It was supposed to be a cool night. August is grueling but not brutal—a tropical climate’s nod to an impeding change of season that is itself more nominal than real. In the AOL chatroom, he wondered if I was sure about the weather. This was charming—a nineteen-year-old Ohio transplant worrying about rain. I’ve got this, I thought. I could hide my inexperience. Then he gave explicit directions about how to enter the University of Miami and on which block to collect him. In the year when cell phones hovered at the point of ubiquity, we had to explain things to each other once (college students still had phones in their dorm rooms: he didn’t want his roommate to answer). I was disappointed. Four years my junior, and he wasn’t new to this sort of thing after all.
For readers who didn’t mature before the advent of OKCupid, Grindr, and Match.com, AOL chatrooms marked the Triassic Period of dating/hookup sites. You’d join an “m4m” chat, watch the chaos, and hope someone noticed your stats fast enough to send an instant message. The way stats and greetings and exhortations to join some dude who wanted “to get some fuckin groove on in South Pointe Park!!!” hurled across cyberspace reminded me of the bit in the Inferno when Dante and Virgil watch the illicit lovers hurtle past each other in an unceasing storm. If you were lucky, you spoke on the phone (there was no texting). If it worked, you arranged to meet, although in the pre-Grindr days you could end up, as friends learned, driving to a bar several miles away and no one showing up.
I don’t remember who responded first. I don’t remember his name. I’ll call him Chris. A sophomore history major at UM, he owned no car and didn’t work. We spoke on the phone, not the first conversation since my coming out to friends a month earlier but the first whose momentum and my desperation made deciding easy. I tried to discuss interests—bands, movies, shit like that. He was polite, but I heard silent fingers tapping impatiently on the receiver.
“Wanna meet later?”
“We can decide. And you’ll have to pick me up.”
An adventure! My friend Raquel, worried, offered to follow me. Nah—I could handle a punk-ass Ohioan. When I showed up at the UM entrance as per the instructions, a scrawny punk-ass is what I saw: smaller than I by a couple inches, wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt, round wire-rimmed glasses, and a cap. Turns out he was green—about Miami. A fair trade for polite trade. Ignorant of gay bars, terrified of exhibiting Chris in straight ones, I suggested Miami’s lookout point: a pine-covered spit of land on the Rickenbacker Causeway called Hobie Beach. As a kid we made several desultory attempts to meet family; guests could bring pets, and dog paws were tough enough to withstand the broken beer bottles, jagged rock, and mud that substituted for sand (as a four-year-old I waded into the water in sneakers). But with its view of Biscayne Bay and downtown, it was a good place to do drugs or neck with a girlfriend, or, if it was your fancy, pick a fight with a dude whom you thought was checking out your girlfriend.
As for Chris, his sangfroid was impressive—readers who think I cut an impassive figure should have seen this dog-sized iceberg. He thawed when I explained Hobie. A beach! Northerners love beaches like Freddie Mercury loved sex. But he refroze when it looked like I had no idea where the hell I was going. I missed the turnoff into Hobie, which meant a mile drive into Key Biscayne for the first legal U-turn. By the time we reached the beach it was nine o’ clock: too early but for the die-hards, their dark cars an expectation I wanted fulfilled. We sat on the pine-needle-covered not-beach, our backs against the wheels of my Escort. Refuse, old barbeque, drying sea salt, and sex created mephitic fumes. About twelve feet from our feet a water rat rustled the needles. I chattered like a fool in the tone I’d come to recognize over the years: the out of body detachment of a distracted soul listening to his pharynx recite words as practiced as a Kiwanis Club speech, in this case a description of my personal history with Hobie. Chris stared—curious? bored? My detachment didn’t fade even when we kissed. I allowed myself to think, I am a man, tasting another man. What did another man taste like? Upper lip hair.
Not much happened—and everything. The groping was so predictable as to demystify homosexuality for good. This is what I’d been afraid of: a balding undergraduate disappointed by a diffident older dude who’d confused Three Mile Island for Fire Island. It had taken longer to reach Hobie than to reach our idle climax. He refused my offer of a drink; as punishment he listened to a C-90 mix of that summer’s Madonna, Missy Elliott, and Chemical Brothers songs, speckled with a couple tunes from Wire’s 154,new to me (I love that tape). We exchanged phone numbers and goodbyes with the blitheness and excitement of men grateful they’d never see other again.
Unfazed after rejecting her offer, Raquel had gathered the posse at a Denny’s close to home. When I entered twenty-five minutes later, the crew burst out laughing. I laughed too—who didn’t want to be part of a joke? “Go to the bathroom, bro,” she said. Good advice. My collar was fucked up, hair a mess, and my lips looked like smushed rose petals.
As redundant as a birthday card, gratitude doesn’t encompass what happened that August night. Gratitude requires indebtedness. If it hadn’t been Chris, it would’ve been another balding undergrad. Interchangeability was the point. And so I went, relieved that banality of experience was the point too. I was queer like everyone else.