Reflecting back at a gay (but not so proud) moment
"The Art of Seeing" by Michael Milton
In a world torn apart by short-sighted, strongly held, near-tribal opinions, there is, I believe, one point upon which all sides can agree, gay or straight, male or female, white or black, young or old. In romance, none of us likes to be rejected; none of us likes to hear or, at times, even say the word "No."
I have often had difficulty responding in the negative to most anything asked of me. And a particular "no" I didn't utter over forty years ago still haunts me, the correct course of action that night still unclear.
Forty years ago, I was a very closeted man. Yet, it was when I first ventured out to a gay bar. I was living in San Jose, California, attending law school. Get Dancin' by Disco- Tex and the Sex-o-lettes had ear-wormed itself into my brain, this pulsing, happy-go-lucky tune's lyrics were the final argument I needed to discard my gay bar virginity.
guaranteed to rock the boat
Machine gun rap and locomote,
In San Jose, going to a gay bar meant going to The Harbor. The name was a bit of a misnomer. The swampy, un-navigable southern tip of the San Francisco Bay was ten miles away. The owners had gone all in with the decoration; outside, there was a miniature lighthouse and buoys outlining the perimeter of the parking lot. Inside there were lobster traps, netting, fishing gear. The siding was all knotty raw wood, the floors a dark linoleum. The brightest lights were focused on the tiny dance floor. The rest was shadow and smoke.
I was nervous as hell. I didn't have a posse, of course. The only person who knew I was gay was a friend from high school; curiously, he and I had gone through a falling out our senior year about my over-cautiousness in defining my sexuality.
The Harbor was crowded that night. I ordered a beer. I liked the look of holding the bottle but not the sour taste. I arranged myself against the ledge that circumvented the entire bar and began to send out sonar messages to the rest of the room: I'm available, I'm available.
After a short while, the guy to my right (his position in reference to where I was standing will prove to be important in the telling of this story) leaned in and said, "You're cute." A throb of electricity pulsed through me. Cute? Moi? I had yet to pin an adjective to describe my countenance, and cute seemed like a step in the right direction. Clearly, I had been casting my proverbial nets too wide and hadn't taken in the catch to be had more easily in the nearby waters.
"My name is Frank," he continued. He didn't reach over to shake my hand but held his tumbler up with his left hand and we clicked, literally and figuratively.
Remember, I was new to all of this. He had to do the heavy lifting in our conversation. Frank had been in the military. Frank now worked as an engineer. Frank drove a Chevy truck. Frank was from Chico. His questions to me tended to be of the double entendre sort, his sexy lines completely falling short of their intended response. His comment on my size thirteen foot simply summoned from me a dissertation on the difficulty of finding good shoes in the larger, wider sizes. The ubiquitous "Come here often?" invited another wordy monologue about my work schedule and the trouble I was having with contracts and torts.
"Have your own place?" was finally a question I could answer to his satisfaction. "Want to go there?" he prodded.
I nodded enthusiastically and he said he was going to use the john and would meet me in the parking lot. I stood in the dark, just out of the circle of light cast by the lot's lamps. I heard other patrons' footsteps on the gravel somewhere behind me. I was jumpy but quite impressed with myself for finally "putting on my big boy pants," and bringing someone home.
Frank finally emerged and I saw, for the first time, that he was missing his right arm.
He didn't see me at first. At that moment I could have simply melted into the night. He would have thought I had gotten tired of waiting. Or had met someone else. Or had been kidnapped. But I couldn't move. I was frozen to the spot where I was standing. When he noticed me, he held up high his left hand and waved vigorously.
"No!" was the word screaming in my head as I went ahead and gave him my address. More 'No's" came as I gave him my home phone number; another volley of negatives as I sketched out the fastest route.
When he asked if it would be easier for him to just ride with me, I finally mastered my mind and uttered my first "No" with the reasonable and forgivable codicil that I couldn't ask him to spend the night because family would be arriving the next morning, a total fabrication. As he followed me back to my apartment I chastised myself for my close-mindedness, for my harsh judgment, for my depthless soul. "I just wanted it all to be perfect! A man missing an arm isn't perfect!" I thought as I grimly drove on.
I won't bore you with the details of our commingling. I had no liquor to offer and no place to sit other than my mattress, so things got taken care of fairly quickly. When we were finished, I sensed that he was lingering, so I reiterated my lie about family coming and he rather huffily dressed and disappeared back into the night never to be heard from again.
Now, forty years later, the best I can do is to beg your pardon for my behavior, Frank. I was still so young, so inexperienced, so wanting to please, so eager to become the man I had, up to that date, denied myself from fully becoming. Years have shown me the sting of rejection, the hurt of an unreturned phone call, the heartlessness of a clumsy, inarticulate blow off after one date.
Should I have said "No?" Frank was pleasant looking. He seemed bright. He had flattered me. Truly, my unvoiced "No" was only in response to the missing limb, about which he never uttered a word. On the rare occasion I have repeated this story, others have said, "Well, you were being kind, merciful, even." Merciful? I would hate for someone to sleep with me out of pity. Better a virgin until the last of my days than someone "putting me out of my misery" with a night of thinly veiled discomfort.
I have since met ethereally-limbed folks I find very attractive and would have leaped into bed with them if it had been appropriate within the context of our relationship. Would it have been appropriate for me to say "No, Frank. I don't think this is going to work out," and risk hurting his feelings, which I ended up doing anyway? In my very thin defense, I wasn't, after all, armed with all the facts, such as they were. The "situation" had been invisible to me at the bar.
A friend recently shared advice with me she had given her son about first dates where there is no interest in a second; do not leave someone hanging. It is hurtful and a waste of emotional energy. She added, "Truth with kindness is always the best choice in all situations in life."
Age brings what it brings; diminishments, naturally, and also occasional rays of wisdom. Am I any clearer now as to what I would have said to Frank? Maybe. I have developed a greater ability to utter "No," hopefully with sufficient kindness and understanding. And I am happy to report that despite my occasional "No's" of late, however, they are received, the planet continues to spin.