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All Around Us


In May, I wanted to go to a gay bar—finally. I’d been shut up in my parents’ house since October, trying to provide care for my mom as she continued to bravely deny the debilitation of her cancer treatments, the reason (I still barely managed to convince myself) I’d moved home in the first place. I was also desperately trying to hold together a self I’d newly formed, a task which sometimes felt too indulgent given my mom’s condition. And I was afraid of my old self, what wreckage it could manage here, were it ever to resurface, what damage it might leave in its wake. In Little Rock, I’d lost the forgiving anonymity of New York, the cover to make bad decisions that no one else would notice.

I’d held my smile intact for several months, convincing my loved ones I was fine. I still eyed my mother’s health warily, but her numbers and appetite had improved, and I could no longer sustain the level of alarm or dutifulness I’d felt last winter. Chastity and a concerted effort to  curtail my alcohol intake were both a part of the control I felt I’d gained. It had taken a while to begin to feel restless, but my anima for urbanity, for life and contact with others, had begun to thaw. I struggled to summon ideas on alleviating the loneliness I was feeling and resorted to imagining a trip to a bar as my cure-all.  

I alternated calls to friends on either coast daily, rabid for dispatches. Writing in isolation became a slog. I no longer feared falling off at the gym, but that meant I began hazarding more alcohol, and at earlier points in the afternoon. In possession of a body I’d grown newly confident in, I wanted a date—or an assurance that dates, and sex, were possible here. Little Rock, my home again, furnished fewer props to convince me of the good time I was supposedly having. Thrills demanded a kind of deliberation that exhausted me. Also, I lacked much savvy for acquiring those experiences worth rhapsodizing later, and this embarrassed me. I whimpered for companionship, until my older sister began enlisting her girlfriends for trips to gay bars that never actually materialized.

This wasn’t their battle anyway. I had to do this alone first. One of my greatest fears moving back had been that I was doing so alone. I was single, and moreover, I was freighted with a sexuality that would be cumbersome here. I’d conquered being an out gay man, sort of. I could push myself to say it aloud and stroll into bars without fear of being seen. I didn’t consciously try to scrub it from my manner or speech. I no longer lurked on sex apps, nor did I feel any hesitance about posting face pics. I’d even upped my game to posing for body pics in the gym mirror, ones that showed my chest and stomach. But I’d never managed much romantic success in city bars, never been able to reliably discern which stranger warranted an attempt at conversation or grown comfortable hazarding a try at picking someone up. I’d returned home fearing I’d fare even worse with the population of potential romantic partners now drastically thinned. There’s an animal comfort I’d enjoyed in New York as a gay man that was simply based on the numbers.

Going to a gay bar was an expedient, in that presumably most patrons would be available. I hoped that meeting someone would be easier there. I managed two solo voyages to the same gay bar in town, a slick, modern dive where I mostly sat and swiped messages on my phone apps while flirting with the straight bartenders, two ringers planted because of their willingness to be ogled and their very legible masculinity. The bar was a worthy successor to any of the bars I’d ever patronized in New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, and especially D.C. Sitting there, I recalled the college kid I’d once been in Washington. Still alone, still drinking too much in hopes of summoning courage, still longing for the right-looking guy to walk into the bar.

I’ve always desired masculine guys and pursue those men exclusively upon entering gay spaces. Time had not developed my capacity to open myself beyond the macho fantasies I dreamed up in seclusion. I feared that my inability to deviate from them, to embrace what I encountered in life with more zeal, would continue to doom my romantic life. I’d hoped to have grown more broad-minded, if only to increase my prospects. But as I scanned the groups of men in the bar mirror, talked to a neighbor about karaoke, then compared notes on life in various cities with a lesbian couple, I abandoned hope and committed myself to building a satisfying buzz instead.

I grew frustrated with myself that first trip, with all my old bad habits. And I resigned myself to a deeper anxiety I’d been carrying, that many of my unreconciled frustrations had followed me here to Little Rock: anxiety about my work ethic, concern about my overall maturity and fitness for pursuing healthy relationships, and, mostly, unease about my sexual identity and the rigid boundaries of my desire.

But I didn’t want to abandon the effort. Going to gay bars seemed like a necessary step in becoming a part of gay community, so I went out. I didn’t believe I could manifest some solution on my own anymore, reliant on my intellect, or my willingness to self-reflect. I went out in order to risk colliding with the world. I hoped to find contact that way.

And so I returned the following weekend. And again, I went home alone.

I don’t want to flee the memory of the kid I was back in college, the kid who grew jaded seeking lovers in bars like the one I found in Little Rock. I hope to restore whatever sense of anticipation I left back at those D.C. bars. I feel humbled at the recognition that my life still so closely resembles that twenty-something. But this time, my fear of that sameness, of not having progressed much beyond that boy I was, has proven an effective motivator for adopting new strategies.

I want to continue to make these sojourns out into the world, beyond the confines of my own fantasy life. Maybe all I’ve learned in the intervening years is that in order to buoy my hopes, I have to establish a process, and then I have to continue to trust it.

“All Around Us” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Frederick McKindra

Frederick McKindra, fiction writer and essayist, lives in Little Rock. His essay “Becoming Integrated” from the Fall 2017 issue of the Oxford American was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als. He has also contributed to the OA’s online series The By and By. A 2017 BuzzFeed Emerging Writer Fellow, McKindra has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Lambda Literary Foundation.