The Real Love

Written by Byron J. Flitsch

It was the year Tara Lipinski, the ice skater, won the world championship and when Ellen’s sitcom character came out of the closet. It was the summer Princess Diana died in a car crash. And it was the summer I found the love of my life.

His name was Eric Stricklin and I wanted his tongue in my mouth.

That’s not supposed to sound as disgusting as it does. It’s supposed to sound like poetry. Because, that’s what Eric, my 25-year-old piano teacher did to my fifteen-year-old closeted gay kid mind. Made me think in poetry or in lyrics.

More importantly, though, Eric played music. And that summer he taught me music. He taught me many other things, too.

It all started when my mom had forced me into another summer activity.

“You need a hobby, Byron,” she said carrying in a pile of folded T-shirts fresh from the clothesline. “You’re not spending three months reading indoors.”

Reading in my bedroom was the only way to stay sane and pretend I wasn’t in a small town in Wisconsin.
“I’m signing you up for lessons.”

“No,” I said back. I had no interest after the trumpet incident of 1995. I was paging through a new Christopher Pike book I had just bought at a garage sale while lying on my unmade bed.

“Piano it is,” my mom said. As she left, she closed my bedroom door and the full-length mirror that was hidden behind my door showed a shocked expression on my round naïve face. My wavy unmanaged brown hair said it all: I was a mess.

And so I freaked. Because she was serious. Two days later we were in the family’s black Topaz on the way to my first lesson. I futzed with the radio while I imagined my teacher, an old woman wearing a pink muumuu—you know, like Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company—who had millions of cats and potted plants.
As we pulled up to a neighborhood a block from the lake, where all the stylish and rich residents of my small town in Wisconsin lived, I noticed the giant modern house—like something from Dwell magazine, with floor-to-ceiling windows. It was too cool for Wisconsin.

“I gotta go pick your brother up from summer school,” my mom said to me as I got out of the car. “I’ll see you in an hour.”

“You’re not coming in?” I yelled back but she didn’t answer because she was already halfway down the road.

“Hello there!” yelled a voice from the front door.

Through the tall trees in the well-maintained front yard a man who looked like Tom Cruise circa Top Gun leaned in the doorframe. He styled his short black hair carelessly like a model who just rolled out of bed. His thick eyebrows were perfectly shaped without ever being plucked. His eyes were green, that chartreuse color from the ’70s—bright and glowing. He had a jaw that was chiseled like a block of cheese and a perfect body under his preppy attire. Instantly, nothing was around me and I heard music, piano music.

“You’re… you’re a guy…” I said, stuttering over my words while walking towards him.

“Yup. Been a guy for twenty-five years of my life. You sound surprised.”

I didn’t tell him that I thought he was going to be this old bag that smelled like onions.

“I’m Eric,” he said as he welcomed me in.

I said nothing. When I stepped into the foyer and slipped off my tennis shoes, I immediately could smell the scent of orange, like burning scented candles—the heat of orange. The foyer led to the hall that had an entirely dark hardwood floor. Spaced perfectly on the walls, black and white photographs in matted black frames. And as I followed Eric I looked at each photo.

One had a close-up of Eric posing with Stevie Wonder. The frame next to it had Eric playing piano with a bright spotlight highlighting him—like an angel. The last frame was of Eric—kissing. The man had his nose smooshed against Eric’s cheek. Eric was giggling. It looked like they were somewhere tropical. My stomach dropped. It was the first time I’d ever seen a picture of two men kissing. I thought I actually had a chance with this guy! I mean, yeah, what fifteen-year-old guy doesn’t think about a lil’ some’n some’n every second he can?

“Oh, yeah, that was my partner. Yup. He’s an ass,” Eric said.

I turned my head, the sun from the hall windows lit him like a painting. His green eyes pushed in to mine and he smiled.

“Cool!” I said.

And it was the exact moment where I knew we clicked. Not like, “We’re made for each other.” But like a way you just know you get someone. You both come from the same place.

Finally, at the end of the hallway, I realized how intriguing Eric’s place truly was. He had turned his dining room into a music room. Windows touched both the ground and loft ceilings. And the summer light made every color vibrate—red paintings on the walls and stark white vases on dark furniture. In the center of the large open room was a giant black grand piano.

“Please, have a seat,” Eric motioned his hand towards the piano, as if he was saying voila. “Ready to learn something?” he asked, pulling out a thin paperback book with a little kid learning how to play a piano and an old woman as his teacher on the cover.

I smiled, thankful that Eric and I were nothing like that.

That first class Eric taught me the A chord. The C chord. And the E chord.

“Give me your hand,” he would say. I would limply bring it to his and he would hold it in his strong fingers, forming the chords in his fingers, and then rest them on their proper places on the piano. And sometimes he would brush his fingernail against the sensitive part of my palm.

The following week he taught me “Hot Cross Buns” using some of the notes he taught me the week before. This time I came prepared. I had dressed in my favorite bright blue polo that my mom said brought out my eyes. I only wore it for important occasions and when my mom dropped me off, she was impressed that I wanted to make such a great impression on my teacher who she hadn’t met yet.

“Excellent work!” Eric said to me. “Your second lesson and you already look like a prodigy.” Eric put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it like a coach would when he was excited about a scored goal. I imagined Eric letting me lean my head on his shoulder while he taught me “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He would let me close my eyes while he’d play the music and then he would tell me about his day and we would do things that people in love do—what I had learned from TV one-hour dramas—tell each other how great we were and then plan out our futures.

The third lesson I came with cologne I had gotten for my birthday. CK One. I had only the good shit and I knew I put the perfect amount on because when Eric said, “Wow, I really like that cologne. It smells very grown up,” I could hear in his voice he was impressed. When he started to teach me “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” I imagined him asking if I would like to come another day in the week. Like on a Friday. He would invite me to eat dinner—something French—because that’s the language of love. Then he would pour me a glass of sparkling grape juice—because the man respected my underage status—and play me “Ave Maria”—one of my favorite songs, and tell me that I should move in so we could play piano all the time. We would play in our pajamas with the scent of pancakes cooking in the kitchen. We would play in our robes. We would play for our friends who would love the dinner parties we’d throw—ones with expensive silverware on a giant wood dining table.

He talked about his life, too. Not just the famous people he met, but about his partner who he had been with for five years before they split up because Eric had discovered he was a drug user. Or the stories of all the drag queens he had met while living in Soho. Or even the best pop music that no one should ever be shy of no matter what kind of a musician you were. Like Madonna.

Every week I went back to his house ready to prove to him that I had practiced on the little lap keyboard my mom had bought me when she discovered how into piano I was.

“I’m just so impressed that you are sticking to this!” my innocent mom would say every time she caught me trying to memorize key chords.

But in my mind, I just thought of Eric and I playing together. I imagined every detail of each lesson I had so far. Our hips touching on the black piano bench, the way he smelled like oranges and mint, and how the stubble on his chin grew perfectly straight when I would stare at his perfect skin while he closed his eyes to sing a high note.

“I wrote this one last week. Wanna hear it?” Eric said, squinting at me, nervous to expose it at my following week’s lesson.

“You write music?” I swooned.

“Yah. Went to school for it.”

And then he played. A song that I imagined was titled “For You, Byron.” I continued to imagine he and I leaning on the piano, me with a cocktail in my hand. I imagined him singing words he made up just for me (“Byron, you’re the cutest boy in the universe. Byron, what I feel for you is not a curse. Byron, I think you have the best hair. Byron, you’re so cute I’ve got to stare.”) and me smiling then blushing and then walking over to him and sitting on the bench and leaning my head on his shoulder. Nothing else would come between us and our piano.

“So, what do you think?” he snapped me out of my daydream. Eric was looking for approval from me. He needed me to tell him it was great. Which of course it was because it was from him.

“Great… amazing… I loved it…” But all I could think about was the way his eyes sparkled when I told him I loved it and how he patted me on the head to thank me for my kind words.

Summer lessons continued to fly by and my crush became stronger. Every time he would put his hands on mine to teach me chords, chills made the hairs on my neck stand. Every time he would laugh and playfully punch me in the shoulder, I would imagine him hugging me to make up for it.

And then school started.

I had three college prep classes and worked for the school newspaper, so my schedule was hard enough. My mom told me that if I wanted the college classes, I would have to give up something. Piano was getting hard to practice with all the homework. I made the decision to let music, and Eric, go.
“It’s okay. Maybe next summer,” he said as he looked me straight in the eyes. It wasn’t a look he had ever given me the entire fifteen lessons I had had with him. It was the look of contemplation. The glossy glare someone gives when they are trying to figure out how to follow through on what they are imagining.

“Eric… I’m really sorry…” and then as I was about to finish my apology Eric kissed me on the cheek. He pushed his lips onto the side of my face and left them there for a good three seconds. It was long enough to feel an inhale and an exhale of his breath on my skin. It was long enough to close my eyes and smell how close he was to me. It was long enough for me to sigh from the center of my chest. It was long enough for me to contemplate whether I should turn my face and align my lips to his.

But it was short enough that it was done as quickly as it started.

He pulled his body away and his face turned instantly cold. I could see his cheeks harden and his eyes squint.

“You should leave.”

“Well… can we hang out sometimes…?”
“You should leave.”

He walked behind the piano, sat at the bench, and started playing a piece without saying goodbye, without walking me down the long hall to the door. He did not close the door behind me.

And as I waited on the front step of his house for mom to pick me up, I could hear the remnants of notes coming out of the piano as I started to cry. He had broken my heart.

And it wasn’t until ten years later when I was home visiting my parents, sipping on a latte at a coffee place waiting for a good friend to meet me, when I stumbled on an article about a local musician.

The article read something like: “Eric Stricklen’s eight-year battle with HIV never stopped him from succeeding in his many accomplishments. He produced records with jazz musicians in the Wisconsin area.” He taught at college level and even toured with a singer I never heard of. But I couldn’t get the three letters out of my head: H.I.V. And then the final sentence quoted was by a man who was cited as his life partner, “Eric’s death is only a reminder of his life and the people he changed while living it.”

I was angry. How could this guy, who made me believe that you will survive no matter what obstacles are in front of you, die? How could he have died? How could the guy that made me swoon at every single word not be alive anymore? How could I have never tried to get hold of him again? How could that disease take another great person off this Earth?

I wanted to cry, but the swooshing of the milk steamer and the crowded room made it hard, so instead I thought of the last song Eric tried to teach me before the end of my classes with him. You know the song by John Lennon…”Real Love.” This time, though, I imagined him singing the lyrics to me, now, at age twenty-five, the same exact age he was when I first met him.

I imagined Eric, older now, even with a bit of gray hair, but still looking as healthy as he did the day I met him—a more distinguished Tom Cruise, you know, without the crazy. It would be sunny and the music room would be filled with bright summer light. It would feel like that perfect day you had that one time, any perfect day, where you didn’t want it to end because you knew no day would be as perfect as that day.

I’d be leaning against the black piano in his giant house watching his lips form the notes he was singing, his fingers following along on the white keys like a dancer’s memorized steps. He would open his eyes to wink at me. My 25-year-old self would smile back at him while he hit the high notes and my 25-year-old self would melt every time he’d sing the word love.

Because in my mind, that is who he will always be—healthy, alive, talented—and my first real love.