I’m glad you’re back. Let’s follow the white rabbit some more, shall we?
Let me tell you a story about my quest and how you’ve helped me. You see, I’m on a quest to confirm that I really have found my ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that literally means “value in life”, but a lot of the meaning is like Bill and Scarlet – it gets lost in translation. It is often translated as “finding value in one’s life”, “discovering one’s purpose” or “a reason for being”. The answer to your ikigai lies at the intersection of four questions: “what do you love?”, “what are you good at?”, “what does the world need from you?” and “what can you be paid for?”. I believe “telling stories” is my answer to all four questions – I know I love it, I believe the world needs stories like this, and I hope I am good enough to some day get paid for it. But some things that are true to me don’t become objectively true until enough other people see it as truth too. I need confirmation from others that “telling stories” indeed is the right answer. You finishing four episodes and starting the fifth is a confirmation which I am very grateful for.
As a thank you, let me tell you a story I haven’t told many people yet. I actually even stopped telling it to myself for twenty-some years, because it was too painful for me. As many a story about pain, this is story starts with love. I was sixteen the first time I fell in love. He was a classmate in the school we both had just transferred to, a good looking jock with good enough grades to get accepted into our rather competitive program. He was one of the most handsome guys I’d ever seen in the flesh. His name doesn’t matter, but let’s call him John for the sake of the story. We became good friends, and I don’t think John ever knew that I was in love with him. I was in the closet and knew him to be straight, so confessing would both mean coming out and gambling our friendship. In a way, he saved me. You see, about four years before I met him, I made the connection between myself and those nasty, bent “homosexuals” and “fags” that the grown-ups whispered about. I had known that I liked boys since at least six years of age, and never really thought that it was weird or strange until I made that particular connection. Of course, they never talked about me, since they didn’t know that I actually was gay, but they were talking about people who were like me. In seventh grade, I opened the biology book and looked up “homosexuality”. I was so nervous that I still remember that moment, sitting in the second row, pretending to lazily flip through the book, ready to jump pages if anyone so much as glanced my way. The chapter I was looking for was called “Variations In Sexual Behavior”. This is what it said about homosexuality:
There isn’t much known about the causes of homosexuality. The sexual development during childhood can have been disturbed. No physical causes have been found. In puberty it’s rather common that young people of the same sex have sexual relations. The cause of this could be that the sexual drive hasn’t yet stabilized and this is not considered homosexuality in the normal sense. It also occurs that the sexual drive is aimed towards both your own and the opposite sex. This is called bisexuality.
Adult homosexuals often look for a partner among youths of the same sex. Such a relationship can become a big problem for a young person. It can lead to future disturbances in one’s own sexuality. But you do not become homosexual from such experiences.
It can be difficult to be homosexual in a society where most people are heterosexual. It can be hard to find a partner and get other people to accept that you live together with someone of the same sex.
I saw a promise in those paragraphs. A promise of a way out. If this was just a phase, that meant I could get better from it. Although deep inside I knew it to be untrue, I so desperately wanted it to be true that I jumped at even the most demeaning chance to avoid the horrible, tragic fate of being a lonely old faggot who couldn’t find someone to love him, and who tried to satisfy his longing for love by preying on confused young people of the same sex. I remember how I, right then and there, started making plans to commit suicide, if this phase was not over by the time I turned twenty. I was very practical and matter-of-fact about it. To spare myself and my family the shame of having a bent pervert in the family, I would jump off one of the ferries going between Sweden and Finland, hoping that my body was never found. It gave me seven years for this phase to fade, and seven years is a lifetime for a thirteen year old. It also gave me seven years to come to terms with being gay. I only needed three, because when I fell in love with John, and realized that that is what being gay is, I also realized that being gay could not possibly be as bad it was made out to be in the space between the horrified words whispered by adults. And at that point, I knew that I had only skimmed the surface of love, because madly in love as I was, John did not love me back. It would be many years before I experienced love in all its glory, before I understood the full depth of the feeling that hopefully grows out of that initial burst of passion and horniness that is infatuation. But at sixteen, I had no idea what it was like to love and be loved in return. You see, we never really said “I love you” at home, and I don’t think I ever reflected on what love really is to me, until rather recently, so to me, romantic love was the only love I was aware of. And boy, was I in love.
Me and John hung out a lot. I almost got into golf because he was a golfer. I started to listen to the same music he listened to. I still associate Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun with him to this day. I don’t know if I ever influenced him in any way, and I didn’t care as long as he wanted to hang out with me. It’s a story that many a young gay man has experienced, and funnily enough it keeps happening even though there are now people who can tell how those stories end. With heartbreak. I believe it’s because great as the risk of heartbreak is, the potential reward of a happy ending seems worth it. The chance is infinitesimal, we know this going in, but hey, someone has to win that jackpot sometime, right?
During our first year, John decided to do a year as an exchange student in the US. I looked into it too, not as much because he was going, as because I had grown tired of school. Well, maybe they had an equal part in it. Up until a certain point, school was fun because the things we learned were fun. We went to museums and on field trips. We got to draw while our teacher read “And then there were none” by Agatha Christie for us, and we tried to figure out who dunnit’ and why. As the subjects got more isolated and boring, and the school game of being a parrot wasn’t challenging anymore, I started questioning why we learned things. Why should I know how to calculate derivates? In which situations that I can see myself in will I ever use it? The teachers had few answers, and none of them felt real enough for me. I felt unchallenged in school, but had a major challenge in the gay thing. One of my dreams ever since I found out about San Fransisco as a gay haven, was to follow Pet Shop Boys’ call to “Go West”. I spent countless nights, smoking in my bedroom window to the soundtrack of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”, watching the stars and dreaming of moving to the US and finding true love. San Francisco seemed like a place where society didn’t constantly remind you to hate yourself, fag. I remember that I even kept track of compass directions, and preferred to move west because it felt like I was moving towards my real home. Towards freedom. If killing myself at twenty was the worst-case scenario of my nightmares, moving to the US was the best-case scenario of my dreams. To be free, to be me, without being judged. The darker one was, the brighter the other had to be. It was so bright that I could not look at it directly. I couldn’t even dream directly of it, only of the symbols of it; I was like a sick person who yearns for health, but only dreams of hospitals. So as John looked into a year of studies abroad, so did I. But it was expensive, and we could not afford it. I even applied for a scholarship, but didn’t get it. John left for his year in Youngstown, Ohio and I decided to take a gap year to work. John and I kept in touch, sending letters to each other, writing about whatever happened in our lives. We talked on the phone a couple times. He was in the homecoming court and on the soccer team, I worked in the shoe store and tried competitive pistol shooting. I mentioned thinking about visiting him, and he seemed okay with the idea. So I worked, saved up money and used it to book a ticket to Youngstown, Ohio, departing in February 1995. With two days stop-over in New York.
The flight over the Atlantic had a smoking section where I sat, and a lady from first class came to use the free seat next to me to smoke. She ordered champagne for the both of us, and I felt exhilarated in that way I still do when I’m at the start of a potentially epic journey. As I got off the airport coach at central station, I gawked at the incredible buildings until I remembered that I must look like a tourist begging to be robbed. I stayed in a cheap hotel not far from Empire State building. The room had a window overlooking a shaft, which I felt was very pertinent for New York. I got breakfast at a local diner. When I saw that they had pancakes that you ordered in twos, I ordered three portions, thinking they were the thin crêpes we call pancakes in Sweden. These were American pancakes, and huge even for those. Fortunately, I got them to go, or the staff would have a story about a weird tourist kid who ordered three portions of pancakes and failed eating two of them. Despite the warnings from many a worried friend and acquaintance in Sweden not to take the subway — I still don’t know if it really was dangerous, or if it was just exaggerations — I rode the train to take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Waiting for the ferry was cold, the February sun had nothing on the cold winds. I had a coffee, and ate my first real donut. At Ellis Island, where you could search the names of people who had immigrated to the U.S. through that station, I found one person that shared my last name, which means we’re related. The Statue of Liberty was not worth the walk up, but I liked the museum. I listened to “Zombie” by the Cranberries on the minidisc player I had borrowed from my friend Tomi, and enjoyed the freedom to smoke without having to look over my shoulder.
Two days later after arriving in Manhattan, I flew to Youngstown, Ohio, connecting in Pittsburgh. I had only flown once before this trip, but I could tell that the place I was going to wasn’t big judging by the propeller plane I boarded in Pittsburgh. I called John’s house from the airport. The mom of the family answered. She told me he was at the hospital, but that it wasn’t serious and he’d be back home soon. It didn’t sound as if she knew who I was, and I wasn’t sure what to do – so I asked a cab driver to take me to a motel. I can’t remember if all rooms were smoking ones, or if I chose a smoking room, but I remember spending the time smoking cigarrettes and watching Golden Girls in the motel room, not knowing what else to do. As John got better (I don’t remember if it was one or two days after my arrival), I took a cab out to visit him. I have very vague memories of the details of that visit, but I remember the revelation and the pang of emotions that followed it: he had a life here, and didn’t really want me to be part of it. I knew that I could never be his lover, and now I wasn’t even his friend. I took a cab back to my motel room and comforted myself with more cigarrettes and Golden Girls, and whatever snacks they had in the machines. It was the gay version of the song “Flowers on the wall” from Pulp Fiction.
I don’t know which was worse, the heartbreak and the rejection, or the shame of having acted on emotions, like some teenage girl. At seventeen, I saw myself as an adult man, except that I had no idea what it meant to be a man. I knew what society had told me, which is what a man isn’t: gay, a woman, a sissy, a girl. A little girl was the antithesis to an adult man in my head, and a teenage girl was not far behind. The shame of having been pretty much the opposite of an adult man was so deep that I didn’t tell this story to anyone, even to myself. Even after I dealt with my insecurities about being a man, that story remained hidden behind a painful wall of shame. Untold stories hold a power over us. This story held so much power over me that I barely told people that I was in the US as a seventeen-year-old, afraid it would lead to questions I didn’t want to answer, and I didn’t want to lie. Time had long since healed that wound, but I hadn’t dared to look out of fear, the same fear a person who doesn’t want to check their bank account feels. Time had also offered perspective. Now, I see a sad, but beautiful story about coming of age. A story of a precocious young adult who follows his heart overseas, on a quest for love. A story of a high-risk gamble that didn’t pan out. But every chance you take won’t result in a jackpot. It can’t, by definition, because taking a chance means accepting the risks of failing, of losing, of being rejected. How boring would life be if there never was risk involved? Looking back on it, I did not fail in Youngstown. I stumbled and fell, and from this I learned that I really do have the capacity to fall down ten times and get up eleven. It would have been so easy to give up, and never take the risk of following my heart again. Then, at least I wouldn’t have to deal with all the pain and shame. But life, being the rollercoaster that it is, seems to follow the law of gravity: you need real lows to be propelled to real highs. Eliminate all the lows, all the suffering, and you’re on the kids version. Some people may prefer that, but I like life like I like my rollercoasters: high, fast, with loops and spirals pushing the extreme.
About fourteen and a half years after that trip to Ohio, I was with my friends in a bar. Not a gay bar, a regular bar. I remember this day because this was the first time I didn’t only feel okay with being single, I felt amazing about it. I trusted myself in a whole new way. I felt so elated, so free, so happy to go out with my friends, and for the first time I wouldn’t be spending more time desperately looking for mr. Right, than I would spend on having fun. The funny thing about trusting yourself is that it’s the same as trusting the universe. And the universe delivered: there was fun, there was beer, there were shots. Then there was meeting my husband for the first time. The universe is funny that way, just when you think you’ve figured things out, it throws in a loop-the-loop you never saw coming. I wish you dreams of trust, friend. Until next time, sleep well, until you wake up.