As I said, my darling friend Ben (@benjaminnyc) had been dating his boyfriend Justin (@justinhsmith) for just eight months when Justin accepted a two-year fellowship at the Denver Public Schools. Still, 28-year-old Ben agreed to uproot his promising life in New York City and relocate, wanting to invest in the relationship instead of the various things he had going for him here: numerous close-knit friend groups, a brother in Brooklyn, parents a few hours north, a prestigious marketing job at @newyorkermag, and 10 years of history with the city. Ben was a product of New York, and hadn’t lived anywhere else, hence the appeal of the Rockies, or moreover, of Not-New-York. Still, when I think of the making-it-on-their-own friends I have here, it is Ben who is the poster boy for hard work, rational thinking, and unsinkable spirit. His departure felt like some sort of broken allegiance. It reminded me of when my old talent management boss was discarded by an A-list client, someone she had represented for many years and someone who owed his household name to her. I started working for her just as they pulled off all his posters from the walls. She was heartbroken, as if her own child had double-crossed her. His name was off limits. I imagine that’s how Lady Liberty must have felt when Ben left: “I fucking made you! What can Denver possibly provide you? You hardly know Justin. You must hardly know yourself.” Maybe I’m projecting.
Outwardly, I was supportive of Ben’s decision. That’s because my unspoken disapproval was almost entirely selfish: He was fracturing our perfect group of friends, signaling the end of what I deemed my richest year. It’s extremely difficult to find gay friends you don’t secretly despise or want to fuck, yet here was this crew of idiots—said endearingly of course, because as is subconsciously requisite, they’re all extremely sharp, both intellectually and emotionally—and we had been living a honeymoon since cementing our togetherness. Our dynamic largely hinged on Ben’s introduction to the group in a 2014 Cape Cod summer vacation, hence why this announcement felt like a dagger. “I didn’t expect any of you to feel that excited for me,” Ben says now. “What did we know about Denver? But part of why making the decision to leave New York was easy was because of our group’s strong dynamic. I knew moving away wouldn’t compromise our friendship. I moved to Denver, I didn’t die! Finding you guys may have been my last big achievement before leaving New York. I think we’re all in a very special place—on the brink of something really great—and I can see each of us start to make decisions for ourselves that will set us up for the rest of our lives. We’re over wandering aimlessly, and we have each other to make sure we don’t get lost. If it weren’t for that support, I’m not sure how easy the decision to move my life to Denver would have been.” Ben wasn’t running from a void; he was running toward an opportunity, and needed all of us to tell him he should pursue.
Ben reminds me that he had a very different life before we knew him. Let’s call that person @BenjaminNYC 1.0: From 2005-2012 he was in a relationship with his freshman-year college roommate (hot, right?), and they had never not been roommates until their mutual separation. They would host dinners in their luxury high-rise apartment in Long Island City, Queens (“Floor-to-ceiling windows are the New York equivalent to white picket fence, right?”), and their best friends were all couples. He also hit the ground running professionally once he arrived in NYC, getting PR and marketing internships at high-profile places. It was no real surprise when he landed a marketing job with @VanityFair right after his 2009 graduation. Everything had unfolded seamlessly, until he and his then-boyfriend realized that, over the course of eight years, they were no longer compatible. “He was brave to initiate the breakup,” Ben says. “We thought we had everything we wanted. We just grew up to be different people.” Ben moved his life into a windowless Williamsburg basement, which flooded numerous times in those first few months. “I had to get rid of most of my belongings. Imagine me strutting around and pouring cocktails in our luxurious apartment, and suddenly living in a marsh and surviving off falafel sandwiches. I was afraid to ever be without plans; I knew if I got bored that I’d realize how sad the breakup really made me. So whenever I was lacking plans, which was often, I’d go to Diner in South Williamsburg, slouch over the bar and convince myself I had my shit together, like I was choosing to be by myself. I think I became a person desperate for attention, even when I was alone.” Let’s name that person—the guy I met and loved—@BenjaminNYC 2.0.
Ben 2.0 also felt professional unrest at Vanity Fair—not a surprise given that most of his life was asunder and unfamiliar. He went after a gig at The New Yorker, and was offered the job while on a two-week solo trip to Paris, where he picked up a smoking habit and perfected his table-for-one dining. He returned to the new job and moved to Bushwick with a college friend, soon loving the new life he had adopted. Shortly thereafter came a solid group of single gay friends—hi!—and rapid-fire dating. This is the Ben I first received: In a given week, we would have many dates between the two of us, with absurd stories and shared commiseration for the fickle sport. I think I’ll look back at this part of my life very fondly forever, as much as I despise aspects of it. “I love picturing them all in a lineup and seeing how insanely different they all are,” Ben says of his own history. “One guy: extremely successful, 12 years older, brownstone in Fort Greene, had a dog, made me feel like a prince. We were in different places. He would want kids much sooner than I would want them, which terrified me, and his friends liked to remind me how young I was. So I ended that. After him was an artist, 21, who lived in this weird treehouse loft in Bushwick, did NOT treat me like a prince, would climb down his ladder to smoke cigarettes, and I thought it was so cool. I don’t know if we were even dating or just sleeping together, but I had become so averse to the idea of a relationship it didn’t matter. The fact that these two very different relationships happened one after the other paints an appropriate picture of how exciting and weird dating was for me. Experimenting with different guys, comparing their bodies, their friends, their homes, their jobs, then trying to remember all their names. I figured I’d eventually want a serious relationship, but not before I got this out of my system. Remember, I was fresh out of a seven-years-and-then-some relationship.”
At the end of Ben’s dating spree, he met Max. “I thought this guy was it,” Ben says. “A filmmaker, a little older, maybe a little more responsible than me, but had a wild side that was endlessly appealing to me. He was a funny combination of those last two guys; treated me like a prince, but was so mysterious and entertaining. Max and I would start a day reading the newspaper, drinking coffee, talking about writers and books. Well, he would do all those things—he was much smarter than me. I remember getting nervous every time I’d hear him say, ‘Have you ever read…?’ Then at night we’d go to some party, get a little drunk, and fool around. I was completely infatuated with him and after running from potentially good relationships for so long, I realized, I’m ready for a boyfriend; Max is showing me that I’m finally ready again. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. He left me right after that realization—somewhat abruptly—and I was, honestly, destroyed.” But Ben stayed upbeat in his heartbreak: “What Max did was show me what I actually wanted in a partner. I owe him a lot for teaching me that, and for making me as happy as I was while he did.” I admire Ben, for seeing the upside to the heartbreak, for cataloging Max as a positive experience despite the sad ending.
“We were both rooting for Denver, to be honest,” Ben says of Justin’s fellowship placement. The other option was Brooklyn, though it was up to a fellowship selection committee. “Justin had been in New York 10 years as well, and was ready for a change. At the same time, I was worried I had settled so easily into New York that I’d only ever live there. I had a great job, but I had become complacent at work. And at the time I was still moving from one month-to-month lease to another. ‘Why not?’ became as good of an excuse as I needed to move.” Ben is unique in that way: New York City is very easy for him. It became a core part of his identity a decade earlier, and now was holding him back from experiencing something entirely new, from evolving his perspective. “Breaking up was never an option, either,” he adds. “I met someone I would be very willing to spend my entire life with, and Denver could be just the first of many challenges we would get to face together.” He says it with such confidence, so I call bullshit on him: “What about the two jobs you had nearly received just prior?” I ask him. Ben had been a finalist for two very prestigious, anyone-would-die-to-have-them positions, and the back-to-back, ego-deflating rejections overlapped Justin’s outward glances toward Denver. “Would you have moved if you had gotten either of those jobs?” I pose. “I didn’t get those jobs.” “That’s not my question.” “Well, I didn’t get them.” ‘Would you have moved?” A pause. “Probably not.”