My Closet Is Better Than Yours

WHEN I WAS IN the second grade, our entire school voted on which color the new M&M should be. We gathered in the tiny gym and formed groups based off of our color preference: blue, purple, or another color I can’t remember. Almost the entire school formed a mass around the teacher holding a poster with a blue circle on it, and I huddled around the five other kids who chose purple. I didn’t really like purple that much. Heck, I really didn’t even like M&M’s. But I wanted to be different. No, I knew that I was different, and I wanted everyone else to know that, but I couldn’t. So too. My brother was on the blue side.

I never really had that rebellious stage that kids have growing up when they dye their hair pink, listen to music with offensive lyrics and wear whatever clothes in their closet that their parents disapprove of most. I was raised in a small town in Northern New Jersey with parents who never punished us; they simply had expectations, and if they were not met, a look on their faces was enough. As a result, I wanted to be everything my parents wanted me to be. I wanted to show them that I was special. I wanted them to be proud. And I never wanted to see that look on their face.

One of my earliest memories is when my brother and I would go over to our neighbor’s house and play dress up. We’d put on his sisters’ ridiculous costume dresses and shake around fake wands, prancing through the house like little fairies. One night after a day of these charades, my father asked me what we did at Scott’s house earlier. I told him we played dress up, but when he asked what kind of dress up, I froze and told him “like Peter Pan.” I couldn’t tell him the truth. I didn’t want to see that look on his face.

One night a little while after, I couldn’t stand the guilt and woke up just to tell him the truth. Dad found me before I could even make it all the way down the stairs; parents have a funny way of doing that. “We really dressed up like fairies that one day, not like Peter Pan,” I blurted out. He smiled and nodded his head, “Go back to bed.”

The older I got, the more I felt like I was clinging to this Peter Pan costume. I would sit in bed and contemplate being truthful to my parents about this person I thought I was, but I couldn’t. So instead I would just lie there and cry in my pillow as the dishonesty towards my family (and myself) continued to eat me alive. And when I would come up for air, I would look over at my brother sleeping soundly on the other side of the room, and wonder why I felt so different from this spitting image of me.

I had no idea who I was growing up, and ironically, no one else did either. I grew up with an identical twin brother, and it wasn’t until we were 18 that we found out we were both gay.

When people ask me how it was growing up with a twin, I don’t really know what to tell them. I mean, I spent my entire youth getting mistaken for someone else by friends, teachers, even family members. To this day, our grandmother gets our names wrong more times than not. It was always a game for people to guess who was who. And we would just stand there, with fake smiles on our faces, forcing half-laughs out of our mouths, secretly offended that our lack of individual identity could be so entertaining for others.

Our identity was one. We were the twins. The boys. A group. An entity. A thing. It was, therefore, a constant struggle to separate myself from this false sense of self that I was born into due to everyone’s instinct to group us together. We had the same cute bowl haircut that was so “in” in the early 90s. We would dress in the same outfits (him in the blue version, me in the red). We would often say the same thing at the same time in the same voice with the same intonation.

As kids, we both loved being in plays, even though we weren’t very good. And for some reason, that was where I found solace. I loved the thrill of feeling like a unique individual. Someone whose life had some sort of specific purpose, even if that purpose was compressed into three short lines. I didn’t care. Without those lines, the show just wouldn’t be the same. And that made my adrenaline flow.

But there was also comfort in playing a predetermined part whose words were chosen, dances choreographed and costumes designed, all for him. It gave me the opportunity to surrender my insecure identity and become a face in a classic show like Guys and Dolls or The Pajama Game.

An actor. That was the first thing I wanted to be when I was old enough to formulate a well-informed opinion on the subject before I was corrupted by societal conditioning. I would sit for hours and hours, face to face with the television, obsessed with the complex lives of different characters and envious of their stories, their romances, all of it. It felt like a reality out of my reach.

It was around this time that I began having a reoccurring dream that has haunted me until recently. It’s one of those typical dreams — the one where you’re about to go on stage and realize you forgot to memorize your lines. The entire dream takes place before the show and involves me running around backstage with anxiety about how I’m not ready to go on. And I never am. Not once has a dream ever lasted long enough for the curtain to rise.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way our minds retain certain memories from our childhood with such vividness. There’s a reason we hold on to them and struggle to make sense of it all. Probably because they hold truth about ourselves that are hard to understand at the time, so we subconsciously carry them with us until we do. And our minds create these anxiety dreams to help us figure it out.

One year in elementary school, in that same tiny gym that made me feel so small, our class put on a reenactment of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a segment in the Disney film, Fantasia. There were two sets of twins in our class, and it made sense that either they or we would play the dual lead roles: Real Mickey and Dream Mickey. My brother and I were chosen.

Dream Mickey had quite the epic scene where he moves oceans and controls the galaxy, yet it lasted all but one minute in the 10-minute short. So when the teacher asked me to play that part, it didn’t feel so epic. I played the shadow role, one that I continued to play for most of my childhood.

My personal identity was constantly threatened by daily comparison: who did better on an exam, who didn’t strike out at a baseball game and which looked better in their class photo that year. Growing up for me became one big petty fight to stay above water.

He would one-up me in almost every aspect of our childhood: he was in a more advanced math class than I was, he became the president of our class (until high school graduation), and in the eighth grade, he received an outrageous award for being the “most outstanding citizen.”

The thing is, I didn’t really care about any of that stuff, yet it meant the world to me. Because even though I thought I knew who I was, no one else did. Or at least it felt that way. If you’re not careful, others’ perception of you starts becoming your own. And that’s how I got lost.

In high school, I began making decisions either because they were the opposite of my brother’s or to avoid seeing that look on my parents’ faces. I took Wood Shop instead of Art. I chose to become a lifeguard instead of a camp counselor. I became captain of the track team instead of joining the school plays. I began going by the name “Joe” instead of “Joey.” I was trying so hard to not be my brother that I didn’t know who I was trying to be.

I loved him, but I hated him. He was my best friend and my worst enemy. I admired and resented him. I wanted to be him. Yet I wanted nothing to do with him. With him around, there was no me. But without him, there was no us. And that was all I knew.

So when he came out to me one cool autumn night our senior-year of high school after a night of underage binge drinking, I wasn’t ready. We sat there on the hill behind that little gym of our elementary school a block away from our house. He looked at me and I knew what was coming. This thing that had been eating away at me for so long was actually eating at him, too. But he was fine with it. And I wasn’t. And I was left to deal with the fact that he was so comfortable in his shoes and mine felt like high heels three sizes too small.

I began coming out to family and friends as bisexual, partly because it felt easier than being gay, and partly because gay was another thing that became his. I tried to fill this void in myself through my unclear sexuality, without realizing that was only a small part of what was missing. Joe was just an act. But the more I played the part, the more I believed it was me.

We went to separate colleges, which allowed me to figure out my sexuality on my own. And that’s when Joey started coming back. After college, my brother and I both moved to New York City. Our relationship flourished, and we were able to embrace our sexualities together, for the first time. But something still wasn’t right. Even after letting go of a lifetime being attached to the strings of my parents and a formal education, I still felt like a marionette, just going through the motions. And I knew that I didn’t want anyone else manipulating those strings anymore.

I didn’t want to look in the mirror and see someone else. I wanted to see a story, a story that was mine. I wanted to be defined by my art (whatever that meant), by my love and by the tales that I had to tell that no one else did. I wanted to feel all that could be felt in this wide world beyond the walls of a closed closet door and the masks that others dressed me in.

I wanted to be able to sing a deep melody about battles lost and treasures found. I wanted to fall face first into a pile of my own mistakes and irresponsibly naïve decisions. I wanted to clear my own crooked path, not live in the shadow of someone else’s.

It made sense to me why the reoccurring dreams that had haunted me since my childhood still lingered. And that’s when I decided to run away from it all. I ran away from him. My parents. This idea of myself that I couldn’t hold up any longer. I wanted to go to a place where no one knew my name (or my brother’s). So I moved to New Orleans — trying to live the rebellious phase that I never had.

I bounced around from job to job, trying on different shoes. I became a waiter here, a bartender there, dealing with the internal judgment that my small hometown implanted in me for seemingly throwing away a college degree. But I knew I needed to start from scratch.

I began discovering this part of me that felt so strange yet oddly familiar. I started doing things people or society disapproved of, simply because it felt good. I intentionally stopped wearing deodorant one time after my manager indirectly commented on my “Bohemian” smell in front of the staff. My acting career was over.

And it was then that I started growing a beard. A long one. One that employers hated and my parents despised. It started out of laziness and grew organically into something much more than facial hair. It didn’t really look good, but it made my adrenaline pump again. And that’s when things started making sense.

I was empowered by others’ reaction to the beard. It made some uncomfortable. Others judgmental. But there were those moments walking down the street or bussing tables where someone would stop and look at me — some black, some white, some men, some women. They saw that beard and all that it embodied, shooting me a compliment or a high five with a genuine smile. When they looked at me, I knew they saw me.

For the first time, I was able to see someone in the mirror that I’ve never really seen before. It wasn’t my brother. Or that Joe guy. Or the good little boy in my childhood photos. It was this weird kid who had been waiting in that tiny gym all of his life to come out and play. And there he was. Staring back at me. TC mark

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