The Max Grindr Experience
Why do gay men always end up talking about dicks?
by MAX GIBSON
A few months ago, I downloaded Grindr for the fifth time. I had uninstalled it out of frustration. Frustration at the fact that most of the guys on Grindr in the Upper Valley, a mostly remote region of Vermont and New Hampshire, are over thirty. Frustration at the fact that most of the guys under thirty are closeted. Frustration at the fact that the small number of under-thirty, out-of-the-closet guys are either A) too scared to actually meet me in person or B) so sexually aggressive that I’m scared to meet them in person.
This time would be different. Not wanting to attract the inevitable dick pics from the more audacious “daddies,” I tried to make my profile as unflirtatious as possible. For my profile photo, I chose a picture of me, smiling, in front of an American flag—patriotic, clean, nonsexual.
The contents of my profile:
20 years old
6’1” 165 lbs
I’m writing about gay life in the upper valley. If you feel like sharing…
…your story, hit me up. Not a journalist, can be discreet. Not just a writer, also here for friends/romantic prospects.
I thought the “stats” section (age, height, weight, race, body type, relationship status) was required (it’s not), and I chose to be honest in those fields, letting myself stroke my ego a bit with the “Toned” part. I made a few flamingly obvious missteps:
1) Using the word “discreet.” Closeted guys thought I was indirectly propositioning them.
2) Claiming that I was “not a journalist.” This was just false. Although I didn’t work for a newspaper, I was definitely not not a journalist in the way I approached these men.
3) That last part: “also here for friends/romantic prospects.” At the time, I just had to hang on to that. Call me an optimist. I thought, “Maybe this time, Grindr might actually work for me.”
While waiting for my profile photo to be approved (No nudity or underwear allowed: I passed), I ventured over to the main screen of the app, which I’ve begun calling the Marketplace. It’s a three-column array of square photos. Each square represents a different profile, each profile a different gay/bi/“straight”/“questioning” man in my area. Scroll down and the pictures keep coming: Faces, lips, nipples, dogs, playing cards, biceps, eyes, rainbow martini glasses, sunsets, feet. Some pictures have text overlaid: D17, Str8 curious, I <3 pussies, Me, Mikey, Jeff, Suck my D**K, Country farmboy. Pictures are arranged based on proximity. People closest to you appear on top; scroll down for people farther and farther away.
My Grindr Marketplace begins with Instagrammed portraits of undergrads, some with shirts, some without shirts. Next, the grad students recently returned from their world travels, posing in front of infinity pools, African mountain ranges, crumbling wonders of the ancient world. Scroll down a little farther to exit Dartmouth and enter the real Upper Valley: mustachioed or bearded middle-aged men in white t-shirts, all of them in beds, bathrooms, or closets; the occasional isolated young man with a profile description along the lines of, “Is anybody out there?”; a smattering of photo-less profiles—the “discreet” high school students and their “discreet” fathers; a “Cuddle Behr” in the driver’s seat of a luxury SUV wearing gas-station sunglasses and a consciously scruffy red beard; a bicep bulging out of a torn black shirtsleeve that holds up a fist with a chunky gold wedding ring; “Ducky,” with womanly shoulder-length hair, who smiles with his mouth while his blue eyes stare emptily at the camera; a hairy, muscular chest; a shaved, muscular chest; a cartoon of a bald eagle that is hopefully not a tattoo; a balding forehead with sunglasses; the bottom half of an army uniform tucked into tan work boots; a rainbow flag rippling in a blizzard.
My first bite came quickly. Profile name: Go Sox!, 5’9” 163 lbs, White, Looking For: Chat, Dates, Friends, Networking. The picture was of a mid-to-late thirties man in a Harvard t-shirt, smiling mischievously at the camera. He was crouching like a burglar in the sexual health aisle of a Walmart, struggling to keep five jumbo boxes of LifeStyles condoms from falling out of his arms.
Hi, he began.
Nothing much. Just got outta class. You?
Not much… Boned up
That was the end of the conversation.
The first person I messaged was Dave, 25 miles away, 50 years old, 6’2” 160 lbs, White in an Open Relationship. Headline: Book research. About: What was your “growing up gay” experience like? Researching for possible new book. Contact me to learn more.
It appears we have similar agendas… I pressed Send and worried the message might come off as flirtatious.
Dave responded, Apparently, but from a different angle. However, I’ve had zero luck in getting kids on grindr to talk. They seem to have the idea that this is just a subterfuge to get in their pants. ‘Stranger danger’ still lives in their hearts.
Yup it’s not the best way to strike up a serious conversation. Maybe we could help each other out?
He never responded.
I could feel myself getting sucked back into the app. Grindr doesn’t send notifications when someone messages you, so you need to actually open the app to see if you have any new messages. There’s an automatic satisfaction when the orange opening screen fades into the Marketplace, when the message icon in the top bar glows white and the phone buzzes. It buzzes once, twice, eight times, depending on the number of new messages. The buzzes are an affirmation, the vibration of the phone in my hand more pleasurable than any digital pick-up line, any stranger’s smartphone-typed Nice to meet you, Max.
I received a new message from a picture of a Lebanon High School bumper sticker. White letters on crimson. Hs athlete, 18 years old, 5’8” 190 lbs, White, Average, Single.
This was a story. A high school guy. Probably closeted. I needed to step carefully. Hi. How are you today?
I’m doing okay. So you’re in high school? I remember those days. It can be hard sometimes.
Just it can be hard being gay in high school.
So are you a senior? What are your post-graduation plans?
Oh, a junior then? I assumed senior because you’re 18.
He had lied in his profile. A sophomore, probably. Our conversation’s legality was now in question.
So, I don’t know if you read my profile, I wrote, but I’m writing about gay life in the upper valley. I’d really like to talk to you about what it’s like to be queer and in high school and live here. Would you be up for that?
I just think it would be pretty cool to get your perspective. Most of the guys on here are 30+ so it would be interesting to see what you have to say about all of it.
Oh I thought that was a joke
Then his profile disappeared from the Marketplace and from my messages screen. He had blocked me. Blocking someone on Grindr is a permanent action. If you block him, or if he blocks you, not only does his public profile disappear from your Marketplace, but all the messages, all the photos, all the location-markers you may have exchanged with him will disappear from both of your phones. Forever. In a city, this isn’t a big deal. Walk over a few blocks, and a hundred new guys will pop up in the Marketplace. However, in the Upper Valley, the low concentration of profiles makes each “block” much more devastating. My inside source—possibly my only source—on gay teenage life was forfeited.
Two hours later, I opened the app again. Three quick buzzes led me to the message screen. A different profile, also named Hs athlete had reached out.
Hs athlete: Hey, he said and sent a bathroom selfie. It’s me
He hadn’t sent me a picture of himself before, but it was definitely the same kid. Clad in a lacrosse uniform that didn’t quite fit him, he held his iPhone up with doughy fingers, knucklebones softened with baby fat. He opened his mouth like he was preparing to smile but he didn’t reveal his teeth. The half-smile pushed his cheeks up into rosy bubbles. His skin was clear; maybe he wasn’t old enough to have acne. He looked like an androgenized, mid-pubescent Shirley Temple.
Hi. New profile?
My other account got banned
Banned? Why? I had a guess.
Cause I’m 16
How does Grindr know?
People report me
So any thoughts on getting lunch/coffee or something and talking about life?
Idk haha. I really just hook up haja
Doesn’t mean you can’t try something new… I felt weird writing this.
He responded, I can’t drive and live in the woods
How do you hookup then? I can drive. No pressure though, really. I was being too persistent. Maybe a little creepy.
Guys come to my house
Ahh I see. Your parents are okay with that? Mentioning his parents made me feel a little nauseous.
With guys coming to see you at your house?
They aren’t home lol. I track their phones when they leave
Lol high tech I was uncomfortable.
Do they know? About your orientation, I mean
I see. You must be very sneaky haha The haha was to keep the mood light, to tone down the sliminess of the word sneaky, to play down the severity of what this high school kid, possibly under the age of consent, was doing. I couldn’t talk to him anymore, but I didn’t close the door in his face.
I signed off, Well I’ve gotta get my work done. But the offer stands
♂ ♂ ♂
“Why do gay men always end up talking about dicks?”
It was my first time meeting Mikey. We were at Lou’s, the only diner in Hanover, New Hampshire, and a favorite spot for Dartmouth College students. We had just placed our order – an extended process for him. A waiter himself, Mikey made it his duty to keep those waiting on him entertained. When the waitress came by, he gasped and turned sideways in the booth to face her directly. The crow’s feet around his eyes deepened as he smiled and reached out to touch her hand. When he was ready to order, he sat up straight and held the menu out in front of him, staring at it with a stiff neck. He ordered his BLT in a singsong voice—the kind a child might use.
The waitress walked away with our order and exchanged amused smiles with her daughter who stood behind the counter, fiddling with the napkin holders. Mikey and I began gossiping about penises. The waitress and her daughter began gossiping about us. I wondered if they thought we were on a date.
Mikey had recently moved back to the area from L.A., and he was trying to use Grindr to immerse himself in the local gay community. In the “About” section of his profile, he wrote, “Looking for cool guys to hang out with and eat Popsicles.” But most of the Grindr guys Mikey met in the Upper Valley did not seem to want popsicles. They wanted sex, quickly, and with minimal conversation.
“It’s so nice to meet a nice, regular gay person,” he said. “It’s like, people ask me about my dick. Do I want to top or bottom? And I’m, ‘Do you want to watch Star Wars or Star Trek?’”
“How are people so set in stone?” I said. “It’s like, how can you know until you’re with somebody, until you’re touching them and they’re touching you. How can you know what that chemistry is going to be beforehand?”
With a forceful exhalation, as if relieved from a prolonged state of exasperation, Mikey nearly shouted, “Exactly! It’s like, people have always just assumed because I’m small and because my—” He pointed at his crotch with two electrified hands. “—you know is—that I go that way, but it’s like, no.”
There was a Dartmouth student on Grindr who had expressed interest in hooking up with Mikey, but it wasn’t going to happen. There were a couple reasons. One, Mikey knew it wasn’t a competition, but this guy’s member was so large, Mikey got scared just talking about it. Two, there was the age difference.
As a waiter, Mikey serves a lot of the young gays of Dartmouth. “The gays that come in are mean. They’re prissy. It’s like—” He made a deep, gurgling sound of disgust, rolling his big blue eyes to the ceiling.
The other day, a Dartmouth guy came in with a gaggle of girlfriends. Noticeably gay. Mikey complimented him on his hair. “I’m taken,” the guy said. Mikey imitated him for me. “I’m taken.”
Mikey liked that I didn’t automatically think he was flirting with me or trying to get in my pants. He said, “And like, I can tell you this: You’re cute. Because you are. But that doesn’t mean I’m flirting with you. Have I flirted with you at all during this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I blushed. It was hard to tell.
“Well, I haven’t. If I was flirting with you my hand would be on your thigh, and my tongue would be in your ear right now.”
I laughed. I could feel my cheeks reddening.
“My friend has a thing with the ears,” he said. “It’s never been a thing for me.”
“Oh, I really like it.”
“And nipples. I don’t know why, but I’ve always just been dead there.”
“Oh wow. That’s a really sensitive spot for me.”
The waitress and her daughter kept glancing at us between wiping down the counters and carrying trays in and out of the kitchen. As we were getting ready to go, Mikey put on his most effeminate voice and said to the daughter, “Girl, I’m gonna perm your hair.” Then, turning back to me, dropping his voice half an octave, he said, “All they want is unicorns and rainbows and sprinkles.” The performance had tired him out.
A few days later, I was studying at a carrel in the basement of the library. It was quiet there, except for the buzz of fluorescence. My Facebook pinged—a message from Mikey:
I will say
it really is tough being gay in this town
I’m sure, I wrote.
anything specific happen?
naah, just sitting here, thinking about how much life is goin on around the world
and how Nothing is going here
it also hit me that I never thought I would be single at 45 or that it would be so hard to find mr. right.
♂ ♂ ♂
A few weeks after my first conversation with Hs athlete, a new profile, Young and fun, popped up in my Marketplace. 18 years old, 5’7” 179 lbs, White, Average, Single. Grindr Tribes: Jock. It was the same kid, but he had changed his profile picture. The picture was blurry, taken in a rush. A shirtless body in striped boxer shorts stood in front of gray lockers, holding what appeared to be a phone. His head was chopped off by the top of the frame. Was this Young and fun himself, posing quickly for a selfie before his classmates joined him in the locker room? Was it a stolen picture of another high school student undressing after gym class? I felt like I shouldn’t have been looking at it. I messaged him.
♂ ♂ ♂
“So, am I what you were expecting?” It was one of the first things Evan, 29 years old 5’10” Stocky, said to me. ("Evan" is not his real name; he asked me to change it.)
It was Mother’s Day. I had driven thirty minutes on I-89. Getting off the highway, I passed by a sky-blue lake. There were very few houses. Downtown, I passed an old-fashioned red brick two-story elementary school, complete with a flagpole. Following my GPS’s soothing robot voice, I wound my way past a school onto a dirt road. Soon I came up on Evan’s home, which he alternatingly referred to as a “house” and a “trailer” in our text messages and which he shared with his parents.
Evan doesn’t have a driver’s license, so it had fallen on me to drive him to our lunch date. He was standing outside, waiting, in a blue polo and jeans. I pulled into the driveway and he stepped into the car. We shook hands over the stick shift.
So, am I what you were expecting? I could feel his apprehension when he asked me this, could sense his eyes darting back and forth from the road to my face as he tried to gauge my first-impression of him. Truthfully, I hadn’t been expecting much. I’d seen one blurry photo of the side of his head. I knew he wrote gay romance and young adult fiction.
I said, “Well, I just met you, and I’m focusing on driving, so I’ll have to get back to you on that. Am I what you were expecting?”
“Well, what I saw on Grindr was a handsome face floating in front of an American flag. There’s no flag, but I see a handsome face.”
I chuckled artificially, vocalizing the “haha”s that filled the awkward spaces in our texting conversations.
At one point Evan coughed in the middle of a sentence and became immediately silent. After thirty seconds, he said, “Sorry. I swear I’m not a freak.”
The car, which I had borrowed, didn’t have good air conditioning, and it was a hot day. Evan directed me, step by step, to a restaurant twenty minutes from his house. By the time we got to the restaurant, I had been driving for nearly an hour. My face was flushed. I was sweating.
I got a better look at him when we stepped out of the car. His jeans were a rich, dye-saturated blue—not-yet-washed, purchased yesterday. He had recently lost weight, and had bought them to celebrate. His full, brown beard and shirt were dusted with dandruff. Flecks of dried saliva stuck to his lips. Lips which, when opened, revealed a misaligned bottom row of teeth slanted toward the back of his mouth.
We sat down. “I did Mother’s Day yesterday,” Evan said, “so I could do this with you.”
“Oh,” I said, annoyed. “Thank you.”
We ate lunch and then he had me drive us twenty minutes back to town. When we arrived, Evan needed to use the bathroom. I found a bench in the shade and sat facing the water. After a few minutes, he joined me, sitting down on the opposite end of the bench, an awkward three feet away.
Preppy families were boating on the lake. A soccer mom dressed in Lulu Lemon jogged by with a miniature dog. We talked about running. It’s hard on Evan’s knees.
“I have bad knees,” I said.
“I think they’re nice,” he said.
He began talking about how frustrating it is to talk to people over text, Facebook, Grindr. “You can’t tell what people mean,” he said. “Sometimes someone could be flirting and you can’t tell. You can’t tell when people are sarcastic. Sometimes people don’t respond, and you wonder if they hate you."
I’m not great at carrying on conversations over electronic media. I only check my Grindr messages two or three times a day. If I’m falling asleep in the middle of a Grindr conversation, I don’t feel the need to say, “Good night” before I close the app and go to bed. I explained this to Evan.
“Yeah. I realized that,” he said dejectedly.
I could picture him sitting awake in the dark at 2:00 am, on his bed in his boxers, face glowing blue as he worried over his iPad. I imagined him picking apart his last message, the one I’d left unanswered. What had he said wrong? Why was he always making such a fool out of himself?
One night, on Grindr, I’d told him I’d like to read one of his books. Cool, he’d written. But by then I was sleeping. Five minutes later, he’d written, I feel like I’ve really monopolized our conversation. U want to tell me more about yourself? A few minutes after this, he’d written, Or, if I’m just being paranoid, forget I said anything.
I hadn’t responded until morning.
Evan sat silent, eyes looking down at the grass and not at the sunny lake alight with fathers and sons in Vineyard Vines button-downs.
“It’s hard,” he said. “You never think to ask if someone’s phone battery died.”
After our first meeting, Evan texted me at least once every other day. He usually came up with a reason for starting a conversation: Hey, did you catch game of thrones? or Hey, looks like you had a good weekend for your race! How’d it go? or Hey Max how’s your Tuesday going?
I got brunch with him again a few weeks later. I drove to his house, again. I picked him up, again. I drove us to a restaurant, again. On the drive back from the restaurant, he said he’d like to visit Dartmouth this summer while I’m taking classes.
“I could get someone to drive me up, but I probably couldn’t get a ride there and back in one day,” he said. “I’m fine crashing on a couch. Or the floor.”
I wondered if he really didn’t realize that undergraduates might not want to “hang out” with a twenty-nine-, almost thirty-year-old. I tried to stop myself from thinking, Especially not him. I talked around his proposition.
Finally, we arrived at his house. I said a quick warm-hearted goodbye. A butterfly flew in front of his path as he walked up to the trailer.
♂ ♂ ♂
The Young and fun profile was gone. A new one had taken its place: Young kik me!!! The athlete didn’t list an age this time, and his weight was up to 190 lbs from his previous profile’s 179. His profile photo was a headless version of the lacrosse pinnie bathroom selfie he’d sent me the first time we talked. In his Headline he wrote, Kik me!, supplied a username, ***2016, and said, Put grindr in the first message please :)
The “2016” in his username was his class year. That made him a sophomore in high school, between 15 and 16 years old. Kik was a messaging app I’d never tried before. I downloaded it and messaged him:
Name is max
The ‘story’ guy
Next to my message there was a little letter. I watched as it changed from S (sending) to D (delivered) and finally to R (read).
He responded, Hi
We had a banal conversation about school and his classes.
I asked, You have any big family plans for Memorial Day? The S became a D became an R.
That was the end of the conversation.
Three hours later: Hi
Hola, I wrote, How’s your night going?
Good laying on bed you?
Going okay. doing compsci stuff. Might go out soon. You sleepy?
lil bit but I’m horny so that’s keeping me up
I didn’t want to talk to a sixteen-year-old about feeling horny, but I didn’t want him to feel shut down. I said, Haha I know the feeling
He responded, Are you really gay?
Are you asking about how gay I am or are you asking if I am gay or not gay?
Are you actually gay?
You didn’t think I was?
I’m on Grindr… That’s pretty telling haha
Well I thought you were just trying to meet gay guys to interview them
Doesn’t mean I can’t also be gay
Lol yea So horny? Haha
Lol. Not particularly. Does my being gay imply that I’m horny? I was trying and probably failing to not be flirty.
No It’s night Guys are horny at night
Nothing to disagree with there. True true haha
♂ ♂ ♂
Any chance you want to trade pics
Jeff and I had already organized a meeting at a Springfield, Vermont bowling alley. Besides briefly mentioning a threesome, he hadn’t hit on me. But now this was an invitation to step up the picture game a little further, to reveal a bit more of my body. I didn’t want to lead him on, but I worried that he might not want to talk to me anymore if he thought there wasn’t a chance we might hookup.
It was an hour later and I still hadn’t responded. He wrote, You there
Twenty minutes later I wrote, Sorry writing a paper. I was watching cartoons.
The next morning, he wrote, Its ok hun
He messaged me again a few days later: Hope all is well
Yes it is. And with you? I sent the message and logged off. When I opened Grindr again, Jeff had messaged me twice.
First, he had written, Yes it is. Can’t wait to meet you
Then, after five minutes had passed and I still hadn’t responded, he had written, :) any more pics of you
I feigned innocence and sent him a G-rated picture of my dog and me.
Immediately he said, Aww you are very very cute, and sent two pictures of himself.
The first was black-and-white. His mouth was closed and he tilted his head like the photographers tell you to do in school photos. It looked like a headshot an actor might use at auditions, but Jeff was not an actor.
The next was a selfie of him lying in bed, shirtless. He slung his left arm over his head, revealing a shaven armpit. One shaven nipple was visible in the frame. He looked down at the camera positioned on his hip. His eyelids were half closed. He looked sleepy.
Neither picture contradicted the 36 years old, 6’ 163 lbs, White, Average description Jeff had broadcast in his profile. Seven minutes later he sent another message: I got more but they are nudes lol
Unless you want to see those too lol
Three hours later, I still hadn’t responded to this, and he wrote, :)
Jeff and I exchanged phone numbers. I programmed his contact information into my phone under the pseudonym “Jeff Grindr.” Men on Grindr don’t easily give out their last names, so I often assign each man a dubious surname to help me remember who he is: Adam Finance, Brett Adventure Time, Chris Nashville, Jake PandaBikeDude, Jeff Pool Boy, Jess Tuck, Rob English, Sam Staples, Tay Neuroscience, the list goes on.
“Jeff Grindr” began texting me with regularity. The morning before our scheduled meeting, he wrote, So might i ask personal questions to ya
Yes of course
How big and cut or uncut
That is not the question I was expecting. I’m not going to answer that.
Lol ok, then a few minutes later, Sorry
That evening, as I drove down Route 5 South into Springfield, the budding green hills I had seen on my forty-mile drive down route I-91 were blocked out by John Deere dealerships and old, graying warehouses. I found Springfield Bowl’s parking lot after five laps around a shopping plaza whose main attractions were a Shaw’s, an Old Navy, and a Family Dollar. I parked the car and realized my Honda Pilot was one of five vehicles in the lot of forty or so cars that wasn’t a pickup truck. I was overdressed. Before opening the door to the alley, I untucked my shirt from my jeans. Jeff told me he would be at lane five, so I hovered behind that lane, standing next to a table of burly, white-haired, bearded men in earth-toned hoodies. The place was packed for league play. I unsuccessfully tried to will the French blue checks of my shirt into a dark navy.
Jeff was the man at the top of the lane, holding a bowling ball, preparing to throw. He wore old jeans with Western motif back pockets. His loose t-shirt was either light tan and clean or white and unwashed. The bottom edge of the shirt caught on the large buttons of his back pockets and pushed up around the contours of his butt. He pressed his feet tightly together, held the black ball up to his chin, and contemplated the split pins in front of him. His right heel lifted and twirled behind his stiff left leg as he swung his right arm back and threw the ball down the lane. He hit one of the two pins, turned around, and spotted me immediately. He walked over, and we shook hands.
A small, elfish man with red hair, a pointy beard, wearing bell-bottom sweatpants and a tight-fitting athletic short-sleeve shirt came up from behind me, took a half-consumed cigarette from behind his ear, and offered it to Jeff.
“You want the halfsie?”
This was Wren, Jeff’s boyfriend. They met in February of last year on a website called Adam4Adam. When Jeff’s dying father had needed a new hospice worker, Jeff had his family hire Wren, and Wren moved from Massachusetts to Springfield, Vermont to begin a real-life relationship with Jeff.
Wren was, for Jeff, the last in a decade-long series of serious relationships, both real and virtual. In 2001, Jeff and his first husband-to-be, Scott, moved from Springfield, Jeff’s hometown, to Burlington. They got married in January 2002. After a few years and a scattering of arguments that became violent, Jeff and Scott divorced. Jeff began dating guys “as a strictly online thing.” Between 2006 and 2007 he had two serious online relationships. Both with men in North Carolina. Men without webcams.
“I never got to see them,” he told me. “It fucked me up.” He eventually found another real-life partner, Mikey, and married him in 2009. They divorced in September 2012, a few months after Jeff had started seeing Michael, an early-twenties guy he met on OkCupid when he and Mikey were separated. When Mikey moved out, Michael moved in. Things didn’t work out. “He wanted to whore around,” Jeff said. “He wanted someone on the side in addition to the relationship.” Jeff would approve if he could be involved, but Mikey didn’t want that. Mikey moved out. In 2013, Jeff started messaging Wren on Adam4Adam.
A few days after our meeting at the bowling alley, Jeff texted me:
Yeah every now and then I like to bottom. Good it felt amazing.
The moaning I did pretty much told the story lol
Lol I really was laughing this time.
Very you wish you were here lol
Bet you wish I mean
I didn’t know what to write. I typed an ambiguous :)
I needed to draw boundaries. I’m not really looking to do a threesome
He responded, Aww cause we both think you are very cute… I know I looked down a couple times at your crotch hehe
Haha thanks? I said. Why was I persisting with this conversation? Maybe I could see how Jeff’s comments might make a good story. Maybe I couldn’t resist the flattery of being called “very cute.” Maybe it seemed like no one had paid any attention to my “crotch” in quite a while. It felt good to be noticed, in that way.
Driving to Jeff and Wren’s house, I remembered something Jeff had said to me at the bowling alley. We had been discussing the local gay community. In the ’80s there was a Rainbow Bowling League, but that doesn’t exist anymore. There used to be three gay bars in Vermont, but they’ve all shut down in the past few years. One of the closest gay bars is in Manchester, New Hampshire, a two-hour drive from Springfield. We talked about hate crimes in Springfield, and Jeff said, “There haven’t been a lot, but there have been cases. I don’t want to be walking down the street where someone comes and you’re lying crippled on the ground because someone shoots you in the back of the neck.”
At the time, I thought he was exaggerating. Now, driving into Jeff and Wren’s neighborhood, I began to imagine the homophobes that might live in these wrinkled, grimy houses.
Jeff greeted me outside and showed me his sprouting flowers as he smoked a cigarette. Wren was inside playing Magic: The Gathering with the eight-year-old boy whose family lived in the second-story apartment. Wren came outside for a smoke, and Jeff, Wren, and I stood talking as we watched the boy throw sticks across the small front yard. When Jeff and Wren had finished their cigarettes, we went inside. I sat on the couch with Jeff, and Wren disappeared briefly to attend to Jeff’s father, who was hooked up to a breathing machine in a back room of the house.
The unstable pile of laundry on the opposite edge of the couch pushed me closer to Jeff than I liked. While Wren played Skyrim, Jeff showed me karaoke videos on his tablet. I stroked Lightning, the nicer of the two cats, and watched Jeff as he watched himself sing Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer.”
“This is one of the one’s I dedicated to him,” Jeff said, motioning to Wren.
He rested the tablet on his stomach, balancing it with his left hand. The back cushion of the couch pushed his head forward so that the plane of his face was parallel with the screen. The tablet rose and fell with his breath as he mouthed the words of the song. His gaze was soft.
Jeff was watching these videos for himself now. He no longer angled the tablet toward me. I couldn’t see, so I shifted myself closer to him on the couch. Our faces were close enough for me to smell the hints of tobacco on his breath.
The video was taken at Club 313 (now called “Paradym”), the gay club in Manchester. Jeff stood on a dark stage, his upper body partially lit by a spotlight and by glare from the lyrics screen over his left shoulder. Red, green, and blue strobe lights flashed on and off. Jeff swayed, eyes closed, cradling the mic stand with both hands, cooing into the mesh metal ball of the microphone.
The song ended. Wren and Jeff’s synchronized smoking schedules drew them to their feet and out to the screened-in porch. Jeff and Wren sat facing each other, Jeff on a cat-shredded orange-and-cream-striped chair, Wren on a wooden one. Jeff crossed his legs pretzel style and leaned in toward Wren as they pulled on their cigarettes. Three ashtrays on the table and an old foot-high box on the ground were filled with cigarette butts. Three-foot-high stacks of boxes of empty beer bottles took up the back half of the porch.
Wren and Jeff breathed each other’s smoke.
Jeff said, “I love you.” He looked in Wren’s eyes.
“I love you, too,” Wren said, with a little less gravity.
Jeff said, to me, “We’ve had a couple threesomes that were kind of awkward.”
Sometimes someone will click with Wren and not with Jeff. Sometimes someone will click with Jeff and not with Wren. They want someone who pleases them both. Jeff talked about the most recent guy they brought into the bedroom. He’d come over last Tuesday. Jeff had liked him well enough, but Wren couldn’t get over his big belly.
“Wren said, ‘It would’ve been fine if he had been bigger there.’”
They were looking for a guy who would be a permanent fixture, a regular addition to their bedroom. “I’m the first to admit, I can be boring in bed,” Jeff went on, “That’s why I got into threesomes.” He pointed at Wren with his ashy cigarette. “It opened up a whole new world for him. He’d never tried it, and he really liked it.”
Wren interrupted. “I’ve always been kind of interested. I just love all people.”
“We’re always looking for the right guy,” Jeff said again, “We haven’t found that one yet.”
I focused on my notebook. Wren crossed one leg over the other, rested his elbow on his knee and his head on his hand, cigarette hanging delicately from his fingers.
Later, pulled over in a warehouse parking lot, parked under a streetlight, typing up my notes from my evening with Jeff and Wren, I got a text message from Jeff Grindr: Had a great time tonight. And just to clarify we both think u are very cute and hoping maybe one day you’d like to join us Hehe think it would be a lot of fun
I remembered a moment earlier in the night. Jeff was playing a game on his tablet. Wren was sitting on the floor playing Xbox. We were talking about Wren’s hair. He doesn’t need to use gel because he has thin hair. Jeff has thick hair that’s harder to work with.
“I don’t know what kind of hair I have,” I said.
Jeff reached out his hand and ran his fingers through my hair to test its thickness. I think I leaned in to his touch.
♂ ♂ ♂
So, I asked the sophomore, got any love interests at school? Any locker room love stories? Haha I knew it was an inappropriate question.
Sucked some guys in the locker room
Scandalous. After school? During school?
that really happened?
Were you scared of getting caught?
No haha, he wrote, The door squeaks a lot when it’s opened and we had lots of time to put stuff away before they could see us This was the longest single message he had ever written me. He was excited.
Huh interesting. Sounds stressful to me haha I wasn’t laughing, wasn’t even smiling.
Lol no it’s hot, he wrote, I love sucking
I don’t think I’ve ever interacted with a closeted guy so privately assured of his sexuality. I wrote, So was this with a guy that you get with regularly?
No only twice, he wrote. Then, ?
I clarified, Another high school guy? then retracted my question, Well obviously I guess haha
Ok lol, he wrote, then he asked me again, You horny?
I admired his persistence, but wrote Not really. You?
Yes lol Hard as a rock ATM Then, a few seconds later, in a separate message, he wrote, Lol
I didn’t respond.
♂ ♂ ♂
Before we met for lunch, Jake texted me a warning: You might not find me teribly interesting cause im not really into gay culture or politics but whatever. Thats for you to decide lol
It was one of the first uncomfortably hot days of spring. Jake was overdressed in black jeans. He wore a black t-shirt from his time at Hanover High that said “Seniors ’09” on the front and “Stay Classy” on the back. When we shook hands, I noticed a web of scarred pink skin near his wrist and did not stare at it. We sat down outside the restaurant. Jake, a self-proclaimed writer/student/sociologist, had also brought a notebook—a black and white speckled composition book with his name penciled messily and with great force on the front cover.
I read, “Jake M———” and looked away as soon as I realized I had discovered his last name. When I had programmed him into my phone, I’d named him, “Jake PandaBikeDude” (for his Grindr profile picture, in which he stands in a University of Arizona cycling uniform, smiling, holding a giant stuffed panda bear on his shoulders.) I tried to forget his real last name.
Jake PandaBikeDude was home from college for the summer. He was twenty-four-years-old, He’d received an associates degree at Landmark, a small college in Vermont, and then transferred to U of A.
He told me what it was like to grow up gay in Hanover. When he was thirteen and fourteen, he was anorexic, in and out of treatment centers. By the time ninth grade came, he was healthy enough to return to school. He never came out in high school, but he did fool around with a friend when he was fourteen. He told me, “I would always think to myself, ‘I’m just doing this because there are no girls around.’”
In college, Jake continued to hook up with other men. “I was hooking up with this guy pretty regularly. I was always high when it happened. So I would think to myself, ‘I was just watching straight-porn, and then I got high,’ and that’s why I was enjoying it. But every time we hooked up, I was less and less intoxicated, and, after a certain point, I realized I would be doing it when I wasn’t high at all, and I was still enjoying it. That’s when I knew.”
When he was twenty-two, Jake decided it was time to come out to his parents. Halfway. He told his them he was bisexual. His dad responded with a story: There used to be a guy who would pick people up from bars and kill them. After a few murders, he got caught. Whenever a photograph of the killer appeared in the newspaper, whenever a television crew caught him scurrying out of the rural courthouse, his parents were always right there with him. They may have been small, blurred faces in the background. Their bodies may have been spliced down the middle by the edge of the frame. But they were there. By his side. Always. After seeing this, Jake’s father knew what he had to do for his kids. He had to stand by them. No matter what. So this is what he would do for Jake. Even though he was “bisexual.”
Jake got the scar on his right hand two weeks later. A friend had attempted suicide. That night, Jake had gotten hammered. He got into an argument with his mother. He threw his hand at the wall and hit a stud. He didn’t feel the pain. He went upstairs. In his room, he cracked his stiffened hand. Fuck. It was shattered. At the hospital, the bones were surgically reconstructed and bolstered with titanium.
“You can feel the implants,” he said, laying his hand on the table. I rubbed my index finger on the scar and felt the hard bumps under the thin, damaged skin of his hand.
We talked about our families. I told him I was a fraternal triplet. When my brothers and I were growing up, I was often the odd one out. They played football; I had other interests. Jake is a fraternal twin. His brother has always been, in their Dad’s words, “an extreme insider— so normal it’s abnormal.” Jake is the opposite.
He’s not comfortable in large groups. Sometimes he will go to a party and it will be so loud, so hard to hear, that writing feels like the best way to communicate. He talks to people by writing on notecards. At a bar a few years ago, Jake began exchanging some notecards with a girl. After trading a few sets of scribbled messages, the two went outside to smoke a cigarette.
“Are you deaf?” she asked.
Speaking aloud for the first time that night, he said, “No.”
“Are you gay?”
He was taken aback. He had successfully hidden his sexuality from his family for twenty-one years. “It’s funny,” he told me, “how the people closest to you can somehow know the least about you.”
As we talked, I crossed my right knee over my left. I let my hand hang loosely from my wrist and rested my cheek on the back of it. I felt myself acting more effeminate. His voice mirrored these changes. When we met, he spoke in a deep, monotonous drone. As we spoke, he took on a faintly feminine lilt.
He began showing me his other scars. He pulled the left cuff of his jeans up to his knee and directed my attention to a patch of hairless skin on his shin. He got it the first time he tried to shave his legs.
“For cycling,” he said, “not because I’m a twink.” As proof, he lifted his shirt up to show me his body hair. His chest was hairy but the hair was short. The skin he was showing me had probably been completely smooth, shaven and twink-like a few weeks before.
As we continued to text over the next few days, Jake emphasized, again and again, that he wasn’t a twink. He likes twinks, he said, but he didn’t want to be one. A twink symbolized the extroversion and femininity that might characterize a GBF, ‘Gay Best Friend’—that fun, flamboyant, must-have party accessory for every high school girl.
Then he texted, I definitly act more like a twink a few drinks in. The following morning, he sent me a picture of his dogs and wrote, I definitely act more like a twink around dogs. His writing became more and more like a stream-of-consciousness transcription. One night he wrote, New englands a isolated place your social circles are small. Your outliers are even fewer in between and if you meet one freind better fucking try to keep them cause people dont wonder into your circle every day. He’d pinned me as one of these “outliers,” a fellow writer, “wierd introvert,” a guy who isn’t a twink but has a soft spot for twinks, a twin gay soul in the hetero-wilderness of the Upper Valley.
A few days later, Jake asked me for my email address. I gave it to him. Within a few minutes, an email appeared in my inbox with the subject, “Notes.” The body of the message read “Its not much I could definitely go into more detail about our conversation I'm just brain dead atm.” Attached to the email was a file titled “The Max Grinder Experience.docx”—Jake’s notes from when we met each other. It began with a brief summary of the basic biographical information he had gleaned from Grindr and from our conversation: my age (20), my name—first and last (Max Gibson), my college (Dartmouth), my major (English/Computer Science). Then, in accordance with our discussion of Meyers-Briggs, he described my personality type. All in one line, he wrote, “Personality type INTP (Relatively Sociable introvert) Geek doesn’t come off as a twink could probably if he tried to.” I am also a “Fraternal Triplet 2 brothers (Were both the weird twin in our family),” and “Gay though more open to being bi since coming out.”
I texted him, Just read your notes. They’re really interesting!
He responded, Now you know I actualy paid attention and took you seriously.
I never doubted it, I wrote, wondering if I could say the same.
I remembered a fragment of our conversation from lunch a few days before.
“How many times have you had sex?” he’d asked.
I’d paused for a moment, then admitted, “I wouldn’t be able to count.”
“Can you name all of the people you’ve had sex with?” he’d asked.
♂ ♂ ♂
A Sunday night, 10:35pm. Hs athlete: Hi
Hey what’s up?
Nice, he wrote, You horny now? Lol
That’s the only question you ever ask
Well are you
Are you ever horny?
Never horny enough to tell a 16 year old about it
Cause you’re under the age of consent
16 is the age of consent
A quick Google search confirmed this. I guess you’ve read your legal stuff haha
Lol yea I’m legal dude, he wrote, So I’ll ask again are you horny? Lol
Still no. Why do you want to know, anyway?
My above message was sending as I received another from him: Your hot Ok, then he corrected his typo: the Ok was meant to be a Lol*
I responded, Haha okay. Just gonna let you know i’m not really looking to hook up or anything like that
Yea but would you sext?
I sympathized with his persistence. I remembered the relentless horniness of my early teens. But sexting? Nope. Not looking for that really either. Just wanna meet people/connect on a non sexual level
Because I don’t think the internet is where I’m going to find a lasting relationship, I wrote, And that’s what I want
The S became a D became an R. He didn’t respond.
♂ ♂ ♂
A few nights later, Jake and I were texting about how great sex is when you’re high. He wrote, I haven’t had sex high in a few months.
I haven’t had sex period in a few months, I responded. It had been more than a few. I tried to remember the feeling of sharing a bed with someone. The foreign taste of his mouth. The soft, thrilling sparks when we press against each other. The feeling of his hair between my fingertips, as I savor each strand. The smell of his shampoo on my pillow the night after a morning we spent spellbound by each other’s bodies…
These sensations seemed distant, dreamlike. Had I ever actually felt them?
My phone buzzed and broke me out of my trance. Another text from Jake. Aside from erik I haven’t in 3 months, he wrote. I’m getting pickier about what guys my type.
I wrote, Yeah I think that might be what it is for me too. But I couldn’t make myself believe it.
♂ ♂ ♂
A new profile appeared in my Marketplace. A bearded young man in a fair-isle sweater. In his About Me, he wrote::
Scruffy guy here looking for friends and fun. If someone is looking for dates or a relationship that’s great. If someone wants to hook up that’s great too. Neither one is gross or better or wrong. So don’t act like it is.
♂ ♂ ♂
Grindr has made me a hypocrite.
It’s a hookup app. I know this. Jake, Jeff, Evan, Mikey, Hs athlete—they all know it, too. But because I’m using the app to try to learn something about what it means to be a gay man, because when I’m not doing that I’m probably using it to look for something like love, I’ve created this myth in my head that I’ve transcended the app’s hookup culture, and I’ve deluded myself into thinking everyone else on Grindr is there exclusively for sex and trying to dissuade me from my high-minded intentions. But the truth is we’re probably all standing at some point in the middle of it all, looking for something in between casual sex and friendship and love, too scared to take a full step in one direction or another.
We’re all scared. Scared that no one is looking for what we’re looking for, whether that be love or friendship or anonymous sex or a combination of the three. Scared that if we find someone who’s looking for what we’re looking for, they might reject us. And we’ve all been so conditioned by these fears of instant cyber-judgment that we only let ourselves leak out, little by little, in small enough parts that we feel like we really haven’t given any of ourselves up at all. First, you exchange face pictures. If that goes well, he might send a dick pic or a glimpse of his torso. If you’re lucky, you’ll get another shot of his face.
The proportions of your body parts get all fucked up in your mind. When you think of your body, it’s like a creepy collage of magazine cutouts: a giant head on a baby’s torso with a dick stuck onto it that’s bigger than anything else. Your body is a shell that feels all the things your brain doesn’t think are important. You look for another shell. You find one. You rub up against it. Maybe, something happens.
And what is this “something?” How can I make it happen?
I’ll need a man, obviously. Someone I can talk to. Someone who will be a wall off of which my introspection can bounce back in my face so I can see how fucking useless most of my trains-of-thought are. But also someone who will know that what I’m saying isn’t always bullshit. A security blanket. A pair of arms to hug me and cradle me to sleep.
I want the sex, too. I want the sex and the hugs and I want the hugs to be sexually charged. And I want to see him when he’s walking down the street and when I see him I want to feel our sex in my body and when we make eye contact I want that feeling to be so strong that when we walk toward each other, even in public, I have to consciously prevent my penis from becoming erect. I want our sex to be with us all the time. Our conversations about classes will be sex. Our text messages will be sex. Our emoticons will be sex. Our lunch dates will be sex. The clothes we dress each other in will be sex. The sex will be sex.
And I want it to last. I want a person. A man. Who will last.
Grindr isn’t helping me find him. If I’m scrolling through the Marketplace and see someone I’m attracted to, more often than not he’ll be looking for a hookup, so I’ll ignore him. If he isn’t looking for a hookup—if he, like me, really wants to take things seriously, I try too hard. Just like Evan. Just like Jeff. I notice I’m trying too hard and stop trying altogether. I’m scared I’ll seem desperate if I reach out again.
If another guy reaches out to me, he’s probably looking for a hookup. Or, if he, like me, is looking for a more serious thing, I’ll think he—like Evan, like Jeff, like Jake, like the boy pretending he’s 18—is desperate and sad, even though I know he probably isn’t desperate or sad. Even though I know he isn’t anything but a gay man trying to find another gay man to be gay with.