“You’re sure you didn’t bring any bed bugs with you?” This was Dad’s first (and serious) question when I got home to South Dakota. So much for taking a vacation from my pariah life. Still, it got a chuckle, even though he needed to hear me say “No, Dad. No bugs,” before he laughed too. Dad always speaks impulsively. He has never been eloquent—an opposite of Mom. He has opinions, and it’s easy to understand why he has them. He values saved money above everything, having been an accountant, and having been accountable for four kids for 31 years. He’s conservative in every way of the word; fiscally of course, but he was raised in a zealously Catholic home, one of nine in Minot, ND. His world has always been Dakota. Mom’s has been too, but her childhood wasn’t as repressed by religion and fear of the unfamiliar. Dad knows more about global cultures and history than anyone, but he’s never gone out to experience them for himself; this willingness to learn—with a fear of engaging—is common for a lot of people down the fold of the US. After I came out to my parents in 2010, Mom was motherly from the start, but still tiptoed around any discussion because it’s ingrained in her to not dabble in other people’s personal affairs. However, I wanted her to make this her business; I wanted her to ask questions, because I needed to gauge her comfort level with it. Her politeness held out, despite her stating that she had always known, and was happy that I was happy. Dad, for some reason, acted blindsided by the news, which is funny because I begged for My Little Pony figurines as a child. He said it would be a long time before he would be comfortable discussing anything “gay”—if ever. I thought it was fair for the immediate future, because I wasn’t ready to discuss it with him, either. But, considering that “gay” was now my life, I hoped the wait would be short, so that he could learn about me as I grew into a new identity. In other words, I wasn’t eager or willing to refer to any future boyfriend as “my roommate”, nor would I ever date anyone who was so spineless as to dilute me in the same manner.
My annual visits home are indication that Dad and I are closer than ever; while he’s not without liberal conspiracy theories and unsolicited financial advice, we’ve both come to realize how few interactions we have remaining, given the unlikely nature of us ever living close to one another. However, his gradual comfort with my sexuality still starts and stops with the parent-child relation: I am his son, and I am gay. That’s all that’s been asked to accept. As I’ve said before, whenever I go home to Sioux Falls, my life is on hold because very little about my reality—New York, gay, broke, agnostic, liberal—registers with theirs. My 31-year-old sister speaks with them nearly every day from Boston, but she married a South Dakota-native architect (at 22), is pregnant with her third child, is a devout Christian, and her husband’s parents are my parents’ best friends. My folks have no clue what to ask me about my relationships—platonic or romantic—much less how to process the possible responses, even if I offered up information unsolicited. For this reason, it’s always a month or two between phone calls before I realize I should check in with them. Each call—and the conversation while visiting home—is lovely by nature, but consists of very top-line metrics: Work is good (the most important thing to Dad), cousin Jenny is doing well, travels have been nice. I wonder if they still see me as the son they raised for 19 years, and again for that closeted, self-loathing 10-month window of time in 2009-2010 when I lived at home. I hated being that kid. I hated it so much. The life I started at 24 is the one I should have started at 14. Don’t get me wrong; I think I’ll owe an impregnable mind and persisting happiness to the fact that I refuse to ever again be so private, so stifled, so miserable. But if my parents only know the version of me that was miserable, and if they don’t know how to respond to “I’m stuck in a messy love triangle!” or “I’m dating a Middle Eastern guy!” or “I spent $250 on Beyonce tickets!”, well…how do we get there, without shoving it down their throats?
The impetus of this trip was my youngest brother Keith’s high school graduation. Keith is 10 years my junior, and is currently my parents’ only hope that one of their children might stay in South Dakota (again, third child Sam is in Utah and looking further west). Baby Boy is now studying pre-med at the University of South Dakota. It was weird seeing my parents prepare for an empty nest: “Keith is rarely home,” Mom said. “I won’t realize he’s gone until the fridge stops mysteriously emptying itself.” “I think we’ll take a trip,” Dad told me. “Mom wants to visit Hawaii.” I hope they will actually take said trip; after 31 years of parenting, a vacation is the least they deserve; I only hope they don’t talk themselves out of it. At Keith’s graduation party, I was designated the task of photographing him with each guest—something I probably did at my own reception and have since forgotten half those guests’ names—and was awkwardly greeted by a few of the students I instructed five years earlier, when I was a seventh grade social studies teacher. They were all Keith’s age, and are now his close friends. “Mr. Hurly! Whoa! Hi! Sup dude?!” How weird that was, to see them nearly grown up, and, despite forgetting most of their names, too, to instantly recall the lesson planning, test writing, and paper grading, and to revisit the individual emotions that each one of them gave me: stress, delight, even more stress, but mostly happiness. They were great kids, as patient with me as I had been with them. The biggest highlight, though, was seeing how Keith has turned out: gets terrific grades; prioritizes his health; works two jobs; volunteers regularly; is open minded (Read: He thinks it’s cool that I’m gay.). As a gift for his graduation, I gave Keith a “redeem anytime” visit to New York City. He was elated, though I’ve had to since remind him that it’s his for the taking; he and Mom keep making excuses as to why timing is hard: He can’t miss fall break with his buddies; he should be working to make money; he can’t skip a single day of classes; I should save MY money…while my door remains open, waiting.
The visit to Sioux Falls lasted four days, which is always enough time to see family and friends, to drive around and feed nostalgia, then to hurry back to my regularly scheduled programming. On this excursion, however, I was headed to San Francisco for a week, to get an entirely different kind of nostalgia: It’s more familiar, and feels like a recurring love affair rather than a divorce. I suppose both cities are equally responsible for how I’ve turned out, though: San Francisco was electric because Sioux Falls was not. I can never plan a long enough trip back to the Bay, even if I spend half of it alone. I try to run to Crissy Field every other day, an 8-mile venture that I used to do daily, since I once had that kind of free time. I go out in the Castro, take the N-train all the way to Ocean Beach for coffee and a stroll, then take BART to the Mission for a burrito at La Taqueria, and into Berkeley to visit friends and my favorite restaurants on Telegraph Avenue, then hop on Emery-Go-Round to say hello to Pixar friends in Emeryville. I project so much onto a future scenario where I can take a significant other to San Francisco: We’ll stay in the Russian Hill loft that my aunt and uncle own, maybe hit a Giants game, drive to San Rafael for an afternoon lunch, walk down the hill and pose for photos in front of the now-shuttered video rental store where I hilariously wasted months of my life, visit to the Farmers’ Market on Saturday, take a Sunday drive to Big Sur, drink brown-bagged beers in Dolores Park, see a drag show at Aunt Charlie’s, relive my morning commute through North Beach as I tried (usually successfully) to walk faster than the 45-bus, and eat dinner with my favorite city resident Juanita MORE (@missmore8). In a few short years there, I fell in love with so many things, so many people and habits and places and, above all, the way of life. One week every year is simply not enough.
While I needed a reprieve and refresh on this trip, I still had to work. I negotiated a situation—as in, asked for it without hesitation, and got a “yes”—where I could pack three days’ remote work into my San Francisco travel; I was happy to sacrifice a few nostalgic check-ins if it meant having a guilt-free leave. Birchbox is always good about this; I couldn’t help that I had a graduation in South Dakota immediately followed by a wedding in California, so my manager and I devised the scenario that made it feasible. This employer flexibility and open leave is hard to find, a norm that I hope changes soon. Birchbox expects me to get my work done, and to do it well. Similarly, they trust me to take time off when I need it. So, I feel respected and in turn respect them. With other employers, I have experienced quite the opposite: At one place, I needed to work a full six months to accrue any sick days or PTO; I was scolded for attending a wedding without any time off accrued. At another, the work day started at 9 prompt, and I had to take a quarter of a vacation day if I showed up later than 9:15. Never mind if a train stalled, or if I got just as much work done or worked late; as soon as 9:16 rolled around, I owed them an entire 2 hours’ vacation. Go figure why every employee in that office aspired to go someplace else. Birchbox granted me time off to move apartments three times—moving day is rarely on a weekend—and I book flights on inexpensive travel dates so I can travel more and save more, while adding a small bit of work to my itinerary. If I arrive at 10 or 10:15, I work through lunch or stay late. As do my colleagues, thanks to office-wide flexibility. The company isn’t perfect; each person’s opinion of it is dependent on his or her role, team, manager, growth opportunities. For me, it feels like a relationship that I know is worth my investment, after having “dated” plenty of dud jobs; my five-year meandering taught me as much, if anything. In time—maybe a year, or 10 or 20—some variable will take me away. But Birchbox will remain the job that allowed me to be happy, to stop and let something good soak in.
There’s a photo of me taken on my aunt’s roof in Russian Hill, mid-2011: The night sky glows purple, and my side profile is silhouetted against the Transamerica Pyramid and Bay Bridge. When I see it, I see what I think is the most pure version of myself. Not pure in the prude sense, but in that I was out of my idle, jobless funk, a year into my gay adult life, and I had my one-way ticket to New York on the books. When I look at myself now, I see a tired, jaded, overly pragmatic man. He’s exhausted by his commute, by long but fruitful work days, by a relentless and expensive social calendar, by expenses in general, by dating. Especially by dating. The 25-year-old Adam had no credit card, much less heaps of debt on two of them. Even when he was single, he wasn’t invested in dating since he wasn’t invested in San Francisco. He was fearful of open relationships, quite sure that long-term monogamy would be easy to find and maintain. The 28-year-old Adam isn’t even sure he wants it, much less for a partner to value it. He’s not romantic about much. Adam-25 smiled a lot more. He was in shape because it made sense. I’m in shape now because it’s required to stay competitive and desirable within the dating pool. He wanted a lot of the things that I have now accomplished, which I think is what made him so pure: He was only potential, no reality. He was endearingly naive. I don’t know if I would have the patience for him today; I’d laugh watching him move to New York and struggle those first months. But then, he’d suddenly be gone. Every time I’m back in the Bay, I go up on the roof first thing and greet the view: Alcatraz, the Wharf, Coit Tower, the Bay Bridge, North Beach, the Pyramid. I crept up there late one night on this trip, for another midnight vantage. I recalled the photo, the moment captured right before I jumped, right before I cut ties with naivety. On this night, Adam-Almost-29 stared quietly over the foggy city, with the faint sounds of the Wharf’s sea lions making their way up the hill. “Thank you,” I whispered to someone who wasn’t there. “I’m trying very hard. I promise. I promise.”
After visiting ghosts in Sioux Falls and San Francisco, I took the redeye back home, back to five weeks of couch hopping, of sardine-like commutes, of buying new (and worth-an-investment) furniture, of the unique, not-terrible, mostly-just-pesky realities that I had on my platter. There wasn’t any relief to being home—there usually is, which also manifests as a “what am I missing in New York” anxiety even if I’m someplace comparably magnificent. The honeymoon with my city was officially over. This looming knot in my stomach told me that life would be this way so long as I lived here; I might never get off the ground financially, much less out of steady debt. Dating would continually disappoint me, whether I was insatiable or unrealistic or just part of a matrix of men who could only pursue dead ends. And, just as things might seem normal, shit like bed bugs can happen and fracture any remaining sense of stability. That was weighing down on this particular taxi ride home—and not to my home, but to a temporary one, a charity one. Like I said, nothing was truly terrible about my life, but when you feel like you’re doing a good job and then suddenly understand the low likelihood of it compounding into a permanent, sustainable existence, especially when so few places in the world will make you comfortable and happy as this place can…you realize that maybe the potential that once filled your pretty little head is gone, and in its place, behind the aging, unamused expression is this permanently pessimistic and hardheaded notion that the problems are only just beginning, that what is pesky now will be a cakewalk compared against what’s to come. … I first routed the car to Fort Greene, to collect my dry cleaning. “We will miss your business,” the owner said after I swiped my credit card for $700, reclaiming things that probably never had bed bugs on them in the first place. Then the car took me “home”, and drove me past Prospect Park, past the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch and the Brooklyn Museum—those landmarks that overwhelmed me with optimism on my first glimpse of this life—and I sighed to myself: I’ve no option but to keep going.