III. Youth, Pt. 1

Recently I saw Greta Gerwig's absolutely fantastic directorial debut Lady Bird. The film follows Christine "Lady Bird" MacPherson, a theatrical young woman from "the wrong side of the tracks" as she navigates the ups and downs of her last year before college in Sacramento, California. Cinematographer Sam Levy has said Ms Gerwig wanted the film to "feel like a memory". She completely nails that vibe and in doing so, makes space for the memories of one's own coming of age. For me, it was hazy visions of my misspent youth in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

More specifically, it was the often embarrassing follies that come with fumbling toward adulthood. The mistakes we make as we try to understand who we are can be immense in the moment, but in hindsight look hilariously quaint. We all have them. Some will forever remain secret, others we type up in essay form and put on the internet for the world (or my readership of like, three - hiiiii) to see. Fair warning, this mini-collection might get a bit graphic. You may feel some second-hand mortification. You may cringe at my teenage exploits. 

Ready? Okay.

My first man I ever loved was a soccer player named Jim*.

Well, loved might be too strong a word. Awkwardly obsessed over might be more accurate. The early years of my "romantic" life were… tragique to say the least.

I was a pretty sheltered kid. My family was late getting the internet and when we finally did the shared computer was right in the middle of the living room. This meant that the myriad resources a queer kid might be able to access on the digital highway were off limits to me, so I had to resort to more analogue ways of exploring my budding sexuality. Back in those days, they still sold smutty magazines at the Coles bookstore in the mall. Up on the top shelf, there were several options for men: Playboy, PenthouseJuggs, etc, and one option for women and gay men: Playgirl. I was in the habit when my parents dragged me along for their shopping, of finding the nearest bookstore or magazine aisle and plunking myself down for a spell. This was how I got into Stephen King novels at much, much too early an age and where I devoured every article in Premiere magazine, easily one of the best film-centric publications of all time.

I remember how the dirty magazines, way up there supposedly out of reach, peeked over the row in front of them: bleach blonde, brown-eyed bombshells stared out, beckoning to you with their seductive gaze. Next to their heads were big, bold, "sexy" words meant to titillate.

And titillate they did. Without even looking at the cover, you could dive off the cliffs of your imagination ravine and coast on the warm zephyrs of fanciful carnality. The covers often seemed like let downs in comparison. Often, but not always. I remember an issue of Playgirl dedicated to ‘Sexy Truck Drivers’ which featured three long-haul masculine men in ripped sleeve flannel that gave me about a full month of sexy dream material.

I used to stand in the periodical aisle "reading" something like Us or People, my eyes darting back and forth to see if any workers were nearby. If they weren’t I would quickly reach up and grab a Playgirl, slipping it into my cover magazine. Then, as nonchalant as possible, I would stroll around the store until I found the most out of the way corner. There I would open the issue and take in the beefy, sun-dappled bodies and semi-erect penises. Looking back, it was all rather tame, but at that point in my life, it was very sexy.

I actually stole one once. I remember it so clearly. I had performed my whole dance, loitering in the magazine aisle for much too long, fake reading a tabloid, finding an uninhabited corner of the store. Only this time, I slipped the Playgirl into my pants and returned the other magazine to the shelf. I proceeded to wander a bit longer and finally walked out of the store casually. My heart was beating quick, pounding in my ears, threatening to burst. There was a little bus roundabout behind the mall and I waited there for what seemed like an eternity. Every time the door to the mall opened I thought it would be a security guard and I would be caught and sent to jail for the rest of my life.

The bus arrived. I got on. I breathed a sigh of relief. When the driver got off and wandered away for a cigarette, I once again began to stress. A security guard came running out of the mall and I thought I would die right then. I sunk low into my seat, my eyes just barely looking over the edge of the window. The guard did a lap around the bus stop, searching for someone. He spoke into his radio, stopped, looked directly at the bus. I quickly looked away. The next few moments passed like hours, the world seemed to close in, the air thickened. I imagined the guard boarding the bus and pulling out his guard weapon and yelling at me to get down on the floor and I would be handcuffed, dragged away, interrogated, and my family would be shamed in the media and my life would be forever stained and I would rue the day I chose to live dangerously. Instead, when I looked back up, the guard was returning to the mall. The bus driver got back on and we drove away. I have no idea if it was me who the security guard was looking for but I decided, despite the adrenaline rush, that shoplifting wasn't worth the years I'd probably taken off my life through stress. I vowed never to do it again. 

Instead, I chose to spend actual cash on legal almost smut. Men’s Workout magazine did the trick. If you’re unfamiliar, Men’s Workout is the slutty, über homoerotic cousin to more mainstream fare like Men’s Fitness and Men’s Health. I haven’t picked one up since that time but from what I remember it was super gay. In fact, in the back pages, there were ads that essentially stood in for porn. It was amazing! I could ogle muscley men and it was all above board to society because it was about exercise and health or something. Never mind that I was a noodly slip of a person who looked like they hadn't ever even seen a gym.

I also started buying XY Magazine at this time. XY was a glossy, full-colour publication aimed at the teen to mid-twenties urban homosexual. Its issues had super provocative images on the front and inside with each focusing on a different topic like ‘Underage’, ‘Skewl’, ‘Straight’, or ‘Boi’. One of their issues is of particular significance to me because it happens to contain one of my most enduring secrets. We hadn’t lived in the city for very long and a magazine like that was huge to my closeted self. It revealed a world of young homosexuals who were out and proud, living large in gay-friendly cities like San Francisco or New York. At that time, I knew a total of one out gay person, and Saskatoon was, to me, a wasteland of boringness. It was a place where all anyone had to look forward to was marrying young, having kids, and then settling down into a life of grey oatmeal blandness. Nothing happened in Saskatoon, nothing. 

To top it off, my family was living in what was basically an old folk's home. Officially it was referred to as something like an ‘Independent Living Residence for Retirees’ but some of them could barely move and there was a kitchen and dining hall where they would all gather daily for tea time and low-sodium meals. My father was working as the building supervisor and an apartment was provided to us so he and my mother, who also worked there as a custodian, could be on call in the evenings in case of emergencies. The two bedroom apartment they gave us was definitely not appropriate for a family of four. My sister, as the eldest was given the second room and I was placed in the laundry room. I’m not even joking. I slept beside the washer and dryer in a windowless closet for a solid three years of my life. Originally, when we moved my bed in, the door couldn’t even close, space was so cramped. My father eventually gave in to my many protestations and figured out how to reverse the door so it swung open outward. But there was still a gap in the frame and so for those extremely formidable years between grade six and nine, I lived with basically no privacy.

I was always a solitary sort, but this lack of room to call my own caused me to guard even more fiercely my time alone. Even though I felt I required that space, it turned out to be a double-edged sword. It contributed quite a bit to deep feelings of loneliness. And these feelings weren’t exactly helped by exposure to a magazine where young men were depicted living the life I desired - going to queer parties and having romantic odysseys. I wanted so badly to connect to this wider world of queer life. So when I saw an opportunity to take part, I grabbed it, ignoring the many reasons why I shouldn't.

Each issue of XY featured a section of reader-submitted photos or stories. I had just started grade nine at a Catholic high school, transferring over with a core group of female friends. In the final years of elementary school I had been present for all their most intense crushes: Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys, Usher (Usha-Usha), and for some reason, George Strombolopolous and his leather jackets. So, when we reached high school it was only logical that I would continue to support them in their new obsessions. I would often get “dragged” to sporting events that their current infatuation was taking part in. We would show up at football games and gab in the bleachers while drinking watery hot chocolate. We’d go to wrestling matches and giggle insanely at the sweat stains in unmentionable places. I was out to my parents by this time but not out to my friends, so I was never vocal about how much enjoyment I got out of looking at football toned meatheads or the homoerotic entanglements on the mats. This also meant that I couldn’t drag my girlfriends out to the events where my crush participated.

Jim, oh Jim. He was a member of the soccer team on track to become captain. He had the tall and lanky frame of Nick Carter, with the pale skin, dark brown hair, and thin lips of Kevin Richardson. He smoked in the parking lot and carried himself with a kind of self-assured ease few of the other boys had. He often carried headphones slung around his neck and sported the behemoth jeans that look tragic now but were of the absolute moment then. He was tight with one of the members of the wrestling team so occasionally he would show up at a match when my friends and I were there. In these moments, as I stared at him from afar, the beefy grappling in the ring paled in comparison to the daydreams winding through my head. We never went to one of his games though. None of the girls found him particularly dreamy and in Saskatchewan soccer wasn't a marquee sport. This devastated me at the time but I couldn’t show it. Instead, I enlisted my potent imagination and came up with a kaleidoscope of scenarios in which we might run into each other in the hall or on the lawn of the school or in line at the cafeteria and fall truly, madly, deeply in love. This, despite what so much gay media of the time told me, was never going to happen. No, the jock wasn’t going to realize his homo ways and fall for the femme geeky gay, not in real life.

But in my youthful reveries, all things were possible. And that's where those musings should have stayed. Instead, I decided it would be a grand idea to share this fantasy with the readership of XY. So, one day, super late at night, I decided to write a letter. In it, I included a photo cut out of an old yearbook of Jim and his buddy. The story I included was something about how my crush’s wrestling friend had noticed me and my posse at a match and had appreciated our fandom. He had seen in me a quality that he knew would perfectly match to my crush. He proceeded to set us up on a date and we'd now been together for a while and we were just so happy and wouldn't you know it, everyone accepted us and blah blah blah blah blah. I put the letter in an envelope and sent it off thinking the editors of XY would see my fantasy for what it was and toss the whole thing out.

Instead, about a month later, I was at the bookstore and picked up their latest issue. Inside, almost at the end, was the picture of Jim and his pal followed by my completely made up story. The fact that I didn’t faint right then and there is a testament to how well I'd learned to suppress my dramatic side in public. Instead, I calmly approached the counter and bought the magazine from the wary seller. Seemingly unperturbed, I placed the magazine in my backpack and quietly exited the store. Then, I proceeded to run home in a freaked out tizzy. When I got there, I burst through the door and beelined straight to my room where I stuffed the magazine under my mattress and sat right down on it as if that would somehow make it go the fuck away. It was the middle of the week so for three days I kept the magazine under my mattress where it emanated guilt. I almost managed to convince myself that what I had seen wasn't actually true. But, to my dismay, very late on Friday night when I knew everyone else was asleep, I pulled out the issue, flipped to the correct page, and stared at what I had done. There it was, real. So so painfully, painfully real. The black and white photo peered back at me with pixellated accusation. Below my counterfeit account of young love was my real name followed by my real location. It was mortifying and exciting and terrifying all at the same time. I had wanted so badly to be seen, to take part in queer life, that I had allowed myself to go to far and suddenly it was like the world had placed a magnifying lens right above my head and zoomed in as I sat in my literal closet silently freaking out. What if someone at school saw it? What if they shared it with my crush? What if my friends saw it? What if I was exposed for the liar I was? What if one of my enemies, the hockey-playing dudebros, got a hold of it? Would they plaster it around the school Cruel Intentions style while I ran through the halls, seeking asylum with the tech nerds in the dark bowels of the theatre? Would even the tech nerds turn me away, disgusted at the tragic destruction of my (non-existent) reputation?

Despite the melodrama playing out in my head, it felt oddly good to know that my real name was out there, that someone somewhere could be thinking at that very moment that a kid in Nowheresville, Saskatchewan was one of the lucky ones. They could be thinking ‘I want to be like them, able to date out in the open and be supported. If they can do it, why can't I?’ Problematic as it was, It felt like a declaration of independence. As if finally I was proclaiming myself to the world, snatching back the control I wasn't being granted over my life, gaining back a tiny bit of the power I so lacked. I've since grown out of those straight boy fixations (though not quite my lanky white dude fixation) and look back on these silly notions with a mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia. 

Not too long after the bookstore where I bought the issue stopped carrying the magazine. The editors had frequently commented in their pages how difficult it was to find advertisers. The magazine’s focus on the many facets of the lives of young queer men, including frank discussions of sex, scared them off. They went away for a while and only recently, in 2016, relaunched. You can buy back issues on their website. I’ve even considered picking up a copy of the offending edition since mine was eventually destroyed in a blaze.

As I said before, my parents already knew I was gay, but they were certainly not comfortable with any aspect of queer sex or that I had access to the knowledge of that sex. When they found the several issues of XY in my bedroom I was ordered to get rid of them. As a Diamond-Certified Member of the International Drama Queen Club, I decided to spark up a raging fire and ceremoniously tossed each torn apart issue into the flames while I sobbed on the hearth. This was both incredibly cathartic and, in hindsight, terribly wasteful.

Over the years, I’ve thought about this lie more times than I can count. My emotions have gone from deep, overpowering regret, to total embrace of the undiluted mortification. I look back at the person I was and while I feel sadness for his isolation and wish he thought about others more often, I also appreciate his gumption and his drive to discover, to seek beyond what was being presented to him and to challenge what was being imposed.

I also see how I conveniently ignored the fact that, while I had exposed my name and location, I had not in fact exposed myself. There was no photo of me. Instead, I had put someone I didn’t even know under a spotlight, someone whose actual sexuality was a complete mystery, without any care for how it might impact his life. After the bookstore stopped carrying the magazine, I told myself no one else in the city was reading it anyway and therefore the incident could not affect him, the same way it proved not to affect me. I have no idea if this is actually true for Jim, wherever he is. If it ever does come to his attention, I hope he's able to see the whole thing for what it really is: the silly, fantastical ravings of a sad, lonely young queer screaming into the void while searching for the rainbow in the darkness.

Who knows, after his initial embarrassment, it might even bring a smile to his face to know that someone once liked him enough to include him in a romantic tall tale.

Come back next week for more youthful awkwardness. Schadenfreude is wonderful for the skin.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.