My first crush? Glad you asked! His name was Tom Willett, and we met when were both 16 and working as counselors at a YMCA camp in Charleston, Virginia.
I should say: Tom wasn’t the first boy I was attracted to. As early as fifth grade, I had a dream about running down the track at my elementary school and getting scooped up for a hug by William Moore, my friend’s older brother. At the time I didn’t really know what that dream meant, but when I woke up I knew how good it made me feel. William had shiny black hair, and I was ready to hug him!
But Tom was the first boy to sweep me away, even if he never knew it. For that entire summer at the Y, I could feel the air around me change when we walked into a room. I remember feeling like I was going to pass out while I was standing in the break room, trying to act nonchalant while he microwaved a Hot Pocket. He was wearing Umbros soccer shorts, and while he was standing in front of the microwave, he kept pulling his left knee up to his chest to stretch. I remember the heat in my face. I remember I was mesmerized by watching his leg move up and down. God knows what would have happened if he had leaned over to take a long drink from the water fountain!
In the midst of this fixation, I somehow managed to form enough coherent sentences to have conversations with Tom. I learned that he was not only beautiful—which he was, by the way, with brownish-blond hair and dark brown eyebrows that perfectly accentuated his hazel eyes—but also a sensitive poet. Or at least he knew about poetry. In Charleston, that made him Robert Frost.
We didn’t go to the same high school, but by the time the summer ended, we’d become close enough that we decided to write each other letters. Letters! Like people did in olden times! For that entire fall, I learned how thrilling it is to open the mailbox and see the distinct, slanted handwriting of a poet in soccer shorts.
The next spring, after we’d spent our junior year writing letters and occasionally hanging out at chain restaurants that felt fancy to me, Tom sent me a manila envelope. Along with a letter, had had included a short story for me to read. No one else had read it, he told me, but he wanted me to see it. I may have squeaked with excitement. This was the kind of intimacy between boys that they wrote about in A Separate Peace!
And then I read the story. It was written from the perspective of a teenage girl, recounting the death of her male best friend. Her friend had died in a car wreck, but she didn’t think it was an accident. She thought he’d killed himself because he was gay. She hoped he had known that she loved him for who he was.
I couldn’t breathe. What was happening? Was Tom telling me he knew that I was gay? Was he telling me it was OK to tell him? What should I do?
I’m sorry to say that I didn’t do anything. I was so worried that Tom would reject me for being gay, despite what he’d written in the story, that I never wrote back. Not a single word. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that Tom was trying to come out to me. That my silence must have felt like a rejection.
A few years later, I tracked him down on Facebook, but he was one of those people who never posts. He eventually deleted his account. So even though he accepted my friend request, I never got the chance to talk to him about our actual friendship.
I’ve accepted that even in the hyperconnected age of 2020, Tom and I will probably never see each other again. Instead, he’s in my memory as the beautiful, sensitive boy who might have been my first kiss, if only I’d had the courage to tell him he was my first real crush.
If nothing else, the way I left it with Tom has helped me never leave it that way with anyone else. Now I always say what I’m feeling, because I know that staying quiet won’t do anyone any good.