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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Astral Projections – Austin, 1999

Things that seem like a good idea when you’re horny rarely continue to do so when the feeling passes. Despite having already learned this life lesson, I choose to ignore it, because I’m horny. This explains why I’m driving downtown on a Sunday night to meet a man I’d chatted up on some sleazy hook-up site instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour like a more responsible citizen.

I see him first and am relieved. He looks just like his picture, indy funk in his early thirties, darkly balding with serious lips and laser tag eyes. He is sitting on the stoop of Spider  House holding an oversized cup of coffee, finishing a cigarette. He is a thrift store sweater in a vintage jacket and clunky shoes, worn and comfortably corduroy, in a warm, fuzzy way that implies snuggling and hot chocolate with marshmallows.

“Hey.” I say, as I James Dean up to him with my hands in my pockets. I am a t-shirt and rolled up blue jeans, suddenly self conscious, suddenly too pale and too skinny, suddenly afraid he’s going to see me and bolt, or pretend he doesn’t speak English, or that his name is Edgar and I must be looking for someone else. There are precedents.

“Hey.” He says, standing up. “Lance?” I agree that I am. He smells like stale cologne and smoke as he presses against me with an introductory hug. But I smell love on a molecular level, in coffee cups, in his pockets, in the tiny creases beside his eyes. There is an exchange of protons and electrons, and in my stomach an internal mushroom cloud of fumbling desire quietly implodes.

We both know it’s too late on a Sunday night for the coffee to be casual, but I’m still pretending innocence. “Sometimes coffee is just coffee,” I tell myself. “Eleven o’clock coffee on a Sunday night just means we’re alternative, not desperate.” But let’s face it, I’m wearing my just-in-case underwear. My body, at least, takes the situation for what it is, a hook-up, and responds accordingly.

He leaves one arm around my waist and says, “Where do you want to sit?”

“Anywhere is fine,” I tell him. I become so aware of his hand on the small of my back that it feels almost uncomfortable. The absent minded familiarity of it is burning through my t-shirt. It is impossible to think of anything else except how long it’s been since I’ve been touched by another person.

“Do you want some coffee?” He asks.

“I don’t like coffee.” I say, and immediately regret saying it, because I don’t want to seem negative or weird, so I try to recover by adding, “I mean I like it, but only if it has so much sugar and cream that it no longer actually resembles coffee.  So what’s the point?”

“Oh, you’re one of those.” He says.

“I like the way it smells?” I have a habit of ending statements with question marks like I’m not really certain of anything, because I’m not.

“You’re cute.” He says as he leads me to some benches in a corner beneath a tree criss-crossed with strings of year-round colored Christmas lights.

“No I’m not,” I blush. The smallest compliment and I turn into a stuttering, human lobster. “Anyway, I’m glad you think so.” I smile and say, “You too.”  I’m encouraged by the fact that he hasn’t invented an early meeting yet, an imaginary boyfriend, or some terrible, wasting disease before disappearing into the blind-date ether.

“Thanks,” he grins. “I was here earlier tonight with my roommate.  We had a couple beers and chilled.”

“Cool.” I say, even though I think beer is as repulsive as fermented dishwater.  I look around at the benches, the coffeehouse girls with their poetry notebooks, the heroin armed waitresses, square jawed bus-boys, the armless, outside statues, anything but his face that only looks at me.

“I used to come here all the time.” I say.

“Why’d you stop?” He asks, interested.

I tell him I don’t remember and excuse myself to buy a hot chocolate and re-group.

I’d stopped going to Spider House the summer after Jeremy moved to Minneapolis, taking down his Hopper prints, his Beatles CDs, his Monty Python DVDs, leaving one half of the closet empty. That summer and that place are superimposed over one another. Reckless nights with tall, blond impostors. The French films. The Russian novels. My heartbreak had an international flair.

I sat outside, slapping mosquitoes, smiling too eagerly at any guy wearing Converse sneakers, picking the blood smeared legs of squashed insects off my pale, white arms. It was a summer of carnage, insect and otherwise. My little, red heart was only the latest in a string of casualties. Everyone I knew had been dumped as soon as the semester ended and the objects of our respective affections flew to Minske, or New York, or Minneapolis.

I sat outside with the students who either couldn’t afford to leave, or who had summer classes. I sat with my same backpack, my Cherry Italian Soda, my Russian novel, even though I’d graduated a semester before, because the life of a student was the only one I knew. Already I was becoming obsolete, replaced by newer models, hipsters in skinny jeans and matching haircuts who listened to bands I’d never heard of.

I’d stopped going to Spider House because I couldn’t escape my burgeoning mediocrity, the unavoidable, universal truth that I’d become a twenty-something failure. My defeat was worn into the seams of the threadbare couches, scuffed on the unswept hardwood floors and buried beneath flea market rugs, invisible to strangers, maybe, but inescapable. Writing in journals and pretending to read, sipping overpriced beverages and looking for love in the bottom of every coffee cup had become my routine. I’d stopped going once the barista knew my order without me having to tell him because I was too ashamed that my life consisted of nothing else.

“If it was clear,” he says, when I sit down again, “We could see the Leonids.”

“The what?” I sip my hot chocolate gingerly, wishing I’d ordered tepid chocolate instead in order to avoid burning my tongue in case the evening leads to kissing of the French variety, as I suspect it might.

“The meteor shower,” he says. “It’s supposed to be phenomenal tonight.”  The two of us are looking into the clear, night sky.  The stars above us are dimmed and invisible from the light pollution of the city.

His insight into things celestial pleases the romantic in me. “Are you one of those guys who knows the names of constellations?” I ask.

“No.” He says.

I have an infinite capacity for disappointment.

“Do you go to Cons?” He asks, sitting perpendicular to me, his arm draped casually around my shoulder. Every move he makes seems so natural and fluid, and my own movements seem all the more spastic by comparison. I’m completely incapable of acting naturally.

“Is that a club?” I ask. I can be pretty oblivious.

“No. You know. Conventions?” He’s smiling quizzically at me like he’s discovered some new species of marine life but hasn’t decided how important his find is.

All I can imagine is a bunch of old men in red fezzes with name tags, and a cheap tablecloth punch bowl in a room full of folding chairs.

“You mean, like Shriners?” I ask.

“No.” He says. “Like, just a bunch of sci-fi fans and hardcore nerds. They can get pretty wild.”

I am quietly horrified, pegging him as a Magic: The Gathering player, one of those Society for Creative Anachronism geeks, sitting at a Renaissance fair in a Lyrca Star Trek uniform brandishing an oversized turkey leg. The thought repels me. Nothing good can come of this.

“You want to go back to my place and watch a movie or something?” He asks.

“Yes.” I answer without hesitation. What can I say? The things that repulse me can also attract me.

I follow him back to his apartment, me in my brick colored Laotian, economy car and he in his beige Volvo, driving faster than I’m entirely comfortable as we make our way along the one way streets downtown, afraid of losing him at intersections. I realize that one of two things is about to happen: 1). Either we are going to go back to his apartment where we will meander through some pointless small talk before having awkward sex on his small, springy bed, or 2). We will actually watch a movie. I wish I had a breath mint.

At this point we are barely more than wires crossing, than messages sent through phone lines, through the skeletal branches of winter trees, buried beneath the cold stone of vagrant city sidewalks, whispered along the peeling whitewash of suburban sprawl, a flickering image on my computer screen transferred electronically to his. But by the time I reach his apartment, I’ve gay married us and have us rooming in a loft downtown living scenes of wet nosed puppy Christmases and candlelit saxophone dinners with wine glasses, an adopted Guatemalan baby, his and his matching bath towels. My kinkiest fantasy is always a rough approximation of domesticity.

Inside his apartment I make an immediate b-line to his bookshelf only to be dismayed by its contents. His collection consists entirely of vegan cook books, biographies of the Dalai Lama, and pulp science fiction novels. My ability to imagine us adopting a Guatemalan baby is becoming more and more difficult with every new disclosure, but I still somehow manage to convince myself that there is a future laid out for us, a silver anniversary and a two-car garage. The truth is, I find it nearly impossible to have sex with someone if I can’t at least pretend that it might lead to some conventional life like the one my parents wanted for me.

We sit on his hand me down sofa with his yappy, little dog between us, the kind a wealthy, blond heiress might keep in her designer purse, nervous and deranged, all eyes and fangs. I get the impression that the dog hates me, and the feeling is mutual.

“I’ve got Jem and the Holograms and Masters of the Universe on DVD, and some old, horror movies, if you want to watch something.” He says.

“I’m fine with anything.” I say, inwardly horrified that we’re actually going to watch a movie.

“I’m going to grab a drink,” he says, standing. “Can I get you something?”

“Whatever you’re having is great.” I peruse his movies while he gets the drinks. Saturday morning cartoons from his childhood. B-horror movies. Documentaries on organic farming and spirituality.  I think, “My soul-mate would never watch The Secret.”

He brings me back a beer. I resign myself to it. I’m a lightweight who hardly ever imbibes so, half a beer later, I’m giggling at everything he says. I’m the kind of drunk who laughs constantly and tells people he loves them whether he does or not.

We watch Jem and the Holograms and agree that the Mysfits’ songs really were better. His hand is inching closer and closer to my knee.  He’s cute enough that I’m willing to overlook his poor taste and hippie underpinnings.  I imagine light-hearted arguments over our Guatemalan baby’s diet and religious upbringing.

When he tries to kiss me, his dog leaps to fill the space between us, nipping at my jugular, demanding his attention, licking his chin. She looks at me with one eye, letting me know where I stand, which is mauled and limping and preferably outside somewhere if she had any say in the matter.

“Do you have a dog?” He asks.

“I’m more a cat person.” I say.

“Do you have a cat?” He asks.

“No.”  I answer, smiling too broadly.

“Want to go back to my room?” He asks.

“Yes.”

He leaves the dog outside. I smirk at her as he closes the door. Small victories. He takes his clothes off and I admire his hardwood floors. His body is thin and pale, dark hair in sparse patches on his chest and belly like transplants steadfastly refusing to take root. He pulls me close and kisses me, his eyes closed, mine open, looking for a place to set my beer. Finding none I hold it awkwardly until he takes it from my hand and sets it on the bedside table.

Things proceed in the usual fashion ending in us both naked on his small, springy bed when he asks, “Do you want to fuck me?”

“If you’ve got the condoms and lube, then I’ve got the time.” I say. I have no idea who I am sometimes.

“I’ve got lube, but no condoms.” He says. “Is that a problem?”

My body becomes completely immobile.  Reading the horror on my face and my rapidly waning erection, he tries to reassure me with, “It’s okay, I tested negative a couple months ago.”

I am not reassured.

“I don’t do it without a condom,” I say, when really I just want to flee and not look back. He’s suddenly radioactive, and my built in Geiger counter does everything in its power to warn me away.

Disappointed, he says, “It’s cool. I can just suck you off.”

This happens. I float out of my body, drift into the cold night beneath stars, beneath street lamps, past all night diners, closed book stores, the late night coffee houses, through phone lines, radio waves, through all the dead ends and misconnections, thinking, “There’s someone out there for me.”

Somewhere.

Not here.

“Will I see you again?” He asks as I’m leaving, his face full of sideways eyes and crooked smiles. I appreciate his misplaced optimism. The two of us are on either side of his half-open doorway, him silhouetted in orange light from inside, me pale beneath the dim light of early morning sky.

“Maybe.” I say, my breath hanging soft and gray in the air between us like a question mark.

“Maybe later this week?” He presses, squinty in a pair of boxer shorts. Saggy elastic.  Any lingering romance disappears in the harsh light of morning.   He becomes another notch on my internal bedpost that, at this point, must be splintered and devoid of paint.

I slide out of his fingers, catlike through the crack of the open door, and out into the city to the street below.

“Maybe.” I call back to him. But we both know that I don’t mean it.