Good Times For a Change

This winter there were record breaking snowstorms in Seattle. The entire city was blanketed in white, and everything shut down. There was snow on the ground for weeks, and I watched hapless people sliding down steep hills on my way to work, only chuckling briefly at their misfortune.

Aside from the freak snow, the winter overall was fairly mild. I barely used my long, striped scarf or the heavy coat I’d worn so frequently in Chicago. Now that it’s Spring nearly every day has been sunny and warm. Summer promises to be long, and hot, and dry. Thanks to climate change, Seattle’s usual, gray dreariness has seemed to evaporate. I wear moisturizer with sunscreen like a responsible adult.

I find myself, approaching the age of forty-three, in very unfamiliar territory. For the first time in…possibly my entire life…everything is actually…pretty good. Normally when I feel that things are going well, I become nervous and wait for the other shoe to drop, but even my perennial existential dread has flattened out in middle age. A worrisome optimism has taken its place. This idea that if something terrible happens…I’ll deal with it.

A few months ago, I paid off the last of my lingering credit card debt from my years of living dangerously. Suddenly I was something I hadn’t been for over twenty years. Completely debt free. My job continues to chug along tolerably, and I feel the strange, and heretofore wholly unfamiliar sensation of actually thinking I might, sort of, have my shit together. Even more remarkably, I’m in a place where I can, possibly, buy an apartment, something I didn’t think was going to be in the cards for me. At least not here in this overpriced and gentrifying city.

Creatively, I’ve nearly finished my supposed novel. I’m almost at the point where it ceases to be an imaginary project I’m embarrassed of, and becomes an actual accomplishment…that I can be embarrassed of.

My romantic life is still basically non-existent. I still go on the occasional first date. And with decreasing rarity, I still occasionally have sex followed by varying degrees of regret. But I no longer feel that I’m held captive by the idea that I have to have a partner to be happy. If anything, the idea of arguing over the remote and listening to some guy snoring beside me for the rest of my life makes me feel that maybe a life of singleness is actually the better of the available options.

Middle-age continues to be a strange plane to navigate. I’ve come to terms that my body is no longer the body of a man in his twenties, and it never will be again. But that’s okay. It’s kind of a fantastic body. My beard is becoming increasingly gray, and the creases beside my eyes have become full blown wrinkles. But for the most part I’m enjoying growing older, even if I have absolutely no idea who most of the “celebrities” are in my recommended YouTube videos.

In my misspent youth I constantly longed for a fantastic life in a big city full of sophisticated, artist friends, wild adventures, and cocktail parties. What I’ve wound up with is very different. The friends I have are (mostly) not sophisticated, and (pretty much) not artists, but…they’re real. And I look forward to spending time with them, and talking about terrible music and politics over brunch while we ogle the cute guys walking past outside, and then getting ice cream and going on Pokemon raids.

While I was waiting for some fantastic life to happen, and dashing from city to city for years, chasing some dream of the life I thought I wanted…a life I actually love has taken root. A life in the present. One that’s green, and glowing, and full of wonder. I love having my own place in a beautiful city. I love being able to spend my evenings reading, writing, listening to music, and playing video games. I love learning things about myself, and I love the fact that after almost forty-three years…there are still things about myself to learn.

So maybe the other shoe will drop, and I’ll have some new catastrophe to try and bulldoze my way through (or ignore and skirt around if historical precedent is any indication). If it does, it will at least make for an interesting story. But I have the burgeoning suspicion that things are going to be just fine. And I no longer find the idea of being fine unsettling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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De-Voted

We counted seven deer grazing in a field in front of the airport. My mom came by herself to pick me up. Me in the front seat in jeans and a black hoodie, a pair of oversized headphones wrapped around my neck since they wouldn’t fit in my overstuffed bag.

“Texas is so ugly,” a woman behind me had said as the plane from Seattle landed in Dallas. There was no denying the ugly, flat brown expanse of it. I felt strangely defensive anyway. It may be big, and flat, and ugly, but it’s still home.

The flight from Dallas to College Station was mostly taking off and landing. We were only in the air for about thirty minutes. A handsome man had sat beside me reading a novel in some nordic language I didn’t recognize. Danish or Norwegian maybe. His long legs were folded up like origami, and he smelled like heaven. I sat for thirty minutes, achingly aware of his blue jeaned knees brushing against my own shorter ones. I’m always thankful for my stature when I fly.

The plane touched ground and he turned on a cell phone whose home screen was a summer photo of a pretty woman with a brown ponytail. Just as well. I looked for my mom in the parking lot, and couldn’t find her, so I texted her to honk.

Minutes later I was in her little black car, and we were driving past brown deer, nibbling, unconcerned, on brown, dead grass. It’s probably lucky for the deer that my dad was working, otherwise they might have ended up strapped over the roof of my mom’s car to later have their heads mounted on the wall of my old bedroom. There were precedents.

In my parents’ house I settled into my childhood bedroom, now occupied by my father’s hunting trophies, and the overflow of my mother’s closet. My father was working in West Texas so it was just my mother and I. We spent the days driving to College Station to shop and have lunch at chain restaurants I’d never have eaten at in Seattle, and evenings curled up on our respective couches in fleece blankets watching television.

“I wish A Christmas Carol would come on,” my mother said. “Or the Grinch. The old one.” Instead we mostly watched reality shows about people living in the Alaskan wilderness which has become my mother’s new obsession.

“I’d like to live off the grid like that.” She said. “Except with electricity and running water. And a grocery store nearby.”

“So exactly the way you’re living now?” I asked.

“Away from people.” She clarified.

When we weren’t watching people surviving the brutal winters in Alaska, we watched British mystery shows on PBS.

“Get off your phone!” My mother felt compelled to yell at me periodically.

I’d put my phone down momentarily and then pick it up again. Scrolling through profiles on a gay hook up app had become a compulsion. Interchangeable bearded men with muscular torsos with poorly written blurbs about what they’re looking for.

I’m just as guilty. My own profile pic is a filtered version of me with bulging muscles, chest hair damp with sweat after a recent workout, thick beard and baseball cap. A version of me that exists only in pictures. A profile that makes hairless twenty three year olds message me, “Hello Sir.”

But I’ve found that if I post a pic with a shirt on, I get no messages, and I am, above all else, an attention whore.

In actuality, I haven’t had sex, or even a date since June. I scroll through profiles hoping to stumble across a handsome man around my age who enjoys reading and quiet evenings at home with Netflix. But, as time passes, it becomes more and more difficult to even imagine a man who could possess all the qualities of someone that I’d look for in a potential mate. And, as time passes, I become less and less certain that a mate is something that I want in my life.

I spent the nights in my old bedroom, on a twin bed that felt like it was slanting to one side. The first few nights I was getting over a cold, so I took cold medicine that ordinarily would knock me out, but that instead had the opposite effect. I lay in bed, unable to sleep, my mind racing, imagining various endings of my supposed novel, of super powers, apocalypses, kinky sex, and sweet, romantic sex, and of a person who I could wrap my arms around and drift to sleep.

In November I participated in National Novel Writing Month. For that month I was dutiful and disciplined. I wrote every day, and managed the 50,000 word count with time to spare. Then the month ended, and I stopped writing again.

On November 16th, my grandmother died. She was 93. She’d raised 11 children of which my mother was the middle child. Five boys in a row, then six girls. She’d been sweet and vague. A kitchen presence that made fried potatoes and banana pudding. A collector of nic nacs. Of family photographs. Then she’d become cranky and forgetful. Then she’d spent years deteriorating until  she no longer remembered where she was, or who she was.

My mother and aunts had given up years of their lives taking care of her around the clock. She died at home, surrounded by family. The funeral was officiated by a man from my graduating class in high school. We’d grown up together, though had never been friends. He was a jock, most famous for having a large penis that I regretfully never saw. Of keggers and cocaine. At some point he’d become born again, and now is a youth pastor. His discovery of Jesus only made him more insufferable in my eyes, not less.

“He did a good job.” My mother told me over the phone. I didn’t fly home for the funeral.

One afternoon on my trip home my mother and I visited my grandmother’s grave. The cemetery was down a long, muddy, one-lane dirt road. It didn’t really hit me that my grandmother was really gone until I saw her grave. The fresh mound of loose earth. The headstone, already purchased years before when my grandfather passed, now with the date of her death filled in. So granite and finite.

My mother picked up a little Christmas tree the wind had blown over that was placed between my  grandparents’ graves. Red and gold ornaments glinted through fallen leaves. I picked through them and handed them to my mother. My mother staked down the tree so it wouldn’t blow over again, rearranged the fake poinsettias that someone else had left to her liking.

Nearby my uncle Bud’s tombstone had a cowboy hat on it. I wondered if I’ll have a grave, and what will they use to memorialize me? An iPhone. A muscled torso. A Lego. A book?

That Thursday my Father came home. Everything shifted to accommodate him. He watched old John Wayne movies in the living room, the TV blaring since he’s going deaf. My mother and I watched Poirot in her bedroom.

“Get off your phone!” She said.

We celebrated Christmas the Friday before. My job wouldn’t approve me to be off during the week of Christmas, so I had to go home a week early. The holiday wasn’t the same with my grandmother gone anyway. We’d always spent Christmas Eve at her house, filled to capacity with my aunts and uncles, my cousins and their children. Now the family splintered. My aunts all have grandchildren of their own.

I feel guilty for not having been the son my parents wanted. For not giving them a daughter in- law to complain about and grandchildren to dote on.

It’s just my mom, dad, and I opening presents in front of a tiny, artificial tree that my mother decorated alone. My mother opened the gift from me, a bracelet of gold hearts that she picked out and purchased herself. My father got shirts and accessories for his new, decked-out pick up truck. My mother gave me money and gift cards. My father gave us all scratch-off lottery tickets. I tell him I’d rather have the money that he’d spent on them.

We sat in the kitchen scratching off our lottery tickets. I won $5. I asked my dad how much he spends on lottery tickets every week, but he wouldn’t say.

“Stop squandering my inheritance, old man!” I told him.

I wonder what he would do if he won big. They already own their house and vehicles outright. He already refuses to retire because he doesn’t know what to do with himself. I wonder, but don’t ask him what his dream is. At this point in our relationship, a natural conversation seems impossible.

Over breakfast my dad asked if my clients at work are all black.

I was completely confused by the question, since I work at a cancer center, until my mom clarified. “He thinks you still work for the welfare office.”

I yelled at my dad for being racist. Then I yelled at him again for voting for Trump. “Republicans want to get rid of Medicare and Social Security. What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I am a lifelong democrat.” My dad said. “I just didn’t like Hillary Clinton.”

I was actually speechless.

The truth is…I voted for the first time at the age of 42.

When I was younger I wasn’t interested in politics. I thought it was one, rich white man who didn’t represent me or my values going against some other rich, old white man. Seeing the intelligent and capable Al Gore win the popular election, only to have the Supreme Court stop the recount in a very close race in a state governed by his competitor’s brother just made me believe that it was all fixed. Voting was pointless. The victor was predetermined by the powers that be, and choice was an illusion. I was apathetic.

When Obama ran the first time around I actually intended to vote. I filled out my mail-in ballot, but I accidentally circled in the wrong response on one of the local initiatives, so I didn’t want to send it in. When Hillary ran against Trump, I wanted to vote, but I was registered in Illinois, and we were living with C’s parents in California at the time of the election.

So finally, in middle age, I became engaged, and for the first time became actively involved in my governance. I still feel unrepresented, unvoiced, and apathetic. But, until we take to the streets in open revolt, it seems that voting is my only real recourse, so…I’ve become a voter.

My mother made Christmas dinner for the three of us. We sat around the kitchen table, which is metallic rimmed in the style of a 50s diner.

I scooped up cornbread dressing and deviled eggs with a giant roll. My mother collects 50s, red plastic kitsch, and has recently begun to amass a disturbing number of “mammy” figurines.

“Please stop buying these racist things.” I asked her.

“They aren’t racist!” My mother said. “They’re collectibles.”

She went on to tell me that she’s going to start taking pictures of all of her collected items with prices indicating how much they’re worth so I can sell them after she dies. “If your daddy shacks up with some floozy after I die,” she says, “Don’t let her get her hands on my chickens.”

On Saturday they both drove me to the airport.

I hugged them both goodbye. “You don’t have to go,” my mother said, holding back tears. “You can stay here.”

I feel guilty for wanting so badly to get back to Seattle, to my own tiny apartment, my own bed, my friends and my life.

On the flight from Dallas to Seattle I was dismayed to find myself sitting beside a chatty, young member of the armed services. He was in the Air Force, and noticed me playing my Switch. We talked about video games and discovered that we share a favorite game in Skyrim.

“Back at the base I play it on Oculus Rift.” He says. “I’m usually the only one in the officer’s lounge. Everyone old enough to drink goes off base, and everyone else is too young, so I have the video games all to myself.”

He talked to me at length about astro physics while I occasionally said, “that’s really interesting,” or “I didn’t know that.” Ordinarily I’d put on my headphones to discourage conversation, but his loneliness was palpable, and I didn’t have the heart to ignore him.

As we left the plane, I wished him a safe trip back to Alaska.

On Christmas Day, two of my faggles and I had Chinese food for lunch in the International District. The first restaurant that we went to was so crowded that we decided to find another, less popular place to ignore the birth of the baby Jesus. The place we ended up didn’t seem very busy, but an hour and thirty minutes after we arrived, we still hadn’t gotten our food. Brian ended up going back to his car and getting some cookies another friend had given him for us to snack on until our food finally arrived.

Despite terrible service, a ridiculously long wait for food, and finally being overcharged when the bill arrived, it was wonderful to be able to spend Christmas Day not with my biological family, but with the family of my choosing. The rag-tag bunch of misfits with whom I can actually be myself. We talk, and laugh at the ridiculousness of our surroundings. With them beside me I look forward to the year ahead. To love, and laughter, brunches and Bloody Marys.

My family will always be complicated, my love life may always be feast or famine, but my friends can always be counted on to love me for me. And to them, I remain hopelessly and happily devoted. Although if Sassy Bear ever reads this, I deny everything, you filthy whore!

Three Strikes

“I’m never going to date again!” This was what I proclaimed to my faggles one Sunday over brunch.

Our table was a hangover of Bloody Mary’s, Diet Cokes, and guacamole.

“Liar,” was Sassy Bear’s succinct response, no-nonsense snark in a scarf with a pierced labret and Unabomber hair.

Of course I didn’t really mean that I would never date again for the rest of my life. But I did think it was probably a good idea to shift the attention away from boys for a while, and focus on myself. The rest of my life was going really well for a change. I managed to stay in the same job, the same apartment, and the same city for over a year. After years of wandering aimlessly around the country with C, the stability was welcome. So I vowed to forget about boys for the foreseeable future. I was going to save money, work on my supposed novel, and continue to enjoy some welcome solitude.

Almost immediately after imposing my moratorium on dating, I went on three dates with three boys in one week.

The first was thin and blond with designer glasses. Thirty-five and put together in a way that I admired, and I looked like I crawled out of laundry hamper by comparison. We met at the same Mexican restaurant that my faggles and I have brunch at every Sunday. In the evenings it’s crowded and trendy with long waits.

We stood outside amidst clusters of other couples and waited for them to text me that our table was ready. I know that we made small talk but the only thing I can remember of our entire conversation was the confirmation that his nipples are pierced.

I made the mistake of ordering an “Ultimate” Margarita with my meal which was entirely more tequila than I was prepared for. When the check arrived, I dropped the credit card slip on the ground without realizing it, and spent 10 minutes looking for it. When my date finally pointed out, I dropped my pen trying to pick it up.

As soon as we left the restaurant I realized I’d forgotten my leftovers that had been so carefully boxed up, and also my date’s name. While both the meal and the date had been pleasant, it didn’t ultimately seem worth it to go back for either.

Date number two was a ginger with a fondness for kink. We made plans to meet at a bar conveniently within walking distance for both of us. As I stepped out of my apartment, a tall, thin red head in a yellow t-shirt walked past. I was pretty sure it was my date, but not completely certain, so I didn’t say anything, I just creepily stalked him the two blocks to the bar. The muscles of his back beneath his t-shirt. His pale neck.

Even after we both walked into the same bar, I still wasn’t entirely sure it was him, so I ordered a drink and studied his pics on the app where we’d met. Finally I opted to trust the statistical probability and introduced myself. We had a fun conversation about fetishes and the flakiness of men in Seattle. The bar was playing 80s music, and I periodically paused to sing along.

In the middle of “Heart and Soul” by T’Pau, he told me, “My mom really likes this song.”

I couldn’t help thinking that his mom and I probably would have had more in common. Not long after that, because we lived on the same street, he walked me home and kissed me on the cheek at the door to my apartment.

The third, and final, of my awkward dating triumvirate was with a 39 year old man, who owned his own home in West Seattle, and who, via APP at least, had engaged me with his witty banter.

He had dark hair, and wore glasses. Taller than me, but so is everyone. He dressed like a J Crew mannequin, but it suited him. We met at a neuvo-Southern place that boasted booths made from old, church pews.

As he sidled up to me, he said, “Lance?” I could tell from the inflection that it was recognition, and as soon as we were standing face to face, I recognized him too. We’d briefly dated 13 years ago when I’d lived in Seattle the first time around.

I was surprised that he recognized me since, back then, I still had hair, didn’t have a beard, and wasn’t nearly as buff as I am now. He looked basically the same. I remembered exactly two pieces of information about him. 1). He was obsessed with Tina Turner, and 2). His father had killed himself. After the initial, awkward realization that this wasn’t our first date, we settled into a comfortable spot outside, and caught up on the past decade plus over fried pickles and poutine.

I told him about C, and living in NYC, Chicago, and Santa Barbara. He told me about his recent trip to Morocco, and another trip to Europe where he saw the world premier of the Tina Turner musical. Neither of us could remember why we’d stopped seeing each other before. While there was no spark of romance, the conversation flowed easily, and the evening was enjoyable, if a bit surreal.

Afterward we vowed to stay in touch this time around, but proceeded to do just the opposite.

When I got home, out of curiosity, I read through my old journals to discover why he and I had broken up. Apparently he’d had a falling out with my former bff, a musician, because he’d had the gall to talk during one of her shows, and this had been enough to drive a wedge between us.

One evening C called. We caught up. I listened to his complaints about life in San Diego, while he listened to my assurances that things would get better. He asked if I’d been on any dates lately. I admitted that I had. He told me about the guy that he’s been seeing. Ben. I tried to keep the conversation light, but I have to admit I was a little winded. It had been more than a year since I’ve even seen him, and of course both of us were going to date again. But hearing about it caught me by surprise.

Apparently he and Ben fight a lot, a stark contrast to the two of us who never fought, not even as I was getting ready to leave. While I wish C only happiness, and want everything to work out, I am just petty enough to take some satisfaction in hearing about his dating difficulties.

After three strikes, I renew my vow to take time off from dating. From all the bluster and bravado, the spilled drinks and awkward silences. I decide to spend more time with my friends. I go to movies. Play board games. The faggles even convince me to go to a Karaoke bar in a sketchy part of town called The Orient Express. It’s comprised of a bunch of old train cars spliced together, with surprisingly good food, and very stiff drinks. Our group reserved the Hong Kong room, which was wallpapered in  gold. We drank Mai Tais and ate Chinese finger foods. We took turns singing pop songs I’d never heard of. I was very disappointed that they didn’t have the Social Distortion song that I’d spent the week previous practicing in the shower.

In the end we all sang A-Ha’s, “Take on Me” together, and the thought of boys was expunged, replaced with camaraderie and the seminal hits of Mariah Carey.

The next night I was still basking in the warm afterglow of platonic companionship, and was content to curl up in bed with video games and a terrible horror movie from the 80s. Yet, I somehow became convinced to meet a 28 year old for drinks at a bar down the street.

“You’re even cuter than your pics.” He said, sitting across from me at the bar, half a drink in, his hand already on my knee.

He was absolutely beautiful, 6’2″, a fuzzy blond beard, hair pulled back over his forehead. I was all flailing arms and fidgety. He was charming.

I bought us blue jello shots from men in jockstraps for some unknown fundraiser, and no sooner had they slid down our tongues, his tongue was in my mouth. Making out with him, I tried not to overthink why a tall, gorgeous, 28 year old was actually enthusiastic about making out with a short, balding, angry, soon to be 42 year old. To my surprise, I was mostly successful in this regard. We kissed what I can only describe as an obscene amount at the bar.

He asked if I wanted to go get burgers with him.

I said I had to get up early the next morning, and should probably go.

We kissed some more outside. Me standing on my tip toes to reach him. Him hunched over in a stylish brown jacket.

The next morning I did get up early to go work out and to cheer on a friend who was running a marathon. Walking to the gym, down rain dampened streets where the homeless people were still sleeping, huddled in doorways, I got a text from the boy. His name is A. He thinks I’m cute and wants to make plans to see one another again.

So I decide to put a moratorium on my moratorium and to give the gorgeous man who is interested in me a chance. I know that I’ll continue to be a walking pile of insecurity, but the benefits of continued making out with said gorgeous man, for the time being, outweigh the fear of impending heartbreak and rejection that I’ve come to expect.

 

 

Okay, Cupid

“I’ve really gotten into water sports lately.” The handsome man across from me says. A pair of oversized glasses, a shaved head, a nose ring.

“I’m…pee shy.” I say. I start to take another sip of my drink, but think better of it. Subconsciously set the glass as far away from me as I can reach.

That was months ago, and the cute, kinky guy has since moved on to a relationship with his BDSM dom, while my most enduring relationship in the past year has been with a box of Girl Scout cookies. We probably weren’t sexually compatible anyway, but I’d have at least considered trying to please him. I have a fairly laissez faire attitude toward fetishes.

I haven’t seen C in over a year now. He’s still a constant presence, even in his absence. I’m consistently reminded of our time together. The time he nakedly sang his impromptu and mildly obscene “I love hot dogs” song. The time he was acting out the dance from Memoirs of a Geisha while walking down an icy sidewalk in Chicago and fell so gracefully it seemed like he did it on purpose. Weekends of wine bottles and frozen pizza, playing the original Legend of Zelda with our green, clay face masks.

Last week when we talked, he asked if I had a hot date that night.

It was the first time we’d talked about moving on since I left. He’d been seeing guys here and there. And there was a guy who’d moved to Minneapolis that he liked. I didn’t have a date, hot or otherwise, but I thought, after a year, maybe it’s time that I put myself out there. Maybe I’m ready to really start dating again.

The thing is, I don’t really know how to meet people anymore. Technology has changed since the last time I was single, and the organic way that people used to meet one another, in bars or coffee shops, has been replaced by apps that make it easy to dismiss people. I dutifully download the apps and vacillate between wholesome profiles extolling my nerdy persona, and slutty ones celebrating my muscular pecs.

I scroll through men with laundry lists of who they aren’t into. Through the greedy guys who already have boyfriends and are looking to hook up. The headless torsos, and the pics of men who don’t list their ages that are always taken from very, very far away.

Nearly everything is a turn off to me.

Poor grammar.

People that don’t read books.

Anyone who refers to me as “stud” or “bro.”

Unsolicited anus pics. (For the record, unsolicited penis pics are welcome…For science.)

The word, “Looking?”

Twenty-three year olds who say, “Hey daddy!” (I invariably ask for a paternity test, and only one guy was clever enough to tell me where to deposit my DNA sample).

I’m attracted to quiet, bookish types around my age, who are reasonably fit, and who think it’s fun to stay in on a Friday night playing video games and watching terrible movies. Ideally guys who don’t smoke or do drugs, but who love hot, sweaty monkey sex at reasonable hours. However, if I were to draw a Venn diagram of guys I am attracted to vs. guys who are attracted to me, I feel like there would be no overlap.

At brunch, I tell my faggles that I think I’m finally ready to date again.

“I don’t think you’re ready.” Sassy Bear says. “And that’s fine.”

Brian, on the other hand tells me about how he’s made some matches on OkCupid. I’m surprised to learn that OkCupid still exists. I used to have a profile when it first came out, long enough ago that I still had hair when I created it. I cannot remember my old login, and my old profile was certainly expunged after years of disuse. So I download the app on my phone and create a new profile for the modern Lance that I’ve become.

The idea behind the site is that you’ll be more compatible with people with whom you have things in common. It asks you a seemingly never ending series of questions to gauge what kind of person you are, from, Do you believe in god? to Would you sleep with a serial killer? I’m narcissistic enough that I enjoy answering questions about myself more than I do actually looking through profiles of prospective mates.

My matches are filtered based on my ideal date range and relationship type, single guys between the ages of 35-55 who are interested in monogamy. The pickings are decidedly slim. The site quickly runs out of results and advises that I try again later.

A few guys message me with whom I have little in common. Our exchanges are polite, but perfunctory. No one I chat with really excites my interest. Nor, do I suspect, do I excite theirs.Then one guy messages me who I’d chatted with sporadically on other apps over the past year.

He’s an artist who, from his pic, appears to be in good shape. Who is single and in my acceptable age range.

“Are we finally going to meet?” He asks.

I say, “Sure.”

Things start off on the wrong foot. He wants to meet at my place and seems miffed when I suggest we meet at a well lit public place with people nearby who can potentially hear my cries for help.

“You think I’m a knife killer?” He asks.

“I think you could be.” I say.

He finally agrees to meet at a sushi place near my apartment, then later changes his mind and says he’d rather go to a burger place instead. I put on a nice pair of pants and wait outside the appointed restaurant for his arrival. He is late, and I’m briefly relieved that I can potentially go back home and crawl into bed in my underwear and watch Predator II. Again.

But he arrives.

He is my height, which makes for a nice change. He’s handsome, if a little out of shape. Like many men who came of age in the 90s, he seems to have adopted the aesthetic of Ethan Hawke from Reality Bites and never moved on. This is not necessarily a deterrent to my finding one attractive.

“You say…I only hear what I want to…”

In the restaurant he doesn’t sit across from me, like a normal person, but instead sits awkwardly beside me, so I have to turn and face him, and we are uncomfortably close. I pick at a texturally unappealing veggie burger. He asks if he can have some of my grilled mushrooms.

I am at first relieved that he isn’t the pretentious person that I expected. But then dismayed that he is very into astrology, but not at all into sci fi. Our waitress disappears for an hour and we are trapped there making awkward conversation until she returns with the check.

By then it’s already after 10, and because I’m an old Lance, I’m already sleepy and wanting to call it a night. But he seems engaged, and I don’t know how to graciously stop things once they’ve started, so I keep rolling with it. Because he’s driven in from the suburbs, I feel obliged to get the check.

He doesn’t thank me.

I suggest maybe getting dessert somewhere, or coffee, or a drink. He does not want to do any of these things. I don’t really want to do any of those things either. Instead we take a walk to a nearby park, and stand, shivering beneath an orange street lamp.

He smokes a cigarette, and I internally cross him off my list of prospective suitors.

“Do you want to go back to your place?” He asks.

And because I still find it impossible to say no to people, I say, “Sure.”

We sit on my bed and listen to music. I do not believe in astrology, or ESP, or any hidden powers of intuition buried in the bean gray gloppiness of my cerebral cortex, but I can very clearly see how the night is going to progress and feel impotent to stop it from happening.

I see his doughy face coming toward me, and he kisses me. And it’s not the worst thing in the world. He’s not a terrible person, and he’s relatively good looking, and making out is kind of my thing. But I’m just not into him, and I’m frantically trying to think of a polite way to get rid of him, but, short of honesty, can think of nothing. Instead, we kiss for a while, and he shows no sign of stopping or leaving.

Finally it’s after 1 am, and he starts to settle in. He turns off the lamp on the bedside table and takes his sweater off. I do not want to have sex with another person I’m not attracted to. And I don’t want to have sex with anyone that I don’t know well enough to feel comfortable around.

“It’s late.” I say.

He looks confused. “Do you want me to go?”

“I’m just tired,” I say. “And I can’t sleep with someone else here.”

He says nothing.

We kiss a little longer, and he finally puts his sweater back on. Picks up his phone and cigarettes and slips into his shoes.

When I’m standing in my doorway, and he is in the hallway, turning to leave, he turns back to me and says, caustically, “Tease.” Then leaves.

On one hand, I feel bad for making out with him when I didn’t want to.

On the other hand, we never discussed sex, and making out with someone doesn’t mean I’m obligated to put out.

I didn’t mean to lead him on. But maybe he’s right. Maybe I am a tease. Or maybe I’m just not as ready to date again as I thought. Or maybe he just wasn’t a good match for me. Or possibly a combination of any or all of these things.

As soon as he leaves, I delete OkCupid.

If I do meet a guy again who makes me feel sexy and safe, who makes me laugh, who gives me space, and makes me feel loved…and if I do all of those things for him, then fantastic. But if I never have that kind of relationship again…maybe that’s okay too. Being happy and being single aren’t mutually exclusive, despite what all of those toxic romantic comedies would have one believe.

Despite misgivings, I’ll continue to put myself out there. However tentatively. Even if I’m not entirely sure what I want on any given day. And even though there is nearly always a reason to swipe left…I will still look for reasons to swipe right. Because after years of failed relationships, of one night stands, and missed connections, I’m surprised to discover that I’m still somehow a romantic. Love exists, not in meet-cute romantic comedies, but in the relationships that endure. In my faggles and my friends. My family. And sometimes, during rare moments of clarity, it even seems that love really is all that there is.

Or it’s all hormones and co-dependence.

I vacillate.

Me, Myself, I

The last man that I had sex with wanted me to pretend to rape him.

We are naked in my bed, and he asks me to hold him down, so I oblige. I straddle him, holding down his shoulders, staring down at his red face, wishing I was alone instead.

“No, let me go.” He says. “I need to use the bathroom!”

I immediately leap up to let him go use the restroom. But instead, he whispers, “No, keep holding me down. Don’t let me up.”

I am so confused.

I hadn’t wanted to have sex in the first place. I’d just wanted to make out with a cute guy, which I’d told him explicitly while we were having cocktails and sharing an order of poutine. Yet flash forward an hour, and we’d somehow made it naked to my bedroom anyway.

“What’s wrong?” He asks, sensing my discomfort.

“This has just gone a little further than I intended.” I say.

He seems annoyed by my reticence. “We both know we didn’t come back to your apartment just to make out,” he says. His body is smooth and pink like an overgrown baby’s.

I should have asked him to leave, but instead, we finish what we were doing. He whispers his rape fantasy as he gets himself off. I hand him a towel. As he gets dressed, he talks to me about some upcoming shows he’s going to see as if there’s anything normal about what we’d just done. I just want him to go so I can be alone again.

I’d like to say this was a rare, random occurrence, but probably 95% of my sexual encounters were with men I hadn’t really wanted to have sex with. Because it’s easier for me to have sex with someone I’m not attracted to than it is for me to tell a person “No.”

That was months ago.

Since then I’ve had zero desire to go on dates. To meet new people. To “put myself out there.”

Instead I cancel plans.

I tell people I’m busy.

I say, “something came up.”

Instead I cocoon myself in my apartment. I read the latest Haruki Murakami. The latest Arundhati Roy. I watch cartoons. Play video games. Pretend to work on my supposed novel. I eat alone in restaurants and curl up alone in bed.

Other people would be lonely, but I get energized. After work I’m practically giddy just thinking about the ways I can spend my time. About finally having solitude. I dance in my kitchen making stir fries. I listen to music on headphones, and clomp around the apartment in house shoes.

In my ideal world, I’d have a boyfriend just one day a week, and the rest of the time would be Lance time.

In the real world, my boyfriend lives two states away and we haven’t seen one another since February.

Yesterday was our anniversary.

He calls and we talk for a couple of hours, but neither of us mention it. I tell him about my job. Friendly co-workers. A surprise raise. He tells me about school. The loneliness of a strange city. The difficulties of being poor.

We laugh at tasteless jokes.

He doesn’t know where to go for his 4 year degree. Or what to major in.

“What am I going to do with my life?” He asks in his Jerri Blank voice.

“What do you want to do?” I ask back.

He talks about wanting to buy a house in a small town one day. I tell him my desire to buy an apartment in a city.

“We just want different things.” He says.

That pretty much sums up the past 8 years of our relationship.

Today it snows.

I walk to the gym in the thick, black coat he bought me when we moved to New York City. Wet, white flakes melt in my beard as I cross over the Interstate downtown. After an Indian summer, it feels like fall lasted for only a week. Pumpkin spice and kicking through orange leaves. Now winter is already in full force.

In the gym I get cruised by senior citizens. White haired men with desiccated arms smile and wink as I walk from bench to bench. The good news is, my shoulder has finally healed, so the months of working out gingerly are over, and I’m nearly back to my old, pre-injury routine.

When a young man with blond hair and tattoos smiles at me, I’m so caught off guard, that I just look away, bewildered.

After the gym I meet my friends for brunch.

In the summer we sit outside, watching the men walk by in shorts and sandals. Now we huddle around an indoor table, watching men in coats and scarves scurry past as it snows.

“He’s cute.” Ducky says.

We all turn to look, but only see a hint of scruff and a puffy, blue coat.

Jason, who brought chocolate chip cookie cups, compliments my chest. Considering the fact that my friends make the Mean Girls seem nurturing and supportive by comparison, this is saying a lot.

The owner of the restaurants gets our table double shots of tequila. Cheers, the clink of glasses. I down mine in two gulps. Feel the warm alcohol slide down my throat. The table agrees that I’m more fun when I’m drunk.

“There’s nothing I’d do drunk that I wouldn’t do sober.” I say.

“But you don’t need as much convincing when you’re drunk.” Ducky says. “And you want to grab boys’ butts.”

We laugh. Jason makes a bukkake joke. “Sometimes a girl gets thirsty!” Madison says. We laugh some more.

We all have next Friday off work.

“Drinks, Thursday?” Ducky asks.

“We’ll see.” I say. “I’ve got a lot going on.”

“We all know that means you’ll be at home in bed, eating cookies and playing video games.” Ducky says. I keep forgetting that after so long, my friends actually know something about me.

“Maybe.” I say. “If it isn’t too cold and wet.”

“This is Seattle.” Ducky says.

Jason doesn’t have his patience. “Bitch, you’re going.” He says and it’s settled.

I remind myself that it’s good for me to spend time socializing with people, even if my instinct is to be a recluse. So I eat the orange slice that garnished my tequila shot. I smile at the people who smile at me. I laugh when someone says something funny. When it’s time to leave, I hug everyone goodbye.

“See you Thursday.” Ducky says.

“See you Thursday.” I say. I pull my jacket tightly and brace myself for the cold, for the long walk back home.

 

 

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.

 

It’s Okay to Talk About Leaving

I drove back up to the Pacific Northwest alone. I drove up the 101 with the mountains to one side and the deep, blue expanse of the pacific ocean on the other. Then I headed inland in northern California through the Shasta mountain range and pine forests. From then on the drive was harrowing. I wound through narrow mountain roads with sharp curves and steep cliffs beside eighteen wheelers and signs warning of rockslides and precipitous inclines. I leaned forward in my seat, gripping the steering wheel, certain I’d go careening off the side of a mountain to meet my end in a deep ravine at any moment.

“Just let me get over this mountain.” I prayed to no god in particular. But as soon as I was past the mountain….THERE WAS ANOTHER FREAKING MOUNTAIN!

Things didn’t level out until Eugene, Oregon. By then I was shell shocked and just ready for the trip to be over. An indicator that one or more of my tires was low kept blinking on my car’s dashboard. I don’t know how to put air in a tire, or how to change a flat, so in addition to all of the other things that deeply concerned me, I was also afraid of being stuck on the side of a mountain with a flat tire, waiting for AAA to come.

I spent two nights in cheap motels. One in Fairfield, California and the other in Cresswell, Oregon. In Fairfield, the room was nice, and I watched cable television while some terrible children above me yelled for no reason until their terrible parents yelled at them to “shut the fuck up.” In Cresswell the only room available was a smoking room which smelled like stale cigarettes and misery, and the room was shabby and outdated. I lay in a lumpy bed with lumpy pillows, worried that someone was going to break into my car and steal my meager belongings, or that I’d wake up to a flat tire or both. At 3 am I listened to a man and woman have sex. The way the woman was screaming, I’d have been concerned that she was being murdered rather than made love to, had she not kept yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The weeks leading up to the move were hard. I was unhappy, and my unhappiness was a gray cloud that covered the whole house. Santa Barbara felt like a prison, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t happy, that I wanted to leave. We were no closer to getting a place of our own and still sleeping on couches in his parents’ living room. He was frustrated that I wasn’t trying harder to fit in and I was daunted by the prospect of spending $1600 a month on an apartment in a town where I had no friends, where there were no coffeehouses and bookstores, where everyone was tan and smiled toothpaste commercial smiles.

“You should go back to Seattle.” He said one evening. “You talk about it all the time. You miss it.”

It had become clear as time passed that we didn’t want the same things, or to live in the same places. I’d already been thinking of escape before he suggested it. Seattle was the last place I was really happy before we’d begun our haphazard, cross-country odyssey. Once the words were said aloud, it became fact. I was leaving.

We spent the last couple of weeks taking pictures of beaches and streets lined with palm trees. Of red-tiled rooftops and ocean sunsets. We sat in the garage watching the same shows or playing the same video games as if nothing was changing, but a distance was already growing. The invisible miles that separated his heart from mine.

His family had one last dinner for me before I left. C deep fried tortillas, and we had tacos. We drank wine from the glasses his mother had given us for Christmas.

“I really appreciate how well your family treated me,” I said.

“They’re your family too.” He said.

I didn’t cry until the morning I drove away. Then I sobbed, hard, wracking sobs onto his shoulder. He cried too, and we just stood in his driveway holding one another.

It’s very hard to leave someone you still love.

When I got back to Seattle, it rained. I drove up hills lined with wooden houses with rosebush front yards sporting “Black Lives Matter” signs, “No One is Illegal,” “Love is Love,” and I knew that I was back.

My friend Bill had been kind enough to allow me the use of his guest room. I unpacked my few things, my computer, a handful of books, and my clothes, and got settled in. After months without, such simple things as a closet and a bed that I’d taken for granted became precious. To have a room and privacy again was a gift I can never repay.

I couldn’t help but think about C still living with his parents. Still on a couch, still having no privacy or space of his own. Without me, he can’t afford to move out, and without my car, he has to rely on them or buses to get to and from school. He makes plans to transfer to a school in Northern California where the rent is cheaper. We talk about me going to visit at the end of the month, to see if that’s a place I might want to live for the next three years until he’s finished school. But I don’t know that either of us really believes that’s going to happen.

Being back in Seattle is strange. The city I used to live in has been replaced by a newer, more expensive one. I walk down gray, rain slicked streets, past the new restaurants and bars that have taken the place of my old haunts. The old city and the new city are superimposed over one another, so I see both at once. I feel like I’ve fallen out of linear time, and the past and present exist at once, giving me a never ending sense of deja vu.

I sit in a coffeehouse that I used to sit in when I lived here before. The barista is the same barista that I dated 10 years ago. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says. “How’s life?”

“Interesting.” I say.

Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by joblessness, the temporary room, the drastic change and stark absence of him beside me, sharing this with me. I weep a little as it rains outside and hipsters in wet jackets walk inside shaking umbrellas. I wonder if coming back was the right decision, or if this will be another in a string of decisions that I regret. I wonder if I’ll ever live the settled life of people with families and houses who have made better choices than me.

I sit in coffeehouses and walk to bookstores. Already I’ve reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in years. I’ve had brunch and drinks, I’ve made plans for dinners and happy hours. Piecemeal I try to reassemble the life I used to live. I sit in the same corner of the same cafe I used to sit in, and for a moment it’s as if I never left, as if the last 7 years never happened. But they did happen. The weight of them creases the corners of my eyes in wrinkles that weren’t present the first time around. The cities and the people I’ve encountered have left their mark inside me, invisible maybe, but present like scar tissue criss-crossing my heart. I look for jobs while folk music plays in speakers overheard, while people younger than me sit illuminated by smartphones and laptops, hoping that this time, I’ll make good decisions. That the second time around I’ll be able to do everything right, and that everything will finally work out….despite historical precedent.

For now the sky is heavy with dreams and the future unfolds like a map, clouded with uncertainty, but, for the moment, full of promise.

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.