Keeping up appearances

A boy I dated in high school confessed to me he's gay, and now he wants to say I'm his girlfriend for his parents' sake. Should I play along?

By Garrison Keillor

Published June 6, 2000 11:53PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm about to begin my first year of college. A guy I dated in high school is going to attend the same college, a guy I really like, very nice and sweet. In December he told me he's gay. We're down South where everyone's Southern Baptist or worse. His parents think he's still dating me and coming to this college for my sake. He tried to come out to them and they had him sent to a psychiatric hospital for a month.

He wants me to keep up the appearance of being his girlfriend. I actually like his parents. They're sweet, nice people who are just hopelessly prejudiced. He doesn't want to hurt them and I don't want to hurt him.

So, what do I do? We're not in love, but I still love him like a brother. I don't want to hurt his parents either. (They live a long way from the college.) What should I do?


Dear Freshman,

It's OK to keep up appearances for a while and let him pretend to be the boyfriend and allow the parents to believe a comforting lie, but make it clear to him that you refuse to tell an outright lie yourself. You'll let them believe the lie, if they wish, but you won't promote it yourself. Because the parents have a notion what's going on; they may need some cover, a breathing spell. They want to be able to tell the folks at church that the sweet boy is sweet on you and enjoying college, thank you; but if they decide to find out for sure, you won't try to thwart them. It's OK to tell an innocent lie for a friend, but it's a temporary solution, as most lies are.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been living with a man for three years and sometimes I feel happy with him and often it seems he just doesn't like me. It seems like I just irritate him a lot of the time. He goes through weeklong phases when he won't talk to me and tells me to leave him alone when I ask him what's wrong. He stomps around and glares at everything in sight. My family doesn't like him, my friends think I should have dumped him years ago -- yet here I am. But I do know he loves me, and he's incredibly smart and funny and I'm still attracted to him. He's stable, I love his family, we have similar interests and I know he's committed to me. I'm 27 and finishing graduate school and feel like I deserve more respect (and let's face it, adoration), but I have no idea how to go about getting it. He doesn't want to go to counseling because he doesn't think anything needs to change. What the hell should I do? Do I just need to grow up and enjoy what's working, or am I just wasting my time? How do I know if it's worth it to work on this relationship some more? Maybe I'm just looking for an impossible ideal?

Her Ladyship

Dear Ladyship,

Civility is not an impossible ideal. It's fundamental in any good relationship. And a week of silence and stomping and glaring is brutally uncivil. What is the gentleman's problem, other than immaturity and a nasty temper? Is he in the throes of composing an opera? Is he under the shadow of a deadly nasal disease? Is he tormented by injustice in the stock market or on the verge of discovering a cure for halitosis? Maybe he needs to go off to genius camp for the summer and wrestle with his fate and glare at the squirrels and give you a break. Or maybe you should find a reason to be somewhere else for a month or two. This sounds like more Sturm und Drang than a guy is worth, even a smart, funny and attractive one.

Dear Mr. Blue,

At the age of 27, I'm suffering through my first experience of being dumped. He was wonderful. And now it's over, he's gone. I'm not torturing myself over whether I should call, or write, or drown myself in the nearest drainage ditch, or swear off men, or eat 15 gallons of espresso swirl ice cream in one sitting. But I keep running into unexpected, painful reminders of him that knock me off balance almost daily. It's been nearly three months. I shouldn't find my eyes welling up on the commuter train because the woman directly across is reading a book he once suggested. A song on the grocery store Muzak shouldn't echo around in my aching chest cavity. This can't be right!

My friends figured all this out in junior high. None of them seem to understand how I can be so confused by the enormity of this. After describing all his character flaws, they advise me to "get over him." But how? Will I ever be able to listen to "Abbey Road" again?

Late Bloomer

Dear Late,

It's tough to be dropped, and even tougher if you've led a charmed life of candlelight and primroses. You're not torturing yourself, or trying to pick up the pieces, and that's good; you're simply savoring the sadness of the end of a love affair. And sadness is surely meant to be savored, since one has to go through it anyway: You're not confused at all; you simply have a big heart, and it's a large moment. And in not so long, you'll get bored with being sad and go on to something else. Probably you'll meet some Deadhead and hit the road in a pale lilac VW bus. But whenever you want to savor the feeling again, you can put on "Abbey Road."

Dear Mr. Blue,

My love and I have a recurring problem. We live in the Midwest and his sister lives in San Francisco. Over a year ago we went out West for a visit, and she took a disliking to me. There was nothing overt about it, but since then I have not been allowed to visit there. This is very hurtful. I try to be stoic about it, but I feel angry about this rotten sister. I am well-liked by most people and get along with most everyone except those with serious control issues. I suspect his sister is one of those. He is from a culture where elder relatives are kowtowed to; his parents are deceased and this woman is the matriarch of the family. He feels powerless to cope with the situation. Do you see any way to resolve these difficulties?


Dear Fuming,

Not everything broken can be fixed. But you can make a start by accepting that you offended this woman. It happened. You were there. Don't blame her, don't blame his culture, don't be defensive. Be a grownup and write her a letter of apology, a simple one ("I have offended you and though I don't understand how, I want to apologize for anything I may have done or said that caused you to turn away from me. I respect you and would like to be able to see you and get to know you."), and send along a little gift, a peace offering, flowers perhaps. And whether she responds or not, try not to think ill of her.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Ever wake up in the morning and wonder how the hell you wound up where you are? I thought I was going to conquer the world and now I'm afraid to get out of bed in the morning. I'm 29, I live in New York, my career and so-called love life are a disaster, I work as a secretary and live on Ramen noodles. My only passion is music. I started my own band, but the expense is putting me further in debt and I wonder how long I should be doing this before I start looking foolish, trying to be a rock star in my late 20s. I've been to psychiatrists, gurus, you name it. How long is this awkward phase going to last?


Dear Hopeless,

It sounds awful, not awkward, and it lasts until you end it and shake the dust of Manhattan off your sneakers and try someplace else (what's to lose?) and start over. Making A New Start: a great old American tradition. Sell or give away most of your stuff or put it into storage. Leave town with a couple of suitcases. Write down three principles you know for sure and make these the underpinnings of the new life. Write down your worst habits and leave those behind. Get a job unlike what you've done before and get a simple low-rent place to live. Find a music school where you can take classes and maybe meet musicians who you'd enjoy playing with for fun. New York is no place to pursue a rock 'n' roll career anyway. Rock is rebellious music, and in a tumultuous city like New York, what feels really rebellious is Mozart. Rock is aimed at us complacent, slow-moving, platitude-ridden parents in the heartland. Come on out.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife and I are expecting our first child. My mom naturally expects to do some baby-sitting and she's none too good with children. She is impatient and verbally violent. How can we make it clear to her why we can't leave our newborn with her? I don't think she'll take it well.

New Dad

Dear New,

Your obligation is to the child, not your mom. Allowing some slight possibility that she has changed her ways, you simply don't leave your child with her or with anyone else whom you have reason to believe might be abusive. You don't make an issue of it unless she does; you simply never leave your child alone with her.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Once upon a time I wrote short stories, lots of them. I used to sit at the computer, losing myself in my writing. Since graduating from college seven years ago, I have been a journalist, writing about city hall, politics, cops, courts, business, finances and also travel stories. I want to take another crack at fiction writing, but I can't seem to locate the well of creativity I once drank freely from. Have I been scarred too much by the real world? What should I do? Enroll in a creative writing class? Get an MFA?

Out of Practice

Dear Out of Practice,

You've been writing toward deadlines for seven years, and now you want to go back and write fiction, which doesn't necessarily respond to your own sense of urgency. It's slow cooking. You don't need an MFA, and the value of a creative writing class depends entirely on the teacher and other students. But I question whether, after eight hours of cranking out news copy and turning on the tap of productivity, you can expect your poor brain to dig down and find the well of creativity. Words become a blur after eight hours. My guess is that you're making a mistake common among young writers: You want to step up to the plate and knock one out of the park. But you're too exhausted. The best sort of book for you to write now is one that comes naturally. A story you already know, about characters you could describe in your sleep. You alone would know what this is.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 23, an American in London living with an older man whom I am desperately in love with. We are so good together, but are at such different stages in our lives it's becoming difficult, after two years together, to stay happy. I am still finishing college and he is well into a lucrative career. I have never lived with anyone before, while he's been married and has three children. He listens to me in a way I've never been listened to before. He frequently travels for business purposes, and when he does we sit on the phone for hours at night, and when he's home we go out all the time to movies, plays, museum exhibits and new restaurants. We share incredible sex.

The problem is that after nearly a year in London, I still haven't made a single friend, my part-time job is boring and it's hard to fill the time when my boyfriend is away. I am not a solitary person and I hate wandering around the city alone. I feel like my moods are dependent on him. I haven't felt like my own person for a long time and though I appreciate all of the support he gives me, I have hardly done anything with my life yet. And I don't want to get married and have children for another 10 years. I feel like I need to connect with my friends again and get some of my confidence back. Could I move back home for the summer? I feel bad leaving this man I love. He has said it's all right, but he gets tears in his eyes when I bring it up and can't discuss it without getting terribly upset. I'm afraid that leaving may damage this precious relationship forever. So, my question is, can I go home for the summer, and if not, how do I survive alone in this foreign country three or four nights a week?

American in London

Dear American,

Come home, see your friends, think about your future, and take as much time as you need. But then make your decision and stick by it and proceed with a whole heart, either here or over there, and don't look back. The reason you're floundering in London, I'd guess, is that you're holding off making a commitment to living there and you're avoiding making connections (good friends, a good job) that would make it harder to leave. If you commit to him, you'll probably want to marry and finish college there, which will take a while. If you decide to settle in the States, it'll take you a while to get over him, at least a year. But you can't go on indefinitely as a kept woman in a foreign country.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm seeing a man I don't have much in common with, but I love looking at him. We argue frequently, I find him aggravating and the sex is amazing. But amazing sex just isn't enough, and I find myself getting bored when we're together outside of the bedroom.

Last weekend, a man from my past resurfaced -- warm, kindhearted, intelligent, sensitive, artistic -- but the sex was awful. He wants to see me again, says he can't get me out of his mind, thinks we can work on the physical aspects of our relationship. I have my doubts, but I'd like to see him again.

This seems to be a recurring theme with me. Men who genuinely seem to care about me don't click physically. Those that I feel real sparks with don't interest me outside of the bedroom. I'm 30 and single, waiting for someone that I like as a person and as a lover, but I'm starting to wonder if that's how it works. My married friends and relations tell me it doesn't matter -- most people stop having sex a few years after they marry anyway. Is this true? Am I waiting for a fairy tale?


Dear Torn,

Your married friends and relations are full of balloon juice, or they're pulling your leg. Sex in marriage is not a fairy tale. And neither is the notion of people becoming better lovers in the course of a marriage. It's a matter of good health, strong libido and an active erotic imagination. You seem to be erotically excited by male bimbos -- call them bombos -- and turned off by us caring, sharing, liberated men of the Zeroes (formerly men of the '90s), which is understandable. We Zeroes guys have always suspected that women secretly are attracted to men whom they profess to despise -- despoilers of forests, polluters of rivers, scoffers at the arts -- what we call the beauty-and-the-beast syndrome. My wife isn't amused by bombos, doesn't care for their company, but before I met her, when I was just another lonely, sensitive, kindhearted guy wandering in and out of parties and looking for love and understanding, I saw a lot of this B&B phenomenon. I'd get launched into conversation with some fabulous woman, get talking on one languid subject or another, and suddenly she'd turn red and beads of sweat burst from her forehead and her pulse pounded, jangling her bracelets, and I turned and here came a bozo in a shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, two pounds of gold chain around his neck, with a voice like a chain saw, talking to his broker on a cellphone, and she wandered toward him in a daze, like a deer toward the headlights. I didn't understand it then and don't understand it now, but good luck with your life.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 37-year-old artist living with a lovable man of 45, whom I adore. He is a brilliant, gentle, sensitive and kind person; my friends like him and so does my cat. He's quite well off, he's my intellectual equal, we like the same food, the same books, the same movies. But we've come to a point where we're bored by physical intimacy. The flirting is gone. Our conversations are running aground. I'm heartsore that this glorious relationship is turning gray.

In the Doldrums

Dear Doldrums,

I was just discussing this very problem with a single woman, 30 (see Torn, above), and think that gentleness and sensitivity may be your problem. Tell the gentleman to get himself a can of Copenhagen, a pair of tight jeans, a leather jacket, a broad-brim hat, mirror shades, a Harley and learn how to swagger. When the cat gets scared and hides in the basement, then you know he's exciting enough. Go to movies in which at least six cars blow up. And have you ever read Tom Clancy? There is a reason why nobody makes it all the way through a Clancy novel -- something about the technical description of large weaponry packs an erotic wallop not to be believed.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in my early 30s, a project manager, working 50 hours a week on projects that involve coordinating other people's schedules (and sometimes doing their work). I inherit projects in a state of neglect when the situation reaches the boiling point. I'm running in place. The harder I work, the more work I get, work no one else wants to do, and I get no raise in salary. I want to leave this situation, but for some unknown reason, I can't make myself do it.

I got married last October, and still haven't had a honeymoon. I have less time outside of work than I used to, and I don't enjoy my job. I love my husband, but the thought of Mondays makes me cry. The solution seems so obvious. So why can't I leave?

Too Young to Be Stuck

Dear Too Young,

You can leave and you will. You haven't because time goes by quickly when you're so busy, and also it's pleasant to feel needed. You say you don't enjoy your job, but I'll bet you enjoy feeling competent and get a thrill when panicky people beg you to take the helm of each foundering project. You're the sort of person who needs to find a better deal elsewhere: The problem solver, who takes on all the dirty work, simply goes on being handed more and more of it, while the usual bootlickers and glad-handers move up the ladder. Companies aren't good at promoting people like you, I don't know why. But gather your recommendations and freshen up your risumi and set your sights high and jump. You have good qualifications and it's a growing economy and now is the time. But give yourself at least a month's vacation between jobs, even two or three if you can swing it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a woman professor, 36, with a wonderful job at a small college and a boyfriend, 32, who I love and who lives about 100 miles away. He is a thoughtful person, patient with my 10-year-old son but somewhat jealous of the good relationship that my son has with his father whom my boyfriend considers a deadbeat because of his lack of financial support. My boyfriend says it would be easier for him if my son's father was completely out of my son's and my life.

I believe he is feeling some pressure from family and friends to "settle down." He says he would eventually like to have children but has never mentioned who the mother of these children might be. He has told me repeatedly that I am the most precious thing in his life, but he has never told me he loves me. I love him and would like to start a family soon, but I'm not sure how to resolve the issues of my career and his problems with my son's father. I have made it clear to my boyfriend that I'm not willing to give up my career for anything or sacrifice my son's relationship with his dad.

My boyfriend has just bought a home, which he intends to renovate in such a way that I'm not sure how it could accommodate anyone but a bachelor with very expensive electronic toys. Should I say something prior to his beginning the construction? How do I even start this conversation about our relationship?

We are intelligent, articulate and caring people whose relationship has lasted longer than many of our friends marriages. I know I have a wonderful life and shouldn't be complaining, but why does all of this seem so difficult?

Not Naive

Dear Not Naive,

Sometimes two people hit a snag that they can't talk away, can't resolve, can't forget. The issue of your son's good relationship with his father may be such a snag: It's non-negotiable, it shows your boyfriend at his worst and if he can't get over it, then he's toast, as I see it. I don't think you should get involved in helping plan his house. If he's never proclaimed his love and never initiated a conversation about settling down, flying you to the moon, getting on a slow boat to China, marriage, cohabitation, children, driving the shadows away, etc., then maybe he's planning it as a bachelor pad. There simply is no proposal on the table at this point, so what's to discuss? You simply have what you have, and if it's gone on this long, and you think it's wonderful, maybe that's good enough.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I have been together for 20 years, since we were mere sprats in college. Now we are 40 and have two kids we both adore, but our marriage has gone absolutely flat. We've moved a lot and had lots of upheavals recently, including my discovering his year-and-a-half-long serious affair. I think he truly had a connection with her that we don't have anymore. Here's the question. What do you think about staying together for the sake of the kids? I can't bear to think of breaking up their lives -- they love it when we are all together. Yet it's hard for me to imagine the rest of my life (and folks in my family live to be 90 routinely) without any passionate love. Any words of wisdom on this one?


Dear Blue,

My wisdom on this one is the same old stale crusts you've heard before, and I blush to offer them, but here goes: It takes a while to get over your husband's affair and it would help you to get therapy. You're not able to make the big decision now about Staying or Going. Stay put for now, keep things on an even keel and find a sympathetic professional with whom you can sit a couple times a week and offload your baggage. For now, don't discuss the marriage with your husband unless he initiates the discussion. Aim for civility and friendship, for now, and take things month by month.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a journalist is my mid-30s who writes fiction on the side. I have struggled with depression since I was a kid. Lately, it has intensified.

Therapy has helped, but not enough. I am considering antidepressants, but I wonder (as many depressed writers before me have wondered, I suppose) if these drugs will plane down my creative edges. I should mention that my depression often makes it difficult to write fiction at all, so edge-planing is sort of a moot point.

Do you know any successful writers who swear by Prozac? These aren't the sorts of testimonials one tends to hear.

Sick of Feeling Bad

Dear Sick,

I don't know any, but writers wouldn't admit to taking antidepressants anyway. If they suddenly wrote something brilliant, they wouldn't want people to say, "Oh, well, he's on antidepressants, you know." I say, a dull knife is better than no knife. Antidepressants aren't addictive, their effects are temporary and if they're helpful, they make a nice difference.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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