Out of the Celluloid Closet

All of us lonely

As a gay man, the slow inching toward a lonely denouement has always felt like destiny. Vestiges of the Silence=Death era, such as 1989’s Longtime Companion, already offered a sneak preview of the tragic end to come.  

Throughout the years I’ve humored concerned relatives interrogating me as to whether I’m certain about “choosing” this life, as if it was ever a choice in the first place. What would be the alternative? Casting an unsuspecting spouse—and potentially children—in supporting roles in a sh*tshow that would surely scar them for life? While I still sporadically defend my sexual orientation, it has become clear that the worries of bystanders aren’t entirely unfounded, if for the wrong reasons. Lately, instead of being reassuring, slogans like “gay is OK” and “it gets better” only make my eyes roll.   

After nearly three decades of lighthearted entertainment gently pushing for the queer-as-folk acceptance and getting solicitous relatives off our backs comes Andrew Haigh’s real downer All of Us Strangers, a gay movie that confirms that, nope, life has not gotten that much better, even after the advent of Truvada, legalization of same-sex marriage et al.   

Though based on a 1987 novel by Taichi Yamada, the film feels like a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adam (Andrew Scott) lives in a flat in a mostly vacant London building, where he passes his days searching for words in front of a typewriter and his nights noshing takeout leftovers as Frankie Goes to Hollywood performances flicker on the telly. Sometimes, he hops on the tube to his childhood home in the suburbs to visit the ghosts of his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy), who died in a car accident some three decades earlier.  

During lockdown, I took similar trips down memory lane. Bedridden after dropping some 50 pounds from radiochemotherapy, I spent most of my sick leave on the laptop googling old haunts; my own childhood homes in Taipei, the yard at my elementary school, rainy afternoon tram rides in Singapore. Choir rehearsal room in high school in Victoria, B.C. The little dépanneur near my apartment in Montréal. Landmark Theatres’ single-screen venues in and around Seattle.  

Though my parents are very much alive, I’ve deadzoned them for years for not respecting my boundaries. When I do speak to them, they sound just as well-meaning and just as clueless about homosexuality as Adam’s mum and dad do. Like in the movie, my mother and I also had that awkward tiptoe around the thorny topic of HIV after she snooped around and uncovered the monthly supply of PrEP stashed behind my bathroom mirror.  

Things change for Adam one night, when Harry (Paul Mescal), seemingly the only other person living in the same block of flats, knocks on Adam’s door. Slurring, he asks to come in. As titillating as that offer is, Adam politely declines and shuts the door on Harry in his moment of need. I previously mused about the death of community I felt during the incunabula of the pandemic, seemingly survived only by endless tiles of faces and torsos that appeared every moment on Grindr, simultaneously searching for and denying human connection.  

Adam and Harry begin seeing each other properly in due course. I might say “spoiler alert” here—It’s not much of a spoiler though, since it’s heavily telegraphed throughout All of Us Strangers that, much like Adam’s parents, Harry also turns out to be a phantom. In addition to inquiring into a life doomed to solitude, the film also considers the path not taken.  

I once had a crush on someone for six years. I still recall our first meeting in 2006 in a SoHo office. As he raised his head from the meeting table when I walked past, our eyes met for the first time. He bore a passing resemblance to Jason Statham. In fact, he once posed for a photo exactly the way the Transporter star appeared on Men’s Journal’s February 2011 cover. I was smitten. I sometimes went to the rooftop just hoping to catch him during a smoke break. But whenever I thought about approaching him, I also recalled that time back in high school when I followed a stranger off the bus and he told me to get lost or he’d beat my ass.  

When that SoHo office shuttered in 2012, I finally mustered the courage to friend my crush on Facebook. It turned out he wasn’t only gay, he was also the scion of a media baron. By this point, he was the dream lover I longed to come to my rescue. I believed being in a relationship with someone like him would solve all my problems, help me land my ideal job, and eradicate the decades of doubt, shame, insecurity, and inadequacy I harbored within. I summarized my long-gestating unrequited love in a direct message. He never wrote back. A few years later, he married someone worthy of his lineage and they had a child through surrogacy.  

Much like Adam, I was in love with a ghost, so desperate for affection, support, solidarity, tenderness, and passionate sex that I conceived elaborate fantasies about a life with him far removed from the uphill battle I’d been fighting. I regret to this day that the only occasion of my ever actually speaking to him IRL was to ask if he was OK while he coughed uncontrollably in the office kitchenette one day.  

At the end of Strangers, Adam discovers Harry’s remains in his bathroom. He is utterly alone – a predicament I know all too well. My partner is two decades older. Our long-distance relationship doesn’t always ameliorate this empty feeling, but I really can’t even fathom what my life is going to be like when he’s gone. As a gay Asian man in my 40s, I sense just how repugnant I must be to those tiles of faces and torsos that roll through my phone screen each day. If a drunken Paul Mescal can be turned down, what hope is there for the rest of us?♦   

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