When asked in high school, say the problem is you’re too nice, everyone says you’re way too nice. Chalk it up to the Friendzone, Nice Guys Finish Last. Or any other bullshit ideas about sex and dating presented to teenage boys, adopted and unchallenged by you and your friends. You’re not some radicalized incel, thank god, but yikes—the same toxic seed was planted, who cares that it didn’t fully grow? Don’t think about what you believed then without a side-eye and the red burn of embarrassment.
When asked in college, say something about not being fit enough, white enough, rich enough, or, hell, interesting. What do you have to offer anyone? Keep your heart clenched between a fist with one knuckle raised until someone trusts you enough with hers. When she does: fumble, drop it. This isn’t a command, but a summary.
When asked again in your early twenties, say it’s not written in the stars. Maybe not everyone is meant to find this specific kind of happiness, the one built out of companionship and shared experience, and maybe you have to be OK with that. Even now you can see yourself waking up in ten years, nearing forty, and finding not much has changed. The fear won’t be that no one will pick you, it’s that you’ll be unable to open up, to trust, to build and grow and try and dare. You, forever in the way.
Try speed dating. Once. It’s literary themed, which is insufferable but something you can work with. You like books. Unfortunately, it’s heteronormative—M/F pairings only.
Everyone has to pick a pseudonym from a book. Settle on the name Yunior, because Junot Díaz is your favorite author at the time. Understand now that this was probably a huge red flag to 10/11 of your dates. Yunior, the womanizer, the cheater. Yunior, the stand-in for Díaz himself, the abuser. It was important to mark yourself as Latino, so you went with what felt like the only choice from your limited reading, a pool of books in which you saw no queer and fat Boricua men. Spend six minutes each with a Jane, an Emma, an Elizabeth, a Hermione, a Jo. Meet an Ifemelu and talk about how much you both love the color yellow until time runs out. Wonder how one complimentary beer was supposed to get you through this.
When you receive your two matches, email both and ask them out for drinks. One will respond, tell you she’s sick but would love to meet up in a week. Offer a date and a time; when you don’t hear back, accept that it’s fine not to follow up.
Love is love is love is love. But fuck it, have sex. Download the apps.
Meet men in hotels, in their apartments; invite a select few to yours. You’re out to friends, but hooking up feels like a separate life, one that exists only in the dark. After the first few there’s nothing of note to tell anyone. None of them lead to anything more.
There is a man, however, twenty years your senior, who invites you over during the day, lets you experiment with topping. Enjoy the taste of cigarettes on his tongue, the calluses on his hands when his thumb slips into your mouth. Trust him enough to try bottoming—he won’t say anything when you bleed, but he’ll quickly retrieve paper towels. He’ll let you clean up in the bathroom and won’t make a big deal when you leave, panicked. Later, months later, he’ll pick you up one night and drive you back to his place. Along the highway, he’ll slide a hand up your shorts and you’ll nibble on his ear. Fuck him hard in his bed, then run away at 2AM. Grab a decaf iced coffee from the 24-hour Dunkin outside of the subway stop. Not until you’re on the train should you question why you always flee.
To say you grew up with a healthy relationship model would be a lie. Your parents are divorced, which is for the best, and you watched your mom date disappointing man after disappointing man until she met you stepfather. By then, you were too jaded. All you can think about is how awful men can be: liars and cheaters and emotionally stunted ghouls, taking in the love of a woman and offering nothing in return. You witnessed your father yell at women, his anger so easily accessible, the snap of a twig. And though you didn’t witness it, you heard about him throwing a bottle at an ex-girlfriend’s head when he discovered she was cheating. I’d tell you not to think about these things, but the stories are there inside of you, festering for years, all pus and mold.
Watch your friends slide into relationships. Watch them move in with their significant others and turn apartments into homes. There is a year where you attend the wedding of three couples, six friends. Dress up and drink and dance and celebrate because you are happy for their happiness. At the end of each party, take a Lyft home with your best friend, both of you drunk off your asses. Talk about your favorite parts of the weddings. Talk about the future you imagined for yourself but which feels less and less like a possibility. Cry, but tell yourself as long as the tears are gone when you get out of the car, they don’t count.
Remember the friends you no longer see. The ones you’d catch up with every six months after graduating from college. Grabbing drinks in dark bars, going for long, meandering walks hours after the sun had set. You’d ask how they were doing, how was everything at work, how was their partner, were things still good? And in turn, they’d ask you if you were seeing anyone, have you met anyone, are you dating, are you on the apps, it’s been so long. That question, once upon a time, could deflate you like a balloon, drown the room in so much air you’d wonder if you might blow away. The answer, always: I’m not. Depending on the friend, they might change the subject quickly, bring it back to someone else from school, an update on another insignificant life. Some friends frown. Some friends let the silence roll on. Look back. What hurt more? To be asked if you had tried to love again, or to not be asked at all?
Christopher Gonzalez is the author of I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, a story collection forthcoming from SFWP in fall 2021. His writing has appeared in the Nation, Catapult, the Millions, Best Small Fictions 2019, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. He is a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and lives in Brooklyn, NY, but mostly on Twitter @livesinpages.