Subject: Joe College, Part 34 Joe College, Part 34 I have a thing for sleeping on floors. Sometimes in hotels, I strip the bed of its comforter and curl up on the carpet with some pillows. Mattresses vary too much. My sleepbones can always rest on a hard surface. It’s possible that I keep a bed of my own out of respect for social convention. Convention is important. I don’t want a reputation as the dude who sleeps on floors. It would have been spring of 2008: before Jamie Calmet left for business school, at a time of year where you’d crack a window even though it wasn’t quite warm enough. A bunch of us went back to his apartment at around 3 a.m. He had a jailbroke Nintendo Wii and downloaded bootleg tracks for Guitar Hero III, meaning that we illegally jammed to Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy tracks that weren’t supposed to be part of the game. For a few years, Guitar Hero was a huge part of my group social life. TV shows about young Manhattanites don’t have the courage to show that kind of thing. This is all to say, a bunch of people got wasted in Jamie’s apartment, I fell asleep drunk on the floor, and woke shivering to silver-grey cloudlight that could have been 7 a.m. or 1 p.m. My jacket hadn’t performed well as a blanket. A cool floor drains your body heat. Warmth is a key benefit of a mattress, a fact that they don’t emphasize in the podcast ads. I was shivering cold, cramped, confused, dehydrated, mouth washed in the sweet-and-sour tonguefilm of a cheap-beer hangover. I needed a moment on all fours before I staggered to the kitchen sink, drawing water to a half-clean glass. There had been girls the night before, an even chance that Jamie had hooked up with one. He wasn’t flashy about that kind of thing, but I knew how it worked. Had so many awkward moments where we were out together and started talking to people, girls who assumed that each of us was interested in each of them, awkwardness building until I mumbled a pained explanation of why that wouldn’t work. I’d gotten better at handling those situations, neither being abrasive nor telling them why I wouldn’t hook up, instead leaning into a low-key goofball aloofness that made me inaccessible without being harsh or soliciting a personal disclosure. I wanted to emulate Jamie’s gentle, easygoing style. He wasn’t skeevy or overt. He invited suggestions rather than make them himself. “So what should we do?” he might ask. A dude who looks like Jamie can leave things unsaid. He regarded with disdain guys who tried too hard — sometimes including Sam — not realizing the full extent of his advantages. He was like a rich person who thinks everyone has a personal chef and a driver. Sam constantly risked failure in ways that Jamie didn’t see. I had tested Jamie’s approach. It didn’t work. Dudes are blunt and gross. Their replies to open-ended questions involved graphic encouragement, not low-key sexual tension and shared agency. His bedroom door was ajar, shades drawn, the shape of a lone male body under covers. His room had a darkness and warmth that the living room lacked. I took off my hoodie, rolled it to a makeshift pillow, and curled on the floor next to his bed. He exhaled and rolled over. “Bro, sleep up here if you want.” He was hoarse and hungover. “It’s not that awkward.” “I like floors.” “Suit yourself, but you’re shaking. You don’t have to live like a dog.” I climbed to his bed. The pillow was warm where his head had rested, and the pillow smelled like his hair. He was correct that I was trembling from the cold. It was more noticeable on the mattress. I hugged my knees to my chest. It took minutes for my temperature to normalize. By then, Jamie had returned to sleep. I followed. When I woke, it was almost 2 p.m. He had made coffee and was playing Wii tennis alone. His living room window was still cracked, but now it was sunnier and warmer, and the air from outside smelled like spring. He asked if we should order in breakfast or if I was going to go home. Stupid question. Nobody ever wants to go home. * * * I thought of that moment when, a couple of years later, Matt Canetti said that I couldn’t be bothered with a gay social life because I already had two boyfriends, named Sam Frost and Jamie Calmet. I thought that it was a nasty remark, that he was mocking my friendships and calling me dysfunctional. I told Matt to get fucked and kept him at arm’s length for a month or so, even after he explained. I took it as another signal of his growing bitterness, perhaps motivated by jealousy that he didn’t click with our three-man clique, even though I tried to include him when he first arrived to the City. Then I agreed that I misconstrued him. It was part of the same conversation where he was telling me that my self-criticisms were overblown. He wanted to reassure me that I already had emotional intimacy, reliable social support. No need to bitch myself out for stressing in gay bars or failing at the nuances of male-on-male romance. No rule mandated that I pursue those things. “Of course that’s what I meant,” he said, exasperated. “Kevin’s militant homosexuality fucks you up. Kevin hooks up with skanky dudes and gets wrecked at clubs because that’s his stress release. He and his friends only like each other because they’re on drugs, anyway.” That, too, struck me as highly unfair, and made me angry with Matt all over again. Kevin wasn’t close to the Brett Easton Ellis spiral that Matt described. By then, I’d become quite close to Kevin Berger, roughly at parity with Matt. Kevin and I even had a small hook-up late one night, when we were flighty and rowdy and the light was just right. Nothing crazy — mediocre making out and jerking off to completion, which was never acknowledged or revisited thereafter. Kevin’s friends were more interesting and accessible than the status-aware, precise gay yuppies around Andy Trafford. To the extent I had a gay social life, it mostly channeled through Kevin, even if I was never going to be *of* his scene. “I should never talk if you want to manufacture arguments all the time,” Matt said. “I don’t know why you get butthurt over what Kevin or I say. Neither of us should be your role model.” “I’m going to care what you think, dickhead,” I said. “You’re my friends, too.” “Well, that’s your first mistake,” he said, carefully timing a smile after the remark, again leaving me unclear of where his self-deprecation crossed into self-disdain. * * * Matt’s observation burned me because of its underlying truth. It had altered my life from 2008 to 2010. Those were the crash years, which had unique stresses already, but also the years when Jamie left New York for Harvard Business School, the same period when Sam had his first serious relationship, with a woman named Courtney. We’d been the anchor of each others’ social lives before that. I hung out with both of them most weekends. Sam and I never lived together after college, but we stayed within ten minutes’ walking distance — first following each other to the East Village, then to Williamsburg, then back to the Lower East Side. Some nights after work, he and I went out for beers and shot pool, went for runs along the East River. After my parents departed Westchester and bought the co-op in the Village, I spent hungover Sunday afternoons with Sam and Jamie, lounging on the big couches of my parents’ living room floor, watching sports and HBO prime time with my mom and dad. In the summer of 2008, I had a panic about our friendship trio. Jamie was leaving and it had become clear that Courtney wasn’t just a girl who Sam spent time with, who occasionally showed up to parties and bar nights. I worried that Jamie would lose touch and consort with grand people. That he’d romance a French heiress or move to the Bay Area after business school. He was leaving just as our friendship was in blossom. I felt robbed. Sam’s situation was possibly more unnerving. Everyone liked Courtney. Even Katie said good things about her. Courtney was quick and smart, unintimidated by our history and intensity. It seemed like she and Sam made each other happy. I *wanted* him to be happy and to have that experience. The dude was 25 and this was his first girlfriend. But I also feared his unavailability. The first night that he left a party because Courtney was tired at 1 a.m., I melted down to Katie. I predicted that our friendship was beginning its twilight fade, and told her that we had to let him go his own way, just as Ben Affleck wanted Matt Damon to drive through the countryside at the end of Good Will Hunting. “It’s like we’re living inside an Elliott Smith song,” I said to her, in my most extra despair. These fears about losing my two friends were misplaced. They possibly turned out to be healthy. It made me not take things for granted. Jamie visited the City about once a month. He crashed with me or Sam. Nothing in our rapport changed. School was okay and he liked his classmates, but he said it was more about credentials and networking than an actual education. He found the exercise cosmetic, cynical. “This guy I’m friendly with told me that three C’s are key to modern capitalism,” Jamie said. “Charisma, connections and cash. If you’re charismatic, you make connections, and that’s how you get the cash. You don’t have to be a genius or visionary. Don’t even need to be that smart. Basic professional competence is enough. Get people to like you. Don’t do fraud. Make a good impression on the right people, lend a hand when they need it, and they’ll help you in return. That’s all it is. The way this dickhead, Kyle, was talking to me, he thought we were both running the same scam, that we were laughing at all the rubes trying to get ahead through hard work. I realized that he was right on some level. His description of the ladder was right and he nailed my place in it. I’ve hated that guy ever since, but he wasn’t, like, wrong.” I thought of Trevor and the vaguely unsavory riches he seemed to be accumulating in Northern California. And as it unfolded, Sam’s romance with Courtney benefited everyone. She cleaned him up, channeled all of that unfocused social energy. He got tidier haircuts, trimmed his eyebrows, bought clothes that fit, worked out more, cursed and drank less. He was becoming more confident, more under control. Once the clean-up was underway, I saw how badly it had been needed. Sam had a history of getting stressed by the fact that women didn’t approach him the way that they did Jamie and me. Jamie looked like a young Alain Delon, without the creasing of a French chainsmoker. Dudes were diminished standing next to him. Women were always nearby. There was worthless spillover to me, with my impaired interest, but less to Sam. Absurdly, we only went to annoying clubs based on Sam’s wants. He ended up distressed almost every time. I dreaded those nights: everyone would be happy at 1 a.m., but at 4:15, I’d be sharing a cab back to the neighborhood with Sam, trying to smooth out his dejection, while Jamie took home some girl he hadn’t been looking to pursue in the first place. Sam didn’t have that angst about women when Courtney was on the scene. Even after their break-up, he was more at ease and confident. And if I wouldn’t describe the reformed Sam as hot, he was sitting close enough to the radiator. Like, if he’d been a stranger to me and he were into dudes, the prospect of taking him home would no longer have been completely laughable. It was platonic, heteronormative polyamory. Like Matt said. * * * There were no actual boyfriends for me. Not that I ever would use the term. There were easy, low-pressure hook-ups, which I assigned to appropriate mental folders. A few of those guys became friends over time, but they wouldn’t fully integrate into my social life. I got off with dudes the way I occasionally did yoga or took a boxing class at the gym. It was an intermittent side project, a primarily physical activity that cleared my head, but not enough to constitute a hobby, and certainly not a lifestyle. Like, I wasn’t desperate. I stayed discerning in my choices. I’d never get off with a dude unless he showed an underlying charm. I wasn’t going to waste my time and my body unless I felt warmth and ease. Andy Trafford once accused me of being skanky when I told him that I got off with a different dude every three or four weeks. Kevin Berger thought I was prudish because my activities were relatively mild: making out, jerking off, occasional oral if the dude and I were really feeling each other. “You’re like a tenth grader who never moved past initial experimentation,” he said. I didn’t tell him that sometimes I lost the hardon because a guy got too pushy about wanting intercourse. But he must have heard. Over a couple of years, I got off with a lot of the guys in Kevin’s friend circle, all of whom seemed to have gotten off with each other at some point. It was like an initiation into hanging out with them. In that circle, the gay handshake was a real thing. Kevin Berger and I weren’t even supposed to be friends. I avoided his overtures for my first couple of years in the City. He’d invite me for drinks or suggest that we meet for coffee: “That would be great, but I’m a little pinched for time. Let’s catch up soon!” He knew I was blowing him off, but nevertheless, he persisted. One rainy weeknight we ran into each other at the Union Square subway station. He tapped my shoulder. I thought he was a stranger about to harangue me. When it registered as Kevin, our awkward interactions from college revisited themselves as warmth and nostalgia. We both were surprised when I whooped and hugged him. After that, we hung out once or twice a month. His friend group had a lot of what people loosely refer to as creatives* — graphic designers, publishing dudes, freelance writers, a few in graduate school. Some waited tables or tended bar to support their artistic endeavors. Most had attended liberal arts schools or public colleges near the City, lived in Brooklyn with a roommate or two, and didn’t work normal nine-to-fives. {*In New York, people in professions other than finance, law or major media are often labeled creatives, even when their jobs don’t require creativity. I think it’s a polite way of calling someone a hipster.} They did a lot of bicycling and drinking and coke; there was facial stubble, lean muscle and tattoos. They weren’t bro-ish guys — in the lingo of hook-up apps, they weren’t “masc” or “straight-acting” — but some of them co-opted the fashion of hipster ballcaps worn backward and NBA jerseys in the summer, which showed off collarbones and tendons and shoulder sweat. I dug their looks. I’m a curiosity among Kevin’s friends, but it’s friendly. demetevler escort I don’t feel judged or teased. More than once, someone asked whether I’m sure that I’m even gay, to which the answer is, “I suppose so.” More than once, my answer was treated as a type of dare. But they weren’t prospects for deep friendships or a Victorian romance. I never had the type of conversation where interests and humors lock into place and you absorb the other as a person you need to be around. They weren’t drug addicts, the way Matt seemed to think, but they did coke and molly, sometimes crushed Adderalls that one of them was prescribed by a sketchy doctor in Tribeca. I’m judgmental about coke in particular. It’s tacky, cliche, anti-intellectual. A lot of those guys did it as their standard pre-game, which made it harder to discern sincerity. A drug to enhance intensity, focus or energy sounds like hell to me; escapism should be the only point of a drug. The vibe was fun and loud. I liked to chatter with them about nonsense; some were reliable for decent fiction and band recs. Sometimes, around 3 a.m., I found myself carried away by the idea of one of them, when they seemed sweet and full of promise. * * * Andy Trafford was my other gay friend. We illustrated a simple geometry lesson, where two straight lines began at the same point, diverging at a 0.1 degree angle. As the lines extended, that tiny angle steadily widened, the separation increasing forever. Andy hung with a crowd of high-achieving, polished, relentlessly appropriate gay dudes. Veneers, overgrooming, careful word choices. They went to the most selective colleges and graduate schools, worked at places like Goldman and McKinsey and the Cravath law firm. They had center-left, well-mannered politics — the people who enthusiastically liked Mayor Bloomberg and committed to the cause of gay marriage while describing themselves as fiscally conservative. I can’t picture them doing drugs or staying out past dawn, like the Kevin Berger crowd; a few of them probably had night sweats about the time they dabbled, and worried that it might torpedo a future confirmation hearing. They wore preppy, clean-cut attire, form-fitting enough to show the dividends of personal training. I was once trapped in a conversation where they compared trainers at Equinox based on expertise and attractiveness. They went to apartment parties and nice gay bars in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. In summer, they took house shares in the Fire Island Pines. They participated earnestly in big, irritating, gay New York institutions, like the Pride parade and that toy-drive thing around the holidays. So polite. Held less malice as a group than most of my friends do individually. Earnest, privileged, divorced from reality. They embraced every part of the system because the system worked in their favors. No talent for sarcasm or being weird. Andy taught math at a charter school in Harlem while he worked on a master’s in education at Columbia. He moved on to a magnet school in the Bronx, and later, in our early thirties, became assistant principal at a different school in Harlem. It was all very noble and good, but I thought he was sanctimonious about it. He dropped stray comments about how satisfying it was to make a difference, trying to draw a contrast between my own nonsense work. He didn’t make money like those in finance, law and television, so his parents aided his lifestyle, especially in our twenties. Nice apartment on Columbus Ave. not far from Central Park; his dad’s old Audi, which was kept in a private garage down the block. Classic limousine liberalism. “Mr. Authenticity. You’re such a man of the people, right-hand man of a hedge-fund guy,” Andy said. “Dude, I live in a shitty walk-up. Half my neighbors speak English as a second language.” “Are you proud of being a gentrifier?” “No one under fifty should own an Audi. Owning a car in the City is tacky. Super privileged.” He turned red and his face crinkled, but it was kind of cute when he got mad. Little-kid cute. Not makes-me-horny cute. He was a serial monogamist. He went on “dates” and used that term like a character in an old sitcom. Like this was the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Where, like, he’d go to a nice dinner or walk around with some pleasant dude. They probably talked about whether they had siblings and where they grew up. In our mid-twenties, he was in a two-year relationship with a guy in his early thirties, which I considered scandalous, both because the dude was over thirty and because Andy was the only gay guy my age to be in a serious relationship. I mean, the dude was perfectly nice and attractive, but I found the situation fundamentally weird. The biggest — perhaps only — appeal of gay socializing was the constant mixing of people, of meeting a person and getting a glimpse of his unguarded self, the fraternal communion of a stranger’s heartbeat. “You’re never going to meet anyone with that attitude,” Andy said. “Do you listen to yourself?” “I’m right.” “You sound like a sitcom mom.” “You do you, Joe.” “I’ve met everybody. I don’t understand when TV characters are, like, `I want to meet someone’ or `I think they’re the one!’ I meet people all the time. Learn to be self-sufficient.” “Such a rugged individualist.” “Maybe I should, like, date a fifty-year-old tax lawyer, maybe drive my uncle’s old Saab to his weekend house in Connecticut. Walk the grounds. Go to the farmer’s market. My fifty-year-old lover and I buy produce, crafts and baked goods at the farmer’s market.” I laughed while he glared. “My much older lover, Gerald, and I have a relationship based on mutual respect and open communication.” Andy gave me a middle finger. “Thanks for worrying about me, bro, but it’s okay. I promise.” “It’s not worry, you dick. You don’t qualify for worrying. I mostly marvel at the worldview.” “Ooh. The `marveling.'” “Friends aren’t a substitute for a relationship.” “They’re much better. Nobody tries to make me do stupid shit or talk about feelings, except for you, and I still get meet more people and enjoy my life.” In our twenties, Andy encouraged me to go out with him and his friends. I usually accepted, even if I didn’t have fun. I ragged on him, and I didn’t understand his choices, but I partly considered my attitude a personal failure. Even as we bickered, I was open to his perspective. It took most of my twenties to sort this all out. For a long time, when I didn’t like going to gay bars or hanging with a certain crowd of dudes, I thought it reflected an ongoing uneasiness with myself. The way to overcome that was to relentlessly expose myself to the things that discomfited me, with the expectation that I would acclimate over time. I was never going to *like* the music of Robyn or assorted pop stars; would never feel comfortable dancing with another dude, or even feel that impulse. I didn’t expect those dispositions to change, but I thought that I could reach a point where perhaps I could get swept into the enthusiasm, if just to play-act for the night. For instance, I don’t care for Premier League soccer and there are plenty of bands that I’m neutral about. But when you’re in a bar watching a game with people who care passionately, or in a group of superfans at a small venue, the enthusiasm engulfs you. When you vicariously experience others’ euphoria, it’s a small vacation from yourself. But mainstream gay New York never clicked, and one day, I shrugged and let that project go. There was no breaking point, no big drama or falling out. Two incidents come to mind. Both were extremely benign. In one, Andy had set me up with a dude in his friend circle. Very handsome bro, impressive life — chief resident at one of the major hospitals in the City, fancy college and med school, a couple years older than me. I once made smalltalk with him at a party that Andy had dragged me to, but felt no connection beyond my sweatflash of attraction. ANDY: Would you be interested in going out with Clay sometime? JOE: lol ANDY: I warned him about you and he’s still interested. JOE: Really ANDY: Yeah. JOE: Warned how ANDY: I’d never speak badly of you to outsiders. I just told him that you’re not one for dating, have an active social life and can be aloof. JOE: I’m not aloof, but otherwise accurate ANDY: Do you want to go out with him? JOE: Why ANDY: He’s kind, eligible, and accomplished. JOE: Yeah, I know. He can do so much better ANDY: That’s what I told him but he’s interested regardless. Jamie was away at Harvard and Sam was often occupied with Courtney. My free time had more slack than usual. I mean, I still could count about a hundred people in my broad social circle, but maybe this was an opportune time to consider the type of traditional romantic relationship that I’d heard so much about. Even though he didn’t fit what had become my standard type, the dude was objectively handsome. Broad shoulders, dark blond hair, nice lips and cheekbones. He was very genuine — even earnest — in a way you don’t often encounter in the City. Because he grew up in Atlanta, he had traces of a Southern accent, which I found exotic. I was so determined to keep an open mind that I didn’t even counter-propose when Clay suggested dinner at a nice sushi place in the East Village. I dislike sit-down dinners at quiet restaurants. My preference would have been to-go pizza slices and a bar. Much easier to spread out and speak loosely. Sit-down restaurant dinners are like being on an airplane but with better food, all confined and immobile. We had so little to discuss. Like, he described a two-week trip to do volunteer work at a field hospital in Haiti. I told him that was selfless and impressive, then wandered into a story about the time I rolled my ankle at a rock show. I wasn’t trying to be a dick — I was being self-deprecating about my lack of injuries and medical expertise — but I must have sounded dismissive. When he asked me about work, I waved my hand away, saying that work was a way to earn money in order to support your real life and outside interests. That was a common view in my circle, but I doubt that a person who saves lives for a profession has the same outlook. And on it went. He didn’t have the free time for books, rock shows or movies, but acted interested in my recommendations. I didn’t want to go into detail when I tried to answer his normal-enough question about siblings and family. Yet I could tell that he wasn’t entirely uninterested. As we awaited the check, we sat in silence, like each of us was waiting for the other to make a suggestion, that we go get a drink or otherwise keep hanging out. We’d flash eye contact, and I’d smile blandly and nod acknowledgement, like he was the passenger seated next to me in aisle twelve. For a few seconds, I worked up the idea of inviting him over to my place, because he was easily kissable and I wanted to touch his dick. There’s no way it would be a chill one-time thing. If I got off with him, he’d tell Andy. He’d text the next day to say that he liked meeting me and ask when we could hang out again. Then I’d have to be like, “Thanks bro, but I think we’re good,” or else play along and draw the damn thing out, to the point where the awkwardness broke me and somebody’s feelings got hurt. That kind of thing had happened before. So I gave him a handshake outside of the restaurant, plugged in my earbuds, and walked home. ANDY: What happened? JOE: It was fine, he’s a very nice guy ANDY: I got texted a 🙁 JOE: Seems dramatic ANDY: This is the last time I do this for you. JOE: He knew what he was getting into ANDY: Clay is too good for you. JOE: Probably JOE: Also, that’s mean. I didn’t ask you to do this and gave it a shot in good faith JOE: I was just congratulating myself for going outside my comfort zone and handling it with maturity. Would it have been better if I got off with him and then ignored his texts because we don’t have anything to talk about ANDY: Sorry that I was mean. You’re my good friend. Clay’s a good guy and you are too. ANDY: You’re just frustrating. JOE: I’m actually super-chill. Stop expecting me to be someone I’m not. Most of the time I’m cool with it but sometimes it sucks Then there was the time I accepted Andy’s invitation to go to his house share in the Fire Island Pines for a weekend. I liked beaches and drinking. I knew the gay section would have a different culture than the rich-family area where the Traffords owned their own beach house, but, worst case scenario, I’d hang out and do my own thing by the water. My main memory of that trip was that dudes walked around in speedos and their bodies were well-suited for them — not the fitness of athletes, but of supplements, carb terror and obsessive training regimens. Even dudes in their fifties and sixties were too fit and overtanned. It was a festival of body-image problems. The intensity of effort and display braced me, like I wandered into a pageant when I stepped off the ferry. I felt out of place in my baggy shorts, beat-up sneakers and eight-year-old tee-shirt with my college logo on it. At Andy’s house, I sat in shade, trying, but mostly pretending, to read The Power Broker as neighbors and acquaintances drifted through the deck to chat and gossip and nurse drinks. I only put on swim trunks and got into the pool after I had the house to myself. The rest of them left for a late-afternoon bar crawl. That night, Andy and his friends pre-gamed before going out to a club. I rarely smoked at the time, but I stepped outside to a second-floor deck for a cigarette and solitude. It was clear and quiet, and interior scenes of other houses were visible through picture windows and bright lights. In one, I saw a lithe, middle-aged naked man hurl clothes and paperbacks at an unseen person while he wept and shouted, in throes of grief and anger. My interest weren’t voyeuristic; I was alarmed and uncomfortable, like a Hitchcock character accidentally witnessing transgressions from across the courtyard. He threw his small frame of fury face-first onto a bed, punching at the mattress. I wondered if I was about to observe some violence and felt for the phone in my pocket. His antagonist never even entered the frame. I turned away, cigarette shaky in my fingers, feeling guilty for having observed someone’s private anguish but reassuring myself that I hadn’t been a transgressor. I didn’t want to go to bars with loud pop music and frantic people. I held The Power Broker to my chest and lay down on the living room couch, turning my hosts’ television to the Yankees game. Andy frowned at me. He wasn’t snarking; dikmen escort our exchange of expressions felt more like mutual understanding. Once they left for the bars, I felt self-pity, picturing Sam, Jamie and Katie having beers at a bar patio or in someone’s Brooklyn backyard. I missed speaking without premeditation, being with people who I understood. I had only told them that I was going to the beach that weekend with a high-school friend. They were tactful about not asking follow-up questions when it was time for me to branch off. They knew when something was up and they knew to leave it alone. The next morning, I left the house before 6:30 to catch the first ferry back to Long Island. I hadn’t said anything, and felt slightly crafty to depart so discreetly. That whole morning, I awaited a vexed text from Andy, but none arrived. I was hoping for at least light worry or disappointment, which I could then dissuade, thereby making me a good guy. JOE: Hey, sorry I took off without saying anything. JOE: Needed to bounce. ANDY: Yeah you did. JOE: What? ANDY: Sorry you didn’t enjoy. I get it. JOE: Your friends were nice. It wasn’t that. ANDY: I know. ANDY: I thought it might be a good experience, but you have your own way. * * * Those were just bouts of awkwardness. I wasn’t upset about them. Sometimes you sort a thing out through a blockbuster event; other times the solution materializes slowly, like an answer in the Saturday crossword. Maybe if I didn’t have other social outlets, or if I was more driven to a specific type of intimacy. There was nothing wrong with the things Andy wanted for me, except that I didn’t want them. I spent much of my twenties tormenting myself for disliking gay bars and not wanting a romantic relationship. It was years of low-key angst and awkwardness. I worried that I was depriving myself of a Major Life Event or an element of personal growth. There was no point pushing the rock up that hill. I could spend my time at the parties up top. Let the rock roll. * * * Because what are dudes for? Hanging out. Seeing who can run faster, make the shot, win at arm wrestling, get the highest score playing Chop Suey on Guitar Hero, be the first to connect four, take ownership of both Boardwalk and Park Place. They’re for bonding over sports and going hoarse at rock shows, jumping up and down when it’s 3 a.m. and you’ve all had ten drinks and floorboards must not constrain you. They’re for sharing stories and ideas, riling each other up with interests and causes. They’re for venting and commiserating over mundane frustrations. At the apex, they’re for making each other laugh so hard that you wake with sore abs. I was thinking about my pal Montaigne, and why the social worlds of Andy Trafford and Kevin Berger were an unsolvable puzzle. As a reminder: Montaigne observed that romantic love follows physical lust, and is a series of rationalizations that conform to an erotic attachment. With friendship, you first understand each other for your true qualities. But my experiences hadn’t followed that formula. Andy and Chris were my established friends before anything sexual happened. I’d known Matt for a short time before we began our secret hook-ups, but I initially connected with him as a bro. I hadn’t wanted or expected anything more. My emotional and physical intensity with those three guys hadn’t followed the Montaigne algorithm — I’d perceived them as friends before boners came into effect. My brain couldn’t line up the way that Andy wanted for me. When I met a dude, I didn’t care what he did for a living or where he grew up; I aggressively didn’t want us to impress each other with credentials. I wanted to know who benched more, who ran a faster 10K, what teams he supported, which books were setting his brain on fire. I wanted us to make fun of each other and argue about nonsense. Maybe, as a bonus, we’d want to touch each other’s boner — in which case, cool, but let’s not be that spazzy from the outset. Like, whatever, I’m sure that dude has a fine boner. Most boners are fine. Was this an advanced form of denial? Dysfunction? Was it, at heart, something more sweetly old-fashioned — a hyper-masculine adaptation of a George Eliot/Jane Austen sensibility? I’m open to any of those labels, but ultimately don’t care. * * * Jamie’s detour to Harvard and Sam’s relationship with Courtney weren’t the only Major Life Events, obviously. I observed as Major Life Events passed through like weather systems. Matt Canetti: Disillusioned with work on Capitol Hill, he left D.C. in 2007 for Harvard Law School. He moved to New York in 2009 to clerk for a federal judge, then began work at a corporate law firm. Katie left an advertising job to work as a booker for one of the cable news channels; she was doing just great. Michelle left Stanford after only two years. There had been a series of inappropriate solicitations from an emeritus professor outside of her field. They escalated. In the pre-me-too era, he was disciplined by the school, she received a small settlement, and then spent a year in Germany and Italy, writing and considering her options. She ended up at Harvard, just like everyone else. In San Francisco, Trevor made a bunch of money at a real-estate investment fund. After the 2008 crash, he changed employers and made more money. He later joined a start-up at precisely the right time. It felt disreputable, but I didn’t judge him for exploiting a system that worked in his favor. Lots of us did variations of the same. After Evan left for Middlebury, my parents sold our childhood home in Westchester and bought a place on the eighth floor of a big old co-op in the Village. My mom completed her Ph.D and took a job in the City’s huge education bureaucracy. They claimed that they’d always thought about moving to the City once their kids left the house. My brothers and I reacted with alarm and protest, but after the move, I loved it. Friends and I visited frequently. My mom and dad became annexed to my social life in a way that never would have happened if they’d remained in the burbs. I was becoming one of those adult weirdos who’s close to his parents. Far from the Hudson River, Chris Riis was engaged to a person named Jenna. But you must have foreseen that already, you perceptive reader. * * * I had seen Chris only once since graduation, when we flew back for a football game in 2007. He was student-teaching at a suburban high school not far from where he grew up. He and his parents were on campus for the game. His mom was still healthy then. Sam propelled across the tailgate lot when we saw Chris from afar. He wanted to jump into his arms, but Chris dodged at the last instant. Chris wasn’t quite aloof. He hugged us and said warm things. The unease was subtle, like he was in a slight stomach distress that he didn’t want to acknowledge. When we’d lived together, Katie was able to tease him into lighter spirits, but her soft barbs and elbowing didn’t bring results that day. When I met Same and Katie for beers or hung out after a movie — anything — we talked over each other, drank more than planned, stayed out too late because no one wanted to leave. Our anticipation in seeing Chris was well past that. But it felt like socializing through a window. Even going out and getting wasted on campus that night, he didn’t get loose and silly, the way that he sometimes could. It felt like he was conscious to hold himself back. He posted a group photo of us on Facebook that Sunday night, with a caption like, “So great to spend this weekend with my second family.” The word choice surprised and touched me. I reminded myself that he often chose to put himself at a slight distance. It was his nature. It felt important that he had been pleased to see us after all. * * * After that, we had few one-on-one communications. He was on group texts and e-mails, but rarely contributed unless conversation was about sports. I texted after he wrote a soulful Facebook post about the old-age death of the family retriever, Handsome, with a photo of his scrunched-faced twelve-year-old self being nuzzled by the puppy. “Thanks for writing, man. It means a lot to me,” he replied. Later, I sent a careful e-mail after I heard about his mom’s diagnosis. I said that we’d be around if he needed people to talk to or wanted visitors, that we’d make plans for him in the City if he wanted a weekend away and some fresh sites. “Thanks for writing, man. It means a lot to me,” he replied. * * * I later muted his updates. I mute and unmute capriciously. It’s not a personal slight. A couple of errant posts, you go into the penalty box. I’d mute myself if I could. In Chris’s case, he’d shared regular updates on his work to seed and restore a patch of suburban lawn. In 2020, that sounds amusing to me, even charming. In the late aughts, my thoughts were more, “Shut the fuck up, bro. No one under forty gives a shit about lawns.” I never got around to unmuting, which I also don’t consider rude. Via e-mail threads, I still benefited from his ideas about quarterback mobility and basketball recruiting classes. I was Facebook friends with his mom and some of his siblings, besides. I sent Barbara a brief message of support and she responded warmly. I followed the course of her treatment and recovery. Chris didn’t post about such things. I wouldn’t have, either. So I missed the Facebook post in spring 2010 that announced his engagement. My phone had a dozen texts from Sam and Katie. Katie: Who is this Jenna bitch, and how did she propose to Pieces Sam: I hired someone to do a background check Katie: Pieces is a virgin right? Sam: It’s 2010. Kissing is sex now. Kissing definitely counts for sex Katie: Explains why Courtney dumped you Sam: That shows you’ve never been properly kissed Joe: Just catching up. Looked up his post. She’s cute! I hope they’re happy Katie: Lame Joe: lol, I don’t have an opinion on this but I’m not shocked, it’s the midwest Katie: For sure people in the midwest get married young. Two HS friends got married at 25 Sam: We’ll be invited to the wedding, right? Katie: I assume you and Joe are *in* the wedding Sam: What’s the etiquette and ranking for that. This is my first real friend wedding Joe: Idk, he has all that family, idk that we’d be groomsmen Katie: I’ll order him to put you in the wedding Joe: I’m good as long as they’re happy. We don’t need to be in the wedding, as these texts might demonstrate Katie: Why are you being so hostile Joe: lol * * * An exchange with Michelle that night: Michelle: You heard about Chris, right?!?! Joe: Yes! Texted him to say congratulations. Michelle: Do you know anything about her or what’s going on? Joe: No! In the dark! I’ll let him share if he wants. Michelle: That’s fair. Michelle: You’re doing okay? Joe: Doing great. With J Cal right now, band about to go on. Michelle: Nice! Enjoy, just wanted to check in. Joe: Yes! Miss you! Talk soon. * * * Trevor wasn’t one for shit-talk or gossip. He left a comment under Chris’s post: “My man! So happy for you and looking forward to meeting the bride!” * * * A couple of years earlier, when I worried over the future of my friendship with Jamie and Sam, Chris’s news might have launched inner drama for me. I might have stayed up all night fretting, might have told our whole secret history to Sam and Katie in an effort to enlist them on a rescue mission. True, I suspected that our nice, weird friend was driving a speedboat into the lightning storm. But it wasn’t my place to worry, or even to hold an opinion. By then, I had accepted that my Chris-shepherding ended when we flew to Europe and he insisted on staying behind. He was a homeowner, a high-school English teacher, someone who drove a used Chevy and once rehabilitated a patch of his dang lawn. He had jumped into the comforts of middle-American adulthood, just as he claimed to have wanted when we were 20 and 21. I was skeptical once. He had proved me wrong. Never assume that other people share your priorities. When this news landed, I had my own relationships to maintain, people nearby who deserved my enthusiasm and attention. As much as I rooted for his happiness, his matrimony wouldn’t become my project. * * * Besides, even by my late twenties, I was questioning whether the Major Life Events people work toward and celebrate merely delay or distract from the important things. Like, I’m not wedded to this idea. I’m young-ish enough. There’s a lot I haven’t seen. Graduating from a place, coming out as gay, becoming a managing director, making partner, getting tenure, the book contract, buying a house, getting married, the marathon. People spend their precious lives on these things. Observed in reality, they don’t seem like the climax to a story. They happen, and they’re celebrated, and the story plods forward, with all the rhythms and insecurities of three months before. In bitter cases, they fuel deterioration. A person is made to believe that they were doing the right things, hitting milestones of responsible adulthood, emotional health, social esteem. Instead, it’s debt, constraints, external obligations that they didn’t foresee. We don’t weigh non-traditional priorities, our capacity for idiosyncratic identities, because almost nobody lives unconventionally, not even in this era of otherkin acceptance. It’s the same package that’s been around since before Chaucer: marriage and romance; work and commerce and property. Procreation and exhaustion, and food — enough with the goddamn food. Men and women. And when it’s same-sex, we’re trapped with the assumption that relationships should track the hetero arc and sentiment. We’re supposed to pretend that intense romantic commitment doesn’t require a severe trade-off, that careers and romance are always worth the opportunity costs. Even people who consider themselves radicals stay within that framework. We haven’t yet made room for people to calculate differently, to build a life around friendships, causes, or hobbies. Based on years of close observation, I’m now confident that a person whose happiness centers on their corgi, sports fandom, summer travel, a pottery wheel, a marijuana pipe or a flower garden gets more sweetness from life than a hedge fund millionaire. If you had a glimpse of the outcomes, the right choice would be obvious. But people prioritize against their nature, and they never find the path back. Shakespeare’s best comedies conclude in marriage, and it was the culmination of so many 19th Century novels. Given the state of healthcare in those times, I often worry that the heroine promptly elvankent escort dies in childbirth. I want Jane Eyre to enjoy the happiness she deserves. I love her so much. But I’m nervous. War and Peace illustrates that life is best lived in the gossip at parties, solitary revelations on the battlefield, reflexive passions. You spend 1200 pages waiting for the right people to couple off. When they finally do, it’s a mess. You fell in love with teenage Natasha, and you’re happy when she pairs off with sweet Pierre, but in middle age her spirit withers, she gains weight, she sounds clinically depressed. Nikolai and Maria spend their adulthoods preoccupied with debt and agriculture. Why would anyone want those lives when they could have attended parties in St. Petersburg and died like heroes on the battlefield? Natasha should have run off with Anatole Kuragin, who is the only sexually attractive male in Russian literature. So maybe your Major Life Event didn’t bring satisfaction. Maybe it drew you further from your nature. Maybe you’re content in work and marriage but you feel like these things weren’t meant to be your defining journeys. You didn’t weigh the possibility of opting out because you didn’t know you could. By your thirties, you already resent younger people because they don’t carry your disappointment. You resent their popular culture because yours is already in eclipse. Thirty years from now, you’ll think that the 2048 Trump makes good points about certain things — you just don’t always agree with how she articulates herself. * * * The good, raw movement — the actual equivalent of a climax or plot twist — arrives by surprise. It’s not the Major Life Event. It’s the hobby or project you began with modest goals; the friend of a friend who planted an idea at a party; the interview for the job you didn’t think you wanted; the inauspicious, spontaneous adventure that made you reclaim agency over life. Epiphanies sparked by a song lyric, a guitar arrangement, a friend’s stray comment, psilocybin at an all-night naked party at Burning Man. Not one sad, solitary motherfucker finds the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us, through a mortgage or job title. Welcome to the final stretch of my online erotica. * * * So when Matt commented on my friendship with Sam and Jamie, I was like, yeah, shit, they *are* my platonic boyfriends, and it sucks that that’s not an actual status. Why should it be socially unacceptable to center yourself in your friendships, to loudly embrace the whole range of healthy human relationships? I was surrounded by people who, like Matt Canetti, evaluated their self-worth on professional performance — easily the worst metric, but we all pretend like they’re doing something worthy. I unabashedly prioritized playing Guitar Hero above helping rich dickheads make more money, or getting off with some skanky dude from online. I could look past the news of Chris’s engagement or shrug when Canetti complained about working at 2 a.m. on a Saturday. They chose. People can’t resist the temptation of a Major Life Event. * * * My friendship priorities weren’t limited to Sam, Jamie and Katie. We were attached to a clique of fifty or sixty people. When you counted significant others, roommates and friends’ co-workers who stuck around, the headcount went past a hundred. New York is full of discrete social cohorts like this, each with its own motivations, rituals, vices. We were mainly connected through college, obviously: overlapping threads of friends who graduated from the late 90s to the late aughts. There were exceptions — Yale and Texas microcliques that folded in with us through roommate connections, former colleagues that blended in. Every year, a few people departed to California or D.C., and every year, new people moved to the City and folded in. I consider myself close to 15 or 20 of them, but I’m friends with everyone. We saw each other for birthdays, football games, the party holidays, the occasional beach day. Some did the same bar trivia every week. Some played on the alumni softball team. When the wedding circuit formed in my late twenties, we attended the same bachelor parties. We got the same table assignments at the receptions, spent the same summer nights drinking wine at expensive event spaces, dancing to the Jackson 5 and the Black Eyed Peas, feeling like imposters in the suits we owned for work meetings. People met spouses through this cohort. They found jobs through one another, started businesses together (charisma, connections, cash). People were smart, and nice, and treated each other well. When my college-newspaper buddy Mark Edwards suffered a ruptured appendix, I dogsat for him. Others coordinated hospital visits and helped him back at his apartment. A couple people stayed throughout his surgery and texted updates to his parents in Chicago. We were more coordinated and efficient than any business. Truthfully, I thought (think) that we were (are) better than other people. Sketchy shit doesn’t happen. These weren’t people who only went out to get laid, or snorted lines before going to a club, or tried to impress with a job title or apartment purchase. It was about the company and the momentum. Late at night, we had drunk pseudo-arguments in neighborhood bars about the worst states, the best movies of the seventies, the most underrated senators, late-90s hip-hop. We talked constantly about our alma mater’s sports teams, the campus’s bars and restaurants, reveled in nostalgia for old house parties and dorm idiosyncrasies. I felt (feel) proud to be associated with these people, to know that I’m threaded into their memories, the way they are into mine. That they’ll look back on the year I invited about a dozen of them to watch the July 4 fireworks over the Hudson from my parents’ terrace, and that twice as many showed up instead, drinking rosé and Coronas in the living room, lining up as the flares went off to the west, booms bouncing over townhouses and thudding our sternums. In a future July, decades from now, they’ll remember one of their early summers in New York and think of that night. When I found myself in different scenes, I had to say things like, “Oh, nice, one of my brothers went to Penn,” or, “Thanks for the offer, but coke doesn’t do anything good for me.” * * * But truthfully? At the risk of being arrogant, even that group loosely orbited around me, Sam and Jamie. They knew that Sam had the best New Year’s party. Jamie was able to hook up (or not) with the single women in our group and somehow remain friends with all of them. If one of us missed a birthday, our absence was noted with disappointment. When I was out with them, I still felt like Joe College. * * * Jamie and I had nicknames for each other. J Cal and J Coll, separated by a letter, names for a coupla hotshots on the seventh-grade basketball team. Sam’s name was structured differently (SamFro was stupid, like a Hobbit) and no Dadaist term stuck, either, the way it did for our friend Peaches and his girlfriend The Gravel Dog. Sometimes, Sam felt jealous of the click between me and Jamie. I tolerated non-sarcastic, feelings-based discussions about it, letting Sam talk and accept my reassurances. He wasn’t wrong to be jealous. Jamie and I got into weird shit that Sam found aggressively irritating. Jamie was up for anything. He wasn’t exactly an intellectual, but he was open to esoteric experiences, like Macbeth as performed by deaf Czech actors at BAM. We’d go to rock clubs in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side without knowing the bands, just because we wanted noise and energy. We went to short-lived, gimmicky clubs in Brooklyn, like a place where smoke machines filled the rooms so thick that you couldn’t see more than two feet and the bar served only house-distilled absinthe. Sam hated that stuff. He liked dive bars, sports bars and the occasional velvet-rope club, where we could escalate our banter, watch games and maybe flirt with hot women. He didn’t want to sit still through a three-hour play. Didn’t see the point of going to a rock show if you couldn’t hear each other over the music. Sam didn’t love to get weird. As for me, it was a relief for me to be excluded by Sam and Jamie. They shared confidences about dating and women and sex. Even in a small, tight-knit group, there are small allegiances, exclusions, power balances. Whether other people get laid doesn’t interest me. It’s like discussing food. Like, enjoy your dumplings or your blow job — the experience is your own. And Jamie understood that he’d never be part of the O.G., 1254 shit. Even now, writing from 2020, Sam, Katie and I will analyze the minutiae of college house parties, friends’ hookups, who said what to whom. Jamie knew not to ask for clarification if Sam and I laughed at the mention of Hot Pockets and pears. * * * The three of us worked in finance, but I didn’t do real finance. I didn’t work their hours or make their kind of money. I mostly ghostwrote emails and presentations for Martin, a sixty-year-old, spectrumish hedge-fund founder with a tendency toward sloppy typing and poor word choice. By my late twenties, I became his sounding board, his emotional-support bro, his surrogate nephew. I took notes during presentations and investor calls. He wanted my reactions to people and proposals. I answered honestly, even if to tell him that I didn’t understand enough to have an opinion. I was direct if I thought someone seemed full of shit, sometimes balancing it out by saying that their shitness shouldn’t affect anything. Because I wasn’t in line for a promotion and had no direct stake in the outcome, he accepted my opinions at face value. We liked each other. I could give you a few thousand words about Martin, the dynamics at that job and how I found myself there, but this story doesn’t need more characters and subplots. You can guess, fill in the blanks, and probably be correct. I was unchallenged, compensated well, treated kindly, and rarely worked more than 45 hours a week. Sometimes I’d get an oddball e-mail at 11 p.m on a Friday, but the responses were so easy that I could manage them drunk or hungover. * * * Sam, Jamie and I all agreed that we got paid more than we deserved, that our jobs were foolish, and that work only existed to fund our outside pursuits. Later, we seethed when peers and colleagues mocked Occupy Wall Street. If we’d spoken up at our jobs, we would have been viewed as likable eccentrics. We were too affable and clean-cut to be Fight Club; we were Thumb Wrestle Club, at most. * * * You might worry that Jamie was the object of displaced affections, that I yearned for him to follow the same pattern as Andy, Matt and Chris, the handsome platonic friend whose intimacy migrated toward bonerhood. Maybe you think my feelings about him would have been more healthily directed toward a Mature Adult Relationship or a Major Life Event. Don’t be such an Andy Trafford. I mean, yeah! Isn’t it pretty to think so? I indulged some fantasies in my first year or so in the City, before the dynamic solidified. We had eye contact, light physical brushes where I imagined that we were flirting. He was too comfortable with touching. Naturally my heart beat faster if he rested his head on my shoulder when we were wasted in the corner of a bar at 3:30 in the morning. He liked to hug people from behind, draping his arms across your shoulders and giving a squeeze. You might feel his breath. Perhaps it smelled like a dollar slice, in a good way. But the dude wasn’t gay, not even bi-curious as far as I knew, and I felt only brief pricks of physical longing. He enjoyed attention, he knew how to wield his looks, and I suspect that a sliver of him enjoyed my frustrated yearning. I confronted him on our boundaries. “I know you don’t mean anything, but it’s different,” I said. “Really, dude?” he said, slightly offended. “It’s different, yes. If you put your hand near my thigh, yes, it’s reflexively different. Like, I logically know you don’t mean anything, but my body might not understand that.” “I didn’t think about it because of how you and Sammy act. Like, you were licking each other’s hair at the bar.” “I think maybe, I don’t know. First off, we were pretending to be cats,” I said. “Sam said he liked the taste of my pomade. We lived together for years. We don’t have boundaries.” “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, dude. That was inconsiderate.” “It wasn’t inconsiderate. I like that we’re comfortable. I just want to maintain equilibrium.” “Say no more. It won’t happen again.” But of course it happened all the time. He’s just a touchy, affectionate dude. I’m not his target — everyone is. He’s better at hugging my mom than I am. I felt minor envy when he showed the same casual affection to others. My feelings weren’t quite healthy, but at least I was lucid about them. It’s okay to have unproductive impulses as long as you brush them away. Denial will drive you into the ditch. * * * Sometimes strangers asked if we were related. Someone once asked if we were boyfriends. I blushed every time. We improvised prosaic falsehoods about our family history or romantic relationship. I was delighted by our untruths. * * * Even though we didn’t discuss it, I knew that Jamie and I had similar, restless ideas about sex and relationships. Sam had dated Courtney for a couple of years. He went on dates. He wanted a girlfriend. Katie cycled through a boyfriend every eight to twelve months. She almost always had a guy. It was a risk when she brought a new one around. She didn’t care if we disapproved, but she knew within minutes whether Sam and I clicked with him. Our initial judgments didn’t change. It was probably *better* for her when we didn’t like the dude. Sam and I became legit friends with a couple of those guys, and they lingered on the edge of our social circle for years, showing up to birthday parties and barbecues. J Cal and I didn’t live like that. I mean, we weren’t bastards or hook-up artists — we didn’t pursue conquests or deceive people about our intents. Better to be celibate than to bruise a nice person’s heart. Hook-ups must be handled with care. I’d never contemplate a dude if I didn’t enjoy him as a person, and I’d seen Jamie politely extract himself when he saw that energies didn’t align. But neither of us chased anything deep. I’d had dudes who were more than a hook-up but less than a boyfriend. We hooked up for about a month, enjoyed each other’s company, and then kept in touch as bros. Hook-ups are good short stories. Some guys become novellas. There was never a dude who who I’d carry on the subway like Mason & Dixon or The Count of Monte Cristo. I would never bring a dude around my friends, the people I cared about most. They gave me space and left me to share what I wanted, which was nothing. * * * Until Jake. “Rhymes with headache,” Jake said when we met. “Rhymes with a lot of other shit too,” I said less-cheerfully when we messed it up only a couple of months later.

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