The Ones that Got Away

On a late afternoon in the summer of 1989, after a full day of work, I was on the subway heading home to my apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. The subway car was crowded and I was sitting near one of the doors, waiting for my stop, which was still about ten minutes away. I never made eye contact with anyone when riding the subway and, as usual, I was looking down at the floor, but for some reason, I did look up. A man sitting on the other side of the car was looking at me. Our eyes met, and something passed between us that was akin to electricity.

He was young, probably about my age, and was well-dressed in the style of an office worker who was on his way up the ladder. He had a good face, with finely etched features, and his eyes, which were dark in color, either brown or green, were securely fixed on me. He had no expression, but slowly his lips stretched into a soft smile. I felt uncomfortable and tried to look away, but my eyes always found him again. I could feel my heart starting to beat faster as I wondered who would speak first, and what we would say. Would we get off at the same stop and fall into step with each other? Would we talk casually at first and then seriously, our words chosen for their hidden meaning?  Would we find reasons to brush against each other as we walked? Would we spend the night together?

My fantasy was interrupted by the squeaking of the brake as we pulled into a station and stopped. It wasn’t my station, and I thought I’d make a move as soon as the train started moving again. Several people were getting off and on, and I lost sight of him for a minute as people walked between us. When the commuters had taken their seats and the doors closed, he was gone!

Someone else was sitting where he had been and I searched frantically for him with my eyes, finally spotting him on the platform, standing still.  He was looking at me through the window with an expression of longing. The train slowly pulled out of the station and he stood there until we were out of view.

For the next few days, I made sure that I was on the same train at the same time, hoping to see him again. But I never did. Hardly a day has gone by that I have not thought of him and wondered what would have happened had one of us made the effort to say hello.

Life is filled with those “what if” clauses. At the time my eyes were locked in a meaningful stare with that young man, I had only been out of the closet for about a year, and I was still finding my way as an openly gay man. I was shy and did not feel comfortable making the first move. Also, the AIDS crisis was nearing its peak, which made me fearful of being intimate with someone I did not know. That attitude was safe and responsible, but it also made me hesitant to pursue relationships, even though I badly wanted to be in love. I was also inexperienced in the ways of gay romance and didn’t know what was expected. That inexperience ended one relationship before it even began. 

I had met Roger in the fall of 1986, when I was spending a couple days in New York City and staying at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street. I had flown from Tennessee to Connecticut to stay with silent movie star Patsy Ruth Miller for a couple of weeks and work on her book, but her husband died suddenly while I was there. To get out of the way of family, who were arriving from distant places, Miss Miller sent me to New York to wait until things calmed down. And so I was staying at the YMCA.

I was still deeply closeted at the time, but I did enjoy seeing all the men who were also guests. One evening I started talking to man in the 7th floor hallway. We stood there for almost an hour, shifting our weight from one leg to another. And the conversation was delightful. He lived in Rhode Island, he said, but was looking for a small apartment to use as a pied a terre when he visited New York. “I’m staying here at the YMCA while I search,” he explained.

He was probably in his 30s and told me that he taught an American Lit class at a community college in Providence. He was fairly short, but well built, and had black hair and lovely brown eyes with long lashes. His skin was a little darker than mine and I was not surprised to learn that his parents were Greek.

Before we parted, he gave me his business card and told me to write to him at the college any time. I thought about him a lot over the next year and looked at that card so often that it started to fade. I didn’t know if he was gay, but I hoped he was.

When I “came out” in the fall of 1987, I decided to send him a letter. I did not mention my transformation, but reminded him of our conversation in New York and explained that I was living in Stamford, Connecticut for the winter while attending graduate school at NYU.

“It would be great to see you the next time you are down this way,” I added as a PS.

A letter from him arrived two weeks later and I ripped open the envelope like a child with a gift on Christmas morning. He remembered me well, he said, and suggested we have dinner together the following weekend. He even named a restaurant in Greenwich Village, included the address and a time, and ended the letter by saying he was looking forward to seeing me again “and gazing into your green eyes.”

The final line made me giddy. He was gay and he knew that I was, too!

I took the train to Manhattan and at 7 pm on Saturday night I walked into the restaurant. And there he was, sitting at the bar and watching for me. He looked so good in tight jeans and white shirt. His black hair was slicked back from his wide forehead and touched the top of his starched collar. When he saw me, his dark eyes twinkled and he smiled with excitement. He teeth were perfect and I couldn’t help thinking that he must be very popular with the girls in his college classroom.

We had a wonderful dinner (his treat) and talked for a couple of hours. It was easy to talk to him, as he was interesting and cultured and seemed to know a little bit about everything. And he listened to me, hanging on my every word. I was falling under his spell, and I didn’t mind.

He had driven into New York as he was spending the weekend there, having long ago found an apartment in the part of Manhattan known as Alphabet City, and offered to drive me to Grand Central where I could catch a north-bound train. He found a place to park on Lexington Avenue and we sat there in the dark.

“I want to ask you something,” I said, somewhat shyly. “You’re gay, right?”

“Well, yes, of course I am,” he said. “I thought that was obvious.”

“Uh… I guess… um… I mean… I thought you might be,” I managed to say. “I am, too.”

“Yes, I know,” he smiled, taking me hand. “I knew that the first time I saw you.”

“The thing is, I’m very new at this. I’ve never been on a gay date and don’t know what to do.”

“Are you still closeted?” he asked.

“No, not really. I have started talking to people about my feelings, but I’m not really comfortable yet,” I said. “I want to date someone, I want to get serious with someone, I want to love someone. But I feel uneasy. It’s like I’m a baby learning to walk. I fooled around with guys as a teenager, but it was innocent. I guess I’m still a virgin. I’ve never had that kind of sex and I’m very nervous about it. And I’m always thinking about AIDS. Does all this make sense?”

He sighed and released my hand. I detected an immediate change, as though the air inside the car had suddenly gone cold. He didn’t speak for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a few seconds.

“I hope you will understand what I’m going to say,” he began, turning his head to look at me. “I am 38 years old. I’ve been out for a very long time and have had two long-term relationships already, one lasted ten years. I’ve been single for a couple of years and I am ready for another serious relationship. I like you. I mean, I really like you. You are very mature and smart, but in another way you are very innocent. I don’t feel comfortable being your teacher. I want to be with someone who’s already had a lot of experience, like me. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t think we can get involved. You need to meet more people and explore your new life. Have a little fun and find out what you like. But do it safely. I have friends who’ve become infected with HIV. Do you understand?”

It did make sense. As much as my body yearned for Roger, I knew that it was too soon for me to get serious about him, or anyone. I didn’t want a one-night stand, no matter how pleasurable that might be. I wanted something serious. Maybe I needed to find someone like me, someone who was just out of the closet.

I took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I understand, and I thank you for being so honest with me. And I know you will find a new boyfriend soon. You are just too gorgeous to be single very long.”

I did not see Roger again, although we did correspond for a few months. As I predicted, it did not take him long to fall in love with someone. He would be in his 70s now, and I hope he has enjoyed many years of happiness.

After a several months of looking at sexy men and fantasizing about them, but not approaching them, I decided to investigate the gay bar scene. I did not drink and had never been inside a bar, but I was very curious. One Friday night, after I had moved into the city, I decided to look for one.

I had heard people talking about a gay bar in Greenwich Village called The Monster. I don’t remember now what street it was on, but I found it easily and gathered my wits as I opened the door and walked inside. In front of me was a long and impressive bar with men sitting and standing, all holding drinks in their hands. Several of them turned toward me. I panicked and left.

A few weeks later, I tried again and managed to stay long enough to ask the bartender for a glass of cranberry juice, which caused a couple of men near me to giggle. I was just starting to feel slightly comfortable when a beautiful drag queen walked in, with big hair and big boobs and a very big personality.  She walked right up to me, touched my cheek with be-jeweled fingers and said, “who’s the new boy?”

I froze. It felt like a spotlight had been focused on me and everyone was looking. I tried to smile but I’m sure it was a grimace, so I quickly put a five dollar bill on the bar and escaped. I never went back to The Monster, but I eventually found the courage to try another bar, and that was a much different experience, although it revealed that I had a serious character flaw.

The bar was called Uncle Charlie’s and it was on a quiet block of Christopher Street at the western edge of Greenwich Village. And it was big, with a bar area, a dance floor and a back room with sofas and wall-mounted televisions. I went there a few times, staying only a few minutes the first time, a little longer the second time, and on the third visit I was there long enough to finish two glasses of cranberry juice! I still felt uncomfortable, and usually stayed close to the bar, where I could anchor myself and look at the men all around me. Very few people spoke to me, which was fine, although I did envy the couples who had their arms around each other and kissed between sips of martinis. Everyone was young and beautiful.

A few months later, I went back to Uncle Charlie’s. It was a Saturday night in January of 1990 and I was feeling lonely. I ordered my usual cranberry juice and was standing near the bar when I noticed him. He was at the other end of the bar, but he had turned his head to look at me. As soon as he caught my eye, he smiled. It was always dim in Uncle Charlie’s and I couldn’t see him clearly, but I could tell that he was tall and had a nice smile. He motioned to me and I walked toward him, a little nervous but also excited.

As I got closer, I noticed that he was large, with a barrel chest and a double chin. But his face was handsome and his eyes were blue and kind. He looked young, probably no older than 25. We started chatting but it was very noisy and it was difficult to hear each other. All I learned was that his name was Paul and that he had come down from Greenwich, Connecticut. He suggested we leave so we could talk without shouting.

We walked along Christopher Street and then turned onto a side street and then another street and before long we found ourselves on 6th Avenue. We were talking so easily and comfortably with each other that we had covered several blocks without noticing. I was right about his age, and I found out that he was from a wealthy family and had been schooled in Europe. He was now preparing to settle into a career at his father’s law firm.

He was charming and very flirtatious and boldly suggested that I take him home with me for the night. I acquiesced and we found a subway that passed through my neighborhood in Brooklyn.

As soon my front door had closed behind us, he kissed me gently and sweetly. I knew what he was probably expecting and I, too, was thinking about sex. But when we went into the bedroom and he started undressing, I was turned off as though a bucket of cold water had fallen on my head. Despite his efforts to excite me, I could not get past his portliness. He was big and round and I did not find him sexually attractive. I’m told that women can fake it, but men can’t. If a man is not aroused, it’s obvious.

We did lay side by side, but we did nothing more than cuddle. I wanted to be attracted to him, but my body would not cooperate. He did not push me and seemed content to hold me and kiss the back my neck, but I could tell he was having a hard time sleeping. I felt guilty, which also made it difficult for me to sleep. I knew it was shallow to only care about the way someone looked, but I couldn’t seem to help it.

I sent him away the next morning with a hug and a kiss.

“I really like you,” he said. “And I want to see you again.”

I liked him too, but I didn’t feel a spark. I could not get past his weight, and when he called me later in the day, wanting to drive down for another date, I made an excuse. He called again two days later, at 7 a.m., and said he wanted to stop by my apartment and make breakfast for me before I went to work. He was being sweet and kind and attentive and thoughtful… but I said no.

He called me once more and asked me to spend the weekend with him. His parents were out of town and we’d have the family manse to ourselves. He envisioned a very romantic weekend, with candlelight dinners and champagne by the fireplace. He plied me with compliments and words of romance, but I had to tell him that I wasn’t interested. I had probably led him on, and now I was disappointing him. It was very unkind of me. So what if he was overweight. It was his heart and soul that should have mattered. I am ashamed of the way I behaved.

I never heard from him again. I have thought of him so many times over the years, wishing that I could go back in time and let him come over to prepare breakfast, that I could accept his invitation to go up to Greenwich for the weekend. I might have missed out on something very special. But we can’t fix past mistakes and our sins of omission stay with us as long as we live. He was a sweet guy and I hope he did find someone who appreciated his goodness.

I am sad now that I let him get away. There were a couple others that also got away, for various reasons, and some relationships that never developed. If anyone asks, I always say that of all the men that slipped out of my grasp, the one I regret the most is Christopher Reeve!

That is a fantasy, of course. I never had a date with hunky and handsome Superman. But our faces did come within a few feet of each other once.

I attended the awards ceremony for the National Board of Review at Lincoln Center in late February of 1989. The annual event is a scaled down version of the Oscars, with a small audience who attend by invitation only. It was very exciting to sit close to the stage and see such movie stars as Jodie Foster and River Phoenix accepting their awards. Kirk Douglas was there, too, receiving a lifetime achievement award. It was a few years before his debilitating stroke, and he was still tall and dashing.

One of the presenters was Christopher Reeve. When the ceremony was over and everyone was leaving, I lingered for a few minutes, watching the celebrities greeting and congratulating each other. When I finally left my seat and moved into the main aisle, I had to stop suddenly. Christopher Reeve was right in front of me and we were facing each other. He was close enough to touch and we just stood there for a few seconds, our eyes meeting. I had never seen such eyes. They were as blue as the Adriatic Sea and I was hypnotized. He finally grinned and said “excuse me.”

“No, excuse me,” I managed to say and moved aside to let him pass. It was a moment of bliss which I shall never forget.

Putting Mr. Reeve aside, I do wonder what would have happened if Roger had taken the time to introduce me to a gay relationship, or if I had not foolishly rejected Paul’s loving overtures. I also wish I had talked to that handsome young man on the subway. But those scenarios will never be written, as time moves on without offering second chances.