What Studying Abroad in Edinburgh Taught Me About Coming Out

Happy Pride Month! All June long, we’ll be sharing long reads, personal essays, and recipes from LGBTQ writers. This week: Max McDonough on pride, shame, and coming out.


What you can’t see is the floors are heated from beneath. The oil lobbyist is smoking an e-cig on the edge of the bed. Glowing blue tip in the dark, the vapor plume smudges the light. Winter in Edinburgh. “You thirsty?”

“Yeah,” he says.

The first thing you remember, getting out of bed in a place like that, is the warm floor, your bare feet that suddenly exist. I leave the room, walk the long hall of closed doors to the kitchen, open the fridge full of only water bottles, clean shelves in alien light. When I return, two bottles in hand, he’s hovering over the printer in the corner, tapping kind of frantically on one of the plastic buttons.

“You okay?” I say.

“Work stuff.”

“Now?”

“Always,” he says, taking the cold bottle, still tapping the button with his other hand, as though playing an old-school video game, firing missiles at the space invaders.

Let me begin again. The first time I remember feeling alone, really alone, was in the first grade. I left for the bathroom in my Grim Reaper robe. The teacher, Snow White in her yellow and blue gown, corralled the class of ninjas and cowboys and princesses and M&Ms to the cafeteria where the Halloween parade would start its march around the school, though I didn’t know this. I returned, confused, to an empty classroom. I sat in my puddle of black fabric by the wooden analogue clocks we used to learn time. I wound the handled gears, practicing the hours.

“Like in your primary school story,” he says. I lift the watch from its bed of linen in the wooden gift box. Beveled, polished steel, the watch is heavy as a small fish in my hand. “Though no death shrouds please.” His accent is a strange fusion of Russian and Scottish.

“It’s handsome.”

“And maybe now you won’t be late to your lectures all the time.”

“If I had a phone in this country, I’d be able to check the time,” I say, smiling. He smiles. “Longines—is that German?”

“Swiss,” he says.

I wore that watch everywhere I went. I wore it to Petrarch class, wore it huffing up the long path to Arthur’s Seat in the rain, wore it across North Bridge and down the stairs through Princes Street Gardens where two centuries ago Hume slipped into the bog it had been and couldn’t get out; he recited the Lord’s Prayer to a group of fishwives and they tossed him a rope; this isn’t entirely true. I wore it along the Royal Mile where I kissed Hume’s golden toe, thank you dear, wore it down Victoria Street to Grassmarket where the bars are medieval and haunted, they tell you.

Proud little left wrist, weightier-than-usual left wrist, I wore that watch to the supermarket, clenching the basket’s handle, scraping the side back and forth against my jeans. Potatoes were the cheapest vegetable, and heavy too. I’d stuff bags with spinach, red peppers, tomatoes, even pineapple—the whole run of anemic, imported produce marked up for the cargo flight in. And then, at the self-checkout, I’d ring them up as potatoes. Red potatoes, white, yellow, miniature, Yukon Gold, I rang them up. I chopped and sprinkled my spoils on frozen pizza. I stretched that ten pounds I earned a week from navigating digital mazes for the University Psychology Research Department; a graduate student paid me in cash. I could make a meal like that last for days.

“How did you know you were gay,” he asks. “Like, really know.”

“It was kind of a mistake,” I say.

“A mistake?”

“An exciting one,” I say, then tell him the story of my mother’s computer room, the French doors clicking shut behind me. I needed to use her computer, a bulky black Dell, for my school assignment about the upcoming presidential election. I was alone. A faux-Tiffany ceiling fixture threw shadows on the walls. A moth overhead thrashed against the light. Ping. Every time it bounced against the glass: ping. In class, we had divvied up the candidates. My guy’s name was Dick Cheney. Eager, I sat down in the computer chair. Ping. I glanced over my shoulder. I returned to the screen, my face lit blue by the glow. Typing into the Google Images search bar, I never arrived at Dick’s last name.

“What about you,” I ask.

“What are you talking about,” he says.

Let me begin again.

He took espresso before red wine. We dined on steak in hotel restaurants on the outskirts of the city. I was 20. I was flat broke. From a summer job, I had saved enough to buy the flight to Scotland, one-way. The return, I would figure out. Take an advance on the next semester’s student loans, or maybe borrow from my grandfather, if I could stomach the shame of asking. I couldn’t ask my father. He was in a protracted custody battle with my mother. I couldn’t ask my mother. She was drowning her small spousal support in a magnum of wine each night. A scholarship covered the tuition and the room and board, but after two months I was out of cash.

I needed to eat. On my student visa, I couldn’t find legal employment in a pub or bakery or any of the supermarkets from which I was stealing. So I was stealing and when I wasn’t stealing I was on the OKCupid meal plan, and then I met the oil lobbyist. My shoes had holes in the toes. It was always raining. I was not lighthearted. In my brain, a small motor thrummed. I could feel it in my temples.

“Stop that,” he scolds after me with high, tight breath. It’s evening. I have, after much effort, convinced him downtown for the Christmas Market. The mist and fog have let up, so the scene—gift shops, strands of icicle lights, cocoa stands, the white frame of the Ferris wheel—looks like a painting of itself.

“Stop what?”

“Walking like that.”

I had caught myself breaking into a skip toward the balcony view of the ice rink in the gardens below. I stopped.

“Oh.”

There are a few things I know completely. I know about shame. I don’t mean the scorn of the Catholic Church, either. I mean the human shame at the back of your neck, the small hairs stiffening.

Maybe a story about shame has no beginning. It certainly has an end.

He asks, so I am telling him, “I came out of the closet on April Fool’s Day.” When did it happen, what can you explain. He doesn’t believe me. I twist the dial on my watch. I swig from my merlot.

It was my senior year in high school. On a long walk with my best friend, I put the thing out there, then took the thing back, excused in theory in part by saying, “April Fool’s!” She didn’t laugh. She had a crush on me, and I knew. Behind sunglasses, her face tightened. I looked away. A shock of new leaves furred the branches along the back road we were walking.

“I need a break from you,” she said.

“Ah c’mon it was just a joke.”

She didn’t say anything.

“It’s an entire day set aside for jokes. You’re missing the point.”

The point was: I was having nightmares. The joke: I was in the closet. Managing the lie on high alert had become unbearable. “April Fool’s!”

But shame can be a useful thing.

Everything happening feels like an accident, my younger self seems to say, raising his hand to speak. Even my premeditated veering. Like I keep stubbing my toe on the truth of myself. Then I’m walking around all funny, limping almost, pretending that I’m not.

“Stop walking like that.”

There are balls I need to catch. There is a plume of vapor glowing blue in my head. The bedroom isn’t mine. The floors are heated by radial coils I can’t see, though I feel them. Electricity tightens in my neck and down my spine. Shame can be a useful thing. It’s raining. I’m hungry. There is a flight home I need to buy. In the classroom, a tiny Grim Reaper mulls over the clock.

The watch was worth twenty-eight hundred pounds.

I pawned it for nine.

 

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