Ethan* was the new kid in sixth grade. He called me on my home phone the week before Halloween and asked if he could go trick-or-treating with me and my friends. He wore a "punk" costume, complete with mohawk and skin-tight pants. We were close ever since, weaving in and out of each other's lives for almost 15 years. He asked me to be his girlfriend at some point, and I said no: I knew something wasn't right, and that if we crossed that line, our friendship might never recover.
My gut was right. If you hadn't guessed already, Ethan came out as gay—no surprise to me. Of course, I didn't care. We loved each other, though we hadn't always been super close or even liked each other. Our platonic love was the result of never giving up on each other completely, even through letdowns, hurtful words, and many months apart. We had patience in our friendship.
Though he had many sexual experiences and brief flings, at 26, his relationship experience is still minimal. My dating life has been rocky, though extensive. I am a mostly heterosexual woman, who has only been in relationships with straight men, so I sometimes felt like an intruder or an ignoramus when he asked me for dating advice. What do I know about gay life, really? What right did I have to comment on what men in love, or lust, were experiencing?
Ethan began furiously "dating" (more like spending every evening and night with) a man he met at a Grindr orgy as soon as he moved back to NYC from a three year stint in Shanghai. Ethan had big plans to hit the ground running and look for work, to audition for acting gigs, and reconnect with friends in New York. He and this man felt such an intense connection, a pull to be together as much as possible, that he barely had time to do anything else. This was not a typical way to start a relationship, as these events tended to have a more animalistic, anonymous vibe...but something told them to make things more intimate. Adding to the creation of (or illusion of) intimacy, they had both opened up to each other about their pasts pretty quickly, traumas and all.
They were in what Ethan thought was a passionate honeymoon phase, staying up all night having sex, doing unhealthy amounts of meth (and other uppers and downers timed so that they wouldn't die), frequently going to sex parties to have unprotected sex with strangers, and staying in touch all day when they were apart with sweet texts and calls. And, for a few weeks, Ethan was happy. Confused and unsure of what to make of this lifestyle, but enjoying the ride. But, the all-nighters and drugs were leaving him tired and unmotivated as he slept days away. His lover would frequently have what looked like mini mental breakdowns in the midst of the drug haze, leaving Ethan disgusted by the state of the man in front of him—his dead-end job, his dirty apartment, his promiscuousness. His lover never touched him at the sex parties he cajoled Ethan to going to, and that made Ethan feel extremely uneasy. He felt like the whole relationship was built on slippery ground, and wanted answers NOW.
"Is this a honeymoon, or is this how my guy is all the time? Like would he even stop doing drugs or fucking random guys if we got serious?" Ethan wondered to me aloud. "Does he even really like me? Can we have a real relationship where I have a life too, and we can do other things? Will he still like me if I say I'm not up to doing the drugs and going at it all night? Why is he like this—is it a self-medication, or is he just an aimless party boy?"
I could not answer these questions. I knew intimacy was not love, though a potential ingredient or side-effect of love, depending on how things unfold. I said, "All you can do is wait it out, see what happens, and then decide what you can and cannot tolerate. It's hard to be honest with yourself and him, but you have to take care of yourself. Time will tell some things, but then you have to act based on what you know."
Easier said than done, especially for a dating newbie. I have had these types of affairs, and the sex was always out of this world. The emotions ran high. The lows were really low. Eventually—as sex-obsessed as I can be—I would get sick of the pressure to be at a man's disposal and demand that I be allowed space to do work, go to school, see my family. This usually created strain, and the affair would fizzle or explode into a messy "You know what? Fuck you!" situation. Usually I saw this as the man's "fault," that he only liked me for sex, but sometimes I was the problem. Either way, the timing was off, or our compatibility outside the bedroom was off. I have acted like a needy, jealous, petty Jekyll and Hyde monster, and I have seen grown men do the same when I did not meet their idea of what I should be. Lust, ego, impatience, pride, insecurity, and wrath were my "meth," and I let them take hold often. Ethan was scared of this type of ugly relationship fallout, scared of rejection, a bruised heart, but mostly scared of ruining what might not be a bad situation in the end, if he could only figure this guy out.
I told him that I do not regret a single one of my relationships that were similar to his, even if they had "failed." They made me feel alive, desirable, sexy, and had a way of re-aligning my priorities. It was like a shot of alcohol followed by a sobering hangover epiphany. What did I want in a partner? My gut said, "GOOD SEX!" But, experience is the best teacher for fickle Gemini's like me, and my head said "more than sex," "more than a party buddy," "more than a loneliness-killer", and so on. I found specific deal-breakers along the way, with each boyfriend: I can now say no to mind games, no to men who don't wipe their asses properly, no to men who can't bear to spend a Saturday night at home rather than out all night. Why did men come to me as dirty-butted, alcoholic, emotionally-stunted messes? Sometimes I had an inkling, sometimes I didn't, and that would drive me crazy—what made me even crazier, is that I couldn't change them, I just had to wait to see if they would change or keep up the bullshit.
Ethan's most recent dilemma speaks to the gut-wrenching, hazy, tantalizing experience of spending a lot of time with someone who you don't really know. When we begin to date someone, they may share bits and pieces of their past with us verbally, they may display pictures and videos of their life on social media, and we may see photo albums and hear anecdotes of their highs and lows from their friends and family. But, essentially, we are walking in on a story that we have only read a synopsis of. We are turning on a movie in the middle, and we may get the gist of it, but find ourselves confused about specifics or how our lover (the main character) got there.
Gay, bi, straight, asexual but hetero- or homo-romantic, we humans do not like mystery when it comes to the people we share our lives with. We want to know what their motives are, what the ending will be, whether we can trust them. We feel time moving forward, and fear "wasting" it, fear that if we get disappointed, our egos slapped out of place, or emotionally wounded one too many times that we will never recover. But, all we can control are our own big mouths ready to spit venom, our own hands that type texts that can never be unsent, our own genitals that can never un-fuck our boyfriend's best friend. From firsthand sexually and emotionally slutty experience, I can say that to make our sex and love lives better, all we can try to do is any of the following:
- Speak our truths. Be honest with our partners about what we want, our plans for the future, and how we feel now.
- Be firm in our boundaries and deal-breakers.
- Not letting over-thinking and fear of the future ruin what we have now or what is developing. Let things develop without rushing or pushing people.
- Believing people when they show you who they are, for better or worse. Your boyfriend says he truly loves you but puts you down constantly and emotionally abuses you? Um, no. Bye! Your girlfriend says she doesn't believe in saying the word "love," but always takes your feelings into consideration, is faithful to you, and is close with all your friends and family? That girl loves you, maybe you can deal with not hearing that one word!
Anyway, Ethan is embarking on an vacation tomorrow—Valentine's Day!—with his man and Ethan's family. They will be staying in one house. And his man is okay with this, excited to meet Ethan's family, even. Even though they have mostly only partied and had sex in NYC, Ethan's man is willing to try a totally different experience for Ethan, and not freaked out by meeting his family. Maybe Ethan doesn't know him as well as he would like to yet...and maybe this guy is full of (good) surprises! We just never know.
As Ethan gains more dating experience alongside me, I think he will also find that you can never truly know a person, never truly control a relationship, and that those facts are what makes the successful long-term (or even just the happiest but shorter) relationships so awe-inspiring. Surrendering to the moment, surrendering your time and life to a separate entity, a stranger, is brave. Accepting someone else, giving them the chance to reveal private parts of themselves for you to admire or cry over, even if not forever, is kindness embodied. The two together is love.
And yes, it is helpful to be sober to feel love's full effects...at least some times! Fully behold your lover's shadows and light without the proverbial beer goggles (whether that be beer or ego-haze), and be amazed at the shadows and light you see within yourself.
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