Piranha: Reflections of First Love

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?

The first time you drove to see me, from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, a six-hour cut through desert and mountains, you listened to Lana Del Ray on repeat. You told me how her voice took you someplace else. She was your muse, you said once.

And so, when I sat down in a coffee shop today to write about something else, and one of those songs came on, one of those I know used to make your soul sing, my fingers stopped working for a minute, and my mind started working backwards, to all those little memories we created together.

I remember the last time I saw you, working at your little juicer in the Nevada hills, adorable in your apron. I hadn’t seen you in a year, and I knew we were all wrong for each other, but there was always a place in the back of my heart where we would set aside all of the complications and differences and just work it out. I entered the shop to surprise you and you instantly made me melt, all over again. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, you told me you were with someone else, and I bid my final farewell, then sat in my car and sobbed for an hour before I could drive away.

I remember our last real weekend together, holding hands in the rain and walking the streets of Seattle while talking about plans for the future. We pulled on stocking caps and, side by side, ascended to the top of a waterfall, where you just held me, and when a dog rushed by with its owner, you got that low growl of adoration in your voice as you looked at it in longing, muttering “Puppy!” with unbridled enthusiasm. We sat in the car later, and I told you “I love you” for the first time, and you said, “I love you, too”, and I told you not to say that unless you meant it. And when I wondered if we might be together, you shook your head and said you weren’t ready, and my heart broke, and  that night, with our arms and legs entwined and my head on your shoulder, you held me tight, and I somehow knew it would be the last time.

I remember months before that, when I sat in frustration, waiting for your text message back. There had been longer silences lately between us, as far away as the hundreds of physical miles, and though I missed you, I refused to reach out, just like you refused. You seemed to want me to prove that I could be with you. You needed some sort of bold gesture. But I had children, a job, and child support payments, and you wouldn’t move to be near me, and so we would wait, both of us, stubbornly, for the other to make the first move. And then I’d get lonely, or heartsick, or perhaps drunk, and reach out with how much I missed you, how much I wanted to be with you. We would fondly text for a few days, and then fall back into the same pattern of stubborn silence. And I remember feeling, even in those times, that no one would ever be able to make me feel the way you did.

I remember seeing you in St. George, Utah, during a massive blizzard. You drove to see me for a day, agreeing to give it one chance. You wore a leather jacket and you’d grown a beard, and you wrapped your arms around me as the snow tried to stab us, and we just held each other for five minutes, and it felt like home. We went inside without speaking, and we made love, and we just lay there laughing and feeling amazing, and you muttered “God, I missed you” under your breath. And then we had diner at some terrible cafe, and  you could barely speak, telling me how this couldn’t work, how you just weren’t ready, and then you left, too soon. But I held on to that hug in the snowstorm for weeks afterward, clutching it close, refusing to let it go.

I remember hopping on the porch the first time you drove up to see me, unable to contain my excitement, like a child on Christmas morning. We’d been texting back and forth for weeks, and during your family vacation, you’d locked yourself in the bathroom while everyone slept so that you could just keep talking to me that much longer. You made me feel desired, like I was worth it, and that week I paraded you around in front of my friends, eager to show off this beautiful, authentic man, this brilliant person who was there with me, not, them, but me. And you didn’t care about my baggage, my kids or my divorce, you only wanted to make me smile, and everything was just perfect, giving me a taste of a life I had never thought possible.

I remember meeting you that first time, in the Piranha club in Las Vegas. The room was full of men. My friends were all drunk and paired off with others in the club, dancing in corners, and there you were, blonde and blue-eyed, with dimples, in your button-down sweater and jeans, laughing with friends. We made eye contact, multiple times. I danced near you, hoping you would join me, and I took a shot or two for courage, then you finally approached me. We yelled our names out loud to each other, and danced, trading phone numbers as our friends’ gave us thumbs’ up signals of approval. We kissed and danced and held each other, to Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and we both commented on how amazing it felt to find a connection like this in such a place. I went to sleep that night with you on my mind.

I wonder about you sometimes, Matt. Last I heard, you had moved to San Francisco with a new man. And I truly hope you are happy. I long ago deleted any and every way to contact you. I wiped out your phone number and Email so that I couldn’t reach out to you in a moment of vulnerability and see history repeat itself. You aren’t on social media in any format, so I can’t even be tempted to look you up. And the distance helps. Because what you represented to me then, you can no longer represent.

Like you, I’m with someone else now. He loves me, and I love him, and he makes me feel the way that you used to, except there aren’t long silences in between the snowstorms and waterfall hikes. There is no stubborn heel-dragging, no doubts that he wants to be with me, no apologies that he just isn’t ready. He’s some of the things you were, with his own wonderfulness on top of all of that, and he’s consistent, an adjective you lacked in your character composition.

Yet every time Lana Del Ray comes on, I’ll likely always think of you. Her voice is haunting, as your presence always will be. I’ll always think of finding a first love at the age of 32, one that would stretch on for years without resolution. I’ll think of headiness, of passion, of hopping, of waterfalls, of juice, of puppies, and of being held in a snowstorm.

And I’ll think of piranhas, silvery, slick, and sleek, until they expose their fangs.

Piranha

Out dancing: then and now

Then: June, 2011

I can’t believe how liberating Seattle has felt so far. My life back in north Idaho feels a million miles away, a million years ago. My careful Mormon professional existence there, the one I had been living for so long, where everyone saw me but no one knew me, now feels like a distant memory.

I’ve been to Seattle before, but never like this, never as an out gay man. I suddenly have friends and feelings and I’m creating memories and it feels wonderful. Yesterday, I marched in a gay Pride parade, something I had grown up believing was immoral and disgusting. A few months ago, I connected with a group online called the Utah Gay Fathers, and I’ve made several friends through the group, though it hasn’t been until this weekend that I have met any of them in person. The group joined up with the Seattle Gay Fathers and we marched in the middle of a giant parade with banners. Some of the men had their children with them. Some were same-sex couples with kids while many, like me, had been heterosexually married before coming out and had children that way. We had marched a long distance for over an hour while throngs of people on every side of the street cheered for us, bellowing out their support for us as gay dads. Every person we passed cheered, every single one, by the thousands. Tears had streamed down my cheeks. After so long hiding who I am, suddenly I was being celebrated by tens of thousands of strangers.

Tonight, after a nice day in the city at street festivals and pot lucks with new friends right and left, I met up with a few of the other dads from Utah to go out to a gay club. I’m scared to death of this. I have images of debauchery and sin, alcohol and sex, associated with clubs, and all of these are Mormon gateways to Hell. But I trust these men that I’m with. My friend Ben tells me to wear something nice.

I show up to dinner in a pair of denim shorts and an untucked plaid shirt, long-sleeved and collared, that is about four sizes too large for me. I lost a lot of weight (about 80 pounds) last year, and most of the clothing I own is still too big for me. These look nice enough as I glance in the mirror, but when I arrive, Ben and the others give me a look that seems to say ‘oh honey, you can’t dress like that.’ Ben looks me over for a minute, then leaves, saying he’ll be back in a while.

In 30 minutes, Ben returns with a bag of clothing he picked up at a secondhand shop down the road. A pair of jeans that fits me perfectly and a few T-shirts. I try one on, a dark blue shirt with an anime character on the front, and it is tight against my shoulders, back, and chest. I walk out saying I can’t possibly wear this, and everyone in the room disagrees. You look great, they say. Trust us, they say. You’ll get lots of attention.

After dinner and drinks (none for me, I don’t drink), we make our way over to the Cuff, a gay club in Seattle that has been around for years. Within an hour, the club is packed full of people, men of every age and color and shape and size. At first, I stick close to my friends, a comfortable security blanket, then I explore a bit, walking around the perimeter of the club and observing the people. Gay men used to be so frightening to me, so foreign to my own upbringing. Now I realize they are just like anyone else. They are teachers, mechanics, social workers, lawyers, nurses. I watch the men flirt with each other, laugh together, cuddle up to their partners or boyfriends. The whole experience, this whole weekend, it’s almost spiritual as I realize how much joy there is in a world that I formerly thought was only full of pain.

It isn’t long before I start realizing different men noticing me. Not every man by any means, but many, and most of them very attractive. A wandering eye, a gentle assessment, a sly smile, a wink. A very handsome Samoan man grabs my arm as I walk by. I look over, surprised, as he says ‘You should know, you are very cute.” I stammer out a clumsy thank you. Another guy asks for my phone number and I tell him I’m from out of town. Women have told me I’m attractive before, but I’ve never believed it. To hear it from handsome men, men I am wired for… I feel 13 years old and my face keeps turning red.

Just a short time later, I find myself out on the dance floor, hand in hand with a tall, dark, and handsome man from British Columbia, a college professor who could be on a magazine cover. He tells me I’m the hottest guy in the club, and my mind is blown. The next two hours are a whirlwind, but I dance and I dance and I dance, and suddenly the crowd is thinning and the music has stopped and the club is ready to close. The professor kisses my cheek and tells me to look him up if I’m ever in BC.

I find Ben and my other friends. Ben slaps my back and comments how I seemed to have a good time tonight. I’m glowing. “I’m… handsome. I had no idea I was handsome.” The other guys laugh, and I feel so naive and young, but I feel alive, like Cinderella at the ball, and its the most wonderful feeling in the world.

Now: August, 2015

“Come down to Club Jam with me tonight, pretty please?” my best friend, Cole, says. “It’s swimsuit night. They are gonna have a foam machine! It will be a blast.” I can never say no to Cole. He’s persistent and fun and gets so excited about events like this. “Absolutely,” I agree. I put on my blue speedo under a pair of shorts and a tanktop and figure we will just see how the night goes.

After an initial drink, a delicious whiskey and Coke, at my house, Cole and I walk over to the club, making sure to get there before 10:30 so we can get in free; they will charge an entry fee after that. The club is nearly empty and won’t get busy for an hour, maybe two. Cole and I walk in in our speedos and tennis shoes, leaving our clothes in the car. Some of the bartenders are also in their swimwear, and one of them thanks us excitedly for participating.

Right from the start, the men in the bar are checking us out. And of course they are. They are clothed, and Cole and I are in swimwear. I briefly think about how a few years ago I would never have had the body confidence to do something like this. I’m not a bodybuilder by any means, but I’m muscular and getting leaner and I’m comfortable in my own skin, and it feels nice. Cole points out a few of the guys that seem to be checking me out, but I don’t even turn to look. I’m not interested in meeting a guy in a club, I just come to be with friends and dance.

As the club starts to get busier, Cole and I have one more drink from the bar then make our way out to the dance floor. I’ve danced on this floor a hundred times now, and I like the music here a lot, but I’m not usually wearing so little. I dance without a care, aware of the people around me and lost in my own world at the same time. It’s wonderful to let loose like this from time to time.

By 11:30, I realize there are about 100 people in the room, and I suddenly realize… no one else is in swimwear. And there is no foam. I walk around, getting stared at right and left, and literally no one else is in swimwear. I check the sign, and sure enough, it’s “Foam Party Saturday–wear your swimwear!” I find a bartender and he quietly informs me the foam machine is broken. I tell Cole but he just shrugs and we keep dancing.

Sometimes I can’t shut down my empathic brain. I get caught up in the feeling of the crowd and lose myself in it and it sucks my energy dry. This guy looking at that guy, those two over there so in love, that one there feeling lonely, the other lurking in the corner. I think back to how magical clubs felt a few years ago, and the vast number of changes I have gone through as a person, as a man, in that time. I think of how much more fun a club would be with one person to go with, a boyfriend to celebrate life with. Then I think back to my disastrous dating life and sigh, exhausted with it all.

Even in the noise and heat of the dance floor, Cole notices and looks at me with concern. “Are you okay?” he mouths. “I’m ready to go home,” I mutter.

As I walk out of the club, someone shouts across the parking lot. “You’re hot!” he yells. “Thanks,” I say, without turning to look. I’m ready for something more substantial than a compliment. And I’m ready for a long night’s sleep.2

the Supper Club

empty-stage-and-micThe walls are purple, and I think what an interesting choice.

I can picture Liberace on the stage years ago, Freddie Mercury and Mae West and Judy Garland and Cher and the Solid Gold Dancers and Joan Rivers, perhaps Merv Griffin and Paul Lynde. I can picture the crowds of men in Palm Springs, gay men who are out and proud, laughing with the wine and beer flowing. Drag shows and thick curtains, late nights and cocaine, alcohol and dancing.

I imagine what Palm Springs must have been like back then, the freedom, the glamour of it all, out and gay, colorful and sexy and exhausting, all those men tired of hiding and now there and free to be themselves.

I’m in a “supper club” in early January, 2016, in Palm Springs, California, and a smile comes to my face as I picture what this place used to be, and then I look at what it is now. Times have changed. Gay people are out everywhere, and with new phone apps they no longer have to go to clubs and bars and health spas to meet each other. But this place has that feel to it, still here, still entertainment-focused, but with such a different feel.

I look over the crowd. Mostly older, and an even mix of gay and straight couples, most of them likely tourists here on the close of their vacations. A couple in their 70s with Irish accents sits at the table next to me, both small and thin, and they have finished a bottle of wine between them. At the table just behind me, an older gay man is loudly telling his friends about meeting a younger man “on the Internet”, something he apparently vowed he would never do, and he boasts at how the sex was amazing. An older couple sits behind me, a man and a woman, who are talking to their gorgeous adult daughter, lauding her for her success as an interior designer.

The waiter makes his way from table to table, clearing plates and refilling drinks. I order something yummy and sweet and cleverly named, and my date gets a glass of wine, and it’s clear the show is about to start. I haven’t been to a stand-up comedy performance in years. My date and I have been seated right next to the stage. I take a sip of my drink and lean over, whispering, “you know the comedian is totally going to make fun of us, right?”

A few minutes later, a woman in her early 50s comes on stage and delivers her routine, something you can tell she has done for years before. She cracks jokes about her difficult past, her daughter being on the straight and narrow, and her judgmental mother who now has selective Alzheimer’s, and closes with a long joke about her grandmother giving her sex advice. It’s corny and fun, and I find myself laughing good-naturedly.

A heavyset man in his late forties comes out next, with his opening line “Hello, gays and gals, I’m only gay on the weekends.” He tells jokes about growing up Jewish and gay and spends plenty of time looking around the crowd, interacting with them and making fun of them. Most of the crowd is buzzed on alcohol now and they are laughing hysterically at the jokes made at their own expense. The elderly Irish couple keep speaking loudly, interrupting his routine, and the comedian takes it in stride, teasing them but being sweet and kind.

“Well, now, who do we have here?” The comedian takes a look at my date and I at our table. “They put you two right up front for me, how nice.” Throughout the evening, he keeps referencing us, talking about us in between his jokes. “I can’t decide which one I want to take home and tie to a chair. Either of you want to volunteer?” Another time, he winks at me, and says “See you after the show.”

Toward the end of his routine, the comedian performs a hilarious version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, as if an overly excited auditioner on a reality television show were singing it. He steps off the stage and promptly sits in my laugh, wooing me a bit to the delight of the audience.

And then soon the show is over. The supper club with the purple walls begins to clear out as people gather their coats, empty their drinks, and head to the door, laughing. I take a moment to sit there, surveying the room, wondering about the history of the place again, getting lost in time for a moment. I once had a psychic tell me that when I enter a building, I bear with me the entire history of the place and the people who dwelt there, and a smile crosses my face as I realize that I’m doing it again, whatever it is.

On my way out, I stop to shake the comedian’s hand, expecting him to flirt again, but he is suddenly very  mild-mannered. He shakes my hand, gives a grin, and says, “I hope you enjoyed the show”, and I realize that he is very different off-stage than he was on.

I take one last look at the purple walls, feeling all of the joy that has been had here, and I wonder what the room is like when it is quiet, when the business closes and all that is left is the history of the night before and the coming of the next show. I carry that history with me as I step into the chilly air outside.