“Is everyone holding their phones in case I wanted to text you guys something and have you see it at once?” Ben Peryer (@benjaminnyc) sent that text to Kieran Dallison (@kierandallison), Zach Ames (@zachames), and me one early spring evening. I responded with a smiling selfie to announce my presence. Kieran chimed in as well, but Zach was preoccupied. “I’ll assume Z’s not far behind,” Ben proceeded, then dropped a bomb: “I’m moving to Denver with Justin.” A frowny emoji from Kieran, followed by a sad-faced Bitmoji that read FOR REAL. Then, a teary-eyed, frowny selfie from me, announcing my sadness. “For real,” Ben replied. “Like for real, for real?” Kieran continued. “April Fool’s was like a month ago.” We had been half-expecting this news after Ben’s boyfriend Justin (@justinhsmith) accepted an administrative position at Denver Public Schools a month earlier (a two-year residency), unsure if Ben would follow him or sever ties and stay put (since Denver is, to many of us, mile-high mediocrity). “For real for real. In July or August. Boyyyys, I’m really happy! This is exciting news!” “I know. I know! We know.” I replied. Poor Zach would have to catch up on all of this at once. And poor Ben…poor Ben was going to live in white, homogenous, yoga-pantsed Denver.
We all felt partially responsible for Ben’s departure, seeing as we each played some kind of role in his meeting Justin. A year prior, a handful of us went to Provincetown for the first time, and squeezed six people into a tiny two-bedroom. The initial five attendees were Kieran, Zach, Ryan (@ryanfitzgibbon), Daniel (@danielseunglee), and me, but there was an extra spot for the taking. Ryan suggested his pal Ben, whom the rest of us knew peripherally. He seemed funny, a little weird in a charming way, and certainly worthy of throwing into the mix for our week in the Cape. Just before the vacation, though, Ryan had to back out, so I proposed to the group that we invite Tripp (@trippppp), someone we all had met but didn’t know much about; I got unanimous “yeas.” Long story short: We all bonded immensely that week, especially Ben and Tripp. Back in New York, we went out dancing one night and Ben met Tripp’s roommate Justin. They flirted a little, but didn’t think much of it. A couple weeks later, Ben tagged along with me to my friend Carlos’ (@closalvarado) birthday party, and lo and behold, Justin was also in attendance. With enough liquid courage, they got cozy, shared their first kiss, and shortly thereafter were an official item. Just eight months after that, our Ben would follow Justin to a city he had never even visited. Within one year, Ben went from barely knowing us, to breaking our hearts.
Things weren’t improving on the home front. Here’s what life is like when you get bed bugs: You have to wash any clothing and bedding with hot water, then dry it on high heat. Anything that can’t be washed needs to be bagged up, labeled, and sent for special dry cleaning. First however, an exterminator needs to spray everything in your house with heavy-duty poison, and you have to bag up anything you don’t want sprayed (generally, clothing that you will otherwise wash to those heat specifics). There are three rounds of spraying, each spread ten days apart: The first spray kills the living bugs. The second one kills the ones that hatch after the first spray (before they have matured enough to reproduce), and the third one is a peace-of-mind spray, killing anything that may linger. In theory, you can move back into your apartment after the second spray—while still living out of garbage bags—and then you can start reclaiming your life after the final one. Our apartment looked like a war zone once we moved back in two weeks later—all of us afraid to put ourselves out as decoys, to see if the bugs had in fact disappeared. Whenever I would get home each day, I would put my messenger bag in the freezer, retrieve my pajamas from there as well, and quickly shower. Then I would put my dirty clothes in the freezer, select from a garbage bag the following day’s clothes, and place them in the freezer as well—all for assurance that no bugs would inhabit them. And I’m just getting started….
I pulled my bed away from the wall, and it now inhabited the entire walkable space in the tiny room. I fastened a double-sided moat of tape around my mattress, so that it would catch any bugs that tried creeping up. I also sprayed Raid around each leg of the bed, and made tape barriers on them, for added security. I slept in just my underwear, with a loose sheet over top me, so as to maximize the surface area any bugs might have for feasting. Some friends recommended I sleep fully clothed, but I didn’t want the bugs to only have my face as their source of food. I kept the light on every night, and curled the sheet around myself so that it wouldn’t obstruct my moat. I would fall asleep staring Heather in the eyes, trying to blame her for this, because it all felt inexplicable to me. Ten nights I spent this way, waiting for that exterminator to come back, and also wishing for Romeo back, if only to curl up in his lavish apartment, to have him cradle me, to have respite from this joke of an existence. I envied Ben, knowing he would get to escape bullshit things like this, like insurmountable cost of living, like rats, like metal bars on apartment windows, and body-to-body subway commutes. He could act his age in Denver, instead of being a pathetic 28-year-old man who slept each night with the lights on, praying to get through without letting the bed bugs bite.
I worked from home on the day of the third and final extermination spraying. We hadn’t seen any bugs in the ten days prior, and were eager to get that assurance spray done; it meant we could do our dry cleaning, wash our clothes, ideally not have to replace any furniture, and get on with our lives. We lived in a large building with dozens of units, so I had called the management company the day before to confirm the appointment; I wasn’t going to risk them forgetting about us. So, as the hours ticked away on the scheduled date, I called the company again, asking if they knew when an exterminator would arrive. “You’re not scheduled for an exterminator,” the woman on the other line told me. She was the same one with whom I had made the appointment, AND confirmed it. In a split second, I became brutal in a way I have never been: “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN I DON’T HAVE AN APPOINTMENT? DID WE NOT SPEAK YESTERDAY TO CONFIRM THIS? HUH?” “Yes, sir, I do recall speaking yesterday.” “THEN WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU TELL ME I HAVE AN APPOINTMENT WHEN YOU DIDN’T DO YOUR GOD DAMN JOB AND ACTUALLY SCHEDULE A FUCKING APPOINTMENT? WE SPOKE TWO WEEKS AGO TO SCHEDULE THIS APPOINTMENT. I AM TAKING TIME OFF WORK TO SIT ON MY ASS IN MY BUG-INFESTED APARTMENT SO THAT WE COULD FINISH THIS, SO THAT THE REST OF YOUR FUCKING BUILDING WON’T ALSO GET INFESTED. YOU COULDN’T FOLLOW THROUGH ON SOMETHING WE SPOKE ABOUT NOT ONCE, BUT TWICE? DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO HAVE TO LIVE OUT OF GARBAGE BAGS AND SLEEP WITH THE LIGHTS ON? HOW DO YOU EVEN HAVE A JOB?!” “Sir, you don’t have to yell.” “I FUCKING YELL WHEN SOMEONE LIES TO ME AND PUTS ME IN A COMPROMISED POSITION AND IS INCAPABLE OF DOING THE JOB I PARTIALLY PAY THEM TO DO. NOW TELL ME WHY THE FUCK THERE ISN’T A FUCKING EXTERMINATOR AT MY APARTMENT RIGHT NOW. HOW SOON CAN HE BE HERE TODAY, HUH?” “Sorry, sir, it takes a few days for us to schedule someone. The earliest is next Monday.” “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? LET ME SPEAK TO YOUR GOD DAMN MANAGER.” You tell me: Should I be proud of myself?
Six days later, we finally got the last spraying. We spent that extra week in the same compromised state, entirely miserable and avoiding the apartment except to sleep—an irony given that nighttime was when we were most susceptible. I worked from home another day to wash all of my clothes and bedding, then dry them on high heat. I was eager to unpack them and get my apartment back in an operable, livable state. My roommates were a few paces behind, still playing it safe for a couple weeks, wanting to be certain we were bug free. This is where bed bugs get really tricky, though, as you recover from their presence: You don’t know they’re totally gone unless you see one, or get bit. So if you don’t have those physical signs, you wait. And wait. And wait. Because they can go a while without food, and perhaps some are still unborn; after all, our 10-day window had lapsed on that final spray, and some remaining bugs might have reproduced and laid eggs. Simply put, the waiting-out is psychologically debilitating. But I knew I could only get on if I pretended they were gone. I got dinner with cousin Jenny (@approxmiately) a couple nights later, boasting to her about my purified apartment, and then walked her home to see the large bedroom she had just taken over at her own apartment; it looked like it had been professionally curated, as her taste is so sharp. I was so proud to see her beaming and glowing in this space. As she was explaining some component of the room, I felt an itch on my right shoulder. A familiar itch. I excused myself to the bathroom, peeled off my shirt, and examined it: A welt was coming in, with a small bite mark at center. (Quick aside: I wasn’t worried that I brought the bugs to Jenny’s, since bumps come in many hours after a bite.) I composed myself and hugged Jenny farewell, giving her some made-up excuse for leaving. As the anxiety swelled, I sauntered home, or at least to the place where I paid rent and stored my stuff.
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.”
When Romeo and I split, we promised to check in after a couple months, to get dinner, catch up, and make a concerted effort to stay friends. I’ve said this before, but after a breakup, I’d hate to think I ever spent so much time with someone that we couldn’t root for one another, support each other, and build a new platonic relationship, especially after sharing such a high level of intimacy. The timing of our eventual dinner was hard for me, as I found myself hoping I could fall back into the rhythm of happily complacent dates at his apartment, wanting desperately to escape the hell I was living in Fort Greene. He told me he had been seeing someone for a month now, and that it had the makings for a long-term relationship. I didn’t press him for details, and instead felt excited and happy for him. I played down my own anxiety, trying to seem strong, to let him know I was doing really well at work, with friends—though bummed about Ben and Justin moving—and that the bed bugs were already under control: “They’re an annoying hiccup. We’re getting over it just fine.” (Lies!) And my own dating life, well…I wasn’t trying to force anything, I told him. Just casual dating, looking for something lasting, though. I didn’t want to seem as brokedown as I felt. As far as he could tell, things were neither here nor there, very steady, very normal. If you panned across the scene, things weren’t very normal, though: There we were in public, relaxed, joking, lacking any paranoia. Two friends, none too concerned for who might spot us together. While part of me wished this could have been our reality as a couple, most of me was just grateful for the assurance that I had this friend, that I could forever love this person I had loved. Our history was rich—dating back to our joint affairs with Tolliver—and now our future could be, too.
In late April, I woke to a calendar alert on my phone: It was Buckminster’s birthday. Since I don’t have Facebook, I am in the habit of plugging people’s birthdays into my calendar, so that I can text them on their respective mornings. I hadn’t forgotten Buckminster’s to begin with, but I had forgotten in our cold-turkey goodbyes to remove this particular notice from my phone. I decided, though, to send him a text anyway, seeing as it had been nearly a year since his final email to me, and just under a year since we had broken up. His birthday carried with it the sad reminder of our demise, too: It was then that he proposed being boyfriends, and when I shut off emotionally. I digress…I sent him a text: “Happy birthday! Hope you’ve had a great year and that you have fun plans to celebrate.” Ten minutes later, his reply: “Sorry, who is this?” Oh brother. OK, play it cool: “Lol. It’s Adam Hurly.” // “OOF. Nice to hear from you. Looks like I gave my phone a bit of a cleanse after we ended things.” // “I take no offense. Kind of hilarious. Have a good bday :)” // “Or completely catty. Thanks for the note. Very sweet. I’ll be back in the city in July for work. Let’s grab coffee and catch up.” // “Sounds great! I would like that a lot. Maybe save my number.” // “Deal.” I’d soon see Buckminster again, and so looked forward to that summer coffee.
Another text exchange brought another ex back from the dead: Cold Hands reached out to say hello, to see if I wanted to get dinner and catch up. It was weird to me that each of these exes surfaced back to back, but I’m superstitious and saw it as an opportunity to iron out my past year of ruffled dating, to plan for a more practical, have-my-shit-together 30th year. Perhaps by revisiting each one, I could prevent another false start, another failed launch. It had been nearly three months since Cold Hands abruptly halted our blossoming romance without any warning; I was well over the spurning but still had unanswered questions. It was curious to me that he would even want to be friends, but given the opportunity, it seemed worth entertaining, as I cared very deeply for him in our month together. So, as is my habit, I accepted the invitation, and promised to elicit from him an explanation for the abandonment—without any resentment.
Cold Hands and I met for dinner at Fette Sau in Brooklyn. Admittedly, I felt the same attraction as I had in winter, and realized this was a bad idea. We covered the standard bases: travels, work, dating. (The last one is always loaded when there’s a romantic history.) In his update, though, he spoke of a long-term, somewhat unhealthy pursuit he had had with a very unavailable man, something that had been going on for many months and that he hoped would soon end. He admitted it had overlapped his and my dating in January, and did in fact play a part in his diversion from me. This and a few other factors had also led to him going on anti-depressants, which put him in no place to preserve any kindle. He didn’t seem proud of himself, and said he felt stuck. That confession moved us quickly from ex-lovers to confidants, and any confusion turned into empathy. It was an opportunity for me to tell him about Romeo, and what I had similarly endured in that relationship. I told the full story, though: that Cold Hands pulled me out of the dead-end affair, and that I had liked him enough to finally identify what it was I needed in a significant other. So, yes, I was fairly let down when he disappeared, but at least it got me calibrated again. I was proud of both of us for being so transparent. After dinner, we walked up the Williamsburg pier together—as friends—and I realized that, finally, we had spent an evening together without any storm at our back.
I got back to my disgusting apartment feeling optimistic, which I needed. With home life in such disarray, camaraderie from any angle was appreciated. I had told Cold Hands about my bed bugs too, but in the same way I had Romeo: All was looking up, all tension was past. Still, my reality was that we were nearing the end of the second attempt at ousting the bugs, and I didn’t have much faith that we would win this time, either. Luckily, we hadn’t seen any or been bitten in a couple weeks, which was a good sign. It meant we had no major threats to them reproducing or having survived, and that the final assurance spray would put us in the clear. I placed my belongings in the freezer (remember, this was practice at our home during the infestation), and tiptoed into the bathroom to shower before bed. I stared at myself in the mirror, probably noticing how old and stressed and always exhausted I appeared, but glad that the day was over, and that I was one closer to mental clarity, to pushing my bed back against the wall, to unpacking my life from tied-up bags, to not feeling like a leper despite paying exorbitant New York City rent. As I turned the shower on and waited for warm water, I grabbed my toothbrush and looked down at the sink. Something caught my eye: a little red critter, crawling across the bowl. Upon closer examination: a fully grown, reproductive adult bed bug. In the bathroom. On porcelain. Not on fabric. Not on wood. Not on a bed. In the tiled, cold bathroom, one of the places that is supposed to provide refuge. The bigger concern was that our assurance spray wouldn’t give us relief after all: The adult bugs were still here, and in places we hadn’t even suspected. I didn’t know what to do, so I started serenading the pest with a pathetic, heartbroken rendition of Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here.” Then, I smashed it with my thumb, washed it away, and slinked down against the wall, and onto the floor. I couldn’t believe this was my nearly 29-year-old life. I couldn’t live here any more. But I had no plan, and no money for a quick fix. So I took out my phone, and summoned the help of my dearest friends.
My desperation email: “Hi everyone. I apologize up front, as this is a bit of an SOS. Most of you know I have bed bugs in my apartment. I have not been embarrassed nor ashamed to talk about it. But it has been a debilitating reality and, despite the exterminators coming once more this last week, I continue to find adult bugs. They keep popping up long after they’re supposed to be dead, and in every room of the house. The lease is up June 1 on my apartment. My roommates are thinking about staying. I’m subletting and have the complete freedom to leave. After working til 1130 tonight and coming home to an adult bug on my bathroom sink, I feel at a breaking point. I’m ready to get rid of 90% of my belongings and start over. Start completely over. My bed, my desk. My dresser. Most of my clothes. Everything. I asked a few of you recently to house me short term. Now I’m reaching out for a bigger favor. Is there any window of time in the next few months where you’ll be gone and your apartment or room will sit empty? I don’t have much money saved. Not enough to move and start over immediately. So my thought is to spare myself rent for two months if I can, and live out of a couple duffel bags (new ones!) while I pick up extra writing assignments and build up a couple thousand extra dollars to get a new apartment, and hopefully some peace of mind. I really do apologize. I’ve drafted this email three or four times in the past couple weeks and keep telling myself not to hit send, that it would be weak and shameful. Admittedly, I am embarrassed to finally hit send, at 1:15 in the morning. I just want my sanity back. I want to start over and rid myself of all these things. The thought of it makes me so relieved. Please let me know. I’m going to try to piece a schedule together and I’ll do any and every favor you need in the while. I know work will be especially flexible with me as I sort things out. THANK GOD I have that security covered. Feel free to chuckle at this too. It really is kind of funny. And it’ll be funnier yet when it’s past tense. Help me make it funnier yet? Love you all. Adam.”
Kieran Dallison (@kierandallison) and I met in April 2013. A mutual peripheral friend had invited both of us dancing at Sugarland in Williamsburg. Our pal did introductions—Kieran certainly caught my eye—and then the friend immediately offered us a certain dance-your-ass-off substance. Kieran declined, and in a fit of “try everything once” and “you dragged yourself all the way here, now have fun”, I said yes. Flash forward one hour and I’m really tearing up the floor, at one point cornering Kieran against a sea of bodies so that we can talk “privately”. Bless him for tolerating my obnoxious questions and terrible first impression—we got as deep as why he hadn’t yet come out to his father, mid-dance floor while Britney or Ke$ha blared behind us—and we forged a small flirtation. I woke up the next morning, drank three gallons of water, and immediately located his social media accounts. I befriended him, got an “I was just going to befriend YOU!” in response (I must have done something endearing), and we arranged a date. Over the next few weeks, I really got to know and adore the former fat kid, the humble Arizona native who had been a prized CFDA student designer, at the time working under Prabal Gurung (and now Joseph Altuzarra). He was far more talented than anyone I had met in fashion, but also didn’t fit the mold of the kind of people I knew in that business (read: he didn’t take himself too seriously, and didn’t expect anyone else to take him seriously, either). Our courtship unfolded like many: good chemistry, a few dates in a couple weeks, a little TLC, then the realization that the dynamic is better played out platonically. We ended things amicably and mutually, and I assumed I would never see him again, aside from the occasional run-in. Then, four months later, I got an invitation to his New York Fashion Week show when our mutual friend’s date backed out (Kieran had suggested me as the alternate). I knew nothing about fashion but jumped at the chance to see my acquaintance’s designs on the runway. That small gesture resuscitated our contact and launched not one, but a handful of the most treasured friendships I have had the pleasure of keeping.
I’ve always had a breadth of friends; there are endless “catch-up coffee dates” and pals passing through town, but few people with deep-rooted, unconditional investments. What always eluded me—and thus what I sought out—was depth with a core group. I saw the breadth thing happening again after coming out; I hopped between groups of gays and never felt quite at home. It’s a big reason I so willingly left San Francisco; I pinned a lot of hope on New York for it, too. I needed gay friends like me: adventurous but not mischievous—in everything, including an approach to sex; broke, but gradually less so; humble roots, with a respect for family values and perhaps a tinge of jadedness on the matter; not competitive, whatsoever. When Kieran and I reconnected and made a conscious effort to start hanging out, that’s when things started to compound. My friendly acquaintance Zach (@zachames) invited a couple buddies over to watch the Miss America pageant (this is a thing gay men do), and asked everyone to extend the invitation, so Kieran tagged along. I’ll spare details of our beauty-pageant commentary, but will say that a weird connection happened in Zach’s apartment that night: A handful of mid-20 something gay men, all in the same earnings bracket, all single but one, all admittedly lacking a core group of gay friends, all confident in their point of view…everything clicked. Odd as it may be, the analogy that makes the most sense is Tarzan meeting Jane and the other humans; I had met my people! Soon we were planning weekend trips together, booking a house in Provincetown for a summer vacation, meeting for dinner at odd weeknight hours to vent about dumb boys or broken hearts or work frustrations. “I felt like I had found friends who wanted to become better, and who wanted to rely on one another to do that,” Kieran says. “None of us was from NYC, and we all had to work hard to get what we wanted, and were still at the start of that. We hardly overlapped professionally, and it created this incredible dynamic or encouragement and appreciation. That first year that I knew you boys, it felt like so many years condensed into one. It was just…rich. Finally.”
“There are certain moments I look to as far as personal benchmarks of my authenticity to living in New York,” Kieran says. “One was moving out of the dorms and into my first apartment. Graduating into a real design job was another. Meeting you boys was the biggest emotional fulfillment, though. Not only did I live here—in the one city I knew I needed to be in—but I felt comfortable in it. New York was capital-H Home now. There was a built-in support system; somebody was available to talk or make jokes or sulk to or celebrate. Not a day goes by that a group text or email thread isn’t lighting up with snarky comments. I’ve had plenty of friends at any point, but you all feel less fleeting.” I agree wholeheartedly. Sure, life events—like Ben moving to Denver with Justin—will continue to happen, and in ten years, I’m sure we’ll all have offshoot groups of friends, but I can say with certainty that this is the one I will reflect upon most fondly. There’s @robbiegordy, the Nebraska-native art auctioneer who looks like a surfer but talks like a prince; the 6-foot-6 Utahn @zachames who works in corporate diversity and is known to ride the 6-train in full Barbie drag; long-haired copywriter goofball @jeffkies from Missouri who says all the best inappropriate things; Los Angeleno photographer @danielseunglee who endures our jabs of being the “baby” of the group, despite being the only one with a car and having to drive us everywhere; the Arizonan, womenswear designer @kierandallison, of course, and his Long Island-born, brain-researcher beefcake boyfriend @bryangonzales who gradually and graciously accepts that we are all idiots; the now-in-Denver integrated marketing wiz @benjaminnyc and his Missourian education administrator darling @justinhsmith; and theater contract negotiator @trippppp, the Atlantan-turned-Chicagoan-turned New Yorker who pretends to be grumpy but is actually the warmest of the bunch (he did, after all, invite me to be his roommate when I needed it). I don’t know what I did to deserve these men. My worst days with them are better than my best days without.
Once Ben and Justin announced their departure, I had this sinking reality that everything is finite, that a good thing is good because it is temporary, because it must be earned and can be lost. I admired Ben on the one hand for taking a risk on his relationship and professional life, but I was upset for selfish reasons. I wanted this Kumbaya group dynamic to stay whole, to be my reality long enough to grow old with it, not to have it yanked instead from our hands. “As Ben grew serious with Justin and then told us he was moving, I had an ‘oh my god’ moment, too” says Kieran. “It was us being reactionary and immediate. At the same time, Bryan (Kieran’s boyfriend) was applying to schools that weren’t in New York. They were on the West Coast, or in Boston. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do if he had to move. Had Bryan decided to go to school outside the city, I’m not sure I would have been as courageous as Ben, given that I’m so rooted in New York professionally, and since our relationship felt so new at that point.” (Though it’s nearly a year older than Ben’s and Justin’s, to be fair.) “It felt like Ben was leaving the party at its height,” Kieran says. “I’m glad his moving didn’t fracture our group’s dynamic, though. Instead, it just felt like an unfortunate reminder that as much as we want to preserve life as-is, it will never be guaranteed.” My thoughts on the matter: Everything is more valuable when you take the time to earn it, to experience imperfect versions of friends or jobs or apartments before realizing what it is that you need. A lot of us in our group had a chip on our shoulder about our togetherness, since it was hard-earned and past due in each of our lives. Ben’s 1,600-mile separation felt like the curtain being pulled back to reveal one of the unfortunate realities of growing older: Coping is often best done by accepting things as matter of fact, as “just the way things work.” Luckily, I had a handful of friends with whom I could cope. I only wonder who’ll be next.
I think what brought us together is a certain level of ambition, anchored by the fact that we are at the same point professionally, financially: We’re all middle class, which I’m certain plays a role. Furthermore, none of us is aroused by a muscled body or impressed by opulence—OK, Kieran’s whole job is about creating opulence, but his oxford shirts and khakis allow his art to speak for itself—and there’s a certain level of not taking oneself seriously that is absolutely important. Kieran nails that—they all do. No egos. No holier-than-thous. “We are never in competition with each other,” Kieran says. “We can make fun of each other’s insecurities and nobody feels targeted or ashamed. It always feels loving, feels brotherly.” Maybe you’re thinking “OK, Adam, you guys just described a bunch of good things, and only an insane person would cite his or her friendship requisites as ‘malicious, shallow, egotistical, lazy, rich since birth, gym bodies only…'” It’s true that I’ve met plenty of great guys who fit the bill of our dynamic, but who would never fit in. I don’t intend to imply that anyone should WANT to fit in, or that we’re anybody’s best option. Instead, we’re each other’s best option, and our friendship was formed by some perfect storm of variables that allowed us to find each other precisely when we did. I’ll take a moment to brag about one thing, though: In the past year, no fewer than 20 people have told me that they envy my group of friends for how charming and hilarious and intellectual the guys are, and that I’m very lucky. And, that I seem exponentially happier since these people came along. This suggests that I really needed these guys, and that I kept high standards in finding them. So maybe that was our requisite: We all just…needed to find each other. I like thinking there are a groups like ours being formed around the city all the time, little perfect storms of people like us, needing one another, finding one another, and each of them realizing, finally, that this is as good as it gets—these are my people, and it was worth the wait.
If you ask Kieran to brag about himself, it’s like pulling teeth. He won’t try to impress strangers with his employer’s name. He undersells his talents and honors. Since I know him well, I can get a more candid side: “I’m so lucky to be at Altuzarra right now,” he says. “I met Joseph (Altuzarra) just before graduating, after I won a couple CFDA scholarships. (That’s Council of Fashion Designers of America, the big deal.) CFDA asked where I wanted to work after school, and Altuzarra was by far my top choice. At the time he was picking up momentum, but now his company is on a crazy upward trajectory. I was a fan of his aesthetic and liked his ‘woman’. However, the industry is so different from when I graduated in 2012. When I was 21, sure it might have been my ego and a couple scholarship wins talking, but I thought I was well on my way, on a fast-track to being a creative director. Now, at 26, I see how naïve that was. Arguably, with the right amount of money and some sharp ‘made-to-go-viral’ PR, anyone can carve out 15 minutes for themselves, but what’s happened is that this industry has now become diluted and there are so many clothes shown each season. It inevitably got me wondering how necessary my perspective really is at the end of the day. The answer is ‘It’s not necessary.’ The world will be fine without it, but it leaves me and a lot of people wondering what the point is. It’s like I’m on square one because I identify more with students than I do with the big-shot names we all know. I feel like a sophomore in high school; I’m not a pitiful freshman, but I’m not cool enough to hang with the seniors, and I’m sure I’ll feel that way for some time.” I chime in: “Do you have the stamina to be a sophomore for the foreseeable future?” “This is the only thing I’m trained to do. I have invested a lot into this, and I literally have no idea what else I would rather do. I know this world, and I love this world.” I think that sentiment encapsulates a lot of us here, and at least sums up my closest friends: Trapped by ambition or will or potential. But hopeful. Focused. Patient. Not deterred, for now.
Alongside finding my best friends, a good profession, and a lasting home city, my late 20s are also largely memorialized by my pursuit of intimate companionship—I’ll henceforth call it “dating” if you understand that I’m lumping in any and all pursuits, from strictly physical one-offs to substantial relationships. I’ve lacked the “boyfriend” title since I was 24, when Dan and I formally broke up in San Francisco. I don’t know why that makes me feel like a pariah on paper—that I’ve spent the last five years of my life floating from one man to the next, and oftentimes overlapping them in the process. I don’t WANT it to be this way. In fact, since Buckminster moved, I have only wanted a committed, monogamous-for-the-foreseeable-future boyfriend. But honing in on only Buckminster-esque men (those whose worlds easily intersect mine) is not so simple: It’s not always obvious up front, and keeping an open mind about this is what creates such a process. I’ve been on hundreds of first dates—be it a bar, a diner, a walk, a bed—and far fewer second dates, and I can only wonder how different my self-esteem or point of view would be if I could just, for one fucking block of time—6 months, 6 years, 60 years—not have to constantly re-evaluate myself. There are positives to dating endlessly: Dating has given me some of my best friends and dozens of good acquaintances. Dating has given me mentors and mentees. Dating has given me red-flag examples of people I absolutely must avoid (and whose decisions I must not emulate). Dating has given me standards of things like politeness and thoughtfulness and intelligence and wit and sex. The mold of what I want and need is quite obvious to me now, but I haven’t been able to pin anyone down—or allowed anyone to pin me down—because all of these men seem to be just as harried and volatile and contradictory as I. I’ve seen many of my also-harried, also-volatile, also-contradictory friends get wrapped up in selfless love this last year (our “party of 8” is now 12), but all I can seem to find are detours and dead ends. Though let me tell you—in a way I’ll be sad to give up those detours and dead ends, too. (Did I mention ‘contradictory’?)
After ending things with Romeo, I got into a flirtatious back-and-forth with an NYU student. “Charlie” was smart, beefy, handsome, and we had a nice PG13 text exchange going. One day, he flipped the switch and went NC17, which threw me for a loop; I had really liked our cute, innocent dialogue. There was no going back now, though, so we encouraged each other with more texts, and then made plans to meet up. He had to cancel last minute to cram for a test (classic student!), so we rescheduled our evening encounter for a later date—first he had to fly home for a family occasion. When Charlie was home in the south, he started texting me some concerning things: He didn’t feel safe with his family, and knew that they would cut him off and possibly harm him if they ever found out he was gay. Our dynamic was flipped again, and I felt somewhat capable of handling this. I talked about his amazing future, how good his life could be without the burden of an unaccepting family, and that he would one day soon be in a position where he could entirely support himself, and that he just had to bide his time until then. We kept this exchange up throughout his whole vacation. When he returned, he switched back into hyper-sexual mode, but I couldn’t bring myself to reciprocate, much less to meet up for anything physical. I told him that if he ever needed to talk to someone about personal stuff, I’d be around, and would happily meet up to chat if he needed it. But otherwise, I couldn’t get any more intimate with him; it’d feel like I was taking advantage of his vulnerability, and I didn’t want to risk hurting him when he had invested all of that trust in me (granted I was still a stranger). I hope Charlie realizes I made the right decision; he didn’t seem to think so at the time, and we soon lost touch.
In February, a weeks-long, slow-burn Scruff conversation with a handsome young man turned into a quaint, no-plans-all-afternoon Fort Greene brunch. From my perspective, Taylor was the full package: intellectual, well read, emotionally intelligent, extremely fucking handsome, terrific sense of humor—with a pinch of self-deprecation—physically fit but it wasn’t his fallback, ambitious with a nice job, and, most endearing of all, fairly neurotic. We realized quickly that he was the ex of a good friend of mine—until then he only existed in lore—and laughed at the small world, though it left neither of us surprised anymore. (This same friend had previously dated Buckminster, too, and really, everyone has crossed wires in our world.) We had all the ingredients for a second date, now hours-deep into our brunch, subsisting on coffee refills and idiotic banter. After, Taylor walked me halfway home, until he met his turn toward Bed Stuy. We pecked on the cheek, made the classic “Let’s do this again soon?” plans as we departed, then followed up with texts after the fact: “Let’s be friends? You’re a riot. I think we’d get along great.” We shared this sentiment, realizing we had the social chemistry but perhaps nothing elevated. In theory, I’d probably count most of the guys I’ve dated as “friends”—people I’ll stop to chat with if I see them around—and a handful are actual friends, and one or two (like Kieran) are bests. Whenever a date ends “as friends” it usually means you can write the person off entirely, which is fine. Right when I was sure I didn’t need any new close friends, Taylor (@tpg_) slipped in and we began hanging out multiple times a week, and now I probably speak with him more than any other gay friend. Whenever gay men swear off these dating apps—”I don’t want to meet my boyfriend that way!”—I think of all the wonderful people that the technology has introduced me to; I wouldn’t have Dan, or Buckminster, or Romeo, or Cold Hands, or even a platonic relationship with Taylor. That’s what I’ll miss about dating around—the occasional kismet, the funny ironies of all kinds—whenever the time comes to turn it all off.
In early March, I got a “Hi” on Scruff from someone who was physically far out of my league. When I get attention from guys like that, I think “Well, he’s not my type but I shouldn’t say ‘no….'” We chatted—nothing substantial—and made plans to get a drink, to see where it went. I met “Omer” in Chelsea, and learned through his broken English that he was a Turkish refugee, here on asylum. He had his own fashion line but fled because, as a gay man, it became unsafe for him to stay home. Now, he was broke, waiting for his papers to clear before he could earn proper pay, working for petty cash at a Chinatown denim shop, and crashing on a friend’s couch. It was quite fascinating, and admirable. As was his body. I wasn’t sure why he found me interesting. I walked him home, and imagined him sleeping on his friend’s couch. Then I imagined him sleeping in my bed and doing other things in my bed, so I gambled. He accepted my invitation, and we hailed a cab. Back home, we immediately disrobed and overcame the language barrier. Ten minutes in, he abruptly stopped. He looked me square in the eyes and asked “You HIV-positive, yes?” I thought it was curious, because usually guys ask if you’re negative. “Uh, no,” I replied. “Are YOU HIV-positive?” I was sitting up atop him now, my objectifying on hold. “Yes,” he said, his voice layered in shame. “That’s fine!” I said. “It is. We’re gonna use a condom anyway. We’re fine!” Only it wasn’t fine: I was the first person he had told. It was a recent diagnosis. He didn’t even have an assigned counselor yet. His confession killed the buzz—that’s not a complaint—and we talked for an hour about where he could find help. He cried as I did my best to listen. Honestly, I wanted to disappear. I really hate that I felt so ill-equipped to handle what he was dealing with. After, as we slept, he clung to my body. I made him coffee when we woke, and we walked to the train. “Thank you,” he said, hugging me. “It nice to hold someone again. To be close someone. To talk.” I also hate that I was relieved when he left. I saw him out a few months later, dancing with friends. (He didn’t see me, though.) He looked happy.
In late March (pre-bed bugs), I picked up my sheets from the laundromat and excitedly made up the bed in anticipation of a Canadian visitor. “Paul” and I met on a dance floor in August 2013, on his Montreal turf. He made the first move, and the second, and the third. I batted him away each time. My pal Wade (@wadeaddison) encouraged him to keep at it, and I eventually accepted him into my dancing radius. I had been silly to push him away, seeing in the strobe of the disco that he was fairytale handsome. We could hardly understand one another over the noise, so our first few hours together were entirely non-verbal—dancing, eye contact, smiling, and soon, kissing. He stole me away from my pals afterwards for poutine—not a euphemism. I learned he was just 21, a recent grad on the hunt for work. Before my departure, we set another date, a simple, charged coffee chat, and made plans for him to visit me in New York a few weeks later. His visit was playful. Passionate. Intellectual. We fell deep, but I kept my wit about me: It wasn’t sustainable, given age and distance. He felt scorned, but we kept in touch. I’ve since helped him with job searches, broken hearts, and green-card plots. Naturally, I was excited for his return to NYC 2.5 years later. When he arrived that week in March 2015, he opted to sleep on the couch, implying plenty with non-verbal cues (despite being single). Now I was the scorned one. Nevertheless, our brotherly bond continued all weekend, and it pained me that we couldn’t be intimate given our history and connection. On his last night, he gifted me a sweater at dinner that said “AU REVOIR MONTREAL”, not recognizing the irony it packed. Our waiter kept asking questions about our relationship, and neither of us corrected him. Paul found it cute, and I liked pretending that we were together. Back home, as he made up the couch, I invited him very directly and politely into my bed. “It’s not like that anymore,” he replied, knowing it hurt. I moved close to him, and asked for one kiss. “Just one. Please. I need this.” It was non-verbal from there: I told him I loved him with my stare, stole the kiss off his lips, and disappeared into my room.
In early April, I went to the movies in Union Square. I was alone—I’m usually alone at the movies, and prefer it that way. As I rode the escalator to the top floor, a young woman cozied up two stairs below mine. (I was stalled by the person in front of me, who was not walking, which is my ultimate pet peeve. It’s a very long escalator ride, too.) I turned, gave the woman a half-smile in commiseration, and minutes later, again noticed her behind me in line for concessions. Another half-smile to the beautiful, young Andie MacDowell lookalike. She switched lines after anticipating that the other one was moving faster. “You’re smart,” I commented. “We’ve been doing a lot of waiting already.” She got to the front of her line, turned to me, and asked if I wanted her to order for me. “Very kind of you, thanks. I’ll get mine. It’s just a popcorn.” She ordered a large Sprite, then joined me in line. “No beverage?” she asked. “Nah, I hate having to pee during movies. No food for you?” She shook her head: “We are opposites. See you in there.” Now, a full smile as she left my side. When I went into the theater, she waved me down. I waved back, and stupidly took a seat by myself near the exit. After the film, she hustled to follow me out. We shared our opinions, mostly in agreement, and then discussed each of our evening plans. Hers were open-ended, and only now did I realize that she might have been romantically interested. I was wearing my best “aspiring Brooklyn dad” look, after all—dark jeans, flannel, brown boots—and didn’t “read” gay. She introduced herself as Alex, and asked why I came to the theater alone. “I don’t usually wait on my friends to see movies,” I said. “Plus I like to be in my own headspace.” “Me too,” she agreed. “I’m always here alone.” At this point, we were at the bottom of the escalator, and exiting the building. I accompanied her to the subway; she was heading to Park Slope, and I was walking to my temporary home in West Village. “Nice to meet you, Alex,” I said. “Maybe see you soon.” It felt presumptuous to say anything else, like “I’m gay, by the way.” We went separate ways, and I wished for a moment that it could have been so easy.
One Saturday night in November, I was out in East Village with Taylor Griggs (@tpg_), Carlos Alvarado (@closalvarado), and Eliot Glazer (@eliotglazer). Our sentiment was shared: None of us had made any effort in the last few months to “go out”—which, let’s be honest, involves standing around in a closed-off circle, sipping beers, and leering around the bar at people we A) almost dated, B) recognized from the apps, C) made out with once, or D) had never seen before (“He must be visiting town.”)—so there we were, “seeing and being seen”, and really just wanting to talk amongst ourselves. We noticed, though, that Eliot’s gaze kept drifting to a guy at the bar. “Who’s that—the guy you’re staring at?” I inquired. “This guy I’ve been chatting with on Tinder,” he replied. “He’s so cute. Should I go say something?” The rest of us looked at each other like “Wait, is THIS what we are supposed to do when we go to bars? Un-cross our arms? Introduce ourselves?” “YES. Go say hi!” We nudged him. Eliot went to the bar to order a drink, parking himself next to the guy. The three of us stared like we were watching a dramatic scene unfold. Eliot paid for his drink, turned toward the bearded guy, then kept turning and walked back to us. “What do I say?!” he asked anxiously as he returned. It was all so exciting. “Just say hi!” “Yeah, you already have equity with him!” (I hate that I use the word “equity” like that…) He went back to the bar and introduced himself. “I could tell he remembered me the whole time,” Eliot recalls. “But wanted me to be the one who said anything.” (This is how most of us “play it cool.”) The conversation ended soon after it started—Eliot felt like he was imposing on something—and we all departed shortly thereafter. In the cab home, Eliot sent the guy a friendly message on Facebook: “Sad we didn’t get to talk more.” He saw no harm in trying this method, especially since their flirtation started online. The guy replied a week later: “Yeah, sorry too. Also, I’ve been dating someone. Let’s be friends though?” Knowing better, Eliot never responded.
“There was this famous blog post about something called ‘The Fuck Yes Theory’,” Eliot says over lunch a couple weeks later. “It discusses all the grey area that exists in dating. The runaround. The waiting. The guessing. The pushing and pulling. The author’s theory is that if someone isn’t saying ‘fuck yes’ about you and you aren’t saying ‘fuck yes’ about them, then it’s not worth doing. If you have to convince someone to like you or have to be convinced, and it’s just not happening, then don’t waste your time.” I wait for Eliot—a comedian and television writer with a well-crafted and vulnerable point of view—to explain why he supports this theory, but he turns on it: “It’s an unrealistic concept because it says you have to have an instantaneous reaction to someone, and history has said you can fall in love with people slowly, especially given that you can grow toward one another, if you weren’t initially in a place to be together. Besides, I’ve had that ‘fuck yes’ feeling with plenty of people, and more often than not, it ends within a couple days or weeks. I can’t ever explain why; it just ends. And I’ve been on the receiving end of it, too.” This is actually how Eliot and I started: He messaged me on Scruff, and after one BBQ date and another gushy, Greek-seeking quest to Astoria, our excitement faded into friendship. Since then, our platonic dates involve us bitching rapturously about everything like two old senile old women; Eliot’s bicep tattoo of Bea Arthur always seems to be smiling back at me as we do. We’ve never spoken about why our romance ended, but we’ve bickered plenty about other people we’ve dated—Fuck Yeses, Fuck Nos, and fickle boys who change their hearts or minds.
“In 2008, I struggled to get over a breakup,” Eliot says as we wait at the vet to pick up his sick, 11-year-old dog, Atticus. “I tried putting myself back out there, and after a while found myself disgusted by the behavior of almost everyone I met—primarily online. Every guy seemed so entitled, and everything just felt like a dead end or a power play.” I reach my own threshold with this once or twice a year, and need to shut down any online presence and active pursuits; I have to starve myself of seeking attention just to spare myself the constant ego-checking. (I also make my fair share of excuses and ignore a handful of app messages, fearing I’ve probably checked a few egos, as we all have. I hate knowing that we all have that power, and on the other side, the vulnerability.) “Maybe it was because the pickings felt so slim, but it made me consider dating women,” Eliot adds. “Seriously.” He says ‘seriously’ as a skeptical look falls across my face. “Really, though, it was from a place of reason. Women are so much more emotionally available. They have foresight past a single fuck, and are emotionally intelligent enough to make considerations beyond ‘what does he look like with his shirt off?’ I had low self-esteem, clearly. I was thinking I could make it work, that I could train my dick to be interested in women. I say that in all seriousness—that’s what I thought I could do. My best friends were astonished since I kept up the idea for a while. I was so convinced that I would never find a requited, unconditional relationship.” Moments later, after Eliot pays a pretty penny to retrieve Atticus, the vet brings the Havanese-Schnauzer pup back to his owner. Despite his ailing tummy, Atticus climbs into Eliot’s arms, his tongue drooping low as he pants happily. Eliot hugs him close, and both are relieved to be reunited. “So did you ever date any women?” I ask. “No, of course not,” Eliot replies. “But that’s also right when someone very significant came along. A person that I was certain didn’t exist.”
After being set up with “Howie” in 2009, Eliot found himself on a date that felt kinetic. “At the end of it, I sort of gave him an ultimatum,” Eliot says. “I had been so beat down by dating in Gay New York that I outwardly told him how much I liked him. He said he liked me too, so I replied by saying ‘Please tell me right now if you want to see me again, because I’ve been burned a lot, and I want to know that I’m not going to be burned again.’ A lot of guys would have been freaked out, rightfully. And I was willing to risk that because if he didn’t like me enough, it’d be easier to just find out right away instead of wait on him to let me down later. Luckily, he responded with ‘I am into it, but calm down, ok?’ He was a good sport. I just needed that assurance.” That assurance turned into a three-year, finally-this-is-what-I’ve-needed relationship: “With him I felt deserving of something,” Eliot says. “How did it unravel, then?” I ask. “Well, to preface, he would always remind me that you have to love yourself more than anybody else,” Eliot begins. “I thought he had the right idea with that, and got the reality of it after those three years. We were talking about marriage by now, and living together. Then he just woke me up on a Saturday morning and ended things abruptly. And like, is that him loving himself more than other people? It was a level of selfishness that was so astounding. I never really got closure from him, because he didn’t want to talk about why things stopped working. He didn’t want to invest anything more into it. He just wanted to leave. I don’t know how you vet somebody to say ‘You’re not going to up and leave one day without warning, are you?’ And now…everything—any pursuit—it all feels like one big joke.” The irony in this, I think, is that Howie might have been right after all: You have to love yourself more than anyone else. Guard the heart, keep expectations low, and find the positive and security in being left alone.
“Howie and I met up a month later to get closure, but like I said, I still don’t have closure,” Eliot says. “He started crying and felt like a bad person. I told him that what he did was cruel—to just back out. He eventually moved to London, but I didn’t find out until I went to a friend’s apartment, and she had inherited his furniture—OUR furniture, the stuff we bought together and that made our home. That’s how I found out he left. He spent three years of his life with me, and not long after, he didn’t even tell me he was leaving the country. I think I at least deserved to hear that from him.” I never knew this side of Eliot—this spurned, broke-down, defeated side. He’s well past the breakup now, which is why this is the first time it’s been brought up, but it probably contributes to the fact that he hasn’t had as nearly a significant relationship since Howie: How could you trust anyone after the person you most love abandons you? I’ve seen him make a solid effort at dating in our two-year friendship, and before you mistake Eliot for a sad sap—humorously jaded, yes, but not a sad sap—I also speculate that this history with Howie makes him wiser by the sheer fact that he has to guard his heart more. The Eliot I first met—on our BBQ date in Prospect Heights—was upbeat, playful, confident. He still is those things, despite any characteristic skepticism. He’s the only Eliot I’ve really known, this post-Howie one. A delight I’ve had in aging toward 30 has been that I meet more people who have been brokenhearted, or whose wisdom and wit comes from a place of pain. Not just in love, but in any aspect of life. I don’t mean to imply that I want people to experience pain, but as we round the corner into having children, losing parents, running businesses, and getting divorces, I know these smaller, significant-at-the-time ego-checks play a big role in toughening our hides, in shaping our point of view. We can still grow angry with others, or get confused by the cards we’re dealt, but we can do so without feeling sad for ourselves, without having to stop and nurse wounds. It seems to me that we’re always healing, so it’s best to press onward.
Eliot and I meander to a cookie-baking contest in Gowanus, where we share a plate of 25 cookies—and go back for seconds—while pondering the dating game. (There’s no better time to question your single life than while eating 10,000 pure-sugar calories.) I had just reactivated my OKCupid account, something I routinely do once a year before deleting it a week later. He helps me edit my profile so it sounds less self-deprecating. “Don’t expose any vulnerabilities on here,” he advises. “It just gives them one thing to hold on to, so they have some stupid reason for rejecting you.” Together we compose a message to a self-loathing, recently-out, total-top, femme-hating New England Patriots fan. We laugh at the fact that I would even care to message this guy, but to be frank, he’s extremely handsome and I want the challenge; I want to know if he finds me attractive. “What’s my handicap for being a lifetime Packers fan?” I say in the message. (He logged in later, viewed my profile, and never responded.) We look in my old messages, from as far back as 2012. There, un-returned, is a message that Buckminster wrote me in 2013, half a year before we met on Scruff. It was so well-composed, so smart but short, so vulnerable but sincere, and…I never even wrote him back. I completely ignored a person I would meet six months later and who would form the mold of what I wanted in a partner. “That’s the game,” Eliot says. “More cookies?”
As I prepared to move, the first step of starting over was doing a belongings audit: Which things would I keep? Certainly not my ultra-comfortable-and-perfect bed, given I had been bitten in it numerous times. My wooden desk and shelves were as good as garbage considering their potential for harboring the pests. That left me with no furniture. Framed artwork would be doused with poison and kept. Clothes were the hardest audit: I had accumulated so much in my three years in New York, and actually saw this as a past-due opportunity to downsize. I only allowed myself to pick 10 t-shirts, a few sweaters, five pairs of pants, and anything that was nice enough be dry cleaned. I dropped my boots, leather bags, coats, and suits at the dry cleaner, and grimaced when I was given a bill for $700; I saw it as insurance that the things I wanted to keep would indeed be bug-free as I moved into a new home. I put it on my Visa—the now-designated “life-recovery credit card”, with my AmEx being the “travel and bills” card—knowing it was the first of more hits to come, especially given I would have to buy new furniture. I hope this doesn’t sound too mopey; I was actually excited to start over, and more than willing to pay for it, even if it came with high interest rates.
The physical belongings audit was joined with a very “head above water” approach at work and on social media. I had told a lot of my colleagues what was happening, which gave me flexibility to take time off when I needed it, for those no-show exterminator appointments, and to work from home as I did laundry and threw out dozens of mementos from past lives—I would start this next phase with just a few storage bins and duffel bags. It’s a very unsexy thing, though, becoming a temporary gypsy and feeling like you’re in a kind of free fall. I didn’t want everyday people learning I was miserable, that I dreaded going home, and believing that I was crying for help from anyone except that innermost group of friends. Those close friends would never see me as a pariah, but not the hundreds of acquaintances or strangers with whom I share innocuous life updates. So, it was happy faces as usual—or a lack of anything, really—throughout late April and early May. “Oh look, Adam is hanging out with a beagle in the park. There he is with friends in Chinatown. Nice, a throwback to when he had a mustache. His life is so normal right now; no problems here!” I know how to play the game: show the good, filter the bad. It was a nice reminder though, to absorb the blow and just move forward.
I needed an escape from everything, and very luckily had a long trip just two weeks away: first, home to Sioux Falls for my brother Keith’s high school graduation, then “home” to San Francisco for the wedding of two college friends who also moved there after leaving Kansas. The trips were back to back, meaning I would get ten days away from hating-it-for-the-first-time New York, and would move out of my hellhole apartment prior to the trip. My chief complaint about going home to Sioux Falls is that it feels like my life is on hold there, that New York City may as well not exist. That has been my biggest fear for some time, oddly enough: New York City not existing in my day-to-day life. I can’t fathom leaving this city for anything. Not an equally metropolitan place like London. Not sunny LA or even darling San Francisco. But, at this moment, nothing felt more perfect than a long weekend at home in South Dakota, where I could pretend like my New York life was a dream. Where I could put thousands of miles between her and me, and pretend it wasn’t such a nightmare.
The most vivid day of the months-long bed bugs debacle was the very last one in that Fort Greene apartment. My roommates were both away, and I had to throw out everything I wasn’t keeping, then pack the rest of it strategically: What did I need for the first two weeks of couch hopping, then for two weeks on the road, then for another month of couch hopping, and what did I need to save but would keep locked away in bins for another year? I washed all the clothes I was saving—twice in hot water, then dried them on high heat, as prescribed. Paranoia hit hardest when I found a bed bug on my flip flops as I packed—I would soon see four individual bites between each of my toes—and couldn’t trust that I had actually rid of the bugs from my belongings. But I had to convince myself that I did it properly, since I had sprayed every single non-clothing item with poison—framed photos, toiletries, appliances, a certain gypsy figurine—then sealed off the bins, sprayed them too, and taped them shut, then sprayed them again. After five or six hours of washing, cleaning, packing, spraying, and throwing away valuables, I took a minute to open Instagram, mostly out of habit. I scrolled through my feed, then navigated to Romeo’s feed, also out of habit. There, just a few minutes fresh, was a photo of the guy he was dating—a guy who, based on features, may as well be my brother—and the photo announced their togetherness in a public way that we were never allowed. At the same time, it pronounced my own not-together-ness. Maybe it was the poison I had been inhaling all day that suddenly made me feel light headed, and that brought tears to my eyes. Or maybe it was the fact that I’ve never felt so desperately and deservedly alone.
I obviously wasn’t as alone as I felt, since my friends all lent a hand to keep me on my feet. Wade (@wadeaddison) helped me rent a small van to shuttle the few storage bins to his apartment, a risk I’m not sure I would ever take on someone, even having needed the favor extended to me; it’s such a risk. Those bins stayed stacked there in his bedroom for an entire two months, and I spent roughly half of that time with him, too, whenever I didn’t have any other friends’ empty apartments to stay in. It reminded me of my first six weeks of couch hopping in New York when I moved in 2011: crashing with friends while trying to not overstay my welcome, buying time on small favors and living one week in Harlem, the next in Alphabet City, then in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Bed Stuy. This was actually kind of refreshing, getting a different angle on the daily commute, understanding the various routines my friends live each day—the agony of living off the G train, how different the morning feels in the Upper East, the joy of walking to work from the West Village. Less fun is shuttling the same luggage between each home-stay and living out of bags like a drifter. Even so, there was an upside to experiencing all these sliding-door routines again: realizing that a new start in New York is just one move away, and that my own was nearing.
The week before my trip home, I stayed in my ex Dan’s (@grossypelosi) studio in West Village, since he was traveling for work. I had looked after his apartment before, or rather, watered his one plant and otherwise pretended like the studio was my own—hosting rooftop dinners, gossiping with the neighbors, and running along the West Side Highway. I could avoid taking the subway for days at a time when I stayed there; it made the city much smaller in a good way. The studio itself felt much smaller on my final day, though: I overlapped Dan on the last night, since I had my bags packed for my flight home and it made the most sense logistically to stay put, which was also Dan’s suggestion. We blew up the air mattress for me to sleep on the ground while he stayed in his loft, and then he got a call from a college kid he was dating, someone who lived outside the city and had missed his bus back to Boston. He too needed a place to crash. Dan wasn’t about to kick me to the curb, so suddenly I was staying in my ex-boyfriend’s studio with him AND the younger version of me that he was now dating. I went for a run so they could have some privacy, and returned to an empty apartment—they went out on a date as I cooked and did some writing—then received them with smiles as they got home. We each took turns showering and stepping over my air mattress real estate, and neither of them made me feel unwanted or in the way. One week of gypsy life down, seven to go.
On my flight home to South Dakota, I thought about how willing I was to throw away my belongings and start over, to rely on other people to get me out of my defeated state. That I have friends who are willing to help me is, of course, the best affirmation in this. But I wondered why, at 28, I wasn’t in a position to stay and fight, to pay exorbitantly out of pocket to rid of the pests. I felt too free of responsibility still. I’ve always enjoyed being “low to the ground” with little savings; it’s easy to bounce back, to stay nimble. I didn’t need to change spending habits: I spend frugally for fulfillment, for expedience, for experience. But I did need to chain myself to the ground. Mostly I hoped I had used up my last lifeline. To abandon everything like that was a discredit to my successes, of having a job I love in a city that I love. I felt like a fake. I wasn’t owning up to my problems. The thing is, I’ve felt like a fake most of my life—this undiagnosed impostor syndrome of feeling unworthy of simple lavishes—because I’ve always had to rely on other people, ultimately unable to survive without dialing in support, without reverting back to those first few years post-college, where everything I got was a lifeline from relatives and friends. Having people to rely on for things is pretty terrific, but feeling like I couldn’t return the favor if asked, well, that’s pretty scary. That’s really what I wanted: to finally be stable enough to start doling out favors, to give instead of take. Because eventually, someone’s going to ask. And, as I realized, sometimes that person is me, and I hated that I couldn’t even help myself.
On a late night in October 2014, I sat at Think Coffee near NYU with Ben (@benjaminnyc) as we both toiled on work projects. Our pal Patrick Janelle (@aguynamedpatrick) texted that he had just landed from Paris—where he attended numerous Fashion Week shows—and wanted to lay low with friends for the evening. He biked over to join our work session, and we heckled him when he arrived, because it was the same day he had been featured on the front page of the New York Times Style section. Patrick was pictured prominently, wearing a piercing blue wool blazer as he leaned over to mingle with dinner guests at one of his Spring Street Social Society (@springstreetsocialsociety) events. The article, entitled “The IRL Social Clubs” discussed how Patrick, with the help of his business co-founder and creative partner Amy Virginia Buchanan (@amyvirginia), built a somewhat-secret society from a combination of creative friends (entertainers and culinary experts) as well as a huge Instagram following. (At the time he had 276K, and now 440K.) Spring Street started as a small cabaret show in his backyard (on Spring Street, duh), and burgeoned into these ambitious, sensory-overload evenings of gourmet food, craft cocktails, and top-tier performances. They are held in magnificent locations around NYC and LA, sometimes for $200 per head. SSSS recently turned profitable—it employs Amy full-time—and Patrick is able to support himself though sponsored partnerships on his Instagram feed. (You can imagine what some brands must be willing to pay for direct access to that many eyeballs.) But the society, like all of his endeavors in 2014, was barely paying for itself. As we congratulated him on that October evening, he confessed to us that ironically, he had “$0 in savings. Nothing in checking. I paid my way through Paris on credit cards.” He laughed at the fact, almost defeatedly. The barista offered us free sandwiches as the shop closed, and he took a few of them for the road. Here was Patrick, trying to build something from all of his social currency, and a persona that didn’t reveal he ate day-old sandwiches, much less without choice.
Just sixteen months later, Patrick is doing more more than fine. He’s moved out of a shared studio in Nolita and into his own SoHo one-bedroom. His Instagram bio “Man about town” may as well be his professional title, too, because the tides have turned: Between photographs of travels, coffee shops he frequents, fellow creatives, and Spring Street events, there are #sponsored posts for tequila, champagne, beer, hotels, shipping services, home goods, credit cards, suiting companies, fashion houses, and more. He tries to keep each sponsored post under the aesthetic he calls “accessible aspiration.” Says Patrick: “The great thing about working through Instagram is that these companies are integrating into my personal life. So they give me plenty of control about what makes the most sense for me. We often have to meet certain objectives for them, but ultimately for me, it’s about making sure that this advertiser or brand fits into my life. How can their campaign align with what I’m already doing?” I have a handful of acquaintances who have monetized their social media channels, and it always fascinates me how it starts to control their lives or change their behavior, as if they’re suddenly filled with self-importance. The reason I defend Patrick among this particular crowd is that he was authentically living this “man about town” life long before social media took over—even if he once had to do it all on a shoestring budget—and also, he actually lives it, he doesn’t just project it. Take, for example, the bizarre encounters we’ve had: I’ve bumped into him unplanned in Venice Beach and Mexico City(!); I’ve met him in the ocean while swimming at the Rockaways, and once, after I cheekily texted him a photo of my cortado at a coffee shop in Crown Heights (just check #dailycortado for a strange but aesthetically pleasing trend that he started), he walked through the cafe doors within two minutes to greet me, despite living four miles away in Manhattan. It was like I sent out a bat signal. This is Patrick, though, and not just @aguynamedpatrick. He is everywhere, doing everything, knowing everyone. A man about town—authentically so.
To better understand the projection of Patrick’s “accessible aspiration” (and the fact that he’s turned it into a monetized career, with a creative partner, a part-time assistant, and a business manager), you’ve got to know a little about who he was before he was @aguynamedpatrick: He grew up in Colorado in a very Protestant Evangelical home, then attended a Fundamentalist Baptist college in Florida. However, he got kicked out during his senior year (2004) for being gay; only a few people were aware, but the news still made its way to the administration. So, he never graduated. Instead, he rode his Vespa across the country and settled in Los Angeles, in 2005. It was there he found his first and second boyfriends and started a freelance graphic design career. After his second boyfriend was laid off and decided to move home to Germany, Patrick followed to Frankfurt. For 2.5 years, he continued to do graphic design, while feeling somewhat left out of everything back in the US. “I started seeing from afar, on social media, that my friends were making opportunities for themselves. I was living this domestic lifestyle that I had taken on, in a country without knowing the language. It was isolating, especially seeing my friends flourish. I wasn’t jealous but definitely grew discontent. I felt like the only one not growing in a creative way.” In November 2011—a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday—he ended the relationship, and bought a one-way ticket to New York.
This is where Patrick draws a line between his past self, and the more actualized current one. “That previous life, after college and in LA and Germany, was really important to me because I lived in this kind of isolated existence where I grew quickly as an adult but also got a lot of meandering out of my system. So, by the time I moved to New York City, I only cared about doing the things that I knew wanted and needed to do. I was 30, a nice round number for starting over. In my 20s, I was learning about myself, about cultures, about different lifestyles, be it as a gypsy on a Vespa or an expat in Germany with a serious boyfriend. It was my life education, and very fulfilling until it ran its course.” On the ground in NYC, Patrick continued to do freelance design. After just one month, he met the art director of Bon Appetit (@bonappetitmag), and she hired him into a perma-lance role, which he held for two years. “Working there was the thing that ‘set me up’ in a critical way,” he says. “It was a livable wage, and it put me in touch with a world of individuals who were midway through their careers but also at the heart of something with a lot of visibility.” A few months later, in September 2012, Patrick met his now-creative-partner Amy (@amyvirginia) after their jointly favorite barista introduced them at her birthday party. Because Amy is a musician and performer, their very first conversation centered on the fact that Patrick had this amazing backyard on Spring Street, and wanted to host a beautiful showcase of some sort. He didn’t know what kind of event to host, and Amy suggested a cabaret variety show, since she had a network of performer friends. That’s when @springstreetsocialsociety started—he could tap his foodie rolodex—and it was also when his new persona took shape. All that was missing now was Instagram.
Shortly after Patrick started at @bonappetitmag, he joined Instagram. “I was initially just trying to be part of a conversation with my friends,” he says. “I felt out of the loop. One friend posted a photo of me, and a random pal of mine from Los Angeles commented on it and said ‘We need to get this guy on Instagram.’ It baffled me that they knew each other through social media. So I saw this opportunity to connect with people—even with strangers, unlike Facebook. At first it was about capturing little moments that were representative of my life. I remember wishing I had something like this as I traveled the US on my Vespa, as a way to document my trip on a map and have people follow along. I saw the value in it right away.” Patrick curated his account beautifully, and was soon made a “suggested user” by the app’s editorial team, so his followers jumped to 22K. “Bon Appetit was featuring my photos a lot, too, since I was working for them, so I was able to grow a little from that,” he adds. “Over the course of the next year, I grew mostly as a food Instagrammer, and all these little press moments grew my following to 80K.” Then, something kind of peculiar happened: The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awarded him with its first-ever “Fashion Instagrammer of the Year” distinction. We knew he liked photographing the city, his coffee, food, and friends, but never really fashion. There were a handful of people actually TRYING to be fashion Instagrammers, so why him? “I think the committee liked that I wasn’t a fashion blogger. They said it was about the seemingly fashionable lifestyle I was presenting, and the quality of the photos. I think they knew that if they partnered with me, I could give them content that they were interested in.” Fair enough. “That award put me on the map and made a huge change,” Patrick says. “Even if I was paying for my own airfare and housing, I was getting access to Fashion Week in Paris and New York, and feeling included and accepted by these big brands and significant individuals.” Not long after that self-funded Paris appearance, the onslaught of paid partnerships would follow.
In 2014, Patrick launched @theliqrcabinet with his brothers, which has 15K followers (and counting). He describes it as “your favorite bartender, everything you want to know about liquor and cocktails: interesting facts, recipes, uses for a bottle of liquor, and beautiful imagery.” He bought the domain TheLiquorCabinet.com in 2011: “This was a project I always wanted to do, but needed the right things in place first,” Patrick says. “Right now the site is minimal—some information about cocktails and liquor, but we’re launching an app this spring, and it will evolve as the brand does.” Much like @springstreetsocialsociety, it is born of Patrick’s aesthetic…and of his Instagram base. He’s got the social muscle to launch something from nothing and grow it incrementally until it is, in fact, something. I watch with fascination as people find new careers and opportunities from their social reach on technologies like Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram. It feels like the ultimate “fake it ’til you make it” mantra that New Yorkers adopt: If you project something long enough, and you convince yourself that it’s authentic, then eventually you’ll be surrounded by people—some friends, many strangers in your cache of followers—who also believe it true, and suddenly, you’re an “expert”. I don’t say that entirely critically, though. I am, by accident, a “men’s grooming expert” seeing as I’ve been a grooming editor for two and a half years, and since I spend 40 hours a week buried in moisturizers, toners, hair masks, and beard trimmers. It was just a job that I assumed in 2013, and suddenly I’m helping friends plan their long-hair growth journeys, advising on beard styles and skincare regimens, and my own morning routine involves about 15 lotions, powders, pastes, sprays. I really find it fascinating that this happens to most of us in one way or another, and particularly on our own personal channels. I love nothing more than taking a deep-dive into “how people want to be perceived”, trying to read the subtext and see if they’re compensating for something, or trying to be someone they’re not…yet.
Patrick aside, I’m skeptical of a lot of these “Instagrammers” who think having an audience makes them interesting. I find it hilariously offensive that 20-somethings who routinely pose shirtless are also parading themselves as “life coaches” (mostly I feel bad for actual life coaches, whose certifications and educated advice are being bastardized), and that thousands (if not hundreds of thousands!) of people are validating these dweebs with a mix of salaciousness and gratitude. But, give the right (read: wrong) gay editor an assignment, and he’ll go to the first person he thinks of for a quote on personal wellness—that cute shirtless boy in his Instagram feed, the one with all the positive messaging and former-fat-kid #TBTs. Suddenly, with enough back-links and press impressions, that 26-year-old pretty boy actually thinks he’s a life coach, because 140K followers, plus 5K “likes” and 100 comments on a half-naked “Transformation Tuesday” selfie can’t be wrong. Then, there’s the other lot, the type that projects aspirational imagery to seem mysterious, or elevated, or too-fucking-cool-for-school. They’re usually more self-aware than the first bunch, but they spend a disproportionate amount of time on a couch for the “lifestyle” they claim to be #living. I think this rant is a way of saying that I don’t envy Patrick on the one hand, for having to navigate these waters and often keep this company. I do envy him, though, for his entrepreneurial mind, especially given that he wasn’t always entrepreneurial. He waited—he let life sink in a little first, and he didn’t put the cart before the horse. This lifestyle he leads—the one that the CFDA team noticed—is lived with a little extra perspective, and some grounded business acumen. There’s an actualized person behind @aguynamedpatrick, and I don’t think that goes for many of the rest. I hope that someday soon, I can cut ties with these apps altogether. (Understandably, I’ve got a lot riding on Instagram right now.) But, if I cease projecting anything, and if I abandon my nest of followers, then that means I’m the only one accountable for daily affirmations… and where’s the opportunity in that?
“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.
Upon interviewing Kate Canary (@katecanary) for a job in March 2014, I knew that we would very likely be working together, and that we would get along famously. She had applied for a copywriting role on our team at Birchbox Man, and although the company’s hiring process is always slow—it was four months between her applying and starting—I knew almost instantly that she was “the one.” Her writing was quick, witty, and precise, and she was the last copywriter (of 15) to survive the massive layoffs that Fab.com had endured the year prior. That told our team two things: She was a stellar candidate, since she was their sole survivor, and she was desperately needing a new job. “They were growing explosively so they just needed the help,” Kate says of her being hired at Fab in May 2012; it was her first writing job after a career switch from non-profit theater administration. “I was blissful at Fab, because I was writing all day and getting paid twice as much as I was in theater. I was also loving tech life and the utopian things: free lunch, unlimited vacation, beer on tap.” Then, in mid 2013, the layoffs started: “Twelve copywriters alone. That was 80% of my team, and similar numbers across the company, just decimated.” Subsequent, smaller layoffs would follow, leaving her as a team of one. Kate was desperate for a career-defining challenge, but also for job security. At Birchbox, we both started timidly (I joined 9 months prior, in October 2013), but would grow to own our respective verticals of the men’s editorial operations: Kate writing and supervising the production of nearly every men’s webpage (sometimes a hundred per month), as well as the copy for all email and marketing campaigns; and I, managing the production of all articles and videos that educate men on how to build a better grooming routine, how to get healthier skin, fuller beards, fancier coifs, and of content that would sell our products. For each of us, there was an immediate sense of gratitude, of requited value and purpose. A void was filled.
If you honed in on our men’s editorial team in its fullest state—five people for 18 months, until @thomaspardee got a new job last December—we were a close-knit, nimble crew, supportive of one another but each autonomous as we built a men’s grooming authority. We got each other through bad breakups, through bed bugs, through deaths—Kate’s father passed away in November—and through happier milestones. (Her fiance John confided in us, upon first meeting, that he would be proposing in Paris a week later. They’re getting married in May.) The five of us were and will remain bonded in this way. “Everyone in creative environments calls their colleagues a family,” Kate says. “I always thought it was an overused word, because ‘great colleagues’ are just great colleagues. What about friendship? Why do we call coworkers ‘family’? But this was the first time I felt it—you guys are my family. We care so intensely about each other and respect each other, and we would never, for example, abuse our unlimited-leave policy, because if you check out and leave without proper planning, it affects the people you love. They have to cover for you.” As I’ve said before, this same policy gave me such solace when I also needed it most, allowing me to work remotely from South Dakota or San Francisco and thus enjoy time with my own family. Kate compares this relationship to the one she had with her parents as a child and adolescent: “I never had a curfew and I never got in trouble. While a lot of that is my nature, it was also because my parents trusted me. I wanted to make them proud and show gratitude for their trust. That’s how Birchbox operates too. And even when my dad became ill, and I knew I would be away for an indefinite period, I wanted to make it easier for you guys having to cover for me when I was gone. My ability to plan for that was taken away, but everyone just took over for me, and picked up the pieces so I could be with my family.” Kate and I both grew to appreciate Birchbox as the stability in our lives; if anything goes awry, at least our professional selves could feel settled. At least the means by which we afford our stressful existence is supportive, is strong.
What I also love about Birchbox is that it celebrates “learning through failures.” If you try something and it flounders, then it isn’t a lost effort. It is knowledge gained; discovering what doesn’t work is an important part of knowing what does. This creates a very open-minded, patient, cooperative community—it’s certainly part of why our small team grew so close. Adds Kate: “From day one, I felt like I was being pushed out of my comfort zone. I got to pitch ideas and know that it was OK for people to disagree. Maybe one in 100 ideas is a good one, but that’s what is expected: to propose new ways of thinking, to see things differently.” It took me nearly a year, I’d posit, to really take the reigns of my job, to feel as if I had stumbled enough and tried all the wrong keys before turning the one that worked. But when I did, everything clicked. My boss was able to take a few steps back, allowing him to focus on bigger business strategies, as I commanded things with confidence, writing scripts and delivering video edits with such assurance, defending editorial decisions that might otherwise interfere with brand or company goals—”This video isn’t for sales, it’s for traffic. This article isn’t being written for longevity; it’s for short-term, immediate revenue.”—and educating colleagues on best search-engine practices, data-backed and revenue-driving content strategies, YouTube channel growth tactics, and the likes. I finally became a fully-fledged editor, confident as a writer and producer, and delightfully surprised that the circuitous, mostly depressed years had led me to this. Birchbox baits its employees with a three-year “tribbatical”: Work for three years, and you get a three-week, completely disconnected, paid leave, plus a travel stipend. (My pal Carlos—@closalvarado—is on his now, in South America.) Before Birchbox, I had never been in any job for more than a year and a half. October 2016 marks three years since my start, and it baffles me that just three years prior (in 2010), I was working at a crummy video rental shop in North Beach, San Francisco. That’s what Birchbox is to me: marked change—the learned solution after many failures.
There was a palpable shift in the office air on January 28. (That’s 2016, just a month ago.) We’ve all signed NDAs, and I have to respect a lot of the finer details here, but I’ll say this: I could see meetings happening—with my own eyes, and on significant people’s calendars—that told me a big business shift was going to occur. Every year, we would make more revenue than the last, but as is the case with most startups, it costs a ton of money to operate the business and get it off the ground, and those costs can increase as the business expands. Birchbox, now in its sixth year, was no exception, and it’s difficult to navigate this rapid expansion without shuttering; this is precisely what Kate experienced at Fab, and a fate that Birchbox would need to avoid. Like any young business, we wanted to be profitable as soon as possible, and rightfully: We needed that confidence from investors, and from the public, in the hopes that we could become publicly owned soon—this is textbook startup growth protocol. Late that night, Kate and I received a meeting invitation to “talk about some changes to the business”, set for 10:45 the following morning. I texted her and said that I was fairly certain of something: We were getting laid off. It was speculation, but I wanted to be ready for the worst, and I wanted her to be ready for it, too, even if it gave us grief now. Just an hour earlier, Kate was with a friend who asked her how work as going. “Work is the least of my problems,” Kate told her. “When you texted me, I was surprised on the one hand because I was sure that we were too valuable. But, then I thought about the inevitability of cost cutting, and about how Fab had to let go of so many talented people…it very quickly made sense to me. They would need to be leaner.”
I couldn’t sleep that night. I was in bed by 12, asleep at 2, up at 5. My stomach kept turning, and I laid motionless until 7:30. I made a hefty breakfast to pass some time, then did a full morning grooming regimen, which I rarely make time to do; I wanted to be as put-together as possible for my final day as a grooming editor. I got in the shower, hydrating my hair with my favorite conditioner, then using my favorite cleanser and exfoliator to make sure my complexion looked extra clear for my likely last day; I shaved my neckline precisely two fingers above the Adam’s apple, in a U-shape up to both ears, as I had demonstrated to our subscribers. I returned to my room, and first applied toner to my face (it balances the skin’s oil production), then followed with a serum (the real secret to looking young), and a tinted moisturizer (to mask any redness in the face). I put some concealer under my eyes to hide the dark circles from lost sleep. I blow-dried my hair into place, then applied my favorite styling paste, and locked it in with some cool air from the blow dryer, exactly as I had taught other guys to do. I rubbed unscented lotion on my hands, arms, and neck, then sprayed the pulse points with my favorite fragrance, a scent longevity hack I included in a video about maximizing the effectiveness of cologne. I put on some nice slacks, a new sweater, and a beautiful top coat, so that I would look as professional as possible as they cast me into unemployment. I stared at myself in my bedroom mirror, one last time, very proud, very scared and unsure of what would come next, but very ready to walk into the fire. I promised myself to stay poised—and Kate followed suit. At least we would be together when it happened. And so, I walked to the 4/5 train one last time on this routine, commuting to Union Square and transferring to the 6, then up two stops where it lets out just below our building. I timed my arrival for 10:30, so that I wouldn’t be dragged into any other meetings—just the one with my friend, my family.
Forty-five people were let go that day. This was close to 25% of the U.S. headquarters. By 11 a.m., Kate and I had our white folders with our severance letters, staying entirely calm, even smiling to one another in support. We agreed again to stick together—to gather our belongings quietly, then make our exit in tandem. By now, many of our colleagues were hugging their own departing teammates, and the news had quickly infiltrated the whole office that many of us were making one grand exit. We closed our computers and quickly scooped up our things, as our devastated, teary-eyed coworkers surrounded us for a goodbye embrace. We mostly held it together, but I lost it when the adorable PR women surrounded me just as I neared the exit. There was so much uncertainty and confusion in their eyes, and they had been some of my best friends for over two years. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” they said over and over and over, as if this was anyone’s fault. “It’s ok. It’s fine,” I said. “It happens. OK? It happens. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. I love you, OK?” We composed ourselves in the elevator, then rode down to the lobby where a dozen other sad, confused castaways were waiting. “You too?” we asked, receiving grim, tearful nods. I couldn’t believe who joined us—entire marketing teams, vice presidents, and the most recent employee of the month. We gathered the troops, put out a call to others who were cut, and marched across the street to our company’s favorite pub, where we drank and bitched and made light of everything for seven hours. We exchanged contact information and promises of support, eventually joined by those colleagues who felt welcomed enough to join. That was one of my favorite days I’ve ever lived; I’ve never experienced community and camaraderie and revelry like I did in that bar. I was with people I loved and wanted to help, and the feelings were requited—a fitting conclusion to our Birchbox tenure.
“Birchbox was a very obvious step forward in my career, but more than anything, it gave me confidence,” Kate says. “That’s a quality I’ve had to learn in my life, because I came from such a vulnerable world in theater, with all my imperfections on display, and then Fab kept me on my toes the entire time. Learned confidence has become one of my greatest professional assets. I see the layoffs as necessary business. It’s disconcerting, yes. You can look at it negatively and personally, but it had nothing to do with us or whether or not they valued us. It’s just what a business does to survive.” I agree with her; for both of us, Birchbox was that fulcrum point in our careers, and to reflect on it any differently would be a disservice to the company and to our time spent there. “Layoffs should never pull the rug out completely,” she adds. “Within six months, I will have lost my dad, gotten laid off, and gotten married. So in the scheme of my life, this is the least impactful event. I absolutely loved this job and it mattered so much to me and it was so generous to me when I needed it to be, but I can take this as a change that opens up another opportunity. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared and heartbroken, especially with me being so Type-A and craving stability. But it feels manageable, and I suspect that good things will come of it. Life gets harder, but people get better—that has been my family’s ethos while grieving our loss. We keep saying ‘We will never get over this, but we will get better.’ I used to think I had to deal with each problem one at a time, and once I dealt with each one, I could be happier. But the problems never stop. The only thing that gets better is how I handle them. The whole point of life is that you must grow from each problem, each lesson. You have to use those experiences to strengthen yourself. And it’s actually nice to realize that they forever remain a part of you.” To Birchbox: Thank you, for everything. From both of us.