Photo by Walt Cessna

A month before my first time with another man, I was hospitalized with bipolar disorder. The hospital assigned me a therapist named Regina. I liked her until I told her about Ray.

* * * * *

“Do you know where to get some pot?” asked a young man in a construction vest, his dark hair and beard cropped short, who was knocking on my car window. I lowered it. “Sorry to bother,” he said, “but I figured that’s what you were doing in there.”

It wasn’t. I was staring at the water off the marina, trying to equate my emotions with their diagnosis. Forced to move from my Manhattan apartment to my mother’s house on Long Island, I’d taken to my car for refuge. The parking lot was empty this late at night. “Actually, I do,” I told him. “I wasn’t, but I know someone. Let me try.”

Ray got back in his pickup truck but moved to the passenger seat so that we could talk between vehicles as we waited for a response to my text. I learned that Ray, who was just a few years older than I, was also living at home, but only to save money between trucking routes, hoping to make a down payment on a nearby house soon.

When I couldn’t get him marijuana, I apologized, but he just smiled. “I actually don’t smoke,” he admitted. “I… I was wondering if maybe you were gay.”

I froze, staring at his hopeful face in the window. “Oh, wow,” I stammered. “Umm… I don’t know. Maybe?”

With a laugh, Ray threw open his door, slid over to the driver’s side of his truck and patted the empty passenger seat beside him. “You down to hang?”

I turned my engine off. I could hear the water lapping at the shore, the boats bouncing against the dock. His simple, rugged looks had a soothing effect on me.

“I live right up the street,” Ray continued. “My parents are home, but they should be asleep by now.”

His truck roared to life as I rolled up my window, hoping that he hadn’t noticed the mess inside my car. I got out and locked the door twice, shoving the keys in my pocket.

“Do you live around here?” he asked as I slipped in the passenger seat beside him and fastened the seat belt. He reached across to rub my knee.

“No, I’m out from the city to see my family,” I replied.

The command with which Ray controlled his giant vehicle gave him an aura of power and promise as we backed out of the parking lot, the black water receding in the night. I focused on passing road signs in case I had to find my way back later, realizing that I was going to an unknown destination with an unknown man. Is this how love happens? I wondered.

* * * * *

From the patient’s couch I watched Regina’s furrowed brow smooth to studied neutrality. “Brett, I’m concerned,” she said. Like a dog bounding up to his owner with the latest kill, I’d wrongly expected praise. “This is reckless, dangerous and out of character,” she told me. “Anything could have happened.” With a stern shake of her head, she labeled my experience “symptomatic.” I countered that Ray was far from dangerous, telling her that he had been kind and patient when I was unsure and calculating, stopping to ask how this worked, where that went, cautiously releasing my pent-up desire in his open arms.

“We need to consider raising your dosage,” she continued. “Reckless spontaneity is indicative of a manic episode.” She picked up a pen and opened the chart on her desk. “Are you gay?”

I shrugged from the couch, explaining my consistent lack of desire, and its murky blurriness when it did surface. “But this is a good thing,” I added. “I’m trying to understand myself.”

“Did you reach orgasm?” she asked.

I laughed and crossed my legs. “I’m a physically able 19-year-old guy,” I said. “What do you think?”

“Were you the active or passive partner?” Her clinical terms were deceptive, as if Ray might be less culpable if he’d been the penetrated partner, or as if I were nothing but the chemicals in my brain. Fingering my stubble, I recalled his rough sheets, our feet dangling off the twin-sized bed, his flesh warm and strong against mine.

“I feel fine, though,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m gay, but I should be open to every possibility, right?” She took the bloated DSM-IV from her shelf. Homosexuality had been declassified as a mental disorder 30 years ago, but I still watched anxiously as she flipped through the pages, an anger I hadn’t previously noticed seething below the surface. “I thought I was asexual for so long that being gay would be a relief,” I continued. “How do I figure out who I am if I have to say ‘no’ to everything, if I can’t even have sex like a normal person?”

She closed the book and returned it to its place on the shelf. “But you’re not a normal person,” she said. “You have a condition you need to manage closely. It’s not sex; it’s the danger you put yourself in. You could’ve exchanged numbers and met in a neutral place instead of getting in a stranger’s truck.”

I’d started visiting Regina with enthusiasm, ready to reach my true self, unaltered by imbalance.

“Have you been sleeping?” she asked me.

But what if under every layer of obfuscation lies another complication?

“Are you eating? Any migraines?” she pressed.

And what if bipolar disorder is just a precursor to the larger challenge of living life and finding my identity?

I nodded affirmatively, and Regina handed me a piece of paper. “Fill this tonight,” she commanded. “You’ll be a little drowsy but thinking clearer soon.”

I buried it in my pocket as she led me to the door, the feeling of expectant excitement I’d felt upon entering thoroughly vanquished. “But I still don’t know if I should see Ray again,” I said. “Something big is supposed to happen with him. I just don’t know what yet.”

She pressed the bill for my parents into my other hand. “I think it just did,” she said, sending me into the night.