His beauty and aura were potent enough to make someone new fall in love every day, and my turn came during the Taste of Chicago while home for the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college. Ambling through the festival, I saw him working in the booth of a radio station, and that first glimpse hit like a punch in the heart.

It hurt knowing I had been on Earth for 20 years without ever seeing such handsomeness and could die without encountering it again. I felt crushed by the weight of the nuptials and empire I had planned for us before he even looked in my direction or knew I existed.

I craved more than a passing glance and found ways to linger without seeming like a lurker. Although there was a femininity in his allure — an eye curvature, radiant and unguarded smile, and shoulder-length locs whose tips were bleached blond — his demeanor made me doubt he was gay. My infatuation felt futile.

Having thought about his beauty all summer, I was smacked by it again a week before returning to school in Alabama. This time I was exiting Market Days — essentially a Taste of LGBTQ Chicago — as he was entering the market grounds, eliminating one barrier that had prevented me from expressing interest.

I immediately reversed course and admired from afar as he and friends stopped at booths, then timed my approach until they reached a vendor selling roses and asked if I could buy him one. He was politely flattered, but my nerves and his itinerary kept our meeting brief. It ended with him accepting my number and me managing the relief and anxiety that come after baring desire.

When I arrived home from lifeguarding the next day, there was a note from my mother: Mick called, with his number beneath. I still have that message, not only for giddy memories but my mom’s casualness when first confronted with the sexual orientation I had disclosed a year earlier.

We met that night, and I was devastated by a vibe deliberately friendly instead of flirtatious; but he invited me to spend the night at his place and I was so content with proximity I felt no urge to nudge our snuggling toward sex. I slept at his lakefront high-rise four nights, and we hung out every day of my last week in Chicago, my imminent departure protecting me from expecting anything beyond the moments and marijuana we were sharing.

Twelve years older than me, he profoundly brightened my forecast for homosexual adulthood. I most remember his pride and contentment with being single for six years, since I had believed relationships were something to be “won.” He could’ve claimed the prize 25 hours a day, but instead modeled an alternate vision of victory.

Two decades after that lone week together, Mick moved to Atlanta, and we recently ki-ki’d over blunts and brunch. It felt good being the one who knew the hip parts of town and cute date spots, to have made it from fawning child to grown friend.

His eyes and smile remain as stunning as when they were seared in my mind, but while smoking and eating I was thankful my deepest fantasy never came true. Not because of him, but rather because of the gay man he helped me become.

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