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 went 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.