When Ten Feet Feels Like Twenty
Most of the men I dated in college were spotted from afar. The memories of them blend into one figure walking to class, his eyes on the concrete just ahead of each step, adjusting a bag on his shoulder. An open button-down flaps in the breeze, waving at me from across the yard. The greatest distance between the many hims and me was usually about seventy feet. Safe enough, close enough. Sometimes he felt someone watching and turned around. If he caught my eye, I lingered for a couple of seconds, just enough time to see if there was a spark. From seventy feet, this was comfortable.
At that distance, no one’s walking up to anyone, asking them out, and making a bumbling spectacle. I imagined that if I looked hard enough, even into his back, he would turn. Sometimes he looked right at me, and depending on how his face changed, I could tell whether he was interested, or not. If his eyes darted to something right behind me as if eye contact was a mere bump, it was a miss. I turned away, and so did he. If he suddenly looked like he just took something that wasn’t his, we had a keeper. Eye contact was key in figuring out who wouldn’t glance at his watch for me, and who had already imagined us naked in the same room.
I often figured the weight of disappointment was more severe than the thrill of landing a lover. This was a mistake, but at 22, my pride won out more often than I’d like to admit. Take this one guy, for instance. I’ll call him Dylan, after my first crush in elementary school. Dylan and I lived in the same dorm, and therefore we walked many a time across the same quad. Sometimes we passed each other on the sidewalk, and other times I just caught glances of him from across the quad. He looked just as striking up close as he did far away: olive skin, and blue eyes so bright they looked like they’d been artificially pigmented. Perhaps I worried that I was un-striking, but whenever he turned in my direction, I turned away. I glanced into a tree or over a hill before I could gauge whether Dylan would give me the time of day, or the time of my life. That is, until we found ourselves in much closer quarters, where there were no trees to safely gaze into.
This strange form of courtship was trickier in a bar. In a crowd, ten feet felt like twenty, and guys like me who cruised strangers by staring grew braver in this setting. The shoulders and elbows bent with drinks in hand made it easy to blend in. This was especially true at a bar called Ted’s. Even sober, it took fifteen minutes to move twelve steps in any direction. Twenty-five thousand undergrads and just three bars made for crowded nights. Besides watching classmates make earnest attempts at karaoke for the first time, getting drunk at Ted’s was what one did in the evening.
Ted’s was country-ish, with neon lights, saloon-style seating, TVs showing football from four different corners of the ceiling, and a not-in-anyway-ironic jukebox that played Kenny Chesney as much as it played Rihanna. The floor was coated
with a sticky film that sucked on our shoes and the regulars greeted each other with boisterous, highfive/handshake combinations that endangered anyone close by. This was not a bar to which scores of gay men flocked.
There were some (there always are), but they were incognito, camouflaged as persons among persons. Closeted frat boys skilled in machismo: deepened voices, broadened postures, excessive use of “bro.” Up close, their illusions were thickest, like a good magic trick. We were easiest to fool when we looked too closely. Out on the quad, the audience was easy: lazy students pretending to read, sleeping on the grass, and tanning their shoulders. Why hide when everyone is in plain sight? In a bar, the vantage points multiply and spread. Ten feet feels like twenty, and your audience is not always in front of you. It’s harder to keep track of who is watching.
Even at Ted’s the men who liked men in a bar for men could be spotted. They slipped a glance at a boy and lingered a second too long, eyes shifting like someone guarding a secret. We, the men who liked men, looked at each other like thieves; we preferred to steal peeks rather than approach someone.
It’s not that we needed to be afraid of being found out. Our school to this day has a very liberal reputation. In Ted’s though, sports played from all four corners and the floor sucked on our shoes. There was the suspicion on our part that men would be men here, and if we wanted to check out another guy, we had to steal the side of his face when he couldn’t look back. If he did, the audience would know.
This is how Dylan and I finally saw each other at the same time. I had gone to Ted’s with a group of friends one night, unassuming and looking forward to getting drunk. During our third round of drinks, a line of frat brothers filed in from the outside. At the tail end of this line was none other than Dylan. As if naturally predisposed to do so, I kept a polar distance from him all night, like an animal that didn’t know if he should stay away or go in for the kill. Minutes before we left, I lost sight of him. I felt like the oblivious teen in a horror movie that loses focus just long enough for the killer to sneak up behind him. Which is exactly what happened.
I turned around and there he was, Dylan, standing inches from me. Only, he wasn’t killing me. In fact, he was smiling. Smiling! And looking at me! Not only looking, but speaking to me too. As we exchanged numbers, I remembered all the Dylans, before him, all the hims I had attempted love with. From the ten feet away that felt like twenty, we snuck across the gap, fearful and energized by fear of being seen. When we found each other, we braved light-headed smiles, dizzied by the collapsing space between us.