Around the time that Bob Bergeron’s body was found in his Chelsea apartment on January 5th, I was in my dressing room at the Ambassador, alone, transfixed by the parade of smirking faces and headless torsos popping up on Grindr.
Bob Bergeron had decided that, at 49 years old, his life and his work were a lie, no longer tolerable or sustainable. Eight months away from my 30th birthday, I had realized I’d spent my 20s locked in a series of long-term, monogamous relationships, and the period of my life in which it was permissible to be having indiscriminate sex with strangers was coming to an end. I wanted to escape a future of regrets at not having taken advantage of being young and single in New York. My solution had been to download the Grindr app to my phone, upload a picture of my own headless torso, and, by way of Grindr’s GPS system, determine who was close enough and cute enough for a hookup. Bob Bergeron’s solution to escaping the lie he had made a career of perpetuating was to tie a plastic bag over his head and leave a note for his family stating that he was simply “done.”
Though I had never met Bob Bergeron, when I read about his death in the Times, I got the sense that he had been of those well-groomed, successful guys my friends and I referred to as “fancy gays,” a brand of New York man barricaded behind pithy quips, lucrative careers, and mounding biceps honed at David Barton and Equinox. Bob Bergeron was a therapist with a reputation for relentless optimism and without a hint of depression or drug use in his history. He specialized in aiding gay men of a certain age to put their obsessions with youth to rest and embrace the remaining years that could flash by like days, decades like minutes. Bob Bergeron had been beautiful, he had achieved career goals, he had been through periods of gleeful promiscuity and meaningful relationships, he had traveled the world with friends, he had been accepted and loved by his family. The publication of Bob Bergeron’s first book, The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond, was approaching when he apparently concluded that what stretched before him, beyond middle age, was a wasteland of loneliness, an endless series of betrayals by a body that had once been so loyal to his every command, and emptiness in a career that, ultimately, he had built on insupportable truths. Bob Bergeron’s suicide note had been written on the cover of his manuscript: along with a goodbye to his family, he had drawn an arrow pointing to the title from the words “a lie based on bad information.”
The facts of aging that seemed to have so completely crushed Bob Bergeron—facts that, as a dancer, I had been acutely aware of since my late teens—were the very facts spurring me to make the most of my waning 20s and get on Grindr. Being on Grindr, for me, was about conquest; it was about knowing that I could have as much sex as I wanted whenever I wanted it; it was about freedom to let sexuality drive my actions instead of keeping me shamed, hidden, as it had in childhood (even in a loving, accepting household). Whoring around was my right as a gay man living in 21st Century New York City. If I didn’t exercise my right, I felt—and my friends agreed—I was never going to be the man I was meant to be, and though I was pretty sure I never wanted to be in another relationship, let alone get married, I was also pretty sure that I wouldn’t always have this body or this face, and exercising my right to be a slut would get more and more difficult as I got older and older.
Grindr seemed, above all else, efficient. I could look at someone’s profile and, if their height, weight, age, and ethnicity coalesced into something desirable, or at least vaguely appealing, I could message them. If someone messaged me and I found them unattractive, deeply uninteresting, or just downright obnoxious, I could simply tap the red “X” icon, and poof, that person would disappear forever.
I was very disciplined about how I conducted myself on Grindr. I had rules: I wouldn’t message anyone, I’d wait for them to message me; I wouldn’t consider anyone over the age of forty or under the age of twenty-five; I would always ask the guy I was chatting with for a face picture before I dismissed his less-than-perfect body. My rules were easy to adhere to while I was only checking messages once, maybe twice, a day. But, sometime between Thanksgiving and Chanukah, Grindr began to consume the majority of my waking hours. First thing in the morning, I’d check Grindr to see if anyone new had reached out with a “hi,” “hey,” or “sup.” During Christmas dinner with my family, I had gone back and forth (Nice abs, Thanks, you too, Can I see a face pic? Trade? Nice. What’re you up to tonight?) with eight or nine guys at once, none of whom I had any intention of ever meeting. And, with remarkable speed, my rules fell away. I was the pursuer, not just the pursued, any age was fine, and I’d block a love handle or a flabby pectoral without thinking twice.
But by January 5th, over a month after I’d joined Grindr, I still hadn’t actually met, let alone hooked up with, a single (or married) person. That Thursday night, I was finally going on my first Grindr date. I was determined: if there was chemistry—really any spark whatsoever—I was going to sleep with this guy. His name was Jared and he was an architect. He had done his undergrad at Michigan like me (Business, not Musical Theater) and gotten his Masters at an Ivy like me (Penn, not Columbia). He was an East Coast Jew like me, and, judging from his pictures on Grindr, he was very, very cute.
Jared met me at my stage door, we took the 1 train to Christopher Street, and, because the divey, bro-y bar I had planned on taking him to was packed, we went to a candle lit, claustrophobically romantic wine bar a block away. We joked that it was a little intimate for a first date, and decided we should act as if it were our third. We ordered a bottle of Rioja and I learned that Jared was working on a midtown skyscraper and liked musicals enough to come see me in Chicago. I learned he was as close with his mother as I was, and we laughed about the obvious stereotypes. He wanted to move out of the city when he had kids—we both wanted two or more—and he planned to raise them Jewish, with an emphasis on the customs and the culture rather than the Talmud and the Torah. When the last of the Rioja was poured into our glasses, Jared smiled and said, “My face is tingly. I think I’m getting drunk.” I leaned across the table and kissed him, thinking what a great story this would be to tell our two or more kids (we’d already decided to tell our mothers that we’d met in line at Starbucks, and I’d already begun to forget that it was a lie). That was when I made a new rule: I wouldn’t sleep with someone I considered relationship material until after the third date.
But during our next two dates—one at a dark whiskey bar on 10th Avenue and one at the Chelsea Piers bowling lanes—the comfort and familiarity I’d felt with Jared turned fraternal. By the time we left the bowling alley, standing too close to Jared made all the hair on my arms rise up in defense. I decided my body must have been reacting to the fact that I’d abandoned my resolution to be having constant, wild, anonymous sex. I told Jared I wasn’t ready for anything serious, hailed a cab, and left him standing open mouthed and confused on the West Side Highway.
In the cab, I felt as though I could inhale for the first time in a week. I turned on my phone, went to my Grindr account, and tapped the “Load More Guys” button. With a sound like the hiss and crack of an opening soda can, a dozen new profiles appeared. Among them, I found a lawyer named Chris.
Chris was redheaded and Midwestern, a theater major in undergrad who had given up performing and gone to law school. When I began chatting with Chris, I made sure to stipulate that I wasn’t looking for anything romantic, by which I meant I’d sleep with him if there was chemistry and annex him to the “just friends” pile if there wasn’t. We decided to meet at a pub on 9th Avenue, and, just to make sure I got across my non-romantic intentions, I wore a filthy old baseball cap, an ill-fitting shirt that didn’t cling to or accentuate my anything, and I ordered a beer, which, in my mind, was the ultimate signal that I was not out for anything amorous. I didn’t account for what might happen if he showed up and was neither hookup nor friend material, but instead a good candidate for a boyfriend, or if he was even better looking in person than in the photos he’d sent me on Grindr, both of which turned out to be true.
Three beers and two hours later, we had discussed everything from campaign finance reform to the reasons why Bernadette Peters was Bernadette Peters, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed so hard. We split the bill, left the pub, and on the corner of 9th and 53rd, we kissed. I imagined how my brother would love that I had a boyfriend who he could have a beer with; I thought about how my parents would be over the moon that I’d found a lawyer. Sleeping with Chris before the third date clearly wasn’t an option.
On our second date, Chris and I went to a different pub, and though I worried I’d have to at some point tell him I’d get fired from my job if I showed up with a beer belly, I ordered a pilsner. After two quick hours of more beer and a lengthy conversation on why Kathy Bates is the scariest man alive, we shared a cab up to my apartment. I decided my rule about not sleeping with a potential boyfriend until the third date was really kind of stupid. I discarded that rule and replaced it with another: no sleepovers. Even though he lived in an outer borough of the city, I kicked him out of my Upper West Side apartment at three in the morning. He seemed only moderately pissed.
After our third date, Chris and I started texting whenever something funny happened or just for no reason, to see how the other’s day was going. By the fourth date, the flutter I had felt at seeing his name appear on my phone had turned to a weighted dread, and just the thought of another date with Chris made my stomach roil. But I decided to ignore my churning stomach. The sex was good, he made me laugh, and he wasn’t an actor. But then, when I found myself wanting to cuddle with him more than I wanted to take off his clothes, I kicked him out of my bed after the fifth date, told him I wasn’t ready for anything serious, and that we shouldn’t see each other anymore.
I was telling everyone I knew that I was on Grindr and letting them all assume I was doing the things I had always assumed people on Gridr did: got laid in restaurant bathrooms, in J.Crew dressing rooms, and in public parks. I fell in love with the persona I was constructing, and came to believe that persona was me, until I noticed I was really just going out on nice dates with nice guys with nice jobs. In fact, the first question I asked guys on Grindr wasn’t, “What are you looking for tonight?” My first question was, “What do you do for a living?” I wanted to want just sex, but either out of habit or out of fear that my window for anonymous fucking had already been sealed shut, I was, once again, hunting for a relationship.
I doubled down on my efforts to have emotion-free, uncomplicated sex, and headed to the Greenwich Avenue location of my gym where, I was told, the boys were prettier and sluttier than anywhere else in the city. I got on an elliptical machine and opened my Grindr app to see who was close by. A 22 year old too beautiful to be anything but a senior in an NYU acting program was 745 feet away. But 22 years old? The thought of him asking if I could pass his headshot along to my agent made me want to stab myself in the eye. I got a message from a man holding a Daschund whose profile said he was 33 but looked at least 45—and not a good 45—and was 1.8 miles away. I was beginning to think I had ventured below 14th Street for naught when I looked up from my phone and noticed a James Franco-as-Alan Ginsberg look-alike doing dumbbell squats directly in front of me. I glared at him for the next twenty minutes from the elliptical with what I hoped came across as lascivious intent. I continued to glower at him from various points around the gym over the hour that followed, and I was sure I caught his eye once or twice, but for the most part he remained focused on his workout. At one point, he looked over at me, then picked up his phone and began texting. I hurriedly checked Grindr to see if he was messaging me. I got a message from someone whose profile picture was a sunset. Perhaps he’s discreet and romantic, I thought. But when I clicked on the message, it wasn’t my James Franco. It was a picture of a large, erect black penis and a text that read, “Looking?” I tapped the red “X” and blocked the sunset penis without responding.
My James Franco left the gym. I went to get my clothes from the locker room, feeling I’d wasted a whole afternoon, but, almost out of habit now, I checked Grindr one more time. There he was, on my phone, my hipster glasses-wearing James Franco. His profile said he was 32, 5’11”, and 170 lbs. I messaged him right away.
“Did you just leave the gym?” I wrote.
“Yeah,” he said. “Were you there?”
I sent him the best face picture I had.
“I didn’t notice you,” he replied.
We continued to chat for the rest of the day, quickly moving from the basics (his name was John, he taught high school English in Los Angeles, and he was leaving New York in two days) to the very specific (he wanted to know what I was into in bed, he gave me the exact measurements of his length and girth, and he sent me several naked pictures of himself from various angles, though I told him I planned to run for office one day so I couldn’t send nude shots in return). By the time I went to work that night, John and I had set up a date for the following day. I was finally going to have my random Grindr hookup. Or I was going to fall in love, move to L.A., and spend my life sipping Earl Grey tea and discussing Thomas Hardy and Herman Melville with my James Franco look-alike English teacher.
I thought it prudent to meet John at a neutral location, just in case he wasn’t into me or I got the sense he was a serial killer. We decided on an organic juice bar near my apartment. There, he told me about the restaurants he had eaten at during his two-week stay in New York: he told me the name of each restaurant, who he had eaten with, what he had eaten, what his favorite restaurant had been, and what his favorite dish from his favorite restaurant had been. He really did look like James Franco, so I did my best to ignore the fact that I’d lost any shred of attraction I had for him by the time he got to talking about the risotto appetizer at Gramercy Tavern. But, judging by his willingness to send risqué photos from his phone to mine, I hoped he was perhaps boring in life but wild in bed.
When we finally left the juice bar, I said, “So. You want to come over?”
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. No. I’m just gonna head downtown.”
I was confused. But all that texting, I wanted to say. And those naked pictures. All those naked pictures.
But instead, I said, “Ok. Is that it?”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s it.”
With my afternoon plans shot, I arrived at the theater early that night. Though I’d planned on using the time to finish reading a book I’d been lugging around the city all month, I wanted to check, just quickly, to see if there were any new faces on Grindr. I stood in the middle of the dressing room, tapping pictures, responding to some messages, ignoring others. Jack, the dresser for the male ensemble of Chicago, came into the room, interrupting my absorption in a 24-year-old digital marketing director. Jack was carrying a white laundry basket filled with the dance belts and black socks he placed at each of our stations night after night.
“Jacky,” I said, moving out of his way and sitting at my station. “Do you think 24 is too young for me?”
Jack arched his eyebrow, threw his eyes to the ceiling, and said, “Christ, I’m 50 and I don’t think 24 is too young for me.”
“But you’re a hot fifty,” I said.
“Oh, bless you, doll,” Jack said. “I’m considering getting a little lift and tuck.”
I looked up at Jack. His skin was taut and tan, his hair was full, dark, and wavy.
“Jacky, no,” I said. “No facelift.”
I began telling him about the articles I’d been reading about Bob Bergeron’s suicide. Bergeron was quoted as telling friends that he felt he’d peaked at 30 or 35 when his career had been thriving, his looks had ensured constant adoration, he had been in a fulfilling, long-term relationship. From 30 to 35, he had been, for the first and only time in his life, confident and content. I wondered if I too would look back at that time—the days leading up to 30, the years spent dancing on Broadway and obsessively chatting with strangers on Grindr—as the highpoint of my life. I had been operating under the pretense that hooking up with as many people as possible was a perfectly acceptable number-one-priority for a 29 year old to have. But what if my priorities never shifted or evolved? If I still had the same thoughts—get laid, get laid, get laid—at 49 as I did at 29, and I had never found anything that could match the high of being wanted, being desired, than I can see why, yes, tying a plastic bag over my head might seem like the only viable option.
I thought about the fact that I had spent the past year or two joining in the national refrain of “It Gets Better,” encouraging gay teenagers to stay strong, to believe in the superior life they would lead once they moved away from their Podunk towns, once their skin cleared up, once they escaped the bullies that made their lives hell, once their sexuality was fully accepted by the world. But I began to wonder if the silent slogan of “It Gets Better” might have all along been, “It gets better until you’re 30 or 35, and then, baby, you’re on your own.”
I didn’t have a biological clock assuring me that, at some point, there’d be things to think about other than sex, food, the way food makes me look, and sex. But I always assumed that the minute I left show business, I would begin to care more about the loss of human life in the Syrian uprising than about the level of visible definition of my abdominal muscles. But then a man of 49, who made a life and career out of constructing a perfect lie, kills himself because his body has ceased to cooperate, become flawed, and most men in their 20s no longer wanted to fuck him.
If Bob Bergeron’s death were an isolated case, it could be viewed as one of those perplexing, senseless tragedies of a cruel, senseless world. But Bob Bergeron was just one of many men who had watched his friends and lovers die in the worst of the AIDS epidemic only to decide decades later that, in the end, the life that had been taken from all those friends and lovers wasn’t a life particularly worth living. Was that what lay ahead for me and my generation of entitled, Grindr-absorbed men? All of us, who grew up watching Will & Grace, taking acceptance and the ability to fuck liberally as a divine right? What would happen when we began to sag and wrinkle and turn grey? Would we be shut out of the community that had only been ours because we happened to be young?
It was the end of March, and the things I found myself wanting from Grindr weren’t the things I’d expected to want. It might have been simple validation I was after; it might have been something as fundamental as the desire to get-off in the presence of someone else so I wouldn’t feel alone. But, I think, more than anything, I wanted what everyone on Grindr, and maybe even Bob Bergeron, wanted. To be seen by someone; to be known; to not feel shame for wanting or getting love in any form, even in the form of a dick pic, a “sup,” or an invitation to meet for a hookup.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge that fella,” Jack said. He was standing in the doorway of my dressing room, the now empty white laundry basket balanced on his hip like an infant. “You think life is going to be one way, it turns out another. And you have regrets. It can be painful. Very painful.”
As Jack closed the door and walked back down into the basement of the Ambassador, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like for Bob Bergeron to die of asphyxiation. The intense discipline he must have employed to keep from ripping that plastic bag off his head once he’d tied it on; how his body must have, at some point, rebelled and begun to flail and thrash in a fight for oxygen; how eventually his body would have acquiesced and been, as in his youth, in accord with the desires of his mind, and quieted down to a subtle twitch. Then: stillness. What relief he must have felt. Finally able to stop his search for the next body to touch and be touched by, to have no regrets about how the last thing he ate was going affect his perfect torso, to cease the constant worry about those younger men with better careers, bigger apartments, meatier biceps, hotter boyfriends, un-receded hairlines. To finally let the faulty apparatus of his life crumble into what it was: a succession of repetitive thoughts that amounted to the same disappointments, day in, day out, again and again, more bodies, more money, more success; then nothing.
I looked at my phone to see if the 24 year old had messaged me back. He had. I arranged to meet him at a midtown bar after the show that night. I still had four months to lock down a boyfriend, change my priorities, create something to live for. Or I still had four months to have meaningless, uncomplicated sex. I was going to have something, or maybe nothing, before time ran out.