Memoirs often assume a strong division between "then" and "now." The past is another country, where discrimination, cruelty and dishonesty are the laws of the land. The present is the home of enlightenment, where the meek have inherited the Earth. Ryan Van Meter's memoir "If You Knew Then What I Know Now" both honors and undermines these conventions.
Born in 1975 in a suburb of St. Louis, Van Meter grew up in the depersonalized, homogenized landscape of the middle-class Midwest. Freeways have replaced farms, malls have replaced meadows and class distinctions hinge on how close the homes are within subdivisions.
Described as 14 linked essays, Van Meter's first book is a coming-of-age and coming-out story. While all readers will appreciate the Americana of shag carpeting, Tetris and REO Speedwagon, gay readers will laugh and cringe in recognition. Van Meter grows up, moves to Chicago, comes out, falls in love and gets dumped. So much for happy endings. The author, who attended the University of Missouri at Columbia and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and who now teaches at the University of San Francisco, avoids the trap of portraying himself as a misunderstood innocent who wins in the end.
The title essay contrasts a sixth-grade friend's bullying with his adult apology. Two boys, Mark and Jared, pretend to kiss in front of the youthful narrator, who thinks, "They are trying to get you to say things about yourself that you won't be ready to say for several more years and that's what will hurt the most about this afternoon. ... They found something in you before you did."
At a high school reunion 16 years later, Jared apologizes and Van Meter realizes that heteronormative codes damage both sides: "You think it's strange that you assumed you were the only boy hurt by that kiss in Mark's bedroom. But you see that Jared carries that day with him like you do; he carries a shame not very different from yours." And yet, the line remains drawn: "On your shoulder his hand feels a little like the warmth of comfort, and a little like the squeeze of danger."
If no one lives happily ever after, Van Meter at least offers moments that float outside chronology, like the "shimmering bubble" his high school girlfriend Angie creates in her basement out of paper streamers and white Christmas lights, the setting for a first kiss that never happens. Or his grandmother's stoic face, "the same face she always wears," as she discovers young Ryan in his aunt's vintage dress, before she grants him a magical interlude of childhood exploration without judgment or binaries, an inspiring step outside of time and convention.
St. Paul poet James Cihlar is the author of "Undoing" and "Metaphysical Bailout."