“Do you want to see a musical with me?”
“Um, sure,” I said, pulling the covers over my eyes.
I was lying in bed with Matt, the older man I’d been seeing for two months (and who was the kind of guy who’d buy me a variety of olives and drive through NYC traffic to deliver them), when he asked this dreaded question. But ever since I saw his CD collection, framed posters on his walls, and souvenir T-shirts, I knew it was only a matter of time.
“We don’t have to—if you really hate them,” he said sheepishly.
“No, no, it might be good. I mean, is it good?” My tone was so high, it moved past gay voice and straight to eunuch.
“Yeah, it’s supposed to be hilarious!” he said.
Eyeing my exits, I thought, Oh god, no. I’ll have to pretend to laugh, too?
I didn’t hate musicals growing up and enjoyed the kid classics: Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Gypsy. Still, anything I’ve seen as an adult, apparently marketed and made for gay men like me, I’ve utterly failed to enjoy. I cringed at Rent, snored through Wicked, and no, didn’t understand what was so fun about Avenue Q. But the taste gap between me and my peers begged explanation—one I didn’t want to deal with, but which was the likely root of my problem.
For a time, I actually wanted to be in musicals.
I thought I could avoid the cliché. I almost did. But my senior year of high school, Grease was the spring production. I liked Grease, sure, but not only that, I knew a bigger secret: everyone else liked it. So certainly a lead would be a big deal and finally garner me—the awkward kid who was out-but-not-really—some popularity. Wasn’t that how it worked? But when my audition started, I got up in front of three judges to sing and they immediately put up their hands.
My voice had cracked on the very first note.
Being robbed of my birthright, I took it hard. I just never saw a musical that didn’t seem frivolous and obnoxious after that. So I was about to tell Matt I wouldn’t enjoy a “hilarious” new show—couldn’t get into another thin-plotted plea for my disposable dollars when I wasn’t invited to participate. I refused to be a typical, oozing spectator, like was so expected of me as a gay man.
That’s when I heard his roommates, a couple, come in. I knew Matt had been lonely with them and really wanted us to work, so we could be “The Four Musketeers.”
I took a deep breath. I looked at him soberly.
His jazz hands announced victory.
When we got to the East Village theater for Silence!, a spoof of Silence of the Lambs, I was already in a bad mood. Matt and I sat in a coffee shop all day while I wrote a play (serious theatre! with real consequences!) but there wasn’t enough time before my deadline. It was a rush-job that left me mortified. Musicals ruined my life, again.
Then the curtain went up and I saw him.
He was unassuming at first. Boring, if hot, FBI guy. Soon, though, it was clear he had multiple roles. Villain, hero; macho, feminine; human, animal (...lamb). He was everything I once imagined myself to be, playing many parts but also taking the spotlight from the two leads. And his shiny bald head, I mean, Hello, Jason Statham.
I guessed the leads were no slouches either, finding myself chuckling at the over-the-top, lisping Clarice, but it was hard to form an opinion. My vision was tunneled. Before I knew it, Hannibal had escaped to fight another sequel, the lights went down, and Matt looked at me, as always, to know what I thought.
I scratched his beard and nodded my approval. He beamed, likely picturing me in feathered hat and sword.
That night back in bed together, I found myself antsy. I checked my phone for the lyrics, the soundtrack, but more importantly, I wondered: Who was that bushy-browed Adonis with the icy-blue stare? The one who made me, I mean, his scenes pop? His name turned out to be Hugh (or so let’s say), and before I knew it I was down a YouTube hole on my phone, watching him flirt with the camera in behind-the-scenes footage.
What started out as innocent Internet stalking, however, soon became more. Looking at his headshots, I realized I somehow knew these Google images. I didn’t believe at first, but once it became undeniable, the cleft chin, the perfectly angled face, it took all my willpower to not burst out of bed, to scream for all the perfect truth:
I did see him before—on one of my hook-up apps.
Looking over at the snoring lion to my left, I quickly made sure I had the all-clear. Yes, we agreed to tentatively stay away from dating sites, while we felt each other out, saw what we could be. Still, I never expected this. Matt was extremely handsome, an art teacher who looked like a football coach, the first man I met who was really kind and solid. But Hugh—he was statuesque, charismatic, and on stage. It was scary how within minutes I redownloaded the app and located him.
“Hi there, you’re a cute guy,” I wrote automatically. And I still didn’t have time to think when a new message from him popped up: “Hi! You’re cute, too.”
My throat went dry. Before I knew it, we had somehow set up a date. Now I knew I was crossing the line. But it was so easy, like the goddamn Purple Rose of Cairo, the star of a movie jumping out of the screen.
When I woke up, Matt was cooking me eggs Benedict. We can move on from musicals to drag shows, fix up a house in New England, get matching sweaters, matching dogs, matching impotencies! he was no doubt thinking. I felt bad. He had no idea that my mind was on my new life with Hugh.
Move over, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, I thought. I do believe in musicals, I do.
Hugh picked the place. He didn’t like gay bars and wanted to be able to get to know me in a more "intimate" setting. I was confused, since I tried to go to gay bars every chance I got, to find my place in a community full of different groups. Then I realized Hugh didn’t have to do that. He had ascended above it all.
Hugh showed up at the spacious Upper East Side spot, glowing through a tight Spider-Man tee and backward cap. I melted and waved.
“Hey!” I said, approaching my future in uncharacteristically large strides.
“Oh, hey!” he yelled, as he went right past, toward a waitress behind.
I felt confused and stared at them chatting.
“Michael, this is my beautiful friend, Ariana,” he said then. “Oh isn’t she gorgeous?”
I was thrown, but collected myself. I was 23. I could still learn how to behave among the stars.
“Yes, she certainly is gorgeous,” I said. “Is she a mix?”
Instant regret, like I was referring to a dog.
“Yes, she is, she is! The same mix as Bruno Mars! Isn’t that amazing?” Hugh said.
“Oh, you know, it’s just wonderful that he represents us so well,” she preened.
After I nodded profusely, we all stood there, smiling. Then, she finally made a move and got us a table.
But the struggle continued. On the date he obsessively detailed his auditions for Law and Order (“They love me over there!”). He did accents for me (“My dialect coach would be obsessed with you—I mean, who’s from Staten Island?”). I noticed he talked for an hour without me speaking.
There was the portly gay couple who happened to be at the next table over, who were ribbing us about being on a first date and kept bumping into our chairs on the way to the bar.
“Whoops!” one said, poking his butt out. Hugh was upset.
“I came here to get away from those types,” he said in a perfect teeth grit.
“What types?” I said with lightness. I still wanted him to like me.
“No drive. No ambition,” he said. “Bitter, old queens.”
I flinched and suddenly found myself flooded with feelings of shame. I was hardly innocent, of course. Those men he was making fun of were the same kind of campy guys I was afraid of turning into. But what was the big problem? Matt's optimism, enthusiasm, the way he couldn’t wait to know what I thought of things—he was one of the good ones and he was undoubtedly better than Hugh. But here I was, cheating on him to catch a shadow. Sure, Matt was nearly twice my age, told corny dad jokes, and couldn’t always “perform,” but neither could I, after all.
I looked back at the couple. They were living for nobody, laughing bawdily, drinking absurdly huge pink drinks under kind eyes. While self-serious Hugh was still scanning the menu for the perfect item, they ordered 40 buffalo wings.
I had to learn their ways.
I shot up suddenly.
“Excuse me, I thought we were on a date here?” Hugh asked.
“I’m just over this, I think,” I said, too truth-telling after the last pitcher of beer.
“Well, I was over you three hours ago!” Hugh screamed back as I walked away.
“Ugh, three hours,” one of the couple exclaimed to my rescue. “With Spider-Man: Turn Off the Brain?”
All right, so maybe they were a little bitter after all.
The next day, I went over to Matt’s place. He made me dinner. He put out the olive pit plate. I knew I was a terrible person, a terrible gay, and didn’t deserve any of his attention, so I acted accordingly. I slumped. I snapped. Even his “Eff the Chef” apron had no effect.
I just kept thinking about my own judgments and self-seriousness. And, actually, about Silence! The songs were still stuck in my head, and even though I was preoccupied during the show, it was still clever and likely a big reason I was spellbound by Hugh. I thought about some of the other shows I’d seen, too. Had they really been that bad? And didn’t everybody hate Rent a little bit? I was trying to judge more fairly now, but feared it was too late.
I was ready to give Matt to someone who could appreciate him, who wouldn’t lie. His Les Misérables poster stared at me, accusing. But that’s when I stopped and considered that show, too. Despite the repetitive numbers and overdrawn action sequences, it did always stick out to me that Jean Valjean seeked redemption before successfully becoming a new, respectable man.
Maybe there didn’t have to be such severe consequences for my actions, either. Why punish myself and live in cynical solitude when I could take my cue from musical theater and actually have a moment of revelation? Because the truth was, even though I didn’t belong as the leading man, I still belonged somewhere. Matt, at least, made me feel that way.
It came time to learn from my high school mistake and refuse to live in bitterness over one ridiculous misstep. So I tapped my man on the back to surprise him with a big question of my own, as natural as any burst into song.
“Do you want to throw a Tonys party with me?”
Michael Narkunski is working on his MFA and memoir at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in Narratively, The Advocate, Hippocampus magazine, and on stage in NYC. You can follow his constant existential crisis @lampshadenark or say hi to him at Gym Bar.