Could Have Been

“I don’t know if you heard, Tom Jansen died of AIDS.” My brother Jeff had maintained a connection with Lake City, Iowa. I had graduated high school, moved away to college, lived a life far different than one in small-town, rural Iowa.

Heart sting—it hurt. “No, I didn’t know.” It wounded me. The lost connection across more than a decade. How was I to know? And why had news come now—too late to matter or make a difference? No, I never knew.

Classmates, Tom and I shared in quartet for Iowa state song contest. Tom, the tenor; I the bass. We had same history, chemistry, English classes, and church choir.

I had kept Tom at arms’ length, fearful of being associated too closely with a boy with such effeminate characteristics and behavior. I mean, for God’s sake, he actually carried his books around the hallway, cradled in his arms in front of his chest! I would lug home eight or ten books, stacked and wedged firmly but awkwardly on one side against my pelvis—the way men did.

Tom and I could have been, should have been closer friends. I always knew that he admired, perhaps adored me a bit. But I could not allow that—not in those fiercely-closeted days, when my sexuality was a thing so deeply buried. I barely allowed conscious awareness of the attraction I felt toward other boys.

So, yes, Jeff’s words stung. Deep with regret. Another missed opportunity for bonding and connection. I had a basket full. It had been the marker of my youth. A heart-thumping compelling attraction toward a friend. My urgent, essential distancing from any boy, with whom a whiff of intimacy might spell disaster.

Fifty years later, it pains me. I could have known so many deeper friendships. I could have grown and matured with normal teenage dating. I could have explored the fun and joy of early sexual exploration with so many—Jim; Danny; Ed; John; Rusty; Steve; Pete; Phil; Bill. 

It bites even now to recall each name and the boy I might have known better and more deeply. With sex fun!

But even in that, I know I would never have been closer to Tom. He was the class sissy. I would never have crossed the line into that forbidden arena.

Yet, dammit! Why didn’t I know earlier? When I might have had the opportunity to reach out and reconnect. To renew friendship. To comfort a companion as he succumbed to dying.  

Sometimes, we just don’t get the opportunities we wish and deserve. Sometimes, we live and endure the disappointments of not being all that we might be. Dammit, we are forever simply human. 

Published by Ric d. Stark

New to a post-retirement commitment to literary non-fiction, Ric d. Stark will focus memories on gay life, Hawaiʻi life and Hawaiian quilting.

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