I Moved In With The Man Of My Dreams After Our Second Date. Then He Made A Request That Had Me Packing My Bags.

On lockdown in the Andes without Grindr, I cooked, wrote and slept too much. Several mornings a week, double-masked, I was allowed to leave my mud-brick cottage to go to the market for eggs and purple potatoes. And I began FaceTiming with Tony.

A self-described gay virgin, he was a butch dreamboat who conducted endangered species surveys for a living. Several months earlier, we matched on Tinder while I was visiting friends in my hometown in Florida. When we met for coffee on New Year’s Eve, he reminded me of the surfers I drooled over in high school. But he was almost five years older, a mix of red panda and Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine, with the salt-and-pepper bearing of a ship’s captain you make excuses to go see on the bridge.

In the noisy coffee shop, he told me he grew up in a staunchly evangelical household, so conservative he wasn’t allowed to watch “The Golden Girls.” He was terrified his loving parents would disown him if they found out he wasn’t straight. After being married to a woman for 10 years, they divorced without children.

“I thought we were soulmates,” he said. “Then one day I came home, and I was served divorce papers.”

He was shattered. In time, he stopped using alcohol to cope, came to terms with his complicated sexuality, and eventually, at age 42, came out to his best friend.

“You’re bodacious,” I murmured, feeling his bravery. Not having grown up in the church, I came out when I was 15 and eventually had to cut ties with my family. I did whatever it took to not feel the ache of my loneliness.

The author (upper left) and Tony on FaceTime while Greg was on COVID lockdown in Peru.
The author (upper left) and Tony on FaceTime while Greg was on COVID lockdown in Peru. Photo courtesy of Greg Wrenn

As I sipped my dirty chai and listened, I felt weirdly safe. Was it because I was leaving the country the next day for a semester-long research sabbatical? Was it because I didn’t live in Florida any longer and he did? In any case, Tony and I weren’t frantically typing messages to faceless torsos at 3 a.m. We were connecting in person, as humans, sitting across the street from my old middle school that had gone condo.

“Can I kiss you?” I asked before he dropped me off at my car.

“Uh, yes,” he said, fluttering his eyes, “yes, you can!”

It was his first kiss from a man. As for me, it was my... 300,000th? I had been too distracted by casual flings to settle down. Yet for a moment, our kiss felt like my first one too.

After our date, he texted me exuberantly. Sometimes it took me a week to respond. I kept thinking, Ugh, I mean, he lives in Florida, and if he likes me so much, what’s the matter with him? I worried he was breadcrumbing me along only to ghost me when someone closer and less weird materialized.

At the same time, I was attracted to him. On Valentine’s Day, I sent him a shirtless selfie from a Peruvian bathroom, and he replied with his own. Instead of sending eggplant and peach emojis, I called him to say hello. He wasn’t playing games, I realized after our soulful conversation. Like me, he was slowly learning he was capable of committed love with another man.

Speaking with him from South America where I was writing a book about psychedelics, I kept my past largely to myself. Though I told him in general terms how all-consuming and soul-numbing Grindr had been for me, he didn’t want details. Dad jokes were told. Trust blossomed. We were like two boys at summer camp effortlessly becoming best friends.

When the supposedly last emergency flight to the U.S. popped up in late April 2020, I took it.

The author (left) and Tony the day after a mushroom ceremony in Florida.
The author (left) and Tony the day after a mushroom ceremony in Florida. Photo courtesy of Greg Wrenn

As I pulled into Tony’s driveway in Florida for our second date, he knocked his knees together, dancing like a turkey. Laughing, swooning, I got out of the car, smelling the salt air. We smoked a joint. Collapsing into his bed from exhaustion, I spent the night. The next day he built a bookshelf for all the books I had unboxed. He gave me a house key. Apparently, I was moving in.

He had asked that we take it slow, but we didn’t know what that meant. Nights we got physical, he couldn’t fall asleep. When he told me not to be so handsy and asked if we could sleep in separate bedrooms, I began packing up my things to leave.

“If you don’t want me, why am I here?” I asked.

“Repeat after me,” he said, “it’s been six days since Tony had his first sexual experience with a man.” And I did, cracking a smile. “I don’t want you to leave. But I have lived alone for 10 years since the divorce, so I need room to breathe. We’re winging all of this, and we knew it’d be risky.”

Two weeks later, we were sharing the same bed again, but I knew not to spoon him like a baby lemur. We shopped for patio pillows at T.J. Maxx, and I unboxed my things again. Around the same time, we went to a nearby island where years before he had been a park ranger. We walked the beach full of dead oaks until we came to a makeshift shelter made of driftwood. I sat down while Tony, like an osprey fortifying his nest for his mate, patched it up with more wood. Soon, a boat beached itself nearby, spitting out sunburned, dad-bod dudes and their girlfriends onto the sand, their Confederate flag waving.

“Let’s get going,” Tony said.

“People think we’re brothers anyhow,” I said, gathering our things. “We’re fine.”

Walking back to the car, he was far ahead of me, as if he were on the beach by himself, a “straight” ranger once again. We drove home in silence, on the edge of another argument. Part of him wanted me to leave, but much more of him knew I needed to stay.

Living together during the pandemic before vaccines was 24/7 DIY couples therapy: We took turns playing shrink and freaking out. As Tony puts it, we were like two feral raccoons thrown into the same cage — bonding with one another brought up anguish we’d spent decades trying to self-medicate. Pain, we learned, does subside, but you need to feel it first. You can practice feeling safe even when you’re scared.

Sometimes as I wept, he’d rock me like a baby, and I did the same for him. He’s been my personal trainer, leading me in difficult workouts I would never ever, ever do on my own, and I’ve been his gay sherpa and meditation coach. Much healthier now, I’m not on the couch for weekends at a time on Grindr — or ever, for that matter. Our old associations with home — fear, distrust, shameful secrets — were changing. They were giving way to coziness, mutual respect and honesty.

The author (left) and Tony getting married in their home in Virginia.
The author (left) and Tony getting married in their home in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Jess Daddio

As Tony worked through the trauma of being closeted for 42 years, just holding him could fill him with panic. Like so many men, he associated same-sex tenderness with ostracism and damnation. But he was determined to deprogram himself. As if we were Kermit and Miss Piggy, he’d drive us around town on our moped as I held onto him, getting waves and funny faces along the way. In our living room, I led a mushroom ceremony for him, leading to a breakthrough in mutual trust: He heard his deceased mother say my name and tell him that she was happy for us, that she could be my mom too. We were never the same.

“You ever hear you look like a cross between a mop bucket and a moose?” I would ask to lighten the mood.

“Well, goopy goop blart-tootle!” he’d reply like a tipsy preschooler. “Come here and give me a hug.”

After a year of Zoom teaching, I was required to come back to my university in Virginia. Tony, a lifelong Floridian, moved back with me to the Shenandoah Valley, leaving behind everything familiar so we could be together. Two years later, a lesbian interfaith minister named Barb married us in our succulent-filled sunroom.

“You are everything I have always wanted,” he told me between sobs during the ceremony, “even when I didn’t know what that was. You are my hero, my savior, my forever boo boo, and the love of my life. You brighten every day of my life in ways I never thought possible. My dark clouds have been lifted.”

“I see the sacrifices you’ve made for us to be together,” I said, trying to hold it together. “I hope our souls are intertwined forever. I promise to stay faithful to you. That I vow to you. I also promise not to fart under the covers. Tony, I love you galaxies and galaxies.”

But long before the tungsten wedding rings from Amazon were slipped on our fingers, it felt like we were married. We had already created a family, the one I needed but never had.

The author (right) and Tony at a mountain swim hole in the Shenandoah Valley.
The author (right) and Tony at a mountain swim hole in the Shenandoah Valley. Photo Courtesy of Chip Brown

When were we wed in spirit? I think it was when I brought him to a waterfall in the mountains near West Virginia. We had the water to ourselves. The crayfish and old maples. The light shimmering across the sandstone boulders.

After we horsed around in the natural pool, he sat still on a flat rock.

“I listen to my breath,” he said, “and hear the tides,” remembering his mom shutting her eyes in the nursing home and, for minutes at a time, being utterly at peace. What he wouldn’t give to eat one last Miracle Whip and bacon sandwich with her.

In just my undies, I stepped onto the ledge underneath the waterfall. The water breaking over me was cold. Relentless. The water had integrity and was utterly free. Throwing my hands up, I hooted and hollered like Oprah had given me a car, then Tony did the same, soon taking my place under the water. We weren’t calling hogs. We were declaring ourselves worthy of love, grateful that, messy as it is, people can change and love can heal. For an hour in the forest, my husband and I forgot the unfairness of the world. We washed ourselves clean.

A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Greg Wrenn is the author of “Mothership: A Memoir of Wonder and Crisis,” an evidence-based account about how ayahausca and coral reefs saved his life and woke up his ecological conscience. His work has appeared in The New Republic, Al Jazeera, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. As an associate English professor at James Madison University, he weaves climate change science into literary studies. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley with his husband and their growing family of trees. Find out more about him at gregwrenn.com or on Instagram @gregjwrenn.

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