Is it more socially acceptable for men to share a bed when they're gay, or when they're straight? This episode explores men's need for affection and what it means both inside and outside the bedroom.
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Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 3 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, Kissy boys.
We were 17. I sat with my friend, who remains one of the biggest loves of my life and holds the honorary title of best friend, in the high school library. We were quietly talking about nothing and everything, like we always did and always do. I don’t remember how the conversation got there but I remember this bit almost exactly.
“What would you say,” he asked, “if I told you I was gay?”
I thought for a bit and said,
“I’d be fine. But I’d be a little worried about you, and a little sad.”
He asked me why. I said, “Because of how affectionate you are. That you won’t be able to be openly affectionate with the person you love… that makes me sad for you. Worried.”
They were different times. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily easy for gay people to be openly affectionate these days – although I hope it’s easier – but back then it was impossible. In certain parts of the country it was still considered a kind of sport to go driving, looking for gay people and then beat them within an inch of their life.
And my love-of-my-life friend, he’s one giant nerve ending. He’ll give you a huge hug, making, “Unhhh” noises and when you pull away he’ll hold his arms out again, move them 45 degrees and exclaim, “Other side!” and then you do it all over again.
Over the years he’s navigated this life and managed his propensity for PDAs his own way, and as for me, I stopped being sad and worried just for him and expanded my sadness and worry to accommodate straight men too.
There are two film and TV tropes I hate with a passion. The first one is irrelevant to what we’re talking about today, but I’m going to mention it anyway because I hate it so much, and hate the directors who perpetuate it. It’s the bathing beauty type, where a gorgeous woman is having a bubble bath. 99% of the time, she’ll extend one long leg up into the air in order to soap it up. Yeah, fellas. That’s exactly how all the girls get clean when you’re not there. But the other one, the one that is relevant, is the couple cuddling in bed trope, where it’s always, 100% of the time, the man holding the woman, who rests with her head on his manly chest.
Do women really never hold men?
I mean – I know for a fact that at least one woman has, and it didn’t make her any less womanly, or the man any less manly. It didn’t make her controlling or smothering, and it didn’t make him emasculated.
I know how stupid that sounds. But those are the beliefs that we’re dealing with here. Men who want – need – this kind of closeness and affection are somehow seen as less-than, or at least if not less-than, then “not quite there” – as in, they haven’t “become” men yet.
Think about this. You’re a male child. You love cuddles, ideally from both your parents, but it often happens that you get most of them from your mum. And then one day, this is taken away from you. Or maybe you’re encouraged to push it away from you. Because you’re not supposed to want or have that after a certain age. Not if you’re to become a real man one day. And what happens to that desire for touch, for affection, for nurturing, for closeness? Well, you’re a man now, and that’s what sex is for, so that’ll do ya. Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen – Freud sez.
Terrence Real talks about this in his brilliant book, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”, and makes a compelling connection between this wound and male depression.
“The idea that boys must rupture an effeminizing connection to mother is one of the oldest, least questioned, and most deeply rooted myths of patriarchy.” He says. But lest you think that this is about the kind of mother you had or didn’t have, or that it’s just about affection from women, he goes on to say that “As devastating as the disconnection from the mother may be, it is merely the beachhead of a larger social mandate, the instruction to turn away, not just from the mother, but from intimacy itself, and from cultivating, or even grasping, the values and skills that sustain deep emotional connection.”
I called this episode “Kissy boys” because someone I love very much was dismissed one time as a “kissy boy”. It was offhand, but it hurt him deeply. I couldn’t appropriate it, but I embraced it. What a great thing to be – a kissy boy. Hugs and kisses? Bring them on! For me, for the kids, for friends, for the dog. Whether in public or private, a display of affection is not only something we should never dismiss, but it’s also something we should celebrate. The openness to connection is literally innately masculine, as innate as it is to women, and is the polar opposite to toxic. What’s an antonym of toxic? Antidote is one. And I can think of any number of ills for which closeness, intimacy and affection could be an antidote.
The stories in this episode feature men who are beautiful examples of what this openness to connection and vulnerability can do. Like teach real intimacy. Help transcend the physical. And even save lives. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
It’s been for years – not just since coronavirus. Whenever I feel lonely, whenever I experience a moment of transcendent beauty and there’s no one to share it with me, when I change my outfit for the sixth time before going out because I’m never sure of how I look, and whenever I’m haunted by thoughts of what could have been, I think of Marcos.
We were young. He was beautiful, golden-skinned with green eyes. And time with him was otherworldly. Morning light filtering through billowing gauze curtains. Walking hand in hand through meadows of wildflowers. Caresses that seemed to go for hours. And the way he looked at me. Wonder and adoration and all that is holy, and I have never experienced anything like it since.
Was I in love? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know when your memories are so storybook perfect. It’s possible that that is why my memories are so storybook perfect. But I don’t venture too far down that path because I fear where it leads. Thinking of Marcos is painful enough.
We had been together for only a few months. It was one of those sublime mornings in the world of his bedroom while other worlds floated by in the streaming sunshine. He told me he had to tell me something. Apologized in advance for not telling me earlier, but it wasn’t something you told at the beginning: you told it later, when you cared about the person and were certain that the person cared about you. You told it when you imagined a future together.
I held my breath in that world, which had stopped turning. I was gripped by this fear that whatever he was about to tell me would make it stop for good. I imagined all kinds of horrors but when he told me, he did so in a matter-of-fact and unremarkable way. Of course. It had been years for him.
He told me that when he was little he’d been in an accident and had suffered some nerve damage. As a result, he had little to no feeling in his hands. It meant that he had to be very careful that he didn’t burn or cut himself, he said.
A stream of memories flashed in my mind’s eye, of him adoring me with his eyes and hands. I didn’t want to, I tried quashing it down, but I felt cheated, as if he had lied.
I asked him about all those times, whether he had felt anything at all. And I’ll never forget his answer: “There is more than one way to feel.”
Marcos told me of his hunger for touch – for every one of his senses – when we were together. Sometimes, he felt as if this hunger could consume me.
He asked me whether it made a difference to me. I said no, of course not. I lied.
I told myself it was a good lie. I would come to understand about the different ways there was to feel, and then it would be a lie no longer.
But I never did come to understand. Every time he touched me I thought, “He feels nothing. It’s a fantasy. A pretence.” I could not understand how it was possible that he could love me without feeling me with his entire self. I could not understand the different ways to feel, so I did not believe in them. These thoughts were a poison draught that I drank every time we were together, every time I looked at myself in the mirror and did not see what he saw, that there was more to me than what could be felt with the hands.
I left our relationship long before I ended it. He wept, openly devastated. I told him it was me, not him, and I hated myself for it because my poisoned blood thrumming inside repeated, over and over again, “IT’S HIM. IT’S HIM. IT’S HIM.”
I’m haunted because years on, older, I realise it was me. He was emotionally evolved in a way I wasn’t. He understood that as inextricably tied to our bodies as we are, feeling can transcend them. A blind person can know the beauty of a forest. A deaf person can know the music in their child’s laugh. If you care to care, to step outside yourself, and truly behold what and who is in front of you beyond your perceived limitations, you will be rewarded with so much feeling you will barely be able to contain it. I know, because I have since learnt to feel this way. But not since Marcos have I met a man who knew how to feel it too. Not since Marcos have I met a man who beheld me this way. Who thinks so much more of me than I think of myself.
I have not reached out and never will, but I know Marcos is out there. His profile on social media is private but his profile picture isn’t and he is still beautiful. Looking down in adoration at an equally beautiful woman and their golden child. What hurts isn’t that I know what that look means. It’s that I don’t know. What he felt for me was fledgling, and even then it was divine. What he feels now for these loves must have a massive wingspan and be soaring above the world, tethered to the three of them. I tell myself I’m happy for him. For them. It’s a good lie.
I’m telling my story because of something I heard on your introduction to Pillow Talking. You said that the word “intimacy” is used by people who are coy about sex. It made me so mad. And the more I thought about it, the madder I got, until I asked myself why I was mad, and the story came to me.
I’m pretty old fashioned for nowadays. My husband and I waited until we got married to make love for the first time, and although this is partly because of our Latter-day Saint upbringing, we also wanted to because we believe it’s something special. And it was. There was a lot of learning, but that has to happen anyway, right? And we feel so privileged that we got to do it with each other, and still do.
Our pillow talk happened when we’d been married a couple of months. We had made love and I was going to do what I always did: get up and have a shower. But my husband gently took my wrist and stopped me, asking, “Why do you do that immediately afterwards, as if we’ve just done something dirty?”
I was shocked. The look on his face was one I never want to see again, because he looked puzzled and hurt and I was responsible for it.
I should explain that I did not, in any way, believe the act of making love was dirty. I had been raised to believe that we kept ourselves chaste not because sex is bad, but because it’s so good. That is, sacred, and to be saved for your eternal relationship. So for him to say that was mortifying to me.
But not as mortifying as the real reason why I always jumped up to have a shower afterwards: I thought it was what you’re supposed to do… because I’d seen it in a few movies and on television growing up. There’s a love scene, it dissolves away to the couple in bed presumably after having sex, and then the woman, who still has her bra on, gets up and has a shower. I wasn’t completely ignorant when we got married so I knew the bra thing was a lie, but that little detail about the shower, such an everyday thing… I didn’t question it for a second.
I got back into bed with my husband, and didn’t tell him my reason for always having a shower then (and wouldn’t until many months later, when all our flaws were out in the open, and we could laugh about them – well most of them, at any rate). But it’s tough writing this next part because the truth is that once I was in bed, I had no idea what to do, and what was supposed to happen. He wasn’t sleepy. Neither was I. So… what?
Here’s why I got mad at what you said. My mom used to call sex “intimacy”, and she wasn’t coy; she was pretty open and straightforward teaching us kids the facts of life and anyone who ever saw my parents and their constant PDAs could have got the idea of what their relationship was like in private. But intimacy was what I thought making love was, and it was… but it wasn’t all of it. My husband wanted to hold me, look into my eyes, caress me… And I’ve never been more uncomfortable in my life. Every time he looked into my eyes I wanted to run away, or put the comforter over my head, or start singing at the top of my lungs, or anything to avoid him looking into my very soul, which is what it felt like. But I was a newlywed and in best behavior mode, and stayed. If I looked as uncomfortable as I felt I don’t know because he didn’t mention it. It took weeks for me to relax during these times. And weeks after that to begin to enjoy it. Now, if I go too long without it, I crave it.
Looking back I realise this was me learning intimacy, which for me equals vulnerability. I don’t see how you could have one without the other. For all the exploration and discovery of making love, it wasn’t complete without this; we weren’t complete without this. And now that we know intimacy and what it feels like, we can make it happen anytime, anywhere, even without the lovemaking. All it takes is a little vulnerability and looking into each other’s souls.
Everyone has a special coronavirus story, and this is mine. It’s weird and wonderful and I can only tell it from my point of view although I’m hoping, and actually working on, my fellow pillow talker telling his side.
Peter is my housemate. I’ve known him for a long time. We went to high school together and although we weren’t close, we had several classes together and were mates. When I came out as gay, it wasn’t any kind of a deal to him, even though it’s a pretty hazardous thing even in this day and age in the country town we’re from. Years later he told me about the guys he’d “touched up a bit” when he heard them making fun of me behind my back.
We ended up going to the same uni, and as luck would have it, in rooms next to each other in the Halls of Residence. That’s when we got close. We were both country boys, didn’t know anyone, and we were a taste of the familiar. But it was more than that because the more we got to know each other it felt like we were twins separated at birth. After a year we decided to pool our resources and move out of the Halls of Residence into our own place. And that’s where we’ve been ever since. Other flatmates and live-in girlfriends and boyfriends have come and gone but we always stayed.
When the Stage 4 coronavirus restrictions hit Melbourne, it was during one of those periods when it was just Pete and me. If you haven’t lived through Stage 4, I have to tell you: it’s brutal. We weren’t allowed to have anyone over, we weren’t allowed to go outside a 5km radius, there was a 9pm curfew, and we could only go outside to get exercise for an hour a day. And this went for almost three months. Pete, a serial monogamist, was between girlfriends and my fears of coronavirus were way bigger than any desire I had for a hookup. We weren’t allowed to travel into regional Victoria to see our families, and I missed my mum’s and my sister’s birthdays. Peter missed being there for the birth of his first nephew. It was rough.
We still got along, and most of the time were OK with each other, but a pall descended on our house. We were depressed. Despite having each other, we were lonely. We were craving family and other friends, other kinds of connection. It wasn’t long ago but just remembering it makes me feel a little sick inside. I’m sure we were all traumatised in some way.
So this is the backdrop to the thing that happened, which is that one night while I was sound asleep, I woke up to the unmistakable feeling of someone getting in bed next to me. It was the middle of the night and I groggy from sleep so there was this surreal feeling to it. I froze. Without turning around, I knew it was Peter. I waited. Nothing happened. I could tell from his breathing that he wasn’t asleep, and he could probably tell from mine that I wasn’t, either. And I didn’t know what to say or do, because this isn’t where the story turns and I confess that it was the moment I’ve been dreaming about all my life and it turns into an iso version of Brokeback Mountain. We were like brothers.
So we just lay there, not saying or doing anything, and eventually the feeling in the bed changed and so did Peter’s breathing. He was asleep. And after a few more minutes wondering what the fuck, I was asleep too. When I woke up in the morning, he was gone, and when I saw him in the kitchen for breakfast it was the same as usual, so I started thinking maybe I’d imagined the whole thing, or it was one of those dreams that you swear is real. And although I had a niggly feeling I shrugged it off.
A couple of nights later, it happened again, same as before, except he was a little closer to me on the bed. Not spooning, but close. And I was awake for an hour trying to work out whether I was awake or dreaming. If I was awake, how could I tell I was awake? The circular thinking drove me insane. In the morning, he was the same nonchalant Peter and what was I doing on my iPhone while drinking my coffee? Googling how to wake yourself up from a dream or nightmare.
Sure enough, a few nights later it happened again. And I did what Google said to do and tried wiggling a finger or toe. The article had said it would be difficult because of dream paralysis, but even the slightest movement I could manage would wake me up. Well, there I am in bed and I can move not just a finger but my entire bloody arm. I could have flagged down a cab from two blocks away in the middle of Sydney during Mardi Gras. It was obvious I was awake.
Also obvious to me was that this was happening because Peter needed human contact, and this was how he felt he could have it. Of course, I needed it too. Once I worked it out, it was a massive relief, and I welcomed it. But in the morning it was always the same: he was gone by the time I woke up, and in the kitchen it was as if it had never happened.
But then one day I got a text really early in the morning, when Peter was still in bed with me. It would have been 5.30am. It was one of those texts you dread, that begin with everything is all right, BUT. I read it and went, “Oh, fuck.” And as if it was the most natural thing in the world Pete goes, “What’s wrong?” I told him that my dad went to hospital with a suspected heart attack, and suddenly we’re having a conversation like we always do, but this time we’re in bed together.
That changed the routine completely. A couple of times a week he’d come into my bed and we’d literally sleep together, and then wake up together, and we’d each grab our phones and read up on the news and remark to each other about the coronavirus numbers or the latest deranged thing Trump had done or said. It was easy, it was comfortable, it was comforting, and just so nice. We really needed it.
However, we never talked about it outside the bedroom and I just thought he’d be ashamed of it, or at least really embarrassed. There are forces at work here beyond us. As a gay man I could have talked about this with my gay male friends, but it would have been completely different for him, a straight man, telling his straight male friends. Even for someone as chill as Pete it wouldn’t be easy.
So I didn’t think about it.
We were so happy when restrictions lifted a few weeks ago. Still couldn’t go to regional Victoria to see our families but we could meet friends in the park – 10 of us in total. So we decided to have a Candy with Candy party. We wanted something to make us feel like kids again – give us that feeling of comfort and fun and being carefree. We found a park that has a building with a nice smooth wall and someone had a battery-operated projector. We took folding chairs and an obscene amount of chocolate and lollies and we all settled down to watch a John Candy double feature: Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – our favourites. It was fantastic. So much fun. And we hadn’t seen each other in months so of course we talked all through the movies, stopping down and then for our favourite scenes, like Uncle Buck’s giant hotcake and MacAuley Culkin’s “I’m a kid, that’s my job.”
And then one of the best bits in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The “Those aren’t pillows!” scene, where John Candy and Steve Martin wake up spooning after sleeping in the same bed all night. And everyone’s laughing when Peter puts his arm around me and goes, “Just like us!” and gives me a sideways squeeze. Only a couple of our friends noticed, and they kind of looked at us, but Pete just shrugged and grinned, and went back to watching the movie.
It was just a few seconds, but it was like the world stopped for me. I nearly burst into tears. That little moment meant everything. Knowing that he wasn’t ashamed, that he would openly talk about it, meant even more than those nights when it felt like we were all each other had in the whole wide world.
My friend and flatmate has been nagging at me to write my side of the story for a few weeks. I’ve decided to give in, although I won’t give him the satisfaction of knowing that. He’ll find out when he hears this. I don’t know whether he used his own name when he submitted his story, so I’ll just call him M.
I don’t think there’s that much to tell, but inside my head I can hear M’s voice: “Don’t write it like one of your work emails!”
My work emails are famously straightforward. Bullet points where possible and if they’re longer than 100 words, it’s time to call a meeting. But I’ll do more than 100 for this, although it’s hard.
M. loves to spin a yarn. He’s good at it. He would have given lots of detail. So I can’t think of what to add about the time that we started “sleeping together”. But one thing he wouldn’t cover is what was going through my mind when I decided to get into bed with him, because I never told him.
Stage 4 was really tough. I did my best to keep busy and go for a run every day and eat healthy, but in my mind I was suffering. I can’t say whether I was lonely, depressed or anxious. Maybe it was some of these things, or none, or all of them at once. What I can tell you is that one night I was in my room and I felt like I was falling into a dark, bottomless pit where no light could get in. Like there were Dementors in the room with me. I couldn’t feel hope in the future. It was more than a belief: in that state, I KNEW I would never feel happy and carefree again. I started to wonder what was the point.
Somehow, and I know it’ll sound like I’m bullshitting, I heard a little voice in my head telling me I needed to be with someone. That I must not be alone. And I batted the voice away like a fly. But it kept coming back.
So I started thinking. Who? There was literally NO ONE to be with. Was it literally, though? Because M. was just a few doors away.
No, no, no.
Because it’s weird.
Because it just is.
M. and I have been mates for 15 years. Best friends for a big part. I trust him. One time I came back from Bali with the worst Bali belly and he washed my bed sheets. You don’t need the details, you just need to know he washed my bed sheets when I had Bali Belly.
So I just did it. Went down the hallway and got into bed with him. In his room, the pit didn’t seem so deep and dark, and I slept properly for the first time in weeks. One of our friends recently asked me if I was scared when I got into bed with M. I was. But not for me, for him. I didn’t ask for an invitation. I was in his personal space. That’s a huge deal and he had every right to kick me out.
By the way, I do know the subtext of my friend’s question. She didn’t say it, but it was “Was I scared M. would think I was making a move.” I told her to grow up.
I know I’m supposed to be telling a story about our pillow talk but I don’t remember anything in particular except for one time when M. got me talking about movies I loved when I was little. We were watching clips on our phones and showing them to each other and it was great. It started a Friday night tradition of watching one of these movies. Jumanji, Space Jam, John Hughes stuff. It’s where we got the idea for our John Candy party because both of us love him.
Those Friday nights feeling like a kid again kept the Dementors away. They probably saved my life. But more than probably, I know for a fact that M. saved my life by letting me have those nights in his room.
I’ve never told him this but I will say it now because I know he’ll be listening. He loves getting the last word in but this time it’s my turn. I deserve it because of all the nagging.
I love you, buddy.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
Comfortably Numb by Anonymous
A Little Vulnerability and Looking Into Each Other’s Souls by Sam
Those Aren’t Pillows by Matty
He Saved My Life by Peter
This podcast wouldn’t exist without the people who are willing to entrust me with their intimate conversations. If you’d like to entrust me with yours, please go to www.pillowtalkingproject.com. I’d love to hear your story.
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On the next episode on Pillow Talking, Reading in bed: stories about one of the most popular bedroom activities, and how it affects other bedroom activities. Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.