The walls are bare, except for the intentionally soothing painting of what I can guess is an albatross perched on a stone in the San Francisco bay, a painting you could probably find easily at Marshall’s on discount. I sat there with confidence. My last appointments were nothing but positive and assuring. I had no reason to be nervous, but then again, I was seeing my cardiologist for a reason.
About two months before, I’m perusing my usual web destinations in an effort to stall productivity at my job. A local San Franciscan blog tweets that an HBO series shooting in the Bay Area is looking for extras for an upcoming bar scene. They’re calling for “hipsters and leather enthusiasts.” I feel like I could fit at least half of those descriptions so I submit the most handsome photo I could find of myself. That same night, I get an overly complimenting response from agents saying they love my look and, if interested, they will send me the details for the day of the shoot.
That early morning, I report on location. Corralled into a makeshift staging area at a local bar, I check in at a desk and find a seat at an empty table to await further instruction. Excitement and energy are high. We are going to be on TV. Sexual tension is flowing. It’s a gay bar scene, and real (and fake) gay men are all around. After a couple of failed attempts at initial friend-making with an older stout man and leather-clad twink, I look to my right and notice a blue Hawaiian shirt, SF Giants cap, and huge glasses on a cute guy. During breaks, he and I find ourselves in the same circle of temporary friends and we have pedestrian conversations about the cute actors, how surprisingly okay the free food tastes and what we all do for work in our regular lives. After the last scene of the day, a crowd of gays dancing the night away, everyone starts to make their way towards the exit and I notice he hangs back behind the crowd as I wait my turn to egress. We approach one another halfway, and agree that we should meet for a real drink in a real-life bar sometime.
Weeks later, walking into that real-life bar, I’m unsure why we are there. Is this a date? Is he looking for more friends who may be actors? Is he even into boys? Regardless, I roll with it and we sip on whiskey and Manhattans over conversation. We exchange stories of baby nephews, life in the city, and dead parents. I’m having a good time and think I’m making a cool new friend. But then he leans over and tells me, “I think you’re really cute,” and we decide to walk to another bar. En route, he stops me and kisses me in the street. He is into boys. We are on a date.
More weeks pass and we continue to date and see one another. I get concerned that it’s really just so we can make out and roll around
in bed. But I suppose I’m okay with that. To fully expose myself is unthinkable. But while he is vacationing and visiting friends on the East Coast, I receive Gmail updates of his trip. I start to miss him and I realize that it may be turning into something more. I really like him and I’m unbelievably hungry for him to come back to San Francisco. After his return, I find myself there again lying in my bed with him. He tells me stories of his trip. I tell him how my Thanksgiving was. He tells me he picked up some Tagalog words from an old college buddy. Then he looks over and asks me to be his “joa.” I’m unfamiliar with this particular Tagalog word, and then he further explains he is asking me to be his boyfriend. A rush of excitement, doubt, concern, and comfort come over me. Boozy dinners, long conversations, morning-after breakfast chef’ing, and now real-life boyfriends? I want to yell yes, but I hesitate.
Months before meeting him, I was having problems with another boyfriend. We were living together but unhappy. It should’ve ended years ago. But he was a man that had agreed to be with me. Security trumped vulnerability. And on the surface, we were the premier gay couple in our circle. But at home, we had little to nothing to share. I made excuses for everything. The story isn’t unheard of. Lost love with no true origin.
It’s been some time since I lost my parents. I’m out of a relationship that felt destructive to my own self-worth. I am looking into a new ocean of possibilities. And I certainly don’t expect any more big, lifechanging news. But that day, sitting in the doctor’s office, I find out I am not as free as I thought.
For two months, I’d been consistently coming down with flu-type symptoms that kept hitting me like clockwork. After the third or fourth occurrence, a cardiologist found my aortic heart valve had been infected with bacteria and needed to be treated with a three-month-long intravenous antibiotic. That long-term IV line cured the infection, and I thought I was back to normal, but during this process we also learned that I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. Where my heart should have three doors to open and shut when pumping blood through my body, I only have two.
Surely I’ve gone through it. I am done. But the doctor walks in and in the most somber and frank tone he tells me it’s time to start planning my surgery. My open-heart surgery. Before I am even thirty. That pesky infection left my already deformed heart to function improperly. And as a result, the central organ of my life is growing to an unsustainable size. He tells me if I do nothing, at this rate I probably won’t live past forty. I feel numb and confused.
But he was a man that had agreed to be with me. Security trumped vulnerability.
By this time, it isn’t official, but I think I am in love with my HBO boyfriend. But it is way too early for love to even be a thought. I am ready to go at this alone, I think. I’m not used to having to need someone. In the course of healing following my parents’ deaths, I’ve learned how to live life independently. My previous relationship wasn’t warm, and to protect myself from that same kind of hurt, I learned how to hold and swallow feelings. But now this new boyfriend wants to change all of that. He wants me to open up; he wants me to cry to him and tell him how angry I am that I have to have my chest sawed apart. He says he wants to be there and care for me. But what does this really mean? Is he going to bring me food when I’m too weak? Is he going to sit with me while I rot in a hospital bed? Is he even going to want to still be with me? Just a few months of dating, and now I have to ask him to be a caretaker. It feels absurd. But I have never felt more defenseless. Emotionally and physically, I need him desperately.
Swallowing feelings is no longer an option because now I am spilling out all over. Now I am left to become a man in my twenties who obsesses over his blood INR levels, whether or not he can eat a serving of kale, and scheduling social gatherings around routine echocardiograms. I have never felt more scattered.
I come out of surgery smoothly. And I make peace with my new heart. A life of forever doctor appointments. A life of blood thinners. A life of the audible ticking from a new mechanical heart valve that will constantly remind me that I needed fixing. And to top it off, I have this huge war wound smack down the middle of my chest. My male torso is tarnished. Most gay men would be devastated to have some of their prime real estate deviate even further away from Adonis. I am about 50% devastated. I’m not one of those gays who is obnoxiously proud of his body; I am probably closer to the other end of the spectrum. Additionally, I am simultaneously trying to navigate my own fabricated physical expectations of my new boyfriend. The bit of confidence I did have is now marked with a discolored, raised collection of tissue. I should still be in the stage of making sure I am properly deodorized and obsessing if my pubes are immaculately groomed.
Instead, I ask him to pick me up a cup of soup and a tube of Mederma. And he doesn’t even flinch at the thought. When I try to hide and cover up, he looks directly at me. It’s oddly unsettling, but I actually don’t have to go at this alone. I learn to lay shirtless again. Even next to the man who tells me he loves me, I still feel embarrassed. But then he leans over and he kisses the middle of my chest.
Most gay men would be devastated to have some of their prime real estate deviate even further away from Adonis.
Jon Cuevas, a Bay Area native, fills time with taking dance classes, reading more YA than he should, being outdoors, and prying his hands off video game controllers. But mostly, you can find him in the kitchen. @JonCCuevas on Twitter.