After school, William moved to New York along with his college friends, most of whom were pursuing careers in finance. They got apartments on the Upper East Side and entry-level jobs and, like most people in their twenties, focused on going out more than they focused on their careers. Some nights they went to clubs: Limelight, Palladium, the Tunnel. Other nights they hopped around the preppy brass-and-wood bars lining upper First Avenue. Close as they were, William couldn’t imagine telling his friends about his interest in men. “No one was gay, no one even knew anyone who was gay,” he says. “It’s not that I was scared of being judged, but of being seen differently. Like if my friends were all going out to a bar to hit on girls, maybe I wouldn’t be invited. For lack of a better analogy, it’s like with actors, when you find out someone playing a straight role is gay. You don’t look at him the same way. I guess that’s always been my greatest fear.”
Six months into living in the city, William decided to go to his first gay bar and ventured into Chelsea after hanging out with his friends. “It took some courage, but I had been drinking, which helped,” he tells me. “I put a baseball cap on so I could hide under the bill if needed. I don’t remember the first place I went to—it’s long gone—but I remember the second was Rawhide. The music was booming, it seemed to be hopping. But I was way too shy to talk to anyone and left alone. It just wasn’t a scene I was totally comfortable in. To this day I can count the number of times I’ve been in a gay bar on one hand.”
It was around then that he noticed the ads in the back of The Village Voice. A number you’d dial, free for the first ten minutes, to arrange a date. On one level it was the most sordid thing he’d ever considered, but at the same time the simplicity and anonymity were enormously appealing. “It was kind of like Craigslist before the Internet,” says William. “You’d call up and get connected to other guys looking to hook up.” The phone lines quickly became a regular part of his life. At first he used them only for phone sex, but soon he started meeting men in person. He met a Park Avenue diet guru who later died a well-publicized death. He met numerous married men. He met numerous openly gay men. He slept with a man from Connecticut in an hourly hotel in Times Square—“I remember he paid because I was too paranoid to use my credit card”—a place so repugnant he swore he would never do something like that again. He met a movie producer who lived in L.A. but owned a loft in Chelsea, and who “weirdly” liked the idea that William was in the closet, yet used to mock him for being so paranoid. (“He’d always invite me to parties. He’d say, ‘Give me a break, you don’t know anyone, and everyone’s gay.’ ”) Whenever William met a man, even someone he ended up seeing repeatedly, he used the same fake name—“just something generic”—that he uses today. It was a whole reality unto itself: the “otherness” of it so extreme as to barely seem like the complicated lie it was becoming. “I would go out with my friends,” he recalls, “and get home at two or three in the morning and call up the line. For a number of years that was my life.”
Soon he was pushing 30, that pestering age when you have to admit your adolescence is officially over, when people start pressuring you, even indirectly, to settle down, and then you start convincing yourself that, yes, settling down is what you sincerely want. One night he was set up on a date through friends with a woman I’ll call Lisa. This was not an unusual event in itself. He had dated numerous women, though the relationships tended to end after a few months. What was different about Lisa? “I’m not good at explaining it,” says William. “You know how love is. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s complicated and simple. I loved her.” The attraction, he says, was immediate and visceral and, though he continued to see men, he could imagine, or convinced himself he could, a monogamous life with her. Soon his parents started making remarks. “All your friends are married—when’s it your turn?” his mother got in the habit of saying, half-joking, half-serious, the way mothers can be. After a year and half, William asked Lisa to be his wife.
“Did you believe,” I ask, “that was the end of your life with men?”
“I did,” he says. “I honestly did.”