This is a two parter. First we hear from Kris and then Kelly. . .
The straw that broke the camel’s back was Marky Mark.
I was 14 years old in 1992. The governor of my home state, Bill Clinton, had thrown his hat into the ring to run for president. Roseanne was dominating the ground on primetime TV, while Seinfeld was breaking through with a meta story about Jerry and George pitching a Seinfeld-esque sitcom to NBC. Meanwhile, at noon central time Monday through Friday on All My Children, Erica Kane was being romanced by Dimitri Marick while dealing with her mother Mona’s diagnosis with cancer. And Marky Mark, the man we now know as Mark Wahlberg, was an ubiquitous image: shirtless, muscle-bound, jeans around his ankles and grabbing his Calvin Klein–clad crotch: in the video for the previous year’s hit song “Good Vibrations,” with his group “The Funky Bunch,” on TV at basketball games, and on Calvin Klein billboards.
I had felt tremors of my impending homosexuality before Marky Mark. I remember sitting Indian-style (because that’s what we called it back then) on the floor at school next to my friend Kyle in 5th grade and suddenly thinking how nice it might be to kiss him. My previously alluded to obsession with All My Children. For my 12th birthday, I begged for tickets to the New Kids on the Block concert at the Washington County Fairgrounds, featuring Marky Mark’s older brother Donnie Wahlberg—although come on, Joey MacIntyre was my favorite.
But it was Mark Wahlberg and his tighty whities that broke the dam. His Calvin Klein campaign was such a phenomenon that it even made a column in TV Guide, the digest listings magazine that my mom brought home from the grocery store every Monday and that I assiduously scoured on the weekly, plotting out all the shows I wanted to watch.
The week that photo of Marky Mark with his pants down showed up in the TV Guide, I quietly tore the page out of the magazine and squirreled it away in my closet. Literally, in my walk-in closet, years before I would understand the metaphor I was actively becoming a part of. And there, in my closet, I would periodically pull it out and, well, pull it out.
This was the undeniable evidence: I was hot for guys.
Except I didn’t want to be hot for guys, because I wanted to go to heaven.
My family was about as liberal you could get in Arkansas in the late ’80s and early ’90s. My mom was a school teacher and my dad was a nonprofit social-services warrior; my grandpa was a department head at the College of Education for 25 years at the University of Arkansas in my hometown of Fayetteville, where I eventually went after high school.
And yet we were also Southern Baptists.
The church we went to for most of my formative years was about as liberal a church could be and still call itself Southern Baptist; as I remember, we got in trouble with a state Baptist association for letting women serve as deacons.
But that same church routinely hired its youth ministers from the local university, and the church youth group was one of my main social outlets. Rodney, the youth pastor who served during my high-school years, was a red-blooded, red-state huckster from Ponca City, Oklahoma, who thought the new Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement was the greatest thing to make it to TV. Meanwhile, I was more interested in Jonathan Taylor Thomas. But Rodney’s regular jokes about gay people at our youth group meetings made me want to go back into that walk-in closet.
Which all led to a lot of nights of trying to pray the gay away. Literally praying to God to stop making me feel attracted to guys.Telling myself lies about my attraction to other boys just being a manifestation of wanting to be more like those boys myself—less shy and mousy, more cool, more confident.
After I turned 16 and got a car, which I paid for out of my earnings from my first job at the good Christian company of Chick-fil-A, I started spending a lot of my spare minutes at Hastings. Hastings was the local outpost of a smallish chain of video rental, music and book superstores—so obviously it’s now gone out of business. It was where my family rented movies most weekends, but it was also, weirdly, one of the most gay-friendly and sex-positive retail outlets in Fayetteville in the early to mid ’90s—surpassed only, perhaps, by the actual sex shop, Condom Sense, which I gleefully got to buy advertisements in the Fayetteville High School student newspaper, of which I was editor.
Our local Hastings sold gay porn magazines, which I would insert into larger issues of Rolling Stone and peruse. It had a large LGBT books section, conveniently tucked away at the back of the store, around which I and many other men and boys would hover nearby, nervously pretending not to browse the tantalizing tomes of gay erotica, anthologies of coming-out stories and Larry Kramer’s Faggots.
As hard as I tried to change it, it seemed obvious that I was gay. But Jesus, was that a scary thing to admit to myself. I distinctly remember a moment from when I was in elementary school, of going out to dinner with my family at Tim’s Pizza and seeing the nightly network news on the TV (because for some reason we always seemed to have dinner at 5:30), and there was one of the early (though already far too late) reports about AIDS. And I thought, gay means AIDS.
I quietly experimented here and there, with curious classmates on sleepovers, for instance—most of whom were strictly experimenting, and which unfortunately ended some friendships. There was only one out gay student throughout my entire high school career—his name was Larry and he was a senior when I was a sophomore and he wore feathers and rainbows every day, deploying his homosexuality like a force field. I was terrified of him. Nobody else was openly gay, although I had my suspicions about some other boys—all of which, thanks to reconnecting via Facebook years later, I’ve been able to confirm.
Still, I made it to college with my closet intact, and moved a week before my 18th birthday into one of the two neighboring co-ed honors dorms, where life started happening fast. While still not out as gay, I had sex with a female friend down the hall who identified as a lesbian. A few months after that, in the second semester of freshman year, another female friend from down the hall, who’d quickly become one of my best friends, asked me if I’d go out with her.
We were in my dorm room, speaking softly in one of those 3am sessions that happen in college so as not to wake my sleeping roommate Jay, when Kelly asked me if I’d be interested in going on a date.
I was in no way out, but I’d been testing the waters in different ways over the past couple of years. I’d gotten into the theater unit at Arkansas Governor’s School, a fantastic summer program for kids between their junior and senior years of high school, by auditioning with a monologue from Paula Vogel’s AIDS allegory The Baltimore Waltz, and told the interview panel that I didn’t see a conflict between my strong Christian faith and having empathy for all kinds of characters. (If only I’d felt that way toward myself.) While at AGS, which took place on the campus of Hendrix College, I’d spent a revelatory afternoon in the stacks at the college library reading Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America for the first time.
But when Kelly asked me out, I still had a thin membrane of resistance in place. I can remember my brainwaves, in that moment: This is it. You can tell this trusted friend, for the first time out loud, that you think you like dudes. OR, you can give one last shot at “normalcy,” because if there’s any girl you actually would want to date, Kelly is obviously it.
50 years later, time resumed its normal course, and I said sure and we started dating.
That summer after freshman year, Kelly got an amazing opportunity to go on an archeological dig in Jordan. I spent the summer living back in my high school bedroom and working at JCPenney, while also working as an actor at a new-play workshop affiliated with the university. But I also spent a lot of time at Hastings.
I was 18 years old, my girlfriend was halfway around the world, I was living at my parents’ house and I couldn’t go out drinking or anything like that. Many nights, I came home from JC Penney to watch that day’s episode of All My Children I’d taped on my VCR—this was the summer when Erica Kane, Janet Marlowe and Skye Chandler were being drugged and held captive by the evil Dr. Jonathan Kinder—but with my own Hastings card now, I also started renting ALL of the movies in the store’s surprisingly large gay video section.
And the cute gay checkout clerk named Jason, whose line I perhaps subconsciously tended to favor, took notice of what I was checking out. Eventually, he asked me if I’d like to go out for a coffee.
Again, I was terrified, but I was also intrigued. I agreed to meet him him at a local coffee house on one of our mutual days off; we had a nice conversation, after which we went to a nearby park, and sat at a picnic table—where he kissed me.
And suddenly, I was freaked out. I ended it there, and didn’t return his phone calls (and mind you, this is 1996, before cell phones or even caller ID were prevalent, so he was calling my parents’ phone number).
I thought that might be the end of it, but remember: Fayetteville was a small town, and things get around. Kelly’s and my friend Wendy, who also lived in our dorm, also worked at that Hastings, and apparently she overheard some of Jason’s grousing about our aborted first and only date and put the pieces together.
I didn’t know this until we all came back to the dorm for sophomore year. We moved in the week before classes started, and I came home from work at JCPenney on what happened to be my 19th birthday and knocked on Kelly’s door, expecting to go out on a date— only to see a serious and confused look on her face. “We need to talk.”
We ended up walking down to another park near campus, where she laid out what had apparently been presented to her by a clutch of our friends: “Do you know a Jason from Hasting
Again, just as it had months earlier when Kelly initially asked me out, time stopped. I panicked, tried to analyze my options (which seemed few), and burst into tears.
My girlfriend dragged me, kicking and screaming, out of the closet. Amazingly, we continued to date for another couple of months, since at first I would only cop to being maybe bisexual (sorry, actually bisexual guys). But once we officially broke up, we couldn’t stay apart for long as friends. I started the never-ending process of coming out to friends and colleagues, and it took a couple-two-tree more years before I started coming out to my family—while I was playing Joe in our college production of Angels in America. But Kelly and I have managed to remain always each others’ closest allies; six years after that evening at the park, I did a reading at her wedding; her husband Jeremy, who joins Kelly in the small circle I count as my closest friends in the world, loves to tell strangers how his wife and I used to date.
Do you remember what it was like when you were 18 and you were on your own for the first time and you’re discovering yourself by discovering kindred spirits? How everything that you had in common meant something monumental about space and time and your place in it? That you weren’t alone? That there were others like you? And one shared interest led to another, then a confession, and that shared intimacy led to more unburdening, and then both of your stories unfold in long, thin monologues over coffees and you’re excited to reveal and to be truly seen? Yeah, it was like that, except I found him unbearably adorable.
Kris was super pretty. And quiet. Kinda nerdy. I was way into that before all of you. He lived down the hall from me. Wore a lot of sweaters that were too big for him. Drank a ridiculous amount of dr. pepper.
Kris and I watched Into the Woods on VHS together. Then listened to the Indigo Girl’s rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar. We both called each other on the same day breathless to alert the other to a new discovery: Ani DiFranco. (foreshadowing.) We went to coffee houses to listen to poetry and earnest acoustic guitar. We both worked prop crew for the play ‘American Clock.’ When I went home for xmas break I had a nye party at my place, and spent the whole time on the phone with him, standing in a closet (more foreshadowing, but this time ironic), ignoring my Chicago people for a long long-distance chat. I would stay up late with him in the computer lab in the dorm and WATCH him tool around on the internet. Except in the mid 90s that mostly meant chat rooms. And so, yeah, sometimes we’d pretend to be a gay dude and rile up fellas in the gay chat rooms. That wasn’t weird, right? We ate all of our meals together. We did all of our hmwk together. I would call him to wake him in the morning, then march down to his room to make SURE that he was up. (he never was) When he threw up because of the pot, I rubbed his back. There was that one night when he and I… and Kyle (so much foreshadowing) all fell asleep entangled on that single bed. We were BEST FRIENDS! Except, the thing is, I didn’t want to be best friends. I wanted to be best friends who put the p in the v. I wanted us to hold hands and build an ark out of our love. I wanted him to be my BOYFRIEND.
Previous to this, I was not, um, super experienced with dudes. I did date this one guy, George, for about a year, but he was mostly a good place holder. No great romance. He was really Christian. He asked me out. The guy I REALLY liked didn’t seem all that interested, so I went on the date. He kissed me. It was fine. We did it some more. Then some other stuff. Then it was a year later and he cheated on me with my best friend. Other than George I hadn’t really ‘dated.’ I certainly hadn’t initiated any relationships. But I was getting pretty desperate for Kris and I to start our life together. Why wasn’t he asking me out? When we’d sit facing each other on the bed, confessing all of our secrets, he’d look deep into my eyes. That’s a thing, right? He never talked about other girls. Not since he’d done it with THAT JENNIFER. That had been a while ago, though. And she was dating girls now. If he could do it with Jennifer, why didn’t he want to do it with me?
So late one night. Lights off. His dorm room. His roommate Jay asleep on the other side of the room. Kris was at his computer. I was on the bed. I stared at the curls on the back of his head and, had HAD it. No more long talks into the night. No more sitting arms touching. No more soul baring. No more CONNECTING. Not without some lip on lip. So, suddenly, dramatically I erupted with something along the lines of ‘Kris, I really like you. But as more than a friend.’ Eloquent, yes. But I was terrified. I had just recklessly gotten all figuratively naked. I put our friendship at risk, and my delicate little heart. I waited, kind of panting, for his response. I remember Kris just looking at me, considering. And then he said, and I KNOW this one, he said “why not.” And then he kissed me. For a while. And then, well, I guess we were going out? I floated back to my room and slept not a wink.
The next day began the most awkward courtship ever. I announced happily to my lady friends in the bathroom mirror that morning what had happened. Julie, especially, looked wary but tried to ignite some enthusiasm on my behalf. I chalked it up to fear that our little friend family might be blown apart by our great burgeoning romance. It wasn’t.
Valentine’s day came along soon after our relationship’s first bloom. It was weird. We went on what I guess was our first date? Mexican food. Hot. There was a card. And some heavy petting. But it wasn’t right. I mean, George the Christian and I weren’t experts at S.E.X, but after a year together we’d done some stuff. And I was pretty good at it. But with Kris it was not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped. Nor did it get particularly enthusiastic over the coming months? Probably just cause we were such good friends first. So it made naked boobs awkward. Right?
And the emotional intimacy. Something went awry with that, too. Where once we were so tuned into each other we didn’t even have to speak, now I felt I had to sit Kris down every 3 weeks to have ‘a talk.’ To ask him where his head was at. To ask him why he didn’t seem particularly happy in our blessed union. To even ask him, gulp, if he wanted out. He’d always insist, no. he was fine. We were fine. Everything was fine. But it wasn’t. I mostly ignored it.
I got sad. Before we were inseparable. Somehow becoming a couple made us further apart. Like, by a lot. Like, literally. He seemed to sometimes actually physically avoid me. At our end of the year gala, a fancy theater party where we’d all dress up and get wasted, I anticipated some slow dancing. Some reconnecting. A little romance. It was a datey-couples thing. I wanted some god-damned hip to hip, eye to eye, lip to lip. I wanted this cool down to heat back up. It didn’t. Instead I spent the night with this older girl named Sarah who kept telling me men were dicks and feeding me shots.
And then it was summer. Our goodbye was, by now, characteristically cold. We didn’t break up or anything. Which would’ve made sense. Instead I went to Jordan on an archaeological dig. My first trip overseas. I wrote kris just about everyday. Like an asshole. Know how many letters I got from kris? Zero. Feel free to boo him right now. But I still hadn’t given up on him, or us. Don’t ask me why. Again, asshole.
I came back from Jordan refreshed. Wiser. Prepared to teach Kris what love meant to the greater world. To break his spirit and make him mine. But when I got back to Fayetteville, remarkably, I didn’t have to! There he was! Kris! The one that I’d fallen for! The one who was sweet and lovely, warm and sincere. The one who wanted to be with me. To be near me. To share. He held me all the time. Jesus I was happy. I mean, no. the sexy bits didn’t really get any better. But that emotional intimacy. Shit, that stuff is addicting. And it’s hot. And it felt worth all the other mess.
I told him that I loved him. One night after a few weeks back. In Paige’s spare bed. He held me closer. He said nothing back. I decided it was ok. That it was enough to love him.
And then I told my friends. And I guess they had had enough.
August 22nd1996. Back at Paige’s apartment. Paige and Wendy, Jada and Julie sit me down on the couch. They put a blanket over my lap. They gather chairs around me like I’m an ailing aunt. And they go ahead and hold a god damned intervention. Or a revelation. I don’t know. They drop some knowledge on me. And in retrospect I appreciate what they were trying to do. But having 4 of your best girlfriends surround you, over you, and announce that your boyfriend of 7 months went on a date with a dude over the summer…at the time…seemed a little aggressive.
Apparently Wendy was at work at Hastings one night and Kris walked in. Her co-worker leans in to her and confides that he’d gone on a date with Kris a few weeks ago, but that Kris had never called him back. She assured him that that didn’t happen. Couldn’t have happened. Cause he was definitely dating, well, me. He insisted that it had.
And that was it. Kris had gone on a date. With someone else. While I was away. With, in fact, a guy.
What the fuck was I supposed to do with that.
Mostly I just sat there while their four faces peered at me from above expectantly. Waiting. I needed to talk to my best friend about this. But my best friend was Kris.
The next day was his 19th birthday. I told him that I wanted to meet him in the park. The one next door to his high school. I remember it was dark. I sat him on the picnic bench, to the south of the swings. I sat above him on the table, one leg to either side of him, holding him with my whole body, and asked if he had anything to tell me. He looked up, confused. “About this summer? I proceeded slowly. Quietly. “About a date? About ______?” I think I said his name. I don’t remember his name, this other guy. I do remember what Kris’s face looked like as it crumpled. I don’t think he said anything other than ‘I’m sorry.’ And ‘Oh God.’ And I don’t think I said anything other than ‘It’s alright’ as I rocked him as he cried.
And that’s how I dragged my boyfriend, my best friend, out of the closet on his 19th birthday.
My heart hurt. A lot. For me. But it hurt even more for him.
We didn’t break up that day. There was a lot of transition that we had to go through, a lot of being honest with ourselves, both him and me, before we could officially let each other go. Ye olde ‘bisexual’ phase. That part hurt much more, actually, than the night at the park. The slow wrenching away. The hope, then the hope dashed. The closeness, but the inevitable end. I mean, we’ve all seen “The Object of My Affection.” Actually, so did Kris and I. Together. At the movie theater. Holding hands. After we’d already been through all of this. We watched ourselves, and we were ok.
Post script: Kris and I were eventually so ok that we ended up going out to ‘celebrate’ our 1 year anniversary. We went out to a bar and got wasted. The bartender that night was wearing very tight jeans. Kris and I spent some time admiring his ass together. The next day the bartender ended up calling me. That bartender and I celebrate our 12 year wedding anniversary tomorrow. No joke. Kris stood up for us in our wedding. He read a poem. It was lovely.