“I’m getting fat,” Talia said, deflecting my compliment that she was looking great. As far as I could tell, she was precisely the same weight, though she claimed that her skin “felt loose.” Our visit was marred by the fact that she expected me to harshly judge every aspect of her new life, though she did all the judging herself. “I bought a TV finally, and I can’t believe I watch like 12 shows. How disgusting am I?” and “You’ll have to meet this guy I’ve been dating. He’s super sweet, but I don’t think I would have ever dated him in New York. He’s an 8 here, maybe like a 4 there.” I asked her why she kept shooting herself down. Her reply: “Because I’ve slipped a bit. Nobody here tells me I can do better, and I guess it’s my way of reminding myself that I can.”

The truth is, I was most certainly critiquing every aspect of Talia’s new life, just as she had expected me to. I hate that I bring home this air of superiority, just because I wear clothes that fit me, or that I consider two miles a walkable distance. On the opposite side of the coin, I tolerate having mice in my kitchen and pay twice as much money for a fraction of the space. Talia had been quick to dismiss the good things about New York when she moved, but now she was dismissing the good things about Kansas—or rather the good things about leaving New York. I wondered where we passed each other on the confidence spectrum, because she had forever been my example of a sound mind and intentional decisions.

We visited Talia’s younger sister Rachel, who was the mother of an infant and a 2-year old. Talia was grateful to be close to her family again, and it was wonderful seeing the two of them bonding as grown women. Rachel slipped into the bedroom to breastfeed her newborn daughter, so Talia and I entertained the toddler son while his father prepared lunch. Talia tried coloring a picture with him, directing him on how to draw the eyes and mouth of a man’s face. The kid just scribbled, laughing about nothing and expecting Talia to find him humorous as well. She turned to me: “The more time I spend with him, the less I want kids. Why would anyone volunteer for 25 years of raising children? Parenting is kind of like that old phrase about professors: ‘those who can’t do, teach.’ I moved home to be less selfish, but I would rather live my life than teach someone else how to live his.” Ah, the Talia I knew!

Talia was especially curious about Joanie. Talia said that Joanie hardly gave her the time of day on her recent visit home. It had felt like Saturant was visiting, not Joanie, as if she came into the visit looking for more reasons to hate the place. And now that Saturant’s critical-of-it-all EP “Kansas” was taking off (with a lead single written about that visit home), Joanie had her middle finger pointed sternly at everything here. “She sort of sold out her past to find success,” Talia said. “This place is who she is, and she can change and grow and distance herself from it, but foundationally, she can’t change a thing. I wish she would embrace that a little more. It leaves a bitter taste, you know?” She paused for a moment. “But I’m sad to be missing her big break. She has certainly worked hard for this spotlight.”

Overall, my time with Talia was a delight. For me, it felt as if I was dropping in for an inspection, with a checklist of items I wanted to scope out. I needed to see that everything was good for her, that her life was fruitful and her outlook positive. She had a long way to go on the outlook part, but between her new house and job and the proximity to her family, it was all heading the right direction, and she would certainly readjust to the world in which she was raised. As she introduced each aspect of her new life to me, I had to try very hard every time to act happy and excited. I was certainly happy for her, but it all seemed so plain, so not-for-me. As we hugged goodbye, it hurt to know that my direction was very different from hers, that this wasn’t a joke and that we had finally hit our fork in the road. I knew she felt it too.

My dad’s comments earlier that week got me thinking a lot about how my sexuality so strongly frames my comfort in certain places. I could block out maybe 80 percent of the United States as places that would leave me entirely miserable as a gay man (all thanks to the people who reside in each). I think Kansas City is mostly fine, but as I walked through downtown KC one night carrying a tote bag, two different women commented snarkily on my “purse.” The second one was about 200 lbs. overweight, and I regret that I quickly reminded her of “all that baggage you’re carrying around, butterball.” I’m such an ass hole, but at least it comes from being jaded and not from naïveté. I have only been called a faggot twice in New York, once by tourists and once by a Staten Island guido, but no trip home to Kansas is complete without a few such remarks. I’ve always known that Kansas and Missouri wouldn’t easily allow me to grow with my set of variables, so part of growing up meant counting down the days til I could run away forever. And, while I miss Dad and Talia, I have to side with Joanie on my general feelings toward this place: it doesn’t deserve my prolific and dynamic pursuit of happiness.

Business resumed once I returned to Brooklyn, and I chatted with Tyler’s agents and lawyers about leaving Sam and working with me. I was less and less shocked by Sam’s bad reputation in the industry, because nobody seemed concerned that we were doing this behind his back. I felt a little sad for him, especially since I couldn’t be doing any of it without the years of his insight and trust. “You’re surviving,” Simon told me. “This is what you need to do, and you have to get over the fact that it’s going to affect him.” Still, I felt guilty, dirty, disrespectful. I felt like Sam, really. I decided though to heed my father’s advice: Kill him with kindness. Be a good man. Be Eric… and so I would be, after all.

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