I had a crush on my dad’s boyfriend. I didn’t understand it at the time; I hadn’t realized I was gay too. It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I figured that out.
Growing up with divorced parents wasn’t easy. Knowing your parents separated because your dad was gay was harder. Spending most of your young life watching your dad suffer silently over the fact he had no one in his life was the worst. For a while my sister and I had blamed ourselves for Dad’s lack of a partner; we thought he was staying single to protect us from “gay life”. When I was eleven, Dad met Josh and things got a lot better. I admit I had a crush on Josh at first. I didn’t understand it at the time; I hadn’t realized I was gay too. It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I figured that out. Having Dad and Josh as examples of what gay men could be was a big help. They weren’t swishy, effeminate or immoral. They were masculine, strong, honorable, loving, monogamous men. The hard part of figuring out I was gay was that I realized I was in love with my best friend.
Tony Bartoni was only a little over a year older than me, but he was two grades ahead of me in school. We didn’t go to the same school. He went to a private catholic school in DC and I went to public school in Fairfax County, Virginia. We became friends about the time Josh and Dad got together and maintained our friendship despite the fact we only saw each other twice a week at Dad’s martial arts school and one or two weekends out of the month. Tony was sixteen when his dad had to move back to New York to run the family business. It was just before his senior year of high school. I’d been secretly in love with Tony for over two years when they left. I was heart broken. Unrequited love sucked.
Josh had been the one to figure out how I’d felt about Tony. He’d told Dad his suspicions and Dad talked to me. I remember him holding me as I cried out my feelings of loss and guilt. Dad was the greatest. I didn’t really know how great he was till I was almost seventeen. It was my junior year in High School and some friends and I were coming back from an away game. We never saw the other car. All I remembered was the sound of a horn, the bright glare of headlights, the sounds of metal twisting and glass shattering, the screams, and pain.
I woke up in the hospital in the dark. It was nearly a week before I learned that the darkness would never go away. The glass from the passenger window had lacerated my face. I’d been staring in wide-eyed disbelief as the drunken driver slammed his car into us. Shattered glass had been the last thing my eyes ever saw. They were able to save the eyes but not my sight. At times I wished they’d ripped the damn things out and put in fakes. Josh was making enough at that point to support him and Dad without Dad’s income. Dad quit his job and spent his time helping me put my life together. I still lived with Mom and my step-dad Jim; but I came to depend upon Dad. He was my hero, and I don’t think I would have made it through without him.
I had kept in touch with Tony through email and AIM for the first year after he moved, and then our correspondence dwindled. He’d gone off to college and I was only a junior in high school. We had less and less to talk about. That wasn’t the real reason we lost contact, but I’d made it clear I didn’t want Tony to know about the accident. Dad had argued against that, but I was adamant. I wanted Tony to remember me the way I’d been, not what I’d become. He was busy with school and being an adult. I was a crippled kid. No one needed someone like me hanging around.
I went to a school for the blind for the rest of my junior year and my senior year of high school. Though I learned braille, how to use a cane, and had a seeing-eye dog, I was thankful for modern technology. Dad set my computer up with voice conversion software; I could read email online and still enjoy AIM, though it wasn’t as much fun as it had been when it was silent. I also had one of those scanners and software that allowed me to read printed material by scanning the pages. It was a pain to use but was the best I could do when a text or book was not available in Braille. Jim got an offer he couldn’t refuse in my senior year, and after much debate, Mom and Jim had me move in with Dad rather than take me out of school and force me to start over again.
I did summer courses after my junior and senior years of high school at our local community college. It gave me a good sense of independence as well as keeping me close to home. It also made me keenly aware of how much I missed my sight. I always missed it, but I could never see my friends. I could never notice a hot guy walking across campus. I missed all my chances to see the men behind the sexy voices I heard. Being a blind-gay man was horrible. I also knew I was disfigured.
Everyone in my family tried to tell me that I wasn’t disfigured. That yes, my eyes were destroyed and I had scarring around them that was visible, but that my face itself had been fixed by the plastic surgeries after the accident. It didn’t matter to me. I’d always been a guy who had a thing for eyes. That was why I’d had a crush on Josh; he had the most beautiful blue-green eyes. Tony had always had soulful brown eyes. Mine had been blue, like my mother’s. Now they were milky and scarred, or so I’d been told. They say that, “the eyes were windows to the soul”. My windows were shut, the curtains were drawn and no one would ever get to see my soul.
Those were the thoughts that occupied my mind from the accident on. They were fuel for my writing and I put everything I had into the written word. I’d never cared about writing before, but when your abilities of self expression were suddenly stripped from you, you learned to use of what you had left. In some ways it gave me something I’d never have discovered; I had a talent for writing. I won awards in high school and at my community college. I even got some literary scholarships.
That was how I got accepted into Burnell University; it was a liberal arts college known for crafting great writers. The fact that they were also known for being handicap student friendly was also a plus. It was the last place in the world I’d expected to hear a voice from the past.
* * * * *
I hated New York. I’d grown up in DC and I’d loved it. When we moved so that Dad could take over my grandfather’s bakery/deli, I was devastated. I went from being a fairly popular, active junior to a “new student” senior in a school that was practically a prison. The worst part of the move was that I lost my best friend. I’d known Tommy since I was twelve. He was so cool. Not cool in the click, popularity shit kids go through in school. He was cool because he wasn’t like anyone else I knew. He was small, blond, shy, yet incredibly smart and talented. Also, his dad was gay.
I’d met them just about the time I started realizing I liked boys more than girls. It’d scared me at first, but when I met Tommy’s dad and his partner, I realized I didn’t have to grow up a “poof”, as my dad called gays. Now, before anyone said anything about my dad, he was great. He had no actual problems with gay people. He and Mom were friends with several gay men and women, and always made it clear that being gay wasn’t wrong. Dad just grew up in a culture where you looked down on homosexuality; and a few of those thoughts stuck. “Poof” was one of them. Josh, Tommy’s dad’s partner, was Mom’s best friend.
It was kind of weird that I never actually thought about Tommy sexually. He was cute, but he was more my brother than my actual brother was. John wasn’t tolerant of Gays. Mom tried to show him that gay people were like everyone else, but John just wouldn’t accept it. He’d be polite and never did anything in public, but I was his brother and I knew. He didn’t like gay people, period. I never knew why. So I’d pulled away from him and started putting my need for companionship and a male bond into Tommy. Though he had a gay father, Tommy made no indication he was interested in guys. Not that I’d have looked for the signs; I needed a brother, not a boyfriend. We never talked about sex. I guess I didn’t want to take a chance that Tommy would feel uncomfortable. Just when we were getting old enough that something else might have been there, I moved. We’d kept in touch over the internet my last year of high school. I missed Tommy. I couldn’t seem to meet anyone who filled the gap like he had.
We started communicating less when I went off to college. I’d been accepted into RIT’s engineering program; my parents had been so proud. I hated it. One semester and I realized that engineering wasn’t for me. Between hating my curriculum, feeling lost on such a huge campus, and discovering gay life, I lost touch with Tommy completely. I’d discovered sex, partying and escapism. I used them to avoid my feelings of isolation at a school far larger than I’d ever wanted to be at; I used them to avoid looking at the fact that I still felt disconnected from every friend I made; I used them to deny the fact that I was making very bad choices.
It wasn’t ’til the fall semester of my sophomore year that I snapped out of it. I’d woken up in a fraternity dorm room with a hot looking, muscular blond draped around me, and I realized that almost every guy I’d ever slept with had the same features. They were shorter than me, blond and lean. They were replacements for Tommy. I think I cried for days after that. I realized I hated my life and I was beginning to hate myself. I needed to make a change.
I hated doing engineering and the sciences. I was good at them; I understood them; but I hated doing them. I needed something else. After hunting the internet and talking with career counselors, I decided what I enjoyed was working with people. I liked organizing and planning. So I switched my major to business management with an emphasis on technical writing and sciences. I transferred from RIT at the end of the fall semester and started Burnell in the spring. It was the best decision I ever made. Burnell was a smaller, intimate campus with an emphasis on community. They also had an incredible business and management school.
I also stopped sleeping around. Being big, tall and Italian made it easy to find partners. I wasn’t some hot stud; I was actually kind of soft, but the core work I’d done while I’d been in martial arts had held well enough that I had a solid structure under the layers of pasta and rich home cooking. That was another benefit of Burnell; I found a Tai Chi club and started up my practice again. The only negative was it reminded me of Tommy. I don’t know how many times I thought of getting back in touch. I’d sent Christmas and birthday cards, but I never got anything back and his email had changed. Tommy was gone; I had to accept that and move on.
It was the first week of classes of the fall semester. I was a junior, at a college I liked and in a curriculum I enjoyed. Life was good. Wasn’t that always the point that something comes along to rattle you? Mine came in the form of a head on collision with the most beautiful guy I’d ever seen. I’d been rushing to get from my last class to the bookstore; we’d been warned that they were short on the texts we’d need and the additional books would not be in for a few weeks. I didn’t want to have to bum books from a classmate, so I was running for the store, not looking where I was going, when I nearly trampled a new student.
“HEY!” My victim tumbled backwards, dropping his cane as he managed to tuck and roll. It looked like a practiced maneuver. I was stunned by more than just the fact that he’d managed to make being knocked on his ass graceful. As he was crouched down, pushing his glasses back into place and feeling around for the items he’d lost, I was caught by the tussled golden hair that cascaded over his shoulders. He’d had it in a ponytail, but the leather holder had slipped off during his roll.
I crouched down and started gathering up the shit he’d dropped. He’d had a bookstore bag under his arm and his items had been scattered. “Oh man, I’m so sorry.”
“No problem,” he mumbled, concentrating on finding his stuff.
We got it all back in his bag and I handed him his cane. Not only had I plowed down a student, but I’d plowed down a blind student. I wondered if a lynch mob would be after my ass. He brushed his hair back and I realized he had a beautiful face. He only stood about five-foot-nine, but he looked like he worked out. He filled out his T-shirt really well and had nice arms. He wasn’t a muscle boy, but he had a well-maintained body. That was unusual for the blind guys I’d met. Burnell had a fairly significant handicapped student population.
“I should have been watching where I was going.” I couldn’t stop looking at him. Something seemed so familiar. “I’m Tony, Tony Bartoni.”
It looked like he flinched. It was weird but it almost looked like he shrank when I said my name. It was only for a moment then he seemed to square himself and he put out his hand. “Charles.”
I’d read about that whole “spark” that happened when people who were meant to meet, met, but I’d never experienced it. I took his hand and I swear there was a spark. I’d begun to trust my gut again; I had to get to know him.
* * * * *
I silently thanked Dad for insisting I keep up my studies of tai chi after the accident. I hadn’t wanted to; I’d thought it was stupid for a blind guy to know martial arts; it was way too “Hong Kong action hero” for me. He hadn’t given in; it saved me from hurting myself numerous times when I was knocked down or tripped. Today had been no exception.
The guy sounded nice enough; his embarrassment and guilt were sincere. He had the best voice too, deep and resonant with a warm under tone. He helped me get my stuff together; apologizing at least twice by the time I was standing and had my cane. Then he introduced himself; I thought I was going to collapse. It couldn’t have been the same Tony. A part of me wanted to run; I’d never gotten over him. I’d never had a chance. Just when I was ready to look at other guys I’d lost the ability to look at all.
What the fuck was I going to say? He obviously didn’t recognize me; the scars and shit probably did that well enough, he probably wasn’t even looking at me close. Even though I wanted to curl up and hide, Dad’s training and hard work paid off; I stuck out my hand and decided to avoid the whole thing. I gave him my first name, no one ever used it and I don’t think Tony had known it, “Charles.”
My knees went weak when he took my hand. His hand was so huge. From the feel of it, Tony stood well over six feet tall. I had a thing for big guys. I didn’t mean muscle men; I meant Honest-to-God big men: wide shoulders, huge bones, and big hands. I wasn’t into “chubs” but I had no problem with a comfortable layer of padding. Muscles were fun to feel, but they weren’t all that comfortable to cuddle with. I’d learned that from Dad too; he’d always been a solid guy with a layer of padding he resented. Josh was lean and muscular. They both gave great hugs, but Dad was just more comfortable to cuddle with. Don’t get me wrong: I did not have a daddy-complex. The idea of screwing my dad made me ill; but I’d learned what I liked and that was what I was going to hold out for. Not that anyone would go for a disfigured freak anyway.