• Will Lyman

Middle Ground

By Will Lyman

Illustration by Lolo Dederer

  1. In 2015, over a top-heavy stack of pancakes in New England, I was called hot by a boy I adored. We talked in stale fragments over Snapchat, but the message felt surprisingly alive. It was the type of excitement my eighth-grade self had never felt before; I was startled at my ability to be so moved by so little. I shared the moment with no one, keeping my family—who surrounded me—in the dark as to why I was smiling into my whipped cream and strawberries.

  2. Six years later, in that same New England diner, I ate buttered toast and sipped coffee with a short brunette boy. He had the biggest eyes and looked at me with the awe of discovering a new life. I smiled to myself, again, unable to share the glory with him. He couldn’t know what it meant.

  3. Everybody knows, I wrote on my arm in eighth grade. Thick, gummy, ballpoint letters. Cold nights on the roof. I felt invincible but was often sad. I couldn’t understand why it felt so essential—so apparent—that I would always be this way.

  4. At twenty, I was alone for the first time. I wandered New York with no purpose. I sat, sweaty, in different grass. Everything had changed, but nothing was unfamiliar.

  5. My skin itched when I sat near the air conditioner in my first apartment. For the first few days, it was so empty. So lonely. I ate meals on a wooden TV stand that I found on 102nd St. It served as both a centerpiece and an eyesore for the room, carrying with it some official all-importance. So I sat there and breathed thick, unsettling inhales—breaths that felt like they flushed out something heavy in my chest. I scratched myself all the while, feeling that this justified the deep sense of unease I had always carried with me—some mysterious reality-borne illness.

  6. I contemplated kicking the pigeons on the sidewalk almost every day. They never moved for me, nor did they note my presence in any way. I wanted to destroy their feeling of safety. I imagined them exploding in puffs of feathers on the pavement. I was concerned, mostly, that I was invisible.

  7. Dating was constant and fruitless. I’d meet someone new every month or so, deciding to give them a chance only a few hours before I would, similarly, decide to move on. I’m not sure what I found so fulfilling about it; the drinks were pricey and diluted, the food was often mediocre, and, for the most part, I didn’t enjoy the company. There was something good in there, somewhere. Perhaps it was the process of talking about myself, being listened to, and leaving. An elevator pitch to random, semi-attractive, men: Matthew. Dylan. Trevor. Joseph. Fernando. Thomas.

  8. Nothing pained me more than having to write applications, selling myself in 200 words or less. It’s not that I think myself too powerful and complex to be distilled into that word count. I wasn’t worth ten. Rather, the process tempts me with my worst habit: molding myself to be what someone wants, or what I imagine they want.

  9. Similar demons befell me on these dates. Trevor, for example, spoke highly of his new position, his LinkedIn, his 401(k). When he asked why I didn’t have an internship for the third summer in a row, I became paranoid and lied. I said I worked as a production assistant on soft drink video marketing campaigns. $17/hour. Official. It was good money, having some redemptive quality in the Sprite and Dr. Pepper.

  10. I jumped the turnstiles at 50th St. with a boy named Alex. We kissed on the floor of the subway, dirtying our clothes. We were soaked with rain and cigarette butts and the moment was soaked with glamor. When the train didn’t come, we grabbed Citi Bikes and started off—drunkenly—up the West Side of Manhattan. I crashed into a plastic lane divider, slicing my right hand open, and let Alex see all of me. It was one of many sparkling, infectious nights that summer.

  11. Smiling through beads of sweat over noodle dishes in Soho. The heat is annihilating. Someone at the table next to me drinks a neon green Mountain Dew while I listen to Alex explain his taxonomy of astrological nut milks. According to him, he has an oat sun, an almond moon, and a soy rising. We don’t go on a third date.

  12. Lying on the couch in an older man’s apartment, we discussed inflation and the economy. He pays the same for a rent-controlled four-bedroom that I do for a modern studio. I never got his name, but he kept referring to me by mine. “Your generation is so lucky. You’re all so happy.”

  13. On 23rd St., I walked across an intersection with three empty picture frames I had bought from Goodwill. It was hot in Chelsea and my shirt stuck to my back. I heard a woman call me by another man’s name. I didn’t know her , nor did I want to,  but she was certain that it had been me.

  14. Talking closely at a dorm party, I put my hand on the waist of a film boy and he didn’t move away. The song was something electronic, but he didn’t recognize it. I shouted the name in his ear, feeling, at once, superior. In the morning, he woke up and burned his elbow on the heater next to my bed. We laughed about it as he brought me water. He was always so kind.

  15. Trying to find your way into someone’s life is never as easy as you want it. Their world takes on form and shape. They also have a Tuesday afternoon, but something important at five. Everyone has something important at five.

  16. The boy I liked was a fan of live music—he said he would go alone to concerts and return with strange and shapely friends. When we finished, I decided to adopt some of his lease on life. I took myself to movie screenings, raves, festivals; I won tickets in radio raffles. I felt like a true New York insider, but I wasn’t exactly a part of anything.

  17. In the back of a warehouse, I found myself sitting on an oil drum giggling at some guy I didn’t know. He glowed pink in the light. A singer in a rhinestone bodysuit loudly instructed us to “free ourselves from the simulation.” My body vibrated from the vodka Red Bull I’d just chugged.

  18. I was never good at concealing anything. I’m pissy. Brash. Sappy. Blunt. Annoyance reads on my face just as easily as concern or admiration or indifference. There is a bend in my nature towards confession. I used to think it liberated me, made me as easy to read as I wished other people were.

  19. Fake and Gay. Horse Meat Disco. Cakes. Dick Appointment. Human by Orientation. These were the names of parties I went to. In these concrete rooms, muscled men sipped vodka sodas and dosed horse tranquilizers. Noting their habits was not an act of snobbery on my part; most people would tell you I’m entirely unsophisticated. I felt comforted, and somehow understood, by these sweaty circuit gays, oontzing to house beats in their jockstraps.

  20. I had dinner with a muscular boy who said he studied business. I stumbled through the evening, trying to navigate his strange demeanor. The boy kept touching me, grabbing my waist and telling me I was beautiful, but the praises were interrupted. He had asked me to bring ingredients to cook something, to “surprise him.” I showed up late with three lemons I grabbed from my fridge, which hung in a Duane Reade bag. I also brought a jar of Trader Joe’s arrabiata sauce I bought ten minutes earlier for $3.29. The boy looked so disappointed.

  21. The same business boy texted me months later, begging me to come over to his apartment at three a.m. on a Thursday. I resisted, remembering just how irksome his presence had been, but finally agreed when he offered to call me a car. He complained about it the entire time, feeling that he had “spent so much” on me. The car was $13.

  22. His apartment had floor-to-ceiling windows. I stood naked in front of them and looked out on the Hudson, seeing little boats drive by in the night. It was the nicest apartment I had ever seen. Standing in it, I felt like a Bond villain in their introductory scene, clutching a warm glass of bourbon, looking down on people and places.

  23. I had a bad habit of breakups during frigid, solitary Januarys. They always confirmed my worst fears: that no matter where I went, I’d be cold. I’d be alone. I didn’t know how to understand myself anymore—victim, overbearer, enviable, unchosen. I grew more curious about what everyone saw when they looked at me, the ugly they recognized but wouldn’t speak of.

  24. Two nights ago, I convinced myself I had been reaching out to my friends more than they had been to me. It was an awful spiral of delusion, thinking myself to be secretly repulsive. I responded by not speaking to them for two days, although they had done nothing wrong. I thought it would bring about some massive reset, some newfound respect for my company.

  25. A snowfall covered the city in brightness. I spent the day sledding with an uptown boy who rode bikes and sketched bugs. I needed him. At that point, he had already decided on someone else. I didn’t know that, but it was still nice to live in the fantasy of feeling wanted. I made us watery hot chocolate and we ate orange chicken on my roommate’s floor. My fortune cookie told me: “soon you will get the recognition you deserve.”

  26. After kissing my uptown boy on a rooftop, we ate green tea mochi and watched a horror movie about girls going missing. The mochi was warm and chewy from the small fridge beside his bed. The ice cream was a nice alternative to his lips, which felt dispassionate and cold.

  27. We ate at a dive bar on the Lower East Side. He didn’t like to call them dates. At the end of our meal, after we had spent far too much money and drank too heavy of pours, we took pictures of each other holding a stolen cup in the lobby of my apartment. It was a copper mug, and his chipped nail polish stood out against the orange shine. I held the mug and smiled for the camera, feeling eviscerated by him. I called him a cab uptown and he told me the driver had given him some good advice. I still wonder what it was.

  28. I hit twenty-one and I was alone again. I drew hearts on his face at Valentine’s Day parties and we sat—not touching—on the sagging couch in my apartment. We talked about our favorite records. I wondered why he didn’t love me.

  29. Everything was about him. I missed him so much and he was right there. We shared my coconut chapstick on a bridge in Central Park.

  30. I wonder if other people felt the way I did. Surely it wasn’t normal to be so burned by everything—to feel a sort of total emotion, a full spirit. To cope by nibbling at small plates in tapas lounges and raiding happy hour menus.

  31. At my lowest point, when the winter seemed never ending, I went home. I spent a dizzying ten days in Minnesota, driving around in the frigid weather and reflecting on what had broken me down. The air was colder than in the city, but it felt so much more like home. I held my dog. I finally let my parents see me cry.

  32. Months passed. I didn’t see him. I told myself that eventually I would get better. The pain would stop being mine, would belong to some other version of myself, far removed. I needed to change, to become new, before I did it again.

  33. I considered donating sperm when summer came, some fertile sense in the air. It would’ve just been more money to buy vodka and fruit, but I decided it wasn’t worth it. Something disturbed me about the possibility of children running around with half my DNA, fucking things up. I would’ve never been able to look at a child without thinking of the slim chance they were my own. My ego didn’t need that.

  34. I held several picnics in Sheep’s Meadow throughout my first summer. Sweet berries from sticky tupperware, lukewarm water out of a Nalgene. The picnic basket was a FreshDirect bag, a smattering of brand names interfering with our food. The boy hadn’t forgiven me. I came to understand that it was easier to enjoy myself when some war raged on in the background. It gave weight to the present, made it feel vivid, indulgent, and precious. I ignored the boy, and my rage about it all, choosing instead to sip wine from waxy reception cups and lie drunkenly in the grass.

  35. I talked incessantly at anyone who would listen. A lot of it was about the uptown boy, about whom I could tell my friends were tired of hearing. Part of me was giddy at the reality of face-to-face interaction, and another had too many things to say. When nobody was willing to let me dump on them, I made a conscious effort to ask questions, to lean in, to show that I cared about what they had to say. It startled me how little I actually did.

  36. At some point in the Summer of Love—when the streets were swelling with young people in Modcloth dresses drinking espresso martinis—I stopped wanting to have sex. Although, I hadn’t been doing any of it to particularly exhaust me. The desire disappeared inside itself. For enjoyment I drank ice water and chewed mint gum.

  37. The fall came and we ran into each other at a coffee shop on 148th. I should’ve known, going uptown, but it had been the only place I could find that offered a student discount. Unsure of the directionality, I began talking to him again. The conversations reminded me of his ambivalence, of his temperament to be searching for a meaning yet to come to him, happiness in a city he is yet to visit. Maybe downtown. I no longer adored him, no longer felt pulled to his approval. Instead, I sat with a great deal of confusion. I tried to show him that I was a changed person because I went on a run the week before and now wore gold jewelry.

  38. I found that it was easier the second time: recovering. I was less wedded to the idea that this feeling—of loss, of tetheredness—was unique to one person. They all struck the same chord.

  39. The meaning had been laundered over the years, dulled by thought. I paid taxes. I felt disgusted. Every morning I cooked myself breakfast and cleaned the same pan, mind heavy with the worry that I wasn’t a good person. I did shameful things. I had the audacity to think they didn’t diminish me. There was no middle ground.

  40. Boys cycled through. I recovered, but I was something entirely new. They would stroke my face, call me baby, and tell me I was beautiful.




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