I grew up in a small town in Arkansas. That alone speaks for itself considering I’m gay. And not just gay, but super gay. It’s a love-hate relationship.

Isolated and alone with my feelings, my only outlet to find other gay people was on television. This was the 90s though, the only gay role models I had were Ellen DeGeneres and cast members of MTV’s The Real World.

That wasn’t enough for me. I was in fourth grade when I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I can remember walking down the street to knock on Jase’s door, my best friend, to give him his homework that he had missed that day cause he was at home sick. When he answered the door finally, I told him that I needed to tell him something. He asked, “What?”

I told him that I thought I might be a “biosexual.” I didn’t quite have all the lingo down yet. He asked me what that meant. And I told him, “It means I like girls… and boys.”

I remember him just standing there looking at me in a way he had never looked at me before. Hesitant, skeptical, revulsion. Eventually he spoke up, “I don’t want to play today.” He then shut the door in my face.

Hurt, defeated, worried; I felt utterly alone. Our friendship took a turn for the worse after that. The following day, I went back over to his house and told him that I was just joking about the whole “biosexual.” He said he thought so and invited me in to play video games.

Soon enough though, he did turn on me. At school, he became aggressive often mocking me in front of my classmates. He never revealed to anyone that I was a “biosexual” or that I was gay, but he made fun of me relentlessly. It reached a crescendo one day when I was walking home with my neighborhood friends when I heard him call out my name from behind. When I turned around, he looked me straight in the face and with childish venom, spat in my face. Filled with rage, I rushed after him throwing my bicycle to the side and tearing my backpack off. I can remember my hands trying to grapple onto his backpack as he pedaled faster. He was too big for me to bring down, it was either I let go or hold on until he eventually dragged me behind in his wake. Surrendering into an emotional pain, I let go and crumpled to the ground beginning to cry. My friends who had my bicycle and backpack, caught up with me, acknowledging the act of aggression toward me. They told me not to worry. But I did. I internalized that pain, the hate that was directed towards me for being something different than the heteronormative status quo. Despite knowing who I was, I went back into the closet with a fierce vengeance to never let that happen to me again.

By the time I entered middle school, I had given up any type of hope that I was a “biosexual.” I even learned that it was in fact called bisexual. I was simply gay. This was the early aughts, and families began to buy computers for their home. This allowed me the opportunity to learn more about my personal affliction, my gayness. I would frequently visit gay teen support sites, the likes of the now defunct, Mogenic.com and slightly older, NSFW Gay.com.

I would go into the chat rooms creating alias’ about who I was and why I was there. Always a teenager who so desperately wanted to come out of the closet but didn’t know how without feeling the pain or suffering that I had already come to know. As a child of divorce, I would often stay up late into the night drinking Mom’s boxed white wine or pouring myself a vodka and Fresca at Dad’s, as I scoured the internet for some kind of help while numbing the pain of feeling different.

It wasn’t until I was in eighth grade that I began to see other teenagers from around my area in Arkansas pop up on these support sites. Individuals, unknown to me since we were all afraid to show our real picture. This could often incite excitement, solace, or fear in me. Fear that these unknown others were in fact bullies at my school trying to entrap me. I proceeded with caution.

I knew there were others at my middle school but I couldn’t figure out who. I had to narrow down the suspects. There was Jason who talked like one of my older sister’s friends who was always buzzing around the popular crowd. I found him to be a threat as he was a huge gossip. There were my friends in several of my gifted and talented classes who I thought could be gay. Not based on anything in particular except their open-mindedness. They were more like the straight kids who made it okay for the gay kids to come out in high school. Finally, I settled on Dexter who sat next to me in Keyboarding. He would often ask me questions about what kind of music I liked and tried to find ways to make me laugh. He would invite me to hang out with his two girl pals who I was friendly with, Hannah and Fuzzy (yes, her nickname was Fuzzy because of her big bushy, fuzzy hair).

Months of hanging out with Dexter in these social settings, chatting on AOL Instant Messenger late into the night, and laughing together in class came to the moment of us coming out to each other the night of the Valentine’s Dance. We had chatted before about who we thought might be gay in our class but had never come close revealing our own true nature; as if it were a game of cat and mouse. After the dance that night, Dexter messaged me and told me he wanted to tell me something. I let him know he could tell me anything; He told me he was gay. Filled with excitement to the moon and back, elated, I messaged him back to let him know I was gay too.

Dexter was the first other gay person I had told that I was gay. The feeling of finding someone who was like me in small-town Arkansas was exhilarating. It meant that I wasn’t alone. That I wasn’t defunct. That nothing was wrong with me. That someone else knew what I was going through and we had that camaraderie. We could confide in each other.

For the rest of the weekend, we chatted on the phone constantly. Something that I had always reserved for talking to potential beard girlfriends. I didn’t have to fake liking someone with him. I laid on the floor of my sisters now empty bedroom for hours talking on their cordless phone with Dexter, staring up at the ceiling connecting the dots of the plaster together as if it were cosmic that we had found each other. By the end of the weekend, Dexter had asked me if I would be his boyfriend. I said, “Yes.”

Three days later, I broke up with him. My reasoning was that I didn’t want to feel forced to date the only other gay person in town. I wanted to have a choice in who I could be with like straight people. This didn’t stop us from acting like boyfriends or dating for the following seven months.

We would often get together with Hannah and Fuzzy as a cover-up. We’d go to the mall and ride the elevators. When the doors closed and we were all alone, we would steal quick kisses. We’d bend down behind racks of clothing at Abercrombie and Fitch and hold each other’s hands. I’d take him to the book stores and show him all the books I had read. He would take me to the music store and show me which artists he was listening to. Pink was his favorite artist at the time, and “Just Like A Pill,” quickly became ‘our song,’ despite the lyrics stating, “…Instead of making me better, you keep making me ill.” It was more about the music video for us with all of the skin that was showing.

We went to go see Clockstoppers starring Jesse Bradford with a huge group of friends one night. We calculatingly sat in the back row corner so we could hold hands. Hannah and Fuzzy to our left to block the sight from onlookers in our group. At some point during the movie, we ate a Twizzler like they do in The Lady and the Tramp. We thought we had done a good job of hiding our affection until we looked up as someone gasped from down the row. It was Caitlin, a girl who wasn’t quite popular but was nice enough. She had seen us and that’s when everything changed.

The following Monday at school there were murmurs of Dexter and I being gay. I was quick to deny. Deny Deny Deny. Dexter did the same thing but left it a little more open ended. At the same time, my home life was in the midst of change. I had lived primarily with my Mother until this point, and I knew that coming out of the closet completely was just around the corner. I wanted to go to boarding school in California, and the only way I was going to be able to do that was switch custody from my Mother to my Father. I knew that if I could get out of Arkansas and go to high school in a more open minded place, coming out the closet entirely would be an easier experience. I didn’t want to leave Dexter behind but I had to think about my well-being. I knew that staying in Arkansas wouldn’t set well with me for the coming years. Also, I wanted to be able to come out of the closet away from my parents on my own terms.

I switched custody from my Mother to my Father. I applied to Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California. I was admitted shortly after and the plan was to begin high school at the boarding school of my dreams the following fall. Unfortunately, that meant leaving my friends and especially, Dexter behind.

Dexter and I grew closer over the summer though attending a Summer Theatre Academy at the local university. This allowed us to spend almost every day with each other for our last few months together, before my leaving in August 2002. It was bitter-sweet. The journal I kept at the time is filled with my thoughts going back and forth on missing Dexter and what that would mean for our future. Would we remain friends? Would we still keep in contact? The saddest part about leaving Arkansas was leaving him behind.

We tried to keep in touch in the best way we could. I would get Instant Messages from him but his family had discovered his sexuality and he was having a hard time with that. He moved to his grandmothers for awhile. When I came home to visit for Thanksgiving, we only got to spend a few hours together but things had changed and ultimately we had grown apart. I had grown in ways that were unforeseen and he was stuck in a standstill in our small town of Arkansas. What once was a romantic relationship was now something of a memory to remember fondly.

We lost touch soon after that. Going our separate ways, experiencing our own growing pains and self-discovery. It would be eight years until I saw him again.

The next time I saw Dexter was Christmas 2010. I had travelled home to Arkansas from New York City where I now reside. I was in the middle of studying Television and Radio at Brooklyn College. I had touched base with Dexter over Facebook, and we planned to meet at his house after I’d had Christmas dinner with my step-mothers family. My step-cousin drove me to Dexter’s house. My nervousness of seeing him again was weighing on me. Who was he now? Would I recognize him? Would he recognize me? Would we even still like each other?

He was now living at one of his friend’s parents house, and there were a gaggle of gays strewn about the living room. I can’t remember their names exactly but we drank and imbibed in other social lubricants. The long-distance and time had changed us. I found it hard to connect with him in the same way that we once had. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but I found myself let down. We had just gone down two different paths and the destinations where we had ended up had changed us invariably. We were no longer young and innocent in the way we had been when we first connected. We both wore scars from our pasts, known or not.

I was grateful for the experience though. His friends drove me home later that night. A decision I look back on eerily where it stands today. We had no right being in that car or driving. It was almost a forewarning to our futures.

I returned to New York after a few days and we sadly never spoke again.

In September of 2011, I was shocked to read a blurb on Towleroad one morning discovering that a gay man had been found dead in a bathtub with a sleeping Arkansas meteorologist. When I clicked the link to discover on CNN.com that it was Dexter who was the one found dead, with a dog collar around his neck. It was later reported that drugs were found in his system and he had died of asphyxiation.

This was a complete shock to me and sent me into a depression. I didn’t know how to cope with the news or the loss. It was too much for me to handle. It hit close to home as I was discovering my own issues with drugs and alcohol. I sought counseling in the health center at Brooklyn College where I would show up to class and sessions intoxicated.

Dexter’s death brought up a lot of emotions from my past and showed me how close a call I’d had – that my drinking and using had put me in the kind of dangerous situations that had claimed his life.

My counselor, who I am eternally grateful for, helped push the beginning concept of sobriety and living a day at a time in my life. My journey toward sobriety would begin there but wouldn’t reach fruition until five years later, now.

Every year I mourn the loss of Dexter in September. I find this month to be difficult as many past traumas occurred in September. It was this year that I could finally reflect on it with a clearer mind as I’m over a year sober today. I used to have a lot of anger towards the meteorologist that was found with Dexter; somehow wanting to blame him for Dexter’s death. Today, I understand that he is not held liable as much as the bartenders I used to frequent were held liable for my intoxication. I actually feel compassion towards him and forgiveness. While I lost my first boyfriend creating a hole in my personal coming out story, he was the one who woke up next to him. He has to live with those final moments of Dexter’s life for the rest of his days. I hope he has healed from the trauma. I don’t wish ill-will upon him. It’s not my place to judge. Things happen that are out of our control. The only thing we can do is forge meaning into the events, and grow from them as painful as they may be.

I do miss Dexter. I think about him a lot. He’s a strand interwoven so deep in my story. I was able to be myself around him without fear or insecurity. Our relationship was innocent and pure. I think often that he will be 24 forever. As time passes and I grow older, I can live life for better or worse. I don’t have to live a certain way anymore by numbing my pain. I can let go and move on. I’ll do it for Dexter, but most importantly, I’ll do it for me. Thank you, Dexter.

[Originally Published October 18, 2017]

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