Bumble on the Dance Floor.
The friend who picked me up at the airport was vastly different than the one I saw nine months earlier.
As I got in his brand new SUV he made a joke about my ratty backpack and longish hair.
His snotty tone brought back the memory of the last time I saw him when we ended our New Year’s Eve in a fist fight. Something that failed to cross my mind when I spent a week’s pay on flights to get to Nashville.
After a particularly galvanizing winter and a move to Los Angeles, I found myself living paycheck to paycheck as a freelance cameraman. The money wasn’t bad but I found a way to drink off the excess.
I Lost a couple of cell phones, woke up alone in a park, and was carried ‘like a dead body’ home by my Fiancé and my Co-Worker more than once. Lost in the blur is the memory of booking that ticket to Tennessee.
It must have been while out at the bars when I said yes, there was no consulting of my calendar or my bank account and I was definitely overextending myself.
My friend was being transferred to California to be closer to his terminally ill mother. The trip was going to take a week and end at the Denver Airport where I would fly home just in time to make it to the engagement party my future Mother-in-law was throwing.
The trip seemed like a bad move on all fronts but I couldn’t abandon my friend in his time of need.
When a friend needs a road companion there is no way to say no.
As John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley in Search of America:
We find after years of struggle that we not take a trip; a trip takes us.
Over the last several years my friend and I had polarized. I committed to my girlfriend and he went through a bad break up. I was a van-dwelling starving artist and he went from dental school right into the Air Force.
My worldview was moving to the left and his to the right, everything about the two of us was in opposition and that culminated when his sarcastic attitude went too far on New Year’s Eve.
Nine months without talking and suddenly we were riding in a car together, I wasn’t sure how to even talk to him, so I just listened and played along.
By the time we got to our hotel, it dawned on me that I’d made a grave mistake.
None the less I was stuck with him for a week and I hoped that it would be a time to heal our friendship and bridge the gap between our differences.
In September of 2016, it seemed more important than ever to depolarize and I was ready to give it my best shot.
It was a Friday night in Nashville and the energy was high, bachelor and bachelorette parties littered the scene and everyone was dressed to attract. As we walked around my cohort became more and more anxious by the volume of attractive women.
He pulled out his phone and began to swipe on his dating apps while we strolled up and down Broadway.
He kept his eyes glued to the screen and would occasionally ask my opinion, to which I’d point out all of the very real women around us. All he had to do was walk up to them and I’d back him up by being as entertaining as I could be.
My opinion didn’t matter and we ended up moving around a few bars where he could sit and carefully examine each of his swipes while I stared into my drink.
When we waltzed into a bar full of dancers I abandoned him, vanishing into the sea of stomping cowboy boots so I could dance. I ended up at the bar where I made friends with two college seniors. They were very attractive and fun to talk to, so I texted my friend, he replied requesting a photo to prove they were 'hot'.
I glanced over to the dance floor to see my shallow friend in a sea beautiful women doing a lazy shimmy and swipe on his phone.
I walked away from the seniors, outside to smoke in order to fight the regret that filled my soul. Why was I drinking alone at some honkey tonk two thousand miles away from my wife to be?
We continued this Tour of Tinder across the Midwest, spending nights in St. Louis, Kansas City, and eventually Omaha.
He wouldn’t let me drive his car or choose the music. When I resisted downloading Bumble to be a better ‘wingman’ he became very bitter. There was no asking about my life at all, nor my fiancé whom he knows well. For him, this trip was all about cruising for women and somehow I became an obstacle.
The divide only grew between us and I took to exploring other ways home but flights, trains, and busses were too pricey. I was left wandering the streets of Kansas City at three in the morning drunk, alone, and marooned on a painful trip.
My only solace in the empty streets was dancing to, “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys.
Monday night in Omaha isn’t a popular time to be at the bars but we found it, the one dive full of barflies not willing to let the weekend end.
By now my occasional drunk cigarette had turned into a consistent habit to cope with the trip, I’d avoided his dance floor swiping to smoke on patios and sidewalks across the Midwest.
The patio in Omaha was comfortable, I stood in the far corner with a perfect view to watch drunks meander in and out of the only bar open in downtown.
The rest of the trip was supposed to be an extra nine hundred mile detour through South Dakota but the authoritarian vehicle I’d been stuck in since Nashville already felt like a prison.
At this point, the trip couldn’t get better and it felt as though our entire friendship had run its course.
I took to the internet, searching for ride shares. I was getting desperate and the booze wasn’t allowing me to think about much else, I’d fallen into my own personal hell fueled by alcoholism.
The escape research stopped when a couple asked me for a lighter, both were my age and in good spirits. Striking up a conversation in the way only smokers can, we got to talking and swapped our stories.
Both of them were locals and she’d left a bad relationship earlier in the day, her gay best friend took her out to celebrate moving on. They decided to cheer me up, more cigarettes were lit and we became friends.
Eventually, he offered to take me to Denver if I paid for gas. For the first time since Tennessee I was happy and the three of us took to celebrating. In the excitement of the moment, she began telling me a story, speaking with vigorous use of her hands which kept my attention.
That was when I felt her friend rubbing his hand up and down the zipper of my jeans. I swiped the hand away but that was not taken as a no.
His friend never slowed her talking, I can’t even remember what she was talking about which leads me to believe she was merely a distraction. I felt like prey which sent fear crashing down my spine, I was cornered and not sure how to act.
I had no backup, he was subtle and I didn’t want to make a scene that could be conveyed as homophobic. After a direct brush of my penis, I grabbed his hand and looked him in the eye, giving a definite no.
As I motioned to leave he pulled my waistband toward him and stuck his hand down my pants. His clammy paw fished around while he muttered something about Denver.
He had hungry eyes and a proposal fresh on his lips that sent her bursting into laughter.
I pulled the beefy hand from my nether regions and stormed past them, I felt incredibly uncomfortable and lost. Every night on this trip had gotten progressively worse and now I’d been fondled and couldn’t find the friend I’d come with.
After a while of looking around the busy bar, I found him talking at a woman near the dance floor. I asked him for the motel key which interrupted the conversation just enough for her to make a break for it. Once he noticed her leaving I was denied the key through gritted teeth and he walked off, in pursuit. I went to close my tab.
Just as I was signing my check, Gus the Groper suddenly appeared next to me. He began apologizing while rubbing my arm, I pulled away and asked him to leave. He responded with a proposal to join him at his apartment, followed by a detailed account of what he would like to do to me there.
I ignored him but with the same speed as before he unzipped my fly and shoved his hand inside.
I pushed him away and stumbled my way out of the bar without zipping my pants up, The bouncer reminded me to do so just after he warned me to not come back.
Ambling down the cobblestone streets of Omaha was when I officially hit rock bottom, I balled my eyes out. The second groping sent me over the edge, putting me in a deeper position of no power.
I understood first hand the way sexual assault can make someone feel so vulnerable and alone.
I slouched against the door of the motel and smoked, sitting in my own misery. A guilt overcame me like it was somehow my fault, twice? Where was my macho response?
I’ve been hit on by men before, I’m a proud straight ally to my gay friends and when you go to a gay bar it happens. But no has always meant no, I’ve never had someone be so sexually aggressive toward me.
I can still smell his rotten breath and see that look on his face, the gleam in his eye from the pleasure he was getting from my displeasure.
It doesn’t matter the gender or the sexual preference, a persons body is their right and a sexual predator is a sexual predator.
A flurry of gay slurs and ‘I bet you liked it’ was all I got from my friend who arrived after a couple cigarettes. He was stumbling, angry, and convinced it was my fault that he couldn’t coax a drunk woman to our motel room.
Sobbing had emptied my emotional energy and gave me a fresh perspective, I watched the tantrum my friend was throwing and felt an immense disgust for men.
The greasy smile that accompanied the rough pulling in my pants. Swiping on the dance floor in order to cast a wide net, whining about not getting laid. Being offered a ride to Denver in exchange for sex.
Men think it is ok to act this way. That no actually means to try again, that their perspective partners really do want their advances, even if they don’t know it yet. It is the product of a system that we are taught is normal. A system that is reinforced by those around us who ignore how wrong it is.
The emasculation I felt forever shifted my perspective and showed me that the entire male ethos needs to evolve.
You can blame porn for deepening fantasies and setting unrealistic expectations, or pop culture’s push for perfection and glorification of sex but these are only symptoms of the problem. Our perception of masculinity is shaped by the men that raise us.
Over generations the toxicity strengthens by telling boys to man up and be tough, a man takes what he wants, and the showing of any emotion other than anger is weak.
I come from a long line of proud manly men, Republicans who believe a man should work with his hands and be a consummate sports fan with a hatred for light beer. Any diversion from this is cause for alarm, pity, and a tongue lashing meant to fix the problem. Being emotionally intelligent is acting like a woman, caring too much is creepy, and fruity drinks are ‘gay’.
I’ve never agreed with the men in my family and the situation in Omaha only made me despise their perspective. There is no such thing as a real man, as with everything, masculinity is a spectrum and has all identities and genders within it.
There was absolutely no way that I could have continued on with my friend, that bridge had caught fire in Nashville and now nothing remained.
I grabbed my backpack and slung it over my shoulders, without a goodbye I walked out of the apartment and into the crisp air of a pre-dawn Nebraska morning.
I wasn’t sure where I was going to go or how I was going to get home but in that eternal moment it didn’t matter, I was finally free from a toxic relationship.
Life’s best moments aren’t always its sweetest, it is the experience that allows us to grow.
Stepping out onto the cobblestone, I danced to Steve Earle’s “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left”