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.”

 

Torn

Like many of my poor decisions, it all happened because I was trying to impress a boy. It didn’t matter that the boy in question was almost certainly straight, definitely oblivious, and absolutely unimpressed. We were at the gym, and he asked to work in with me on the incline bench. He was sweat drenched and glistening in a cut-off green t-shirt. A tan. A beard. A chiseled jaw. I was ridiculous in a pair of oversized basketball shorts and farmer’s tan. I did my best to act cool when he leaned back on the bench as I watched the muscles of his chest contract while he lifted the bar above his head.

Because I’m weirdly competitive in all aspects of life, I didn’t change the weight back to what I was lifting before he worked in. I had to show him that I could lift just as much as he did. To my credit, I did actually manage to lift as much as he had, despite the fact that he was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than me. But as I lifted the final rep, I felt something in my shoulder give. There was a sharp pain that I grimaced through. I set the bar back down with a metallic clang and gave him a bro-like nod to indicate that I was done. He didn’t seem to notice my absence any more than he had my presence as I slunk away to the locker room.

It wasn’t until the next morning when I woke up that I realized my left arm and shoulder hurt if I moved it in certain ways, like applying deodorant, brushing my teeth, and putting on clothes. I couldn’t twist my arm to turn the door knob, and I couldn’t reach behind me to put on my back back. Despite the pain and impairment of my usual range of motion, for a week I continued to work out as usual, and as the week bore on, the pain got worse.

I scheduled a massage. The massage therapist was a man I’d been to 9 or 10 years before. Back then he’d had a studio in an old Victorian in Capitol Hill which has since been torn down and turned into condominiums. Then he was tall and lanky and smelled of patchouli. Now his studio was in a walk up on First Hill. He’d become barrel chested and bearish. His affinity for patchouli remained unchanged.

The studio was in a little sunlit room filled with new age music and a shelf full of Tibetan singing bowls in different sizes and colors. When he said the massage table was heated and might get a little too warm, I told him I was a cat. He pretended to remember me from before though it was clear that he did not. He closed the French doors, and I took off my clothes and climbed up on the warm table.

He knocked on the door and came back inside. I had a bit of a head cold and was paranoid my nose was going to start running as I lay face down, and I kept sniffling and couldn’t really relax.

“Wow.” He said. “In thirteen years of doing this, I’ve never felt anyone’s shoulders who were as tense as yours.”

He asked me why I was so stressed.

I awkwardly told him in a babbling stream of words about cross-country moves, a separation, of a new job, a new apartment.

“It sounds like you’ve had a lot of change to deal with,” he said, as he stretched my limbs this way and that.

I sniffled and he handed me a tissue.

I closed my eyes and tried my best to just give myself up to the moment. To the sensation of a pair of strong hands kneading my bunched up muscles. I was very afraid that I might start crying, and that if I started, I might not be able to stop.

He used his elbows to break up the knots that made up my upper back. He used cups which I didn’t like, and hot stones which I did. He slid the burning stones over my oiled skin and placed them one by one over my spine, and one in each of my outstretched palms. Then he had me roll over onto my back as he massaged my chest. While I lay there with my eyes closed as his hands pressed into my sore pecs, I felt him lean over and lightly kiss me on my forehead the way you might a small child. While I was caught off guard, it seemed, at the time, more sweet than creepy.

After the massage ended, and my clothes were on, and he’d handed me a bottle of water to flush out the supposed toxins the massage had unsettled, and money was exchanged, he walked me to the door and gave me a bear hug that lifted me off the floor. Then he kissed me on the lips and told me he had to get ready for his next client. I awkwardly walked down the stairs wondering if he kissed all of his clients.

I’d been kissed a lot in the past few weeks. After I’d settled into my new place, I’d placed a moratorium on boys until my life was sorted. Then I immediately broke my own rule by having sex with a gorgeous man who modeled underwear at a local fetish shop. He was married already, and because this is Seattle, he and his husband also already had a boyfriend. Still he managed to find the time to spend a night in my apartment.

We’d gone out for sushi first, sitting across from one another in a cramped Japanese place full of hipsters, smiling over chopsticks, and tasting one another’s dishes. Then we’d gotten molten chocolate cake topped with ice cream at a place down the street and carried it back to my apartment. We took off our clothes and sat, cross legged on my bed in our underwear eating chocolate out of the same bowl, as the ice cream melted.

We spent the next few hours having amazing sex. He’d brought a bag of toys with him. Vibrators, cock rings, a blindfold, lubrication. I lay with a blindfold covering my eyes as he gave me a tantric massage of my prostate and when I orgasmed…it was effusive, and forceful enough to splatter the wall above our heads. And that was only the start of our night.

Eventually he fell asleep beside me, and I surprised myself by falling asleep too. The next morning he got up early because he had to go meet his husband for breakfast. The strangeness of that statement was enough to unsettle me. I watched him get dressed, and when he left his smell lingered on my sheets and on my skin.

One weekend I watched my friends’ cats while they went camping out of town. I sat on the floor of their apartment, watching Twin Peaks and petting their gorgeous felines, and because I’m nothing if not vain, I took advantage of their superior lighting to take a picture of myself sunlit with no shirt on.

There were other dates with other men. All of them were handsome and successful. All of them were sweet. We went out for drinks,  or sat in the park with ice cream. Conversations were pleasant. We flirted. Then we parted at the train with a hug, or after he walked me to my door with a peck on the lips. None of them came back to my apartment, or asked to have a second date.

I had drinks with friends too. And dinners. Game nights. Brunch. During one such get together, my friend Mike convinced me to go to the doctor for my shoulder which had gotten worse since I’d continued to work out. He was concerned I had a torn rotator cuff.

So I schedule an appointment and left work early to trek up the hill to my doctor’s office. It was my first time to see him. After the nurse weighed me and took my blood pressure, I sat in the doctor’s office in my socks and waited for the doctor to arrive. When he came in, I was surprised to see an over-tall, young man who made Doogie Howser seem wizened by comparison. He had me move my arms in various positions to assess my range of motion, and had me press my arms against and toward him, respectively, to judge the strength in each of my arms, and my pain level.

He determined that I either have a partially torn supraspinatus or tendonitis. I was to lay off working out, or doing any activity that was painful, put ice on my inflamed muscles if they hurt and/or take ibuprofen as needed. He prescribed physical therapy and gave me some exercises that I could do at home in the meantime. I’d gone with the intention of also asking him about getting on PrEP, but after meeting him and seeing that he looked like he was 12 years old, I was too embarrassed to bring it up.

Without my daily workouts, I felt torpid and listless. I bought books and went out with my friends less. I watched TV shows alone, and listened to music alone. I stood in my tiny kitchen and chopped vegetables for the meals I made at home. More and more I craved solitude.

While other people were celebrating gay pride, I dodged the rainbow colored revelers, and walked to the gay community center to have an HIV test. The counselor ended up being a man I’d met during one of my evenings out with friends. Another Texas transplant in the Pacific Northwest. I answered a questionnaire about the number of partners I’d had in the past 12 months. Whether I’d given or received (both). Whether I’d had oral sex. Whether I’d been an IV drug user.

The counselor and I sat in his office, a windowless downstairs room, surrounded by his artwork. I looked away as he drew my blood, and I looked away again as he pricked my finger for the rapid test.

“Negative” he said as the solution changed color.

I hadn’t been overly concerned that there might be a positive result. But it was reassuring to get the negative response anyway. He had me swab the back of my throat, and go to the restroom to swab my anus for a gonorrhea test, the results of which would be available in a couple of weeks. He told me about a program through a local hospital that allows people with insurance to get on PrEP without going through their own doctors.

As the session wound down, the counselor suggested we go get drinks sometime. I smiled noncommittally and walked back upstairs, after first walking down the wrong hallway.

My forty-first birthday passed uneventfully. I worked as usual.  When the phone rang, it was just the physical therapist scheduling an appointment. They couldn’t see me for more than a month. I called the clinic about their PrEP program, and they work with literally every insurance except for mine, so I ended up calling my doctor’s office to schedule another appointment specifically to talk about my sex life. I spent the evening of my birthday by myself, eating cookies and watching Westworld. It was my first birthday in eight years that I hadn’t spent with C.

He’d texted me to wish me a happy birthday. It was strange to spend the evening without him. He’d always gone to great lengths to surprise me with presents, with dinners, with tickets to shows. Now I see how being single means spending birthdays and holidays alone. I hadn’t expected to feel, if not sad exactly…strange. Living life without him.

I’d been worried about him living in San Diego alone. And I’d felt guilty for being happy in my new life. Now suddenly I was unsure which one of us was lonely, and which was happy.

He called the next day. He told me he’d had a sore throat the day before so hadn’t called. It was the first time we’d talked in over a month. I paced back and forth across my hot, little apartment. Sweating. My arm sore from holding the phone to my face for so long. We chatted for hours, and we made each other laugh. (No one is as funny as he is.) And I remember why I loved him to begin with. And, unlike the dates, unlike my work-mates, and even my friends, I can really be myself with him. I don’t try to impress him, because he has already seen me naked and exposed. He’s seen my faults, and the ugly parts of myself I try to hide. The desperately uncool person who tries too hard to make people like him. The unsophisticated country boy who wishes he was smarter and better than he really is. The moody, malcontent who is never satisfied with anything. He sees these disparate parts of me, and he loves me anyway.

But he lives there and I live here.

We don’t want to be together, but we don’t want to officially admit that it is over either.

So we continue in this weird nexus. Not together and not apart.

Torn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Apartment, A Job, A Video, A Date

“You don’t look 40” he says. He leans so close to me I can feel his lips brush against my earlobe as he speaks.

“Thanks,” I say. “I feel 40.”

“What?” He asks.

“I said, I feel 40.” I say again, more loudly so he can hear me over the throbbing bass of club music, of clipped conversations and clinking bottles.

He is young looking himself, and short like I am. Thin with a porn-star mustache and icy blue eyes that somehow manage to look sly and surprised simultaneously.

He is wearing studded gloves that match his studded belt, and is exponentially cooler than I am. I am flattered that he has sought me out. That he is talking to me at all. So much so, I manage not to roll my eyes when he starts to ask about my astrological sign.

This is my first time at a bar in a very long time. The bar is small and cramped, and made smaller by its target demographic of burly bears. I sip a gin and tonic, and my head is already swimming with just one very strong drink. My eyes dart around the room at the collected men with their collected beards, the ubiquitous flannel of lumbersexuals, screens flashing pornographic images of random men with ridiculous endowments. My friends are scattered, caught up in conversations of their own.

I really do feel 40 and wish that I was back in my tiny apartment, curled up in my bed with a book and a mug of hot chocolate. But, having recently acquired a job and an apartment in quick succession, I am in a celebratory mood. Having a cute guy approach me and compliment me is just icing on an already delectable cake.

We don’t exchange numbers, we exchange Facebook contact information before I shove my way through the crowded bar and stumble drunkenly home.

The best thing that can be said about my new apartment is that it is remarkably easy to stumble drunkenly home to. Aside from the incredibly convenient location, there isn’t much to recommend it. The building was built in the late sixties, mod, and mustard yellow, and nothing has been replaced since then. The carpet that lines the main hallway was lifted straight from The Shining, and always has a different unpleasant odor wafting through it. My bathtub is salmon colored, and all of the appliances and fixtures could stand to be replaced. But, despite being tiny and overpriced, it’s mine. A space of my own that I can hole up and brood in.

Every time I move across the country, I end up buying the same furniture all over again. My apartment looks like a page ripped from an IKEA catalog.

When you live alone, you can watch the shows you want to watch.

You can walk around naked.

You can make spaghetti at midnight if you feel like it. Naked.

You can arrange the furniture the way you want.

You can sleep in the middle of the bed.

You can find yourself rolling over in the early morning, reaching for someone who isn’t there.

As time passes, C and I talk less and less. At first we text constantly and talk on the phone for hours. Then we mostly just text, and that sporadically. As I settle into the same neighborhood I used to live in when we first met, go to the same gym, spend time with the same friends in the same places…it sometimes feels as if the past seven years never really happened. That I never left. That I never loved someone, and he never loved me, and we never lived in cities all across the country. And then I wonder, what was the point of it all?

Because my new job is the best paying job that I’ve ever had, which, admittedly, isn’t saying that much, I rationalize buying a new computer and oversized monitor.

While attempting to transfer my music via the hard drive that C and I shared, I realize that it’s not just copying music, it’s transferring all of the files. I scramble to cancel it, and as I’m going through the new files that have been added to my computer on accident, I come across a video that looks like porn, so of course I watch it.

It takes me a moment to realize that one of the men in the video is C. I watch with detached fascination while he has sex with a man who isn’t me. The video is nearly 14 minutes long and I watch every second. I turn up the volume so that I can hear every word, every grunt, every gasp, and every moan. The man he is with is…extremely well equipped. Impossible not to compare the sex they had with the sex we had. Did he enjoy it more than he enjoyed sex with me? Did I ever make him moan and writhe the way that that man had? Had I ever really satisfied him? And if I had, would he not have wanted an open relationship?

Was the video filmed while we were together?

I masturbate to the video anyway.

I look through the information on the video for a date, but there isn’t a date from when it was filmed, just when it was uploaded to the hard drive. I look for clues in the video itself. He looks so young, I assume it must be from before we’d met. He’s wearing rose quartz earrings. Are they the ones I bought him for his birthday the year we met, or are they the ones he’d had before that he’d lost that prompted me to get them in the first place? Does it even matter?

The video is all I can think of. I lay in bed above the blankets staring at the ceiling, wondering why I hadn’t been enough. Why he needed to be with other people. Why, when I announced I was moving to Seattle…he hadn’t asked me to stay.

One Friday, my friend Nathan asks me to be his date. He’s recently divorced, which is terrible for him, but great for me, because it means I get his ex’s ticket to see Bob the Drag Queen at the Egyptian Theater.

Nathan and I met about 10 years ago, when I lived in Seattle the first time around. We’d gone out for drinks once, and had shared an awkward, tongueless kiss on his beige couch with his small dog jumping over us. I’d gone to a Super Bowl party at his place, and had watched the same small dog lick all of the food on his coffee table, unseen by his drunk, obnoxious friends. He’d borrowed a book and had never returned it.

We recently reconnected, commiserating over our failed romances. Talking over coffee, and later, over ramen.

I meet him for drinks before the show at a bar down the street from the theater. He is there with his boss, a co-worker, and the president of the company. I do not remind him of the book he stole from me. They all talk about office things while I quietly observe them, drinking a too sweet cocktail. When I arrive, they are all wiping off red lipstick that they’d worn for a photo-op I was thankfully absent for. They’re very nice and funny, and when we leave to go to another bar, his boss pays for our drinks.

At the show, they have VIP tickets, and we do not, but because there are empty seats, we go down and sit with them in the VIP section. His boss is hammered and frequently yells back at Bob while he’s performing his set. At one point Bob calls her up on stage. When the show is over, we get our picture taken with Bob, and she takes off her shirt in the middle of the theater to change into a t-shirt from the show. She then has a serious, yet drunken, heart to heart with Bob about the importance of a woman of color being in the audience in a sea of white faces. She is Korean. Bob is gracious.

The president of the company is drunk as well, and feels Nathan and I up, his arms around each of our shoulders while we’re waiting in line.

Afterward we go to another bar and get late night macaroni and cheese. The president pays the bill. Nathan hugs me goodbye, and I walk home alone, full and content.

I text C about the video. I don’t call him.

He tells me that it was from at least a year before we were together. I feel relieved, but only partially. I know that there were other men on other occasions during the years that we were open. Impossible not to wonder about all the ones I didn’t see. The ones for whom there is no video evidence.

It seems like all gay men now ascribe to open relationships.  Intellectually I get it.  I can convince myself that men are evolved to spread their seed. That being with only one person isn’t realistic, or possibly even healthy. I wish that I wasn’t jealous or insecure. That I didn’t hold on to an outdated irrational idea of romance that has never really existed.

Instead I may be the last monogamous man in Seattle.

One evening I hang out with my friend Eric. We half-watch a terrible movie. He tells me about having gone out to a bar the night before. The fetish theme. The harness he wore.

“A really cute guy told me he couldn’t believe I was 40.” He says.

“Oh yeah?” I ask.

“Then he asked me about my astrological sign.”

I smile. I’m starting to feel that coming back to Seattle was the right thing to do. That I have an opportunity to reset my life. That this time around I can make different decisions. Better ones. Because, at the age of 40, I’m finally beginning to understand what I want, and what I don’t.

 

3 Weeks

The second man I slept with when I got back to Seattle was a dancer. He wore red underwear. His sheets and bedspread were red. Red was everything I saw whether my eyes were closed or open. We kissed for hours, still in our underwear beneath his sheets. I kissed each of his tattoos as he told me the story of how it came to be. He briefly fell asleep with his head resting on my chest, his blond beard tickling my pale skin. When he woke up, we made out again, until we were no longer in our underwear.

We’d had dinner first at a Thai restaurant. His sense of humor was so dry and so subtle that I had a hard time discerning whether he was telling a joke, or being completely serious. The Thai place was a converted old home with criss-crossing strings of white lights in the trees outside. The wait staff knew his name and his order without him having to tell them.

“Is this where you bring all your tricks?” I asked.

He didn’t laugh.

When we were done, he handed me a towel to clean off with. I looked for my underwear and socks. I padded awkwardly across the creaking hardwood floors of his studio apartment. I was afraid he was going to ask me to spend the night, then disappointed when he didn’t.

Walking back to the train afterward, all I could think about was C. For seven years he’d been the only man that I had even kissed. For seven years I’d learned the way he liked to be touched, and the things that brought him pleasure. Now I was confronted with the body of a stranger that had a different set of responses, an entirely alien list of turn ons that were unknown to me. I’d felt clumsy and out of my depth.

I walked back in the rain and missed the familiarity of the man that I had lived with, his taste and smell. Instead my lips and fingers smelled like someone else. Everything I saw and everything I experienced was followed quickly by the thought of what C would think if he was seeing and experiencing those things with me. The glistening wet streets. A sticker on a bicycle rack that said, “Sissies rule!” An orange construction paper sign in the window of a brick building that said, “Not my president!”

A hipster couple stopped to pet a dog, edging me off the sidewalk. I stepped ankle deep in a puddle. The cold water shook me out of my reverie. I walked the rest of the way to the train in wet, soggy socks.

Another night I walked in the rain to have dinner with my friend Gitai, his husband Jonathan, and their three year old son. I arrived early before Jonathan got home from work. While Gitai finished making the food, I sat in the floor entertaining, or being entertained by, the aforementioned toddler. I never thought I was a kid person, but I was immediately charmed by this adorable youngster, already so full of personality. He handed me cars to play with which we drove around and crashed into one another while an attention hungry Corgi planted himself between my legs insisting to be pet.

When it was time for him to go to bed, he held my hand and had me read him a bedtime story. I sat in a stuffed animal bedroom and read a children’s book that he’d clearly been read enough times to memorize completely. He laughed when I made funny voices, and as I closed the book there was a brief flash before my eyes of another life. One where I had a home, a child, where I read bedtime stories and worried about good schools and karate lessons. The sudden, unexpected ache of never experiencing fatherhood made me catch my breath.

After the toddler went to bed, the grown ups sat upstairs with glasses of wine and a home cooked meal. The house was warm and toy strewn. The food was delicious. We talked, or I chattered incessantly about my numerous sexual insecurities while they gently bickered, until Jonathan began to doze off on the couch, which I took as my cue to head back home.

Because he is a father now, Gitai sent me home with an aluminum pan full of leftovers. Walking back to the train, I stopped at a traffic light and waited to cross the street. While waiting, a white man with dreadlocks came up to me and said, “Hey man, are those brownies?”

“No.” I said.

“Can I have one?” He asked.

“No.” I said.

He started to mumble something about patriarchy and white privilege, and I was relieved when the light changed and I was able to cross the street. Because I used to live in New York City, I told him to fuck off. Because I now live in Seattle, I said it quietly beneath my breath so he couldn’t hear.

One afternoon, I sat in my friend Matt’s apartment and watched an episode of The Great British Bake Off. It was wonderful to see him again. We sat on opposite ends of his couch as two cats dashed across the room. We talked about books while I sized up his apartment. It was the type of place I might have lived in if I’d stayed in one place long enough to accumulate belongings. There was a wall of vinyl and another of books, and art on the walls. He baked us a delicious cookie in a skillet and served it with ice cream and a homemade butterscotch syrup, and we drank gin and tonics. When it was time to leave I got confused and walked into the bathroom.

Because I am homeless and unemployed, he also sent me home with leftovers.

The frist man I had sex with when I got back to Seattle was a handsome man with a graying, ginger beard. We’d been chatting for some time when he invited me out for brunch on my second day back. We met at Pike Market and walked through the maze of shops, and throngs of tourists, to a posh eatery with a wine list considerably longer than the menu. He had a glass of wine, and I had a diet coke. We sat beside one another with our knees occasionally, accidentally touching.

We chatted easily over breakfast food. Biscuits and gravy and a bowl of fruit for me. Eggs Benedict for him.

When the check came, he paid it.

“Want to go back to my place?” He asked.

I thought it was a terrible idea, but I said, “Yes,” anyway, because he was sweet and charming, and because I have trouble telling people, “No.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to sleep with him. He was an attractive guy with a handsome face and nice body. I did want to sleep with him…eventually. But in that moment I felt that I just wasn’t ready. It had been so many years since I’d been with anyone but C that even the thought of touching another man made me feel uneasy.

We sat on his couch while things unfolded in the usual fashion. We kissed, our beards rubbing together. At first I was turned on by the strangeness, the newness of the sensation of another person’s lips touching my own. He took off his glasses and I took off mine. Eventually we moved from the living room to the bedroom. I couldn’t get an erection, but he didn’t seem to mind. He asked if he could fuck me, and I said, “Yes.”

So he did. It had been years since someone had done that, and it hurt. But, it felt good too. Still my mind had already fallen out of the moment and I couldn’t really experience the pleasure I might have under other, better, circumstances.

Afterward I took a shower in a pale green bathroom, shivering from more than the cold. His cat watched me towel off. I put my clothes back on, and he drove me to my gym so that I could workout before going home. I was upset, but tried to seem like I was fine.

“Lets do that again soon.” He said.

I smiled non-commitally. The truth is, in order for me to enjoy sex, there has to be a perfect alignment of factors, and if there isn’t, I just zone out, and suddenly find myself thinking about the price of apartments in Seattle, the job I don’t yet have, the novel I haven’t written. And C. Always C.

I hadn’t been unfaithful. Even if we weren’t living in different states, C and I had had an open relationship for years. I had just never acted on it before. I hadn’t wanted an open relationship, really. It was just another in a string of things I found myself agreeing to to try to make him happy. He argued that monogamy was just a heteronormative construct that gay people had adopted to assimilate, and that it wasn’t realistic for two men to not sleep with other people. Because he is smarter than me, I couldn’t disagree. I didn’t know whether it was realistic or not, I just knew that I didn’t want to sleep with anybody else. But I didn’t want to stand in the way of him doing the things he wanted. So when he was in the shower and a message flashed across his phone about a hook up that he’d had, or that was in the works, I pretended not to notice.

In three weeks in Seattle I had three job interviews.

The first was for a horrible, low paying job through a temp agency. I took the train across the city in my slate gray interview suit, the only suit I own. I was witty and charming. I explained the cross country moves on my partner’s job (which was more or less true) and assured them I was back in Seattle for good. They laughed at my jokes and seemed impressed with my knowledge and responses to those interview questions that I can now recite from memory. They shook my hand with promises to get back to me soon.

A few days later I got an email from the temp agency that they decided to go with another candidate.

The second interview was for a reputable company for a job that would be a fantastic opportunity for me, that pays well, and that I would be ideally suited for. I wore my same suit and my housemate was kind enough to drive me so I wouldn’t get caught in the rain. I handled all of the questions well until the very end when they asked some specific questions about Excel that I found impossible to answer. I’ve used this program in nearly every job I’ve ever had, but to sit, without looking at a computer, and explain how to make a spreadsheet and run reports tripped me up.

After giving me a tour of the department, the manager turned to me and said, “There was a lot of competition for this position, since we had so many internal candidates.”

I assumed this was her oblique way of telling me that they were going to go with an internal applicant, so I left the interview feeling defeated.

Two days later, while I was at the gym, they called me to ask me some additional questions. I was still huffing from the treadmill as I gave my best responses to the new barrage of inquiries. I felt that, under the circumstances, I’d answered the new questions fairly well. They promised that they’d reach a decision early the following week. A week passed, and I never heard from them again.

For my third interview, I didn’t wear a suit. I wore a shirt and tie and a sweater vest. Walking to the train, a police car was blocking the street with its lights flashing.

“Please return to your house, sir!” A police officer in a megaphone shouted at me.

I walked to the police car, and a handsome officer with a buzz cut rolled down the window and told me that a canine was searching the area for a burglary suspect.

“I have a job interview downtown.” I said.

“Walk straight to the train.” He said, and rolled the window back up.

Several blocks down on Rainier avenue, I stood, waiting for the light to change.

A white car slowly drove past, and a young, black woman leaned out and shouted, “Suck my dick!”

When I got to the interview, the receptionist turned out to be a former co-worker I only vaguely remembered, who seemed to have a keen recollection of me. I crossed my fingers that her memory of me was a positive one.

The HR rep who interviewed me first was very nervous and apologetic.

“The woman who was leaving the position you applied for has decided to stay.” He said.

“She just told us today,” he said, “So that position is no longer open. But we still wanted to have you come in to see if you might be interested in this other position.”

He went on to describe the other position which was a lower paying, entry level one.

Because this is how my life works, I was unsurprised by the revelation. I interviewed for the other position. A kindly woman who was there in person, and a kindly sounding man who joined via telephone conducted the interview. The job was something I’ve done before when I lived in Austin, and I felt that the interview went well.

As I left, my former co-worker wished me luck.

To date, I haven’t heard back from them.

The third man that I had sex with when I got back to Seattle was a sweet, cute guy with an affinity for rubber. We walked to his apartment which was across from the apartment that I used to live in.

“A friend of mine used to live in this building.” I said as we stood outside, a view of the Space Needle, the mountains and downtown spread out before us. Of course he immediately knew who I was talking about, since they’d also been acquaintances. Inside we talked about books and video games. His apartment was cluttered with books and electronics and packages from Amazon. He cleared off the couch, and we made out.

My sex life  has always been incredibly vanilla. Coffee with nice guys and bland small talk on beige couches, awkward connections and even more awkward departures. But I rationalized that since this was another new start for me, since I’m now middle aged, I felt like stepping out of my comfort zone and experiencing things I hadn’t previously tried.

Age 40 is as good an age as any for me to become comfortable with my own sexuality.

He led me to his bedroom and had me try on some of his gear. He zipped me into a sleeveless rubber shirt, and a rubber jockstrap. He put on a rubber outfit of his own, and our bodies squeaked together as we kissed. The rubber didn’t especially do anything for me. But the dressing up aspect was sexy, and his gentle persona put me at ease and made me feel comfortable enough to dip my toes into unfamiliar territory.

He peeled me out of the underwear and shirt and had me slide into a rubber suit that was sort of a cross between Johnny Depp’s outfit in Edward Scissorhands, and a straightjacket. I lay on his bed with a hood covering my eyes. He had to smear my entire body with lubrication to slip me into the suit.

The tight suit prevented me from moving, but unzipped to allow him access to areas of interest. These areas were explored by him as I lay, letting the sensations happen, completely in the moment. I lay with my senses deprived, feeling restrained, yet oddly safe and at ease. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I could feel as he slid a condom on me and straddled me. As he did so, I rose to meet him. There was only a moment when I felt ridiculous and wanted to laugh, but I managed to stifle it.

When we were done he had to help peel me out of the rubber suit. I smelled like rubber the rest of the day, at the gym and on the train, in a coffee shop, and back at home.

That night I got an upset stomach. For days I lay in bed with the flu. I had fever and the chills. I lay beneath a blanket simultaneously burning up and shivering. I binge watched TV shows, and avoided looking at my bank account, the bills that were due, or looking for other jobs. I canceled plans for drinks, for coffee with other men in other coffee shops, for brunch with friends. It felt good to have nowhere to be and nothing to do but lay in bed alone. I was exhausted and stressed from so much unaccustomed stimulation.

I thought about the other experiences that I’d like to have, sexual and otherwise. And some things that will likely remain fantasy. Of threesomes, groups, of other kinks, of other cities, of the perfect job, the perfect partner, or no partner, of the lives I might have lived if I’d made other decisions, and the life I can still live. Right now, in the present.

Occasionally I get texts from the dancer, asking me what I’m wearing. He sends me a picture of himself lying in bed on his side in a pair of pajama bottoms and no shirt, arms outstretched, holding the camera, his bearded jaw and muscular chest taking up the bulk of the frame.

“Hope you feel better soon.” He texts.

I text, “I hope so too.”

Holidays on the West Coast

stockingsDowntown the Boy Scouts are selling Christmas trees. People walk past in board shorts and sandals. Cars roll by with surf boards strapped to their rooftops. Little Mexican markets sell horchata with cinnamon and breakfast tacos. People are wrapping the palm trees in their yards with strings of Christmas lights.

On my days off I walk to the beach and back in my unfashionable anywhere else carpenter shorts and gray hoodie. I walk to the beach to be alone. I walk because I find the sound of crashing waves to be soothing. Sometimes a hot, shirtless guy will walk out of the water, chest glistening in the pale sun, and sometimes tan guys are playing volleyball, or surfers are climbing into or out of their wetsuits. Usually though, the local beach is only littered with older couples, retirees from the UK, pasty in sun hats. I walk to the beach because there is nothing else to do here besides walking to the beach.

A few weeks after moving I landed the best job I’ve had in a decade. It pays well, and doesn’t involve me interacting with any people, so it easily eclipses the string of entry level positions I’ve had since we first started bouncing from city to city. During the week, we wake up at 6 am, get dressed in the cold garage where our clothes are still in boxes and bags, and C drives me to work. Since we share one car, he drops me off in case he gets called in for a job interview, or wants to go somewhere while I’m at work. I work from 7 to 3:30 in a cubicle where no one speaks to me.

After work, I walk around the corner to the gym and work out for an hour. A little-person with frat boy hair and Iron Maiden tattoos sold me my membership, which I took as a harbinger of good tidings. The locker room is full of unabashed old men who stand naked and sagging as they talk about golf and the upcoming marriages of their adult children.

After the gym I walk down to catch the bus back home. The buses don’t seem to run on any kind of schedule. Sometimes the bus is crowded, and I sit crammed next to an Asian kid in a suit who falls asleep on my shoulder, and sometimes I sit alone and listen to a couple of men argue about politics. I stare out the window as the dark gets darker, and the wind whistling through the windows grows cold.

On our seventh anniversary we drove up the coast and spent the weekend in a cheap hotel in San Luis Obispo. We had sex for the first and only time since we’ve moved, taking advantage of the brief window of space and privacy. Then we wandered the city, spending money we shouldn’t have on clothes from overpriced shops, and browsing through book and record stores. We wandered all over looking for a sushi place, but the first place we went to had an hour wait, and the next place we went to ignored us until we left, so we ended up having an anniversary dinner at a bar and grill where we waited for over an hour for food, only to walk back to our hotel to discover it was right next door to a sushi place where we could have eaten in the first place.

I didn’t want to go back to his parents’ house. Not because they are unkind or unwelcoming, because nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve been nothing but warm and accommodating. I just didn’t want to sit in their cold garage, watching re-runs of cartoons we’ve seen a dozen times which has become the new normal. We’ve looked at some apartments, but until C gets a job,we can’t actually afford to move out of his parents’ house. Even once he gets a job, I don’t know how we’re going to possibly afford an apartment here that isn’t really far away from my work, and/or a total dump. We’ve started talking about maybe buying a home because the mortgage would be lower than the rent, but then we’d be living far out in some small town, even more isolated than we are right now.

Back at his parents’ house, we watch home movies from when C and his little brothers were young. C was a surly, little smart-ass. (Not much has changed). We watched him rollerblading down the sidewalk in 90s clothes with feathered hair. We watched his brother Jesse playing soccer, and his brother Anthony running around as a naked toddler through the sprinklers.

“My weiner is a lot bigger now.” Anthony says.

“Anthony!” His dad yells, and we all laugh.

On Thanksgiving his mother makes a turkey, and I make cornbread dressing like my mother makes back in Texas. It doesn’t come out very well, but everybody says it’s good anyway. I sit at the table eating turkey and green bean casserole, wishing instead that I was back home in Texas, sitting at the kid table and arguing about the recent election with my republican relatives.

Being the odd man out in someone else’s family has left me with with a constant feeling of homesickness.

The day after Thanksgiving is C’s birthday. I got him a Kindle and some yoga shorts, and we we go out for breakfast at a small cafe, and then drive to Santa Barbara and walk along a beach that’s overlooked by tree-lined cliffs. We walk past the pale tourists and the leather skinned locals, looking for starfish and seashells. We want to go out for a late lunch, but all the Sushi places that he wants to go to are closed, so we settle for a bar and grill that has an “adults only” section, eating overpriced Mexican food with a view of the ocean.

Back home, his parents barbecue ribs for dinner, and we sit in the back yard around a chimenea. Back in Chicago I’d still be wearing short sleeves in the 50s and 60s, but in California, the cold seems colder. We shiver around the fire with glasses of wine and bottles of beer. C gets very drunk and demands that we watch Sleeping Beauty, so we sit in the living room while he sings along to Once Upon a Dream. I put him to bed in the fold-out couch while I curl up in a blanket on the couch opposite him. At night I listen to him snore as his dad snores down the hall in unison. I doze off for an hour at a time, and wake up feeling lost in still unfamiliar surroundings, wishing more than anything that I still had a big, comfortable bed like the one I had back in Seattle.

After Thanksgiving, C’s mom puts up the Christmas tree and hangs stockings on the fireplace mantle. I see the green and red stocking with the letter L, for Lance, and my eyes well up with tears. It’s touching that I’m included in their holiday, that I’m a part of their family. But it only makes me feel more homesick for my own dysfunctional family who I won’t be able to spend Christmas with this year.

Today it rains, and we sit on the back porch and watch the rain.

“People go crazy when it rains here.” His dad says. “Because it never happens.”

The clouds roiling over the mountains look surreal, like a landscape from a dream. Oranges are ripening on the tree in the corner of the yard. The dog refuses to go outside for a walk. C looks at me and says, “I’m never going to drink again.” I sit in a corner on the couch that at night becomes my bed and play a video game on my phone. When the rain stops, maybe I’ll go for another walk along the beach.

Until then, I sit and listen to the din, the rain, C’s little brother saying something about vaginas and laughing to himself, and C’s dad yelling at his little brother, and the dog barking, and his mom clanging pots and pans in the kitchen.

I wonder if we’ll have an apartment soon, and if not, how long I can handle the lack of space before I collapse into a puddle on the garage floor, or load up the car and drive away to parts unknown? I wonder if we’ll buy a house and settle here, if we’ll become proper Californians, sun tanned and sitting in cafes demanding organic, gluten-free everything. I wonder if I’ll ever stop being homesick, and will actually just be able to feel like I’m finally home.

Mi Familia

“It feels two thirds as good with a condom on.” I’ve walked into the kitchen as C’s little brother is apparently talking to their mom about the pleasures of bare-backing.

Seeing my horrified expression, C’s mom says, “We’re a very open family.”

I smile and nod and retreat to the garage where C and I have appropriated his father’s man-cave for our own. We sit in office chairs with the boxes of our belongings stacked around us like a miniature cardboard fortress. The garage is lit with neon signs that say “Blue Moon” and “Coors Beer.”  There are bicycles, an unused treadmill, Beatles posters and skateboards. C takes a beer from the refrigerator, and we sit in front of the TV in the garage, which is bigger than the TV in my parents’ living room, watching horror movies.

His family has been nothing but warm and welcoming. At meal times we all sit around the dining table, C, his parents, his two little brothers, his brother’s girlfriend. We sit, and they talk, and laugh, while I remain quiet and try my best to not slink off to a corner somewhere.

My family didn’t do this. At meal times growing up, my mother would read a romance novel at the table while my dad and I sat in silence, scarfing down our food as quickly as we could so that we could retreat to different rooms and watch different TV shows.

C’s father starts to tell a story about a soccer match from his youth where he scored 5 goals and became the hero of the big game. The rest of the family lets out a communal groan, and he says, “But Lance hasn’t heard this story yet!”

They’ve done many things to make me feel at home. To make me feel included. They welcome me to their table, and his mom buys the drinks and snacks that I like. I wish I was a normal person who could join in the banter, and laugh, and drink, but I don’t know them, really, and around people I don’t know, I become a silent observer.

We’ve been in California for two weeks now. They live in a small beach town just south of Santa Barbara that looks like it was lifted from a postcard. The main street is lined with palm trees. There are mountains to one side of us, and the blue waves of the Pacific ocean to the other. Every day I’m floored that this is the view that C grew up seeing.

Back in the small, Texas town where I grew up, there were coastal plains, and gnarly thickets of oak trees. Everything was flat, a uniform horizon of grazing cattle and windmills.

Every morning I get up early and walk to the beach and back. I go, partly for the exercise, partly for the view, but mostly to have an hour of solitude to think. I try not to dwell on the life and the job I left behind, and to focus my energy on the uncertain future in front of me. As I round the corner, there is a mentally challenged gentleman sitting on a deck chair who always says, “Good morning, Wendell,” as I pass.

“Good morning.” I say, without correcting him, and keep on walking.

When I come back, C’s father is shouting, “Mijos! I made some chorizo and some bacon for breakfast.” I sit at the kitchen counter and watch everyone fill plates with tortillas, beans, avocado. I feel guilty about eating their food, and using their water and electricity. But until we are gainfully employed, C and I aren’t able to get an apartment of our own.

I’ve had two job interviews. I sit awkwardly in an ill-fitting suit with sweaty palms and try to justify to some 23 year old HR rep why I’d be the right fit for whatever entry level position it is that I’ve applied to, to explain why I’ve lived in 6 different states in the past 7 years. They smile, and shake my hand, and lead me to a door with promises of call backs soon to follow that never seem to happen.

The first weekend that we’re there, C’s parents drive up the coast for a weekend getaway. While they’re gone, C and I sit on the patio with his little brother, and his brother’s girlfriend drinking wine with a string of lights crisscrossing above our heads, the palm trees and the mountains looming over us. I’m drunk and giggling, and the girlfriend convinces me to split a pot cookie with her, which is probably not the smartest decision for a person actively seeking employment, but I want her to think I’m cool, so I do anyway. I have almost no experience with pot and can’t tell if I’m high or just drunk until I turn my head, and the scenery skips by like film that’s missing every other frame.

“Your eyes are bloodshot.” C says and kisses me on the forehead.

We sleep in the living room, C on the couch, and me on a fold-out bed. In the mornings we’re awakened by the small dog who barks to be let outside and who barks again to be let back in.

On most days we drive up or down the coast to the local attractions. We go to Solvang, a small Danish tourist trap that sells short-bread, where we are minorities among busloads of Asian tourists taking pictures of every building. We visit different missions, with their red, Spanish tile rooftops. We go hiking to a place called Seven Falls which, because of the ongoing drought, is bereft of waterfalls. The creeks are all dried up, and the earth is cracked and dry. Because the hiking I’ve done previously was in the Pacific Northwest with it’s towering trees and lush greenery, the trek up the mountains in the bald, open sun feels like a forced death march.

Almost every day we visit different beaches. We take off our shoes and walk in the wet, grainy sand along the shore. I let the cold, salty water wash over my sandy feet, while C excitedly looks for seashells, starfish, and sand dollars. I do my best to not seem bored, but after a while, the beaches all look the same. I feel guilty for not being more appreciative of the paradise that surrounds us, but at heart I’m still that little goth kid who hates the never-ending sunshine, the outdoors, and the friendly people who are constantly telling us, “Good morning.”

C’s parents come back from their trip and we sit around the dinner table. C’s father regales us with a story about his brother’s bachelor party. “I don’t want to talk about that day!” He says, several times, before the family talks him into telling the story. He tells about the massive quantities of tequila his brother imbibed that left him curled fetal on the floor in a pool of his own vomit, and the judgmental wedding planner the next day, his angry mother who blamed him for letting his brother drink. How C’s mom came home from the bachelorette party with a pair of edible panties.

“I remember those panties being in the freezer for years.” C says.

“Until one day Papa broke down and ate them because he was craving chocolate.” His mother says.

Everybody laughs. C laughs so hard the dog barks and tears are streaming from his eyes. I laugh.  C holds my hand under the table. His mother takes my plate away. For a moment, I don’t feel like an awkward outsider, intruding in the lives of other people. For a warm, golden moment, I feel like any other member of the family.

Mi adopted familia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once in a While a Protest Post

IMG_3652Every now and then I forget that there are people in the world who, although they have never met me, believe that I deserve to die. Usually I go about my day taking this fact for granted. I wake up, and get dressed in the dark while C is still in bed. I kiss him goodbye, and he tells me to have a good day at work. I take the train downtown. I sit in an office. I take the train home. We have dinner. Maybe we watch a movie or play video games. We go to bed. Our lives are probably not unlike your own. Except that due to the roll of genetic dice, we were born into a minority group that is attracted to people of the same sex.

I was at the gym when I saw the news about a shooting in Orlando. Fifty people had been killed in a gay club. I was shocked and horrified, and then, when they started showing pictures of the victims, I began to weep. Admittedly it was not the first time I started crying while on the treadmill.

I thought to myself how lucky I’ve been to not have been the victim of such overt homophobia.  After all, I’ve never been beaten up, fired, discriminated against, or, lord knows, killed for being gay. Yet. Then I thought about how fucked up it is that I feel lucky because the instances where I’ve been hurt and threatened for being myself didn’t result in something worse.

Just being yourself shouldn’t require an act of bravery.

The first time I ever encountered homophobia was at church. I was 12, and I’d already known I was gay for a few years by then. I was sitting in a pew at the small, Southern Baptist church in my small, southern town, half-listening, when the preacher started talking about homosexuals being a threat to the country and Christianity. I felt like I had been kicked in the chest, like the preacher was talking directly to me. It was the first time I’d ever been made to feel ashamed by the very act of my existence.

I don’t know what happened in the late 80s/early 90s (AIDS?) that made gay people the go-to villain for the religious right. I just know that the church never talked about homosexuality before then, but suddenly gays were the Christian boogeymen. People like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were blaming gay people for things like hurricanes, and floods, and the scariest part was that people seemed to believe these outlandish things.

I don’t know what other religions teach, because I grew up in a community that was entirely Christian, almost exclusively Protestant. I suspect that followers of Islam are similarly indoctrinated with ridiculous, medieval ideas. I know that a single, violent person doesn’t represent an entire religion. I can say that every Muslim person that I’ve ever known has been lovely, and tolerant, and warm toward me. I can say the same for most Christians that I know. To their credit, I’ve never met a homophobic Jew. I’m sure they exist, but if they do, they’re outside my realm of experience.

But I do know that when moderate and tolerant members of a religion don’t speak up when a Priest, or Pastor, or Imam, or Rabbi spread these hateful ideas, then they are also part of the problem.  We’re told to respect people’s beliefs, even if they’re hateful. But silence in the face of hate is complicity.

I wish that I’d stood up back then, when the preacher first told me that I was an abomination, deserving of death. I’d have told him it was utter bullshit. But I didn’t. I was 12. I went home, and for the rest of my life, instead of getting up and putting on nice clothes on Sundays, I stayed home and played video games, and my life was the better for it.

 

In high-school, I was bullied a little bit, but no more, I felt, than anybody else. I did confront one of my bullies, and I asked, “Why do you pick on me?”

He said, “Because I think you’re gay, and I don’t want you to be attracted to me.”

Although I never officially came out in high-school, everyone knew that I was gay, and it didn’t seem to matter. I was still relatively popular (President of the Drama Club!). When the bully told me he was picking on me because he didn’t want me to be attracted to him, I wasn’t even mad. I just looked at him square in the eye and said, “Believe me, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” And that was that.

I don’t know why it should have worried him that a guy might be attracted to him. Especially me, since I was just shy of 5’5″ and barely over 100 lbs. It’s not like I could have forced myself on him. In retrospect I imagine he probably had some feelings that made him uncomfortable, and it was less about me and more about him.

I wonder if the shooter in Orlando had feelings of attraction to other men that, due to his indoctrination with idea that gay people deserve death, led to his lashing out, out of self-hate. Or maybe it had nothing to do with his religion. Maybe he was just deranged. We can never know his motivation, just the aftermath of his actions, the lives lost, the families destroyed, the futures wiped out of existence.

In college I belonged to the university’s LGBT group. During orientation my sophomore year, our group had a booth along with all the other groups on campus. I remember one girl bouncing up to the booth manned by myself, and another guy who, I suspect she thought was cute. I remember when she asked the name of our group, and I said, “Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Aggies,” there was a look of horror on her face, and she didn’t say anything. She just slowly backed away. I thought it was funny back then, that she seemed to think being gay was something you could catch.

A straight guy on the school’s track team who was in my French class came up to me to say hi, and maybe to ask about an assignment. Later, when I saw him in class, he said that after he’d talked to me that day, he’d been harassed by members of the Corps of Cadets who’d shoved him and called him a faggot. I was mostly amused that the only person who was gay-bashed at my school, that I heard about anyway, was straight.

I had a t-shirt back then that said, “Nobody Knows I’m Gay.” I wore this shirt a grand total of twice to school, and both times I ran into a girl I’d gone to high-school with. The second time, she made a point to tell me that even though she thought my lifestyle was disgusting, she still loved me. Because this was twenty years ago, I can’t remember now if I told her to go fuck herself, or if I just thought it.

Around that same time, I was driving my first boyfriend to a study group. When we were stopped at a red-light, we kissed. I looked in the rearview mirror, saw the police car behind us and said, “Uh oh, a cop just saw us.”

“It’s not like we were sodomozing.” He said. Back then sodomy was still illegal in Texas.

But after I dropped him off, the cop car kept following me. It followed me for several blocks, and then it pulled me over even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.

When I asked the cop why he’d stopped me, he said, “Just a routine check.”

He looked at my license and registration. He ran my plates. He didn’t give me a ticket, and after a while he let me go. He followed me for several more blocks, and I understood it for the threat it was. He was intimidating me because he could. Because he had a position of authority and I did not. Because I had made the mistake of kissing my boyfriend in public.

If something like that happened to me today, I would have gotten his name and badge number, and at the very least have filed a complaint about him. But I was 19 and scared, and easily intimidated.

The same boyfriend and I were holding hands in downtown Bryan, TX. A gruff looking cowboy stormed up to us, and we braced ourselves for some kind of assault. We were both completely caught off guard when, instead, he said “I’m really glad that y’all are able to be so open.” And then he turned and walked away, leaving us bewildered.

Then my friend Andy killed himself because his family wouldn’t accept him.

Then Matthew Shepherd was tortured and beaten to death, and tied, naked and bleeding, and frozen to a fence.

Then Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed.

Then Christians in America funded a campaign in Uganda to kill gays.

Then some Muslim countries continued to punish homosexuality with death.

Then the United States Legalized Gay Marriage.

Then a terrible shooting happened in Orlando when a Muslim man walked into a gay club and killed 50 people. And as a country, we can’t even engage in an adult conversation about gun control, about religious extremism. We can only bluster at our right to bear arms, and the idea that you must respect people’s beliefs. Well a belief is just a thought, and if your deeply held beliefs don’t stand up to scrutiny, if they crumble when confronted with facts and the modern evolution of our understanding of ourselves and our world, then maybe you should re-examine your deeply held beliefs.

After the gym, after crying, after laying in bed with C and tracing the fine, dark hairs of his arm with my fingertips, I make my Sunday phone call to my mom. She doesn’t refer to the news, because she doesn’t acknowledge anything connected to being gay, my relationship, C, any of it. But I know that she saw it, and I know that she’s worried because she ended the call with, “Be careful, there’s a lot of meanness in the world.”

And then she told me that she loved me.

I still live in hope that time will change even her attitude. That one day she’ll accept me for who I am. That she’ll ask how C is doing. I have the same hope for my country and the world. When I was in college, I never thought that gay marriage, or marriage, as we now refer to it, would be legal within my lifetime. But people’s attitudes continue to evolve. Maybe religion will catch up, or maybe it will be discarded as a relic of the past.

If being gay means that just being yourself is an act of bravery in an often hostile world, the most active way for me to help change the world for the better, is to continue to be myself.

To let people know, every now and then that I exist.

 

California -Austin, 2002

venicesurfersHannah left on Thursday.

I was the only one to help her move because I didn’t have a job, and because neither of us had any other friends.  She was wearing a bubble gum raincoat, just in case. Her dark, curly hair was pulled back out of her face. Her lips were red. She always made a conscious effort to dress as if she was already famous, an undercover celebrity hiding behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, out of place in the dismal gray cubicles we found ourselves working in.

We struggled downstairs with her hand-me-down furniture.  We laughed when the bottom fell out of her box of dishes.  We laughed when we got stuck, half in and half out, one of us on either side of her bulky couch.  We laughed when I tripped and fell and bounced on the springy mattress of her bed.

There was no room in the moving van for her chest of drawers so she left it on the sidewalk.

“Someone will take it,” she said and shrugged.

We went back inside for one last look around.  Empty, her apartment was as stark and embarrassed as an unmade bed.  She held my hand and gripped it tightly. I didn’t have to ask what she was thinking, we were too close for that. She expected me to follow her out there, to lay my beach towel down beside hers and soak up the bright, California sun. We’d talked about it, and I’d agreed to think about it, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t imagine a place for myself in Los Angeles among the mannequins driving down Rodeo Drive.

“I should go before it rains,” she said.

“Yeah.”  I agreed. There was no point in telling her not to go, or that I’d miss her. I knew that her mind was made up, and that I’d miss her was understood.

“I hate this,” she said, squeezing into the front of the moving van.

“I’ll see you soon,” I told her, holding her tattered, blue backpack until she was settled.

“When?”

“Soon.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes when I said it. She didn’t believe me, but she hugged me anyway and kissed my cheek.

She drove away slowly honking her horn, blowing a starlet kiss to the rearview mirror.  I stood watching her drive away, and I stood for a while after she was gone, waiting, for what I couldn’t say. A sign. Something to point me in the direction of my next bold move.

The sky turned from gray to darker gray.

The security lights all came on at the same time, orange and dull.

I didn’t leave until one of Hannah’s neighbors asked me in Spanish if she could have the chest of drawers.

I told her in English that she could.

A drop of rain hit the back of my neck and startled me.  The second hit my arm.  I squinted at the clouds as more and more drops fell.  The wind turned cold, so I turned to leave.

Driving away, I saw the woman dragging the chest back to her apartment.  The rain made her white dress cling to her brown arms.  I thought I should stop to help her, but I didn’t.  I just kept driving away.

Friday afternoon I fumbled through the week’s worth of dirty dishes, crumpled newspaper, and soiled clothes for a pair of not too dirty underwear.  Opening my mouth was like peeling up linoleum.  I wanted to go back to bed, but thought I should look for a job.

I went across the street to the little market owned by Ali and his son Nazim.

“Hey Chief,” Ali said, when he saw me. “No vegetarian left.”

Every day I came in for a breakfast taco and a cup of coffee. Today I’d gotten a late start and missed my chance for the taco. But the coffee was hot and black. Ali stood up with effort.  He smelled like incense and cheap aftershave. The top few buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, revealing a thicket of gray and black hair tangled in gold chains. His foot was in a fracture boot.

“Anything else?” He asked.

“Just this,” I said, handing him a copy of the New York Times.

“Want these?”  He asked, holding a box of condoms.  “Someone take just one,” he said.  He showed me the tampered box with two remaining condoms.  “Or these?”  He added, holding a box of similarly tampered cigarettes.

“That’s okay,” I said, smiling and embarrassed.  He was always trying to give me half-empty egg cartons or cases of wine coolers with one bottle missing,  juice about to go bad, overripe fruit, milk a day after its expiration date.

“Want a bag?”  He asked me.

I always answered, “No, thank you,” but he always gave me a bag anyway, no matter what I purchased, even if it was a newspaper.

I paid for my paper and cup of coffee, and when I got back home I noticed that he’d slipped the condoms and cigarettes into my bag somehow without me noticing.  I threw the cigarettes away, but kept the condoms, just in case.

I sat at my table and turned on my laptop. There was something comforting about the familiar tone as it turned on. I sat, waiting for my coffee to cool, and looked out the window into the courtyard of my apartment complex. The view was limited to a small patch of bright green grass, and a smaller patch of sky blue swimming pool that it was still too cold to swim in.

Every day, I’d sit at the table with my coffee, with or without a vegetarian breakfast taco, and peruse the online job boards for something, anything. But with a degree in Sociology, and little experience or marketable skills, there were few prospects. Since college I’d been in and out of one cubicle or another, the only thing differentiating them was the shade of gray carpeting the walls.

Hannah and I had met while working at one such call center, the billing department for a third rate credit card company. Since I was working largely to pay off my massive credit card debt, I was ostensibly an indentured servant. Our cubicles were adjacent and we became fast friends, bonding over our shared love of The Cure and black and white French films about death, and our disdain for the public at large.

We worked there for nearly a year as our friendship blossomed. We started going to movies together, Hannah acting out the most dramatic scenes as we drove home and having me critique her technique in her parent’s hand-me-down SUV. Then we’d go dancing, sometimes to clubs where she could meet guys, and sometimes to clubs where I could. When we weren’t together we were on the phone, spending hours analyzing our relationships or the lack of them, our childhood, our dreams.

We became so close that I couldn’t imagine a time when I hadn’t known her. She became superimposed over my own history, so that the two of us were sitting together in the high-school cafeteria, the homecoming game,  the senior prom. The thing that Hannah most wanted was to be a famous singer, but despite a smattering of gigs in Austin, she hadn’t been able to build any momentum with her music. She thought that in Los Angeles her style would be better appreciated, and she’d have more opportunities.  My own dreams were less defined. I wanted to make a living as a writer. Nothing glitzy, just a modest living in a small, cozy place surrounded by books. But while Hannah had discipline to spare, constantly working on new songs and practicing her instruments, I’d barely written anything since college and wondered if my dream was misplaced, a thing to get over so that I could finally grow up and find some proper, grown up career.

Then two months ago Hannah had been fired for repeatedly shouting an obscenity in earshot of a client who’d complained, and I’d been fired shortly thereafter for writing a scathing comment on an employee discussion forum about the disparity between our salaries and that of the CEO. Hannah took this as a sign from the universe that it was time for us to move on. I was mostly panic stricken about what was sure to be my inevitable eviction and starvation.

The job boards were not forthcoming. No one was hiring. I couldn’t even get the temp agencies to call me back. My initial relief at being free from the job I hated quickly turned to anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to find another job to hate. In the first weeks of my unemployment I spent hours sending my resume to any employer advertising a job I was even remotely qualified for. But as the weeks became months, my motivation became apathy, and the intensity of my search waned and became half-hearted searches punctuated by frequently miserable bouts of wallowing in self-pity.

After spending a few minutes looking for jobs, I turned instead to the entertainment news, the funny memes of the day, and porn. Part of me felt like I should take advantage of the time off to finally write that novel I’d been thinking of for years, but I couldn’t seem to get started. Instead of writing I bought a canvas, thinking I could get out my creativity in this other medium. But the easel and canvas remained untouched. I told myself that I was just too anxious about being unemployed to focus on my art.

The truth is the blank page and the bare canvas are too too full of promise. Nothing I can create can be as perfect as their blankness.  In my mind images pulse and writhe, bodily.  My fingers twitch to grab the brush to just paint for the sake of painting, write for the sake of writing.  But my mind refuses.  As long as the canvas remains empty there is the idea of beauty, of something substantial, a body that bleeds and sweats.  But the second paint from my brush touches it the potential is diminished.  A canvas is too small and ordinary to carry the beauty of my dreams.

If I don’t paint, then I can’t fail to realize my mind’s landscapes.

I can remain full of promise, like California, a dream.

Plus I realized that I seemed just as cool by merely keeping an easel in my living room, a glass jar full of paintbrushes on the windowsill, and telling people at parties that I’m an artist.

Hannah wanted me to move with her to Los Angeles. She tried to sell me on the beauty of it. In her eager, angelic voice she described the two of us in a red convertible, driving down Highway 1, with cliffs on one side, and the blue expanse of the Pacific ocean on the other, the trees and flowers that line the boulevards and avenues of the residential areas, the skyscrapers that sprout in a jagged toothed jungle downtown, the iron skeletons and lidless eyes of glass faceted windows designed to tower over the twisting palm trees, to outshine the dim and hazy stars.

“We can live together in L.A.,” Hannah told me one night when I was sitting in her bathtub as she cut my hair.

“You can write” she went on, “and I’ll land some gigs.  We can share a studio until we’re both working and can afford something better.  You can write anywhere really.  Lift your head a little.”

She held my chin.  I saw the tiny blond hairs falling into my lap.

“California is the last place where you can really live the American dream.” She said.

“Only because the American dream is getting your own reality show.” I said, joking, but only halfway.

“I’m serious.” She said. “What do you think?”

“It sounds great,” I’d told her.

“Really?” She asked, rubbing wax into my thinning hair and styling it.

“Yeah.” I said.

She had it all planned out, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly commit. California was her dream, not mine.

Hannah.

My Russian ballerina.

My bubblegum raincoat.

The unheard siren, singing to a captivated audience of one.

I didn’t expect to miss her so much. But her presence was everywhere, coiled in bedsprings, floating like motes of dust in patches of sunlight, pressed between the pages of the New York Times. Suddenly I found myself alone without someone to join me for cheap, Chinese, or to go on a 4 am donut run. Without her there was nothing for me to focus on but myself, and introspection was always a recipe for an inevitable downward spiral. I was disappointed when it rained, and I was disappointed when it didn’t.

That night I had a blind date with a man I’d met on the internet.  We met outside an all night diner that Hannah and I had haunted. He looked older than he had in his picture.  His face and stomach had gone slack.  I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize him at all, that we’d somehow miss one another amongst all the other late night strangers. But he smiled and walked right up to me.  There was an awkward moment when I wasn’t sure if he was going to shake my hand or hug me, so I extended my hand, and we half hugged.

“Should we go in?”  He asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m starving.”

I could see right away that everything I said was going to be wrong.  I knew that I’d be uncharacteristically honest, that my confessions would baffle him. I led the way into the diner.  His hand was on my shoulder, an intimacy I felt he hadn’t earned and I disliked him immediately.

“So what do you do again?”  He asked while we were waiting for the waitress to bring our drinks.

“I’m an artist,” I said, fidgeting nervously in my seat amidst the young couples with strollers, the lonely coffee drinkers with cigarette-stained fingers, the old fashioned amber colored hanging lamps.

“Are you showing your work anywhere around town?”  He asked.

I said, “I’m very protective of it,” hoping that this would sound more mysterious than pathetic.  I was grateful when the waitress brought our drinks.

He was a personal trainer, though he’d taken some time off after a back injury.  “All healed now,” he assured me with a wink.

I repeatedly stacked and then toppled tubs of late night butter while blathering about a horror movie I’d seen recently.  I described in unnecessary detail the plot, which consisted of a group of teenagers being stalked by a maniac in a remote forest.

“Are you nervous?”  He asked.

“Why?” I asked. “Should I be?”  The butter toppled.

He reached across the table and put his hand over my own, his thick, tan fingers weighing down my thin, pale ones.  I pulled my hand away.

“I can’t read you.”  He said.

Spittle wet the creases around his lips.  His face was ruddy, and blotched.  His shirt, taught over his once impressive chest, his slack stomach.  I was repulsed by him.

The check came.  We split it, to my dismay.

Outside I walked to my car.  He followed me.

“So.  What now?”  He asked, leaning into me, his smile a leer.

I pulled back, was silent.

“My place?”  He suggested.

“Sure.”  I heard myself saying.  “Why not?”

Afterward, I couldn’t stop shaking.  I was sore. I saw myself reflected in the mirror.  My thin, sweaty hair.  My neck bruised from too many hard kisses.   My mouth, swollen and red. I tasted like someone else.  Like milk about to sour, like fruit that was too ripe.  My eyes were dry and stinging.  My shirt smelled like strange cologne and sweat.  I peeled it off.  And, unsatisfied, I peeled off everything.  I wanted to be a blank canvas, white and full of promise.  But it was impossible to undo the days, the years of strange apartments, the collected dust and detritus of dive bars and dance clubs, to buff out the oily grooves of so many fingerprints.

I crawled into my bed and lie there, sleepless, staring at my ceiling until the sun came up, pale and orange as a ball of thread through the sliding doors that led out to my balcony. Eventually I dozed off for a while and woke up, hot and sweaty, and couldn’t fall asleep again. I wanted to just keep lying there, forever, but I’d made plans so I forced myself to get up.

“Which do you like better, Indian girls or Pakistani?”  The one without glasses asked. Sometimes Ali’s daughters were behind the register. I never learned their names and just differentiated them by thinking of them as the one with glasses and the one without.

“Which are you?” I asked.

“Pakistani.”  She said.

“Then Pakistani.”  I looked at the shy one with glasses and winked.  They both giggled as I left with my coffee.

I squinted, unaccustomed to the pale sun that shined before noon on a Saturday. I had plans to meet my friend Scott who lived across town, and who didn’t have a car of his own. When I got to his apartment, Scott was sitting at his coffee table on the living room floor, rolling a joint. I was meeting up with him to go to a protest, of the war, or the disparity between the rich and the poor, or Gay rights. I was unsure of the particular cause. Scott was an equal opportunity attender when it came to defending the underdog.

“Hey.”  He said.

“Hey.”  I let myself in, scanning his apartment, dimly lit, the avuncular pad of a longtime bachelor.  The patchwork sofa, celestial rug, the Coca Cola magnets on the refrigerator of second hand beer and frozen pizza.  Sunlight stained glassed across the fake marble counter top in patches of orange and red and purple on the beige hemp mat in front of the sink, giving the impression, as you stepped inside, that you were entering a place of worship.

I sat across from him at his computer desk.  He lit up and offered me a drag.  I shook my head and thumbed through his CDs.

“Why do you keep all these?” I asked, since all of the music was on his computer, and the physical CDs seemed unnecessary.

“I just like the act of playing a CD,” he said. “I like the ritual of it.”

I didn’t get it, but I’ve never really understood him. Most of the times we’d hung out with one another, I’d felt as if the two of us were speaking different languages. I didn’t understand him, but I liked the idea of him, the intense, bearded young man who cared about social causes and justice, who wanted world peace. If you listened to the music I like, read the books I enjoyed reading, and watched my favorite movies, you’d probably know everything about me. There was nothing else beneath the surface. I was just an empty vessel, a reflection. But Scott cared about things, and was involved, and even if I wasn’t sure why, I liked this about him. I imagined him turning that same passionate intensity toward me, of him seeing something in me that I wasn’t even aware of myself.  We’d made out once, drunk at a club, but nothing else had happened, and as time passed, I worried that the window of opportunity was closing.

“What is it today?” I asked, as he got in the rumbling, green car I’d inherited from my mother.

“The war.” He answered. I didn’t ask him which one.

Arriving at the protest provided no clarity. Crowds of determined progressives, college students mostly, white guys with dreadlocks, and girls in sandals, but also some holdovers from the sixties with their long, gray beards, and awful, tie-dye t-shirts were already lining the street by the lake. The signs were a hodge-podge of familiar slogans, “No blood for oil,” “End this War,” “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” “We Are the 99%,” “Legalize Gay Cupcakes.”

We joined the growing throng by Town Lake and then made a slow walk down Congress Avenue to the capital. My eyes darted through the crowd of  protestors, the vaguely curious onlookers lining the avenue, the annoyed drivers sitting in their cars at blocked off intersections, unaware of the day’s scheduled march. We walked down Congress, Scott joining in chants, and me tagging along in silence, stealing glances at any attractive, pseudo-hippies in the general vicinity.

We assembled on the steps of the state capital and listened to the speakers give their speeches, local politicians and community organizers. I zoned out shortly after the first of the seemingly endless parade of windbags got started. Politics have always bored me. Scott’s handsome, bearded face was intent, his brow creased. Everyone was similarly focused, and I wondered what I was doing there. It was becoming increasingly obvious that I wouldn’t meet anyone, that Scott’s interest in me was due entirely to the fact that I had a car and he did not, that the protest would offer neither romance, nor inspiration. I started formulating plans for the evening which involved overpriced cocktails at on overpriced club with music too loud for conversation, and a dance floor too full to accommodate dancing.

A row of police in riot gear stood behind the makeshift podium just in case things got out of hand. I stood, imagining them advancing on the docile crowd like I’d seen on television. I imagined the peaceful crowd erupting into chaos of tear gas, and people getting trampled and beaten with batons. A big part of me longed for this to happen, just to feel like I was part of something. Just for some kind of real human contact, just to feel something aside from my usual existential angst. But nothing happened. The speakers spoke. The crowd chanted and cheered. The police stood, and then all of us quietly dispersed to middle class cars to drive back to the suburbs.

I asked Scott if he wanted to do anything else, but he just shrugged, so we walked back to my car.

“It was a good turn out.” I said, and he agreed, and even though we had nothing to say to one another, I still thought we might end up making out.

But when we got back to his place, he just unfastened his seatbelt and said, “Thanks for the ride.”

Not knowing what to do, myself, I drove back to my own apartment. I thought I’d stop at Ali’s for a soda, but there were police cars outside. For a moment I panicked irrationally that the police had somehow come for me, even though I’d done nothing wrong, but I realized that they weren’t there for my sake. Someone had broken the windows of the store and spray painted the word “Terrorist” in big red letters across the side of the building.

Inside my apartment, I found myself upset, without really understanding why. I wanted to somehow exorcise the feeling, but it was too primal to write down. I wanted to paint. Not with brushes, but with my bare hands. I wanted to feel the paint on my fingers, to run my fingertips across the bare canvas, and to pour this image that existed in my mind out onto the white expanse before me.

At first I didn’t know how to start it. I just stood in front of the easel, wondering where to begin. Red was my key to getting into it. Once I started with red, the rest followed. Images that bled and sweat, corpulent masses of color. Hannah’s hair, her bright red lips, the swirling lights of dance clubs, the bedrooms of strange men, the loneliness of crowds, the helplessness, the brutality of vandalism. My fingertips smeared color across the canvass. The colors of regret, the unbearable devastation of rejection. First red, yellow, green, gold, and from the side, black and blue, a cloud, a bruise, a threat. I painted, my fingers stained, a blue, satisfying smear on my cheek.

I stopped when Hannah called to tell me she’d made it safely to Los Angeles.

“Are you writing?”  She asked.

“Painting.”  I said, wiping my hands on a towel, my body smeared with blue, and brown, and gold.

“That’s great,” she said.  “I don’t want to disturb you.  I just wanted to let you know I’m here.”

“I’m nearly done, I think.”  I said.  “I’m glad you made it okay.  Was the trip hard?”

“No.” She said.  “The longest part was just getting out of Texas. But now I’m here, too exhausted to unpack anything, but too keyed up to go to sleep.”

“I get that.” I said.

“When are you coming out here?”  She pressed.

“Soon,” I said. I didn’t tell her about my date, or the protest, or Scott, or any of it. There was really nothing worth talking about.

I painted for a while after we’d stopped talking, and when I felt like it was done, I stood back and regarded my first creation in years, feeling this bubbling thrill of accomplishment at having actually created something, of following a project from start to finish, of taking something that existed in my mind and making it exist in the real world.

When I stepped back to get a good look, my heart sank. The painting I’d poured all of my energy and emotion into was nothing like the image I’d had in my head. The lines were unsteady. The confidence of my college years was gone from lack of practice. The painting was amateurish at best. I was disappointed, but more than that I was afraid. If I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t write, what was I going to do? Who was I if I wasn’t an artist, except a twenty something failure with no job, and no prospects?

While it was still wet, I took the painting with me to the bathroom.  I stood beneath the florescent lights with all of my faults exposed. The sudden shock of first cold, then hot water covered me.  I watched my pale skin turn red.  The colors of the canvas ran together, colored the water at my feet in purples, reds, browns and blue.  I rubbed the canvas with my hands smearing the colors together, obliterating my disaster, the watercolor running together in blobs, coloring the bathtub, but, once paint smeared, the canvas could never be made white again.

I stood in the shower long after the hot water had disappeared and wondered, how much water and how much time it would take to cleanse us both?  I wondered if enough time and enough distance could take my illusions, my lies, my deceits and make them true. That maybe instead of just calling myself an artist, I could actually be one, if I just had the right inspiration, the right location. Maybe not here, but in a sunny state.  A dream.  California.

Clean – Austin 1999

046Jeremy likes it clean.

On Valentine’s day I decorate our whole apartment with pink and red construction paper hearts. On each heart I write down a reason why I love him. I make a romantic dinner from scratch, light candles, and run a bubble bath. I sit on his third degree sofa and wait for him to come home.

And wait.

And wait.

When he finally arrives, long after dinner has gotten cold, the candles have all burned out and the bubble bath is just a tub of tepid, soapy water, he takes one look at the hearts, the trail of rose petals leading to the bed, the balloons with streamers hanging from the ceiling and says, “You can clean up the mess tomorrow.”

He likes it clean.

The next day, when I come home, he hands me a heart shaped box of chocolates.

“They were half off.” He says.

The box is already mostly empty, crumpled foil wrappers.

We’d met online only a few months before our graduation from separate colleges. I’d driven to Houston and he’d snuck me into his parents house after they had gone to sleep.  We crept up his stairs and whispered quietly in his childhood bedroom, and had awkward sex, crouched on his bathroom floor, careful not to make a sound.

He played piano, studied French and wrote poetry, so of course I fell in love with him.

When I got a job in Austin after graduation, he drove down to look at apartments with me. When I realized that he wasn’t just there helping me find an apartment for myself, he was looking for a place for the two of us, I knew that it was probably a mistake. But I made it anyway, because my heart is a stupid pump.

We go to concerts and he disappears without saying anything. I spend hours looking for him before finding him back at the car, or sitting on a corner bench a few blocks away. I try to acclimate to his quirks and his moods, but I feel that we never speak the same language. We sit in some chain restaurant (he is too intimidated to go to restaurants he isn’t familiar with) and the powder blue waitress acts as our interpreter.

We sleep in twin beds like a 50s sitcom couple. Every night I lie awake, hard, when all I want is his touch. I fantasize about him ripping my clothes off, of plowing into me because he is so consumed with passion. When he puts in his retainer, I know it is all over. Nothing will happen. He’ll fall asleep and I’ll listen to him snoring from across the room. I touch myself and pretend that it is him.

The first time we broke up we were in Paris.

I spent the entire trip pretending that everything was okay. I smiled for photographs. I trailed after him through museums, through catacombs and cathedrals, beneath the Arc d Triumph and up the Eiffel Tower, and on the last night, as a dubbed American cop drama was playing on the hotel TV, I told him I didn’t want to be together anymore.

We furiously packed our clothes, and I frantically ran after him as he hailed a cab, afraid that he’d abandon me in a foreign city.

But by the time we made our connecting flight in Newark, NJ, we had reconciled.

For a couple of months things were okay.

He began to stay up all night and to sleep all day. I see him briefly in the morning as I leave to go to to work and briefly when I get home. Our schedules barely overlap. He’s made no attempt to find a job after college and is relying on a dwindling trust fund to sustain him. Any time we have any kind of conflict he locks himself inside his car or in the bathroom.

Once when I was walking through the living room eating a sandwich, Jeremy was behind me with the vacuum, following my every step, sucking up the crumbs.

“Now, how am I going to find my way back to the kitchen?” I ask, but he doesn’t laugh.

When he is done working out is when I want him most, sweaty and hard. But Jeremy has to shower first. He’ll wash his hair seven times, boil the heat from his skin and anything that smells like him, until his skin is red and tight.  He likes it clean.

One day I came home from work and he had rearranged the living room.  He asked me how I liked it.  I said that I couldn’t tell what was different.  Jeremy says that I must be the least observant person that he’s ever met.

I am transfixed by the tiny hairs on his arms that move with the rhythm of the ceiling fan, up past his chest stretched t-shirt, the hole in the collar, the marble white throat, blanket of three day stubble, chin cleft, pouty lip blushed and heavy as a cloud full of rain, the arched nose, invisible bump that Jeremy thinks makes him less beautiful, nostrils flaring, the thin, high cheekbones, deep set, black eyes, the bushy eyebrows, sweeping forehead, inky black disheveled hair.

“Yes,” I said. “I never notice anything.”

When we make love it’s with as little contact as possible, me on my knees, and Jeremy behind me, arched away from me.  I come to him pasteurized and sterilized.  He comes to me with latex gloves and I’m just thankful for his touch.  He likes it clean.  So he sprays me down with disinfectant, turns me round the washing machine and leaves me spinning.

The second time we broke up it was his idea. He was moving to another city without me. I wondered, but didn’t want to wonder if he’d met some other boy online. Someone younger, more interesting, more attractive than me.

For a month after we broke up we still lived together.

On Sundays, I ease out of bed, creeping to the living room.  I sit in front of a muted television while in the other room, the Sleeper sleeps.  I’m too afraid to eat or rattle around the kitchen for fear of waking Jeremy up.  So I wait patiently for the day to pass, passing the time in fingernails and unlaced shoes.

The air conditioner rattles discontent.

The ticking clock, the television, the sunlit blinds, the dishwasher begins the rinse cycle, the kettle in the kitchen, the pot is ready to boil.

The microwave beeps.

The Sleeper sleeps, and I am awake.

I drive from coffee shop to coffee shop.

“Let me guess, chocolate coffee cheesecake and a cherry Italian Soda?” The tall barista with the crinkly, blond hair asks.

They were out of cherry syrup, so I order a hot chocolate instead. The barista turns the froth into a heart. I sit at a table alone, and when The Smith’s “How Soon is Now” comes on I mouth the words. I read a couple chapters of Catch 22, waiting for it to be late enough to go dancing.

Atomic Cafe plays 80s music on Sunday nights.

At the club I dance to Depeche Mode and Joy Division, and when I stand by the bar, a boy in a black t-shirt stands beside me, but he doesn’t say anything and I don’t say anything. A chubby woman with a blonde ponytail invites me to spend the night with she and her husband, and I politely decline, and when the boy in the black t-shirt leaves, I leave.

When I get home Jeremy is watching a movie. He doesn’t say a word to me as I walk in. When we pass one another in the hallway, we flatten ourselves against opposite walls as if even breathing the same air is painful.

I imagine floating out of my clothes, out of my skin, leaving myself in a corpulent mass of twitching this and bloodstained that.  To be nothing, ephemeral, to lose myself in the atmosphere, to break apart and become nothing.

We have sex one last time. After we use the very last condom it sinks in that it is really over. We sit on opposite sides of the room, carpet burned and cathartic. He sits on the side of the bed clipping his toenails and I stupidly still love him.

When I come home from work the next day to find Jeremy’s posters off the wall, his side of the closet empty, a yellow post it on the refrigerator telling me goodbye, I don’t cry or scream.  I just turn off the television, close the door and falls against it, winded.  Because when Jeremy left, even the break was clean.

 

The Gym – Los Angeles, 2002

“So what is your fitness goal?” The salesman asks me.

I’m sitting across from him in an uncomfortable chair beneath the unforgiving glare of florescent lights, making good on at least one of my New Year’s resolutions with more than a small amount of trepidation. Everything about the gym intimidates me.

The salesman’s face is comprised entirely of pearly, white teeth and bronzer.

“My fitness goal?” I repeat back to him.

“What are you hoping to achieve by working out?” He asks.

I’m not a person who has a fitness goal, or, let’s face it, goals in general. The truth is, steadily approaching thirty with no career, no long-term relationship, and what can only be described as an unhealthy predilection for chocolate chip cookie and Nutella sandwiches, I came to the realization that I have no other choice than to join a gym. Genetics have cruelly doomed me to an unfortunate body shape that resembles a sack of potatoes kept alight by a couple of  elongated pipe cleaners. To be competitive in the dating scene, one is pressured to be rich, have a fantastic body, or an enormous penis, or ideally all of these things. Being 0 for 3 I figured that having a nice body was at least theoretically attainable.

I realize that my internal dialogue has been going on for an inappropriately long time, and the salesman is uncomfortably awaiting my response, so I say, “To tone up?”

This satisfies him, and he goes on to regale me with the numerous benefits of joining his gym, the classes, the personal training, the state of the art machines, the olympic sized pool, as my eyes glaze over. All I want is to get this bit out of the way so that I can get the actual working out bit out of the way, so that I can get some cheap, Chinese food and curl up in my bed watching zombie movies.

“You don’t have to sell me,” I say.  “I’m already sold. Can I just give you some money, and you let me start working out?”

His relief is palpable.

He gives me a tour of the facilities.

“So your name’s Lance,” he says. “You must be a Lance Armstrong fan.” (This was before that Lance’s well publicized fall from grace.)

I don’t see how one thing follows the other, so I say, “As guys with one testicle go, I like him more than Hitler.”

After this I am relieved from the unpleasantness of having to make further small talk. He points at various machines, explains their purpose, and carries on. I pretend to listen as I scope out my fellow gym members, the ponytail blondes with sports bras on the cardio machines, the ripped t-shirts squat thrusting with necks bulging and prominent veins. I never wanted to be one of these people, the tank topped men with fake tans, glow in the dark teeth, and bodies like chewed up pieces of bubble gum. I always prized brains over brawn, but so far my GRE scores and collection of French novels have impressed no one.

The tour takes me past the machines upstairs, the free weights downstairs, past the pool, the sauna, the hand ball courts, through the locker room where old men lounge unabashedly on benches like beached manatees, with white towels slung over their shoulders, and pendulous scrotal sacks swinging to and fro as they struggle slowly into clothes.

We end the tour once again upstairs where the salesman introduces me to Colt who is going to conduct my free, complimentary training session.

“Is Colt your actual name?”  I ask as we begin.

He nods confirmation, and I make the mistake of following this with, “It’s just I’ve never heard the name Colt outside of gay porn.”

Colt is not amused. He is in fact a Nazi, tall and blond with chiseled, Nordic features.  I feel like a humiliated, anorexic dwarf standing next to him. He weighs me, and has me lift up my shirt so that he can take a pair of what looks like alien salad tongs to measure my fat to muscle ratio. Despite the fact that I’m somehow grossly underweight, he deems my flesh to be entirely body fat. I’m disheartened to realize I’m made entirely of bones and gristle.

“Let’s start out with a warm up.” He says, instructing me to run for ten minutes on a treadmill in front of a flatscreen TV tuned to a women’s volleyball tournament. I smugly think to myself that ten minutes is nothing, and that this will likely be a piece of cake. A metaphorical piece of cake that will precede the well deserved literal piece of cake I intend to messily devour following my workout. I press the big green “Start” button and the treadmill begins to move. Colt pushes an arrow that causes the speed to increase until I’m struggling to keep up, and he’s satisfied that any lingering self esteem I may have had has been obliterated.

“I’ll be back in ten.” Colt says.

Ten minutes is not actually that short a length of time after all. On the treadmill ten minutes seems to span millennia. After two minutes I am panting and sweating profusely. As soon as Colt is out of visible contact with me, I press the down arrow, lowering the speed to a brisk walk. I knew I was out of shape, but until this moment, I had no idea how embarrassingly out of shape I actually am. Eight minutes later Colt returns and asks, “How was your warm up?”

Then it hits me that this is only the warm up, and I’ve got 45 more minutes of yet unimagined torture remaining. We proceed downstairs to the weight room. Down here the patrons are almost exclusively men. Sweat drenched, muscular men with perfect hair working out in pairs. Loud, obnoxious dance music blares from the speakers overhead. If the lighting was dimmed, and if the protein shakes were alcoholic, there would be very little separating the gym from a gay bar. In fact, there is an alarming amount of overlap.

Colt has me lie on a bench near three men who are so perfectly sculpted I name them the Adonis Triumvirate. I’m torn between the desire to lick the sweat off of the bench they’re working out on, and the humiliation of having them see that I’m only barely capable of bench pressing the bar. In fact, everywhere we go in the gym I feel like I’m being quietly judged, and any attraction I feel for the men working out near me is quickly diminished by shame, and an increasing desire to collapse into a puddle on the sweat stained floor.

The gym is full of other people who have no doubt made it their own New Year’s resolution to get in shape, and from time to time we pass one another and exchange tortured glances of solidarity from our respective training sessions.  Colt has me do something he calls “super-sets” of bicep curls followed up by tricep extensions.

“We’re going to get you huge guns!” He says, in order, it seems, to motivate me.  I’ve never expressed an interest in gun ownership, huge or otherwise, but I can tell he is trying to be encouraging, so I don’t point this out to him. He is an unrelenting task master, and before I know it he has me goose-stepping across the gym with a 30 pound weight slung across my shoulders.

“I think I need to rest a second.”  I tell him between gasps for breath when he has me doing lunges.

“You’re tough, you can keep going!”  He says.

I immediately throw up on the floor at his feet.

For a moment we regard one another. I waiver between horror at what my traitorous body has done, and a sick sense of satisfaction. To his credit, Colt lifts the weight from my shoulders and admits, “Looks like I worked you too hard, buddy. You okay now?”

I nod and turn to flee as the disgusted onlookers go back to their routines. On the stairway back up to the main floor, I pass a janitor with a mop and bucket going down.

“How was your first session?” The salesman asks as I emerge.

“A great start.” I lie, still panting and waiting for my heart to decelerate to it’s normal, sluggish rhythm.

“Good to hear.” He says. “I heard some guy just barfed down there,” He says.

“Yeah. How pathetic!” I hear myself say.

He smiles his toothy grin with a nod of agreement, and says, “See you next time.”

“Sure thing!” I lie again, seeing the open door in front of me, and already envisioning my escape, never to return. As I’m walking out, a pale, young man with glasses, shouldering a gym bag and holding a book is entering. His eyes meet mine, and a trace of smile passes across his pink lips. I smile back, and I’m outside in the fresh air, and with dismay, I realize that it wasn’t a lie after all. There will be a next time. My desire for beauty, for a connection, for even the barest hint of a connection outweighs my desire to compulsively eat ice cream on the couch alone. In the end I want to eat ice cream on the couch with someone else. So I will force myself to go to the gym again, although possibly in disguise.