In an ideal world, William tells me, he would not spend so much time like this—time when his boss and office mate think he is working—scrolling through these postings, or sending instant messages (mostly flirtatious, less often introspective) to men he has slept with in the past, men he hopes to sleep with in the future, men he has never met yet considers some of his closest friends. In an ideal world, William would perhaps not even be married—but, more practically speaking, given the present circumstances, William would like to have one man in his life, someone he saw regularly, someone he met up with in the middle of dragging days like this, someone who, whether married or closeted or openly gay, would respect the inherent limitations of his situation. But could this actually happen? He has little hope. People you meet online, he says, have a tendency to vanish so quickly it’s almost like they never existed in the first place. “Sometimes it can be great,” he says. “But when it’s not, that’s when I find myself doubting this whole life.”
FROM AN INSTANT-MESSAGE EXCHANGE WITH WILLIAM:
Me: How well do you think your wife knows you? Is she the person you’re closest with?
Him: She knows everything but this.
Me: Would you consider your keeping this a secret—from her and everyone— a selfish act?
Him: No. It doesn’t make their lives better to know. I know you don’t understand this but I don’t think the truth, in this instance, is really going to make anyone feel better. Honesty is not always such a great thing. Look at the McGreeveys.
Me: What does that mean?
Him: She’s not happy to know the truth.
Me: But the reason all of it happened in the first place is that he lied and was forced to come out.
Him: You are not going to convince me that the truth always sets you free.
It was in college, the summer going into his sophomore year, when William had his first sexual experience with a man. “It’s kind of funny the way it happened,” William tells me. He had decided to stay on campus at the New England school he attended to earn extra credits. Needing a place to live, he responded to an ad in a free local weekly: someone with a two-bedroom looking for a roommate. When William rang the buzzer, he was greeted by a confident, affable guy in his mid-twenties with shaggy dark hair and a quick smile. The apartment turned out not to be a two-bedroom, but a one-bedroom with a corner of the living room cordoned off. “The guy makes this point to show me his bedroom, saying that I could use it whenever he’s out of town, since the other room wasn’t really a room,” says William. “And then, after a few minutes, he makes a pass at me. Really direct. Just asks if I’d ever been with a guy and when I said no, he was like, ‘Want to?’”
William had considered this before, foggy thoughts that never gained much traction: no explicit fantasies, just a dim, lingering curiosity. He was never the most self-assured guy, but he did okay, dating girls in high school, losing his virginity to one the year before. He tells me he had been “satisfied” by women, and he found it quite natural to imagine himself one day getting married and starting a family—emulating, in many respects, the life of his parents, who are happily (if distantly) married to this day. “The whole thing was so surreal,” he says of what happened in the apartment. “We didn’t do very much. Just kind of made out and fooled around with our clothes off. The whole time I’m thinking, Does he do this all the time? Is this his thing? Some kind of bait and switch?” The guy was casual, calm, experienced. After they got dressed, he asked William to call if he had any questions about the place. William knew he wouldn’t. “I never felt like I didn’t have control, but there was something creepy about it,” he says. “Not what we did—it wasn’t like I felt shame or disgust or anything like that. But the circumstances creeped me out. I didn’t tell anyone. It was another two years until it happened again.”
He was doing a summer internship at a large office then, mainly filing and answering phones. One night during the last week of the summer, the interns went out for drinks, had four beers each. A Red Sox game was on television, bottom of the fifth. “Wanna catch the rest of the game at my apartment?” asked one of the guys, a handsome 22-year-old in his first year of law school. Later, sitting on the couch, he reached over William to grab the remote, or at least pretended to grab the remote, and their legs touched, and suddenly his hand was running up William’s thigh, and they kissed. What followed was sweet and corny and bumbling and intimate. William would have liked it to happen again, but a few days later they both left town without exchanging numbers, and that was that. Again, he told no one.
Habits are funny things, guided by your actions, yet evolving without your noticing. I ask if William thinks that he made a decision around then, subconsciously or otherwise, to compartmentalize this part of his life. While clearly intelligent, he can seem chronically averse to self-analysis, and in characteristic form he answers sardonically: “Maybe something like that happened. I don’t know. I think you’ve spent more time asking these questions than I ever have.”