I was 23 years old when I finally stopped lying to myself.
The rain-splashed cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala, shone under the scattered streetlights, the rich night air was pungent and smoky with the exhaust of the chicken buses. I was at a club called La Sala, dark and sultry with sweaty bodies. It wasn’t a gay bar, but it was the closest thing Antigua had at the time. A thunderbolt had been living inside my chest for 23 years, deeply etched with letters denoting my condition, a leaden amalgam of shame and confusion that I didn’t know how to shake.
Growing up, I didn’t kiss anyone under the bleachers at a football game. I didn’t lose my virginity on prom night. Encounters with girls were forced and infrequent; there was no attraction, no intimacy. I never felt like a sexual being. It was an acute and intimate misery, one that I thought would last the rest of my life. The thunderbolt was insidious, slowly collecting inside my chest.
That night in Antigua, I was threading my way through the crowded club towards the single restroom under the stairs. There was a knot of well-dressed men standing a few metres away, all of them around my age.
One of them was looking at me. He was tall and strikingly handsome, with thick dark hair swept back, and smooth, sculpted features. I smiled at him and went into the restroom. When I came out, he was still standing there.
“Como te llamas?” I asked. What’s your name?
“José Antonio,” he said. “I speak English.”
His voice was rich and melodic, strongly accented.
I gestured up towards the terrace. “Upstairs?” He grinned. “Vaya, gringo.” Let’s go.
We shared a cigarette on the terrace overlooking the ancient city. There were at least a hundred people up there, but I wasn’t conscious of any of them. Someone could have walked up and pushed me off that balcony and I wouldn’t have noticed. José had his hand on my knee, and his liquid brown eyes never left my face. For the first time in my life, I wanted someone and I felt wanted in return; I had never known what that felt like. I felt lit up as if he and I were glowing. I remember being more aware of my body than ever before, beautifully so: aware of the muscle, the sinew, the tissue that comprised my physical form.
I was transfixed by him, tongue-tied, clumsily slipping between English and Spanish. He was laughing, his hand moving further up my leg. He took a pull off the cigarette and passed it back to me. I slowly, ever so cautiously, allowed myself to believe that maybe, maybe this was it.
Suddenly, one of his friends approached him, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. José took his hand off me, asking a flurry of questions. What happened? Where is he? Why did you leave him?
He turned to me. “My friend is sick. I need to help get him to the car.”
“Okay,” I said.
I felt oddly disoriented, like I was slipping. “Are you coming back?”
“If I can,” He said. “We’re from the city.”
Guatemala City was 50 kilometres away, through the mountains. We looked at each other for a long moment. I felt a swell of panic.
He took my hand. “I hope I can come back.”
The moment he left the balcony, the terrace became ordinary. The glow had vanished, and I felt the weight in my chest shifting, expanding. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I stumbled through the club and onto the crowded cobblestone street. I scanned the crowd desperately, pushing to the middle of the street, staring around me. The sea of people seemed endless. A pit formed in my stomach. I felt as though I had pulled my way up a cliff, but now I was slipping—sliding towards a churning river and clawing at tufts of grass for dear life, but the inertia was too extreme, too inexorable.
Suddenly I heard a shout. “Gringo!”
I turned and there he was, striding through the crowd. I moved towards him and without thinking, in the middle of that crowded street in Antigua, I seized the front of his shirt and kissed him. He kissed me back, both hands on my face. I quickly became aware of people staring. We pulled apart.
“Are you…?” My head was spinning.
He took my hand. “I’m staying with you.”
The thunderbolt clapped, dissipated and was gone.