You wouldn’t know it to look at me now. But once upon a time, all of this was tight. I woke up, ate two or three Pop-Tarts, and hit the streets giving everyone within viewing distance the thrill of their lives. There are nude photos of me from that time somewhere on the Internet, and I don’t care if you see them. Oh, yes. I was a beautiful man once. It’s a good thing, too, because gay men don’t care for nonbeautiful men. Our world is built brick by brick on appearances. When I came out, I remember being astounded by how specific and precise the nitpicking could get.
The categories of gay men are endless. Bears, Cubs, Chubs, Gym Rats, Otters, Pups, Spunk Monkeys, Twinks, Wolves, Daddies. Everyone reduced to appearance.
I was technically a Twink: college age, smooth, fit. But was there such a thing as a Black Twink? Maybe I was a Blink. Or a Twack.
In the late 1990s, there was a bar my friends and I frequented early on Friday evenings, before we went out for real. As soon as we hit the door, the hunt for old men began. Men with desperation in their eyes. They sat in a row looking into their drinks, never at one another. They played old music on the jukebox and wore out-of-date clothes. Some were stumbling drunk by 7:00 p.m., and we made sure to note how pathetic that was, because it was the ’90s and we were freer than they could have ever hoped to be when they were our age.
Those salad days ended without warning. I couldn’t tell you when, exactly. Maybe it was in my early 40s.All it took was to wiggle yourself between two of them at the bar. A furtive glance, and one of them would flag the bartender: “Whatever he’s getting is on me.” The drink wasn’t free, exactly. You’d be obligated to spend a few minutes talking to the poor bastard. (Unless you were my friend David, who would just take the drink and prance away.) But I had couth, a good home training. I’d talk. Besides, sometimes they’d buy you another drink. Sometimes you’d get free cocaine out of the deal. But I wouldn’t stay long, because the same scam had to be run on the second floor, then on the patio. I’d look into their basset-hound eyes, deep with longing, and make up some excuse. Or one of my friends would come to the rescue feigning some urgent business. It was all very easy.
Because we were young, beautiful, gay men.
Those salad days ended without warning. I couldn’t tell you when, exactly. Maybe it was in my early 40s, when I emerged from rehab for alcohol and drug addiction. Maybe it was around the time I realized I was the same age as those old men at the bar, all in a row looking into their beers. I think I want now what they wanted then: just to not be lonely.
If I went to a bar tonight looking for someone to buy me a drink, I’d most likely just be offered a seat by a much younger man. Like an old woman on the bus. Someone flipped a switch that turned my flat tummy to a bulbous bowl of Jell-O, my rock-hard pectorals into boobs, my face into brisket, sliding off the bone.
My shrink has heard too many of my complaints about aging and has taken to responding with platitudes. He tells me that “age is nothing but a number” and says things like “salad days.” He has actually told me that it’s always darkest before the dawn. These nonsolutions drive me nuts, but he insists I try to see the truth in the clichés.
My decision to get back out there wasn’t easy. Bars are no longer a possibility, given that I’m sober now, and the thought of an app like Grindr terrifies me. Being expected to perform sex on demand at my age is tantamount to being expected to fly. Reservations need to be made, bags with medications packed, an itinerary and a paper ticket provided. Black men are cast as sexual powerhouses in the gay community, and for a long time that suited me fine. But now the thought of disappointing a stranger makes my blood run cold with embarrassment.
I joined a group for sober singles and, to my surprise, garnered two dates.
PATRICK, 35, Retail worker
Over the phone, we bonded over ’90s R&B. I was shocked that someone so young knew the words to songs like “Knockin’ da Boots,” by H-Town, and “Weak,” by SWV. Things went so well that we decided to get together for dinner.
He looked just like his picture. He arrived in tight jeans—the dressy kind with holes in the knees—and a button-up Hawaiian shirt. I tried to look casual in dress pants and a black T-shirt I bought off the Internet from True Classic. The kind that hides your belly and makes your biceps look bigger. I’ve never been on a real date, so I didn’t know that dinner is a lot for a first date—once the niceties are out of the way, there’s a whole lot of time to fill between appetizer and entrée. The conversation about jobs and how difficult dating is dried up quickly. During that lull, he snuck in the question he was there to ask. He asked it while looking into my eyes.
“So how much do you make?”
I have never been in a car crash. But I imagine that in the milliseconds before the vehicles make impact, time slows to a crawl. Your foot feels like it takes forever to reach the brakes as your brain races to stave off the inevitable. This is how I felt as I stumbled for an answer that didn’t make me sound too rich or too poor.
“I uhhh . . . I guess I do all right. But . . . uhh, the publishing business is fickle . . . you know.”
I heard myself talking as if I were in another room, underwater. Patrick saw me as I saw all those old men at the bar so long ago. A means to an end. He asked where I vacationed, what car I drove. And it was clear to me that I was no longer a beautiful Blink. I was a Daddy. A Black Daddy.
When our waiter finally delivered the check, it sat in the center of the table, pulsating. Patrick glanced at it, then shifted his eyes up to meet mine. I knew better than to offer to split it. It was no skin off my back. I remembered how the desperate old men at the bar raised their hands to the bartender. I tried to mimic their forced nonchalance when I smiled across the table and said, “I’ll get this.”
ISAAC, 54, Bank employee
We agreed to meet for coffee. If there’s no chemistry, there’s no need to drag it out while you wait for the next course to arrive.
I got there early to find a spot with flattering lighting. I checked my look in the bathroom mirror to make sure my makeup wasn’t obvious. Lately, I’ve noticed dark circles under my eyes and found that a little Fenty Beauty covers them up nicely. I wore the same black T-shirt. Isaac recognized me, smiled, and fist-bumped. He wore khaki cutoff cargo shorts, the pockets of which seemed filled to bursting. They looked like saddlebags, and when he walked, the keys on his belt loop jangled. He wore a threadbare T-shirt commemorating a supermarket opening.
We asked each other about siblings and work. Our coffee cups traveled from the table to our mouths with increasing frequency. I felt no spark; he felt no spark. When he excused himself to the restroom, I knew it was time to get out of there. He was nice enough, but both of us were wishing the other was a different man. Or maybe we were wishing we were younger, when this all seemed so easy.
When he got back, the waning conversation drifted to when we were, in fact, younger. He told me that, back in the day, he used to go to that bar on Ellsworth Avenue. The same place I used to grift drinks and cocaine from old dudes. I wondered if he had reveled in all the attention, as I had. Not knowing that being desired was nothing like being loved.
Isaac told me he had to get going to pick up his kid. We fist-bumped our goodbyes, making no promises to get in touch. Our smiles were genuine. He left a half-empty cup of coffee on the table. (Or maybe, as my therapist might say with a wink, it was half full.)
It wasn’t so much that I thought I would be young forever. It was more about the fact that, when you’re barely 20, you don’t think beyond the moment that’s right before your eyes. Had you told me then that I’d one day be sitting in a coffee shop with a 54-year-old saddlebag-wearing man hoping he could alleviate my loneliness, I would have told you to talk to the hand. But the urge to be desired morphs into a less selfish need to be wanted. The urge to give supplants the urge to take, and you realize that the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is how to love, and how to be loved.
I have less time in front of me than behind me. Yeah. Youth is a practical joke, and I’m just now understanding the punchline. Maybe I’ll never find love at my age, and that’s all right with me. I have a wonderful life.
But maybe I will.
Read More From the Esquire series, Dispatches From the New Middle Age:
A Millennial Looks at 40
Confessions of a Not-Bad Dad
The Beauty in Lying to Yourself
Brian Broome’s debut memoir, Punch Me Up to the Gods, is an NYT Editor’s Pick and the winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction. Author photo: Porter Loves.