There wasn’t much to gleam from his profile, outside of his age (34), his current location (Hell’s Kitchen), his athletic build and his general sociability. I was, however, intrigued by the statement that his job consisted of ‘playing with trains.’ His first message to me was asking me which I would want to go to more: The Met or MoMA. My answer was that it depended on the situation: was he looking to see the famous works of art or was he feeling adventurous?
Having just completed an M.F.A. in Fine Arts, it felt like all I really could do with it was recommend art museums like they were wine pairings. Most of my education felt that way, especially with loans looming on the horizon with no job opportunities arriving with them. The knowledge I retained was only useful to impress the older men I was into. The fact that a short, baby-faced guy like me got their references and that I made my own felt like a party trick and only that.
I didn’t hear anything from him until a month later, when he apologized for disappearing and explained he had been traveling for work, further extending my intrigue. In short time, we decided to move the conversation offline.
As the afternoon rain drenched the city, I waited inside a coffee shop for a half an hour later than the time we had planned. Eventually, by way of taxi, he had made it. To his credit, he apologized profusely and was adamant that we would be going to an actual restaurant. As we walked, I tried to take all of him in. He was dressed somewhat like a professor—tweed jacket with elbow patches, jeans, blue oxford shirt with a tie. He was a decade older, a few inches taller than me but just as nervous and excited as I was. Though he wanted to wine and dine me, we ended up at a chain restaurant and the conversation more than made up for it. His mysterious job, the one that had been built up in my head, turned out to simply be a transit engineer. So, over dinner, we discussed the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access projects, complete with pictures of him touring the space below Penn Station.
The mystery and intangibility of an online profile had turned into a real person who was kind and relatable and I was hoping for a second date. We said goodbye on the corner of 23rd and Sixth, while also making plans to see each other again. Then Cal kissed me. I dizzily made it down the subway stairs to catch the F train.
Our second date started in Central Park with us lying on a blanket as a wayward baby wandered around us and a butterfly hovered above us. I’d never been so intimate on a second date and so publicly romantic. Slightly curled into the crook of his shoulder, my discomfort faded into his warmth. The date continued into dinner and then talking into the night sitting by a fountain in Columbus Circle.
Central Park, The Met, the High Line: these places and others, in of themselves, are nothing special to any Manhattanite. You can pick up any New York City-centric weekly magazine or newspaper and find things to do and places to visit—I mean, that’s what we did. The places themselves don’t matter that much. What I remember was the time I spent with him and the conversations we had. I can clearly picture his attentive face as I explained Pollock’s technique and why I thought the aesthetics of One: Number 31, 1950 worked the way they did.
Cal may have had the analytical brain of a computer while at work, but when he was with me he had the heart of a golden retriever. He was playful and optimistic and as we grew to be more serious I would find out how passionate he was. During our first few dates, he wouldn’t let me into his apartment. He warned me that as soon as he opened the door, he wouldn’t be able to contain himself. On our fourth date, that door opened and neither one of us could.
Before one visit, I had felt that the underwear I had on was a bit dowdy. I bought something skimpy that I knew he would like. In retrospect, it seemed pointless, as his apartment was clothing-optional. My underwear, like the rest of our clothes, would be on the floor a few minutes after my arrival.
Despite spending a lot of time with him naked, my most pressing concern was how he dressed. Put him in a t-shirt and pair of jeans and he’d look amazing. Anything more complicated would require some work. I understood that, being an engineer, his job had slightly relaxed dress code; however, that didn’t excuse him wearing those jeans with the overly designed pockets to work. This could be fixed with a shopping trip; I could picture the montage.
Less easy to solve was the fact that our ways of dressing exaggerated our age difference. It being the summer, I was rolling up my sleeves and pant legs, embracing brighter and lighter colors and never let my facial hair grow beyond some scruff. In contrast, his tweed jackets and his beard made him look older than he did without.
I thought about the logistics of our looks to ignore other actual problem of context. This moment was an island in time. After grad school, my future was blank, a fact I had yet to confront with any seriousness. I also wondered how he would fit into the rest of my life. Would my family care that he was somewhat older? Would my friends, who I felt I just barely managed to impress, embrace him? What about all his friends who I had yet to meet? How real was any of this? Believing that our relationship had yet to be fully formed, I didn’t focus on it.
Most of the summer felt like a dream. Perhaps it felt that way since I spent the best parts of it in his bed. It was the simple and the unquestioned pleasure of waking up next to him; my body entwined with his. A hand gripping my ass. The slight coarseness of his beard when we kissed. For some reason the sunlight seemed different, more beautiful, as it came through his bedroom window. Daylight hours stretched long and weekends would feel like forever. We wandered through museums and strolled through parks. His Hell’s Kitchen apartment was an oasis for me. I only knew the rest of the world existed because I could see New Jersey and the Hudson from the West Side.
One night, we ordered too much Chinese food. Perhaps we wanted to try everything. With my usual luck, I got sick. But this time it felt magnified. At this point in my life, I had never been sick outside the comforts of my own home, where I was able to be miserable in relative peace. While I trusted Cal, it was still a disorienting experience. It was also the first time I have been physically vulnerable and gross around someone I was dating. Gone for the night was the veneer I usually presented, here was my body: this flesh machine momentarily gone awry. It was a restless night in the worst way. Yet, in the morning, Cal revealed something to me. The only time he was able to get to sleep that night was when I was in his arms. The thought of it warmed my heart, but made me a little scared. Cal had been affectionate since date two and remained so throughout, while I had been, at most, charmed. Why was I not flush with the same feelings he had for me?
Lying in bed another day, he told me that he was once offered a salary of a quarter million dollars to live in Dubai. But he chose New York City. He was glad he chose to live here because he met someone like me. Now, I don’t think he intended solely to impress me with the amount—though I truthfully was impressed, since it conjured up the idea of him being this cosmopolitan citizen of the globe—but the idea that he would give up anything to be here and to be with me was electrifying.
Leaving for one of his trips, we took a cab that would first drop me off at Penn Station and then take him to the airport. I could imagine life like this. There was something romantic about the drama of both leaving and returning. He was kissing me goodbye. He was kissing the city goodbye.
He was in love with the city. I was in love with the idea that I was with someone.
He was in a cab back to his apartment when he called. There was something he took to make it through the plane ride, Ambien probably, that was still working its way through his system. He was happy to be back, I believe. There was odd intensity to the conversation that overwhelmed me—as the line between excitement and tentativeness became a little blurry. He wanted so much.
We had made plans to go to Boston. In a week or two, we’d visit his friends and try meet up with a friend of mine from high school that I hadn’t seen in a while. This afternoon, though, I was sitting alone a bench on the south side of Central Park watching traffic and the carriage drivers trying ardently to solicit uninterested tourists. Cal was late.
It would have been hard to for me to complain, though, as this afternoon, evening and the following morning had been carved out in his schedule in between a business trip and a wedding. Outside of the people he had seen at work that day, I was the only person who knew that he was in New York City. Not even his close friends had been bestowed this knowledge.
Eventually, he had arrived, a half hour later than he had proposed. Travelling north through the park with Boston on my mind, I asked him if we were still on for the trip since we hadn’t talked about it past the initial idea. Cal assured me that we were, but didn’t elaborate further. We made our way further along the winding paths of the park, further into the heart of the park.
Cal had been uncharacteristically quiet during our walk, until he turned around to talk to me.
“I don’t think this relationship is going where it should. I have fun with you and enjoy your company, but I need more. We don’t communicate.”
All of Central Park seemed to drop out of existence, except for the space between us and I stood paralyzed. We had spent three months together, but now I had wondered if I had spent them somewhere else with someone else. Flabbergasted, I responded by taking responsibility.
“I’m—I’m sorry. I can be more open with you. We can work on this can’t we?”
But he had made up his mind; this was not something that could be fixed.
“It’s… It’s not just that. I need to be in a relationship that I know is going somewhere. I want to get married soon.”
Cal traveled a lot for work. Landing in JFK, he saw a man with a wedding ring on his finger. It sparked memories all the weddings of friends and family that he had been to as well triggering thoughts of the one soon to come and sparked a yearning for a marriage and love that he would share with someone. Now, in his early thirties, he felt like he didn’t have time to waste. Unfortunately, I was in my mid-twenties, ready to believe I had all the time in the world.
Selfishly, I wanted this relationship to die of natural causes or at least for me to screw it up somehow, whichever came first. But as we continued walking, I came to further understand why we wouldn’t work. What we once were began to unravel through a discussion—of marriage, about kids, optimism, self-deprecation and my general distaste for camping— that continued as we made our way out of the park and towards a coffee shop. Our shared oasis was fading into separate realities.
It wasn’t until the barista asked me, “Are you two together?” that everything finally sunk in. Pausing and then articulating more things than she would ever know, I said no.
Alex J. Tunney is a writer currently living in New York. His writing has been published in the Lambda Literary Review, The Billfold, The Rumpus, and The Inquisitive Eater.
Image: “One: Number 31, Jackson Pollock, 1950,” by Gary Denham via Flickr