Come to think of it, there was something else similar about these men: They both struck me as very very scared, although the sane smooth guy was not acknowledging this. It gives me a lot to think about when I meet an adult at that particular and fleeting precipice. There is a combination of naivety and maturity that can be startling, and hard to classify.
This story rambles a bit because I haven't bundled it neatly yet and I haven't wholly determined what details make the story and what details should be tossed in the recounting.
What happened Friday was that I had spent a good part of the evening talking with a young man, still in college (though several years out as gay), who had dropped by with (catch this) his boyhood friend's father, of whom he was quite fond and who, it seems, was a sort of gay mentor to him. I had met the friend's father casually a few times before, and he introduced me to the young man (who was feeling isolated in the bear setting). A couple of us spent the evening talking off and on with this young man, who was very funny and pleasant (he regaled us with tales of gay life in North Dakota, where he goes to school) and even flirtatious.
In time the young man's stories turned more and more to some guy he was all crazy for, whom he kept calling on his cell phone to try to convince to meet him at the bar. Eventually the guy agreed, and my new young friend was over the moon with nervous excitement, something I attributed to his youth. I also figured that when his friend arrived the rest of us would cease to exist for him. But I was wrong. I walked by my new friend a little later and he grabbed me and excitedly introduced me to his friend, a very handsome smiling man who could have been in his late twenties or possibly older, it's not always easy to tell when somebody with a big boyish grin is wearing a cap in dim bar light. I was physically poised to walk off and leave these boys when the smiling man said to me (after we had exchanged a few sentences), "I've never been in a gay bar before."
Boom. Anvil fall. Sentence out of the blue, clearly something bursting on this man's tongue. I changed my physical stance to one of staying rather than going and we took it from there. We started to talk about this. About this man's situation. About his history. About what he's looking for. About why tonight. At one point he said to me, "You're clearly the intellectual here." I noted that this wasn't the first time I had ever thought about these issues. Later, after I said something that struck him as intriguing, he said, "See, you are the intellectual." "Yes, I have all the words you want," I replied.
But where was the young man during this? Well, unfortunately, as this conversation was taking place it was becoming clear that the poor excited young man had had too much to drink, something I hadn't seen coming because I hadn't been with him continuously. So he was sitting quietly on a stool, drinking water his friend had brought him, occasionally piping up with a comment but mostly feeling the effects of his evening's refreshment. His friend was finding out from him where he was staying, where his car was, basically making arrangements to take care of him and make sure he would be safe and ok.
During the caretaking conversations I realized, to my surprise, that these two men had never met before, except on line. Oh. I said that I didn't know his friend before tonight, but that I was sorry here, that his friend really was much more fun and together earlier. He said oh yes, he knew that well, they'd been in pretty intense and lengthy correspondence for a long while. He was actually happy he'd let himself be convinced to come out -- he had been working late long hours for a week and was leaving on a week's vacation the next day, and his friend convinced him that this was the time to get out as he could recover on the plane and on the beach.
So there's two things going on at once here: Me, reporter at large and general Kinsey researcher guy talking with this man about his situation, and these two guys meeting for the first time under less than ideal circumstances. This guy's story, in summary, is that he's from a conservative religious military family. He told this story with the explicit acknowledgment that it's practically cliche for closeted men. He works in financial management and has convinced himself that his entire career is based on a certain sort of networking that he could not perform if he were out. He said to me that he's known who he was since he was 12 or so but that he knows he could live his whole life without addressing this. Did I say he was sane? Well, this actually was almost sane, in conversational context. But me, as soon as he said this I grabbed him hard by both arms and recited my mantra, a pleading defiant (but smiling) punctuated, "You don't have to settle!" He had this great happy look in his eyes as I half-shook him on each word, and he smiled back and said, "Yeah, I know."
There's one big thing that impressed me about this guy, and I told him as much: Unlike pretty much everybody else I've ever talked with in his situation (and half the men in the bar, I said with a sweeping gesture), he didn't seem to think that he was somehow not like other gay people. He said no, he didn't think that at all. I know, I said, and that's impressive.
He had to get his friend back to where his friend was staying, though (the mentor guy had long since departed). I gave him (actually both of them) my business card and said, "Look, you're not going to contact me, but I want you to know that you can." He told me he was definitely going to contact me. I told him I was sure he was not, but the point was I wanted it to be absolutely clear that it was entirely his choice, and that he should not think in the bright light of day that it would be a weird thing to call a man he barely knew to talk about this sort of thing. No, he said, I won't think that. But he will.
Oh, and young college guy also said that he was going to contact me. Which was sweet, but young college guy will probably remember very little of Friday night.
What amazes me is that there are always more adventures to be had and stories to hear.