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.

 

 

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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.

The Bath -Texas, 1997

76bMatt has already gone to bed.

I am curled up on the couch, pale and blue-veined as a fetus, waiting for a talk-show epiphany to cure my insomniac dreams.  But tonight’s offerings are stale and unsatisfying.   30 minute advertisements for useless exercise equipment, teeth whiteners, and hair restorers promise self improvement broadcast through radio waves, all for the low, low monthly installment of $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

Heavy hoofed, I hear the sound of Matt goose-stepping down the hallway and see his face around the corner, cheeks as red and breathless as an Aryan peasant.

“Are you coming to bed soon?”  He asks, yawning, all freckles and lips.  “I can’t sleep without you.”  He scratches his shirtless stomach and squints beneath the flickering blue rectangle of the television.

“In a minute.”  I say.

“Would you like a bubble bath before bed?”  He asks. “It might help you sleep.”

“Sure.”  I say.

For weeks it seems I’ve been on edge, like there’s lightning pulsing just beneath my fingertips, always on the verge of exploding.  I sit in classrooms and coffeehouses vibrating. The air around me hums, and I feel like even a pin prick could send me spiraling into space. The prospect of a warm, soothing bath sounds enticing.

He marches me into the bathroom, suffocating me with sulfurous kisses.  As Matt runs a bubble bath, I stare at my reflection in the foggy mirror.  All I can see is myself at odd angles, an ugly boy with a face full of flaws.  I touch my cheek and wonder what Matt sees as he stands behind me kissing my shoulder with rose-petaled tumors, the lips I’d once thought to be his best feature. I feel like there must be two of me, separated twins masquerading as a single person, the sweet, shy boy that Matt is allegedly in love with, and the real me who observes all of this from a distance with the cold detachment of an imbedded journalist.

Matt sits on the side of the bathtub and looks at me,  my blond curls, too thin frame, my hands clasped behind my back. I trace the squares of faded blue tile with my toes, self conscious beneath his unwavering gaze.

“At school today a girl saw my necklace and asked me if I was in the Olympics,” I say, fingering my freedom rings.

“What did you tell her?”  Matt asks, grinning.

“That I was on the luge team.”

“Do you even know what that is?”  Matt asks, laughing.

“No.”  I say.  “But I guess she didn’t either, because she believed me.”

We laugh and whatever strange tension was lingering in the air between us is dissolved, disappears into the shadows, creeps behind doors, and settles into corners of the apartment, teasing our periphery with a presence I know can make itself manifest at any moment. For months it’s been like this. We talk about everything that’s not important and go through the motions of a relationship and behave the way that men in love are supposed to behave. Robotic dinners in Italian restaurants are followed by mechanical sex and nights devoid of sleep, just half closed eyes and the grinding of gears.

“Who couldn’t believe you?”  Matt asks.  “You look like a cherub.”

“But I’m not.”  I say, smiling up coyly through long lashes.

“Believe me,” Matt laughs. “I know.” He dips his hand into the water and says, “How’s this?”

I test the temperature with my big toe.

“Fine.”  I say. “Did I tell you I hurt my ankle today getting off the bus today?”

Matt seems non-plussed.  “I once broke my foot in three places on a skiing trip,” he says.

I frown.  Matt pushes up my chin to kiss my pouty lips.

He says, “Now into the tub.”

I obey.

He bathes me as if I  am a newborn, holding my head, the navy washcloth gliding hot, and wet, and gentle against my skin.  Every motion is Freudian blue, familiar.  Lost in the shallow wrinkles around Matt’s eyes, I remember the way the two of us were two years ago when things were new.  The midnight walks, roses, first touches, kisses, the excitement of exploration have all become routinized.  I long for the warm, unknown touch of a stranger’s fingers against my skin.  Even roses when expected as an everyday occurrence take on the role of a lesser symbol of Matt’s laminated love.

Two years ago, the furtive late night drives to Matt’s apartment, through swirls of fog and hints of chrome, I felt alive.  Wearing only my high-school letter jacket and nothing else, racing barefoot up Matt’s stairs and hoping no one saw me, I rang the bell, breath white puffs of steam in the chilly air.  When Matt opened the door  I dropped the jacket and stood naked in his doorway, bathed in florescent light, an unexpected invitation, a live wire of sexual impulses, all hormones and heat.  The thrill of being alive, and young, and sexual was still new and I thought that it would last forever.

“What are you thinking?”  Matt asks, rinsing the soap off of my forehead with hands full of warm water.

“Nothing.”  I say.

“Nothing?” Matt asks, looking pointedly at my burgeoning erection.

His hand closes over my penis, slowly moving up and down.

He washes the soap off of my neck, sending unexpected chills through my stomach.

“Lets drive to the beach,” I say, sitting up in the tub.  “Lets drive to the beach and watch the sun come up over the ocean.”

Matt lets his thick wrist fall into the soapy water.  “The beach?”  He says, surprised.  “That’s five hours away!”

Caught up in the idea, I go on, “We could take a blanket,” I say.  “We could have a picnic.”

Imagined, the wriggling of toes through wet, salty sand, seagulls and concession stands.

Matt shakes his head.  “It’s late,” he says.  “I have to work tomorrow and you have school.  We can’t just take off like that!”

The back of his hand brushes my cheek.  I watch a thick drop of candle wax drip down the side of a candle in the windowsill in a mean, red blob.

“Oh.”  I say, looking at my legs clouded and barely visible in the milky water.

“Maybe we can plan a trip sometime later when we’re not so busy,” Matt says.  “It was a nice thought, though.”

He smiles, splashes me.

I smile too, having learned to mimic the motions, if not the feeling.

“I’ve never seen the ocean.”  I say.

Outside rain slips against the window in a slow, thin drizzle, and the roar of the wind through gutters sounds like an imagined ocean.

Later, in bed, wrapped in Matt’s red, flannel sheets, I stare at his shoulders, the smell of him, masculine and strange, his good night kisses a stale film on my lips.  I stare unblinking at his freckled shoulders and listen to his even breathing. I cannot sleep.

The phone rings, violently, startling us both. I stumble over Matt’s sleeping body in a tangle of cotton sheets, trying to find the phone on the nightstand by feel and knocking over picture frames, candles, a pair of handcuffs.

The phone rings again, vibrating beneath my pale, thin fingers, startling me again, though I know exactly who it is, and exactly what has happened before I pick it up.  I let it ring one more time before I answer.

On the other end of the phone is my mother’s voice, a voice that recalls scoldings, kitchen smells and bed-time stories.  “Its me.”  She says, “Paw Paw’s passed away.” A long pause.  “The funeral is Tuesday,” I hear her say.  “We’ll have to buy you some decent clothes.”

“Okay.” I say.

“We’ll go tomorrow morning before your classes,” she says. “I don’t want you to miss any school.”

“That’s not important.” I say.

“Yes it is!” She sounds angry. There is another long pause before she says, “Anyway, I’ll call you in the morning.  Mama and Daddy love you.”

“I love you too.” I say.

Matt holds my shoulders in his thick, stubby hands.

“Was it about your Grandfather?”  He asks.

I nod, still holding the phone in my hand.

“So?”  He asks.

“His condition has stabilized.” I say.

“Well that’s good isn’t it?”  Matt asks.

I smile sadly in the dark as Matt drifts back to sleep.

When I come home from school the next day, Matt has dinner waiting for me.  Roses, a ransom of guilt and supplication are slowly dying in a vase of water on the dining room table.  Insistent, suffocating love proclaimed in petals beaded with water that seem to say, “I love you. Don’t leave me. Love me.” Cobalt blue, a pair of wine-glasses full of expectations and ulterior motives sits in wait.

“Its filet minion.”  He says when I walk into the kitchen.  “Like we had at the French restaurant that time after the opera, remember?”

Last night when it was my turn to make dinner, I’d brought home Chinese.

“You always have to out do me.”  I say, looking back and forth from Matt’s red face, the butterfly magnets on the yellow refrigerator, the fake marble countertop, the microwave.

“What?”  Matt’s lips are a tragedy.  “Don’t you like it?”

The dishwasher begins the rinse cycle.  “I’m a vegetarian.”  I say.

“Since when?”

The fish on the windowsill swims around and around above its black rocks in depressing circles, its fins like red and blue flame.

Stupid fish.

I make a mental note to feed it.

“Since always!”  I say, hearing my voice go high and shrill.

The fish opens and closes its mouth.

A bottle of red wine.

A corkscrew.

Two clear blue plates.

“I’ve known you for two years, and you’ve never been a vegetarian!”  Matt  says, a wooden spoon in his thick hand.

“Well, I always meant to be!”  I say, slamming my keys on the counter.

The microwave beats.

The oven light turns on.

The dishwasher pounds.

My head throbs and the fish swims around in depressing circles.

“You don’t know everything about me!”  I say.

“Well, I want to.”  Matt says softly.   “What’s this about?  Is it your Grandfather?”  He touches my face.  I force myself to stand perfectly still, when every cell in me instinctively recoils from his touch.

“Yes.”  I lie.

Matt’s arms around me crush me.

“Oh sweetie,” he consoles. “I know.”

Perspiration drips down the cold wine bottle in perfect little drops.

“You didn’t notice my haircut.”  I say.

“Yes I did.”  He rubs his thick fingers through my hair. “It looks good.” He says.

“My mom made me cut it for the funeral tomorrow.”  I say.  “She wants me to look normal.  She doesn’t want me to embarrass her.”

My mouth opens and closes.  I swim around in depressing circles.

Funeral.

My cousins, lanky and awkward in borrowed ties, don’t know what to say when they see me.

“How’s college treating you?”  They ask.

“Fine.”  I mumble and we all stand around on the patchy grass of the cemetery looking at our feet.  I notice with dismay that almost all of them are going bald, only a few years older than myself.  Standing pale beneath a sky that’s seven shades of gray, beneath a bucolic spattering of rain that doesn’t quite settle the dust.  As a child I was sheltered from this.  Death.  Premature baldness.  But I am no longer a child.  I have obligations, responsibilities.  I must behave.  I don’t want my mother to be ashamed of me.

Later, strangers who know my name and my familial ties shake my hand, ask about school, and all I see are grinning skulls, cracked lips, and the baring of teeth.

“What are you going to do when you get out of school?”  An old man asks, his wax lipped smile and firm handshake gripping my hand like a claw.

“I’m going to be a Time Traveler.”  I tell him.

My mother is several yards away, her arm around his grandmother’s bony shoulders, handing her a white carnation of long forgotten birthdays, casseroles, and Christmas eves. My grandmother is an old, gray turtle out of it’s shell. She looks so fragile with white hair spiderwebbed around her head.

“I dye my pubic hair blue.”  I say, and the man’s eyes widen and he thinks he must have misheard.

I smile as if nothing is wrong.

Strobe light.

The low throb of techno music.  Bone jarring, brain numbing music.  I dance.  I close my eyes and let my body fall into the bass, twisting and shaking in spasm after spasm of insistent, drug tinged desperation.  My black t-shirt clings to me with sweat.  Artificial smoke oozes down from the ceiling.  Hard bodies, wet and shirtless brush against me, throbbing, moving, spinning.  My eyes dart from body to body, from face to face.

Across the crowd, I see a familiar face in a dizzy, writhing sea of faces.  A face brown and Egyptian and far too serious.  The face belongs to a girl I know from class, from coffeehouses, raves, and late night, after hour parties. The face sees me and smiles in recognition and we move through the crowd toward one another.

“Hey, Anisha.”  I say as she presses against me with a kiss of greeting.  Her black vinyl dress squeaks against my black, vinyl pants.

“Did you hear about Andy?”  She asks, leaning close to my ear.  Her hair is like Cleopatra’s.  Her eye makeup is turned up at the corners in black and purple and silver lines.  Her breath is alcohol, cigarettes, and afterthought breath mints.

“What?”  I ask, the music pounding in my ears.  The dizzy glare of the strobe casts disjointed, jerky shadows.  People are grinding against me.

“Andy committed suicide last week.”  She says.  She is drunk.  She hangs onto me for support.  Her eye makeup is smeared, running down her face in black globs.  Andy was her best friend, a toothpaste smile, a GAP commercial.

“He shot himself in my bathtub.”  She says.

I don’t know what to say.  Andy was a year younger than me, cute, and always smiling.  I remember him playing board games at a party, remember talking once about a book I saw him reading, remember a lingering hug one drunken night as we were leaving, of Matt driving home, the two of us not speaking.

Anisha is still clinging to me, too tightly, grabbing my shirt, burying her face in my chest.  I go rigid as she slumps against me, until her friends pull her off and carry her away sobbing.  The dancers keep on dancing, oblivious.

All I want to do is get away.  I push myself through the crowd of bodies, of white faced zombies, mumbled apologies, and stumble out of the club, ears ringing.  At the door a girl grabs my arm and says, “I like your pants!”  I finally break away into the night, gasping for breath. On the drive home I pull over to the side of the road beneath the dim, yellow glare of a suburban streetlights.  Leaning over in the front seat with my knees pressed against my chest, I cry for the first time in years, but there is no sense of release. I’m still tight as a balled up fist and faded as a star that’s already been wished on and spent.

Months pass.  Another semester ends.  Holidays come and go. I move out of Matt’s apartment into an apartment of my own. For the first time since I was a teenager, I am single.  I don’t know how to fill the time. Time passes in a  string of nights, of feverish aching nights, one night stands with tall impostors, reckless and pressed against walls and bedsprings.  Promises are whispered into the folds of sheets and then forgotten. Loneliness is a phone that never rings.

Visits to my parents’ with baskets of laundry and grocery lists. We visit my grandfather’s grave, and later sit in different rooms watching different television shows, and I wish that I could tell them about Matt, or Andy, or about anything important, about the dull gray shade of loss that follows me like a stillborn twin. But there are things they don’t want to know, truths that they refuse to hear,  and comforts they can’t offer.

Anisha dropped out of school completely, and later, when I ran into her picking up some Indian food at a hole in the wall across from campus she told me about Andy. She told me that his parents, upon learning that he was gay, had disowned him, had cut him off so that he couldn’t afford school, or food, or his apartment. He’d been staying with Anisha for a couple of weeks, feeling like a burden, even though she’d assured him he was no trouble. And then one day she’d come home from class to find him in her bathtub, a gunshot wound to the head. She told me how she’d scrubbed and scrubbed with bottles of bleach, but still couldn’t completely remove the stain he’d left behind. There was really nothing left to say, just a final hug goodbye and wishing each other all the best.

Outside, lightning flashes, searing the summer air with clean, white heat.  It is night. The low bass of the neighbor’s car stereo rattles the naked glass of the bathroom window.  Steam from the full bath rises up, gray and snaking and hot in thick tendrils, fogging the window, the mirror, clinging to my skin.  The air smells like rain, wet leaves and bleach.

Next door the neighbors scream at each other in Spanish.  Thunder cracks through the summer night like a chemical explosion, rattling the windowpanes, shaking the stained white walls that smell like Play Doh, like crumbling chalk, like peeling paint.

Next door a baby cries, shrill and insistent into the night like a screaming cat.

In front of the mirror I take off my shirt.  My skin gleams gold and pale in the gentle light of one red candle.  The tiny hairs on my arms and chest glisten gold and blond in the shadows as I move.  I stare at my face, looking for wrinkles, a receding hairline, some mark of my inevitable decline.  I lean forward toward my reflection and whisper, “I love you.”  Close my eyes.  My lips meet the cool, steamy glass of the mirror.  If I keep saying it, I think, maybe one day I’ll believe it.

I step out of my jeans and underwear, and then, not satisfied, I step out of my skin, and leave my flesh, and muscles, and bones in a pile on the bathroom floor. I listen to the neighbors speak rapidly in Spanish.  My body spreads out like a stain across the tile. A baby cries. Tejano music plays next door. I sink into the bath up to my chin.  I imagine getting in my car and driving to the ocean before the sun comes up. Of shedding my clothes and walking naked across the beach into water until it covers me.

To let the ocean lull me to sleep.

To be carried away by dark and silent waves.

To drift off to a place where dreamers meet.

To meet my lover there beneath the waves.

And kiss him in the dark of endless sleep.