I expect everyone of my crowd to make fun
Of my proud protestations of faith in romance
And they'll say I'm naive as a babe to believe
Every fable I hear from a person in pants
~Oscar Hammerstein II

TESTING MY FAITH IN ROMANCE

by Danny Kodmur

 

I. The Hope

In sixth grade I was utterly infatuated with a girl who had a winning smile, a sharp mind, and beautiful long dark hair. I still remember her phone number, though I don't think I ever had the courage to dial more than six digits of it. We never spent a single minute alone together, but I still wanted mightily to impress her.

In the fall of that year, I had my shot at some big press coverage, national press coverage. The reporters wanted a picture that showed me with my friends at school, so I made sure the One I Liked was in the photo. It was the kind of romantic gesture I favored, enormous in my own mind, barely noticeable to the outside world, and unknown to its beneficiary. I was too afraid to make my intentions known, but I hoped her momentary celebrity might cause her to think of me more fondly.

That was over twenty-five years ago, and I remember it so vividly not just because of the photo or the girl, but because it was the first time I had admitted something to myself. Publicity was super, but it was insignificant next to the possibility of a romantic relationship. Being known slightly in the world had its perks, but the prospect of being known intimately by one person was far more nourishing to my soul.

The hope still excites me and spurs me on, though I am older, 400 miles away, and paying more attention to men these days. People often ask me why I am so focused on changing my single status. Well, the ignorant world tells crips they can't be sexual or form relationships, and tells queers they shouldn't. For me, hearing "can't" and "shouldn't" used in reference to desirable things is a provocation, a summons to work toward "can" and "should," even "will."

I have worked and learned and grown, at least a little, but progress is something I'm far less certain of. I think a big part of me is still back in elementary school or junior high, seeing popularity and dating and romance as the only real litmus tests of success. Intellectually, I know that's wrong, but my emotional attic is so cluttered I often feel buried under the junk.

In this article I will try to clear out the tangled mess and see what remains. Perhaps some fundamental truth may emerge, a guiding compass more suited to a gay crip approaching forty than to an eleven-year-old who yearned to be loved and not just respected.

II. The Advice: A Cantata for the Many Voices in My Head

You're so special . . . You just need to wait till someone equally special comes along . . . It's tough to wait, I know, but there really is someone for everyone . . . It only comes when you aren't looking for it . . . Pushing can't make it happen . . . Just let it happen . . . Relax, and trust the universe.

OK, now the trouble starts. I know I push too hard sometimes. I know it's often counterproductive. But I have been trained to push, conditioned to make things happen. Were I more comfortable relaxing and letting things happen, I might be happier and less ridden with anxiety; on the level of achievement, however, waiting for things to happen is alien to me. I suppose I am afraid that if I cease the relentless press forward, I'll get stuck, or forget how to push myself. When I hear these voices, I remember Annie Oakley's rueful realization that you can't get a man with a gun.

Being a human bulldozer might have helped me break down years of barriers, but heavy construction equipment is hardly the most effective tool for tending the delicate gardens of Relationship.

You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else . . . You need to be happy being alone before you can be happy with another person . . . A relationship should augment a fulfilled life, not fill up an empty one . . . You should be self-sufficient, independent, want others, enjoy others, but never need them.

I do love myself. I also know myself well enough to know how much I honestly need to be with other people. I think the "enjoy your solitude and self-contained peacefulness" rhetoric is for people who have no calm center in their lives, who may need to foster something inside to counterbalance the chaos which exists outside.

For me, it's different. Solitude is more curse than blessing, and isolation, no matter how meditative its character, is more prison than refuge. Because of my disability and other alienations both related to it and separate from it, I have spent more time alone than any three people not affiliated with the cloistered life of a religious order. At last, without shame I can admit here, in this forum, that I am getting sick of my own company. If I had three solid weeks where my only solitary time involved sleeping and using the toilet, I'd be exhilarated. True, eventually I'd need to be alone and some degree of habit might reassert itself, but until then I'd be happy to be overtaxed. I know it's neither chic nor prudent to admit the need for companionship, but I'm doing it. Anyone want to come sleep on my couch?

You can't come off as needy . . . Neediness is a turnoff . . . It reeks of immaturity, reminds people of their own problems . . . A relationship should be an escape and a haven from the world of problems, not something that chokes and smothers . . . A guy won't respect you if he thinks he'll have to take care of you all the time.

Need. I need. Short simple words, but words with a profound and lasting ripple effect. Many men, gay/bi/straight/whatever, are scared to death of need—in others or themselves. Seeing and acknowledging need means recognizing fragility, vulnerability, yearning, aching. Not many guys are ready for that. But there's more going on here. For many men who run from need, there is no distinction between ordinary human-proportioned need and the yawning gaping all-consuming black-hole kind, the sort of fevered appetite that, in a relationship, can erase the other person.

To be fair, viewing need from the inside is often not much different. When I am in the grip of need, it's very hard for me to know whether my impulses are reasonable. Am I making legitimate requests or am I grandstanding? Am I full of refreshing honesty or wallowing in selfishness? How can I let a guy know that showing me consideration will not open the floodgates and drown him?

I just can't accept that a relationship is anything like a bank loan. I shouldn't have to prove I don't need one in order to get one. When I was first coming out, I'm sure I scared guys away with the sheer depth of my need and the sheer force of my gratitude for their company, but I'd like to think I've improved the mixing valve on my emotions somewhat in the years since.

You should not, cannot, must not make anyone feel guilty!

Ah now, this voice is strong enough that it merits a solo. Guilt is pernicious and inescapable for many people, and guys have told me they sensed I'm particularly skilled at it. In the old days, if a guy I'd been on a date with called me on my use of guilt, I might have denied it and told him it was all in his head, but I know better now. I use it. Guilty as charged. I hope that by my admitting this and not being defensive, people will keep calling me on it, so that I can continue trying to purge it from the way I communicate with others.

I hope people can be patient with me though; after all, a hyperintellectual neurotic Jewish crip can't obliterate the results of centuries of conditioning in a few short years. I think the people who know me may cut me some slack, but I worry that those who don't know me may not stick around long enough to understand.

Ironically, even if I somehow managed to remove conscious and unconscious guilt completely from my repertoire, people would still feel guilty around me. Disability is too often the personification of guilt, shame, injury, illness, mortality. When you take these negatives and add to them the dubious positives of courage, fortitude, spunkiness, pluckiness, bravery, endurance, and saintliness, you realize that some able-bodied people can get just as screwed up about disability by looking at it from the outside as we disabled folks can get by living it from the inside.

Men I've been interested in have told me they wouldn't ever want to get involved with me out of fear they'd hurt me. Well, despite their contention that they are looking out for me, this really says more about them. Because they've somehow decided that screwing over a gay crip puts one in a deeper circle of hell than simply breaking the heart of a regular homo, they would rather not take any risks, because they claim they couldn't live with the consequences.

As far as I'm concerned, the worst consequences of getting hurt are still better than the empty certitude of what doesn't happen. People hurting each other is sad, but I don't think it's really tragic. The only true tragedy is possibilities never explored, risks never taken, people never loved, hopes never realized.

You can't play games with people . . . No one likes being manipulated . . . Nobody likes a phony . . . Be honest . . . Be yourself.

This is a really tough one. Thinking strategically and tactically is one of the first and best life-skills that my disability has taught me. I have learned to spin out options, contingencies, and consequences almost automatically, which is funny when you consider that I couldn't do the same thing coherently in a flowchart or a computer program if my life depended on it. When it comes to certain kinds of planning and organization, I'm a whiz. Alas, figuring out accessible transit options and task accommodations is just dealing with objects and situations. People are a different matter entirely.

Somewhere in my past I internalized two major rules of conduct. One was not to be demanding, and the other was never to antagonize anyone if I could avoid it. This was very simply what anyone from a minority group learns early in life: Anything you accomplish depends as much on the good opinion of others as on your own actions, especially if those others have real or perceived control over your future.

The honest and forthright skills I used in disability activism seemed to desert me when I dealt with my own needs. Instead I learned to be crafty, tacking and shifting with the wind like a sailboat rather than barreling along like a Sherman tank. My major lessons: how to get things without crassly and riskily demanding them, and how to avoid confrontations even at the cost of my own needs. These are the shame-inspiring survival skills we deny using, the dark passive-aggressive side of the pioneering activism we point to with pride.

I can communicate subtle and complex ideas to hundreds of people at a time. People often praise me for stating succinctly what's on everyone else's mind, or for finding exactly the right word or phrase to use in a given situation. Despite all these skills, it is still excruciating for me to ask someone for something directly, or to say something if I have the slightest fear someone will be offended. Sometimes, this makes people think I'm telling them only what they want to hear. Today one very honest friend asked me what was on my mind. I told him one thing and nothing else, even though he pressed me to tell him more. I knew it made me look silly and insulted his intelligence, but I was ashamed to tell him how many things were running through my mind.

I am not a dishonest person, but it is not natural for me to "be myself" without some form of mediating control over what of myself I share with other people. Face it, I think we all hide, showing ourselves in glints and facets and glimpses because we don't know how or whether we can unleash whoever is really inside us. I feel entitled to decide what and how much of myself to share with others, but I do recognize that anyone who wants to give a damn about me has the right to expect an authentic me, rather than a false or strategically-presented persona. But where is it, and how do I find it? Being a phony may be disreputable and ultimately self-destructive, but being real is so difficult. Am I ready for it? Are any of us?

Put out the kind of feelings you want to get back . . . If you are positive and upbeat, people will flock to you, if you're a depressed downer, they will run away . . . Why would they stick around? . . . Don't be bitter, especially not about your disability . . . I don't even think of you as disabled . . . No one here has a problem with your disability except you, so get over it.

So THAT'S it. How entirely comforting it is to know the truth at last. It's all up to me, totally my responsibility. If something good happens, it's because I made it happen, and any negative outcome is my fault. Even this disability thing is completely blown out of proportion. It's not that important, not an issue for anybody else unless I make it one.

To quote the Church Lady, "How conveeeeeenient!" How much I've obsessed over how I was coming across to others, how many hours I've spent banging my head against the wall trying to figure out just the right way of presenting myself so that people would look past my anxiety, my pain, my chair, and see the charming witty sexy fellow they might want to go out with! Enough about me. What about everyone else, their fear and confusion, at least as great as mine if not greater? What of their guilt and frustration and neuroses? Surely I can't hold myself responsible for them; hell, I can barely take adequate responsibility for myself.

I'm not saying I should be the kind of egotist who thinks he's perfect and everyone else is a mess. And, much as I'd like to, I can't force myself on people full steam ahead while ignoring reality. That might work for Pepe Le Pew, but I'm far less debonair than he is.

I know I need to be careful about the self I present to the world, but I don't want to be so good at Disneyfying myself that some guy I get to know feels cheated and betrayed later, when he finds out I'm very different from that false and plastic vision. Ideally, we should value each other warts and all, but when can we feel safe about sharing our bumpinesses? How much of me, or you, can we expect someone to accept when we're all very tentatively trying to feel each other out, or even up?

III. Some Answers, Or Perhaps Just More Questions

Those of you who have stuck with this attic-clearing effort of mine may think you have an answer for me. Balance and moderation are the keys, you might say. Neither too much nor too little of any one quality or behavior pattern. This is indeed a good answer, as far as it goes, but if it's taken me years to embody the kinds of extremes I've written about, then it will probably take me just as long to find appropriate middle ground to stake out, an effort that will seem natural only after lots of practice.

However, I find myself doubting the very idea of answers to the dilemma of finding a romantic relationship. Indeed if I've learned anything in over twenty-five years of climbing the walls that separate me from those with whom I might share romantic love, I have learned the following:

The world of relationships is not a meritocracy. You don't end up with a partner merely because you think you deserve one or because others think you've earned the reward of romantic love after years of sacrifice. Some thoroughly undeserving people are blessed with good relationships and partners they are unworthy of, while some great people are romantically underappreciated. So you can't console yourself with the hope it will happen for you, or with the petty vindictiveness that says if you have to be single, at least that schmuck down the street will never find anyone who'll put up with him . . . but on the other hand, if we didn't inoculate ourselves with all different kinds of hope, we might not be able to get through our days, let alone our lives.

Just as relationships have no real connection with merit, neither do they have any connection with strategy or tactics. Who we end up with, and when, and why, and for how long, is a matter of luck, chance, utter randomness. Rather than trying to find the key for every lock, I think we should understand that nothing really works. Plenty of tactics might work, even more will backfire completely, but almost none are guaranteed to work, because people are neither animals nor machines. We are unpredictable, maddening, impossible.

So what am I going to do with these insights? Simple. I'm giving up. Not on the idea of being in a relationship, or even on the hope that it might happen, but giving up on the folly of thinking that if and when it happens, it will clearly and solely be due to something I've done. I will stop looking for solutions while still working to rid myself of the patterns I know will only make me more miserable.

Trying my best to be myself and not screw up might seem insufficient to the task, but it will still represent progress after years of struggle. This course of action might not bring my Ideal Man down from the sky or out of the woodwork, but it just might give me back a huge chunk of the time I've used up in my quest for love.

©2002 Danny Kodmur

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DANNY KODMUR
lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For him, this article is the psychological equivalent
of posing for a Playgirl centerfold.
He dares you to find him romantically interesting after you read this.
Write to him at dkodmur@comcast.net.

 

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2002