Less Than Butterflies, No. 20
I think when you’re dating someone, there are certain universal signs that are easy to identify, but difficult to translate. Although, when you’re not dating someone but are spending time with them on the frequent, the interpretations can be much more difficult to ascertain. For instance, if someone puts an arm around you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they like you, but it also could mean that they do like you. Or just because someone you like is talking about another person that’s cute or that they’ve slept with could be their way of telling you that they’re interested in someone else. Then again, it could also just be that person gauging your reaction and interest to see how you feel about them. Humans are funny creatures, and each little quirk makes us unique, which is why pairing two people together on a romantic level can be not only overwhelming, but seemingly impossible.
That being said, when one person does meet another with whom they actually click, trying to maneuver from the ‘I like you’ stage into the ‘let’s settle down and adopt a corgi together’ stage can be just as confusing. That’s because at that time, when you’re first infatuated with someone, everything is looked at through rose-colored glasses. Everything looks like a sign that the other person may like you, but rare is it that they actually do. For years, I had this problem on the frequent. In spite of having had (and broken up with) numerous men between the ages of twenty and twenty-three, nothing ever quite satiated my need for affection; and I found that I was tricking myself into falling in love with men who would never love me quite as much as I loved them, some of which not even in the same way. I thought that the more I loved them, the more they’d love me, and the closer we’d get.
Twenty-four presented me with a new set of obstacles, true; but more so it provided me with the clarity to know when I was being foolish and how to see things as they were. I owe a lot of that to Ezra, with whom I fell in love and hoped he’d someday love me just as much and the same way, too. At twenty-four, I’ve found myself thinner than I’ve been since high school, more hard-working than ever before, and less terrified by the things that once scared me shitless … even when it comes to boys. I realize now that after having had my heart ripped out and stomped on more times than a few, I don’t really have much left to lose.
It’s been one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
All that being said, reading the signs is no less difficult than it was in years past. Learning to like a guy the way I have Mason these last few weeks has been a new and uncharted experience for me, simply because I’m learning to have these feelings without the anxiety of worrying about what’s going to go wrong. If he likes me, great; he should. I’m tall and cute and well-dressed and hygienic and educated and successful and I have an ass that just won’t quit. But if Mason doesn’t feel the same way, that’s fine, too. He’s a great friend to have and we get along really well together. I don’t foresee heartbreak and misery in the way I experienced those things with other men.
So last week as I reflected on our last quasi-date together, I made a plan to see if he felt the same way I did without coming out and asking him. I decided to see that through to the best of my drunken ability.
The plan was set for the two of us to go out on Saturday a week ahead of time and for once, I was not going to let anything get in the way of me enjoying my evening and following through with my scheme. I didn’t care who tagged along this time or where we went out drinking, and I wasn’t going to let myself spill a Gatorade bottle of urine on myself this time. I had $200 set aside to blow on the evening and $40 worth of cocaine to keep me awake and functioning. I was going to spend several drunken hours with Mason in which we were going to have an amazing time, goddamnit.
First, however, I was going to check on my friend, Courtney, who had just broken up with her girlfriend, Jennifer, of nearly a year. Courtney wanted to get out of the house for a while, so I suggested she tag along with us in order to keep her from crying at home alone into a cheap bottle of beer. We met at Kirby Ice House where — even in the rain — white, straight people were reveling in drunken merry through the crowded bar. I walked up to the door, where a short line of people were waiting to show their IDs and the doorman — whom I knew from somewhere — let me through and past the line.
I walked to the bar and paid $14 for a shot of Patron and a glass of Cabernet before locating Courtney on the patio laughing with a troop of straight boys who had no idea she was gay or that she’d just broken up with her girlfriend. She greeted me and introduced me to her new friends, the names of each I’d forget just moments later and whom I’d probably never see again. Not one for the straight experience, I downed my shot, my wine, and three beers from the bucket Courtney had bought for the table. It was evident to me that she’d been crying before, as her eyes were puffy and her face looked tired, so I pulled her aside to smoke a cigarette and to see how she was holding up.
“I think I want to sleep with men again,” she told me as she took a drag off a cigarette — a habit she’d kicked almost a year ago. I nearly spit out my beer. “What?” she asked me as I wiped my face. “Don’t judge me.”
“I’m not judging you! I want to sleep with men again, too,” I told her. “I just didn’t realize it was something you thought about.” It wasn’t a secret that Courtney had had relationships with men in the past, even having an affair with a married, straight couple a little over a year ago. Still, it hadn’t occurred to me that she was wanting to play exclusively for the other team. I’d always thought of her as more of a free agent. (Being in straight bars clearly has affected how I draw analogies).
“I mean, I’m not as gay as you are. I like men a little,” she told me as she drank more beer.
“You do what you want to do,” I said as I put my cigarette out and led the way back to our table. The straight boys looked a bit disheartened when they heard that Courtney wasn’t straight, but felt better knowing she was at least straight-adjacent. One of them was even lucky enough to get her number — although a part of me wondered if that had something to do with the fact that they knew she and I had coke. I drank fast as I wanted to be drunk enough by the time I saw Mason to carry out my plan, and Courtney was already drunk upon my arrival. Nevertheless, we toasted our new acquaintances and laughed at bad jokes they told. One of them flirted with Courtney and she flirted back while another was being somewhat flirtatious with me, which I did not understand but to which I was receptive.
“Where are y’all going after this?” Straight Man #1 — Court’s flirt — inquired.
“A gay bar,” she told them. “RJ’s or something.”
“JR’s,” I corrected with a laugh.
“Where’s that?” #2 — my flirt — asked.
Courtney shrugged while I said, “About a mile from here. In Montrose.” It almost seemed as though they were inviting themselves to tag along, which I wouldn’t have minded, but led me to say, “it’s a gay bar.”
“Do y’all wanna come?” Courtney asked.
Each of them shrugged and nodded, one adding that he loved gay bars, but I knew that we probably wouldn’t see them again. We soon left them behind, me heading over to Mason’s to pick him up and Courtney to get a head start toward JR’s.
Mason lived near my old house in Washington Heights. His apartment building was just off of Washington Ave. before Pearl Bar which would have been the perfect location to get drunk together on the frequent was I still living in his neighborhood. It made me wish I’d spent a little less time worrying about Ezra and more time getting to know Mason when we’d first met. But that was then, when I was still trying to read the signs I thought I was getting from Ezra.
We all know how that turned out.
I took note of how nice Mason’s apartment building was. Even when I’d been living there I’d never noticed it before. When he hopped in the car with me downstairs, I could tell that he had not been drinking like I had leading up to that moment. It was already nine, and I’d already drank more than most people could handle. Nevertheless, I’d had a rough week and I still hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to go digging for the information that I wanted. Still, now that I was with Mason, the plan had to be put into action. It was a simple plan, but still one that could go horribly wrong: toss out a little bait — drop flirty hints, get a little tactile — and see how he responded. Give him signs; read his signs.
I texted Courtney several times while parking in Montrose before we headed over to JR’s, but didn’t receive any replies, which worried me to a certain degree considering that Courtney was known for making irrational decisions when she was drunk and sad. However, Mason and I proceeded to JR’s, where I handed him a twenty dollar bill and asked him to get us drinks at the patio bar while I dashed off to the restroom. All the alcohol was hitting at once and I was not going to have any more urine-related incidents while out with this man. And considering the fact that I donned pastel pink pants, an accident might have been a little bit harder to conceal. We drank and wandered inside to escape Houston’s notorious humidity and ran into several people around the bar that I knew from work and such, but none as familiar to me as the woman sitting at a fold-up table at the front of the bar with clipboards lined out in front of her in the hopes of registering people to vote.
I approached the table from behind and her, “Hello, I need to register to vote so that I can make sure Donald Trump gets a second term.” Laughing and turning to face me, Michelle gave me a hug and smiled as I introduced her to Mason.
Michelle and I had been friends since we were freshmen in high school, and she’d recently moved back to Houston from Austin and Atlanta before that after getting both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Unbeknownst to many people that went to high school with us, in that time, Michelle had come out of the closet and spent her time advocating for the rights of people of color and on the LGBTQ spectrum. Recently, she’d begun writing for our magazine in addition to working as a coordinator for Battleground Texas, a Democratic organization dedicated to getting people registered to vote.
Thankfully, Michelle was nearly done with her work and had agreed to join us afterward to go out into Montrose for more fun and drinks. To that end, I resolved to smoke a cigarette and to get us all another drink — Mason a Long Island, Michelle an Old Fashioned, and myself a vodka cranberry. On the patio where I was smoking, Mason and I chatted with some friends I’d run into and played an oversized game of Jenga before heading to the bar for drinks where I also ordered us shots of Fireball.
“Shots,” I told Mason as I presented him with one of them.
“What are these?” he asked as he sniffed the inside of the glass. “Ugh. Fireball,” he said with a grimace.“Oh, please. It’s like 80% sugar and I need you to be on my level,” I told him as I clinked my glass to his, touched it against countertop, and then downed the Fireball.
As it turned out, Mason’s ‘ugh’ had been right on point. As of late I’d been drinking a lot less than I was used to and I’d forgotten exactly how Fireball tasted. More importantly, I’d forgotten how Fireball felt going down. A chilled, spicy beverage followed by heartburn? Gross. Why did I ever even drink this stuff?
We found Michelle, gave her the Old Fashioned, and then retired to the back patio to drink under a cabana where a gaggle of misfits missing a few of their front teeth joined us without asking if they could do so. I was sitting on the arm of a patio chair when one of them plopped his methed out ass down into the seat, prompting me to move as quick as a vampire from garlic or a good narrative.
“You can still sit there,” the seemingly homeless man said.
“No, that’s fine.” I told him as I lifted my straw to my mouth. “Nothing I love more than standing.”
At the next bar — Ripcord, I think? — I began spending even more money that I did not have to spend by ordering everyone tequila shots and drinks before we retreated to the patio. Once finding an open table, I couldn’t help but notice that right before us there were two bearish men at a bench, both shirtless, one standing over the bench, and the other sitting on it sucking the former’s dick.
“Classy,” I said as I took a drink before pulling out a tiny bag of coke to do a bump before God and everyone else.
It was probably all of the alcohol, but for about an hour the three of us fell down a rabbit hole of complimentary remarks about one another in which Michelle and I looked back fondly on high school and Mason and Michelle grew to like one another quite a bit. That was a nice feeling for me, although I’m not entirely sure why. Somewhere between them both telling one another what a good friend I was — that part I knew had to be due to the alcohol — my phone began to ring.
“Where the fuck have you been?” I barked at Courtney into the phone.
“Relax,” she huffed out. “I was on the phone with my dad.”
“I will not relax! You’re sad and you just had a break up and you aren’t exactly known for making good decisions when you’re drinking through your feelings.”
“I’m fine. I’m walking up to JR’s. Where are y’all?”
“Oh.” I’d forgotten to mention to her that we’d since moved to Ripcord. She joined us about ten minutes later, greeting Michelle kindly and saying hi to Mason, whom she’d met once before at a Pride event when we’d worked there together — we’d both since left on not-so-lovely terms. Just as she arrived, my phone rang again; and I looked down to see that this time the person calling was my friend Carter I hadn’t really spent time with since the Halloween before when we’d made out in his car by mistake. I sent it to voicemail, as Carter only typically called in the middle of the night when he was drunk or stoned and wanted to lament about some boy he’d been pining over. Except just a few seconds after the phone quit ringing, Carter sent me a text that I could see from glancing down at my screen had to do with Courtney.
“Do you know where Courtney is?” the first message read. “She hasn’t been responding to me or Jennifer all day,” said the second. I rolled my eyes and turned my phone just enough so that Courtney couldn’t read it.
“She’s out with me. She’s fine.” I told him before setting my phone back down. While the latter statement may not have been entirely true, she certainly wasn’t in any danger and I wasn’t going to let her do anything stupid.
Aside from that, Courtney was pretty good at taking care of herself and had elected to quit drinking, as she was still drunk from Kirby Ice House and already wasn’t sure where she’d parked her car in the never-ending expanse that was Montrose. The rest of us drank more-and-more; although by the time that I was ready to cruise along from Ripcord down the street to Crocker, Mason was already a bit drunk and Michelle was feeling hungry.
Walking down the street toward Crocker, I felt someone reach for my hand. It made me nervous at first, as I’ve always been a bit weird about being touched, but especially so since I was raped back in June. Yet when I jerked my head around to see who it was, I was genuinely surprised and delighted to find that it was Mason. I smiled at him for a moment, trying to wade through the confluence of feelings rushing over me and coating my drunkenness. But as though this were something that happened all the time, he never even stopped and looked back as if it were all routine.
I didn’t want to think too much of it at the time, as I knew Mason to be an extremely tactile drunk. Still there was something inside of me that was so taken aback by that one, drunken gesture that I wasn’t quite able to assess it in the grown-up, non-obsessive way I’d been conditioning myself to look at things. But what it was at the time, I couldn’t quite put a finger on.
At Crocker, I felt myself ease up some. Even when I’d thought my anxiety had gone and I wasn’t stressing about this evening, it seemed I actually had been just a bit. But the hand-holding — whether drunken tactility or a sweet gesture (and the first unreadable sign) — had lifted my spirits some that hadn’t really been down to begin with. It lifted them so much, actually, that by the time we had our drinks, Michelle and Mason were on the dance floor in a crowd of people and I was actually encouraging them. Courtney walked up next to me after using the restroom and said, “Go dance with him.”
“I don’t dance,” I told her, with a roll of my eyes. I may have been a glass of Cab, two Patron shots, two Fireball shots, four (I’d shotgunned one of Michelle’s at Ripcord) beers, six vodka cranberries, and half of one of Mason’s Long Islands in, but I certainly wasn’t drunk enough to be dancing.
Courtney shifted her weight to one hip, looked me in the eyes with that same, cold stare she’d been giving me over the last few years anytime I did anything stupid, and said, “If you don’t dance with him tonight, you will regret it.”
My lifted spirits and I decided she was right. My story with Mason thus far had been a lot of things, but easy wasn’t one of them. And while it was a short story, and one I hoped might play out longer, I knew that whether it did or did not depended solely upon the signs that I was willing to demonstrate as well. And if Courtney had learned anything lately that she was capable of teaching me, it was that these things — whether we win, lose, or draw in the end — don’t work without the effort.
So, I danced with them. Badly, mind you. I’m a terrible dancer, especially when I’m drunk. But I danced with them, because that’s what you do when you’re with your friends and when the boy you think is cute is dancing right in front of you and you want to make sure he’s having a good time and that you’re a part of it. So we danced and then we didn’t, then we went outside and got hot; we drank and then we danced some more; and we all chatted about the people we’d slept with as of late and the bad dates or romances gone awry. And then, just as we were getting comfortable dancing in a way that likely would have made everyone else around us uncomfortable, someone had to come and shit on everything.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I muttered as my body fell immobile at the sight of Carter crossing the dance floor with Jennifer toward us.
“Anthony!” he shouted over the music in that overzealous, faggy way he did that had always annoyed me. Carter wrapped me in a hug, as did Jennifer, only for them to both say hi to Courtney and turn away to some other friends they seemed to be with.
“Let’s go outside,” I said, grabbing Courtney by the wrist and dragging her out the front door through a line of people trying to get inside.
It only took seconds from the time that we made it out onto the patio for Courtney to fall into my now rather sweaty chest bawling her eyes out. Seeing her like that — vulnerable and in such heartache — was difficult. Of all the friends I’d made over the years, Court was without even an inkling of a doubt the most put-together, self-assured, and unwavered by emotion that I’d ever known. I could sit here and say it was all a wall built up by a bad childhood or a string of heartbreaks that had left her callous. But that’d be undermining to her character, I think. Courtney was — and continues to be — one of the most kind-hearted and true people I’d met as an adult; but she was still a human being who needed to be loved.
She’d been lacking a lot of that love as of late, I think.
I went on a hunt for Michelle and Mason, both of whom I’d lost somewhere between the run-in with Carter and Jennifer and calming Courtney down. Finding Michelle dancing alone and Mason talking to a group of men on the patio, I ushered them both away from the bar and back toward the street to find somewhere else to drink away Courtney’s feelings. As we moseyed through the neighborhood toward the Eagle, I was happy to see that my car was still parked safely and untouched, but even more so pleased when Mason reached for my hand, again.
Mind you … he was also definitely holding Michelle’s hand for a brief while, which could be seen as detracting from the fact that he was holding mine, too. But when he let her go as we drew nearer to the bar, his hand stayed wrapped in mine. And I’m not sure why I did it — maybe it was just me trying to still flesh out these signals I’d been getting from him — I slowed my pace and looked at him and smiled, and I squeezed his hand a little to say something I couldn’t quite put into words. And, yeah, for a moment, I wondered what I was doing and whether or not I was being a total fucking freak, but I caught Mason looking at me, too. And as he giggled and pulled me along with him, he squeezed my hand, too.
Oh, God. Was that overwhelming.
At the Eagle, I handed Mason some cash to run to the bar and grab drinks for us while I darted down into the bathroom to pee. Once in the stall, I sat down and tried to clear away some of the fog from inside my head so that I could see this stupid goddamn plan through and remember some of it the next day. I was blacking out — I could tell because I’d not been able to recall leaving Crocker and ending up at the Eagle for quite a while. But on the whole, I was still functioning, although probably not enough to be driving if we were to leave anytime soon. So I took out the remainder of my cocaine, cut a line on the toilet paper dispenser, and snorted it up quickly.
I exited the stall and checked my nose in the mirror to make sure I wasn’t leaving behind anything I wouldn’t want found on my person. But standing there — as other men undoubtedly wondered how drunk I was and why I wouldn’t let them use the sink — I found something in the hollows of my cheeks and the bags under my eyes I’d not seen in a while — other than … you know … hollows, as that came with weight loss. There were these little lines around my eyes and near the corners of my mouth. And just to see if I was right about where they’d come from, how I’d gotten them, I found myself smiling by force, but then organically as they creased with my smile.
I probably looked like a fucking idiot, but I could see something in me I’d not seen in a long time:
So like any good, coke-snorting, godless fag would do at one in the morning while blacking out drunk, I decided to stick a knife in that happiness.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket, opened my text messages, typed out the words, “Hi. I miss you,” and sent the note to Ezra.
Courtney went home at one point, and as two o’clock drew nearer, Mason, Michelle, and I Ubered to Velvet Taco on Westheimer, where the restaurant was packed and a few cops kept their eyes on everyone. I sat patiently and watched as Mason and Michelle ate — I’d lost my appetite after doing so much coke — although Mason tried to shove his tacos into my mouth on more than one occasion. The night was quelling quietly and for that I was grateful. There’s something about doing hoodrat shit with your friends and getting way too drunk and laughing your ass off and dancing like fools and finally coming together for food and silence that really rounds off an evening in the perfect way. We were all tired — Michelle had been working that entire night right up until ten o’clock and Mason was a sleepy creature of habit, who was now leaning his head against my shoulder while we waited for Michelle to finish eating. And as I laid my head down atop his for a moment, I was smiling again like I had in the mirror at the Eagle. I felt happy … and that was something I wasn’t so sure that I’d felt in a really long time.
Ezra had given me happiness, although I’m not sure that I would ever be completely happy with us just being friends. I’m not so sure that Mason really gave me happiness, although I did feel happy when I was around him. And as we walked back to the car hand-in-hand once Michelle had parted ways with us, my slowly sobering mind started to piece together exactly what it was that I was getting so elated about.
When Mason had reached for my hand that first time — whether it had been brought on by too much to drink or an actual feeling — when he’d acted as though it was nothing or something that was as routine as brushing his teeth or putting gas in his car, it reminded me how long it had been since I’d been out in public with a man who wanted to hold my hand. I’d gone so long without affection of any sort from any person that I was at first shocked to be receiving it, but then excited to dig deeper into this affection like a child seeing if there’s anything left at the bottom of a gift bag on his birthday. And when I had this realization, I didn’t want it to stop. I didn’t want him to let go and I certainly didn’t want him to not like me.
The forays I’d journeyed with the men in my life — the ones I’d dated like Parker who had made me feel like I wasn’t good enough for them to spend the rest of their lives with; the ones who’d torn away my humanity by taking my body into their hands and using it like some sort of garage tool; the ones I’d slept with but never really known any more than in a corporeal sense like Dylan; the ones I’d fallen in love with but weren’t capable of loving me, too, like Ezra — all of those relationships, for better or for worse, had led me to this very moment. This strange, giddy, catalytic, seemingly-perennial moment in which I woke up giggling and smiling the morning after having seen him and feeling a hand inside my own from where it had been hours before. I was basking in these feelings, enamoured by them, aroused by them — even orgasming to them when I got really swept up in them. I didn’t want them to end; and yet … I also didn’t fear that they would anytime soon. And I think that’s because I knew that this was it. This was thing I’d been writing about my search for, crying over losing.
This was a feeling that was nothing less than butterflies.
And all those other men, all those other bad experiences in love had been teaching me all the ways I was not supposed to feel at the beginning and end and every step of the way of the middle when I found myself liking someone. All the anxieties and insecurities I’d obsessed over weren’t normal, healthy avenues of getting to know myself, let alone another person I might someday love. They were teaching me that when these feelings came — and God did I know they probably would again over the course of my life — the signs before me were there not to give me the answers to each of my silly, stupid problems. Rather, they were there to help me understand what loves were worth the pain and heartache I’d put myself through over the years.
All of those sleepless nights of me crying into a pillow, reciting what I’d never say to those men in mirrors that shone back to me the face of someone I did not want to accept as myself, they were preparing me for this very moment. The moment when I met a man that I genuinely was attracted to and liked and laughed with and missed when he was away. A man that locked his fingers in between mine and squeezed tighter when I squeezed his to make sure he hadn’t let me go in the streets of Montrose. And that wasn’t to say that it was going to work out or that this was going to be my happily ever after. But it did give me the reassurance that not every relationship or friendship has to go down in a heap of fire and agony. It gave me the forethought to know that no matter what I was feeling, I always had an out if I needed it.
It gave me the confidence to look at myself in the mirror that night at home, when I disrobed to change for bed and pulled my hair down out of its sweat-matted ponytail and see no reason Mason wouldn’t like me.
I was a catch. I was smart, educated and funnier than most other people I knew, and not bad to look at. I was nearly as thin as I was in high school — the days when I’d actually been athletic — and I had wisdom and wit well beyond my years. I had the job of my dreams and the status people in Montrose often find unattainable even after decades of work toward it. I had an ass that didn’t quit, the mouth and willpower of someone who didn’t have anything to lose, and the true and honest love in my heart that people often don’t have the self-awareness to realize they not only have but deserve from others.
Eventually, when the time is right and when the stars align, I’ll get around to finding out exactly how he feels. These things can’t be rushed too much — and certainly not so in our mid-twenties — because feelings are supposed to be organic. And just as I’d organically come into mine for him a year after we’d met, I needed to make sure that he had a little bit more time to figure out if he had any for me. Besides, he wasn’t going anywhere right this second. I mean, for chrissakes, I’m seeing him both next weekend and the weekend after that. But when it comes down to it, even if he doesn’t like me and we don’t run off into the sunset or become a power couple or adopt Syrian refugee babies, I’m gonna be okay.
Because Mason isn’t the only man in the world who isn’t afraid to hold my hand in public. But for right now, I believe that all signs are pointing to the fact that he’s the one whose hand I want to hold.
God, I feel good.