A lone canoe bearing two passengers sliced its way through the water. It was early enough in the season that the park, Devil’s Lake, was not overrun by campers. It was inhabited instead by those who felt a need to be there at that time. It was early in a new season of my life also, and that was why I had gone.
We parked the car and immediately started to set up our weekend camp. Brian was an Eagle Scout, so he took command and directed the activities. I had been his guest at the Boy Scout ceremony when he was made an Eagle; he had wanted me to share his pride. All through our lives we had shared our most intimate secrets, our private hopes, our souls.
As he crouched over the fireplace and I sat at a picnic table with pen in hand and a blank notebook before me, I watched him. He was wearing a worn pair of jeans and black sneakers, a red flannel shirt, an old gray sport coat bought at a thrift store in some city I never knew, and a gray hat, with the brim pulled down on the left the way our fathers wore them in the ’40s. His style reminded me of gangsters in late-night movies, but his face belied that image.
There were his eyes, innocent, pure; the few freckles on his youthful face; and the few gray hairs painted onto long black ones that at 22 suggested not age, but the wisdom and understanding that had always been his. I studied that face because as well as I knew it–and the person behind it–I was afraid of losing it that weekend. Slowly, and almost of its own will, my pen touched paper and I finally began to write what I had needed to write for years. I began with a simple, powerful phrase: I am gay.
Brian sat on the ground by the fireplace watching the flames, occasionally interjecting a sudden thought. He sensed that whatever I was writing was important for me to finish. And it was very important. On those pages I unleashed the emotions I had hidden for years. On paper, it had a sense of permanence that I could no longer deny.
After we finished eating dinner, he asked, as I knew he would, what was on the paper. Slowly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the carefully folded sheets and placed them in his hand. I wanted to ask him to understand, to accept me for the person inside as he had always done. But I could not speak. The words I had written would have to speak for themselves.
I waited patiently for him to finish reading, and when he did, I waited nervously for him to speak. He looked at me, confused, and said only, “I have to go for a walk and think about this.” I watched his familiar form moving away from me: first my recognizable friend, then a human silhouette, and finally a vague form being swallowed by the night.
How long I waited for Brian’s return I do not know. I sat staring into the embers of a dying fire, listening to the sounds of night. I felt alone in the world, with only the stars and the trees and the wind to hear my voice and to dry my tears.
I saw him coming up from the lake. He was walking slowly, but with sure steps. Before I knew it he was standing by the fireplace, leaning down and poking at the logs to rekindle the flame. “I want you to know,” he began, “that I don’t really understand your feelings, but I want to. And whether I do or not, I still love you and want to be your friend.”
After all the years of frustration and self-denial I had finally affirmed myself, and that affirmation had been accepted. We hugged, then sat down and silently watched the fire etch itself into the black night.
This was originally published in Out! newspaper, Wisconsin’s first LGBT newspaper, in May of 1983 (vol. 1, issue 7). It was also published in my book, My Queer Life.