The Haunted City

1.

You know this story. 

It’s the rural Midwest around 2004, and there is a boy in my high school class. I’m closeted while he’s straight. He has a soccer player’s lean athleticism and the angular face of a model and beautiful dark hair. He isn’t particularly smart or particularly funny, and he certainly isn’t kind – not to me at any rate – but I want him, as the songs say, real bad. On winter nights I lie awake imagining the two of us on a band trip, assigned to the same hotel room (which never happened – we weren’t friends), and he comes out of the bathroom in just a towel, hair damp.

The towel slips. I avert my eyes, flustered. I’m so sure he’ll talk to me the way he talks to me in real life – don’t be gay, you’re so gay – but out of the blue, he surprises me. He tells me to look at him, and when I do, he’s standing there ashamed of nothing. He confesses that he actually desires me. He thinks about me constantly, though it’s tough for him to talk about it because his family is very Christian and everyone – friends, Romans, countrymen – expect him to fulfill what he looks to be, which is heterosexual. Now he can’t fight these feelings anymore. He’s sorry for taking so long, sorry for his weakness and his cruelty. I forgive him and that’s it. The fantasy dissolves because I don’t know what to put next.

 

In senior year band class, in 2005, the girl to my right glances over. She scoots her chair an inch in the opposite direction and practically shouts, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Stop being such a fucking fag!”

Everything goes quiet. I’ve been practicing scales as a warm up and I stop and look up at the podium at the teacher, who is frowning. 

He is a good man – but there is something about such a slur that can stop even good men in their tracks. It is confounding. The way he shifts on his feet and frowns, you know he knows he should tell the girl off. Give her detention. Make her apologize. But the room is quiet, and something in the silence of my peers warns him away from doing his duty as a teacher and a good man. All the girl gets is his frown.

The band plays on.

         

Five years earlier, in 2000: my eldest cousin is in the kitchen talking to me about one of his best friends at school. My uncle walks in and says, apropos of nothing, “Faggot.” He walks out. It takes a long moment before I realize he isn’t talking about me.

 

Earlier still, I’m seven or eight and I slam my right hand thumb in a car door.

In the evening, my parents and I sit down for dinner like we always do, the three of us with the cats hovering in the background. We’re eating meatballs. I can only use my left hand, and cut my meatballs awkwardly with a fork. 

My dad says, after looking at me a second, “Watch your hand.” 

I’m confused. 

“Just put your hand in your lap, don’t let it flop around.”

I’m holding my injured hand in the air, limp at the wrist. 

“People don’t like people with limp wrists, honey,” says my mother. “You don’t want people to think – ”

She stops, but I know.

 

I always know. Doubtless those involved in each incident don’t remember what they said, much less how they felt, but over time I retain hundreds of fleeting, unguarded flickers and glimpses of an outside world on fire with distaste and malice and fear. No one will help me, I think. No one will love me. 

At some point while in the closet, self-pity becomes a way of consoling oneself to the notion of powerlessness. Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen is the mantra, and I come to like how that mantra makes me feel sad and indignant at the same time. I unconsciously cultivate a sense of moral superiority – how dare the world for putting me in this position! – and equate that with power. 

 

By Fall 2006, I’m a college freshman buying books in the university bookstore. I’m wearing a purple and green sweater my mother got from the Gap. I’m holding a stack in my arms against my chest, when a cute boy passes me in the aisle and we exchange hellos.

Ten minutes later, in another part of the store, a girl comes up to me, presses a piece of paper into my hand and says, “My friend is too much of a pussy to give you his number himself, but he says to call him. Your hair, your sweater, the way you walk and your voice – he thinks you’re perfect.” She smiles at me. I’m stunned and scared and can’t think of what to say, so I say nothing.  I scurry away without the paper and stuff the sweater at the bottom of a drawer.

By refusing that number, that compliment – the idea of another boy vocally liking me – I deny myself everything, power included, I’ve been yearning for. 

Then it's my third year of college, and I meet Will.

 

2. 

Will is classically dark and handsome.

He’s built like a soccer player. He’s a writer like me, and takes beautiful photographs. He’s smart and funny and kind and – above all – he’s openly gay in a way that seems perfectly natural. Essential, even, to his being himself. When we lock eyes for the first time in the restaurant where he works, it’s like a cliché – an electric shock jumps between us.

Soon we have a class together and become friends.

We send each other ridiculously long Facebook messages, typically writing around two in the morning when we’re bleary-eyed and sleepless. There is no one I've met with the same boundless longing for the world; we are like two astronauts who, having once gotten a taste of space, can now never get enough.

Will goes abroad for a year, returns. We spend summer nights getting drunk on Lake Superior beaches. Never once during this time do I clarify that I like him. I figure, in fact, I might never need to clarify because I have myself convinced I can survive on friendship alone. I run on something like fumes – wisps and snippets of the erotic potential in our relationship, the possibility that it can be more.

I go on walks late at night through our college town, like a lost puppy, and stand under street lamps wondering if Will is out there doing the same, hoping we’ll stumble into each other and begin a great adventure, a passionate romance.

 

Then one day he says to me, very pointedly, “I would rather die than go back into the closet.” We are walking around campus early on a Sunday morning, the day windy and the sky full of billowy clouds. I say nothing.

The notion that death is preferable to my current state is something I never considered. Surely my life isn’t that bad, I think. Yes I’ve suffered some indignities. Yes I’m unlikely to ever have the relationship I practice for every night. But I would – point/counterpoint – rather die than step outof the closet into such a hateful, uncertain world. If I was lonely, at least I was alone.

In the closet, however, a clock is running down the hours. This city you’re in is not deserted, but haunted: at sunset, ghosts come clamoring. Self-pity becomes self-loathing and depression and spite for the beautiful but burning world outside. Spite eventually fades until nothing is left. Just as too long in zero gravity atrophies muscle, too long in the closet atrophies our ability to empathize, tell truths, maintain meaningful connections, or recognize our own emotional vulnerability. Sitting or standing or walking or talking or eating or shitting, we are on rock bottom. Life is life as the meanest form of existence: you are a thinking, feeling creature unable to do either.

In the dark on my narrow bed in my dorm room, I’m fortunately still able to think: where is the line?

I’m here waiting on some date fifty or sixty years hence when I might finally wake up and find that I had, like Rip van Winkle, squandered the majority of my precious time – if I wake at all. I’m lying in my own grave, twenty-one and already rendered inert. I’d rather die than risk my life in order to live it.

With that, there comes a flare. It’s the flare I felt when my parents told me to watch my wrist and I rang with the wrongness of it; the lick of heat I felt when my uncle so casually dismissed his son’s friend; the same firestorm that dammed up against my sternum when my teacher did nothing to fight homophobia in his classroom.

And more than anger or outrage, it’s the thrill I subdued when bookstore boy gave me his number, the jolt swallowed when Will writes me a new message or gives me a new mixed tape. It is somuch more that the stuff of my moral superiority or the wasteful blaze of bigotry as to make those seem like mere tricks of paper and light.

It’s clarity. It’s the pure, unquenchable vision of my life as it could be.

I’ll be damned if I let it go.

 

When Will graduates a year ahead of me, he begins preparations to teach English in Spain. Knowing I won’t see him for an indeterminate amount of time throws me, finally, into crisis mode. He is a real human and my real friend. It’s hardly fair that I should withhold such an important part of my feelings from him. If I don’t come clean, I think, I’ll be deceiving him. I’ll be deceiving myself. I have to start making inroads against deception, not give into it.

At the last minute – a week before he departs – I write him a letter. I’m in love with him. I say I’m sorry I hadn’t said anything sooner, when something might have come of it. I want to remain his friend no matter what: he means that much to me.

I sign the letter, seal it, and send it.  It's like flinging a paper airplane into a hurricane.

In some sense this is a practice run, the kind that plenty of gay men and women undertake to sound out the consequences of their coming out. Of course, in my particular case those consequences might be complete silence or complete rejection by a romantic interest – either one of which will set me back.

The details of his response (which comes one nail-biting week later) are less important here than the fact that he responds at all. By responding to me, Will does something no one had ever done because I’d never given anyone a chance to. He accepts, in terms I cannot replicate, that I’m gay and in love with him. Quite suddenly my attraction to other men is no longer an echo in a fantasy late at night.

And although I couldn’t be with the particular boy I wanted to be with, I gain unexpected ground: where previously I had no inclination toward imagining my life with another man, I suddenly do. I can. The future I want and need, which at some point I had ruled out of the question, is possible. What that future entails is vague, but now palpably viable. It’s as if a brilliant dream I’d been having right before waking up turns out to be – BOOM – the world beyond my bed.

 

During the summer after graduation, I’m in Tuscany with one of my close friends. She lives in New York City, where I’m moving in August to start a MFA program at The New School. While we are in Tuscany, she sets a new standard of acceptance in my life.

She and all her family have friends who are gay and proud of it; she and her family are in turn, in the best possible way, proud to have them as friends. Even in college I hadn’t been exposed to so many people for whom sexuality is not a given and is problematic only when lives were stifled by it. Such exposure has an effect on me like that of Popeye’s can of spinach.

I return from Italy still closeted, but no longer feeling pressure to be closeted. I no longer know why I am lingering behind a door that seems separated from its hinges. Outside the haunted city are good people.

I find that New York is, as hoped, also accepting. 

Very quickly the pressure pushing my sticky hidden truth up and out of my stomach so corresponds with an increasing pressure to open my mouth that I struggle with the urge to blurt it all out at any passing stranger.

So one night when we’re at a birthday party, I drink deeply, take my friend to the shelter of a little wooden cove with benches and a small round table, and kick the door down. There is no scrim of paper this time, no shielding myself from the way she might look at me when I said the words, “I’m gay.” I try not to shake.

I tell her the thing I'd never told anyone in person ever - and, bless her, she merely hugs me and buys the next round. 

 

3.

I’ve come out to friends and family over the last few years to universal support.

Now, though, I’m twenty-nine - and the work still feels like its just beginning. Many of the challenges to contend with are not those I can simply consult my mother on.

Some say, for instance, it is a common theme in gay lives that after coming out there is a period of promiscuity, the use of sex to validate and make oneself feel powerful in an attempt, often unsuccessful, to mitigate years of the opposite. I had such a period. I knew I could love and be loved, but that didn’t mean I knew if I could want and be wanted back. Was I actually sexually attractive to those I myself found sexually attractive? It had to be conned.

And after all, the act of coming out was also the act of finally possessing my body. True physical freedom for the first time is intoxicating – a lesson most boys learn when they’re teenagers. Gay men who come out in the post-teenage years must wrestle with an enduring sense of belatedness. In terms of physical experience they are in all likelihood late to the party: hence another reason for promiscuity.

 

But more urgent is the emotional and relational lag.

I look at how many of my straight male and female friends are in committed relationships, and I wonder where they possibly got them. Did they buy them at a store? Did they order them online?

A relationship is not a commodity, but the feeling that I am dealing in commodities is one I persistently fight off. It is not easy to connect with another man in a way that lasts beyond the bed and the dawn, and my idea of a relationship, what I’ve watched my straight counterparts engage in for years now, still seems very much out of reach. Of course, it’s not because relationships are a privilege exclusive to heterosexuals or that I personally could never be in one, and I know that. It is that I, as with sex in high school, wield no experience and therefore no capacity for imagining – much less the ability to attain – sustainable romantic involvement.

 

Sustainable.

What a notion for life after the closet. Is such a life sustainable? Is such pride without fear possible? I’m certainly going to try for it – though, truth is, I still suffer anxiety at being gay in a largely heterosexual world. Every day I come out to those who meet me for the first time – and when you look someone you barely know in the eye to tell them you’re a homosexual, a flinch is always to be anticipated, by you if not them.

I still fear rejection. I fear fists. I fear a knife in a dark alley.

It is very easy to point fingers at a source of my fear. I can point them at my parents, teachers, peers, and above all myself: if those who stay silent despite understanding the darkest heart of an injustice are those most culpable of collusion, then I am most culpable in the matter of my own misfortunes. I can condemn the cultural narrative of homophobia that sweeps us all up from square one and which we alone are responsible for propagating.

But neither my experience nor native belief indicates salvation through blame. No matter the object, blame is only an expression of bitterness. It achieves no betterment on past faults and missteps, only more faults and missteps. If there is one positive thing that comes of the closet, it is good faith. I am of course only here, writing this to you, because I finally found faultless belief in myself.

 

With good faith I remember one boy in particular.

Not the Colombian I met in Times Square, or the actor who rented a motel room with me one stormy night, or the young banker who took me back to his well-appointed apartment in the West Village. Not even of Will, the only one I think of regularly and who is, to this day, probably the only person I’d climb the Himalayas with for fun. Not them, but my old crush from high school.

I’ve realized, these years later, that I was projecting onto him for the sake of practice. I needed to remember not so much that it was OK to be gay (I was and always would be, regardless) but that I too could be subject to mutual desire. I was like an actor and that boy was my mirror and what I was doing was line preparation, just as much as it was a kind of sexless venting of the libido and a roundabout reminder to myself that I was, at the heart of it, maybe too gay to function.

Now, occasionally, I check up on him through social media, and in what little surfaces I see a child who has grown up. I hope that he, like me, has had something propelling him to be not just confident but better, some opportunity he’s seized that allows him to understand more than himself, to understand the value of his beautiful body but also the potential of kindness and the power that people – if treated properly – can bring into one’s life. He didn’t know the story any more than I did. Though I hated him as much as I wanted him simply because he denied me, he did not know he denied me. He was not my enemy.

So now I’m taking this – my story – on the road. I’ll tell it to anyone who will listen. Someday, he’ll hear it. Someday, perhaps, we’ll apologize to one another. I’ll forgive him and he’ll forgive me. And, finally, we’ll be face to face.

We’ll be man to man.