“Negative Capability” — “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” — John Keats, Selected Letters
Once at my first college in the middle of nowhere, a boy cited this quote while breaking up with me directly before our British Literature final. He loved Brit-Lit. I hate Brit-Lit. I hate Milton and Shakespeare and Shelly and Wordsworth and all the others. They’re so overly dramatic and introspective and lame and dead. I never got why people have such a nostalgia boner for the classics. Like, that boy was born in the late ‘90s not the mid-1700s. There’s so much else to be nostalgic about. The boy said he didn’t know where his life was going, but he knew he didn’t want me in it.
I wasn’t okay with this. I wasn’t capable of accepting it. I wasn’t capable of accepting a lot of things back then. I was losing everything I’d worked for. I yelled at him when we went into the classroom. He was tall, tan, and Greek. His skin tone matched the wood paneling in the ancient, English department building. I told him that I had already created a future with him in my head. I told him all of our hypothetical children’s names: William, John, Percy, Mary—I named them things I knew he liked, for whatever reason. I told him how talented and smart and vintage they were, in an attempt to drive him back to me, to drive him back into my uncertainties. I told him about their hair.
Jeff and I were sitting in my living room two years later watching the man in the apartment across the courtyard shower. He had an unfortunately placed window. I had recently transferred colleges and moved to Boystown in Chicago. I was convinced everyone who was going to be anyone was living in the city. And Jeff was, definitely, someone. This was Jeff’s and my second official date. On the first, he took me walking on frozen Lake Michigan, and then drove me drunkenly around the entire city. I guess we had already run out of ideas. We had nothing in common except we liked each other’s bodies and hated our own.
Jeff was tall and skinny. He claimed he did the stair-climber machine for an hour every day. And his body made it look like he really did, but I was still skeptical. I ran off whatever calories I ate and more. Older men would stare at me on the lake trail whenever I took my shirt off. Jeff told me I was beautiful before he kissed me. I told him thanks, afterward. We were on the baby blue couch. It was the couch with stains all over it. My roommate and I had found it in the alley behind our apartment building when we moved in.
Jeff and I looked like the unearthed remains of two ancient people pictured in National Geographic. The showering man’s body reminded me of every naked body I’d ever seen. I removed Jeff’s shirt and he returned the favor.
The only reason I liked Jeff was because my mom would hate him. He had a lip ring and it got caught on my lip every time we kissed. He tasted like Altoids. He was constantly popping them into his mouth. He went through an entire tin every time we were together. He didn’t even take the time to let them disintegrate on his tongue. He chewed them loudly, like a dog slobbering down its favorite flavor of Purina dry food. He always exhaled the mint aroma right into my face, whenever he spoke.
The showering man’s body reminded me of every naked body I’d ever seen.
“He doesn’t even know we’re watching him,” Jeff laughed, before he even finished the sentence.
I smiled. The showering man’s muscles were huge and grotesque. They shook as he pumped the last squirt of Irish Spring Body Wash into his palm and applied it generously all over his diaphragm.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone watches me in my shower. I have a window too. I think we all wonder this. I think we would all like to believe our bodies are that entertaining, that our forms are so much of a spectacle people could endlessly entertain guests with them, that the busy man who is running down the street to catch the bus would stop to study what he sees. We want the people in the apartments across from ours to have large get-togethers and pop popcorn and serve poorly mixed drinks while they and their guests cheer to the circular scrubbing motion of our hands. I bet my neighbors take shots of Fireball every time I get shampoo in my eyes. None of us want to be average or to settle for a normal job or a boring life or an average body. Deep down, we all want to be that beautiful and that exciting.
My ex, Elio, was that beautiful. He was tall and dark, like a well-weathered statue. He had too many abdominal muscles to count. His hair was big and silky. He bathed with coconut oil every night. His room smelled like a Caribbean resort. He lived in Miami. I went to visit him in January after we had been dating long distance for six months. It was exciting. I only ate one meal a day the week prior to visiting him, so I would look my best. My body was nothing compared to his. When we had sex, it felt right, like two divers perfectly in sync at the Olympics. His roommates would bang on their walls while we banged. I think they were jealous. We would all rather be having sex than hearing other people having sex. It’s human nature to be loud.
I used to spend so much time looking at other people’s bodies. I couldn’t look at my own. I would compare myself to everyone else. I would Google the weight of celebrities just to make sure I was thinner. I never seemed thin enough, no matter how much dead weight I lost or lifted or made out with in my bed. I just wanted to look the best I possibly could. Several therapists and concerned friends and concerned friends’ moms and random people who I met on the street told me my eating habits were unhealthy. I told them I didn’t care. It got me what I wanted. It got me dates; it got me noticed; it got me attention.
I looked over at the apartment across from mine and saw the man’s bicep flex. Jeff kissed me aggressively on the neck, like a vampire at Thanksgiving dinner.
I never seemed thin enough, no matter how much dead weight I lost or lifted or made out with in my bed.
Jeff and I had met a week prior at a gay club, and not a good one. My roommate and I had to go to whatever bar our fake Connecticut IDs, with the laminate peeling off the corners, could get us into. The bouncer looked down at the plastic rectangle and back up at me several times. He asked me what county I was from.
“Evanston.” I answered incorrectly, but confidently. He said, “cool” and then we went in.
The club was as wide as a hallway. It was packed with sweaty gay men along with their blonde sorority girl companions. There was smoke coming from everywhere. I made a joke to my roommate about how we couldn’t even make popcorn shrimp without our fire alarm going off. It was so loud. “What?” she asked, but I didn't answer, deciding to just pretend like I had never spoken. Some asshole bought us shots.
My roommate was one of the blonde sorority girls and told everyone that it was my birthday so they would give us drinks. I’m not sure if anyone actually believed us, or if they were just using it as a justification to buy more alcohol. Everyone is always looking for the right excuse to buy another drink in those places.
Eventually, I had the urge to pee. An intoxicated man in his mid-40s grabbed me by my hips. I asked him where the bathroom was and he pointed into the gray haze of who knows what. I thanked him and walked into the fog.
This is where I met Jeff.
There was a line for the urinal; there’s always a line when you need it most. There were three urinals and one stall, but it was occupied by two, young vivacious people who were presumably giving each other blowjobs, doing coke, both, or something unimaginably unsanitary (God love them). So, I waited in the line. A tall blonde boy who looked like the embodiment of Jack Skelengton from The Nightmare Before Christmas eyed the people waiting in the line as if he were in a police station and asked to pick out a murderer. He chose me as his victim. We locked eyes and immediately started kissing. I completely forgot about my mysterious Miami boyfriend, Elio, because now I had Jeff. And Jeff was right in front of me. His lip ring pricked my tongue. We laughed and held hands. I don’t think I even peed. He bought me a drink, even though he didn’t know it was supposed to be my fake birthday. That’s love at first sight.
Jeff’s eyes were dark and mysterious, like people who actually read Infinite Jest. The club began to strobe or I got vertigo. I was so drunk that I was convinced I was in space. I asked Jeff to pick me up and spin me around like a dad would at a father-daughter dance. And he did it without question or hesitation. I told him that he was The Big Bang of my whole weekend. He told me that he didn’t get it.
“You mean, like the TV show?”
I was so drunk that I was convinced I was in space.
I slurped down something with vodka in it. I shook my head yes. It was too loud to get into the details.
Eventually, I got too drunk and got into his car, even though he was drunk and a stranger. But I didn’t feel like he was a stranger. He was Jeff, and as far as I was concerned, Jeff could do anything. We drove around the city and I told him I had never been skinny-dipping. So, he took me to the lakefront. But it was frozen, so we just walked on it and fooled around instead. We drove to my apartment after. I’m not sure if the sex was good because I don’t remember it. But that’s why there are second dates in the first place.
The day after I met Jeff, I called Elio and told him what I did with Jeff at the club, and how I hazily woke up next to him on the blue couch. I told Elio I was sorry, but he broke up with me anyway. And I really am sorry. I regret it; Elio was a good person. He screamed at me over the phone; he hung up and he ignored all of my calls for months after, as good people often do. He didn’t deserve what I did to him. And I miss him. I miss his body. I miss his hair.
I texted Jeff the day Elio broke up with me. I couldn’t afford to waste any time. He told me all about his life, as if he were auditioning for the role of the void in mine. He told me that he cut hair for a living. Well, kind of. He was going to cut hair whenever he got around to getting his certification from Aveda. He lived in Bolingbrook, or Schaumburg, or some hellhole that’s only livable because it’s an hour Metra Train ride to Chicago. I’ve always wondered why people, especially young people, choose to live in the suburbs. It’s like going to a pool with a high-dive and climbing to the top of the ladder only to get scared and so the lifeguard has to come up and rescue you. The Metra is the lifeguard in this analogy. The people who chicken out and have to get down are generally people I try to avoid. I am most interested in people who jump. Jeff wasn’t a jumper. He cut hair for $8 an hour. He hooked up with whatever boy would hook up with him back. He did the stair-climber for an hour every day because he was afraid of what would happen if he didn’t.
I am most interested in people who jump.
Jeff texted me about a million times that week. He had planned our entire future in his head. He asked if he could move in with me. I told him maybe. He told me I was cute. He often used the wrong form of “your.” He begged me to give him a chance. I told him maybe. I sent Elio an email, but he blocked me there too. So I sent him a letter the old school way, with a stamp and an envelope. I realized it was going to take a while for him to reach out to me, if he was ever going to. I needed a distraction in the meantime, so I impulsively said yes to a second date with Jeff.
I cried a lot the day of the date. I used to cry all the time back then. I didn’t have a good grip on my emotions—on anything really. Jeff came over that night, armed with flowers and whatever pie was on clearance at the Wal-Mart closest to my apartment. His eyes didn’t look mysterious—or dead—or like anything really. They just looked average. I asked him why they had looked so good the other night. He admitted he had been wearing guy-liner. I told him he still looked good because I didn’t want to be shallow. The pie sucked, but I mashed it around with a plastic fork and pretended to eat it anyway.
I texted Elio while Jeff went to the bathroom. He didn’t reply but I know he read it. I heard him reading the words as I repeated them in my mind. Texting is like telepathically communicating with someone, but without all the dirty work. When Jeff came back from the bathroom, we started kissing, but we were off, like when two songs are playing at the same time. Our lips moved inversely on each other’s. I had no idea what to do with my hands. He had this big grin on his face and I shoved my tongue down into his dimples. He put his hand down my jeans and asked if I liked it. I told him I did. He smiled, but I just felt funny.
“Look! That guy’s showering.”
I spontaneously pointed out the window behind the stained couch. Jeff jumped off of me and looked toward the window. Luckily, the man was showering. Luckily, he’s, like, always showering. It was a long shower too. I could hear the cars and the busses and the people from the street honking, yelling, mingling, fighting, robbing, purchasing weed, and laughing while we watched. Everyone is always living and I’m always watching.
Elio had picked me up at Miami International a month earlier. He nervously laughed when he saw me. He told me that I looked good, even though I looked like I had just gotten off of a four-hour plane ride where I sat next to a baby. I imagined that the baby was mine and Elio’s the whole time. Planes are boring: your mind wanders to dangerous places. Elio twirled my hair. It was thin and actively thinning. He told me he loved everything about me. I told him thank you. He tried to kiss me in the parking garage. He put his hand on my face. It was huge. I turned my head the other way because I didn’t want him to think I was easy. I guess, I didn’t want to think I was easy.
Everyone is always living and I’m always watching.
Going into the second date, Jeff knew I was easy. I knew Jeff wasn’t going to necessarily be hard, either. We each took advantage of that. I looked out the window while he thrusted into me and pretended like he wasn’t. I thought about Elio. I wondered where he was. I wondered if he was in his bed with someone else and his roommates were banging on his wall. I wondered if he told them their hair was nice when it wasn’t.
I would make a noise here and there, to remind him that I was alive.
Jeff seemed to be really enjoying himself. I would make a noise here and there, to remind him that I was alive. It felt weird. I was impatient for it to be over and for Jeff to go home. He was in front of me and so I kept kissing him and he kept kissing me. I didn’t particularly enjoy it; it was just something you’re supposed to do. I was just going through the motions. Kissing isn’t always what it’s hyped up to be.
One night in Miami, Elio drove me to a deserted beach on one of the Keys and we stayed there all night. We just kept kissing each other. It was cold, with the breeze. He held me with his hands. We planned our future together. We decided we’d move to France, as people in love often do. I could see it. I could smell the bread and taste the overly priced wine. I could feel Elio’s soft hair in my hand. I kissed him and I told him that we were going to be great one day. He said that we already were.
In an attempt to kid ourselves that what just happened didn’t just happen, Jeff and I showered together. I felt small and breakable compared to his cheaply-made-exercise-equipment body. He asked me if I was afraid I was going to lose my hair. I told him no. I told him hair loss is typically what happens to people who don’t eat enough. He asked if I was anorexic. I smiled because he noticed. We each dried our bodies off and sat down on the couch, each of us tightly cocooned in our own towels, like an authentic burrito. He told me he was going to be really important someday. He told me he was going to cut the hair of someone significant, like Kylie Jenner or Ted Cruz. He told me his mom was a nurse and his dad was a chef. He said he never wanted to be anything like them. He said they were boring. And I agreed.
Jeff left to catch the last outbound Metra train of the night around 11. He told me I should eat more; he said it would make me happier. He said everything would turn out fine. He left whatever we didn’t eat of the pie right on the table. Like a deer just hit by a truck on the expressway, I didn’t move from the gross couch the entire night. I texted Elio and told him I was sorry. I stared at my iPhone screen until it died. I looked out my window and saw the showering man in bed with another person. They were kissing and ripping each other’s clothes off, throwing each other’s shirts to the ground passionately, like in Gatsby. I couldn’t look away. I watched over them having sex like I was the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. After they finished, they both looked up and caught me. They looked at each other and then back at me for a few seconds. They laughed and drew the blinds.
He told me he was going to cut the hair of someone significant, like Kylie Jenner or Ted Cruz.
Jeff and I haven’t spoken much since that night. We see each other occasionally at that same shitty club. He pretends like he isn’t wearing makeup and I pretend like I don’t know he’s wearing makeup. We go home with other people. The man across from me showers every night, no matter what. He doesn’t seem to care that I always use his showers to entertain guests. That’s what’s weird about living in a city; there are so many fucking people that you just don’t care.
People are constantly showering and having sex and breaking up and going on first dates. If Jeff breaks up with you, there is another Jeff waiting for you in another sleazy bar just around the corner. We are all so replaceable. We are all just a person inside the window of the apartment across the courtyard.
I threw out the rest of the pie the day after the second date, out of spite. I felt guilty about sleeping with Jeff and I ran on the squeaky 1980s treadmill in the basement of my building. I thought about Elio and Jeff and all the others while I ran. I put the treadmill up to 10. It beeped at me when I tried to put it up to another level that didn’t exist.
Eventually, I had to start eating more. I reached a point where I became so malnourished that I couldn’t go to my classes. I kept passing out behind the register at my retail job. Poor eating habits make you hallucinate. I stopped sleeping. One night I imagined Elio and I at the beach. It was foggy. I was cold. He left me on the sand and walked into the water until he was completely submerged and he never came back. I cried when my alarm went off the next morning. I tried to get up, but I was too weak to move. I called Jeff and told him that I didn’t know what to do. I told him I wanted to die. He told me I needed to eat. And I had nothing to lose, so I ate.
Throughout the recovery process of my eating disorder—inpatient, then outpatient, then the rest of life—all I thought about was food. All I still think about is food—and sometimes boys. Recovering from an eating disorder is hard, like, really hard. I tried calling Elio too many times during the beginning of the process. I would do it at least once a day. He never answered. Somehow, I’ve convinced myself that the line just wasn’t going through. That he got a new number, or he dropped his phone in the ocean, or he forgot to pay his bill so Verizon was giving him a hard time. Or—Or—Or—
Sometimes I relapse: I don’t eat enough and I search Elio’s name on the Internet. He lives in Paris now, according to social media anyway. He has an internship at the US Embassy there. I’m proud of him. The future we created was always his. It was his idea and he actually went for it. Elio is a jumper. He isn’t afraid of anything. Ultimately, I guess, I want to be more like him.
The future we created was always his.
Back then, I didn’t really know what I wanted. I took everything for granted. I didn’t enjoy anything. I acted impulsively; I slept in so many different apartments with so many boys. I skipped so many meals. I watched people through their windows and I wanted to be them. I wanted everything. I wanted to be everything—to experience everything—or at least as much as I could. Because of this, I lost everything I had.
In a weird turn of events, Jeff moved to Ft. Lauderdale the next summer. He randomly insisted we go to a 24-hour Mexican restaurant in Boystown the night before he left. There were drunk gays everywhere: swallowing taco meat, laughing, sweating, sobering up. They all looked more or less the same, like houses in subdivisions. They had high cheek bones, abs for days, blindingly white teeth, attractive smiles. The entire restaurant was packed. It was hot from the body heat. I was sweating. I watched the people at other tables like a middle-aged woman watches the Oscars. I wanted to be like them. I was so close. I wanted to be happy with who I was. I wanted to be happy in my body. I wanted to eat burritos. I wanted to be in a stable relationship. I was always so close to everything I wanted but was never actually there. I was Evanston. Everyone else was Chicago.
I sat down while Jeff went up to the counter. He came back with a steak taco. The meat looked brown and runny, like the foundation of a house after a mudslide. He attempted to feed me tortilla chips like a father would to a noncompliant toddler. I was hungry but wouldn’t open my mouth. I couldn’t eat while someone was watching. It always felt like everyone was watching. I was always panicked, like a tourist on public transportation.
Jeff looked at me looking around while he crunched on the shell of the taco. “You know, you’re not like the other boys in Boystown.” He said, food flying everywhere.
I was always so close to everything I wanted but was never actually there. I was Evanston. Everyone else was Chicago.
I know I’m not like them, but all I’ve ever wanted is to be like them. I want to fit in, I want to be happy. Often in public, I feel foreign: alien; a farmer on the red line; a scuba diver at Sedona; a bald man at the salon. However, I guess that is the only constant within any minority. We only exist as a group because the majority has rejected us. Jeff told me he would miss me. I told him I would miss him too. I invited back to my apartment after he finished eating.
Jeff and I made out on the blue couch all night and then he got in his car and drove straight to Florida, where he now cuts hair. He asked me to come visit him last year and I bought a cheap bus ticket. However, on the day of, I couldn’t get out of my bed. I couldn’t bring myself to move. I had started seeing a new guy who told me he was uncomfortable with me visiting an ex. That guy ended up cheating on me with his ex.
Jeff reminds me of every bus I’ve ever missed.
Jeff texted me about a million times that weekend. I never replied. I’ve since blocked him on everything. Jeff reminds me of Elio, of all the boys I’ve fucked over, of all the times I’ve fucked myself over. Jeff reminds me of every bus I’ve ever missed. He reminds me that all of my shortcomings are ultimately all my fault.
Often, I fantasize about maxing out my credit card even more than it’s already maxed out and getting on a non-stop flight to find Elio. I’d just ride blindly around on the Metro until we stumbled upon each other, like the moon and its asteroids. The only thing that stops me is the probability of it all. I’d like to think we’d get on trains going opposite directions and would never know about it. Or we’d be on the same train, but in a different car. Or he would be on a plane to Chicago to find me at the exact same time I’m on a plane to find him. Or we’d walk right by each other on a smelly French street, but it would be raining and we would have our hoods up and wouldn’t see each other’s faces, and we’d go right past each other. I must be capable of accepting that in every scenario, we would miss each other. Because it actually happened that way. And it’s constantly happening. And it’s probably happening right now. And it happens all the time.
I often allow my longing to date someone overpower everything else. I have to stop dissecting my time with Elio and Jeff like how dead-beat literature professors read Lord Byron and William Blake. I need to move on. I need to get on the Metra and just go somewhere new. Somewhere else. Anywhere else. I need to watch new bodies shower. I need new bodies to watch me shower. (There are so many bodies.) Maybe I’ll end up getting married to that guy across the courtyard from me. Maybe we’ll shower together. Maybe we’ll adopt children from every continent and move to a colonial home in the suburbs to raise them—like Boca Raton or Skokie or Coral Gables or Versailles or somewhere equally uneventful to all those places. I don’t know. I don’t even know if I want that.
I guess a drawback of the urban, gay life—jumping from city to city, from boy to boy—is that you don’t allow yourself to get attached to anything long-term. You don’t get to be yourself long-term. You’re constantly changing. I thought Chicago was the place for me until Jeff moved to Florida and I was alone in my shower. The second I kissed Jeff I knew that I shouldn’t have done it. My life, my apartment with the shitty couch, my regrets—are all a combination of risks I’ve taken. I really thought Elio was the guy for me, except I guess, the one night I thought it was Jeff.
I’ve learned a lot from living in the city: like how to ward off old masturbating men in bathroom stalls on the lake trail, or how to pretend like you don’t have spare change for the homeless guy on the train, or how to get hit by a car on Michigan Ave. and get right back up, or how to pretend like you didn’t hook up with the guy sitting across from you on the 66 bus, or how no one cares if your anorexic—that you have to want to get better for yourself—or how it’s no else’s one’s fault that you cheated on your boyfriend—that you have to want to be better for yourself.
I want to be the best person I can possibly be. Therefore, I don’t want to live in the city forever; I don’t want to live anywhere forever. I want to see more. I want to see everything; I want to meet everybody. I have been so many different people the past few years. I am a different person than before I moved to the city, than before I met Elio in Miami, than when Jeff and I were making out outside of that bathroom, than I am now. And I don’t know who I’ll be tomorrow. I don’t know where I’ll live or how many other Jeff’s or Elio’s or blonde sorority girls I’ll meet. I don’t know how many gross couches I’ll find on the next trash day. And let me tell you, there’s an endless number of discarded gross couches on trash day (and trash day is, like, everyday). Perhaps this is what lures people to the city in the first place: the chance of finding something new—a new old couch, a new boyfriend with piercings, a completely different life— the lack of control—the spontaneity of it all.
Perhaps this is what lures people to the city in the first place: the chance of finding something new.
Young, gay men like me move to the city to find something new, something different than the alienation they face in the suburbs. They come here to go to gay bars with fake IDs, to stare at other gays on the lake trail, to be with others of their kind. We all just want to blend. We all just want to be that person in the window across the courtyard. However, our sexuality makes that impossible; by trying to mesh within the gay community (drinking, hooking-up, excessively working out, etc.) we give up what we really want—the chance of having a “normal” lifestyle. I guess, as a gay man, I will never understand what normalcy is like. It is simply not in my nature to be normal.
It is simply not in my nature to be normal.
If I’ve been anything since I moved to the city, it’s uncertain. There were points where I didn’t know what bar I’d end up at that night or what bed I’d wake-up in the next morning. This community, this modern life, is not all vodka tonics and rainbows—it is fast paced and it is hectic. However, it is some vodka tonics and some rainbows—this life is authentic and exciting. We are the first generation of gays that are, for the most part, accepted. We will be the classics for some future generation of gays. However, present gays are existing in unfamiliar territory.
We are living like no one else has ever lived before. I guess what all the cities, all the boys, and all the classics and currents, have taught me is that the only thing we truly know about the future is that we don’t know; and we could all do better at not knowing.
You can read more of Matt's work in his new weekly column on gay dating titled "Vodka Tonics & Rainbows."
Find it on the website, Not Your Mother's Breast Milk.
Matt Hawkins recently graduated Columbia College Chicago with a BA in creative writing, and assuming he doesn’t have a fourth midlife crisis at the age of 22, he plans to start his MFA at Florida Atlantic University this fall.