The last generation of pre-Internet kinksters, queers and sluts are nearly all collecting Social Security by now (those of us who are still alive). We look backwards and see a sequence of electronically mediated resources, from Fetlife back to Usenet back to BBSs – bulletin board services. These got their name because you left messages for everyone to read, like a bulletin board (the closest analog today is probably a listserv).

Some people I still hold very dear came into my life on BBSs, notably Barbara aka Bigboobs aka Snow White, who I met on an adult BBS called Virtual Pleasures and who is the first and so far the only woman toward whom I’ve felt romantic love (hi Barbara!).

The other important connection I made in those days was Derek, whose life has woven in and out of mine in complex patterns for nearly 30 years. Derek was Muse on Nirvananet, a general-audience BBS on which I was one of few women and fewer people over 30[1]. These days he’s Uriel, another good choice – Derek was, and is, a bit other-worldly in a Stranger in a Strange Land kind of way, so the names of supernatural beings are an excellent fit for him.

I knew before meeting in person that Derek was around a decade younger than I. The nice thing about meeting people online, though, is that you can get to know their minds before getting a look at their exteriors. Before we met for coffee, Derek told me to look for a guy who was 6’3”, thin, with long curly hair and a high-bridged nose. Based on what I knew of him, I was sitting in the diner looking for a central-casting geek – Weird Al Yankovic with duct-taped glasses and a stretched-out t-shirt. So when a Burne-Jones angel came up to my table and asked if I was Janet, my first impulse was to hide: the guy was clearly out of my league.

But it turned out that Derek is one of the few human beings I’ve met who genuinely doesn’t care about appearances. His girlfriends – not many; he tends to stay with the people he loves for as long as they’ll have him – have been of all imaginable shapes, sizes, ages, colors and gender presentations. So as we talked, my troublesome body image issues slowly dissolved.

It didn’t take long, of course, for me to get around to propositioning him. (One of the many things I love about sex-positive communities is that women get to ask for what they want.) I showed up at his apartment at the agreed-on time, bearing coffee and pastries because feeding people is the way I roll. We chatted and ate, and then I said, “Well, this could go a couple of ways. We could have vanilla sex, or I could tie you up a bit and experiment, or we could try a little painplay.”

Then I looked at him. He had shrunk into a position of pure fear: arms and legs crossed tightly, pupils contracted.

Oh, I said to myself. You forgot. There are still normal people in the world.

Clearing my throat, I suggested, “How about we take our clothes off and you lie down?” He did. We made out a bit – some massage, some fellatio – I think he came, but I can’t remember whether I did. (This was the session that taught me to ask about someone’s experience before the clothes come off – it turned out that I was only his second partner, and his first blowjob.)

We became what I guess today would be called friends with benefits – hanging out, fooling around, discovering each other’s quirks and kinks. Derek was not particularly into BDSM, although he was happy to offer spankings on request – but mostly, he loved being around people who asked for what they wanted and said no to what they didn’t.

Jay and I had him do a bit of work for our nascent publishing enterprise, which I was running out of the dining room of the big rambling house we were renting in the outer Richmond district of San Francisco. He was a regular visitor, with us more days than not.

At the time, Miles and Ben were with me weekends and most of the summer. Derek was an instant hit with both of them, particularly twelve-year-old Ben, who shared Derek’s love of all things game-related. More weekends than not, the three of them would settle into the living room with stacks of Magic: The Gathering cards and They Might Be Giants on the stereo – I’d see them only when I opened the door to throw in a pizza or a bucket of chicken.

One afternoon, Derek and I went together to see Spanking the Monkey, a movie about a teenaged geek’s not-quite-consummated affair with his mother. Derek squirmed in his seat; I could see out the corner of my eye that he was at least partially erect. I was feeling a little damp myself, but also feeling kind of grossed out – the movie made it quite clear to me that our friendship was verging on the incestuous. When I told Derek I couldn’t continue the sexual part, I don’t think I was imagining that he looked a bit relieved.

Derek, an avid cyclist, was determined to get me back on a bike for the first time since grade school. He helped me choose an affordable and idiot-proof bike sized for my short legs, and guided me on a few gentle trips around the block. He then decided I was ready for the next step, so we biked the few blocks to a small lake in Golden Gate Park and set off to circumnavigate it. Breathless, wobbly and nervous, I hung in there to the best of my ability, until I realized that we were the perfect human avatars for Kermit and Miss Piggy’s bicycle trip around the lake in The Muppet Movie – at which point I was done with the whole enterprise. He and I walked our bikes home and I never rode mine again.

Derek, however, was deeply attached to getting around hilly, heavily trafficked San Francisco by bicycle – his days of working at my place started and ended with a brutal eight-mile ride all the way across town. But if he was happy with that, I was happy too.

Until the day he was due to come over to do some data entry. I was in my office working when I heard him come in. I called “Hello!” and he answered “Hi!” in a strained voice, which at first I attributed to breathlessness. But then I heard him on the stairs – instead of his usual light-footed tread, I heard an ominous drag… thump, drag… thump, drag… thump.

I was there to help him up the last step or two, while he told me the story: as he was cutting through the Panhandle, the cyclist in front of him had braked suddenly, sending him rocketing headfirst over his handlebars onto the pavement.

The poor guy was covered with scrapes and bruises; however, the only part of him that seemed seriously injured was his knee. Jay, the former ambulance crewman, wrapped it up and packed it in ice – but when it continued to swell after an hour or two, we helped him back down the stairs and I drove him to SF General.

I was teaching classes about pain processing for the kink communities around then, so of course when he was getting the knee x-rayed I went into the well-grooved routine: “Okay, look me in the eyes… breathe with me… you’re breathing in cool clean air and breathing out through the pain….” The radiologist looked at me sharply and asked, “Are you a midwife?” I gave him my best bland smile and said, “Not exactly.”

The results came back: Derek had snapped his kneecap clean in half. They encased his leg in a heavy hip-to-toe cast and sent him home to recover. His roommate was not interested in nursing an invalid, so Derek spent the next couple of months sleeping on a futon in our living room.

Our household at that time was kaleidoscopic and blurry, with the only steady points being Jay, me, and our housemate Tom. Other occasional denizens included, of course, Miles and Ben, Jay’s two kids (his daughter was an infrequent visitor, but his son lived with us for several months while he looked for his first job after high school), and various lovers, friends, friends-of-friends, and barely nodding acquaintances, occupying what Jay had dubbed “the lifeboat,” a small mother-in-law apartment behind our garage. So one more person added to the tangle of personalities made very little ripple, especially since Derek, unlike most of our visitors, took the initiative to find ways to help around the house. (Before I moved to Oregon I always had him over for holiday feasts, mostly because he was family, but also because I never had to clear a table or wash a dish afterward – and, better yet, he corralled Miles and Ben into helping too, teaching by example the proper way to contribute to a gathering.)

After Edward and I moved to Oregon in 2008, Ben moved in with Derek for several months, helping Derek overcome a hoarding tendency[2] by working with him to sort through the accumulated chaos of books, clothing, games, appliances, magazines, papers and sundry other dearly held possessions. They were fairly successful in clearing out some spare rooms, but Derek’s own bedroom was impervious because there was no way to declutter a 12’x12’ room containing two adult males with all their work equipment, clothes and miscellany. The one time I visited them there, I sat in one of the two desk chairs because the only clear-ish surfaces in the room were Derek’s twin bed and Ben’s pallet of mattresses and bedding, plus two computer desks, with paths between. The rest of the room was hip-deep in boxes and detritus that I tried not to look at too closely.

Ben still chats online with Derek almost every day, so that’s mostly how I hear about his latest adventures (he and his girlfriend have moved to West Sacramento, less than a mile from where Frank, Miles and I were living when Ben was born). I haven’t seen him in quite a few years now, but he still figures in the ecology of the folks I consider family: not quite lover, not quite friend, not quite son. He is my Derek, and everyone should have a Derek.

[1] When I got my first tattoo, on the side of my left breast, a poster scolded, “Do you know what that’s going to look like when you’re 60?!” I responded, “Yeah. Longer.” Which, with 60 a few years behind me, is exactly what happened.

[2] It’s worth noting here that all the long-term male partners in my life have had hoarding tendencies – make of that what you will.

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