The more I talk to William, the more I am unnerved at how passive he is about his life. To hear him tell it, the whole situation just kind of … happened. Took shape. Gained momentum. Another life. As if there were never any alternatives.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t understand that what I’m doing is wrong,” William tells me during one of our last conversations. “Obviously, this isn’t what I signed up for when I got married. Every day I’m lying to my wife. But at this point …” He stops for a moment, considering. “I think I need this in order to be—maybe not a good husband, but to function in the marriage the way I do.” Again he pauses, and when he speaks next he brings up, for the first time in the months that we’ve been talking, how being a father factors into his thinking. “I know that if we didn’t have a kid that my other life would have just taken over,” he says. “Lying would have been too much, especially if there was something missing in our marriage.” He’d seen friends’ marriages crumble when conception proved impossible, and he imagined that kind of stress might end his relationship as well. “But we were happy when she got pregnant,” he says. “And we’re happy now. I’m not always happy—I’m rarely happy, to be honest—but we’re happy.” William genuinely seems to see his misery as disconnected from his marriage, as if one life does not affect the other even when the same person is living both.
William has never been to a therapist. On one level, he feels he should, that he could use it, but he also thinks he knows exactly what a therapist would say. “Be true to yourself and all that,” is how he puts it. I ask him if he has ever heard of Richard Isay, a psychiatrist who has written at length about gay men, himself included, who have been in straight marriages. Isay believes that most gay men who marry do so as a way of denying their homosexuality. “Every homosexual man who marries,” he writes in Becoming Gay: The Journey to Self-Acceptance, “does so, in my clinical experience, because of early self-esteem injury that has caused him to see homosexuality as bad, sinful or sick.” Another of Isay’s theories has a Freudian undercurrent: “Every married man I have seen has needed to repeat with his spouse the sense of having been emotionally deprived by his mother. The futile hope of mastering this trauma provides one powerful but unconscious motive for these heterosexual marriages.”
Given William’s tendency to shun introspection—an instinct I’ve come to see as a need, or at least a by-product, of his fear of change—I am not surprised to learn he doesn’t put much stock in these theories. He laughs off the idea that his mother played a role—“If anything, she was too involved,” he says—and again stresses that he has never seen his attraction to men as shameful.
And yet I can’t shake the suspicion that these statements are coming from the liberal Democrat inside William, rather than the complicated, inconsistent human he actually is. During an early conversation, for instance, he mentioned going on a group vacation years ago, before he was married, and meeting a gay couple who ran a restaurant in the Berkshires. He found himself envying their life. “I remember when the group checked into the hotel, they made a point of asking for a single bed,” William explained. “I liked how confident they were, that they had this whole life, but that they weren’t really flamboyant about it. They didn’t feel the need to advertise it.” This “need to advertise it”—the stereotype of the out-and-proud gay man—seems to grate on William. Another time, he tells me that while he hopes some day to “live a gay life,” he will never “come out.” Meaning what exactly? “I won’t be marching in any parades,” he responds.
Numerous times I ask if he thinks about the possibility of divorce, and each time, in one way or another, he finds a way to tell me that the question is naïve, that it doesn’t take into account how complicated things are. This may not be the life he wants, or the life he thinks he was meant to live, but he’s come to see it as unrealistic, the belief that your life should conform to your expectations.
There are moments, though, when he thinks about a time when the life he was meant to live actually seemed possible. He was in his late twenties, not yet seeing Lisa, and had reached something of a crossroads. He had a job he wasn’t sure about (though it is the same job he has today) and a life that felt unsustainable (though it is essentially the same life he has today). One day he met a man on the bus—“the only time something like that has ever happened”—who was also in the closet. They started dating, and William fell in love for the first time. “He’s the only one who ever knew my real name,” he says. “And it was an accident. We were fighting over the check and he saw my credit card. He thought it was funny. He couldn’t believe I was that paranoid.” The relationship lasted only six months—his boyfriend was transferred to another city, and they decided it was easier not to stay in touch—but it had gotten him thinking. “I was unsure of so many things,” he says. “I was kind of a careerist, but at the same time my mind was wandering. I wanted to travel and go out more than settle down. I wanted to have a kind of hip and arty life, but I was just a white-collar working stiff. I was really considering moving to California. I just liked the idea of a totally different life. At one point I made up my mind to come out—to tell my friends and family and then just move, let it blow over.”
But, in the end, he decided the timing wasn’t right. A day became a week, and a week became a year, and a year became a decade, and instead of one totally different life he found himself living two.