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The Art of Friendships

the Outside is always perfect brent cato mental health lgbtq

The Outside Is Always Perfect, No. 1

“I’ve seen you here several times. My thought of you has always been Why does that man in the corner look like he’s about to kill himself?” He was ignorant as to how close to correct he was. This is the question he’d been asking people for nearly a year. We’d seen each other in passing from going to the same bar, but had never officially met. This was his time to shine. The opportunity to ask me after officially being introduced to me had finally come.

At that point, I was unsure of an appropriate reaction. I played it off as a joke. Who wouldn’t? Mentally, the broken parts of me were ashamed. There were aspects that seemed to want to take control over my actions. My fight-or-flight instincts had kicked in and I started arguing with myself. Perhaps I did so in order to protect myself, or possibly just to find an escape route. What should I change to keep anyone else from finding out? Then, as if a wave of ice-cold water swept over me, I remembered all the reasons I’d lately had to feel this way.

Normally I’m not brought down by life’s hard circumstances. This was failing to be the case at this point in my life.

“So, why change anything? How does it matter if someone else knows?” I asked myself softly when I wasn’t being watched. I was assuming nothing would come of the conversation with Andrew. That cold, water-like wave was still lingering on my skin. So what if I were to live fighting against freezing waves?

I’d been significantly more morose lately than I normally was. The bar that Andrew and I met at was an hour drive for me. I didn’t particularly like the place. I went just to be unknown – mysterious, if you will. It wasn’t that I was looking for any attention. It was more so a desperate attempt at centering myself – at finding some balance in my life that I’d previously been unable to obtain. It was never the alcohol that brought me to that place. I didn’t have to introduce myself to anyone there. The bartender knew me; and for the longest time she was comfortable telling everyone I was antisocial. I was friendly with her, but she eventually started trying to break me out of my shell by introducing me to people.

Going forward a short time, that once-stranger had managed to forge a friendship with me. Maybe because we’re a lot alike. Or, we’ve both got forms of mental illness. It could have been the alcohol in the start of it all. However, I feel as if we’d acquired something we could build upon to sustain a friendship. I’m intimidated by the daunting thought of new friendships. In the past I’ve always been very reserved about forming new relationships in my life. I’d held onto the same two friends for over half of my life: Kristen and Evelyn. They’re both mentally ill, as well. Even still, I’d had my ups-and-downs with the both of them. We’ve come a long way, and I’ve grown to accept them as the closest people in my life. With Andrew, my exact fear was that we were going to discover there is some underlying reason to explain why we’d developed our friendship. Could this be paranoia, or the basis of something I needed to do some mulling over? And why does this feel like dating to me? At what point did making new friends become so much like dating?

We’ve all got to take in many factors. Could this person become a mass shooter in the future? Are they vengeful? We’re not living in the 1940s anymore, folks. Your Tinder swipes are sex offenders and your UBER driver is likely consumed in sinful thoughts while taking your drunk ass home. Finding new friends isn’t the stroll down Easy Street it once was. When I think of the horror stories I hear from other people in passing, I’m astonished more people don’t take up my unhealthy aversion to people. I know it’s not the best mindset, but it’s a protected and (more importantly) secluded way of living. Develop a strong core of relationships in your life and tend to them.

With Evelyn it’s not always been easy. In fact, the friendship has been challenging, and at times experimental. We pushed each other and we made mistakes. However, we were both incredibly self-aware. So, when it came to those rare mistakes, we strove to hash out the core problem. Our doing this has benefited to having only had a single fight in twelve years of knowing one another. We don’t let problems escalate, and therefore I’m unsure these can be called ‘problems.’ We both had a healthy way of sustaining our friendship. She’d become such an integral part of my life. Maybe we were both intrinsically the same person at heart. I’d never had a reason to look too far into why the friendship seemed to make sense. At my core, I knew then and know now the benefits she has always brought to my life and what I have brought to hers. There is neither guess work nor pretense.

The relationships I’ve had force me to wonder if my way is unhealthy. I know that my reservations cause me to overanalyze the situations in my life – more specifically relationships.   After all, if you believe that the quality of a friendship is more important than quantity of friendships you have, what’s wrong with being reserved? In this day and age, where so many of our stupid, drunken acts are captured by the nearest smart phone. Why wouldn’t you be reserved? Rather than being swept away with every person who could turn into a friend, I analyze the person. I sat down and allowed my mind to flood with thoughts. Taking into account how this person can be a healthy person to have in my life and vice versa, as to be expected. As one could imagine, in life I’ve been forced to end several potential friendships. Believe me,this is a practice that doesn’t get easier with time. However, for the sake of the long term, this is often a necessary path to follow.

I suppose now would be an appropriate time to introduce myself to you. I’m Brent. Age, race, and such are not important. I’d like you to get to know me aside from my physicality. I can tell you that I’m mentally ill, as previously mentioned. My diagnosis can be brought to light over time. I will never dismiss the symptoms, but I’m going to explore the hardships of associated with it. The side effects and hardships of having any form of a mental illness. While the symptoms are often the first things people are willing to bring up, I’m going to focus on the side most people are uncomfortable discussing

As anyone with a mental illness knows, diagnoses are a fluid … art. In the LGBTQ community, we’re demonized already. We’re even demonized to a point by people we identify with. We’re one community; and it’s time we bring mental illness out from the bottom shelf. We’ve all seen great strides in acceptance in our way of life. Should we start working on furthering the understanding of our community, in all the aspects?

I’ve been writing since I was in the 5th grade. A never ending saga of a boy stuck on a sinking ship. My teacher, Mrs. Mullen, quickly understood that homework and I didn’t mix. She encouraged my writing by accepting it in lieu of my homework. Looking back, I had two teachers encourage me to write. My heart is in poetry, and that will likely always be where my heart resides. Either listening to it read or writing my own, it has always been highly therapeutic. You can often find me at a poetry reading, I can be spotted by my martini and unwavering attention to the person doing the reading.  I’m also known to read some of my own, or hire someone to read it for me. I don’t mind not being in the spotlight, but I’ve always had a driving desire to share what I’ve created.

Let’s get back to that abnormally outgoing bartender. Over time, she got it in her mind that (and I’m guessing here) I need more people in my life. Perhaps to fill a void from a loved one recently lost. Or maybe I was actually driving away business by sitting alone in the corner. I’m unsure really, the matter still pends.

Andrew is, out of many, one of those new people in my life. As I touched on lightly, we first bonded by way of drinking. However, even in the beginning there have been moments of extreme clarity. This could actually turn out to be a healthy friendship. There are, of course, moments when we could be immature and blow off light responsibilities; but at the core, we both want to make something of our lives. We’re both writers and have common goals. However, it doesn’t feel competitive. That’s something I’ve always avoided in any type of relationship. We’re both supportive, and while both wanting to be successful, we are able to put that aside. I guess the both of us saw and continue to see the benefits of developing this friendship further. This was a very mature and healthy relationship. I suppose my lingering feelings to naturally doubt him were  irrational and instinctual.

Looking back, I can’t remember a time I wasn’t weary of a person in the start. It had nothing to do with Andrew, personally. This is just a part of my personal mental illness. It’s taken many years to be able to compartmentalize my symptoms with my reality. Even still, I can fail to do so. But in this instance, I was certain that I hadn’t missed my mark. I’ve never considered myself a strong judge of character but we’re continuing to spend time together, even now. While I’m still unsure of the of what the future holds, most of the reservations I’ve had no longer feel as pressing as they once did.

I will always relentlessly analyze the people in my life. Probably more so in the start. I can’t say whether it’s good or bad or either. It’s just my way. In the end, you’ve got to make lasting relationships your own way. I can’t tell you that you’re doing it wrong and that I’m doing it right. However, if you have lasting and healthy people to surround yourself with, I can tell you that part you’ve done correctly. Think about what makes those people good for you. Find that in more people. Provide that to more people. We should strive to provide the best of ourselves to our friends, and receive the best of them for us.

Tricks and Treats, Pt. II

Less Than Butterflies Gay Dating Houston Halloween

Less Than Butterflies Column

At a certain point, I was undoubtedly drunk. Between Stephen’s specialty Nerds-flavored shots and the shots of Fireball in conjunction with all the vodka, I was just moments away from trying to play Someone Like You on the piano in the living room over whatever Bebe Rexha was shouting about. I refrained.

The party was fun and very much alive, but I was tiring quickly and wanted to see what was going on in Montrose before I retired for the evening. Courtney and Jennifer had already made their way to Pearl for the costume contest. Carter was flitting around the party, coming back every now and then to get a little handsy as the night progressed. The drunker I became, the less I fought it off. After all, I may not have been interested in Carter, but I was alone at a party and somewhat sadder than I had been before I was this drunk. The attention wasn’t killing me.

After goodbyes with Stephen and Leo and a few other people I’d met at the party, Carter and I dashed down the stairs to our cars to meet a couple of other friends at JR’s. Montrose, however, proved to be impossible to navigate thanks to street closures for Halloween and the perennial road work always taking place throughout the neighborhood. I must have parked six blocks from JR’s (and probably illegally, at that) before I was able to make my way to the bar.

The temperature had dropped significantly in a very short time, but it hadn’t prevented anyone from wandering the streets. Even the patio of JR’s was packed with people, as was every room of the bar. Finding Carter, as well as my friends Casey and Nick, proved to be much more difficult as I squeezed my way through the unnecessarily sweaty patrons.

When I did finally find them, I had trouble keeping my attention zeroed in on the conversation. This could partly be chalked up to drunkenness, but my distraction was due to everyone else in the bar. From Casey and Nick to every other pair, it became depressingly obvious that nearly everyone in the bar was coupled off.

Where had gay Christmas gone? Where had the twinks in wings and colorful underwear tottered off to? Even the bears in leather were partnered-up. Long gone seemed the days of going out on Halloween with the intention of hooking up or meeting someone interesting who may only seem attractive at the time due to their costume. Looking around, I obsessed over the fact that out of 5 million people in the city of Houston—granted only a minority of them gay—everyone out for Halloween was already spoken for. Where were all the single people? Was there some sort of single, gay, Halloween party I hadn’t been invited to where everyone drank wine and watched Practical Magic until they’d become so drunk and suicidal that they decided to join hands and jump off the roof like Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman at the end of the movie?

Why hadn’t I been invited?

The clock struck 2 AM sooner than I’d have guessed, and Carter and I made our way through busy Montrose hand-in-hand toward our cars.

Unfortunately, like on so many occasions before, I couldn’t find my car anywhere.

Fuck,” I swore, irritated with myself for not thinking to pay more attention when I’d parked.

“It’s fine,” Carter told me as he led me to his car. “I’ll drive you around until we find it.”

If ever there came a day when I didn’t have to rely on a man to help me find my car, I might actually wake up a different person. Sadly, that was becoming more and more a trademark of who I’d become.

Finding the car didn’t take long. Once we’d passed by JR’s, I began to remember how I’d walked to the bar from my car. Carter pulled up right behind it to let me out on the corner like a hooker who’d lost her way. He leaned in to hug me, lingering a bit before he kissed me on the cheek. Once he had, I kissed his back.

What happened next I could blame on the alcohol, but I’d be lying. Being drunk had never made me do anything. I knew better than that. Still, as I moved just a little bit to the right and kissed Carter on his lips, I couldn’t compose a justifiable reason why I’d done it. He kissed me back, and we did so a little more before my senses returned to me and I pulled away.

This was not the magic of Halloween. This was a drunk, lonely gay who’d been thinking of another gay all night while taking advantage of his friend. And though Carter didn’t object and reciprocated the kiss, I was taking advantage of his kindness, and for that I felt like shit.

I bid him goodnight, then sped off in my own car. I was embarrassed. Not because Carter wasn’t cute, he certainly was. But because I’d escalated to a new level of sluttiness—the kind that involves and can harm your friendships.

I guess I really had put the ‘trick’ in trick-or-treat, even if only by way of innocently kissing a friend in whom I had no romantic interest. Worst of all, though, I felt unfulfilled. This kiss hadn’t meant anything, though maybe part of me was hoping that it would have coming from a boy who at least paid attention to me and made me feel attractive. But the magic—Halloween or otherwise—simply hadn’t been there.

Even on a night when witches were supposed to fly their broomsticks across the night sky, and spirits were said to creep from one side of the veil to the other, and twinks paraded around in their underwear and angel wings, maybe the magic of gay Halloween wasn’t resting in how much we had to drink or how slutty we became thereafter. It laid in our friendships—the unexpected ones that started off as silly crushes, and the ones that we kissed by accident that we’d never crushed on before and probably never would. Those were the people who made Halloween—a night of needless celebration—fun. They were the ones we could count on no matter what.

Return to Part I here.

Tricks and Treats, Pt. I

Less Than Butterflies Gay Dating Houston Halloween

Less Than Butterflies Column

It’s no secret that Halloween is gay Christmas. It’s not as though we’ve ever needed an excuse to dress up in costume or drag and attend some hedonistic party in Montrose where someone will certainly be distributing ecstasy in the bathroom while remixes of every song by every pop icon are blared in the dark, trembling background. But Halloween poses a different sort of spectacle than every other party in Montrose. Inhibitions are lost; time seems to slow; and there’s an affection for our friends that provides a kind of high not brought on by bathroom ecstasy or specialty shots.

Plus, we get a little bit sluttier. At least I do. I being the person who puts the ‘trick’ in ‘trick or treat.’

There’s no logic or rule that dictates why Halloween puts us in such good spirits. Maybe it’s something psychological. Maybe it’s all hype. Or maybe, just maybe, there is something truly magical about Halloween.

Even in my exhaustion after two long weeks with work-related affairs, I couldn’t move myself to peel away from the idea of attending my friend Stephen’s boyfriend’s Halloween party. It was an annual event—or it was at least becoming one—that had the year before proven to be like any other gay Halloween party: a genus of twinks in brightly colored underwear donning body glitter and angel wings. This, mind you, was at an American Horror Story-themed party. Stephen’s apartment was small and the air conditioning was hardly working. An hour in, everyone was sweating and trying to escape into the 90-degree outdoors just to catch a breath.

This year, however, Leo (Stephen’s boyfriend) had relocated the party to a friend and co-host’s townhome off Washington. The theme? Netflix’s GLOW—appropriately retitled as the Gays and Lesbians of Wrestling.

As per the usual, I was dateless. I’d invited Ezra to accompany me, but he was to visit friends in San Antonio for the weekend. Luckily, my friend Carter tagged along with me. Carter and I hadn’t been friends for long. Like most of my friends at the time, we’d met through Pride. Carter was 30, single, and sweet, and not at all my type. Still, he was a good friend and an intent listener and the kind of person who would do anything for anyone.

We drank a bottle of wine at Barnaby’s before heading toward Washington for the party. Upon arrival, it was clear that Stephen had already been drinking well before our arrival. My friend Courtney and her girlfriend, Jennifer were also there, dressed from neck-to-ankles in incandescent Lycra. Just as the year before, a large portion of the attendees had taken it upon themselves to ignore the theme of the party—myself included, as I was not sure I had the body type to be wearing fabrics with such elasticity.

That’s not true. I was sure. I was certain that I did not. I did, however, dress nice enough and put on some black lipstick just for the hell of it.

Stephen grabbed me by the wrist just after I’d made a drink and dragged me to a wet bar in the living room of the townhome. “Let’s do a shot!” he suggested with all the charisma of a Beyonce drag impersonator. But like with all things when it came to Stephen—shots, bottles of wine, valid points in a heated debate—one shot turned into several shots.

My background with Stephen was relatively short, but fast-paced in some rights. He was one of the very first people I’d met at Pride Houston when I was a first-year volunteer. To be completely honest, when we first met, I thought Stephen was cute. True, he was gross and sweaty from working all evening in the sun and was about 15-pounds underweight. But in his glasses and seemingly-nerdy disposition, I was initially attracted to him. For a while, my friend Alice and I couldn’t figure out his last name and took to referring to him as just Hot Stephen.

But much like books, a boy should never be judged by his cover. As I transitioned into my role as the volunteer chair for Pride, Stephen and I encountered each other more frequently. Real Stephen was vastly different from first-impression Stephen. He wasn’t as tightly wound and I don’t think I ever saw those glasses again. True, Stephen was a pretty boy, but he was also a boy who was spoken for and whose personality—regardless of whether or not he’d ever admit it—was too much like mine. Opinionated, mildly neurotic, a little slutty, and often drunk.

As my first year as a chair dragged on, Stephen and I saw a lot more of each other. Pride events and workdays eventually turned into drinks at the Eagle or numerous bottles of wine at Barnaby’s or birthday and dinner parties. The conversations that had once just revolved around our work with Pride grew inclusive of similar interests. Soon we’d become friends.

After a few more shots, I found myself standing outside on the balcony smoking a cigarette with some strangers from Mexico. One of the two was in medical school and in Houston for her internship. The other was presumably her boyfriend. A moment later, Stephen found his way outside to the patio.

“I knew you’d be out here smoking. I’m gonna lock you out,” Stephen said before engaging with the medical student and her boyfriend. When their own cigarettes were finished, they made a quick exit and Stephen and I had changed the topic to the busy week we’d had with Pride work, the party, and our friends inside. It wasn’t until the tail-end of the conversation that Stephen asked, “So, how’s Ezra?”

“I think he’s fine. He’s in San Antonio right now, if I’m not mistaken.”

He took a sip from his straw while gulping down some vodka as he goes, “Mhm. Mhm.” Once he’d swallowed and removed the straw from his mouth, he asked, “And what’s the deal with that?”

I paused just long enough to roll my eyes. “Nothing . . . ? We’re just friends.”

More, “Mhm. Mhm,” until he was slurping what remained of his vodka out of bottom of his Solo cup. “I’m gonna go get another drink. Have fun, though!” he told me as he slipped back inside. However, before he’d closed the door, Stephen poked his head back through the threshold and said, “You know, I’m really glad we became friends.”

I couldn’t help but smile a bit. Formerly Hot Stephen I knew nothing about had graduated into Close Friend Stephen, which turned out to be a good fit for him.

“God. You’re so gay,” I told him as I rolled my eyes, relatively unable to ever reciprocate kindness. He stepped back onto the balcony for a second and pointed to his cheek. I laughed, then gave him a kiss there, leaving a large, black lipstick stain under his cheekbone.

“You’re my favorite person in Pride,” he told me as he slid through the door and closed it behind him.

That was gay Halloween magic at its finest—bringing two very unlikely people together to be friends . . . even if both were extremely drunk.

Oddly enough, however, Stephen’s momentary mention of Ezra made me wonder what he was up to. I nearly pulled my phone from my pocket to text him, but realized it was late and that I shouldn’t bug him while he was out of town with his friends. I could gather, however, that Ezra probably wasn’t at some rager in San Antonio like I was in Houston. A part of me missed him. 

Regardless, I resolved to wander back inside and drink through it like a grown-up.

Although, as I turned to open the door back into the townhome, I made an attempt to turn the knob, rattling and shaking it until it became increasingly clear that Stephen had, in fact, locked me out on the balcony.


Read Part II here.

Love Me Tinder, Pt. I

Less Than Butterflies Gay Dating Houston Grindr

Less Than Butterflies, No. 1

“Some people are settling down; some people are settling; and some people refuse to settle for anything less than butterflies.”

–Candace Bushnell

Generally speaking, dating can be fun. Dating in Houston, on the other hand, can often feel . . . obligatory. In a city of over five million people, one might think that the options available are vast and perennial. After all, all our friends are doing it. Right? If they aren’t, they’ve probably already settled down or have at least settled for someone because they were tired of mining through the endless herds of undatable people.

For gay men in Houston, it’s usually always the same sort. There’s lives-with-his-parents guy, has-too-many-roommates guy, just-wants-to-hook-up guy, wants-to-fall-in-love-immediately guy, and often even gay-republican guy—the worst of them all. And the dates? Well, they all seem repetitive, too. Dinner at Cyclone Anaya’s in Midtown; $10 bottles of wine at Barnaby’s (an option I don’t particularly hate); ice skating at Discovery Green in the wintertime; dancing and doing coke at South Beach (FYI: not a date, gentlemen).

Inevitably, there comes the postcoital wave of regretlooking over at a stranger who is just as ready for you to leave as you are to leave; sneaking out of some shitty Montrose hellhole apartment in the wee hours of the morning, just as the sprinklers of the neighborswhose luxurious townhome you’d hoped to be hooking up inpower on; forgetting you Ubered to your hook-up.

For we Millennials, a subtle escape from this trap has been air-dropped into our phones. Several, actually. Tinder, Scruff, J-Date, Farmer’s Only, GrindrI’m still waiting on the lesbian hookup app called Lickr. Still, there’s a certain conceit behind dating in queer culture—especially so following the introduction of these dating apps. They’ve stepped in and started minimizing the once boastful, giddy romance of meeting the right person. There are no meet-cutes anymore. There are no accidental run-ins at the bookshop or a coffee house. Romance has left the building, now replaced by right swipes and recognizable pings coming from cell phones when someone attractive is nearby.

I, personally, have never taken Tinder seriously. Still, every now and again a conversation might spark between me and no one in particular that would ultimately lead down a rabbit hole of realizations that we had nothing in common and that the person on the opposite side was only looking for sex. Neither suited my fancy; and I never even entertained the idea of meeting any of these men.

There was, however, one occasion in which I was able to hold a decent conversation with a man, and we kept it going sporadically for a couple months to follow. Our interests were quite similar: musicals, books, etc. Once or twice I even thought maybe I should ask this boy—we’ll call him Ezra Rochester—for a date. Still, I found myself at a loss of nerves and never made the leap to do so. I knew little about him, other than the fact that he loved musicals as much as I did and that he had an adorable dog I was probably more interested in meeting than I was him.

As the time passed, I found myself in a relationship with a boy I’d met at The Room Bar in North Houston. We dated briefly before I realized he was dumber than a hot bag of stones, but it was just long enough for me to have rid myself of my Tinder app. When the guy from the bar and I broke up, I didn’t think about Ezra. He was just a picture and a conversation in an app I’d deleted. It never occurred to me that in a city of over five million people, chance might bring us together.

Ezra turned out to be much cuter in person than he was in photos. Not to say that he wasn’t attractive in his pictures. After all, I’d swiped right for some reason. He was shorter than me, but not terribly so. He had forsaken his glasses in the name of Lasik. He was clean-shaven; and he didn’t have terrible teeth. It was enough for me.

We met like any other two people who had once upon a time matched on Tinder. I, the volunteer chair for Pride Houston, was hosting an orientation a few weeks out from the parade and festival. He was there to learn the ins-and-outs of being a volunteer. I didn’t recognize him at first. If I had to remember the face of every man I’ve ever seen on Tinder, I’d be in a great deal of trouble. It wasn’t until he was gone and I had already been doing a great deal of flirting (as pointed out by my friend Alice) that I took it upon myself to Facebook-stalk him.

“Omigod,” I muttered to Alice. “We matched on Tinder like in the fall of last year. Christ. I was just shamelessly flirting with him.”

“You really were,” Alice muttered.

“Was he flirting back?” I asked.

Alice looked thoughtful for a moment—a common look that crosses her face but often remains stuck to it once the thought has passed or imploded. “I don’t know. I think maybe a little. It’s hard to tell.”

I made up my mind then. I had for the first time met someone from Tinder—even if unintentionally. I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed in coincidence, but I knew that in a city as large, as spread-out, and as heavily populated as Houston, two people didn’t just happen upon each other in this way very often. It could have meant nothing. In fact, it probably didn’t mean a thing at all. Still, I wasn’t going to find out if I didn’t see it through.

The day of the Houston LGBT Pride Celebration 2017, Ezra spent nearly the entire day volunteering and was even the last of my volunteers to leave. To say things wouldn’t have gotten done without him—at least not as quickly as they did—would be an understatement. And at the end of it all, as he, Alice, and I watched the last U-Haul drive off carrying supplies, looking back up at Houston’s City Hall, Ezra turned his attention back us both, gave an awkward smile, and said, “Well . . . see you next year.”

“Next year?!” I shrieked as soon as he was out of earshot. “I don’t even know if I like him yet or not and I have to wait until next year to find out?”

“You could just go over there and ask him out,” Alice suggested.

Not an option.

I didn’t then nor do I feel it’s fair to ask someone out after a 12-hour volunteer shift in the splintering sun. No rational decisions could be made. Still, there was something compelling about him that I didn’t quite understand at the time. He was cute, and completely awkward and nerdy (my default type). It could have been the way that he had a playfully combative response to each and every witty thing that I said. It could have even been the dryness of his humor. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the fact that a boy put a smile on my face while I was altogether sober that I hadn’t met in a bar like so many before him.

Continue to Part II