Sports and straight men are not where I look for life lessons. And travelling usually reminds me that no matter how comfortable I am with being an openly gay man, others may be less at ease and not afraid to show it. But I discovered on a recent trip out west that testing potentially homophobic waters can have surprising rewards.
It's the first full day of visiting with my friend Adrienne, who earlier this year relocated from Toronto to British Columbia's beautiful Gabriola Island. After spending our day critiquing the series finale of Will & Grace, getting caught up on each other's lives and exploring the tide pools of Drumbeg Provincial Park like sixth graders on a field trip, it's late afternoon and time to retire to the patio.
"So have you decided yet?" Adrienne asks.
"You mean about tonight?" I reply.
"I don't know. It's been so long. Like 15 years ago."
"If Johnny asks you, you won't be able to say no," she warns with a confident grin. "Not to those eyes."
"But he's not gay, so there's nothing I'm really going to be missing out on by saying no, is there?" I joke.
Playing on a slow-pitch co-ed baseball team is the last thing I expected to be doing while vacationing on the West Coast. It's been a long time since I last played, but I find myself mainly concerned about how the rest of the team will react to the news that Adrienne's gay friend from Toronto is suddenly playing with them. Broke Bat Mountain, anyone?
We arrive at the field and I'm introduced to everyone just before a little pre-game practice. Team captain Johnny's eyes are a persuasive shade of blue, but a couple of other guys appear to confirm my worst fears. That goes double for the opposing team. Oh, dear. What happens if I throw like a toddler? Or run like a debutante?
Practice goes well, and I go for it anyway. With a 0 and 4 record so far this season, I won't feel entirely responsible if the team loses again. But the gods (baseball and homosexual) have blessed us, and our 11-7 victory over the other team is sweet. I'm pleased with my performance in right field and delighted at having reached base each of the four times I stepped up to the plate. Me a jock. Who knew?
As we prepare to leave the field of dreams fulfilled, I catch the tail end of an odd conversation about how sensitive women are and how apparently even more sensitive gays are.
"I'd hate to be gay," one of the redneck players announces with a chuckle.
"Don't knock it till you try it", I respond, apparently loud enough for only Adrienne to hear, my head lowered as I tie my shoelace. She laughs as we walk toward our car.
"What's up with the 'I'd hate to be gay' comment?" I ask. "Considering I'm sitting right there?" Adrienne looks at me a bit puzzled. "They do know I'm gay, don't they?"
"I don't know," she says. "I don't think I mentioned it. Why would I?"
She makes a good point, and I'm embarrassed by my selfish presumption.
But then I begin to think that maybe she's as concerned by our teammates' potential reaction to me as I initially was, which would explain why the matter of my orientation never came up before the game.
The next afternoon, Adrienne and I are joined by her nice, conveniently across-the-street boyfriend, Craig, and Johnny.
While the couple prepare dinner indoors, Johnny and I bond outdoors over drinks and cigarettes. Later that evening, the four of us make our way to the other end of the island to watch a Celtic band perform at Silva Bay.
One member of the baseball team is in the band, another is tending bar and a few more are in the audience or smoking on the outdoor patio.
Talk about a close-knit, supportive community.
Craving a cigarette, I go outside and join Craig and Johnny.
"Hey," Johnny greets me while pointing to his left cheek. "Plant one here."
A little dumbfounded, I nonetheless comply and kiss him. It's a genuine yet surprising moment, which makes it all the more memorable.
And in my mind it's a friendly gesture that in time will need to be reciprocated. Returning inside, Johnny and I sit down with Adrienne and a few others while Craig goes off to dance with one of the gals from the team. I lean towards Johnny and whisper.
"When you think Adrienne is about to look over at us, it's your turn to plant one on me, okay?"
"On the lips?" he asks.
"Sure, why not?"
"Okay, but no French kissing."
"No tongue then?"
"Well, not at first," he jokes with a playful smile. "Maybe later."
Out of the corner of my eye, I sense that we have Adrienne's attention. Johnny stops talking, looks at me, leans in and slowly presses his soft lips against mine. Releasing from our harmless lip lock, we both keep a straight face (one obviously more than the other).
I turn to Adrienne, who's wearing an inquisitive smile, and am surprised to notice others equally entertained by what they've just witnessed.
No homophobic comments or dry heaves from the locals; no flying beer bottles in my direction either.
And then everything returns to the way it was before, only somehow better.