His great great great great great great great great great grandfather is depicted on the back of the two-dollar bill, and he lived in the oldest structure in the entire town. He talks like an Old Hollywood movie star, and I wanted to listen to every story he told. He smokes American Spirits, the yellow ones, and is one of those rare people who can actually find things worth buying at thrift stores. Despite all of this, nothing about him feels curated or phony. If I were to have written a story with him as the protagonist, my editor would had said, “This character is just a little unbelievable—where are his flaws?” I used to ask myself this, too.
I met him in January, on a Tuesday, in the tiniest bar in a tiny college town where I sat alone, trying to accept the fact that I was once again surrounded by the type of people who make me lose faith in my generation, the well-connected, let-me-give-you-my-card type of twenty-year-olds with too much money and too much time on their hands. The town was more empty than full, the sort of place people don’t tend to stick around during the bitter beginnings of a new year. I hated that town, so naturally I drank on Tuesday nights. I must be honest in the detail that until our actual introduction several minutes later, I was entirely unaware of his presence in that bar. I’d like to set the record straight; it was not an at-first-sight interaction, which is how most people interpret this story when I tell it. And thank God for that; that story has been told so many times.
I stepped out into the bitter cold without a coat, a situation that resulted from my lack of diligence in unpacking my belongings upon my return from the holiday break. He stood alongside the building smoking a cigarette, wearing a loud but most fashionable coat with fur on the collar. I noticed him like one might notice a decorative plant or a “No Loitering” sign; he was in the space, but no part of my concept of the space. I reached into my pocket, producing a cigarette and a cheap plastic lighter, and brought the spark to the tip. The spark, however, was just that—no flame. Several spark fails later, a light appeared to my right. I leaned in toward the kind gesture, lighting my cigarette and mumbling a less than enthusiastic thank you; human kindness was rarely actually that. In place of a “you’re welcome,” though, he launched into an expressive story about how he was out celebrating the successful cleaning and purging of his kitchen, which had been left a warzone by his wicked and inconsiderate roommate, painting with the measured strokes of a classic tale of betrayal and scorn, almost a film pitch. That’s how and who he is, a storyteller at every turn. It was a curious delight.
Our conversation moved into the bar and onto to the human capacity for good and evil, Catholic guilt as a result of Catholic upbringing, what television shows were worth a damn, the charm of Dust Bowl-era America, myriad peculiarities. Without much notice of the passage of time, the bar was closing. As we walked to the door, separately but quite obviously together, he addressed my lack of outerwear. I jested that being from up north, though truly only four hours north, I had thicker skin than most of the people in town, which did not satisfy him. It was his immediate demand that he drive me home. Without giving an appropriate amount of thought to his potential non-sobriety, I clamored into his car and we were off.
We pulled up to a stone building with a lamp in the window. On autopilot he had taken us not to my home, but instead to his own. Or so he claims. Upon this realization, he made me an offer—I could go home, or I could come see what the town’s oldest structure looked like on the inside, a former one-room carpenter’s quarters, that seemed most undoubtedly haunted. The choice, when presented in his Humphrey Bogart tones, seemed quite obvious.
His front room was something of an art gallery, or museum, or a set for catalog photography. There were many things, but a complete lack of clutter. I complimented his kitchen’s cleanliness, a nod to the fact that I listened when he spoke—held onto every single word, in fact. He lit a cigarette—one of those foolishly badass people who still smoked indoors—and produced an ashtray that had been disguised as the petal of a metal flower. He had a sort of effortless sophistication I envied.
Each artifact in the space was inspected and discussed, while glasses of cheap and diluted whiskey were poured and swallowed. Without much notice of the passage of time, the sun was rising and our minuscule movements had slowly bridged the space between us over the course of hours, and it was then that our skin first touched. All at once, what had been entirely innocent, innocuous, revealed itself to be intimately exhilarating. It was in that moment that I realized that this would not be a passing somebody I met at a bar, a passing flesh-on-flesh moment, drunk on a couch.
tl;dr—We met on Grindr, and he broke my heart.