Flirting With Boys

We were three boys in a bed - me, my friend Jay, and Jay's ex-boyfriend Paul. Paulwas passed out. Jay was not so sleepy. I was nervous. An hour before, crashing atJay's house had seemed way safer than a late-night trek home. But now thingsseemed less clear. There are reasons why 25-year-old boys rarely do slumberparties, especially when one boy is straight, two are gay, and all three have beendancing cheek-to-cheek-to-cheek for most of the evening. I rolled onto my side and tried to sleep. Jay spooned against me and asked ifspooning was okay. I said yes, spooning was okay. I thought by specifyingspooning, I implicitly ruled out anything more. Still, with Jay's arm around mywaist, his warm body cupped along mine, I felt shockingly sober, awake, andobsessed by the notion that his penis might pop out of his boxers and touch me. Istared into the dark and tried to slow my breathing. A few minutes ticked by. Thencame a tingly, wet, warmth on my neck. A kiss? I tensed, ready to declareboundaries. Confrontation, though, seemed too severe. And so I feigned sleep,hoping Jay would get the idea. He didn't.What to do?Ever since I began losing my homophobia, gay men -- friends and strangers both --have been confusing me for gay (or at least confusing me for a likely convert).The problem isn't that such confusion occurs, or even that it often leads to somecasual flirting - which I happen to enjoy. No, the problem is that that flirtingoccasionally leads to fondling, at which point my basic heterosexuality kicks inand feelings get hurt and I'm left to wonder if I am to blame. On the one hand, I am. For whatever reason -- some cuddling deficiency in myformative past? -- I like my friendships physical, and it's not hard to see howthat can lead people on. On the other hand, whatever blame there is goes far beyond me or any one individual.This blame is collective. We're all - some of us more than others - mired in thisbipolar world of straight and gay, lovers and friends. We're all assigned thesesimplistic labels. The labels blunt our inner complexities. But - social creaturesthat we are - they also help us get along. When I was younger -- and stupider -- the business of labeling people seemedeasier. Gay guys were gross, straight guys were normal, and homophobia was anattitude I slipped into like a hand-me-down coat. So garbed, I endured my first brush with gay attention: some guy pinched my buttat a party in college. There I was, suddenly confronted, this wide-eyed freshmanfrom a midwesternMidwestern high school where well-rounded meant you lettered inthree sports and could also bounce a quarter into a shot glass. I felt the way youdo when you step in dog shit -- the same mingling of embarrassment and rage, thesame silent cursing and furtive looks to see who'd noticed. Most of all, I feltthe same repulsion. Guys who grew up like me will understand -- the jock thing. It shapes you. Youlearn not to tolerate thrown elbows on the basketball court, slower cars in yourlane, or anything else that might make you out to be a chump or pussy. On that night I made a scene -- tipped beverages, mumbled insults, an embarrassingdisplay. A few semesters later I dropped out and moved away.San Francisco. For me, a new environment changed everything. I didn't make themove to improve myself. I made it to hang out and slack off. What happened,though, was that learning tolerance became a matter of survival, somethingnecessary to get through each day. As a result, I opened myself up to some messy,muddled feelings - like, say, the ones that got me into trouble with Jay. It could have happened to anybody. Anybody clueless, that is. One day I got a jobat a cafe. The next day I discovered the cafe was gay. Why did I keep the job? Ineeded the money, that's what I told myself. But in hindsight - duh - there wasmore. Here was an exotic community, ravaged by disease, famous for erotic excess.To a sporto from the 'burbs, bussing those gay dishes was anthropology. So in the long tradition of misguided cultural studies, my job started as a sortof peek-at-the-natives affair. I did a lot of hiding behind the dishwasher, eyeingthe slick haircuts, the muscles, listening to the campy good cheer. My field workfocused on the more stylish patrons. I'd watch them buy coffee or roll cigarettesand I'd think, "How interesting." But by noon each day I'd have to bus the tables -- it was my job, after all --which meant I'd have to mingle. This did not start out as a fun thing. It startedout sucky. All the long stares and chatty small talk and "accidental" brushes ofskin when pouring refills or making change - these things made me squirm. Over time, thank God, that squirming settled down. It had to. All alone in astrange place, I needed friends. And the more time I spent at work, the less Ifeared the clientele's sexual preferences. Isn't it always that way? You rubelbows with a bunch of supposed freaks and pretty soon those freaks aren't sofreaky. Eavesdropping, I'd hear talk of jobs, loves, politics, phone bills - justregular stuff, boring stuff, but hey: who knew gay guys discussed more than gaysex? Gradually I opened up. One day I'd notice the compassion -- some guys were sick,and others were helping. Another day, I'd notice, say, the cool shoes. And after a while, I'd want those shoes. I'mnot saying that shoes will give you compassion, or even that they're such profoundthings to latch onto. Only that, perhaps, that's where the latching starts, atshoe level. And then it goes to belts. And then, maybe, it sinks in. Within a month, I found myself answering to, "Hey, babe," and feeling pretty darngood about it. A few months more, and I found those hey-babes being followed bysome how-about-dinners and some want-to-catch-a-flicks. This made things decidedlymore -- how to put it? -- involved. Sure, I'd taken to wagging a suggestive fingerat customers who spilled drinks. Sure I'd learned to linger between tables andtoss off, as it were, a few innuendoes. But dinner? A flick? Were these dates? Iwasn't sure. I didn't want to make assumptions. But I also didn't want to inviteconfusion. I definitely didn't want to get stuck wiggling out of some awkwardembrace. I'd say, "Sure. Okay. But do you know I'm straight?" Nearby conversations would just drop off a cliff.My suitor's eyebrows would climb his face. "You're straight? You don't lookstraight." I don't look straight?All at once I'd feel guilty, judged, insulted, threatened. Was I not supposed tojoke around, wear these shoes or this belt? Was I misrepresenting myself? Or had Ihonestly become a part of this world? No one could tell me, and so my feelingsstayed jumbled until slowly, slowly I began to relax, adjust, and sort myself out.One year later, still sorting, I moved back to Chicago. But like an ex-Peace Corpsvolunteer who still eats Indian food with his fingers, or like a white kid from ablack neighborhood who adopts a certain manner of speech, I found that bits of SanFrancisco stayed with me. I was writing club reviews for a trendy magazine. Mybeat, the nightlife, was pan-sexual. Queens, rockers, punks, me -- we all partiedtogether, danced, spent many late nights yukking it up in diners while ourpancakes turned cold. Sometimes I'd mention my then-girlfriend Holly, who had aday job and rarely ventured out. The gay crowd would grimace, call me a "breeder,"try to shock me with tales of back rooms, come rags and poppers, the number ofblow jobs you could give in a lifetime before your mouth froze into a permanent O.So many tales, so few boundaries. Here was a world without obvious restraints.Here, it seemed, almost anything could be said or done. In a word (an admittedlytired word), here was freedom. It wasn't the annoying get-off-my-back-Big-Brothertype of freedom preached by revolutionaries with megaphones and berets. It was thequiet inner freedom that allows people to follow their instincts and resistconvention. Afterward, on those nights I went out, I'd stumble home and crawl into bed,reeking of cigarettes and booze. Holly would snuggle up and murmur questions:"Who'd you see, what'd you do?" I'd tell her, "I saw the boys. We talked about blow-job face." She'd kiss my neck. "Did you kiss those boys?""No."She'd slide her mouth down my chest: "Did you want to? Tell me about it." Which of us was more excited, I never knew.Excitement aside, the pursuit of inner freedom isn't just a personal matter. Itaffects other people. Accordingly, exploring sexual boundaries is tricky business.Those boundaries map the world. In crossing them, in flirting outside the lines,you find less clarity but more emotional truth. Of course, heterosexuality doesn't have to be a monolithic experience. Nor doesbeing gay. But given the world we live in, finding a bit of gray space between thetwo demands some struggle and some reconciliation, not just with others, but withyourself, and, in my case, with a sexuality that has me coital with girls and coywith whomever - whatever you call that. It's been a year since my slumber party with Jay and all is well, if notwell-defined. There's no rift between us, no love lost. But there is, still, thememory of that awkward moment and that question of what to do. To this day, Idon't have the answer. What I do have is the sequence of events that got usthrough. After Jay kissed me I sat up. I said something like, "Jay, is there a way for meto sleep here without leading you on?" Jay shrugged. He wasn't sure. And neither was I. Flirting isn't fucking, but itdoes beg the question: is it fair to be suggestive without follow-through, to makea bed, lie in it, and only then consider the couch? Neither of us knew, and so wejust lay, in an uncertain silence, shoulder to shoulder, hand on hand, watchingthe sky slide from purple-black to grayish-blue.

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