October 19 / Rhodes, Greece
The visual is a petrified strip from a cardboard mailing envelope, ripped slowly open. Curling when torn from its sheet, spiraling like a snail. I don’t know what that means, where it comes from, but the image of a linear, narrow strip of thing, brown cardboard detaching from its perforated surrounding, is clear in my mind.
The taste of gasoline burns my throat.
I watch a leaf drag slowly across the cement floor, stop, drag again. Along cracks like veins.
Somewhere in Rhodes, Greece.
At a gas station.
Waiting for Chris.
Our ATV ran low on gas, we stopped and the attendant filled the tank.
“Seventeen-twenty,” he says. A heavy Greek accent and broken English.
Twenty or so miles from the port, we had been driving for an hour, maybe. I took the helmet off. “What’s going on?” I ask Chris, just walking back from the restroom.
“We don’t have any Euro and he won’t take U.S. Dollars or a credit card.”
I turn to the attendant. “Well we don’t have Euro’s. You can’t take U.S?”
“No,” he says, sounding taken aback, “Nowhere here take dollar.”
We attempted our best rebuttal, but it went nowhere.
“You go to ATM and get Euro.”
Chris sighed. “Alright we’ll go to an ATM. Where is the closest?”
“No. One of you stay. The other go to ATM.”
Because we were the Great American Gas Thieves.
“You seriously can’t take a credit card?” I ask.
“No, no. There is no machine. What do you want me to do? ATM is at big market. You drive that way.” He signaled forward.
“How far is that?”
“Not far. Seven kilometers.”
“Ok, but we’ll both go and come back.”
“Chris,” I look at my protective husband, “It’s OK. I’ll wait.”
“It is big market. Only seven kilometers.”
I laugh and roll my eyes. A go-to response to passively let my true feelings known. “It’s fine.”
Chris gives me an are-you-sure? glance. I nod my head.
“OK,” he says, “So it’s that way – and a market?”
“Yes. Big market.”
I watched as Chris sped away. Stranded alongside a small highway. A dingy gas station. On an island in the Mediterranean.
The leaf was caught by a sudden gust of wind and disappeared.
I sat on a plastic red chair, typing on my phone to a friend struggling with alcoholism. We have been corresponding through email since the first day in Rome.
His fear, the suffering, was so parallel to my past. It was no coincidence we were communicating. On my honeymoon. With the person who stood by me through those early stages of sobriety, recovering from years of suffering and self-abuse. It was no coincidence that during one of the most incredible chapters of my life, I am connected to the memory of where I came from. A direct reminder to not take it for granted. That even in the most magical days, I need not forget the steps that led me here.
My friend was there now. Enduring the consequences of his decisions. And I know it so well.
The words of support flow out in a steady stream. I know it’s something other than me dictating. I only have to connect to the feelings. Share with him what I know.
And I remind myself to never forget.
The advice I give him is advice that I will always need for myself. It is the same words I was given that kept me sober. Alive.
As I send the email, Chris pulls up on cue. He props up and over the ATV, pulling the helmet off his head. Had he been Farrah Faucet, he would have tossed blonde locks from side to side with the sunlight kissing his every curve.
We pay the attendant.
I straddle the ATV, Chris in front of me.
He revs the engine and drives off.
I turn to see the red chair I had been sitting in get smaller and smaller in the distance.
We were two birds, flying with abandon across blue sky.
I stretch my arms and glide with the wind thrusting against my face.
Chris winds around the highway, passing cars and mopeds. It has been days since our first ATV expedition in Santorini; he was a professional driver now. Sixty miles an hour with a sense of confidence, a masterful control over the machine, like a horseman with his stallion.
After what became miles later, Chris takes the exit to Lindos, a small town of white blocks scattered on a mountain below ruins of their Acropolis.
The view unfolded.
We are high above the sea, hugging the edge of a cliff. Mountains paint the sky for a dimensional landscape that fade behind hazy vellum miles away. The water gradates from transparent to cyan to aqua to deep cerulean. Endless.
Pen to paper bows before the breadth of its true essence.
A feeling conjured only with the eyes.
We stop to overlook the rolling beauty. An iPhone attempt to document the experience. A dozen people with the same intent, taking photos that only skew the memory.
Then we are off.
One brilliant moment after the other, it becomes normal to hop on the ATV and not look back. It is amazing, the things we can get used to. Both the blessings and the sufferings.
We stand atop the Lindos Acropolis. What feels like miles above ground, head in the clouds. Old stone columns, walls and archways stained with history, marble steps polished by the eager feet of millions of tourists.
Towering above Rhodes – the city, small white bits covering the land – I feel layers peel from my shoulders, my body. Maybe a perforated strip from an envelope pulled loose.
Chris and I walk through ages of ancient ruins to the very edge of the Acropolis. A panoramic orgasm. Sea stretched to the west, city and mountain unfolded to the east.
We step to the ledge.
Chris hoists himself up, standing a foot from falling below.
I grab his ankle.
“Chris, come down.”
I see him trip on a stone, a miniscule, life-altering pebble, twirling back, then sailing over the edge. Volts of fear and loss strike my chest.
“Seriously, come down.” I pull his ankle again.
“Stop! You’re going to make me fall if you do that.” He doesn’t hide his annoyance.
My love for this person can become a leash. I never want to lose him. I would forever be at sea.
We stand together, on top of the world. There is no greater place.
“Do not raise your hand.” Chris is seated next to me in the theatre, his face in shadow by the darkened house. I can still see the don’t-do-it in his eyes.
I raise my hand.
“Over there! Come on up!” The host, Rich, calls out over his microphone.
“Oh God,” Chris groans in a nervous laugh.
The couple next to us starts to cheer. “Come on!” I grab Chris’ hand, laughing. “Let’s go!”
“I can’t believe you!”
We walk down the long aisle, passing row after row of audience members until we are center stage with four other couples.
“Are there any more newlyweds?” Rich calls out, “Come on, don’t be shy folks! Any other honeymooners with us tonight?”
Chris turns to me, stage lights soak us, I see a playful fear in his eyes. An I-hate-you, I-love-you grin on his face.
“Alright couples! We can pick one honeymoon couple to play The Marriage Games. Think Newlywed Game meets the Hunger Games. Just a little more cut throat! Here we go guys. On the count of three you’re going to give your spouse the biggest, sultriest kiss of your life. The couple with the loudest audience applause gets to join the other two couples on stage to compete in The Marriage Games!”
Chris’ eyes widen.
We were the only gay couple. In that moment, standing under lights before two floors of an audience, we were the only gay couple in the universe.
“OK couple, GO!”
My fears are overshadowed by my innate desire to win all things. To be the best. To shine.
I grab Chris, wrap my arms around him, swing a leg over his side, and plant the most ferocious, comedic kiss I could. We lean back, now raising my arm to signal for audience cheer.
Time stood still.
Days before I could barely hold his hand without anxiety. Now here we are in front of hundreds of people, making out, proclaiming our love. Comically, but vulnerable.
“OK!” The host put us to rest. “My, my! We’ve got some naughty couples! She was ready to take him down on the stage!” He pointed to the second couple, everyone laughed. “Let’s see which of our couples will play. I want the audience to cheer loudest for the couple you want to see up here. Is it couple number one?”
He raises his hand over the first couple. The audience cheers.
“How about couple number two?” Met with light applause.
“Couple number three?” The crowd cheers louder.
He walks behind Chris and me, raising his hand above our heads.
“And who would like to see couple number four?”
The audience erupts in a volcanic applause that shakes the theatre.
I take Chris’ hand, he squeezes mine. I shoot him a big smile, and he shoots me a pair of wide eyes.
“Well that was unanimous. Couple number four take your seats on stage. Everyone else, go sit down!”
My heart races.
What just happened?
We jog up the steps onto the stage, taking our seat next to a husband and wife who were married 23 years, and another who were married 52 years.
Let the games begin.
Where I bask in the spotlight, Chris tends to shy away from attention. He was up close and personal with his fears.
I stare out at the audience. It was like home.
Bright lights blinded, but I see the outline of heads for miles. I do my best to hide any nerves, but I’ve got a telltale lip quiver that won’t quit.
“My heart feels like it’s coming out of my chest. Do I look nervous?” Chris whispers.
“Not at all. We got this.”
“You’re not nervous?”
“No,” I lie, smiling big for the audience. “OK, maybe a little.”
After an hour of questions and challenges, The Marriage Games begins to wind down. I had to sing and hula hoop against the other spouses. Chris had to draw my portrait and fly a paper airplane. We both answered questions about each other, all while competing against the two couples as the audience laughed and cheered us on.
I release my inner showman. The little boy on stage again, milking every moment.
Finally it’s time to announce the winner.
Rick calls out the husband and wife of 52 years as third place. The couple of 23 years are second place.
Which leaves us.
Chris and Ryan.
The couple married three weeks.
We sit on stage, holding hands, as an uproar takes over the theatre. Hairs on my arm and back of my neck stand up. Cheers, applause – for us.
I was frozen.
Everything I hated about myself growing up, the part of me I tried to hide, was on stage in front of an audience. Not only met with acceptance, but applause. Now standing side by side with my husband, holding hands.
His smile is brighter than the lights. It is louder than the audience. His smile matches the streamers in my chest.
We laugh in disbelief.
The moment is surreal. It is as if all the insecurities of being the gay couple were challenged. Maybe I was the only who needed to grow, who needed to accept. Not everyone else. I need to accept me.
After thirty years of shame, of self-doubt, and a closet full of masks, I need to let go. It’s been safe to point the finger at everyone else and say they don’t accept me – they will judge or ridicule. Safe because then I don’t have to look at myself. It’s time to love me. To hold the fear, the past, like a silk scarf in the wind. Let go.
To be whole, with Chris. And on my own.
Since our fifteen minutes of cruise ship stardom, people stop us on the ship. “Aren’t you the newlyweds? We saw you on the show! Congrats on your marriage!” Or, “It’s Chris and Ryan!”
A woman came over to tell us she had fought for gay rights for many years in Canada. How excited she felt to see us on stage. Another woman said her son was marrying his partner in a few weeks and she was happy we found each other.
If all these people, strangers, could accept us, what was it so hard to hold his hand days before? Why do I still think about condemnation when we are in public? No one threw tomatoes, no one beat us up after the show. I am not the kid in middle school anymore. Sitting on the bleachers alone. The kid who got punched. Who they called a faggot. Who wanted to end his life.
I am the man who stands on stage with his husband, winners.
Facing our fears, together.
Chris sleeps, lightly snoring next to me. His energy soft, at peace, curled gently under white bed sheets like a perforated strip from a mailing envelope. Resting till morning.