I was fifteen, and he was in his twenties.
I wasn’t coerced, though. I wasn’t tricked or manipulated. I said yes—said it freely—because I wanted something. I wanted sex—or whatever it was that happened between two men. Of course, I wasn’t a man yet.
When I think back on this, I wonder if I can trust my yes, the yes of a child. My body says that I can, but maybe I can’t trust my body to work this out.
I hadn’t thought about the man in a while; my time with him was more than thirty years ago. But lately his ghost has returned—maybe in light of the current debates about sex and power. These conversations have got under my skin, like a virus, making me sick with questions I’d never asked before: Was I manipulated? Was there an imbalance of power?
It’s entirely plausible. I was a small, skinny guy who self-identified as weak, and so shy that I could barely speak in social situations. Often, when required to interact with strangers, I would begin to shake, in a frightening, fit-like manner.
The man—let’s call him Sam—was quite the opposite: muscular, steady, confident, a lifeguard at the beach where I sometimes went with my parents. I had seen him a few times, certain he’d never noticed me. The day of our first encounter, I watched from a short distance as he taught a class to teen-agers—lifeguards in training, I suppose. The students were putting their mouths against a dummy.
I wasn’t old enough to participate; to be a lifeguard, you had to be at least sixteen. And surely you needed more than golf balls for biceps—which, along with freakish, flagpole legs, were the sum of my physique.
Later that day, I saw him again, leaning against his scaffolded throne, eating a nectarine. He caught me looking, and then he was walking toward me. I stared at my feet.
“You were in my class, right?” I heard him say.
“No,” I muttered. “I was just watching.”
When I glanced up, he nodded—and immediately I felt my cheeks burning. Did he know what I’d been watching? His bare chest and tanned legs, the snug black Speedo.
I was trembling by that point, but for some reason when he said, “Walk with me,” I followed him.
For a few minutes, we didn’t talk—which both disturbed and excited me. Our silence seemed to suggest that we agreed on something. It was like a pact.
I followed him to a more deserted part of the beach, and then we were walking away from the ocean, toward some scrubby hills. I reminded myself that a lifeguard was like a policeman—a person you could trust.
“Are you O.K.?” he asked, noticing my jitters, or perhaps hearing how my teeth were chattering in spite of the scorching August sun.
When he finally stopped and turned toward me, we were in a patch of shade, surrounded by larger bushes and even some trees. If my mind said run, my body argued stay. I was locked in place by confusion and desire and a slow-reeling vertigo.
He asked why I was standing so far away.
I shrugged, and when I made a move to leave he approached, and touched my arm. “Don’t.”
He wasn’t rough; he smiled. I could see the blond stubble on his golden chin. His beauty was formidable.
I said that I should probably go, while, below, my arousal contradicted me. He noticed, and drew my attention to the fact that he was experiencing a similar “problem.” As we made small talk—the weather, the waves, my sunburn—the real conversation seemed to be happening between our bathing suits.
Somehow, a few minutes later, we were naked, with our hands going exactly where hands shouldn’t go—or exactly where they should. I was in a limbo, in which there seemed to be no difference between the forbidden and the necessary. The sense of inevitability, of falling, was profound.
I had been with girls before, but we’d only kissed—and never with our clothes off. And those experiences had always felt like rehearsals for desire, ones in which I played my part perhaps too fervently, knowing that I’d been miscast.
But now, as I followed the lifeguard’s lead, I felt that he was pulling me closer to myself. Strangely, this did not feel safe; it felt like drowning.
And then we were both lying on the sand, soaked and winded. For a moment, we stayed knotted together, as if untangling ourselves might prove to be too much effort, or leave too much room for questions and regret.
Finally, I slid away, and as I put on my bathing suit I felt a need to defend myself. I told the man I’d never done anything like that before.
“Me neither,” he said.
I didn’t believe him—he looked like a movie star. But maybe he meant he’d done it only with girls.
When I asked for his name, he told me.
He didn’t ask for mine, and I thought, I’ll never see him again.
But, as I turned to leave, he took a notebook from his backpack and wrote down a number.
“Call me,” he said. “O.K.?”
At home, I put the number in a case meant for hiding keys—a tiny magnetized box that fit perfectly, and nearly invisibly, behind the metal desk in my bedroom. I’d bought the case a year before, liking the idea of it, but until now I had nothing to hide apart from a few wheat pennies my grandmother had given me.
Summer was over, and I was back in school, feeling as I often did this time of year: anxious and beleaguered. School brought out the worst of my stutters and shakes, driving my unnaturally high voice a notch higher. I mostly kept quiet, with my head down, fearful of bullies.
Unexpectedly, I felt no real shame about what I’d done with the man. On the contrary, the memory of our encounter often made me smile. What had originally felt like drowning now felt like flying. I was suddenly above myself—not at all the person I’d thought I was. My secret somehow invigorated me.
Of course, I was still incredibly insecure, which was the reason I hadn’t yet called the man. I just couldn’t understand why he’d be interested in someone like me. Hadn’t he seen my girlish legs, the spots on my cheek? I found myself wondering if the whole thing was some kind of trick. Maybe what was really going on was a plot to humiliate me. Maybe, if I met him again, my parents would be there—or possibly the press, snapping photos. I’d be on the front page of the local paper, exposed. As a secret, my deed held no shame, but I was terrified of the judgment of others.
When I finally dialed Sam’s number, my stupid teeth were chattering again. Miraculously, he remembered me. He was whispering, saying he couldn’t talk for long. When I found out where he lived—nearly an hour away—my heart sank. But then he suggested that he drive to where I was.
“You can’t come here,” I said—whispering, too.
“Not to your house,” he replied. “Isn’t there a store or something close by?”
I mentioned the library—it was just a few blocks away.
We made a plan to meet the following Saturday.
He arrived in a gumball-red Camaro, right on time. When I got in the car, we shook hands, like business colleagues. He looked different, in jeans and a dark-blue work shirt, his blond hair slightly longer. I could tell that he was nervous, too, and this was somehow calming. As he drove, I asked where we were going.
He said he’d seen a few places on Route 46.
There were lots of diners there, I recalled—though it was a little early for lunch. I wasn’t sure what two men did on a first date. Was this a date? When he pulled into the parking lot of a cheap motel, I said, “Oh.”
“You all right with this?” he asked.
I nodded, and he told me to stay in the car while he got the key.
Once we were in the room, he seemed to relax a bit, and I tried to pretend it was the same for me. We talked for a while, with our clothes on—me in a chair, and Sam sprawled on the bed.
When I asked if he was still a lifeguard, he laughed. “It’s October.”
He explained that it had been a summer job; he was working at a warehouse now, loading trucks. This seemed unfair. After lifeguards stepped off their thrones—especially ones as handsome as Sam—didn’t they become actors or models or professional athletes, some profession that would keep them in the light? I noticed for the first time that he seemed a little sad.
“What about you?” he asked.
There wasn’t much to tell. I was a boring straight-A student, basically a loner. I wandered in the woods, collecting leaves, and read a lot of books.
Sam eventually led me to the bed, where it happened again—what had happened on the beach. When I had my orgasm, I made such a loud sound that it startled both of us. And then I started to cry. For a few moments, I was breathless, unable to stop.
“What’s the matter?” Sam kept saying.
I shook my head, mortified. I wasn’t really upset or afraid or even sad. But my orgasm had been so intense that it seemed to have hollowed me out—and I was overwhelmed by feelings I didn’t understand.
Maybe it was simply the letting go. I’d always been a rigid child—the good boy—and now I was free of that, at least for a moment. I sniffled and calmed down, as Sam rubbed my back. When I apologized, he told me not to worry.
“You’re just an intense little guy,” he said.
Was I? I had no idea.
Over the next few months, as Sam and I continued to meet, I existed as two separate people. There was the shy, studious boy, who flinched at dodgeball and spent Saturday mornings helping his grandmother dust. And living beside this kid—or perhaps inside him—was the one who slipped away, now and then, to meet an older man, an ex-lifeguard, in a cheap motel. It was dizzying, like a math problem I couldn’t solve. How could a boy who was so afraid of everything—everything—be taking such risks?
I still shook in Sam’s presence, though sometimes I wondered if this was something other than fear. Looking back, I might say that I was shaking the way an egg might shake before it hatches. Something was locked inside, something desperate to get out.
When I was alone with this man, I was shocked by my desire, my hunger—especially in light of how reserved, polite, and gentle I normally was. I couldn’t align my passion with what I considered my true nature: weakness.
Sam seemed surprised by my enthusiasm, and I suppose grateful. He never had my telephone number—never asked for it—but, every time I phoned, he said he was really glad to hear from me, and when could we meet?
Eventually, I stopped questioning his attraction to me. And I remained as attracted to him as ever—perhaps more, as the months passed and I grew brave enough to look him in the eye.
For a while, during that time, I remember thinking: if I could keep having sex with Sam, I wouldn’t need anything else. I’d be content with just this, to the end of my days. It was a revelation how being kissed on the neck could stop all the confusion in a person’s head, banish dread, raise fresh white flags of hope. In my adolescent reveries, sex and passion seemed to suggest a future of perpetual sunshine.
Though carnality was our primary enterprise, Sam and I did, I suppose, become friends. Sometimes I called him just to talk. One weekend, at the hotel, he suggested we take a dip in the grubby little pool beside the parking lot.
“What if someone sees us?” I asked.
“I’ll tell them you’re my brother,” Sam said.
Outside, he dove right in. I stood on the side. I was a good swimmer, but a terrible diver. When I mentioned this to Sam, he got out and gave me some tips.
“Clench your toes around the edge, like a monkey.” “Relax your knees.” “Tuck your chin.” “Most important,” he said, “don’t think about it too much. It’s only water.”
Our relationship—or whatever it was—lasted almost four years, until I was eighteen, a freshman in college, and Sam was around thirty, still working at the warehouse. During all those years, I never had sex with anyone else, despite the fact that Sam and I saw each other only around two dozen times.
But it was enough to change me. I began to have a better sense of who I was. And, though I remained fairly shy and quiet, my posture improved. In school, I sat up straighter and began to speak more freely, raising my hand when I had the answer. And, if someone made fun of my voice, I just ignored the gibes and thought of the lifeguard who’d once whispered in my ear the implausible, life-changing words: You’re perfect.
Of course, the question remains: Did this man take advantage of me? Did he sense the ticking bomb of my fifteen-year-old desire—so potent and ready to go off? Was a gentle boy an easy target for him, a safe way to express something he’d pushed down in himself? Did he read my nature—that I was well versed in secrets and would keep my mouth shut?
Possibly all these things are true. But then I think of how, in many ways, I was the one who’d pursued him. I was the one who’d spotted him, that first day at the beach. I was the one who’d kept making the calls over the years. Yes, this man whose job was to protect children, to save them from drowning, had possibly misused his power. But I’d had some power, too. I’d chosen to lose my virginity. And I’d chosen him.
I realize how fortunate I was not to have been hurt. First lust is a kind of madness. Why else would I have allowed myself to be locked in a strange motel room with a man years older and much stronger, without my parents, or anyone, knowing where I was? I was lucky that Sam was kind, that he never pressured me to do anything I didn’t want to. He both revelled in my yeses and respected my nos—a skill that many in power have yet to learn.
The question, always, when two bodies crash together: Is there room for kindness? Despite what may have been inappropriate about Sam’s impulses, he was never unkind.
The last time I called him was not long after my grandmother’s death. I was at college, in an ugly dorm, feeling sad. Sam and I hadn’t seen much of each other over the past few months. He was living with a woman now—a woman he’d eventually marry—and my school was more than two hours away.
Still, he wanted to see me. He asked if I could get to “our hotel,” the following weekend. I put him off. Now that I was eighteen, couldn’t we dispense with all the hiding? I wanted to stroll with Sam around the pretty campus, show him my favorite trees.
He didn’t want that, though—would never want that. To continue seeing him was to continue in dark rooms at the side of a highway. But I was no longer the same person. My desire for Sam had been a kind of self-knowledge. Desire had given me a voice, and I didn’t want to whisper on the telephone anymore.
I told the lifeguard goodbye.
It felt terrible—he was a friend, and he was unhappy—but I had to do it.
I was ready, I suppose, for my own life in the sun.