You’ll Cast Bells, I’ll Paint Icons: A Con­ver­sa­tion with An­thony Cu­dahy

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CONTENTS - Hil­ton Ber­ta­lan

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.

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