This is a strange story. Both those in my long-ago and faraway “straight” life and those in my world today will surely think so. It is a love story. And it recounts the experience that, perhaps more than any other, showed me who I really am.
Richard was not the typical male-chauvinist, heterosexist jerk so many lesbians recall as former boyfriends. This is not a horror story. It follows no proscribed formula. Nor, of course, is it any romantic fairy-tale.
It is the story of the love affair that finally led me to realize I was a lesbian. Richard was one of the most influential people in my life. Though I tried to love him in the deepest and most profound way a heterosexual woman can love a man and failed, he changed my life in monumental ways. I will always love him in the deepest and most profound way a lesbian can love a man. And instead of devaluing that love, both the gay and straight worlds might look at it to see what it has to teach us all.
Richard is a character, to say the least. My friends’ opinions ranged from those that cast him as a hippie to those certain he was the planet’s biggest space-cadet. He ate his popcorn with a spoon. He believed in something he called “molecular reincarnation,” in which the atoms of our bodies might one day reunify themselves – as if by magic – back into us again. He thought Macayo’s Mexican restaurant was a Russian establishment called Mikhail’s.
He once spent an entire weekend in Sedona wearing my sweatshirt, with girly little cats and mice all over it. He wasn’t afraid to do such things, because at six-foot-four and two hundred fifty pounds of solid muscle, he was undeniably “all guy.” Pure bliss, for him, were the hours he spent fixing up his rinky-dink old pickup trucks. He loved nothing better than to wear life out to the max, tramping through his construction boots with gusto and proudly noting every crease and dent. His favorite-ever birthday present was the air-compressor he bought himself, and he spent weeks finding new, inventive and annoyingly loud ways to use it.
I never knew anybody who got more out of life, even though he had to live it at his own speed. One day my parents, stuck in a minor traffic jam, joked that the vehicle causing it all must have been Richard’s. As he never drove over twenty miles an hour anywhere he went, this was not a bad guess. And when they managed to wend their way past the jam and found Richard’s truck, indeed, sitting at the front of it (broken down for the umpteenth time), they saw just how good a guess it was.
He once got the notion in his head that he was eating too many carrots and they were turning him orange. The first time I ever saw him naked, he appeared in the bathroom doorway of his apartment, clothed in nothing but concern. “Whattya think,” he asked me. “Do I look like a big carrot to you?” He certainly looked like a big something, but I must admit that I was too startled to tell him what.
Though he read widely, high culture was not his thing. His sister once took us to an opera. The highest praise he could offer, when it was over, was that it had been “a cute play.” The sister (who, I never had the courage to admit, was pretty darned cute herself) was so mad at her philistine brother that she refused to speak to us all the way home.
Richard was not, however, without a creative impulse. He drew a cartoon rat named “Itchy,” who appeared on all his letters and cards. There was even something deeply poetic about his love for wearing out construction boots and blasting his air compressor far into the night. He designed his own house, on a plot of land he bought in Laveen, just south of Phoenix. His original plan (sadly scuttled by the building commission) called for a living-room with drains in its concrete floor, where he could park his trucks as he worked on them and hose them down to keep them spiffy-clean.
I happen to be a bit of a nonconformist, myself. Some of our friends laughingly suggested we had been separated at birth. And indeed, he did inspire my urge to march to a different drummer and dance to an unconventional tune. The fact that he was a tad on the frugal side, I tried to overlook. When he read dinner specials off the board at Red Lobster, and when his newly-built masterpiece of a house (to which he had entrusted a bargain-basement contractor who disappeared from the face of the earth a month after the place was completed) began to sink on its foundations into the ground, I tried to think positive thoughts.
My friends were alarmed. Was I really going to marry this man? For the better part of six years, it certainly seemed like it.
For, indeed, he had his good side. When an elderly man suffered a heart attack in the mall one day, and everybody else rushed past paying no attention, Richard called an ambulance and stayed with him until it arrived. When his own mother wasted away on her deathbed, he took time off from work and nursed her through the bitter hours. He stayed to the end, and held her hands as she passed away. His father and sister couldn’t handle the ordeal, but for Richard, there was no question, through it all, where he belonged.
The evening of my college graduation, Richard accompanied me into the waiting-area. Lovingly, and with a mother’s own care, he dressed me up in my cap and gown. “That was the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen a guy do,” one of my friends said later. For all the romantic capital he invested in me over those six years, I’m afraid I was able to give him very little in return.
“What’s wrong with me?” Richard would plead, with tears in his eyes, in the midst of one frustrating night after another. “What am I doing wrong?” I couldn’t tell him – because I wasn’t sure. In truth, I wasn’t sure that I was doing anything wrong, either. Both of us were doggedly trying to be the best we could be to each other, and to do everything absolutely right.
How could I admit to him that I had an out-of-body experience every time we made love? Not because it was so wonderful it “sent me,” but because I simply could not make the intense and all-consuming connection he needed. I could fake it, of course. But only if I shut my eyes real tight and daydreamed about a woman. I would never have been able to bring myself to tell him how many times his sister was there in bed with us.
Richard deserved better than this. And so did I. I just wanted him to stay my friend, forever and ever, and be there to do fun stuff with me. Fun stuff, that is, other than sex. He wanted a soul mate, with whom he could share his heart, his bed and his whole self for life.
Spiritually speaking, he and I did not seem to be well-matched. Or, to paraphrase the slogan that’s so common now, we matched at a level that was “spiritual, but not religious.” Actually, when I was still dating men and trying my darnedest to be straight, many of those I chose were of my own faith (“equally yoked,” and all of that). But these, very nearly without exception, were indeed the sort of male-chauvinist, heterosexist jerks that are the stuff of lesbian horror-stories. The more decent ones were – sad to say – almost always the least religious.
Richard was an avowed atheist, yet one of the best Christians I have ever known. One evening, as I began my usual evening prayers, it occurred to me that I was remiss in not praying for his conversion to faith. I was about five minutes into the process of remedying this when the doorbell rang. Muttering to myself about pesky people interrupting good Christians’ prayers, I opened the door, and who should I find standing there but Himself (I mean Richard, not God). As seeing him at my front door on a weekday evening was only slightly less of a surprise than seeing God there (Richard rarely drove into the city during the week – and never showed up without first calling to see if I was home), I was taken aback.
He had just gotten his carburetor checked at the mechanic shop down the street and he wanted to know if I’d like to have dinner. There was a seafood special at Denny’s, so there was no question where we would go. By this time, it had occurred to me that God was dropping the answer to my prayer right into my lap. “HELP me,” I silently prayed as we drove to Denny’s. Like most writers, I’m not very clever about what to say when presented with an unanticipated face-to-face challenge.
At the restaurant, I scrambled for an opening. Richard hated talking about religion, so I had no idea how he would respond to my dropping such a wet blanket onto the table. But then he looked at me, out of the blue, and asked me how someone who didn’t believe in God might begin to consider belief. I squirmed like a bug on a pin.
“Try just asking God for faith,” I told him, wondering where that had come from. “There’s a very simple prayer in Scripture: ‘I believe, Lord help my unbelief.’ Tell God you aren’t sure whether He’s really there or not, but that if He is, you’re open to believing in Him.”
And God put away the two-by-four. Just like that, the challenge was over. Richard chewed his shrimp, mulling over my advice. “Hmmm,” he said, “maybe I’ll try that.”
I don’t know whether he ever tried it or not. He never told me, and I never got up the nerve to ask. But again, despite the fact that he is probably the biggest cheapskate in the world, Richard has the heart of a true Christian.
Love is just plain weird. It is wonderfully, infuriatingly unpredictable, and it cannot be pinned down like some science-project bug. For six years, because I knew I loved Richard, I hung on to the hope that this meant I was just as “normal” as every other woman (I thought), and that I had beaten my lifelong, persistent passions for those of my own sex. Why it took so long for me to realize that sexual orientation could no more simply be ticked off, like the “party preference” box of one’s choice on a voter-registration form, for anybody else than it could be for me, I have no idea. The love I had (and have still) for Richard is a whole ‘nother sort of love – though, I think, that makes it no less special.
Misinformation about homosexuality, and about what it means to be gay, is what led to my confusion about love. It also very nearly led to the destruction not only of my own life, but of Richard’s, too. Straight people are not served by homophobia – and the ignorance that perpetuates it – any more than GLBT people are.
After six years of trying, Richard finally had to let go. Eventually he married somebody else, and then they had a son. Not only would my marriage to Richard have robbed Arlette of her husband, but it would have robbed little Johnny of his own chance to be born.
Do we honor an individual’s specialness, always, by forcing him or her into romance and marriage with another?
I’m sad that Richard’s wife does not seem to understand this, either. It is a loss for both Richard and me. That we can no longer enjoy our friendship, simply because we cannot be lovers or spouses, is a genuine and irreparable loss for us both. I will never have another Richard in my life – and he will never have another Lori – because there is only one Richard, and only one Lori. God did not make another of either of us.
Both love and friendship deserve more than what homophobic society is willing to give them. So do both homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is not homosexuality that gravely injures the relationship that exists, in general, between men and women. Mandatory heterosexuality is what does it such horrible harm.
Refusal to honor individuals and relationships is a refusal to honor the God Who made us – and Who commands us to love one another. “The wind blows where it will.” Jesus is speaking here, of course, of the Holy Spirit. But the same is true of love.
When, a few years later, I came out as a lesbian, the first person I told was my longtime therapist and friend, Mary Lou. And the second one was Richard. I called him for the first time in a long time a “blast from the past,” as I told him (jokingly and nervously). Praying for at least a little of the eloquence God had given me during our long-ago Denny’s seafood special dinner, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and laid it on him. Actually, I just sort of hemmed and hawed around, until he filled in the blanks.
“You’re gay?” he asked softly. No scolding or condemnation. If anything, a sigh of sheer relief.
“I’m gay,” I said, for only the second time in my life. And, thanks be to God, that explained everything.
Richard thanked me for telling him the truth. My “coming-out” call to him was my last, loving gift to him. It was an act of love. “So there wasn’t anything wrong with me,” he mused. “And,” he quickly assured me, “there’s nothing wrong with you, either.”
Many men would have reacted in anger. (My last boyfriend, Joe, was indeed furious. Our last conversation was full of Biblical prohibitions and psychobabble about “mental illness.”). But Richard saw the truth for what it was. He knew real love when he didn’t see it – and when he did.
Love is just plain weird. And it comes in many forms – every one of them wonderful.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called “Born on 9-11” and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.