You’ll Cast Bells, I’ll Paint Icons: A Conversation with Anthony Cudahy
I met Connor three years ago at a conference in Tennessee, among a contingent of attendees from Phoenix. I’d known them all only from Twitter – a pretty common phrase at the time – because I was working remotely in North Carolina for a company based in New York. It’s amazing the things you don’t realize you’ve stopped missing, day after day of working at your dining room table, like real-life friends.
The most wide-eyed and personable of this group came up to me and stuck out his hand immediately. “Hi, I’m Connor.” We both had longer hair and were both overweight; we discovered a few shared cultural touchstones and crossed paths a few more times over the weekend. When he left for the airport, he stuck his arms out to me: “I’m a hugger,” he grinned.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Me, too,” I said. There were no real indications about what came next. But this story isn’t going where you think it will.
Change came for Connor over the next two years. A company in Chicago made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he packed up his life, wife, dog, and cat and headed north. He was closer to his family and all the various adventures of city life. At first, they picked a place out in the suburbs. I related all too well – my house at the time was at the very edge of town, conducive mostly to a sedentary lifestyle and routine. Connor and I started chatting frequently, then regularly, then daily. He fleshed out the details of his life and I mine. After his grandfather died, then his mother a few months later, the grief poured through the screen. I could offer nothing except a digital shoulder, distracting topics, a pledge to come visit.
You can never predict what’s going to change the course of your life. We tend to think the catalyst will be something huge and booming, but in my case it was a leaky pipe in my kitchen. That pipe started a chain reac- tion of decisions that woke me up, metaphysically speaking, to my own deep, pervasive discontent. It all became clear: quit the job, sell the house, leave the East Coast, get in shape, come out of the closet. On my way to a family reunion I made good on my promise to see Connor and his wife in Chicago. I told him about my job search – he knew I was someone who lived and breathed my work, so such a sudden shift was tantamount to signing up for an immediate organ donation. But he said there was nothing more important than happiness; he knew me well enough that he knew I’d already thought the hell out of this decision.
During my stay I saw that Connor’s own life was still shifting. There were discordant notes from his marriage – Connor was just starting to realize that a long-term lack of intimacy was impacting other parts of his life. He told me, “Something has to change soon or I’ll feel trapped forever.”
I said, “Me too.” I understood that more than I could admit at the time.
It was on that trip that I decided Chicago was it for me. Not just as a city or as an adventure, but because Connor was there. Friendship isn’t a tie that binds; it’s a rubber band that stretches you apart and pulls you back together. I knew two dozen people in Chicago, including a family of cousins, but Connor was the real reason. There was something inherently right about temporarily invading his life for two days – I knew I wanted to be permanently adjacent to it, and soon. There would be tough times ahead for him and I wanted to give similar reassurance. I knew him well enough that I knew he would need someone to listen.
Chicago was the embodiment of that mysterious next phase I was seeking. Don’t we all secretly hope for an opportunity to rip up our lives and remake them somewhere else, with a clean slate? I was overweight, shaggy,
nervous, closeted in North Carolina; in Chicago, I could be out, happy, in shape, open to adventure. This was suddenly in reach, and possible only because I’d be gaining the best cheerleader and motivator I could have.
Everything clicked exactly as I’d hoped that winter with the new house, new job, and new city. And I started losing serious weight. I moved to Chicago in January and Connor and his wife greeted me on the first night in my new apartment.
Then, less than a month later, I met them for lunch. It was so cold, even my evangelical parents would say it was fucking freezing. About an hour into lunch, I casually come out. “Oh, in case Lonnie mentions anything,” – Lonnie being a mutual acquaintance I’d had dinner with a few nights earlier – “I’m looking to meet guys here.” They registered a small amount of surprise but otherwise said, “Cool,” and we moved on. Later, Connor hugged me and said he was proud of me. That hug wasn’t the first or last we’d given each other, but it was the one that meant the most. He had questions, of course, and we parsed them out over several weeks.
A few weeks later, I came out to my parents. At 33, this proved to be one of the most difficult things I’d ever done. I texted Connor immediately after and he instantly offered a hug and support. I felt nervous but unbelievably free. Days later, Connor and his wife decided to separate without hard feelings. At 27, that had been his only relationship and naturally, when he texted me after, he felt shell-shocked, but also liberated. She moved back to Arizona within a week. He and I met for drinks or dinners what seemed like every other day after, and we talked about what the future held. We both knew this was the time for the most support, that this was why we’d been brought together. Over a whiskey, he says, “I have no idea what’s ahead, but I’m really excited about it.” I said, “Me, too.” My diet changes and exercise paid off – that spring I lost 45 pounds and Connor 35. A lot of that was stressinduced on Connor’s part, but what mattered was that we were no longer shaped like the guy in the elevator everyone assumes is about to fart. We took to wearing shorts and brighter colors. The great thing about making changes relatively later in life means you can have an emotional experience without the emotional torture. There’s a calming element that’s not really present when you’re in your early 20s – this idea that, well, it just makes sense, so you might as well do it.
In a fit of self-confidence, I joined OKCupid, then dragged Connor onto it. It convinced us how important our personal narratives were – what we shared initially and what we saved for those who passed to the next stage. We compared notes daily about our dates and their potential – for me, that was Scott, John, Howard, Dan, Ben, other John, Justin; for him, it was Lauren, Rachel, Melissa, other Rachel, Erin, Kelly. All were part of the larger experiments of our lives, helping us figure out who we are and what we want out of relationships. We let ourselves oscillate between giddy teenagers discovering the bases and sober adults wondering whether there was some kind of future with the latest date. Some made us ecstatic; others were just echhh. We admitted at the same time that we found intimacy far more important than sex.
It’s funny – I thought I wanted more gay friends. I wanted people to tell me more about what it’s like to be recently out. But that wasn’t the experience I really needed to learn. I needed to make a connection with someone, anyone, who was also going through a massive change and was ready to be honest about feelings, fears, patterns.
I don’t really believe in soul mates or best friends. But I do believe in Others. I borrowed the word from I Heart Huckabee’s, which says your Other is someone whose life, like yours, is being taken apart and put back together in surprising – maybe bruising, maybe transcendent – ways, so you might as well be each other’s support system. Ripping up your own life to start again isn’t so hard to imagine; what I couldn’t anticipate is how it would feel to have someone I care about go through the same thing at the same time.
One day recently we sat outside, me with a grapefruit beer and Connor with an Old Fashioned. When we’re together, we move between catch-up talk and the heaviest, deepest confessions remarkably easily. This is, I think, the secret to any long-term relationship – that everything is weighted equally and you want to hear it all from the other person. That the details never get old; that you can’t run out of the high-highs and the lowlows. It’s funny and not a little mind-blowing to me that Connor is the only person I’ve ever had this depth with. I suspect I might be the only person he’s had it with, too.
There was a pause in the conversation as we sipped our drinks and listened out for the sounds of a Chicago summer, warm and alive, full of possibility. He said, “I’ve never seen you happier.”
I said, “You, too.”
Mike Joosse is a reformed East Coast graphic designer and current Chicago communications director and design advocate. He waxes melodic @mikejoosse.