Cartoon Devil

October 2015

“I’m here! Plaid shirt and blue jeans, corner table, what can I order you?”

I had butterflies when I sent the text message. I hadn’t been on a date in a few months and it was nice to be back on the market. I was so, so sick of dating. It exhausted me. Maybe I was picky or impossible, or maybe I kept hoping to find that unobtainable unicorn out there. I wanted someone with a job, who took care of himself physically, who was good with kids, who was charming. I also wanted someone with some self-confidence, and a sense of humor, who was out of the closet, and had themselves figured out when it came to their family and religion. Utah was so full of these guys who didn’t like themselves, who berated themselves because of their religious upbringings. They were the way I used to be, but once you have got your own shit together, there is nothing quite so threatening or annoying as someone who hasn’t.

By this point, four and a half years after coming out of the closet, I’d had dozens and dozens of terrible and weird dates. Admittedly, sometimes I was the terrible and weird date. I went through a phase where I was too codependent, or where I expected others to put in all the effort while I coasted along. I fell in love too quickly a few times, and fell apart too quickly a few others. I even turned down a few really amazing guys in the hopes that I might find something just a bit better out there. But I was now ready for something to stick, to last more than a few weeks. I think seven weeks in a relationship had been my longest record since coming out, with someone who was 14 years younger than me, but that hadn’t worked out either; he moved to another state to go to college, and there was no way I could do long distance while I had two little kids.

And so, for a time, I had given all of my energy to just being single. I focused on my career, my hate crimes research, my blog, and went to the gym. I took myself on dates and little trips. I spent time with friends, I hosted my own movie nights, and I, of course, spent every possible moment with my incredible sons, at this point ages 7 and 4, two little men who delighted me constantly. They were with me every other weekend and a few nights per week. I loved my time with them, but I also grew to love my time flying solo.

Tonight, this was my first attempt back into the dating scene after over two months of focusing solely on myself. I met the guy over OKCupid just days after I’d reactivated my account. My first impression of his pictures elicited an out loud ‘DAMN!’ I sent the first message and he answered within minutes. He was witty, funny, handsome, employed, cute and fit, but in that guy-next-door kind of way, not in that ‘I stare at myself in the gym mirror for ten hours per week’ kind of way. And then on day three of chatting, I invited him out for coffee. He responded with enthusiasm, in an “I thought you’d never ask” kind of way. I hired a babysitter, got to the coffee shop ten minutes early, and texted him promptly at six that I was there.

6:10 rolled around. 6:15. 6:20. No message, no word. People played chess at a nearby table. Other people studied. We were getting past the point where it was acceptable to be late without some sort of notice. I sipped my decaf coffee and waited, wondering if there were too many red lights maybe, or maybe he’d forgotten an appointment. But maybe he was just standing me up. Lord knows this wouldn’t be the first time.

Finally at 6:32, my phone dinged. I grabbed it in a hurry. The text said, “This is terrible, but I can’t do this. I went there, but I couldn’t go in. You’re a good guy, Chad, but I’m still in love with my ex, and this isn’t right. I’ll understand if you never want to talk to me again. Best of luck, Chad, I don’t expect to hear back from you.”

I felt my upper lip rise into an involuntary sneer, and my nostrils flared with frustration. And then I set my coffee down, put my head in my hands, and… pouted. The old interior voice I had worked so hard to contain came back with a vengeance. All of my demons came back to the surface.

You’re pathetic. You knew it would be like this, but you tried it anyway. There are no good men out there, none. And if there were, do you think one would want to be with you? A guy who waited until he was 32 to come out? You have two kids, you’re in debt, and you are hardly in the best shape of your life. Why would he want to be with you? And of course you’d pick a guy who is still hung up on some guy. If there’s a pathetic guy out there, you’ll find them every time, it takes one to know one.

I lifted my head, pursed my lips, furrowed my eyebrows, and said, “No!” out loud, but not loud enough for anyone else to hear. That voice inside was dark. It was that little devil that appeared on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder in the old cartoons. I instead willfully gave voice to the angel, invisible on my other shoulder.

No! You’re a good guy, Chad! You get to be happy! You don’t get to beat yourself up for trying to find someone! Now you don’t give a second thought to that loser. You live for you! You hired a babysitter, you can do whatever you want tonight, you just enjoy your own company.

Yes. I would do that! I would take myself on a date! Fuck that guy. I was allowed to be happy.

I tossed my remaining coffee in the garbage, marched myself right outside, and noticed the movie theater next door. I would do that! I would go to the movies! I triumphantly entered, got the attention of the man behind the counter, and triumphantly said, “I’ll take a ticket to whatever movie is next, please.”

I was in the Tower, an old indie theater with broken seats, sticky floors, and a balcony. And I was about to see a movie at random, this was my kind of adventure. “And I’ll take that bag of popcorn,” I said.

The ticket agent explained that the next movie would be the ‘Oscar Animated Shorts’, or short cartoons that had been nominated for an Oscar in the upcoming season. I had a night out and I was going to see… short cartoons, apparently.

The devil returned. Oh my god, cartoons, you loser! It’s a Wednesday night! You’re going to the movies by yourself on a Wednesday night and you’re going to see cartoons! You could be doing that with your kids! You’re going to die alone!

No! No, no,  no! You are brave and courageous, and you are doing something nice for yourself on a hard day! You are a good person who deserves to be happy!

Apparently unable to see the talking devil and angel versions of me on my shoulders, the ticket agent took my money and handed me the random bag of popcorn I had pointed to. Then I noticed the flavor. Coconut curry. Well, what the hell.

The movie was starting in 15 minutes, he said. I went in and took my seat, my brave face was on. I was determined to enjoy myself this evening. I opened my phone and played some Pokemon Go  as I sat there, feeling like a real winner. I would watch cartoons and play Pokemon Go and eat Coconut Curry popcorn instead of bantering with a handsome man like I’d planned. Positive self-talk was working!

In minutes, the lights dimmed and I looked up to see the screen come on. There were multiple previews for upcoming indie films, and none of them looked interesting. As the film prepared to start, I opened my bag of Coconut Curry, and it gave off a loud crispy plastic sound. I quickly looked up to make sure I hadn’t disturbed anyone. Then I realized there was no one else in the movie to disturb.

Oh my god, you pathetic loser! You are in a movie theater, seeing cartoons, after getting stood up by a date who is still in love with his ex, on a Wednesday night, planning to eat an entire bag of popcorn, and you’re the only one here! What the hell is wrong with you! You’re going to die fat and old and alone, who lives like this!

No! No, you are a brave and beautiful soul who deserves the very—

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I told the angel voice. I grabbed a giant handful of salty disgusting popcorn and shoved it into my mouth until my cheeks puffed out, and then I ugly cried as a Dutch cartoon called ‘the Single Life’ started on the screen.

Seattle Part 10: Goodbye, My Lover

February, 2015

I was hopping up and down with excitement at the airport. Like literally hopping, bouncing up and down in the air. It was a private joke between Matt and I. When I asked him what he loved most about me, he said it was how I hopped when I saw him.

The joke had started a few years before. I’d gone to Las Vegas with friends for a weekend. One night, after a few drinks at a club, I’d danced with a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed man in a leather jacket. We’d flirted, made out, laughed a lot, and then traded phone numbers. After weeks of chatting, he’d come to see me in Salt Lake City. Before his arrival, I’d texted that I was so excited to see him that I couldn’t hold still, and as he’d pulled up, I’d been hopping in the yard, making him giggle. After that, I’d hopped every time we’d seen each other.

Prior to this, the last time I had seen Matt was nearly a year before. I met him in St. George, Utah, in the middle of an insane blizzard. He got out of the car, and I just seized him in a hug, and we stood there, holding each other for several minutes as the world blustered around us. After that, we went inside and made love and just held each other. He could light me on fire with his touch. After that, we’d had yet another passive argument about why our relationship wasn’t working, and why it couldn’t (the distance, the kids, he needed to finish college, he wasn’t ready, he cared too much, it hurt me too much to be so far away and have so little time with him), and he drove away, and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again.

Matt got off the plane, and found me hopping, and we hugged and kissed and laughed. I always felt so perfectly complete when I was with him. I felt attractive, desired, loved, accepted, like everything would be okay.

Over the next three days in Seattle, we talked, drank coffee, hiked to waterfalls, window-shopped, danced, had drinks, and ate everything. We snuggled at night and kissed in the morning. And yet again, I realized how perfect life with him felt. He stopped to pet every puppy, he reached for my hand when we walked, he had this way of looking me right in the eyes and making me feel safe. But I knew he’d be gone again and that it would all fall apart. Again. We’d already done this perfect-weekend-only-to-say-goodbye thing so many times, so many times.

After our hike to the waterfall, we got a table overlooking the falls, and ordered coffee. He smiled at me. God, he was beautiful. He looked me in the eyes.

“You seem happy here. In Seattle.”

I looked down, sighing. “I wanted it to be perfect. I did. But I hate my job. I haven’t made friends like I had hoped. And I’m lonely, a lot. I miss the kids. I–” I looked back up. “I miss you.”

He nodded, understanding. “I hate Vegas. I hate living there. I hate who I am there.”

And I surprised myself. “We talked about you coming to Salt Lake to live, lots of times. And you never felt ready. You never were ready. But what about–”

“What about what?”

“What about Seattle? What if you came and gave things a try here? What if we started here together, with a blank slate?” My heart pounded in the silence.

He shook his head, quickly. Too quickly. “I can’t.”

“You haven’t even thought about it. Matt, why not?”

“I can’t. I’m not ready. And I have thought about it. Ever since you’ve moved here, I’ve thought about it. I miss you constantly.”

“I miss you too! This could be something! Why can’t you? Why can’t you give it a try?”

He sighed. Deeply. Painfully. “I wouldn’t be easy to be with.”

I rolled my eyes. “I can handle the challenge.”

“No. I’m not ready. You’re eleven years older than me. You’ve done so much with yourself. Your writing, your career. I haven’t done anything with my life. I work part-time. I have years of school left. I can’t.”

“Matt, it isn’t a competition! Aren’t we worth a try?”

“Of course we are. But not yet. I’m not ready.”

It was the same conversation we had had a hundred times. We would reach a stalemate, and then it would get too painful to stay in contact, knowing it couldn’t go anywhere. I had kids and responsibilities. He just wasn’t ready. So we would stop texting. Months of silence would follow, and then one of us would finally reach out, and we’d make plans to see each other again.

“I–I think I thought that you wouldn’t come to Utah, for whatever reason. But I think, deep down, I think I hoped you might come here.”

He looked surprised. “Am I why you moved to Seattle? That doesn’t make sense.”

“I–no. I moved here for me. I just think, subconsciously, I think I hoped you might want a fresh start with me. I think deep down I thought that maybe we could finally be together.”

“I’m not ready,” he repeated, and then the coffee came.

That night and again the following morning, we made love again. He was leaving in just a few hours. In the car outside my apartment, I felt my heart break. I turned to him, my eyes brimming with tears.

“I’ve never said this to you, not out loud, but I love you.” I meant it, and he knew it.

“I love you, too.” He said it softly, his eyes turned toward the floor. He reached over and took my hand.

I looked away. “You say that. But you’re going to leave me today, and I have a feeling I’m not going to see you again.”

“I’m just not ready,” he said. “I have to find me first. It’s Vegas for now. I can’t leave yet.”

I drove him to the airport and kissed him goodbye. And as I drove away, tears leaking down my face, I knew that it was time. There was nothing for me in Seattle. It was time to start planning my return to Utah.

A year later, while I was in Las Vegas for business, I stopped by the place where Matt worked. A tattooed girl with long black braids worked behind the counter. I explained I was there to see Matt. She responded with enthusiasm.

“Matt! Oh, I miss him! He moved two months ago. He met a guy last summer, and they just got a place in San Francisco together.”

And as I left, I realized that although I hadn’t been holding on tightly, it was finally, finally time to let go.