The door to Karen’s office was open and I waved a little hello as I entered, indicating that I would only be a second. Karen was the creative director at the magazine publisher where I was freelancing as a copy editor. I thought there was something cozy about her, something very motherly, in a distracted kind of way. She and Marco, the photo editor, were having a casual conversation, perhaps not even about work.
“I’m just returning the key to the supply closet,” I said, heading over to the corkboard to hang it back up. I did not want to get drawn into whatever they were talking about. Sunlight was streaming in through the windows, and I felt like fainting. Karen squinted at me over the top of her glasses and smiled: “Ah, I wondered who’d been rooting around in there.”
“Bobby’s been in the closet for a long time,” Marco said, in a low, mischievous growl. He rubbed his short grey beard. The tattoos on his upper arms leered out from underneath his skintight T-shirt.
I laughed but didn’t take the bait. Marco and I were friends on Facebook and his status updates showed a remarkable propensity for gay innuendo. And in person, if you let him get started, he was even more relentless .
But Karen wasn’t feeling so discreet either. “Yes, Bobby would be a bear, right?” She looked over at Marco with a conspiratorial smirk.
With my thick, luscious brown beard and hairy chest, I would be a bear, I thought proudly—if I were gay, of course.
“Oh no,” Marco said with exaggerated surprise. He was looking at me very sternly, suppressing a smile. “Bobby is no bear. He’s more of an … otter.”
I was a bit offended. I’d always kind of thought of myself as a bear. A few years ago, during the dark time after college but before the even darker time after after-college, I’d worked at an independent video store in the West Village. The neighborhood was teeming with homosexuals (or so it seemed to me), and gay pornography was one of our specialties. Titles like Bear Patrol and Free Fur All lined the walls of the seedy little porno room in the back of the store, so I knew what bears looked like: hairy, muscular, dressed in leather, and carrying a nightstick. I’d also seen plenty of pictures of bears on Marco’s own Facebook page. Hardly a week went by without him posting a dozen or so pictures of a weekend “Bear Picnic” or “Bear Hiking Trip” (not surprisingly, bears enjoy the outdoors) or “Bear-E-Okee,” all full of hairy thirtysomethings that, frankly, looked a lot like me. Perhaps I wasn’t old enough? Or burly enough? Gay subcultures seemed so nuanced, I was surprised they could even keep track.
I’d been finding myself embroiled in a lot of these awkward little gay scenarios lately. I’m a bit of a loner, so my day-to-day routine didn’t involve going to that many different places, and it seemed like more and more of these daily stops were becoming tricky due to the presence of gay, or potentially gay, men that I was convinced had crushes on me. But perhaps I was just being paranoid. I mean flattering myself. When I tried out this theory on a friend of mine (that gay men were constantly ogling me and that my awareness of this was adding unnecessary stress to my otherwise banal errands), she said that I have “difficulty” in most scenarios that involve casual interaction with strangers and was likely blowing it way out of proportion.
Nevertheless, I’d started avoiding the bodega near my apartment in Park Slope because of a gay clerk’s overzealous greetings and small talk. And the way he stared at me! It started out innocently enough, with him paying extra-special attention to my bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich orders on Sunday mornings. I was usually hungover, worn out from a long night of drinking alone, or a shorter but somehow more abusive night of drinking with others and feeling alone, so perhaps my defenses were lowered, but I liked the way he smiled at me and said, “Helloooo … bacon, egg, and cheese, right?” before I even had a chance to speak. I’d stand off in the wings pretending to read the newspaper, as he lovingly laid a slice of cheese over the egg and called out, “Salt and pepper?” I’d wait a moment, so as to dampen any impression that I might be at his beck and call, then I’d rush forward saying, “Yes, yes, thank you.”
It wasn’t long before he started complimenting me on my beard, which was lovely, I realized, and apparently impossible for gay men to resist, so I took it gracefully. I’m very susceptible to flattery. And in fact, I was sort of fascinated by his appearance as well. His perfectly round bald head glistened, and his huge blue eyes were always popping with curiosity, the way I imagined mine might, if I didn’t always feel so fatigued. I was simultaneously impressed and appalled by how friendly he always seemed, and he was almost charming, in an exceedingly goofy way.
But being friendly is exhausting for me (this is one of the few drawbacks of being such a stalwart introvert), and sometimes I want to order a bacon, egg, and cheese without being flirted with. I began to dread going in there, and I realized I could only humor this kind of thing for so long. I’d wake up on a Sunday morning with a pounding headache and sit on the couch miserably thinking to myself, “All I want right now is coffee and a bacon, egg, and cheese, but if I go down there, I’ll have to talk to him.” Some days, the dread was so severe I wouldn’t even leave the house, subsisting instead on a box of Rice-a-Roni or Lipton Noodles and dark, milkless coffee brewed in my own coffeemaker. The fact that I’d also have had to go to the bodega if I wanted milk was a bitter pill to swallow that always sent me into a small rage.
Finally, one day when I was feeling brave enough to venture out to the store, he looked up at me expecting the friendly greeting we’d established over the last few months, I snubbed him. I ignored him completely and walked past as if we’d never exchanged hellos before. He was stocking the orange juice refrigerator, kneeling on the dirty floor, and I was overwhelmed by the smallness and sadness of our lives. I was able to collect my meager purchases (toilet paper, soup, milk, cheese) without interacting with him directly. It was obvious to both of us that I had ignored him on purpose, and now the spell was broken. Our little romance was over. I thought that would make it easier to go back in there in the future, but in fact it only made it harder.
Simultaneously, there was also a similar situation going on at Cosi in Midtown, near the magazine publisher where I worked. Once a week, I had a powerful need to consume a turkey and cheddar melt, so I left the hermetically sealed little room where they kept the copy editors and headed out into the midtown Manhattan lunch-hour feeding frenzy.
At Cosi, the prudent first move was always to steel myself with a warm little scrap of bread from the communal bowl they had stationed at the beginning of the line. With my grizzly-man beard, unwashed jeans, and sweater, I always felt out of place in the sea of pant-suited and humorless career women, jocular post-frat boys in light-blue button-downs, and cranky European tourists. “I might look at one of these women and smile,” I’d think, “if this were another life,” but actually I couldn’t bring myself to look at any of them. I was too blinded by their chatter and perceived hostility.
Here, my gay interlocutor was not the person taking the lunch orders, or even one of the half-dozen folks in the sandwich-and-salad assembly line, but the slight, feminine boy at the cash register. His mop of dark hair was mostly hidden under a flaccid Cosi cap, and the faint shadow of a mustache on his upper lip did nothing to diminish the girlish aspect of his face. If Marco were with me, he’d probably dismissively call the fellow a “twink.” (They had plenty of that genre at the video store as well, perhaps even some involving twinks and bears, though based on my cursory scans of the boxes, it seemed like kind was usually paired with kind.)
Cosi was packed during lunch hours, so my attitude was always get in and get out as quickly as possible. This meant, of course, that my interactions with the boy were more hurried and subtle than those with my bald friend at the deli, but again I got the strong and very definite impression that he liked me. His eyes seemed to be looking at me, rather than through me, past me, past everyone, onto the street and into oblivion, like the other wretches with his job. I imagined his whole world snapped into focus a bit more when he saw me approaching, a lovely bearded stranger here to rescue him from the doldrums of another day spent ringing up sandwiches. In any case, he certainly became more attentive, smiling at me slightly, with almost imperceptible amusement—or so it seemed to me, for in the world of midtown Manhattan lunch lines there can be no overt displays of affection.
A few times our hands touched as he was handing me my change, and he didn’t draw away quickly in alarm; perhaps he even let his hand linger on mine for a split second longer than necessary. When I worked at the video store, I tried that trick on a few of the pretty female customers, but I seemed to remember them recoiling in disgust. However, perhaps my slightly warped and impoverished sense of self was overruling reality. In my mind, I am like a bearded god in the eyes of homosexual men, but like some pathetic hairy troll in the eyes of beautiful women. So whenever his hand grazed mine, I smiled and tried to act naturally. I didn’t want to appear rude, but I also didn’t want to lead him on.
Once again, I felt the situation was becoming too familiar. One of the things I like most about living in New York is the absolute anonymity. As soon as I feel obligated to exchange familiar greetings with a person—the chatty doorman at a friend’s apartment building, the brisk Mexican woman who sells me coffee in the morning, the obese and obviously lonely neighbor in the laundromat on a Saturday afternoon—I begin to dread seeing them. And if those interactions are laced with unspoken gay romantic undertones, then they really become too much to bear. So I quickly found myself withdrawing my affection and natural friendliness, which, again, was becoming strained. And in fact, he seemed to be withdrawing as well, perhaps slightly ashamed to have been subtly flirting with a bearded stranger to begin with. I sensed that he was not nearly as self-assured as his goofy bald counterpart at the bodega in Brooklyn.
Incredibly, a similar but even more disruptive situation like this had also developed at my local gym. This one caused me the most consternation, as avoidance was not really an option. At that time in my life, I felt like I had to continue to sculpt and maintain my body, plus the gym seemed vital to my mental health.
I’m not exactly sure how it started, but one particularly muscle-bound jock and I somehow became trapped in a pattern of exchanging the most intense and awkward man-on-man eye contact I have ever experienced in my life. As most gym-goers know, making eye contact is something that is generally not done. In fact, most people at the gym tend to act a bit scared of each other (the women especially seemed skittish toward me); there is a lot of forced politeness, and whatever exchanges do occur are brief and tense. No one wants to “invade each other’s space,” so to speak. Plus, the fact that nearly everyone is wearing headphones further prevents conversation. Before I’d joined the gym, I had imagined (and hoped) that the atmosphere would be more sexually charged somehow, but it wasn’t. Except, unfortunately, between me and this … dude.
It never failed: I’d go dashing up the stairs after doing some bench presses, ready to grab a towel and mount the stair-climbing machine, and I’d look to my left and there he’d be, staring at me. I’d round the corner, heading toward the free weights, glance up, and there he’d be, barreling toward me, staring at me. I’d head into the locker room, drenched in sweat, eager to strip off my headphones and T-shirt, and there he’d be, suddenly, clad in nothing but a tiny white towel, staring at me.
His body was phenomenal. I could admit that. It was no wonder it seemed like he was always at the gym (I tried going at different times of day and night in an effort to avoid him, to no avail). In order to build and maintain a body of such absurdly statuesque proportions, you’d have to be there all the time. He was several inches taller than me, his chest and arms were chiseled, and his stomach was flat and defined, but it was his legs that were really impressive. His buttocks, thighs, and calves were all ripping with muscle that was perfectly in proportion to his heaving upper body. In contrast, my own legs were a source of constant shame. They looked and felt (both physically and psychologically) too skinny, but I found leg exercises to be too tedious to really correct this problem. I’d look down at my legs, at my sneakers really, as I hurried past this Adonis in a skimpy white towel. My face felt hot and, absurdly, my heart was racing, the way it did in middle school whenever I saw a girl I liked.
He had an interesting face. I suppose that was the original problem; he caught me looking at him. He had a strong chin, which was angular and smooth and always immaculately shaved, dark eyes and dark, spiky hair, which he wore very closely cropped on the sides. This combination of features made him look a bit like a Japanese anime character, although if I had to guess, I bet he was from New Jersey.
Actually, now I do remember how this all started. The gym was about two blocks downhill from my apartment; and Prospect Park, where I went running during the warmer months, was about four or so blocks uphill from my apartment. Sometimes on my way downhill to the gym, or on my way uphill to the park, I would pass this spiky-haired gym bunny as he was also either coming from or going to the gym. (I don’t think either of us lived very busy lives.) The first one or two times this happened, I may not have even recognized him. Most likely, I just noticed that he looked familiar, if I noticed him at all. But then, perhaps the third time this happened, I had a simultaneous flash of recognition and fit of friendliness, and I did something unthinkable: I nodded in recognition at him, breaking the invisible plane that usually exists between strangers and establishing actual, furtive human contact. (How I wished I could take that back later!) He nodded back. And so our new nodding-in-recognition rapport was established. Then, for a while, it actually seemed like I didn’t see him at the gym anymore, just in the outside world, in the vicinity of the gym, and so we would nod hello, each thinking, in a very masculine, non-gay way, I presumed, “Oh, there’s that dude from the gym.”
Strangely, while I was OK with this dynamic of nodding hello to a guy in the real world that I recognized from the context of the gym, when I started seeing him again at the gym and he wanted to continue (or even, I feared, escalate) this nodding relationship in that context, I wanted no part of it. It was absurd to have to nod hello at this guy every time I saw him at the gym, which started to feel like every time I went in there. And even more unsettling, he seemed to want more than that. It was almost as if he wanted to talk to me. For what reason though, I couldn’t fathom—at first. Perhaps he was just a lonely straight guy. Maybe he just wanted to have a beer or something, make a new friend. But, no, I thought … that is madness.
Back in the office one afternoon, as I was scrutinizing some proofs, Marco came in and said, “Hey Bobby, you claim to be straight, you should know this: How many players on a hockey team?”
I didn’t really look up. I could imagine the smirk on Marco’s face well enough. “I don’t watch hockey,” I said. “And what do you mean ‘claim’ to be straight? Is there some debate about this?”
Marco laughed. He was standing by the window looking down at the city, perhaps evaluating its relative hetero or homosexuality as well.
Then, as if to cast further doubt on the matter, I said, “So I looked up ‘otter’ and you were right, an otter is just a skinnier bear.”
“Mmmhmm,” Marco said, glancing back at me and drawing the sound out—as if he found otters delicious.
It would be kind of nice to be an otter, I thought to myself, or a bear, to have a cozy little niche clearly designated like that; to be eagerly accepted by a group based on the way I look. I’ve never had that. In fact, I’ve never really been a part of any group, not even any of the ones that are based on the feeling of not fitting in.
I looked up to say something to Marco, something witty about otters and bears perhaps, or maybe even something serious and sincere about people, but he had already wandered out of the room.
Rob Williams is a mercenary copywriter and copy editor who currently lives above a meat market in the East Village. You can find more of his stories at www.itmustbebobby.com.
Photo by Mike Baird