This essay is a selected submission from Street's Love Issue personal narrative contest. Read some of our other favorite pieces here and look out for new pieces as we publish them throughout the week!
I’ve been in a serious romantic relationship with the closet for three years. Every time I leave the closet, it finds me, reincarnated in another form, begging me to be beguiled. Well, I have had about as much as I can take!
The first time I met the closet was during my first relationship. This was one of those cheeky moments of the queer narrative where neither party knew they were gay, but they both knew SOMETHING was right about how much they liked spending time together. My senior year of high school, I fell hard and I fell fast! The thing is, I was going to college.
Alert: College Confidential sin here. I went into college with a RELATIONSHIP. No NSO–of–love for me, just coming home at 2 a.m. to FaceTime with the boy back home.
Things were still pretty naive. It was a first relationship, and we hadn’t even used the “boyfriend” label yet. We told people “We’re not gay, just good friends,” but things escalated to the point where this was no longer believable. I told a few folks here at school that all the notifications they had noticed were coming from my boyfriend. No one was shocked. Meanwhile, he told no one anything at all.
So it was revealed: the closet had come out of its shell and reminded me it was my true lover. He proceeded to deny he had any feelings for me whatsoever. Alone at Penn, I was left 500 miles from home gawking at the fact that, over Thanksgiving, we had tried to use IcyHot as a lubricant. Discovering that love exists deep in the closet is akin to the power of a defibrillator: one moment, two hearts beat in a Carnatic rhythm tracked by matching Fitbits. The next, they’re jolted into some ether surrounded by strange men wearing masks.
First relationship: check! Now I’m trying to get my act together here at Penn. I download a few dating apps, even test out Grindr. My profile is utterly unsuccessful. Grindr plays host to many devotees of the closet, but my boldly brown face defies their discreet desires. Meanwhile, in classes, I’ve made some solid straight male friends, who, in my life, are a rare currency if there ever was one. For the first time, I meet someone for a date.
One night, in the midst of a wild party (read: there were 20 people there), sloshed on Capri–Sun themed mixed drinks and knee–deep in a bag of Gushers, I am pulled aside by one of these fabled, solid, straight male friends.
“I’m not gay, but…”
The rest of the conversation doesn’t get much better. This friendship went from “Hey, let’s grab dinner and talk about our stressful classes” to “It’s okay, I know you like me, you’re still not attracted to men if you don’t want to be.” Because, see, I wasn’t really sure how to handle this. If I tried to tell him he might be attracted to me, not even to men in general—sexuality is fluid, after all—there was bound to be some "How would you know?” And the truth is, I couldn’t. I had no idea what his sexuality was, is, or will be. But the thing about the closet incarnate is, it always gives you a real “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type of situation.
Having a man you care a lot about confess he may somehow have contracted feelings for you is mind–shattering and soul–crushing. Especially when he can’t admit it to himself without a few substances mixed into the bloodstream.
I’m a queer boy from a southern state and a Hindu conservative family; people like me didn’t have the luxury of understanding relationships and dating until they decided to find us. And, for whatever reason, my first two “loves” have been these avatars of the deity that is the closet. So of course, I was susceptible to both.
It’s that queer tragedy I never thought I could write. But, here’s the worst (or best?) part.
Both of these men have since re–entered my life. And neither has gotten much better at being particularly comfortable with their attraction to me publicly. That’s not what bothers me; I can deal with a discreet relationship. It’s the ambiguity of being back in relationships with closeted men that gets to me.
If the person you decide to call your lover thinks of you as an exception to their identity rather than a part of it, can that love ever be requited? If you are part of some escapist narrative for that person, one they will describe as part of their experimental college phase at a cocktail party 20 years from now, where does that leave you?
This is all particularly down on these men. I don’t want to invalidate the fact that both have deeply cared about my well–being, my soul, and the struggles of queerness in a queerphobic home. The battle for me seems to be choosing whether I value that love in spite of ambiguity, or if I am so plagued by the ambiguity that I need to choose self–love instead. It's a battle I will continue to fight.
I am a man caught in this closet of others’ design.
Prakash Mishra is a junior from Waxhaw, NC.