Tiny Bust, Jordan Sommer
My mom made Manwiches the night I came out. It was a coincidence, probably, and not because she contemplated the image of her fifteen-year-old son nuzzled between two other men when she was deciding what to make for dinner. Her cookbook had a little over seven entries, and three of them involved ground beef and a can. It was a roulette. Sitting down with a plate of tater-tots soaked incidentally in sloppy-joe juice, she began: “I expected Taylor, but never you.”
My older half-brother, Taylor, would meet her expectations, but not for another year. He would be with his father’s family on their annual trip to Disneyworld when he, sometimes petulant and perpetually wanting more, would slam down the watch his father had given him for Christmas and leave a note reading “I’m gay” before catching a red-eye flight back to his family’s Myrtle Beach home. Taylor—not to support any hurtful, metonymic ideas about gays—can be somewhat dramatic.
And not to tokenize the vibrant community of closeted, white, gay teenage boys, either, but throughout middle school, I was known for alternating my bangs from teal to purple. A couple of years prior to my “grand announcement,” I had given a speech on gay marriage in my eighth grade language arts class. My favorite pair of jeans were size three, skinny, plaid. I was starting to figure myself out. Mom didn’t see it.
“Can I tell u something?” I wrote on Facebook’s instant messenger. I was talking to a close friend of that time, and I was completely into him. It was 2008. I was nearing my thirteenth birthday.
“Uh.. yes..” He probably wrote back.
“I think I’m bi,” I remember telling him.
I don’t remember what he said back, only that it didn’t meet my expectations. And when I would tell him one year later that I had the deepest, most passionate¸ pre-teen crush on him, my feelings would go unrequited again.
I’m four and on the playground. It’s hot, and the sun is out, loud and proud. The wind moves over my exposed arms and legs, cooling my outsides but not my insides. I have a burning sensation in my chest. It’s like anxiety but prelapsarian. It’s anxiety without the term to describe it. I just introduced two of my favorite friends to one another, and it feels like a wedding ceremony. I think I just told them to kiss, or maybe that’s an earlier memory of two Power Rangers action figures. My friends are blonde-haired and blue-eyed. To me, they look the same, and I just learned organization. Things that are the same always go together. One of them tags the other, and they run away, chasing and squealing. I squint at the sun before following suit. It’s August or September.
So we sat down—mom, her on-and-off long-term boyfriend and me—and ate Manwiches while mom explained what she found on the family computer that afternoon. “I was just checking my e-mail,” she said in her syrupy Southern accent, “when I heard a little boop! from your Skype account. So I clicked it.” I was sweating. I only used Skype to talk to my eclectic collection of internet friends, queer folk included. “Now, I don’t care if you’re gay. I expected Taylor, but never you. But that doesn’t matter,” she said. “I just don’t want you talking to pedophiles online.” Jay began to interject with some Midwestern anecdote about his cousin who “turned out to be gay,” and I stopped paying attention.
Then suddenly, I was out. I was gay, and people knew it. Two people, granted, but they knew, from the source (and from surveillance), and it was okay. Time slowed down and sped back up. And in a breath, every self-hating thought felt immature. Every crying spell, every lie I told myself about myself seemed distant. For the first night since my realization, I felt happy to be me. It’s cliché, but it’s the truth. Sue me.
The trope of the closeted-gay-guy-who-goes-out-for-team-sports-to-offset-the-problems-he-has-with-his-overbearing-father is completely overplayed, but—hey—so was my first ex, if you could call him that. We met in elementary school but never spoke until I hit puberty, and he, smelling spilled blood in the water, began to take notice in me.
He was seventeen when we started to know one another in the Biblical sense. That’s an exaggeration, sure, but it paints a better picture. I was fourteen. A year later, emotionally vulnerable and demurer, if possible, I remember sobbing along to the Taylor Swift hit “Fifteen” : “Oh, when you’re / Fifteen, and somebody tells you / They love you, you’re gonna’ believe them.” It was especially poignant because I was fifteen, too, tswift13. He had an un-oblivious boyfriend throughout our rendezvous, and rumors—separate but equal—surrounding each of us with America’s sweetheart ran the locker-room circuit. If you’re reading this, football team: you were right on both counts.
In the rearview, there were a number of warning signs. His name, for instance, actually rhymes with “Bad Cock,” and though I would hardly consider myself religious, that’s a portent, amen. To retain some anonymity—and because I aspire to some shred of tact—we’ll call him Dennis. Dennis the Menace, if I’m feeling cheeky, and I’m generally always feeling at least a little bit cheeky.
The first time I saw Dennis as a high schooler, he was playing one sport or another. He was man. He played sports: track and field, tennis, wrestling, soccer (if it were offered), ultimate Frisbee (if it were a sport), and The One True Sport of the American South, football. He also starred in every bi-annual school play—though, as I recall, I only ever saw him portray a wolf or a crow or a townsperson, so maybe “starred” isn’t the operative word—and he was a fucking Eagle Scout for Christ’s sake. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I was in his Jacuzzi or a Kennedy’s. He had a recurrently tussled pseudo-bowl-cut and questionable dental hygiene, but it’s crazy what you don’t mind when you’re enamored with someone. Our first text conversation read something like this:
Me: “hey Dennis how r u”
Dennis: “hey. what r ur problems. i want 2 fix u”
Me: “oh.. idk if I have any problems. U?”
Dennis: “u have to have something”
Me: “idk I might be bi? i told my gf & she said that’s weird and then we broke up : -/”
Dennis: “o do u want to check? we can make out”
Me: “hmm ok”
So we made out. Romance. But Dennis and I didn’t last long. Something about his having a betrothed his own age and my being an infatuated minor and his not actually being romantically invested in our infrequent but steamy time spent together in his four-door Honda put an unbearable strain on our relationship.
Christine Pruett was my last real effort at faking straight, and we both knew it. We were thirteen when we started dating, and we almost made it a whole four months before I told her I might also be attracted to men and we broke it off. A pattern was afoot. She was pretty, is pretty: brown hair, blue eyes, freckles across her nose, and witty, too, what my grandma might call sharp. Her house sat eight rural Georgian miles from mine, so when our parents had to drop us off at one another’s homes, it wasn’t a big deal. I remember the first time we kissed, maybe the only time we kissed.
It was staged in the same way that families at church will pair their three-year-old, opposite-sexed children for saccharine, matrimonial Easter photos. My two closest cousins (who were also my neighbors, former coworkers, peers, best friends, and integral parts of any number of other relationships prompted by small-town living) orchestrated the event. Christine had come over around four, and my mom had taken us to get soda and a movie from the corner store, the kind of place that sells pizza slices from under a heat-lamp. She chose Mountain Dew, and I, Grapico. The feature film was Cloverfield, the 2008 flick about the aliens who invade New York. But Cloverfield’s one of those pseudo-indie films shot with a hand-held camera, so we didn’t really know what was going on at all until it ended.
We planned to kiss that day. It was my first—ever—but Christine was sort of an expert by then. After watching the movie from the comfort of my basement’s dilapidated, cat-pee-smelling couch, we went outside to meet my cousins for what we were pretending was hide and go seek. I was hiding, and God, in retrospect, hiding is entirely appropriate. And I was sweating. It was July, and I was wearing my prior-mentioned, patented, plaid skinny jeans. I hid near the woods, under an awning where my stepdad once housed a trailer. It was full of cobwebs and smelled like rain. She found me in no time (thanks entirely to my cousins, who led her toward me, ready to see the wedding consummated), and planted herself in front of me. I leaned in.
“Mmm. Grapico,” she said after.
Don’t let me fool you. There are downsides. The experience isn’t all smiles and cabaret. It’s rare, but I’ll get a pang of jealousy for the hetero couples I see holding hands on campus or at the grocery store. I think, “Why can’t I do that too?” And what’s worse is when I see other queer people—friends of mine—holding hands and wonder the same thing.
And when I’m talking to a girl and I compliment something of hers—which is a great and casual way to come out to a stranger in our ridiculously sexualized world—and she responds in a diminutive, contrived, airy, high-pitched kind of way, I know that I’m a joke. I wish I could insert a sound bite of someone using the plastic sort of tone that some people use (sub)consciously when they converse with gay men, but writing has only come so far. When I sincerely say “I like your shoes” or “Oh! I love your hair,” it’s because—get this—I truly, genuinely like something about you. I appreciate aesthetics, or so I might like to think. I don’t want to hear you reply with “Ohhhhhh my God, thank you!” And I know that white gay men are the statistically most accepted, most privileged, and most culturally represented members of the LGBT* community, undeniably, but still: don’t tokenize me. Appreciate my charisma.
Heterosexual men irritate me, too. Okay, a good deal straight men I’ve encountered have made me angry. Okay, many of the men who I perceive as conventionally heterosexual and whose senses of masculinity depend upon a certain kind of—God—I wish—I can’t finish this thought without feeling bad about it. I wish I could write “straight man” without feeling as if I’m generalizing. But if I had to voice one lament—free of self-guilt—it would probably be this: straight men ought to stop considering themselves supremely attractive to every member of the Homo. homo variety. I have standards. And a boyfriend. A smile isn’t a solicitation. It’s a courtesy. I’m just trying to be friendly, pal, no need to ready your chastity belt. I can’t stand straight men.
Well, I suppose that’s a lie, too. I love Jake Gyllenhaal, and—please, please, correct me if I’m wrong—he’s straight. I must have watched Brokeback Mountain fifteen times before I ever got to have my first kiss with a guy. So I like that straight man. I hope that counts, your Honor.
So we’re sitting in Jay’s living room, and I’m petting the cat. The TV plays TBS (and around midnight I’ll change it to LOGO, TLC, E!). My school picture sits beside Taylor’s on the mantle. All mom needs is a framed shot of Ricky Martin and she could honor the unholy trinity from the comfort of her fire-hydrant red loveseat. Jay’s eaten two Manwiches by this point, and I’m 40 percent through with my first. I’m not upset anymore. I’m kind of proud. Then I’m smiling, laughing, probably, and mom’s hugging my shoulder and exhaling wine breath straight into my nostrils in the way she’s known to do. It’s comforting by this point. She’s consoling me, but I’m not sad. I’m surprised, if anything, but only because, Jesus, I thought it was just unspoken. I wish gay were an adjective that expressed quantity, because—seriously—I feel like I was really gay.
Mom’s smiling, too. So is Jay. We feel like a happy, normal family-type-thing as mom tells me that I’m no longer allowed to have guys over without permission and that I’m not allowed to spend the night at just any guy’s house. She’s quick. “Girls are okay,” she says. “I’m not worried about them—or you—anymore.”