Meade Memorial

Eastern Standard Time:
Learning One Little Bit at a Time

This column appeared in February, 1990, in The Washington Blade.

By Lawrence Biemiller

My phone rang that Friday night and a man on the other end of the line gave a name I knew I had heard somewhere.

"You don't know me," he said, "but I read your stuff, and I think we have a mutual friend. That's, um, kind of why I'm calling."

As he spoke, I tried to place him among the dozens of friends you used to talk about. After a few minutes, though, I realized he was one of your old lovers, the one you told me about that time. I gathered from the way he referred to you that you had exiled him from your life, just as you eventually exiled me.

He said you had once mentioned meeting me. Later, he said, he began to hear echoes of your unmistakable voice in these sentences. For more than a year, he found here the only news he had of you -- and even that he found obliquely, since you had told me you didn't want to be written about.

The day he called, he had found here the news of your death. Recorded in the single word "funeral" were the infections that jostled minuted by minute for their turn at you, the long days of tests and treatments, the weeks in the hospital, the vacant hours your sweet parents sat under fluorescent lights in that fifth-floor lobby.

By the time he read it, of course, it was news months delayed. Your family had avoided obituaries, trusting your friends to pass the word. No one knew, or thought, to call him.

I asked him to lunch the next day, thinking he might want to remember you with someone who had known you. We talked for more than two hours, and then I thought about you for days afterward. It was odd, after so long, to find you dominating my life again.

I never meant to be confessor to your old lovers -- or chronicler of your considerable mythology, for that matter. I'm sure you would not have trusted me with either job. But circumstances conspire against my intentions and your misgivings. I mean, what was I supposed to do, hang up on him?

The problem, here as in much of gay life, is that no etiquette is anywhere prescribed, no precedent set in popular novels or plays or even sitcoms, no lesson taught in Sunday school or learned in junior high. My copy of Miss Manners's book, which falls open to the page showing how to answer a wedding invitation, says nothing about consoling the exiled former lovers of friends who died hating you.

Straight people, of course, grow up absorbing daily clues about how to play their assigned roles, how to conduct their relationships, how to fulfill society's expectations. But we have to make all that up as we go along.

We find the roles we are comfortable with on a list no one has ever bothered to write down. We steer our romances and betrothals by whatever intuition we have and whatever needs we must accommodate. We grope for goals in the oblivion of the unmarried to which society relegates us -- the oblivion of filing as single taxpayers, appearing spouseless at office parties, sharing holiday meals with friends instead of families.

Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes we don't. The most extraordinary story I've heard lately was that of a man who told me over dinner one night that he had met a younger man in a bar and fallen in love with him. They started seeing each other regularly.

"But I knew if I tried to keep him all to myself, he'd leave," the man said, halfway through his tale. "I figured the only thing to do was arrange any fantasy he wanted. I hoped it would keep him happy enough that he'd stay with me."

He started to describe one of the younger man's fantasies, but then he paused. "I see I've shocked you."

"Well, it's not shock, exactly," I said, although it was. "I guess I still want to believe in romance -- in candlelight dinners and winter nights cuddled up together. I don't want to think that being gay means you have to buy your lover whatever other -- " I left the sentence unfinished.

"We had candlelight dinners. We had all that. But my big mistake was when I did tell him No. That's when he left."

My friend Ben -- you don't know him -- pointed out the other day that porn videos have become the lingua franca of gay life and that the behavioral standards they embrace are getting far more exposure than all the standards embraced by all the gay novels and poems and plays ever written. Whatever their attributes, porn videos don't do much to enhance the viewer's self-respect or his regard for the humanity of those around him.

We're all grown-ups here, of course, and we know better than to put much faith in the badly-lighted version of reality we see on our VCRs. On the other hand, I'll bet a lot more people would show up for a lecture called "How We Behave: Gay Life in the '90s" if Jeff Stryker gave it than if Ben or I did.

I realize now how much you lived in the embrace of your family and of its poised, reasoned standard of behavior. You didn't have to make much up as you went along, not as much as some of us. But even you didn't always have an easy time of it. I guess I was grateful to learn that I wasn't the only person you exiled.

One warm morning two weeks ago I took a long bike ride and ended up at Hains Point, down by The Awakening. There a chartered bus was disgorging a class of college students, half of them wearing yellow blindfolds. A companion led each blindfolded students toward the sculpture rising up out of the earth -- toward what was obviously a lesson about guessing at the whole after experiencing only its parts.

It was a beautiful morning for a lesson. The blindfolded students groped and stumbled around the sculpture, sliding their palms along its flat metallic shin, ducking beneath its raised knee, puzzling over its hand, working their fingers into the curls of its beard. Maybe that's the only way we ever really learn about life: not from Sunday school or novels or videos, but up close, tentatively, and one little bit at a time.

Copyright © 1990 by Lawrence Biemiller. Published February, 1991, in The Washington Blade.