Tuesday, January 24, 2017
My First Word Was My Boyfriend's Name
When I was born in November 1960, my parents were living in a house on South Randolph Street in Garrett, a small town in northern Indiana. We lived there until I was four and a half-years old, when we moved to Wisconsin.
I have very few memories of those years, and none about anyone who lived in the house next door.
But we returned to Garrett for visits once or twice a year, and drove down Randolph Street, past our old house, many times. My parents often pointed it out, and the house next door:
"That's where your girlfriend lived!"
I didn't have a girlfriend, at age six, or ten, or fifteen, and I didn't want one. I liked boys.
But nearly every time we drove past that house on South Randolph Street: "There's your girlfriend's house!"
It was the most annoying of the "what girl do you like?" interrogations that tormented me as a kid. I roiled at the blanket assumption that I, like every boy who had ever lived and ever would live, swooned over feminine curves and smiles, that my destiny lay in the prison of wife, kids, factory job, and small square house.
Like the two-story frame house with the ugly gray paint and the broken front door where, according to my parents, I had a girlfriend at the age of four.
We drove down Randolph Street a lot. On the way to visit my grandparents -- both of them. On our way to Auburn or Rome City to visit my aunts and uncles. On the way home. On the rare occasions that we did something in downtown Garrett. A dozen times per visit. And inevitably:
"That was where your girlfriend lived!"
Sometimes Mom added a few details: The girl's name was Rebecca. She was three months younger than me, brown hair, blue eyes. We played in our bassinets together. My first word, other than "Mommy" and "Bye-Bye," was "Becky."
My first word was a girl's name. I found that horribly depressing.
In July 1978, I was 17 years old, a new high school graduate. I had just figured "it" out, but no one knew except my brother.
We usually left Rock Island as soon as Dad got off work, at 4:00 pm, and drove six hours to Rome City to spend the night with Aunt Nora. The next day all of Mom's brothers and sisters gathered at Grandpa Prater's farmhouse outside Garrett and spent the day playing horseshoes or board games, watching tv, and talking, with a picnic or barbecue in the summer. But today Grandpa Prater wasn't feeling well, so we just stopped in for a brief visit; the family gathering would take place at Uncle Paul's house in town.
"Look! Your girlfriend's house!" Mom exclaimed as we drove down Randolph Street.
I started to worry. Was it possible that at the beginning of my life, I liked girls? Did something happen to turn me gay? And if you could turn gay, could you turn straight again?
Going out with a girl, sitting with her on a couch, touching her on the face and shoulder, squeezing her breast, kissing her, seeing her naked...gross! No muscles, no penis, nothing masculine, nothing attractive! Was that my fate?
Garrett is a small town. Uncle Paul's house was only five blocks from my girlfriend's house. In the afternoon, while everyone was getting ready for the barbecue, I put on my t-shirt and shorts, said I was going for a jog, and ran over to meet this girlfriend I had at age four.
After 13 years, it was unlikely that she was still living there, but on the off chance, I walked up to the front door and knocked.
A boy was walking across the yard, a baseball bat in hand: a little older than me, my height, dirty-blond hair in an old-fashioned 1950s style, deep-set blue eyes, and high cheekbones. He was wearing a muscle shirt that displayed small but firm biceps. Cute!
So cute that I almost forgot my quest after my "girlfriend." "Um...hi. I'm looking for a girl who used to live here, named Becky. About my age, brown hair."
"That's my baby sister. Well, not that much of a baby, only a year younger than me. I'm Ben." We shook hands -- warm, tight handshake. "She's at work right now, but she'll be back soon. Do you want to wait?" He grinned. "Or we could go surprise her."
An adventure with a cute boy! I was in!
We walked up Randolph Street to Garrett's small downtown -- a hardware store, a newsstand, a movie theater, some bars. I told Ben about my college plans and the Fourth of July party I went to last week where the guys got naked -- he found that hilarious! He told me about high school -- turns out that he knew my Cousin Buster -- and his job at the car wash. It was warm and comfortable, yet exciting, like a first date.
Becky worked at a small store that specialized in women's dresses. It was deserted in mid-afternoon. A girl sat behind the counter, reading a magazine.
"Hey, where's Becky?" Ben asked.
"Oh, it wasn't busy, so she left early. I don't know where she went."
Ben turned to me. "Sorry to bring you all this way for nothing. We can go back to the house and wait, if you want."
"I have a better idea. My uncle is having a barbecue this afternoon. Why don't you come? Buster will be there, and you can meet my parents."
So Ben came as my "date" to the barbecue at Uncle Paul's house. We ate hamburgers, potato chips, salad, and pie; we played horse-shoes with the adults and slip-and-slide with the kids. Mom and Dad introduced him as "the brother of Boomer's first girlfriend." I introduced him as Ben.
"Oh, this is Benny, your little buddy!" Uncle Paul exclaimed. "It's cool how you found him again."
"Little buddy?" I asked, perplexed.
"Yeah, when you were a baby, the neighbor lady used to babysit in the afternoons, while your Mom was at work. She had two kids of her own -- Benny, and I forget the girl's name. We called him your 'little buddy.'"
"I remember that," Ben said, wrapping his arm around my waist. "I thought you looked familiar. My long-lost bud!"
"You boys were crazy about each other, let me tell you!" Uncle Paul continued. "I used to come over after school to pick you up, and you would hug for dear life and not let go."
"Um...what about Becky?"
"Was that her name? You liked playing with her, too. But you know what your first word was? Other than Mommy, Bye-Bye, and Paul -- it was Benny!"
Later I met Becky again. She was perfectly nice.
But my parents got it wrong -- my first word was the name of a cute boy.
See also: What's Funny about Kissing a Boy?