Before the gay apps, there was AOL, and to a suburban teenage gay kid in the 1990s it offered a safe haven, anonymous acceptance and an outlet for exploration.
It was also where I encountered Adam.
Adam and I first “met” in a male-4-male chat room — a teen-dedicated variation, I’m sure — and he was immediately smitten.
I liked him, too — very much — but there was hesitance. I was scared to pursue a gay relationship, friendship or otherwise, for fear of getting caught. I was only 19 at the time, home for winter break during my sophomore year of college, and I didn’t want my family to discover my big secret.
Ultimately, though, I was powerless. Adam, even online, was magnetic, funny, charming and cute.
God, was he cute.
Eventually I accepted his invitation for an offline date — after several unsuccessful attempts, because Adam was nothing if not persistent — and I picked him up at his parents’ house to catch a movie at the local theater.
I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first gay date, and I was nervous, but the butterflies weren’t warranted.
To that point, I had only seen photos that he’d shared online, but they didn’t do the kid justice. In person, he was beautiful and quirky — in sort of an Ashton Kutcher kind of way — and even though he was the one who initiated our relationship, I felt oddly lucky that he had chosen me as soon as I laid eyes on him.
When he hopped in the car, it was like we had known each other always. Any potential awkwardness evaporated instantly, and we belonged to one another from then on.
At the movies, we fooled around a bit. We were horny teenagers, after all, and we lacked the kind of affection and sex we really wanted. At least I was. Adam was already out of the closet at 18 — just one more thing I admired about him.
When the movie was over, we dreaded what was next, as neither one of us wanted that night to end. For the past few hours we were in a perfect world with the perfect companion, and we wanted it to last forever. So Adam asked if I would sleep over.
Without hesitation this time, I called my mom, lied to her about where I was staying, and Adam and I spent the next eight hours — until the sun came up, actually — talking and touching and kissing and cuddling in his childhood bedroom like we were never going to see other again.
But we did. We saw each other the next day, the day after that and everyday until I had to go back to school two weeks later.
I missed Adam incredibly when I returned to college, and that feeling was strange. I had only known him a couple weeks, but he was all I could think about.
To stay connected, we wrote letters back and forth — real ones, not emails — that made my heart pound when I ripped them open and read them in the student post office as soon as I discovered them in my box.
Yet they weren’t enough to keep me fully vested.
Over the months we were apart, I wasn’t exactly honest — or faithful — to Adam, and I hooked up with another guy at school.
I was still in that stage of acceptance where my newfound sexuality compelled me, against my better judgment, to seek fast, fleeting pleasure.
Also, I was a first-class douchebag.
Adam wanted to visit me at school early that spring — and I wanted him to come, too — but before he boarded a bus for the six-hour trip, my conscience told me to come clean. So I did. Adam, quite characteristically, understood, forgave me and told me that he couldn’t wait to see me.
We spent an amazing weekend together that I remember fondly. There was some sneaking around — I lived in a fraternity house and I wasn’t ready to come out to my brothers yet (I lived in a vast walk-in closet back then) — but that made it all the more exciting for us, and we managed to carve out meaningful time together.
When Adam returned home that Sunday, he called to let me know he’d made it safely and, for the first time, he told me that he loved me. I told him that I loved him back.
Our relationship grew stronger, and our hearts fonder despite the distance, however cliché that may sound. We talked nearly every day, sometimes for hours, and we counted down the weeks until we could see each other again.
But, of course, that euphoria wasn’t meant to last long. As it tends to do, the universe threw me a curveball that would eventually seal our fate.
I met a girl at school who, for a reason I still don’t understand, began flirting with me and hanging around more. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t interested. That I was gay. That I had a boyfriend. But I couldn’t. I let her like me, and I led her on for one selfish reason: It was an opportunity to throw my fraternity brothers off the scent (there were plenty of rumors swirling about my sexual orientation by that point), and I didn’t want to deal with their reactions if they found out I was gay.
So I dated the girl. And I hooked up with her. And I hated myself for it.
She was sweet, but it never should have happened.
Yet I let it, and in doing so I traded one set of consequences for another, a decision I’ll always regret.
Adam came to visit me at school again just before spring semester ended. We had another great weekend together, but once again I had a burden on my back that he needed to know about. I didn’t tell him in advance of his visit this time, though. I wanted to see him once more if this admission sent him running. (Dick move, I know. I was a real asshole.)
Instead, I waited until he headed home from the visit and — like a coward — I left him a voicemail confessing to this second offense.
At first Adam seemed OK. I could hear the pain in his throat when he called back — the fact that it was a girl this time was much harder for him to handle — but he said we could get through it. I know he didn’t mean it, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
His tune changed, however, when he got home and insult added to injury: His beloved dog was dead.
He loved that dog more than life itself, and when he started thinking about how he could have been there for her in her final moments if he wasn’t out of town wasting his time with a chronic cheater, all the love that he had for me was replaced by a deep-seated and merciless hatred that was completely and unfortunately justified.
It also changed the course of our lives forever.
For years after that I apologized whenever he would listen, tried to make things right, but every time I attempted to make amends he would rebuke me, likely hoping that the pain he was inflicting on me as penance would someday equal what I had already inflicted on him.
In the end, he succeeded.
A few years ago, Adam walked onto a busy Pennsylvania highway to commit suicide. He was hit by a semi and died instantly from his injuries. I don’t know what ultimately drove him to end his life, nor do I need to, but when he died, so did a part of me.
Reflecting on that, I wish I had been better to Adam. I wish I could rewind the clock and take back everything I did. If nothing else, I at least wish he had forgiven me. I don’t think an event that happened 12 years earlier influenced his decision to kill himself, but it did leave an indelible mark on his heart — one that he ultimately wasn’t able to reconcile.
As a result, I live with the guilt of being a self-centered jerk those many years ago with little regard for Adam’s feelings. His grudge against me went to the grave with him, and that’s a price I’ll pay for the rest of my life.
If Adam were here now, he still wouldn’t have liked me for what I did. There was no friendship in the cards. But I would’ve worked harder for his forgiveness, if only so he knew that he was always good enough for me, that I never stopped loving him and that I would’ve done whatever I needed to do to make him feel worthy of this world.
Because it was a much better place with him in it.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to reach a counselor who cares. No one is in this life alone.
Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and blogger whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world, including CNN.com, The Huffington Post, The Advocate, Instinct magazine, and Out.com, among many others. Connect with Mikey on Twitter @mikeyrox.
Featured image by Marjan_Apostolovic via iStock