By day, Bryan Park was a genteel and respectable place to visit. In April and May, citizens of Richmond would flock to see the masses of azaleas that grew along seventeen acres of road there. The park’s south entrance led a serpentine path through the high banks of color—vivid pinks, obscene purples, whites so vibrant they caught the sun and reflected it like a mirror. The park was alight with color for those two months, then settled for the rest of the summer in the colors of the forest—deep browns, soft greens, dappled shades.
It was the shadiest of the Richmond parks, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. There were a couple of fields for sports, and the banks of the creek running down a waterfall and into the duck pond were clear, but most of the park was overshadowed by oaks and pines and by the deep forest that protected the sleepy neighborhood of Lakeside from I-95. It was in the shade of those impossibly tall trees that I lost myself in my teen years, along with the shadowy figures of the adult men who’d come hunting for the same thing as I: release.
Cruising there was different in the daytime. From the time the park opened until its official closing at sunset, the park’s users divided themselves roughly in half. In the south entrance came who wanted to use the park for recreation and relaxation, or the rednecks who drove in their pickup trucks with the Confederate flags in the back windows, and the illicit bottles of beer and Jim Beam beneath their seats.
And in the north entrance, at the park’s rear, the men cruising for sex would drive. Up and down the road by the duck pond they’d drive, slowly, carefully, scanning the horizon for possible movement among the trees. Those cruising for the long haul would steer all the way into the woods and park near the restrooms there. Their heads would barely appear over the driver’s side windows, as they slouched down in their seats and peered out at the world around them, waiting and watching.
The park’s two sections were, back then, inaccessible from each other by car. The straight side had its own entrance and exit; the cruising side utilized the same two-way road for both. Someone who parked and walked through a series of barricades might make his way from one to the other, but very few did.
The daytime men made a show of appearing respectable. Earnest, even, in their attempts to appear as if they were using the park for its legitimate intended purpose. They’d stretch their legs and walk around the duck pond, ostentatiously carrying sandwiches their wives and sweethearts had prepared for them in white paper lunch sacks, or bearing bird-watching binoculars around their necks. The men who walked into the sunlight, who got out of their cars, made every attempt to appear as if they belonged.
By night, though, all bets were off.
The park officially closed at sunset. By the time dusk rolled around, the distinctions between the park’s two halves began to bleed. In the lingering heat and humidity of the long summer days, men would open their car doors when the sun had set and begin to walk around. Rednecks savvy to the action going on would cross the barricades. In their hands they’d carry their bottles in brown paper bags. Their breath and their beards would be sour with the stuff. In the picnic shelters they’d sit, or on the rocks near the waterfall, legs spread, the worn denim of their jeans showing the outlines of their tools. The cruisers would leave their cruising mobiles and step into the woods, and watch. The restrooms grew busy with the sound of the swinging doors. Inside, in the stalls, would echo the sounds of slurping, of soft sighs at the insertion of dicks into holes, and the muted commands one man might give another.
There were ways to linger in the park after sunset. The side streets of Lakeside would be lined with empty station wagons and trucks and long town cars. The park officials might have been able to block off the roads, come dark, but the park wasn’t walled or gated; they couldn’t stop anyone simply from walking in.
It was after the park had officially cleared that it would come to life again. From the shadowy woods would emerge figures that had disappeared in there long before the sun had set. Men who’d occupied corners of sheds and small shelters would step out onto the roads again. And somehow they’d all end up in the picnic shelters in the park’s center.
I knew the routine well enough by my mid-teens. I would drive around Lakeside until dark fell, and then navigate around the barricades and straight into Bryan Park, locking my bike on a rack by feel. Even after my near-arrest in the restrooms the summer before, I was bold enough to feel safe in the dark. The night was my blanket, my protection. I knew I could strip off my shirt and leave it in the disused, ornamental stone fireplace at the picnic shelter’s end. I knew I could leave my shorts there too, with my bike key tucked into the zipped pocket. Being naked outdoors wasn’t exactly a novelty for me—I couldn’t even really recall the first time I’d stripped down and run around like a wild Indian, as the saying went back then, at one of my parents’ hippie-dippie gatherings in the nineteen-sixties.
I felt emboldened by the dark, nights in the park, though. This was my element.
The first time I lay on one of the picnic tables beneath the shelter, I felt giddy at the cheek of it. Soon I learned that it was my place. The irregular, splintery surface of the wood dug into my back, night after night. I grew to love it. I almost missed the bite of it, when I’d get fucked on sheets. The men approaching were visible only by their lighted cigarettes, or by the glint of a pair of spectacles in the half-moonlight, or by the sound of their belts unbuckling and their feet shuffling across the concrete as they approached. I’d feel a pair of hands on my legs. Hear the sound of a zipper. Feel the shove of spit-slick dick against my hole.
And then I’d take their fuck, with gratitude.
The rednecks smelled of booze and cigarettes. Their beards would rasp against my face when, against character, they’d lean down to drive their tongues into my mouth. Once they’d done, they’d whip bandanas from their pockets and wipe their cocks clean before scampering back to the trucks they’d parked on the side streets, to pretend they’d been out with their buddies. The married men would hold my legs hard and fuck deep, making their exertions silent as if they were trying to keep it down so their sleeping kids wouldn’t hear. There were the regulars, the older bachelor gentlemen of a certain age and gentility who made a career out of disappointing elderly marriage-minded spinsters during the day and finding their true passion in the park, beneath the trees and the slope of the shelter’s roof.
Sometimes I could identify the men only by the way they flicked their cigarette lighters, or by the feel of their dicks as they shoved and forced themselves into my holes. In other parts of the shelter they would grope for each other, or kneel in corners and suck and swallow. Sometime other men would lie on other table, or bend over for each other. But I had my table, near the door, where reflections of the night would expose me to those hunting nearby. Two hours I’d lie there, three, taking dick after dick.
Once in a while—rarely—the cops would sweep through the park. From our vantage point on the hill, we could see their headlights shining through the trees. There would be a chorus of belt buckles, of shoes scraping across concrete, of men scattering into the woods. I’d collect my clothes and wait behind the shelter, watching the car glide by and continue back out again. They never stopped. There was nothing to stop for. Certainly not the phantoms watching from between the trees.
Then one by one, two by two, the shadows would appear again, and converge on the shelter. The fucking would be more urgent than before, and my sighs and grunts would be lost in the night, among the cicadas, the rustle of leaves, and the distant sound of the highway. Late at night I’d slink home, stinking of cum and still wet from the quick washes I’d give myself in a neighbor’s spigot, where I’d sneak into my room through the basement door and crawl into my bed. Then I’d sleep until ten, and wake up planning to do it all over again.
I learned about abandon in that place. I learned about closing my eyes and trusting not in the way things looked, but in how they felt—how men asserted themselves in the dark, when no one was looking. The timid became bold, the bold became wolves.
We had no bars, no internet, no place to congregate and size each other up. But in the dark, we were a band of brothers with no restrictions between us, and no rules to follow save for those we made ourselves.