Does Your Inside Match Your Outside?

On the Surface
Does your inside match your outside?
by John Francis Leonard

Photo by Alina Oswald

There were some years in my life where I can say that confidence was not something I suffered from a lack of. Not exactly what you would call a healthy sense of self-esteem, however, rather an ego run amuck. My priorities were different and I found the surface of things to be of major importance. The things that I felt made one a success were good looks, what you earned, what you drove, and how you dressed. My bravado and chutzpah stemmed from a certain lack of self-worth, if that makes sense. I thrived on the attention I got from men, any man. I could not see myself clearly unless it was through someone else’s eyes. Everything was therefore about that all-important surface. If I appeared to be a good-looking, body-obsessed, career-driven gay man of some means, then that was what I was.

Now, fifteen years after my HIV diagnosis, I can say I’m a better man. I’m forty-eight now, no longer obsessed with the corporeal and richer in experience than in money. I’ve settled into “beardom” and while a bit heavier than I’m comfortable with, glad to have my life not completely revolve around a gym. I’d like to be healthier and feel a little less awkward physically, but I’ll get there when I’m ready; I won’t do it just to make others happy. Two major events led to my complete reconstruction of self by my late thirties, a diagnosis of HIV at thirty-three as well as a bipolar diagnosis that quickly followed on its heels a year later. It took years to rebuild from that, but I did it. Things aren’t perfect, mind you, but I have a firm foundation.

Something took place yesterday that made me question that sense of self. It was a much anticipated date with a beautiful, wonderful young man. We spent an incredible day together, everything went well, but inside I was seriously off my game. I felt like an incredibly awkward teenager again. Like all of my recent dates, there was travel involved. Living in my small city is bearable for me because New York City is so close. I come two or three times a year and often date when I do. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about moving back in a year or two and, if I met someone special here, it would be all the better. I’ve also come to the conclusion that you can’t pin your hopes on a guy you’ve met online, at least I can’t. It’s a good way to build a rapport, but I can’t be sure until I’ve actually spent some time with someone. So I’ll have a great time with some incredible men and if something lasting comes from it, all the better.

So, as I am wont to do and have written about it in this column, I met this guy on Scruff and we hit it off. He’s not my typical type but I was struck by the beauty of him. He’s also younger, not a great deal, but by thirteen years and it’s true that when you’re forty-eight, that can be a lot. What seemed apparent in our online communication was definitely true. This is a guy whose maturity and poise at thirty-five is much more common in someone older. We had brunch and dinner plans yesterday, and enjoyed both and our time together immensely. But, as I said earlier, I wasn’t feeling my usual, confident self. I tried not to overthink it, I can make myself crazy that way, but on reflection, that’s just fine. How would you manage to be open to possibilities, if you don’t feel vulnerable at times?

It really got me to thinking about what had changed in me and I can’t help but think back to my diagnosis of HIV. I don’t think that I ever fully appreciated the changes it wrought. Gone is the brash, cocksure, and much younger man and in his place is someone open to change, someone much more vulnerable. I’m in awe of beauty, not in its thrall and, in the case of my date yesterday, I was just as affected by his inner beauty as I was by the surface. Certainly there’s room for more confidence; beating myself up inside because I don’t feel worthy of someone is just as damaging as my out of control Vanity was in the past. The changes that will make that possible are entirely in my grasp, however. I can lose the extra fifteen pounds I’m carrying, I can fully realize that age is just a number and that plenty of younger men enjoy the company of someone older. Hell, I can just remember how to take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy a given experience for what it is. No need to stress—I’ve certainly been through worse.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.