When I was 15 I fell madly in love with a boy named Eric. His father lived in the Dakota, Eric’s bedroom windows looking out over Central Park West, and Strawberry Fields. I would spend weekends at Eric’s place. We would lie in bed jerking off, kissing and fucking. During the day, when Eric would lock himself in his bedroom and paint, I would go across the street to the park, and cruise the Rambles.
I would spend hours wandering those trails, trying to see how many guys I could get to touch me, to let me fuck them, how many different guys I could make cum by sucking them off.
And then I would return to Eric. We would get high on opium laced joints and he would tell me about what he had created: Eric believed his work was inspired by beings who lived in other dimensions. Eric believed that there were worlds within worlds, and if we closed our eyes we could see past the thin veil of our existence: we could see into the endless expanse.
Eric would wake me up late at night. He would be crying. He would tell me that he had to get out. He had to get away. I knew he was falling under the spell of whatever madness ate at him. And maybe a part of me understood it: understood the burning in his brain, the voices.
We would go for long walks, down Central Park West to 59th, meeting Broadway, through Times Square, and into the Village. He would sit in Thompkins Square Park, listening to the drums play, listening to the drunks and the conspiracy theorists yelling at the sky, and I would wander down 7th street to the stoop where the dope dealers stood.
A bag of dope for each of us. Enough to quiet our screaming heads. And we would sit on benches, waiting for the sun to come up, telling each other wild dreams of who we would be, of love and adventure. I was going to be a poet, a writer, Eric was going to be an artist, he was going to be a cult leader: and one day, when we were older, we would find each other again, and we would spend the rest of our lives in love somewhere in the desert, or in Paris, or Tunisia, or maybe in an apartment in Chelsea.
When Eric moved to Sedona to live with his mother I thought my whole world would fall apart. I had never known pain like that in my life. Eric is the first man I ever really loved.
And the loss of him ripped through me, tore at me, like losing a part of myself.
I didn’t know then what I know now: that even though it felt like dying, it wouldn’t kill me. I didn’t know then that I am strong, and that love, even the loss of love, will just make me stronger.
My mother, Beverly, used to talk about the fires that burned in her head. How they would burn bright and then dark. How life was an endless battle between those fires. Beautiful and destructive and consuming.
“We are like that, you and me. We burn bright. And that burning can make life feel endlessly magical, but if you aren’t careful those fires will consume you and everyone you have loved.”
She’s right of course. Those fires have consumed me over and over. Like heroin. Like the screaming thoughts in my head.
The first time I kissed Eric was in Madison New Jersey, where my father was living, where his mother lived before moving to Sedona. We were on the golf course, it was three in the morning, and Eric was sure that the night sky was full of alien crafts, that the shadows were hiding whispering men, we were tripping on mushrooms and I think I kissed him because I wanted to shut him up as much as I actually wanted to kiss him.
He held me. He was so warm. I was high enough to feel us becoming one. I was high enough to believe we could stay like that forever, breathing in the night.
Clay’s likes to ask me when I knew I was in love with him, and I never want to tell him, because what if I fell in love with him first? Because I resist him, I don’t want him to think I love him as much as I do: I’m afraid of falling in love with Clay’s: I’m afraid of losing him. I’m so afraid of losing some battle that is a self-made construct: I am so afraid of giving in, and yet here is a secret: when I give in I win. Every time. When I give in I no longer even care about winning: I’m just happy.
But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot too. When did I fall in love with Clay’s? Was it the night he showed up alone at Ostbahnhoff, a warehouse party in Downtown LA, where I was with my boyfriend, Noah, who was visiting from Berlin with friends of ours? Clay’s stood there, on the dance floor, watching me, something about his eyes, the way he looked at me: I wanted to walk up to him, to kiss him: I wanted the whole world to stop so it could be just the two of us. He smiled: maybe I fell in love with him the first time I ever saw him smile because Clay’s has one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen: because even though he wouldn’t agree with me, I know it is true: Clay’s smile that night was so full of hope and dreams and life , or maybe it was the first time I realized he was just as scared as I was, or the night, driving home from another warehouse party and we pulled over on the side of the road and he fell asleep, because I wouldn’t let him sleep over yet, because I was still refusing to give in, and his head was on my shoulder and I listened to him breath: listened to him live.
When did I fall in love with you, Clay’s?
Was it the time you asked me to come to the Eagle and watch you dance, and I did. I got dressed and drove to the Eagle and you danced for me. And I knew: this was important. It was important that I did that.
My mother would tell me we had been in love forever. Before we even met: that our love was just waiting for us to find it.
I come from the kind of women who believe in magic and love and destiny: the kind of women who have spent their lives refusing to be anything other than who they are.
Maybe I have loved you forever, Clay’s. Sometimes that is exactly how it feels.
Clay’s and I fuck. A lot. And we fight. And we burn as bright as we can: and we do everything we can not to be consumed, even when all I want is to be consumed.
When I got sober the thing I was most afraid of was losing what made me special, of becoming like everyone else: a man who goes to work, who grows old, who loses his dreams. What I didn’t realize was that the drugs were the things that were holding me back, the things that were robbing me of my real fire, of my true dreams.
Sobriety is a challenge for me. The voices in my head, the anger, the jealousy, the obsessive thoughts. I struggle with quieting my head so I can hear who I really am: that little voice underneath it all.
This is amplified in my relationship. I am slowly realizing that when I am mad at Clay’s, or jealous, or scared, it rarely has anything to do with him, or us, but with all the stories I have built from that very first kiss with Eric, through all the men I have loved, through all the loss and all the dreams that didn’t come true and all the fear: sometimes I have to step away from Clay’s and realize: this isn’t about us . It’s about me.
Because, like anyone who has made it 51 years, I am damaged, and that’s ok. It’s actually kind of beautiful. If I let it be. We are all these amazing, damaged survivors: we are the ones who get to tell the stories.
Clay’s grew up in Nebraska. He moved to Chicago when he was 27 to be an actor and an artist: to be the man he really always was. So going for a three day trip to Chicago was going home for Clay’s.
The most amazing thing about going home with someone, going back to where they were creating the dreams that would define them, is you get to meet all the people who loved them. You get to see them outside of the context of the life you have together: you get to see Them.
Maybe you fall in love with someone many times: maybe it isn’t one time. Maybe I fell in love with Clay’s listening to stories his friends told me of the actor, of the young man, of the crazy man: of my man. Or maybe it was the night we stood in the middle of a sex party at Jackhammer and Clay’s wouldn’t let me go, whispering in my ear, “Mine,” or when he walked me around Sidetrack in Boys Town excited to show me his world.
Or maybe it was when he showed me all the places he had fucked, or sucked dick, the dark rooms and the guys he had met there. Or walking all the way from Downtown to Edgewater where we were staying because he wanted me to see everything: the theatres he had performed in and the apartments he had lived in: he wanted me to love Chicago as much as he did: he wanted me to catch the dream.
This is what it means to get to get to know someone: to learn them: to see them. There were those moments in Chicago where I realized: This is Clay’s. This is a Clay’s I’ve never met before. This is a whole new Clay’s for me to fall in love with.
And we got to fuck some really hot dudes together, and I got jealous, and we fought, but mostly we walked and we talked and we grew: and we fed the fires so they could feed us.
My mother had a friend, David. David was gay. He would spend summer weekends on fire Island, he bartended at a gay bar in New Hope. David would spend weeks with us, sleeping in our guest room, telling my brother and I wildly inappropriate stories about all his adventures. Stories I would jerk off to, hungry for life.
David was the first man I ever knew who died of AIDS. I remember being at his funeral, all the men crying: it was the early years, the years we were still able to cry: before all the funerals my mother would make me go to: “Because we owe it to them. We owe it to all of them.” After the funeral we went to Washington Square Park and someone played a pop song I can’t remember on a big black radio and we all danced and I remember the way the sun burned against the buildings, the way the clouds rolled over the City, and the way a summer rain fell, and we still danced.
And I remember my mother saying, when I asked her why we were dancing: “Because what else are you going to do? It’s either dance or die, baby boy. So we’re gonna dance.”
When I found out I was HIV positive I was terrified to tell my mother. Because she had lost everyone, all those men who had helped raise me, because there came a time when we no longer danced, when we no longer cried: a time when we just knew: eventually they would all be dead.
I remember calling her. I couldn’t stop crying. I kept saying, “I’m so sorry, mom, I’m so sorry.”
And she said to me, “Baby. I love you more than anything in the whole world. This is just a thing. Just one more thing. It will not take you down.”
And of course she was right. I sero-converted in the age of undetectable viral loads and PreP and TASP, in the age where this would not kill me. But I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. Like I had let her down.
“You will make this something important,” she said to me. “You will use this to change your life.”
Maybe I fell in love with Clay’s when his dick was buried deep inside this little muscle dude we met in Chicago, when he reached out for me, his eyes connecting with mine: and I saw him there, I saw him loving me as he fucked that guy, or maybe it was when the three of us were kissing and I felt Clay’s hand taking mine in his, his fingers interlocking with mine…
…because this is what life is, isn’t it? All the dreams and all the love and all the loss and all the living…the burning as bright as we can without being consumed…
We fight and we fuck and we dream and we burn bright…and we love…and I wonder if Eric is the leader of his own cult in the desert, or if he is in Paris, or Tunisia, in some studio making brilliant art, or maybe he is a banker, or a homeless man, or maybe he’s dead, and I wonder who David would have been if he hadn’t have died of AIDS, or all those men who we could have loved, but instead, we turned our backs on, who as a nation we allowed to die alone from a disease that for me, in 2019 is totally manageable, and I can make their deaths matter: I can make David, who was so beautiful and funny and vibrant: I can make him matter…by loving Clay’s, by following my dreams all the way to the end, even the ones that never manifest: just by living and not giving in…
And maybe the first time I fell in love with you Clay’s was when…
Art work by Clay’s Manzer.