We were three boys in a bed–me, my friend Jay, and Jay’s ex-boyfriend, Paul. Paul was passed out. Jay was not so sleepy. I was nervous. An hour before, crashing at Jay’s house seemed way safer than a wee-hour trek back toward home. But there are reasons why 25-year-old boys rarely do slumber parties, especially when one boy is straight, two are gay, and all three have been dancing cheek to cheek to cheek for most of the night.

I rolled onto my side and tried for sleep. Jay spooned against me and asked if spooning was OK. I said yes, spooning was OK. I thought by specifying spooning, I implicitly ruled out anything more. Still, with Jay’s arm around my waist, his warm body cupped along mine, I felt shockingly sober. Awake and obsessed by the notion that his penis might pop out of his boxers and touch me, I stared into the dark and tried to slow my breathing. A few minutes ticked by. Then came a tingly wet warmth on my neck. A kiss? I tensed, ready to declare boundaries. Confrontation, though, seemed too severe. And so I feigned sleep, hoping Jay would get the idea.

He didn’t.

What to do?

Ever since I began losing my homophobia, gay men–friends and strangers both–have been confusing me for gay. The problem isn’t that such confusion occurs or even that it often leads to some casual flirting–which I happen to enjoy. No, the problem is that that flirting occasionally leads to fondling, at which point my basic heterosexuality kicks in, feelings get hurt, and I’m left to wonder if I am to blame.

On the one hand, I am. For whatever reason–some cuddling deficiency in my formative past?–I like my friendships physical, and it’s not hard to see how that can lead people on. On the other hand, whatever blame there is goes far beyond me or any one individual. This shit is collective. We’re all–some of us more than others–mired in this bipolar world of straight and gay, lovers and friends. We’re all assigned these simplistic labels. The labels blunt our inner complexities. But social creatures that we are, they also help us get along.

When I was younger–and stupider–these labels seemed a lot more clear. Gay guys were gross, straight guys were normal, and homophobia was an attitude I slipped into like a hand-me-down coat.

So garbed, I endured my first brush with gay attention: some guy pinched my butt at a party in college. There I was, suddenly confronted, this wide-eyed freshman from a midwestern high school where well-rounded meant you lettered in three sports and could also bounce a quarter into a shot glass. I felt the way you do when you step in dog shit–the same mingling of embarrassment and rage, the same silent cursing and furtive looks to see who’d noticed. Most of all, I felt the same repulsion.

Guys who grew up like me will understand–the jock thing. It shapes you. You learn not to tolerate thrown elbows on the basketball court, slower cars in your lane, or anything else that might make you out to be a chump or pussy. That night I made a scene–tipped beverages, mumbled insults, an embarrassing display. And a few semesters later I dropped out and moved away.

San Francisco. For me a changed environment changed everything. I didn’t make the move to improve myself. I made it to hang out and slack off. What happened there, though, was that tolerance became a matter of survival, a necessity to get through each day. And as a result I opened myself up to messy, muddled feelings like the ones that got me into trouble with Jay.

It could have happened to anybody. Anybody clueless, that is. One day I got a job at a cafe. The next day I discovered the cafe was gay. So why, you are wondering, did I keep the job? I needed the money, that’s what I told myself. But in hindsight–duh–there was more. Here was an exotic community, ravaged by disease, famous for erotic excess. To a sporto from the ‘burbs, bussing those gay dishes was anthropology.

So in the long tradition of misguided cultural studies, my job started as a sort of peek-at-the-natives affair. I did a lot of hiding behind the dishwasher, eyeing the slick haircuts, the muscles, and the campy good cheer. My fieldwork focused on the more stylish patrons. I’d watch them buy coffee or roll cigarettes, and I’d think, “How interesting.”

But by noon each day I’d have to bus the tables–it was my job, after all–which meant I’d have to mingle. This did not start out as a fun thing. It started out sucky. All the long stares and chatty small talk and “accidental” brushes of skin when pouring refills or making change–these things made me squirm.

Over time, thank god, that squirming settled down. It had to. All alone in a strange place, I needed friends. And the more time I spent at work, the less I feared the clientele’s sexual agenda. Isn’t it always this way: you rub elbows with a bunch of supposed freaks and pretty soon those freaks aren’t so freaky. Eavesdropping, I’d hear talk of jobs, loves, politics, phone bills–just regular stuff, boring stuff, but…hey. Whoa. Who knew gay guys discussed more than gay sex?

Gradually I opened up. One day I’d notice the compassion–some guys were sick, and others were helping. Another day, I’d notice cool shoes. And after a while I’d want those shoes. I’m not saying that shoes will give you compassion, or even that they are such profound things to latch on to. Only that perhaps that’s where the latching starts, at shoe level. And then it goes to belts. And then, maybe, it sinks in.

Within a month I found myself answering to “hey babe” and feeling pretty darn good about it. A few months more, and I found “hey babe” being followed by “how about dinner?” and “want to catch a flick?” This made things decidedly more complex. Sure, I’d taken to wagging a suggestive finger at customers who spilled drinks. Sure, I’d learned to linger between tables and toss off, as it were, a few innuendoes. But dinner? A flick? Were these dates? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to make assumptions. But I also didn’t want to invite confusion. I definitely didn’t want to get stuck wiggling out of some awkward embrace. I’d say, “Sure. OK. But do you know I’m straight?”

Nearby conversations would drop off a cliff. My suitor’s eyebrows would climb his face. “You’re straight? You don’t look straight.”

I don’t look straight?

All at once I’d feel guilty, judged, insulted, threatened. Was I not supposed to joke around, wear these shoes or this belt? Was I misrepresenting myself? Or had I honestly become a part of this world? No one could tell me, and so my feelings stayed jumbled.

One year later I moved back to Chicago. But like the ex-peace corp volunteer who eats Indian food with his fingers, or the white kid from a black neighborhood who adopts a certain manner of speaking, I found that bits of San Francisco stayed with me. I was writing club reviews for a trendy magazine. My beat, the nightlife, was pansexual. Queens, rockers, punks–we all partied together, danced, spent many late nights yukking it up in diners while our pancakes turned cold. Sometimes I’d mention my then-girlfriend Holly who had a day job and rarely ventured out. The gay crowd would grimace, call me a “breeder,” try to shock me with tales of back rooms, come rags and poppers, the number of blow jobs you could give in a lifetime before your mouth froze into a permanent O.

So many tales, so few boundaries. Here was a world without obvious restraints. Here, it seemed almost anything could be said or done. In a word (an admittedly tired word) here was freedom.

Afterward, on those nights I went out, I’d stumble home and crawl into bed, reeking of cigarettes and booze. Holly would snuggle up and murmur questions: “Who’d you see, what’d you do?”

I’d tell her, “I saw the boys. We talked about blow-job face.”

She’d kiss my neck. “Did you kiss those boys?”


She’d slide her mouth down my chest: “Did you want to? Tell me about it.”

Which of us was more excited, I never knew.

The pursuit of inner freedom isn’t just a personal matter. It affects other people. And so exploring sexual boundaries is tricky business. Those boundaries map the world. In crossing them, in flirting outside the lines, you find less clarity but more truth.

Of course heterosexuality doesn’t have to be a monolithic experience. Nor does being gay. But finding a bit of gray space between the two demands some struggle and some reconciliation, not just with others, but with yourself, and in my case with a sexuality that has me coital with girls and coy with whomever.

It’s been a year since my slumber party with Jay, and all is well, if not well defined. There’s no rift between us, no love lost. But there is still the memory of that awkward moment.

After Jay kissed me I sat up. I said something like, “Jay, is there a way for me to sleep here without leading you on?”

He shrugged. He wasn’t sure. And neither was I. Flirting isn’t fucking, but it does beg the question: is it fair to be suggestive without follow-through, to make a bed, lie in it, and only then consider the couch? Well, to me, yes. But to Jay, no. And so we just lay, in an uncertain silence, shoulder to shoulder, hand on hand, watching the sky slide from purple black to grayish blue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Paul Moch.