He sat across from me at that tiny table, in that tiny apartment, gesticulating and performing for others, and how I wished it would all fade away, every pixel in the scene blank except for him and me. I was buzzed from one beer, a worrying feat, and my suspicion was that the smell of him changed my brain chemistry.
The first time I saw him—truly saw him—came weeks before that night in the apartment. I was at work, on my way to the bathroom, when I saw him hunched over a computer a few cubicles down. There was something in the shape of his bearded jaw, its almost leporine nature, that stopped me. In the ensuing weeks, I subsisted on crumbs: listening to him talk about his favorite books, ones I hated but assumed I just wasn’t cultured enough to understand; examining the meditative photos he took of the city’s rare natural landscapes and posted on Instagram; gushing about him to anyone who would listen and watching the disinterest build up in their eyes like cataracts.
That night in our mutual friend’s apartment was the first time I’d seen him outside of the office, and for that reason I had expectations. But after an hour of sharing him with others, I felt like a failure for not already getting him home with me. I excused myself to the bathroom.
Gazing into the mirror, I took stock of my face. There was a seriousness in it that I was unaccustomed to, a tired look that had nothing to do with my lack of sleep.
I’d always known that the difference between lust and love is what remains after orgasm. Many times, I tried to come and forget, to toss my intoxicating obsession with him away as easily as a wadded-up paper towel. After all, that method had proven itself depressingly effective in neutralizing my feelings for the many boys I’d bedded in New York: the gay nightclub residents and queer, “non-scene” academics I’d met in cafes or libraries alike. But it never worked with him.
I left the bathroom, skirting around a circle of conversation that included my close friend, the one who had expressed mere minutes ago that she was bad at meeting new people, whom I had invited under the guise of getting her to meet my coworkers when she was actually there as emotional support. Our eyes met, and I smiled. It stood to reason that if I didn’t look guilty for abandoning her, then she wouldn’t feel abandoned. She smiled back, and I found my place at the table.
He was quiet now, listening in that intense way of his that I had come to adore. He wasn’t simply waiting for his turn to talk, itching to give his hot take. He was reacting, supporting, absorbing. It was I who was impatient to speak. I was onstage at Madison Square Garden, and he was the only person in the audience. Every laugh was a step closer to my bed.
And that’s when I had to ask myself if a night with him would be water or gasoline for the flames that eagerly licked my chest. I had imagined it, of course, but only for a few seconds at a time. Images of us intertwined strobed in my brain at night when I couldn’t fall asleep. But if we went through with it, if I tasted him as hungrily as I wanted to, what would remain?
I tried to picture it as realistically as possible—yes, at that table, surrounded by others—and I knew my answer. After the climax, after he’d come, his monopoly on my desire would remain. His face didn’t change in my mind’s eye, it never became hollow and disfigured like the faces of so many one-night stands. The touch of his phantom limb, my tactile approximation, never failed to give me chills. My compulsive need to expel my traumas as fast as my lips could spew them to his ivory ears never lessened, it never ceased.
We left the apartment, all of us, and went to a bar. I sat next to my friend, knowing I had some damage control to do. We discussed her job. How stressful it was, how rewarding and taxing and stimulating and frustrating and fitting. And I realized that loving him was exactly the same.
He sat at the other end of the table, once again gesturing and speaking animatedly, and I considered begging God to release me from this captivity of want. I had learned as a child in church that through Him all things are possible, that you only needed to pray with enough conviction. And He had done it before. There were boys I believed I’d never forget whom I barely thought about now: the real estate agent who lived with his boyfriend in Philly, the poet in Austin I stopped texting once I was sure he hadn’t killed himself.
But without my current toxic affection, what would I be left with? My feelings for him were the only valence in my life. The only time I rose above numb was when he hurt me or flattered me, always without him noticing.
My friend had said something to me, something to which I was supposed to respond, and I heard the slight pleading in her voice, pressing me, Be here.
I made a pithy comment, some offhand ironic statement that bordered on self-parody, and the response was a smatter of laughs. Had he noticed? I wondered. Did it make him wish he’d heard what I’d said?
I got up to get another drink.
A strange phenomenon had occurred the moment I stepped inside the bar. The bright flashing of sports games on TVs and the loud chatter of patrons caused an almost instantaneous rush of sobriety. I had become clearheaded, hyperaware, conscious in the most disconcerting of ways. The three whisky-somethings I had downed since our arrival did little to improve my condition.
There were a number of strangers whom I would have pined for on any other night, a diverse array of God’s finest creations, His divine flexing, but lowercase “he” had long supplanted my usual need for “someone.”
The bartender came closest to making me forget him. She was beautiful in a striking way, like time didn’t mean the same thing to her as it did to me. And I could tell that she understood me based on the slight smile on her face when she heard me order cinnamon whisky, the drink that eclipsed all others in terms of abetting bad decisions and bone-aching hangovers. She knew immediately. I was running. I wanted out, I wanted to leave. And this was my ticket.
Her knowing that made her all the more attractive, all the more otherworldly, and a part of me yearned to bare myself to her, to tell her how the loneliness and fear and isolation made me ravenous for love, or even a facsimile of it. I wanted her in a way I had only wanted a few women before, but there wasn’t any more room in me for not-him.
Glass in hand, I walked back. A few of our party announced their departures, and after the goodbyes, our group numbered few enough that we were able to begin a shared conversation. And suddenly I didn’t want to escape. This was my World Series. Here I was, stepping to the plate, pointing to him, in the stands at the other end of the field, and saying, This one’s for you.
I was charming. I was funny. After a group chuckle I’d lean into my friend and whisper an inside joke that would make her choke on her drink. I complimented his hair, like it had only suddenly occurred to me how beautiful his auburn ringlets were, like those strands of dead cells hadn’t made me want to pull out my own at times. He complimented the character of my nose and for the rest of the night it was my favorite part of my body.
But nights like these always ended too soon for me, and one person’s “Early day tomorrow…” was an impetus for everyone but myself to express similar sentiments.
As we walked to the train, I kept waiting for a moment when things would take flight, when a touch or a look would change my mind about the reciprocity of my obsession. But there were people between us and in front of us, and we kept pinballing past each other in the herd. I cursed the narrow, cockblocking sidewalks and stewed in the brisk, October air.
I said goodbye to him last and couldn’t quite catch the seconds as they ticked by, as if I were forgetting in real time. I knew this much: it was brief, too brief, tragically, horribly brief. Did we shake hands? Did we hug? Did we nod?
I’m standing on the corner of 110th and Broadway. I am alone and far from home, the ache in my chest my only company.