Missed Connections – answering the unanswered…30 years later
In 1992, Brian Francis placed a personal ad in a local newspaper. He was a twenty-one-year-old university student, still very much in the closet, and looking for love. He received twenty-five responses, but there were thirteen letters that went unanswered and spent years tucked away, forgotten, inside a cardboard box. Now, nearly thirty years later, and at a much different stage in his life, Brian has written replies to those letters. Using the letters as a springboard to reflect on all that has changed for him as a gay man over the past three decades, Brian’s responses cover a range of topics, including body image, aging, desire, the price of secrecy, and the courage it takes to be unapologetically yourself.
Missed Connections is an open-hearted, irreverent, often hilarious, and always bracingly honest examination of the pieces of our past we hold close — and all that we lose along the way. It is also a profoundly affecting meditation on how Brian’s generation, the queer people who emerged following the generation hit hardest by AIDS, were able to step out from the shadows and into the light. In an age when the promise of love is just a tap or swipe away, this extraordinary memoir reminds us that our yearning for connection and self-acceptance is timeless.
Available from McClelland & Stewart Penguin Random House Canada.
Excerpt from MISSED CONNECTIONS
In 1992, I placed a personal ad in the newspaper.
I was twenty-one years old at the time and had just started my third year of university. For any Generation Z readers, 1992 was important historically as it was the year that fire was invented.
It was also a year of pushing boundaries and challenging the establishment. Madonna came out with her book Sex. Sinéad O’Connor caused a maelstrom when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. Charles and Diana officially announced their separation after years of scrutiny. And the tribute concert for Freddie Mercury, who had died from AIDS the previous year, was broadcast to a billion people worldwide. In addition, the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a mental illness.
In my corner of the world, in a mid-sized city in Southwestern Ontario, some other significant changes were taking place. I had just started the process of coming out. Not that the closet doors had flung wide open or anything. It was more of a gradual squeak, as these sorts of things tend to go. One of my sisters knew as well as some of my high school friends. And the people I’d met via the local gay scene knew. But my parents didn’t know. And the straight guys I shared a house with didn’t know. So I was in a state of precarious balancing, one foot planted in secrecy and the other foot in honesty, straddling two worlds, not unlike many queer people in their early days of emergence.
My classified ad ran for three issues and cost sixty-five dollars, which was a lot of money for me, especially in those student days. I was perpetually broke. I ate sardine sandwiches. I smoked my cigarettes only halfway to make them last longer. I bought clothes on Friday, wore them to the bar on Saturday, and returned them on Monday. I was constantly on the phone to my parents asking for loans. The money I’d saved during the summer while working in Chemical Valley in my hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, and which was to last me throughout the school year, had suddenly, and inexplicitly, run low.
“But, Brian,” my dad would say. “It’s October.”
As to why I would’ve sunk that kind of cash into a personal ad rather than spend the money on something more practical, like a new pirate shirt — this was the early nineties, after all — I can only explain my actions by saying that I was desperate for love. It was something I had never experienced. Lust, absolutely. Hurt — are you kidding me? But romantic love, and everything I imagined it would feel like, had eluded me. What I craved more than anything was security and reassurance, of being accepted. A connection. I wanted to see someone looking back at me and know that I was loved for who I was, not for whatever I’d been masquerading as up until that point in time.
In retrospect, I don’t think I would have recognized Prince Charming even if he had come galloping along on a white horse with a box of Pot of Gold assorted chocolates tucked under his arm. What did I know about love at twenty-one? What could I have known, after having to grapple with the shame, fear, and suffocating isolation that came with growing up gay in a small city? I was surrounded by a brick wall, one that I’d been constructing since my childhood, although I didn’t realize it. Nor did I realize how thick and high the bricks were.
In spite of my feelings of wrongness, of never being good enough, or valued or equal, I still, somehow, believed in love. Specifically, gay love. “This desperation is raging,” I wrote in my journal at the time, “I’m clinging to scraps of hope.”
But the ad was also about excitement. And adventure—I placed it to see what was possible. For so long, I’d kept gay men at a distance. It was a guilt-by-association thing. Now that I was coming into my own, now that I was starting to feel comfortable in my own skin, I became increasingly curious: Who was out there?
I met with a handful of respondents. One for lunch. Another for drinks in a town thirty minutes away. I met one in a building on the university campus. And, with each encounter, I felt the same disappointment when I arrived on the scene. Not that any were unattractive or had sold themselves inauthentically, but I had very specific ideas as to what I was looking for, and I knew immediately if someone fit the bill or not. Or was it something else? Maybe it was easier to reject people before they could reject me.
So, no love connections. Not even any lacklustre sex. Sixty-five dollars down the drain, and the adventure, while a much-needed distraction for a couple of weeks, had got me nowhere.
For some reason, I saved the letters I had dismissed. I might have felt that throwing them out was a further rejection. These men had taken a chance, after all, a greater chance than I’d taken. They’d made themselves vulnerable to a stranger. They’d written into the void with the same hopes as me. And the void had answered with a resounding silence.
But I also have a habit of hanging on to weird bits and pieces of my life — birthday cards, buttons, unflattering photos. I’ve always believed that the random and unfiltered souvenirs of our lives, rather than the curated and polished, are the most revealing.
I kept the letters in a cardboard box with other miscellaneous things. My high school yearbooks, elementary school Valentine cut-out cards, photo albums I made as a child that contained carefully peeled shreds of my sunburned skin. (Yes, I was a weird kid.) The boxes travelled with me over the years. I didn’t think much about the letters. But one winter day, a few years back, I rediscovered them. I tend to avoid digging through the boxes, mainly because it’s a pain to haul everything out, but also because I have a habit of sinking into the past, sometimes giving it more weight than the present. It’s such an easy trap, to take all your past experiences and package them up in a way that provides a tidy frame of perspective and structure, of narrative, in ways that the present can’t. The past is always there, waiting. Even as I write this, each word I type on my screen immediately moves into the past.
On that particular winter day, I decided to indulge myself. I read those thirteen letters again, now more than a quarter-century old, the paper and envelopes yellowing, the handwritten and typed words fading. The letters seemed finite in a way they hadn’t before. I seemed finite, too. I realized how much time had passed since these letters were written. These men had no idea who I was or that I still had their letters — letters that had been deposited into a mailbox almost thirty years ago, but could have blown away instead, floated through the air, like tiny, white sails.
These letters never even got the courtesy of a response.
Where were these thirteen men now? I wondered. No doubt some were dead, or elderly. But others, closer to my age, would still be alive, wouldn’t they? Did they remember writing these letters? Where had their paths taken them? And had they ever found love?
Revisiting the letters at a much different stage in my life revealed their unique and awkward charms. I found myself asking, How might I reply to them now, writing not from the perspective of a wide-eyed youth but from the decidedly more wrinkled perspective of a man firmly at the mid-point of his life?
I considered my twenty-one-year-old self, someone who has become a little blurrier, less tangible, with each passing year. As I gallop towards middle age (truth be told, I’m there already, although it’s hard for me to believe), I can’t help but think of that twenty-one-year-old as a stranger, too. What would I say to him, the young man who was just coming out, who had gone in search of love and companionship?
Was it possible these strangers could help me connect to him as well, the person I used to be?
So I sat down and I did what I hadn’t done twenty-nine years earlier.
I replied to those thirteen letters.
Brian Francis is the author of novels Fruit, Natural Order and Break in Case of Emergency. He is a writer and columnist for The Next Chapter on CBC Radio. Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent, which was inspired by his play, Box 4901 (co-created with Rob Kempson), which premiered at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 2020 to sold-out audiences. Read more about how the play and book came to be here. He lives in Toronto.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.