You are probably not surprised to learn this: I am not a Backstreet Boys fan.
But I cannot hear #iwantitthatway and not think of my early 20s.
I was 20 when that song came out. I had only just come out, like truly come out, of the closet at 18 a few years before. Mostly because my first boyfriend had been so terrible to me that I couldn’t not talk about him. I had been saying I was bisexual since I was 15, but there’s a big difference between one’s assessment of their feelings, and one’s desire to maybe shock their friends and seem a little dangerous, and one’s lying awake all night, sobbing into one’s pillow, because the first person one gave one’s heart and body too was an asshole but one didn’t seem to know how to not keep going back to him. So as one spoke of him, one found it easier to do so when using the correct pronoun. And that’s how one settled on categorizing as gay to his friends and neighbors.
I was 22 when that song played an unexpected, unforgettable role in my life. By then I had dated and slept with quite a few people. Let’s say… 20. One had been a nice guy who wasn’t enough for me. One had been a terrific man I wasn’t enough for. One had been a troubled but well intentioned drunk and we’d been earnest fools together. One had been a wistful dancer I decided was better off without me because I was trouble and I knew it. One had been an annoying activist I seduced and then treated cruelly because it made me feel superior and Evil. The remainder of the men had mostly been encounters in bars or from chat rooms that lasted a couple weeks or a night. Generally speaking, they were more enjoyable than not, but I was heartsick, always, and distant and inclined to aloofness. I had decided, at some point between 18 and 21, that I liked being heartbroken. I had also decided that I was both too good for everyone, and not good enough. I was full of emotions and feelings and I was terribly directionless and the truth is I probably could have had a lot more fun and should have but I was afraid and paranoid and reckless with others while being overly cautious with myself. I mostly felt anguish, constantly, over being gay. Not shame, mind you, but anguish. It was lonely and I was lost and people loved me and left me or I drove them away and I thought this was all because I was gay. Not just because I was 20ish.
It’s not a particularly pleasant time to think of, and yet it’s also very romantic. My time as a handsome dunce who didn’t realize he was handsome. My time as a cruel lothario who didn’t understand why people would like me, or that not understanding why you might be likable is often a surefire way to get people interested in you. I wasn’t often happy, but I wasn’t often bored either. I was accidentally and reluctantly, but effortlessly, living a life I really had to work at to reproduce in my 30s, when I was ironically more emotionally suited for it. Youth really is wasted on the young.
But I was 22 and living in Tucson, plotting my escape, and occasionally going on terrible dates or exciting but treacherous hook ups, when I met a guy in a chat room who invited me to his place one night. He was in his mid-40s and I was very wary of significantly older men at the time, but he was polite and we’d chatted about unusual things for a chat room (God, mostly, and music- he was a chiormaster), and he’d sent me this very cute picture and he looked kind. Sort of boring, actually. Like someone’s dad. So I went there one Saturday afternoon, and when he opened his door he was handsome, genuinely handsome, with this brilliant smile, and wearing glasses, and because this is Tucson in the summer we were both in golf shirts and khaki board shorts and we sat on his couch, had two beers, spent an hour talking about God more, and music more, and then doinked.
It was actually one of the most natural, friendly, low stress encounters of my life at the time. Which is saying something because I was usually amazingly high strung in these situations. Usually because secretly I didn’t think the guy was good enough for me. Usually because secretly I didn’t think I was good enough for him. This paradox was the most pervasive cockblocker of my young adulthood, and half the time I did have sex, it would rob me of some of the enjoyment of it. Or nag at me late at night, while I blamed myself for “betraying” my own “standards.” Many of which were ambiguous and elitist and not even really mine so much as Ideas of What I Wanted. It really is a shame. I could have had so much more fun. The miracle is realizing how much fun I actually somehow still managed to have. You can be a successful disaster when you’re young and because you’re young it still kind of looks good. Especially from a distance.
Laying in his bed afterwards he explained his “situation” to me after I glanced at and remarked on some framed photos. He was a dad, raising a teenage son, then 14. They were Catholic. Like really Catholic. He had once been in the clergy, actually. He was still working for the Church, as a chiormaster. He had always been a homosexual, and had always known that, but, “Stuff happens. Life. You try things when you’re ashamed and you don’t know why. Or lost. I loved God, but something wasn’t working there so I left the clergy. When God wasn’t there to love, I tried women because that’s what you did and I needed to love something. I didn’t try many women but as luck would have it…”
He told me his son was gone for a week, with his mother in another state, and that “I only let myself have sex once or twice a year, when he’s gone.” I asked if he was out to his son and he nodded. “So…?” He shrugged. “I’ve never met the guy I trust to be the guy who helps me raise my kid. So I’m gonna let my kid finish growing up and then when he moves out, we’ll see. This isn’t easy for me, to be honest. I think you’re adorable and I really like you, I don’t think you’ll ever understand how grateful I am to you right now, but tomorrow I’ll be praying for hours because of this and because of you. I mean, that’s why I wanted you here tonight. I need tomorrow to pray, so I can go back to just being a father on Monday. If you had said no… we wouldn’t have met.”
He got us another beer. We had sex again.
“I think God wants us to love one another,” I said. I was just beginning my slow descent into Christian mysticism at the time. Because when something isn’t there to love, you can always try God. I had tried many Gods by that point. I was just then trying God with a capital “G.”
“Oh, unquestionably. But anything or anyone that comes into my life, I pray for forgiveness for.”
“You don’t need to pray for me.”
“Oh, no, I pray for myself. I’m the one who must be forgiven.”
“But God wants us to love one another. You agreed.”
“And I do. I pray for forgiveness for holding back. For not letting myself love someone. Not right now. Not for a very long time. I pray I’m not missing my life. I pray I’m doing what’s best for me by doing what’s best for my son. I pray until I feel okay about letting go. So that I can let go.”
“I’m not good at letting go.”
“Me either. That’s why I have to pray.”
“That’s stupid.” I said, thinking of someone who had broken my heart in college. Thinking of several someones who had broken my heart in college. I’d like to say I thought about the hearts I had broken in college but I didn’t because I was a selfish drunk 22 year old who had just gotten laid and thought the world revolved around him. It’s not until much later that you realize that believing no one loves you tends to say more about you than the world you think just can’t handle you. But I was young and sad and had been told too many times that I was “too much.”
And that’s when he rolled over, curled himself around me, and softly sang “I Want It That Way” in my ear. The whole song. From the beginning. All the choruses. He had this absolutely beautiful, smooth baritone voice. He had told me multiple times in our chats that he sang for a living, but it’s the difference of theoretically knowing someone can hit some notes and hearing their voice warm its way inside you while your sweat dries on one another. I told him twice that I wanted him to stop because I hated that song but he just kept going because I laughed when I told him and he knew. What I really hated was how much I liked him singing it.
We had sex again. We drank more. I told him about a guy I was hung up on. A really good guy I thought was the center of the universe, but who thought I was too much, but really it’s that I wasn’t enough. He told me that guy was an idiot for not being into me. I told him HE was an idiot. He laughed at that, and told me I should take a shower. I did, and then I left.
As I get older, I find myself occasionally thinking about this guy. I wonder if he’s with someone, if he’s reconciled his faith and his desires, if his son turned out to be everything he hoped he would be. If he knows his dad had guys over when he was gone. If he knows that his dad was actually a totally decent human being to the strangers he had sex with, and that that is not as common as it should be.
What I sometimes wish is that I had called him again, but I never did. He had made it pretty clear he wasn’t looking for more, and that he liked me and that made a second encounter for him even less desirable. I hated that, of course, but I also respected him. I realized by being on the receiving end that I had actually done this to a dozen people myself. This began my slow understanding that it’s okay to like someone and let them go, that it’s okay to only need so much for someone, and that if you’re both in on the conditions, there are relationships which are about impact and impression, not time or tenure. That Quality is sometimes directly connected to a lack of Quantity. And that you can be kind without being available, and in some times and places, that’s what you need to be.
Everytime I hear that song, I can vividly remember his smile, and the sound of his voice.
I wish I could tell him that he was really good in bed.
I wish I could tell him that I look back fondly on him.
I wish I could remember his name.