STORY: I wanted to disappear.
“Hi, Paul! What are you doing these days? Where are you working?”
I stared blankly at this acquaintance, struggling to come up with a response that seemed like I wasn’t an ill-prepared fresh graduate. “Um, I have a few things I’m working on, but I’m just figuring things out.”
I couldn’t help but notice his shiny shoes and coiffed hair, while thinking, “He probably lives in a beautiful glass condo high above the sky, has a cute boyfriend, and lives a predictable city gay life.”
This guy probably had a great life and got to fuck his hot boyfriend every night before bed, but I didn’t see it as an accomplishment. To me, that lifestyle involved the modern trappings of mortgages and responsibilities. I wasn’t ready to give up my so-called freedom, just yet. I really just wanted to escape. I wanted to flee the life I had built for something more adventurous.
I walked home with my neck stretched out, staring down at the cracked sidewalks to avoid running into anybody else I knew. I didn’t feel like making small talk. I used to find comfort in the feeling of being surrounded by gay men, but now I was tired of it.
I came home, put the kettle on the stove, got into my sweats, and flopped down on the couch. I sipped my tea and imagined a time when I would feel more satisfied with my life.
I turned off the lights, headed up to my bedroom, and stared out the window. The light from the adjacent condos that warmed my apartment was fading, much like my hope of landing a job soon. I got in bed, my eyes became heavy, and I slowly fell asleep.
The next morning, a hue of burnt orange drenched my apartment in an optimistic glow. Despite my dreary circumstances, morning light seemed to offer the possibility of rebirth. While each day usually ended the same, there was always briefly the prospect of renewal and this thought kept me going.
I hadn’t had even gotten out of bed when my phone vibrated under my pillow. “Who’s that?” I wondered. The screen read “MOM.” I let the phone continue to vibrate so my mother wouldn’t think I had declined her call. It went to voicemail.
I pulled my laptop out from under my bed, ignoring the screen covered in fingerprints and dust, and pushed the power button. The Facebook feed stared up at me like the continuous look that we’ve all been conditioned to.
As I scrolled, I noticed that an old acquaintance had posted a link with the heading “The World’s Cheapest Beautiful Beach Cities.” While it was just a random post, boredom, or perhaps curiosity, prompted me to click the link.
The Algarve in Portugal was the first place that appeared on the list. Under the article was a picture of jagged cliffs that stopped at the foot of the ocean and beaches that looked like they were the color of honey.
I googled the Algarve gay scene, as one does. A gay guesthouse popped up. I looked at the pictures of the place. It was beautiful! Lush trees and flowering trees surrounded a stone terrace swimming pool. There was a picture of the owner, an attractive silver-haired man. Impulsively, I sent a message, together with a shirtless pic of me to the contact address, “Do you have any summer employment available?”
I immediately began fantasizing about a European summer that included fresh food, good wine, and enchanting beaches. It was a gay guest house, so, the rest of the fantasy was obvious.
As swiftly as I sent the email, I forgot about it. But, a few days later, I received a call out of the blue from the owner. I answered and heard in a relaxed southern drawl “Hey, is this Paul?” It felt like I was talking to an older brother.
After some back-and-forth chitchat, Ron proclaimed, “Whenever you’re ready, come work for us. Get here when you can. Your accommodation and food will be taken care of and I’ll give you some extra spending money in cash.”
The deal sounded good to me. After we’d worked out those details, I replied, “Um…sure. I’ll be there.” And, just like that, I booked a flight.
A sense of anxious excitement came over me. I was leaving and there was no question about it, no overthinking, no shaking of hands, no second-guessing. I was leaving my aimless existence behind and it felt good. Less than a week later, I boarded a flight to Portugal.
As my plane descended into Lisbon I looked out of my window and I saw the deep blue ocean as it wrapped around the shoreline of Lisbon. It was stunning and reassured me I’d made the right decision to trade my comfortable but predictable, dull life in Toronto for excitement and adventure in Portugal.
I spent my first day in Portugal wandering around Lisbon, walking through narrow streets on the slippery limestone pavement, in awe of the colorful azulejo tiles which decorate many of the older buildings, the fresh fish markets, the sound of scooters speeding through the streets, and the beautifully sun-kissed men. I was in heaven! It was all coming together and my light that was so dimmed in Toronto began to burn bright again.
The next day I boarded the train to Portimoa in the Algarve in the south of Portugal, near to where I’d be working. I sent Ron a text saying that I would be arriving at the train station at 5:15. I had no idea if he’d even be there to greet me, but I didn’t care. I was living for the moment.
When the train reached my stop, I stepped onto the platform. I looked around and saw nobody until Ron, the owner of the guest house, approached from across the railway tracks. “Hey, are you Paul?” a man yelled.
I could see Ron’s masculine energy, as he walked towards me with a strut. His tan golden and weathered, and he wore a cowboy hat tipped down so that I could barely see his eyes. He sported a carefully trimmed grey beard, like the old-time actor John Wayne, but with a hint of gay.
We drove out of the train station in his little European car. I looked back and all I could see was a path of dust evaporating into a cloudless sky. The countryside was arid, somewhat stark, and beautiful. The car pulled up to the small hotel. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing, but I was feeling fine with just letting things just happen. I believe Eckhart Tolle calls this living in the present.
I walked behind Ron, as we entered the resort. There were groups of men socializing everywhere, with some lying by the pool naked. I felt overdressed. I looked down and could see the sweat seeping through my t-shirt.
I followed Ron as he introduced all the guests with affectionate, albeit embarrassing, stories about each of them. Who fucked whom, which couples were open, which were monogamous, who was hung, who drank too much. This felt like summer camp.
“The other bartenders will show you to your room.” Ron told me, “You’ll be living with them. Shower, if you like, change clothes, and then meet us for dinner.”
I quickly changed and put on the least wrinkled shirt from my bag, while spraying on the cologne I’d bought at duty-free.
Although I was still in a little haze from the jet lag, the dinner and company were enjoyable, and the evening was filled with getting to know the guests and them getting to know me. Afterward, we loaded ourselves into a van and headed to the one gay bar in Portimoa, about 10km away.
The bar was fairly nondescript and discreet from the outside. But once inside, the disco music thumped under my feet and vibrated through my body. Despite my exhaustion, I’d gotten a second wind and was clear-headed and sober, surrounded by clusters of men dancing. The place was filled with cigarette smoke, as I stood still and the men at the bar moved around me. Their white t-shirts were illuminated by the blue and green disco lights that cut across the crowd like lasers. I quickly scanned the bar for any potentially cute guys.
Through the haze, I spotted a short guy with oversized glasses whose dark hair flopped above his eyes. For a split second, it felt like we were the only two people in the bar. Unlike almost everyone else, he didn’t look plastered and there was a calmness to him. We locked eyes. I stood frozen, hoping he’d walk over, or I’d have the nerve to approach him. But, then, a muscular boy with an athletic body stepped in front of him and pulled him close. Their bodies eagerly pressed against each other. My stomach sank and I felt like the last kid picked on the baseball team. I stepped back and faded into the sea of people.
The next morning, I washed the smell of smoke off my body and ventured out to explore this new place. I thought about the guy I’d seen the previous evening and wished I’d managed to get his phone number.
I had bought an old scooter off a Portuguese guy in Portimoa when I first arrived. The scooter was old, and it took me several tries to get it to run. This morning, I packed a bag and headed to the beach with it.
I arrived at João de Arens beach, then followed other beachgoers along a trail from the parking lot through pine forest to the top of the cliff above the beach. It was an unspoiled piece of earth with an exquisite view. There is something about being in front of the ocean that I’ve always found calming. The breeze off the water-cooled the scorching sun that morning as I made my way down the steep trail to the beach.
I walked along the beach looking for a place to set up. Along the way I spotted the bronzed back of a man in black speedos with hair, closely cropped around his ears, and long on top. He looked like the guy from the night before. I walked by and pretended I didn’t see him. He looked directly at me and nodded in acknowledgment
“Hey! I’m Miguel.” he said as he looked directly in my eyes.
“Hi, Michelle, nice to meet you. I’m Austin.” I replied.
“No, my name is Miguel. Not Michel!” he said.
“Sorry, glad to meet you, Miguel,” I said enunciating his name clearly, with a smile.
“You’ve got it, Austin!” Miguel said as he pushed his glasses up on his nose with his finger.
“Do you want to join us? He looked at me and gestured to the group of five guys he was with. They were all Portuguese, lying in the sun, bodies glistening with suntan lotion.
“No, I’m all right, I’m going to lay over there, but, thanks for the invitation,” I replied.
“Damn! I thought to myself. “Why did I say that?!?” I had missed the opportunity and walked away, chastened, thinking I’d come off as more aloof than I would have liked.
I placed my towel atop the hot sand, took my shirt off, and guzzled from the jug of water I’d brought. I tried to act like there wasn’t a sexy group of Portuguese guys sitting only thirty feet from me. I put on my podcast and let the breeze off the ocean flow over me.
Suddenly, I noticed Miguel walking over with purpose. He put his towel down beside mine and stretched out on his stomach with his head facing mine.
“Hey, how was your night at the bar?” he said.
“It was good, I saw you there, but I left early.”
“Yeah, I saw you too. It was hard to miss you.” Miguel said with a smile that uncovered the space between his two front teeth. He had a strong nose and oversized glasses. I don’t know why, but, lying there next to Miguel, even though we’d just met, I felt calm. There was something inherently seductive about him.
The rest of the day, Miguel jostled between me and his friends. At one point he asked me to have dinner with him.
On the night of our first date, I was a bit nervous. Not the grey one or the blue one, but the black one. I slid my t-shirt over my head and threw on a baseball cap. I didn’t want to seem like I was trying too hard. It was almost 8 pm when I headed to the town square beside the church to meet Miguel. I walked up the dimly lit street and found Miguel waiting for me.
“You found the restaurant OK?” I asked.
“Yes, I am from here, Austin. I’ve been here before, though not since I was a small child.” Miguel replied.
“I can take you to another nearby restaurant if you’d prefer, ”I said. He shook his head and said that one was fine.
We sat and ordered two glasses of red wine. The restaurant was chaotic, as the waitress seemed to be the cook as well. She brought a plastic container of raw meat to our table, informed us it was all she had left, and instructed us to choose something from it. Miguel and I looked at each other in amusement and both chose the pork.
After the waitress had left, we made small talk. He asked what I thought of the town so far and how I liked my job. I shared my impressions with him, which were positive for the most part.
“You’re alone and far away from home. What made you come all the way to Portugal?” Miguel asked.
“I needed a change and I wanted to be challenged in a way I wasn’t able to get from the life I was living at home.” I said. “I think we need to challenge different parts of ourselves to continue growing. Like with a muscle, if you don’t push yourself, you’ll become weaker and parts of you will atrophy.” I rambled on.
“Oh, I thought you were just a perpetual boy who didn’t want to grow up, so you ran away to Europe,” Miguel said. I looked at him, while biting my lip. And my eyes widened.
“I’m joking, Austin!” he exclaimed.
I exhaled in relief.
“Trust me. I wish I had your guts to pick up and travel to a country without knowing anyone.” Miguel continued, “I often act on the side of caution and feel I’ve missed out on many chances to live a little bit more. To be honest, I’ve been scared.”
“Why are you scared? I wouldn’t want you to miss out on love, adventure, and doing whatever makes you happy.” I shared.
“Growing up gay hasn’t been easy for me. After I came out to my father, when I was going to school in Lisbon, he’d call me and say ‘Don’t forget! You’re a man!’ My father thought that, because I was gay, I needed to be reminded I wasn’t a woman.”
I looked into his sad eyes, outlined with the darkest brown, and felt his pain. I softly inquired “How are you going to bring a boy home one day?”
“They’ll just have to get over it,” he said.
His foot touched mine and he reached for my hand under the table. He did it all quietly, without saying anything. It was clear that he didn’t want the waitress to see we were on a date, but, more importantly, he didn’t want ANYONE to see we were two guys on a date.
I wanted Miguel to text me. This was unusual for me. I typically dismiss men quickly, but I felt Miguel understood me and I got him. It had been two days since our dinner, and I wanted to see him again but was feeling too insecure to text him myself.
“Bing!” a text arrived. “How is my Canadian boy?”
“I’m good, how are you?” I replied.
We exchanged a few pleasantries and agree we would get together soon.
Then, that same night, after I had finished work for the day and was lying on my bed in my apartment, I heard a knock at the door. I opened it and it was Miquel.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked with enthusiasm.
“You told me you’d teach me to drive your scooter. Remember?” Miguel said playfully.
I pulled him against me, ran my hand across the back of his neck and into his hair, and kissed him. It wasn’t a small kiss, but a passionate one, and I felt his guard coming down.
Later that night, as we were lying in bed, Miguel turned his face towards mine and said, “Austin, I’ve never been more comfortable with a guy, I don’t tell men who I date my future plans or open up as much as I’ve been doing with you.” I ran my hand over his cheek and touched his eyebrow, while I looked at him.
Chills ran through me. The kind of chills that only go through your body when someone you like says your name.
“Thank you, Miguel. I feel the same way. Even though we’ve only known each other a short time, I can already tell I’m going to miss you when I have to leave here.” I said.
I stared at the ceiling in comfortable silence. Miguel rested his head on my chest and I could feel his coarse beard on my bare skin, as I daydreamed about whether a real relationship with him could be possible. Everything about him felt right and looked right.
Over the next few weeks, Miguel and I fell into a comfortable routine. Almost every night after work and on Saturdays, we hung out at João de Arens, the seashell-shaped beach where we had met. We swam out to the nearby caves and climbed on the sea boulders where we stood with our feet pressed against each other.
Afterward, we would go for a simple dinner in town and almost always end up back in my bed together. It was hard to believe we hadn’t been in each other’s lives longer.
Miguel and I grew closer over the next two months, closer than I would have thought possible, as we spent virtually every day together. But unfortunately, the summer was almost over. Leaving Miguel, Portugal and the romantic experience of my life was getting hard to think about.
One day, I drove my scooter out to João de Arens by myself, climbed up on the boulders, and stuck my feet in the water. While sitting there, I wrote a letter to Miguel in my journal telling him I wanted him to be happy. I liked the gap between his teeth. I adored the way he said my name and everything else that I liked about him. It was then that I realized I loved him.
I tore the pages from my journal, unzipped an old sunglass case, and placed the pages inside it. I buried the case with the note in it above the beach and thought “One day I’ll come back to Portugal with Miguel, find this letter, and let him read it.”
The time was near. I had to leave the next day, though Miguel and I pretended it wasn’t happening. We stared at each other while we ate dinner, his leg pressed against mine the entire time. I couldn’t believe how sad I felt knowing I wouldn’t be seeing his familiar face every day going forward.
The next day, Miguel drove me to the bus station, as the train wouldn’t have gotten me to Lisbon in time to catch my flight home. It was 6 a.m. and the sun was already rising, as the golden light drenched the landscape. We sat in his car waiting for my bus, with our hands interlocked, saying nothing. It was too painful to speak, and everything had already been said.
People were getting on the bus. I stood to the side, waiting for the others to board and trying to squeeze out every last moment of our time together. Miguel pulled me close to him.
“Austin, I adore you” he whispered and kissed me. I was astounded at his atypical public display of affection. I told him I’d miss him immensely and got on the bus. He waited there until we pulled away.
I cried a lot on the bus ride, as the crushing reality of losing someone I loved started to sink in. I turned up my music to distract myself and rubbed the palm of my hand, but my thoughts kept racing back to him.
As much as I’d wanted love, the feeling of losing it was almost not worth it. Part of me knew it was probably just a summer romance, but I couldn’t stop imagining it becoming more. Yet, even if we could find a way to be together, I was worried Miguel’s residual shame at being gay might interfere with any chance of us being happy. And most pressingly, while solitude normally gave me comfort, at this moment, the absence of Miguel felt anything but serene. Despite the emotional upset I was now feeling, one thing I had to admit, I had prayed for love that summer and I had found it. We promised to write and talk as often as possible, continuing our relationship long-distance.
I returned to Canada and moved back into my family’s home, an idyllic place on the water that allowed me to take care of myself and focus on where I wanted to go next in life.
Miguel and I communicated across the Atlantic for a few months via multiple daily calls, video chats, and texts. I loved him and communicating with him almost always brightened my day. But there were also times when he became distant. Gradually, he seemed to display less urgency in returning my texts and more aloofness in his overall affection towards me.
I began to question his commitment to us, given the challenges of the great distance between us. After sitting with this feeling for a couple of months, I told him I thought it best we didn’t communicate for a while, so I could move on, and maybe he could, too. We talked again a few times over the phone, but I eventually stopped answering his calls. It may not have been the best decision, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time.
The memory of my summer in Portugal is of a sweet romance that allowed me to feel for the first time the glory and struggles that come with loving another man.