On What’s Unsaid

I had a crush on Bart in college.

Bart was two years older than me, smart, hilarious, ruggedly handsome, and, unfortunately, I never thought I registered on his radar. We were in the same fraternity, but I was an admirer from afar, so to speak. That changed one night my sophomore year.

On a random weekday night, I had a knock on my door. At the time, I was a resident assistant, and I was sure it was a resident locked out of his room. When I opened the door to find my crush standing there, I was a little taken aback and more than a little thrilled. Bart came in and asked if I would be willing to read the term paper he had written for a political theory class we were both in. I happily obliged, telling myself how much I was loving that political theory class!

We talked about the paper at length, much longer than was required, and eventually shifted to fraternity stories and the flotsam and jetsam of college life. As we talked, as I listened to his pressured speech, I realized why Bart had come to my room. It had nothing to do with the term paper. Bart was gay (and closeted), had figured I was gay (and closeted), and wanted to tell me or, perhaps, more. I can’t explain how I knew, but I knew.

I kept waiting for our conversation to segue into deeper waters, but it never did. We danced around it for a long time, each waiting for the other to be bold and brave. We never got there, though. The hour got late, he thanked me for the read and chat, and left.

It may be surprising to learn, but a tiny college in the middle of small-town Kentucky in the mid-1990s was not a hotbed of gay life. At a time when many are learning to navigate personal, intimate relationships, I did everything but. Upon my arrival to college, I told one new friend I was gay, and she was magnificently supportive. I didn’t tell another college friend until my senior year, and, by that time, the bulk of my college experience, as far as relationships go, was completely nonexistent. I wasn’t a hermit. I went to parties all the time and had a great group of friends. I faithfully attended every fraternity dance with various female friend escorts, some of whom, admittedly, were probably pretty confused. But I never experienced that part of college life. It never felt accessible to me, and it honestly never occurred to me to trek to the bigger cities to explore.

In my head, I was resolutely out as a gay man; in my social circle, I was, at best, asexual and, at worst, closeted and passing as straight. At the time, I had all sorts of mental tricks to rationalize why this was the case. That’s a downside to being slightly smarter than the average bear — you can really delude yourself at times.

My experience with Bart wasn’t the first time I had experienced that disconnect. Two people wanting to be open and honest, but simply unable. You’re right there, you can see the other person as they are, but between you exists this gulf that cannot be bridged. The experience is not unique to gay people, but moments like mine with Bart were not simply the product of shyness or a lack of emotional facility. Our gulf was the byproduct of guilt, fear, and societal disapproval. As far as connecting on that level, my straight friends had a head start measured in years, thanks to school dances, movie dates, and every other conceivable societal blessing of who they were.

Honestly, even though I was hesitant, I think Bart was slaying even bigger dragons. I had dated and been in a brief relationship by that point. It seemed to me that Bart was not even out to himself, but badly wanted to be. In that time and place, I simply wasn’t strong enough to help him. Our talk that night was, in so many ways, an uncontrolled free fall, neither of us able to get any purchase to have the conversation we wanted to have. The conversation we needed to have.

Bart is relegated to the “What if?” pile we all collect as we tumble through life. The remainder of the school year — his senior year — we were pleasant and friendly, but the intimacy of that night was not to be recaptured. We kept in occasional contact by phone for a few years, but that faded away with time. We never bridged that gap, and I don’t really know why.

What’s unsaid is so powerful. It can fester years of pain, conceal the truth, or even lock someone inside themselves. From time to time, I check up on Bart via mutual friends. He’s never married, and no one has ever know him to have a relationship. A confirmed bachelor. Maybe he’s happy. Or maybe he’s still standing at the precipice of that gulf, dealing with what’s unsaid.

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