I PUSHED the gas pedal toward the floor. The speedometer topped seventy and then eighty, my awakened spirit fueling the car as much as the gas. As I hit ninety, the air conditioning vents rattled and the steering wheel shook. One more final push. The needle edged past one hundred. Wind whipped through the car’s open windows. I glanced in the rearview mirror and marveled at the emptiness. The roads across Pennsylvania and Ohio were mine.
I had dropped separate letters to my parents into a mailbox on Mercer Street where I lived during my law school years at New York University. It was the same street where I had watched the clouds of smoke from the plane hitting the first tower a few weeks earlier. The smell of death made my shame over being gay feel small and ridiculous. It was time to stop hiding.
The letter began: “I am healthy and happy, indeed happier than I can ever remember being. But I must also tell you that I have kept a secret from the two of you that I am no longer comfortable keeping—that I am gay.”
After mailing the letters, I began my road trip to Michigan to visit the boy I had fallen in love with that summer. Jeremy and I had interned together at a Manhattan law firm, and by chance he wound up living across the hall from me. Handsome and tanned from his days waterskiing on Michigan lakes, Jeremy had a carefreeness that drew people near. He had dark, thick hair that was forever perfect and a sculpted chest noticeable through his dress shirts. Like me, he was not yet out, a secret unstated but implicitly understood between us.
In a cab together after an evening spent drinking on the law firm’s tab, we grew illicitly close. My hand brushed up against his thigh, and he did not retreat. Jeremy’s gaze grew intense as we moved through the streets of Greenwich Village. When we arrived at our dorm, I broke through the thickness.
“So are you going to stay with me tonight?” It felt so daring.
We undressed each other on the way to my bed where the lights of the Williamsburg Bridge would frame our naked bodies. Our kissing and touching lasted for hours. But the night, and a summer of nights spent together, came to an end. I remained in New York City, and Jeremy went back to law school in Michigan.
The towers were destroyed a few weeks later. I invoked them in the letters to my parents: “I’ve seen true tragedy. My being gay is not.” I ended with a plea: “I will be waiting to hear from you, to hear that you still love me, to hear that you plan on being there for me. Because I love you very much and because I still need your support.”
The road trip was ecstasy. I pushed the car’s speed in the same way, at age 25, that I was finally pushing life. For much of the drive I played one song on repeat, Pearl Jam’s “Rearview Mirror.” Eddie Vedder’s voice howled trough the car’s speakers at maximum volume: “I took a drive today. Time to emancipate…”
I arrived in Michigan at dusk. When Jeremy answered the door, he was silent and pulled me toward him for an embrace. Then, we lost ourselves again in each other’s bodies.
At a bar the next evening, some of Jeremy’s law school classmates were perplexed by the story of why I would drive 600 miles just to visit him, a former work colleague. When I went with Jeremy to his family’s place in the Michigan suburbs, I was just a “friend.” We navigated the awkwardness of Jeremy’s younger sister wondering why he wouldn’t set me up with her. At night, we took his boat out into the middle of the lake in complete darkness but for the boat’s light. We kissed under the stars, in secret.
By now, my parents had read their letters. My world was changing. I was easing out of the closet while Jeremy remained firmly inside of it. Both of my parents left me voicemails while I was still on the trip. My mother pushed through tears to tell me she loved me even though the news was hard for her. My father sounded more distant but covered similar ground.
Jeremy and I continued dating long distance for a few more months. The divide between us grew. When he visited me in New York City, we were out and free with my circle of friends. Visits to Michigan involved more pretending. Jeremy needed time that I could not give. I let his reluctance to come out become a referendum on his love for me. We never recovered. He eventually told his parents, but I remained a secret to his sister and many of his friends. By the time he shared his full truth, we were in the same city but in different places. Life had marched on.
One of my saddest thoughts, which I try to push away the moment it forms, is wondering what if Jeremy had come out sooner, and what if I had stayed in the closet longer? Maybe first loves are destined not to last. But decades later, the thought presents itself whenever I’m reminded of the road trip, of Jeremy on his water skis effortlessly gliding across the lake’s choppy waters, of us together underneath an endless nighttime sky. What if? Of all the tyrannies of the closet, this question is surely one of them.
Brad Snyder is a nonprofit fundraiser and grant writer in New York City. When not working he’s forever writing children’s book manuscripts inspired by his daughter and dabbling in creative nonfiction.