My friend Beth left this week for Purdue—and my friend Heather for Austin—and Tori took off for Utah last week. I’ve never lived in a city “by myself,” and that isn’t strictly the case with South Bend, but now only acquaintances remain. It feels like starting over, like calling favors from the second-string. I asked two friends-of-friends (are they rightly friends now? first-tier? can I claim that? I ate mashed potatoes on their porch stoop Sunday afternoon, but then I also came around to pick up a lens)—well, I asked them to accompany me to a “Guerrilla Gay Bar” event downtown. They couldn’t go; I went by myself after summoning the courage around midnight. The Guerrilla Gay Bar events have gone on all summer—I’ve missed four of them, mostly because I haven’t had money for cover. (This is why I refer to the events, too, as “Administered Gay Bar,” because at $25 for July’s prom-themed party ticket, the culture seems geared to people who make more than minimum wage.)
To prepare myself, I spent a lot of time in front of my bathroom mirror scraping acne from the trenches in my forehead, waited on Crest Whitestrips to do their burning work, and anxiously avoided leaving the house. I ate pickles. I brushed my teeth again. Changed to a less tight shirt. Changed back into the tight shirt. With Tori around, I probably still would have done these things: take home six different numbers, four from older gentlemen, the other two from tall beardos (one of whom I shouted down across a patio because he is Welsh and also named Evan: the perfect pretext: “HEY! EVAN! MY NAME IS EVAN TOO!”); hop into a passing car full of tiny, tan, mean-gay Cambodians, who spirited me to a hot tub party (they were like the evil stepsisters in children’s stories: sighing, petulant, preening—and, after I accepted my own intrusion into their fairy tale (I did, after all, hop into their car), they ended up being extraordinarily sweet to me); order a quesarito from Taco Bell at 4:30 in the morning, and eat it, methodically, blank-faced, while walking the river path back home. Nicholas called at 8 a.m. wanting an update. So on three hours of sleep I recounted the energy of the night, its paltry flirtations, free drinks, European cheek-kisses (why do gay men do this?), the Guetta-esque DJ with his Christ-complex praying to the beat, the hot tub (“I hope you get infectious skin disease,” Nicholas said), the moths in the early morning. I did not mention the Taco Bell. Then we talked about The Orchid Thief. John Laroche reminds Nicholas of my brother Todd—for his feverish ambitions, way of ambling, and his lack of front teeth. I was too tired to speak anymore. I wanted Nicholas to blather but he grew distracted appreciating coffee. I slept in until noon.
Tori left last Monday night for Utah to present her 501(c)(3) before a counsel of sympathetic executives. The trip is less to shill her own program, Triple C, which engages underserved/underrepresented youth with “cameras, climbing and camping,” than to credit one of her benefactors, Outdoor Nation—itself a non-profit that does the good work of matching donors’ investments with worthy causes. (Outdoor Nation curates and adjudicates partner funding from companies as diverse as The North Face, Johnson and Johnson, and Olympus. It also does a lot of its own youth outreach and conservation programming, while pushing—strangely—a kind of media literacy that encourages Outsiders (sure) to blog about activities and policies that shape and sustain stewardship of the great outdoors.) None of that is really interesting to this story, but I wanted to see if I could summarize some facts. When Tori tells me things like this, the part in my brain that is satisfied by plot is satisfied in the same way—things connect after a fashion that seems more fulsome and fearsome than it would if I had just visited these websites on accident.
"Have you practiced your speech?" I asked, terrified for my housemate, last Sunday night. "No," said Tori, rolling over on her bed. She falls into Instagram holes and I fall into Facebook holes, and a lot of an hour between us might be filled with disappointed sighs or envious sputtering. "Do you think he’s hot?" she’ll say, and show me a tiny picture on her phone’s screen from fifteen feet away. "Tori—that’s Tyler Hoechlin from Teen Wolf—of course I think he’s hot.” They told her, Tori said, not to practice a speech, not to present slides, but to come with a few stories about how her program has affected the lives of teenagers—lifted their confidence, increased their awareness, the like. “One girl, Tamira, and she never told us this, but she was really afraid of heights. She had never rock-climbed, she was scared of bugs, she didn’t know she had it in her. She became our best climber: she completed all of the routes, she climbed the highest and fastest.” “Vertu,” I interjected, and Tori said, “Yes. But what Tamira said was, ‘I never looked back,’” and I interjected, “Jesus Christ. Do you know what I did last summer? While you were teaching kids life lessons about strength and stream ecology? I was swimming through a sea of my own tears in a bleached coral forest.” “But that’s what you’re always doing,” corrected Tori. “I’m on land now,” I said.
Tori ended up missing her first plane and so was delayed eight hours. She texted from the Detroit airport, waiting on a connecting flight, that at the height of her frustration she dropped her iPhone and cracked its screen, but was too furious and too busy to cry. I forget what else. She returns Thursday, but only just. I texted her this afternoon to say I was in shambles: the house, the cooking, the state of the bathroom. All my beard clippings scattered around the sink. Eating box after box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Taking off my work shirts in the living room and leaving them to drape, sadly, on the back of the couch. Carrying porn on my laptop from room to room. The balls of socks wherever I happen to rip my shoes off. And the singing—singing “Follow the Cops Back Home” in the shower at a piercing volume—sunup and sundown. Tori’s two-week departure is a practice again for the real one, when she submits her dissertation in September, and drives west.