I have Scruff to thank for most of the men I’ve dated in New York City; Romeo is one of them. I knew who he was before we began speaking in mid-July 2014, which was just a week after Buckminster’s departure from New York. Rather, I didn’t know it was Romeo right away because his photo on the dating app was just a handsome, tanned torso. After saying hello and establishing our flirtatious tone, I asked to see his face. What I got was a face I knew as the ex of my ex. Romeo had dated my ex, Tolliver—a mid-2013 “event”—exactly one year before me. When I dated Tolliver, I always felt like the emotional rebound in a six-month relationship that lasted six months too long. Still, I held a place in my heart and my history for Tolliver, just as I knew he held one for Romeo and for me. “I know who you are,” I wrote to Romeo on Scruff. “I’m Adam. I dated Tolliver after you.” “And I know who you are,” he wrote back. “I’ve seen you on his Instagram. Let’s go for a walk to formally meet? Just because.” It seemed pointless, but also completely harmless. An hour later, I was outside his apartment. An hour later, walking through West Village, looking every direction as if we’d get spotted and hanged, but jiving and laughing like old friends all the while—and flirting a little, too. An hour later, laying casually in the grass of Highline Park well after dark, electricity surging between us. An hour later, back at his apartment, in his bed, keeping our underwear on because we wanted to respect Tolliver—someone I still counted as a friend. (This makes me a very bad friend.) An hour later, on the subway home to Prospect Heights, feeling thrilled, feeling dangerous, feeling bad, but feeling good.
There was no runaround in dating Romeo, no “Are we together or aren’t we?” We just were. I don’t recall ever being anxious about whether or not he liked me or was going to text me, I just knew it was happening and never questioned it. We skipped past courtship, and settled into the vacuum in which we lived for many months. He and I were cursed from the start, though; everywhere we went, I was certain Tolliver would round the corner and bump right into us. We both still cared for him, and knew that he thought highly of each of us. If he found out, it would devastate him, knowing that two very important, emotional parts of his past came together because of that common ground. Romeo and I were both afraid to risk losing that respect from him, too, even though we liked each other enough to start our own unofficial union. We started ordering delivery instead of going out, and would take taxis anywhere we went, to get door to door without risk of awkward run-ins, knowing that Gay New York City is far too small. Only our best friends knew we were together, because Tolliver and his network of friends—which overlapped both of our networks—could be peering out any window or sitting in any restaurant. We kept our Instagram accounts clear of trace, too: no following each other, no posting photos of our joint ventures. That way of documenting romance was forbidden to us. But for these same reasons, we grew close. Every moment was private, was playful, was affectionate, was ours alone. Maybe it wasn’t so cursed after all.
Romeo rented a car and drove us to Connecticut one Saturday afternoon in late summer. We met some of his closest friends for drinks—they were all slightly older, creative-director types like him: owned houses, had families, came from money, or at least made a ton of it now. I felt inferior, given I was a mid-level editor and owned nothing more than a bed and a few nice jackets. I definitely had the best hairline, though. I would certainly NOT be in the same financial wheelhouse as them in the next few years, which made me feel significantly behind them professionally, even if my variables were different, even if my definition of success was already being realized. Romeo saw all of these thoughts unfolding in my head; my quieter demeanor and critical stare must have given me away. Every introduction he made, every conversation he started, he was sure to make me feel equal, to make me feel like I belonged, and that it mattered for nothing that he had money and I did not. I hate that I feel small around people like that. I don’t even want lots of money; I just get uncomfortable because I’ve never had any, and because I make unfair presumptions about people who do, despite the fact that I’ve taken many a handout. After this moment where he introduced me to his friends, I felt understood, and also like the chip on my shoulder was gone, at least around him. Sure, I felt smaller than them, but I also felt deserving of the affection he directed at me—a self-worth test I had failed when dating Dan (@grossypelosi). I loved that weekend, and I loved Romeo that weekend.
During that same weekend in Connecticut, we stopped off the highway at an antique shop. Romeo wanted to browse, hopeful he might find a cool end table or mirror to bring home. I certainly didn’t need anything, seeing as my queen bed took up 90 percent of my bedroom, and my clothes took up the other 10. But then, while he spoke with the owner about a certain piece, something caught my eye: a carved, painted wooden doll, maybe eight inches high. An old woman—a gypsy. Her hair was tucked into a shawl, and she was clutching a bible, smiling. Scribbled m on the bottom was “A.P. 1936.” I turned to the shop owner: “How much for this?” “Uhhh,” he hesitated. “10 bucks?” He stared at me as I stared at her, as if trying to force the sale. My wallet was in the car, so Romeo paid. Back on the road, we named her Heather. It seemed silly enough, and made the eerie idol a bit more innocuous. I set Heather in my windowsill when I got home, and posted an Instagram prompting everyone to say hello to her. A comment, from my friend Ben (@benjaminnyc): “What’s your damage, Heather?” Nothing, yet.
I ran into Tolliver once while all of this was going on. It was near Washington Square Park. We caught up very cordially for a few minutes, and the entire time I thought “I’m sorry. I don’t want to hurt you. He doesn’t want to hurt you. This doesn’t change what he and you had, or what you and I had.” This was one of the few times in my life that I felt like an actual terrible person: being face to face with my ex, feeling like I pulled the ultimate “All About Eve,” only now it was All About Adam, about what I assumed from him. His place in Romeo’s bed. Thoughtful texts. Terrific sex. Romeo had the same guilt, as if he stole me from Tolliver’s memories too. I felt bad for Tolliver, that he was smiling at me, genuinely interested in my goings on, and that he still thought well of me. Then I just felt bad for myself, and for Romeo, for getting ourselves into this predicament, and for not getting out of it on principle alone. But also for being cowards who weren’t willing to give him the momentary grief in order to sustain ourselves. I still wonder if either of us will ever tell Tolliver our secret. I don’t want that truth to alter his memory or opinions. But, before you pity me and Romeo or feel too sorry for Tolliver, trust me here: Romeo and I really were a superb fit, and we can’t help how we met. I often imagine what Tolliver might feel if he found out, since Romeo was his “one who got away.” I think it would be like a sucker punch, doubly so because his heartbreak for Romeo was the sole reason Tolliver and I never got a fair chance when we dated. Or maybe he would think we were despicable, and that we deserved each other. He’d be right, if you asked me.
Since we weren’t public as a couple, Romeo and I were never exclusive. In all the months we dated, we did not vow fidelity, nor did it seem like either of us wanted total commitment to a furtive relationship. But we were committed in some way; we were each other’s first priority, except that the entire time we were both searching for someone more compatible to come along, someone not anchored by guilt or shame. Neither of us made the effort to build toward longevity, to risk having to tell Tolliver. So we continued our weekly cadence of ordering in, having sex before the food arrived, watching a movie while we ate, and passing out promptly thereafter. One morning, as I left his place, I thought to check my Scruff messages, which had been ignored for a week or two, per usual. Then, a text from Romeo: “Two minutes out my door and checking Scruff already?” I was livid: “You had to check yours to even see that I signed in,” I replied. “Plus, it’s 9 in the morning, what do you possibly think I’m looking for?” We both knew the answer, though: Something else.