This piece, by Andrew Heaver, originally appeared in the second issue of Hello Mr.
Fifteen years after you quit high school and the thought of you still makes me tense. Thankfully, I don’t think of you often. It’s just that I’ve bumped into Steve, and we’re talking about old times, and how we’ve all turned out, and he mentions you. He says that he’s seen you in here a few times. The revelation stops me in my tracks, as I wonder what it means, and wonder what I’ll say to you if you come here tonight.
Until this evening, I hadn’t been here since the bar went gay. In the ten years or so between then and now, I sometimes thought of coming here, but I was scared of being seen, scared of word getting around. I was scared to be myself. I didn’t come out until after I left this hometown of ours. But now, everything’s changed: I’m confident, I’m open about who I am, and I don’t care who sees me walking in here (or staggering out a few hours later). You wouldn’t believe I’m the same guy as that nervous little kid you used to bully.
I spotted Steve while ordering my beer. You’ll remember that Steve and I were inseparable in high school. But I moved away, lost contact, and haven’t seen him in years. I can’t help but laugh at the irony of encountering him just moments after I walk in here: I remember his bet. Years ago, Steve bet me that I’d turn out gay. I refuted it then, but more than a decade later I finally step into this joint and there he is, as if he’d been waiting. There’s nothing to do but to admit he was right, and buy him a beer. That drink leads to several more, and Steve updates me on years of gossip about all the people we used to know. Which is when he mentions you.
Back in high school, you made my life miserable. Not you alone, but you really helped get that ball rolling, didn’t you? I don’t remember you ever calling me gay, but you made sure that everyone saw me as “different”; You highlighted all the points of difference you could spot, dressed them up as faults, and flagged them as grounds for humiliation by anyone needing to boost their ego by shredding mine. You opened the floodgates and a tide of abuse flowed in, shattering my confidence. When words weren’t enough, you’d add a spit or a kick.
I was timid and bookish. Interested in nature, art, and classical music. You were macho, aggressive, swaggering. Interested in football, fighting, and (you claimed) girls. You knew how to throw your fists, and made some pretty big (bullshit?) boasts about your adventures in the bedroom. You created an image for yourself that impressed the meatheads and intimidated the rest of us.
Eventually, you quit school. I stayed on, then went to college and moved away. I never saw you again, but you left scar tissue. Nervously I forged new friendships, but with insufficient self-esteem to allay my anxieties. When I began to realize my sexuality, I was terrified to talk to my friends about how I felt. But eventually I did. Discovering that they supported me, and still loved me, finally allowed my confidence to blossom. Which helped me through the process of coming out to my family and made it possible to walk in here without fear of being seen for who I am, without fear of word getting around.
But what about you? Why have you been hanging out here? Have you, like me, come to terms with your sexuality later in life? Are you still trying to work it all out? The image you projected in high school, your aggressive heterosexuality; your disgust for difference…was all that just an image? The product of a troubled kid, struggling to accept that he was “different” too? You wouldn’t be the first guy to convert his secret longings into hatred (of self and of others). There’s a bridge between homophobia and the closet, well travelled by closeted bishops and “family values” hypocrites.
Maybe you’re just a straight voyeur, like a holidaymaker visiting a village of exotic tribesmen. And maybe that would be better, because if all of that crap at high school was crap, you must have been pretty screwed up. It is hell to be so scared of one’s truth that you create a fiction, and it is difficult to step out of that fictional closet character and into one’s real self. It must be even harder when it involves climbing down from an epic pedestal of machismo, like the one you built. For all the pain you once caused me, I admire the courage it must take someone like you to walk in here, to prepare to be seen in here. And I wonder now whether there might have been a very scared and very lost little boy trapped within the aggressive bully you were back then.
Whatever happened in the past, and however long it has taken, I’m happy now. I’m at peace with myself and with you. Maybe I’ll see you in here later tonight, or next time. If I do, I’ll buy you a beer. Because while I’ll never forget what you did, I also know what it is like to feel scared and lost, living a fiction. Maybe I didn’t do it on quite such an epic scale as you, but I understand, and I think you need to be understood.
Hello Mr. is a magazine about men who date men. Published twice annually, each issue chronicles everyday life and the narratives which define it through a diverse collection of essays, interviews, illustrations, and photography. Issue 02 is available now at hellomrmag.com.