During a Night of Casual Sex, Urgent Messages Go Unanswered

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Modern Love

I don’t remember his last name. His first name was Brad, which is the perfect name for a relatively faceless memory from your early 20s. He was handsome, with a nice smile and startlingly blue eyes.

I had always thought that when the eyes got too blue it looked like a person had no soul. You’re seeing too deeply into their head, and there’s nothing back there. But I had never dated anyone with blue eyes, and it was springtime. Brad also had a nice body, muscled, but with extremely soft skin. And the sex was good, I think.

There is a great debate among straight women and gay men as to what counts as sex. Most of my female friends think oral sex doesn’t count. I disagree. I count it all. If someone has an orgasm, I count it. My female friends also hold a deeper misunderstanding that anal sex, for gay men, is like a handshake. News flash, ladies: Sometimes we don’t want to do it with our dates just as much as you don’t want to do it with yours.

This was only my second date with Brad. We didn’t know each other well. We never would. His haircut was fussy and his hands were a little feminine, but his cologne was appealing. I was 22 and hadn’t been on many dates, so this was one of my first forays into courtship. A bonus: He lived just blocks away from me in Astoria.

If you have ever lived in Astoria, Queens, you know that getting people to go there at the end of the night is like asking a stranger for a ride to the airport. Brad was going to do for now. I was young and dating and independent, and I had highlights in my hair.

The conversation at dinner was dull but he laughed at almost everything I said, so for a comedy narcissist like me, he was an ideal companion. As we ate, my Nokia flip phone started ringing. It was my sister, Julie.

I declined the call. My phone was new and I was still getting used to it. I didn’t love that people could reach me whenever they wanted. I preferred calling my answering service, which made me feel like an old-time movie star. My father had shown me Doris Day movies when I was young, and she was always checking her service for messages from suitors or Hollywood producers.

After dinner we went to a gay bar packed with other gay people on dates, because what’s more fun than trying not to look like you’re checking out other people while learning about your date’s siblings?

Brad and I drank our Cosmos (it was 2001, and if Carrie Bradshaw was doing it, so was I) until his eyes looked less soulless and we started kissing.

My phone vibrated again. Different sister. Becky. I ignored it.

Another round, more making out, another call, Julie again. My drunkenness, mixed with my desire to be present for Brad, made the calls easy to dismiss. Our making out turned a corner — we were now prone on a banquette — and I had just enough sense left to suggest a cab.

Feeling like a high roller, I offered to pay. En route to Astoria there was more groping, more kissing, more picturing him as Paul Walker. At my apartment we went straight to the bedroom. It lasted longer than it needed to. And then there was the cuddling and holding and sweating and panic and the falling asleep next to a basic stranger and waking up and thinking: “Do I like this?” “Does he like this?”

I excused myself to use the bathroom and opened my phone again. Six more missed calls. My stomach dropped. I was now sober enough to know that something was very wrong.

I started listening. Julie was in hysterics. Something about my dad falling and an ambulance. In the next message, Becky was calmer but shaken. A heart attack or stroke, they weren’t sure. Next: My mom telling me not to panic. Next: Julie telling me to panic.

I skipped to the last message, from Doug, my kind-of brother-in-law (they hadn’t married), from just 15 minutes earlier.

I called; he answered immediately.

During my niece’s first birthday party, my dad had collapsed after handing off the hamburgers he had been grilling. The party was at my parents’ house, though my dad wasn’t living there. My parents were divorcing and my father, at 61, had moved into a depressing bachelor pad near his office.

The last time I was home, a month earlier, I had visited him with my youngest sister, Natalie. The walls were beige and so was the carpet. The furniture he had picked out was too large and too dark. The place was filled with stuff, yet looked empty.

He was trying to make it a home but didn’t know how. I went into his bathroom to cry. I didn’t want him to see me feeling sorry for him. He didn’t belong there; he belonged in his home.

I pulled myself together, and we ate sandwiches. He put out the plates and napkins and a canister of Pringles. When he opened his kitchen cupboard, I saw that it was stocked with canned stew. I had to clench my jaw to keep from crying again.

After dinner we watched TV.

“I want you to feel at home here,” he told us.

“I should stay here the next time I visit,” I said, which seemed to make him happy.

When Natalie and I left, my dad was standing at the top of the stairs. I turned and yelled up, “I love you, Dad.” It was the last thing I said to him.

“I love you, Andy.”

And that was it.

Doug had tried to do CPR. The paramedics had used the paddles to get a weak pulse. Now my father was in a coma.

I imagined the scene: the party decorations, the yard full of toys, the deck where he fell, the potted plants my mom put out every spring, my mom crying, my sisters crying, the uneaten hamburgers, the little girl’s birthday cake.

It was all too much. I started to cry. Loudly.

Brad came out to see what was wrong. His hair was mussed and he was completely nude. He stood in front of me, his semi-erect penis at eye level, while I tried to get more information from Doug: What hospital? Should I get on a plane?

I gestured for Brad to sit down. He started rubbing my back, which felt like torture. I was embarrassed about crying in front of him but didn’t care enough to stop.

After I hung up, he tried to hug me. “What happened?”

I wanted to shout: “Clearly nothing good! Put on some pants!” Instead, I tried to explain.

As Brad paced the apartment, still naked, suggesting plans of action, I felt a growing sense of disgust. I didn’t even like this guy. Why did I have sex with him? Everything seemed wrong. The apartment seemed cramped and dirty. I hated everything inside of it. I caught myself in the mirror and cringed at my dyed blonde hair. Why did I do that to myself? I looked like a fool.

I told Brad he should go, that I needed to make some calls. He sat and put his arm around me. “You shouldn’t be alone right now,” he said, kissing my neck.

I leaned into him. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to be where I was. Everything felt off. Is this how my father felt in that sad apartment? Like everything was off?

I kissed Brad lightly. “I really need you to leave.”

He looked hurt, but he stood up when I did. Then he hugged me for way too long.

“O.K.!” I said. “Goodbye!” I walked into the bathroom and locked the door. I stared out the window listening to him get dressed. Then I heard the front door shut. He was finally gone.

Within a few days, my father was gone too.

Over the following months, Brad sent me text messages and a voice mail message that went unanswered. I had too much to sort out. And I was embarrassed, I suppose.

About two years later, Brad walked past me on Ninth Avenue. We almost stopped but only nodded at each other, smiled awkwardly and kept going. I felt like I owed him an explanation, some ending to our story, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to keep moving forward.

I had straightened out much of what felt so wrong that night. I now had a job I was proud of, an apartment I was proud of. I had buried my father and in doing so had buried that whole chapter of my life. Which meant there could be no Brad, no trace of that time, of that night.

It wasn’t generous of me, or kind, but that’s what I did. Most importantly, I never got highlights again.

Andrew Rannells, an actor who played Elijah on HBO’s “Girls” for six seasons, is writing a book of essays.