“If You Knew Then What I Know Now” By Ryan Van Meter
Sarabande Books, $15.95; 176 pages
By Gina Webb
There’s a moment in Ryan Van Meter’s gloriously tender account of growing up gay in suburban Missouri, “If You Knew Then What I Know Now, ” when the author, age 8, rummages idly through a closet at his grandmother’s house, hoping to unearth some old toys or games that once belonged to his father. He thinks back to what’s in his bedroom closet at home: “Hand puppets, Candyland, my potholder loom.”
His father’s discarded playthings are more traditionally masculine — “a metal car with doors that open and a glass jar packed with plastic soldiers” — but the real find of the day is a girl’s blue satin dress he discovers wrapped up inside a box.
He wastes no time slipping into it, twirling in front of the mirror the way he’s seen the ladies do on “Little House on the Prairie.” When his grandmother allows him to wear it to help her set the table, then warns him to change back into his T-shirt and shorts before his grandfather gets home, she joins the other adults in Van Meter’s world — not all of them as kindhearted — who collaborate to help “that part of him” stay hidden.
The closet, with its jumble of girls’ and boys’ playthings, is prophetic: It’s the one crammed with a confusion of gender roles that he’ll spend the first half of his life learning to hide in, and the second, struggling to come out of.
In 13 more linked essays that experiment ingeniously with voice and form, Van Meter traces a loose chronology of this otherness, revisiting a boy whose unboylike feelings and behaviors unnerved family members who tried to set him straight and schoolmates who went straight for his jugular.
As the book opens, he is 5, an imaginative child who loves his friend Ben so much he proposes to him. His favorite game is pretending to be “Busy Mom” or “Beauty Pageant Winner, ” he likes books about “twin baby-sitting sisters and haunted dollhouses, ” and he prefers watching soaps with his mom over fishing or baseball. His parents expect him to outgrow his girlishness with a little training— to sprout hair, acquire a deeper voice and take an interest in girls.
None of that happens. Instead, the differences between him and other boys his age leave him more anxious every year, from the day he’s reproached for staring a split second too long at the bare chest of his father’s fishing buddy (”Lake Effect”) to the excruciating night in “Tightrope” when he goes to the circus with an openly gay classmate from high school and later discovers, “Everyone knew I was on a date but me.”
He’s 13 in “Specimen, ” when a TV show about alien abduction scares him so much he begs his mother to sleep in his room. His high, girlish voice and undeveloped physique convince him that he’s a perfect candidate for abduction — and dissection: “There was something hidden in my body. That was why I looked so different. And why the other boys said I walked the way I did and made fun of my voice.”
In the title essay, two sixth-grade schoolmates stage a makeout scene designed to out Van Meter at an age in which he already knows better than to answer when they ask, “What’s wrong, Ryan?” but is still stunned when he realizes his camouflage is not working: “They saw something in you that you thought you’d hidden so well you couldn’t even see it yourself anymore.”
“Cherry Bars” describes how worried he is that the high school girl he’s broken up with after a year might find out from another boy that her “thin, high-voiced boyfriend who borrowed her ‘Phantom of the Opera’ soundtrack and memorized all the words” was the real reason they never even kissed.
After two decades of trying to pass for straight, when Van Meter does come out, he has no skills and can’t find his comfort zone. His awkward new life in the gay community bizarrely mirrors the way he once tried to blend in with the straight one: He doesn’t know how to talk, stand, flirt or connect. How does one man love another, he asks, when he’s spent most of his life denying the possibility?
His search becomes the poignant list in “Things I Will Want to Tell You, ” which chronicles the single relationship he’s had by age 33 and offers a shaky blueprint for the next one: “You will have to lean in first to kiss me, ” he counsels his future boyfriend, before “I will kiss you back.”
Van Meter has come a long way from the 5-year-old who held his bestie’s hand and said, “I love you.” But in these moving pages, what he tells us about the years in between is every bit as shining and true.