By Kevin Wood
Last summer, I connected on a hook-up site with a guy I’ll call Daniel. On the evening we agreed to meet, I was late. I arrived to find him sitting at the end of the bar. He was in his late-thirties, a few years younger than me, cuter than his photos—a rarity. I remember thinking he looked profoundly lonely. The kind that shows up in slumped shoulders, staring into an empty glass, circling with a straw, as if to stir up a connection with the world. I walked over and we greeted awkwardly, then I sat down and ordered a drink.
Before meeting Daniel I’d decided to give dating a break. I was two years out of my last relationship. I’d thought I wanted to find another. But a few dating stints had followed, and several firsts, none going anywhere. I reasoned that, for now, just sex was less frustrating or complicated.
It was clear Daniel and I were into each other. We made small talk a while, then left. The bar was closer to my place than his, the understanding from the start that’s where we’d go. He lived with a cousin who doesn’t know he’s gay. When we got there, we each drank half a beer before we locked lips and clothes started coming off. Afterward, we talked a few minutes. Then he jumped up, seized by a furious need to leave.
Just like that, he was out the door.
Daniel came over again the next day. We went at it again, and he left just as suddenly. He was going to the Dominican Republic later that week, where he’s from, staying with his large family for a month. We agreed to meet when he got back. I wasn’t sure that would happen and wasn’t particularly concerned.
A week after he left, I got a text from an unknown number. It was Daniel, using a phone with better reception wherever he was. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he wrote. This surprised me. That he’d made the effort, the forthrightness that contrasted with quick, silent exits, that he felt that way at all. I’d thought about him too, though not as often as he claimed. The next time we messaged, he said sometime he’d like to take me to a place as beautiful as where he was. This also seemed strangely intimate.
Right after he got back, Daniel and I were in bed again. Afterward we lay in the dark. I had my hand on his leg. His body was as stiff as it had been relaxed minutes before. He seemed consumed with shame. We talked a while, stilted, incongruous to his expressiveness in tiny words. Then he abruptly wanted to leave, just as before.
“That’s cool,” I said, casual, instead of betraying the disappointment I felt. After he left I began to realize I recognized his behavior. That was me before coming out.
The sweet and flirty texts continued. Despite thinking I didn’t want it, I found myself starting to develop feelings for this person. The next time Daniel came over, I asked him to stay the night. “I wish I could,” he said. “But I can’t.”
“It’s complicated,” he added. I didn’t push it. We stuck with quick visits, and quicker exits.
Daniel was surrounded by family who lived local all the time, just as he said he’d been in the D.R. He mentioned his mom frequently. Aunts, uncles, other cousins. More than once he cancelled our plans last minute because he ended up with family and didn’t know how to duck out. He always apologized. Still, the back and forth grew wearisome.
We sometimes bickered as if we were an actual couple—over text, of course. Passive aggressive, snarky even. We always found a way back, neither able to maintain a petty argument on our respective ends. The intimate affection would return. It was becoming the most relationship-like non-relationship I’d ever experienced.
A couple of times, Daniel disappeared for a week. He didn’t initiate contact or respond. This upset me more than expected when it happened the first time. I wasn’t yet willing to admit how much I’d started to like him. I excused the inconsistent behavior as “complications.” Knowing that for him our relationship—if you could call it that—was illicit only contributed to my denial that he meant something to me.
It turned out, that first time, Daniel had been in the hospital for a back injury he didn’t explain. This wouldn’t be the last. He seemed to exist in constant chaos. Doctors and hospital stays—his or family; he might have to move suddenly; a car accident; a new job quit after three weeks; a torn knee ligament; a real estate scam in the D.R. And on it went.
I recognized this too, chaos that had engulfed my own life while hiding in a shrinking closet, down to repeated car accidents. Constant distraction, preoccupied with something, manifesting in how I operated in the world. But as the boomeranging continued, Daniel’s inner turmoil became my anguish. I thought about him constantly and never knew what to expect.
For two months, Daniel didn’t come over. We stopped contacting each other, though neither explicitly said it. For my part, I decided the whole thing was too big a struggle. I deleted his number, which of course only suggests finality, as if reversing it isn’t simple. But thoughts of him hung around, like mosquitos you just can’t seem to swat away.
Then, he surfaced again. Annoyance was almost overcome by the excitement I felt. The un-named number got its name back. “Why are you contacting me?” I said, then immediately worried this was too dismissive. “I wanna see you,” he responded. It took a while, but this time I said no. I fancied this cutting off an act of self-preservation. He honored the break, apart from a couple more texts and me finally saying no more communication.
Less than a month later, I gave in and contacted Daniel. A moment of weakness, I told myself. Friday night, jet-lagged, home alone. He replied right away. “I just can’t get you out of my mind.” Of course, I invited him over. A lot had changed since we last got together. I had moved, started a new job, he had another new job. When we saw each other, it was if no time had passed. I think we were both surprised by how strong the chemistry still felt. After the hottest sex yet, Daniel threw his leg over mine and scooted next to me—a casual affection he’d never exhibited before.
For the first time, he stayed and we talked. For hours. Next to each other, naked, my hand on his back, his on my arm. It was mostly about family. Each of us with a very Catholic mother. His father’s lost battle with alcoholism. It was then Daniel told me he was married, to a woman, with two young kids, in the process of getting divorced. I was stunned but pretended not to be, worried if I made a big deal out of him being in my bed he might never be again.
He hadn’t told his wife he’s gay—nor anyone in his family—and insisted no one knew. As we talked, his phone across the room repeatedly rang and dinged with texts. He tried to ignore it, which became difficult. “My cousin thinks I’m at the gym,” he said, tone completely flat. His eyes darted back and forth from me to the phone, unsure which way to go, body positioned between two worlds, equally powerful in that moment, each in its own way.
The inevitable side won. Conversation dropped off, as it always had. Agitated, he went and looked at the blue screen glowing in the dim light. “I have to go,” he said. Once again I affected a lax, sure that’s cool response. After he left, my mind rolled back over our interactions, now, with this new information. Some things made more sense, others led to bigger questions.
We had plans for Daniel to come over the following Saturday. He cancelled last minute—in the hospital, another car accident. He was clearly shaken. I had my coat on, ready to go, worried he was there alone. Then he said an aunt was with him. In other words, don’t come. We checked in after that. His pain lessened. We agreed he’d come over soon.
I never saw him again.
A few days after the accident, I got a long message from Daniel. He said it had caused him to re-evaluate who he is and what he wants. He made a vague reference to feeling lost, and a relationship to God and faith. He needed to recover his life, he said. In short, he couldn’t see me anymore. He apologized twice, which felt unnecessary, once “for all the chaos he had created.” His use of the exact word I’d been using for months to describe his life felt telling.
I sat at my desk in silence and re-read his note, work spread in front of me, suddenly unable to concentrate. With this decision to will a piece of himself away, I wondered, what would happen now?
I went out and wandered the streets a while—a gray sky fittingly somber—feeling almost breathless with sadness. At first I thought it was all about the situation of Daniel’s life, the inner battle I’d recognized, how his body would claw its way to connection, then seize with shame and flee. And the chaos he himself had called out. That familiar, relentless, brutal chaos that can engulf a life with such conflict within. Representations of how we resist living as we’re meant to, at odds with how we believe we should.
But the sadness lingered for weeks after. “Why are you so sad about his life?” a couple of friends asked.
It took me a while to recognize I was using Daniel’s situation to obscure my own. Til the end I struggled to accept I’d developed real feelings for him, beyond the bedroom. I felt foolish. Romance from a distance is essentially fantasy. And I’d told myself from the start I wasn’t looking for a relationship, knew this would never be more. But maybe that’s what made those feelings possible. Opening my heart was somehow safer than when trying for a lasting relationship. After multiple burns, I have to admit I’ve struggled with that in recent years, which I suppose contributes to why new ones don’t last.
I’ll never know the true nature of Daniel’s feelings. But what I know to be true is sad. Meeting Daniel reawakened me to how insidious homophobia can be. I haven’t been naive to the fact it still exists. But I’d forgotten what it feels like so close to the skin.
On one of our last exchanges Daniel had just bought a new car, soon battered in an accident. He sent me a picture. I said I hoped for a ride one day. “Definitely,” he said. More banter, then I signed off with, “Don’t be a stranger.” I had said this before, though never to Daniel. The lightheartedness is always overshadowed by the suspicion you will forever remain that. Maybe I already knew.
His immediate response, a single word: Never.
I hope when it comes to discovering a relationship that feels right the subtext of that word doesn’t prove true.
This essay was originally published online in Litro Magazine.
Kevin Wood is a freelance writer, writing coach, and contributing editor for the online publication Good Men Project, where he focuses on social justice and queer issues. A former teacher, he also works with college students training to be educators. Kevin holds master’s degrees from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and the School of Education at NYU. Previous work has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, Litro Magazine, American Chordata, Thought Catalog, and Elephant Journal, among others. He was a finalist for Sequestrum Literary Journal’s 2019 Editor’s Reprint Award. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.
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