It was 2008. Barack Obama had just been elected president, and I was full enough of hope to try an earnest men-seeking-men post on Craigslist.
Josh replied. “I like your pictures and I’m interested,” he wrote. He made up a lewd joke. I laughed. And we met.
What I remember most about our first meetup was his dog, Rudy. It was the first dog I met that responded to Spanish. Both Josh and Rudy liked that I knew a little.
Over the next few years, I learned a lot from Josh. The short version is that before I met him, I knew how to have sex and after I met him I knew how to cuddle. I’d often fall asleep on his chest; his heartbeat was such a lullaby. He was the first boyfriend to whom I introduced my roommates. I would walk from my apartment in Greenwich Village to his in the East Village practicing “I love you.” But I don’t think I ever said it to him. Lots of “I love this” or “I love the way you _____.” The closest I got was learning karaoke in Spanish for him.
Si pudiera ser tu héroe!
Si pudiera ser tu dios!
Que salvarte a ti mil veces!
Puede ser mi salvación!
Our relationship ended without an ending. The time between dates just grew longer and longer.
“We had a special thing,” he texted me recently from France, after I sent him an old photo I found. “You were sooo sweet. You were brainy, chipper, and spunky. You had an infectious smile and a gentle touch. You were always somewhat nervous, but you were tender and sincere. Your words always seemed poetic to me, quiet and still. Maybe it was the still of the night(s). I think we both left imprints on each other’s heart.”
And then he wrote: “Had I sensed you were willing to settle, we would probably be married by now. Why didn’t we?”
There are lots of questions around marriage: Is this the right person? Is this the right time? Should I ask for parents’ blessing? Do I get down on one knee? Black tie or no? Band or DJ? Who makes the guest list?
But here was a wedding question I had never considered: Why didn’t we?
I’m 38 and single. Never been asked. Never done the asking. I’ve seen a lot of marriages: rebounders, high school sweethearts, college sweethearts, office romances, cautious and considered courtships, ticking biological clocks, power mergers, green-card marriages and impulsive trips to city hall.
First, obviously, I’ve learned that getting married is not the same as being or staying married. I’ve seen some cold marriages, failed ones and very open ones. But mostly I’ve seen — and most married people would vehemently disagree here — that marriage is not the hinge of our personal history we thought it might be when we were younger. You can be married a few times. Not all marriages are transformative.
My texting with Josh flirted in that playground of possibility that, inexplicably, our relationship never entered. What if I had stayed a missionary in China? What if I had attended another college? Moved to another city? Nailed that job interview? Learned another language? Tried sporting a mustache?
There’s a “Sliding Doors” quality to wondering about past relationships. That movie wasn’t about regret or serendipity, but rather the question: What of our essence transcends our circumstance?
Why didn’t we? It’s a question that dares you to consider how you’ve thought through problems in your life, and how your thinking about marriage might have changed.
A straight friend, Teddy, said that when an ex-girlfriend asked why they never got married, he couldn’t bear to tell her the truth — that he had gotten bored sexually — but he was amazed at all the assumptions in the question. Why is marriage the obvious endgame? Why would getting married years ago presume they’d still be married?
When people ask one another “Why didn’t we get married?” the subtext implies that they approve of how you’ve turned out. There’s a bit of wishing, after the race, that you had bet on the winning horse. In 2008, a nobody named Adele made her U.S. debut at the 184-seat Joe’s Pub in New York; what inane nothingness was I up to that night instead? The thing I love about Josh, which is maybe what he loves about me, is that he never lost his kindness, his dewy empathy. He’d call out of the blue, after months or years of silence, and ask how I was, and before I could finish explaining that it wasn’t a good time because I was sick in bed, he’d have a recuperative meal on its way to my doorstep. We never had an argument. Those are the ones whose memories get preserved in the golden amber of perfect twilight.
But we were gay. As a gay man, marriage wasn’t always an option. Especially for an immigrant like me who had a free card but wasn’t naturalized. I just didn’t think about marriage. It wasn’t part of gay life back then. I grew up in an era when gay life was little more than hooking up. It wasn’t tedious so much as defiant, rule-breaking. I’d see how many one-night stands one night could stand. Being gay meant moving on, trying new things. Will Truman never got down on one knee. Even now, we’re well into institutionalized same-sex marriage and gay weddings still have to figure out how to adapt centuries-old traditions and rituals.
Before I could think seriously about marriage, I had to love. The first time I knew I was in love, really in love, was with Dave. He was the first guy I ever considered marrying, the first with whom I went so far as to envision our lives together. We were 25. It was a disaster of a relationship.
I think about Josh and Dave sometimes. And Jason, Cy, Tal, Ron, Javi. Everyone has their list.
Some sliding doors are locked. They’re memory cul-de-sacs, roads to nowhere. But others seem open-ended, as though there’s still terrain left to explore.
Josh reiterated that he loved me. “You will always have a piece of my heart,” he said. “It’s what I call a soul connection.”
In response, I told him the truth as best I know it: “I think I love you on the level where, whoever I marry, I’ll have to tell him about you.” Maybe the marriage of our memories is marriage enough.