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Elevator Music

The other night I took a call from an editor at The New York Times to talk about an essay of mine he wanted to publish.

That’s a sentence that I can barely comprehend, in the sense that it relates to my actual life right now. I mean, it’s a sentence I think I’d hoped to write someday, but hope was another planet.

And I’m a few days away from launching myself into a new job that has the potential, paycheck-wise, to change my life in the ways I’ve wanted to change it for years.

I don’t think I’ve ever lived a day where my head wasn’t thrumming with the constant low mumble of money worries. Maybe a short time when I was married, with a double-income household more or less managed by my ex. But that was five years ago, and in the time since, I’ve cursed more times than I can count at the negative balance in my checking account.

So things could change. Or I could fail. The job is a big risk, for reasons I don’t want to go into. It could work, or I could fall short. But in any event, as these words clearly show, I’m not so skilled at celebrating. I’m better at doubting my worth, feeling, on the eve of a big publication, like a fraud.

This isn’t a cry for help. It’s just an old familiar song, Muzak-style, playing nonstop in this elevator as I rise from the burned-out bottom floor I’d long called home. It’s stuck on repeat, but it plays in the head of a dude who’s too stubborn to let it stop this ride. Let’s see where this goes.

Who Wouldn’t Want Both?

The first time I ever kissed a guy was in a stretch of woods called the Bird Sanctuary that ran along the edge of a sprawling cemetery in south Minneapolis. I used to cut through there walking home from school, though even then, age 17, I knew dudes went there to cruise and hook up. But I was always too scared to stop on the trails when one of them would give me the eye. Until the day I wasn’t.

He looked like a football coach with his cheap windbreaker and salt and pepper hair, and his tongue tasted like the cigarette he’d smoked while sizing me up. He kissed me hard and before I could figure out if I even liked it, he got down on his knees, pulled down my jeans, and took me into his mouth. I was too young to know how to relax into it. Too young to know yet the pleasure of rubbing the back of a guy’s close-cropped head in that position. So my hands maybe just hung there, and I looked out at the rows of headstones through the chain link fence and wondered if anyone could see us.

My nerves killed my hard-on, so he rose back to his feet and wrapped his thick arms around me. In a voice like sandpaper against wood he whispered in my ear, “You just want to be loved, don’t you?” He rubbed my arms, then turned and walked away.

I stood there like some kind of bug stuck in sap, with the wind blowing through the trees and against my bare ass. I pulled my jeans up as he disappeared down the trail. My face felt red and hot. I was pissed that he’d left me, that I’d failed at what a guy was supposed to do in that kind of situation. That he’d seen me in a way I thought that nobody could.

Back then I thought what he’d said was something of a put-down. What I wanted made me less of a man, maybe, is what he thought. A softie, in every sense. But now I know he said what he’d said because he wanted both, too. He knew what it was like to want both. He wanted the blow job and to be loved, and he’d seen both in me.

And nothing about any of that has changed. I still want both, and you, I see it in you, too. You can talk a good game, like me, but we all know what you want. And it’s ok, because we want it, too.