Just prior to moving to __________ last spring, I attended a memoir writing class at the University of Victoria. For the last session, those students prepared to take the risk or wanting feedback were asked to bring along pieces of memoir writing, either something they were working on or something they wrote specifically for the class.
I was ambivalent about sharing anything with fellow writers I didn't really know or trust because I'd had a bad experience in a writing group in the past. A piece I'd worked on for some time had been torn to shreds by writers I'd come to trust but who didn't write themselves and who never brought anything to the class that any of the rest of us could critique. I'd been deeply hurt by that experience, and, shortly thereafter, frustrated, even angry, I withdrew from the group, even though I'd found some of our meetings constructive and helpful.
So I thought for a number of days about whether or not I wanted to share anything with my memoir writing class. I'd told the ten or so class members that I'd written the first draft of a memoir, which had impressed them, and several asked me to bring along some of my writing so they could see it. But I wasn't sure I was ready to share some of my deeply personal ramblings.
Around that time, I'd gone through an experience that I knew I had to write about in some capacity. A circumstance had been given to me, and I knew there was something in it to capture on paper and to share with other people. So, while I didn't feel up to showing anyone my memoir writing, I thought if I wrote about this experience, it would be easy to write because it had just happened; it would give me the opportunity to write about something other than my memoir; and it would give the fellow classmates a sample of my writing to critique.
Writing this piece came easy, and, before I knew it, I'd completed a first draft. That's all we were asked to bring to the class. I was so pleased I'd have something to share.
Then I started to feel insecure. As I read the piece over and over, editing it to the point where I thought it was something worth showing other people, I realized how truly personal it was, and, remembering my past writing group experience, I chose not to face any criticism about the subject matter or how I wrote it. The piece, or maybe I, wasn't quite ready for the world yet.
In the end, I spent some time working on an excerpt from my memoir--"Father F," which I "published" here on August 27--and I brought that to our final class, fully expecting to include it amongst those pieces other writers had brought. But, again, after working on it for several hours, I thought the subject matter might insult Catholics, which I didn't want to do, and I knew the writing wasn't where I wanted it to be. So, much to the disappointment of a few, no one from the class got to see a sample of my writing that day. I just wasn't ready.
What I've included below is the first draft of the piece I originally wrote for the memoir writing class and decided I couldn't share. It's still in rough shape, and I publish it here not because the writing is particularly good but because I believe it provides an important insight into what it means to be gay, at least for me. I'd be willing to bet other gay men would relate to what I've written too. I call the personal essay "Gift."
Glen wasn't at Fitness World today. I looked forward to seeing him, as I always do. I missed him.
Since Chris and I are moving to Vancouver in less than a month, Glen and I have only a few more occasions to see each other. Every one counts.
Last Wednesday, Susan asked me what I wanted to talk about. It was my final session. We’d covered a lot over the past five weeks.
I thought for a moment. “Being gay,” I began, “I've always felt disconnected from straight men. My father was physically absent when I grew up, and, when he was home, he was emotionally absent. I never had a relationship with him.” No reaction from Susan. I went on.
“I had a brother,” I continued, “but only for five weeks, when I was three. He died of crib death. Sometimes, I’ve imagined what our relationship would be like today, if he were alive. I’m sure he would be straight, but I don’t know if he and I would be close. I doubt it. Our family’s never been close. And straight men seem to fear having anything to do with gay men. Maybe brothers are different.” I shrugged. I watched Susan write on her lined, yellow pad.
“I had other straight male relatives, but I wasn’t close to any of them either. They had their lives, I had mine. And you already know how the boys at school felt about me. Either they ignored me, or they teased me, called me a fairy or faggot. Most of my friends in school were girls.”
“What about teachers?” Susan asked. “Were you close to any of your male teachers.”
I thought back thirty-five or more years. “I had a few male teachers,” I answered, “but I don't remember being close to any of them. Most of my teachers were female. I had close relationships with some of them. Just like I had with some of the women in my family. I remember being in the kitchen, with my mother and my aunt, while they prepared meals, listening to them talk and laugh, while the men and boys were in the living room, watching sports or something on TV.”
“How did this make you feel” Susan asked, scribbling on her pad, “not being close to any men in your life?”
“Disconnected,” I answered. “Honestly, I’ve never felt like I belonged to my gender. I know gay men are still men, biologically, but I’ve always thought they were different, not like straight men.” I wondered if I’d confused Susan, if this made sense. “Don’t get me wrong--some gay men are more masculine than others. But all of them are into men. It’s not the same thing. For me, connecting with gay men is not the same as connecting with straight men. I feel like something is missing from me because I’ve never mattered to straight men.”
“Do you think you’d feel differently if you and your father had been close?”
“Absolutely.” I’d thought about this before. “But that wasn’t an option. We had nothing in common. I think he might have been scared of me. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, he’s not my father. He’s still alive, but, to me, he’s been dead for years.”
Susan kept writing. She stopped and looked at me. She kept silent.
“Life’s funny, isn’t it?” I said. “I mean, you ask for something, and it comes to you in the strangest way.”
“There’s this fellow at Fitness World,” I began. “It’s strange how we met. Had my workout schedule not changed when I left my job, I would never have encountered him.”
“He’s very attractive,” I continued. “I mean, I find him physically attractive. His body is muscular, his hair is short and greying, and his eyes are light. He has this shit-disturber grin. He knows a lot of people at the gym, and he talks and jokes around with them.
“I admit, he turned me on from the moment I saw him, and I tried to sneak looks at him and not get caught. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea about me. For months, we kind of acknowledged each other in passing, but we never said much.
“Then, he started to say a few words to me, mostly upstairs in the change room. He commented on the weather, asked me how my workout was going. I said as little as possible. He made me nervous. Straight men have always had that effect on me. I didn’t want him to find out I was gay because I thought it would put him off. I kept my distance.
“But he didn’t give up. Once, I was in the change room talking to Mario, who’s another gay fellow there, when Glen came in from the hot tub. He asked us what we were talking about. I told him I’d just said to Mario that I’d left my job over a year ago, and my partner was supporting both of us so I could write. He told Mario and me that he runs a local music store, and he writes music on the side. He said he’s published two books of music. We talked for awhile. I was happy that I finally had the chance to tell him something about myself. As I left the locker room to go back downstairs, he extended his hand to me. ‘My name’s Glen,’ he said.
"For weeks, I’d wondered what his name was. I even considered asking one of the girls at the front counter. I introduced myself, stumbling on my first name, which I’ve never liked. I was thrilled he told me his name and shook my hand. I loved looking into his eyes when he spoke to me, seeing him smile, but I was nervous, tongue-tied. Sooner or later, I knew I’d make a fool of myself. I always do.
“I don’t know what I’d call Glen,” I continued. “He isn’t really a friend--maybe an acquaintance, a casual buddy, sort of. We haven’t spent any time together outside of Fitness World, gone out for coffee or anything like that. It wouldn't be appropriate to do that. But I know he’s thirty-nine, straight, or at least I think he is--I’m sure he is--and he’s married and has three kids. His oldest is sixteen, a son.
“Over the past months, Glen and I have talked about things I haven’t discussed with anyone else. One time, we talked about how tough workouts are, three, four times a week, keeping up the routine, and I told him I wrote an article for a newspaper at work once, about how you need to feel good about yourself to work out because, if you don’t believe you’re worth it, you’ll never make it happen. And another time we talked about getting older, how we both feel different from when we were younger, how some people don’t age well, get sick, die young.”
“How does being around Glen make you feel?” Susan interrupted me.
“Honestly,” I said, smiling, “I feel great.” I shook my head, thinking about being near him. “I look forward to seeing him. I try to time my workouts when I know he’ll be there.
“Sometimes, I wonder if he might be gay, or have gay tendencies,” I continued. “The other day, we were running on treadmills beside each other. He increased his speed to 8.0 and was running so fast, I thought he might hurt himself. I told him if he wasn’t careful, he’d have a heart attack. ‘You’d save me, wouldn’t you?’ he asked. I thought about what he’d said, felt a chill run through me. It seemed like a strange thing for him to say. ‘Of course,’ I told him, ‘I’d save you.’ But I tried to sound sarcastic, so he wouldn’t get the idea that I wanted to be near him, to touch him.
“A while later, I was talking with one of the girls at the front counter about canceling our memberships when Chris and I move, and, without seeing him, Glen bumped into me on purpose, and headed for the stairs to the change room. He turned around and looked at me, smiling. I laughed and told the girl at the counter that they had some obnoxious members. I said it loud enough so Glen could hear. But I felt great. I knew I couldn’t do what Glen had just done unless I was comfortable touching him. Otherwise, he’d keep his distance.
“I mean, Glen knows I’m gay, even though I went out of my way not to tell him. He’s referred to my partner as “he,” and he doesn’t seem at all uncomfortable or threatened around me. He’s just very natural, and sweet, and nonjudgemental. My sexual orientation makes no difference to him.”
I saw the wide smile on Susan’s face, how she kept nodding as I spoke.
“I’ve thought about having sex with Glen,” I said. Did I say that to shock her? “I mean, I’d never have sex with him, because I love Chris, and I’d never betray him. But I’ve wondered what it would be like to hold Glen and to have him hold me, to feel physically safe in his arms--even to go all the way.”
“I don’t think you really want to do that,” Susan said.
I thought for a moment. “Because Glen would no longer be the symbolic straight man I’ve always wanted in my life?”
Susan smiled and nodded.
“You’re right,” I said. “But I’d sure like more from him. I’ve gotten a lot from him already, but I’d sure like a lot more.”
“Glen has been a gift in your life,” Susan said. “Imagine a father figure, with qualities like Glen, making you feel like how being around Glen makes you feel. Now, give that gift to yourself.”