Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Life’s Work

My first relationship began when I was 15, and lasted more than three years. Kourtney was a whip-smart, plucky blond who was an objective catch. She pitched softball and earned the nickname “Rocket” for her cannon of an arm. She sang “Unbreak My Heart” at a school talent show and moved people to tears. She was valedictorian of her class, an honor she worked tirelessly towards every day I knew her. After dating for a year and a half, we lost our virginities to one another in my bedroom on a Saturday night while “Linger” by The Cranberries played in the background. When high school ended, we went to different colleges, but continued dating. I was standing on the balcony of my friend Matt’s dorm when Kourtney called and told me she’d met someone else. She hung up the phone, and I dropped to my knees and cried for a solid 30 minutes. I genuinely loved her, but I knew the end was inevitable. In my heart, I was gay (or at least bisexual) and I desperately needed to explore this uncultivated side of me. So the next day, in October 2006, I kissed a man for the very first time.

When summer came, I moved back to New Orleans from Lafayette and got a job waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant called Cuco’s. One night after closing, I went to a gay bar in the French Quarter with my friend Lesly. From the balcony above the dance floor, I noticed an incredibly cute boy in a blue polo who was fending off a shirtless dude in acid-washed jeans. I bolted down the stairs and pushed my way through the crowd to find him. “Do you need some help?” I yelled above the music. “Yes please,” he said. “Pretend to be my boyfriend.” Then three days later, I asked Chad to be my real-life boyfriend. Chad was the first guy with whom I had sex, and for me, nothing had ever felt more right. I was definitely gay, and truly in love with this person. But when Chad stopped taking his anti-depressants, he decided he didn’t want to be with me anymore. The week Chad dumped me, my parents and siblings were at the beach and I was home in New Orleans, being looked over by my godmother. She could tell I was devastated about something, so she phoned my mom and told her something was wrong. So my family cut their vacation abruptly short and drove back to New Orleans immediately. That night, I told them I was gay. It was my nineteenth birthday.

In the fall of 2007, I moved back to Lafayette and met a guy named Jason through mutual friends. Jason was working on his Master’s Degree at Texas A&M, which put 300 miles between us. Even though he was a few years my senior, Jason was a virgin, which surprised me because he was very good looking albeit woefully idiosyncratic. I can admit this now, but at the age of 19, I was not ready to be in an exclusive, long distance relationship with anyone. And over the course of several months, I cheated on Jason with a number of other guys. Then, Jason moved back to Lafayette in early June 2008 and I broke up with him almost instantly. I believed I couldn’t take the pressure of having my older, successful, loving boyfriend move to the town where I’d slept with other men behind his back. Of course, he found out about everything and it took years to earn back his trust and friendship. I’m proud to still have him in my life.

During that summer, my best friend Trey and I worked every freshman orientation. Trey was an orientation leader and I hosted pep rallies on behalf of the University Program Council. We had a weekly tradition of going out on the night of orientation to The Keg, a hotspot for underclassmen to get obliteration, and picking up freshly orientated homosexuals. One night, only days after I ended things with Jason, this guy walks through the door of The Keg and I turn to Trey and say, “That is, without a doubt, the hottest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. Too bad he’s straight.” Trey looks at me like I’m crazy. “He’s not straight,” he says bluntly. “He was in my group today. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” His name was Barrett and we dated for three years.

Even though our relationship spanned a sizable chunk of time, I’m not going to say too much about him. We were a toxic pairing, and with him, I learned firsthand about the human capacity to hurt and be hurt. I also learned about our capacity to be so madly in love that you can’t think straight.

The day we broke up, I went to a going-out-of-business party at a downtown gay bar. It was here that I met Ronald Eyer, mere hours after my three-year relationship came to an end. Ronnie drove in from Lake Charles for our first date and we had sex before dinner. A few days later, I woke up to use the bathroom and felt an intense burning sensation emanating from the tip of my dick. I called Ronnie and screamed at him through tears. “I liked you a lot!” I yelled. “And you gave me an STD!” A trip to the ER revealed a simple UTI, so I immediately called Ronnie to apologize. He soon after dropped out of McNeese and moved out of his fraternity house — just to be with me, his first boyfriend, in Lafayette. Ronnie moved into a studio apartment near mine and I got him a job waiting tables with me at Johnny Carino’s, a casual Italian restaurant that served dishes like “Spicy Shrimp & Chicken” and “Sicilian Firesticks.” We worked together, ate every meal together, and had sex as often as possible. He was nothing like anyone I’d ever dated before — tan, rail-thin, simple, and country — but I loved his East Texas accent and the way he filtered the word through his infinite sense of wonder and amazement. It lasted eight months before his mother suggested he move back home. I was heartbroken when he told me, and demanded we break up immediately. So he left my apartment and then left for Hitchcock, Texas a couple days later. A week after that, I received an envelope in the mail with a Hitchcock return address. When I opened it, a silver ring slid out and fell into my palm. When I held it up to the light, I noticed that it was engraved with the words, “The First, The Last.” He was going to ask me to marry him.

In Ronnie’s wake, I finally started taking stock of my dating life. Since I was a sophomore in high school, I pretty much always had a partner. And in the pockets between boyfriends, I’d managed to continue casually dating and fucking. Ronnie was the nineteenth person with whom I’d had sex and my fervent opportunism didn’t suggest he’d be the last. But in terms of serious relationships, I felt like the first era was behind me. I started to see each relationship as an episode, with a definitive beginning and ending. Though Barrett and I would continue having sex after Ronnie left, he was still a character from an earlier season. A few years ago, when Jason and I spent an entire Saturday night walking the streets of New Orleans and snuggling on a bench overlooking the Mississippi, it felt like a guest starring role on a very special episode.

I started my blog, ExboyfriendMaterial.com, and wrote essays about where and how these relationships began and ended. I never saw the point in kicking anything into the long grass, so I kept everything. People think true beauty is in nuance, but sometimes, beauty is obvious. It’s a wide-angle shot of an endless landscape. So that’s the way I started seeing myself with other men; it was the moments in bed just before he wakes up and [at the exact same time], it was days folding into months, folding into years.

This morning, waking from a dream, I realized I am single. I’ve been single before, but the difference between then and now is the palpable intuition that something else is right around the corner — beckoning me into some new, doomed union. But I don’t feel that. I don’t feel anything at all.

While most people compartmentalize the past in years, I define personal history by my relationship status. Since Ronnie, I’ve had seven serious relationships: Kyle, Cody, Nick, Jacob, James, Andy, and Jeffrey. If you’ve been keeping track, that’s 12 boyfriends and one girlfriend — spanning 13 years. Each relationship can be spun into an infinite narrative and reduced to a single sentence. And for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m standing on the last period of an ellipsis. 

Half of me wonders who will love me next, but the other half thinks I’m being selfish. I’ve made love my life’s work, and I’m not unsatisfied with what I’ve got to show for it. I’ve got all these photographs and totems and memories. A bottomless ocean of memories in which I often find myself at night, when I’m alone in bed, sinking. Drowning.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Kidnapped And Taken Somewhere Familiar

My office closed between Christmas and New Years, so I flew to Seattle with my best friend Joey to escape the blistering South Louisiana winter. In the month leading up to our trip, I struck up a relationship with a skinny, tattooed aspiring rocker and gainfully employed stockboy named Pete.

We'd known each other for years, but finally started to take our potential seriously. He convinced me to open up and be vulnerable with him, so I became comfortable and sincere. I sent him pictures from the top of the Space Needle and Snapchats of Dim Sum from Chinatown. In pockets of downtime, we'd have long, meaningful discussions about our insecurities and how we liked to fuck.

Then, the day before I returned to New Orleans, he ghosted. No response for more than 36 hours until this: "Hey. Been really busy. My bad." Joey and I were having dinner at the Airport Marriott bar when he sent his apology text. I read it and reread it. Then I excused myself, marched directly to our room, and vomited — learning immediately that clam chowder tastes exactly the same on the way up.

A few hours earlier, Joey and I were sitting on the waterfront eating the chowder I'd later projectile against the back of the toilet bowl. "What's one thing you've learned?" asked Joey. "Like if you had once piece of wisdom to impart on the world, what would it be?" The breeze off the sound picked up, so I pulled the piping hot bowl around my nose and mouth. "I don't know anything," I said. "Except that everyone has conflicting desires and everyone is capable of anything." A guy and a girl walked by and together we ogled the guy's ass until he was out of sight. I don't remember asking Joey what he'd learned.

After wiping the toilet rim clean, I draw a bath — cranking the gauge to scalding hot. Then I put on the new Run The Jewels album and wedge in my earbuds. I slide down so the steaming water rises around my throat.

When I wake, there's no music because I've cycled through the entire album. I can hear the TV in the other room, which means Joey must've returned from the bar. I ruffle through the pile of towels on the floor and locate my phone. Then I text the words "fuck you" and swipe the thread clean. No evidence.

Everyone is capable of anything and that leaves hearts, even the strongest hearts, open to bruises and breaks. Even worse, your heart registers disappointment before the rest of you, which means it gets a double-barrel shotgun blast of anger and hopelessness. It doesn't matter how many times the muscle in my chest tears apart and mends itself back together, I can still find myself here. It's like being kidnapped and taken somewhere familiar.

I towel off and slip on a robe. Then I crawl into bed next to Joey and together we watch the lights flicker on and off in the buildings that cluster into the Seattle skyline.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Chex After Sex

Some people like a cigarette after sex, but I prefer cereal.

I like to stand in the kitchen [wearing either briefs, a T-shirt, or nothing], and shotgun one bowl of cereal after another until I feel fulfilled by grain and dairy in ways a man cannot facilitate.

To me, it's fascinating how someone can achieve orgasm and immediately, impulsively crave something else. Isn't that the whole point of sex? To scratch an itch? To satisfy an impulse? And yet here I am, hunched over a bowl of cereal with one hand gripping my spoon and the other reaching for the box, ready to pour another bowl.

More than anything, it's about savoring texture; dry, crunchy cereal mixing with thick, ice-cold 2% milk. When it comes to category preference, I don't like the sugary stuff. I like the bland stuff: Corn Flakes, Kix, Rice Krispies, and most of all, Chex. Eating Chex is a truly remarkable culinary experience: the structural fragility, how it retains milk in the cross-stitching, the way each crispy pillow breaks between the tip of my tongue and the roof of my mouth. A mouthful of Chex is a well-earned reward that makes sex all the more enjoyable.

This afternoon, I received a text from a guy with whom I haven't had sex in more than five years. His name is Trey and we often see each other at the bars, though we rarely chitchat or even nod in the other's direction. He asked me if I wanted to hang out, and since I'd spent my entire Sunday rewatching episodes of Bojack Horseman and washing piles of dirty laundry with no intention of actually hanging anything up, I said yes. We drank beers at his kitchen table (Bud Lite by the can), and then he asked if I wanted to watch TV in his bed. "I don't have cable or Netflix or anything," he added while leading me down a hallway. I felt myself frown.

When it was over, he walked me all the way downstairs and right up to front gate, which I thought was nice because I wouldn't have even left the bed, had the hosting duties been reversed. If we were at my apartment, it's highly likely I'd say something like, "So you know how to get out of here, right?" without moving a muscle or putting on underwear. I didn't read into his small act of gentlemanly kindness, but I noted it for future reference; how it made me feel like a douche because I wouldn't have done the same for him.

On the way home, I listened to "My Favorite Murder" and thought about my fully stocked pantry. I'd gone to the grocery the day before in a futile effort to keep myself away from restaurants. I don't cook, which means virtually every meal is delivered by server or driver or Subway Sandwich Artist. But at the moment, there were tons of food at my house, including two brand-new boxes of Chex.

I'm more aware of my emotional shortcomings and physical imperfections when I'm having sex [even within someone I love, especially with someone I love]. But for just a few minutes after engaging in something that makes me feel alive and enriched and disappointed and self-aware and moved and drained and excited and conflicted, I can have a bowl of cereal and feel like a kid again.

Sex is such an adult thing and cereal is the opposite; uncomplicated and easy to manage. There are no apps involved or issues of tone to be misunderstood. No friend zones or bios to write about yourself. No stakes. No shame. Just the simple joys of childhood, best enjoyed with cartoons.