He would ride into the park some time after midnight on an old chopper as his well-mannered mutt ran free somewhere behind him. He wasn't a big guy, and the chopper wasn't a hip affectation. Chances were he'd been riding it since he was 12.
By the end of the summer I knew his dog's real name, but I almost certainly didn't know his. "John" was what he offered when, after our third chance encounter, I gave him mine.
Some guys ride around in parks like hawks scouting prey. They swoop by and stare with brief intensity. If they like what they see, they make a wide circle and then ride up to you at full speed before coming to a sudden stop a few feet away. Then the game changes and it's your turn to decide if you're interested.
For John, the bike seemed like a means of retreat. His presence was tentative. His shy eyes betrayed an innocent uncertainty. He seemed a little lost. When I walked up to him in the bright moonlight, I was also lonely.
There isn't a heterosexual equivalent to the homosexual culture of anonymous sex. The tenderness that can be part of what gay men express with one another is off the radar of most people I talk to.
I've never understood the stereotypical complaint about men's lack of foreplay. My own experience is that we're often eager to kiss, cuddle and explore every part of a partner's body.
When I was with John, that's all we did for a long time. We both seemed hungry for something more than sex. Of course we were horny, but there was no hurry to shed our clothes. Instead, we held one another. My palms open, I could cradle his entire back in my large hands.
We shared slow, gentle, deliberate kisses. In the summer heat we started to sweat. I can remember nuzzling into his sleeve and breathing in deeply. Few things are more inviting of intimacy than taking obvious pleasure in your lover's natural smells. Our touching became fervent. I raised his shirt and began to explore his moist chest with the tips of my fingers. He hesitated. I started to unbuckle my pants and guided his hands to my waist.
Choosing to share the pleasure of my body with a stranger is certainly not as grand a gesture as risking my life to save someone I don't know, but it can be motivated by the same deep empathy with the needs of another.
Almost as much as death, and perhaps because of it, we all fear loneliness. We all need comfort in the face of that fear and have a common desire to feel intensely and completely present in the moment with another human being.
And that is my memory of what those summer nights were like. With a perfect stranger, about whom I still know almost nothing, I shared some of the most tender and comforting moments of my life.
It's easy for someone who's never experienced anonymous intimacy (as opposed to sex) to dismiss it as lust. There is, however, a marked contrast between the urgency and passion of physical desire and the stark tenderness of a stranger's vulnerable embrace. One is brash, intense and demanding; the other is cautious, hesitant and gentle. Both can be found in the company of strangers.
For some, the vulnerability that we sometimes show with strangers can surpass what we're capable of revealing to our lovers. As men, we're raised to contain and control our emotions. The fear of rejection that most of us have is just one of many fears that we keep under wraps, particularly in relationships.
Anonymous encounters can become a safe opportunity to let our guard down. How can I fear rejection when I will likely never see this person again? Anonymity creates the illusion that there are no expectations beyond the moment. In such situations, we can sometimes find ourselves wonderfully free to display our physical need for comfort and affection with unexpected intensity.
Most of my casual encounters have been all about lust. But more than a handful have been like my experiences with John. Sometimes we exchange names after the fact, but more frequently there is mutual recognition that anonymity is the key that opens the door to profound intimacy.
We say tender goodbyes in silence, with our hands, our lips and our eyes. Perhaps we don't want to destroy by speaking whatever fantasy each has created of the other. Perhaps we want to maintain the possibility that we will meet again, as John and I did by chance five or six times that summer.
As gays and lesbians deservedly win the right to marry, the stigma associated with anonymous sex will likely become stronger. I've found the act of sharing the need for comfort in the face of loneliness with someone I don't know to be deeply humbling. Some might see this act as unfortunate or unhealthy, but the fact that such comfort can be found is a truly wonderful testament to our basic humanity.
There is something primeval and grounding about it, even more so when it happens under the sky, surrounded by nature, on a warm moonlit night. When people speak disparagingly about anonymous sex, I can't help but feel sad that they've never experienced this wonder.