My date was from OKCupid, told me he was bipolar but “over it,” dragged me to three different bars, and didn’t even make out with me for my trouble. So, in the dive we landed in last, I had no choice but to pick out someone else in the distance. I did the choking “save me” signal.
I don’t know what compelled me to choose him necessarily. I could barely see his outline with my glasses tucked slyly away. It was just a ray of comfort and approachability warming me up from across the room. Soon enough, what turned out to be a tall, imposing specimen tottered over, complete with shots of Patron. I was struck by his baritone ahem and leapt up.
“Hi, this is Daniel, he’s bipolar. I’m Michael, I have OCD,” I said quickly, repeating my therapist’s recent diagnosis (which actually explained a lot).
“Great, I’m Harvey. I have PTSD,” he said.
“Oh wow, yours is the best,” I declared.
Harvey was of Asian descent, shaved head, all in black—basically a flirting ninja, except that his intense upper body and moon-pie face precluded all stealth. I usually went for the hairier type, since I’m always in need of warmth, but Harvey’s confidence soon proved irresistible. He interrogated Daniel, sizing him up in alpha male fashion.
“Have you kissed this boy yet?” Harvey asked him. “Why aren’t you kissing him yet?”
“Oh, stop, he doesn’t have to, this isn’t the 8th grade,” I said in the meek guy’s defense. Then I grabbed Harvey’s thigh under the table. Thank you, I mouthed.
Because really, I was more than hungry for sexual contact—I was crazy for it.
Seven years since coming out of the closet with no action was the major contributor to my two daily pink and blue anxiety pills. The problems leading to this cold streak included shame for my pectus excavatum (Latin for ugly chest), horrible luck finding someone who could fill the “aggressive” role in bed, and worst of all, being stuck in childhood. I moved home to Staten Island after graduating NYU, the gay bacchanal-that-wasn’t, and instantly picked up where I left off: buying toys for my room, fighting about curfew with my divorced Jewish mother.
Looking at Harvey, though, I suspected resolution. The swirling body scars crawling up his neck, as well as his full-body Japanese tattoos, showed life experience. He dazzled by saying he had worked in the CIA, visited over 50 countries, and flew in a plane with Condoleezza Rice. I was exhilarated—the adult table was within sight. So, around my fourth drink, I said I was tired. I left the bar with Daniel and thanked him so much for the really nice time. Then I doubled back, swung open the bar door, and jumped into Harvey’s lap.
“Vee vant the secret to your allure, Harvey,” I said, digging a finger-gun under his chin.
“Ooh, violence and the comma-name construction. I’m so titillated,” he said, gleaming.
When he roughly pinned me against the stall in the bathroom, I knew I’d found a real match, not an OKCupid one. And when we met for our first date the next week, I learned the power of such an attraction. “Yum,” he said, after hitting a corner deli to get some soup, strangely his favorite food. “Yum,” I repeated, like I was learning language. Then it was my turn to pin him against a wall.
“Don’t do that,” he said, crushingly.
I understood. We were in public. It looked weird.
“It’s not that, dope,” he said. “I’m being protective.”
He zipped up his sweatshirt to his neck like a caped crusader. Finally, I beheld on that street corner what had been missing in my depressing gay life:
Now, sure it was weird when he revealed he didn’t exactly, per se, have a place to live. Taking some time for himself and using savings, it turned out Harvey was renting different by-the-day sublets in Manhattan like an urban nomad. It also materialized that his PTSD from his “time in the CIA,” the job he quit but supposedly couldn’t talk about, was indeed a very real problem.
“Harvey, no, don’t,” I plead as he provoked a rentboy in a late night diner a week later, ending in cursing and shoves. Nursing his hangover and regrets the next morning, and the next-next morning, became our main getting-to-know-you scenario.
But I craved it. I was finally feeling grown up. And more importantly, I was finally getting the one thing I’ve been dreaming of, aching for, and fantasizing myself to sleep about since puberty…
Regular. On-demand. Sex.
Each place and time was more intoxicating than the next, surprisingly not because of any sort of danger element, or the different apartments (although that was a nice pinch of cayenne) but because of its sheer reliability—its normalcy. He even seemed to understand my clothing hang-up, to cover my chest.
“You’re so cute,” he said as I was over him, pants at his knees.
“Say it again,” I said, starved for it.
“You’re. So. Fuckable,” he grunted, softly destroying me.
The only hiccup was he shut down during conflicts between us, the opposite of everything I knew. I learned that his parents didn’t even know he was gay and he grew up in a physically abusive environment, so, naturally, he put up walls. I persevered through the stony silences, however. Left him alone with his headphones and Radiohead. Let his online handle go idle. And I’m sure it was because of this that six weeks and twice as many out-of-body experiences later, we landed under five portraits of Mary in his Murray Hill sublet with him asking me, really asking me: “So, wanna go steady?”
Streamers shot off in my head. I was sure I’d have to beg, write a persuasive letter, possibly a didactic play. Yet here I was in the power position. By some beautiful miracle, I was getting exactly what I wanted, what I thought I needed during this chaotic, aimless period.
Still, I didn’t say yes right away. “You have to change your Facebook photo,” I told him, referring to his underwear shot, the one that got him all his gay hangers-on I constantly had to chase off.
“Oy, it’s the same as wearing a bathing suit,” he said. Everything with him became a bigger philosophical debate, but as usual I was ready to rumble.
I needed everyone to see the hero I did.
That weekend, at the bar we were to meet, I puffed out my chest the little I could—my best flannel was on for our first night out as a real couple. I picked out a table in the middle. I knew Harvey usually liked to be in the corner behind the support beam, protected, but nope, not tonight. Tonight everyone would get a close-up view of my major post-grad accomplishment.
Harvey’s friend, Jorge, spotted me. “I hear congratulations are in order, Mr. Man-Catcher,” he said.
“He’s just as lucky!” I protested, not believing a word.
“Well, I just hope you’re not going to change him,” he said. “You know, dress him up like a white person or something.”
I had considered it. But then again, in the past few days I’d considered everything. Our wedding (all black—his color). Of my mother giving me away (that had to be clear). Of whose DNA we’d use for the kids (his, definitely his).
Fifteen minutes later, I checked my phone for the twentieth time. No texts or calls, which was annoying because I was getting tired. I’d been exhausted the past few days, actually, since I stopped taking my medication. Yes, the decision was impulsive. I should have talked it over with my doctor first. “Brain-spinning,” she called it. “We have to control the brain-spinning.” But I felt it was right. I was a little tired while on them, too, after all, and what was I supposed to do, take them my entire life? I was fine tonight. I was happy. I just hoped Harvey would show up soon, preferably during a swell in the music.
Then another half hour of staring into my beer. I really started to worry. And to suspect… something. My shine wore off. The bar was filling up and the big table I was claiming became harder and harder to keep ownership of.
“This seat is saved,” I said to one drag queen, who’d been eyeing it for a while.
“Honey, unless your name is Jesus, can’t say nothing in this bar is saved,” he shot back.
God, I hated being gay. Giving up, I went to the corner, behind the beam, to lick my wound. But that’s where Jorge was again. He saw me and looked odd.
“Hey, have you heard from Harvey? Is he OK?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s fine. Um.” His “um” was sung, an overture.
“What?” I asked.
He pouted. “It’s not like him, but I don’t think that he’s exactly… coming,” he said.
My body went stiff. Jorge continued, “I got a text from our friend who says she’s with him somewhere, all the way uptown.”
“What does that mean? What are they doing?”
“Oh. OK,” I somehow got out, trying not to look bothered. I took measured breaths.
“Here, I feel bad, let me buy you a—”
And that was really enough. I was out the door.
I numbly rode the Staten Island Ferry home, stumbled into my room and screamed into my Aladdin pillow. Then, keeping with that kiddie behavior, called Harvey over and over. It didn’t make sense. Why was this happening? Eventually, he picked up, too happy.
“Just trust me. It’s better this way,” he said, slurring.
What? “No, it’s not!” I exploded. “Tell me how it’s better.”
“You’ll go out, experience more guys. You need to play the field,” he said.
“That’s your excuse?” I spit. “Why did you lead me on? Are you freaked out that you might finally be feeling something that’s not from a bottle?”
Harvey was quiet. “You’re arguing too hard. You don’t even know me.”
“I do know you,” I heaved, and fought for my life, no way letting this be ripped away now that I was so close, “I get you and you get me. It’s worth working out, worth holding on to.” I skipped the speech and went for the nuclear option: “I love you!”
“I’m missing a leg,” Harvey responded.
My eyes blinked twice, signifying a momentary mental paralysis.
“Huh?” I let out.
“It’s gone,” he said definitively, “from a car accident—below the knee. You didn’t even notice.”
“OK,” I responded, followed by the breathy sound of me failing to process. Process that I didn’t see a limb missing on a body I’d worshipped nightly. Process the words themselves.
I didn’t believe it. Did I? There was no answer that sprang up, none that even made a little bit of sense for how this thing, this revelation, could be true. But here I was, suddenly grappling with if the guy I’ve been seeing, been sleeping with for the past two months, had all his parts, and if I was insane, legitimately going insane for not noticing. Was that even the right word? “Noticing?”
“Uh, that’s all right,” I somehow said, high-pitched like the worst lie, my eyes stuck wide. “That’s all right.”
He ultimately sighed. “I’ll drive over,” he said finally, and hung up.
I lowered my phone, looked at the stuffed monster on my desk, the one with cotton guts coming out of his stomach. At my prescription bottles, my little, girlish hands, the hollow of my chest.
As dawn broke, my phone lit up. He was outside. I poked through the blinds of my front window to see his Jeep, already parked, and then him coming toward the house. It looked wrong. Who was this person? I felt I should run outside, knock on the neighbors’ doors, or at least come out with a kitchen utensil, screaming. Instead, I steadied myself enough to take one step at a time, go downstairs, and open the door.
“Hi,” I said, “You’re here.”
“I’m here,” he said, and came through.
He picked me up at my house a few times before, but never came in. I brought him into my room, sneakily, as my mom was still asleep on the same floor. Then tried to take it all in: the first time a boy was in my room.
He looked at the comic books, the toys, my sister’s leftover purple furniture from when the room was hers.
“It’s like… you,” he said, instantly delighted.
“Yeah, just like me,” I said sharply, taking it as an insult. Just rip the Band-Aid off already, dammit, I thought. Show me my delusion, my rom-com-turned-horror-movie.
“Well,” he said. “I guess I better just.”
So he sat down on my bed, took off his shoes, unzipped, pulled down his jeans, and there it really was: his black, unmissable prosthetic. The thing that pulled everything apart, and, in a way, put things together. His muscular upper body now made sense: a compensation. His body scars from the car accident that did this to him. Wow, I’d really believed him when he told me it was a shark bite.
Then he popped it off. Instantaneously, I was faced with his stump, this little piece of mystery I was too myopic, too insane to see, week after week.
“But how?” I asked, quivering. “Did you always keep your pants on when we had sex?”
“You always kept your shirt on. Plus, you never seemed to care; you were always so hungry for it,” he said.
“I also lied by omission,” he granted.
“And I fell for it,” I said, amazed at my stupidity. “I mean, were you even in the CIA?”
He chortled. “Where do you think I learned to be so covert?”
I was doubtful. But that was an issue for another time. Now I had to ask him: was anything real, or was I the most self-involved, desperate idiot in the world?
“You wanted a boyfriend, and regular sex. More than you wanted me,” he put it simply. “And maybe I did, too. That’s why I asked you to be together without ‘the talk’. But to be fair, I usually don’t have to bring it up myself.”
“Something is seriously messed up in my brain,” was all I could say.
He didn’t respond. He just looked around again. “I really do like this room,” he whispered softly. He placed his hand on my head. He started, awkwardly, to pet it.
I looked at his leg while he did this, trying to piece things together. It didn’t fit at all with my image of him. “Damaged goods” did intrude into my mind. Words that were foreign, difficult in my fantasy. At the same time, words like “vulnerable,” “fighter,” “survivor,” came in, but I wanted to be careful not to make the same mistake, not to craft my own narrative.
“I guess I don’t know you,” I conceded.
“No, I guess not,” he said, but then he stopped looking around my room, and looked at me. He stayed there. Perfectly still, so I could read him.
But maybe you don’t know yourself either, he seemed to say.
Cautiously, magnetically, we were suddenly leaning into each other to kiss. I decided to touch his knee, my cheesy way of letting him know it was all right. He didn’t move it away, his way of letting me know that even though it was pretty cheesy, it was meaningful in the moment. After a few breathless seconds, we separated. I raised my eyebrow.
“I think vee found the secret to your allure, Harvey,” I said.
Soon we were under my southwestern themed comforter, resting our heads on my Aladdin pillow. The same place where I had lain being sure I’d never find anyone, the place where we’d both eventually learn to be with each other naked and comfortable with ourselves, the place where on our one-year anniversary, he’d give me his CIA coin.
It was inscribed Veritatem Cognoscere: To Know the Truth.