Less Than Butterflies, No. 11
Most of my bad decisions start the same way … most.
“I have goodies,” Hope told Derek and me as she handed us a bag of mushrooms at the bar one evening. I immediately popped one in my mouth.
“Thank God,” I said as I chewed. “I really need to be high.”
“Ezra stuff?” Hope asked as she poured me a drink.
“The least of it all, yes. Work stuff, household stuff, I-haven’t-had-sex-in-over-a-week stuff.” I put another into my mouth. “Nothing new.”
“How did your grand gesture go?” she inquired.
“First of all, it was not a grand gesture. Secondly, it’s fine. I mean … I haven’t cried yet, so that’s good.”
Derek, as well, pushed a mushroom stem between his lips. “You’re self-medicating.”
“Only because my primary care physician got busted by the DEA.” I looked around the bar. Soon, the year-round decorative Christmas lights would dance like pixies and the music would take a visual manifestation right before me. The problem was that it wasn’t happening quickly enough.
“So, I take it that means you won’t be planning a honeymoon anytime soon,” Hope said.
“Or ever,” I shrugged.
The clocked ticked for an hour, and in that time I’d managed to indulge in half the bag of mushrooms, as compared to Derek’s three or four. As the effects began to strike him, I grew increasingly jealous that I was still feeling absolutely nothing. In spite of the fact that I often participated in taking recreational drugs, I wasn’t willing to confess to myself that my tolerance might just be building up. It’s not like hallucinogens were favorites of mine. Stimulants were more my speed (no pun intended).
But as the hours went on, the mushrooms began to work their way into me. Looking down at my hands a few times, I swore I could see them growing right in front of me. As the bar partook in karaoke, I began to witness colors coming from the speakers, a different hue for a different pitch. The giggling was the next giveaway. I giggled at any and everything from the controversial drunk girl at the bar who sang “Before He Cheats” in the key of stop singing to Derek fooling with some sort of magnetic, top toy that spun around and around on rails, which I proved incapable of operating.
Soon enough, I realized I needed to go home before the mushrooms hit any harder. Derek pressed the bag into my hand and asked me to take the rest of them and sent me on my way.
Ubering home, I dozed off quietly in the backseat as the driver hummed along to Tejano music and asked questions I ineffectively answered through sleepy lips.
EXT. DENVER, CO – DOG PARK – AFTERNOON – 2020
It was chilly outside, as the weather usually goes in Colorado. What would probably be an 89° April day in Houston turned out to be a harsh 65° afternoon in Denver. Dorito clung to my side after using the restroom and I clicked away at the keys on my laptop. I was trying to meet a book deadline that was only a month away, but my progress had been … minimal, to say the very least.
Chapter One: read the top of the page. Sitting there as housewives jogged with their pups and canines sniffed one another for safety, ideas were fleeting.
Moving to Denver had been a demonstrative effort on my part to show Ezra just how much I cared about him. It wasn’t necessarily futile, as you had to have established expectations in order to fail. And if I’d learned anything since being with Ezra, it was that expectations were wastrel. Not in a practical sense, of course. There were sweet little things he did that often elated the heart or at least proved that those giddy feelings I’d first felt for him three years prior were still alive and well. He might stop on his way home from teaching and pick out peanut butter cookies from a local bakery or order tickets to a traveling musical that was coming through the city.
But, as we’d established oh-so long ago, our relationship would always lack that which other couples did not. There wasn’t any sex, nor was there much cuddling or hand-holding. For all intents and purposes, we may as well have been roommates that shared a bed and, now, a dog.
But I’d known since the first time we’d hung out that this was his plan. Ezra wanted to leave Houston behind—a city for which he’d never developed a great affinity—and move to Denver to teach math. It was ironic, in some sense, considering how much he despised children and that any time I even so much as brought up the subject of them, he all but shut down and receded into some internal well he’d dug for himself.
Or maybe I’d dug it for him. With my pushiness and my willingness to follow him wherever he went so that he wouldn’t ever suffer the loneliness I’d faced in the past. But even in doing so, I knew it would have been no bother to him. Ezra enjoyed the solitude. Welcomed it, even. He was a creature of habit and one that required time to himself—something I took no issue with giving him. Still, I wondered back them if he’d adjust well to being in Denver alone the way he’d come to and existed in Houston for so very long.
We’d been there for six months, and not much was happening for me. Not even a year before, I’d been running a popular magazine in my city and releasing my sixth book into the world. My agent had pestered me for months to write another; and despite the lies I fed her from across the country, no lightning bolts of inspiration had struck. They say that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, but the truth of the matter was that, in Houston, it had struck me at least those six times.
Why hadn’t lightning struck Denver?
Chapter One: … I’m Out of Fucking Ideas.
INT. EZRA & ANTHONY’S APARTMENT – LATER
“Hey, babe,” I called as I knocked the door open with my foot—groceries piled into one arm and Dorito’s leash bound to the other.
“Hey,” he replied with a smile from the couch where he played some video game about which I knew nothing. That was sort of the routine, then. I spent the mornings cleaning the house and tending to the laundry while Ezra went to teaching high school mathematics. In the afternoons, I went out with the dog to either a coffee shop or the dog park or to run errands while I made efforts to spur out some kind of idea for the next great American novel. Meanwhile, this gave Ezra a few hours of alone time to decompress after spending his day combating the heathens he preached equations and arithmetic to all day long. “Write anything today?”
“Absolutely not,” I replied, stepping into the kitchen as I put away vegetables and bottled water. “It’s like my brain threw the kind of fit a petulant child throws when it finds out it has to move and decided to give me the silent treatment.”
“When’s the deadline?” he asked, getting up and taking a seat on a barstool at the island.
“A month from today,” I sighed, grabbing a bottle of Ozarka and popping off the lid. “Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m a pretty good writer … but I’m not that good.”
“What happens if you don’t meet it?”
“Eh,” I told him, gulping down some water. “I can always ask for a slight extension, if I can actually come up with an idea and prove that I’m nearly done. But the advance from the publisher paid for this apartment, and if I don’t come up with something, we’re going to have to sell it to pay it back.”
“I doubt it will come to that,” he said reassuringly. “You’re pretty good at what you do.”
“I like to think so,” I told him as a flutter took place inside my abdomen.
There they were: the butterflies that kept me here. Kept me by his side. It was true that I now tended to follow in stride behind him, that he took the front seat while I sat in the shadowy back seat waiting for my turn to drive again (a poor analogy considering that Ezra hates driving). It was nice, the relief of the pressure; don’t get me wrong. Still, it was an adjustment. It was nothing like what I’d built myself up to over my near decade of adulthood.
“Maybe you just need to get out of the house for a bit,” he suggested, reaching for a bag of chips on the counter and opening it.
“I’ve been out of the house every day since we got here. I could probably map out all the Starbuckses and dog parks in Denver.”
He laughed, then crunched on, “I mean like … go out. You haven’t been to a single bar since we got here. Which, to be honest, troubles me considering how much you like to drink.”
“I do love drinking,” I replied. “It’s my third favorite thing to do after eating and being mad at people for attention.”
“So, go make some friends,” he told me.
I nodded and sipped my water some more. Maybe he was right. Maybe if I got out and saw … well … people, it may actually inspire me to write about them. A theatre teacher I had in high school gave us an assignment once that required the class to separately go out in public and listen casually in on conversations happening around us. The objective was to take one line or exchange and build a scene and characters around it.
Maybe that would pull me out of Comarado.
“Maybe I will …” I muttered, biting a lip and staring past him out the window. You could see the downtown skyline from our living room window. The adjacent side of the house faced rows of mountains, but the city had always been so much more inspiring to me than anything in nature.
“Well, I have something for you that might make you feel better,” he told me as he stood up and walked over to his briefcase that sat on the coffee table. He popped it open and reached inside for a plain, white envelope before handing it across the island to me.
I stared at it for a moment with a familiar queerness in my eyes. I ripped open the side with little care, then hit the open end against the granite countertop until two tickets fell out before me. I flipped them over so that they were right-side-up and pushed my glasses up on my nose to read them.
Wicked: A New Musical, they read across the top. Almost twenty years on Broadway later, Wicked was anything but new. The date was several months away and the seats were in the front mezzanine, but what took me was that they weren’t for a national tour. They were, in fact, printed from the Gershwin Theater in New York City.
“Omigod!” I shouted. “Seriously?”
It was April the 22nd, and it was, in fact, my birthday.
I’d nearly forgotten.
I ran around the counter and embraced Ezra. “Thank you so much! I’m so excited.” I told him. I pulled away, arms still draped over his shoulders and around his neck. It was instinctive to want to kiss him, but as my forehead pressed against his and I could feel his breath slithering past me, I stopped myself and stared into his eyes for a moment.
Ezra was an asexual and aromantic person. This was the person I’d signed up to spend the rest of my life with. This was the life I had chosen and that he hadn’t asked me to choose. So, instead, I pecked him on the cheek, hoping to alleviate some of the pressure, then slid the tickets back into their envelope.
“I love you,” I told him.
“I love you, too.”
“So, do you want to go out with me?” I asked, as I began walking toward the bedroom.
“I think I’ll hang here with Dorito. Go make friends for your birthday,” he told me as I traced into the closet to find an outfit to wear. Fifteen minutes later, my hair was done, my makeup was on, and I was wearing clothes I hadn’t touched since buying them when we first arrived. An outfit of all black accented with a Versace scarf weaving through my hair.
“Okay, well I’m going to that bar Pride & Swagger. I hear it’s pretty lowkey.” I picked up my wallet off the bar and slid it in my back pocket. “Text me if you change your mind.”
I knew he wouldn’t.
INT. PRIDE & SWAGGER – LATER
The bar was quiet, but it was still early. I’d had a few drinks and sat with my laptop perched atop the bar probably looking like an idiot. The bartender, Charlie, checked on me every few minutes and chatted with me about my move from Houston. He’d even bought me a birthday shot when he checked my ID.
“I just met another guy from Houston last night. He said he’d be stopping back in after some conference he’s in town for,” Charlie went on as I stared down at that empty Word document on my laptop screen.
“Maybe I know him,” I teased.
The door behind me chimed, and Charlie simply said, “Speak of the devil,” as he checked the time on his iPhone 34. Those things seemed to be regenerating faster than ever in 2020. I didn’t bother to turn to see the mysterious man from Houston, but focused on the details of the bar around me. Hopefully, if I could paint the picture, I could write the scene.
“Welcome back,” Charlie said with a smile as the barstool next to mine pulled out.
“Good to be back,” the replying voice cooed, sending chills down my spine.
It couldn’t be …
I looked up to my left and found that it actually was. Not yet seated in the stool next to me stood Dylan—the most attractive man I’d ever had sex with in my entire life.
The first man I ever told my rape story to.
“Oh, my big, fat, Jewish God,” I mumbled as my mouth gaped stupidly at him.
“I thought that was you,” he told me with a smile. He looked good—better, if that was possible. His beard was more neatly trimmed and his clothes clung to each cut of his Adonis-like figure.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him, standing up to hug him.
“So, it looks like you two do know each other,” Charlie laughed as he reached for my glass to refill it.
Dylan regaled me with the story of how he’d gotten to Denver. An attempt at making it big in Nashville had started off full of hope and spry, but had ultimately become too much. Bills had mounted, food was more and more scarce, and his tricky habit for alcohol had all but bankrupted him. So, he’d moved to Colorado Springs to be with family while he got back on his feet, and eventually ended up here were the dispensaries weren’t so far apart.
“What brought you here?” he asked.
“Oh, my boyfriend,” I told him with a roll of my eyes. “He always wanted to move here. Finally did. I followed.” I shrugged. I felt safer mentioning Ezra to him. It established boundaries, I thought. True, Ezra had been clear with me long ago that he was not opposed to being in an open relationship since his sexual prowess was virtually nonexistent, it still felt like something we needed to discuss before I pursued it. Still, as the night went on-and-on, the drinks seemed stronger-and-stronger. And as the lights went down in the bar, they all seemed to land on Dylan as he lamented tales of Nashville and failed relationships and sex and travels.
My phone vibrated a few times, but I was either too intoxicated in the conversation to look at it or I was getting a little too drunk to care.
“You look amazing,” Dylan told me. His head leaned against the palm of his hand, which had the connecting elbow placed on the bar. “You look younger, somehow.”
“I stopped snorting coke,” I told him. It may have seemed like a joke, but it wasn’t entirely false. Then his hand ran across my thigh, and his emerald eyes stared into mine with piercing intensity. “I wonder a lot why we stopped hooking up,” he laughed.
“I fell in love with someone else …” I told him.
“Do you still love him?” he asked, leaning in just a bit, his other hand trailing up my side with his fingertips toward the back of my neck.
“Of course I do,” I confessed. And I did. Nothing could change that.
“Answer me after this,” he whispered as he pulled gently on the back of my neck into a kiss.
It was weird.
You know, after not having sex in … Jesus I don’t even remember how long it had been at that point. Regardless, I expected something like fireworks or sparks or … butterflies.
But none. None at all.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” a voice came from behind.
I pulled away from Dylan and whipped around on my barstool. Standing there, expressionless and pale as copy paper, was Ezra.
“Ezra … wait …”
But he was gone. Just that quick, he had whipped out the door.
“Don’t worry about h—” Dylan tugged at my wrist.
“I have to go …”
“Your tab is still open,” Charlie said. “Your credit card is here.”
“Just run it. I’ll come back for it.”
I dashed out the door and onto the sidewalk, looking left and then right for Ezra. From afar, I caught a glimpse of him hailing a cab at the street corner.
“Ezra!” I yelled, running toward him. He looked up and then opened the cab door. “Ezra, don’t leave!” I approached just in time to slam the door shut. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was going to do that. I didn’t even know he’d be here. He just … he just showed up there. One minute the bartender was telling me another guy from Houston had been there, and the next he was there again.”
“Oh, right. You had no idea that he’d be there tonight.”
“You’re the one who told me to go out tonight! I didn’t plan this!”
“When I said go out and have a drink, I meant vodka or wine, not ejaculate or spit.”
“I did not sleep with him, Ezra. That’s not fair.”
“You don’t sleep with me, either. That doesn’t mean it’s not cheating.”
I slapped my palm against my forehead. “You’re asexual, Ezra. You told me years ago that you’d be okay with an open relationship.”
“We were drunk. I didn’t even remember saying that until you wrote about it in your slut column.”
I took a step back. My mouth fell open and my arms dropped to my side. He’d never spoken to me like that. In fact, he’d never actually said a mean word to me in the years we’d known one another.
“Slut?” I huffed out. “Isn’t that what you think I am? A slut? Because if I remember correctly, I gave up sex to be with you and then to come to this godforsaken city with you where I have no friends, an unfinished book, a dog who only likes me when the takeout is delivered, and a boyfriend who thinks I’m a slut.”
“I DIDN’T ASK YOU TO MOVE HERE WITH ME.”
And there it was—the well I’d dug not just for him, but for me, as well. The one I’d pushed him down into, then jumped behind him in because I didn’t want to be without him. And now? It was all being thrown in my face. All being spit back at me. And why? What had I done wrong before this one thing? Loved him? Cared for him? Since we’d been together, he’d at least been eating real meals and not combination Pizza Rolls and frozen fish sticks. At least the house stayed tidy and the dog didn’t have to spend the day in a kennel. At least someone had wanted to be there to cheer him on when he gave up his amazing job in accounting to teach math to some prepubescent brats. Wasn’t it ironic that the person who once told me I experienced feelings with an intensity he may never feel was now shouting at me out of hurt in the middle of the street?
I felt like a fool.
And as he opened the cab door and jumped inside, my knees wobbled, and then they gave. I fell to the concrete crying. Wailing. Drunk and wailing in the middle of downtown because I fucked up the best thing in my life.
And then it began to rain.
“Hey, buddy,” the Uber driver’s voice called. My eyes opened in quick, irritable flutters. I looked around the back seat and realized we were parked outside my house.
“Shit,” I muttered. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” I muttered somewhere between apologetically and groggily.
The Uber driver only shrugged and said, “Better in my car on the way home from the bar than in yours.”
He had a point there.
I walked into the house, the mushrooms still very much alive inside of me. I was suddenly famished, but the light inside the refrigerator was too distracting for me to find anything to eat. Instead, I laid down on the couch, visions of Ezra screaming at me swimming around in my head. I wondered briefly if it were possible to go back to that dream if I closed my eyes. Just to find resolve to the story. Just to see how it ended.
INT. DOWNTOWN HOUSTON LIBRARY – 2021
The Julia Ideson building was absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous. Standing inside of it, with its marble columns and its perfectly polished wooden floors and its arched windows, it finally dawned on me for the very first time:
In less than twenty-four hours … I would be getting married here.
And this man, this beautiful, beautiful man was standing on his feet before all our family and friends inside this gorgeous building toasting my family, my friends, and me. And in less than twenty-four hours, in this historic homage to Houston’s very first head librarian, Julia Bedford Ideson, I would marry this man.
He stood there, so brave, and tall, and sure, and sweet, holding up his champagne flute and smiled from his mother to mine and then back to me.
And I’d never been happier.
“And to my fiance’s friends,” he said with certainty typically reserved for lying politicians and Amazon customer representatives, “Thank you for making this man the man that he is today. Thank you for letting him crack all the jokes he’s cracked about you, and for letting him cry all the tears he’s cried over men like me. Thank you for never turning him away. Thank you for being here and handing him off to me. Without you, he would not be the person I fell in love with.”
With that, my wonderful would-be groom took his seat next to me, leaned in, and kissed me in front of everyone as the crowd clapped and cheered. Then, when the kiss was over, he leaned in, ever-smiling, and whispered into my ear, “What the actual fuck is he doing here?” before cutting his eyes away from me and looking directly at Ezra, who sat on the opposite side of the room.
“Can we not do this now?” I asked as I continued smiling and turned back to the face the others who sat at the spread of tables before us.
“You told me you weren’t inviting him,” Matt Kersey said through gritted teeth.
“No, you told me not to invite him, and I invited him anyway, because he’s my friend,” I responded in similar fashion. “Jesus, Matthew. It’s not like I made him my best man.”
“And who the hell shows up without a date to a wedding rehearsal dinner?”
“Someone who doesn’t date because he’s asexual,” I replied.
“Or someone who has feelings for you and knows you’ve been in love with him for years,” he snipped.
“I promise you, that has never been an issue. He has never had feelings for me, and I have never been in love with him,” I reassured him as I downed my entire glass of champagne. “Can we please talk about this when we get home?” I asked.
“No, actually, we can’t,” he informed me as he sipped his own champagne.
“And why not?”
Just then, a pair of hands grabbed me by either shoulder and yanked me back in my seat. As I tossed my head up to see who was there, I found myself looking directly into Stephen’s eyes. He smiled down—drunkenly, mind you—at me with all his teeth exposed and the faint scent of vodka dripping into my nose.
“No. NO! Not tonight. I have to get married tomorrow,” I told him as I did my best to pull from his clutches.
“That’s too bad,” he said with a roll of his eyes as he squatted down behind me and placed his head on my shoulder. “Matt already said we could have you for the night,” he went on. “Besides, isn’t it bad luck for the groom to see the other groom before the wedding?”
“I’m not sure that’s how that particular superstition goes—”
“Let’s go,” he told me as he pulled me up under the shoulder. I reached for Matt’s champagne flute and drank what was left inside of it. “We’re having a girls’ night.”
“Okay, okay,” I told him as I found my footing and pulled out of his clasp. “Let me tell my fiancé goodbye, first, please,” I all but implored.
With that, I reached for Matt’s hand and pulled him up, as well, pulling him in close to me. Chest-to-chest. Pelvis-to-pelvis. Nose-to-nose.
“You don’t need to worry about Ezra,” I mumbled. “I love you. This is it. This is how our fairy tale ends. Me and you. That’s it.”
Matt smiled and leaned in to kiss me, but I pulled back. For a moment, in typical Anthony fashion, I nearly lost my balance and fell to the floor. But Matt Kersey being Matt Kersey, his arms weaved around my waist and kept me from toppling over into what—with my bad luck—would have probably resulted in a major concussion.
“Tell me you believe me,” I ordered.
“I do believe you,” he agreed, smiling and kissing me in a long, swoon-worthy embrace. “And I love you, too,” he told me.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket.
“Perfect. Now stop looking at me,” I told him as I pressed my hand in his face and pushed him away. “It’s midnight. I don’t want to jinx anything.”
INT. THE ROOM BAR – LATER
They were all there. Every single one of the people who had made the last few years so memorable, so wonderful, were all there with me celebrating my engagement. Stephen, Lauren, Courtney, Hope, Alice, Derek, Jeremy, and … yes … Ezra.
‘”It’s weird. Right?” Stephen asked as he ordered us shots from Hope at the bar.
“Which part?” I asked with a laugh.
“This is what you’ve wanted as long as I’ve known you.”
“Which part?” I reiterated with a laugh.
“All of it. The books, the job, the fame, the man. And now you’re getting married. Shit, you’re getting married before me and Leo, and we’ve been saying that we’re going to for years.”
“You’re next,” I told him as Hope handed us our shots.
“For the soon-to-be-groom and his best man,” she said with a wink. “On me.”
“You’re so sweet,” I told her as I smiled and blew her a kiss. “You’re the best.”
“Actually,” Stephen said as he raised his glass. “I’m the best … best man.” I raised my glass up and clinked his.
“Don’t make me regret that decision,” I told him with a wink and a smile.
We took our shots and smiled at one another. There was that earnest, honest look in Stephen’s eyes I’d only seen one other time before. It was years ago, the night he’d been heartbroken at Rich’s when I’d rushed home from Galveston to console him.
“Let’s do it,” he said with his toothy smile, shaking his head once from one side to the next. “For old time’s sake,” he went on.
“Stephen, no,” I said with a laugh.
“C’mon,” he said. “You aren’t married, yet.” And without missing another beat, without waiting for another moment to conjure itself and beget stagnation, Stephen wrapped his arms around my waist, pulled me in close, and kissed me for the second time in our long friendship.
It was a nice kiss. And while the similarity was present in its sweetness, that’s where it ended. Because without him even knowing it, Stephen had reminded me that this would be my very last kiss as an unmarried person to a man I was uninvolved with. It was warm and soft and exciting. There was magic there. And a part of me wondered, as our lips stayed locked together, and our breaths kick-boxed in the narrow space between our noses, if I wasn’t a little sad that Stephen and I had never tried a relationship. After all, he was kind, and hyper-intelligent, and funny to a fault. In every zodiac and tarot spread and prophecy, we were 100% compatible. Again … to a fault. But the stars had missed their alignment by just a fragment of an inch, and that destiny had never quite come to fruition.
“Am I interrupting something?” a voice echoed behind us.
Without pulling apart at first, our eyes opened and our lips stayed pressed together while we smiled and enjoyed a lasting look at each other one last time.
“Not at all,” I said as I turned, blushing, to face Ezra.
“I um … I was about to head out, so I wanted to tell you goodbye,” he said with a smile.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” I offered, stepping toward him. I turned back to Stephen, “I’ll catch you in a minute.”
“Call me Amelia Earhart, because I feel like I am about to get lost in a triangle!” he cackled at his own joke. I waved him off and led Ezra outside by the hand.
It took only seconds to traverse to his car, and there was silence for a long moment as I smiled at him and he looked around the sky curiously.
“Say something,” I finally told him as I let out a small laugh and lightly kicked him in his shin.
“There’s nothing to say,” he chuckled. “Well, I mean, except for congratulations and that I’m happy for you, and that I love you.”
I smiled and opened my arms to him.
“I love you, too,” I told him as I wrapped him in a hug that lasted probably a moment longer than he was comfortable with. But being the friend that he was, he didn’t pull away until I’d drained him of every last drop of affection he had inside him.
He stepped into his car, and I leaned against that of some stranger. He waved as he ducked inside, and I blew him a kiss. He put the car in reverse, and I never let my eyes leave him.
That was the man I had developed the most beautiful friendship with years after telling him I might love him. That was the man who had confessed how he’d loved me, too, but that his own body had failed him when it came to romance and sex—that those sorts of emotions didn’t exist within him and that he couldn’t reciprocate those feelings. That was the man I was convinced, for a short while, that I might spend the rest of my life with.
And he was driving away, now. And I was happy to have him as my friend. And I watched him as he took off down FM 2920. And I shed a single tear knowing that he’d made me a better person, prepared me for the big love I was soon to stumble upon.
INT. DOWNTOWN HOUSTON LIBRARY – WEDDING DAY
Stephen, Alice, Derek, and Lauren all look down the aisle before me. They were linked arm-in-arm by Matthew’s own party of groomsman and women. And when the wedding march began to play, and the large, double doors opened before me, I do believe that I stopped breathing.
I was about to give my entire life away to a man—a man I could see like an ant upon the ground on the other end of the library. And he loved me, and I him. And someday we would raise children together, and maybe move into some inner-loop suburb on some fancy side of Houston. But today, we would stand before those we loved more than anyone else in the world, and we would profess our love, and then we would go home to our tiny apartment, and pack our bags, and fly out to New York City the very next day where we’d spend time seeing musicals and drinking with locals and shopping in barrios. We’d do our best not to seem too touristy, but the glee and love would be evidence enough.
So, in my custom-made wedding attire—inspired by Hindu wedding garbs with a touch of couture and a Dolce & Gabbana scarf holding my hair back—I marched down the aisle all dressed in white—ironic, considering my sexcapades—and forced myself not to look at anyone I passed along the way.
Then, when I made it to the very front of the room, I stood across from him, a minister going through the motions and us reciting our vows. And when asked if he took me to be his lawfully wedded husband, Matt, crying, said, “I do.”
And when the minister asked the very same of me … I froze.
My force to not look around at everyone evaded me, and I looked around the room to see who all sat before me with smiles and teary eyes. My mouth fell open, and I suddenly needed a drink. And my eyes, they bounced from Hope, to Derek, to my mother. And they landed once on Stephen, and I was reminded of that 11th-hour kiss. Then they washed over man after man I’d fallen for or fallen into bed with. And when they hit Ezra, who looked impatient and was also somehow crying joyfully, I turned back to Matt.
His eyes widened. His hands clenched around mine. The room was silent.
“I … I …”
One last look. One last look at all of them.
“I have to pee.”
What would certainly end up being a urinary tract infection woke me from my slumber. I sat straight up and ran to the restroom, where I sat and peed for nearly five minutes. But at that point, I realized my high was gone, and I knew if I didn’t get it back, neither of my stories would get their happy ending.
So, without washing my hands, I dashed back into the kitchen, grabbed the remaining mushrooms in the bag, and shoved them in my mouth before running up to my bedroom and getting back into bed.
The thoughts, however, the questions that accompanied my ridiculously realistic dreams, kept me up for another hour. Before I could fall back asleep, the sun had begun to rise.
But the moment that I did, I was nearly certain that what I’d been looking for was coming.
INT. BABA YEGA – BRUNCH – 2023
I began each morning by telling myself that being single at 29 was perfectly normal and that being alone was more a state of mind than a level of existence.
I was full of shit.
Now home from his honeymoon and resettled back into his life, Stephen droned on and on about the beauty of Spain and all the Spanish gay orgies he and Leo had been to while in Madrid. I guessed every couple should be left to begin their own traditions. Leo and Stephen’s idea of a honeymoon, as if it could get no gayer after factoring in the orgies, was a two-week-long trip across most of Western Europe, in which they visited every city known for its fashion imaginable. From Paris to Milan to Madrid and, of course, Amsterdam (because in 2023, leather was fashionable again), the couple celebrated their open-relationship-turned-open-marriage, Donald Trump no longer being the president, and the child they’d soon be adopting from China now that their lives were more intact and they’d moved out of their shitty, one-bedroom, Avondale apartment.
“So, what have you been up to? What’s new with you?” Stephen asked as we rounded into our third carafe. Being drunk now, I wasn’t even sure why I’d bother to tell him, as I knew he’d spend most of the time formulating something else to say and inevitably interrupting me mid-sentence one hundred times.
“Nothing really,” I confessed as I popped a grape into my mouth.
“What? We haven’t seen each other since my wedding and that was almost a month ago.” Stephen guzzled mimosa. “You have to have had something new happen. A new book? A new boy?”
“My life does entail more than books and boys, you know,” I sighed, a bit annoyed. I shook it off. “No, nothing really. Everything is just as it was when you left.”
“What about the guy you brought to the wedding? What was his name? Jake?”
“Jake is nothing more than my ex that I sometimes have sex with and take to events because we’re both single.”
“Then why not try getting back together with him?”
I laughed. Stephen had been around throughout the entire Jake situation. He knew that there was really no going back there. Often, I wondered if he asked such questions because the older that we got, the less we had to talk about. Our similarities never changed, but priorities often did.
“Nah,” I went on. “It’s not worth going through all that shit again. He’s very spiteful when he shoulders bad feelings for someone. Any little fight we had always turned into histrionics the likes of which I can’t even verbalize.”
Stephen looked across the table at me as he forked waffle into his mouth. He gave that seductive little smile of his. “Sounds perfect for you.”
I laughed, though it was forced. “Oh, fuck off.” I pushed my plate away, full somehow from just the small portion of fruit I’d eaten. “So, are we still on for Legally Blonde on Friday?”
Stephen looked up from his plate. “Is that this Friday?” he asked, scrolling through the calendar on his phone. “Shit. I totally forgot and that’s the day we’re supposed to leave to pick up the baby.”
“Seriously, Stephen? You’re blowing me off for your dumb baby? You never even wanted kids!”
“First of all, my kid is Asian, so I doubt she’ll be dumb. Secondly, things change. Now, I want kids. Is that so bad?”
“Yes, actually, it is. It especially is when it interferes with my plans to see Legally Blonde: The Musical.”
“Take Courtney! She’s been to musicals with you before,” he optioned.
“Only because Ezra and I were going and she wanted a lowkey first date with Jennifer.” I picked up the carafe to refill my champagne flute.
“Well, then take Ezra!”
The carafe fell out of my hand and hit the ground with a clatter. Had I not just emptied it into my glass, I might be more upset. “Ezra has not spoken to me in five years.” My voice was squeezing between my gritted teeth.
“No, you have not spoken to Ezra in five years,” Stephen went on as he scarfed down bacon. He’d gained a little weight over the last few years, but he carried it well. Long gone were the days of the lanky Stephen I’d first met at Pride Houston in 2016. 35-year-old Stephen actually looked better than ever. He was one of those people who only got better-looking as they aged. I despised that about him. Still, he was my best friend through-and-through. Certainly we fought like all other friends, sometimes not speaking for months when that happened. But somehow, some way, through all our own hubris and stubbornness, Stephen and I always went back to being friends. There weren’t a lot of others to be had, it seemed. “And you only haven’t spoken to him because you don’t handle rejection well.”
“I handle rejection the best way I know how. And that’s not why I stopped speaking to him. I’m no child,” I pressed. “It was never the fact that he rejected me. It was the fact that he rejected me and chalked it up to his asexuality, then months later went out and met some Asian Jew and didn’t have time for his friends anymore. And what’s so special about an Asian Jew anyway? I’m Jewish, too. A Mexican Jew, which is far more interesting if you ask me.”
“Have the Asians done something specific to you that’s made you so bitter toward them?”
“It’s not all Asians. Just the ones who are taking all my people away from me.”
It was a cutting remark, certainly, regardless of the intent of it being a joke. In truth, it had nothing to do with Asians, but rather was due to a supreme feeling of once again never being good enough for anyone to consider dating seriously.
With Jake, our entire relationship had been real, even if it had initiated as a means of me helping him complete his dissertation. But the ultimate and final battle had been the same as so many before it: he couldn’t see spending the rest of his life with me. Adam, a man I’d dated for only a few short weeks, and I had broken up in similar fashion. True, our relationship had only happened because I was thick and Adam fetishized that. Still, when he and I broke up, it all came down to the future he had pictured and how I didn’t fit into it. Dylan was another problem, but the same in theme and tone: he didn’t want to settle down. He wanted to hook up without strings attached, which I was able to at some point stray away from. Matt Kersey may have been the sweetest prospect, but he and I never dated. Jeremy and I probably could have been something–his mother and Hope had both certainly hoped so. But Jeremy’s feelings for me only surfaced when he was shitty drunk, which to me felt like a bit of a deal breaker. And every man before or after or in between had been nothing but a meaningless sex partner with whom there had been no spark.
And of all the men in Houston–and a handful abroad–I’d met few whom ever brought me that warm feeling for which I so desperately yearned. And the older I got, as I began to flirt with thirty and as the fleeting moments of joy and euphoria brought on by cocaine and mushrooms and drunken karaoke nights at bars became fewer and further between, I couldn’t help but wonder if it really was me. Maybe there was something about me that just repelled men away … that made them think I wasn’t good enough. In the last five years, I’d become more successful, sure. My face reflected my age more, of course. My body had changed and then hadn’t. But other than those few things, little was different about me. I was still loud, still crass, still intimidating, still funny, still hard-working, still kind. And the still to steal them all was still the same, as well:
“I’ll go alone,” I told Stephen as the waiter came by to present our checks. I pulled a credit card from my wallet as Stephen reached for his own. “I’ve got it,” I told him, curling one side of my mouth up to resemble something adjacent of a smile. “Happy baby week.”
We were gone moments later. And as much as hated to admit it to myself, as much as I tried to wish away the feeling, I knew that would be the last time Stephen and I spent time together uninterrupted by shrill, baby cries or PTA meetings or book tours or a traverse outside the loop where he and Leo would eventually settle down in a suburb and raise their new child and the two more they’d have in the three years to follow.
We weren’t different. In fact, we were still very much the same. The only difference was that Stephen had gotten his happily ever after. Mine, however, was somewhere far from sight.
EXT. THE MILLER OUTDOOR THEATRE – THAT FRIDAY
I’d seen the same production of Legally Blonde on that same stage seven or so years ago. The cast was comprised of amateurs, though none that were out of their league in terms of talent. Only this time, instead of being joined by Alice and Max, I found myself sitting on the hill alone, humming the tunes along as the company belted out one after the next.
I’d arrived early enough to pick out the perfect spot at the foot of the hill, dead center. I’d learned after years and years that planning was important when attending a performance, as the crowds came in droves and never left any good seating even half an hour before curtain.
I’d brought a box of cabernet, but that was gone by intermission. I tossed the box into the recycling bin and made my way down to the concession stands, picking up the blanket I’d brought to sit upon as the grass was damp from the previous day’s shower. I ordered two glasses of white zinfandel—the only wine left behind the counter, to my own disgust—from the concession stand, feeling it necessary to lie to the clerk and say one was for my friend back on the hill. The blanket over my shoulder should have been giveaway enough that I was making things up, but she neither questioned me nor seemed to care.
I went back to the hill to take my spot back. Only, when I arrived at the foot of the hill, a young woman and her suitor were laying their blanket down and taking their seats in my spot. The moment the blanket hit the grass, a chirpy little dog ran atop it and plopped down in front of a bag of popcorn.
“What the fuck?” I shouted–and I mean shouted.
The man turned around. “Excuse me?”
“I said ‘what the fuck’ … as in, ‘What the fuck are you doing in my spot?’” Clearly their response required that I reiterate the point.
“You moved. We thought you’d left,” the woman told me without making an effort to get up and move back to her original place.
“I went to get wine, you classless cunt.”
“Wow,” her boyfriend uttered. “I don’t know what’s sadder about you: the fact that you’re about to double-fist wine, because we all know you’ve been here alone this whole time, or that your alcoholism and loneliness have made you so bitter that you’re harassing strangers in a park.”
For the first time in my entire life, I was without a quick-witted remark to fire back at them.
I mean … they weren’t wrong. I was behaving like a crazy person. Sure, I was drunk, but I’d never been belligerent in my entire life until that very moment. And I was bitter … in more than one sense of the word. Bitter that Stephen blew me off to go adopt a baby. Bitter that I didn’t have a boyfriend to enjoy doing things with me and that all my other friends were either married or so infatuated with their lovers that they hadn’t the time to spend with their friends. Bitter that I’d forgone love and a relationship for my career and that all the men I’d ever loved or at the very least trusted found me unlovable.
Jesus fucking Christ … who had I become?
“There’s room over here,” a familiar voice called to me from a few feet away. Turning my head, I spotted Ezra sitting alone on his own blanket with his own dog curled up nervously in his lap. He nodded down toward the empty space on the blanket.
“Ha!” I said up to the sky. “You have a really fucked up sense of humor. You know that?”
“Who are you talking to?” the woman asked.
“God, dumbass,” I told her as I downed one of the plastic cups of wine before chunking it at her. “I hope your dog dies.”
I moseyed over toward Ezra, left without any options. I took a seat down without looking at him, though I could somehow see in my mind, nonetheless. He looked relatively the same. His features were a bit more defined, as happens in the early thirties. He still smelled like that Rue 21 cologne he’d worn when I knew him. And he still didn’t have that much to say unless prompted.
“Still classy, I see,” he muttered, which—whether from drunkenness or actual humor—made me laugh loudly.
“Well, you know me.” A moment of silence passed. “You look good.”
“You’ve not even looked at me,” he pointed out. “But thank you, anyway. You do, as well,” he said. “You actually look younger somehow.”
“Yeah, well I had to stop smoking cigarettes and snorting coke,” I confessed. That being said, there was nothing about this awkward encounter that didn’t make me want to do a bump and smoke a cigarette. “How’s the depression?” I asked him.
“Managed,” he replied. “And your bipolar disorder?”
“I think that my little sketch comedy down there is sufficient enough an answer to that.”
Finally, I did turn and look at him. And he did look good. “I figured you would have moved away by now,” I admitted.
“I thought about it,” he said. “I still think about it. I just haven’t.”
“Staying behind for a boy?” I asked, partly to poke fun and partly because I was nosy.
“Oh, please. I haven’t dated anybody in years.”
As everyone took their seats down in the pavilion, the crowd on the hill got quiet and the lights went down. Moments later, the curtain rose and the cast of jump-roping actors and actresses began singing the act two opener.
“This is a really good production for what it is,” Ezra said.
“It really is. I saw it here years ago, and I was impressed then, too.”
“Shhh!” the woman from my original seat hissed.
I turned to look at her. “I will literally kill your boyfriend in front of you, and then make you watch as your dog eats his carcass.”
She fell silent.
“Some things really never do change,” Ezra mumbled, taking the cup of white zin out of my hand and taking a swig before handing it back to me.
The days that followed those mushroom dreams were … confusing, to say the least. Discerning reality from them was difficult, but proved to be manageable. Each ending fit the course life could have taken, but each was tragic in their own right. I feared them … really feared them. Pushing too hard, loving being loved more than loving the person who loved me, and being alone. After all, as someone told me lately, I experience emotions intensely … maybe in a way most other people don’t. But another sex writer, I believe her name was Carrie Bradshaw, once said, “Some people are settling down. Some people are settling. And some people refuse to settle for anything less than butterflies.”
I fell into the latter category.
A year to the day has passed since I sat down and wrote the first story in this series of tales about my sex life and my “love” life. In that year, I have been peed on, I have been objectified for my size, I have survived an orgy, and I have had my heart ripped out, and stepped on, and broken. But also in that time, I have danced with my friends, and had some amazing sex, and—as I once put it—fucked a frog or two, even when none of them turned out to be the prince I was hoping they’d be.
Still, through all the drugs and alcohol and parties and bad dates and not-dates, I did find the thing that I sought out to find in the first place:
But what I’ve learned about butterflies is that they’re just like anything else that lives—like all organic matter. They are born, and they transform, and they live. And, ultimately, they die. But soon, if we’re lucky, someone comes along that impregnates you with them again. Even when they start off as caterpillars and slowly transfigure themselves into that feeling that makes you want to burst from the inside out. Sometimes they have to be caterpillars and cocoons, because they can never become butterflies without going through those phases. And that’s what life is all about: …phases. The relationships, the good times, the bad, the drama, the joy … none of it is constant.
And, if we’re still lucky, we get to go through some phases—like the butterfly phase—much longer than we have to wait for the chrysalis to crack.
However, therein lies the true beauty, at least I think:
Nothing lives without nurture, and if someone you love nurtures those feelings, nurtures those butterflies properly, they can live a very, very long time.
I’m lucky enough to say that I have someone who nurtures that feeling without even knowing it. Lots of people, actually. My Stephens, my Alices, my Laurens, my Courtneys, my Hopes, my Dereks, and even my Ezras. Without me, true, their worlds would go on turning. Still, each of them has had such a pivotal part in making me who I am, today, that I’m not so sure mine would without each of them.
They are true love, because there is no friendship if there is no love.
As for Ezra … well, nothing new is happening there. Nor with any man, for that matter. But he has taught me something quite unique about love from nearly the beginning of these stories; and that’s that love is just that … unique.
I’ll stand beside him and up for him and with him as long as he needs, and I will be his friend as long as we are both able—which hopefully will be a very long time. But I’ll never forget how he was the first man in a very long time to remind me what the butterflies felt like. And that’s the best gift anyone could have ever given me. And, as I said before, if the worst thing that happens is that he continues giving me those and I get to keep feeling them as his friend, that’s not such a bad place to be with someone.
I may not have ridden off into the sunset on the back of his noble steed, nor did we skip through fields of poppies into the sun. But the friendship I get to have with him since those letters is so much more fulfilling. It exists without illusion, without grandeur. And that’s something that I’ve needed more than anything for a very long time—long before these stories: something real. Anything real.
I don’t know what stories I’ll tell next, nor do I know which men will inspire them. I don’t know how soon they’ll come or what I’ll feel when I write them. But one thing is for certain:
I still have so much love to give.