The mess builds without you noticing. And before you know it you’ve knocked down a stack of books and ripped the side off of a high rise, your footprints marking the streets. At some point you remember to clean, but the pile builds so fast, too fast to keep up with.
There’s a ring on the dresser in Boston and a long island in the hand of a friend. And the flies are starting to swarm, and you can’t ignore your mess for much longer. And you justify. You explain. You give excuses to grieving families and insist it’s not your fault.
“I was curious. And I ended up making a mess.” You’re the long island. You’re the ring. You’re the monster in the streets.
And you’re the mess.
When I was grocery shopping about a year ago I almost walked directly into the most gorgeous boy I had ever seen. We’re talking full on lacrosse twink, which is kind of like a soccer twink, but taller and with wavier hair. And a soccer twink is kind of like a twunk but with a hair flip and way too perfect legs. And a twunk is kind of like-... You know what? Never mind. Just open up urbandictionary in another tab. It is not my job to educate you. In fact, I am maybe the least qualified person to educate anyone on anything considering my attendance in high school was as rare and spaced out as the entire Black Mirror series.
When I walked into him I was blown away. I thought, could I really be experiencing the first ever gay grocery store meet cute? Because, let me tell you something, gay meet cutes don’t happen in grocery stores. You want to know how gay meet cutes happen? You see a hot boy on the street, pull up grindr, and look to see which faceless torso is going, “51 feet away, 52 feet away, 53 feet away…” You definitely do not approach them in a grocery store. And you don’t meet them in laundromats either. The one place we have is gay bars, and even there you can’t meet cute. You can meet drunk, you can meet messy, or you can meet their boyfriend. And sometimes you can do all three!
The problem with running into this beautiful, beautiful man was that when I turned the corner I saw that he was there shopping with another hot guy. And they had a shopping cart. Which means they’re locked down. Shopping carts in the city mean commitment. Or homelessness. If you need an entire shopping cart for your trip to the grocery store in the city, you are fully prepared to stick with this person and apartment for at least another year, and that’s just a fact.
His boyfriend was cute too, though. (He was a soccer twink.) And, realistically, if I wanted, I probably could have approached them for a threesome, because one of them was wearing a sleeveless shirt so they were definitely in an open relationship. If you’re gonna wear a sleeveless shirt to the grocery store with your boyfriend you might as well just have a neon sign that says, “LOOKING FOR A THIRD.” It’s like how wearing a baseball henley means that you’re vers, but you prefer to bottom. Honestly, gay guys communicate half through their clothing. We’re very advanced in that way. It’s like how chameleons communicate through changing their skin color. (I’m pretty sure blue means “looking for fun but can’t host” in chameleon. I’d have to urbandictionary it to be sure, though.)
When I was 5 I had my first date with a girl at Rugrats Live and I peed my pants in front of her entire family, Reptar, and god. Up until that moment everything had gone super smooth. When we first met in kindergarten and got seated next to each other (which 5 year old Ryan thought was fate and 25 year old Ryan now realizes was alphabetical order) I told her that I almost ran out of the classroom when she sat down because I realized I was sharing my table with the prettiest girl in town. Looking back I came from a no-Starbucks small Long Island town that was most famous for being the heroin capital of the United States, so… probably not the huge compliment I thought it was at the time. When we got to the musical (is it technically illegal to call it that? It might be. No one tell Prime Minister Idina) I was so excited to be on a date with Jessica A that I refused to get up for anything, even to use the bathroom. Which is an okay plan if you have great bladder control and aren’t a 5-year-old. (It’s also important that I specify that it was Jessica A, the girl I had a crush on, and not Jessica S, the girl that lived down the block from me, or Jessica W, the girl that lived down the block from Jessica S, or Jessica M, the other girl that I had a crush on, or Jessica C, my sister whom I suggested we name Jessica because I thought it was a really unique name.) That relationship ended as quickly as it began. Not necessarily because of the pants-peeing, more so because we were five and between the two of us had the attention span of a single moth.
In middle school I was pretty void of any real romantic connections, but I did have a one-sided torrid love affair with this witch named Amanda. And by one-sided I mean that she started crying and freaking out about me to all of her friends because she was pretty sure she was cursed at a young age and so if she ever laid hands on her true love she would turn him to stone. And she was like, “how am I gonna explain to Ryan that we can never be together?” And I was like, “how am I gonna explain to Amanda that this is all a non-issue because I am very very gay?”
To be fair I didn’t judge her for any of the witch stuff because in my previous middle school relationship I totally screwed things up by accidentally helping the demon queen Rymekilb regain dominion over the seventh layer of hell from Satan himself and basically spoiled season 3 of Supernatural for myself before it was even written. So, really, who was I to judge? (It was a whole thing, it’s a long story.)
When I grew up a bit more I narrowed down my dating preferences a lot as I thought about the kind of guy I could really make it work with. I wanted someone like me. Someone that understood my humor and my anxiety. Someone that I could joke around with and compete with. I wanted a cuter, more motivated version of myself. And most of all I wanted someone with a lot of drive that also knew how to drive. Knowledge of which pedal does what was super valuable to me at this point in my life. After all, every Payless in the tri-state area still flinches when they see me pass by.
You’d think that once I figured that out my dating life would get easier, but that didn’t really seem to happen. The only thing that changed was I was able to weed out catfishers and demons at a more proficient rate. Although for my first real date with a guy we hooked up in the parking lot of a Burger King and then he made fun of my outfit with his friend before making me buy a whole new one at the Aeropostale in the mall. So I guess maybe I didn’t weed out all the demons. Hmm.
I’m terrible at saying goodbye, and so when the time came for me to move from Long Island to the city and say goodbye to my friends, I mostly didn’t. I had a great last day with my best friend Kate, told Yeliz, Gulsah, and Isabel that I was moving, packed up and left. I’m bad with change unless I just Fortnite dive into it with no parachute, and so that’s how I had to go.
Here’s the thing people don’t tell you about moving: even if you own nothing you own way too much for when you have to move. Packing is the absolute worst, especially if you’re a hoarder like, uh… my... friend. Because not only does packing already take way too long, but then you end up spending hours just staring at each individual paper you uncover, reading and rereading it as you rediscover its relevance at whatever point in your life it came to exist. And then you go through it all over again as you unpack in your new temporary home. And a shard of your life scratches the floor of your current self. A hole in your lungs sucking the air out as you remember a friend you didn’t tell you were leaving, who has now wrongly decided she was unimportant to you and doesn’t take your texts seriously. And the mirror has a shard missing and your lungs have a hole and your floor is scratched, and they’re all linked. And you unpack. But unpacking takes way too long when you’re alone. And each box is twenty feet tall, as high as your new ceilings, too tall to trust and to reach. Taller than it ever needed to be. And you can see that now. So you stay still. Afraid to move. Afraid to make your presence known before a twenty foot door.
You spend four long years never fully unpacking. Moving from space to space and door to door. And you lose more and more connections as you say less to less people each time you leave. Because you feel less every time you leave. Until the one day you hope for, when everything falls into place and you can text and it will feel real. When you can make plans that happen. When you can say your home is solid and your mirror is clean. When you are no longer still.
And you are moving again.
Listen, if God (who is a woman, by the way) wanted us to operate huge chunks of metal and send them flying at each other at lightning fast speeds then she would’ve just invented the Zords from Power Rangers instead, not cars. I mean she’s clearly already obsessed with dinosaurs considering she made like 3 million of them before the meteor hit, and then after that she sent her only son, Ross Geller, down to educate all of us about their existence. So it all adds up. And also if she really wanted cars here she would’ve made it way more obvious which pedal is the gas and which is the brakes and also she wouldn’t have put so many Paylesses everywhere for us to crash into. This is just basic theology. I can’t believe I even have to explain it.
I was the last of my friends to even have a basic level of interest in driving. And by a basic level I mean that I was interested in the idea of not having to walk anywhere ever again and that was it. I had enough anxiety getting up and remembering that school existed every day, I really didn’t need to add on the possibility of zoning out while driving because I’m trying to remember in which episode of Charmed they had to WWE wrestle a bunch of demons in a ring in order to save the world, and then I end up crashing and dying. (I looked it up, by the way, and the episode is literally called “Wrestling With Demons.” Because of course it is.)
The only reason I ever even let the idea of driving enter my mind was because one night I was out with a group of friends and everyone was being given a chance to try it out in an empty parking lot. They all cheered each other on, but started freaking out when it was going to be my turn which I’m not really sure why because I was only about the third clumsiest person in that car and maybe the second stupidest. Regardless I wasn’t bottom of the ladder. I didn’t end up driving because I felt it was important to teach them a lesson by depriving them of my fantastic driving skills, crossing my arms, and pouting the whole night. It was a total power move.
The next time the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance. This time I was comfortably seated with Isabel and Gulsah, ready to show them, the world, and God herself that I was able to do this. And I did for about two minutes before I forgot which pedal was for the gas and which was for the brakes. It’s honestly so confusing, they should really put a sign up or teach it in some kind of class. Not very responsible, car makers. Anyway, I accidentally floored it Spongebob-style and almost drove straight into a Payless before finally finding the brakes and stopping short. I was mostly just happy we didn’t crash into the Payless because I was Jobless and thus Moneyless so paying them to fix their wall probably would’ve ended up leaving me Homeless.
After that incident I decided my best course of action would be to never step butt into the drivers side of a car ever again. Which meant I had two options: 1) Already be rich and get driven everywhere by a personal driver. (Honestly should’ve gone with that one.) Or 2) Move to the Big Landfill. Sorry, Big Trashfire. AH! Big Apple. Though nobody actually calls it that, we call it The City. The land of too many people, too much trash, and some trash people.
You never really recover from the hunger. You might think you have, as your life turns yellow and the number 4 hangs above. And when the yellow turns to gold and the 4 becomes 400. But on a counter in your skull there’s a beat-up pan with plain rice. There’s a plate with white bread and peanut butter. And it will never be enough. As you count receipts and plan and stretch and restrict. You know it will never be enough.
Your paw sinks into the snow as you watch. He’s going to leave the booth soon. And although you’ve just eaten, you’re starving. You’re oh so hungry. You pray to his god that this will give you one more day, though you know there’s thousands laid out before you,
like receipts on a loft floor.
And from this you won’t recover.
In middle school I got tricked by this really obnoxious demon named Rymekilb into releasing her from her eternal prison and allowing her to reclaim dominion over the seventh layer of hell, except then it turned out that she was just a bored teenage girl catfishing me and that totally pissed me off because honestly what a complete waste of my time and potential.
I was always convinced that there was something special and off about me (I mean, was I technically wrong?) and my suspicions were confirmed in the first grade when I looked at this poster for too long and it fell off the wall. I knew deep down that I had superpowers I just never had a solid answer as to what they were and, for me, telekinesis was the best choice. I was a good 1 pound 2 ounces at all times, so any power that involved me not having to lift anything for the rest of my life was a solid evolutionary choice.
Around 7th grade I was also invited to join a coven by two girls I met during play practice for Footloose and I was totally in because I figured it was about time that I started kicking some demonic ass. Except once I actually joined I realized that all they wanted to do any time we hung out was draw pentagrams and astral project. Snoooooze. I mean when do we start wrestling demons in a giant WWE ring, amiright Phoebe Halliwell? Also they were super into writing their own spells and no offense but I was told by the High Priestess Alyson Hannigan that there wouldn’t be any homework involved. All I’m supposed to have to do is stick my hands through the pages of a book and absorb the words up into my eyeballs until my hair turns black, it’s really not that complicated.
Eventually I left the coven half because I misplaced my book of shadows and didn’t feel like writing a new one (it seemed like a lot of work and also I was out of staples) and half because I just wasn’t interested in anything they were interested in and so anytime they started talking I’d have to astral project to a plane of existence where I wasn’t bored out of my skull. I was also getting tired of my mom making fun of me for being a witch, even though I walked in on her singing Evanescence once so really we know which one of us had the more embarrassing secret. I may have been the catalyst for a fake demonic war taking place on another plane of existence but at least I listened to Bring Me To Life with headphones on, Mom.
When you’re as embarrassingly clumsy as me being ignored can be a real blessing. I cannot tell you how many things I’ve broken that no one has noticed, including but not limited to a PlayStation, upwards of three doors, an oven, all of my friends computers simultaneously, not Isabel’s window thank you very much, many Christmas decorations, and a friend’s dog (via accidental Oreo feeding. It’s a long story.) Also when you’re being ignored you get really good at sneaking up on people which is a great skill to put on a resume when applying to work in a haunted house and absolutely nowhere else.
Being social was never one of my strong suits. It wasn’t even one of my weak suits, really. In fact it wasn’t actually much of a suit at all, it was more like that bow tie you bought because you thought one day you’d definitely include bow ties into your wardrobe but now it’s been five years and you literally forgot you ever even bought it. It’s why I was always so lucky to have Kate as a best friend because we could have full conversations in Arrested Development quotes and be completely content.
Yeliz was always the outwardly social one. She was the one that had the gift of conversation, and it always fascinated me. She could make anyone comfortable while talking. Once I went on a date with a muscle-bound Greek god looking boy named Mike and my strategy for breaking the ice around him was to invite Yeliz along to our second date so he and I would both feel comfortable just talking. Half because I was so intimidated to be talking to someone with biceps as big as my kitchen, but also due to my intense fear of saying something stupid, like that his biceps were as big as my kitchen. Bringing Yeliz along totally worked and to this day I think she might secretly be one of the X-Men. I even took to writing in her yearbook, knowing full well that this prophecy would never need to come true, that she was the kind of friend you could spend five years apart from, ask to go get coffee, and it would feel like not even a single day had passed.
Being bad at social interaction often led to me being ignored or talked over, which also ended up teaching me a lot about self-respect. Somewhere in the 400th time I got interrupted mid-story and talked over by my theatre friends something in me broke like a social dam, and I just kept talking. Even with nobody but myself listening. Even with them speaking over me. I kept talking. I learned in that moment that the value of what I had to say existed whether they chose to listen to it or not. So to stop speaking because of their interruption is doing a disservice to myself, my thoughts, my words, and those that were with me on my story. I stopped speaking for the sake of other people that day and started telling stories, making jokes, and speaking my mind for myself. Anyone that wanted to listen was invited to, and I’d listen to them in turn. But my thoughts and words were mine from then on, and no one could change that.
In middle school I made some of my best friends by arguing with this girl Ashlee on AIM, which is an extremely 2005 sentence. (Meaning I was one year ahead of the game. Nice.) It was the first time we’d ever spoken and halfway through the argument, which was about her boyfriend Justin, we both realized we thoroughly enjoyed each other and started hanging out instead of fighting. We built a group of friends together and then all of us collectively fought each other every other day, because we were middle schoolers from Long Island and so that’s really all there was to do. At the very beginning the girl I fought with the most from this new group of friends was named Kate, and we mostly fought because her boyfriend (also Justin and, no, not a different one) was a straight boy and I was not a huge fan of that. But after mutually getting cursed when we watched The Grudge in her basement we started to become best friends. This was about a year after James and I stopped talking (which, James and I also had a friendship forged under the vengeful eye of an apparition. Huh.) so I was in the market for a new best friend, especially considering my birthdays up until this point had been pretty lonely and, overall, terrible.
You know how Friday the 13th is supposed to be the unluckiest day of the year? Yeah, well, surprise you superstitious dweeb, it’s actually October 2nd. I’m sure you’re gonna say my birthday always sucking has something to do with heightened expectations, but honestly I’m afraid of heights so mine are like two feet off the ground max. I mean, when I was young I never had a truly fancy birthday party like when Brian’s family took us all out to laser tag or when James took us to go see Shrek. My birthdays as a kid started off boring and gradually made themselves into full-fledged hell-fests as I grew up. Over the years I went from having no party and no cake to everyone canceling last minute, to everyone showing up and fighting with me over something stupid, to spending a cold night with flowers and a boyfriend who planned to break up with me a week later, to then being completely alone.
There was a sweet spot right after I graduated high school where my birthdays didn’t full on feel like I was ripping off a season 2 Buffy plotline. On my 20th birthday Pete bought me Stratego and planned a surprise party at the gay cul- gay youth group we’d previously gone to. We canceled last minute (the Phoebe moon in full swing) and played Stratego in his van on the side of the road until 4am, fully confusing every cop in the neighborhood that was sure we were having sex. My next birthday was just as sweet, at Gulsah’s home playing Celebrity with her, Kate, Yeliz, and Isabel while a homemade cheesecake waited for me in the other room. That night was total bliss and I could smell lilacs from the window, surrounded by a group of friends that loved me. And best of all spending it with Kate, the one girl in the world that fully understood me without judgment, 10 years of friendship without arguments. My other, far stronger half.
My last birthday hit me hard while I was reading birthday messages as they came in. It was less than the year before, which was less than the year before that, as I’d lost contact with most of my Long Island friends. Which were my only friends. I read the messages one by one, feeling a degree of loss for each. And then came Kate’s. A happy birthday message, and the last time we spoke right above it. Last year’s happy birthday message from her. Three exclamation points and a heart, but a feeling that, in my desperation to find my home in a new city, I’d lost the one person that mattered the most to me. And a question of when I’d be able to sit by the window and smell the lilacs again.
One of my first crushes happened in drama class when we had to act out an emotion without words on stage. One of my guy friends made himself cry, and when asked what he was picturing to bring himself there he said that he imagined himself at my funeral. And I thought that was so sweet. Ever since then it’s been hard for me to have platonic relationships because anytime a boy is even remotely nice to me I get a crush on him. (And by “nice to me” I mean he remembers my name.) (And really he doesn’t even have to get it exactly right, it can just be in the ballpark.) (Brian is fine.)
In elementary school when I was still unknowingly in love with my best friend James he started introducing me to his other guy friends, which was a huge mistake. It was like being invited to meet his family if his family was only interested in Pokémon and fart jokes. To be fair, I’m great at meeting new people because my shyness tends to make them feel good about themselves and their own social abilities, but things did take a left turn when I was hanging out with James’s friend Brian and accidentally let his 15 year old dog eat an Oreo when no one was looking. I was mildly devastated later in the week when I found out that chocolate is poisonous for dogs but, to be fair, it was double-stuffed so really the cream to chocolate ratio was all off anyway, so who really knows how much damage it actually did.
A year and a half later his dog died and I never spoke to him again because Brian was not fine and I totally blamed myself.
After high school I became best friends with a boy named Peter that was essentially exactly like me if I was cuter, knew how to drive, and had any marketable real life work skills. We met on a gay dating site but agreed to be completely platonic since he was exiting a really fragile 9 year relationship with the love of his life, and I was exiting a really fragile three month relationship with a muscley boy I’d gone on five dates with. It was a rocky time for both of us.
Pete and I instantly bonded while having synchronized anxiety attacks about ordering Starbucks inside vs the drive-thru, which was really helpful for me because normally when I meet new people my brain goes into full apocalypse mode, starts sounding those nuclear alarms, and tries to convince me to stop, drop, and roll into a bathroom to hide until everybody else has gone home.
Pete and I did everything together on Long Island, including investigating this gay youth group that we were pretty sure was a cover up for either some underground gay sex traffic ring or a secret gay cult brotherhood, but really it turned out that it was just a gay youth group the whole time. It was crazy. When we got there Pete and I took turns drooling over the leader of the gay cul- youth group, who was actually a really hot 20 year-old gay gamer named Chris. He let me win a fighting game which I thought meant that it was true love, but others since then have told me might have just been the result of accidental well-timed button-mashing.
We eventually went into the actual activities for the youth group which involved a safe sex seminar, Q&A, and then the part Pete and I were most excited about which were the games. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned a thousand times yet but I’m a Monica with a Rachel rising and a Phoebe moon, which is to say that the main thing that gets me out of bed with a smile every morning is the thought of crushing someone in a competition. This particular competition involved Pete and myself racing against a bunch of other teams to write down as many unsafe sex practices as possible on our large sheet of paper. I got way too into it and started screaming out anything I could think of that I would never do, like, “BDSM! CHOKING! GLORYHOLES!” All the while I didn’t realize Chris was standing behind me or that the entire room was staring at me, because you know that thing of when you get really into a competition and start screaming “GLORYHOLES” at the top of your lungs?
Gloryhole-shouting aside, Pete and I won and Chris invited us to join the brotherh- come back to the youth group anytime. We didn’t, but only because Pete and I were both super flakey when it came to everyone but each other. (Which is where the Phoebe Moon part comes in, by the way. Phoebe is totally flakey.)
Ryan C. Robert is the writer of multiple comedy blogs, most of which are satirical and self-deprecating. He writes about his life in his personal essay series "Before Color," parodies cooking blogs in "Trish's Dishes" and posts writing prompts every single day.