For our first vacation together, Michael proposed we go camping.
As a 40-year-old lifelong New Yorker whose idea of “woodsy” was Central Park, this wasn’t my thing. Yet I wanted to be agreeable and expand my horizons. Browsing campsites online, Michael chose one that was all-male and clothing-optional.
Now I was terrified.
“Come on, what better way to get in touch with nature than being au naturel?” he asked.
“Until you get poison ivy or a tick in places you wouldn’t want to,” I quipped.
Still, days later I sat in the passenger seat as we drove through cornfields and nothingness in search of the campsite.
“I feel like we’re about to inspire a Stephen King story,” I said.
I was relieved when we found the entrance to the camp, marked by hand-painted letters on a rock, but wasn’t sure I wanted to proceed. Michael pointed out two men who were in their early 50s and dressed in calico button-downs.
“They look normal,” he said. I peered behind their backs to make sure they weren’t carrying hatchets before getting out of the car.
Checking in at the main office, we were greeted by a shirtless innkeeper ― a 6’4” bear with grey chest hair and double nipple rings. When he stepped out from behind the counter, I realized he was completely nude. I knew this place was clothing-optional, but I didn’t expect to see a guy’s ... uh ... s’mores ... so soon.
“Here’s a map. I’ve circled a few trails. This one leads to the play area,” he said.
“Play area?” I asked.
“Gloryholes, slings. The usuals,” he replied, matter-of-factly.
“Ah, right. The usuals,” I blushed. I turned to Michael, hoping for a similar reaction but he was unfazed. A 45-year-old public health professor and “sexpert” who led workshops on sex education and well-being across college campuses, nothing ever made him turn red.
I admired Michael’s maturity, something he attributed to being the son of U.S. diplomats and growing up overseas. On our first date, a casual hamburger dinner we’d agreed upon after chatting for a month on OkCupid, I was smitten with his tales of living in Lebanon, Cyprus, the Philippines, Germany and Australia ― all before he was 10. Yet I worried I wasn’t sophisticated enough for him.
Unlike Michael, I grew up as a sheltered, closeted gay kid in a conservative Catholic family from Yonkers. My parents’ idea of an exotic vacation was the Jersey Shore. When I left home, at the age of 18, it was to move just 25 miles south to Manhattan. In my mid-20s, I still hadn’t fully come out and lacked the confidence and curiosity to go to sex parties or pick up men at bars, like my friends. In my older years, I felt like the world’s most boring gay guy. I was someone who enjoyed sex in a bed with the lights off, and my wild side was watching “The Golden Girls” and eating peanut M&Ms.
Michael assured me that my hang-ups didn’t matter. “I just want you to be comfortable,” he’d say. I tried my best. At times, I allowed myself to get out of the way and let his pragmatism and my whimsy intertwine in a way that felt both natural and nice. But despite our best efforts, being with someone who was so confident in himself, in and out of the bedroom, only made me feel insecure.
The innkeeper continued his rundown of the camp and pointed out the areas where guests needed to keep covered-up.
“Just near the road mostly. Some of the neighbors can be a bit stuffy,” he told us.
Glad you have standards, I thought, feeling like a total prude.
Michael and I collected our belongings and walked to our cabin. I was surprised to find a charming little house that was remarkably clean, but grew uneasy when I couldn’t find the bathroom.
“There isn’t one in here, it’s shared,” Michael told me.
I freaked out. Apparently, I missed the concept of camping where beds and a roof were considered big-time luxuries. Sitting on our porch, I noticed we had a view of an outdoor shower, built on what looked like an altar. I wondered if we paid extra for that.
I hated this place but was determined to make the best of it. Michael and I did the usual camping things like boating and building a campfire, which I enjoyed. The other guests were all pretty friendly, if a bit cruise-y.
While Michael wasted little time shedding his clothes and his inhibitions, I remained a bit more reserved, eventually agreeing to go skinny-dipping. When a man yelled “yummy,” at me, I thought, Thanks? Wait, no, I’m taken.
But was I? Michael and I had been together for almost a year, but never used the word boyfriend. I assumed we were exclusive but we hadn’t actually discussed it. To be sure, I broached the subject later on a walk through the woods.
“I don’t like the term boyfriend. It makes me feel like I’m in the eighth grade,” Michael said.
“But I need a label,” I replied.
“Why?” he asked.
“So I know if I should be sleeping with other people or not,” I blurted out.
It was at this moment when we accidentally came upon the “play area.” It was a circle of some sex swings, a crucifix, and a port-a-potty with a hole on the side.
“Ewww, is that what I think it is?” I asked.
Michael confirmed, then took my hand. “Let’s keep walking,” he suggested.
“Do you want to try something?” I asked, sheepishly, and to my surprise. I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to give it a go, but I didn’t want to limit Michael’s experiences.
“This isn’t my thing,” he confessed. “This isn’t why I wanted to go away with you.”
I felt better but still couldn’t wait for camping to be over. Roughing it, clothing-optional or otherwise, wasn’t for me — especially having to leave the cabin to pee in the middle of the night. The next day, we drove a few hours and checked into a hotel. Our new room (with a private bathroom!) had a pink, heart-shaped Jacuzzi, mirrored walls, and a faux fireplace.
“You booked the honeymoon suite?” I asked. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
“I got the last room they had, I didn’t know it was like this,” he said. I was disappointed, yet relieved. Finally, something that made him uncomfortable.
“Well, we have to try the tub,” I said, attempting to put some romance back into our trip. Later, we poured some wine and got in. I became lightheaded, nearly passed out, and felt sick for the rest of the night. Michael applied a cold washcloth to my forehead and we watched “Judge Judy.”
As Michael comforted me, I suddenly felt worse. When he’d asked me to go away with him, I was thrilled. I saw this as a pivotal moment in our relationship ― if things went well, maybe we’d discuss moving in together. But if this was a test, I’d failed. And not because I’d fallen ill.
Thinking back to Michael’s earlier comment at the play area ― “This isn’t why I wanted to go away with you” ― I realized that I’d been so focused on sex, and on myself, that I overlooked Michael’s acts of tenderness and his emotional needs. Worse yet, I’d reduced our relationship to “are we sleeping with other people or not” when it was so much more than that.
I wished we could go back to the woods and have a redo. Or, at the very least, I wanted to lift my head from that fake down pillow and admit the truth: I only want to be with you ... because I’m falling in love with you.
I tried to say the words, but I choked. It was the first time I’d ever felt this way about someone and the emotions unnerved me. This probably wasn’t the best time to think about other men, but my mind drifted to past relationships. There weren’t many, but I started to see a pattern. I’d date a guy for a month or two and we’d mostly have sex and watch TV. We were physical, but not intimate. Then they’d dump me.
I always blamed myself. I was too cold, too guarded, said the wrong things. Yet things were different with Michael. I was still self-conscious, but his calm, patient demeanor helped me relax. I opened up in ways I didn’t expect, telling him about everything from how I spent my childhood battling leukemia to my love for professional wrestling. Now, as Michael laid next to me when his leg gently brushing against mine, I felt more secure than ever. But did he love me? What if the answer was no? What if he was only tolerating being with me because it was after midnight and we’d had four glasses of wine? I’d already messed up so much that I feared saying the wrong thing and pushing him away for good, which would make for a really awkward drive home. I grabbed my phone and looked up bus schedules back to Manhattan just in case.
It took me 20 minutes to realize my insecurities were raging out of control. If Michael and I were going to move forward, I had to let myself be vulnerable. I finally found the courage when he fell asleep. I whispered I love you and it was barely audible and totally cheating, but at least the words were no longer just in my head.
Thankfully, Michael and I continued dating. A year later, he suggested another camping trip. I agreed, as long we picked a place where the cabins had bathrooms and the “play area” was reserved for badminton and archery.
Walking in the woods, Michael reminded me of the moment I’d asked him if he was my boyfriend. While that term still didn’t feel right, it wouldn’t be long before we discovered the best word to call one another — husband.
Mark Jason Williams has written for The Washington Post, Out, and Salon. He is working on an essay collection, “You’d Be Cuter with a Deeper Voice,” hilarious and heartbreaking tales of growing up gay and Catholic, facing leukemia, and how having a high-pitched voice wreaked havoc on his love life.