How I Learned the Difference Between Sex and Love

I am with Quinn, in the old wobbly house she and two girlfriends rent in New Rochelle, New York. We are in her bedroom. It is mid-spring 1978. I can see the burst of cherry blossoms struggling to explode from the tree outside the window. Quinn guides my body into hers. I am 16. She is 22. This is my first time with a woman.

“Evan Miles, how are you so good at this?” Quinn’s whisper of my first and middle name is shielded by deep mystery. “Have you done this before?” I don’t answer. Her question echoes in my head as I walk home. My truth is shiftier than “yes” or “no.”

Since the age of thirteen I have been having sex with Mickey. Mickey is two years older than me and at least a head taller. He is a local pot dealer and used to live across the street. My mother and his mother are like sisters. Mickey’s body is indestructible and irresistible. But now, after years of secret confusion, I am with a woman, and it’s great. I am relieved. Maybe I am not gay.

Still, as I leave Quinn’s house that day, I think about Mickey and it excites me. But I’ve decided I won’t call him again. Maybe he won’t call me again. After we had sex the last time, Mickey was clear: “This is wrong! We will never do this again!” Of course, he has said that many times before. Now, I am with Quinn—and that’s all I need to know.

Quinn and I first meet through her role as youth director at a friend’s church. She is the essence of the ‘70s. Long, thick, straight, obsidian-black hair that harmonizes with her tall, slender body, the white peasant shirt, and the tight bell-bottom jeans.

If Disney’s bluebirds flutter like a crown around Sleeping Beauty’s head, animated peace signs are the cumulus clouds that float above Quinn.

Quinn can pretty much take on every art form—painting, sculpture, makeup, even calligraphy—so, at my request and urging, the director of the play invites Quinn to become our de facto consultant on all things art related to Godspell. Now, as opening night nears, she is with us every afternoon during rehearsals. In a crowded space, one afternoon, she and I do a dance. She moves closer to me to apply the signature Godspell makeup, then I move closer to her.

“Your skin is so soft,” she whispers, as she eases her blue-coated index finger across my cheek. Our eyes fasten.

“Your fingers are … ” Quinn slowly puts another finger to her mouth. There is something exciting about our cloak-and-dagger exchange.

“Don’t move.” She quietly spreads a red line across my lips. Her fingers say, “You are mine.”

My eyes say, “I am yours.”

Before long, Quinn and I are together after rehearsals almost every day. My mother wants to know who this woman is and what are you doing together—all of the time? Mom’s sixteen-year-old son is being picked up and dropped off by an unfamiliar, older woman in a beat-up Volkswagen. At the same time, Mom seems to have an odd sense of relief. We both do.

Each time we are together, Quinn tells me about my body. The changes. The hair growing on my chest and face. My physique is developing. I am taking more ballet classes and working out at the gym. And my heart is growing ever bigger, ever softer, ever tumbling into complete love … for a woman. All the while, I still see Mickey occasionally. And I keep Mickey a secret—from Quinn, and everyone.

◊♦◊

Mickey and I begin years before, during a sleepover. I was actually friends with his younger sister, but I sleep in the bunk bed in Mickey’s room. That’s how boy-girl sleepovers went in 1975. Mickey is cool. He listens to The Grateful Dead. He sneaks us into his parents’ liquor cabinet that night. So later, when he tells me to come down from the top bunk into his bed, I’m not sure what’s going on, but I do not disobey.

The two of us rub against one another’s naked bodies until my mind begins to spin, my body begins to shake. We are both hard. Is this what Amaretto does? I am losing control. Then, suddenly, I have an uncontainable, mind-blowing experience. Mickey too.

Then, he immediately throws a towel at me. “Clean up and go to bed,” he says brusquely.

He doesn’t have to tell me this is a big secret. Even at thirteen, I know it. But all I can think of, as I fall asleep, is that I want more.

I am not too young to understand what I am feeling. But while I’ve seen news about a thing called “Stonewall” and about marching through New York City streets, it’s not clicking. I’m not connecting this to how, inwardly, I want every second of Mickey.

By the time I meet Quinn, Mickey and I have developed a ritual that continues. He calls or stops by in his new Camaro, under the guise of smoking pot. I either sneak out of my house, or he sneaks in while everyone is gone. We smoke pot. He reaches out and begins to rub me. No words are spoken. Within minutes we have both come—me first, then Mickey. It isn’t long before I realize it must to go in this order.

Once Mickey finishes, all he wants to do is get the f-ck out. “We can never do this again!” he insists, as he pulls up his pants. “This is the last time!”

He’s gone. I am sitting there, alone in my house, wondering What just happened? At first it is painful, as if—like most things in my life—it’s all my fault. I made Mickey do it. I talked him into it. I seduced him. As the years pass, Mickey teaches me more: him inside me, little by little. It starts to feel good. I wonder, but never ask, where he learns these things. Every time is the last time.

But “the times they are a changing.” By the middle of my sixteenth year, I am no longer the little boy filled with shame. I am a young man who spends weekends in New York City, taking ballet and acting classes and running down to 8th Street to buy red and orange tie-dye, tie-up overalls.

And I am being taught by Quinn, a wonderful woman, that the most important thing about sex is love. Our time together is not dirty and never ends with “Get out” or “This is your fault” or a towel thrown at me. Still, I don’t discuss it with my friends—Quinn is, after all, a woman six years older than me. But I also feel sure that my time with Quinn is less transgressive than with Mickey.

◊♦◊

One night, the phone in my bedroom rings. “Wanna meet at the lot?” Mickey mutters. I know what this means. My heart is empty, but my body still gets excited.

Ten minutes later, my car pulls up to his, like a Cold War rendezvous. I walk around and slide into the passenger seat next to him. There is no love in this car—only the musty smell of sweat and a half-smoked roach. A short silence is broken by the clanking of belts and unzipping of pants.

When we are done, I grab the towel from his back seat. I wonder, for the first time: Who else has used this? What is life like for Mickey? Who does he talk to? Who holds him in their arms? Of course, I don’t ask.

As I drive away, I realize that I have no idea what it would be like to be in the “afterglow” in the arms of a man.

I dream about it, and being in Quinn’s arms makes being with Mickey less and less appealing, less necessary. It’s not that I don’t want to be with a man, so much as I don’t want to be with this man. And these days, I am sure I am cheating on Quinn. This has to stop. My head is spinning like a tornado without warning.

Toward the end of my junior year in high school, I am finally honest with myself. Mickey is not about love, but he is also not about pain. In my life, he is just as significant as Quinn. Like Quinn, he has opened me up to a possibility where there seemed to be none.

One night late in that summer of ’78, Quinn picks me up and we drive in a thick, uncomfortable silence. The sun is setting. We park across from a rambling wooded park flooded with footpaths no one has cared for in years, save for lovers like Quinn and me who have hollowed out clandestine warrens.

Quinn finally breaks the silence. “I am moving to Turin, Italy,” she says. “I am joining Alex and living with him while he goes to medical school.”

Who is Alex? But there’s something I care more about: “What does this mean for us?”

“It means we will always be family,” she says. “But we can never talk about ‘us’ again.”

I cannot find the words to express how wounded I am. “Does your Alex know about us?”

She reaches out to touch me. “I will always love you, Evan Miles.”

I snatch my arm away.

“Does ALEX know about us? US?” I stare directly into Quinn’s eyes. No longer bright, but simply black—and evil. I whip my head toward the woods. “We are now a secret?!”

This is way worse than anything Mickey had done or said.

“F-CK YOU!”

I get out, slam the door and walk home.

I am devastated—for a while—when Quinn moves to Italy with a man closer to her age. Mickey disappears without a word, and goes to college out of state. They each drift into a mist that quickly becomes a past that will be helpful. Not hurtful.

◊♦◊

After Mickey walked away for good, I would come to feel that his life was sad and empty. He was stumbling in the dark for that natural, carnal urge of sex he couldn’t bring himself to feel good about beyond one quick, wild grasp. And Quinn left me feeling betrayed and abandoned. But, of course, I was only 17. I knew everything then and believed it all wrapped up that simply.

I understand more now. Mickey’s life wasn’t barren because he organized our life around lust. Quinn wasn’t a fairy princess; her love for me was real, and intimate. It was also secret, and perhaps inappropriate.

Even so, Quinn and Mickey did teach me I need both lust and intimacy. Each is important, and I have a right to both.

I figured it out the same way I learned to master my grandmother’s recipe for chicken soup. For years I asked her for that recipe. And finally, about two months before she died, while I was in the throes of a relationship that was tearing me apart—in the space between great sex and wonderful afterglow—she sensed that I wasn’t quite my “usual feisty self.”

So she sat me down and told me to “grab a pen and a piece of paper.” Here is her recipe: “Go to the store and buy a chicken. Boil a big pot of water. Put the chicken in the pot and add a bissle of this and a bissle of that. And that’s chicken soup.”

In other words, I had to try it out on my own.

And eventually I came up with the best recipe. I dropped the man I was seeing at the time (or maybe he dropped me). And then the same thing happened to me with relationships that happened with the soup. I tried adding salt, or pepper, or whatever might blend to achieve that perfect flavor. Some relationships had a little too much sex. Others had too much emotion.

What they all had in common is something I realized felt right for me. They were all men. And like the chicken soup, I eventually created the winning balance: the sometimes rocky but always amazing 25-year relationship with my husband David.

A bissle of this and a bissle of that.

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