“…The time has come for me
To break out of the shell
I have to shout
That I’m coming out” — I’m Coming Out (Diana Ross)
December 30, 1995
I’m celebrating my 32nd birthday at Club 181 in the Tenderloin with my friend, Ian, and his 18-year-old fiance. It’s a dive bar, with the requisite mixture of alcohol, loud music, pool tables, cheap come-ons, and sexual desperation.
Ian drinks excessively, as usual. I limit myself to two drinks, which are procured in short order. Restraint and judgement are giving way to bacchanalia and joie de vivre. The two of us play a few games of pool in between drinks and philosophical discussions, barely heard over the din. The fiancé a witness to our well-established ritual.
Which brings us to the present. We’re talking, the three of us, around a cocktail table. Suddenly, without warning, his hand is under the table and on my thigh. He smiles. I’m mortified. Did the bride-to-be notice this indiscretion? If so, what was she thinking about it? There was no visible sign of recognition. The hand moves slightly higher, approaching the danger zone. I attempt to play it cool, wondering what would come next.
Ian had always been affectionate with me, more so when he was drunk. I recall the kiss on the forehead during a New Year’s party in 1994. I had gone downstairs to complain about the noise, and ended up joining in on the celebration. This tall, good looking man opened the door and quickly apologized, offering a drink and the companionship of his friends in restitution. We hit it off immediately. Around 2am, I decided to retire to my room. Ian followed me up the stairs. He was having an internal monologue, partially voiced in the following words “Am I going to kiss you? Yes, I am.” A quick peck on the forehead and I was off to bed, alone with my thoughts.
Here we are, the three of us, an unlikely triad. His hand is still on my thigh. I’m feeling conflicted from a witch’s brew of disgust, confusion, and arousal. I know that he likes me as a friend and feels free to occasionally express himself physically. Nevertheless, this is an incursion, unlike anything he has ever attempted before.
I look at him reproachfully, as if to say: you are going too far, stop it. The hand remains in place for another second or two and then makes a hasty, inconspicuous retreat. Another smile. I’m wondering in capital letters: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? I’m also wondering, with increasing consternation, why am I enjoying it? Was it just the attention? Was it the alcohol? Or was it something deeper?
December 31, 1995
I wake up the next morning and instantly regret it. I’m suffering from a massive hangover and have a date that night to see a special New Year’s presentation of Beach Blanket Babylon with my friend, Laurie and two mutual friends. I lie in bed for hours, in agony, wondering if I would have the strength to face it all. Replaying the events from last night in my mind, over and over, I’m full of questions. Was it just a dream? Did it REALLY happen? What would my friend, Laurie, think of it?
I meet Laurie in line for the box office on Green Street. It’s just the two of us, so the floodgates are open and I tell her everything that happened, still smarting from the aftereffects of the hangover. She is intrigued and wants to know all of the details and how I feel about it. I tell her I’m not sure.
“Ian’s my friend, a very good friend, but he went too far. For crying out loud, his fiancé was right there!”
“He likes you,” she says with a mirthful expression, “maybe you should return the favor.”
“Oh God! I couldn’t!”
“Yes, but a part of you liked it” Laurie shrewdly observed, with a wink in her eye endemic to the daughters and sons of the Emerald Isle.
Audible sigh. Yes, a part of me liked it very much. What was I going to do? For now, I could only stand in line on a cold winter’s night in the Cool Gray City of Love waiting for the show, and perhaps, for an epiphany.
We are seated somewhere towards the back of the theatre, in close quarters around a table with champagne and party hats. I enjoy the wacky, irreverent show, thankful for the distraction, which cures my hangover and allows a temporary respite from my troubles. These are the good times you want to remember, I thought to myself.
The show is nearly over and the parade of the big hats has begun to the allargando strains of the “Theme From San Francisco.” A countdown commences, and on January 1, 1996, shouts of “Happy New Years!” can be heard, I’m sure, all the way to Fresno. We leave the theatre and head to our respective domiciles. A part of me had like the affectionate advances during that seminal birthday party. As I lie in bed waiting for blissful sleep, a new thought crosses my mind: well, kiddo, what are you going to do about it?
February 10, 1996
It’s an unusually sunny day and I’m having breakfast, still conflicted. I think back on my past desires and disappointments. There were the boys, completely and utterly straight, who never knew the depths of passion they had aroused in me. I also reminisce about the girls who had stirred up similar desires. Or was that just the expected thing to do? Between painful memories and corn flakes, a realization comes to me, like a sledgehammer. This is all bullshit. Do something!
I’m reading the SF Weekly, knowing that there are advertisements for all kinds of dating services. I find the number I’m looking for. It’s not exactly a dating service, it’s a phone service for men who are looking for Mr. Right (or Mr. Right Now). Gathering all the courage I can muster, with my heart in my throat, I pick up the phone. Shit! Am I really doing this? A recording asks me to recite my name, along with some far-too-personal details. I am powerless to resist The Voice and obediently comply. After the deed is done, it feels as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I did it! What next?
Every day I check for messages and there are none. A few of the more salacious subscribers want to “hook-up” for a few hours, but I just can’t. I need something more: a pleasant introduction, followed by lunch, a few bon mots, and an exchange of phone numbers. And yet, even knowing that a one night stand was out of the question, I occasionally chat live with other men, both of us comfortable with the anonymity the service provides. They always end with a quick hang-up instead of a hook-up. I flounder in a cocktail of relief and regret, sans cocktail. And then, in less than two weeks after I make the plunge, I am pleasantly surprised.
February 24, 1996
His name is Danny. He’s 29 going 30, having been born on Leap Day. He’s a postgraduate student at U.C. Berkeley and he has the most kind, dreamy voice you could ever imagine. Such gentleness, such warmth. A Pisces who was looking for a connection. And he’s intrigued by me! Jackpot! I call his phone number and wait for an eternity, lasting no more than five seconds.
“Hi, I’m Todd from the service.”
“Hi Todd! Thanks for calling back,” he replies.
“Listen, I’ve never done this before so you’ll have to forgive me if I seem a little nervous.”
“That’s OK,” he reassures me. “This can be a little awkward.”
God, could he be any nicer? We exchange brief introductions and phone numbers. He suggests a casual lunch in Berkeley. Perfect!
“One more thing,” he interjects. “Just so you know, I’m in a wheelchair. Does that make a difference?”
“Of course not,” comes the answer, quick and without reflection. But deeper, I am wincing from a quick jab to the gut. When I made a mental picture of Danny, there was no chair. Instead, there was a portrait of the perfect gentleman of average height, slender build, with dirty blonde hair, and warm liquid eyes.
“Great! How about we meet outside the downtown Berkeley BART station. You know the way?”
“Yes, it’s easy to get to. I’ll meet you there!”
We meet at the appointed place, just outside the station. Our eyes make contact and a quick inventory is taken. Wheelchair. Indeterminate height. Medium build. Short, black hair. Thick glasses framing the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. The eyes, as someone had once said, were the portals to the soul. And what a lovely soul — I saw it all at once. Don’t look at the chair, I think to myself. Be polite and engaging.
A few blocks away, we find a table at Mel’s Original Diner on Shattuck Avenue. Conversation flows freely, interspersed with gales of laughter. I like him, and I want him to like me. He sees past the façade and understands the insecurity of the moment. “You don’t have to try so hard to win me over,” he whispers. “I’m already interested.” A broad smile. It is returned.
We leave the restaurant and make our way through the Berkeley campus towards his home at the International House. It’s an imposing building of Spanish design, with broad arches, red tile shingles, and cupola. He leads me to his private dorm room, which has just enough space for a bed, a desk, and a bookshelf. He shares a bathroom across the hall. Now that it’s just the two of us, he is free to make advances. I’m excited. I’m scared. My heart is pounding and I can feel the blood surging through arteries and veins. I tell him that it’s a little too soon. It comes out an apology, ironically carrying the message with just the right tone. He smiles and understands. He’s been here before, I think to myself.
A second date is arranged and the connection between us is deepened. But it’s not what happens during the meal, it’s what happens after. The long walk to the International House gives me time to assess where this is going. If he advances, I’ll offer no resistance. We are finally alone in his him. He advances, and I give in completely, heart aflame with lust and animal passion. It feels natural. Damn, I’m pretty good at this.
For the next six weeks, Danny and I continue seeing each other. We have meals in exotic restaurants, followed by window shopping or long, leisurely walks. Berkeley becomes our haven, our magical place. We look into each other’s eyes and share a common understanding. He takes us to the next level by uttering the L-word in the privacy of his room. I am not quite ready, as I am new to all of this. He understands. I politely excuse myself and ponder the vagaries of human relationships while riding a morose train back to San Francisco.
Back home, I finally come out to my roommates Chris and Micah. There is no recoil or incredulity, just complete acceptance. Did they hear me correctly? Of course they did kiddo. They’re cool with it. Relax. I tell my best friend, Laurie. She already knows. Aha! So that explains New Year’s Eve. Next comes Ian, who I keep at a respectful distance. He is neither revolted nor ebullient. Well, I’m glad that’s over. The momentum is building, along with my confidence. And then, with great reluctance, I call Mom.
“Hi Mom, it’s Chip”
“How are you doing?”
“I’m doing OK, how are you?”
“Well… I need to tell you something. Are you sitting down?”
“Uh, what’s this about?” (muffled sound of chair being moved)
“OK… Is this because you can’t get a date?”
Wait… what? How did we get here? Is this too soon, too much? I sense her mind buzzing, furiously, for this is clearly unexpected news.
“Mom! It has nothing to do with that! I’ve always known.”
The remainder of the conversation is a flurry of questions, explanations, and revelations. I tell her about Danny (cleverly omitting the phone dating service); about the hand-on-thigh menagerie. And about past crushes and well-concealed feelings. Finally, there is understanding, if not complete acceptance. This will take time.
I tell Dad as we’re driving to my house in the Sunset district via highway 280. It’s difficult and the words don’t come out as eloquently as I had hoped. Slight pause and a nod of acceptance, followed by an explanation of how he’s no longer as judgmental as he once was. Exhale. Relief. It’s done. As he pulls into the driveway, I thank him for the ride and wave goodbye, wondering where this journey will take me next.