The Proximity of Ghosts
Originally published in Transfer 112, Fall 2016
I never meet “D,” but his profile on Scruff, the gay hookup app, tells me he’s a videographer and HIV positive. He’s six feet, one inches tall. His profile says, “spontaneity, charisma, and authenticity are key” and that he’s “420 friendly.” He often jogs by my bay windows, his pale legs and sizeable bulge dancing in his baggy basketball shorts. On some Saturday afternoons, he passes my bay window, carrying full grocery bags in his maroon-sweatered arms. His hair is blond; his nipples are big, and the V of his waist draws the eye down into his shorts. He shares his HIV status on Scruff but not Grindr. None of this information is any of my business, and yet, it is, in that the quest for sex and love manifests interactions with data from that 21st century phenomenon of self-branding known as the dating app profile. The gay men of my neighborhood, or, I should say, the mere symbols of these men, logos of the people they may or may not be, haunt my life, and every so often one of them becomes real.
“S” and I meet at a Mexican restaurant in Glen Park. He’s been messaging me on Growlr, but I’ve had no interest in him. His profile shares no information though his photo is of him staring seductively, a solid jaw and a black pea coat anchoring his earnestness. A friend negotiates our first meeting, posing as me on the app. At dinner, “S” asks me if I’ve ever been in a long-term relationship. I tell him yes, but it’s been years. He then tells me he wants kids and doesn’t believe me when I tell him I could be faithful. I then confess that my straight friend Sean was the person with whom he was chatting on Growlr , and not me, that I’m not in fact a Math professor at Stanford. “S” understands and still wants to eat cookies on the beach for dessert. We cuddle under the blue blanket that came with his Mercedes. He tells me evolution is Satan’s attempt at putting distance between humans and God. We don’t kiss.
One night with Sean and a few other friends in the Castro, I see “D” run up the stairs of a Victorian that’s been converted into a salon.
I message “H” because while I think he’s adorable, he seems unattractive enough to let me sleep with him. He’s 23 and half Burmese. The only other pieces of info he shares on his profile are that his favorite move is Alien and that he knows the Led Zepplin catalog. This is enough for me to want to marry him. A week later, he is no longer a list of random facts on an app. His iPhone is 0.0 miles from mine because so is he, our phones resting beside one another on my desk in the dark. We watch documentaries and order a pizza. When we fuck he holds my chin. As we soak my sheets, I feel myself wanting to tell the world about our hook-up.
I meet “F” at the corner of 9th and Irving in the Inner Sunset. He has hair growing out of his ears and is incapable of making a cohesive sentence. He eats wit his mouth open, is mean to our server, and tells me the food from the Indian restaurant next door gives him diarrhea. For dessert we walk down the street for some FroYo. We sit outside, and when he finishes in five minutes, I’m happy to throw my vanilla/chocolate swirl away in order to end the date. When he turns the corner to catch his bus, I tell the male/female couple next to me that I was just on a terrible date. “We could tell,” the man says. They appear to be in their late fifties. They sit with me until my Uber comes, reassuring me that I’ll find the right guy.
“H” is three hours late to our second date. My therapist says I should try to engage him in conversation instead of just watching TV and having sex, to know more about him than just his favorite movie and that he knows the Led Zepplin catalog. I don’t want him to be a just a hook-up guy. I want to get to know him. I want him to know me. I want to tell him about my writing, about my family. I want to tell him how I moved to San Francisco for grad school and have a hard time relating to other gay men, that I spend most of my time with straight men and women because it feels safer, how with them I’ll never be rejected. I want to tell him how I saw my grandmother die. I want to tell him what happened to me at the private school. I want to tell him about Tina Turner. When he arrives at my studio, he informs me he has a headache and doesn’t want to talk. We watch American Horror Story in dark silence and have another night of amazing sex. He tells me he wants to spend the night the following Wednesday. I take this as a good sign, and we kiss beside his Lexus SUV when we part ways.
One afternoon, I see “D” smoking weed in Golden Gate park. He’s reading Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
Three nights before my third date with “H” I notice that “Yeah, I’m Hung,” a guy I see all the time on Grindr, has created a profile on Scruff and has messaged me “hello.” I am about to jerk off anyway, so I ask if he wants to come over and play. He agrees. He rides his bike over and the first thing he says to me is, “I pass this place every day.” I perceive him to be out of my league, but the second my door closes, he kisses me. His username is not a lie. He regretfully informs me that he has already ejaculated three times that day and won’t be doing it again with me. However, he is gracious enough to get me off. After, he rides his bike back into the fog.
Despite my judgment over his opinion about evolution being a tool of Satan, I agree to another date with “S.” He picks me up in the Mercedes that came with a blue blanket and commences to talk on the phone for twenty minutes all the way to Marin. He doesn’t apologize when he hangs up. Instead, he insists on going to an expensive, waterfront seafood restaurant for dinner despite the fact that I’ve told him I’ve already eaten. He orders a full meal of halibut, sautéed carrots and zucchini, Caesar salad, and pinot noir. I eat nothing but a few bites of the fondant-choked cake he chooses for dessert. He demands I pay half. We go back to my place, and he cuddles up on me. He stops abruptly saying that he’s already gone too far physically with someone he’s not interested in pursuing serious relationship with. I plan to never see him again.
“T” wants to know if I’ve ever roll-played. On Growlr, I’m only slightly attracted to him, but I tell him I’ve always been interested in a teacher/student scenario. He’s in his fifties, happily partnered, and lives in the Castro. He tells me that I’m a boy in boarding school and that I’ve been missing class. He tells me that he is going to punish me on Monday afternoon. I think I’m okay with being spanked. On Monday, for an hour I check his distance from my iPhone. He’s supposed to arrive at 2:00. I clean my apartment. At 1:45 he’s 2.4 miles away. At 1:55, he’s still 2.4 miles away. I wonder if he’s coming. At 2:03, I check again: 0.0 miles away. My arched door opens and there he is. He’s older than I thought and far less attractive, but I already feel deep into this, so I go ahead with the games. There is no safe word, and when he bends me over my bed and beats me relentlessly with a hair brush, a ruler, a leather whip, and then a long wooden paddle, I realize my hope of light BDSM is shattered. Having only ever interacted with the symbols of such sexual contact, the reality thereof catches me off guard. I feel so guilty when I demand he stops that I offer to blow him. He accepts, pulling his giant stomach out of the way so I can find his penis. When I ejaculate after, he tells me I’m a good boy. Once dressed, I ask him what his real name is. “Tom,” he says. Then he asks, “Do you rent this studio?” I answer in the affirmative and that I pay 1,600 bucks a month, not including utilities. “You should stay here as long as you can.” He says. “The going rate for a studio apartment in this area is now 2,200.” He tells me to start coming to class, and I tell him that in real life I’m actually a great student. “That’s why it’s your fantasy,” he says matter-of-factly. He tells me he’s looking forward to punishing me again, but I know I will never let him. I spend the rest of the afternoon sketching his hitting implements into my notebook, trying desperately to turn the reality of what has just happened into a story.
One afternoon, “Yeah I’m hung” nearly clips me with his bicycle as I’m getting out of my car in front of my studio apartment.
I spend my days thinking about “H.” He’s eleven years younger than me and still lives with his parents. He is in community college. He wears high-top sneakers with green socks. He likes to wear zip-up hoodies and a red hunting hat that references his namesake. I try not to text him even though it’s all I want to do. I replay our night of sheet-soaking sex over and over in my head—him holding my chin, him telling me I’m handsome and amazing, him hugging my forearm as we watched Netflix under the quilt my mother sewed for me. I want to ask him to be my boyfriend. I send him photos of my niece in LA. He’s the best sex I’ve had in years. He is smart, adorable. I think about how falling in love with him might mean I’d have a reason to stay in San Francisco after I get my degree. I think about how after the first night we were together he left my apartment at four in the morning and texted me when he got home. I think about how excited I become when I see he viewed one of my Snapchat stories. I become anxious when he doesn’t text back right away. To help ease my anxiety, Sean has me put my phone on airplane mode during class so I don’t keep checking to see if “H” has gotten back to me. I want to open my life to “H,” to bring him in, to introduce him to my family, take him back to Los Angeles. I want to put on Facebook and all the apps that I’m “in a relationship.” I want everyone to know that I nabbed a beautiful guy eleven years younger than me. I want people to be jealous of us when they see us. I want the world to know that I was able to get “H.”
At the café up on Balboa, I get a message through Growlr. It’s “S.” He asks why I didn’t see him again. I explain about the phone and the expensive seafood meal I had to pay half for. He apologizes and asks to take me out again. I agree. We go to Patxi’s pizza. Our conversation pops. After, we pick up cookies in the Castro and go back to my place. We start cuddling again, and I end up in my underwear on my bed, him playing with my various body parts with his hands and tongue. He is fully clothed. I go in for a kiss, and he tells me he can’t. I become angry, asking him what the problem is, and he proceeds to shame me for wanting to move so fast. He heads for the door and says, “So, I guess I’m never seeing you again, huh? Won’t you at least walk me to my car?” On the corner outside my apartment, we argue about words like “date” and “friends.” I am now on the outside of the bay window, another ghost among the fog. An hour after he leaves, I check Growlr and see that his phone is still 0.1 miles away. I assume he’s sitting in his car, stewing. I text Sean (who originally posed as me to start talking to “S”) telling him if he doesn’t hear from me in the morning I’m either dead or in jail for shanking a motherfucker. I spend the next hour haunting my neighborhood in the middle of the night, looking for the Mercedes that came with a blue blanket. I never find it.
I see “D” at Moby Dick with my friends. He’s talking to an older guy. I wonder if the older guy has enough “spontaneity, charisma, and authenticity” to close the deal. I wonder if they met on Growlr or Scruff.
“H” arrives a half hour early for our third date. He doesn’t make eye contact and uses no tongue when he kisses me. We sit and attempt conversation. Our movie doesn’t start for another hour. He tells me he has a headache and doesn’t want to chat. He finally says, “Let’s walk up to the theater.” As we grab a snack before hand at Purple Kow, he tells me he can’t spend the night but wants to eat dinner after the movie. After we watch The Martian, he tells me he is going home. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to see him again even though he says we’ll be hanging out next week. I don’t think he notices he now refers to me in the past tense, that he’s casually telling me not to text him. A week of no contact later, he texts that I’ve quenched a thirst he had, that he’s not interested in anything serious, he doesn’t think. Sean suggests deleting the entire text conversation from my iPhone. I do but not before I’ve screencapped it for future reference.
I see “D” on the 5r bus, the violent sunlight whipping his bird face. His messenger bag is slung loosely across his small chest and shoulders. He watches passengers get off and on at each stop.
“S” comes over the Friday night after I last saw “H.” I tell “S” about “H,” how he referred to me in the past tense, how we saw The Martian. I do not tell him that “H” held my chin the first time we fucked. “S” cuddles but once again leaves when things become too intimate. I don’t have the energy this night to fight or search for his car after he’s left.
The morning of the Folsom Street Fair, I get a message from “E.” We sort of hit it off and decide to meet for breakfast. I tell him I have no plans to go to Folsom, to which he says I’m not a “good enough” gay person. He then informs me that he’s wearing a singlet under his cargo shorts and tee-shirt. I ask him back to my place so he can prove it. He does, and I fuck him. I have to cover his mouth because he yells throughout our sex and my open bay windows look directly out onto the sidewalk. After, we dress and I drop him off at Market and Dolores. I never see him again.
One night a few months later, after flying in from Seattle, “S” asks to come over. I say yes. Despite everything that’s happened over the last four dates, I know we are going to have sex, and we finally do.
“Yeah I’m hung” rides his bike by my studio apartment every day. I consider messaging him to come over but I don’t because I’m not sure I’m interested.
“T”/Tom never messages me again, but “BearBuddy,” his partner asks (through Growlr) if I want to come over and tie him up. I decline.
I’m sitting in a van in The Castro. My legs are touching those of a beautiful man with braces and a tight sweater who happens to be drawing a prick of blood from the middle finger of my right hand for an HIV test. Through the open side door, I look out and see Sean and two of my other straight friends waiting for me. They are smiling, laughing with each other. I have told them about my family, shared photos with them, told them about what happened to me at the private school. They know I saw my grandmother die, and I’ve told them over and over again about Tina Turner. It is they who I’ve let them into my life, and it feels wonderful even though at that moment my finger is bleeding. As I watch them, the people I actually love, the people with whom I’m in a real relationship, “D” saunters by, having no clue who I am or that I’m about to find out that we have different HIV statuses.
I mourn “H” for a few weeks, mostly to myself in silence. I follow him on Snapchat and see that he goes to Taipei over the winter break. He’s still painfully adorable, and in a moment of weakness I message him through Snapchat to tell him how much I’m enjoying his stories. He responds immediately, despite being on the other side of the planet, and thanks me, hoping I’m doing well. The message disappears when I close the app.
“S” asks me out to dinner on Valentine’s Day. I decline.
“A” and I meet on the corner of 9th and Irving, where I had my awful date with “F” almost a year earlier. We go to Patxi’s for pizza. He’s my age. He has his own apartment. He’s beautiful. We have two friends in common. He makes inappropriate jokes that catch me off guard at first but then make me almost spit up my water. He invites me over for post-dinner tea. We talk for a few more hours then have quick, hook-up sex. I’m prepared to shower and leave, but he cuddles up next to me and says he wants to talk more. We chat for ten minutes, and to my surprise we have sex again, but this time it’s quiet. This isn’t hurry-up-and-get-off sex. We stare in each other’s eyes. I hold the back his neck when we kiss. None of the other men are in my mind. I’m here with “A,” and he’s here with me, and I can feel we’re connecting as adults, as humans, not profiles on a dating app. He tells me I can spend the night, and I do. As we fall asleep he comments on how empathetic I am, asking me to tell him another funny story as he drifts away, my arms firmly around him. The next morning, after taking an Uber back to my place, I am shaky and don’t know why. I’m even a little weepy. Sean comes over, and we walk down to the park as we sometimes do. I tell him about my night, how it felt so good to be with someone my age, in my peer group, to be with a man who liked who I was, who wasn’t quenching a thirst or roll-playing or testing the limits of his own spirituality. I realize, sitting beside my straight best friend in the afternoon sun, that the apps and Facebook aren’t a reason to want a relationship. I realize I don’t care about putting “in a relationship” on my Facebook page or app profiles. I don’t care if people are jealous of me. I don’t care about people knowing I can nab anyone. I realize I want a boyfriend so I can hold him as we fall asleep. I want a human being to deeply care for me beyond the random bits of data we know of each other from dating app profiles. I carry the secrets and the public data I know about the men in San Francisco within me wherever I go, having wondered what it would be like to be with them, and now I know, because I’ve just spent the night with a human being, not a profile photo.
Sean and I walk back to my apartment. Still thinking about “A” and how I feel transformed by our date the previous night, I see “D” walking towards us on 36th Ave. He’s looking at his phone. He’s pale legs and sizeable bulge still dance in his basketball shorts. He’s still blond, still six feet, one inches tall. I imagine his nipples are still big. “See this guy coming towards us?” I whisper to Sean. “Yeah,” he says. “He’s HIV positive,” I say. “Why do you know that?” he asks. “I shouldn’t, but I do,” I reply. I turn back and see “D” disappear into the park.