Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Book: If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Written by Ian Gold
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Ryan Van Meter’s book If You Knew Then What I Know Now is like a new album you can’t help but listen to on repeat. It’s what Rufus Wainwright’s music was for Van Meter in the late ’90s—a required passport, a badge, a gay crush. If You Knew is a story of the author’s own life as he emerges hesitantly, yet happily, from a childhood based on fear and the fruitless effort of trying to be something you never can be. We are taken to his midwestern backyard where the ten-year-old scrawny boy we all recognize is being forced to practice baseball. He is the boy who stands like a flamingo when under pressure, the boy who must skip everywhere once he learns how much better it is than walking, the boy who fears the fag tag. 
Ryan Van Meter’s book If You Knew Then What I Know Now is like a new album you can’t help but listen to on repeat. It’s what Rufus Wainwright’s music was for Van Meter in the late ’90s—a required passport, a badge, a gay crush. If You Knew is a story of the author’s own life as he emerges hesitantly, yet happily, from a childhood based on fear and the fruitless effort of trying to be something you never can be. We are taken to his midwestern backyard where the ten-year-old scrawny boy we all recognize is being forced to practice baseball. He is the boy who stands like a flamingo when under pressure, the boy who must skip everywhere once he learns how much better it is than walking, the boy who fears the fag tag.
 
Van Meter’s familiar childhood stories are precise tales of the torment some of us have lived through as we clumsily attempted to be straight, masculine, “normal”; or whatever these things might be for whoever might try to be them. The categories, such as the socially prescribed definition of “boy,” continued to evade us even when they were the only choices we were given. And it is through Van Meter’s own experience that we become aware, comically at times and tragically at others, of the impossibility of truly understanding such definitions. As we are brought into the internal place where these concepts slowly force their way, we are reminded that some are sequestered in this hidden place longer than others. And what makes Van Meter special, after all, is that he has stayed there long enough to report back on the beauty of hiding it.

As he grows up, Van Meter’s childhood, which is marked by difference, is never left behind. His rule about not being touched by his boyfriend before sleep, the pillow he and his boyfriend creatively name, and the singular peeled pea he feeds his goldfish Rufus every other morning represent the details that elegantly carve a way of seeing this journey. Throughout the book, the delicate innocence of his writing gives a warm feeling not so different from falling in love for the first time. And love is where we are left as we are taken along as he interviews friends about love, gay love, and if there is a difference.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now is not about progress or comfort, about not knowing then knowing. And to say that it’s about coming out of hiding misses the point. Instead it’s about relishing in what hiding meant then and grappling with what it means still. In one of the final chapters, when the author is over thirty, we are taken on a first date in Van Meter’s mind only, where we become privilege to his innermost thoughts. This is a giddy list of the things he so badly wants to say but must not be spoken; that must not be revealed to his companion: “That when I see you, I don’t know what to do with my body,” he writes, “That when I see you, my eyes just want to stay there looking at your face. That whenever you see me looking at you, I have to look away because of the not knowing what to do with my body.” Van Meter shows that our childhood innocence doesn’t leave us, that it is instead reinvented over and over again and that, no matter how hard we might try, knowing is something we can never truly master.

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