The grassy slope overlooking the river seemed like a nice place to sit and read, so I exchanged my bike for a picnic table and dug out my book — Dickens, I think it was, but that’s not the point.
It was Edmonton; it was the early '90s. I was a small-town boy from the rolling wheat fields of rural Alberta, barely in my 20s, attending university in the big city. It was a time of wonder, discovery and, most of all, cluelessness.
Up to that point, I’d never been the subject of sexual advances – not that I'd noticed, anyway. The ladies had always kept a respectful distance and homosexuality was something I’d only seen hints of in the movies. All things considered, I was quite ill-equipped for what was about to happen.
Shortly after I'd settled into my chosen spot, a guy with short blond hair emerged from a path through the bushes. Tall and firm, filling his yellow bike shorts nearly to their bursting point, he scanned the situation for a couple moments then asked if he could sit down.
He was standing by a neighbouring picnic table and I didn’t understand why he was asking my permission to sit there.
Never-the-less, he’d asked, so I said “sure.”
I also didn’t understand why he leaned his 10-speed against my table and plopped down right beside me.
The guy introduced himself and started talking. His name wasn’t Hank, but let’s call him that anyway.
Hank was a lawyer. Sued people. He seemed interested in me for some reason, making friendly inquiries that I politely answered in snippets of one and two words while sneaking peaks back at my book. The guy was well within my personal space, his knees perilously close to touching mine.
The small-talking lasted several minutes and I guess things weren’t shaping up the way Hank had hoped, because finally he blurted, “Did you know this is a gay park?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “many gay people come here to meet other gays.”
“Is that why you’re here?” I asked.
I thought Hank would go away. I’m sure he understood that I was just a guy — a regular guy — in the wrong place, but he stayed put and kept talking. I wished for death.
After a few more minutes, however, a strange thing happened. I lost interest in my book and felt compelled to sprinkle Hank’s monologue with a few words of my own. His personable queries and articulate rejoinders crumbled my defences until I was speaking just as freely as him. Gee, I thought, talking to him is just like talking to a real person. We yakked for a while, me and Hank, just a couple guys shooting the breeze.
Then Hank shot it all to hell.
He had concert tickets for that night and asked if I wanted to go — Dwight Yoakum, I think it was, but that’s not the point. I’d just been asked out by a gay guy!
Despite my rural Alberta roots, it didn’t occur to me to laugh at, run away from, or whale on the gay guy. Being a thoughtful, compassionate human, I stayed calm and carefully told Hank that I wasn’t “like that.” There, I thought, it’s all out in the open and we can both move on with our mutually exclusive but equally respectable lives.
Which is what we did. After reminding me to “stay handsome” (which marked another first for me), Hank made a graceful exit and I was once again alone in the gay park, left to bask in the satisfaction of a situation well-handled.
As the minutes elapsed and I advanced a few pages deeper into my book, it occurred to me that maybe I should find somewhere else to sit and read, to leave that particular park to the “Dwight Yoakum fans,” as it were. Now that I knew about the park’s unofficial designation, by remaining there, was I not guilty of misrepresentation or false advertising or something?
Those thoughts occurred to me but I didn’t act on them. I’m an open-minded, accepting person, I told myself. So I stayed put, enjoying the Indian summer day, reading my book in an open-minded and accepting fashion.
Before long a different guy approached, a dark little Latin type. He sat at the next table and looked off toward the river. Back into my book I went.
“Do you know what time it is?” the guy asked.
“About 3 o'clock,” I said. I kept reading.
Half a page later: “Nice day isn’t it?”
That did it. I saw where that was going. In theory, I had no problem with it; in practice, I didn’t want to go there again.
So I got on my bike and pedalled steadily down the trail, renewing my quest for a quiet place to sit and read, a place where boys hassle girls and girls pretend to ignore boys, in short, a place where the natural order of my universe remained intact.
I mean, I’m as open-minded and accepting as the next guy ... but there’s a limit.