It was past 3 AM but a friend who owned the bar had let our small group of friends stay to lounge around. It was my last weekend in Columbus. Some were just friends and a few were the various boys and girls I had briefly dated during my five years in the city.
One of them was a surgery resident named Louie. He was shorter than me, but sturdy, with red hair and a quiet magnetism that kept a constant circle of positive people around him.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the short, cheesy, medical types.
Louie took me by the hand and we slipped out the back door onto the quiet patio. He told me he needed some air.
“It’s one of your last nights in Columbus. You don’t have to be pissed at the world,” he said.
I was. When we were dating Louie had described me as the most positive pessimist he had ever met. He had told me I was always angry, but was at least able to make a joke out of it.
Louie kept going, “And I’m not going to tell you to just snap out of it because I understand your frustration I just… you’re going to be fine.”
He showered me in a few more compliments until it started to border on annoying.
We hugged. For a moment I lost my footing. Both of us were drunk enough to lose our balance and we stumbled. Our drinks splashed onto our arms.
“And if you hit 30 and you’re still single and unemployed, we’ll just get married and call it a life,” he said.
I was pretty sure I had already made similar deals with several other people, but I agreed. And I told him what I told the others.
“I mean we’ll be dead in gay years, so whatever.”
A few days before leaving Marco Island I was with Valerie. She was a member of the tight circle of drinking buddies and beach pals I had accumulated on the small island.
We were at a hotel bar right along the beach, sand scattered across the concrete at our feet. On paper the bar was only for guests but they would serve to anyone that paid.
The sun was setting and the waves were breaking. Everything seemed perfect.
“I get it,” she said, “This place isn’t for you and it’s time to go, just… just be careful.”
I asked her what she meant.
“I mean,” she paused. She was always so careful with her words, “I mean be careful. You can’t… you can’t complain about being lonely all the time if you never stay in one place. You can’t complain about where you live if you don’t actually try to live there.”
“But Marco Island?”
“Oh no,” she said in agreement, “Get the fuck out of here. Come back when you’re old and married.”
My news anchor friend smiled when I told him I was leaving Phoenix. We were eating brunch on the patio of some street-side cafe, the kind that sells vegan wraps and gluten-free brunch. The thing about street-side cafes in Phoenix is that they are almost always along a four lane road or overcrowded street. The abnormal length between intersections gives passing vehicles just enough momentum to become as loud as possible before slowing down for the next stoplight.
The cafes could enclose you behind an aging iron fence with ivy crawling along it. They could put tiny candles and checkered napkins on every table. But no amount of illusion could hide the street and its constant noise, the flow of vehicles reminding you that you live in the sprawl of the Valley of the Sun. The city’s attempt to be urban but spacious resulted in it being neither.
“Finally,” was all he said.
“Finally?” I asked. I hadn’t even been in Phoenix a full year.
“A boy doesn’t talk about wanting to die as much as you do without leaving or, you know, actually offing himself,” he said.
“It’s not about Phoenix,” I told him, “I like Phoenix.” He reached across the table squeezed my hand.
“It’s about what’s not in Phoenix,” he said. He followed with a wink and a sip of his drink.
He always said just the right thing, but it always felt scripted. Words that should have been comforting were unnerving.
“Whatever the fuck that is,” I said.
Columbus and Marco, the explorers.
Phoenix, the rebirth.
Whatever I’m looking for, I’m getting warmer.
Whatever the fuck that is.
On Monday I depart for Sydney, Australia.
We’ll see what’s changed when I fly back in August.