Missing/Music for the Middle Aged Part II

The posters are plastered all over my neighborhood. A black and white photograph of a man around my height and around my age, balding with a half-smile, a Hawaiian lei around his neck from some flowered vacation. He vanished during the weekend of Gay Pride. If seen, call 911.

He looks familiar, and I figure I’ve probably seen him in passing on the way to work, at the gym, or in some bar. A nondescript half-person who you see and dismiss because he’s not quite handsome enough, or who you look right past without seeing at all. He could have been me, really. Except I’ve never been to Hawaii.

I think about him while I am at the gym on the treadmill, and I think about him later as I am walking home. My mind goes to dark places wondering what happened to him. A suicide, a robbery gone wrong, an unfortunate hook-up with a serial killer? The best case scenario is that he just left on his own, ran away to some new city to start life again somewhere away from his family and his friends.

Still it is unsettling. Things go missing all the time. Socks. Tupperware containers. Engagement rings. But usually not middle aged men.

Days pass and I see the poster every day when I go to the gym. I see the big, bold letters that say MISSING in all caps, and my mind begins playing “Missing” by Everything But the Girl. I associate this song with dancing in the only gay club in my small, Texas, college town during the 90s. I think of all the people in my life who I miss, who have vanished, despite the fact that they’re all still around, occupying other spaces in other people’s lives.

“Step off the train. I’m walking down your street again…”

Week days are more or less the same. I wake up an hour before my alarm goes off and look at my phone. I scroll through social media posts, play mindless games, peruse gay hook-up sites and flirt with shirtless torsos.

During the week I always make my bed because my apartment is too small, and the bed takes up too large a percentage of available space, not to make it. I walk to work. Sit in the latest in a string of cubicles. Walk home.

On the way home I go to the gym. Everyone seems so tall and so young. Some days I flirt with a handsome couple around my age. Sweaty gym hugs and sideways smiles. During my recovery from my shoulder injury, my workouts have been limited. I feel lumpy and out of shape. Everything I do is painful and all I can think about is how wonderful it would be to just feel normal again.

On Fridays I usually go out to eat with friends or out for drinks. I’ll sit in the corner of some bar while my friends talk to cute guys, and I mostly just smile and nod.  My mom will send me a text message telling me goodnight, and I’ll send a picture of the cocktail that I’m drinking.

She sends a sad face emoji.

She tells me to join AA.

One night I was talking to my mom on the phone, and she tells me a story about my grandmother who is approaching the late stages of Alzheimer’s. My grandmother was getting agitated, so my mom suggested she look through a picture book.

My grandmother snaps, “I’ve looked at that book so many times, I’m going to turn into a picture book!”

Half an hour passes, and my grandmother becomes very upset.

“Jane,” she says. “What if I turn into a picture book? How will I eat?”

She becomes fixated on this idea of turning into a picture book, and spends the next hour wondering how she’ll eat, or go to the bathroom.

“I won’t be able to do anything!” She says, crying, until my aunt is finally able to distract her from her irrational fear.

“If I ever get like that,” my mom says, “I want you to put a bullet in my head.”

For his birthday, I go with my friend Ducky to see the Psychedelic Furs. They are playing downtown at the Showbox. Waiting in line, I’m shocked to see that the other fans are all so old. Bald men with gray beards and vestigial pony tails. Women with creased necks and bad dye jobs with too much cleavage.

“The good news is, we’re the youngest ones here.” I say.

Ducky says, “No. They’re our age.”

I wonder if he’s right. If we’re just a couple of middle aged men wearing clothes made for people a generation younger than us?

Ducky in cut off shorts and a Misfits t-shirt. Our friend Derick in Daisy Dukes and soft blond curls. When the band starts, Ducky drags us to the front of the stage. I trail behind him, apologizing to the people we squeeze past who glare angrily at us over drinks. I’d seen the band 10 years before in the same venue. They played the same set-list. A girl beside me sings along to every song and she and I both jump up and down excitedly when the band plays “Ghost in You.”

After the show we go to the Alibi Room for more drinks. Derick and Ducky get salads and cocktails. I get a cocktail and dessert. Key lime cheesecake. I look at my phone. Do a search for an update of the man who is missing. There is a brief news story. The day he disappeared, he left his keys, his car, and his wallet at home.

That’s it, I think.

Suicide.

As we are getting ready to leave, members of the band arrive at the same bar. Derick talks to them, while we stay at the bar, pretending to be cool. We end up staying until the lights come up and the bar closes. We walk through a night time Pike Market. Wet drenched cobblestones. Garish lights and long shadows. Derick pulls down his shorts and moons us. I start to take a picture with my cell phone, but it seems inappropriate, so I don’t. We walk up the hill back home, and some drunk guy makes a snide comment about Derick’s shorts.

Saturdays are Lance days. I sleep in. Then I make a big breakfast of cheesy scrambled Lance eggs and toast. I sit in my underwear and watch cartoons. Then I spend the day playing with Legos, or video games, or watching terrible movies. Sometimes friends manage to cajole me into joining them for dinner, but mostly I try to spend the entire day in solitude.

The summer days are long.

I sprawl naked in front of a fan in my air conditioner-less apartment or I go for long walks around The Hill. Shirtless young men walk past, glistening with sweat. People sit at sidewalk cafes with cocktails, and everywhere I look there is the possibility of sex. Leering from doorways and leaning off balconies.

I talk to my doctor about getting on PrEP. It seems like the responsible thing for a sexually active gay man to do. It would require lab work every 3 months to check my kidney functions. STD testing every 3 months. Taking a drug daily. Trying to convince guys that even though I’m on PrEP, I still want to use a condom because of pesky things like antibiotic resistant gonorrhea. But the whole draw of PrEP for most guys is the excuse not to use a condom.

I vow to not have sex again unless I’m really into someone. Or just be asexual. It’s easier.

C calls from San Diego. He’s lonely and isolated. He lives in a trendy neighborhood full of bars and restaurants, but he stays in his hot apartment. He doesn’t know anyone there, and can’t afford to go out. I don’t point out that this is what happens when you move to a place where you don’t know anyone. I don’t point out that we could have stayed in Chicago, or he could have come with me to Seattle. I just tell him that I’m sorry he’s lonely. That he can call me anytime. That I miss him.

I feel guilty for being happy. For having friends and having money and being able to go do things. Ever since I moved back to Seattle my life has seemed to just fall back into place. A job I like with co-workers I like. A fantastically located (if small and dingy) apartment. Friends to spend time with, and space for myself.

I realize, with some surprise, that most of the time I’m actually very happy, and I’ve started to face the future with…if not optimism, exactly, at least not my usual nihilism. It’s unsettling.

The next time I search for the man who was missing, I find an obituary.

The vague sort of obituary for single men who have killed themselves. Who have no legacy, and who leave only the slightest trace of their existence in their passing. A few scattered Missing posters that no one bothered to take down.

Every Sunday I have brunch with my friends. We meet at the same Mexican place that’s always hopping. The waiters always bring me a giant carafe of Diet Coke without me having to ask. Some days we sit in a corner talking for hours until it’s well into the afternoon, and some days we sit on the benches facing outside so we can people watch and talk about who we think is and isn’t cute as they walk past.

One day we go for ice cream, and because it’s Seattle, we get vegan, organic, gluten free, fair trade ice cream. I have tahini chocolate. It tastes strange at first, but it grows on me. I tell Ducky about the man in the missing poster, and about how I’ve been thinking about him.

“Oh, you heard about that guy?” Ducky asks.

He knows the real story which is too sordid and too sad, and not mine to tell.

The next time I go to the gym, I ask them to take down the missing poster.

“They found the guy?” The cashier asks.

I just nod.

I run on the treadmill with headphones. I wonder if it’s possible to miss the life you’re living even while you’re living it? I listen to Everything But the Girl sing, “It’s years since you’ve been there, and now you’ve disappeared somewhere. Like outer space. Found some better place. And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.”

 

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The Time Andy Killed Himself

76b“Did you hear about Andy?” Anisha asked me, leaning close to my ear so I could hear her above the throbbing bass coming from the speakers. Her vinyl dress squeaked against my vinyl pants. Her eye make-up was welded on, her hair crimped like Cleopatra’s. Her breath was alcohol and cigarettes. I felt it on my cheek as she whispered in my ear, “Andy killed himself in my bathroom last week.”

She started sobbing then, uncontrollably, as two of her friends pulled her away and walked with her outside the dance club. I stood on the dance floor beneath the strobing lights and watched her disappear. Other students continued dancing, oblivious.

Walking to my car later, a frat guy catcalled, “Hey space girl, nice pants!”

I drove home to the duplex I shared with college roommates, parked, and curled up in a fetal position. I felt like I should cry, or feel…something, but all I felt was numb. The whole world had lost it’s color, and my car, my apartment, the trees, the people around me were all the same dull gray as suppressed tears.

It was only later, when Anisha finally started attending class again, that I learned some of the details. My image of Andy was impossible to reconcile with the reality of his death. He was a year younger than me. Cute. Every time I’d seen him, at parties, dancing, or at the coffeehouse that we both frequented, he was smiling and laughing. But I understood, better than some people, I imagine, how someone could seem happy, and still want to die.

Anisha knew him best. She told me that when his parents found out that he was gay, they’d disowned him. He’d been completely dependent on them, and they’d cut him off. He couldn’t afford tuition for the next semester. He couldn’t afford his apartment, or to even feed himself. He got laid off from his part time job at a nursery. He was failing his classes. His world was falling apart.

Anisha had taken him in, given him a place to stay, and fed him, and even though she assured him that he wasn’t a burden, he felt guilty for accepting her charity. I’ll never know what was going through his head the night he pulled the trigger. Why, as a college sophomore, he’d felt as if there was no hope that his life was going to improve. I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been for Anisha, who loved him, to have found him, a red, bloody mess on her pale, blue tiled floor. But I think I can relate to what must have been his mindset.

Not a day passed in my teen years that I didn’t think of killing myself.

My own parents had abandoned me when they found out I was gay, if not financially, emotionally. In the 90s I had no gay role models. No “It Gets Better Project” to tell me that things could change, or improve. I thought that being gay was being doomed to a life devoid of happiness. I’d never fall in love.  I’d never marry. I’d never raise a family. I would exist in shadows with other deviants, living some half-life, cut short by disease at best, or endure a life of loneliness at worst. I could try and pretend to be straight, marry a woman and ruin someone else’s life too, or I could accept the fact that I would have to swim against the stream for the rest of my life. Either decision seemed unbearable and exhausting.

I don’t know what finally gave me the strength to keep going, or why Andy lost his. We were both lucky enough to have loving, supportive friends. I’d like to say it was courage that kept me alive, but I think in the end it was curiosity. I was just too interested in seeing how things would ultimately play out.

In 1996, the year Andy died, I was 20 years old, and I couldn’t possibly imagine the world I live in at the age of 36. Now there are major television shows with openly gay characters who love one another, are loved, who have families. In real life, there are happy, well adjusted gay people who live their lives, not in the shadows, but alongside everyone else, in the subway, the office, the grocery store. The fact that gay people can legally get married is something I didn’t think I’d even see during my lifetime.

Even I’ve changed. I live, openly gay, in the city of my dreams, with a (sometimes) sweet, handsome man at my side. The biggest surprise to me, after 16 years of life, and watching the world evolve around me, is to discover that I’m actually happy. I never thought that would be possible.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to travel back in time to talk to the teenage me. To tell myself that everything was going to be okay. I could have saved myself years of anguish and depression. (Although maybe I’d shield myself from the knowledge of my inevitable, premature baldness). Sometimes I wonder that if I talked to Andy, would it have made a difference? Would I have been able to convince him that life was actually worth living, that things would get better? It’s impossible to say. But I can’t help thinking about it sometimes, and wishing that the world had changed just a little bit sooner.