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How do you handle a problem like neurosis?

Tuesday, 31 March 2015 Written by // Matt Levine Categories // Dating, Gay Men, Lifestyle, Living with HIV, Population Specific , Sex and Sexuality , Matt Levine

Growing up gay in the 70’s and wanting to be liked, Matt Levine was lucky enough to have never had any problem with his peers. He wasn’t bullied by any straight men but when it came to navigating nightlife gay men were a serious problem.

How do you handle a problem like neurosis?

Fat, nice & funny.  And now gay too 

I realized I was gay when I was eleven. Summer was over and I couldn’t wait to see my good friend John O’Connell when school started. We had lots of fun – strictly platonic – in Mrs. Rothshield’s 5th grade class and we didn’t see each other much over the summer. But the fates had a different plan in store. John and I we were in different 6th grade classes. At first I didn’t understand why I felt so sad, so bad, so crestfallen. And then suddenly I understood, realizing that this was going to make life complicated. 

However even before that “uh oh” moment I was honing my skills at getting people to like me.  I was fat, naturally predisposed to be nice and loved to be funny.  Along the way to wearing husky-size slacks a part of me I only understood years later started honing my natural inclinations as a way to protect me from the slings and arrows of childhood. I decided that getting people to like me and ‘cracking them up’ was the perfect way to get along in life. 

Thanks to the charismatic DNA of my father and grandfather I became what friends later called the ‘mayor,’ the guy who remembered everything about you, asked about your Mom, girlfriend, baseball game, or anything else that let you know without any doubt “hey I’m your pal.”   I’d listen, I’d laugh and I’d have your back. 

Like my father and his father before me, I’ve always been a people person.  I’m endlessly curious about people and love sharing a laugh on an elevator, or an observation on the subway. Somehow that ‘kinetic-emotive-connection’ always wakes me up to something I believe stems from the fact that we all emerged from the same primordial ooze and personal connections big or small reinforce our natural community. 

Matt's grandfather and father

Sure!  That sounds great!  OR what do you want? 

But too often this part of me wasn’t about connecting. It was about avoiding being real, saying what I thought.  I became an expert at bullshitting, or what someone more polite would call feigning fascination with ease. Disagreement of any kind was dangerous, a threat to my fragile ego and wellbeing.  

To give you an idea of how phony and scared I was, once I told a first date, I’d love to see a movie – I think it was Beverly Hills Cop – even though I had already seen it and thought it was about as interesting as dry toast. I’d built my friendships on being liked, honed by instantaneously censoring my preference to such a degree that sometimes I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. 

In other ways it was easy to be liked. I enjoyed watching and playing sports, my appearance or mannerisms didn’t stand out except that I was sloppy, which of course is a benefit when being in the closet. 

But despite my ‘fitting in’ at high school and the ability to take the train to NYC on Saturdays to attend a a Gay and Lesbian Youth Group (Bixseuals and Trans weren’t part of the cohort then) my loneliness was severe.  Its hard to remember how frightened I was that someone would see me entering  the NYC office building on 23rd and Madison (where the youth group met in the offices of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force) and know this high school senior from Connecticut was actually a faggot. 

Family friends lived in Manhattan so I would stand across the street for five or ten minutes at a time before daring to enter the building and take the elevator to the 4th floor. I wonder why I didn’t make any lasting friends at the youth group.  I was probably too scared.  

While I got along with my peers in high school, NYC bars were a cruel place for me.  Except for the youth group meetings I had no peers to confide in and was both obsessed and afraid of my desire.   Too scared to go to clubs with kids my own age, I went to bars with older men. I would start at Uncle Charlie’s on Greenwich Street in the West Village but was never able to talk to anyone there so I’d walk around the block to Julius’ where men twice my age would always say hello. 

My early sexual experiences were horrible.

I never understood that “come over for coffee” was actually a trick I didn't understand.  But I'd try not to act surprised when, while offering me a beer or scotch, my host was taking off his clothes in a hurry and grabbing at my ass.  In addition to my people pleasing I thought sex was what made me gay and didn't understand why I wasn't hard and couldn't wait for it to end. And like many of the teenage girls I was in school with, the fact that fucking never led to friends left me sad but I would try and try again. 

As mentioned, I would start at Uncle Charlie’s, but rarely talk to anyone, then move on to Julius’ and think this time I might meet someone ‘right’. The story never changed. Wham Bam, Later Kid and when I’d call my new friend the next day . . .  "The Number You Have Reached Is Not in Service"

Once there was a man who could see through my façade. Perhaps he was just a thoughtful lover. Thirty-something, handsome, raised money for the arts, his loft on 11th near Broadway was beautiful and something out of Conran’s.  We drank scotch, listened to jazz and talked. I asked him about the autographed photo of Robert F Kennedy inscribed “Thanks for your hard work.” 

His bed was big and white. I was tired but did my part. Halfway through he asked me if I was having fun. I struggled thinking for an answer. It was quiet for a while until he added, “You know you can say no, don’t you?” I never thought of that before.  Never. 

Old bedroom habits die hard – no pun intended 

A few months later I was gritting my teeth in bed with Daniel, older as usual, a fashion designer who had his own small line of men’s clothes, handsome, sexy and drunk, at least every time we fucked. most every night. I’d think of something else while he pounded my ass, hoping he’d finish quickly, sometimes silently singing my go to song of the era,  James Taylor’s song “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”   

After college living in Jersey City and driving a taxi in Manhattan I made gay friends who I mostly met at The Bar on 2nd Avenue and 4th Street.  It was a hangout, gay but friendlier than cruisy though sex was always in the air.  It was fun, I was a semi-regular and loved the friends I made there who I sometimes thought would be nice to date but I was too scared to ask out.

I had free coupons for the car wash at Houston & Broadway and would sometimes take one of my friends from the bar for a ride and we'd go through the carwash, both in the front seat.  I must have been an odd bird, charismatic, chatty with the gift of the gab but like a deer in the headlights when the moment would approach as the darkness of the carwash engulfed us, John or Patrick or Johnny on the passenger side,  lighting up a joint but never touching hands or kissing, and nervous me talking more and more..... 

When I did date things were confusing. I didn’t know what I wanted. My self-programmed trying to figure out the needs of others caused as many problems as the bad sex, which was mostly masturbating side by side. 

Fifteen years later, starting work as a sales rep for a specialty grocery wholesaler, I’d start work at 5.30, but often got up earlier, hook up with guys on the phone-sex line who were partying and wondered why I could never get a hard-on, even when the guys were sexy despite the random cruelty of meth. 

Today some surface things remain the same.  According to a quiz in The Advocate Magazine I’m butch, like Tom of Finland but in fact much more like John Goodman in Roseanne, but thinner and less handy with tools. 

But recently I’ve come to see how in other ways my behavior, though still influenced by neurotic memories of days gone by, is blessedly different. 

Seven years ago after a rave in Treasure Island, (the former naval base in San Francisco Bay, not the porn company), I ended up at a house party. People were sexy and nice. The loft was lathered with naked men lounging on pillows, sharing drugs, massaging feet and making out. Drugs were shared, while others passed out Vitamin C powder, bottles of water and toothbrushes too.   

Later that morning, at an apartment in The Mission, at the age of 46 I got fucked for the first time since I was a kid.  I got fucked and for the first time I liked it, I liked it, yes I liked it.  I was wrong. It wasn’t getting fucked I didn’t like. What I didn’t like was sex with selfish men. What I didn’t like was my inability to navigate the waters that lie between the sheets. 

For thirty years I thought I knew what I liked, I knew something about my sexual preferences – top, bottom, rough, tender – but I was wrong.  My ideas were built with lousy tools and shaky roots, the residue of lonely nights, nervous drinking, lousy sex, futile longing  and being in my head trying to do the right thing so whoever had my ankles in the air would be got off. 

These days I’m still a scared kitten in the bedroom.  But I know how to talk - what to say, at least a little bit. Yes I know it's pretty simple. Not this. Yes, that.  Maybe.  And the first time we go to bed together I’ll be wearing my t-shirt and my boxers.  Shy is in my DNA too.