Romantic, wordy, and a tad goofy.

The Groupie Part 25

Ethan, 

Hey you.  

I hope you're reading this on your laptop. I hope you're warm, and that school is going well, and you like New York.

I'm sorry. That's small talk, and you said you can't do small talk with me. You're right – it feels fake.  

I don't want to be fake.  

Thank you for going to dinner. Even when you're mad at me I love to see you. That might be crazy?  

You make me crazy. I know that's my fault, not yours.  

Tokyo is also crazy. I've been here before, and it's always like this, but it surprises me anew whenever I visit. They are very good at making us feel like rock stars here. The concert could have gone better, but that's also my fault. It wasn't bad. Erica said it was better than we've been. 

I'm not sure if she meant that or if she's trying to make us feel good. Hard to tell with her. She's been very patient with me.  

I don't want to write too much about the small things– I'm worried that sounds like small talk, although it's not false.  

You asked me to leave you alone – I meant what I said. I can't. If I could I would, but that doesn't seem to work. You'll have to tell me so multiple times. 

Or ignore me long enough. 

I hope you write me back instead.   

Zane

I am proud to say I only read the email a few times (maybe eight? Okay, perhaps it was ten. Certainly no more than twelve.) or so before I made myself stand up and do something else.  It was a Saturday morning, a day that I had put aside to get as much school work done as possible due to a modeling shoot I had the next day at a closed gallery, and I needed a clear head to get half of what I needed to done.  

I went for a quick walk with not quite enough facial covering to handle the bitter cold and bought a coffee drink I couldn't technically afford. Then I walked around with this liquid gold until my nose froze and the cup was empty, and I sort of stuck my nose in it so it blocked the wind. At points I sat on benches, and almost got run over by people due to my spacing out in the middle of crowded spots. New Yorkers really hate that, and Areli would always roll his eyes at me and drag me along. I was working on it, since I didn't have him around to keep me on the straight and narrow. 

That memory of my no-longer somewhat-boyfriend and our brief period of NY hijinks caused a small pang of regret, and I wondered for a bit if I had truly made the right decision in breaking up with him and throwing my heart, again, at a pain-in-the-ass rock star who had proven himself more than capable of breaking it.  

The obvious answer to that question was 'probably not'. But what was done was done, and even if Zane and I failed it wouldn't be fair to drag Areli back into my crap.   

After at least an hour of aimless wandering I felt I had shaken off a good bit of my blind, screaming agitation, and was able to think about the matter with something sort of approaching clarity. I headed home and opened up my computer.  

Zane had emailed me. Unexpectedly, surprisingly, and only a couple of days after he had left, he had emailed me.  

It wasn't just any email;  it was an email that had actual substance, that said specific, personal things, that said "I" and "you".  And because I wasn't emotionally shell-shocked when I read it, as I had been in the restaurant last week, I was able to pay attention to what he said, and read the words themselves. They were personal and thoughtful, and unlike I had read from him before. 

Here he was talking about himself. He was continuing the conversation.  

Well, damn. 

I sat down. I took a deep breath. I lifted my fingers and put them on the keyboard, and I wrote. 

Zane, 

Hey.  

I am on the laptop - it's still incredible. Thanks again. (But it still makes me feel guilty to have it.)  

Tokyo sounds amazing.  

The next line was almost "I'm jealous", but I didn't want it to sound like I really wanted to go. What if that triggered another offer from him to fly me out there? That would have been way too much déjà vu, and if the read I was beginning to get on him was correct, doing so might be impossible for him to resist. So I changed tact instead. 

How many times have you been there? I'm glad the concert went well. It probably was better than you think it was.  

Things here are good. Classes are crazy and intense, and I'm working on a lot of projects at once, but I love it. Being in this city is amazing; I always feel alive, even when I want to go all Godzilla on everyone. Sometimes I'm frustrated, sometimes I hate how crowded and stinky and ridiculous and fast it is, but in the end I'm glad to be here.  

There. That was all nice and straightforward. Kinda small-talk-y, but maybe I could do that with him if I felt confident he wasn't going to just flip on me, wasn't going to just turn around and disappear or be cold as ice and shut me out. When none of those things happened I could talk to him about anything. 

There were also things I couldn't completely avoid mentioning. My fingers landed again on the keys. Lots of different versions of what I wrote came out: short and funny, short and apologetic, long and super apologetic, cool and calm, excited and bubbly, yet none of it seemed right. There was so much emotion, and just the thought of typing it out exhausted me.  

So I kept it short. 

We don't ignore each other very well. It took me a while to stop freaking out after seeing you. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but I am glad you wrote. 

-Ethan

Afterwards I beat myself up, as I am wont to do. Doing so was a road to nowhere, however, so I shook it off.  

Before closing my email I read a request from a couple of my classmates, Chris and Mariya, which asked me to join an art group of theirs they were forming, a sort of informal collective to make sure, as they put it, 'that we didn't get too lost in our school work, and forget to do the art we want to do and that we love'.  

They also planned to do charitable community works, teach kids, etc. Being a member of a group like that did appeal to me, as I hadn't been exactly doing much drawing for myself the last several months. And helping people sounded lovely, even if what made it appealing was the possibility for me to dull the edge of frustration with the aggressively shallow environment of the fashion industry.  

On the other hand, I was fucking busy. Chris and Mariya were nice, but New York, school, and modeling was draining my stores of social ability and energy at an alarming rate. The thought of flinging my tender flesh into a new group of people, having to interact and put myself out there and show them my art more than I even did in class… it sort of made me itch. I wasn't sure I was up to the challenge. After some light consideration I decided I'd write them later with my polite regrets. 

The next few hours were filled with questionable television, calling my mother, and then working on projects while the garbage cheerfully prattled on in the background.  

There was a level of my brain that was asking me throughout if maybe I should check my email just in case Zane had already written me back. I told it to shut up.  

Finally I couldn't avoid the computer any longer, since I had a paper on modern art to write, but I'm proud to say I closed my browser and email and kept it that way for a full hour. Turning off the wi-fi at the router level helped.  

"You alright, dude?" Scott appeared from nowhere and placed a hand on my shoulder, causing me to jump in my chair. "Damn, you're tense!" 

"I'm fine," I said with a smile, and made myself stand and stretch. I closed my computer with a decisive thud. I couldn't think about it. Maybe he'd write back soon. Maybe he wouldn't. No matter what, a bit of emotional and anticipatory control would be good for me.   

"Yeah… whatever. You looked kind of wild eyed, and I think you definitely need more sleep. And pizza!" He opened the box with a flourish, showing two of the medium sized gourmet pizzas that his employer specialized in. "There's always the need for pizza." He looked at his phone and furrowed ginger brows. "Why no wi-fi? Something wrong with the internet?"

"Sorry, I meant to cycle and forgot to turn it back on." Lies, damned lies. "You are the world's best roommate." I dove in to grab a couple of slices as he went over to the router, shoving the tip of one in my mouth in one smooth movement. "I love when you have lunch shift with that chef who likes you." 

"Last week you were saying I was the world's most disgusting slob of a roommate. I appreciate the major upgrade." He went over, grabbed one cherry soda and one unsweetened lemon soda from the fridge, and handed me the lemon. His drink made me shudder. Normal Coke was good as a treat, but Cherry? Disgusting, like cloying liquid chemicals in a can. He then reached forward to grab a slice of cheesy goodness, and sat next to me. "Finished everything you needed to today?" 

"Shockingly, I did, more or less. I'm almost done with my paper, which doesn't appear to be too horrible, and my two projects are pretty much finished." 

"Good!" He snagged another piece and demolished it with impressive speed.  "I wish we could go celebrate, but I have to meet my group for that stupid investment project. When I get back we can discuss what else is up." 

"What do you mean?" I avoided his eye and reached over for another piece. "There's nothing else." 

"You sound distracted." 

"I am not distracted," I said, taking a swig of soda and finding it so disgustingly sweet I almost covered my pizza in Cherry-Coke-flavored spit. The can disappeared from my hand.  

"Of course you're not. Whatever. I know that distracted look – you're having boy troubles." My face was as blank as a bimbo who'd been in high fashion ads could make it, and he rolled his eyes. "Fine, tell me nothing. Alright, this really was a brief stop-off in my whirlwind life, as I'm off to try to convince these slackers to shoulder some of the burden for this stupid excuse in educational team-building.  Don't wait up for me, although I know you can't stop yourself." 

"You're so right. The only reason I stay up late is to take your coat and hand you your nightly martini. It's my reason for existing on this sorry excuse for a planet." 

"When you say it like that I almost believe you. Almost, but not quite. Which is too bad, because that martini would be fucking great. Adios!" 

There went my distraction. I curled up in front of the TV and ate more pizza as I once again studiously ignored my inbox. The problem with that level of focused ignorance is that the obsessive avoidance is a form of thinking about it and was driving me mad. Was this level of ignoring something while completely failing to ignore it at all helpful? Maybe I should give up. God, this was just goddamn stupid.  

The whole mental-psycho cycle took me about 45 minutes. With something akin to relief, I opened my email.  

Thank god; he had replied. Very glad you wrote back. Lots more soon - press time. 

It was short, but also awesome.  But so short! Had I written too much? Maybe I had. Wow, I wish Scott hadn't had to leave and that we could have gone out for a nice, distracting drink together. 

The next couple of days were a whirlwind of Mina moving in and me trying to concentrate on my school work. I had written something short and encouraging back, stilling being wary of fully engaging. 

The Tuesday after Mina moved in I was reading an art theory book and Mina was unpacking, forcibly making Scott's mess merge with her stuff. As she puttered around we started to talk about her job search; it was hard in this city, and she wanted a steady elsewhere before she started classes in the Spring. During our conversation I was indeed listening to her, but my brained also buzzed around Zane's messages. 

Mina stopped talking. "What's up?" She asked, eyes narrowing. 

So of course I told her all about my conversation with Zane. Scott would probably be mad I'd told her first, but he'd get over it. We headed out to a local bar that had $1 beer night that was ostensibly for students, but they didn't even check IDs. So we were crammed in with 100 of our closest friends in a space that probably only legally held a dozen or so bodies less than that. But this happy hour was only an hour long; us broke underagers had to do what we had to do.   

She was blissfully without judgment when I told her about the emails. She was leaning on the counter at the bar we were at, elbows propped up and hands on the side of her face, pushing her curly hair so it burst out all over the place. It was adorable, and some of the guys around were certainly taking note. We each had a beer in a plastic cup in hand, something cheap and drinkable.  

"So he wrote back," she said. "And not only that, pretty much right away. That's great, right?" She took a sip, and turned to shoot a dirty look over her shoulder as someone knocked into her butt. I looked down at my own beer and grimaced. "Yes, I know he wrote me back right away, but he didn't exactly write much. So now I'm obsessing over the length, which I know is really stupid."  

"You should have let me read it before you sent it off. I would have told you if it was a sparkling piece of beauty and wit with just the right balance between 'I miss fucking you and am probably completely fixated again', and 'I don't really give a shit if you write me or not, you fucking dickface.'" 

My reply was held up by the beer shooting out of my nose. By the way, that hurts. I wiped the table quickly with a cocktail napkin and smiled. "Maybe not the worst idea, but it comes across as a bit pitiful, doesn't it? Not being able to write my own emails, I mean. I suppose I should probably handle this myself." I took a large chug of my beer. "I can't believe he emailed me."  

"You keep saying that, Ethan." She sounded distinctly exasperated. "What's so hard for you to understand? He stalks you, he gives you things, he tells you fifty million ways he's crazy about you. He's got issues and is a hot and cold pain in the ass, but I'm increasingly thinking our post-Europe 'he's a mega-flake who's not actually that into you' theories were way off the mark. I'm now sensing more 'commitment and emotional issues he's trying to overcome'. I can't decide whether that's worse or better. Probably both at once, which is totally 'yay'." 

"But what if he changes his mind again?" 

"What if he does? Hopefully he knows if he does he'll lose you for good. And I think he would, honestly." She reached out and gave my arm a comforting stroke. "He wrote you damn fast, boy, and that probably shows he really is too busy to write more. But it means he's excited you wrote him, and wants you to know it. He says he can't leave you alone, and is now demonstrating that principle. What more do you want?" 

I thought about it. "What more? Hmmmm." I raised my glass. "How about an ironclad guarantee that he won't freak out and change his mind on me again, and subsequently completely fuck me up?"  

"Nope." She shook her head and her curls bounced. "Can't give you that one. No one can, and if he did give it to you I'd accuse him of promising something he himself isn’t sure he can deliver. He's a loose cannon, obviously, and pretty weird besides. But you're in love with him, and he's obviously got somethin' going on in there regarding you. The jury is still out on whether it's anything good or healthy. But here we are, and I don't see anything changing for the moment. I mean, are you going to tell him to fuck off, he's not good for you, and you never want to hear from him again? Do you think you could do that one thing, a thing you know and I know is probably the safest, healthiest choice out of this mess?" 

Just the thought made everything in my body tense up. I sighed. "No, not when he's writing and telling me he's missing me. I feel like an addict who was starting to get clean, and then suddenly received a shot of high grade heroin. Heroin with abs." 

"Would that make Areli methadone?"  

I winced and laughed at the same time. "Probably, yes, yes he was. Fuck, I'm an asshole."  

Mina laughed with me, but suddenly became serious. "Does that mean you think you'd die without him?"  

"Die? No. No. I mean, I didn't die this fall, did I? Life goes on, New York is pretty distracting, and I'm sure I'd find someone else after a while. I mean, after I shake the high and the kick and erase his face from my brain and never read another music magazine again in my life. But it'd suck. Maybe it'd suck less than last time, but in some ways it would suck more, because it feels different this time. And if it feels different but ends the same way, I'll feel pretty fucking sad, and might not trust my own instincts for a while. But dead? No." 

"But you'd prefer not to feel sad." 

I laughed. "Well, of course, most people do. I have too goddamn much to do to risk a prolonged funk. Funk doesn't pay tuition bills, and while it might make some interesting art now and then it more often ends in inertia." 

"Then you need to figure out a way to stay calm, my friend, because he's going to be gone for a while, and this is as much as you're going to get at this point." 

"Yeah, I know. It sucks." I gulped down my beer, motioned the bartender and got us another one. As I did so I caught the eye of an Asian guy staring at me, a definite cutie. I gave him a crooked smile back, and then looked away. Fucking hell. Here I was in New York, surrounded by hotness, and I was still utterly obsessed with the hotness running around a full world away.  

I took down half of my new beer in one gulp. Mina watched with amusement. "Are you going to turn alcoholic on me, Moeller?" 

"It's pretty appealing. Maybe the best thing to kick my Zane habit would be to find myself a new fixation. I need to find a way to not get obsessed, like you said, stay calm. So, yeah, maybe drinking would be a fix. Blackout drunk is a form of calm, right?"  

"Fuck that!" Mia threw back the rest of her drink, her vehemence having an almost physical effect on my posture as I leaned back a touch. I think several people around me did also. "You need a distraction." 

"Not alcohol? Damn. You've already suggested you're not behind the whole heroin concept, and I hate people on cocaine, they're like self-involved squirrels. Meth?"  

"No! You need to get more involved, Ethan." 

I stopped drinking to tilt my head at her. "Involved? What do you mean? Between work and school, I feel damn 'involved'. That is, unless you mean my involvement with sleep. I'd like to have a long term relationship with him, but he has a tendency to leave me hanging, and never calls back when I'm free. He's kinda a prick, honestly." I took a drink. "Fuck sleep." 

"You're in New York. You're beautiful. I mean, you're not exactly lacking for modeling jobs. You're funny, interesting, and talented. People are drawn to you, and you're not doing anything about it. You don't want to think about Zane all the time? Then fill your head with life. Make more friends at school. DO shit, boy, that you're not financially obligated to do for one reason or another." 

"I'm not beautiful. I'm attractive in that particular way that fashion likes and photographs well, and that's it. It's pure luck, but it is not special. And people are NOT drawn to me," I said, almost muttering. Sometimes her compliments, while often lovely, really got old.  

"Hey!" She turned to the group next to us, who were watching us with smiles on their face. There were about 8 of them, various ethnicities, maybe a few years older than us. They were right out of an ad for young New York. "You guys think he's beautiful? He's hot, right?"  

"Fuck, yeah," one of the girls said, winking at me, and the rest chimed in agreement.  "He's like a fucking cologne ad," a guy added, his voice hovering between amusement and a biting sort of contempt. "Why the fuck would someone who looks like that need to hear it?"  

"See?" She turned back to me, ignoring the fact my face was now bright red. "They fucking want you." 

"My god, you suck. And that didn't exactly disprove my point."  

"You're goddamn impossible. Come on, let's go freeze our tits off. Metaphorically." We put down our empty plastic cups and put on our coats.  

"Excuse me," a deep, polite voice said behind us, and I felt a light touch on my arm. Turning in surprise, I saw a guy in a bomber jacket, a purple and green scarf over a charcoal cotton shirt, tweed pants, and glasses. After I'd assessed the fashion - working in the industry along with my illustrator's eye seemed to have significantly strengthened a pre-existing tendency of mine to scope people's clothing first if it stood out in any way, something I wasn't necessarily crazy about - to his lean face, blond/black hair, and uncertain ethnicity that granted him citizenship in the Islands of Unmitigated and Quirky Hotness. Usually I'd describe him as a hipster first, but he was too beautiful to be just that. Somewhere in his 20s. 

"Yes?"  I tilted my head.  

"You seem delightful," he said, and then smiled.  

"Delightful?" My eyebrows shot up, and I blushed. "I... thank you, I think?" 

"No, thank you. You're leaving, right?" 

"Yes."  

"Here." He handed me a card, a well designed creation of blues and grey that said "Cody Suniga - Interior Designer", and had a phone number and an email address on it. This flummoxed me a bit - did I look like I needed help furnishing my home? I mean, yes, but that was a very low priority for me financially. More like an impossibility. "You really are indeed delightful, and I'd love to help convince you of the truth of that, even just over a drink. Please call me." 

"Okay?" I said, and gave a smile. He smiled back, and before I could say something stupid, Mina had grabbed my arm, thanked Cody for me, and pulled me out into the cold winter air.  

We walked for a few steps in silence.  

"Goddamn, is it always that easy?" She suddenly burst out, shoving her hands in her pockets. 

Being outside made me confront that I was actually rather buzzed after three rapid-fire large beers, and my mind was still in a state of flattered bemusement. "Is what that easy?"  

"Getting picked up by beautiful gay men when you're a beautiful gay man! It's just... wow. Wow. Don't you feel lucky? None of the men who come on to me are beautiful. Even if they're attractive they give off a definite Eau de Sleaze that has me running in the opposite direction." 

I considered the question seriously, or at least as seriously as the beer would let me. "Maybe? I suppose that's the awesome thing about being gay and young in the big city. I'm pretty new at this, honestly. And it’s not like I take up the offers I get, definitely not there." I grinned at her. "Ask me again in a few years, and maybe I'll have a better data set to draw from. But it doesn't seem that much different for women."  

"Huh. I can't agree, but I'm not as good-looking as you are, so we could just be competing in different divisions. Yes, we'll indeed totally re-assess in a few years." She put her arm through mine. "But, you know, maybe we're finally instilling some confidence in you, boy. You're now a smidge better than helpless. Perhaps we'll have you recognizing your own attractiveness by, say, 30!" She squeezed my arm. "Wouldn't that just be the thing." 

I snorted, but wasn't quite sure how to respond to that uncomfortable line of thought, so I didn't. Something in me yelled and screamed at the thought of not being humble. But another part of my brain noted that I knew I was attractive, maybe more than I'd heretofore confronted. For whatever reason the soupy gift of genetic material I was granted made me so, although I sure as hell didn't buy this 'drawn to me' crap.  

But enough on that, I was going to stop squirming and make her start. "So," I said, "how're things going with Scott, one day in?" I'd been meaning to ask her all night, as I was really sick of talking about me. No matter what they said, the mess inside my head did not feel interesting.  

"Mmm, things are going really well, which surprises me." 

"Why would you be surprised?"  

"Come on, you know you thought we'd be fighting all the time." I tried to look innocent, and then got smacked anyways. "Don't lie. You're a horrible liar." 

"I didn't say anything!" 

"Those damn puppy eyes said all I needed to hear. Seriously, I guess I didn't expect us to get along this well either. It's a fucking miracle we're living together. When I told my parents that I was going to move in with him they sat me down, talked to me about how young we were, and told me that they didn't think we had much chance of surviving as a couple. So I was well-equipped with the worst case scenario. And yet, somehow, I think it's gonna be okay." Her voice was genuinely surprised. "None of our fights seem to mean much of anything, and I can't wait until we're in the same room together, even if it is just to yell at him for how gross he can be." 

"He really can be pretty impressively disgusting. Did you see that laundry pile of his? I think it's grown an outer crust of indeterminate origin." There was a moment of silence for a tandem shudder. "Anyway, you're both going to be really busy." 

"Yeah," she said, chewing on her lip. "It's true, but I think that's actually why it works. When I see him it's kinda special, and even when we just manage to get a few hours sleeping together it's wonderful." 

"Sleeping?" I said, stretching out the word. "We have pretty thin walls, you know." 

"We sleep! But, yeah. I don't know how long this is gonna last, Ethan, separate from the living together issue. Truly. Scott thinks we'll be in love forever and ever and get married and have little curly red-haired babies, and I don't know if I'm ready to sign on to that. I don't think he's ready to sign on to that. We're so young, and are we really ready to not fuck anyone else in our life ever again? That's a pretty insane burden to take on at this point. But, for now, everything is pretty awesome. I live in New York with my two favorite men in the world, aside from my father, and might actually be figuring out what I want to do with the rest of my sorry life. I find that pretty damn nifty." 

I reached over, threw my arm around her shoulders, and gave her a one-armed hug. "I find you pretty nifty." 

"Ugh, you're so ill-inducing, Ethan." She threw her arm around my waist and hugged me back. "Enough about me." 

"That's my line!"  

"My life bores me. I'd rather focus on fixing yours. So back to our original conversation: You need to learn to distract yourself from your fixation. Like you said to me, we're in New York. We're in the thick of it all, we're getting by, we're attractive and we're healthy and you're beautiful and you're a beacon and you need to live it." She turned, stopped, and reached up to straighten the lapel of my grey wool coat, which I'd gotten used a couple of weeks ago and now loved. "Zane, it appears, isn't going anywhere, both because he won't leave you alone and because you don't really want him to. I'm not yet utterly convinced he's not a fucked-up narcissist taking you for a ride, but maybe, for your sake, he's more. Who knows. But regardless of his status as an asshole he's not here, because he's famous and his chosen profession will continue to take him all over the world. You need to live for you, Ethan. You." With that last you she poked a finger in my chest, rather hard. I didn't know what to say and thus simply nodded. 

We walked the rest of the way back to our apartment in silence, although not an uncomfortable one. Her words had brought out a part of me that was coming to the same conclusion she was: that the aspect of my brain that was so goddamn tired of how much energy it had expanded on Zane over the last 6 months, that was sick of the whine of frustration and insecurity that dominated much of my mental and emotional life, was ready to move on. Also, that in cutting my strongest new tie to the city, Areli, I'd put myself in danger of predicating my life around what was coming next with my rock star lover/friend/torturer. 

I needed to do more with my mental energy. Mina was right; changes should be made. 

The first thing I did when I got home was write Chris and Mariya and say 'yes' to joining their group. Sure, I was busy, but was I actually CRAZY busy yet? No, no I was not. Or, if I was, I could just shave some more sleep off.  I might as well use that remaining breathing room to prove I wasn't just a lovesick boy in over his head, some sort of 19 year old bimbo pining for something he might never completely have. Things would work out with Zane or they wouldn't, and I would survive.  

And maybe if I did it long enough, I'd believe it. Fake it 'til you make it, right?  

Right. 

*************************** 

Sometimes the focus - the intensity of the fans in Asia is startling. But they're respectful in a way. They don't seem to believe we belong to them in exchange for their devotion. They don't act like they have a right to us. Sometimes there's an obligatory pressure in Europe and especially in the States, if that makes sense. 

That honors class sounds ridiculous. Glad you like it. Are you taking pictures of your projects? Would like to see them. Loved the pictures from last week. Also that webpage. That illustration group you joined has a lot of great artists. (The guy who did the cyber horses and the twisted underwear ad is the most talented by far.) 

I look at the ones you did of me all the time. Is that narcissistic? It is, isn't it?  

You make me feel like I'm back in college. 

Sorry. Now I'm babbling. Haven't slept for 24 hours - the after party yesterday went really late, and then I stayed up to write songs.  

What's your favorite place to eat in New York?  

-Z

 I was the one who had done the cyber horses and the twisted underwear ad; his comment made me blush. Zane's comments always made me blush. 

We'd exchanged several different messages back and forth since the first one, and it was now three weeks later. He'd done as he'd promised - sent me a long follow-up, and told me exactly what they'd done that day, the hilarious, stupid things Jarod had said in their interviews about the awesomeness of Asian ass, and their scramble to convince the translator to not render that particular offensiveness into Japanese, a wonderful Shinto shrine, and a restaurant with naked people running around. Supposedly Dustin's latent OCD kicked in at the latter place, and he didn't eat for 24 hours despite it being, Zane insisted, insanely clean. The whole story inspired me to draw a somewhat dirty (naked bodies everywhere, with a Shinto priest thrown in for good measure) cartoon-y illustration that I attached to the next message. I was especially proud of my lascivious Jarod face. 

As his response showed, I'd also told him about the upper-classman illustration project/support/volunteer/social group I had joined on that email. I mentioned my nervousness due to being the only freshman in the group. Quickly, however, my concerns were shown to be very silly. All of the other members were warm and hilarious, and before I knew it I had a fantastic group of new friends that were the best distraction I'd found thus far.  

Not to say that Zane wasn't on my mind. That wasn't going to go away. But somehow it lost its crazy edge, and the gnawing sense I was going to go nuts if I didn't hear from him was fading. There was maybe an ache, perhaps a burn, that appeared in my chest when I fretted and thought to much about our past, but I knew my heart was not going to just up and burst. If it hadn't done so when I left Europe it wasn't about to now.  

As each new email came, always within 24 hours of me emailing him, I started to just chill. Sure, many of them were really short, but they always expressed sadness that they weren't longer. Just the fact he thought of that, and regretted that he couldn't write more to me, mattered a great deal, and it helped strengthen my self-confidence. 

I also loved how he kept repeating how much he liked me in his emails. Do you know I see your face when I close my eyes? It's pretty ridiculous. Even more I can hear your voice, and your sly, surprising sense of humor. There were lines like that all throughout his messages, and they were just great. Sure, I was a sucker, but I was a happy sucker. 

Not that I was utterly convinced, but still. How could I not like that? I found it hard to tell him similar things in return, still scared that I would be rejected, and something in me was holding me back. Mina said it was probably a form of emotional self-preservation.  

So instead of sweet nothings, I sent him art. Often of my roommates, or NY, or a flight of fancy. When my streaming service threw new music at me I especially enjoyed I would do an illustration of how it made me feel, or something directly from the lyrics. It was fun, and with the added artistic activity I was doing for the group I was drawing more than I had since during my darkest days in high school. But now I always had real people to share it with, and I was a much happier person.   

Before I knew it December had descended on the city, and my honors class final projects (yes, plural, it was a special type of hell) were due, the art group was volunteering en masse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I'd done two lucrative catalog shoots for local luxury brands that gave me just enough wiggle room to consider buying real gifts for my friends.  

On the other side of the world, Snowborne had moved on to Korea and China and other amazing places. Zane had commented again on how much my writing made him miss his NYU days, although he also said there are thing he'd definitely not do again if given the chance. I'd asked him what those things were, and didn't actually expect an answer. Those sort of deeper introspective thoughts seemed to be just the things Zane didn't like to express.  

His response came at around 2 in the morning, when I was in my room desperately trying to finish a project about color patterns in modern art for a non-honors class while resisting the ridiculous and fun Reddit-inspired piece I wanted to do for the Trompe le'Earls. This was the name of our group, adopted after a particularly late night where we slaughtered art terms in languages we didn't speak on purpose. This was hilarious at the time, I swear. The French speakers among us were suitably disgusted. But I was behind on absolutely everything because Ella, one of the group members, had sweet-talked me into modeling for a mixed-media project that involved me very close to naked and draped in bizarre things like Christmas-light style paper lanterns and two of her cats. They were pretty nice cats, and it had turn into a full day of hanging out and being silly. So I was behind, but not horribly so, and not unhappy about it.  

And Areli was talking to me again, which I was happy about. I did genuinely like him, and enjoy his company, even though he hadn't completely forgiven me. This came through in a slight snippiness that seemed to come out of nowhere when we'd be talking, the very long time he'd sometimes take to get back to me, and the particular way he'd introduced me to his new boyfriend, Marvin, and then repeated his name constantly. It didn't bother me and I didn't blame him, although I did feel a bit sorry for Marvin; the guy was really nice, and seemed to know exactly what was going on.  Still, Areli was relaxing around me bit by bit, and I was really grateful he was trying to be my friend.   

My email pinged, but I was in the middle of painting and managed to ignore it for at least 60 minutes before finally checking. I thought it was too soon for an email from Zane, since I knew it was probably a time of day he'd be busy with interviews and sound checks and the like. When I saw the email, the length of it surprised me. 

The food here is so good, Ethan. So good. He liked to start his emails out of nowhere, I noticed, as if we were already in the middle of a specific conversation that he was simply continuing. This was very intimate, although it also kept me off balance, as so much about him did. I read on. 

No one agrees with me except maybe Rick how great Korean cuisine is. But Jarod's acting like he's on a diet that excludes anything fish-related or spicy, which means there's not much he can eat sometimes. McDonalds and KFCs are his friend. Dustin slipping kim chi on Jarod's plate at any opportunity isn't helping. A plus is that hard drugs are harder to get here than in Europe or home, so he's almost being Buddhist in that regard. He hasn't climbed the stairway to heaven in at least two days. Trust me, that's forever. He's almost a pleasant person. At least until someone slips him something, which happens about once a week. It's probably the roadies, since he likes to share and they tend to return the favor.  

I've had several shochus, so I apologize if I ramble. Lot more booze than usual. But there are things I need to tell you, so I'll put it together with your question of what I'd not do again at NYU: Obsess too much about my grades before going in the extreme opposite direction, and also fuck around with the guy I was fucking around with. Not much of a story, except I let it fuck me up. 

I looked up what shochu was; Korean booze. There was a shot of jealousy, then, yes, for some guy Zane mentioned in an email that he hadn't been with since college. I wasn't proud, not of my jealousy, nor of my over-strong attachment to a guy I wasn't completely convinced I should ever date again (but was apparently going to do so regardless). This really was officially the year of great emotional confusion. But the feeling passed quickly.  

Fucker was in a band. Of course. That's all he did outside pretending to go to school. We were always getting fucked up, me on gin, him on coke, and going out and sing and acting like we owned the city. I was jealous of his ability to ignore his parents, who were paying for his college just like mine were. That pissed us off, like somehow they made it too easy for us. We were rock and roll. Everything should have been harder for us, right? 

It wasn’t hard at all, honestly. But he didn’t want to be out, and my family is subtly conservative, so I found it easy to follow him in that. We told ourselves it would be bad for our images, that it’d be harder to be famous if we were gay. Convenient excuses.  

The biggest thing was, I think, making music is what I wanted to do, more than anything, and here he was, making music. I fucking worshiped him for it. NYU was just a pit stop on the way to his glorious future, and he convinced me he was a fuckin' anarchist, a rebel.  

I am not a rebel. That's probably disappointing to hear (Actually. No. I don't think you care about that at all. It worries you that you might, but I don't think you do.)  I'm a fucking classically trained asshole who still likes his family, and doesn't hate success. Fame? I might hate fame. But I don't hate success. That's not very fucking rock and roll, is it? But yeah. I'd fooled around with guys before him, but this one, I fucking was nuts for. 

There was rambling here, starts and stops about the older student and his quiet manipulations. How he was cheated on, how sex withholding games were played to the point he was obviously scarred.  

That made me so sad. Why are the easiest things to pass between us in relationships the horrible bits, those wounds and mind-fucks and the twisted games? The good stuff, the jokes, the love, the little affections – those fade so quickly, and we hide them away and are afraid to pay them forward due to how utterly vulnerable they make us.  But pain and anger, oh, they race between us like the goddamn norovirus, making us sick to our stomachs and leaving behind little reactionary balls of bitterness. My mom had been one of those for a very long time.  

Anyway. I liked him too much. Broke my heart. Looking back, don't even remember completely why. It wasn't about him, it was about for the first – and last? Last, before you – time letting myself give a shit, letting sex be more. Sex is a fucking tyrant sometimes, have you noticed? Goddamn. We need to talk about that, how I fucked with your head before. I'm so sorry. 

My mom always said I was too fucking sensitive. Told me to not show anyone. Hasn't worked out that well, that not showing stuff.  

That was kinda great to hear, because he wasn't at all alone in that: I was too damn sensitive, also, albeit in different ways. Maybe that’s why we got along so well, aside from that goddamn sexual attraction thing. I didn't agree with him about the tyrannical nature of sex, however. From what I'd seen of it thus far it was messy, and silly, and sometimes hilarious, but it was also really incredible. After I'd gotten over my initial concerns I was an unsexy little fucktoy, I wasn't sorry for anything I did with him.  

So. There's going to be a lot of regret about sending this in the morning, I can tell. Tons. (or maybe relief?) Make me feel better. What do you regret? 

I think I need to stop drinking now. 

Why the fuck aren't you here with me? Oh, yes. School. Life. And I need to stop being a dick. 

Working on it. But something I should tell you (again?): Not counting the aforementioned asshole – and he shouldn’t be counted – you are my first relationship. Not counting empty sex. Which I don’t. Or, if we’re not in one yet, I want to be. Badly. 

There wasn't even a 'Z' at the end of this one. Hopefully he fell asleep in a comfortable position, although maybe he wasn't quite that drunk. His grammar didn't actually scream 'drunk', but more "unfiltered but coherent". 

I didn't hesitate to write him back, although it took a while to actually complete, what with everything going on in my head in reaction to his words. The emotional response built itself off of his from the bottom. 

I was his first relationship? Shit. That made me feel better about the madness, and also frustrated. I wish he had told me something to that effect earlier. If I had known that, maybe I'd not looked to him so desperately to take the lead in Europe. His outward confidence was so damn effective.  

But he'd laid himself bare, and I was going to run with it.  

Hi! Did you get some food to soak up the shochu, and was it delicious?  

My regrets? Gotta few. But maybe my biggest: I regret, at 14, following my mom in her crusade of pride and not convincing (guilting) her into taking money from my dad. It meant too much to her that she never cared about the money, that she wasn't like her mother. But no longer having any money stressed her out so much that she started drinking like a fish, losing jobs and making both our lives hell. I thought I was being a good son, supportive, not making it about me, and cutting my dad off. Not to say he wasn't a dick. Both with me, and in the degrading way he approached her. But they were both fucked. Their immaturity became mine, and I still can barely bring myself to talk to my dad, and take money from him. They've both always been really dumb smart people. And dramatic.  

I stopped to think. 

During my period of 'mourning' for Zane I'd re-read dad's book, the one about the estranged son who was my age and bore more than a passing likeness. He'd written a letter - yes, an actual letter, he'd always liked those pretentious personal flourishes - about what he'd actively made different about the character from me, the massive exaggerations, in order to make it more dramatic. That was nice to read, since the character in the book was a snot-nosed dick in a way I'd never been. My snot-nosed dickishness had been much more icy and quiet than bratty and borderline-evil. But he'd also directed me to pay attention to what was based on us. It'd been illuminating, in ways, although this was less about my dad's insight into the relationship between my mom and me, as he couldn’t help but twist it into something unhealthy, or my choices, which he only understood as they pertained to him. What it truly mapped out was how his brain worked. 

And how it worked was selfishly, ridiculously, and in a manner that was a bit ugly. He was driven by libido and fear of aging and losing those world-famous literary lion looks. Also, on the flip side, there was a brew of rage and anguish for where he and mom failed, as he obviously had indeed loved her, once upon a time.  

I’d broken his heart with how much more I'd bonded to my mother than him from the beginning, and how much she'd made sure to get the best of me. I don't think she did it purposely. There was less motivation in malice than in a desire to escape the fact she knew the man she loved madly also drove her mad by losing herself in me, but... yeah. She did do that. I was monopolized. In some ways she ate me whole because he'd started keeping himself at a distance, and she let her personality engulf me so his couldn't.  

I first wrote all that to Zane, changed my mind and deleted it for a summation.  Somehow the thought of telling him these things in person, face to face, not over message, was much more appealing. There was no excuse to be self-indulgent. 

They were both self-involved and lost, and treated me too much like an adult when I was anything but. Maybe that's what happens when you have really young parents? If I could do it again, I'd call them both idiots, and not take sides. Let them work out their own ugly issues. But it’s too late, and there's no purpose in regret. I’m talking to him again, and it’s going okay. When he’s not being self-involved he’s pretty insightful.  

Do you ever talk to that other guy, or see him?  

This particular question wasn't from jealousy, or at least I didn't think it was. I really was curious how he'd talk about this guy – Wayne – when he was more sober, if he’s even willing to talk about him at all.  

I’m pretty sure you were my first everything.  

I left it at that. I was a bit worried that it would be too heavy, but then again, fuck worrying. At this point I'd lost my shit enough times around him to know that being coy was very stupid.  

Recently I’d been careful only to masturbate to the vaguest thoughts and images of Zane, to avoid too much lingering and thinking and worshiping. But right then I needed him, and so instead of the real thing I was going to have to evoke him.  

I considered listening to his music while I did so, but I decided to go without. That was too easy, somehow, as if it was a crutch to hear his voice and get lost in it and just self-pump my way to pleasure. His voice was that fucking awesome. But it wasn’t all of him. Somehow, right then, I wanted his speaking voice, and I wanted it to speak to me. I could pull up some YouTube video of him talking, sure, but that would be Zane in his slick, interview-giving mode, and that wasn't the Zane I knew. My Zane was ever-complicated and full of turns and sly, vulnerable smiles full of sublimated anxieties. I'd have to recreate the him I knew in my mind.  

Despite being the only one in the apartment, I locked my door and turned off my light. I wouldn’t want Mina and/or Scott to stumble into my room to demand I have a final drink with them, as they were wont to do. My boxers slipped to the floor and I stepped over to my bed, listening to the springs creak. The sounds of the city and lights from outside filtered in, bouncing off the brick wall of the building adjacent and giving everything an otherworldly, disconnected glow. Here I was in my tiny island as NYC honked and beeped and shouted around me, naked and sort of cold as I was, which (I know, I’m sick) rather turned me on.  

With my head slightly propped on a pillow, I closed my eyes and rain my fingers up my chest, wishing Zane could have been in the room with me, watching me as I masturbated to him. Fuck, I hope we got a chance to do that. Or, even better: I could watch him stroke himself, watch those muscles tense and release. What expression did he have when he jacked himself off? Did he make any noise? God, the thought of those long fingers wrapped around his cock, moving - I wanted to know his technique and how he started in order to use them myself. Man, it was a good thing we weren't texting, because if we were I'd probably tell him right now what I wanted. My fingers lingered over my cock, ready to reach for the lube, and then I had an idea, and stood up.   

It was too bad I still only had a simple cell phone with a very simple camera, but my computer webcam would do. I turned it on, opened up the camera app, and moved the screen in such a way so it was angled out. I smiled, entertained how ridiculous I looked, what with my hair mussed, no shirt on, hand where I couldn't see it and a generally silly grin. Still, I'd seen enough of my own photographs to get how professionals preferred to shoot me, and before I could think too much I sent it off with the subject "Oh, and also." 

I hoped he liked it.  My heart was beating pretty fast. You'd think that taking a selfie and sending it to a guy I'd already slept with would be easy, especially in light of the fact I'd now had thousands of pictures taken of me, and seen hundreds of them. Yet this was different.  

Pulling out my bottle of lube and pouring a healthy amount on my hand, I slicked myself up, knocking against the head of my cock. My first instinct was to go fast, to get myself off and take care of the tightening in my balls. "Zane," I groaned as my hand slipped up and down, the squelching sound matching the rhythm of my breathing and increasing in intensity as I pictured his wry sort of smile just as it transitioned into a genuine grin. The way he'd sit or lay in such a way that he seemed perfectly comfortable except for a certain tension in his body, a tightness that showed that he wasn't relaxed at all. Like a giant, beautiful cat who was always prepared to pounce. I thought of the first time I saw him like that, there in the hotel lounge where I worked, and how struck I had been by how perfect he was, how cinematic he seemed even when completely still. My mind moved to that first concert, then, the sound of his voice, looking up at him as he stalked across the stage, and that first time he met my eyes as he sang about silly, silly things, and then the first time I touched his chest and then his cock... 

I came then, gasping and swearing and bucking my ass against my bed as I was flooded with sensation, "oh, fuck, Zane," I said, believing for a moment he was here, the explosion behind my eyes starting to fade and I started to refocus on the dim reality around me. Goddamn. That was the most I've cum in a while.  

I should have gotten up and continued to work, but instead I fell almost instantly into a deliciously dark, perfect sleep that was the best I'd gotten in a long time. 

To Part 26