My Dinner with Gay John

I met Gay John back the sweet summer of 1997. Well, actually, it wasn't sweet but I've always wanted to start out a story like that. You know, wax a bit nostalgic and hearken back to some idyllic time as the preface to a great story.

But there was nothing great about the summer of 1997. I had just lost my older brother to complications from pneumonia, and I guess I hadn't realized how deep the wound is when a sibling dies. Compounding that was the family history that he and I had slowly grown apart in the time he left the house for college and I was finishing high school and off on my own adventures. It wasn't an estranged relationship by any means, but it's one of those things when you realize one morning that you just aren't that close with your own brother. Then you either rush to the phone and "have a relationship" or make coffee. I made coffee.

In any case, his loss hurt me more than I realized it could, and I threw myself into studying more. Right after my undergraduate career, I looked at the job market and saw that it sucked, so I went right into graduate school, figuring that a couple more years being in the college cocoon would be much easier to deal with than trying to make a career with a degree in English literature. So, off to grad school I went.

Now about that time, the whole hanging out and being ironic at a coffeeshop was getting into full swing (okay, so I live in a small town where such a thing was just becoming the new trend in 1997, so sue me.). I liked the whole ambience of the coffee shop and I figured that I might have that angsty, twentysomething look, so I became a frequent visitor at The French Press. As it happens, I failed to bring enough cash with me to pay for my drink and roll, and was busy looking sheepish when the guy next to me offered to pay.

I was surprised that someone would be so nice, because back in 1997, people were starting to become more and more rude, and complaining about how rude everyone else was. In any case, I thanked him and took my seat, but feeling grateful, I asked: "Would you like to join me?" and he said yes.

You know, looking back on it, it was a situation I had always wanted to happen. You meet a stranger in a public setting and you start a conversation and it's a comfortable thing, like meeting an old friend.When I've wanted that situation, I couldn't have tried harder at failing. But naturally, when I wasn't looking for it, it hit me square on the head.

It's amazing what you talk about with a relative stranger, and maybe it's because you're slightly unencumbered with a stranger. Maybe that's also why relationships are so exhilarating in the beginning because the boundaries don't become defined until later: it's all pretty fluid and makes you want to be around the other person. It's like hanging out with one of the cool kids from high school.

But I did notice in our first several conversations that he seemed to be guarded in his language. By guarded, I mean he took care to avoid certain pronouns when talking about relationships. I had a feeling that he might be gay but I wasn't really feeling like asking him, "Are you a homo?"

Now, let me tell you my theory about homosexuality. The way I look at it, no human being can or ever had chosen the people he falls in love with, and that extends to people of the same gender. I don't think people choose to be homosexual, but I am very reluctant to say that it's inborn. I've never believed for one second when I hear someone say "I knew I was gay when I was 3 years old." Puerile horseshit. No one knows their sexuality at a young age: if we did, then being a teenager wouldn't be so confusing and annoying. I tend to think sexuality unfolds, sublty and not so. For more people, it's not really a question as they become older. For others, it's a lifelong struggle.

That PC stuff aside, it was about two months into our coffee house talks that he admitted he was gay. I told him that I had suspected because of the careful pronoun thing, but that I didn't care. "Well, for what's it worth," he told me, "I don't do the rainbow ribbon thing, or drag or the parades. I just want to be happy." He very well might have been the most normal homosexual I've ever met.

Our coffee house talks were semi-regular, and they only lasted about seven months. We talked about everything but without necessarily revealing our most personal thoughts. I don't know how to explain that adequately. They were meaningful conversations without turning into an encounter session. Looking back on it, I don't know if I wanted it to be any more than what it was. No, no, I don't mean that, but rather the two of us were in the area between acquaintanceship and friendship. The boundaries were still not formal because we only knew certain things about each other.

"I believe in God," he told me. "I don't think that God is some big white guy in the clouds or hovering in orbit around earth. I don't know really what God is, but I do believe in him."

"Do you imagine him having a voice like Harvey Fierstein?" I asked.

"Such an asshole," he laughed. "You know, everything does not have to have some weird gay twist to it."

"What do you think about God?" I asked.

"Well, I often think of it in terms of what I can accomplish. I mean, let's say that my belief in God makes me want to help people and I become a doctor and I go off to this village in Africa. I help the people out by giving them the method to wipe out certain diseases but in doing so, I'm somehow taking something instrinsic to their culture away. And I only help them out, not the village nearby for whatever logistical reason. But that second village is going to die without the same knowledge, but it's all I can do, is to help this one village. Was what I did worth it? Does it matter in the end?"

I had a couple sips of my coffee. He looked so affected by his own proposition. "Maybe your job isn't to save all the villages," I reasoned. "Maybe it's just to simply do what you can, despite the overwhelming odds. And even with the tradeoffs. I mean, you're not going there to prosyletize or save the savages from themselves, right? Well, if your intentions are good no matter how flaws the execution is, perhaps it's not your place to question, but rather to do."

These were the things we would talk about in the course of a couple hours. God, religion, politics, whatever. It was nice to be able to talk to someone who was interested in what you had to say right then and there, at that moment. I didn't really think much about him in between our visits and I don't mean that in a crass way, but we both had our own lives and weren't involved in each other lives to the point where those friendship boundaries would crystallize.

But, of course, all good things must come to an end, and once he asked me if we could go to dinner rather than meeting at the coffee shop. I said, sure, so we hooked up at TGI Friday's and he told me that his dad had died, and that he was leaving school to return home back East to take care of his mother. It was at that moment that I realized that I hadn't even told him my brother had passed away just recently. We had intelligent conversations but not deeply personal ones. That was just the set up; the unspoken rule by which we had played.

It's an odd, emotional thing to say, but I felt very sad at his leaving. Almost in a longing kind of way. I liked the talks we had because they were therapeutic to me, even though I never really told him what was on my mind sometimes. I suppose I had wanted us to be friends, and now that I wasn't going to see him again, I regretted that. But almost on cue, he told me a little bit about his family: how he was always last in line when it came to handouts among his two brothers and sisters. How much he disliked his stepmother, but how his own mother still carried the torch for his dad and made sure John knew about it. About how different his family had become over the years and how free he felt being so far away from them. And now he was headed right back into it because he had no choice anymore.

We had a great dinner, despite the sad circumstances, and when it was over, I found myself giving him a hug. I don't really do that kind of thing, not even with family members. But it would have been wrong if we had parted without it.

We didn't trade phone numbers or anything like that. It was like a final day at camp, when you've struck up a friendship and now it's coming to a close and you feel very sad and lonely because you won't see that person again. We could have offered to stay in touch, but that's wasn't what was going on. And it didn't even come up at all. It was just understood, but several years later, I don't know if that was such a good idea. Afterwards, we shook hands and I wished him well. And that was it.

I don't know if that's what I needed back then after my brother died. I just think it was the right thing at the right time, even if I do regret that we hadn't opted to stay in touch. Maybe it wasn't meant to be, but I don't think I really believe in that kind of fatalism. But in the end, it's probably one of the best experiences in my life, during what had started out as the worst.

Here's to you, Gay John. I hope you find that happiness you're looking for.