There’s a billboard I see in the South Bronx every time I take my commuter train into Manhattan. Right before we clatter over the bridge into Harlem, it looms over the squat brick rooftops. On it is a single word, in all capital letters: GRATITUDE.
I’ve noticed the sign many times during my trips back and forth from the suburbs into the city. Never before had it come so sharply into focus as last week, when I seemed to see every detail for the first time. The sharp serifs of the letters. The rusts and oranges of its construction. Its one-word message—or maybe it’s a warning—rises from a background of confusion and clutter, like so many messages do. But it’s there among the rooftops and the water towers, rising above the graffiti and the junk yards and the boarded-up windows, waiting to be seen.
On that day, that one noun threw everything into focus.
I’d gotten a message from Spencer, the young dancer who had been so much a part of my life in 2010 and 2011, when I was living on my own and trying to sell my home to rejoin my household on the east coast. We were constant companions then. We spent every evening together, watching movies and television. He shared my bed, nights. We fucked constantly; I had my hand inside his ass many times.
For a spell Spencer was mine, and I was his without reservation, without straying. Then my house sold, and the bubble burst, and we went our separate ways.
I loved Spencer. I still do. From time to time he’ll send me one of his poems. When I read beyond his images to discover messages of lost affection and of separation, I’ll spend most of the rest of my day fighting back tears and trying to pretend to the world that nothing is wrong. Whenever I’ve thought of him, and of how I had to leave behind his face, his beautiful body, and his sweet presence, I ache inside. It’s a genuine, deep-down hurt that never seems to lessen in intensity. The wound has widened as more and more time passes.
Even as I wax sentimental about our relationship, I have to remember this: we both knew from the start that its duration was limited. I also have to keep in mind that the moment I left town, Spencer started to get his life together. He’d had aspirations before; what he didn’t have was direction. Within the month after I left the area, he landed a job teaching ballet at a local college. He moved out of his parents’ house and into his own apartment. He began choreographing pieces that had existed only his head, when he’d tell me about them.
When I left, Spencer started becoming the success I knew he could be. My departure was the nudge he seemed to need to venture to the edge of his comfortable nest and contemplate taking wing.
Then he went and landed himself a graduate school scholarship abroad. That's a definite honor, and just the beginning of something big in his future. School starts this week for him. He needed to spend a week in New York City, last week, to expedite the red tape for his visa. He texted me upon his arrival and suggested that we get together in the city his last day there. I suggested lunch. Sure, he texted back. Or maybe we could just get a hotel room or something.
My heart ached at that message. I stuck to lunch. I don’t think I could’ve stood rekindling a physical relationship with Spencer, and then having to give him up for another two years.
So there I was, commuting into the city, dreading the meeting. I mean, really dreading it. All I could think of were the tears I wanted to cry whenever I think about Spencer, and the tears that were certain to follow when I said goodbye to him a second time. I thought about the potential awkwardness of meeting an old lover after a year and a half, and of the things he might say to me and the hurt I might feel. I wondered if we’d outgrown each other—or worse, whether upon meeting again we’d discover that we’d never fit as well as I thought we had. I worried about how I’d react if I had to hear that he’d fallen in love with someone else.
In short, I’d fretted and sulked and backed myself into a mental corner over this meeting. Finally I’d decided that I was going to endure it with a smile on my face, but that I wasn’t likely to enjoy it, under any circumstances.
Then over the Bronx I saw the billboard with its message. It caught my attention as we jostled over the trestles. GRATITUDE. The word made me think. It made me remember the tenderness I had for the boy when we were together, and how determined I’d been at the time to enjoy the sweetness of our time together without worrying about the future. I remembered how hard I’d fallen for him, and how fast. I recalled the love I had for him during the best times, as well as at his most frustrating. I thought with fondness of how I could buy a refrigerator full of groceries for him on a Monday and have it empty by the end of Tuesday night.
I reminisced about how I’d introduced him to Doctor Who and how we’d watched the entire new seasons together, snuggled under a blanket on my sofa with the cats, and how he’d excitedly outlined the plots of all his favorite anime series to me. I thought about how he used to kiss me, and the hunger his body and his touch aroused. I thought about how he used to gasp at my cock inside him, and of the aroma of his just-soaped skin when he would join me, steamy and still wet, from his shower at night.
I thought about all those things that made him so precious to me during those months together, and as the train sped into the dark tunnel that leads to Grand Central, I remembered how we’d clung together like lost boys in the dark of my old house, in an embrace so tight it felt as if we’d never let go of each other.
I was grateful. I was so grateful. And I was so happy to have had him in my life.
In the Starbucks in upper west side where we’d agreed to meet, I saw the back of his head when I approached the door. I knew it was Spencer immediately, even from a distance. My heart skipped a beat at the sight. When I stepped inside, stood in front of him, and held open my arms in an embrace, the last of my doubts fell away. I was nothing but happy.
I’d been a fool ever to doubt how right we’d been for each other. We fit perfectly, puzzle pieces that interlocked and formed a complete picture together. I didn’t have to endure his company, that afternoon. I was free to revel in it. I took him to lunch, and listened to him talk excitedly about his plans for the future, and about his new school. We caught up on television and gossip. We laughed. We opened up.
He told me he missed me, but that my absence had taught him to appreciate what he had, when he had it. I told him, as I had in the past, that I loved him, and that I always would. I told him that he’d always have a place not only in my heart, but a place to visit when he needed a home away from home.
Because of gratitude, I was able to tell him all these things, and mean them. Hours later, when we had to part, because of gratitude, I was able to take the train home with a light heart and no tears in my eyes. My mind was already running over the memories of an afternoon that had been spent in the company of someone I love dearly.
He’s a fledgling perched at the edge of a nest, my Spencer. I’m proud to know him. I’m grateful to have had that time with him before he takes what is sure to be glorious flight.