Closer to Fine

 

by John Jay Buol

 

 

I was just starting to get a handle on my own sexual identity when I became the assistant manager at an art house movie theater in Santa Monica. It was 1996. I was fresh out of college, and independent film was just reaching the zenith of its popularity. In the beginning it was perfect: I, like the little theater, existed pretty much under the radar, but we both held much promise. The place had been renovated to approximate the luster it displayed during the 1940s, and the screen had been split in two to create more business. It was a place where celebrities could come and view an under-publicized movie without having to face the paparazzi. I once had a post-screening argument with Axel Rose about how the rereleased version of Bertolucci’s 1900 offered no new insight. He was right, and I asked him for an autograph for my stepbrother back home.

Then, out of nowhere, came The English Patient, Secrets and Lies, and Breaking the Waves. There were lines of people on the sidewalk waiting to buy tickets. Miramax was plugging the hell out of their hot new releases in the trades and, “Surprise! It’s Oscar Fever!”

I dove in to help the exasperated clerks who worked with me that first crazy day. Clearly, we needed much more canola oil and popcorn seed, and in the meantime I had to find more Lindt bars and Red Vines. It was only the first matinee, we were glaringly understaffed, and suddenly there stood Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer, waiting to order. I was behind the sweltering popcorn popper, trying to “maintain efficiency and supply.”

“Hello, ladies! Can I help you?” I said. The following conversation between them is pretty close to verbatim. I was too stressed out at the time to be sure.

Cher: “We’re going to need a large, for sure.”

Michelle: “Cher! Come on! That’s so much oil.”

Cher: “Fuck it. We’re getting the large. One large popcorn and one large Coke.”

Michelle: “Diet Coke, please.”

Cher: “Please, Skinny, we’re getting Coke. Large! You want some M&Ms? Some kind of chocolate?”

Michelle: “No! Absolutely not! What are you thinking?”

Cher: “One box of peanut M&Ms, please.”

Ms. Pfeiffer looked at Cher and shot her a “Thank you, but really?” look.

I sensed that Cher was trying to cheer Michelle up with all this sugar and salt. I was about to come up with some clever compliment to thank Cher for “going there” when the phone rang.

The phone was just to the left of the popcorn machine, which was spotted with dried canola oil and salt dust. I grabbed it and motioned to Djahari to ring the ladies up. “NuWilshire Theater, how can I help you?”

“Jay, this is Cindy. Just wanted to tell you that your dad and I are coming out to California to have Thanksgiving with you! We’ve already bought the tickets, and your sister is coming with us!”

“Cindy!” I replied to my stepmom, who was calling from home in Colorado. “That sounds great! Do you mean Thanksgiving at my house?”

“Oh yeah! Didn’t you just tell your Dad you moved into a cute house in Culver City with a couple of nice roommates?”

Suddenly I was forced to deal with an inevitability that I was not prepared for. I hadn’t seen the folks since graduation, and since then lots of interesting—meaning possibly beyond their grasp—things had happened.

“Yeah, okay. Just so you know… when you get here… you’re going to meet someone who is very important to me.” I took a long breath. “His name is Bobby, and I’m in love with him. We live together.” I never thought I’d be saying these words behind a veil of steam from a popcorn popper with two of the Witches of Eastwick waiting behind the glass. Only Susan Sarandon’s presence could have made it more perfect.

“Well… okay…” Cindy replied, then silence for a few moments. When her voice returned, she began with, “I always thought that something like this might happen.” Then a longer silence.

“So,” I began, trying to move things along, “do you still want to come?” By now I was visibly wincing.

“Don’t tell your dad about this,” she fired. It was friendly, protective fire. “I’ll tell him myself. And don’t tell your grandmother.” Then some more silence. Then, “I want you to know that if this gets out through the wrong channels in Burlington, it’s going to be a huge mess. Give me some time, and I’ll call you back and let you know if we’re still coming.”

“Okay!” I hung up the phone, somewhat shaken, and attempted to say “Thank you” to Michelle and Cher as they huddled toward the door of the theater.

I was promoted to assistant manager at the NuWilshire Theatre three weeks before Serena appeared.

She was a new hire and a perfectly bewitching long time friend of Djahari, who had been working the concession stand as long as I had been there. Serena owned a particular sensuality that was completely original. You could compare it to that of Anaïs Nin or Henry Miller. She introduced herself in a Louise Brooks style “silent film” kind of way. Without words, she batted her lashes, and her implied subtext was, “Would you like to be touched?”

When she spoke to me for the first time as a “friend” after work one day it was “How’d you like to join me for a gin and tonic?” Blink, blink. I acquiesced immediately. Eventually, the two of us would leave rock shows at the Viper Room to drive down Sunset Boulevard in my used car, her patent-leather spike-heeled legs up on the dash, my right hand diving between those legs while my left held the steering wheel.

One day Serena was working the box office, and I was managing and watching the lobby. A kind-of “sloppy-cool” character sauntered into the place and said he wanted to speak with Beth, our general manager. Beth was on an errand to Kinko’s that day, so it would be at least twenty minutes before he could speak with her. That gave me and Serena plenty of time to find excuses to pass through the lobby and steal looks at him while he sat there, trapped on the carpeted stairs, holding his résumé. He was shorter than your average guy, thin, and incredibly striking. His hair was dark and thick, and his long, twisting curls slightly obscured his face, which featured deadly blue eyes and wry red lips, made more alluring by their frustrating silence.

When Beth returned, she greeted Bobby with enthusiastic recognition, and they climbed upstairs to interview. Serena and I shot one another knowing, inquisitive looks. She could tell I had been checking him out. She said it with one raised eyebrow and a twist of her smile.

The next day, Bobby came in dressed better than the rest of us, with a slick black necktie, and Serena was tagged to train him as an usher. During a lull between screenings he escaped up Wilshire Boulevard to buy some yogurt, and Serena, after watching his ass with me for two or three minutes, smacked me in the ribs: “He’s fucking hot. What are we going to do about him?”

I wasn’t hip to her awareness of my bisexuality until that moment. We had joked about us both possibly being bisexual, but we had only been rolling around naked together for a few weeks. It hadn’t entered my mind that we could invite someone into our shared sex life. I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued.

“Do you want him?” I asked.

“Hell yeah. Do you?” she returned.

“Honestly, I can’t resist him.”

“Okay,” she offered with what I thought was pretended hesitation, “I’m having a house-warming party at the end of the month. We’re inviting him. Whatever happens, happens.” I nodded obediently.

I did my best to get to know Bobby platonically at work in the meantime. He must have sensed that his invitation to Serena’s party was a kind of “test,” socially or otherwise. He was sweet, smart, and professional during the days leading up to the party. He gave no clues as to his sexual/personal life. He said he was bunking at his uncle and aunt’s place in Culver City and that they were Christian Scientists, and I deduced he must be desperate to get out and have some fun.

The night of the party, we began by gathering around the Formica-topped kitchen table with Serena’s roommates. One was an artist, one was a musician. Bobby arrived and spent some time hovering about us in the kitchen before he wandered off to the living room. Serena and I were engaging in a slightly drunken make-out session at the table. Our tongues parted when I realized Bobby had changed the music on the stereo in the next room.

I don’t remember if Bobby and I had ever talked about Erasure before that moment, but when he found Wild and decided to play “Blue Savannah,” I couldn’t resist. I pulled my lips away from Serena’s, and I wandered like some kind of possessed gay zombie into the living room. Serena followed me, and I danced myself into Bobby’s arms in front of her. He and I started moving in tandem, and she cuddled up behind him and cooed: “Jay and I think you’re hot.”

He looked up from my shoulder and turned to her. “I love you, Serena, and I think you guys are hot too, but I want to ask your permission to be with him alone.”

It was up to me now. I shot a look at Serena first, then at Bobby. I think Serena recognized a need in either him or in me, or in both of us, instantly and she decided on a generous and diplomatic offer. “Look, you two can take my bed tonight. Just call my name if you want me to join you.”

After a few more drinks and a number of knowing looks from Serena, Bobby and I tumbled onto her bed in the next room. Our clothes disappeared, and for the first time I felt an unrelenting sexual passion. I had fantasized about him for weeks, and now I was experiencing his fantasy. I never could have expected that it might be me. Serena and I had been a fun match, to say the least, but I had never thought of her as much more than a partner in crime. With Bobby I was feeling a serious necessity. I felt we were discovering some otherworldly connection neither one of us had experienced before. I knew that he was here to stay and that we would have to decide immediately if we were going to make this feeling last beyond tonight. To borrow from James Baldwin: “We gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with (him) the act of love.”

Once, while moving between passionate Twister positions on her bed, I realized that Serena was a secret participant in our revelry. She was on her hands and knees watching us behind a gap in the adjacent bathroom doorway, maybe hoping we would notice her and ask her to join us. When I spotted her, I mentioned her earlier words again to Bobby, and he replied, “Let her enjoy herself, there. We need to experience this alone, together.” I agreed.

The next morning, we discovered Serena asleep on a comforter next to the bed. Before she woke up, Bobby gave me a look that said all I needed to know: this was serious, he was not leaving my side, and we were going to have to tell her as soon as possible. The way his hand glided up around my torso and perfectly owned the back of my neck made it clear.

Serena woke up and purred, “So, that was really hot.”

“Yeah, we noticed you were a witness,” Bobby said.

It was all too awkward. “Guys, let’s go to Denny’s. I’m starving,” I said.

We got dressed, poured ourselves into my car, and drove up to the lazy Santa Monica Denny’s we all knew so well, close to the theater.

We were all severely hung over, so I decided to wait until the Grand Slams were in place before I came out with, “Serena, I’m so sorry, but what Bobby and I discovered last night makes it really clear to me that you and I can’t continue as a couple. I think I’m in love with him.” I took a bite of sausage.

Bobby continued, “Serena, I really love you, but this can’t be ignored. I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t share Jay. He and I have to be together.”

Serena cleared her throat to mark time and held back her tears like she was an expert at being dumped. She was obviously hurt, but she was not going to make this into a sappy drama-class scene. Almost under her breath she seethed, “Fuck you guys. Really? I go out of my way to host a party and make it cool for you to hook up and ‘try each other out,’ and you deny me completely? I mean, I let you have my goddamn bed, and still you decide to fucking blow me off?”

Bobby and I sank into our shirt collars, and our eyes dipped toward the breakfasts in front of us. Basically, we offered her silence. Some part of me always knew—like my stepmom—that “this” would happen. I just didn’t expect it to happen while I was seeing someone else, especially someone as cool as Serena. All this was my fault.

After minutes of rearranging hash browns I spoke. “Serena—”

Her eyes were steel. “Whatever. I get it. You guys are gay, gay, gay, and there’s no room for a vagina in there.” Before we could reply, she continued, “Jay, I was going to ask you to come with me today to take care of my friends’ dogs in the Palisades, but honestly, I don’t want to be anywhere near you right now. Bobby, why don’t you go with him instead?”

Bobby said, “Serena, let’s all do it together.”

“No. I need some fucking time to deal with this. Take me home. I’ll give you the keys and the address, and you guys do it.” She couldn’t look at us again.

He and I were shameless. We grinned at one another: our first date.

Bobby moved in the next week. He had been complaining that his aunt and uncle were driving him crazy with their Christian Scientist lifestyle. I was living with two girls: Cate and Emily, who didn’t seem to mind that I had fallen in love and wanted my lover to be with me. I proposed that he would pay a quarter of the rent, and they were happy.

After the initial move-in, Bobby started busying himself searching for texts that would help us to become better people and a better couple. We read The Celestine Prophecy, The Artist’s Way, Centering and the Art of Intimacy, and other books that claimed to bring to their readers a more enlightened existence (or coexistence). Maybe this was the popular literary trend in the late 90s in Los Angeles, but I swear, if he had taken me to that West Hollywood new-age store The Bhodi Tree one more time, I would have thrown some healing stones through the front window and started a riot.

Then came the call from my parents.

I told him about it that night when I returned home from the theater.

“Jesus, Jay! Do they do this all the time? Can they really just tell you they are coming and that’s it?”

I tried to explain that this was a new tactic. I was leaving them “out of the loop” and they felt they had to surprise me with an impromptu visit in order to participate in my life. Bobby was five years older than me, but clearly he was not out to his family either. Neither one of us was technically “out.” That’s when the idea of being out of the closet to myself occurred to me.

Everyone always talked about “coming out” as the moment when you become honest with others. Maybe it was more about being honest with yourself. I had been through a few short-lived affairs and sexual situations with men, but I had always just called myself “open minded.” My experiences with women had taught me that I was compatible with them, sexually; it was just that the only truly amazing sexual experiences I’d had were with men.

I could marry a beautiful woman and live a “normal” life, fathering any number of “normal” children, but I knew I would never be satisfied. I could live a lie for who knows how long, but it would fall apart as soon as that need for a man’s embrace became too powerful. That’s why I had to come clean with Serena. I realized that morning at Denny’s I would never love her like she needed to be loved. My heart had completely shifted focus to Bobby. And that shift felt so powerful that I decided to make it official: I was gay.

My parents arrived for Thanksgiving with my sister in tow and, as a special surprise to me, my grandmother. Cindy confided to me that Grammy had warned her that the folks at home would be burning crosses on her lawn when they found out about me, and that if they could not change my mind with this visit I would be cut out of the family will. I guess she had come to take part in a gay intervention. I hoped the rest of them had slightly less aggressive agendas.

I found them at their Santa Monica hotel the afternoon of their arrival, and I decided to walk them down the Third Street Promenade. It was a perfect, blue-sky L.A. day. After fifteen minutes of strolling, we picked an Italian place that had a table available outside. We—everyone but Grammy, who wasn’t ready to face me yet—sat silently and looked over the menu. The waiter came, we ordered, and when the menus had been collected, the conversation turned to the weather and how the local teams had been faring in football. I could tell the “topic of interest” was being politely ignored, and I gathered my strength. It was time to throw down.

“So, Dad,” I began. He was sitting directly across the table. “I guess we should talk about me being gay.”

Silence. We all sort of tried to look at one another. Clearly everyone was surprised by my outburst.

Dad had not expected to be challenged in such a manner, and I could tell Cindy was looking away, perhaps to stifle a laugh. I looked desperately toward her for support. She looked at my father.

He said, “Well, Jay, all I have to say is: if you’re going to do that, you might as well kill somebody.”

I think my sister’s bread fell out of her mouth.

Tears didn’t even begin to approach my eyes, I was so dumbfounded. To me, this was like comparing apples and bulldozers. “Dad,” I began calmly, with my eyes locked onto his, “what I’m doing is an act of love, and what you are describing is an act of fear and hate. I don’t see where you’re coming from.”

“What I’m saying is: if you expect me to accept what you’re doing out here in California, I might as well accept all the Bible’s sins, including murder,” he qualified.

We all knew that Dad wasn’t exactly a religious man. Why would he use this argument against me?

“John,” Cindy began, “Jay isn’t any different…”

“He’s telling me he’s living a life of sin…”

I took the baton from Cindy. “Dad, she’s right. I am no different from the little boy you raised. Los Angeles hasn’t turned me into some kind of freak. Honestly, if L.A. has any blame to take, it’s that it allowed me the freedom to discover who I really am. Come to dinner on Thanksgiving. Meet Bobby. He’s a Southern boy who is very sweet and very real. Neither of us is the Devil.”

After a few moments, the food arrived, and nothing more was said.

I told the story to my roommates. Emily was going back to New York for Thanksgiving, but Cate was going to be present, and she had recently been employed by a catering company, so she shared that she had half-price access to all kinds of beautiful side dishes we normally wouldn’t have. She reminded me that I had nothing to lose and nothing to prove. We were going to make the most of this situation.

My story of the “coming out” moment must have scared Bobby. As much as we implored him to join us in the preparation of the meal, he insisted on staying sequestered in the bedroom or wandering, after my family had arrived, in the backyard, smoking cigarettes. Tensions were high. I was so nervous I mostly focused on getting the food right and talking about recent movie star sightings. Cindy and my sister made nice with Bobby during his brief appearances, but not a word was spoken between him and my father or grandmother. He kept disappearing to smoke or drink another beer behind the house. He did show up for a quick family portrait on the front lawn. In the photo, we are all smiling fake smiles into the camera lens except Grammy, who is looking at her shoes like she stepped in something vile. After the pose, Bobby passed out in the bedroom without tasting a single bite of the meal we had prepared. It had all been too much for him.

Cate and I got together over a bottle of wine that night, determined to save face, and we decided to do dinner again, but “for real.” She suggested that we invite the entire family a few days later to her parents’ home in Calabasas. Cate’s mother, who was a recently won-over fan of mine, was enthralled by the idea of meeting my parents, and she had never met Bobby. I suspected my parents hadn’t really been impressed by our meager offerings—or by Bobby’s half presence—in Culver City, and Calabasas somehow seemed like a sweeter haven, so we picked up the phone and put the plan in motion.

I asked Bobby to “behave himself” this time, and he did. He turned on the charm, and the whole affair turned out remarkably. The house was beautiful, the meal was festive, and Cate’s mother even offered a toast to “accepting the unexpected feelings that our loved ones might encounter throughout their lives. May the love we have for them never change.” I think communicating with Cate’s enlightened mother and her stepdad—who happened to be friends with Joe Montana—convinced my father that I was going to be okay despite my handicap (the gay thing).

Bobby and I recovered well from the “parent trap.” We returned to our regular existence and enjoyed our lives, living with Cate and Emily and working at the theater. Eventually, Emily wanted to move back to New York, and Cate wanted to be on her own for awhile. We all agreed to break our lease and move on.

After searching for two weeks, Bobby and I found a welcoming spot on Cochran St. with a beautiful courtyard, and we moved what little furniture we had into the place along with some romantic English Patient-style drapes. Our sex life got sexier, now that we had a place of our own, and I even began to wonder if we were spending too much time in bed/on the living room futon/on the kitchen floor losing ourselves to one another’s bodies. At times I felt sex might be the core of our relationship.

Eventually, he realized he could not be happy surrounded by only my things, so we took a long cross-country journey to Houston in a moving van to pick up some antique furniture he had been storing at his brother’s place. His brother lived in the Montrose district in a lovely old house, and he welcomed us wholeheartedly.

Bobby took me to meet his parents one afternoon, introducing me as his new roommate. They were sweet but distant. I was disappointed that he hadn’t the courage to give me the same reverence I gave him in the presence of my parents, but I recognized his need to keep that space. Still, something in me registered his hesitancy as a lack of respect.

One night after touring the local bars, Bobby and I went to sleep on a futon on his brother’s living room floor. The sun came up, and during a dream that seemed to be replaying the scene at Bobby’s parents’ place, the biggest cockroach Texas could have possibly produced crept across my closed eyes. I awoke to the underside thorax of a huge roach so close to my corneas that I jumped so high I might not have touched the ground for maybe a minute. I was swatting at every corner of my body like I was trying to win a diamond ring at a whack-a-mole stand. He only laughed and referred to my reaction as a “Nell-tack,” but the “Nelly” in question might ultimately have been Bobby, considering his lack of courage and honesty with his parents.

During our time in Houston, we started to engage in late night arguments about how my gaze was wandering toward other men while we were out. I was maintaining a strong loyalty to Bobby, but I was still curious about other men. This was my first try at a monogamous relationship, and the more he placed expectations on how I was supposed to be in it, the more I felt like searching elsewhere for who I could be. He had been suggesting all the guidelines for the “us,” while I was still trying to navigate the fragile idea of my own identity. Could my father have been right? Was I “killing” myself in order to make this idea of us work out?

We got back to Los Angeles and moved the furniture in. The apartment was becoming beautiful. Bobby had been starving for tangible reminders of who he was in our space. Now we had a real egalitarian—almost lesbian—coexistence! We decided to celebrate by buying tickets to the Universal Amphitheatre to see the Indigo Girls perform. I had already been a fan since my freshman year in college, but it was only when Bobby and I got together that we wound up buying most of their albums.

We took our places at the venue. Within minutes of the opening act starting, Bobby left our seats to buy beers. I took a look around. We were two men in a sea of lesbians. If there were more than thirty men in the entire place, I would have been surprised. I was not concerned. Some of the girls—in fact, almost all of them—were really friendly. Bobby came back with the beers, we drank them and shared them with our new lesbian friends, and the Indigo Girls began to treat us to an amazing set.

After six or seven songs, we set out on a little journey to see if our friends who had also bought tickets might be there. As we finished stumbling over knees to the aisle, the band began to play Closer to Fine, and it felt like I was hearing it for the first time. I set down my beer and stood there in the middle of the aisle, staring at the stage in awe. I gave them my full attention as a three-thousand mostly-girl chorus sang along. “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” What the hell did that mean?

“It’s only life, after all…” they continued, and that line nearly made we weep.

I decided in my freshly humble-yet-ecstatic state, that these two women and their band were a source of spirituality and universal connection, and that they were trying to help all of us find our way through the personal labyrinths of confusion we were facing. Bobby disappeared for a few more beers, and I began to really listen.

Maybe they were saying that “defining myself” like I felt I had to do for Bobby, for my parents, for myself, wasn’t really so important. What if I were to explore my identity regardless of these relationships, these “trappings,” shedding the idea of being what he/they/I thought I should be?

I found Bobby: “Beers!” he announced. We returned to our seats.

As our life together continued, Bobby became more and more protective and paranoid. He would sometimes catch me watching porn after he had gone to bed. I argued that I find porn a healthy way to relax and assuage some built-up sexual tension while alone. He didn’t see it that way.

“Why do you need that shit?” he would ask. “Aren’t I enough for you?”

He also began drinking more and more. Sometimes he would polish off a whole case of beer in one sitting. The more he drank, the more I would fantasize about being with someone else. The person he would become once the alcohol reached its tipping point was not someone I wanted to be close to. These points of contention came to a head one otherwise typical night.

I came home from work that night while he was off and discovered him at home, finishing off the last of a case of Bud Light (always Bud Light). I had the inclination to confront him about his apparent alcoholism but decided against it and went directly to bed.

He entered the bedroom, and as he had done a few times before, he tore the sheet off me and shouted, “You don’t give a shit about me!”

“Bobby, I love you, but I think you have a problem with alcohol, and I—”

“You don’t even want to kiss me when you come home!”

“Not when you’re this drunk.”

“You’re an alcoholic too! Fuck you! You can’t even touch me! You’d rather jerk off to porn than be with me!”

“Well, when I come home and you smell like twenty-two beers, maybe, yeah.”

“Well, fuck you. You don’t get me at all!” He then put aside his fury for a moment and tried to settle in a chair in the corner of our bedroom. As soon as his ass and the chair met, he, his drink, and the chair fell over, taking an end table with them.

“Okay, you’re right,” he admitted after about a minute on the ground, and he climbed into bed and wrapped his arms around me.

The next morning, he was still a little soused, and he woke me up by groping the front of my underwear for morning wood.

“Bobby! I’m trying to sleep. Can we hold off for a little while?”

“You don’t even want to fucking touch me! Fine! I’ll never touch you again!”

I tried to go back to sleep. I had to be up in a few hours to go to work.

He ripped the covers off again.

“Would you rather fucking masturbate?” he railed, “Fine! I’ll get a tape ready for you!”

“Bobby,” I implored, “you’re drunk. I know you’re trying to provoke me. Just remember that there is a world outside our relationship. I have to go to work early. It’s not always just about us.”

“You know what, Jay? It’s never, ever about us to you,” he replied. Then he passed out.

I struggled to figure out what had made me so cold, so practical, while he remained on fire, so crazily in love. Maybe we had different definitions of that word, love. He seemed to be searching for some kind of unconditional adoration (which either of us could have easily mistaken for the passion that had exploded early in the relationship). Unfortunately, that passion had run its course for me over only a year and a half.

I had woken up to the reality of what we had become: two men who, searching fervently for a precious connection, had given up our own identities completely in an attempt to become some kind of righteous, connected thing. I had defended us to my parents, and though he had not taken that path, in his mind there was some ideal love story about us, and he needed for me to live up to that ideal. He was a lost child in a new city, and I was supposed to be the young hero who would make it all okay. I had taken big steps. I had redefined myself for him, for myself, but I could not be the Hercules/Adonis he had imagined.

Two weeks passed, both of us ignoring the obvious conflicts brought on by our separate perceptions of the relationship, when I returned home from work once again to find him on the third-to-last beer of another case.

As I entered our shared domain, I recognized what was going on, and he approached me crookedly, beer in hand, and tried to plant a passionate kiss on me.

“Hey, baby,” I interjected, “I’m not ready for that yet. Why don’t you open one for me, and we’ll talk.”

He was surprised that I wanted to go to “Bud-Light-land” with him, but he quizzically opened one for me, and we spread out on the living room futon in front of a previously recorded X-Files episode.

I took a few cautious sips, and he watched me carefully; then he attacked my face with his open mouth, clumsily attempting seduction.

“Bobby!” I reeled, spilling a bit of my beer on the futon. “Give me a minute to wind down from work!”

He glared at me for a few moments, then guzzled the rest of his beer. With a subtle jerk, he turned back to me, eyes blazing. “You never loved me!”

“I have always loved you! I just need you to slow down enough to get me.”

“I need another beer.”

I took a good, hard look at him, nodded, and made my way to the refrigerator. I realized he was following me, and after I turned the kitchen light on, he jumped in front of me and held strong in front of the fridge, menacingly.

“Would you like to help yourself to your own beer?” I offered.

He smiled. It wasn’t actually a smile. It was a kind of “Grinch-who-stole-Christmas” grimace. While I stood waiting, he reached out and pulled the refrigerator door so hard it knocked the entire contents of the door compartments onto the floor, and some of them—like the spaghetti sauce—broke into pieces and became a liquid and glass-shard mess.

I looked at him to see whether he had any intention of cleaning it up, and all I saw was the same twisted grin.

I decided not to protest, because I could sense that he was beyond the point of reason. I dropped to my knees, grabbing a rag in an attempt to wipe up the jagged swamp in front of me, and after a few seconds I looked up again to check in with him, only to find his open palm soaring down diagonally to slap my surprised face.

I paused only for a second, and then I realized I was a character in his made-for-TV nightmare. My instincts kicked in, and I rose to my feet and fought silently through his tangling arms to the bedroom, where I grabbed a change of clothing, stuffed it in my duffel bag, and began fleeing down the stairs. He somehow leapt in front of me like a character from Mortal Combat.

“You’re not leaving. You can’t leave.”

“Oh, yes I can. I’m done with you.”

“No, baby. I love you, you can’t go.”

“Well, you may have loved me before, but what you just did tells me otherwise.”

He barred my way with his arms, holding fast in the form of a human gate at the bottom of the stairwell. “You. Are. Not. Leaving.”

I head-butted my way through his forearm and ran for my car. I drove. I drove for hours. I drove west and north, and I didn’t stop until I got to Oxnard.

At Oxnard I bought myself a McDonald’s sandwich. I couldn’t eat it. I called Bobby from a payphone in the parking lot. “I’ve had time to think. I want to come home and talk about this.”

“Were you raised in hell?” he asked me. I hung up.

I decided to call Cindy. She was the first to hear about Bobby. It seemed appropriate that she would be the first to hear about this new Bobby. She was very helpful, very clear. She had experienced this kind of abuse before.

“I could tell when I first met him. He’s really confused about who he is, and he’s trying to find the answers to his own questions in you. Don’t blame yourself for not being the ‘Rosetta Stone’ he wanted you to be. Just remember to love yourself for who you are, and if he can’t see that person, then you both need to move on to find a better understanding of yourselves and to find other people who better understand you.”

Somehow, the woman who had influenced me to truly embrace my identity had led me to the realization that I could define myself as I wish. I had been trying so hard to make this new relationship work because I wanted the people in my world to see that being gay could be a good, healthy thing. In this case, it just wasn’t. I was still gay, but I realized in that moment that I didn’t need my relationship with Bobby to help me prove that it was a “good” thing any more.

Perhaps that unexpected bravery within us which suggests that we announce to the world that we have found a “new” identity reveals merely that we are so much more than we thought we were. Perhaps the more paths we consider while trying to discover the truths of our identities, the more we awaken to the endless array of choices laid out before us. Perhaps when we see that the idea of identity is limitless, we find ourselves becoming truly “closer to fine.”

Feeling hopeful but still somewhat lost, I returned to my Chevy Spectrum and began to drive back to Los Angeles. Along the way, I arrived at Matador Beach, just north of Malibu, and I chose it as my bed for the night. The night was actually coming to an end as I scaled the steps down the huge cliffs to the beach. As I spread out my tired frame in a quiet corner away from the surf, sheltered by an overhanging rock ledge, I offered my head to the sand and watched the brilliant violets and magentas of the sunrise breaking over the horizon. As my eyes closed to the dawn, the Indigo Girls came drifting back to me: “I’m trying to tell you something ’bout my life…”

I awoke to the sounds of screaming seagulls and the promise of a fresh, crisp new day. It seemed  the span of the horizon had multiplied.

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