People often do special things to commemorate their milestone birthdays like big celebrations, trips, extravagant purchases. I’ve never been overly big on birthdays and thus far have only dialed things up for two of my milestones. A somewhat infamous costume party for my eighteenth birthday, the mere mention of which likely still sends a certain pizza guy into fit of twitching and flop sweats, and my twenty fifth. Not a celebration per se, but rather a resolution whose time had come.
In high school I had the mixed pleasure of falling soul deep in love for the first time with a good friend who was completely incapable of returning those feelings even if he’d known about them. At that time I was still keeping the romantic and sexual parts of myself very much to myself both because of the small town world around me and my one absolutely disastrous encounter with even tame experimentation.
I never expected to fall in love with him. He was part of my somewhat small inner circle of friends. Introvertedly shy, with a caring heart, a brilliantly agile creative mind, and playfully mischievous grin. At first I merely had a crush on him, no different from any of my other crushes. Then after a year things changed. Sexual fantasizing had never felt wrong in any way, it was purely natural and only in my own mind, but with him I was suddenly completely incapable of it. Any sexual imagining felt wrong, like some form of massive betrayal, while on the other hand envisioning simply holding hands, wrapping my arms around him, or quietly kissing him made my insides evaporate. I suddenly knew what all the songs and poems were about.
And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. By this time I knew him very well and girls were his only romantic interest, as shyly understated as it was. There were times the situation truly tested my capacity for compartmentalizing, seemingly ordinary interactions between friends had the potential to be a bit torturous, but overall I was able to find a level of piece with it. I had these very powerful feelings but there was nowhere for them to go. So I focused on appreciating the friendship and making sure the feelings didn’t intrude or interfere. They were my problem and no one else’s.
And it worked, until I came out to all of my friends during my first Christmas break back from university. I had come out to my parents before leaving for school but hadn’t felt ready to tell all of my friends just yet. Gladly they all went exactly as I would have hoped. “I wouldn’t have expected that but it actually makes a lot of sense.”
The only two which were truly challenging were the first, with my closest brother-from-another-mother friend who wound up sitting through nearly forty-five minutes of me hinting and flinching and not saying anything clear enough for him to actually be sure that was what I was trying to say, and the conversation with him. Not because I had any suspicion it would go worse than any of the others but because I knew I would have absolutely no armor or protection to shield my heart if it did.
I didn’t tell him about the feelings part. There wasn’t any point. As far as my friendship with him was concerned what mattered was being fully honest with him about who I was, not burdening the friendship with feelings he couldn’t ever return or want or know what to do with. The feelings were never going to be relevant to anyone but me so there was no need to talk about them, especially not with him. He was fine, everyone was fine, and on the wheels turned.
Trouble was, now that I was out the idea of me actually being able to functionally have feelings for someone was no longer like a memory of someone else’s dream a third party had told me about. That part of me was now allowed to come down off the moon and actually be present which meant it was able to want on a level it never had before. Even if what I wanted wasn’t possible, wanting was and things started becoming more challenging to manage.
The other factor which exacerbated things was that since we were all now spread out around the province going to school we not only saw each other far less frequently but it also tended to be mostly one on one instead of the full circle. The various members of our group would meet up to grab a meal, catch a movie, or snag a ride from those of us who had cars as we ventured hither and yon but more often than not it was only in pairs.
The two ingredients combined to amplify the emotional impact and give less opportunity to adjust to it. What had previously been distracting background noise became almost overpowering and it wasn’t long before the internal clashing started to manifest as actual physical pain. I was still fully enjoyed spending time with him but there would be flashes of what felt like ice-picks boring into my chest.
This continued all through university, getting slightly worse each year. By the time I graduated and had been teaching dance for a few years things had pretty much reached a tipping point. I was either going to have to do something about it or deliberately drift away from the friendship. He was an amazing person and a dear friend and I did not want to lose him from my life. My nonsense was ruining things either way so it was time to make or break.
My birthday had passed recently and there was a weekend road-trip planned wherein I was going to be his ride up into our home town area and back down again so I decided to try and give the final unburdening and honesty to myself as a twenty-fifth birthday present.
I arranged to go and see him the weekend before as I didn’t want to try and have the conversation against a deadline of appointments with other people, nor did I want to try it while driving and if things didn’t go very well it would leave him an entire week to make other transportation arrangements. I told him I had something I wanted to talk to him about and we agreed to meet.
The drive there wasn’t too bad but once arrived the short walk from his apartment to a nearby pizza joint was a study in flop sweats, giant ice-picks in the chest, and lungs which seemed to keep forgetting how the whole inhale-exhale thing worked.
There was some casual catching up chit-chat while I nibbled on pizza I didn’t really taste and tried to figure out just how to launch into things. The pizza joint seemed a little too crowded for my tastes but the universe decided to show me it wasn’t going to let this play through without a couple curve balls. As we sat there chatting and munching, he casually mentioned he had lately begun wondering if he might be bisexual.
He hadn’t had a girlfriend in a while and lately had been spending all his time hanging out, video gaming, going to movies, and walking around the city with a guy he had met several months ago who was a year younger than him and gay. Nothing had happened between the two of them but he was genuinely fond of this new friend.
“You said you figured things out at a pretty young age, so like how did you know?” he asked before taking a large bite of his pizza slice.
Yes, my heart could have leapt at the prospect of actual possibility. I could have rewritten the entire plan for the coming conversation, heck the plan for the entire friendship. The temptation certainly was there. But I didn’t. I knew him. I knew who he was, how he worked, and why the situation he was describing would spark the question the way it was. My heart could have leapt into full fairy tale mode but I tossed a silent question up at the ceiling.
Grey-asexual was not yet a term at that point but that was him. Sex was rare and a much lower priority in his romantic relationships so what he had been doing with this new friend wasn’t all that different from what he typically did with his girlfriends. He said as much then mused since it was a gay guy he was doing all these things with maybe it might mean something. I felt quite sure I knew the answer to his question but it wasn’t my place to try and push him in any particular direction.
“As far as knowing is concerned, it’s a kind of deep rooted certainty but it can be hard to put into words. Try this. Picture kissing your last girlfriend. When it was new and things were going well, picture kissing her and focus on how the image and idea feel. Okay. Now picture kissing him.”
Even for those with very low sexual drives the image of romantically kissing someone is a pretty clear barometer. It’s an act of intimacy which sparks at all the buttons. It only took him a couple moments of pondering to nod once in understanding and then shake his head.
“Huh, you’re right. It is kind of a gut certainty kind of feeling.”
I offered that not wanting to kiss this one guy wasn’t universally conclusive evidence. He might need to spend some more time pondering it as a legitimate possibility to reach his own conclusions. I suggested trying out the kiss imagery with a couple of his favorite male actors or musicians. It seemed like the answer was already landing where I expected it would but I had no right to press at him with my assumptions.
We left the pizza joint and wandered over to a bench in a local park which was thankfully rather deserted and not overly chilly despite the sun having been down for a while. I asked him if this had been on his mind a lot and he said it had but he hadn’t really talked to anyone about it. I thanked him for sharing it with me and he said he had remembered how brave and calm and honest I had been with him when I came out so he felt safe talking with me. He’d figured I might be able to help and thanked me because I already had.
That moment felt as good as any I was going to get so I just dove on in. I reminded him I had something I wanted to talk to him about and I laid it all out for him, or at least most of it. I told him about having had a crush which grew into something far more potent. I mentioned being rather torn at times between treasuring his friendship and having a hard time grappling with my feelings. I explained I hadn’t said anything back when I first came out because it felt like it would have been a bit too much all at once, for me or him, and I was telling him now because I wanted to try and free myself from the tangle of it all as a birthday gift to myself and hopefully telling him about it would help me finally do so.
He took it all in stride and handled it just fine. He felt sad for how hard it must have been for me to struggle with that all by myself and didn’t know if he would have been able to be that strong at that age. He agreed it would have been a lot if I had told him when I first came out, saying if I had told him even just a year ago he likely wouldn’t have handled it very well. Not because of my being a guy, or even because of the close friendship, but more because he would have a hard time seeing himself as worthy of those kinds of feelings and might have pulled away out of fear he was somehow misleading me.
I hadn’t realized his insecurities had run that deep and our conversation spiraled off from there into a stunningly eclectic assortment of tangents and topics which had us sitting out in that park for another three and a half hours.
Eventually we ran out of wind and the chill started to seep into our bones so we agreed to call it a night. I thanked him for hearing me out and handling it so well, which he promptly reiterated to me. He wasn’t the huggy type so I kept a pace back to make it clear I wasn’t going to push him. We nodded, smiled, said we would see each other the following weekend.
It wasn’t until Tuesday night I fully realized there had been a part of the conversation we missed. I hadn’t gone there with any intention of asking him any kind of question. I already knew the answer. That three and a half hour conversation had been everything I could have wanted it to be and we had talked about things I would never have imagined we would but apparently we had also missed checking one last box.
Whether I would always have needed it or it was a result of those feelings getting ramped up and overblown but knowing the answer wasn’t enough. Apparently I needed to literally hear it from his mouth as well. That Tuesday night the ice-picks returned, now barbed and dripping with acid, and stayed fixed in the center of my chest what sleep I did get the rest of the week was fleeting and not particularly helpful.
By the end of Wednesday the other teachers at the studio could tell something was up and were starting to worry about me. And I hadn’t realized how much the one student of mine looked like him and laughed like him until my lesson with him and his wife on Thursday pretty much eviscerated me. I was able to maintain my game face but it cost me. That night I phoned and said I needed to chat before we hit the road.
Friday night when I arrived at his apartment he briefly introduced me to his roommates then we went into his bedroom and closed the door. I didn’t have it in me to dance around it so I got straight to the point. I wasn’t asking him for anything, because I already knew the answer, but I needed to hear him say it. The freedom from the tangle I was after needed the words to actually come from him so the feelings wouldn’t have any ‘what if’s to hide behind.
He was very sweet. His caring heart wouldn’t let him hurt me, especially considering how vulnerable I was being with him and how potent the feelings I had described were. He hemmed and hawed and danced around it but I just kept backing him into a corner, eventually literally.
“I’m just not really looking for anything with anyone right now.”
“Annnnnd thaaaat includes me…..”
It was silly but I could instantly feel it was all I needed, and I scooped a pillow off his nearby bed and gave him a swat as thanks for the trouble. Not only did the ice-picks immediately start dropping from my chest but the pillow clutched in my hand sparked a sudden inspiration.
“And while we have a moment….”
I then proceeded to pummel him with the pillow giving him a good couple of swats for each time he inadvertently said or did something which had twisted the knife a bit. Always having to sit immediately to my left when I was running our game nights, once wearing a shirt which literally fell apart while he was sitting there, asking questions which sounded as if he might suspect or know something, asking what I was thinking as we watched the sun setting over the water after an afternoon spent swimming. As I rattled them off each one was punctuated with a thwack from the pillow and he didn’t exactly help himself by grinning his signature goofy-mischievous grin.
“I actually did that?”
Pillow beatings are extremely cathartic. I highly recommend them.
We emerged from his room, him more than a little disheveled, and had a lovely road trip back up to our home town and back. We are still dear friends and he and his female partner welcomed their first child last fall.