On a Driveway Moment

Driving down the road, in my parents’ baby blue minivan, I turned to the passenger and asked the timeless questions: “What would you think if I told you I murdered someone? Would you still be my friend?”

Thus began my clumsy attempt to come out to my best friend.

It was my junior year in college, and I had been putting off the conversation for several years. We didn’t attend the same school, so it was easy to promise myself that I would tell him “the next time we’re together.” Despite the delay, I mustered up the courage on a break from school, and began the conversation on a drive from his house to mine.

In case you haven’t done it, when you ask someone you know if they would mind if you had murdered someone, you get their attention pretty quickly. Come to think of it, whether it’s a stranger or an intimate, bring up killing someone, and people really listen!

After I’m sure he uttered a confused and incredulous response, I’m sure I offered the assurance that the question was purely hypothetical, but the point was real: I wanted to see how he would react if I had done what my 20-year-old mind considered to be the worst thing one could do. I honestly don’t remember what he said, and I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation proceeded. But, somewhere up Highway 60 and snaking around Green River Road, I found the intestinal fortitude to tell him I was gay. Did I mention we were riding in a super cool minivan?

As we pulled through the cul-de-sac into my parents’ driveway, I stopped the car but continued to talk. I’m sure I apologized for not telling him sooner, explained how hard it was to admit, and hoped he would understand. I do remember telling him that I had started off with the question about murder because I just didn’t want to lose my best friend. I guess I thought that, compared to murder, being gay would seem like nothing. It’s certainly a telling insight on being gay in the mid-90s in Kentucky.

He sat there in the passenger seat for a few moments, looking out the window. I’m not sure if he had ever wondered if I was gay or not, and I’ve never asked him. What he said next, though, has stuck with me for twenty years. He turned and looked at me and said, “Well, I’m not going anywhere.” Now, he could have literally meant that he was physically inert, sitting in my parents’ driveway in a super sweet baby blue Plymouth Voyager minivan. I like to think, though, he meant that my admission didn’t change our friendship. Twenty years later, I can report I’ve had the same best friend for twenty-five years.

Although we’ve rarely lived in the same town, we’ve been incredibly close for a quarter century. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve got some stories. And, yet, in a lot of ways, none top that moment in the driveway. And I don’t say that just because it was a major emotional moment for me as a gay man. I say that because life doesn’t hand you too many opportunities to see the true mettle of those you love.

You have to cherish those moments when they occur….especially when they happen in a baby blue minivan.

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.