On TV, we watched a Showtime series called Shameless. I’m easily bored by TV, so instead I looked around his apartment. On a shelf sat a colorful, glass hookah. Seeing it, I asked, “You smoke?”
“Male frogs can become so desperate to find a mate that a group of writhing males will crush or drown the objects of their desire.”
— Sabrina Richards, “Croakus Interruptus”
I matched with Jonathan on Tinder. Even though he was somewhat unattractive, he was a tall drink of water—6’8’’—and it had been a lonely summer, so when he asked if I wanted to come to Pittsburgh for drinks, I said, “Sure.” Then he asked if I wanted to have dinner. “Why not,” I said, “if I’m driving all that way.” Then he suggested I drive to his place before dinner, so we could have a whiskey, and quickly, as these things do, we agreed that I’d spend the night. It’s almost shocking, really, how easily I accept a stranger’s invitation. “You’re not gonna kill me, are you?” I asked, and he laughed, saying, “Nah, man.”
On the drive to Jonathan’s from West Virginia, I got high. Pittsburgh is just an hour-and-a-half away. I sipped coffee from my thermos, and now somewhat paranoid, I watched as a minivan approached in my mirrors. The van was new, black, and sleek. It caught up to me, then drove beside me at the same speed, parallel. Trying to avoid an awkward exchange, I gripped my steering wheel and stared straight ahead. I thought the van would speed ahead, but it didn’t. Then, slowly, it veered into my lane. I swerved. Gravel spit up behind me. Holy fuck, I thought, he’s gonna kill me. “Settle now,” I said, regaining control of my car. “Settle.” Somewhat curious, somewhat terrified, I looked over at the van: its tinted black windows obscured the driver. An invisible driver… Was anyone driving?
When I’m stoned, Death feels quite close. In fact, for a second, I thought maybe the van’s driver was the Grim Reaper himself. I thought, maybe, my time had come, and I felt terribly sad. But how sardonic—Death drives a minivan. What a tragedy, what a comedy. I slowed down. If I had to die, let’s not rush into some gruesome crash. I’d rather be gently touched on the shoulder.
As miraculously as the van materialized, it sped away, then vanished from my sight, and I drove on, sipping my coffee, holding the wheel at 10 and 2, and quietly thinking to myself, God, that was close.
“I’m outside,” I texted Jonathan.
As I waited for him to let me in, I looked around. His building was on a hill surrounded by trees. Below was the highway I’d driven in on. I watched cars zip by. They looked like little specks, little dots following preordained paths. In a high school biology class, I’d peered through a microscope at a tadpole. The skin on its belly had been transparent. I saw its organs, its heart, and even the tiny blood specks pumping through its veins. The blood was not red, and it was not a solid color; it was these little specks caught in the current of these little streams, its veins. Every time I see traffic, cars zipping in unison, the gentle winding of highways, I think of that tadpole’s blood.
Jonathan opened the door. We shook hands, “Nice to meet you.”
He was skinny and sweating profusely.
We walked down a hallway to an elevator, then up to his apartment. Once inside, he made whiskeys on the rocks. Handing me my glass, he gave me a Miller Lite, too. “I drink ‘em at the same time.”
“Awesome,” I said.
We sat on his couch in the living room. Cautiously, his cat sniffed me, then jumped away. On the floor, an open suitcase. He’d just got back from Spain, so we talked about Barcelona, about traveling in Europe—“Have you been?—I nodded my head—“Where’d you go?”—and so on. Conversation with Jonathan flowed easily. He was a nice guy. He made more drinks, and with each whiskey, he handed me Miller Lite, too. The night was slipping away and I was thinking about having sex with Jonathan. I didn’t really want to, because he seemed more like a friend. But I’d driven so far, and I was spending the night, so why not drink a few more, drink until I’d be sloppy and lustful and feckless. I finished my glass, finished my beer, then got up to pee. The coffee on the ride up, coupled with the booze, filled my bladder, so about every ten or fifteen minutes, I had to pee. Awkwardly, I’d stand up from his couch and walk to the bathroom.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I have to go again.”
“It’s cool, man,” he said.
“You must think I have a problem.”
“Nah man, it’s cool.”
Ten minutes later: “I have such a small bladder.”
Fifteen minutes later: “I hope I’m not sick.”
Later: grimacing, I said nothing.
In the bathroom, I peed loudly. I worried he could hear me from the living room. I flushed, then looked at myself in the mirror. Lifting my shirt, I touched my abs. They were new. I’d only had them for about six months, and maybe like a parent gazing at a newborn, wondering how or where this baby came from, I stared at my abs with the same curious adoration and awe. I couldn’t believe they were mine! I touched them one last time, then dropped my shirt and walked out to Jonathan. I stopped at refrigerator, grabbed another beer. “You want one?”
“Nah man,” he said.
“I’m grabbing two for me.”
On TV, we watched a Showtime series called Shameless. I’m easily bored by TV, so instead I looked around his apartment. On a shelf sat a colorful, glass hookah. Seeing it, I asked, “You smoke?”
He said he did, but he didn’t have any coals.
Maybe it was the whiskey, maybe the beer, or maybe the lingering high, but for whatever reason, I wouldn’t drop it. “So you have the tobacco to smoke the hookah, but you don’t have the coals, right?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Huh…” I contemplated out loud. “Can we smoke it any other way?” When I drink, I want to smoke, and vice versa. I was so focused on smoking hookah and getting fucked up, that when he ordered Chinese on his cell phone, I touched his shoulder and whispered, “The delivery guy won’t pick up coals, will he?”
Jonathan looked at me incredulously. “I don’t think they do that.”
“Yeah,” I said, “they probably don’t.”
No coals, the Chinese food arrived. It cost $25, but I only had $3 in my wallet. “I don’t carry cash,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s cool, man. It’s cool.”
He paid the delivery guy and set up the food on the coffee table. We ate, and for the rest of the night his apartment reeked of Chinese. We watched another episode of Shameless. Then I peed again, and again. I’d been in his apartment for three hours, and now, after flushing the toilet, staring again at myself in the mirror, I felt hammered. When I’d lived in Korea, I’d gone on a date with an American soldier stationed in Seoul. He took me to Outback Steakhouse and bought me a blooming onion. Beneath the table, he rubbed his foot against my calf, but I was hesitant. I’d never played footsy with a man before. I pulled away.
Later, at the soldier’s apartment, we stood before his floor-to-ceiling windows. Seoul stretched before us: skyscrapers surrounded us, the city’s highways spread out like veins. I’d never seen such a view. Down below, people, these little dots, walked on sidewalks. Everything in Korea was ephemeral—those dots, me standing in that boy’s apartment. The soldier said he was moving to D.C.; this would be our first and last date. In the soldier’s bathroom, I stared at myself in the mirror. I wanted to take off all my clothes, I wanted to walk out to him, naked. I imagined sliding onto his lap, wrapping my arms around his big shoulders. He’d carry me into his bedroom, he’d kick the door behind him. But when I lived in Korea, I was too inexperienced and uncomfortable in my own skin. And the soldier, like Jonathan, was too nice. He told me he didn’t want to make the first move; he wanted to be sure I was ready. So in his bathroom, I stared at myself in the mirror. I lifted up my shirt: I was pale and soft. I didn’t even want to see me naked—why would he? I washed my hands and walked back out to him, fully clothed. I sat at the other end of his couch. We watched the rest of the movie. When it was over, we both stood up, and I thanked him for dinner, thanked him for letting me come over, then I shook his hand good-bye, saying, “Good luck in D.C.”
But now, years later, in Jonathan’s bathroom, I decided, Fuck it. I took off all of my clothes, even my socks. I stared at myself in the mirror. Now I have a swimmer’s body: a long torso, abs, defined legs, a broad chest that opens to even broader shoulders. Even my arms are muscular. The man in the mirror staring back at me is someone, that as a child, I dreamt of becoming. He’s so tall and handsome, and he seems—on the surface—to have everything.
Naked as a worm, I walked out to Jonathan. Still, he watched Shameless. Because I’d gone to the bathroom so many times, as I stepped across the carpet, he didn’t look up. While I stood there before him, waiting, his fixed gaze stayed on the TV. We hadn’t even kissed yet and here I was, saying, “I hope this isn’t too forward.”
He turned to me; his eyes widened. “Daaaammmnnn.”
I crawled onto his lap. He kissed my chest, my nipples. He moved down my body, took me into his mouth. He pulled me down to the couch and kissed me. His tongue quivered in my mouth, but then, I smelled something unpleasant. The Chinese? His sweat? In my mouth, his tongue slithered. Once it retreated, I wouldn’t let it back in—I kept my lips sealed. With this, he stopped trying to kiss me, and instead, focused on my penis. I lay there, looking up at the ceiling, then at the TV, then at his hookah. This was not what I wanted. If I couldn’t even kiss him, how could I fuck him? How could I sleep in his bed?
I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave now.
He stopped, and said, “I’m gonna run to the bathroom. Freshen up.”
He left me alone in the living room. Here’s my chance, I thought. I scrambled to put on my shorts and shirt. I grabbed my cell phone, keys, wallet. I left the $3 on his coffee table. With my tote bag and backpack in hand, I headed for the door—I wasn’t even going to say good-bye. But as my hand touched the doorknob, I saw down the hallway: Jonathan came out of the bathroom in only his underwear. He had an impressive erection.
“I’m so sorry, dude,” I said, “but I have to go. My boyfriend just broke up with me and I thought I was ready, but I’m not. I’m so so so sorry, but I’m leaving.”
“Whooooaaaaa man,” he said, shocked.
I awkwardly hugged him, thanked him for dinner. “I’m sorry,” I said again, and then walked into the hallway, leaving him standing in the doorway, in his underwear, maybe confused, disappointed, or unsure of what to do with his now dwindling erection.
In the hallway, I was lost. My mind raced. How did I get there? I tried retracing my path. There was an elevator, I knew, and a hallway. Was there a second hallway before the building’s entrance? Ruffled and panicky, I couldn’t find the elevator. Instead, I took the stairs. In the stairwell, on the ground floor, I saw a gray metal door, Fire Exit. Fuck it, I thought—I needed out. I prayed, Please God, no alarm, and pushed the door open. No alarm. Thank you, God.
Outside, I found myself standing in a patch of ivy.
Please, no snakes, God.
Cautiously, I stepped through the ivy, until I reached the building’s corner, where the ivy ended. Standing in grass, I looked up ahead: a group of residents were smoking on their back patio. Their dogs meandered about, sniffing and inspecting. One of the dogs saw me, and barked. Then, the whole pack started barking and came running. Greeting me with wagging tails and sniffs, I must have smelled like a smorgasbord: Chinese food, whiskey, beer, the scent and sweat of two men. And to the residents, emerging from the dark, I must have looked like a phantom—or a criminal. As I walked toward their owners, the dogs followed me. “Hello,” I said, casually, trying to be as nonchalant as possible, trying, to draw as little attention as possible to the fact that I just walked out of nowhere.
I escaped the dogs, and I made it back to my car. Inside, I took a second to catch my breath. I listened to my heart thrum.
My phone vibrated. It was Jonathan. Fuck, I thought. “Hello,” I said.
“Don’t drive home,” he said. “You’re drunk.” He asked me to spend the night.
He was right. I should have spent the night. West Virginia seemed far away.
“Just stay,” he said. “Stay in my guest room.”
But how could I face him again?
“Thanks,” I told him, “but really, I’m fine.”
I hung up, wondering what to do. Below, I heard the highway; the cars’ tires humming as they rolled across the asphalt. All I needed to do was drive down the hill, turn left onto the highway, and I could be home in an hour-and-a-half. If I left now, I could sleep in my own bed.
But I had come so far… I logged onto Grindr.
Cities amaze me: so many gay men, so close. In West Virginia, I regularly receive messages from men who live over 50 miles away. 50 miles. Would you drive 50 miles for coffee?
In Pittsburgh that night, sitting in Jonathan’s parking lot, within a few minutes, I had eight Grindr messages. One was from a couple in their early 20s. In their pics, they looked like jocks: them at the gym, them with blondes, them with beers. After they approved my pics, they said were hosting, looking for a third.
I wrote back, “What’s ur address?”
My phone’s GPS led the way, and, somehow, I arrived at the jocks’ apartment. I parked on the street, then wrote, “I’m outside.” I looked around: a residential neighborhood, small apartment buildings lined the street. There were no businesses, and no one was out walking. No cars even. I was in Pittsburgh, I think, but I couldn’t say which neighborhood.
“Go to the gate,” the jocks messaged.
“Which one?” The building I stood before had two: one by the garage, one side entrance.
“Apartment building,” they replied.
Duh, I thought. Drunk, and somewhat petulant, I wrote, “Just come outside and get me.”
“Come to the gate,” the jocks replied. “We’ll see u from our window.”
I walked to the side entrance.
I stood there, not sure if I was being watched or not. I waited for a little while, but nothing happened. The jocks didn’t come down to let me in. Maybe they saw me and thought, Nah. So with the jocks no longer replying, I wrote a final message, “I hate you.” But it may not have been their fault. I might have been at the wrong gate, or even the wrong building. But I didn’t care, because something else had come up. I don’t know if it was the coffee or the food we ordered, but for whatever reason, I was struck with an incredible urge to defecate. I felt mere minutes away from shitting my pants. But there was nowhere to go. This neighborhood had no coffee shops, no fast food joints, and because I felt rejected—the jocks wouldn’t even come outside—part of me wanted revenge.
Between the building and the sidewalk, I saw a thicket of pines. There, I thought. Then, I walked to my car and grabbed a white sock. I came back to the thicket of pines. I was hidden. I leaned against the brick wall that separated the complex from the outside world. I dropped my shorts, and squatted. With my feet spread wide, I focused. This needed to be quick. I was wearing sandals. I squatted deeper and pushed, and the turd landed somewhere behind/beneath me. In Korea, at a few gas stations and rest stops, toilets required one to squat like this. My first year there, I was too shy to poop like that, but eventually, I did, and I remember telling my friends how liberated I felt. But in Korea, the turds fell into a porcelain toilet or a hole. Here now, I squatted on an incline, and the turd felt gravity’s pull. It rolled. I watched it. On its path down, just as it was picking up speed, it hit a twig, which changed its trajectory. It turned and rolled until it hit my foot, where it stopped, and sat still. “Goddamnit,” I said to myself. I wiped with the sock; then, out of spite, I threw it over the brick wall into the apartment complex, hoping one of the jocks would find it in the morning.
Back in my car, somewhat relieved, somewhat refreshed, I logged back onto Grindr. I still wanted to fuck. But scrolling through the pictures of men nearby, they all seemed unfuckable: too many twinks, too many fatties. I started my car and headed toward downtown. There, I thought, I’ll find a gay club, meet a guy, and sleep in his bed. Now, I needed more than just a man—I needed a place to sleep.
As I drove, I watched the dot on my phone’s GPS. It—I—was going away from downtown. Maybe it was drunken stubbornness, or maybe simply stupidity, but for whatever reason, I kept driving, kept logging onto Grindr, kept scrolling through men. And it wasn’t too long before my phone died.
At 1am I found myself sitting in a Subway restaurant attached to a gas station. The Subway was closed, the lights were off. There, in the dark, sitting alone at a booth charging my phone, I watched people. Surprisingly, the gas station was bumping: people bought beer and pop and Doritos; a line formed at the register. I watched as a group of boys, who looked a little dazed and confused, bought already-made subs and Gatorades. The one with curly hair and green mesh shorts bought chocolate chip cookies, too. The boys joined me in the Subway, and just like the high school boys I’d known when I was their age, they too ignored me. They sat diagonally from me in a booth, chomping away at their sandwiches like cows. One of them, after finishing his sub, put his head on the table and fell asleep. In high school, I could have never been so casual, so comfortable in my own skin. I worried constantly, but these boys seemed so confident, so carefree. No acting, no self-loathing, these boys, I thought, will grow up to become men. They’ll marry, have children, divorce. It’s as if their lives have already been written. Never, never will they find themselves in an unfamiliar city, driving around like a pervert, searching for a stranger to fuck.
Those boys made me sick—I had to get out of there.
I logged onto Grindr. A dude messaged me. He was home from California visiting his parents. They lived six miles away. He asked me to come to their backyard. On their back porch was a swing, and there, together, we could jerk off.
“Are your parents home?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “We have 2 b quiet.”
“Ok.” I wrote back. “Address?”
But as I drove to his parents’, my phone died again. I should have waited at the gas station for five more minutes. And I was almost there, too. But now, slowly lurking up the street, I looked onto strangers’ porches, searching for some dude on a swing. But, of course, it was futile. I knew I’d never find him. I knew I’d never find him—a sad truth, something I was just beginning to understand.
Years before, on a school night, I’d met my biology teacher in the wetlands beside our school’s parking lot. Holding flashlights, we crossed the field to the swampier part of the wetlands, our rubber boots sinking and sloshing in the mud. In the distance, if you were looking down at us from the big houses up on the hill, which overlooked the school and wetlands, we would have just been specks of light.
“You hear that?” Mr. Eggan asked, and I listened to the high-pitched call of a frog. “That’s a spring peeper,” he said, “they mark the beginning of spring.”
That spring, we met in the wetlands every week, and every week the cacophony of chirps and calls of those little amphibians grew louder. The whole wetlands sang. We dug up chunks of soil, we collected tadpoles, we watched toads mate. When toads and frogs mate, the male climbs onto the female’s back. One night, my flashlight beam fell on toads mating. Three males had climbed on top of a female. I showed Mr. Eggan the mating toads, and he called it a “frog ball.” He explained that when there are more males than females, the males fight to reproduce. “Often,” he said, “they end up drowning her.”
A sensitive high school boy, I didn’t want her to drown. I walked over to the puddle and tried pulling the males off the female.
“Don’t,” Mr. Eggan said. “You can’t save them all. You have to let nature run its course.”
Mr. Eggan walked up ahead, investigating a puddle filled with Eastern Spadefoots. “Come on, Whit,” he said. “Look at these.”
But it was hard for me to walk away. How could I walk away knowing she might suffocate?
Still driving around, I knew I needed to go home, but I was lost. I was on some back road, surrounded by cow pastures, somewhere in Pennsylvania. Before me, a tollbooth. Where the fuck am I, I wondered. I didn’t even know they had tollbooths in this part of the country, and I didn’t have any money (those $3 on Jonathan’s coffee table would’ve come in handy). The tollbooth only accepted cash, so I sat there, unsure of what to do. For the first time that night, I was fucked. Painfully, utterly fucked. I felt so helpless, so puerile, like a lost child, I wanted my mom to save me.
So, like a child screaming for its mom, I too screamed as hard as I could. My car’s windows were down, and I screamed and yelled and hollered at the top of my lungs. I screamed until I lost my breath, and I was panting, dying for oxygen.
Then, in the distance, from the dark, hearing my plea, a cow replied, “Mmmoooooo.” Another cow joined in, and soon, several were mooing in the dark. I had accidentally started a conversation, and I couldn’t help but laugh. What a fucking night, I thought. I can’t believe I’m still alive. I can’t believe I took a shit outside.
Smiling now, I wanted to go home. I needed sleep. But the tollbooth…
Fuck it, I thought. I floored it. I sped across the threshold, and the camera captured me in a flash. The night lit up white before me, and for a brief moment, I was blinded.
A month later, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission sent me a bill for $41.25. $1.25 for the tollbooth, $25 for an “Administrative Fee 1,” and $15 for an “Administrative Fee 2.” The bill was addressed to “Whitney Whitney Arnold,” and below the name I saw the photo that had captured me that night. The photo is all black, except for my license plate. You can’t even see my car. The license plate just hangs there, surrounded by darkness. Looking at the photo, I wondered how the camera captured so little? There was so much more.