I WANT YOU TO BE OK

One of my earliest childhood memories is standing in front of a tree. My Mom was there, and she told me I could pick the fruit as long as I thanked the tree. “Thanks Tree!” I don’t know if I ever stopped this practice.

How do you have a lot of sex and keep it from feeling cheap? The first guy I slept with after I got dumped was a stranger with a chest tattoo. Writing that makes him sound more dangerous than he really was. It was a very nerdy chest tattoo. I ordered him from the internet and the experience was 5-stars. After he finished, he started laughing hysterically and through the tears tried to explain that this happened every time. I remember just staring up at the ceiling, meekly whispering “Thank you.”

There was a moment during the sex in which I felt like a more far-reaching love was being communicated. “I don’t know you, but you seem eminently lovable. You seem worthwhile. And my thrusts are here as a broader expression of love to nerdy guys with chest tattoos everywhere, because I don’t know you specifically.”

Some of the best sex I ever had was with this guy who almost never spoke. When he did, he had a really strange speech pattern — almost taking an exhale on every sentence. Breathy. I imagine he conserved his words to keep from hyperventilating, but it made you pay attention.

I remember the first time he took me home with him. I was surprised at how he took immediate, confident control. It was as though he’d been using a second language up until that point and was finally getting a moment in his native tongue. Maybe quiet men are the best in bed because they have the most to say.

I like to go into sex with something to hold onto, a message or mantra of some sort that’s going to be the sentiment I am trying to communicate. Yet another unlikely side-effect of being raised by New Agers who encouraged me to imbue crystals with intention and write words of affirmation on my water bottles. Maybe it’s weird or just representative of the current state of society, but I have found that the message is often simply, “I don’t care where this goes, I just want you to be OK.”

UNICORN TIPS

Last year, before we broke up, my boyfriend and I would sometimes go to the gay nude beach together. I always felt like him and I had very different experiences there. Him: happy to be naked, carefree — cartwheels and sunshine. Me: anxious, unsure of where to put my eyes, overwhelmed by stimuli and the thought of all the eyeballs (potentially) on me. I was jealous. The pressure of the situation could push me into myself, resulting in a kind of meditation or, more accurately, an anxiety-induced trance state occasionally yielding some small benefit.

What I’m trying to say is that I have a hard time just chilling.

I suspect, however, that there’s a healing power that comes from being a gay dude naked around other dudes. There’s a hope that if you practiced acknowledging the dicks, letting the dicks go shamelessly, and moving on to thinking about the warm sand or the melody of the seagulls then maybe you’d eventually reach that aforementioned cartwheel-and-chill state of mind.

That was my goal the other day, the first day in San Francisco where it was warm enough to conceivably have a good time at a nude beach. The question I had to ask myself beforehand was whether I was going to relax in earnest or to check out dudes. I will admit that there have been times in my life where the split between these two extremes would swing more towards the penises, and that was something I had to look at and think about. But no — on this day the weather was gorgeous, the view was clear, and the dicks had more than enough competition from Mother Nature.

There are many different kinds of people who go to the gay nude beach in San Francisco, and the beach is typically large enough to give each demographic its own section. Quiet sunbathers, rugged paleo-dieting types, picnic twinks, the people who like to go jerk off behind the boulder, etc. At this moment, however, the tide was so high that there wasn’t enough beach to afford the luxury of these kingdoms. Worlds collided. I found a tiny little patch way out in the front where the water came up to my toes and there was only sand and ocean in my periphery. There I could pretend to be alone.

The beach is situated amongst other, less queer beaches in such a way that a tourist could conceivably become lost and stumble in. You can usually identify these people very easily by the way they walk fast, keep their heads down, and have clothes on. There was one guy who walked in front of me fully-dressed with a hiker’s backpack and a baseball cap that I was certain had to be in this category. He also happened to be, without hyperbole, the most beautiful man I have ever seen.

I gave it a solid “Hmm” and then for an hour just laid there in a thoughtless moment of peace. Goal achieved.

As I was getting ready to leave, I noticed that the backpacker from earlier had returned and set up shop a few yards away from me. He’d taken off his shirt revealing a kind of perfection that words couldn’t do justice and stepped out into the ocean, directly in my line of sight. He took off his baseball cap and shook his long, well-moisturized auburn hair provocatively so it gleamed in the setting sun. Then he walked back to his spot. I tingled.

I am very conscious of the fact that a certain kind of attention in such a scenario could make someone very uncomfortable, and for the next 15 minutes I tried to ride the line of not wanting to look but REALLY wanting to look. It was a battle. I decided that sometimes it feels like the opposite of creepy is earnest and direct, and so I approached the unicorn man — naked.

“Hi. Um. Excuse me.”

He was lying down, cheeks up, and turned to looked at me like I was about to sell him Jesus.

“So like, I don’t know if you ever have moments of self-doubt — but I just want you to know that you are probably one of the most gorgeous guys I’ve ever seen. And if you ever have a dark night of the soul, if you ever wonder like — ‘Am I enough?’ I want you to remember that you were so hot a stranger felt compelled to awkwardly tell you, yes, you are. Or you know let’s explore the other option, that you’re a narcissist who already knows all this and it’s just going to go straight to your head. I imagine that’s a very real possibility but I felt like it was important to take the chance.”

At some point in this delivery I realized I was adding on additional words to postpone his response, and so I mustered up the courage to stop. He replied, “Well, first of all — thank you, you are so brave. Please, tell me about your tattoo. I love Costco.” And so I launched into another monologue: the origin story of my Kirkland Signature tattoo, that he would (thankfully) occasionally interrupt to inject his own Costco memories. Towards the end, he said “Hold on, I think my butt is burning” and he turned over — revealing the best possible scenario while I prattled on, noticeably stumbling. In response, he took the demeanor of a celebrity standing behind an autograph table, gently comforting and encouraging the eager and nervous fan.

A few feet in front of us a young couple was loudly having sex. They moaned. The unicorn looked at them, rolled his eyes and smiled, “Oh, those guys!” and we just kept talking. I learned that he was 25, spoke Spanish, lived nearby and would walk along the beach every day. He liked to do it barefoot because he enjoyed the way his feet felt to the touch afterwards — soft, exfoliated. Occasionally he’d get a puncture wound but it was worth it, he felt, to have the increased “monkey musculature.” I asked for clarification and he explained that the remote at his house would often fall on the ground and he liked to pick it up and fling it into his hand with his feet. I was impressed.

At one point, someone near us interrupted. “Hey! I love Costco too! You know, the Kirkland Signature Vodka is secretly Grey Goose!” And I was like “Yeah! That’s what they say!” And he was like “No really! It is!”

Behind us was a guy who looked like he might’ve been on a season of Survivor, hiding behind a fortress made of driftwood. “I was here the other day” the unicorn said, “And I don’t think that driftwood was there.” The unicorn approached the weathered old man. “Hey! Cool fort! What’s the story?”

The unicorn spoke with the gruff old man for a while and learned about the fort. When he came back to report, a small dog wandered by and started nuzzling up against him. I told him I thought the dog had good taste, to which he responded “Oh, you flirt, you flirt.”

The dog’s owner, another older man who presented himself in such a way that might make one a little fearful, came up to us. The unicorn and the old man started chatting about the dog’s origins and most endearing attributes. By the end of it, I felt like we were all friends.

This scene reminded me of this time I was standing next to one of those cheese sampler plates at Whole Foods with an ex I’m fond of. He was exchanging cheese and spread pairing tips with a middle-aged woman, also getting her lunch from the sample station, and it was very cute. This ex has a kind of endearing obliviousness that I think gets him in trouble but also enables lots of unexpectedly warm interactions with strangers. When we were together, it was like he was letting me into his little fortress of safety and we’d often do this talk-to-strangers shtick together, revealing a new layer of magic in the world. The unicorn felt familiar in this way.

There were many moments in which I consciously attempted to give the unicorn a smooth exit in case he wanted that. Each time he would respond by quickly attempting another question aimed at me. Eventually, he pointed out that I was looking REALLY red and I agreed. He attempted a wrap up: “Well, I think you should feel really proud of what you did today. That was really cool. You have some real balls, I wouldn’t have dared to do that.” And I was like, “But your balls are so nice.”

As I was leaving to put my clothes back on I remembered my business card. It read “BE BOLD” — the tagline of my employer. Holding it in my hand, it was like the card was egging me on. So I walked back to him and handed it over, telling him he could text if he wanted to hang out or something. He took a look at it and said: “Max, it was a pleasure to meet you.” And then I could leave, feeling like something inside had changed for the better.

Spatimence

Back in November I was on Tinder. “For the last time.” Unknowingly, I swiped right on a guy living in Finland. Before I had the chance to really internalize the reality of this fact he had me hooked. Joke being that he had set his location to San Francisco looking for a hot husband with tech money but was willing to settle for me. Reality being that no, he was lonely as any American and just wanted someone to talk to. He was older, 28 — putting him squarely in the generation that knows how to use the internet in the punk way. The way that lets you develop improbable and deep relationships with strangers. Something I am very much down for.

We talked every day and people in my immediate surroundings probably got tired of hearing about him — as well as my attempts to properly articulate his (harder than it looks) name. In lieu of getting it right (it’s pronounced peh-rooooo, as far as I can tell) I settled on a guttural throat noise. Then my throat started to hurt and I settled on some bastardized approximation I’m pretty sure he loathes but is very polite about.

I recommend everyone finds a stranger on the internet to tell everything to. There is something about writing your story out in full that can catalyze such sentiments as “Wow, I actually make sense” and “Maybe I’m not as fucked-up as I thought.” This technique for self-betterment works especially well when the other person feels emotionally kindred and can act as a proxy for yourself. It’s easier to be loving towards someone else.

Admittedly there are times when it can get confusing. Reading someone’s words on the screen turns them into a voice in your head and it can be hard to know which one of you you’re talking to. But that’s the power of it. At the end of the day you are by yourself, probably in your underwear, in front of a computer — and the experience of them lives inside of you. It’s intimate.

Once I lived in Pittsburgh and for a variety of reasons it was a rough time. Not the least of which was the fact it was REALLY cold, the worst winter it had seen in a long time. I borrowed some arms and tried to do the cozy thing as best I could. It didn’t work very well. I ended up raw and depressed during a dark period made survivable by excessive late-night grocery store gelato consumption.

It was bad.

But sometimes life gives you opportunities to re-digest the things that initially come out a little soupy. I’m a believer in careful exposure therapy. I went to Finland. And there was something about being in a frigid environment (central Finland in February) tucked indoors with someone that felt familiar. But this time I knew what I was doing. I could keep the gelato but re-stage the scene with better direction — safe, with significantly better-equipped company. I don’t think I was conscious of this at the time. It felt manifested in a more subconscious and magical way.

It was also a ridiculous situation, and doing things like visiting a Finn from the internet while still feeling like a mature, responsible adult is a delicate act. The opposing forces of American idealism (I can make this work) and Finnish realism (You are crazy) keeps it honest. The trick is to be appreciative of the space and the time you make together, and not get too caught up in the other person.

To create a foundation of intention on the trip, he provided a worksheet we both filled out. I liked his answers:

Question: Why are we doing this?

Answer: We believe in transferring energy and achieving balance.

Question: Where do we come from?

Answer: We spring from a place of sharing, curiosity and interest, mutual respect and creativity.

Question: Where are we now?

Answer: We are in different places and we are able to communicate, but there is disparity in energies.

Question: How do we know we’re there?

Answer: The energies are balanced.

These energies formed a temporary shelter that was entirely our own, off-the-map, intense and very difficult to write about.

The Finn’s unique command of English is one of his greatest allures. Disparate words get tossed around casually to create an abstract portrait of an idea, or are concatenated in interesting ways. Hot tubs become bubbblespas. There is a particular word that he’s come up with that gets used especially often —spatimence (space + time + patience).  Is he referring to the very real need for space (and time, and patience?) — possibly, likely even given my annoying drive for closeness and immediacy. But it can be defined another way: the experience of taking someone and hollowing out a space and time and quality of attention that stands on its own, a gift I will always treasure.

Leaning In

I went on a date with this guy who was visibly excited about me. And that was nice. We met and ended up talking about queer trauma for 3 hours. It was intense. At the end of it he turned to me and said: “Talking to you has made me realize that I’m really not in any position to be dating ANYBODY — so thanks for bringing that clarity.” I never heard from him again.

Afterwards, instead of going home sulking I visited my friend to watch him play video games while he gently consoled me. He said, “You know Max, most people see the uncomfortable place and go, like, the opposite direction. Most people don’t run towards it like you.” Then he killed a robot dinosaur.

It’s true. Most of the time I see something that makes me nervous or uncomfortable and my tendency is to go all-in. Pick it apart. Look at it upside down. I have a friend who I used to see maybe quarterly who I don’t see anymore. I think this might be the reason why. When we would hang, we would sit down and immediately get to business. That is, distilling the deepest, most real truth of what was going on with one another. Sometimes it felt like a game, a race to get to the most devastating reality possible. Sharp but loving. Now I can see how it was significantly less fun for him than it was for me, and yet for a while I was confused at his cautious response when I asked to grab dinner. I conflated that realness with intimacy when maybe it was just squirmy.

I talked to another friend about it and he said as if it were a prepared statement: “It’s true Max. You have a way of emotionally undressing people.” I’m not sure if these small interventions were just that profound for me or if I merely have fewer dark places to go but I think the experience of hanging out with me has shifted lately. I am more secure in my understandings about the world, and less likely to feel a need to tear someone apart to validate those assumptions. We can keep our clothes on.

Gold Star

A boy is perched on his Dad’s shoulder. Snap. The smiles are real and sealed, dithered and black on the back of a plastic card. We go shopping every weekend. It is the 90s and there are oversized cardboard shrink-wrapped worlds, video — no, computer games, stacked neatly on steel shelves. Every once in a while Dad lets me put one in our cart. In the car I tear off the plastic with my baby teeth. Mom gets a job there checking receipts. I love to visit.

Underneath red umbrellas we get parfaits on weekdays and pizza on weekends. These are cheap thrills for a withering grandmother and the rest of us. Mom lets her treat us every time. I tell her I worry about Grandma’s checking account. I am 10. Mom explains how this is what she has left.

I am so excited we bought the nice vacuum cleaner.

The boy on his father’s shoulder takes his place in line. Snap. Member since 2010. Gold Star, later Executive. And now three boys, friends, are left wandering the aisles on their own. Two of them are kind of into each other. We bring pizza home, watch funny videos and go to Denny’s at 1 AM where we are excellent at being young.

When I move from Phoenix to San Francisco I look towards its fortress for safety. I’d never seen one with underground parking before. Most of the time I’m alone, eyes-closed, engulfed in a hazy dream of the same layout — only warmer. Sometimes I bring friends. We look and laugh and that is enough for hours but I leave only with a tub of granola. I have to take it on the subway home.

I visit the day I receive my first real paycheck. I buy an Xbox and a small TV. I bring the most important person I’ve lost. Briefly, I wonder if they’re proud of me before watching them get picked up by someone else. Before we get to unpack the boxes. Years later I insist we go again together. It feels like a trick but they’re such a good sport. I call their name needlessly just to imagine how it could’ve sounded reverberating through the frozen food aisle.

Another new city. Pittsburgh. There’s water and bridges and I am exhausted. And then I am broken. It is warm inside this warehouse. I collect the dressings of a domestic dream to try and make things feel normal again. We buy six gigantic fuzzy blankets and wait for time to pass.

Then we become my parents, because his were Sam’s Club people.

And home again. We celebrate our survival with a Vitamix blender we later return when a new model comes out.

I turn 23 underneath its hotdog sign, surrounded by people who appreciate me. Co-workers pass out cake to strangers. A mysterious woman asks my boss if she’s going to finish that. I get its Signature carved on my body by a man who just wants to talk about the things he does in Las Vegas. He does a good job. I feel blessed.

The ink fades and it is the night after the election. Trump is going to be our president and a Vitamix flask is left growing mold in a small, damp apartment. I, too, am replaced. Raw and hurting, I can still taste the bile in my mouth from the night before. In the checkout line I stand with someone who should have not been there: my ex. But I’m not paying attention to him. I look around and all I see are families that I hope will be OK. I want them to know this. They are family. Then I start crying.

A woman in line comforts me. She knows. My ex rolls his eyes. Then he sees my sincerity. I can’t stop crying. And something changes in him. He finally notices that I am real. On the way out, he comforts me for the last time, for once in the way I’d always wanted.

A frumpy man now walks these hollowed aisles alone to keep his story straight. He barely buys anything. He is silent, communing with ghosts lined up loosely in order of electronics, then home goods — clothing, produce, liquor, frozen food, dry snacks, beauty products, and finally supplements. He checks out with a bag of grapefruit and some frozen meals. He smiles at the receipt checker and considers moving to a place that has never heard of Costco.