Down low blues

All I want is a boyfriend. But as a black gay man, I keep hooking up with men who not only shun commitment -- they don't even want to come out of the closet.

By Adam Phillips
Published August 16, 2004 7:34PM (EDT)

I met Rick on a Thursday night at a club called Vapor. He was somewhere below average height and stood against the walls, away from the light. Even in the dark his brown skin glowed. All the men at Vapor were dressed similarly: long shirt, baggy pants, jewelry, scowl. Rick had on a Chicago Bears jersey that he seemed too old and too serious for. Ditto for the thick gold chain that he had the good sense to keep inside the jersey. But he wore them the same way he held his plastic cup of ice and liquor: with an attitude.

I could feel his slow eyes on my back. I knew that eye contact between us would collapse into a staring contest. He was very sexy, hiding in the dark. He looked guilty, scared of getting caught, but kind of turned on to be doing something he obviously thought was bad.

It's worth noting that Vapor's black gay night was called "Taboo," where most white bars used campy names like "Paradise," "Oasis" and "Heaven." You had to pass through a sort of ectoplasm of shame to enter Taboo. And "gay" night is what I call it. The management, if they called it anything, used the word "alternative," as though upon entering you might find Bjork or a Foo Fighter. "Alternative" was the safe word bouncers used to make sure the seemingly straight people had come to the right place.

After over an hour of staring and several rounds of the slow motion nod that confirms attraction, Rick finally came over and spoke to me. He had a smooth, husky rasp and a gentlemanly approach to conversation. He said he had just moved to our northeastern city from Chicago. I told him that I'd just moved from New York. He was a salesman, and he'd just finished with some clients.

"Dressed like that?"

He said he had the jersey in his car and often changed clothes out of the trunk. "I travel a lot," he said. "Why did you move here? Work?"

I told him yes, and I kept talking because he kept listening. When he spoke, there was sex in his voice and sex in his eyes, and I tried to put some in my voice and eyes. He asked if he could drive me home, and I said yes.

So we got in his very clean car, and he drove. He told me he was on the low, or the DL -- which is short for "down low," but could just as easily mean "dumb lie" or "devoid of love." A lot of men on the DL just want sex with men, and will usually commit only to a woman -- and they'll never acknowledge what they do as gay behavior. It's a game, like that staring contest, that's hot because they have this idea that it's, well, taboo.

Before Rick, there were Omar, Kyle, Andrew, Nate, John, Jon, and Johnny. They all found it hard to see me as more than a hard dick and a firm ass. Or both. We'd move the child's seat to fumble in the back of the car; we'd do it in the lobby of their friend's apartment; we'd fuck in the last car of the train at three o'clock in the morning. Afterwards I'd always climb into my own bed wondering why I was sleeping alone, while they went home to their wives and girlfriends. Why hadn't anybody told me that being comfortably gay could feel lonelier than life in the closet?

Rick was the first intelligent, educated adult who had interested me in months. I went to a predominately white Ivy League school, and so accordingly most of my friends are white. My good friends of color are all women. If black America is lamenting the dearth of educated black men, then educated black men who are gay and OK with it seem like an endangered species.

Black men tend to see me, though, where men of other races simply don't. I've noticed a strange sort of racism in the gay community that tends to render black men invisible. Maybe it's the paranoid, stigmatizing reporting on black men and AIDS; maybe it's something as dumb but insidious as the lack of black models in the Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaign. Who knows; maybe it's that I just don't do it for a sizable portion of the white community. (I've been on more than one date that's begun or ended with "Sorry, I'm just not into black guys"; the ones who say they're into black guys are actually just into black cocks.)

Black men have different hang-ups. They tend to think I sound white, which, to them, makes me seem like a Republican, which really isn't a turn-off; it's just exotic. But after I tell them I have a media job, men on the DL are leery that I'll out them, so I learned to make something up -- "I'm a graphic designer," "I'm a lawyer," "I coach middle school girl's soccer" -- in the same way that with some men, in certain contexts, I'll alter the way I speak so I sound less ... Republican.

Steve, a news producer from Nebraska that I'd slept with at a black journalists conference, told me he was happy living on the DL. He was a good husband who made good money that kept his wife oblivious. He told me he "earned the right to spend the night" me, and that he looked forward to spending the next night with me, too.

"What about the day?" I felt stupid for asking.

"If I'm free, we can do it in the afternoon, sure."

He didn't know what I was asking and he never called me. I watched him dance with some women at a party. I watched him disappear with two men in the elevator. I ran into him on my way out of the hotel, and he said, "See you next time!"

I tried to be casual about it, but it didn't work. "You're an asshole," I said, and climbed into the airport shuttle. On the way to my flight, I thought about Googling him and calling his wife. I tried letting it all go, but I felt like the pathetic refuse DL men leave behind.


Anyway, as I was saying: Rick drove the car, and I was sad: I'd seen something that dampened my enthusiasm.

"Can I ask you what that ring is?" I asked.

"Man, you don't miss anything, do you?" After a long pause, he said, "I'm with somebody."

I imagined his wife and their adorable children waiting for him back in suburbia and let out a long sigh.

"I'm with a guy," he said.

Well, this was unprecedented. He was on the DL, in the closet and contemplating cheating on his boyfriend? Earlier that night Rick mentioned that he could easily have gone to a straight bar to pick up a woman, and had regularly contemplated being with one. Still, even though his steady partner wasn't a woman, and he liked sex with men, he was adamant that the world outside his bedroom see him as a practicing heterosexual.

"I live here, and he lives somewhere else, and sometimes I get lonely and need to feel wanted and attractive," he said. "Right now, I feel that with you. Is that a problem for you?"

"Well, I like you. So, yeah, that's a problem for me. But I'm lonely, too. And I want to feel wanted."

"So what are we doing?"

"We're talking about how much life totally sucks."

I've been in this moment with lots of men, the moment where you realize you're the milk he had to pick up on the way home or the crazy thing he did on that business trip in Miami. Because even if he had to confess, I'd be the other woman. I'd have to be Pam, the girl he used to work with, or Skittles, some out-of-control stripper he met at So-and-So's bachelor party.

He pulled up in front of my house and we sat in the car. He asked me to touch him, and I did. I asked him to come up, and he declined.

Every few months he'd drive to my house just to open up the passenger door and let me sit beside him so he could look at me and tell me that he felt safe with me and that I looked 17. We never did more than that.

For a year he kept driving by. And it's hard to say why he did, and why I kept getting in, but the best explanation is possibility -- the unspoken promise that things might change. Rick was close to 40, and occasionally he could see all the little compartments he'd made of his life. Occasionally, he'd call them ridiculous. He wanted the connective tissue between his family, his friends and his work to be more than secrecy.

I seemed ideal for that. He'd never met anybody like me, he'd say. I was intense and funny and appeared to want only him and not his money. When he asked how I'd managed to stay single for so long, rather than tell him that I'd never found a black man I could actually be with, I said I was waiting for him. He was more flattered than freaked out. I think he wanted to make me a piece of ass, and I think I liked changing his mind. I'd wanted a serious boyfriend for over a year; I guess I kept coming down the stairs all those months and riding shotgun to nowhere because I wanted to know whether he'd ever give me what I knew I deserved.

Sometimes I'd ask what things would be like if he were single. He never knew. Well, he knew he could never be outside with me. And he'd have to sneak me into his apartment. And I could never meet his family or go to his Christmas party at work. In turn, he wouldn't want to come to my parents' for Thanksgiving. Were movies out of the question? (We never went to one.) I imagined him choosing to sit a seat away. Was his actual boyfriend down with that, too? ("Boyfriend" was a word he never used; he didn't have a word for him. Everything about the DL seems to be surreptitious and beyond language; to name is to acknowledge and to communicate. There's a galaxy of appellations that have nothing to do with mainstream homosexual culture.) His sense of shame was robbing him of a normal gay life, but everyone in his life thought he was straight -- including himself, which was an achievement he didn't see the need to tamper with.

Once, I told Rick I didn't want to see him anymore. Our being alone together had devolved into our being together, yet alone. I finally felt ridiculous about sitting parked in longing silence. He looked hurt, but he didn't call for six months. When he did, it was with the news that he was moving back to Chicago. I was at an airport in another city and I wanted to turn around to be with him. What if he'd changed?

We made a plan to see each other. I had never been more excited to see a man. He loved Grace Jones; I'd made a CD with songs that we would play while we did nothing in his car. He picked me up from the train and we drove to his apartment. It was immaculate. He hadn't started packing. We sat around and talked, and he asked me if I wanted a drink. He made something with a lot of rum, and I gave him a massage and he was affectionate. But the whole thing was just a more intense version of what we did in the car. He wanted to "let go," but he held on, mysteriously able to control his arousal.

After a couple of hours of tenacious resistance, the phone rang. While he spoke, I massaged his shoulders, and he pushed me away. When he was done, he started to dress. "You know who that was."

It was the boyfriend. And even though he lived two thousand miles from us, he may as well have been on his way over from up the street. He told me he had to take me home, and something fell inside me.

"Wait, I'm not sleeping here?"

"No, uh-uh. It's not like that, man. Get dressed."

And just like that, a fog had either descended upon him or lifted from him. He'd started talking the way straight men do when another man makes a pass. He was suddenly resolutely monogamous. He had this skill of turning love to shame: I felt stupid and used. He drove me home, and, later, I lay in bed hating myself but thankful I hadn't told him I'd packed an overnight bag.

I replayed our last words to each other as I got out of his car.

Me: "I really feel like this could have been something. You know, if things were different."

Him: "Yeah, it could be."

But it wasn't.

Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips is the pseudonym for a writer living in New England.

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