When Ten Feet Feels Like Twenty

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CONTENTS - Sam Fer­rigno

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, sa­loon­style 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.

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