my comprehension. Yet there they were.
I received some touching e-mails from people whose own lives had seen pain and frustration as they'd tried to navigate their sexuality. I received kind words about my writing. And I received members. When they got to my group, they initiated a conversation about my story that took on a life of its own. I just sat back and watched it happen, shaking my head in amazement.
As happy as I was to have Tony's e-friendship and assistance on my story, it was Duane I ultimately turned to for an editor/proofreader. That relationship seemed to be "clicking" a little better than the one with Tony, which had started strong but had attenuated some. I'd been tremendously attracted to Tony--grabbed by feelings of infatuation, and love, even--but ultimately there were differences between us that in the final analysis landed us somewhere in the vicinity of "e-friendship." As time went on, I was able to relate to Duane a little more than with Tony. We were closer in age. Beyond that, I had a sense he more understood my heart and mind, and although he had liabilities of his own, too, don't we all? Through his work with me on my story, our e-relationship really took off.
We chatted frequently, talking about all kinds of things. Duane was calming for me; I could vent for a minute and then just drop it, and he understood that all I needed was to get it off my chest and then move on to something else. He did the same with me, and I understood completely. It seemed to me that he began to change the more we talked. The prickly shell he had developed to protect all his secrets seemed to drop when he talked with me.
I came to learn that there were powerful reasons that I'd felt more in common with him than with Tony: Duane let me know that he'd had some sexual trauma in his past, so there were many things we had in common that centered around all that. As he talked with me, I also began to realize was that he was even farther behind than I was in dealing with the repercussions of the trauma and the lack of support from loved ones. We spent hours talking through these things, listening to each other, crying for each other, letting ourselves heal with each other. I began looking forward to our talks more and more.
I realize now that I was relating to Duane in a way that I should have been relating to Jonah. In spite of our "new start," I never was able to open up to Jonah the way I should have, and that took its toll. For reasons I never fully understood, Jonah had some serious insecurities, and he was never able to see any of my problems as anything but evidence that I didn't love him. As a result, he continued to unravel, to fall apart at the seams, quietly; and in many ways, the whole process was accelerated this time around.
Before long I noticed he wasn't around as much any more. I knew what that was about, and I knew how he was spending his time away.
I laid my heart out to Duane about these things. I was still holding out hope that Jonah and I could put it back together. Duane was uncomprehending. He couldn't understand why I was so adamant about wanting to make it work with Jonah. I tried to explain that I was just as responsible for the situation as Jonah was. Beyond that, I told him, I'd failed so miserably at my marriage with Erica, I just couldn't bear the thought of failing again.
Duane listened patiently, not always understanding, and talked of the crisis his own marriage was facing. Our misery and despair seemed to bond us. Before too long, we'd exchanged phone numbers and we were having conversations by phone. And I was experiencing powerful feelings for him.
As planned, Brian came to visit again over spring break.
I was both excited and scared: I knew I wouldn't be able to hide how bad things had become with Jonah this time. I didn't know what he'd make of that, what he'd think of me. I had all kinds of fears about his impending visit.
But it was impossible for me not to want him to visit. I needed him so much, and I could hardly wait.
He showed up on my doorstep on the appointed day. Jonah wasn't around this time, and Chris was at school.
As I walked to the door in response to his knock, my heart was beating a mile a minute. I opened the door and he smiled at me, and in that instant, my tortured, darkened brain was flooded with sunshine.
He was so beautiful. No; he was perfect. The sight of him took my breath away. When he came in January, I hadn't seen him in a long time, and it had been even longer since I'd let myself really look at him; it hurt too much. And with Jonah right there, I'd been a little inhibited, even in the level of attention I gave to Brian's presence. This time, as he walked through my door, my senses and my mind let themselves register him fully.
His hair was just as messy as always. I know it sounds weird, but that was incredibly sexy.
And his smile: Oh sweet Jesus, his smile. He could stop the world's spin with it. It's a little crooked; it goes more to the left than the right, and the dimple on the left is deeper. I noticed that again as we began to talk. But the asymmetry almost made it more intense, more genuine, more beautiful.
His eyes still had that amazing blue that had always cut right through to my soul. I noticed that these days he had a few little lines around his eyes, and I don't know why, but they nailed me in the gut every time he smiled.
And he smiled lots in those first few hours of our visit.
He'd hugged me when I met him at the door. It was dizzying again, but I didn't prolong it this time. I hadn't felt the need to cling to him for dear life, because I was beginning to develop a trust that we might actually rebuild a friendship together. So we settled into conversation quickly. It was free and it was easy, and it took me back to the days when our friendship was as natural as breathing.
I kept trying to pull my eyes away from him, just to maintain some equilibrium; every time I looked at him he took my breath away. Eventually I just gave up and gave myself over to the experience.
I couldn't vanquish my worry entirely. Our friendship had survived just about everything that could conceivably be thrown at it; that should have demonstrated its strength. But it still felt fragile in some ways. As I talked with him during those first hours, another part of my brain was worrying about screwing things up with him again. I didn't think I'd be able to survive if things turned sour this time and we ended up going back to that pseudo-friendship we'd had for so many years.
Jonah came home that evening. Again, things were tense between him and Brian. Even more so this time. As I was putting Chris to bed, I heard the two of them outside. I couldn't make out all the words, but Brian was yelling. I caught, "What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you doing this?" I shuddered, and turned my attention back to Chris.
I have no idea what set off that encounter, but when I got back to the living room, Jonah was gone.
"What happened?" I asked Brian.
"I lost my temper, Sammy," he said. "I don't like what he's doing."
I hadn't talked to him very much about things, but it was impossible for me to argue with him. He'd know I was lying. Somehow, obviously, Brian had put much more together than I'd been willing to admit to myself.
Jonah stayed away for the rest of Brian's visit.
The next day Brian and I went hiking with Chris and our dog Ajax.
My city is in the mountains, and there's one peak that's practically in the middle of town, a giant hunk of uplifted granite. Hiking it is a little like marching up ten miles of steep stairs.
We'd planned to eat at the peak of the mountain. When we got there, we stopped. Chris let out a whoop of victory. Then we all began to take a look around.
It was spectacular. One side of the peak looks over the city, and the other looks out on a large area of forest. Chris was in awe, and Brian and I were too. A quietness settled in, and Brian's presence with me there felt somehow primal, and right, and as big and overpowering as Nature.
There was a big flat area at the peak that was perfect for a picnic. Chris plopped himself down after a few minutes of drinking in the visuals and said, "Okay, guys, let's eat."
Brian laughed and said, "We better listen to the kid, he knows what's important." He took the supplies over to Chris; Ajax followed, and I wasn't far behind.
I don't think I'd ever had a lunch that tasted better. My mind and heart were filled beyond words' ability to express. Here we were on this immense, overpowering slice of Creation. Just me, and my son and his dog...and the best friend I'd ever had.
After we ate, Chris wandered to the "forest" side of the mountain to watch a pair of hawks. He'd graduated from his dinosaur obsession of earlier days, and was now fascinated with birds of prey.
I was sitting next to Brian, leaning against a big rock. I closed my eyes for a minute; it was one of those early spring days where it's still cold and breezy, and was especially so at this altitude. At the same time, the sun was sending down this amazing warmth. I love that contrast, the feeling of the sun beating down on me, playing counterpoint to the cold breeze.
We sat next to each other, looking off into the vast distance. Neither of us said anything; the quiet between us had wrapped us up in it. It wasn't isolating, though. And my mind was full, full of wordless, non-thinking awareness. In the background, I could hear Chris jabbering to Ajax about the hawks. I could feel the breeze on my face, the warmth of the sun on top of that. Every muscle in my body relaxed. I looked over at Brian, and thought about the hikes we used to take in high school.
I closed my eyes again, letting my mind relish the experience.
I felt Brian's shadow fall over me. I figured he was reaching for more food; I'd noticed the last time he'd visited that he was almost as much of a bottomless pit as he was when we were sixteen.
Then I felt him closer, leaning over me. I opened my eyes in time to see his face right in front of me.
He leaned in even closer.
He put his lips on mine.
I could feel the heat from his body, the scratch of his unshaven face; I could smell the scent of him.
And then, as quickly as it happened, it was over. It was so quick, and I was so thrown, that I wondered if I'd hallucinated it. But I knew I couldn't have; the sensations were so powerful.
I'd imagined kissing Brian for decades, and in the seconds following the kiss, my brain raced through the comparison. He lips were so much warmer than I'd thought they would be; his stubble scratched more than I'd ever fantasized it would. And it was over quicker than I'd ever have wanted. I'd barely had time to register it.
He looked at me for a second, while I tried to re-assemble my brain; then he stood up and walked back down the trail without saying a word.
Thanks for your ongoing interest in Dan's story, readers. Dan is gone, but his story remains. When all is said and done there will be 29 chapters to this story. Dan wrote the very last one himself some months before he died. I've completed through Chapter 26, so I only have two more to complete from his notes. If you'd like to contact me about his story, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.