On Gay Modern Love (A Signal in the Sky Said: Marry Him)


In which The Gay Recluse provides an alternative to this week’s more tedious and stereotypical Modern Love offering in The Times.

By Ben Karlin and The Gay Recluse

THE problem was Paolo.

I met him at an Italian restaurant in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he was a devastatingly cute waiter and I a frequent customer — and not just because of the devastatingly cute waiter. The food was good, too.

The restaurant was owned and operated and even staffed by “actual” Italians (like OMG from Italy)! One time, Paolo let on that he gave Italian lessons on the side. How hot is that? I had studied in Florence in college and nurtured an abiding interest in Italian language, food and culture. So, not wanting to be the creepy guy who asks the waitress out, I signed up for Italian lessons. That way, I would just be the creepy guy who asks the tutor out. That was wayyyy better.

After some stops and starts and “wacky” misunderstandings involving language, food, culture and Craigslist, we were in something like love — whatev — and living together in our dorm a loft in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We broke up once, then got back together. We broke up again and then got back together. And then once more. And finally once more after that.

A few years into the “relationship,” I jotted down these deep thoughts: “I need a better quality pen (hint: “pen” is a “metaphor” — lol!) to write about Paolo. What kind of person is he? Besides the obvious. The strength. The beauty. The individuality. The six-pack abs. The “fierceness” of his intellect. (Whadup, Christian S!? LOL!!!) The confidence that may or may not be real. Ok, seriously. How he straddles multiple worlds refusing to be either citizen or stranger in any. Men look at him with something bordering on adoration. He has the ability to show unrestrained joy and still look cool. When he wears a certain hat, he looks like a man out of time, which suits him well. I need a better pen still.”

But things totally fucking fell apart, thanks mainly to the burden of expectation. Mine, naturally. My whole life I had subscribed to the simple notion that it would be apparent when I found my life partner. I wasn’t sure how. But I would know. Like Batman seeing the bat signal in the sky. Unambiguous. No chance of mistaking it for searchlights heralding a movie premiere or the start of the Toyotathon. The kind of clear signal that can only mean, “Batman, we need you.” And I simply didn’t see that with Paolo. So I marched on, eyes scanning the horizon.

But whatev, by the end of that year I was on the outs with Paolo and — thank you, Craigslist! — in the middle of a start with a clever redhead with the most spectacularly smooth and pale skin I had ever encountered. I sensed there weren’t long-term prospects, but I couldn’t figure out why. Besides the whole crystal-meth thing, he was fantastic in most every way.

Was I hung up on Paolo? Had I lost sight of what I really wanted out of a partner? Had I fallen into that Craigslist long con, the one where you think there is an infinite supply of potential mates, and the perfect one is forever around the corner?

So, in a move cribbed from a mid-career Billy Crystal vehicle (I know, yuck), I signed up for an Outward Bound Wilderness Program — a seven-day backcountry camping and sea-kayaking trip in Baja California, Mexico.

On this trip, not only did I intend to learn all the nuances of backcountry camping, but also a variety of kayaking moves, culminating in the famed “Eskimo roll,” a rescue maneuver wherein a capsized kayaker staves off drowning by flipping upright while staying fixed snugly in the hull of his boat. ALSO, I WANTED TO SOLVE ALL MY PROBLEMS INVOLVING EMOTIONAL INTIMACY.

It was an ambitious agenda.

The trip began as a bust. I didn’t have much time for quiet reflection and I didn’t connect with the other “campers.”

There were eight of us — including two instructors. There was a quiet doctor from the Midwest, an even quieter graduate student from one of the Carolinas, a confused Smith College lesbian, a third-shift autoworker and a 20-year-old Peruvian nicknamed Poncho, who desperately wanted to have sex with someone… anyone really.

The group’s comfort level with the outdoors varied wildly, from people who were looking for an intense outdoor experience (Poncho) to people who came on a kayaking trip who don’t like to kayak. Wtf? Never could quite crack the code as to why they were there.

Relief came on Day 4 — the “solo.” Each camper was dropped off in an isolated area and left alone for 24 hours. We were given limited supplies and told the experience was not meant to test our survival skills, but rather to force us to turn inward, to contemplate who we were and wanted to be. OMG, I was like: without a teevee!? LOL.

I was taken to a stretch of sandy beach, abutted by forbidding cactuses and sun-scorched hills. The instructor gave me my supplies for the day: a mat, a tarp, a sleeping bag, sunscreen, a bandana, a water bottle, a bag of water, some magic mushrooms and a small packet of raspberry drink mix.

It was midday and I was supposed to put up the tarp to protect me from the sun. I could not even do this, yet another piece of proof that if truly left alone, I would absolutely “die” out there.

I was told not to move around too much, just to sit and think. The guide would be back in the morning to pick me up so I could rejoin the group and eat a “delicious” breakfast burrito. (As if.)

It was New Year’s Eve.

I was 33 and I had never really been that alone, or at least not without television or internet access. This is what I had come for.

At first I was taciturn. I tried to force myself to focus on important thoughts, but I was soon distracted and looking out to sea for killer whales. Failing that, dolphins. Failing that, how about any kind of jumping fish? I was bored.

Next, I tried to lie back and get a tan. I jacked off. Five minutes later, I was overcome with guilt for treating the solo like a day at the beach. I was supposed to be having epiphanies. The entire afternoon passed without one transcendent thought.

Night came, and with it fear. I marked time by flipping to one side and then the other, taking off layers of clothes, getting up and going to the bathroom. I jacked off again. Time did not stop, but it slowed to an unbearable creep. There was nowhere to go. Nowhere to get up and walk to. No light to turn on. No comfort to be found. Only wind and waves and the creak of branches and twigs underneath my sleeping bag that made me feel very much like a prince dealing with an out-of-control pea situation.

To my surprise, the magic mushrooms didn’t help. Crabs and scorpions began working their way across the sand, as they do every night, only on this night, they run into Hapless Johnson and his useless lean-to. At one point I thought I heard horse hooves and was convinced that thieves were coming to steal my tarp and remaining drink mix — which I was totally saving in case things got really bad.

Eventually, mercifully, light broke. At first in subtle slivers. With it came an intense relief that I had survived the night… though it was a night wholly without danger. (In retrospect, perhaps a brisk wind could have given me a case of the vapors.)

There was a moment, a little before the sun rose, when a patch of clouds turned the most unusual, intense orange I had ever seen (thank you magic mushrooms!!). Obviously I was totally tripping but it was awesome. I said, “Wow,” and then tears came to my eyes. It faded more quickly than it came, giving way to the duller colors of day. New Year’s Day. (Strains of U2, natch.) But my heart was indeed stirred: I had come here for a moment like this.

I stood up and instantly knew I had to marry Paolo.

A signal in the sky told me as much. Moments of pure beauty, I realized, are not handed out like a free newspaper as you dash into the subway. You have to make them. Work for them. Even trip for them. Sometimes, it’s a huge pain and you don’t know how or when they are going to happen. But it is flat-out wrong to expect them, even though I kind of went on this trip expecting one and then did this overnight solo expecting one even more, and it had come. I know I’m not making any sense.

But it was cool. Paolo was work. But like my best friendships and the best jobs I had ever had, life with him had to be cultivated, curated, fussed over. Then came the bliss, in arrhythmic spasms. I had saddled him with an impossible demand: Be my foregone conclusion. Whatever that means, lol!

No specific signal illuminated the sky, literally telling me “Paolo is the one,” but a flash of color did trigger a revelation: What I was looking for in a relationship could be attained only if I was willing to travel great distances for it. Be willing to battle the sun, sleep on twigs – omg! – and suffer through irrational fears of nonexistent thieves. Even be willing to consume a raspberry powdered drink mix that under no circumstances other than complete glucose deprivation would I ever consider putting to my lips. (I like seriously needed a week at The Four Seasons.)

In Paolo, I had found a worthy… travel companion? (OMG, best shrooms ever!)

Later that morning I paddled back to the main campsite and – still tripping a little – ate the most delicious breakfast burrito in my life. Then we paddled to yet another stretch of beach, this one tucked into a bay thick with phosphorescent plankton. (Totally awesome.)

We made a bonfire and had a ritual burning ceremony where we each tossed a symbolic object into the fire, vowing to vanquish that which it represented. I burned “the bat signal,” which in this case took the form of a stick. (Symbolic options being somewhat limited on that particular stretch of beach.)

We buried rocks in the fire, then took those hot rocks into a tepee we had jury-rigged out of tarps. We poured sea water onto the rocks and made ourselves a good old-fashioned Indian sweat lodge. To cool off we mad-dashed into the water, splashing around in the phosphorescence, our thrashing bodies lighting up the sea like neon. It was like being born again, in a totally secular way. It was ecstasy.

Paolo and I were engaged that May, next to a gaping crater on a volcanic island 70 miles off Tunisia. We are so exotic, right? LOL! We married the May after that overlooking the fishing village in Italy where his grandmother was born. Our son, Theo, was born the May after that, nine days before our first wedding anniversary.

Of course I have looked back. Of course I have wondered and doubted if this was the right thing. Life is not a highlight reel. But I have not once looked up to the sky and expected to find my answers there, either (except for that time when I totally did! LOL!!!).

And for the record, I never came close to successfully completing an Eskimo roll. Fortunately for me, I haven’t needed to.

Ben Karlin was the executive producer of “The Daily Show.” His latest book is “Thing I’ve Learned From The 10,000 Men Who Dumped Me” (Grand Central Publishing).

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