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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Music for the Middle Aged

PBKD5675Sitting on the train on my way to work, “Pictures of You” by The Cure started playing. I had my iTunes on shuffle on my phone. The song instantly evoked memories of teenage me alone in a stuffy bedroom, surrounded by stacks of books and CDs. Even though The Cure was one of the most important bands of my late teens/early twenties, it had probably been years since I’ve last listened to them. Now, hearing them for the first time in my 40s, I was dismayed that the lyrics no longer resonated the way they once had.

I think most songs are written for a teenage audience. But by the time first love becomes the sixth or seventh love, all those hormonal highs that left teen me weeping trails of eyeliner across my cheeks have leveled out into the flat expanse of nostalgia. Despite the latency that has prevented me, thus far, from going full blown suit and tie, I wonder, is it time to cave in, surrender to fate, and finally break down and buy some Neil Young albums?

The highlight of my morning was scoring a seat on the train. Usually at the beginning of the week, the trains at rush hour are already so crowded when I board that I have to stand, hanging onto a filthy, gray strap, crushed between gorillas in Cubs jerseys. This morning there was a seat available, and I made a beeline to it, narrowly beating out a bony woman in scrubs who surely deserved it more than I did. I sat anyway, with not the slightest remorse because sitting > standing.

In front of me, a tall, handsome man stood, oblivious to my existence. I looked down at his large feet to avoid staring directly into his crotch, and immediately began to wonder how large his penis was. I think how ridiculous it is that I’m 40 now and still think about these things, and wonder how long it will be until my mind will finally move on to other things, like politics, or poetry, or bird watching. Or will I be, as I suspect, a frail 90 year old, sitting on a train, wondering what handsome strangers look like naked? Is he hairy or smooth, hung or not, cut or uncut? What music does he listen to? What things make him laugh? Do touching Youtube videos make him cry? Has he ever lost someone that he loved?

I’ve recently become even more ridiculous than usual. More pathetic in my desperate attempts for validation. I find myself posting pictures to Instagram of me, throwback Thursday pics of me when I still had hair, and recent pics of me in sleeveless shirts with biceps bulging so that strangers on the internet will see, and will ‘like’ this image. Every like is a heart. And every heart tells me that I’m still someone that someone else desires. That I may be 40, but I’ve still got it. Whatever it is.

I smile at men in gyms, and I maintain profiles on apps like Scruff (the hairier, bear-ier version of Grindr). Not because I want to meet men, or hook-up, because I don’t and I won’t. In nearly 7 years, C is the only person that I’ve slept with. I do it because I still need other people to tell me that I have value. And value, in my mind, comes from knowing that someone, somewhere, still wants to have sex with me. Not C, of course, because he loves me, so he doesn’t count.

Maybe music made for teenagers is exactly what I should be listening to. My nights have become sleepless again, and my days have been grayed out with uncertainty. Everything in our lives is up in the air right now. I may be getting a promotion, but it isn’t definite. My company may let me work from home in New Orleans, but haven’t given me the final answer. C may look for another job. We may be able to find an apartment we can afford with just the salary that I may or may not have. The only thing that is certain about my future is that at the end of August, our lease will be up, and we can’t stay here.

When faced with anxiety, my go-to response has always been to flee. This almost certainly explains the number of jobs I’ve irresponsibly quit, and the number of states I’ve lived in over the past decade. Even now, a bigger part of me than I’d ever admit to C, fantasizes constantly about loading my car up with my clothes and my books, and just driving away. The destination doesn’t matter as long as it’s not here. The desire to flee, I know, I understand, it’s imbedded into the pattern of my pulsing neurons. But lately there’s a new desire that manifests more often. One that leaves me bewildered, that fuels my uncertainty. The wholly unfamiliar desire to stay put. To renew a lease. To put a ring on C’s finger. To buy a house somewhere in a suburb, with a yard and a fence. Then, suddenly, I want to flee even more.

Instead I sit on the train in a pair of slacks, and nice (for me) shoes. I stare at the feet of the man in front of me, and wish that there was some new soundtrack to my life. Music for the middle aged. Songs about a stalled career, an aging relationship, impotent desire, where nothing is ever high or low, it’s all just the same flat monotone.

Then the train stops at Grand and State where I get off. I squeeze past young men in messenger bags, and when strangers smile at me I smile at back, then look immediately away. I walk past dirty blue tiled floors, and up sticky stairs. Pictures of the me I used to be fade into memory, and pictures of me now come into crisp focus. Posted on apps and social media to be dissected by strangers. A bearded jaw. Receding hairline. A pair of glasses, each prescription with thicker lenses than the one before. When the day comes, sooner than later, when my words and my images elicit no response from my indifferent audience, will I then be forced to finally grow up? Will I finally have found out how to love myself by then? Will I finally listen to music for grown ups?

As I walk up the stairs onto the bustling sidewalks downtown, Pictures of You fades, and the next song in my queue is a song by Taylor Swift. I do not take this as a sign from the universe. But I don’t skip to the next song either.