It was Saturday afternoon, during the summer after my freshman year of high school, when my best friend, Heath, whispered into my ear six words that changed my life.
"I dare you to kiss me," he said as we playfully wrestled behind the locked door of his bedroom. I knew my feelings for him had been developing into something greater than friendship over the years since the day we first met in a junior high school English class, but until that moment I never imagined he could feel the same way. In fact, I was certain I'd never meet anyone who did.
Growing up in a strict Pentecostal Christian home located in the middle of California's conservative Central Valley meant I had been programmed to think homosexuality was the worst sin imaginable long before I even understood what it was. But as we awkwardly began to make out at the foot of his bed, I forgot all about the countless nights I had pleaded with God to cure me. Everything started to make sense.
By the end of our sophomore year, our relationship had become sexual, and while being with Heath always felt right, the awkward silence that followed each of our intimate encounters did not. My own religious upbringing plus Heath's stepfather and older brother's daily antigay remarks made the idea of talking about our physical relationship more frightening than the act itself. Nevertheless, I knew what I felt for my best friend was more than physical, and I was convinced he felt the same way I did.
To this day, I'm not sure what came over me one afternoon as we played a game of one-on-one basketball in his backyard. Like so many times before, I playfully kissed his cheek to distract him while Heath aimed for the backboard, but this time I forced the words "I love you" past my lips as the ball left his hands.
Heath stopped and stared back at me, eyes wide with fear. Long seconds passed and suddenly my voice was not my own.
"I don't care who knows it," I said, not understanding the drive that was pushing me to speak. "I'm tired of pretending like nothing is going on. I'm gay, I love you, and I know you love me too!"
I felt my shoulders relax as I said the words, but my admission had a completely different effect on my friend and lover.
His eyes narrowed as he shook his head from side to side. "I'm not a gay," he said through clenched teeth.
"How can you say that?" I shouted as tears began to roll down my cheeks. "All those times we..."
"Shut up!" He screamed as he ran forward and shoved me into the tall, wooden fence that separated his backyard from the alley behind it. His reaction caught me by surprise and before I could recover, Heath grabbed my left wrist and began to twist my arm behind my back while he used his entire body to keep me pinned, chest first, against the fence. "Just shut up! I'm not a fag," he shouted. Wrenching my arm closer to the back of my skull, he leaned in close to my left ear and said the words again, but this time his voice began to crack. "I'm not a fag like you," he said, fighting off tears of his own.
Angry, I pushed back against him and spun around, ready to defend myself, but my heart sank when I noticed Heath's brother, Sean, standing in the back doorway of their house. The look on his face told me he'd heard our shouting. The reason for Heath's violent outburst became clear. All I wanted was to be honest, but revealing my true feelings and admitting who I was had taken our relationship into a dangerous realm.
At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to wrap my arms around Heath and hold him close, but I feared for his safety even more. I lightly pushed the young man I loved aside and locked eyes with his brother. "Heath is not a fag... like me," I said as I began to walk away, but before I could take two steps, Heath sent a hard shove into the middle of my back, causing me to stumble and fall to the ground.
"If you breathe a word of this to anyone else," he said, "I swear I'll kick your ass!"
Seeing tears in his eyes made it impossible to be angry with him. Heartbroken, I got up, and ran to the front yard where my bike was parked. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I jumped onto the blue seat of my silver BMX and pedaled as hard as I could.
In the weeks that followed, I made several attempts to reconcile with Heath, but he ignored me. Any time we passed one another at school, I was invisible. And the letters I left in his locker went unanswered.
As weeks became months, though the experience left a lingering ache in my chest, I slowly came to the realization that I could never tolerate a relationship with a person who was unable to express how he felt. When I first told Heath I loved him, his reaction made me feel weak. But soon, that feeling broke as I realized admitting I was gay wasn't a mistake -- it made me a stronger person.
By the end of high school, I was completely comfortable with my sexuality and had come out to my closest friends. It wasn't long before I found myself living in the California Bay Area, where I was able to date other young men who embraced their sexuality. The flame I felt for my former best friend slowly began to fade.
Then in September of 2004 I came home to a message on my answering machine from an old high school friend.
"Not sure if you've heard, but I found out Heath passed away a few months ago," she said. "Apparently he had a heart attack and died in his sleep. It's so sad. He was only 29 years old. I know the two of you had a falling out, but you were so close at one point. Thought you might want to know."
A wave of sadness washed over me as the words I'd heard echoed in my ears. I wondered what would have happened if I had reached out later to reconcile with Heath. Would he tell me he had come out as well? Would he say there a part of him that felt the same way I did all those years ago? Would we have been able to rekindle some kind of friendship? At that moment I knew I'd always regret that I'd never tried.
Over the years there have been many times Heath has crossed my mind. Sometimes a song from the radio will spur a memory of the two of us playing basketball in his back yard, riding bikes down back roads, or laughing until our stomachs hurt. Other times it brings back the bittersweet memories of the first night we kissed, the way I discovered another person could make me feel happier than I ever thought I could, and the heartache that same person could inflict. He may have the distinction of being the first boy to leave a scar on my heart, but he was also the first boy who opened my eyes to a part of myself I had never faced before.
Most of all I prefer to remember him as that that blue-eyed, floppy brown-haired boy who dared me to kiss him for the first time -- and I'm so thankful I was up for the challenge.
JASE PEEPLES is the entertainment editor for The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @JasePeeples.