Missing/Music for the Middle Aged Part II

The posters are plastered all over my neighborhood. A black and white photograph of a man around my height and around my age, balding with a half-smile, a Hawaiian lei around his neck from some flowered vacation. He vanished during the weekend of Gay Pride. If seen, call 911.

He looks familiar, and I figure I’ve probably seen him in passing on the way to work, at the gym, or in some bar. A nondescript half-person who you see and dismiss because he’s not quite handsome enough, or who you look right past without seeing at all. He could have been me, really. Except I’ve never been to Hawaii.

I think about him while I am at the gym on the treadmill, and I think about him later as I am walking home. My mind goes to dark places wondering what happened to him. A suicide, a robbery gone wrong, an unfortunate hook-up with a serial killer? The best case scenario is that he just left on his own, ran away to some new city to start life again somewhere away from his family and his friends.

Still it is unsettling. Things go missing all the time. Socks. Tupperware containers. Engagement rings. But usually not middle aged men.

Days pass and I see the poster every day when I go to the gym. I see the big, bold letters that say MISSING in all caps, and my mind begins playing “Missing” by Everything But the Girl. I associate this song with dancing in the only gay club in my small, Texas, college town during the 90s. I think of all the people in my life who I miss, who have vanished, despite the fact that they’re all still around, occupying other spaces in other people’s lives.

“Step off the train. I’m walking down your street again…”

Week days are more or less the same. I wake up an hour before my alarm goes off and look at my phone. I scroll through social media posts, play mindless games, peruse gay hook-up sites and flirt with shirtless torsos.

During the week I always make my bed because my apartment is too small, and the bed takes up too large a percentage of available space, not to make it. I walk to work. Sit in the latest in a string of cubicles. Walk home.

On the way home I go to the gym. Everyone seems so tall and so young. Some days I flirt with a handsome couple around my age. Sweaty gym hugs and sideways smiles. During my recovery from my shoulder injury, my workouts have been limited. I feel lumpy and out of shape. Everything I do is painful and all I can think about is how wonderful it would be to just feel normal again.

On Fridays I usually go out to eat with friends or out for drinks. I’ll sit in the corner of some bar while my friends talk to cute guys, and I mostly just smile and nod.  My mom will send me a text message telling me goodnight, and I’ll send a picture of the cocktail that I’m drinking.

She sends a sad face emoji.

She tells me to join AA.

One night I was talking to my mom on the phone, and she tells me a story about my grandmother who is approaching the late stages of Alzheimer’s. My grandmother was getting agitated, so my mom suggested she look through a picture book.

My grandmother snaps, “I’ve looked at that book so many times, I’m going to turn into a picture book!”

Half an hour passes, and my grandmother becomes very upset.

“Jane,” she says. “What if I turn into a picture book? How will I eat?”

She becomes fixated on this idea of turning into a picture book, and spends the next hour wondering how she’ll eat, or go to the bathroom.

“I won’t be able to do anything!” She says, crying, until my aunt is finally able to distract her from her irrational fear.

“If I ever get like that,” my mom says, “I want you to put a bullet in my head.”

For his birthday, I go with my friend Ducky to see the Psychedelic Furs. They are playing downtown at the Showbox. Waiting in line, I’m shocked to see that the other fans are all so old. Bald men with gray beards and vestigial pony tails. Women with creased necks and bad dye jobs with too much cleavage.

“The good news is, we’re the youngest ones here.” I say.

Ducky says, “No. They’re our age.”

I wonder if he’s right. If we’re just a couple of middle aged men wearing clothes made for people a generation younger than us?

Ducky in cut off shorts and a Misfits t-shirt. Our friend Derick in Daisy Dukes and soft blond curls. When the band starts, Ducky drags us to the front of the stage. I trail behind him, apologizing to the people we squeeze past who glare angrily at us over drinks. I’d seen the band 10 years before in the same venue. They played the same set-list. A girl beside me sings along to every song and she and I both jump up and down excitedly when the band plays “Ghost in You.”

After the show we go to the Alibi Room for more drinks. Derick and Ducky get salads and cocktails. I get a cocktail and dessert. Key lime cheesecake. I look at my phone. Do a search for an update of the man who is missing. There is a brief news story. The day he disappeared, he left his keys, his car, and his wallet at home.

That’s it, I think.

Suicide.

As we are getting ready to leave, members of the band arrive at the same bar. Derick talks to them, while we stay at the bar, pretending to be cool. We end up staying until the lights come up and the bar closes. We walk through a night time Pike Market. Wet drenched cobblestones. Garish lights and long shadows. Derick pulls down his shorts and moons us. I start to take a picture with my cell phone, but it seems inappropriate, so I don’t. We walk up the hill back home, and some drunk guy makes a snide comment about Derick’s shorts.

Saturdays are Lance days. I sleep in. Then I make a big breakfast of cheesy scrambled Lance eggs and toast. I sit in my underwear and watch cartoons. Then I spend the day playing with Legos, or video games, or watching terrible movies. Sometimes friends manage to cajole me into joining them for dinner, but mostly I try to spend the entire day in solitude.

The summer days are long.

I sprawl naked in front of a fan in my air conditioner-less apartment or I go for long walks around The Hill. Shirtless young men walk past, glistening with sweat. People sit at sidewalk cafes with cocktails, and everywhere I look there is the possibility of sex. Leering from doorways and leaning off balconies.

I talk to my doctor about getting on PrEP. It seems like the responsible thing for a sexually active gay man to do. It would require lab work every 3 months to check my kidney functions. STD testing every 3 months. Taking a drug daily. Trying to convince guys that even though I’m on PrEP, I still want to use a condom because of pesky things like antibiotic resistant gonorrhea. But the whole draw of PrEP for most guys is the excuse not to use a condom.

I vow to not have sex again unless I’m really into someone. Or just be asexual. It’s easier.

C calls from San Diego. He’s lonely and isolated. He lives in a trendy neighborhood full of bars and restaurants, but he stays in his hot apartment. He doesn’t know anyone there, and can’t afford to go out. I don’t point out that this is what happens when you move to a place where you don’t know anyone. I don’t point out that we could have stayed in Chicago, or he could have come with me to Seattle. I just tell him that I’m sorry he’s lonely. That he can call me anytime. That I miss him.

I feel guilty for being happy. For having friends and having money and being able to go do things. Ever since I moved back to Seattle my life has seemed to just fall back into place. A job I like with co-workers I like. A fantastically located (if small and dingy) apartment. Friends to spend time with, and space for myself.

I realize, with some surprise, that most of the time I’m actually very happy, and I’ve started to face the future with…if not optimism, exactly, at least not my usual nihilism. It’s unsettling.

The next time I search for the man who was missing, I find an obituary.

The vague sort of obituary for single men who have killed themselves. Who have no legacy, and who leave only the slightest trace of their existence in their passing. A few scattered Missing posters that no one bothered to take down.

Every Sunday I have brunch with my friends. We meet at the same Mexican place that’s always hopping. The waiters always bring me a giant carafe of Diet Coke without me having to ask. Some days we sit in a corner talking for hours until it’s well into the afternoon, and some days we sit on the benches facing outside so we can people watch and talk about who we think is and isn’t cute as they walk past.

One day we go for ice cream, and because it’s Seattle, we get vegan, organic, gluten free, fair trade ice cream. I have tahini chocolate. It tastes strange at first, but it grows on me. I tell Ducky about the man in the missing poster, and about how I’ve been thinking about him.

“Oh, you heard about that guy?” Ducky asks.

He knows the real story which is too sordid and too sad, and not mine to tell.

The next time I go to the gym, I ask them to take down the missing poster.

“They found the guy?” The cashier asks.

I just nod.

I run on the treadmill with headphones. I wonder if it’s possible to miss the life you’re living even while you’re living it? I listen to Everything But the Girl sing, “It’s years since you’ve been there, and now you’ve disappeared somewhere. Like outer space. Found some better place. And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.”

 

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Rain and Trains/Jews/Father’s Day/Drinks

IMG_1184The night before the interview he cut my hair. I sat in front of the open window as he gave me a buzz. He gently turned my head from side to side, and I watched the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap. Outside the rain obscured our view of Manhattan.

We’d just had our first fight. It wasn’t exactly a fight. I’d done something thoughtless that upset him. He assured me repeatedly that he wasn’t mad at me, while I repeatedly apologized. Because we rent a room in someone else’s apartment, there were no other rooms for us to retreat to. So he cut my hair, and then we watched a movie.

The next day I had an interview in Plainview, NY. The commute from Brooklyn was two and a half hours, two subway lines, a train, a bus, and a very long walk. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but they were the only company (aside from some staffing agencies) to call me in for an interview. After my subway transfer, I caught the Long Island Rail Road to a town called Hicksville, NY. I sat on the empty train and watched the rain over the green, New York countryside. At the train station I caught a bus to the office.

The bus stopped over a mile from the building, so I walked in the rain. When the sidewalk ended, I walked in wet grass. A truck sped past me and splattered me with mud.

In the interview a small, rotund woman with a thick, Long Island accent asked me about the trip. “The last person we hired from the city quit because the commute was too much.” She said.

“It was fine.” I assured her, smiling too broadly, inwardly wondering if I really would be willing to travel that far every day for a job I knew I wouldn’t like.

On Friday I had a temporary assignment as a receptionist for a staffing agency. After working from home for the past two and a half years, it was very strange to put on nice clothes and go into an office. I walked through the Financial District in the early morning past a group of kids protesting at a corner church. They were curled up in sleeping bags on the sidewalk with signs about taxing religious institutions with anonymous masks and New Kids on the Block blankets. Down the street from them, a real homeless person was rummaging through a garbage bin for the remains of someone’s discarded water bottle.

For most of my work day I sat in front of a phone that didn’t ring. I doodled nine squares on a notepad, and with each passing hour I marked out a square. When people did call, it was mostly other job seekers wanting to talk to a recruiter. I marveled at how unprofessional they all sounded and wondered if they were going to get a job before I do.

***

“They could kill us, and no one would say anything.” Carlos said as we walked through Williamsburg. We’d walked across the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In Williamsburg we found ourselves surrounded by orthodox Jews in long, black coats with their glasses, ringlets, and large, round, furry hats. We walked for blocks and blocks without seeing any other people who weren’t thus bedecked. Even the parking signs were written in Hebrew. It felt as if we’d suddenly entered another country.

The surreal feeling didn’t end until some kids riding bikes past us said, “These people are crazy!”

***

On Father’s Day I dutifully called my dad for the second of our bi-annual conversations that occur on his birthday and on Father’s day. I didn’t want to call, but figured calling would be easier on me than dealing with the drama that would ensue from not calling.

My dad was at work near Laredo, TX, servicing construction equipment. He’s been working 90 hours a week in places like Louisiana and Laredo, despite the fact that they own their home, have no debt, and have enough in the bank to retire. Obviously I did not inherit his work ethic.

Like all of our conversations, this one was awkward, and I suspect, painful for both of us.

“Have you found a woman in New York, yet?” He asked.

“No.” I said, exasperated that he was at this again.

“Well, we want some grandkids.” He said.

“Don’t hold your breath.” I told him.

His consistent refusal to acknowledge that I’m gay is something that once upset me greatly, but is now merely another annoyance. I feel nothing for him, really. If my mother wasn’t alive, I probably wouldn’t bother continuing to talk to him at all.

We spoke briefly before he had to get back to work. He asked if I’d gotten mugged yet, and if I was ready to move again. I wished him happy Father’s day, and was relieved to have gotten out of the way so that Carlos and I could enjoy the rest of our day.

***

“See, we don’t need money.” Carlos said when we were walking home. “We just need friends with money.”

We’d spent the day with some friends of his who were visiting from San Francisco. They were a generation and a class removed from us, well dressed gay men who cattily referred to one another as “she,” who go to Patty Lupone concerts, and take vacations in Cambodia.  We spent the day going from bar to cafe to bar to bar to bar to restaurant. I don’t often drink alcohol, in fact, it had been more than a year since I’d had an alcoholic beverage, but they were buying, and a gin and tonic or four seemed in order.

I mostly sat by Ali who has his own fragrance and maintains apartments in San Francisco and New York. We all laughed and joked with one another. An event called Folsom East was going on, and I found myself in the midst of a throng of scantily clad, overweight, hirsute men in leather thongs. In a bar called The Eagle, we sat in a back corner watching a strange man dance on a platform with a bulky, black sweater, a red neck kerchief, a hiked up pink miniskirt, and black stockings. Beside him a large black man was getting head from a small white man, as people casually walked by with drinks.

On the rooftop bar of a hotel in Chelsea, we took in the view of the Empire State building. I asked some lesbians if they were from Scotland, and they were incensed and insisted they were from England.

Before going to a charity event, the guys bought us gluten free pizza at a semi-fancy Italian place in Hell’s Kitchen. Slightly inebriated we took the subway back to Brooklyn. Our knees touched. Carlos made faces at me while I giggled. We walked back up to our room and took our clothes off, lying in front of a fan on a warm night, in front of an open window with all of Manhattan spread out before us.