Brick Head

(Photo: You like me? You really like me?)

Here’s a joke for you: One day, the son of the son of a mason from Lebanon, Kansas–the geographic heart of the United States–decided to follow his lifelong dream to build a house entirely out of bricks. An exact number of bricks, to be calculated in advance, by him alone. After all, if the son of the son of a mason from the hardworking American heartland couldn’t figure out how many bricks a house would require, who could?

Sometimes I need a brick to the head to get the message. Starting to date a native son of Chicago last month showed both of us how apparent that is. I suppose some internal barriers, like some waiting periods, were meant to be broken.

In Chicago, native sons don’t come as easily as they did back in New York. In six years, Sonny Boy was the first lifelong Chicagoan I’d ever taken up with. Since moving here, my only successful relationships have been with other coastal transplants like me.

Funny, when Sonny messaged me on (popular gay-bear chat service to remain nameless), I almost didn’t respond. In online queerdom, a hunky photo attached to an empty profile usually signals one thing: a man searching only for sex. That’s not me at all. But when I saw his ruggedly handsome face smiling from ear to ear, all that’s shallow within me rose up and refused to allow my cursor to get anywhere near the “Block” button.

And so began my online courtship with Sonny.

He toiled over the calculations for weeks and weeks, and came up with the magic number of bricks to help him build his dream house.  He ordered them right away and set to work on the foundation. The walls rose pretty quickly, load-bearing first, then the room dividers. Within a month, the proud masonic grandson was already at work on the roof. Soon enough, his dream would be a reality.

I found myself quickly liking this ballsy, native northwest sider from a working-class Polish family who grew up taking the ‘L’ and came equipped with a highly quirky, out-there sense of humor.

Except for that pesky IM saying, “My family doesn’t know yet,” I might have thought he was a perfect match. That statement ordinarily files men into the “friends only” category for me. But I had an inkling Sonny meant businesses about his coming out process.

When he shared his profession with me a few nights later, I was speechless. In literal terms he’s a lifesaver–and it takes its toll. “It’s hard to keep my heart open and be there with people I know I’m going to lose,” he told me. “But I have to be there, or I become just like everyone else in my field.”

A man more trusting of life might take all that in and realize what a special gift he was so unexpectedly being given. Me, I sat there mulling on every lying loser I’ve ever dated, and wondering what on earth a man like Sonny could see in a guy like me. I wasn’t raised in a family where anything good ever came easily or anything wonderful ever lasted for long. Show me the light at the end of the tunnel and I’ll flatten myself against the wall to wait for the oncoming train to go by.

So imagine the butterflies in my stomach when, on a whim, I asked Sonny to stop by my quickly growing Lido’s Caffé coffee klatsch shortly before Valentine’s Day. I couldn’t believe I did it. I was sure he wouldn’t accept the invitation, just as sure as I was a few nights before that he couldn’t possibly be as handsome in person as his photo suggested.

I was wrong about Sonny on both counts.

Our hero was beaming with pride on the day he finished his dream home. As he laid the final, carefully calculated brick, he shouted out in joy. But his happiness was short lived. As he took a step back he tripped. Hs heart fell as he looked down and discovered just what he had stumbled over: an extra brick.

My eyes caught Sonny’s through the window as he was approaching the entrance to Lido’s. Handsome and fit as I feared, I instantly looked away. Introductions passed all around with my coffee crowd, then Sonny sat at the head of the table and we all talked about nothing until after eight. Friends later told me they waited outside for us, and figured we had hit it off when we didn’t emerge behind them.

That’s not how I saw it, even as we shared cookies and conversation until the café closed, then stood outside talking for twenty minutes more, neither one of us wanting to be the first to leave.

After midnight, we ran into each other again online. Over the course of three hours, Sonny told me how much he had enjoyed meeting me, and, sheepishly, I told him the same. But even remaining awake together at 3 a.m. wasn’t enough for me to get the message.

Eventually, Sonny resorted to more obvious measures. “Snip, snip, snip (sound of me cutting to the chase),” he wrote. “Regardless of what we intended or not, I’d like to take you out on a date, Michael. Don’t duck…incoming brick with your name on it.”

Cloud nine is a wonderful if not necessarily restful place. After we signed off, I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. But I wondered why he asked me out, all the same.

We decided to have dinner together on his first available evening: Saturday, February 14th. We both studiously ignored the symbolism of the date as we shared burgers in a TARDIS-sized alcove in an Oak Park oyster bar. I was surprised to find Sonny acting as bashful as I was feeling.

That changed over dessert and coffee back at Lido’s, when suddenly he sang me a sweet children’s ballad he learned in third grade. I would later learn he was stalling for time because he was afraid to give me the Valentine’s Day card he had been carrying in his coat all night.

As the evening ended, he walked me to the Green Line, but we stopped short of the turnstiles. Another twenty minutes of bashful chatting should have been a clue about what was going on inside Sonny, but guys like me who’ve been through the wringer need a lot more than obvious hints.

Still, you’d think I’d have gotten the message when we stole a secret kiss next to the Coke machine.

An extra brick?! The shame! The horror! A lifelong goal ruined! The last thing the now-heartbroken mason wanted was for anyone to know that he had miscalculated his dream. So he looked around to make sure no one was watching, picked the brick up off the ground, got a running start, and threw it as hard and as far as he could. Then he sat down and wept. Some joke, huh?

Two days later while working on my laptop at my beloved Lido’s, I learned the place was in danger of becoming yet another New Depression casualty. I thought for a second, then jumped on Twitter and called for a tweetup: coffee, cookies, and gelato in the Marion Street café’s back room.

I was amazed at the turnout. Sixteen people came to share Italian dessert that evening, including all our coffee regulars, a few local reporters from the Oak Leaves newspaper (who even covered the event), and Sonny–thrown more in the deep end of the pool than ever.

Halfway through the evening, café clerk Tina cornered me. “Look at how he’s hanging on your every word,” she whispered. “He really likes you, Michael! Can’t you tell?”

I really wish I could have.

Maybe you’ll find the humor in this one. Two people in adjacent seats were arguing on a crowded flight from New York to Los Angeles. An asthmatic woman in an emergency exit seat was protesting a man sitting next to her taking scofflaw puffs off a carefully camouflaged cigar. In return, the animal-unfriendly man was bemoaning the woman’s ceaselessly yapping non-allergenic puppy wedged beneath the seat in front of them. Clearly, a recipe for disaster.

Instead, I stressed myself into a head cold. I figured that would cut our planned Friday night dinner off at the pass. “Think again,” Sonny told me. “My immune system is as strong as an ox.” So there we were, sitting in my downtown apartment, scarfing down my mother’s Spanish rice with chorizo. I apologized about my perceived culinary faults, only to watch him clean his plate.

iPhoto show-and-tell came next. We talked about the places we loved most in the world, and I showed him photos of the ones dearest to me. But eventually, the laptop was closed. We talked about life and stress and I listened him through the emotional rigors of his typical workday. He apologized for sharing his pain. For the first of what would become many times, I told him listening him through it wasn’t a burden.

Neither was holding him. We embraced in my 38th floor lobby while we waited for the elevator. By the time it arrived, we were back inside my apartment, and I was kissing Sonny.

“Why do you always look down?” he asked me. “Every time our eyes meet when you kiss me, you look down.”

I thought, Because you’re the most handsome man I’ve met in Chicago and I have no idea why you’re here with me when you could have anyone you wanted.

I took a deep breath and said, “Do I do that?”

Halfway between the coasts, the mounting quarrel reached the breaking point. A flight attendant told the pair the pilot was making an unscheduled landing to have them removed from the plane. The descent was already well in progress.  Enraged and in mid-cough, the asthmatic woman rose, ripped the clandestine cigar out of her seat-mate’s hand, yanked in the emergency exit door, and, as everything not nailed down went sailing past her out of the plane, tossed the offending tobacco cylinder toward the wing.

Bold-faced face-saving lies aside, there was no stopping Sonny and me. We shared Saturday afternoon at the Art Institute. We shared an hour-long upside-down Spiderman kiss Saturday evening. We didn’t even bother with the elevator lobby fiction–upon leaving, Sonny never made it past the door jamb.

“You’re doing it again,” he said, taking my chin in his hand as we kissed. “I’m up here.”

I had a third chance to practice not looking away that Sunday night. Comfortable with my crowd of friends, Sonny hung with us at an Oscar party in Oak Park. Later that night next to the now-familiar Green Line coke machine, I did my best not to look down. But old habits die hard. On the ride home, I wondered how soon things would come to an end.

An injudicious Monday night telephone call seemed to signal the dating death knell for me. I saw Sonny on Twitter at 2 a.m. and called him. “My ex used to stalk me by calling me after every tweet,” he said, without thinking. He didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.

In reality, I accomplished that on my own. Besides being my first opportunity to date a native Chicagoan, Sonny was also one thing more: my first opportunity to date anyone after learning of my lifelong Attention Deficit Disorder. The late-night call laid bare all my impulsive tendencies–the ones I’ve come to fear have probably destroyed every potential relationship I’ve ever had in my life. I wrote a blog post on the subject, stood in my bathroom, and cried.

The next day, troubles continued as my pricey old Macbook dropped dead, forcing me to purchase a pricier new one with money I had saved for my taxes if I had any hopes of continuing to work. Considering I work from home, I didn’t have much choice.

I was cheered at least, by seeing the Lido’s gang that night, and Sonny along with them. That morning, I had awoken to a message from him. “I’m still processing your blog post, but feeling very sad if I made you cry,” he wrote. “If you think that I would let one impulsive phone call negate all of the good things I see in you…then we clearly have a problem.”

I clearly did. I yearned for Sonny’s words to get through to me. But try as he might, nothing ever seemed to be able to sink in.

Equally enraged, as the air pressure equalized, the animal-unfriendly man reached under the seat in front, grabbed the yapping puppy out of its carrier by the nape of its neck, and hurled it tail over snout out the still-open emergency exit. As oxygen masks dropped all around, the flight attendant climbed over the pair to try and seal the exit. But she was stopped short by the startling sight outside the plane.

After Tuesday, Sonny succumbed to the cold we both knew I had given him over the weekend. We barely talked or texted for the rest of the week as he and his runny nose went straight home from work to bed. I realized I missed him.

On Saturday afternoon, I got to shake that feeling as Sonny emerged from his sickbed and met me at Lido’s. Coffee became dinner. Dinner became dessert. And dessert became the 10-minute walk back to his house, me there for the first time.

We watched Fawlty Towers DVDs and talked about how funny it was for him to just be coming out, me to have been dating for 22 years, and us both still to be similarly single and sitting next to each other on his sofa. In a candid moment, I told him all the wonderful things I saw in him and how easy it felt to listen him through his problems. I followed it all up with my life story, then waited for the boom to fall.

Instead, Sonny arose, took me in his arms, and began to dance. “You really get me, don’t you?” he asked as he held me close. Without looking down, I met his gaze and answered, “Yes. And you really get me, too.” Then he stopped talking, kissed me, put his head on my shoulder, and closed his eyes, and we melted into each other’s wordless, swaying embrace for an hour.

And when we were done dancing, I finally understood what he’d been trying to tell me all along. Right there, on the spot, in the silence, for once in my life, I got it. As the feeling of being the luckiest man in Chicago settled over me, only one thing was missing…

“Look!” the amazed flight attendant yelled to the soon to be federally incarcerated seat-mates over the roar of the wind. “The puppy’s okay–there he is hanging on to the wing! And you’re not going to believe what he’s got in his mouth!” “The cigar?!” exclaimed the man and woman in unison. “No,” replied the flight attendant.

A brick.

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