Some men paint. Others compose. You might one day favour the written word, scrawling tales of the fantastic told many times before, meaning nothing to anyone. For now, start by telling your childhood sweetheart the truth. Watch her pale face crumple like soggy tissue paper and wish, wish, you’d been born better.
‘I don’t understand,’ she sobs, ‘How can you do this to me? How can you just decide to be gay?’
Patiently explain that you are not in fact gay. You still love her, you only love her, and you want her to love you. The real you.
‘Then why say you like men?’
It’s not so simple. Why should it be? Nothing else ever is.
The next time you see your childhood sweetheart, notice the lovely new crucifix on her lily-white throat. Think about how your father would approve, and wonder whether she will now cease eating shellfish as well, sell her gaudy golden earrings, stop taking shifts on Saturday?
Do not blame your childhood sweetheart. Before all the internal interrogation, before you met yourself, you used to sit in class, hurling horrible slurs at the boys without girlfriends. Boys who couldn’t get girlfriends. Boys who didn’t want them and never would. Wonder why you deserve to be understood. What makes you better than them?
Your next girlfriend is more understanding. Excited, almost. ‘Oh, one of my oldest friends is like that, actually.’ Her friend is tall, taller than you. Fitter than you. He wears rainbow suspenders and jeans and big boots, everywhere. He seems like the sort you’d have bullied back in school. Now, he could probably knock you flat on your back without breaking a sweat.
‘Do you think he’s handsome?’ asks your second girlfriend.
Yes, you suppose he is handsome. More handsome than you, anyway.
He and your girlfriend share so many inside jokes: Miss Percival’s maths class, fifth grade hockey tryouts, and orange socks. What could possibly be so funny about orange socks?
Your girlfriend invites him along on what you thought were dates. It is awkward, trying to ice skate as a three. No restaurants have triangular tables for three.
‘We could always stay at mine?’ says your girlfriend, ‘Get drunk, watch a movie? I have some cask wine going to waste. We could finish it, just the three of us. See where the night takes us.’
Congratulations! Your new girlfriend is far more progressive. She gets along great with her gay friend. She wants you and him and her to get along just as well. Congratulations?
‘It’s funny,’ she says, ‘I actually used to have a bit of a crush on him, before I found out, you know.’
People like you are supposed to enjoy experimentation.
Wonder how many times you must out yourself to someone you already love. Wish for a moment, a conversation, that you were just gay. Gay men likely never need to out themselves to their boyfriends. That is assumed knowledge.
Your third girlfriend doesn’t cry. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t seem bothered either way.
‘Is this for one of your stories?’ she asks. ‘Are you playing a character?’
Yes. A thousand times yes. Just not how she imagines. It’s your own fault. You shouldn’t have become a fiction writer, if you wanted people to believe you.
‘I don’t think men like that really exist,’ she says. ‘I read that deep down, all women are somewhere on a spectrum, but all men are either one way or the other. Maybe you’re still figuring it out?’
She’s not trying to be rude. She’s just trying to understand.
‘I’m just trying to understand,’ she says, at least once a month, once a week, once a day. Maybe it’s your fault for not explaining it better? Most things are not simple. Some really should be.
‘Maybe it’s hard to believe because there’s no actual proof,’ says your girlfriend. ‘If only you’d dated a man, then everybody would believe you.’
Yes. Everybody. Doesn’t she understand now?
Decide that expressing yourself is a bad idea. Really, who does it help? Really?
Write yourself a new character, one who exclusively loves girls, and wear him like a suit of armour. What good is choice, when one option is so much safer, so much easier than the other? It weighs on you, this suit of armour. Heavy as steel plate. Heavier even.
Get very drunk one night, by yourself. Decide that maybe expressing yourself is good, but your chosen medium has been bad. You are after all, a fiction writer. Sit staring at your blank screen for a very long time, long enough for the vodka to seep from your bloodstream. What if your father ever reads this? Your future employer? Your next girlfriend? The boys who sat beside you, hurling slurs at boys without girlfriends? What if the boys without girlfriends read this? Maybe they have sweethearts of their own now? Maybe they turned eighteen, left home and never looked back. Does that make them better than you now? Were they not better at the time?
It’s strange. Successful writers always say, ‘Write what you know’, but you have an easier time with cantankerous wizards, fetid trolls, brave knights in gleaming armour. Lucky you, your last girlfriend considered you equally as real as Galahad, Lancelot, Percival. How brave could they really have been, cowering beneath their heavy steel plate? Some writers say second person point-of-view is a useful tool for the narrator to distance themselves from the protagonist. That sounds like a good place to start: distance.
Consider writing about a naked knight, who stands proud and bare before all manner of dragons, ogres and ghouls. Maybe the normal knights hound him with their normal fists and normal slurs, and beneath their normal helmets they all look an awful lot like a younger you? Why does sense of self follow self-hatred? It is surely common sense to learn who you are before you learn who to loathe.
‘What are you writing about?’ asks your father.
You know, the usual stuff: Fiction.
‘Well, I’d love to read it.’ He is a nice man, your father. He always spares a fistful of change for street beggars, always brings a platter of home-baked brownies to Sunday Mass. He tells everyone your stories are the best in the world, no matter how many rejections pile up on your desk. He is reaching out to you, trying to understand you. He is a good man, your father—it would be much easier if he wasn’t—but boys must learn slurs from somewhere. Some people shouldn’t express themselves, sometimes.
Tell him you don’t think he’d like this story. Tell him you’re beginning to worry no one will.
He seems confused. ‘What’s the point of writing it then?’
Sit staring at your blank screen for a very long time and realise you don’t have an answer.