| Arts & Culture
Queer Life These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ Away from Oklahoma
There was nowhere to go back to. Oklahoma was out of the question, always out of the question. But then, where was home?
My mom got me a pair of beautiful cowboy boots for Christmas last year. I was probably too old to be getting gifts, much less one like that. But opening the box to the unspoiled smell of calfskin leather was the closest I’d come to remembering what Christmas used to be like; how it felt to so immediately cherish something. I slid my feet inside and wore them around for the rest of the day, block heel clacking on tile floor, walking out to the barn to give them a more natural, familiar setting, like they were pets with specific needs.
I only half-remember my first pair of cowboy boots. My dad, who put them on for me, tells me I must have been eight or so. It was for a farmers’ co-op dinner honoring my grandfather on my white side, who my sister and I called Grandpappy, per his request. He was from a family of farmers and lived across the field from us. We didn’t see him much after a certain age, after our mandatory Sunday visits fell out of practice. My sister and I would play hide-and-seek in his bungalow with its saloon-style kitchen doors and creepy hallways. We’d suck on the butterscotch candies he kept in a crystal bowl in the living room, rifle through the junk in his forgotten rooms, and shake his hand goodbye. We’d tell him “I love you more than a million bucks,” like he’d told us to, and then run home.
The only thing I really remember about my first pair of cowboy boots, other than that I wore them for Grandpappy’s sake, was that I was uncomfortable. I didn’t care for farmer stuff. I didn’t care for the fields that surrounded our house, the cows and the wheat and whatever else. I didn’t care for the cowboys who loitered outside the feedstore and moved with their slow mosey through life. Slow, everything is slow where I’m from. Even as a kid, I imagined myself as someone who moved too fast for it. I was someone with places to be.
M y parents put a premium on traveling, something their parents couldn’t afford and something not many people who lived in our parts of Oklahoma could do either. My mom made a big point of it. We went to New York when I was in the fourth grade and she rented a limo just to take us a few blocks. “There,” she said after we climbed out, as if she’d knocked something off a long to-do list. “Now you don’t need to be impressed with limos anymore.”
By the time I came out as gay, I was even antsier to make my escape, even more sure I’d been born in the wrong place. I stayed in the closet well into my college years. I’d been brutalized back home for being effeminate, for “walking funny,” as one kid put it. I’d even come close to killing myself once or twice. I folded these experiences in with Oklahoma, with the great blunder of being there, in that backwards place, and I saw it as my mission to flee. I’d seen some of the world, thanks to my parents. I knew there was life out there, somewhere, for me. Somewhere with trains and tall buildings.
I did some wild things in my efforts to leave. In college, I matched with an older guy on OKCupid who was visiting from New York. He worked for an entertainment company. He told me he was working on a movie that would have a scene at a Sonic, a drive-in burger place with headquarters in Oklahoma. That one scene meant being flown to Oklahoma City and being put up in the nicest hotel in town. I couldn’t imagine such extravagance. I was deeply jealous. While chatting, I told him that I wanted to be a writer, that I did scripts sometimes. He told me he’d like to talk about it over dinner. He added that he liked boys with glasses and asked that I wear mine for him when we met.
Slow, everything is slow where I’m from. Even as a kid, I imagined myself as someone who moved too fast for it. I was someone with places to be.
I waited for him in a hotel lobby with velvet drapes and concierges in black vests scurrying around with bags. I was wearing a fake pair of glasses, like some kind of massive idiot, because I normally wore contacts and couldn’t find my real pair. I met him, a short man with gold rings on his fingers, and he shepherded me to a restaurant with a seasonal menu and expensive wine, foreign to me—foreign, somehow, even though he was the visitor. He moved more comfortably than I did there, swirling his glass in such a way, talking casually out of one side of his mouth, saying things like, “It’s a tough business.”
As the dinner concluded and he took out a wad of bills held together by a gold clip, I realized I had nothing. I hadn’t written anything. I didn’t have any money. I was a regular dolt wearing fake glasses for some rich guy from New York who was looking for a hookup and couldn’t do a thing for me. I made up some excuse to leave after he paid. I threw my glasses away on my way back to my car. I hit myself; stupid, stupid, stupid.
Before him, my only experiences with men had been a failed three-year secret fling with my best friend from high school, and Gregg. I met Gregg at a house party out in Geronimo, a town about thirty minutes away. There wasn’t much to do in Comanche County besides drink and get high: in a car on a backroad, in a Motel 6 with beer cans sitting in ice in the sink, in an abandoned house where you had to piss outside.
I went with a friend of mine out to the party, an old clapboard house with a creaky porch. We blacked out with a weird assortment of punks and country kids before we knew what hit us. I woke up on the futon with Gregg, an apple-cheeked former baseball player who sent me good morning texts for a two solid weeks before he fell off the face of the earth one day without warning. I cried and begged and received no response. It wasn’t until much later that I learned his dad had found out about us and had made him decide between being gay and having a roof over his head.
I hated Oklahoma. Good Lord, I hated Oklahoma. I hated it for eating up so much of my life, hated it for not being anywhere else, hated it for reasons real and imagined, hated it like I’d never hated anything, and I was stuck there. I made concession after concession to it, negotiating my dreams with reality, which is how Adam came into the picture. Blond and stocky with a youth pastor’s corny vigor, he’d drive down from Stillwater to visit me in Norman and buy me dinners, which I accepted because I thought relationships were a matter of kindness and not necessarily compatibility.
Right when I turned twenty-one, Adam took me out to the strip in Oklahoma City, a cluster of gay bars that included the Habana Inn, a place I knew about before I knew about Stonewall. Adam took me to Tramp’s, a bar with stiff, cheap drinks, and led me to the backyard to stand on a concrete bench. We peered over the wooden fence into the exposed corridors of the Habana Inn next door, where closeted older guys were cruising. Caps pulled low and hands shoved in their pockets, they shuffled from door to door. Sometimes the blinds would flutter, the door would open, and a man would slip inside. Most times, though, the door didn’t open, and he’d lumber on in his pursuit.
“All those guys,” Adam said darkly, “they’ve got wives and kids. All of ’em.” Adam had this theatrical way of talking that I didn’t care for. He was in a men’s choir up at Oklahoma State. He had that thespian instinct to turn everything into a production.
My knees knocking in the February cold, I didn’t know if I was meant to feel sorry for the men or feel scorn for them. This mattered with Adam, who would correct me if I missed his cue to respond a certain way.
“That’s sad,” I said, venturing a guess, the wrong answer.
“It’s pathetic,” Adam said.
I didn’t say anything back. I returned to the men shuffling through the corridors in their Carhartt jackets and cowboy boots. I’d never seen those familiar articles move like that, somehow both reluctant and panther-like, without their typical masculine bluster. I thought a sudden move might send them scattering. I thought of the men I’d grown up around in Comanche County, the truckers at the gas station pump and the cowboys at the feed store. It was delightfully perverse, giddy sacrilege, to imagine them here, looking for gay sex.
I ditched Adam and forgot about him. I forgot about the Habana Inn. I forgot about Gregg and I forgot about the man with the gold money clip. I moved to New York for a writing job, which felt less like a move and more like a correction. I was putting myself where I should have been all along. Living in the big city, I found I liked being from Oklahoma more than I liked actually being in Oklahoma. It was something different. I liked telling people I was from a rural place with cows and fields. Sometimes, it surprised them. I ate that up.
I was happy to get those cowboy boots for Christmas. I wore them while visiting my mom’s donkeys in the backyard, then I wore them on my flight back to New York. I wore them to a man’s house in the Lower East Side after we chatted each other up on Grindr one night. He left the door to his room open while we cuddled up and watched TV.
His roommate, drunk and just returning from a gala for the Human Rights Campaign, walked in. She saw my boots discarded on the floor, and shoved her feet in them. She proceeded to do the most yokelish dance I’d ever seen, a parody jig, her face scrunched up and ignorant like a hillbilly.
I laughed politely, deeply annoyed—at someone touching my things, surely, touching a gift, no less.
On the taxi ride home, I felt a coiled hatred coming undone in my guts, opening up, filling me. What was it? I wasn’t offended. It couldn’t be that I was offended. What was there to be offended about? Drunk people were drunk people. I didn’t care. But when I stepped out into the night in front of my shoebox apartment in Brooklyn, the feeling grew, became worse. The hatred stirred, snaked, reached my fingertips, and, to my own surprise, I found I was crying. I found I wanted to go home.
I felt a heaviness, maybe a cousin of guilt, or of shame. There was nowhere to go back to. Oklahoma was out of the question, always out of the question. But then, where was home? And if not there, then where? Disenfranchised, embarrassed, I thought how stupid it was to be from somewhere you didn’t like very much, and how fraudulent it was to be proud of being from there after the fact; proud of leaving, just to end up somewhere that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
It had never occurred to me to fix my gaze anywhere but on the horizon. I thought that was what being gay was—a steady climb to something better; better city, better people, better drinks. But here, what I thought was progress felt more like loss. The tall buildings I had imagined as a kid retook the air of menace they once held when I first saw them.
It had never occurred to me to fix my gaze anywhere but on the horizon.
That’s right, I thought, I had forgotten. I was afraid on my first trip to New York, afraid of the bigness, afraid of what all those building lights, one stacked on the other, could possibly be up to at night. I didn’t like it very much. I must have written over that at some point, adjusted my own narrative to better accommodate my truth.
How much of my gay experience had been about piloting instead of living? About maintaining a steady course toward “better”? I wanted a better body. I wanted better sex. I wanted a better life, always a better life, and I found that standing there in my cowboy boots in Brooklyn, standing in what I had imagined would be my ideal outcome, I still wanted those things. I was just convinced now that they were somewhere else; everywhere I am, the good things are somewhere else.
Standing there, I thought of Gregg. I thought of all the chunks of my life I had given up, time I could have spent doing other things. I thought of Adam, felt red hot rage for Adam, who I shouldn’t have let correct me all those years ago. I thought of that gold money clip, coveted and hated, opulence itself, the great myth of luxury dangling itself casually in my face—I’d followed it to a fruitless end. Want, that kind of want, can’t ever be satisfied. It never really gives you anything, other than more want, more and more things you can’t have.
I thought of the men at the Habana Inn, the men who looked so much like the cowboys and ranchers I’d grown up with, men I’d never wanted anything to do with. I felt a strange connection to them then, my teachers. I do know what it’s like, I thought, to wander the lonely corridors of desire, hoping a door will open.