R.I.P. Karl – Free version

He dunked for the Nazarene.

So I came to watch.

His tiny church-school barely had enough guys to form a normal-sized class, never mind a good basketball squad. The school itself was nestled in a green rectangle off to the side of my old high school. I was nineteen; he was sixteen. We’d met when I was sixteen. He’d wandered down my sister’s street when I was helping her with a garage sale, not buying anything, just hanging out with me the whole day.

[When I find the words, I’ll write about watching him, catching him rubbing himself while looking at me, grinning the perviest grin I’ve ever seen on a kid. It seems so absurd. Has it taken me this long to realize what had been happening?]

Tanned/toasted, sun-bleached-blonde, and shirtless, I was dazzled. He was the first love of my life, the best friendship that taught me how I loved and who.

Years later, talking about it when visiting my parents and him, back home on a break from college, he mock-moaned and laughed: “Oh no! I made Rick gay!”

Karl made me hope that the one I wanted could want me back, something I still have trouble believing now.

But then, as a young man myself, it was something else, something more evenly matched.

He’d been begging me for weeks, knowing that I didn’t much like sports, but that I liked to watch him move.

“Come when I know my mom isn’t there. No one else will care.”

(Karl and I weren’t allowed to see each other. His mom suspected I was gay and too hot for her son. She was smarter than any of us, at least about that one thing. She wasn’t smart enough to know we both would have done just about anything to stay together, at least then.)

About fifty people watched his game. It was a small school in a small church in a small town. He must have known someone would tell. “That reprobate, that backslider, came to Karl’s game.”

Someone did tell his mom and she grounded him. It was months before he felt confident enough to sneak out of the house so we could meet up again. Like secret lovers, but we never were.

In spite of my better judgment, I came and watched in order to rekindle the excitement I always experienced around him.

He wasn’t particularly good. Just aggressive. Motoring down the court, traveling, grinning while doing so, his short brown arms protecting the ball, like our secrets. Which is to say: not very well.

Later, when I’d had more experience with young men, looking back on Karl’s game, I realized I’d been shown off, while he was.

Older men. Young men. Only four years difference but the script was already there, waiting.

Varnished wood smeared with adolescent sweat, squeaking Jordans. The hard press, the breakout, the golden forward hogging the ball, rushing the goal, and shooting.

It looked wild but it sunk; that ball hung in the air forever, swishing the net — moved, but barely touched.

I wrote the preceding passage a couple years ago in about twenty minutes, for a Second Story Buenos Aires event.

My friend Karl was the first love of my life. He was a kind and open person and barely flinched when I told him I was gay, and that the intensity of our friendship had had a lot to do with figuring that out sooner rather than later.

We kept in touch sporadically through his twenties. He visited me in college, in Carbondale for the Halloween debauchery, where he got drunk, got lost, found his way back to my house and threw up Quatro’s Pizza all over my bathroom: globs of mozzarella, splatters of sauce like blood.

I cleaned him up, stripped him, and then we had an interesting few moments when he pulled me down on top of him in bed and wouldn’t let me go. I tried to tug his fingers apart, laced as they were around my neck. He wouldn’t budge. I tried pushing out from under his arms with mine. He slid his arms down my back and kept me there.

He was strong, stronger than me, and his big hands covered more skin than mine could.

I don’t recall what finally made him let me go. Something I’d said. I remember his hoarse sigh when he settled back down in the bed, releasing me.

Next morning, he couldn’t look me in the eye.

“But nothing happened, Karl. Nothing happened,” I’d said.

“I know,” he’d said.

Maybe that had been the problem. Maybe he thought I didn’t want him that way anymore. I had been tempted, but I couldn’t carry it through and complete the many half-gestures and partial moves we’d made over the years, merging with this last one he’d offered so boldly. I wanted it; it was what I’d always longed for.

But not that way.

I discovered today on Facebook that he died of a rare spinal cancer three years ago, after a short battle. There are photos of him at the doctor’s office, after seven months of chemo. He still looked ripped, like an A&F model, but complained in the caption about his undetectable love handles. A less body-conscious boy might have called them his Adonis belt. That self-consciousness was familiar to me. It was something he used to indulge when I knew him, too. That smooth, rippled Native-American/Germanic body, for the longest time, was my erotic blueprint for the perfect man. (Then I moved to Chicago and discovered Latinos.)

Based on his Facebook, he was well-loved by his friends and family and was surrounded by them when he passed in hospice on December 11, 2011. They’ve left many messages to him since he died. His young son, just as handsome and athletic, has a photo of Karl’s gravestone on his profile, the last one he’s posted in some time. I was startled to realize I have remembered Karl’s birthday every year since we met, sometimes not remembering specifically why the eleventh of October felt important, only that it weighed on me until I did.

I remember we rode double on a single moped, even though each had his own, at the height of summer, away from our families, our homes with flimsy screen doors, collapsing backyard pools, and the smell of fried potatoes and onions wafting over our backyard lawns in the early evenings.

I remember you behind me, leaning into me, your chest tracking slowly, softly up the hub of my spine. Your hands reached around my waist, a cheek against my back. When we hit a stop sign, and the lights near home, you let go like my belly had burned you.

I remember my dad having complained to me, with a sneer, that we played too much “grab-ass,” always taking our shirts off and wrestling in the grass. (How did he know, I wonder? What did he see that I couldn’t?)

I remember you compared us to Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari.

I remember your letter to me, the one you wrote after we’d had some silly fight. You said in it that you’d try to get better at expressing yourself, as I always told you. (I was a hard friend, even then.) I remember your asking me what it would have been like to find out your best friend was gay.

Now, looking back, that answer seemed like something we were always trying to find out, though we never did ask every question we could have.

We came close, I guess.

One hot summer afternoon, when we’d finished mowing my parents’ huge lawn, I’d gone into my room to lie down, exhausted. I’d hoped you’d come in, with my chin on my hands, looking at the floor and the doorway, and I must have believed it was possible. Our brown bodies had been signaling each other all day in the yard, waiting for the right moment to respond, grinning when we’d brush past each other, or throw a fake punch. When you did come in, quickly but gently stretching out on top of me, only the fact that you did it face-up, butt to butt rather than butt to crotch, made it less electrifying than it had been in my head.

Your hot skin, the smell of cut grass and sweat, the tides of your breath — I had then almost everything I wanted and have never come close to finding again.

I remember you so well, Karl, and I’m so glad that you found love.

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