I’m writing these words on a cool March evening, from a hotel room high above the town of Seaside OR. I don’t come here much as an adult. It’s busy and crowded and noisy here, and I usually prefer the quieter, funkier coastal communities. But, we had a chance to borrow our friend’s time-share, so here we are.
From my window, I see miles of beautiful coastline. Dunes covered with grass. The sun is starting to set. I see hotels, and lots of tiny beach houses. I can hear the sounds of the Tilt-A-Whirl below me, and the voices of kids on Spring Break.
It wasn’t Spring Break when we would come here, mid-90’s kids in flannel and flowered thermal t-shirts. The hotel I am currently in had not been built yet. I am trying to remember what was on this corner, above the Lewis and Clark statue, but my mind is blank. The sand dunes, they were there, then, and a little beach house was there. It had stood quietly at the North end of town for generations, and belonged to the family of one of my fellow volunteers.
We’d go on retreat there. A dozen children, aged 14-18, the first Teen Speakers group for Cascade AIDs project. There were only a few adults with us. I remember riding down from Portland in a car full of boys. The next year, I drove myself, in the white Mazda my mother and I shared.
I remember doing jigsaw puzzles late into the night with a boy named Justin. We did some actual work there, too, practicing “I” messages and turning condoms into balloons. We played Frisbee on the beach and one year I got terribly, painfully sunburned. I remember a kid named Sam -I think it was his family who owned the place- doing log rolls down the dunes, wallet chains and dread locks flying.
I remember a man named Paul, and how sad he made me feel. Those were the days that AIDs was a guaranteed death sentence. And his was the first face of AIDs I’d ever encountered, making it personal, making it real.
I remember nights around a campfire. Sticky smores, charred hot dogs, hot fire melting the bottoms of my Chucks one time. Huddled around the heat in defiance of the cold air off the Pacific Ocean.
I remember feeling like I was part of something very important, the war on AIDS. Teaching 12 year olds about dental dams and mucous membranes, communication and STD testing. It was fun work. Busy. Easy. We travelled to area schools and taught other kids about HIV and sex and how to stay safer. We played with condoms and dildos and ate Cheetos by the case. It was a lovely, happy place for me. A place where I could let go and start to explore my own identity.
At the same time, in my other life, my father was beginning his own painful death by inches, and in these other outcast kids who wanted to fix the whole world, I found my first safe place. I found a group of kids willing to let me float along as I was. I took my wordless rage at the cancer eating my father and forged it into something useful and good. I learned to eat in front of other people. I learned to embrace new things. I learning that being queer was ok.
I learned to breathe. And in those precious first breaths, I started learning how to be myself.