I have had three men in my life who have deeply influenced me, each one at a different phase of my development as a human being. The first was my father, who shepherded me into manhood. The second was my first lover, who I lived with for sixteen years, and who taught me the value of education, and infused me with the tools to become successful. The third is my husband and soul mate, who more than anyone, has taught me—through example—to be a compassionate human being. In all three cases, it was not their accomplishments that had an impact on me, but rather, the strength of their character that shaped that part of my life.
For this second installment, I’ll focus on my first lover. I met John Aherns in Corpus Christy, Texas while stationed on the naval base in Kingsville, Texas. He was living in Huston at the time, and for several months we carried on a long-distance relationship, spending two or three weekends a month together. It was nothing too serious because I knew I would be leaving Texas the very minute I received my discharge from the Navy, but he was handsome and successful and more refined than anyone I’d ever known, so I was determined to spend as much time as possible with him. But about six months before my discharge, to my surprise and delight, John quit his Huston job and moved to Kingsville, announcing that when I left for California, he was coming with me. I moved off base, lived with John in a studio garage apartment, and we got along like a house on fire. So began a sixteen-year project of what I like to call, Educating Alan.
We started this project when John joined a book club that sent us one leather-bound, classic per month. He and I would both read the book and then spend several days discussing the meaning, characters, and style. For me, there was something wondrous about reading a finely made, leather-bound book. I loved the feel and smell of the pages, the weight of it. I confused the act of learning with the smell of fine leather. I saw myself doing something that only, or so I thought, intellectuals did—sit quietly for hours on end reading important books. Not all of those books were a pleasure to read, but each one was a stepping-stone to a place of more confidence for me. As the number of books on our little shelf grew, I began to imagine a room filled with bookshelves that were crammed with tomes, all mine, where I’d spend my time letting literary people carry me away into distant adventures. Thus, we joined two more book clubs, receiving three books a month, and I began to see that dream take shape.
Those early months were more than just reading, of course. It was a time when I learned, quite unexpectedly, that I could have a loving, monogamous relationship with a man. Until that point, I had assumed that my life as a gay man would be hanging out in bars, always on the lookout for someone to spend a few precious hours with, or days and possibly even weeks or months if I really scored. It seemed like such a lonely future, but John—in those quiet hours of reading together, of cooking a meal and watching TV over dinner, of crawling into bed with the same wonderful man every night—showed me a loving relationship was not only possible, I was already living the dream. I think it was during that time of awakening to what we had, what we were, that turned my admiration of John into love for him.
After I was discharged from the Navy and we had settled into an apartment in Sunnyvale, California, John took a Computer Programmer’s job in San Francisco, and I landed a job operating construction heavy equipment in what is now Silicon Valley. John convinced me to attend night school at De Anza Community College. By that time I had begun to realize how woefully inadequate my education was, and it was never so obvious as when we attended parties of his work colleagues, and they would look down their noses at me, talking down to me as whispering behind my back (loud enough for me to hear) calling me, “John’s sexy nitwit” (the term boy toy was not invented yet.) I became hungry to catch up, to show them all. This would be a pattern for nearly our entire sixteen-year relationship, him working one job and taking care of me, me working a fulltime, lower-paying job during the day while attending night school.
Two years after moving to Sunnyvale, I finally decided on a career path to study for. I wanted to program computers, like John. There was an opening at his company for an entry-level person, basically a gofer, that paid next to nothing. I took that job, we moved to San Francisco, and I began attending SF State, taking a half load at night.
The next five or six years were among the most exciting and colorful years of my life. Being gay and living in hottest gay hub in the world was exciting enough, but once I began taking computer classes and working my way up the corporate ladder, I felt like a man with a mission and a full head of steam. For the first time in my life, I had lofty goals and the confidence to know that, with enough commitment, I could achieve those goals. My attitude became: nothing will stop me, I will become as good as the best of them. John had created a monster, and there was no turning back. There are times, now, when I picture a mountain climber, struggling up K2, exhausting himself with each heavy lift of his boot, and each lurch up the slope, until he’s expended every ounce of energy. But he finally crawls his way to the summit, and then stands tall while shaking his fists at the valleys below.
Over the next decade, we moved from San Francisco to Sausalito, and two year later we moved further north to San Rafael where we bought a lovely three-bedroom home. As I steadily climbed the corporate ladder, I also hung my diplomas on the wall—Associates of Arts degree in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics, and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. In all that time, John continued to help me with my schoolwork, proofread my papers, giving me encouragement. While working toward by economics degree, he even took classes with me so he could better help me. And in all that time, we continued our reading together and discussing books. He also introduced me to opera, classical music, and jazz, giving me lessons in what’s considered the fine arts.
I had originally entered the writing program at the University of San Francisco as a way to improve my business writing skill, but the by time I had attained my degree, I had fallen in love with the creative aspects of writing fiction. My dreams had changed. I no longer wanted to continue climbing the corporate ladder. By that time, there were only three rungs left to climb, and I had become frustrated with corporate management. I wanted to quit and become a full time writer. I was caught in the early stages of a midlife crises. The problem, however, was that John was already eyeball deep in his own crises and wanted to cut and run. We made a deal, I would support him while he went to medical school to become a physician’s assistant (he felt a strong need to help sick people) and once he had a good paying job again, he would support me while I walked away from Corporate American to become a full time writer.
Our roles were reversed for the first time. I was working like a dog while he attended school at UC Davis, and I would help write his papers. But cutting our household income in half had a dramatic effect on both of us, and the stress became unbearable. It took years for John to achieve his degree, and I supported him for most of that time, but the stress of both of us in a midlife crisis and not enough money to pay all the bills at the end of the month took its toll on our relationship. He eventually moved out of our San Rafael house, and I got a loan to purchase his half of the house in order to give him the money to finish his schooling.
Braking up with John, I think, was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, even more emotionally damaging than the death of my father. It became a drawn out, painful process that took several years to recover from. For sixteen years, John was my lover, my teacher, and the epitome of everything I wanted to achieve. He patiently guided me down a path, starting at dirt stupid and ending at reasonably intelligent. By the end of our relationship, I had attained my goal—I was his equal in intelligence, career level, and earning power. And the funny thing was, as is human nature, by the time I had attained those dreams, I no longer valued them.