He's 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 then become friends, hang out in person.
We send each other ridiculously long Facebook messages, typically writing around one in the morning when we’re bleary-eyed and sleepless. 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, stand under street lamps, and wonder if he is out there doing the same, hoping we’ll stumble into each other and begin a great adventure, a passionate romance. In some ways Will is just another mirror for me, a figure upon whom I’m rehearsing for the time when I’ll love and be loved.
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 out of 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 so much 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.