I was turning 15. He was 16, soon to be 17. It was my birthday; he was hours late to the little dinner party I was having to celebrate.
When he arrived, he came bearing dessert. And a poem he’d written for me. Matt arrived and ran to the front of my parents’ living room to read his work aloud for those gathered to hear:
[There’s actually a middle bit, but it mentions a few people by first and last name, so I felt it best to edit.]
Everyone laughed, and we ate the pie, and that was it.
But it wasn’t it. Not at all! Being young and precocious — and a creative writer on top of that! — it was probably the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me in my life.
I didn’t know then what I know now, which was that a few years later, he’d come home from his first semester at university and announce that he was gay. So there’s that funny, maybe prescient, line in there. And I didn’t know that I’d spend my last two years in school being teased; bullied because of that — sometimes at the hands of teachers and staff; the very people who were supposed to protect me.
What I did know, in that moment, was that I was 15, and it was my birthday, and my boyfriend had come to my party with a strawberry pie and a poem. Someone had met me exactly where I was.
What an amazing gift! And now, I find it remarkable that my 15 year old self appreciated it at the time, too.
But time goes on.
A few weeks ago, I found myself heading up to Columbia University’s Miller Theatre to see a staged reading of Matt’s latest show. I mentioned about a year ago that he and his partner, Griffin, had won a series of awards for their musical: Witness Uganda. The production was staged by American Repertory Theatre, and I’d booked tickets for myself, eee, Kasey and CJ to attend.
Over the years, my relationship with Matt has been complex. But we have worked to have this strange and beautiful thing between us now because a first love is a true and peculiar thing. When we were together, we were supportive of each other’s creative processes; we collaborated in real, meaningful ways — ways that were grown-up beyond our years. The echoes of my relationship with Matt can still be heard in much of my work today.
We see each other now and we say I love you. We mean it. And that has been hard-won.
I had arrived at the theatre early on the night of the show, and I bumped into Matt’s parents. They looked exactly the same as they had years back. We chatted for a while, then more of their family arrived. I continued my conversation with his father. Towards the end of our chat, as people began to file into the auditorium, we suddenly, somehow found the words of support we might’ve said to each other many years ago — words we’d never said. We’d all gone through a lot in the years after Matt had left. There had been so much to say, but how does one say those things?
It’s not really an AABB sort of rhyming poem-type of communication situation.
It was a strange and healing moment — crossing that divide.
Matt and Griffin’s musical was amazing — a deeply personal, spiritual work about love, life, hope, and redemption. Matt’s music was beautiful; mature. Observing his hands on the piano, I was 15 again. I was just a girl, in school, with a boyfriend who had a car and a letterman jacket
(Admittedly, the letter was in dramatic arts. But it was a letterman jacket nonetheless.)
After the show, I saw his parents again, and hugged them goodbye. I gave Matt a big congrats and we exchanged I love you’s before eee, Kasey, CJ and I retreated from the theatre.
It was funny, because I always talk about being loved for who I am, where I am — about needing that; wanting that. But here was this sacred space that had opened and closed, aged and stayed the same — a space that was filled with love.
Sometimes, I had felt my 15 year old self was so ugly — changing her hair from red to blonde. Turning her locks crunchy with Sun-In and heat-styling. Finally cutting it all off, and leaving it bobbed and short until I was nearly 30. I had felt peculiar and unstylish and unloveable. I’d hidden behind different identities and various iterations of myself over the years. And I had thought that no one else in the universe had ever felt that way.
No one could ever cross the divide to reach me..
But then there I was, in my thirties — at the end of a very rough month; nearing another birthday — being loved and loving people for who I was, where I was. And discovering that love was the thing all along.
What a lovely early berfday gift indeed.