I could date a “formerly gay man.” That would be a cinch. Right?
In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
I knew all along. I’m talking about the entire time we dated. From starting e-mail to final phone call, I was beyond certain that he was gay. Or at the very least, gay-adjacent. Women in similar situations will always say that they knew as a backhanded attempt to cover the tracks of embarrassment. Me? I knew.
I knew when a friend introduced him with the ambiguous epithet “unavailable.” Her explanation only made it worse—“Oh, he just got out of something. I’ll let him tell you.” Then, there was the Facebook album evidence. I sent an email to my bitchy brain trust with the subject line “Exhibits A through C.” Inside were pictures of him standing very sweaty and very close to a shirtless man (they’d just run a marathon), him channeling Zoolander in suspenders, and an iPhone self-portrait of just his eyes. The Sherlock Homosexual in me was piqued.
But weeks later he showed up to a party in pants so bespoke the women in the room refused to shut up. Who is he? Where’d he come from? What’s his deal? I got elbowed so many times that night my side screamed. Every horny chick within arms length inquired about his empty ring finger. This is unheard of in Washington—a black man in a suit who you’ve never even seen before. He came out of nowhere. He was hot. He was older. He was sexually mysterious. And at that point, he had to be mine.
When I tip-toed to his sports car for our first date, he was grinning like a kid in a candy store who just got his braces off. Wrapped in a bright orange dress, it was clear I’d caught him off guard. He had paired slacks with a “vintage” Modelo Especial T shirt. So maybe this wasn’t a date?
Later that night, he led the back of his hand up the back of my leg from Achilles tendon to that crazy sensitive skin behind my knee. Yes, it was definitely a date. I disappeared into the bathroom with shivers up my spine. They multiplied when I got his text message. “Hurry up and pee. Sheesh.” It took six seconds for him to miss me.
From then on, there was no denying that there was something going on. Soon, I had met all of his friends. On most women’s “what’s our status” radar, that would rate a 7 or an 8 on the “in a relationship” scale. But for me, those meetups tipped things in the opposite direction. We walked into one "meet-the-girl” summit holding hands and giggling, a couple. Then his homeboy showed up. When the two of them hopped their chairs closer together, I might as well have been half a world away. As I sat and watched, they talked watches. He grasped his friend’s wrist, turning it over ever so gently to examine the new piece he’d just bought. Then he slid it off to model it himself. I’ve done the same thing with a girlfriend’s bracelet, but I’m a girl. When I mentioned later that that scene might be a little too close for comfort for some men, he laughed it off.
And when I complained to my best friend, Stella, that I still had my doubts—not about his affections but about his previous predilections—she told me to shut it. “This is 40-year-old man game we’re witnessing here,” she assured me. “Think James Bond’s Speedos.” Showing up on time every time, always paying, wanting to buy me clothes and being willing to dog sit when I was out of town was just what grown-ass men were about. And if a little proverbial Speedo-wearing was happening, then so be it. Stella argued that, as usual, I was looking for a way out by outing a man who was just fine where he was. I was a relationship-phobe hiding in the closet of a homophobe, she reasoned.
Then I got “the email.” Stella and I had been planning “a celebration of the number 30” tour of Florence, Barcelona and Marrakech for months. I’d be gone for two weeks and felt like Mr. Bond and I needed to talk before I went wild with my girls European-style. That night on the phone, he asked me about my expectations, about my past relationships, about my goals for the future. And while he gave me directions to the best grilled octopus in Barcelona, all I could think about was how “European” he was and how “American” I felt, despite my mother’s best efforts.
My mother has been an out and proud lesbian since before I was born. As we searched for the perfect place for a black gay single mom to settle down, we spent our lives running. We left Los Angeles for Catalina Island by way of a botched move to Madrid when my family couldn’t accept her “lifestyle,” and returned five years later when that small town couldn’t, either. My friends call me “the nomad.” I have always considered myself more evolved and enlightened then most, always ready to hop off the “normal life” train and declare the whole nuclear family thing a scam. I spent the night telling him all this, talking over the little voice in my head that questioned whether I’d ever really jump off the rails.
I was on the bus when I got the email, a bold line in my inbox with the subject, “Reverse Russian Roulette.” In took a few lines of e-hemming and e-hawing before he finally came out with it: “I’ve dated guys before.” He said that our talk the night before had convinced him that he should reveal more about his own past. He’d thought about telling me for weeks but hadn’t found the courage. He told me he didn’t want to “shoot what we were building out of the sky.” He was being honest, which was actually really really hot.
“Funny thing is I’ve dated guys before too,” I wrote back. Sarcasm, my involuntary tic, would help smooth things over. We talked in person that night, and were inseparable the nights following. His bravery emboldened me. My grown-up life was finally aligning with my free-love resume. I grew up handing out water bottles at gay pride parades. I was weaned on bad lesbian beatnik spoken word. There was a tambourine involved in my high school graduation ceremony, for Gloria Steinem's sake. I could date a “formerly gay man.” That would be a cinch.
When he dropped me off at the airport, I left knowing that I would fly back to him on solid ground. His Facebook status message said something about how he was releasing me into the ocean and hoped I’d come swimming back. “I think he’s incredibly brave,” I told Stella one night in Barcelona over cava. She “umm-hmmed” her assent and gulped the rest of her glass down. If he was brave, I thought, then that made me brave to date him.
Then, walking through Florence, we passed by the chain store that he loved so much, and I peered through the glass to assess the origins of his tight jeans—the same pair that got hearts pumping that first night we met in person. Tight pants? Who cares? Apparently, none of the Italian women clinging to their size-28 men in toilet paper-thin T-shirts. In Italy, those pants were everyday, but in the States, they still functioned as tell-tale signs. “Eurocentric” had always been mine and Stella's code word for “possibly gay.” It made us sound more sophisticated than intolerant.
Truth was, I had to swim thousands of miles away to see what was right in front of me. It wasn’t his past that had me super-sleuthing all those months before: It was mine.
And that's when I knew it was over. Not because he was “sexually free,” as he called it that night after “the email," but because I wasn’t as evolved as I’d previously boasted to myself and to him. All that time, I thought my “eccentric” personality would trump his “Eurocentric” tendencies. And maybe in Barcelona it could have. But back in Bloomingdale, it wasn’t just another adjective—it was a wedge between us. Or between the me that I thought I was—tolerant, free-thinking, above-it-all—and the me that I really was—heteronormative and stereotypical.
I fought the obvious for a few weeks—showing up at co-worker dinners and laughing through corny movies. I made a show of dragging Europe with me back to U Street, but he could sense I’d changed the moment I stepped off the plane. Eventually, neither one of us was happy pretending that I was into it.
I’d told him from the start that I wasn’t looking for a relationship, and fell back on that tired line when he asked me why we weren’t “connecting.” If he was shocked, he didn’t sound like it. Yes, I was doing this over the phone. “I mean, I told you this months ago,” I said, trying to sound like I meant it. He said he understood. When we hung up, I was relieved.
I remembered when I first looked into his eyes on Facebook, then forwarded the photos around in an attempt to justify my own hang-ups. I didn’t want to know what he’d see if he looked into mine. In the end, he had been the honest one and I was the liar. And that’s one thing I hadn’t known all along.
Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop