“It wasn’t that I thought you would freak out.” I’ve just, unthinkably!, told Ryan G. that I’m attracted to him, and now I am explaining why I didn’t tell him before. “I just thought you might start to…I don’t know…”
“Keep my distance?” Ryan says it with a grimace, like it is the stupidest idea in the world. Not that I am stupid for thinking that it might happen, but that he would have to be an idiot to do it.
“Well, you know,” I say. “Not that you would want to keep your distance, but you might decide that it wouldn’t be good for me to see too much of you, because maybe I’ll get worse.”
He grimaces again: another stupid idea, but I’m glad he thinks it’s stupid, even if I don’t understand why yet. “No, I’m not going to do that,” he says. “I’m not going to have any kind of agenda in hanging out with you, or not hanging out with you. I’m just going to hang out with you because I like hanging out with you, and if you like hanging out with me, then we’ll keep hanging out.”
This conversation is not going how I thought. For someone who I’m pretty sure has never had an openly gay friend before, Ryan is proceeding with a surprising amount of confidence, plunging surefooted as a mountain goat into what I thought was a dark landscape full of cliffs. If he were confused and disoriented, I would be, too. Instead, the matter-of-fact way he’s laying it all out makes me wonder why I was so worried.
“It’d be different if you were a girl,” he says. Keep going, I’m thinking, tell me more! Because I had imagined that every time I hugged him he’d be watching to see if I held on a fraction of a second too long, every time I looked at him he’d be checking to make sure I didn’t look into his eyes too deeply, or too creepily, or something, I don’t know. But it turns out that those are my anxieties, not his. “Why would it be different?” I ask.
“Because when a guy and a girl spend a lot of time together, the natural thing that happens is that they are going to be more attracted to each other,” he says, “because men and women are supposed to be attracted to each other.”
I chew on this for a minute. “I think I get you,” I say. “You mean the more you do a thing, the closer it gets to being the thing it’s supposed to be.” He nods. “And we’re supposed to be friends,” I say. He nods again. “So the more time we spend together, the better friends we are,” I conclude. He nods one more time, smiling because I’ve got it now.
I’m still not sure. He thinks friendship is like a shoe that you have to break in, and that you break it in by wearing it. But I am thinking it is like a car engine: I’m imagining it low on oil, some idiot sitting in the driver’s seat on a cold New England morning and revving and revving the accelerator, not bothering to let it warm up first, redlining it before it’s even left the driveway, bits and pieces flaking off and jamming up the works until the whole things seizes to a shrieking halt.
Is that what I’m doing? Yeah, Ryan, between two straight men, friendship is the thing that naturally happens, and the more time they spend together, the closer they get to that natural thing. But is that how it is when one of the men is gay?
I want to see through to the truth of this, but I can’t, because I’m too much inside myself. William Lynch says, of the mentally ill, that they are ill because their imaginations have stopped working correctly. They can no longer picture a world that is not dominated by their fears and regrets; they are locked in the darkness of their own solipsism. That is how it is with me, now. I can see my own perspective, but no other.
So the only way out is the imagination of a friend, someone who sees what I cannot see, sits outside the cave of my skull and yells in a description of the view from outside.
I see myself briefly from Ryan’s perspective. Feelings are not facts, goes the mantra, so I imagine the view from outside of my own buzzing mosquito-net of a brain. Forget who I am to myself: who am I to Ryan? I am his friend. We laugh together, drink together, work out together, watch TV together, and make hilarious jokes about horrendous problems together.
Privately, inside my mosquito net, things are different. I am anxious about Ryan, and sometimes jealous, and a little confused. I am tempted to think that these things are the whole reality of our friendship.
But are these things real, even inside my own skull? In fact, I realize, these things buzz louder when Ryan is not here. When we are in the same room, those thoughts — if they surface at all — seem like the most stupid nonsense. Instead of seeming like the whole reality, these things barely seem real at all.
Which, in the end, they are not. As we practice friendship, the unreal bits — the anxiety, the suspicion, the jealousy — begin to fall away, like rust. Eventually the only thing left is the steel structure underneath, the framework that was there all along.