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The Theory of Visitors

I went on dates.

I went on a Tinder date with a schoolteacher who read me poetry aloud on his faded leather couch, but he seemed a little too earnest for me, so I went on a Hinge date with a musician who sang songs to me from the piano, but I was afraid to get involved with another creative type, and then I went on a Raya date with a movie producer who took me to a dinner so fancy it felt like a brag, and I imagined what it would be like to be a stepfather to his daughters, flaxen-haired sprites with names like Annabelle or Clarissa, but then I decided I was too young for all that, and I went on a date with a college student I met on Bumble who told me he couldn’t afford to eat out, so we sat on a curb on Sunset eating soft corn tacos from a truck on the corner, and for a moment I felt older than I really was, older than I had ever been before, though in fact I wasn’t even 30 yet. I went on dates with older guys and learned to get their references, the same allusions to movies and television shows released before I was born that seemed to be touchstones for gay men of a certain age — of course I love Beaches! — but I also went on dates with guys my own age or even younger, and I was comfortable with their language, too, Snapchatting selfies from my bed captioned “tired af” dotted with sleepy-eyed emojis. When I went on dates with successful guys, I knew what to say, commiserating over how crowded Soho House had become (it’s overrun!), but later I would complain to friends about their uninterrogated privilege and the high likelihood that they had secret cocaine habits, because rich guys so often do. When I went on dates with guys who were broke, I related to them, too, that needling anxiety of feeling like you never have enough in a city where everyone seems to have so much, but I would rule them out — telling friends that I needed someone more “worldly” and “accomplished,” this politely coded classism that still allowed me to feel good about myself.

I went on dates in cities all over the country, wherever I was, even if I was only there for a night or two, finding some guy on an app who might keep me company over dinner or drinks. I went on dates when I was happy, and I went on dates when I was sad. I went on dates to feel complete when I felt empty, and when I felt complete on my own I went on dates then, too, because surely, I thought, I should want to be in a partnership composed of two whole people. These motivations were equally powerful — both the allure of fullness when I was starving and the allure of a complement to something that was already just fine on its own, the way a nice wine might pair with a good meal. I went on dates even when I didn’t want to, when I would have preferred to stay home and watch Netflix or go out with my friends, because if I did not go on dates I might never find love, and I knew that love was the highest calling.

Never mind that I wasn’t even sure whether I was capable of falling in love again, at least with anyone who would love me back. My partner, a man I thought I would marry, left me unexpectedly, and I ended up fleeing New York for Los Angeles, though I still went back to New York sometimes for work and there I went on dates too. I didn’t want to be alone in my new life, free as I was from the shackles of a long-term relationship. I heard people say sometimes that they weren’t dating so they could focus on themselves, and I always found this curious, maybe because my identity as a single man was so slippery. I saw myself with the sharpest focus through the prism of a date, certainly more than I ever did when I was alone, puttering around my apartment or walking to work. On a date, my roughest qualities shifted into relief as I put my best face forward, highlighting only my most appealing features. There, I could be relaxed, dynamic, charismatic, prone to digressions of affectionate self-deprecation that I thought were charming — I hoped they were, at least. Alone, I was anxious. My internal monologue circled a nucleus of self-loathing, recursive and redundant, like a planet orbiting a sun. I never liked myself more than when I was with a guy who liked me.

But after the date ended, whether with a friendly hug or a lingering kiss or even sex, whatever it was, the moment I was alone again, loneliness would roll in like New England fog. I felt profoundly sad. I had gotten sober years earlier, when I was still a teenager, so I couldn’t medicate the feelings away with wine or pills. Sometimes I would pick up junk food and overeat, looking for satiety that the night had failed to give me, but that bad habit outgrew its usefulness too. Mostly I called old friends to tell them how well things were going or sat alone on my roof, looking out at the city and trying to will the feelings away, swiping endlessly on dating apps and making conversation with strangers.

One night, not long after I moved to Los Angeles, after having dinner with a handsome but dull young man I’d met on Tinder, I drove up into the hills to my friend Debby’s house. It was the sort of balmy summer night that California did so well, with the smog settling heavy over the Santa Monica Mountains. Once there, I collapsed into a chair on her porch.

“I’m so sick of going on dates,” I said.

“Then why do you keep doing it?” Debby asked.

“Because if I do it enough, then eventually I won’t have to do it anymore,” I said. “But I can’t seem to get anyone to stick around.” I hesitated. “Or maybe I’m the one who never sticks around. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”

She leaned in. “Do you believe in the theory of visitors?” She said this conspiratorially, as if she was sharing with me a secret.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“All relationships are transient,” she said. “Friends who stab you in the back. People you network with at a fancy party. Relatives who die. The love of your life. Everything is temporary. People come into your life for a limited amount of time, and then they go away. So you welcome their arrival, and you surrender to their departure. Because they are all visitors. And when the visitors go home, they might take something from you. Something that you can’t ever get back. And that part sucks. But visitors always leave souvenirs. And you get to keep those forever.”

I thought about this constantly. The visitors. The phrase popped into my head a hundred times a day. It was a little bit sad but a little bit hopeful, like all my favorite things, and it seemed to flick at the funny way people could pass through my life and then be gone forever, ephemeral as ghosts. It wasn’t revolutionary, but there was something unusually elegant about how Debby had distilled this, her theory of visitors, and even sort of spooky. It haunted me into the next night’s date. Tucked away in a corner booth at a wine bar with a guy who had followed me on Twitter (and I had thirst-followed back after looking him up on Facebook, stalking his tagged photos and determining that we had enough mutual friends that he was worth going out with), I might have looked like I was seeing him as him, but I wasn’t. I was seeing him through this new lens, the lens of the theory of visitors.

How long will you be staying with me? I wanted to ask. When will you be ready to move on? What will you leave behind for me to remember you? And what will you take with you when you go?

I was an early adopter to meeting people on the internet. It started when I was in high school in the early aughts, long before everyone else was doing it, on message boards and in chat rooms. To me, this was a shameful secret — what was wrong with me that I couldn’t meet guys out in the world, like a normal person? Certainly, I still met men in bars and clubs sometimes, as a teenager living in New York City with a passable fake ID, but I was unmistakably jailbait and any man who picked me up had to know it. On the internet, meanwhile, I could be someone else entirely — maybe I was Parker, age 20, taking a semester off from Amherst, where I was studying art history, or Steven, a cater-waiter with dreams of becoming a Broadway star. I slipped in and out of identities as nimbly as I changed clothes. By the time I got to the guy’s apartment, it would be too late for him to back out at the sight of my conspicuously round, boyish face.

But as I grew older, the world changed around me and meeting people online became more commonplace. Suddenly the internet was no longer the domain of creeps and predators; in fact, everyone had the internet in their pocket on their phone, and they used it constantly. By the time I was in my early twenties, the old sites I used to frequent had fallen away and been replaced by apps that all my friends were using too, and this astonished me — the normalizing of these digital connections, as intimacy that was forged virtually then reified through flesh-and-blood interaction became just another thing that people did. I was grateful for this shift, the collapse of real and artificial spaces into one another.

There was still something about first corresponding with guys online that I would always prefer to a real-life meeting, with all its vulnerability and exposure. “Isn’t that dangerous?” people used to say when I would cop to meeting someone online. This seemed like a silly concern. The risk that I’d get catfished by a sociopath who’d chop me up into little pieces and dump me in the Hudson paled in comparison to the realer, more urgent risk of a guy in a bar who might reject me: The former was the stuff of paranoid late-night news specials, but the latter could actually happen, and did, to me.

More than that, I loved using the apps because they allowed me to become disembodied — to exist only as the version of myself photographed in flattering angles at the magic hour, when the light cast everything in a tangerine glaze, that version of myself whose responses were always pithy and who could disappear at any moment. Poof! I was not my flawed, three-dimensional self. I was nothing more than bits transmitted via satellite. By the time I made it to an actual meeting in real life, the version of myself that I had been presenting was so refined that I felt I could actually become him, this me that I had created in words and pictures.

So I dated guys I met online, and sometimes I slept with the guys I dated. But I also slept with people I wasn’t dating, which was a separate practice entirely. There were different apps expressly for this purpose — not the ones where you might match with someone and strike up a conversation, but apps that were just a single photo, usually of a torso though sometimes with a head attached, and a line or two of text, and you could see how far away they were from you in miles or even feet — a modern iteration of cruising that served to streamline the experience of looking for sex. On those apps I began to notice something funny when I would log on and scroll idly through endless grids of images, waiting for something to catch my eye. Often, the text of their profiles would just say Visiting. Maybe a little more, sometimes: Visiting from NY. Visiting from SF. But usually just that one word. Visiting. It telegraphed as its own kind of shorthand; impermanence was implicit. It communicated parameters.

This struck me as redundant given that the nature of meeting people that way had its own containment. I would never think to meet a boyfriend on Grindr; that was just for sex. Yet from time to time, when I was flicking through one of those apps and stumbled upon a square jaw or a piercing pair of eyes, I had the nagging thought: What if we fell for one another? What if I married that man? Is that a face I could love? Some part of me longed for the option of limitlessness even as I pursued the narrowest forms of connection. I often thought back to a night when I was in high school, being chatted up by an older queen in a nightclub in Chelsea. He was trying to take me home.

“But I don’t even know you yet,” I said, disingenuously; I slept with strangers all the time — I just wasn’t attracted to this one.

“So what? That’s what separates us from them,” he said.

“From who?”

“From straight people,” he said, as if to say, Duh. “Straight people go on dates to figure out whether they want to bother having sex. Gay people have sex to figure out whether we want to bother going on dates.”

Maybe this had been true before, but was it still true? I’d read some slightly hysterical, hand-wringing articles about the Tinder revolution that suggested it had transformed the landscape of dating for straight people so dramatically that it had become just a way to meet people for meaningless sex, in the same way that gay men used Grindr. And it was true that I had female friends who now hooked up the way I’d always believed, rightly or wrongly, was natural for gay men to do — disentangled, noncommittal, as casual as a handshake.

But this approach didn’t actually work for me, and it never had. When I had sex first, before developing any real connection, I was left wanting, craving a depth that simple bodily pleasure hadn’t forged. But I also didn’t necessarily feel like I had to go on a proper date to establish sexual interest in someone. Sometimes it felt as though there was a Venn diagram, where one circle was friendship, sexless and platonic; another was sex, which was about satisfying a biological impulse but had nothing to do with earned affection; and then where they intersected was dating, this thing where I would enjoy the experience of being with a man both when we were and were not physically intimate. But then there were endless permutations of those three combinations: friends who I secretly wanted to have sex with but never felt brave enough to articulate it, and friends who I liked perfectly well and might have had sex with once or twice but didn’t actually want to date, and guys I had gone on dates with but ended up just wanting to be friends with, and guys I slept with once and then never wanted to see again but would occasionally run into at parties and get ensnared in unbearable small talk, and guys who I went on dates with but never had sex with and then they ghosted me before we ever had the chance. All of these forms of intimacy and alienation came with their own specific permissions and limitations, ways of being or not being that were acceptable or transgressive. In some ways, each visit was so different and yet they all ended in exactly the same place — they all ended.

My ability to live my life like this was possible only because of my own privilege, and I knew this, knew that I was fortunate that some of these guys found me attractive enough to date, even if I never saw myself that way; knew that I was fortunate to do interesting work that gave me something to talk about, even if I talked about work too much; knew that I was fortunate to be able to live my life free of violence or persecution, even if I took it for granted. I should have been grateful. But I wasn’t. I was greedy.

And it seemed like so many of the good-looking guys in West Hollywood, where I lived, were just visiting. This label accomplished a powerful kind of work, amplifying the urgency while eliminating the stakes. Hurry up — this offer is for a limited time only. But don’t get attached. I’ll be leaving soon.

For months, I saw one attractive guy online, night after night, always with that same text: Visiting. We chatted in the way that you do on the apps. “Looking?” “Yeah, you?” “Yeah. But tired.” “Same.” Talking about nothing and going nowhere.

Finally, one night, I invited him over. He was blandly hot in the way that so many of the gay men in my neighborhood were: a body jacked by hours in the gym, the tips of his shoulders burnished by the sun with a tank-top tan line, but his face was somehow indistinct — as if at any point he could be replaced by a guy with the same approximate look and build and you’d never notice the difference. I was not one of these guys. I didn’t have the chiseled torso or the fresh-faced Midwestern good looks that seemed to be a West Hollywood prerequisite. I sat fairly low on the hierarchy of gays with bodies; I was surprised that he had even agreed to come over. He stood naked at the side of my bed. I put my hands on the corners of his hip bones, felt his breath as it moved in and out of his abdomen.

After we hooked up, I held him for a moment, considering the strangeness of this act — sex that was not intimate enough to be meaningful, nor was it altogether so empty to be dismissed as meaningless. Instead, it existed in this liminal space between knowing and not-knowing, to experience the most private places of another person yet to have no data about their life beyond that particular instant. I wanted to know his name, which I had already forgotten; where he grew up; whether he was close with his family; whether he had big dreams that he had come to Los Angeles to chase. Yet there was a fear, too, that if I found those things out and they shifted my perception of him into fully formed personhood, that the magic of the moment would dissolve around us as he moved from a slate onto which I could project my fantasies into a human being with flaws and shortcomings — a human being like me — and I did not want that.

“Can I ask you something?” I said.

“Sure,” he said.

“Why does your profile say Visiting?” I said. “Don’t you live here?”

He looked at me dumbly, as if he had never thought about it before. “I dunno, man,” he said. “I travel a lot for work.”

“But you don’t change it when you’re here,” I said.

“Well, I’m not looking for anything serious,” he said.

“I think on some level,” I said, “we’re all just visiting.”

He cocked his head. “You’re funny,” he said, but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. I had done to him precisely what I had been afraid he might do to me — I had shown too much of myself, transformed perceptibly from object into subject.

A few nights later, lying in bed waiting for sleep, I messaged him.

“Hey,” I said. He never responded.

I went on dates, but I found that my desires changed too quickly for those dates to ever bear fruit. At times what I wanted was to be wildly and recklessly in love, the way I had been at times before, when I could see stretching before me the future we might build together. At other times I wanted only companionship, a friend who would come with me to parties, just a person I could turn to and murmur something arch under my breath and he would laugh softly but expect nothing of me, not even sex. And then there were times when sex was the only thing I wanted, not as the byproduct of physical arousal but borne of some need for physical closeness that didn’t need to be tethered to anything emotional. I had fantasies of marriage and then dissolved them in an instant, certain that I could never be satisfied by a life with just one person, when there were so many first dates I had yet to go on. And just as quickly as I decided that I wanted one thing, some force within me would pivot and the thing I had yearned for only moments earlier would disgust me, whether it was my foolishness for thinking I could ever find someone to spend the rest of my life with or my gluttony for not wanting to settle down.

One night, I went on a date with another writer. We talked about how tough dating in Los Angeles could be, in that congenial way I often did on first dates — both of us, I imagined, suppressing that gasp of hope, that this would be the last time we would ever have to have this conversation.

“I think I want the same thing everyone wants — to find my person, that one person,” he said. “I want a relationship like my parents have. They’ve been married 40 years, and they’re still so happy.”

For some reason I couldn’t name, this irritated me. “I’m not sure if that’s what everyone wants,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we’re different,” I said. “Gay people are different. Gay men are different. We date differently. We mate differently. We don’t have to subscribe to their ideal of monogamous partnership. That the only way to be happy and fulfilled is to lock down the one guy, and then that’s it — the hunt is over.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it doesn’t matter who you are — gay, straight — we all want the same thing. To love, to be loved. Isn’t that what you want?”

“Of course I want to be loved,” I said defensively. “But maybe there are lots of different shapes that love can take. Maybe everything is temporary, and it’s the trap of fetishizing permanence that makes us unhappy. Maybe we aren’t meant to have just one partner.”

“But that’s so cynical,” he said. “Why did we bother fighting for marriage equality if we’re just going to fuck a bunch of different people and never pick one?”

“I’m not saying you can’t settle down,” I said. “I want the option, obviously. But I also think automatically assuming that the way straight people are supposed to do it — get married, have kids — is so assimilationist. We’re men. You’re talking about two male libidos. That’s a lot of virility to contend with.”

He made a groaning noise and set his wine down. “I hate that,” he said. “It’s such a cop-out.”

“It’s not!” I said.

“It is,” he said. “Technology has convinced us that there’s always someone better about to come around — lurking in your followers, or lost somewhere in your mentions, or just after the next right swipe. We’re a generation perpetually looking for the next best thing. That’s not a gay thing. That’s just a thing.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” I said.

“Not to be a dick about it, but you’re probably not the best person to judge,” he said. “Every time the door opens, you look to see who’s walking through it.” He pointed at himself. “I’m right here.”

My face flushed. “It’s a bad habit,” I said. “I’m sorry. Maybe I’ve been in L.A. too long.” (I had been there for less than a year.) I fixed my gaze on him. “You have my undivided attention,” I said. I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket. I ignored it.

“Your turn,” he said. “What are you looking for?”

I thought about it for a moment. “I want to want someone so clearly and unambiguously that I stop thinking about what I want, and I just let it happen,” I said. “I want to be certain.”

“Have you ever had that before?” he asked.

“Once,” I said.

Later that night, I dropped him off at his apartment. “I shouldn’t have said all that at dinner,” I said.

“It’s okay,” he said.

“I probably shouldn’t be dating,” I said. “I don’t know what I want.”

“I hope you find it,” he said.

“Find what?”

“Certainty,” he said. As he opened the car door, I realized, suddenly, that I didn’t want him to leave. I didn’t want to be alone again. But I didn’t say so. Instead I just waved goodbye.

I went on so many dates that sometimes, in the middle of a dinner date, I would realize that I had forgotten his name, and I would have to run to the bathroom to check the app where I’d met him to find out what it was. Then I’d return to the table determined to say his name as many times as possible so I wouldn’t lose it again, hearing the shape it made in my mouth like muscle memory. Caleb. Caleb! Caleb? Caleb. “What did you do last night?” a friend would ask me. I’d rack my brain, trying to pull forth the memory of the evening, and it would take me a minute to remember that I had been on another first date with another guy I’d already forgotten. There were nights when I met a guy for a drink at happy hour — even though I didn’t drink, I could still politely nurse a soda water — then met a different guy for dinner, then met a third guy for a nightcap, and then, trudging home, feeling the space created by all those misaligned connections, I’d invite a guy over off Grindr to lie with me in my bed, getting lost in one another for a few minutes. But I always woke up alone, feeling emptier with each passing encounter. It was as if I wasn’t even trying to find love anymore — like I was just trying to eliminate more guys from the dating pool, whittle down all the eligible men in the world in the hopes that I would feel something, anything at all, for the last man standing.

At the supermarket, I saw a guy I had gone on several dates with a few months earlier. He was better-looking than I had remembered, studying avocados in the produce section, flanked by a trio of handsome gays; I was unshowered and in sweats, filling my shopping basket with packaged food, dinners for one. I hid behind a display of summer rosés. Then I heard him: “Sam?” I stepped out into full view, feigning surprise.

“How have you been?” I said brightly, hugging him.

“Great,” he said. “Having an amazing summer.”

“It’s so nice to see you,” I said. “We should hang out.”

His face darkened. “No pressure,” I said.

“You never texted me back,” he said.

“Oh,” I said stupidly. He looked at me, annoyed.

“You said you were going to text me when you got back from New York, and then you never did, and I followed up and you never responded. So….” He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal.”

His straightforwardness rattled me. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s whatever.” He side-eyed my shopping basket. “Good luck with everything.” Good luck with everything. There could be no more withering sign-off.

In the checkout aisle, it crystallized in my mind: I was that guy, the guy who ghosted, the guy who drifted away, the guy who wasn’t just unavailable but was unpredictably unavailable, showing up for a dinner date warm and affectionate and then disappearing without explanation. The exact type of guy who had tormented me all through my twenties — I had become him.

I got in my car, rattled. Exiting the parking garage, I noticed there were two lanes separated by a median. One of the signs overhead read Tenants. The other said Visitors.

The more I went on dates, the worse I felt. The news in those months was unimaginably dark, darker than it had ever been before. Each morning it felt like I looked out my window to see that the sky was on fire, flames licking at the world I’d known, burning it all down, and then, having acknowledged this, I turned back to my life and went about my day as if everything was normal. It seemed so shallow and stupid and self-seeking that I should expend so much energy trying to find a boyfriend, especially in a time like this, especially when I didn’t even know what I wanted, and I resented myself for it — for all of it. But still I went on dates, and this, the practice of dating, became an anesthetic, so I would not have to feel anything at all.

Because it is benumbing to date this way, the way that I did, to only have relationships that are brief and transactional. True intimacy, the kind of intimacy that you share with a partner and that you share with yourself, leaves you, and people grow somehow insubstantial in your experience of them. The more dates I went on, the further away I felt from the person I had once been — the person who actually kept the souvenirs left behind by the men who passed through my life, the person who held them close to my heart.

Like the summer when I was 15, when I fell in love with a straight boy who strung me along for a few months. There is no love more reckless and tragic than the love you feel for someone who you know will never love you back. One night, after drinking in the woods, he crashed with me; in the morning, he left a plain white cotton T-shirt on the floor of my bedroom. I inhaled the smell of it, the musk and pine. I wanted to keep it that way forever. I folded it carefully into quarters and sealed it in a Ziploc bag.

I am no longer in love with that young man; I saw him not long ago at a reunion and felt nothing for him, barely a whiff of nostalgia. Yet still the T-shirt is with me, in its plastic bag, in a wooden box in my closet where I store a few keepsakes, its odor long since faded. There are other things in that box, too: Polaroid photos from my long-term relationship, and letters from a young actor I dated who hand-wrote the lyrics to songs we both loved and sent them to me in the mail, and a woven bracelet a college fling left in my bed. I found it under the pillow, where it must have slipped off his wrist, like evidence he’d been there.

It’s all so sentimental — objectionably so — the storing of mementos like this. Norman Mailer writes that “sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment,” and I have wondered whether I keep these souvenirs to make what I shared with those men feel more real, to add some gravitas to what may not have actually meant that much in the moment that it happened.

But those moments did feel real, in a way that all of those virtual connections I was making did not. In the uncanny valley of online dating, nothing feels quite real. The discomfiting rough edges of real people, with all their faults and idiosyncrasies, get sanded down to palatable smoothness. I am not the man who still keeps a boyhood crush’s old T-shirt in a box in his closet. I am Have any siblings? I am How’s your weekend? I am Should we grab dinner?

I went on dates until I could not go on dates anymore. I knew this had escalated to the point that all my addictions somehow did — it wasn’t just compulsive; it was boring. This was the thing I resented most about myself — I never realized I’d swum out too far until I was already drowning.

It was as simple as deleting all those apps from my phone. One by one, I held my finger to the icon on the screen of my phone until it began to vibrate and a little X appeared in the right-hand corner, and then it was gone — like it had never existed in the first place. I stared down at my phone. All that potential for love — I’d made it all just disappear.

A curious stillness settled over my apartment. I turned on the television. I checked my phone every few seconds, expecting the little communications that I was used to receiving so frequently, but there weren’t any. I went to the gym. I tidied up my bedroom. I ordered takeout. It was as if a background noise to which I’d grown acclimated, a low omnipresent buzzing, had suddenly gone away. I felt unmoored in the ocean of my life.

Later, I began to feel feverish. Was I going through withdrawal? I’d experienced that before when I was getting clean from drugs, but this was different — surely I hadn’t become physically dependent on the validation that came from all those guys on all those apps. It was impossible.

But as the night progressed, I got sicker. I was confused. My body ached as though I was covered in hot, purple bruises. I lurched off the couch and down the hall into my bedroom, where I collapsed into bed. Through the night, I shook and sweated. My teeth chattered. I woke up to the sound of my voice ranting in a wild delirium, then passed out again. I hadn’t felt like this in nearly a decade — since my first weeks detoxing from drugs, when I slept only in fevered fits.

In the middle of the night, I woke up disoriented. I was certain that I was back in my apartment in New York, the one I had shared with my partner. I patted the bed next to me. Why was it empty? Where was he?

I called out his name into the night. I stumbled back into the living room. This wasn’t even my apartment. It was so hot. I stripped off my clothes. I was freezing cold. I called his name again. Where had he gone? I began to weep softly. Why wasn’t there anyone to take care of me? I ran a bath and sat in the tub with my arms wrapped around my knees, my teeth clicking, sweat rolling down my face. I rocked back and forth until I nodded off. I went back to bed. I woke up again in the tub.

In the morning, the sunlight shot through my open windows, sharp and lemon-yellow. I woke with a start, shielding my eyes from it. I was a little bit dazed, but I felt fine. I was no longer sick. It must have been some strange 24-hour bug, I thought. Some terrible flu, a virus that had moved through me as quickly as it had arrived. It was just a coincidence.

But there was a part of me that wondered if it wasn’t. There was a part of me that wondered if this was my body reacting to something that was sick within me. Like it was a skin I was shedding, wriggling out of the scabby, calloused armor I had built up over the course of so many dates that had only served to take me further away from real intimacy. Like the panic I’d felt at facing myself, alone, without the distractions of any male interest, had been rendered as a bodily experience.

It was as if in dating the way I did, I had made my heart a place where the ground was trampled clean, where visitors came and went indiscriminately. Like a clearing where nothing could grow anymore.

What would I find there, I wondered, if I took a moment to stop inviting people into it? What would it feel like to let that space grow wild, to let it be like a forest no man had ever touched?

A few days later, at a café, I saw a young man who looked familiar. I glanced at his face and quickly placed him: He was the Visiting guy I’d been with that night, the one of whom I’d asked too many questions. He was picking up a latte at the bar, a backpack slung loosely over one shoulder. I couldn’t remember his name, but I tapped him on the shoulder anyway.

“Hey,” I said.

He turned. He had blemishes I hadn’t noticed before, a bump on the bridge of his nose. His hair was still sleep-rumpled and the collar of his shirt was yellowed. “Oh!” he said, smiling a little sheepishly. “Hey.” We chatted for a moment, him saying something off-the-cuff about how we should get a drink sometime. I knew we wouldn’t, but it was generous of him to say.

I stepped outside. It was spring, the season I’d heard a friend once call “the purpling,” where the jacaranda trees in West Hollywood bloomed and lit up the streets, dusting their flowers over everything like a fall of fuchsia snow. A couple, both of them barrel-chested in tank tops and cuffed shorts, walked past me, one murmuring something to the other, squeezing his arm, tossing his head back in laughter. Yes, that, I thought. That’s what it looks like. I walked south toward Melrose, through the sunlight and the purple fields, and for a moment it was almost more than I could bear — the smallness of the world, the bigness of the people in it, and the way it felt to be alone among them.