In early June, I was house-sitting for my pals Taylor (@tpg_) and Audrey (@4udr3y_) in Bed Stuy—a free crash pad while I watched his cat for the week. I was just three weeks away from moving into my Crown Heights apartment, and ever appreciative of the shelter provided all month by friends. It was fun seeing a new angle on my New York City routine every few days. Also fun was seeing a new grid of handsome guys in each neighborhood; I was in no position to go on dates, much less hook up, but it always made for a good 20-minute distraction each evening as I flirted with strangers before bed. I love the scenery changes in each place: affluent braggadocios in West Village, bare-chested 30-somethings in Chelsea, bare-chested 20-somethings in Hell’s Kitchen, awkwardly stale lawyers in Upper East Side, furry 30-somethings in Williamsburg, furry 20-somethings in Bed Stuy, grab-bag everything in Lefferts Gardens. I particularly liked the scene in Bed Stuy, because it most resembled Prospect Heights and my soon-to-be-home Crown Heights. On one weekend night, I got a hello from a handsome, bearded guy my age. He was 100 feet away, having a drink at @cmoneverybodybk before heading home to Park Slope. The attraction was evident, even through the app, and even more so through our let’s-switch-to-texting-here’s-my-number conversation that immediately lit up. He was a violinist at a very prestigious orchestra in town; for that, let’s call him Strings. He admitted to already following me on Instagram—which gave me the ammo to “stalk” his account, to see this attractive life, his charming friends, and to learn that many of his pals were also my own…how did I not know that Strings existed? For the next two days before our first date, he was the only thing that existed—and the feeling went both ways.
When I met Strings in a Park Slope bar that next Sunday, the attraction was confirmed. It felt lasting. He was holding court with the other “events”—my first boyfriend in Sioux Falls, Dan in San Francisco, Buckminster and Romeo and Cold Hands in New York. Our bevy of mutual friends gave us conversation fodder, as did the fact that he was from Berkeley—where I had twice lived and where I still secretly dream of settling down—and he had also been to my South Dakota hometown on an orchestra tour (and even ate at the restaurant I worked at throughout high school). He was my age, he was professionally actualized, and he was obviously intelligent, which told me he would have a promising future should the music career ever end. (I find myself more and more attracted to people whose overall aura says “I’ll be stable my whole life regardless of what I pursue.”) I liked his raspy voice, his bushy beard, his broad smile, his dark eyes. We polished off two rounds of beer, and left the bar as the sky cracked and a downpour fell through. Sans umbrella, my trek to the G-train seemed impossible now. However, he confessed that he lived two doors down—he had picked a bar just below his apartment, the rascal—and so I accepted the invitation upstairs. We sprinted to the door, with little care or need for our wet clothes once inside, soundtracked by the rainfall and lit by the neon signs of commercial Park Slope.
It’s a risky move, going to bed after one perfect date. I caught a cab home that night, and Strings and I were back to texting non-stop the next day. We made plans for a second date—a concert at Barclays, to which I had an extra ticket—after he returned from a week of performances in New Haven and Boston. He texted me photos from the road, and I checked in every night to see how the shows went. We were just two weeks into knowing each other, but it felt like two months given that there were no “Does he like me? Should I text him?” woes, no push-and-pull, no power play. Then I became unrecognizable: I told every friend about him when prompted with “What’s new?” I lost interest in pursuing anyone else and knew not to gamble him away. It was a second chance at Cold Hands, only he would stay. A second chance at Buckminster, only I would stay. Strings would fit seamlessly into my life, and I into his. He wasn’t running me in circles; he thought of me at 8 in the morning and at 4 p.m. and at midnight, and in between. My friends predicted that Strings would last, given my rare behavior. I was one week away from moving into my apartment (at last!), and from turning 29: Everything was looking up, a perfect benchmark to a desperately needed new year. Two nights before our second date—a few weeks into our courtship, though—I opened Instagram and saw that he had just posted a photo. There was one “like” already: from Buckminster. What. No way. Strings and I had already done the “audit” of our friends…surely I would have noticed that he knew Buckminster too? Then, I poked around, desperate for an answer: They both sat atop one another’s “Followers” lists, indicating that they had only just met. Strings had performed two nights in New Haven right after our first date…and Buckminster lives in New Haven. I met them both on Scruff, a dating and hookup app. I knew enough about them to know that they would be attracted to each other, should the option present itself. My head filled in all the blanks. My heart sunk. My stomach turned. No. No no no. NO.
I didn’t know what to do. What does one do when his current lover goes to bed with his ex lover—unbeknownst to either of them, no maliciousness intended? I don’t have lingering feelings for most exes, but I do for Buckminster, because we never used up our potential; it was hardly put to the test before I let it burn away. I couldn’t be mad at them, but I was very upset that this unlikely thing had probably happened. This was all still a presumption, but it made perfect sense to me: The app that united me with both of them also united them. If I was attracted to both of them, why wouldn’t they be attracted to one another? The worst part was that I knew Buckminster would be back in the city in a few days, per his texts with me a couple months prior: “I’ll be back in the city in July for work. Let’s grab coffee and catch up.” If they had hooked up in New Haven, why wouldn’t it continue in New York? And now I was feeling bitter toward Buckminster, unsure if I could handle seeing him at all, should he reach out as planned. That was for the better, perhaps, but I had looked forward to that day for a year, if only to remember what I felt for him, to be proud of him and to remind myself not to let the next one go. But Strings felt like the next one. I was psychologically dismantling myself, and nearly sabotaging my attraction to Strings at the same time. The fact was, he and I weren’t exclusive, and—silly me—we had only been on one date in our weeks of steamy flirtation. I asked a dozen friends how to handle the situation, whether or not to bring it up. In a normal scenario—one where I don’t know who my potential suitor is sleeping with, nor does he know my own pursuits—I would say it’s all fair game until a mutual, vocal commitment. But this—my discovery—wasn’t normal, especially given the history at play. Worse yet, I saw Strings texting someone with Buckminster’s actual first name throughout our concert date a couple nights later, as we gushed and kissed and held hands and locked arms and made eyes. I essentially had my answer.
“This is karma for dating Romeo,” a few friends were kind to point out, seeing as I had knowingly dated (for 7 months!) the ex of my ex—surreptitiously meddling in our shared histories. “Now you know how Tolliver would feel if he found out you two had dated.” I wasn’t sure it was a comparable situation (I was an ass hole, these guys weren’t), but the karma part rang true. Worst of all, after the next date with Strings—the one where I saw him texting Buckminster all evening—he said: “I like you a lot. Like. A lot, a lot. I’m so excited to see where this goes.” He didn’t want to go home together that night, “So that we can do this properly. So that we can make it more than just about hooking up.” Yes. Yes yes yes. YES. But also. Please stop texting my ex? And stop sleeping with him? Imagine, for the following couple days, before our next date (and my final ones as a roving gypsy), me losing my mind on the matter every minute, and losing sleep at night. It was partially because of my feelings for both of them, but it was also partially me thinking I deserved it for tampering with the emotional equilibrium of my own dating history. “Somewhere, Tolliver is laughing to himself,” I would think to myself. As soon as I moved into my new apartment and helped Ben and Justin move out, Strings texted me, asking for a photo of the new space: “Can’t wait to see it, congrats on the move. Big day!” He was still thinking of me all day, at least, but I could only focus on the fact that it was now July, which meant Buckminster was back in town. A few times, I wondered how I allowed myself to become so unraveled in such a short period of time. I sulked to myself as I unpacked a couple bins—the ones I felt comfortable unpacking. On this eve of my 29th birthday, I was half-expecting the bed bugs to come back—convinced I would unravel further—especially as I lifted the first lid and found the wooden-gypsy Heather smiling back at me.
That night, Kieran (@kierandallison) came over to see my new space, and to ring in my birthday. It had been a long day of moving what few belongings remained, receiving the bed delivery, helping Justin move out, and straining over the love-triangle thing. But mostly, this day was a relief, because the hellacious few months were behind me, perfectly benchmarked by a new year, a clean start at 29. We toasted beers on the roof, and he brought up Strings, to see how I was feeling. “I think I’m going to ask him point blank, right now, if it happened,” I said. “He deserves to know that he’s entering awkward territory, and I should give him the chance to shut it down.” “Just stay calm about it,” Kieran advised. “It’ll be easy to sound like a crazy person, for finding it out.” “It was placed in front of me,” I said, though I agreed with him. “And it’s making me a crazy person as I worry about it. I just…need to know. I need an answer. I like him too much. If this ends us, then I can move on sooner.” I was glad Kieran was there with me, as I had seen him transition away from the perils of dating, and into a healthy, lasting relationship. He and his boyfriend took their time to fit the pieces together, and he was right that this was one small piece, one very fragile thing that needed proper caution. I wasn’t asking Strings to commit to me, but I did need to be intentional in order to clear this hurdle. I started with a text, explaining that I learned on Instagram, and that Buckminster and I had history. “Oh boy,” he wrote back, confirming my concerns. “We hooked up once—and we had a date last night, too. I really hope this can be not-awkward…” My first response: “New Haven…?” / “Yeah…” / “Listen. Don’t worry about it,” I said back. “Let’s talk though. Definitely a weird overlap. And it’s fine—he’s amazing! But, a continued overlap would be not very good.” At that point, we got on the phone, ironed it out, laughed it out, and both admitted that we saw serious potential in each other. He agreed he couldn’t date both of us simultaneously. We hung up, and I felt a foreign confidence. It was trusting. Intentional. Shared. Happy birthday to me.
On July 3, 2015, I woke with an unfamiliar sense of security—one too good for me to deserve. This was my first time waking in my new abode, in this huge bedroom with a fireplace and a sitting nook and wall-to-wall oak closets. It was a Friday, but I took off work to settle in, and to honest-to-God appreciate my new reality: I had a home again—a really fucking charming one—in a neighborhood I love, and for little rent. And, I had requited feelings for someone—actual articulated and sensible feelings for a guy whose life could easily synchronize with mine. I met Strings for midday birthday drinks in Prospect Heights after he finished a music lesson. I couldn’t believe that this extremely fickle part of my life was possibly firming up. I got “Happy Birthday” texts from loved ones all day, and when my parents and siblings each called, I seized the opportunity to tell them about Strings. I wasn’t planning on it, but with this surge of optimism going through me, it made sense to relay that I had met somebody I adored, especially considering the cleared hurdle from the night before. This, to me, was a bigger victory than having a new apartment: I could finally communicate to my parents openly about my little gay life, as if to welcome them in, if not a bit forcefully. Relationships are something they could relate to—the security of commitment, of investing trust in someone—and I deemed Strings the person who could help me show my parents that I would, after all, find these securities for myself, that I was tired of withholding this important facet of my life from them. In that moment, a milestone: My parents seemed interested. Excited for me. Excited to meet him. He and I were just one month in, and though I would caution anyone else with such little history, I cherished having someone who made all of that meandering—hundreds of dates with hundreds of men, some princes, some toads, some bringing out my best, and some my worst—feel worthwhile. This man was the contrast, a renewed sense of worth, a second chance, or 200th, really, to do it right.
“It’s so weird to have lived one year financially free, all around the world, after living a while in New York, and to now be at home with my mom in Portland,” says a 33-year-old Kevin Truong (@kevkevtruong). “I’m saving enough money to move back to New York, but this has been quite an adjustment.” In July 2015, Kevin completed a one-year, Kickstarter-funded trip around the globe for his docu-photo-series The Gay Men Project, on which he visited 32 countries and 66 cities. (He had already photographed men in 20 other major cities, in five countries.) After that trip, his tally of gay male subjects—each photographed in a very approachable, non-threatening, usually-fully-clothed manner—is 700 strong. I met Kevin through the project; he photographed me in late 2012 when TGMP was still part of his senior thesis at Pratt Institute. I wrote an accommodating personal essay (because he asks each subject to write a reflective piece to complement the images), and it remains a wonderful time capsule of how I saw the brooding gay world at age 26, just two years out of the closet and fresh to New York. My friend Thom (@steadisdead) referred me to Kevin, who had put out a call for subjects to his pals; like everyone else who got involved, I then gave Kevin a list of my own friends I thought he should feature, whether in New York or elsewhere. This is how the endeavor has snowballed: Word of mouth has created a huge network, a portfolio of global gay voices, and has thus taken over Kevin’s entire life for the better part of four years. Despite his living at home in Portland—for now—it has made Kevin one of my most actualized, wise, and—of course—worldly friends.
Like me, Kevin got his professional foundation with the AmeriCorps VISTA program; that’s “Volunteers in Service to America”, a 12-month non-profit management assignment, in which workers receive poverty-level wages and earn an education/loan stipend. Kevin’s LA-based term focused on improving literacy, particularly in Orange County’s children’s hospitals. He stuck with non-profit for four more years in Portland, OR—his hometown—running after-school programs for at-risk youth. “My life was going down a certain path,” Kevin says. “So I decided to try the biggest service endeavor: Peace Corps.” He was placed in Belize, an extremely impoverished country where it is illegal to be gay. “I asked to get re-placed, and they were understanding, but explained that many Peace Corps placement countries have anti-gay laws. A lot of them were colonial and might not necessarily enforce said laws, so I felt safe enough to at least give it a try.” Two months in, Kevin was the eighth person to leave (from an initial group of 30; only half lasted a full two years). “The Peace Corps is clear that they want you to leave if you are unhappy and feel the need to do so. On the one hand, I was adjusting to living in a developing country. But mostly, I hated having to hide that I was gay, especially in fear. I had only just finally fully come out to everyone back home after a long, labored process, so to hide it for another two years felt impossible. At one point, I just broke down and bawled. I totally lost it. I was afraid to tell my amazing host family that I was gay, because I convinced myself that the laws were reflective of the general culture and ideologies. I felt like the biggest failure when I left, but I also felt lucky to be able to leave. I imagine that many gay people there have to just deal with it, hide it. I can at least see why the experience led me to doing this documentary project, to travel all over and meet these people, to share their point of view.”
Kevin, then 27, found himself back home with no plans, because he had originally intended to be gone for two years. He wanted to do something drastically different—something creative—so he applied to three art schools in New York (to get a second bachelor’s degree), and wound up enrolling in Pratt’s photography program. In his second year, he had an assignment that required him to photograph just one kind of subject for two months. He was feeling inspired by Catherine Opie’s series “Domestic”, which showcases lesbians posing around their homes; it’s very modest and voyeuristic. Kevin photographed 10 subjects and then gave each man the opportunity to supplement the image with his own narrative. “It was never high-concept,” Kevin explains. “That’s the point: me wanting it to feel like you could be beside them in the room, then give each the chance to share his point of view. It felt like the perfect way to marry photography with the socially conscious components of nonprofit work.” He kept the project up in his free time, and started building a network of subjects via friends. He flew to the West Coast to shoot guys in Portland and San Francisco, then to Panama, then London and Paris—now it was “international”—always crashing with friends to make things affordable. A Buzzfeed feature brought him a truly global audience, and he started receiving emails from admirers all around the world. Then, in January 2014, after college: “I was freelancing but also broke. Part of it wasn’t my fault; I had some payments from clients coming it, but there was one moment where I had less than $40 in my name. I had just paid rent and needed to do laundry but couldn’t withdraw the $20, because then my utility check wouldn’t be cleared and they might’ve shut down everything. I wanted to keep shooting, keeping growing, but the project was costing so much money and not paying for itself in the least.” So, he threw a Hail Mary and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a worldwide trek, to build a culturally diverse catalog; should it get funded, he would know it was worth continuing, worth every penniless strain.
“I made so many budgets, and a huge list of every person I knew, and estimated how much I thought I could raise and how much I needed to raise,” Kevin says of his pre-Kickstarter launch plans. “I estimated needing 35K, but was only sure I could raise 25, so I landed in the middle and shot for 30.” As I’ve mentioned before, Kickstarter has an all-or-nothing policy; your endeavor must be fully funded at the end of your 30-day window, otherwise nobody is charged a dime. “The scary thing for me was that I was using it as a way to validate what I was doing,” Kevin explains. “It’s very personal as a creator to throw it out to the world. The people who comment on the Gay Men Project site—the ones who would let me know that I was reaching them—it wasn’t entirely clear if they were showing up with their dollars. So I just had to trust that other people wanted to support it and get a collective thumbs up or thumbs down from the public.” The campaign got a lot of press from LGBTQ outlets right away, but the momentum quickly slowed down. Luckily, though, a few more generalized news outlets picked it up, and the traction stayed steady. “That felt especially validating,” he says. “To see it coming from non-LGBTQ sources. Also, a few classmates from high school—who if I recall correctly, teased me for being gay—they donated to the project. It wasn’t guilt money or anything. It was just cool to see how some people change as they grow, that they would put their own money into my hands to do this thing.” Kevin’s efforts would cap at 33K, giving him a green light for the global excursion. Now, Kevin had to actually plan said excursion—and rally subjects at every stop—while relying on the same word of mouth to carry him along.
“I just looked at a map and started doing groundwork of where I knew people I could stay with,” Kevin says. It was important to him to go to places that were culturally different from the mostly affluent cities he had already logged. High on his list were Kenya, Cambodia, Indonesia. “It was half being practical and economical—could I crash on a friend-of-a-friend’s couch?—and half going to places I felt like I needed to go.” He had to plan out the first half (in South America) more diligently, because flights aren’t as cheap on a whim. In many other parts of the world (Asia, primarily), that’s not the case, so it allowed him to travel on less notice. When he wasn’t staying with friends or extensions of, Kevin was sourcing local nonprofits for contacts, for any leads, and the same went with finding subjects to shoot; he would often just trust that it would come together once he was on the ground in each respective place. “I would check #gaypride on Instagram in places like Cape Town and reach out to potential subjects that way,” he says. “I would even find people through channels like Grindr and Scruff and Tinder, always linking to the site and making sure it was perceived as genuine, not creepy.” Through all of this outreach and word of mouth, Kevin would photograph such notables as Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India; Carlos Bruce, a gay congressman in Peru; and Michael Kirby, Former Justice of Australia’s High Court. This whole web of gay men just formed for him, and now he has over 700 friends around the world who have invested in him their wisdom and anecdotes. One personal story I love to tell people: When my friend Zach (@zachames) and I went to Buenos Aires in late 2014, we asked Kevin to introduce us to a couple guys who might take us out dancing or give us some local advice. We missed Kevin by just a week there, but he connected us with his friend Nico; he met Nico through his outreach and also stayed with him while visiting. As it would turn out, Nico’s apartment was in our Airbnb’s building, on the same floor, staring directly into our own kitchen…small world! “That,” Kevin says, “is the six gay degrees of Kevin Truong at its finest.”
We’ve all said and heard cliches about the world being small, and especially in New York City, and even more so in a niche community within that city, like gay men,” says Kevin. “But to rely on that fact, and to experience firsthand how interconnected we are—particularly within such a niche group—was proof of how small the world is. It quickly felt very manageable, since one day I was in South America, then off to Africa the next, and into the Middle East soon after.” Even then, Kevin was meeting with people who were likeminded, who share his core beliefs and who largely see the world the same as him, regardless of nationality. He cites social media for the fact that we can now so easily connect with people who share our point of view, despite the miles between us; there are few taboos about befriending strangers online, or meeting a significant other in the same manner; I would go on three dates a year if I couldn’t fall back on these apps. But even then, it speeds up the likelihood that our world starts folding atop itself, especially in a singular place like New York, or even New Haven. “And look,” Kevin says. “You also realized through an app that these two men had met and were staying acquainted. Social media brings people into your life, creating opportunity and connecting you with people it might be impossible to meet otherwise. Then, on the other hand, it poisons your brain, even if it’s showing you the truth. It has the power to both connect and destroy us. It shrinks the world down even further; this is equally wonderful and terrifying.”
The Gay Men Project might be nearing an end. “I either need to take it to a new, innovative place, or find a way to tie it all together,” Kevin says. “Plus, I’m 33 now; it’s the age where lawyers have come into their own and are running practices. Finance people have had crazy promotions and own multiple homes. All my friends are doing those things and I’ve just moved back with my mom to start saving money again, just so I can move back to New York and do the starving photographer thing again.” He’s not tired of the project, but he is tired of doing it for no profit—and often times at his own cost. He plans to pursue freelance when he’s back in NYC, relying largely on his body of work to get jobs that actually pay. And of that catalog, I find it so admirable that it’s gotten as huge and eclectic as it is without Kevin cutting any corners; I think he was smart to keep it no-frills, to be nimble and low to the ground with it so that he wouldn’t get lost in hours of re-touching images and editing essays. While he may be broke, he is now rich with years of travels, with seven hundred new friends, with added perspectives and experiences that a very small fraction of the world will ever get to emulate. He speaks with such confidence, even when addressing his uncertainty, because he knows more than anything how to survive in this world, how to earn trust and turn strangers into companions. He actively makes his world smaller, not by shutting it off and being provincial, but by pulling everything close, accepting each perspective, and embracing the variety.
On the morning of July 4, I walked from mid-Crown Heights to south Park Slope—about an hour’s haul—to Strings’ abode. I still felt so electric, so renewed, and wanted to appreciate the brownstoned neighborhoods and beautiful weather and surging optimism, thus the distance was no matter. I was disgustingly sweaty upon my arrival, so we set all my clothes aside to dry for 30 minutes. After our extended hello, we mused about where to eat brunch, dressed ourselves, and walked hand in hand toward Talde, our chosen destination. Just before we stepped inside, an old woman jumped in the way, cutting us off in the doorway. She positioned herself beneath the frame: “Are you two a couple?” she asked us, cackling each word. She stared at us through a pair of broken aviators; one was punched out to give them a pirate’s eye-patch effect. She was hunched over and looked worn down. We could hardly process what was happening; why was this old, haggard woman inquiring about our relationship status? Strings responded first: “Uhhhhhh, yeah?” I smiled at the fact that he said yes. The woman continued as she waved her hands: “I could tell. You’re perfect for each other. The way he’s looking at you, and the way you were opening the door for him. Your smile. You guys deserve each other.” We still didn’t know how to react, so we thanked her very awkwardly while pushing our way past. I caught one quick glimpse of her exposed pupil before the door closed behind us. “What the hell was that?” Strings asked. I shook my head. I didn’t want to think twice about it, about her.
Brunch was normal. Totally normal. Decent food, good conversation, neither here nor there. We walked the two blocks back to Strings’ home as the skies fell down—reminiscent of our first night together—only this time I came prepared with an umbrella. Back home, Strings made coffee, and I made him a playlist with some recent favorites, an annoying thing I like to do. He sat down on the other end of the couch, and I scooted myself to sit beside him. He quickly stood up, went back into the kitchen, then returned and sat on the other side of the couch, from where I had just moved. I thought that was weird—we had just hooked up two hours before, had professed our affection and probable long-term interest in one another just two days before, but now he seemed to be avoiding direct contact with me. I scooted over again, put my hand on his knee as we spoke for a few minutes more. He returned no physical contact, then he got up again to put the coffee away. He didn’t return to the couch after that. I took the cue, packed my things, and hoped he was just processing something independent of us. We walked out together, both headed to the G train—me to Bed Stuy, he a few stops further to Greenpoint. He sat in the seat beside me on a mostly-vacant subway car, which was a relief. We made small talk, reached my stop, and quickly kissed goodbye. I was very confused as to where his head was, so I texted him a test: “Good to see you again :)” His average response time had been a few minutes, but three hours later, I got my reply: “You too!” I didn’t want to think twice about it, but I did. And a third time. And so forth.
I went to cousin Jenny’s (@approximately) for fireworks that night—her Prospect Heights street has its own highly illegal display, with explosives going off just a hundred feet overhead—and I sat very quietly on the side of the roof as she and her boyfriend, her roommates and their boyfriends, and everyone else paired off to watch the show. I hadn’t heard from Strings the rest of the day, nor had I contacted him. I hated feeling so sorry for myself over someone I had only known a month, over a stupid, fleeting romance. Hadn’t I known better than to put so many eggs in one basket, and so soon? God, I had told my family members about him. If he was bailing now, then that was a huge waste of an opportunity, a chance to welcome my parents into my life, to say “Here is someone who is a good reflection of my decisions, someone you will respect, someone I trust—at least enough to tell you about him.” I was mostly mad about that. Strings felt like such an obvious “Fuck Yes”, and we had both articulated to one another that we felt a special kind of attraction, a promising one. I re-read all of our texts and walked through all of our interactions; had I said something weird at brunch? How could his feelings have changed so drastically in 36 hours, after we breezed through the terribly awkward details of him and Buckminster hooking up? I handled that so well, I thought. And so had he. He even texted me excitedly the next morning, on my birthday, and got drinks with me that afternoon, disrupting his schedule to arrange the date. I stepped through everything…it didn’t add up. Did I get what I asked for, when I told him it wouldn’t be good to keep overlapping me and Buckminster? Was he still seeing Buckminster, who was now in the city for a summer internship? Was I being crazy, thinking all of this? Maybe everything was actually fine, and I’d see him the next week and things would seem promising again. I decided to hold off texting him the following day, to see if he might reach out. He didn’t; every day for a month, he had. And now it stopped.
Come 9 the following night, I couldn’t stand it anymore: I texted him, to say hello, to pretend like everything was normal, just in case it was, in fact, normal. But seeing as I was certain it wasn’t normal, I wanted to know sooner than later, so really the text was to spare myself the agony, to give Strings the chance to cut any strings, to take the blow all the sooner, so I could recover sooner, so I could forget him sooner. “Hi hi. How was your dia?” An hour later: “Very nice! Went to the pier to lay out. Got ice cream. Just finished dinner with friends. You?” OK…he gave me a detailed response and asked me the same question…so far so good. “Whoa! Fruitful!” I sent a couple texts with the highlights of my day—I got blinds for my room, installed said blinds, super exciting—and he replied with a “Nice!” Then, nothing. Here was my opportunity, to get what I came for: “Free for dinner this week?” That would give him a chance to tell me no. Twenty minutes later, my confirmation: “I’ve been on both sides of this before, and I know it sucks to be led on, so I have to be honest. I think you’re really cute and smart and nice, but I’m not really feeling a romantic vibe here. Wish I felt differently, because you’re awesome, and a catch, just don’t think it’s right for me. I really do hope we can be friends.” I let it sink in for a few minutes, mostly to craft a response that didn’t show too much vulnerability, but just enough of it anyway: “I’m definitely bummed. A lot actually. But I’ll be fine, and I’m sure I’ll see you around.” Him: “Sorry it ended this way. Definitely see you around!” (I haven’t seen him since, by the by.) I felt embarrassed, and pissed off, and ashamed, and disappointed. I allowed myself a few minutes of self-pity, then readied for bed, to sleep it off. While brushing my teeth, I noticed it…a familiar feeling on my skin. On my right leg this time. The itching. It was back. No. No no no. NO. I stripped the bed, checked for bugs, tears taking residence in my eyes. I found nothing, but the itching prevailed. I took a sleeping pill, crawled into my bed, and euthanized the remaining hour of the day.
I quickly learned about “phantom bed bug itching”, which “survivors” of the pests often experience. I was a candidate: You don’t trust that you’re in the clear, because you’ve spent so many fearful nights not believing that the coast is clear, that the pesky things have gone for good, that they won’t come back, that your sleep is safe, that your home is clean, that your mind can rest. I was also in that window of time where I had just unpacked my belongings (some of them, anyway) for the first time since boxing them up two months prior, and wasn’t yet sure if I had brought any bugs along with me. I had to hope not, but I knew it would be a month before I could assume I was in the clear. It didn’t help that my body was itching all over in the same way as when I had bed bugs (only without actual bite marks), especially after the stress of the Strings release. I stripped my bed for the next few nights, paranoid, anxious, not believing I deserved or should expect the peace of mind that comes with a fresh start, not trusting myself to have taken proper measures. Funny enough, I felt this exact way about another part of my life, about the conditioning that dating had done in the past year and a half. Each “relationship”—Buckminster, Romeo, Cold Hands, Strings—had some fickle thing about it, whether on my end or his. I was trying very hard to not be the fickle one anymore; I was attracted to Srings’ intentional nature—the way Buckminster had shown it too—only Strings changed his mind, and I felt an embarrassing recoil from his rejection, for showing my vulnerability to him. I felt Pavlovian now, after four somewhat promising men had come and gone. The conditioning I was receiving—at risk of making myself sound like a victim, which I am not—was that I was not worthy of an honest, open, trustworthy, not-fickle partner, and that I shouldn’t trust that anyone with those characteristics would ever come along. Or, if he did, that it’d be a fluke, or that I’d fuck it up and run for the hills. As I mulled over this one night, I looked over to my mantle and saw Heather staring back. My arms and legs suddenly itched. “My problems started when you showed up,” I said, half-crazy.
I packed Heather in my bag that day, and asked my colleague Maura (@liljupe) to help in ridding of the figurine. We took a quick break from work and walked to Madison Square Park, just a block from the office. I knew I needed to pass her along unceremoniously to someone else. Maura asked why I couldn’t just throw her out or turn her into firewood. “Because then this bad energy might be stuck with me forever,” I said. “We have to watch someone else take her away, and hopefully they’ll fare better.” I was projecting a lot of agony on this wooden doll now, especially once I decided that I had seen the real-life version of Heather at brunch with Strings: the crazy old woman with the pirate-patch aviators who stopped us in the doorway. She was waving her hands furiously as she told us how perfect we were together, which I now decided was her putting some sort of breakup spell over the two of us. I only half believed it, because it was quite illogical, but it was peculiar to me that everything pesky started happening once Heather came into my life: It was just as I met and kept dating Romeo (kicking off the seven stifled, guilt-laden months), and my departure from my secure Prospect Heights abode (leading to nine months of moving, roving, gypsying). And now, with her sitting on the mantle in my new bedroom, I couldn’t risk feeling sorry for myself. I needed it all to stop—including the itches, the uncertainty. I needed to project it onto something, and I thought it was entirely rational to project it onto her. So, Maura and I walked to the park that afternoon, placed her on a bench, and crouched behind some bushes 30 feet away. A few tourists came up and pointed, taking her photo. Then, a park tenant strolled by, gripped her in his garbage clippers, and walked her to a trash bin. “Don’t toss her,” I pleaded quietly. “Keep her. Keep her.” He held Heather over the bin, studied her closely, then looked every direction, and pocketed the doll. I sent him positive wishes, but didn’t want to think twice. I already felt lighter.
Just as Maura and I got back to the office, my phone buzzed with a text message…from Buckminster. I thought that was so peculiar, to finally hear from him just as I rid of Heather. I wasn’t sure what he knew about Strings and me, much less if they were still seeing each other, which I half-suspected because of their continued interactions on fucking Instagram. But now I was free of caring, and of sulking. His text—”Hey, I’m in the city now for the summer. Let’s catch up as planned?”—was received with poise, with gratitude, because of course I still cared about him, and always will, so to have him back in my life in the smallest way meant something big. It felt like a chance to forget what terrible coincidence had occurred, to spend an hour of time focused on him and me, on our 2.0 as friends. Plus, he wouldn’t have reached out if he knew there was any emotional fragility; he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. We made plans for lunch the following week, and I made a mental list of things I wanted to accomplish at our reunion (Thanks, Birchbox, for turning me into a performance metrics person.): 1) I wanted to make no mention of Strings, because this lunch was about Buckminster and me only. 2) I wanted to remind him through our interactions and conversation that I had been a good choice for him, that I wasn’t an ass hole for ending things, and that our compatibility wasn’t a lie. I wanted to feel a hint of electricity again, if only because two people with even a small history should be able to appreciate that. And 3) I wanted to leave lunch feeling that, in some small way at least, we could each count the other as a friend, as someone to trust. I think ultimately, it was closure that I wanted, but in a turn-the-page, new-leaf kind of way. It seemed that maybe, if Buckminster could leave lunch thinking “Adam isn’t half bad; I’m glad to have dated him,” then maybe I could project hope and confidence that someone as smart and handsome and sweet and intentional and trusting and compatible might one day roll the dice on me, just like he had. … Oh, and that same night—after ridding of Heather—the phantom itching stopped for good.
“Heather was a source of stress for you, and the more you collected anguish, the more you associated the bad experiences with her.” My friend Laura Bolt (@la_vie_bolt) helps me feel less cuckoo about projecting every problem into a tiny wooden figurine. “The act of performing something, like releasing Heather, is a sense of theater, which is a valid way to stop bad things: Taking performative, ritualistic measures will often free the mind. Maybe you cursed her, not the other way around; maybe she was just an object and was representative of this part of your brain that you were pouring all your anxiety into. You had all these happy feelings towards this new life: great job, great friends, finally a great apartment, and suddenly a likely boyfriend. But there was still within you this bad energy that was harboring your guilt and emotional baggage and a belief that you aren’t worthy of these good things. I don’t think what you did is crazy. It’s the opposite; it’s healthy.” I jokingly compare it to Catholic reconciliation, though: Whenever I would go to “confession” as a child, I would only tell the priest as much as I was comfortable telling him—”I lied once. I did things I shouldn’t do. I watched MTV at a sleepover.”—and the priest would tell me to “say 10 Hail Marys” and all would be absolved. Heather just feels like some stupid carryover of that ritual to me: “Get rid of this idol and all problems will go away.” Laura doesn’t subscribe to any singular belief system, but instead pulls ideals from many. However, Catholicism is not one of them: “I have no perception of Catholic guilt, but it’s fascinating how so many western, binary religions tell you that you must repent in order to feel free of anguish. In Buddhism, you are taught to examine your intentions. Were your intentions to cause pain? Do you honestly believe that Strings and Buckminster getting together was punishment for you dating Romeo? Really? Love-triangle karma? And that this guilt started your apartment-moving hell? Getting rid of Heather can’t change those things that happened. But it can serve as a reminder that you’re ready to move on from it all…. Embrace the ritual.”
Laura has been my spiritual advisor lately. I find solace in holing up at the two-blocks-away Crown Heights apartment she shares with her best pal Jon (@jonmroth). The two of them, both editors as well, were laid off at @DETAILSmag in November, and they tackled unemployment with a good, healthy sense of humor; their energy and few-steps-ahead-of-me perspective has been especially helpful in preventing me from feeling too wounded in my own unemployment. (Also, the cookies Jon bakes.) Just a couple weeks before losing her job, Laura moved out of a shared apartment with a long-term boyfriend, and into this one. She’s done a lot of embracing the unknown since then—and who wouldn’t, when job and home and love crumble in succession? And while I’ve seen her endure some pretty shitty days, the persistent sentiment is that “this too shall pass”, and that she will emerge strong, resilient, happy. Laura’s advice to me: “We tend, especially as New Yorkers and people who are driven and put a lot into their work, to craft an identity out of our jobs, and when that goes away it’s easy to feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself. But something like losing a job can force you to recalibrate, question the path you’re on, and whether you’re really doing what you want to be doing. It gives you a special kind of freedom to explore who you are at this point in your life. Well, you can do that anytime technically, but a big universal push—like unexpected unemployment—will allow you to do it better than almost anything else. Once the thing you are afraid of happens, then that fear is also gone. As important as financial stability is, maybe what you can find now is a better sense of self, which is the best way to align with what you want and how to get it.” This outlook justifies the emotions, and draws a dotted line to the feeling I want to have (security) and away from the one currently felt (fear of the unknown): How can I get from here to there? “The mind will work it out,” Laura says. “Understand that stress is part of that, and trust that you’ll get there, maybe quickly but maybe slowly. Just hold onto that.”
Most of my friends’ parents tried at some point to introduce religion to their children. Some of these baby boomers will get through life without ever questioning the belief system into which they were born, while accepting it as moral law—wow, cool life—while others have accepted their kids’ dissonance and the fact that maybe religion is just one way of processing the unknown; it’s socially structured spiritualism. Laura’s mother is in the latter camp; the daughter of a Methodist minister, she tried taking Laura to church but knew it was futile when Laura would spend the entire service looking for ghosts and spirits—“It seemed like one of the best places to communicate with ghosts, so that’s how I would pass the time.”—and when Laura was insubordinate as a 13-year-old acolyte: “That’s where they give you robes and a big candle-lighting wand. When I was walking down the aisle during church, I put on these huge Joan Didion sunglasses and just sat there on the bench with the light pouring in on me. Mom was so mortified, but she never punished me. She just accepted that I didn’t buy into it.” Neither does her father; her parents are still together but Dad has never gone to church: “They’re so philosophically and temperamentally different, but the vibe just works. Dad is really into existential philosophy, and we talk a lot about Buddhism together. Mom doesn’t talk about religion or make other people engage with it. It’s a thing she does, a thing Dad doesn’t do, and they leave it at that. Seeing them balance that was a big reason I stayed spiritual once I rejected religion; these two people existed in harmony while processing things in different manners. All I had to do was find my own manner—some malleable way of thinking, one that would keep me stable if nothing else made sense, if and when things get turned upside down.”
Laura and I are having this conversation around her living room on the evening of January 23, which brings with it Tropical Storm Jonas and 26 inches of snow. “Tonight is a full wolf moon,” she tells me, sounding something like a Hogwarts Divination professor. “It’s the perfect night for charging one’s crystals.” She hands me a small drawstring bag filled with four crystals, and I smirk as I posit why she’s gifting them to me. “Maybe you can use these as a more proactive ritual moving forward,” she says. “Crystals provide a good way of stating intentions, and understanding your needs. I believe everything is based on energy. The direction and intention of energy really depends on who you believe you’re talking to: a supreme being, a goddess, the earth.” (I guess my “supreme being” is some sort of god or goddess, though I’ve never imagined it with any physical attributes.) “You’re going to take these crystals and pour your intentions into them whenever you want or need something, as you clutch them in your hands. Think about what you want to get strength from and to achieve. It’s not the most pragmatic way of doing things, but it’s a simple intention, and they’ll give you a good backdrop of energy. It’s like prayer; just channel your energy into them, towards that supreme being. But, before you do that, you need to clear them and charge them in the sun or moonlight. Anything with particular meaning, like a solstice or equinox or full moon, has especially strong energy.” OK, got it. I think.
There are four crystals in the bag: quartz, amethyst, bloodstone, and citrine. “Quartz is the bind that makes everything more powerful; it’s the activating agent, like yeast for bread,” says Laura. “Amethyst is for mental clarity and purity; you’ll be very focused because of it. Bloodstone is holistic; it’s for protection. And citrine is for luck and prosperity.” She shows off her Comparative Religions degree by connecting this stability-seeking practice to a Daoist principle: “We are flowing like the way water flows, and anything against that current is going to disrupt us. Nature is meant to be unstable, and humans have an innate need to stabilize themselves. We work really hard to have definition in our relationships, and the work that we do, and the way that we relate to the world. You can’t hold on to things with a tight grip—except for these crystals, of course—because everything has to change. You have to lose things—people, money, security. If you don’t accept this, then you’ll be constantly bracing for impact and trying to avoid the inevitable. Without an internal flexibility that allows you to evolve and change, you’re going to be in chaos, and you will lead a very tragic, isolated life. Having this flexibility will keep your head above water, no matter what drastic things might happen; it’s the best way to preserve one’s self-esteem. Keep that in mind as you state your intentions; always work with that understanding and openness.”
I did charge the crystals that night, and the next morning I clasped them in my hand and channeled my intentions into them. I wished for a year of stability, of little excitement. I didn’t want to be closed off to changes—I felt ready to handle anything drastic, given my 2015—but my preference was to have a solid block of uneventful months, to be able to focus my uninterrupted attention on whatever was next. Work was steady and I had no plans to leave; my home life was also in perfect shape. I hadn’t dated anyone significantly since Strings; that game felt like a big fucking joke to me, so I was still opting out. Then, a few days later, after all 26 inches of snow had melted away, I lost my job. So much for my desired stasis. “That doesn’t take away from you focusing on what it is you want,” Laura says. “You want stability, security. Either way, you still get to focus on what is next, and look—your home life is still good, you have enough people to ask for work, and you only have yourself to support, so it’s all very manageable. Now you get to find security in your next endeavors. And you can still find it yet.” She’s right. It didn’t seem all that terrible; I got a good severance package, plus a prompt push away from happy complacency. I could pursue freelance writing and editing work and take time to find the next role to challenge me. I had a flashback to that poor, helpless, naïve kid who sulked outside of Pixar in 2009, totally entitled, totally heartbroken. I charged the crystals again the night I was laid off, and the next morning, sent into them my intentions of staying calm, keeping control, and, per Daoist wisdom, for flexibility and strength in times of change.
Laura and I are both 29. She points out that this is our year of “Saturn returns”: Basically, Saturn takes 29.5 years to round the Sun and return to the place in the sky where it was when you were born. Astrologers believe that anyone between the ages of 27-29 crosses a barrier that ushers them into a new phase of maturity, of adulthood. I like the idea, but I also used to think that 25 was the panacea number, and then 27, and now 29 because this theory gives me something to latch onto. I’m not sure what to expect this year, but something about being told by Birchbox that I’m now free of a salary, of subsidized health insurance, of routine, feels like my supreme being telling me that “it’s time to put your practice into play, to test the talents you’ve fostered, the network you’ve nourished, the wall you’ve built around your ego and conscience and heart… don’t hesitate; run.” Adds Laura: “There’s a helpful Mysticism practice of determining your identity and purpose: Turn your focus inward; guide and teach yourself to look at what’s around you and to listen to your intentions, see the signs, and you’ll see that you have far better tools than most people who are, as they say, ‘out in the forest’, searching for answers anywhere but within themselves.” As she tells me this after my layoff, I feel a strange kind of strength and assurance. The barrier around my mind is so tested by time and elements: If Adam 22 had to stumble and fall and dodge arrows in order to lift himself up and evolve into Adam 29, then Adams 35, 45, and 70 could only be born of a widened stance, firmly stated intentions—a god-damned battle cry, for that matter—and a full charge, right into the fire.
I was all nerves as I rode the elevator down to greet Buckminster for our workday lunch. We met outside my building, and he looked every bit the charming architect I had dated a year and some change prior: smart specs, clean beard, white button-down shirt, pop-color socks (my favorite). We hugged awkwardly; I kissed his cheek in that polite way, but he refrained—though he seemed plenty happy to see me. We turned toward Park Avenue and he stopped to look up at the high-rise building that had been under construction for a couple years. He spouted some knowledge about the project, as well as his opinion of the finished structure, and I sunk into a familiar, relaxed place. Once we were seated at the cafe with our food, we started where we left off: He outlined a big road trip from the summer before, then talked about the various highlights from school, as well as updates on his family and friends. My highlights weren’t as highlighty—benchmarks, more than anything—but I was lighthearted as I told him about my nine-month moving saga. I never brought up Strings, despite the hundred questions I could have asked—Did Buckminster know we overlapped? Were they still dating? Who made the first move? Do you know this is killing me?—and we stayed clear of any mention of our dating lives. We sandwiched 16 months into one hour, keeping affectionate smiles—no, appreciative ones—all the while. I felt the closure I had wanted, knowing we could sit here like this and resume our candor—perhaps with guards up ever so slightly—and I was proud of this person I had loved, was grateful for our history, and was excited for his future, regardless of who it included. I hope, very sincerely, that those feelings were and are requited.
In September, the South Dakota Advertising Federation invited me to Sioux Falls to speak about how my team planned and created content at Birchbox. While it was great being flown home just to talk about my job with a couple hundred people, it was even better that I would get to see Mom and Dad again, and so soon after my May visit. Usually, I only get home once a year, and sometimes not even that. Once there, I realized that this was the first time in my life I had the two of them alone for more than a few hours. As the second child of four, I always had to share their attention, and with Keith so freshly out the door to college (just a few weeks prior), I was the first to witness them as empty nesters. There was a certain lightness to them now, a tinge of relief and maybe some confusion, but it felt like they were ten years younger than the pair I had visited just four months earlier. Dad grilled steaks for dinner that first night—the “Adam is home” meal—and Mom prepared some vegetables and a pasta salad. We sat down together, occupying one half of the 6-person table that hosted twenty five years of family meals. We said the usual “Bless us, oh Lord” prayer, then clinked our beer bottles—my kind of ritual—and I felt very lucky to be there with them, very proud to see my parents start this new phase together, 31 years after the last one began. It’s a level of commitment and sacrifice that seems impossible, a selflessness that humbles me.
A few minutes into dinner, Mom asked about Strings: Was he still in the picture? I felt a little humiliated, telling her no, and that he had left the picture promptly after she learned of him. I thanked her for asking, because I didn’t want that to go unnoticed. “You know, I’ve joined a men’s group,” Dad said to break the silence that followed. “I meet with a few guys every week for coffee. They’re old like me, conservative, family men. It’s nice because I can bicker with them and spare your mom the noise. They see the world same as me. And well…I told them recently that I have a gay son. And that he’s doing cool things with his life. And I just don’t care anymore what people think about it. It shouldn’t matter. And you know what else? They all think it’s pretty cool, too. And some of them have gay sons also.” That was Dad’s way of holding the door open; this was the same man who preferred not to discuss my sexuality just five years earlier, when I came out. I don’t know if being childless at home changed anything, like maybe he realized it makes more sense to prop the door wide inside making me knock. “Thanks, Dad,” was all I could muster. This small thing was huge for him, and huge for us. He got more beers, and then started asking me bigger questions: Have I ever had any boyfriends? Is it normal for gay men to be friends with their exes? So, what happened with Strings?—and this waterfall of information poured out of me all night. We very naturally navigated from Strings to Buckminster, then from Romeo into Tolliver. We talked about smoking pot—Dad thought he was pretty badass for doing it in the 70s—and I confessed to my own share of “tried its”. We talked about how I almost disappeared in 2009, and how long I had been seeing men before I came out of the closet, and that I had a secret boyfriend when I lived at home in 2010, and that I still wanted to get married and maybe still wanted children. (“I keep thinking it’d be neat if you got to have kids,” Dad told me. “You’d be a good dad.”) Mom stayed mostly quiet, beaming behind a smile as I, for the first time in 29 years, introduced myself to them.
My post-Strings recoil is the longest I’ve had. I haven’t spent a night with anyone since then, nor have I carried on dating anyone more than a couple times. Gradually—since September or October, I’d say—I’ve grown accustomed to just being alone, and the idea of sharing my bed (or anyone else’s) seems inconvenient and bothersome. I don’t know what that represents on a grander scale; metaphorically I guess I’ve built up a wall. I’ve been here before, but not with such persistence, such insistence, such indifference. I’m not as good at dating anymore; I’m tougher to crack, to impress, to keep entertained, and I certainly care less to attempt those acts on anyone else. Or maybe I know when I’m wasting my time, which is almost always. If I had found Romeo after Strings, I’d have publicly announced our togetherness immediately, because I would have understood the value of our connection. Same with Buckminster. However, to counter that notion, I might now filter out anyone like them—an ex of an ex, or someone who was moving—without even giving them a chance. My whole practice is limiting, is jaded, is defeated. The good news, though, is that I feel less disappointed in myself, and more disappointed in others. I can thank Strings for that—for being the careless one here, for saying something and not standing behind it. If my new practice is preventing me from meeting more Buckminsters and Romeos, at least it is also filtering the thread-thin Stringses.
The two of them were in San Francisco at the same time, or so Instagram told me. Both for a wedding. Whose wedding, I don’t know. Were they together, I don’t know. I just as well assumed it. This was maybe September. It didn’t sting as much, but it felt really fucking annoying, like everything else that had happened in the last year. I couldn’t even try to keep them cordially in my life without feeling some sense of frustration or bitterness or minor rage. … At our July lunch, I got Buckminster’s blessing to write about him in this story. He didn’t know the full extent, but he happily said yes, that this was my own perspective for the telling, and that I should absolutely do it. He texted me in October when Chapter 3 went up—it’s the illustration of him and me—and gave me another indication of approval, of support. It felt like I should properly tell him where the story was going, that I’d eventually address this strange love triangle we were in. I got him on the phone and told him about everything, and it turns out he had not known of our overlap. But then I had to ask—if only because there would be no other appropriate time—if they were together. “First of all, no, we are not. Nothing really happened after we hooked up. We went on one date in New York, which was an overlap of you guys I guess…but the SF weddings were a coincidence. We didn’t even cross paths while there,” he said. “Second, I’m very sorry you had to deal with this. That was probably pretty straining. I don’t apologize for what I did because there was no bad intent…” I agreed with him there; he owed no such apology. “Third, and I say this in all seriousness: Maybe you shouldn’t give so much attention to Instagram. You really read into it, don’t you? Obviously it helped you learn that he and I met, but it seems like it’s adding some unnecessary stress to your life.” I laughed a “yeah, yeah, yeah…”, agreeing with him again.
Zach (@zachames) and I went to Denver in October, to visit Ben (@benjaminnyc) and Justin (@justinhsmith), to check on their life and see their new apartment (as in, actually brand new, paint just dried), and to go hiking and meet their friends and try their favorite restaurants and feel a sense of relief that everything was good. And it was. After each activity, Ben would confirm with us that “Denver is awesome, right?”, which was adorable and unnecessary, because we were having a great time and were thrilled for the happiness they were exuding. They had a new pair of best friends, this lovely female couple who had also just moved from New York, and their three-legged dog Cheyenne (@cheyenne_i_am), who spends many hours each week with Ben while he works from home. (Funny enough, all of his contracted clients are based in New York.) We tried some hip restaurants and dipped our toes in the Denver gay nightlife. New York has the obvious advantage there, though we all agreed that none of us would really pick a city for its nightlife anymore. Regardless, it’s inconsequential when you’re dancing with your best friends, when you’re happy and they’re happy and you can put to rest any worries that they moved too quickly. We’re all moving too quickly, really; I envied that they found a way to slow it all down, to focus on one another, and to try something new. I returned to New York wishing I felt as confident about any one thing as Ben did about his life. Denver was a good fit, or at least he knew how to make it look and feel snug, to hide any trace of missing New York, if he even missed it at all.
Until things got disrupted at work in late January, I found myself in this seven-month window of lacking any real life updates. There were a lots of trips in there, to South Dakota, Denver, Boston, Mexico, Vermont, Spain. Like the weather, that became my fallback topic, because there were no changes at work, no health scares, no financial upheavals, no romantic pursuits, no changing apartments, nothing that felt worthy of much dialogue…and thank God for that. I count that period of time as one of my biggest victories in adulthood; the prolonged stasis, until it becomes complacency, feels like a long weekend of lounging in the sun. Most people wanted the assurance that my home life was finally settled. And yes, of course it was: Crown Heights was bringing me as much satisfaction as Prospect Heights had, and now without radiators, with triple the space and for less money; it’s one of the few rat races in my recent New York City life that I have without question “won”. “Everything’s good,” I would say to anyone who asked. “It’s good. It’s all fine, really. I…I don’t know what’s new. Nothing much. I’m just…I’m doing really well, I suppose. I guess I’m trying to stay focused on that.”
Rod Thomas (@brightlightx2) and I met in early 2013; he had just moved to New York from London, and his publicist Talia was my roommate’s best friend. He’s a synth-pop singer-songwriter who performs under the name Bright Light Bright Light; Talia was talking him up to me, and within a few weeks Rod’s name was mentioned by a few other friends who were meeting him, seeing him perform, and listening to his albums. I booked him for a small April 2013 fundraiser performance that would inadvertently serve as a warm-up to his sold-out Joe’s Pub gig later that night. (For the non-New Yorkers, that’s not a standard pub; it’s a very intimate and prestigious venue, one fit for Adele as she showcased “25” to industry execs last winter.) I would interview him for a @HelloMr profile later that year at his apartment (just two blocks from mine in Crown Heights), and again booked him for a full-fledged concert at another fundraiser in January 2014, since his local fan base is a loyal and excited one. Through these various interactions, we forged a friendship that would blossom once I met my current roommate Tripp (@trippppp), who is one of Rod’s best mates. I’ve spent the last three Christmas Eves with Rod, staking out different restaurants and coffee shops around Crown Heights as we celebrate our respective families’ indifference to a silly traditional holiday. (We both prefer to visit home in warmer months, under less expensive and obligatory conditions, and our parents appreciate the logic.) Benchmarked at each of those Christmas Eves was a reflection on the previous year; being friends with Rod is a treat for this reason, because his talents make for interesting milestones. This last holiday, for instance, as he readied his third album (to be released this summer), we looked back on a year that he spent touring with Elton John, opening 55 shows on the legend’s world tour. The neighbor boy, Rod! Opening for Elton! At least someone had a good 2015….
Rod, 33, grew up between two villages in South Wales, surrounded by farmland and far from any of his friends. He would help his grandparents at their neighboring farm on the weekends, and the idyllic isolation gave him plenty of time to study music, to learn multiple instruments and how to record. He went to university in the Midlands in England, studying English Literature and Creative Writing, then moved to London in 2004, where he started working for PIAS, a record company that distributes lots of big and small independent labels. (In a lovely turn of events, they now distribute Rod’s label, too.) During his two years at PIAS, Rod learned how the industry worked, then decided to seek out new challenges within that arena. He wanted to land a job in music PR, and in the “stop gap” after the PIAS job, he began busking in the London Underground and working at a bar to help pay rent. Without his realizing it, the job search went on hold, and the busking-bartending continued for two years. He set up his own label and released a 7” single on his 24th birthday. Rod admits that there wasn’t a brightly lit path in front of him as his own music career progressed: “I think forward movement has always been my biggest struggle—knowing what to do to keep growing, to keep improving, and keep progressing. Early on, a lot of it was total guesswork—just doing something and seeing what happened.”
“It’s taken me a while to arrive where I am,” Rod says. His sound isn’t the Hot 100, chart-topping kind of pop that would compete with bubblegum divas, so he’s had to push his own career forward whenever execs and labels turn a deaf ear: “I didn’t have anyone funding me, so recording took longer,” he says. “I didn’t have a label or publisher pushing me to other artists, so any connections were from friends and touring together.” That has given him a different approach to the creative process: “All collaborations have felt incredibly natural and rewarding,” he says. “I also feel like I’ve had time to really think about where I wanted to go next, and how I felt about what had gone. There was a little luxury in that steady pace for contemplation, initially. But look, I’m 33 now, and after years of compounding, I’ve been able to build relationships—actual friendships—with great musicians: Elton, all of the Scissor Sisters, John Grant. Some artists have had a much quicker rise to ‘success’—however you want to define it—but I feel like I’ve made genuine and long-lasting connections along the way, all while doing it without the traditional backing. That can only happen with time; it can’t be forced.”
Besides the aforementioned artists, Rod has been able to tour or perform alongside Erasure, Kylie Minogue, and Grace Jones. He and Ana Matronic (of Scissor Sisters fame) covered Pet Shop Boys’ classic “West End Girls” which got glowing reviews from the band. His live performances are most memorable, because he can hit his high notes and always has a surprise in store; he might bring out his animated, equally talented friends, and he played a saxophone at his most recent New York show, to debut a new song from his forthcoming album. At that February 2016 gig, the room was packed with women, gay men, and music industry folks—the same faithful base that has bolstered most of Rod’s idols. “There have been vivid moments, like my first-ever shows in Seattle in 2013 and Chicago in 2015, where I didn’t know what to expect for a turnout. In Seattle it was a packed room, and at Chicago’s ‘Market Days’ festival, I played to a full outdoor lot. I never, ever thought growing up in South Wales that I’d have an audience the other side of the world. You can be comfortable with people coming to a show in a city where you live, or where friends live, but in a new city, finding a waiting fan base is very special.” It’s daunting to know he’s saying this after 10 years of metaphorical busking. If I keep my own writing cap on, I wonder how long it is before I’m not just making ends meet, but actually getting ahead—you know, saving something for my future, maybe being able to buy a house before I’m dead, or getting out of credit card and student loan debt. In that capacity, I’m not even sure Rod is getting ahead yet, but he’s pretty damn happy, and validated. And, since his momentum is still building, it’s hard to tally any real loss.
I ask Rod to reflect on how his approach to the profession has evolved with age. He says he’s calmer now, less concerned with the uncertainty of things, and that time has played a big part in developing his place: “I really felt stressed in my 20s, and at times very lost. It is overwhelming and distressing to realize that there are so many other musicians, especially in London. I did a lot of shows where I saw label people swarming to all the other artists. I would feel like a failure even when things were going well, because I would compare myself to them. Plus, without ever knowing what was coming next, my brain would always be in panic.” He says he needed these experiences for his perspective before he could empower the right change, the right confidence. Rod cites his 2013 move to New York as a turning point, especially as he wrote his second album, 2014’s “Life is Easy”. (Quite the title for someone who’s had to dial it in his whole career.) “That record became more about flipping the perspective from pessimism and anger to optimism and acceptance. It felt like a much better version of me. I feel more confident, both in myself and my music, and I’m having more fun than ever in the creative periods. I think it shows, and it gives me a better approach to everything—personal and professional relationships, songwriting, finances…everything.”
Rod’s songwriting is also a reflection of his growth. His first album was largely spent singing about other people’s experiences: “Feel It” was about Laura Palmer from “Twin Peaks”, while “Grace” and “Moves” were about his friends’ breakups, not his own. Things became much more personal on his second album, as he tapped into his own wealth of emotions for material. “I think my song ‘In Your Care’ is probably the most literal projection of where I was when making my second album, and my journey up to that point,” he says. “I did—and still do—have a horrible sense of guilt for being happy living in a place so very far away from my family and where I come from. I feel more at home in New York than I have anywhere. But I do miss my family and I do wish it were easier to see them. However, we have a great relationship and lots to talk about, and they love New York, so it could be worse. But the child’s guilt of moving away is quite present. I had a very vocal response to that song from a lot of fans and friends, and people who have children. I think it’s the most honest I’d ever been in a song. … On ‘More Than Most’ from that same record, there’s a line that goes ‘Try to take some time out from dreaming what the world could be’. I had finally arrived to a space where I was really enjoying life, so I tried my damn best to stop wishing for things that weren’t happening, to stop missing the moment.” Rod says his upcoming album will be his biggest fusion of artist and person: “Because I had the most fun actually making this record, I feel like it’s the truest reflection of ‘me’. There’s more humor in it, more of the tongue-in-cheek melodrama. Lots of emotion, and lots of the energy that I love to put into my live shows and my DJ sets. I feel like I’ve progressed a lot in this last year, particularly with all the touring, and I know my best creative skills more than I did on the previous album, which itself was an improvement on the first.” I admire this about him—this measurable growth, this awareness and self-audit that positively affects his creativity.
“I’m very grateful for the struggle years,” Rod says. “The busking, with its 6 a.m. alarms to sing to commuters. The bar jobs, the carrying a keyboard, guitar, and bag of equipment on my own for three miles across a city and up hills and through pedestrians to get to a show. It has made me who I am. But Jesus Christ, I don’t wish myself back to my 20s for a second. Right now, I’m making the music that I most want to, in the way I most want to, so that the 45-year-old me can be really fucking proud of what I’ve achieved, with or without other people’s help. I want to look back at my albums and feel like I really gave them everything, but also that I had fun doing them. I’ve given up trying to be something I’m not; I know what kind of man and what kind of musician I am. And now it doesn’t interest me to be angry or pessimistic, so I’m working very hard to forge a life where I can avoid those, and hopefully make it last. I’m very excited to age gracefully towards that.”
Hey everyone. @adamhurly here. It’s time to wrap up this navel gazing. This series is starting to fold into itself, and it’s now too overlapped with the window of time in which I’ve been writing the story. I got the final idea for this second series within a few days of things ending with Strings; originally it was supposed to be a bunch of talking heads, discussing all sorts of topics: entrepreneurialism, health care, dating, sex, religion, work, family, and the sorts. Then I saw this interesting book-ended narrative that involved the love triangles and the weird gypsy doll. It felt too rich to not pursue, but it wasn’t dense enough to do without commentary from friends; I think the marriage of the two was a good decision, keeping things somewhat familiar from the first series. (Back me up here?) As with any endeavor, I’m happy to have written it, but the process of actually writing it was a pain in my side. For example, not only did I endure two months of bed bugs, but then I relived the nightmare when I wrote about it a few months later, then edited and published it a few months after that; suddenly I’ve been “dealing” with it for almost a year. Ditto for the relationships and family stuff and now work. This has been as good a self-exam as I’ve had, but taxing and somewhat unnecessary, all for the sake of what I thought was a decent narrative, a singular writing sample. So let’s move on!
Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad I wrote all this, just as I’m glad I endured all those annoying, pesky things that have made me slightly less affected by other annoying, pesky things. I admire the people I featured here (and many more) for the gradual steps they’re taking in their lives, and I consider this project—the bigger picture, including series 1 and the forthcoming series 3—one of my own gradual steps. But man, when people say “I would never want to re-live my 20s, but I am so grateful for those years…” (like Rod in last week’s episode), I want to shout a very loud and punctuated “AMEN.” I’ve changed identities so many times in the past decade, grabbing at air as I try to form some semblance of a POV or clear direction, only to do an about-face a few months later as I put on a new career hat, or adopt a new city, or cycle through friends, or pursue the wrong romantic interests. I’ve run myself in circles, and with just three months to go before 30, I’m eager to pack up the past 10 years in airtight boxes and file them deep in the corner of my overly analytical and critical mind. I know the number 30 is arbitrary, but I’m a sucker for symbolism. I don’t wish away the unpredictability, but I do hope the next 10 are less frantic and more confident; in fact, I’m certain they will be.
It feels good to have things so undefined again. It’s familiar this time, not alarming. I’ve finally accepted that too many variables are beyond my control, and my expectations—for career, for commitment, for stability and for stasis—have often let me down. I’m not lowering my expectations by any means, but I like knowing that I can approach them in different ways, at a steadier pace, and by embracing my shortcomings. I know that “failures” are also victories, because embedded in each conclusion are insights, reflections, lessons. … In my own history, the short period of time documented here will probably be categorized as “the sinking reality years”, as I know that this shit—pests (bugs and boys), minor debts, layoffs—is petty compared to everything that follows. I do feel more ready for it, though, like I’ve put on a helmet and fastened my seat belt. I guess that’s why the stress doesn’t feel as affecting now: I’ve raised a different kind of expectation—one for resistance, for impact—to more realistic levels.
The friends I’ve highlighted here are but a fraction of the people who have made my recent years so colorful. That I’ve been in New York just 4.5 is astounding to me, mostly because it previews what’s in store for the next 4.5, or 10, or 20: hundreds, even thousands more perspectives of people who flock to the heart of the creative and economic world, and who endure a lot of uncertainty and anguish if only to prove that they can bleed for what they love to do, or to test the expectations they’ve set for themselves—often falling short before trying again. This city is as much a character as the people who inhabit it; even as I watch my precious dollars melt away—not one at a time, but hundreds at a time—I feel indebted to this place and its powers, because of the people I’ve met, and because of their ability to positively affect my thoughts and behavior. An especially gracious “thank you” goes to these 13 friends who let me invade their private lives for this project, for my own gain. My persistent happiness and confidence in New York, or anywhere, would be nothing without companions; they have given me a home when I had none, found me work when I needed it, offered advice when I felt lost, forgiven me when I’ve done harm, and fixed my heart when it was broken. Do not let your friends go; their love is the most unconditional.
When I wrapped the first series, it meant saying goodbye to fictional characters I had created. It was fairly easy to find a concluding place, tie up loose ends, and get on with my own life. There are four characters in this story that feel somewhat fictional to me; I’ll be in no hurry to type the names Buckminster, Romeo, Cold Hands, or Strings again. I am happy to pack those names away along with that frantic version of me, and to move ahead as friends, without any silly pseudonyms. I see two regularly enough, and they’re considered among my best. Even though I was over these guys, I had to fall in love with them again as I walked through our relationships, then I had to fall back out of love as I moved things along. To the four of them, a thank you for letting me agonize, and an apology for seeming like a crazy person you dated. I hope what you read here feels sincere; it’s how I remember us and is, of course, just one perspective of two. More than anything, though, thanks for being wonderful and dynamic enough to write about, and for being highlights of my previous two years.
And of course, my gratitude goes to each of you. It would be hard for me to write this if I didn’t think anyone would read it. You really do validate the endeavor. I hope you’ll say hello and announce yourself, or send me a message on Instagram, or fill out the contact form on our website…I’d love to know your opinions, highlights, criticisms. I’d love to know where you’re from, or why you’re still reading. I’d love to know if you’re a literary agent. (Kidding!!!) A handful of you have said hello throughout the process, and it’s been great to count you as friends; it always means the most to hear from readers, and when you speak up, it gives me something to point to that says “maybe this is working.” Thanks again.
The next series will be fictional—hallelujah—and will be quite different from both of its predecessors, in tone and format. It launches this summer. And, yes, there’s a different illustrator; we’ll announce who it is tomorrow, and will preview the series throughout the week. … With that, a “thank you” goes to our series 2 illustrator, my now darling friend, Levi (@leviathanleague). Thanks for giving this story its personality and visual identity, and for being such a wonderful collaborator. And once more, to everyone here: I am so grateful for your attention, your feedback, your trust. Last year, whenever I was a roving gypsy or a heartbroken fool, I had this project and you people to look ahead to each morning of the first series. That has only continued with series 2. You’ve played a very big role in my persistence, in my moving forward and feeling confident. I’ll miss you in this short interim, and excitedly await our summer reunion. I love you, quite terribly. So thanks.