Can you have a relationship 'in the closet'?
Nearly a decade ago, a friend gave me some simple, plaintive, but sound advice: “If you’re gay, just say you are. You might as well admit it. If you don’t, people will just say you are, anyway.”
In part, I first had to admit it to myself, even though I always knew. When it came to telling my family and friends, it was easier than I thought it would be. The people that didn’t already know were only patiently waiting for me to say it aloud.
But, what about the people that aren’t so lucky?
Late last year, I met a guy named Tony. He worked at the local retail store I was shopping at. Energetic, super-friendly, kind, helpful, attractive. Though my gaydar is somehow incredibly skewed, I was caught off guard when he asked for my phone number within the first five minutes that I’d known him.
Always the pessimist and over-analyzer, I immediately assumed that he needed my digits to fill out a credit card application. Or perhaps he was selling curtains and towels while working his way through grad school, and needed my number for some kind of phone survey to make commission?
To my surprise, he actually wanted my number for reasons that had nothing to do with his job.
Before I even got home, Tony had texted me to say, “It was really nice meeting you! We should get together some time!”
Again, my negative-Nancy instincts kicked into high-gear, and I deduced his invitation to the fact that this kid must be a) bored, b) completely devoid of friends, or c) both a and b + possibly crazy. But since he was so adorable, and because I’m shallow, I decided to take him up on his invite, and we met for drinks a few days later.
The days before our first meeting were filled with random text messages from Tony.
Simple, but sweet things like, “Hope you’re having a great day!” and “Can’t wait to hang out!”
His messages were always stamped with at least one exclamation point, or smiley faces; making them bigger and brighter (and charmingly cheesier) than they already were. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of my new texting pal; my best friends and I go for days without even talking to one another.
While I remained convinced that he was just a lonely guy in need of a drinking buddy, my always hopeful and optimistic friends were already planning our Connecticut wedding. Unlike myself, most of my friends don’t abide by the “when things are too good to be true, it probably is” rule.
When we finally met, I was alarmed at how nervous I was. Tony, too, seemed to have left his personality in the clearance bin at work, and his cheery smiley faces being held hostage on his phone. He was nervous, too. Though I wasn’t the one who initiated our meeting, I found myself blubbering out trivial dribble just to keep the conversation rolling – or sputtering, rather. Before long, my lips becoming chapped from tackling every topic from the rise and fall of the Soviet Union to whatever happened to people using Thigh Masters.
Exhausted, I croaked out, “So, why did you ask me to go out?”
I regretted it the moment I closed my parched mouth, but this “date” was going nowhere fast, my beer was getting warm, and I was already running an hour late for the Lifetime Movie Marathon back at home.
Radiating with a jittery, nervous energy, Tony explained in a fervid mile-a-minute pace, “Well, I thought you were really cute, and nice, and funny, and probably fun to hang out with, and I don’t go out much or meet that many cool people.”
I found his aloofness charming – a quality that I typically find annoying – and was relieved that though he was no Steinbeck, possessed a vocabulary and knowledge that stretched beyond the pricing for bargain bin blowouts at his place of employment. And, I was strangely flattered that he was so nervous. The awkwardness that loomed in the air eventually dissipated from the room. Once we let our guards down, we ended up having a good time.
Over the next few weeks, Tony and I texted and talked on the phone around the clock. But, never once did he ask me to go out, and the times that I broke down and asked, were followed with excuses:
“My sister has a track meet.”
“My cat is depressed.”
“My aunt has the flu.”
I’ve always been a firm believer that if you’re going to lie, at least be good at it, but even if these poor and uncreative attempts at an excuse were true, I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed and feeling under-appreciated. Partially because of my unwavering case of self-diagnosed only-child-syndrome, but also because I, like most people, require some form of attention that isn’t confined to a telephone.
Our phone courtship just wasn’t cutting it. This simply wasn’t normal. I’m not even sure what “normal” is, and if such a thing even exists – but if it does, this wasn’t it.
One of my biggest dating fears is assuming the role of the jealous/psychotic ex-boyfriend, spitting out the classically crazy “who/what/when/where/why/how” questions, but I couldn’t help myself. Tony agreed to meet up with me (“I may be late! I have to cut the grass!”), and revealed things to me that somehow never came up in one of our countless phone conversations.
Tony, 25, lives at home with his homophobic, Bible-beating mother, who he’s not out of the closet to. Whether Tony was at work, at church, at the dentist, kneading bread with his Aunt Minnie, or finding a cure for cancer, she would accuse him of sleeping with random men. It was a miracle that he was even out tonight.
I was faintly reminded of the first time we hung out, and how he nervously checked his watch just before midnight, and quickly left the bar. At first, I didn’t want to believe him, but the more I thought about it, most of our conversations were interjected by the voice of some hoarse-throated crone demanding that the garbage be taken out, the grass needed cut, the floor hadn’t been mopped...you get the idea.
I knew that he lived at home with his mother, and sensed that she was in dire need of medication, but never questioned it, because I felt like it was none of my business. When Tony was “allowed” out, he had a strict curfew.
As if my past dating mistakes weren’t bad enough, I realized that I was lusting after the Pittsburgh male-version of Cinderella. (Except that this antagonizing evil tyrant was actually blood-related.)
Tony told me that he couldn’t afford to move out – a large sum of his meager paychecks went to his mother for her medical bills (which I assumed – or hoped rather - included very large doses of drugs), student loans, groceries, etc.
He informed me of past physical, and current emotional abuse. Tony’s lack of friends was largely due in part to his mother – she somehow managed to manipulate and sabotage every friendship he ever had; especially with men.
Because of his curfew, Tony couldn’t sleep over anyone’s house. Though sex isn’t the only facet to a relationship, it’s often a deal-breaker – and even without it, it’s often nice to “sleep” with someone without actually “sleeping” with them. Companionship.
Following his emotional confessions – and me making a half-sarcastic joke that he must masturbate a lot – Tony hugged me. We’re about the same size (abnormally scrawny), but it felt like I was being embraced by someone twice his (our) size, and gave me the kind of kiss that makes you numb; the kind of first-kiss that knocks the wind out of you.
Part of me wanted to shimmy out the nearest window, but the overwhelming and kinder side of me wanted to kidnap him - to make his life better; or at least my version of better. I always want to help the helpless. I’m inherently drawn to people with baggage; maybe because it makes my “problems” seem so minuscule and insignificant by comparison.
Time has passed, and Tony’s turbulent, dysfunctional relationship with his mother hasn’t changed. He still has the same boring, mundane, going-nowhere job and life.
Now and then (when Tony can muster up the courage to sneak out his window), we’ll meet up for drinks, dinner, he’ll stop over my house, or ask me to visit him at work.
Still, his “social life” remains mostly limited to his phone. Tony’s life is still one big pile of nothingness – a dead end street. Against my better judgement, I stick around, feeling bad for him even though I know he needs to grow up and grow a pair.
Part of me feels guilty and dirty when I answer his phone calls, when we mess around, when I meet him out – it’s like a gluttonous/unhealthy impulse, like binging on a box of glazed donuts and washing it down with a 6-pack of cheap beer.
“How can someone who is relatively intelligent be so stupid?” I ask myself.
Maybe I’m just as pathetic for even indulging either of us. But, I’m still attracted to him and vulnerable to all the great qualities simmering under Tony’s troubled surface; qualities that being slowly suffocated by his inability to try and make positive life changes. His drive and motivation is deflated by the fact that he can never truly be himself.
Maybe he stays because he so desperately wants and needs for his mother to love and accept him. After getting in a (minor) disagreement with my mom several years ago, my dad reminded me, “You only have one mother, y’know?”
But, what if that mother is a needlessly cruel, psychotic, intolerant cow? Is the relationship worth it? Is it worth trying to salvage?
I’m not exactly sure what the future holds for Tony – or for Tony and I. If this were five years ago, I would have blocked his phone number and dead-bolted my doors. Somewhere along the line, I’ve grown some sort of compassion, even if it’s for all the wrong people – people that are probably incapable of being helped.
As the old saying goes, “You can’t help someone who can’t help themselves.”
I’m not a counselor, or a therapist, and I’m certainly not a motivational speaker. The best I can be is a friend, and that’s not always enough.