Originally written as a Facebook status update, this continued my now long-running habit of posting deeply personal stories on the social networking site. This one was about a lover who, a year after we broke up, was still on my mind.
The sun is setting, and one year ago tonight the first in a series of dominoes in my life was knocked over. Just in time for the show I was directing to open. Just in time for it to pile onto a series of misadventures and challenges I would face basically all the way up until relatively recently. Just in time for the summer to begin. Just in time for Pride.
Brace yourselves. This is a love story.
Though I have posted about The Boy in the past, I have always been somewhat cagey and overly poetic about it, out of respect for his former partner, who is someone I also care about, and my own former partner, who was already dealing with my mourning process in our home. Well, now I feel like it’s all right, due to everyone more or less having found themselves somewhere else in their life, to put it all out there. Or most of it. The thing I’ve found about these kinds of stories, is we’re never completely done telling them. Different parts rise and fall in importance with each retelling, details come and go as they are forgotten and remembered, and each teller of the tale shifts and sorts the facts as needed for the moment and purpose of the telling. The beloved goes from desired to detested, from hero to monster, the mourner from sad to angry to accepting, and like almost any good love story, it eventually becomes a ghost story.
Though we had exchanged messages for a while before hand, we hung out, officially, for the first time, at a wine bar in the Financial District, just as the summer was coming to an end. I had messaged him about a theater project we were both working on, and while the message was legit administrative concerns, in the back of my head I’d wondered if the eyes I’d felt on me all through the meeting we’d both attended were my imagination or not. They were not. Our messaging moved quickly from business to friendly probing, to a question of if I was in an open relationship. I replied that I wasn’t, just to see what happened. He backed off, and apologized. I replied that I was, in fact, in an open relationship, and that I was just being a jerk, but that generally speaking I avoided getting involved with people in my art form, for a variety of reasons, mostly that I would never want to lose a collaborator. He replied that he understood and respected that, but we should still meet for a drink. I replied that I was open to making a new friend.
At the bar, when he walked in, I was on the phone with a building manager I was working with at the time, and intentionally raised my voice to let The Boy in on the ridiculously convoluted conversation we were having. He sat down, and smiled at me for the next five minutes. When I was finally able to get off the phone, we both laughed, and then got very quiet. I ordered us a round. Halfway through our first bottle of wine, he asked if he could kiss me and I did it thinking it would be cute and awkward and we’d get it out of the way and just be friends. But there was an unexpected energy there. And when we moved away from one another, it was like a key had opened two doors, and suddenly we were having one of those conversations you have where you realize you may have met someone you really really like. We talked for hours, about theater, about shows we both wanted to direct, about how we had the same favorite show in common. We kissed more. Then we talked about our partners we both loved, our childhoods we both idealized, our adolescence we both had struggled through, our circle of friends we adored, our families we had complex relationships with, the things we loved and hated about the Bay Area, the shitty part about being young, the good parts about not being so young any more, and the reverse of that. We discovered we were both men who found ourselves in a moment of our lives where we felt like an important chapter was over, and we weren’t sure what was going to happen next. The world seemed both terrifying, and full of possibilities. We discovered we both had a talent for thinking epically, and dramatically, but also laughing at ourselves. We snuck into an office building with a public terrace I knew would be open. We kissed more. We changed bars, going from wine to beer. We wandered around the neighborhood together while the sun set. We said goodbye at dusk, as the first winds of autumn started to blow. Leaves rustled by him as he walked to his car. He was wearing a blue knit sweater. It all felt cheerful, and friendly, and harmless.
For the next ten months, we built a friendship that, to me at least, was profound and unusually easy. Knowing the optics were not ideal, I tried really hard to always be his friend first, his artistic colleague second, and his occasional lover last of all. But the truth is, there wasn’t much worry around that because everything felt fine, if not surprisingly smooth. We were excited to be new to one another’s worlds. Without thinking twice about it, I introduced him to my friends, and brought him into theater projects like I would anyone else I’d ever met and really liked and wanted to see succeed. I went to a party at his place, and he came to one at mine, both accompanied by our partners who we’d been sure to inform, and who we’d hoped would also like one another, and each other. In the gay boy world this is not unheard of or unprecedented, and for a while, we all seemed to get along fine. He and I occasionally had one another over for dinner, or breakfast, or just to hang out and watch movies. He showed me his favorite, I showed him some of mine. We played a lot of music for each other. We took walks around the neighborhoods we lived in, and we talked online during the day, mostly about stupid shit. Our jobs, local gossip, music. Occasionally we’d see a show together, and talk at length about scripts we loved and scripts we hated. I let him read my work. He offered surprisingly astute and thorough feedback. He bought me the occasional gift, and I bought him the occasional expensive dinner. I took him to see my favorite Christmas tree, and there we took the one and only picture we ever took together.
I tried to always have some kind of boundaries with him, but he would always find a way around them. In the ten months we spent together, we only spent the night together once. In the morning he walked me to work, and bought me a coffee. For me, it was the only time we ever felt like a couple, instead of friends. When he wrote me later that morning to tell me he loved me, I replied with a smiley face.
Once a jerk, always a jerk.
My favorite thing to do was take him some place he’d never been yet, be it a bar or a restaurant, Coit Tower or the piers. I felt like I was giving San Francisco to someone, and getting to be the guy I’d always wished I’d met, when I was new to the city: someone fun to hang with, who helped me take myself less seriously, and made me feel like it was okay to be new and a tiny bit ridiculous. When he eventually moved to the neighborhood which had been my first neighborhood it felt weirdly, wonderfully, like I was hanging out with a younger me. Not that he was so similar in details, but there was a spirit I saw that felt so familiar. This earnest, open, adoring young man with so much love to give, and so much life to still figure out. I wanted to see him do that. I wanted to watch him be amazing. I would say this to him sometimes, and he would reply, “I’m going to thank you when I win that Tony.” Which was cute, and appreciated, but mostly I just wanted him to really cherish where he was, there at the beginning of his life. Not to rush through it on ambition and someone else’s timeline, the way so many of us do. The way I often had.
That at some point he was going to move on, had always been inevitable, to some extent even desirable since his age and lack of experience made me hope opportunities and adventures for him. That he would carry the end of our relationship off as poorly, as selfishly, and ultimately as cruelly as he did, was something I should have expected based on his age and experience, but like every person ever who has been truly fond of someone, I both accepted his flaws, and blinded myself to them. And assumed that I would be the exception. That if I was honest enough, and gentle enough, and set the example, he would be honest and gentle back, especially in the moments when it would count the most. Which is not to say I did it all perfectly. I did not. I said some shitty things out of hurt and shock, which I didn’t mean, and which I apologized for, but which I still said. In a moment when I should have just swallowed my feelings and walked away, I panicked and I clung. I broke his trust by not being the the selfless but cavalier, perfect gentleman I had hoped to be, and promised him I would be when and if the time came. But neither was he the honest, brave companion he had promised to be. And while most of my friends are correct when they note there was a general lack of consideration on his part for my feelings in it all, the part of me that saw first hand what a mess he was, finds it hard to hold any kind of rancor over that. It was his lack of empathy for my mess that stung so hard. And yet, when it comes right down to it, I just don’t think there’s much point in blaming either of us, when both of us were just trying to make our way through a situation neither of us had ever really navigated before, and would have been difficult to do even if we had. We were both as human as humans can be.
He was charismatically ridiculous, absurd, funny, and sincere. A weeper, for sure. He showered me with compliments I knew he was in no position of knowledge to give, but I accepted them anyway as truth. There was something infectious about his belief in me, and it made me believe in him, in a level of self-awareness he probably didn’t have but I thought who knows? Maybe. I had already crossed lines for him and so I decided to go ahead and be as sure of him as he seemed to be of me, while constantly reminding him that there was a whole big world out there for him to find. He would tell me he knew that, even while pledging his devotion. He was very needy, but also very big hearted, and passionate, talented, driven, and smart. There was a lot about him that I found both endearing and annoying at the same time. A lot which reminded me of myself at his age. And me as I was now. He listened rapturously and made me feel special. He confided deeply in me, and made me feel appreciated. Constantly anxious, I would calm him down. Frequently moody, he would cheer me up. That he was lost was apparent, that he was looking, searching for things, struggling with them, made him seem noble. I would look at him and be sure he’d do something wonderful some day, and that would make me happy. I would tell him how thankful I was for our friendship, our romantic, unexpected friendship. And when his partnership came to an end, and he would look at me, sad, and lonely, wondering what was next, I would remind him that some day, someone would realize just how magic he was.
Specifically, I said that to him over cocktails one Sunday afternoon in the midst of, what I even knew then, was a perfect, breezy May. As we smiled at each other over the rims of scattered gimlet glasses, a piano player plunked out “Memory” on a nearby grand, 100% devoid of irony. We’d just walked the labyrinth in front of Grace Cathedral, talking about God, and journeys, and where your life takes you. Later, we ended up in the Tonga Room. Switching bars was a bit of a hallmark for our relationship, but also I knew how silly and perfect he would find it. Our ability to keep the romantic slightly absurd but also utterly genuine is something I have had wth only a few other people in my life, and when it comes right down to it, might be the thing I crave the most in my intimate circles. When I look back on this perfect day with him, I remember him asking if he could buy me another drink, though we were already soused. I can see him sitting at a surfboard table with the fake rain falling behind him, and I find I don’t regret, for a moment, saying no to that request. That time, I knew it was time to go.
I miss him. Not every day, not even very often, but then suddenly, and unexpectedly, achingly so. He still hovers on the outskirts of my life, but the distance between us feels oceans wide, and filled with a million reasons not to be crossed, not the least of which is that I’m not sure the person I knew is really there any more. Part of me would be open to finding out. But then maybe not. Maybe it’s better if the person I thought I knew remains the dominant version in my memory. Figuring out if you can accept life with a ghost is often the hardest part of transitioning from lovers to friends. Not so much if you can do it- anyone can, if they’re willing to put in the work and confront the awkwardness- but rather, if you want to. Sometimes the price of friendship seems unexpectedly steep. It can be hard to accept what it means to grow with someone. There are moments it seems better to be haunted, than to be enchanted.
The last time we hung out, more than a year ago now, summer was starting and he had just met someone new and was excited about it. I was happy for him, and admitted to being a little jealous too. There had always been other men in the picture, in both of our lives. And those other men had had other men. I had met some of them. The ones I’d met I’d liked. So my jealousy was the friendly jealousy that they would get to do couple things he and I weren’t really at liberty to do, and that sure, on some level, we’d wanted to do. He understood. We laughed about it. I told him to take it slow, to not be so quick to give up his recently attained man about town lifestyle. Which was nothing I hadn’t said before, and by which I meant nothing more than what I said. Then he put on a music mix he’d made for me. There was something like a hundred songs on it. The first one was Anais Mitchell’s “Ships.” A song I’d told him was one I associated with him, seeing as it was about prepping yourself to let go of someone you love, who you know is going to leave, destined as they are for adventures abroad, and you being more settled where you are. I remember he looked at me, standing in the kitchen, from the corner of his eye, to see if I was picking up the hint, and I rolled my eyes back at him from the living room, in friendly exasperation over his earnest ridiculousness. Then I stood up, walked over, and put my arms around him. For a long moment, we stood at the windows, looking into the night, and then he broke away, and made dinner. We ate, got drunk, laughed, talked about books and theater and music and pop culture and all the things we normally talked about, in the same breathless, gregarious way we spoke to one another, and while always smiling at one another as broadly as possible. Later, holding him in the bedroom, he cried, and then sang to me, and then put his chin, sharply carved, onto my chest, as we told one another how much we loved one another, how special we both felt the other was, how much we’d never forget this time together, and promised we’d stay friends. Not that we thought something was going to happen. But of course, we both did.
The end of things is usually pretty terrible, even when it’s not. Ours was largely banal, after that point. A catalogue of progressively frustrating phone calls and texts until finally only silence would do. Appallingly common, like every other love story.
“I love being a homosexual,” I remember telling him one afternoon, when we were laying in bed together. It was either October or March, I’m honestly not sure which. Sometimes it feels like there were two beginnings to our relationship, but this moment happened somewhere after that. Somewhere in the middle, when it was just a nice thing. “There is something so incredible about it. My whole life, the company of other men has always just been so important to me. And of course, most men I actually don’t necessarily want to sleep with…”
“Though you probably do,” he interjected.
“And I probably have,” I retorted and we both laughed, the laughter of co-conspirators. Of accomplices. Collaborators. “But the thing is, and I don’t know how else to say it, but every now and then, it hits me how incredible it is that I get to do THIS with another man. I get to do THIS with MY FRIEND. I get to show you-” and I remember rolling over onto my elbow so I could look at him in late-afternoon shadows, rays of sunlight coming through the slats of the bedroom shutters, “-I get to show you how much I like being your friend in a way that can only happen because we’re both gay. You know?”
There are occasionally times I have wished that we’d just shook hands after our last kiss goodnight, and told each other we’d call in a year or something. But that would have required a level of foresight and selflessness we were too in love in that moment, to grant one another. And the optimism that had been there from the first kiss had brought with it a belief that we could be impactful in one another’s lives without repercussions, which is, of course, ridiculous, though also, admittedly, romantic and… generous. To meet someone and like them so much that you aspire to be nothing but good in their life and believe that you can be that for them, is a moment of, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, seeing God. And the truth is, as disappointing as the ending was, when I think of him, I still find myself glad to have known him. For all the havoc he departed my life with, and for all the fallout that ultimately resulted from that, there was a period of peace and joy I truly benefitted from that he helped create, and there were things I learned with him and from him, that I am thankful for and cannot forget. And I could spend my life walking around haunted with the pain of his loss, or angry at the ineptitude of some of his conduct, but instead I try, when I think of this particular ghost, to chose gratitude for our brief but brilliant moments together. This happened to us, and we shared it, and my life at least is richer for it. It came with a cost, yes. Show me someone that doesn’t. I came with one too.
And the weirdest part, is that I genuinely hope he wins that Tony. Who knows, but maybe he’ll even still thank me for it.
But, like, I wouldn’t bet on it.