I cycle into town early for a swim. I jump in and swim fast until the shock goes and my breath comes back and my feet stop burning. Then I can remember that I love to be in a pool, to swim early in the morning. I’m happy here. Anonymous behind my goggles and cap. My arms feel heavy doing the strokes again, pushing myself forward. I won’t swim as many lengths as usual. But that’s okay; it’s only Monday.
I can hear the water hitting the floor from the shower before I enter the changing room. The man is naked, head tilted back to wash out the shampoo. He is old, a round belly and skinny legs, a short penis in between. I don’t want him to see me looking. He turns off the water as I put down my bag and trainers, hang my towel on the hook. I can feel him looking at me, turned toward me in a way that others wouldn’t. He starts to dry himself by the sinks near the showers. I look everywhere but his direction. I turn to the wall and bow my head and let the water pull down my hair and drip over my face, so I must close my eyes. But when I think of him, the voyeur, his greed, I want to leave. I turn off the shower, and step through the space he has left between him and the wall, looking away, drying his armpits.
After, I go to a coffee shop to work. I order a flat white and sit down on a sofa with a low table. I hold my coffee in both hands and watch people coming in. Some look around the room; some don’t. I read a message on my phone, and I check Grindr even though there are no notifications. A man asks if the chair across from me is free, and I lock my phone instinctively, and smile to tell him it is. I open my laptop and start reading what I wrote last week. I don’t like it. The words seem amateur, and I feel a pang of sickness, of fear. I go back on my phone. I have a message on Grindr. It is from the man who has just sat down opposite. He has written: “Nice legs! Feel free to ignore if this compliment is unwelcome.” I close the app and lock my phone and drop it in to my bag. I readjust in my seat and pull the hem of my shorts down. I look at my legs, and then, quickly, at him. I remember he cannot see if I have read his message, which reassures me. I go back to my laptop. I want to show him that I find my work more interesting, but I cannot focus on the sentences. Amateur. When I finish my flat white, I pack away my things and leave.
Outside, I check his profile. He is thirty-six, in town for work. I think about replying to him, imagine explaining that his attempt to consider my feelings was futile and self-serving. He would mumble an apology but I would ignore him and continue, tell him I hope I’m not as pathetic in ten years’ time, that I will have the confidence to start a conversation and not hide behind an app. But there are people walking behind me, and I am worried they will see my phone screen, its square photos of nearby men, and how I will be judged. I block him, walk to the next coffee shop, and tell myself to forget about it.
On Tuesday, I meet a friend for coffee. She knows the barista, and they talk before we order. He asks if we’re paying together, to which my friend replies that she’s got it. Then he tells me that my t-shirt has a Pride rainbow on it. I laugh and start to explain his mistake to him, that it’s just a t-shirt with a spectrum of colors. I’m being too sensitive, I know. The thought seeps through me and I remember people—friends, strangers—who have pointed out my tendency to overreact. My friend thanks the barista and says they should go for a drink sometime. We sit down and start talking. I watch people coming past behind her, and sometimes she looks to see too. I wonder who they think we are to each other, or will they see my t-shirt and make the same assumption.
She leaves and I stay on to work. I want to decompress before I start. I read an article about the Polish government, their rescinding of LGBTQ+ rights and the arrests and violence in response to the protests. The barista passes me but doesn’t say anything. I scroll down from the header image of a Pride flag. I don’t want to prove him right. Then, I feel ashamed for hiding.
I move on to Twitter. I turn down the brightness of my screen to scroll past “Liked by” posts of thirst traps and previews of OnlyFans profiles. I read a gal-dem article on the flaws in the queer narrative in I May Destroy You. It is insightful and full of polysyllabic words. I have to concentrate to get to the end, and skim the conclusion. I agree with the author’s argument and envy their articulacy. I’ve made similar points to friends over beers, but that doesn’t wash away my jealousy: rather, my sense of inferiority absorbs it. I go back to Twitter. A drag queen I follow has retweeted a meme from my ex’s account. I’m surprised, but it isn’t the first time it’s happened. The post makes me laugh. It’s funnier than I remember him being. He has two thousand followers. I know I couldn’t come up with his meme. And neither could I post a thirst trap, or publish a semi-academic article on pop culture. I do not see myself in any of these camps, and when I close the browser and am left with my empty desktop screen, I feel lost in the space outside these communities, and alone without the interaction that must come from belonging to them.
I eat lunch later than usual on Wednesday; there was a flow to my focus and that sense of productivity made me feel better. The weather has turned warm again. I take my sushi tray to a wall and watch people going past. There is a couple holding hands. They are young, sweet-looking. Neither of them have a bag. I watch them talk, smile. I reason that I’m looking when they’re still far enough to not see me noticing them, but I turn away, remembering that you always know, that not reacting is its own reaction, and perceptible. They go past. I put down my chopsticks and open the Notes app on my phone to write: the only thing more depressing than seeing a happy straight couple is a happy gay couple.
I walk before going back to the coffee shop. I feel the sun on my face and smile. I use a public bathroom in the shopping center. There is a man cruising at the urinals. I feel him notice me: a twitch, an inhalation, a pivot, though slight, towards me, so I will see him masturbating. His perception of my sexual identity is all the permission he needs. He must try, in case I am the one he gets lucky with. I sigh loudly and shake my head as I leave. My heart is beating hard.
In the evening I cycle home a different way to usual, taking a road out of town lined with bars and restaurants. At a table outside one, I see the first guy I kissed sitting with his mum, waiting for their meal. I haven’t seen him since school. We were sixteen, and he had come out and I hadn’t. We used to be friendly, but I talked behind his back with everyone else, making fun of him for his insecurity. I contributed to the rumor that he was only pretending to be gay so girls would undress in front of him because I thought it suggested my jealousy to other guys, and it felt better to be with them. In college, when he started talking at parties about men he’d had sex with, I agreed that he was being too explicit, too gay. He never told anyone about our kiss, and I remember, waiting at the traffic light, that I never thanked him.
On Thursday, I get a text from a guy and so I go to his flat. We met via Grindr, and I’ve been over a couple of times before. I don’t like him, particularly, but that is why I come back. He works out, and the first time I came over I thought he was nice because he handed me a towel when I got out of the shower. Today, he opens the door wearing shorts, a vest, and I think his arms look nice. When I move inside, he grabs my crotch, and I feel that he knows something that I don’t. I toe off my shoes and he offers me a glass of water. We talk about what we’ve done today as I drink it.
In his bed, as he’s pulling down my underwear, I realize that I don’t want to be here. That I was being a version of myself in order to enable this. I’m cold, too aware that I’m naked. Why am I doing this? I blame contemporary gay culture, consumed via Twitter and television shows and porn, which say that this—hook-up culture—is normal, and normal is all I’ve ever wanted to be. I blame my access to Grindr and what it normalizes, or, at least, demands I consider; that I only do this a couple times a month allows me to think of myself as superior, in some way. I blame my sadness; it is so deep that sometimes it’s undetectable, but it’s always there when I resurface. Holding these factors accountable, calling them scars, makes me forget, go back under, where I can focus on the width of his back, the heat of his breath on my neck. After, I work in another coffee shop, surprised at my ability to focus. Later, I cook dinner at my mum’s, and when she asks what I did this afternoon I tell her I was writing all day.
In the evening I go to my friend’s house. We have drinks in her garden. When her housemate gets home, he joins us. I talk to him about literature and he talks about his thesis. My friend makes a joke, and I watch him smile: he grins, his eyes lift, like he was suppressing something before and this is who he really is. There are many points in our conversation at which I could come out to him, but I choose not to, angry that I must. Yet, the longer I don’t say the more I feel as though I’m lying. I empty the bottle into their glasses, and convince my friend to have another and run to the shop. We continue drinking and chatting as it gets dark. Then I resurface, remembering my afternoon. Why did I go over to his flat? I feel empty, unable to answer my own question. I look at my friend across the table as she laughs, and I still, in spite of myself, in spite of the pride I proclaim and everything it took to get it, think about a life with her. I know, in my gut, it would be easier, and that word feels heavy and old and familiar. I imagine the details and moments and stories of another future, as I have many times before. I watch the smoke dissipate. None of it would be as difficult as this.
I go to the pub on Friday night with some friends I don’t often see. I talk with a guy I’ve only met a couple of times before. He’s broad, handsome, cocky, and kind. He makes me feel comfortable. I find myself saying more things to him, and I appreciate this connection so much that I feel taller, like I want to cry. We talk about our relationships. He asks me when did I know I was gay, then answers for me: I guess you’ve always known. He has said it empathetically, in an attempt, I think, to reassure me he understands. But in supposing my experience I feel reduced to a type. I feel required to appreciate his efforts, to capitalize on the unusualness of an ally who is as straight and imposing as him, but I don’t. Maybe I’m too stubborn and ungrateful.
My friend to the left of us asks to get out to use the bathroom, and I say I need to go, too. I worry our table will think I am going because I want to look at my friend’s penis at the urinals. I wonder if my friend also thinks this is my covert agenda. I turn to ask him where the bathrooms are; I don’t detect any discomfort on his face. I question whether this was my own intention, a decision informed by my subconscious. In the bathroom, I use the stall. I push myself to start peeing quickly, and into the water, so that he will know that I truly did need to go.
Tonight, my dad is having ten of his friends over for his birthday. I have occupied myself all day, and helped him to set up, but feel increasingly nervous about them coming—to be at the mercy of a group of this age, orientation, and gender, and in a space where masculinity will be multiplied by alcohol and the freedom to say what they can’t in front of their partners or their kids. My dad is looking forward to a night with his friends. He says he wants me to drink with them, to participate in the celebration. It takes a while to articulate my fear, and before I’m finished, I question the legitimacy of my feelings and regret bringing it up. But he says he understands, and that I should take part as much or as little as I want. I feel guilty for telling him I’m nervous, that I may be restricting his ability to enjoy himself.
For the first few beers, I talk to my sisters apart from the main circle. We discuss dating. They prefer to meet someone in real life, as opposed to via an app. I say it doesn’t matter, and they agree it doesn’t; it’s just their preference that it be an “organic” process. I sit back. I want to tell them that this is an example of their privilege, that they have access to far more spaces in which they can safely meet someone. They don’t understand what it’s like for a queer person to date, that always, and especially in our small town, my opportunities are limited and the experience is often complicated. But I do not want to alienate the only two people here I want to talk to. I know that, truly, my anger is with myself, because I agree with them; even though it’s an arbitrary and bygone ideal, I share their preference, having been raised by the same parents, and watched the same films, and grown up in the same place.
Late in the evening, when the night is louder and blurrier, I have an argument with my dad’s friend about homophobia being endemic in our society. I’m not sure how I got here, or why I’m staying. But I feel angry. He keeps telling me I’m wrong, that my understanding of my own experience is perpetuating my own misery. I explain that his continued dismissal of my point of view is evidence of my argument, but he doesn’t seem to compute that because he keeps talking. When I tell him his views on the issue are irrelevant because he doesn’t have any experience of it, he jerks forward in his seat. He stops letting me finish my sentences and starts putting his hand in front of my face. I want to prove myself to him and our audience. I’m determined to hear him say he’s wrong because I feel, in the moment, that it’s the only way to win. I start to tell firsthand stories of traumatic homophobic experiences I’ve had. I cry when I recount them, but at least now he is listening to my words. I do not want to look at anyone while I’m talking; I am worried I will see unperturbed or tired expressions. In response, he repeats his original point. My sisters step in and the argument fades to a draw. To me, it’s a loss, and I am left livid that this—that I—could be debated, and disappointed in myself that I couldn’t communicate my perspective effectively enough to change his mind. There is the noise of other conversation now. He is laughing. Then he stands up, slaps my back, and asks me to have a drink with him.
On Sunday afternoon I cycle into town to meet my mum. We drink coffees on a bench and have a walk around. We end up in a park, sitting by the river. Two people from Grindr walk past. One who I swapped nudes with and never spoke to again. I wonder if he remembers the photos I sent him. Then a professor, who told me he was into dad/son play and spanking. I don’t feel shame at my promiscuity or false intimacy with two-dimensional strangers, or that I don’t know their names. I wonder if I am numb. I wonder why I expect to feel shame, and if it’s true that this sort of behavior can be damaging. The only feeling I recognize is pride, though small, at my access to this club, to private information about people walking by. The professor looks at me, and I look at him. I feel hot under his gaze. But he doesn’t react, just carries on. Maybe he doesn’t recognize me. Maybe there are many guys he’s told what he told me. My mum takes a bag of crisps out of her bag and puts them between us, but I say I don’t want any. Suit yourself, she says.
She tells me she’s been watching that show I recommended to her, Please Like Me. She liked it. She didn’t know that men could have sex in the missionary position. I laugh at this, so appreciative to feel relaxed after the previous night. She asked some of her friends, but none of them knew it was possible either. I point out that this is a good example of the underrepresentation of the gay experience in mainstream media. Then, she tells me other things she liked about the show.
I cycle home in the evening. There’s no noise inside the house, just the television, the tired quiet of the end of the week. Dad and I sit on the sofa and talk about last night. I apologize for ruining his party, but he tells me that I didn’t. Now, sober, I want to clarify my point: homophobia is everywhere. Prejudice and its normalization still exist, even in a society where I am permitted to get married, or be open about my sexual orientation. Much of the homophobia that remains is easy to miss, and people must be open to being educated. This was my issue with his friend. He nods and says, Okay, sure.
My words aren’t having the impact I want them to. My body feels tired and dull, but I feel compelled to find a connection. I want him to understand what it’s like, to pity my experiences and admire my strength. I want my dad to realize how isolated I am, to reach over and console me and make me feel less alone. I tell him, I come out every day. It’s a thought I’ve had but never shared. I watch him look at me. I see the blankness of a question in his eyes. His mouth opens a little, in consideration. Then he smiles and laughs gently, and asks, What do you mean?
Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.