My Two Elephants
Reflections on a familiar feeling
I haven’t written about this before, haven’t been able to. In August, my beloved twin brother Jackson died in a climbing accident. Today, I am sending you the first of what I hope to be many essays on the subject of him and my loss of him. It has been difficult — incredibly difficult — to write them. But I am trying the best I can and hope that you gain something from them. Yours, Maxwell.
For gays, there are moments when talking to others, especially new friends and acquaintances, when the business of your gayness becomes a sort of elephant in the room. I think you know what I mean, but the metaphor as it’s commonly used doesn’t work perfectly here, because you (I) may be the only one in the room who sees the elephant, or has anyone knowledge that there’s an elephant nearby at all. What I mean is that in my case, Maxwell, it’s not obvious to most people that I’m gay (exceptions apply).
So: it’s more like an elephant that you’ve invited over, or that you know may just decide to drop by unannounced while you have other guests. Yeah, come on over at 6:30, we’re having a dinner party. Now it’s 6:25 and the elephant will be here any moment. Do you tell the other guests about your heavy plus one, or just wait to see how they react when he’s crashing through the door? What happens when the elephant starts making noises outside the window and somebody asks, do you hear that? Of course you hear it, and now you have a few options of how to respond. You could go with, No, I don’t hear anything, what are you talking about? Or it could be, Oh, yes that’s the elephant I invited for dinner. Didn’t you know? What if your guests see the big footprints out in the yard and ask if you noticed them? Oh, heavens no; I wouldn’t know anything about any elephants. Oops — nobody said anything about an elephant.
And now, right on schedule, my metaphors are getting mixed, perhaps interminably, so it’s time to return to the straight talk. I mean gay talk. Or whatever…
If you watch Hollywood movies, you might think that there are only two scenarios for a closeted or semi-closeted gay person is obviously gay, hoping that nobody knows [everybody knows]. For me, and I’m definitely not alone, it was very different. Like I said, I’m not obvious — although some sage friends knew right away, apparently — and while I didn’t really care if people knew, I wasn’t one to volunteer it. Need-to-know.
The way this typically goes is that in any conversation, especially among boys and men, a totally benign question can create a conundrum for the odd-one-out (the gay one). Do you think she’s hot? Who’s the hottest girl in school? How am I supposed to answer such a question? On the one hand, it feels obnoxious to take that question and make it about myself; on the other hand, making it about myself is really the only honest way to answer the question. Nowadays it’s pretty easy for me, but it wasn’t always that way. Obfuscation is one option, and you can hope that being weird about it gives people the message, or blunts their curiosity; usually it does not. The effect of this is that one can coast along without really lying — I’ve never said anything explicitly misleading — but without being honest, either. Strategic ambiguity.
Coasting makes every individual conversation a bit easier. But like any form of procrastination, it begins to snowball, and taking the easy way out is usually not the right choice. You waste more and more time for no real reason. You punt on opportunities to say it, opportunities when it would have been the more honest route than saying nothing. Friends deserve honesty, after all; don’t they?
For me, the more I punted, the more dishonest I felt. Sometimes, I’d even be upset at myself when I realized people didn’t already know, which made it more difficult to tell them. As if, because I hadn’t said anything before, I had somehow misled them and was now cleaning up a mess of lies. It feels very weird in retrospect — that I was more anxious that people didn’t know than that they did — but so it goes.
Telling people, saying the words: it’s a meme, and our society has even coined a phrase for it, and a dreadful one at that: “coming out.” God, what an awful pair of words. It all feels very cinematic, and like I said, the Hollywood version of this is not universal. One’s life shouldn’t have to feel like a movie.
It could be benign and boring. To me it always was more like a chore, something to be accomplished. Once you do the chore, that’s it. It’s done. But even when you know that, you don’t always act like it. That’s the paradox of procrastination. You may know that just doing it is the best choice by far but you still convince yourself not to do it.
In San Francisco during the summer of 2021, I had dinner with a group of friends and colleagues, some of whom I’d known longer than others. At an Italian restaurant on a street corner in North Beach — which is neither a beach nor near a beach — 8 men sat at a high table. Incidentally, we weren’t far from City Lights, the famed ‘Beat’ bookstore and a practical gay literary mecca. But I’m sure only I knew that.
In the case of one person, a close friend, I thought surely he knew I was gay; of course, I’d never actually said anything about it, or given any indication that I was, or even alluded to it… so why would I assume that? So, Maxwell, are you going after any ladies in the city this summer? Time to answer. No.
That’s an answer. But the real answer, the honest answer, isn’t just No. It’s No, and... It’s No, but… It’s No, actually… It’s No, because… But do I give the honest version of the answer? That it’s not just because I’m not dating, but because I’m gay? No, I don’t say it. That, as usual, was a mistake, and for hours I perseverated on the conversation, hating how I couldn’t just say it. And to a friend, no less. A good one. Like the good coward and even better writer I am, I clean it up over text and explain myself.
In October 2022, I met a friend who works in the dating business. Literally: he was/is in charge of a small dating service. Maybe he should have read me — but I digress, he wasn’t running that type of dating service. He said to me, Max, when you need me to find you a wife, just let me know. Start the countdown. Thanks, but I’m not in the market. Pause. Ambiguous answer, but will it get the job done? He looks away. The followup: Well, let me know if that changes. Here’s your chance. Say the words, Maxwell. I go for it. Well, it is — uh… shall we say… a permanent market condition.
You didn’t say it, Maxwell. Almost, though — and clever euphemism. He laughs and nods, and gets the memo. But still, after all these years, having said the words I’m gay many times, you should be able to do it one more time without thinking about it. Nope. Only irony, or a joke, makes it easier to get out. Like verbal alcohol.
There’s something about those two words, “I’m gay.” On the one hand, they constitute the most straightforward — forgive the pun — sentence to capture the information contained within them. 100% word efficiency, couldn’t do any better. On the other hand, those two syllables are also the most difficult, awkward, and strange to verbalize. Maybe it’s precisely because they’re so direct. And so one’s instinct is to resort to euphemism, to soften the impact. Euphemism is a product of taboo.
And what’s the biggest taboo of all? Death, of course. It’s something that everyone has thought about at some point or another. What are our euphemisms for death? He passed away. I lost him. He’s no longer with us. He left this world. Those who have lost someone close know how it feels to dance the euphemism dance. Or to play the past-present game. What do your parents do? Did. What did he do. You get the idea.
That brings me to my second elephant. His name is Jackson. Jackson is a different type of elephant from my gay elephant. For one, it’s not just my life tangled up in it, but his.
I had déjà vu while I was driving a new friend to a hotel in Austin from a part we were both leaving. We had hit it off at the party and spoken for an hour about all manner of things. And in the last few minutes before parting came the question, totally innocent and benign, much like the “hot girl” question. It hit me like a truck.
Do you have siblings? Where are they at?
Huh. It’s a good thing the street was empty. After mumbling nonsense for ten or fifteen seconds — it could have been a minute, I don’t know — I pulled myself together, and decided to go for it.
Bravely: I have a sister, Rebecca. She lives in Austin. I have a brother, Lewis. He lives back in Iowa. And I have a twin called Jackson. Sadly, Jackson passed away in August.
I take a breath. Honesty accomplished.
Oh, man. I’m really sorry.
Yeah. Me too.
Now the elephant is in the room, and I’m the one who brought it in. The conversation could have persisted quite nicely, without any note of sadness, let alone something as big as this. And yet, there is something that pulls me to verbalize that which scares and saddens me. My elephant, Jackson. I invited him over because none of the other guests are going to do that. The ones who know he was supposed to come won’t say it because they know it’ll upset me. The ones who didn’t know… didn’t know. But I know, and to let him wither away in silence, when I have the power to say something… I just can’t do that. And so I say it.
I’m 22, and even assuming that I already know many of the key figures of my life — I think I do — there are loads of important people that I’ve yet to meet, just mathematically speaking. I’ve already met some of them just since August. But it wasn’t until very recently that I got a question that made me realize that for every new person I meet, there’s my elephant. And if the relationship is anything other than transient, the sooner the better.
It could come up at any point. For the past few months, I’ve felt the elephant stampeding toward me after some very generic questioning.
What has your day-to-day work looked like recently?
Shit. Do I explain that I’ve struggled to accomplish a lot of basic work tasks lately because I can’t stop thinking about my dead twin? That should improve the mood of the conversation. There is always the risk of being too honest…
It seems like you’re very busy, how do you spend your free time?
Fighting off sadness. No, Maxwell, you can’t say that. Stop it. Pull yourself together.
We haven’t caught up in a while, how are things?
Things are just great. Never better.
Reflecting on my two elephants, I realize that everyone has them. I’m not so special. Do I have a personality that is separate from these two facts of my life? Yes, of course, However: they’re each still important, even if not all the time, and maybe not for every relationship. For any non-trivial relationship, they’re absolutely integral facts to establish. What would it say about me if someone got to know me without me communicating either of these things? That’s begging the question. Did they really get to know me? Did I let them?
Meeting new people and forging new life, new relationships, new loves — it ought to be the source of renewal after a tragedy like losing a sibling. And it is. But now it’s also a new elephant, a chore I’m going to have to repeat countless times. And I dread this, to tell you the truth; but I’ve no choice.
As was the case with my gay elephant, it’s basically a certainty that none of the reactions will actually be negative. Nobody’s going to attack me for having a dead brother, even if it kills the mood momentarily. Heck — if it’s anything like when I told people I’m gay, they might even thank me. Like I mailed them a check or something. Am I being too cynical? I guess people consider the information valuable, something that’s mine to give. When I told my freshman roommate at Stanford I was gay, it was a crying hug fest: me crying, him hugging. The horror! I’m not sure I can recall a single time I’ve regretted being brave and just saying it. As for the number of times I wish I had said something, there are too many to count.
And so, I’ve resolved that with Jackson… I will say the words: I’m a twin. I have a twin called Jackson. Jackson died in a climbing accident when he was — when we were — 22.
It’s very sad, and I don’t want to say it, and saying it reminds me that it’s real. But I have to say it. I have to say it for you, because you need to know it. I have to say it for myself, because I need to remember it. And I have to say it for Jackson, because he can’t say it.
I feel afraid to say it, feel my voice start to quiver, like I’m about to do something terrifying. My legs start to feel weak, and even though I know it’s safe, there’s nothing that can happen to me, I still get a little feeling in my throat, and in my feet. I don’t know if it will ever be easier, if I ever won’t stop in my tracks and feel a little unable to move, to take that first step. But bravery is when you figure out how to walk forward anyway. What’s the worst that could happen?
Elephants are nice, anyway. And once it’s in the door, you’ve already reached the weirdest part of the conversation. The lowest of lows. And no matter how awkward it is for the other person, at a certain level they know it was harder for you. Because it was. And it’s all up from there.
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