Missing/Music for the Middle Aged Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sends a sad face emoji.

She tells me to join AA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ducky says, “No. They’re our age.”

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

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

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

That’s it, I think.

Suicide.

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

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

The summer days are long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They found the guy?” The cashier asks.

I just nod.

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

 

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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.