How to Tell Your Own Story

by Joseph O’Malley

Joseph O’Malley was born and raised in Detroit, and now lives in Manhattan. His work has appeared in more than a score of journals, including A Public Space, Glimmer Train, and Colorado Review.

Wally and Rob were in the middle of it going gangbusters when Wally’s wife walked in and caught them bare-assed and red-faced in her own bed, their ankles tangled in the sheets she’d put on fresh that morning. It was a stupid thing for Wally to have done—this was the one thing everyone could agree on.

That’s how Rob always told the story, with emphasis on the sheets. Wally spoke about love when he told his story, blinking his way through the confusion to try to say exactly what he meant and thought and felt, but he could never sufficiently work it out in words. He’d loved Trudy for real, and he’d enjoyed sex with her. She was, in fact, a miracle in that regard: one of the only women to whom he was physically attracted. With men he could—and did—do it with just about anybody.

Wally had a hard time saying what he really meant. But Rob said, “Nobody knows what they really mean. What you do is what you mean.” This was when Wally knew he loved Rob.

Trudy asked for explanations. Rob told Wally that explanations are inventions. “They’re only useful to the person explaining. They rarely satisfy the people who ask for them.”

Wally didn’t know exactly what Rob was talking about, but it sounded good, and it comforted him to think somebody understood him. Wally had thought Trudy would be more okay about it all. For her sake, he made an effort at explanation: “It’s like that Edith Piaf song, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” You hear it, and even if you don’t speak French, we can all sort of figure out what it’s about. But then, having sex with a man was like hearing the song sung by an even better singer. In English. And for the first time you understand it completely, and you wonder how you went this long … it’s shattering, you know?”

No. She didn’t know. “You never used to use words like ‘shattering,’ ” she said.

They were only in their early thirties, so she still had what Rob called a decent shelf life. And Wally thought that because of the whole gay thing she’d have been more understanding, and less hurt. Over the course of the next couple months, when they met to divvy up the objects in their formerly shared life, she got a lot off her chest. When he signed over the car to her she said, “The fact that you lied to yourself too when you lied to me doesn’t change the fact that you’re a liar. It only proves it more.”

But no matter what, Wally was still a square peg, and gay people seemed to make up their own shapes, very few of them square.

At the yard sale in which they sold off most of the furniture in the house she said, “That it was a man misses the point. You promised to be faithful, and you weren’t. I had temptations and chances to act on them, too, but I made a promise to be married to you. You preferred someone else over me. Nothing about that could ever feel good.”

After a fat man bought the fancy crystal martini service she’d begged for on her birthday for a tenth of what Wally had paid for it, she said, “What about my sex life? You weren’t exactly what I’d call spectacular in bed. All this time, I thought you were just a prude. I traded great sex for love, or so I thought. It’s like giving up eating ice cream every day in order to stay thin. It wasn’t the easiest, or the most thrilling life, but … oh, what’s the point? I don’t even like you any more.”

They went to a café for a piece of pie after they’d signed over the house in Hoboken where they’d once tried to build a life together. When the last morsel of strawberry-rhubarb pie was gone, Trudy put down her fork and told Wally, “Now I know why Jesus hates fags.” They both laughed so long and so hard that Wally felt perhaps they might be friends in some far future. At least she hadn’t lost her sense of humor.

Things happened to Rob, or in front of him, and all of those things were funny or interesting, or very strange. When Rob told one of his stories, muffins went unbitten, pens were capped, the glass screens of cell phones went dark as everyone listened.

With Wally, things just happened, and he moved on without comment. He was happy people mistook his reticence for a contemplative depth, but secretly he wondered if he might be missing something. During the divorce proceedings, Rob told Wally, “You need to learn how to tell your own story. Otherwise, she’ll take you for everything you’re worth.” But Wally wondered why Rob’s wisdom about explanations didn’t extend to the way Wally told his own story. Rob had said, “Whatever you do is what you mean,” and Wally saw no reason to arrange the facts to suit a lawyer or a judge.

It seemed to Wally that one day he had lived as a normal, unlabeled person in the world at large, and the next day he had to live as a gay man among gay people. A man having sex with other men was one thing, but “being gay” was quite another.

“You’ll no longer feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole,” said Rob. “So to speak.”

But no matter what, Wally was still a square peg, and gay people seemed to make up their own shapes, very few of them square. His discomfort in either world was similar in degree, but different in kind. At the straight gym Wally had gone to on the weekends in New Jersey, locker room talk was all about the game: “See the game?” “This weekend? Over to a buddy’s place to watch the game.” “Good game last night, right?”

A world away, in the locker room at the gym in the West Village, Wally heard one man say to another, “He’s thirty, right?” The second man answered in a near whisper, “He is. He’s thirty. But he looks twenty-seven.”

They got naked and fumbled around a little before the man began to cry quietly, and finally fell asleep.

The one big relief was that he no longer had to lie as much, or at least as expansively. Now he saved his lies for lesser affairs, like nodding yes, even when he didn’t really agree, or understand. Also, laughing to be polite. Other deceptions, like pretending that Rob was all he wanted, were harder to squelch. If other people were going to tell his story, he’d rather have it told as one in which he’d left his wife for someone else, rather than a story of him having left her to go from one debauched, highly satisfying encounter to another, as would have been his wont had Rob not been there to claim him as his own. Shortly after moving in with Rob, Wally began to yearn for the variety he’d had before Trudy outed him. And, as so often happens, yearning triumphed pretty quickly over monogamy.

Wally suspected that, technically, not telling Rob about all the other men he picked up was a sort of lie but, after all, Wally was no philosopher, and he gladly let the finer points of moral conundrums elude him. To keep himself from feeling like a liar, he decided he just wouldn’t think about it—that way it wasn’t a lie, it was a fact that he was living. In this he felt no worse than the fat people he saw eating triple-decker hamburgers with jumbo fries and a supersized soda, who then wondered aloud why they couldn’t lose weight.

We all lie to ourselves a little.

When Trudy kicked him out, Wally had moved directly into Rob’s huge, swank apartment in Midtown between Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea, and continued to work downtown as a literary agent handling How-To books and memoirs by self-obsessed celebrities.

When opportunities presented themselves, Wally had a hard time resisting. There was the gym, and lunch, and the hotel bar at the end of the block from his office in SoHo, where he took clients for drinks. Rob owned cafés with gay clientele in three different Manhattan neighbourhoods, which meant he also had no set hours to keep, so Wally figured Rob’s opportunities were equally abundant.

It wasn’t as if Wally went looking. When a client left after an evening meeting over drinks, Wally would order one more glass of red wine, sit quietly, and sip. He never beckoned or flirted, but inevitably a man would sit near Wally, and begin to talk.

“I came in to see a friend’s new gallery show,” a thin, dark-eyed man in a dapper fedora told Wally. He took off his hat, ran his fingers through his lush, wavy hair, and ordered a sloe gin fizz. “It’s his fifth show since we graduated. I went to art school with him at Yale, but I’ve never had a show. I live in Maine. I lied to him, and said I’d had three gallery shows. I hadn’t meant to lie, it just came out, and once it was out, I was so confused and surprised at myself that I didn’t know how to correct the lie. You know?”

Wally nodded.

“The thing is, I’m not a liar. Or at least I never was, but I guess I just learned that I am. It’s a lonely world. I just wanted to believe for a minute that I was good at something.”

“Yes,” Wally said. He followed the man up to his hotel room, and for the next hour or so Wally made him feel less lonely.

Rob’s stories were filled with the extravagant absurdities of human nature, mostly about who did wrong to whom, and how.

“Jeffrey at the café in Flatiron—you know, the short, strawberry blond kid who looks like he has no eyelashes? He was convinced that the guy he was dating had stolen his Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses. He broke up with him in a huge dramatic scene in a restaurant, accusing him of being a thief, calling him a liar. Then, after enough time had passed so he wouldn’t be a suspect, he went past his place—all the way in Queens—and keyed the guy’s BMW. A week later, he found the sunglasses. He’d dropped them behind his own dresser!”

Wally found an unfamiliar teal, white, and black argyle cashmere sweater crumpled and inside-out under their bed; it still held the faint reminder of a cologne neither Wally nor Rob wore.

Wally was an expert audience. He listened eagerly, laughed heartily in all the right places, never interrupted, and occasionally interjected an observation or two with sufficient pith and wit to spur Rob on in his story. Sometimes, because of Rob’s vivacity, Wally grew tired, and was glad for his quiet time away from Rob. And sometimes in his cool quiet moments alone, because of either the promise or the afterglow of Rob’s vivacity, Wally missed him terribly.

Wally observed that, when traveling, people have a greater propensity to indulge, reveal, or discover a part of themselves that is normally submerged. A new self surfaces and breathes, and if there’s someone around who will listen, they unfold like a flower.

“I’ve been dry for two years, two months, and three days,” the man told Wally. He was older—about fifty or so—lean, wiry, and worn-looking in that hardscrabble way for which Wally had a special weakness. “But today, I don’t know what happened. I couldn’t resist anymore. I ordered a whiskey on the rocks at two o’clock this afternoon, and I’ve worked my way from there to here.” The man pointed first to a stool at the bar, then to the settee in the lounge where they now sat. “Weird thing is, it was the look of it that got me. People don’t talk about that. They think all you want is the woozy punch of the high. They ignore completely how nice a glass of good whiskey can look. That pretty, pretty amber, the way it swirls and changes as the ice melts. Sometimes you just want to live in it. So I ordered one, but didn’t touch it. I sat there looking at it for, like, an hour. Or at least until the ice melted. Then I had the bartender take it away, and I ordered a second one. That was my mistake. Ha!” He looked up abruptly. “I’m not sloppy though, am I?”

“No,” Wally said. “Still quite neat.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I just needed company. But my thing is, once I start I can’t stop. I’m so ashamed of myself.”

“If all you need is company,” Wally said, “I’ll help you tonight. Tomorrow, you’re on your own. But I can tell right now you’ll be okay. You’ve slipped, and you can see it’s no fun. Next time, get one of those travel-sized lava lamps to look at.”

Wally went up to the man’s room with him. They got naked and fumbled around a little before the man began to cry quietly, and finally fell asleep.

When he was a kid, Wally had seen a television movie in which a man discovers he can heal people just by laying hands on them. The source of a person’s affliction streamed into the man’s hands in a weird heat exchange, entered the healer’s body, and then was expelled in a breath, like cigarette smoke. It’s a power the man in the movie never asked for, didn’t want, and which eventually leads to his murder by the townspeople at the end of the movie, but Wally always wished he had a similar power. Perhaps he had the power already—the many men he’d touched seemed to feel better afterward. He held no delusions about the supernatural. The natural world was wondrous enough. Just look at the ever-changing sky.

In any case, as Wally left the sleeping drunkard, he placed his hands on the man’s face, softly caressed his cheeks and temples, then kissed his forehead to let some of the heat and strength from his own body seep into the drunk man’s, in the hopes that he would be cured of his problem forever. Perhaps the man would sense the confidence Wally had placed in him, and the man could draw on that strength later. In his quest to become a better person, Wally thought it a good practice to enter—even if it was only slightly or in imagination—into the suffering of another person. It couldn’t hurt, he figured. Of course, Wally reflected when he turned out the light and closed the door behind him, there was no way to know if this exchange of strengths and weaknesses changed anything in reality, but it made him feel better when he left. And when he came home to Rob that night, he gave a greater portion of his physical heat and energy to Rob. This heat he called Love, and he found that the more he gave, the more he had to give.

Then one day, while retrieving a quarter that had dropped and rolled, Wally found an unfamiliar teal, white, and black argyle cashmere sweater crumpled and inside-out under their bed; it still held the faint reminder of a cologne neither Wally nor Rob wore. Okay. He knew he should feel relieved, or happy to know that Rob spread his love around just as Wally did. But no matter how he tried, he could find neither “happiness” nor “relief” bubbling through his veins.

Rob had hung a crystal pendant in the window to catch the beauty of the afternoon sun in their bedroom. The pendant swayed gently, spun by some mysterious current near the window; it tossed blue and yellow and violet about the room, and Wally had a flash of the sheets that had been on the bed he’d shared with Trudy. The special pattern of stripes on them had taken her months to find. There was green and teal and pink and indigo and yellow, all at different levels of intensity. The stripes varied wide to thin in an effect that somehow looked French. Because they were of a very high thread count, very soft and very expensive for sheets, she had waited to buy them until Wally saw for himself and agreed they were perfect. They bought four sets, with subtle variations in the colours that were different enough to give the thrill of something fresh, but minor enough to retain a familiar comfort whenever the sheets were changed.

A new self surfaces and breathes, and if there’s someone around who will listen, they unfold like a flower.

To complete the look of the room, Trudy had spent months knitting a big, fluffy blanket with a brilliant blue yarn called Montana Sky. They folded it in quarters to drape over the end of the bed on top of the snow-white bedspread. Big and heavy, knit to create a mesh of large nubs of yarn interspersed with holes you could put your fingers through: being under it was like resting in warmth under a pure cool sky. If you were cold and reading a book in bed, you could easily hold onto the book through the mesh, even with the blanket fully covering you. Somehow, perhaps because of the open mesh, the temperature under the blanket was always just right.

Trudy got the sheets and the blanket with the divorce.

Rob’s bedroom was outfitted in muted colours that were “more masculine,” according to Rob: light-brown sheets, a beige blanket, a drab, matte hunter-green comforter, all set amidst walls painted a colour Wally could only describe as off-grey. Rob wasn’t as successful with décor as one might expect of a gay man. That was just another one of those clichés that burden gay men because not everyone can live up to it, but so many try. Rob’s sense of décor satisfied neither form nor function, as the blanket wasn’t substantial enough to hold any warmth, and the comforter always made it too hot.

Wally folded the argyle sweater and set it back under the bed until he had a chance to think. He would wait for Rob to come home and tell him a story. He’d left the office a little early, as not much was going on and there were no clients to entertain. Although late in the afternoon, the sun was still strong. A few wisps of cloud drifted slowly across the sky. The shafts of colour that the crystal flung about the room made Wally slightly dizzy, but he was too tired to draw the shades, and he knew the blue of the evening would soon come to calm the light.

The only object Wally had kept from the marriage was a bog-oak rocking chair that Trudy had given him for his birthday. According to Rob, the rocking chair was “too voluptuous” for the mid-century modern look he was trying for in the rest of the apartment, so Wally had agreed to keep it in the bedroom. The armrests had big knobs of wood at the ends that felt good under Wally’s hands. He rocked slowly, leisurely. The pendant twirled, feathering light across the room, but even this trick of light couldn’t improve the homely brown, beige, and green of Rob’s bed. It wasn’t the same as Trudy’s big heavy Montana Sky blanket or their super soft, French-looking sheets.

It wasn’t the same at all.


Joseph O’Malley was born and raised in Detroit, and now lives in Manhattan. His work has appeared in more than a score of journals, including A Public Space, Glimmer Train, and Colorado Review.