Brian Kornell

When Ghosts Have Gone

by Brian Kornell

If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?

September 2016. Yellow flower petals fall onto to the concrete of the train platform. I am in Saint Louis getting on the train to head back to Chicago. The sun sets. The man I visited, someone who I’ve had a crush on for a long time, someone who I’ve talked to for a over a year, but had never met in person until that weekend, had greeted me at this very same train station with yellow Chrysanthemums. We had talked over the last month what a visit would look like. I think he was the first one to mention flowers. I told him that a man had never given me flowers and I wanted very much to be given flowers. The sweet, romantic gesture of it. I craved it. And here it was. The pick up area had been crowded, so I jumped into the car, we hugged, one of those awkward car hugs, and then he reached into the back seat to retrieve the flowers. I hadn’t really expected them. Their yellowness brighter under the orange streetlights somehow. He also handed me a bag of donuts in case I was hungry from the train ride. Flowers and donuts. The most romantic moment of my life. This is what I didn’t think was possible when I lived in the closet.

I remember the closet. It was like when I was a kid and would take my pillow and blanket into my bedroom closet to escape the chaos of my family. I’d pull the doors shut from the inside, lay down, my legs pulled into my chest, hoping no one would find me.

November 2014. Snow falls as I lay on a picnic table looking up at the stars. Makes it look like the stars are falling. I’ve never been this far away from light pollution before, never felt so close to the rest of the universe.  I am in Vermont at a writers’ and artists residency. One of the other writers stops to see if I’m okay. Enjoying the sky, I tell him. I walk with him back to the main house where the writers and artists would gather at night to talk, drink, and get ready to go back to our studios. As we cross the bridge, a pickup truck rumbled towards us. Pickup trucks are never good news, especially not at night in a small town. As it goes by us, the passenger leans out the window and yells, “Faggots.”  This kind of incident is what I worried about when I hid in the closet. It’s the first time since I came out that I am called a faggot. I don’t mean to underestimate the power of that word. However, in that moment, it doesn’t devastate me as I might have thought it would. “What an asshole,” the other writer says.

And we move on, I move on with my night. Had I been alone on that street, had I not been in a place surrounded by artists and writers where we are all so happy to be there and to create, maybe that incident would have hurt me more.

If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?

This is a question posed by Amy Adam’s character, Louise, towards the end of Arrival after her perception of time is altered. It becomes nonlinear, The future and the present are all happening at once for her. For her the future becomes memory. She knows she will have a daughter who will die. She knows she will be divorced. But she moves towards these events because there is joy and love mixed in with the pain and loss. She knows it, feels all of it.

For a long time, if I had been asked the same question, I would have said without a doubt that I would change things.

Most of all I wanted to change that it took me what felt like so long to come out. The closet turned me into a ghost. I’m not that far removed from it. I’ve only been out for seven years. The summer that I turned thirty-three being the time I could no longer bear it.

I don’t remember exactly at what age I started to question whether or not I was gay. I remember searching for an answer to who I was. An explanation. A way to know how to be. I remember being quite young, before my age had double digits.

We lived in a split level home, which meant the family room, the place where we watched TV, was mostly underground. It gave the room a sense of sanctuary because it was the only room in the house where you could hide in the open. I’d sit in the far corner, and not be seen by anyone at the top of the stairs. This was where the set of encyclopedias my parents had purchased from a door to door salesman were kept. There had been the standard edition or the more expensive blue leather bound edition with gold stripes on the spine. They sprung for the more expensive edition because it looked sturdier, would last longer. We had no idea at the time that the internet would exist. It wasn’t even an idea that anyone in suburban Cleveland would have considered. All the knowledge in the world was in these books kept on a shelf next to the fireplace. We were supposed to be careful with the books, take care with how we turned the pages, not leave any marks. Although we were encouraged, especially by my father, to use them if there were things we were curious about.

The problem with my childhood home was that I always felt like I was being watched, even when the house was empty. Even in this room that otherwise felt private. This might have been the byproduct of being raised Catholic, attending Catholic school until fourth grade. This might have been the fear my parents instilled. I never actually felt safe. But one day, I reached a point where I couldn’t not look any longer. I turned down the volume on the TV, so that I didn’t miss anyone walking down the stairs. No one in my family walked quietly, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I slid my bare feet across the carpet to get over to the encyclopedias, my hands shook as I ran my fingers across the spines until I got to G. I paused. What if I were caught? What would I say? I was looking up gopher? Golf? Gratitude? These were all too far away from the actual word I wanted to look up. There was only one word in the world right then that began with G and A, Gay. Part of me expected some enlightenment. This another byproduct of Catholicism, believing words on a page could save you. But I wasn’t looking for the religious kind of saving. I was looking for the kind that would make me feel less alone, comforted. The kind that I would find, eventually, in literature. That day, my hands shaking, listening for an intruding member of my family to discover me, the book only said: see homosexual.

H was divided into two parts. I took the second part and flipped as fast as I could to homosexual. I remember the information being short, cold, scientific sounding. I remember it saying at the bottom of the entry that many religions and many in society didn’t approve. I snuck the book up to my room, hid it under my bed, hoping that I would somehow absorb some understanding as I slept. I now wonder if I simply absorbed the part about people not approving.

If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?

October 2000. Condensation drips off the beer bottle and onto my hand. I am on the deck looking out over the moonlight golf course with one of my groomsmen. He was the one in our friend group that everyone agreed was attractive. Behind us the music from my wedding reception thumped. I could hear my now wife and her friends shouting and singing. There had been a story about the groomsman, a rumor, that he had broken a bottle one night while drunk and had eaten the glass. I asked him if it was true.

“Do you think I would do something like that?” He said, turning his whole body towards me.

“Kind of,” I said. His father had recently died in a motorcycle accident. I believed his grief would make him do things like eat glass. “It’s dangerous.”

He set his bottle down on the railing, and opened his arms. “Come here,” he said.

I set my bottle down, and leaned into his hug. Instead of patting my back as he usually did when we hugged. He ran his hands over my back. I pulled away, but his embrace would only let me lean back. We looked at each other. A breeze rustled the fallen leaves on the ground. He leaned down and kissed me. Our lips just rested against each other for a moment. Our lips parted and locked together. He ran his tongue against my top lip. We were alone, but not isolated. All someone had to do was look out a window from inside the reception hall to see us. We stopped.

One of us didn’t run away from the other or avoid each other. It happened. I didn’t regret it. I enjoyed it. We eventually went back inside. We talked to our friends. We danced as a group. The groomsman kept drinking. I still felt the scratch of his stubble against my chin, my cheeks. Towards the end of the night, when most people had left, and we had started to wrap up the reception, the groomsman stood in front of the what had been the table the wedding party had been seated during dinner. He looked sad. He swayed a little bit. I took the beer bottle out of his hand. “You okay?” I said.

He nodded. He picked up his beer bottle.

“You don’t need anymore.” I put my hands on the side of his head. I kissed him. I should have cared more about who was around, who could see us, but I didn’t. It felt like this was going to be my last chance to kiss him, to kiss a man, and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. He tasted different than before. Stale beer, and vomit. He must have thrown up at some point after our first kiss. Not that it mattered because I wanted this despite all the sour. Maybe in a different timeline, I would have come out right then, told my wife that I couldn’t be married to her. However, doing that on your wedding day, after all the money that had been spent didn’t seem possible. So this kiss with the groomsman would have to be enough to get me through the rest of my life.

“That’s enough of that,” I heard my wife say behind me. The stone in her voice was enough. I didn’t need to see her face. The groomsman and I parted, and it was never spoken of again.

A few years later, the groomsman became a groom. During his wedding reception, there was a married couples dance. My wife rested her head on my shoulder as we stepped in place. The groomsman, now groom,  and his wife were only a few feet away. I kept glancing at him. Our gaze eventually met, and for a few seconds we looked at each other. He bowed his head down, and then nodded at me, before he looked back down at his wife. I knew that was it. Our places as husbands, our roles as seemingly heterosexual men had solidified in place.

July 2009. My head hung down toward my chest, as I fought to stay awake at my desk. I’m in grad school. It is my thirty third birthday. My wife took me out for breakfast that morning before I had to go into campus to teach my summer session creative writing course. The pancakes I ate had made me drowsy as if they’d been laced with sleep aids. It messed up my sense of time. I sat in my office, grading student work, and missed the class because I thought it started an hour later than it actually did. I ran down to the room just in case they were still there. Of course they were gone.

On my walk home, I ran into one of my students who asked what had happened, it wasn’t like me to not show up.

“I don’t know. I was just off today,” I said.

“It happens,” she shrugged.

I hadn’t been off just that day, I’d felt off for the last year.

A year before the missed class was when the closet door had cracked open and I knew there were be no closing it again. I didn’t know who to talk to about it. I was afraid to say anything to anyone I knew because what if I was wrong? But I knew I wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t felt more certain in my life. It was a fundamental fact of my being  that I was gay. I had willed myself to forget it.

Waking up after being asleep for so long is scary. I had lived my life one way for so long, I was afraid to leave it. I became distant. I became an asshole. My wife would make a joke, and I wouldn’t laugh.

“C’mon,” she said one day. “You can laugh at my jokes.”

“I will when you say something funny,” I said.

She had gone quiet, not talking to me for the rest of the day. I felt bad, but was also glad for the silence. I needed space but didn’t know how to ask for it.

A heaviness had fallen over the house. But being good midwesterners, we never let on to our friends or families that anything was wrong.

My wife would try to initiate sex with me and I would say I was tired or had a deadline for a class, so I just couldn’t concentrate. I would become frustrated, irritated, tell her to leave me alone. She would become frustrated, irritated because I wouldn’t tell her why.

I’d practice telling her. At first, I’d whisper the words, I’m gay, when I was alone, when I knew no one else would be able to accidentally hear me. Then, I’d be in the same room with her, and I’d wait for her to turn her head or walk into the other room, and I’d mouth: I’m gay. The hope being that if I could feel the words on my lips, I could say them to her.

Two days after my thirty-third birthday, after missing my class because I had lost a sense of time, I would say them to her. In our kitchen. I don’t remember what initiated the specific tension that day. She stood at the counter with the vegetables she was chopping for dinner. I had felt bad about being short with her, for keeping this secret. I had the intention of going in there to apologize. She said something to me as I walked in. I don’t remember what she said or my response, the words, I remember the tone. I was snippy, annoyed.

“That’s enough.” She slammed down the knife. “What is it? What is going on?”

I could have cited school pressures. She had around this time, despite all the tension between us and a complete lack of sex, started talking about how she wanted to have a baby after I finished grad school. I thought about telling her that was what I was upset about, feeling too much pressure because I didn’t want to have one. The washing machine on the other side of the room rattled to a finish. But I was tired of lying. I knew the second I said it, everything would change.

“I’m gay.” I said.

She stared at me for a second. Her shoulders settled. “That makes sense.”

The heaviness around us disappeared in that instant. She asked how I was doing.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I told her that I would move out, since I was the one who had “done this.” Framing it that way as I had done something wrong is another regret I have from this time because it gave others permission to frame it that way too. Maybe they would have anyways regardless of how I did. I wish I could have had a more now I’m living my truth and I feel free kind of attitude, but I did feel guilty. My ex in-laws being the best at poking at my guilt. After, we told them we were divorcing and why, after we had started living in separate apartments, my in-laws would still call me to see how was doing, to prove that they still cared for me and I was still a part of the family. However, there was always a way to mention that my ex-wife had been deceived. They hoped she would be able to trust again, move on to another relationship. Finally, I had to stop talking to them. I needed a clean break. I called my ex-wife, and told her that I couldn’t move on with my life if the conversation always came back to how I had wronged her. I looked out at the front lawn of the house through the haze of the window screen in the bedroom we once shared. I apologized to her again for hurting her. My deception had not been malicious. And then I told her I would not apologize for this again. “I can’t spend the rest of my life apologizing for who I am.”

If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?

The question my ex-wife asked when I came out to her, the question I get the most often when people hear about my marriage is simply, why?

Here are some theories:

When I was a kid, a teenager, the prevailing belief was that being gay was a choice. I didn’t hear anything about being wired that way biologically or that genetics or that God or whatever unseen force or science had made being gay innate in me. Why would anyone choose to be gay, my parents would say. It’s such a difficult life, they would say. I had made a choice. I had chosen to pretend to not be gay. That was the only choice involved in this situation.

It is easy to forget how possible the internet makes it to connect to people outside of our immediate lives, to be curious and find the answers not presented by our parents or the information not selected by teachers, academic institutions. As a teenager, as I was realizing I might be gay, I had not knowingly met another gay guy my age. I had no idea how to go about meeting them. As an adult, I simply Googled some key terms and found men my age to talk to. I did this before I told my wife I was gay. I talked to some of them about my situation. They offered advice. They offered a sense of knowing I would not be alone even if they weren’t in the same town. However, I didn’t have that at fifteen or at twenty-four when I got married.

My childhood home was chaotic. My parents were abusive to each other and to me. Their affection often came with a price. They loved me in that way all parents must love their children, but they didn’t know how to express it. I often felt like an outsider in my family. According to my father’s side of the family, I was too much like my mother’s side, and vice versa. I somehow, occupied this in-between space of both families. Belonging to parts of both, but not claimed by either. My ex-wife and her family offered me a sense of family I had missed. It was hard to want to let that go. It was what I needed at that time. It was survival. The price was pretending to be heterosexual.

I cannot delete the specter of the AIDS crisis from my resistance to coming out. I came of age, my sexuality waking up, during the height of the crisis. The only gay men on television, and thus the only gay men in my life, were the ones covered on the news because they were dying. The news giving just as much air time to the religious zealots who believed this was God punishing gay men for existing, essentially. Shame and death was the message sent and received. The coverage of the AIDS crisis back then made it seem an inevitable that if you were a gay man, you would die. I, of course, learned, realized how untrue, how ridiculous that is. However, my ex mother-in-law reminded me how ingrained that idea was when I came out to her over the phone in 2009, and the first thing she said to me was “Don’t get AIDS.”

I told her what a ridiculous thing to say, such an antiquated idea. Not that HIV isn’t still something to be concerned about or take lightly, but knowledge and awareness have taken us a long way from the dire days of the plague years. There was a mix of concern and vengeance in her voice when she said it. I got the sense that part of her wanted that to sting. Had that been said to me when I was younger, it would have devastated me, put another barrier in front of the closet door.

I often wanted to go back in time to talk to the ghost of the boy I was in suburban Cleveland to let him know none of these things he worried about would come true.

This is not to say that my life in the closet was all horrible, all the time or that I didn’t care for my ex-wife. She was my best friend. Loving someone as your best friend is different than being in love.

This is not to say that every moment since I came out has been amazing. I am a curiosity to many gay men. I couldn’t have done it, some of them said when they found out I was married. On one of the first dates I ever went on, the guy stood up and walked out of the restaurant after I told him. I don’t know why. He never talked to me again. Other men told me to never tell anyone that I had been married. But then how do I account for a large chunk of my life? It felt like I was expected to go back into another closet. So I hid away. I wouldn’t meet any guys. I would refuse hook-ups. I became a ghost again.

Then, one day I wasn’t any longer. It seemed like it happened all at once, but I came back to life slowly. I met new people, made new friends. I engaged more with the literary community, found my sense of community within that community. This is when I started to move forward again. My ex-wife and I grew apart. The distance probably what we needed. To stay in each other’s life was to stay in a loop of regret. We would say hello to each other when we saw each other around town.

A friend of mine, the man who had become my best friend, and I decided to make an audition tape for a reality show for the fun of it. We had to record ourselves answering questions the producers had provided. One was to name a quality we admired about the other. He thought having been married and coming out had shown real strength. I had endured. I had found the courage to come out. He admired that about me. No one had ever told me this before. I had never considered any of that in those terms before. It changed how I saw those years in the closet. I told him that all this time I thought it had been weakness that had kept me in the closet.

If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?

For many years, when I felt lonely or sad or a guy didn’t want to date me, I thought it was because of the damage the closet had caused me. It made me question if I knew how to interact with the world, other people, especially other gay men because I had locked away my desire, my love, my friendship for so long. I was doing everything later than most people. I didn’t practice dating, sex, relationships as a teenager or in my twenties. The awkwardness of feeling left behind is why I wished for so many years that I could time travel to change things. I never wanted to not be gay. I wanted to change my reaction to it. I wanted to spare my ex-wife the pain I caused her. I wanted to tell my younger self that I had a strength that I didn’t know I possessed. That I wouldn’t be alone. There is no way to do that. Never was. The danger in time traveling to change the things I don’t like is the risk of erasing things I do like. Those yellow flowers. Gone. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the drive to write, and wouldn’t have meet the community of artists and writers. I wouldn’t have the friends I have now, the ones I can’t imagine my life without.

If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?

When Louise asks this question in Arrival, she asks it knowing the future of her life, she says, “despite knowing where the path will lead, I choose to embrace it.”  She chooses the pain with the joy. I don’t know where my path will lead now, but I know where I’ve been. I know have spent too much time regretting it. I know I wouldn’t have the things that make me happy today without going through the pain, so like Louise chose to embrace her future, I choose to embrace my past, and wherever my future might lead.

September 2016. There is a ouija board hung on his bedroom wall. The guy from St. Louis is in the kitchen looking for a vase. I ask him if it’s the same one he had texted me about, late at night a few months ago, because he was afraid he hadn’t closed it properly. Afraid that the portal to the other side would bring him trouble he didn’t want. Nothing had happened.

“That’s the one,” he shouts from the other room. I hear water running. He comes into his room the yellow flowers in a green tinted vase. He sweats. Dried leaves scape against the sidewalk outside. The internal clocks of the trees were on time, summer was supposed to be over, but the temperature said otherwise.

Later that night, as I fall asleep next to him, I think of the ouija board on the wall, its ability to communicate with the beyond. In that space between asleep and awake, I imagine a ghost materializing from the board. It worries me a little, but he, the guy from St. Louis, sighs in his sleep, entwines his leg with mine, and nuzzles my neck. This weekend between the two of us will be no more than that. I already know. Not that it matters. Not that it takes away from the tenderness and affection he has shown me or my enjoyment of it. I relax. I ease back towards sleep. It is safe. There are no ghosts here.

Brian Kornell’s writing appears in The Rumpus, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Kenyon Review, Luna Luna Magazine, OCHO, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a memoir about being in the closet, and married, until he was thirty-three. He is the Assistant Essays Editor for The Rumpus.