In the Manhattan dating scene, desperation often passes for bravery, thank God. In that case, call me courageous. I shopped for love and thought I’d found it with a friend. The heartache was a bonus.
It was March 1990. I’d just broken up with Scott, who had a knack for passing out in subway cars, buzzed on cheap beer, on the way to my place. He’d end up on the other end of the line, calling at 2 in the morning with sodden apologies.
I moved to the East Village of Manhattan and observed the customary gay mourning period: six months of bar hopping and awkward one-nighters. But I really craved romance.
One afternoon at work, I thumbed through the personals in Outweek, the local gay rag. Most guys, judging from their ads, believed that the key to eternal happiness was “A Pig Bottom from Queens.” Then I read:
MOM, WHERE’S HOBBES?
Grown-up Calvin still needs Hobbes to be my best friend, partner in crime
and tiger in bed. I’m 34, 5’11”, 160 with blond good looks, mischievous eyes and am always up to something. You’re smart and attractive, have a great sense of humor and easy smile, willing to take chances but know when to say “O.K., but…”
I quickly typed a thoughtful letter to “Calvin,” and later dropped it off at Outweek.
That evening, I was at Empire Szechaun Village with my pal Michelangelo Signorile who I had known for so long that he allowed me to call him Mike. We shared a plate of sesame noodles, and The Volcano, a flaming rum drink. The buzz was immediate, and we lurched out the door, over to Uncle Charlie’s Downtown on Greenwich Avenue.
There I bumped into Skip, a fellow ACT UP activist. Skip was all lanky Southern boyishness and goofy grin. Skip’s name was utterly appropriate: he was always skipping town for backpacking. I’d receive charming postcards from the Amazon or Macchu Picchu. But Skip telegraphed a singular unavailability, and I learned to keep my distance.
He clapped a hand on my shoulder. He had an effortless gift for the manly gesture. “Hey, I called you today. No answer. Where were you?”
I recounted the day’s monotony, adding, “Don’t laugh; I answered a personal.”
“Oh yeah,” he grinned. “Which one?”
I recited from memory. Skip’s smile sagged. “You’re shitting me,” he blurted. “That’s my ad!”
I had never known Skip to lose his cool. Mike gave me a “what the fuck” glance. Composing himself, Skip added, “So, you sent a reply. Now what?”
“Now,” I said, my face reddening, “I’m going to get the letter back.”
Mike signaled me with his eyes to shut up. I had been too harsh. I relented, reached for my shoulder bag and pulled out a copy of my reply. “You know, that was a really good personal,” I relented. “You deserve to read this.”
Mike, reading over Skip’s shoulder, nudged him, “Hey, is that the kind of letter you would answer?”
“Well, it’s Jay’s.”
“But if it wasn’t?,” Mike pressed.
“But I’d know it was Jay’s.”
Mike rolled his eyes. Skip muttered a “See ya” and left.
“So much for that friendship,” I sulked to Mike.
The next day at work, I reached for the ringing phone.
“It’s Skip. Wanna play hooky from work tomorrow? Let’s do the Park. It’s Spring, finally.” It was only mid-March, but Central Park had been duped by a warm spell. Tree buds had appeared overnight.
The next day, we met at the South entrance. Like a painting I’d been forced to reappraise, I took a good long look at Skip’s boyish face and the appealing tilt to his green eyes.
What the hell was I doing?
We wandered through the park for hours, talking work and activism. Neither of us mentioned the personal.
We met again a few days later at Area, the TriBeCa dance club. Skip was wearing the same T-shirt but had changed his jeans. They looked like a last-minute rescue from the laundry bag, hanging low on his slim hips, exposing an outie navel worthy of sonnets.
Area was not his scene. While I bopped around with pals, Skip installed himself at the end of the bar. By 2am, he had created a Stonehenge of empty Rolling Rocks.
When the lights came up, I told Skip we were leaving. He gave me a sheepish, boozy look and followed me to the coat check. Suddenly, a pair of lanky arms crossing my chest, and lips grazed my neck.
The sensation suddenly stopped, and Skip was heading outside. I followed.
“Hey,” I called after him. “What happened to your good mood?”
Skip turned around, gave me a helpless look, pulled me close and lacquered me with a sloppy kiss.
“Come home with me,” he said. Then he turned away. “I can’t do this. You’re a friend.”
Eyes lowered, he kissed me again, and pulled me over to the nearest cab. He opened the back door. “Yes? No?” he asked, looking at me helplessly. No longer trusting words, I silently trundled in. Skip had a loft in the triangular building at 9th Avenue and 14th.
I could wax rhapsodic about his wiry, hairless body. But the real joy was making it with someone I had considered a buddy. It was grade school chicken soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Comfort food.
The journalist in me was thrilled by the perfect dramatic arc of this story: Two friends accidentally meet through a personal. Love blooms. Roll credits.
But in the end, Skip remained true to his name. Within a week, he confessed, “This doesn’t feel right.” There was no proper response. I had become my own perky cheerleader for love, convincing myself this would work. Now, I was numb. But I was sadder that we couldn’t backpedal to that easy, off-handed friendship. At the ACT UP meeting a few days later, Skip greeted me tentatively, that wiry forearm again resting on my shoulder. But our friendly rapport was gone. I scanned his face for answers. He simply gave me a shrug and a pained grin.
I spent several days walking alone to the West Street piers, puzzling over why a romance that seemed the perfect screenplay couldn’t be adapted for reality.