I had my first kiss in the back seat of my 1995 Honda Accord. Well, first gay kiss that is. I had my first straight kiss in a middle school hallway as my peers chanted obnoxious motivations and a slightly racist couple name. My first gay kiss had no audience. We were parked on a back road in the Leita Thompson Memorial Park in Roswell, Georgia. At 16, I remember us, both incredibly nervous, passing awkward filler jokes back and forth until one of us dared to make a move. Desperate to confirm that there was no one around us, I repeatedly looked through each window of my rusted silver sedan. My eyes flinched at the slightest movement. My heart dropped at the sound of a squirrel’s scurry. And at last, when I finally believed we were completely alone, I gently leaned in, and lost myself in the magic of our embrace and the stillness of the air around us.
I had my first gay kiss in the backseat of my 1995 Honda Accord. And then, my third, my fourth, my fifth, until I could no longer remember how many boys I had snuck into that barely alive junk machine for late night rendezvous.
The first time I ever saw my first boyfriend, Parker* was when he climbed into the passenger seat of the car, gently closed the door behind him, and flashed me that coy half smirk I grew to love.
“You look so much better than your pictures,” he said.
We went on to have a year-long relationship in the backseat of that car. Our weekends grew routine. One of us would pick the other up in their family’s hand-me-down car. To ensure we’d never run into anyone we knew, we would drive to a restaurant far enough from either of our small Georgia towns, swap stories of the week over dinner, and then jump back in the car for our favorite part of the night. We’d find an office building parking lot or the driveway of an abandoned bowling alley or some dirt road trailing off of a construction site. The car would then keep us warm as we somehow continued to find new ways to hold each other, sweating in the cramped and constricted backseat. The discomfort of our closeness didn’t matter so much, at least we could be the full versions of ourselves, together.
The night before he left for college, I remember reaching into my glovebox and fumbling around for some leftover Burger King napkins to wipe the tears off of his face. We held each other, crying, awkwardly reaching over the center console of the front seat to cling to each other for just a little longer. When I dropped him off later that night, I watched him slowly close the door behind him. Click. I locked the doors and just like that, he was gone. At 17, this relationship felt like the greatest love, adventure, and heartbreak that I would ever know. And the only other witness to all this was my 1995 silver Honda Accord.
The reckoning of my gay identity dramatically coincided with the moment that my parents passed down the family car to me. It was the first place that was completely my space. This car meant I finally had a place to be gay, to be sexy, and to be free, far from the shackles of suburban Georgia bigotry or the queer loathing of my Muslim family. It meant I could blast Lady Gaga while speeding down the I-85 and I could go on dates to meet boys and I could have a boyfriend. And it didn’t matter if I had to be a secret because there was no better keeper of secrets than the dark hushed insides of this old hand-me-down car.
I grew accustomed to this idea of gay love. It was something that I could drive off in and hide away. Maybe it was something that no one would ever need to know about. To me, this felt like the height of romance. After years and years of convincing myself that my gay fantasies would only ever be fantasies, a stolen kiss in my car felt like more than I could have ever bargained for.
As I ventured out and met other gay people in the South, I realized that these rickety, run down family cars set the beginnings of many of our love stories. We found ways to hide and so, we relished in our secret safe spaces.
I think about an entire generation of gay people growing up like this. I think about what it means for our relationships now. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to hold a man and close my eyes without looking around for the dangers of a suspecting stranger. I wonder if he’ll keep his eyes open a little longer just to do the same.
Three Thanksgivings ago, I came home for the holiday weekend. It had just been a few years since I moved out of the South and I was standing in a crowded corner of the Atlanta airport. I was incredibly excited to get behind the wheel of my beloved Honda Accord after a lengthy spell of not driving while living in New York City. My brother pulled up in a new car, a gold 2014 Chevy Malibu. As I climbed into the passenger seat, he told me that our dad had sold the Honda. He sold it for $700 and a trade to replace our home’s old A.C. unit. I came home fuming, how could they do this to me? My dad looked at me, confused by my anger and hurt, and suddenly I was 16 again, playing the part of the straight son who spent too much time driving in his car. It dawned on me then that my father had no idea how deep my connection was to that car — it had kept my secrets safe until its final breath.
Almost a decade since that first car ride kiss, I now deeply savor the small victories of my own queer visibility. The public instagram post, the holding hands in Prospect Park, the kiss at the restaurant in my Georgia town. I hold on to these moments of visibility for the boy in the back seat who held his secret everywhere but inside that 1995 Honda Accord.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy