Hide the Xanax. Wedge the Vicodin behind the peas in the freezer. Or, to be on the safe side, swallow all the Vicodin you have. Flush the Adderall you should have quit in high school. Lend the oversized Absolut bottle to Lorrie Díaz, your favorite barfly friend. Keep beers in the fridge—no more than six, no fewer than three—but buy those ultra-lites with an alcohol content that wouldn’t give a buzz to a flea. Stock up on Coke. Diet and regular, so you can give him choices. So you can say, Diet or regular? instead of, Would you like a beer? Or, I bought these beers but they’re really gross. Diluted. For pregnant women living on the edge or some shit.
Living on the edge—don’t say that.
Don’t tell him you know all the best happy hours. Don’t tell him you still own a bong.
Change. Avoid black. Call him and revise your plan to meet at a bar. (Drinking is bipolar jet fuel.) If you’re nervous, find the Xanax, take a half, and hide it again.
Settle on a restaurant, nothing greasy. He was twenty pounds lighter when he was manic and doesn’t like to remember he once had Men’s Health abs. Skip Mexican for the margaritas, Italian for the carbs. Find a place that serves something with kale.
It may rain. Deal with it. Lorrie Díaz will text you to ask if you’re getting blown. Tell her it’s windy.
Plan to be early, since you’re always ten minutes late—you’ll be late no matter what you do—and don’t be surprised if he’s later than you. A year ago, he was the first dude in the club to take his shirt off, the kind you hated and secretly wanted to get with in the bathroom, but now he’s intimidated by the stove.
Sit. Select an entrée but don’t tip your hand—he’ll want to consider the salad possibilities aloud. Arugula with parmesan, that’s nice, right? Goat cheese and cranberries, that sounds good. Expect him to be cheerful until he finds the specials and groans, I used to be able to eat anything. Let him moan. Then cluck, Please. You look fine.
Don’t order seven glasses of wine. Don’t order five. If you must drink to excess, refresh your drink with one-shot vodka bottles while he’s in the bathroom. Later you can tell him about it, and he’ll be impressed.
If he tells you he’s bipolar, say, Okay.
If he tells you he’s been hospitalized, say, I’m sorry.
Either way, you will be nervous. You are used to faggots who hide all their weaknesses except their love of tequila shots, who brag about their five a.m. runs along the Potomac with the intent of getting laid. Don’t freak. Don’t change the subject. Don’t say, You don’t seem crazy. Saying you don’t seem crazy is like saying you didn’t sound
black on the phone. Saying you don’t seem crazy is like saying I won’t love you if you are.
Keep it simple. He’ll appreciate it more if you listen than if you inquire.
Tell him he has beautiful eyes. (It helps to remind him.) Say he seems really interesting. (Interesting is a compliment he’ll believe.) He might mention his job, and you might want to say, Your family must be proud, but don’t—for him, the words family and proud conjure the night his mother said she was proud of him for checking himself in voluntarily at McLean. If you see him drifting, ask if he’s seen any good movies.
Pick up his fork when he drops it. Later, drop yours, and laugh.
As you eat, he’ll tell you stories about Miami, the city he’s moved from. About his friend whose liquor store deliveryman brought treats for his Shih Tzu. About his neighbor who injected collagen in her soles to wear higher heels. About the tempting emptiness of six lane highways, and the guys who carry their boyfriends into the sea. Have you ever swum naked at sunset? he’ll ask you. Tell him you haven’t. Ask how it feels.
After a few bites, ask if he likes to travel.
Depending on his reply, reveal where you’ve been. Avoid mentioning cities that might have torched his credit or firebombed his long-term relationships with Grey Goose, mania and Mountain Dew. Skip Boston, because of McLean. Screen out dreary locations that might have kindled romances with ropes (Cleveland and Buffalo). Rave about anywhere you’ve been in Canada. Or Norway.
If he asks if you’ve ever given a room key to a hotel lifeguard, lie.
Lorrie Díaz will text you, Are you still with that crazy faggot? Reply, Are you still fat?
Nine times out of ten he won’t mention hospitalization. It’s serious, like sensitive. Not post-coital sensitive, sensitive like you broke your arm and it got caught in a bicycle wheel and a car struck the bike after ricocheting off a train. If he does, ask nothing. There’ll come a time to talk about how he had to ask orderlies to unlock windows, about his acquiescence to children’s projects—coloring with markers, making birds with plasticine—but that’s not first date fare.
You will be tempted to tell him all your crazy stories. Avoid sharing the one where you locked your brother in the bathroom for two and a half hours. If he mentions the car he bought in cash, tell him about your credit card debt and how you buy too many shoes.
Say, Let’s go somewhere else for dessert.
The French café with bread pudding is cozy, the gelato place is close, but frozen yogurt is your best bet. It’s across the bridge—it means something, your inviting him across. Though he once stood on a beam like this one, staring at the toes of his sneakers, gripped by pain sharper for the fact that trying to explain bipolar depression to normal people is like trying to teach trigonometry to dogs, tonight he’ll cross the bridge with pride. Once I might have jumped, he’ll think. Now I’m medicated (never say medicated: that’s his word, the way faggot is ours), crossing it with a date. A normal faggot. Hot. Stable. (That’s you.)
Open the door for him at the yogurt shop. Let him complain they don’t have flavors with Splenda; remind him it’s frozen yogurt, not Krispy Kreme. Say, You look great. Mean it. Fill your cup with the most fattening thing they have—peanut butter—allowing him to choose the flavor he really wants: red velvet. Let him go first with the toppings.
Say, That looks tasty.
Buy him the yogurt. Eat inside under the fluorescent lights if it’s cold, stroll back toward the bridge if it’s warm. Ask if he wants a taste. Taste his if he offers.
Sometimes he’ll peek over the bridge at the parkway, press his fingers to the rail. He’ll hold them there, untalking, quiet. Think of how you miss being with people who know how to be vulnerable. Think of how it will feel to cup his neck in your palm.
Let Lorrie Díaz’s next text go by.
Watch his breath turn silver, or trace the shape of his lips, his eyes and his nose. Peer into the windows of redbrick townhouses and ask him what he thinks people inside are doing. Suggest things, normal people things. Let him offer his own: stir-frying shrimp, Windexing storm windows, covering the ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars. Think about who you really picture: a teenager like you were, crying with his back to his bedroom door. Who catches faggots instead of footballs. Who might not make it over that bridge one day. But don’t say this. Later you can tell him what you were thinking, and his eyes will redden at the rims.
I had a really nice time, say. Let it be awkward.
Don’t invite him home. First date sex is a one-way moon landing; sexless dates are the yellow brick road. The advice about dumping pills—well—that was for you.
Walk him to his car. Take the long way. Skip through oak leaves if it’s autumn, lean on a fire hydrant and stick your tongue out if it snows. Pick low-lying cherry blossoms if it’s spring and let them drizzle from your fingers. Leap to flick maple leaves if it’s June. Laugh. Zip up your fly. Let him tell you you’re crazy. Let him tell you you’re nuts.
A onetime reporter for the Boston Globe and the founder of the political news site RawStory.com, JOHN BYRNE has published fiction in The Baltimore Review and The Chicago Quarterly Review. A native of Massachusetts and two-time resident of Washington, D.C., he now lives in Miami Beach.