The One That Got Away

The author at Our Lady of Mount Carmel

For about two years in Baltimore, 1975 and 1976, while we were students at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, Tom and I did a lot together. We went to our workshops led by Richard Howard, Cynthia Macdonald, and Edmund White. In class, we critiqued the work of our classmates, which included Louise Erdrich. We hitchhiked to Las Vegas to hear Tom’s twin brother Tim play saxophone in a casino orchestra.

We dropped acid and howled at the moon. We barhopped in Fells Point. We slummed around on weekends, mostly at the Peabody Bookstore and Beer Stube. We went to poetry readings.

Once, at a reading at the University’s Eisenhower Library, Tom and I heard James Merrill read. It changed my life. That night, Merrill was luminous. A gay poet at the height of his powers, dressed in jeans and a white button-down shirt, Merrill wore a fluted calla lily in the lapel of his sports jacket—a small, perfect, fluted calla lily! That night, it seemed as if Merrill were standing in a column of light, and pure spirit was pouring down from heaven into him like rain.

I remember.

I remember Merrill read some passages from his 560-page epic, The Changing Light at Sandover. I remember hearing Merrill read those odd occult messages, those strange voices from another world communicated to Merrill and his lover, David Jackson, during séances using a Ouija board. Merrill was transfixed as he read that night.

I remember I was sitting next to Tom, the man I loved, and I can remember thinking to myself that all I would ever want was poetry to be my life. I remember thinking all I would ever want to love would be men like Tom Sleigh and James Merrill.

The problem was Tom wasn’t gay. Curious, maybe, but not gay.

Tom and I tried sleeping together once. It was one night—just one night—in my dumpy apartment on 40th Street and Keswick Road, near Baltimore’s Rotunda. We got naked. Maybe half-naked. I was swollen with desire. Swollen and rock-hard like only a man in his young twenties can be. But I also remember trembling. Trembling like I was afraid. Trembling like I was cold. I just trembled to be touched. But there was no touching. There would never be any touching. For my whole life, I have wondered what it would have been like to be touched by Tom.

But that night in my apartment came and went. There would never be another night in bed with Tom. Borrowing from the title of one of Tom’s later poems, that night was a “song that could only be sung once.”

How did things end with Tom? It ended with my stupid suicide attempt. It ended one very cold December night on a narrow five-story ledge of the Homewood Apartments. After an hour on the ledge, someone called Tom. He broke through the cops who were at a bedroom window and climbed out there with me. Once he was out there with me, Tom never tried talking me out of jumping. Never. Instead, he sang Scottish sea shanties. He cracked jokes. He mused about one ridiculous and absurd thing after another.

As another hour wore on, Tom went deep into what I’ll call Anshō no zen. Zen for fools. It was performance art. Performance art that distracted me long enough to stop me from jumping. And it was an act of love.

In the end, Tom exhausted both of us, and we climbed back through the bedroom window off the ledge. I was arrested as a 51-50 involuntary commitment and sent to Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville, Maryland, for psychiatric evaluation. I was released back to Hopkins after 72 hours.

And that was it. The end.

Hopkins kicked me out of the writing seminars program. I had to reapply a year later. During that “gap year,” I was the editor and speechwriter for the only tenured Marxist professor at Hopkins, Vincente Navarro.

And Tom gave up on me. I wouldn’t see him for another 42 years. What would I tell Tom now?

In the life that followed,
the truly exhilarating moments
were few, far between,
and small, like bits—
brief impressions.

 Except for my clumsiness
I could have had you.


John Sakowicz won an award from PEN, the international writers’ organization, for his work writing about the AIDS epidemic and New York’s underground sex scene. Sakowicz has published work in mainstream periodicals like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. 


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