All I Do Is Burn
I came out to my friend E in her Jeep Grand Cherokee in 2008.
Sometimes I wonder, though, if it even counts. I came out in the only way I knew how, which is an Irish Catholic way of saying that I lied: I told her I was ‘newly’ attracted to a boy in my high school freshman class, but I insisted I was still straight. Insisted. I treated this same-sex attraction like a fresh, anomalous thing, even though this desire was the norm for me, constant and moving in all directions. Sure, that language implies a certain fluidity—a limited, almost apologetic queerness that ebbs and flows—but that wasn’t the case here. To say I was anything other than gay and queer was like pretending to be unfamiliar with a movie I had actually seen several times, like pretending I didn’t know its ending by heart.
At 17, E was a year and a half older than me; like some sickly emperor, I asked her to drive me everywhere. We lived in the same corner of our small midwestern city, and being a privileged, over-anxious kid, I was terrified of getting my driver's license. I ‘came out’ to her when we were driving back to her house one winter night, probably after hate-watching one of the Twilight movies or getting candy at Hy-Vee, and I didn’t have to look her in the eye. I said what I said, the half-truth that I wanted to believe, and it was enough. I dipped it in corn syrup and watched the honey-like goldness drip off its sides, making it sweet and new. We drove around, talking about our fears and ambitions, and we laughed until we couldn’t breathe. I didn’t think of myself as lucky, having that space to talk, a little corner of the universe in which I was heard and understood, but I know better now.
Is it a lie if the speaker is also fibbing to themselves? I don’t know. Coming out, like most rites of passage, is both a whole lot of nothing and the sentimental fulcrum of everything. It is a moment, a tiny death, around which you organize your entire young life. It is hurling a pebble across the surface of a lake, wordlessly urging it to make as many ripples as possible. It is a wartime code, a message you learn to express in other words, time and time again. It is a baptism by fire. It is telling your best friend the beginnings of the truth.
E and I both aspired to be writers, but she was a lot better at actually sitting down to the work. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t decide what kind of writing I even wanted to produce, and I was often too hard on myself. Who at sixteen already has a distinct voice? I didn’t know if my own burning, the flotsam and jetsam of my own muted heart, had the power to be anything other than that: an indistinct, subterranean heat that would carry on and inevitably ash itself into resentment. Is this the project of being a writer? Maybe the precocious parts of me knew that the desk-work of this project would make plain all the inner work I had yet to do.
It was hard for me, and I am an able-bodied white cis-face. I had so much going for me, but none of it seemed to matter: there was another person in me, a stranger with my face and my past, waiting to live.
Years of silence passed after the night of my non-confession. After a while, I started trying on different parts of gay stereotypes, adding “gurrrl” at the end of a sentence, in the hopes that everyone would eventually catch on. When I started writing essays for college applications, it didn’t strike me ironic that I professed a love of words, a passion for stories, when I didn’t have the courage to tell my own. I made room for myself in the lies, telegraphing the truth in any way I could. (I probably wasn’t very subtle about this: all my best friends were girls and my favorite show was Ugly Betty). After coming out as something vaguely not-straight to E that night, I didn’t relinquish control of the narrative, perhaps out of renewed guilt for both the partial admission and the fact that it was only partial. When I first came out as a bonafide friend-of-Dorothy in the summer after my senior year, feeling emboldened because I started seeing someone of the same gender, I thought I had so much to lose if people didn’t find out the ‘right’ way, if I couldn’t give full form to who I thought I was. Weirdly, that made me feel even less in control of my identity, because I was still a prisoner to the paranoia.
I don’t know when my high school friendships ceased to be enough. My first relationship in high school was short-lived, but it opened something up in me, something so clichéd it hurt and, conversely, something so raw and original to me that my knees shivered amidst it. It was the first time I shared both my body and my world with another person, the first time I occupied that liminal space between friend and boyfriend, and I began to understand how one thing could slide itself up to another thing, how two things could be both different and the same.
It was the beginning of metaphor, the beginning of poetry. So much of my identity as a gay man,
I find now, is tethered to my identity as a writer, and coming out was so much more than saying the thing aloud: it was also about shutting up and letting my body contribute to the lyric. About inhabiting these truths even when all that living has real costs.
Coming out got easier in college, in an environment more open to discourse, and I began to do it with a new earnestness: to my new friends at school, to my friends from home, and to E. Once I said these things aloud in a sloppy conversation in the corner of a dorm party, when the music was loud and my lips were loose, it got easier to say them elsewhere. Time passed, and it got easier still. It got easier when I finished school and realized that the only person getting cut up by all the hurt was me. It got easier when I realized my many disparate selves weren’t disappearing—just converging in fresh, peculiar ways—and I could write into the changes.
It got easier when I let the fire, all hot and hungry, find a home in me.
About the Writer
Jeremiah Moriarty's writing has appeared in Juked, The Cortland Review, the Ploughshares blog, Wildness, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Twitter @miahmoriarty.