He was one of the first men I’d met from the app. Not the very first, though. We’d been talking for a few days, I think, which seemed like a long time. I’m not sure why my 19-year-old self decided to walk along the seafront to his apartment. Maybe he’d managed to be persistent without being annoying. (That was rare. Most men are annoying when you’re young and pretty.) Or maybe he just caught me at a good time. Usually, I would talk confidently to these men, and then disappear when they suggested a meeting. They’d call me a time waster—and they weren’t wrong.
After the sex, we made small talk as I gathered up my clothes from his wooden floorboards. He was Italian. He’d lived here five years. He was a partner at a law firm. How fancy. He sat on his mint-green couch and opened a bottle of beer, offering me one too. Back then, I didn’t like beer very much, but I accepted it anyway, resisting the urge to make a mess by picking the foil off of the glass bottle. After all, I was in a grown-up apartment: His profile said he was 34, but he looked older in person. Some of his chest hair was gray. His beard, too. As I positioned myself on the green couch, he moved his hand across the bottom of my leg. Gently, back and forth. He hadn’t touched me like that before.
A scene from the new film All of Us Strangers reminded me of this period of my life. Near the beginning of the movie—a gay, semi-fantasy romance by British director Andrew Haigh—40-something Adam (Andrew Scott) and Harry (played by 27-year-old Paul Mescal) hook up after crossing paths in the stairwell of their high-rise apartment building in present-day London. In bed, after the sex, Adam slowly rubs Harry’s arm. The conversation turns to Harry’s family: Are they OK with him being gay? Are they close? These might sound like fairly intense questions, but it’s the type of icebreaker conversation gay men often have after sleeping together for the first time. We all have (or had) a family, and our family members each have a relationship with our identity. Maybe they know we’re gay, maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re fine with it, maybe they’re just pretending to be. It’s an easy place to start.
In a moment of postcoital candor, Harry says he feels like he’s “drifted to the edge” of his family. They’re okay with him being gay. (Well, sort of.) But there is a growing distance between himself and the rest of them, because, unlike his siblings, he doesn’t have kids and he isn’t married. As he gets older, he can feel himself fading from view. “But it’s okay,” Harry says, at the end of the explanation. Adam frowns, and responds: “Why is it okay?”
A lot of gay people must feel like Harry, I think. As we get older, if we don’t “settle down” in the conventional way, with marriage and kids—avenues which, mind you, were shut off to us until relatively recently—there can be the lingering feeling that people don’t quite know what to do with us. That our existence outside of those norms makes our lives less important. There is an underlying shame—and creeping homophobia, too—in Harry’s tacit acceptance of this diminished status. As if he should be grateful for any place in his own family. Even “drifting to the edge” of it.
Watching this film, now aged 30, it made me realize how rare it is to see stories about gay men at this stage of life, where we’re reconciling some of these things. In films and TV shows, there is a lot of emphasis on coming-out stories. There is no shortage of period dramas, either, from times when being gay was either illegal or considered unacceptable. There are films about so-called conversion therapy. Homophobic murders. Dramatizations of the AIDS crisis. As important as these stories are, I often wonder: What about the quieter tragedies? What about the middle? That period of adulthood when you’ve left your 20s behind and everything stops being intoxicating and new, when you’re tasked with forging a gay life for yourself—whatever that looks like, wherever you’re drifting. It is notable that our culture doesn’t provide many representations of gay men, in the present day, navigating the phase of life I’m now entering.
Relatability isn’t everything when it comes to the culture we consume. I sometimes worry that characters being “so relatable!” is seen as a substitute for their dialogue being good, or smart, or that the pursuit of relatability discourages us from putting ourselves in the shoes of people who are different from us. Even so, for me as a gay person, the experience of relating to gay characters like Adam and Harry is still quite rare. It’s even rarer when they’re the central figures in a story.
The circumstances of All of Us Strangers are very specific, so much so that perhaps relate isn’t the right word to use in reference to these characters. But I connected with the more general experiences of gay life depicted in the film, like the emotional intimacy of gay hookup culture—a scene often characterized as detached and animalistic by those participating in it.
The very first time Adam and Harry have sex, their postgame conversation turns to Adam’s parents. Adam has left out old photographs of them, which Harry starts asking about. Where are they? What do they do? Adam replies that they died in a car crash when he was 12. “Not the most original of deaths,” he laughs, trying to make the conversation less awkward. “I’m really sorry,” Harry says, sensing a delicateness that even Adam is surprised is still there—because, as he keeps saying, it all happened such a long time ago. I’ve found that there can be so many of these little moments of truth, shared with men we don’t know beyond their bodies. Anonymity can be freeing. Revealing, too.
Back on the mint-green couch, I put on my underwear and a tee. I noticed I felt self-conscious being fully naked around this man, now that the performance of sex was over. Now that I had to be myself, rather than the character from the app, or the bed. My legs were still bare. I think he liked them, because he was still moving his one hand slowly up and down them as he smoked a cigarette with the other. I looked around the apartment; it felt so adult. I lived in student accommodation and didn’t even have a couch. You weren’t allowed to smoke inside. There were alarms to stop you. A heavy fine I couldn’t afford to pay. I loved how decadent it felt, being a half-naked guest in his grown-up life, watching him smoke on his couch.
Picking up my tee off the floor, I’d noticed a pink scarf and a pair of women’s shoes in the hallway. I asked when his roommate would be back, thinking it would give him an excuse to ask me to leave, if I was overstaying my welcome. He looked at me like I was a child who had just asked a question like “Why is the sky blue?”—seemingly basic, but actually sort of complicated and irritating to answer. “She’s my wife,” he said.
In All of Us Strangers, we see Adam grieving his parents. But it feels like they are a vehicle for exploring something deeper: What he’s also grieving is the life he could have had. An easier life, anchored around heterosexual norms that his parents expected him to conform to. I think many queer people must experience a similar type of grief. Part of coming to terms with being gay is the process of letting go of the expectations we have internalized from society, our parents, or whoever else thought (or perhaps hoped) we would turn out differently. Accepting that you’re different, and learning to live in a way that celebrates that, is a personal transition that is not entirely unlike grief, or without sadness.
Through Adam’s interactions with his parents—or his subconscious, imagined versions of them—we see him confront the fear that the adult life he’s made isn’t good enough for them. That he still isn’t good enough. And maybe that’s the scariest thing of all? How quickly all of those feelings can be brought back. I wonder if that’s why I felt so judgmental—angry, even—when the man with the green couch told me about his wife. My initial reaction was one of superiority: How could he have concealed that he was married?! It was like I had been misled into collaborating on something I didn’t want to be a part of. But really, I think I felt wounded by it. As if it were a judgment on me. Like I, or the gay life I was living, was beneath him. Too shameful to live outside of apps, or encounters like this.
I asked him questions. The deep ones. It felt like he owed me something, like I was entitled to answers in exchange for his omissions. Unbothered, he told me none of his friends knew he had sex with men—he didn’t describe himself as gay, or bi, or anything, even though we’d met on the app with the orange icon that every gay guy used. He didn’t think he would ever tell anyone. He wanted children, and he was happy this way. How could that be? Did he not feel ashamed? What about his wife? “Boys like you always ask about this stuff,” he said, with an almost mocking tone, like I was silly and naive. It was confusing, to be confronted with something that seemed shameful—and wrong, as I was convinced it was at the time—but also alluring. And hot.
Looking back, I’m sure lots of “boys like me” wanted to fix him. To be the special one who helped him come out. Situations like this are practically a rite-of-passage for young gay men. Part of the patchwork of early experiences that are both sketchy and exciting, which become memories that reappear. Years later (and years ago), I tried to find the Man with the Couch. I re-downloaded the app to see if he was still on it. I Googled every law firm in his precise location, clicking on the “about us” page hoping to see his picture. I wonder what I’d have done if I found him. Whether I’d have stalked him on socials and stared at the pictures. Checked if he and his wife were still together. Judged how pretty she was. Had they settled down with a baby, like he wanted to?
He and I are now probably almost the exact same ages as Adam and Harry, respectively, in All of Us Strangers. Watching the film, I remembered how intimate it felt, being told a man’s biggest secret. Something not even his closest friends knew. Maybe that’s the part of the film that feels most true: how much we can learn from men who don’t even know us. Who exist only in memory. Men who are, and may always be, strangers.