5—Touching the closet door on the other side of the world
3— Being in America was a dream come true. And IN THAT DREAM I woke up, coming to my senses ABOUT MARRIAGE. Being so far from home, this was a time for new experiences, like kissing a man.
San Antonio, Texas, June ’97—I’d never lived away from home. I never even had a job before! But here I was, working in a tall glass building in San Antonio, Texas. Sometimes we don’t fully realise what we are experiencing. Sometimes it takes us to be back home and look at the pictures on our phone to marvel at where we’ve been! But that summer I was aware of living the dream, of being right in the middle of the world I’d dreamed of since I was a child, on the other side of the TV screen.
Driving in a huge pick-up truck on wide open roads, past all-American trucks that I photographed, Spanish moss hanging on branches on the side of the road between cities, and Texas flags, bold and bright, as soon as we got closer to civilization, was all a bit surreal for the Frenchie. I loved Dr Pepper vending machines, the amazing food I tried, country music on radio stations, and men wearing Stetson hats.
When I think about Texas in ’97, images, feelings, people, scents, sounds flood in. I am a nostalgic person. And music has that power to transport you to specific times and places like nothing else. My friend Sam had made a Tori Amos tape for me, but when I heard Silent All These Years on the radio as I got in the family van at the airport’s parking lot, I fell in love with the song, and with San Antonio, as we cruised through Downtown. I hear that song and I’m still there. That part of Texas was so humid that it was like being in a sweat lodge (without a Shaman). And I can still smell that blend of apple, cinnamon and American detergent in public spaces and private homes. Like at my friend Megan’s.
Megan was a returned missionary based in Houston. I spent one weekend with her. I loved the city and the countryside—and the alligators. When Megan was a missionary I imagined I loved her and I told myself that someday she might become my wife. But now that she was a civilian, those ideas dispelled and even frightened me. I felt nervous. I felt uncomfortable. I felt I was acting as if I was being kind of dishonest.
I felt the same with Barbara. She was the sister of the Texan returned missionary who served in my hometown when I joined the Church. I had been writing to her for months. I’d imagined that I could date and fall in love with her too. But the minute we met I knew this had been nothing but pretending. It was just wishful thinking. Thankfully, Barbara didn’t seem interested in me either after all. When was alone with her we hardly talked, and she just blasted Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill or Garbage in her car. I was staying with their family in San Antonio.
Missionaries did not date. Missionaries did not talk about dating. I loved that about them! But now that the Texan returned missionary was getting married, I felt awkward in his presence, and so out of place. It had nothing to do with being in a foreign land. It was the same back home since friends and I had become teenagers. I often wished we could be asexual creatures. And now it was the same with the Elders.
Getting married was expected of me as a Mormon, but I could not imagine going through with it without living a complete lie.
I did not attend the wedding at the Dallas temple: only adult LDS members holding a temple recommend (obtained after a successful worthiness interview with their Bishop) may enter the Temple to participate in the higher sacred and secret ceremonies (or to attend ‘sealings’—marriages for time and eternity). While the Texan returned missionary was getting ‘sealed’, I waited in the temple gardens with his younger siblings who couldn’t hold a temple recommend due to their age.
Sitting on a bench I thought about Megan in Houston and about the Texan returned missionary’s sister, Barbara, sitting here. What if it was me in that temple with either one of them? I had fooled myself. About girls and marriage. I couldn’t believe I had even prayed for this to happen! Getting married was expected of me as a Mormon, but I could not imagine going through with it. I’d be horrified to be in the temple now, starting living a complete lie, trapped and desperate. Being sealed to a woman could not happen.
I had grown to feel as if I was deceiving others but in the garden of the Dallas temple I realised it was myself I was deceiving the most. If I had always known I could never marry a man, I now realised I could never marry a woman either.
The party emerged from the temple. Pictures were taken. The bride was so beautiful. The newly weds kissed. I hated myself for thinking I’d rather kiss the groom if it was me getting married. I had been worthy and I had remained faithful to all my covenants and to my Church. But no matter where I went, and no matter who I associated with, I was ‘gay’ and it was never going to change. In fact, it had got worse since I now had those dreadful panic attacks.
The maid of honour was sobbing uncontrollably. Barbara said, “because she’s losing her best friend” and the groom’s brother said, “Because she knows she’ll never get married— being all fat and ugly.” I wondered if I should be sobbing too.
After a low-key wedding reception I drove back down to San Antonio with the groom’s family. He was off to his honeymoon. Barbara moved out with a friend and the groom’s brother was a 16 year-old boy who spent time with friends his age. So I spent a lot of time alone, watching TV or walking around the neighbourhood.
I think I was living my American fantasy while being real for the first time in my life!
I loved exploring beautiful Downtown San Antonio and I used to go to the mall after work. One afternoon, I bought Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes and fell in love with it every night. Another afternoon I used the pay phone to call a returned missionary friend in Dallas. A man walked past. After a couple of minutes he walked past again. This time he looked at me and he smiled. No one had ever done this before. Yet I knew what it meant. He was strawberry blonde, handsome and tall. He stopped after I hung up and said “Hello.” He looked as if he was in his mid-30s, relaxed like Americans so often do in his cargo shorts and the blue short-sleeved shirt that matched his eyes.
I was 21 (going on 14). I must have looked stiff in my work suit. My mouth was drier than it had ever been. Could he hear the pounding in my chest? He asked if I wanted to go to his car to chat. We would “be more comfortable there.” I followed, my heart beating so fast and loud as we crossed the parking lot. I was scared as hell. I was elated too. I felt excited. I felt curious to discover more. But I was aware that I was shaking in the passenger’s seat. He looked at me and he smiled again. Then he put a hand on my leg. It felt amazing to be touched by a man. He leaned to kiss me.
“I’ve got to go!” I said, touching the door handle. I guess he could tell I was panicking because he didn’t try to stop me. I walked across the parking lot to get back inside the mall. Back to the safety of an air conditioned public space, I sat down on a bench. My legs were still shaking. But I was relieved while hating myself for not having let him kiss me.
My stomach hurt when I saw him walking towards me. But he walked past, and leaned on the railing, looking a story below, his back turned to me. I watched him. I wanted to go to him but I didn’t feel well. So, I watched him find a receipt in a pocket (and a pen too). Then he turned around, walked to me and handed me the receipt folded as a square. I took it. He smiled and walked away.
I didn’t want him to leave. I wanted to try again. I unfolded the receipt. He’d written his name—Bruce, like my favourite singer in high school—and his phone number. My stomach hurt so bad now that I doubled down. Some woman sat opposite me, and she looked at me. Did she see what had just happened? I felt sinful. I felt lucky. I felt things I had never felt. I was in a daze for the rest of the afternoon and all evening, still processing what had happened to me.
I got ready for bed and put the receipt on the nightstand. It was there for weeks. It was the last thing I looked at before going to sleep and the first thing I looked at when I woke up in the morning. Then, one morning, I dialled Bruce’s number from work. My heart raced. I was shaking a little too. And it was just as bad when he picked me up from work during my lunch break.
That was my last week in San Antonio. And that was my first gay kiss. Kissing girls had always felt technical and clinical. French kissing Bruce in his apartment shot stars through my soul. We were in his apartment. He undid my tie and unbuttoned my shirt. I buttoned it back up. I didn’t want to go too far. We didn’t. Just enough to relieve some tension. But more than what I had ever done with another person.
We didn’t have social media back then, so he gave me his address to keep in touch, and as I wanted a keepsake, he let me take his picture before getting off the car after he drove me back to the office. That afternoon I carried on with work, my body at my desk but my mind in another dimension. I felt guilt and ecstasy, cold regret and warm satisfaction. There was some extreme confusion and a profound peace at the same time. I think I was living my American fantasy while being real for the first time in my life while being wrapped in those paradoxical emotions.
The strangest thing was nothing changed. That evening I watched TV (which helped improve my English) and listened to Little Earthquakes. Perhaps the track I’d heard when I got to Texas was a sign: I had been “silent all these years” and now I was about to “hear my voice.” Sexual awakening, violent emotions, religious guilt and discreet defiance. I identified with that album and even started writing bad poems based on the lyrics in connection to what was happening to me. It was to be the soundtrack of that summer. It already was the soundtrack to my very own private coming out.
You spend over a month traveling alone and come back home a changed person. Deprived of points of references, of habits and familiar faces, you turn the Self-Discovery Mode on.