Fruiting bodies and friendship in queer middle age

Aging as a queer person brings surprising shifts in friendship 

It’s a rainy Sunday in December, and I’m watching my dog nap. I’m swimming in a kind of melancholy that I’m trying to turn into a friend. It’s no surprise to me; my seasonal affective disorder is likely as old as I am. The difference between now and when I was younger is that I know it, I name it. Suffering, I believe, is a part of human existence, and I just happen to suffer a little bit more in the months between Fall Back and Spring Ahead.

Awareness helps. It explains the despair, and reminds me that it will recede. I take joy in watching my dog nap, his body wrapped tightly around itself against the winter’s chill that has crept into our home. As I sit looking out the window at the grey towers of lower Manhattan jutting into the gray sky, I find joy too, in watching a water drop collect on the new leaf on my monstera plant. I watered it last night before bed, and the new leaf has pulled that water up and into itself, and one drop in particular seems almost impossibly balanced near a hole in the leaf, the fresh green colour of new life almost glowing through the liquid. The colour calms me. 

Keeping the melancholy at bay: it’s been a good weekend. Friday night, I met my friend Jesse for dinner. He’s 44 and I just turned 40; we’ve taken to calling ourselves the Middle-Aged Gays. We met in our 20s, when Jesse worked as a research technician at the university where I was studying how microbes make choices. 

The gays on campus all gravitated to each other, either at the holiday party his lab hosted or at the campus bar where the beer was often free and a gin and tonic cost under three bucks. Before working in science, Jesse had been a professional dancer and was signed to a major record label. My first year in New York, we danced together, with my friend Andrei, all the other gays from our school, his then boyfriend and a boy I would end up dating for a year, at a party at Mars 2112 near Times Square. I remember coming down the stairs into a cavernous room that, during its nightly dinner service, actually had fake walls mimicking a cave. Jesse, Andrei and I almost gasped seeing the dance floor full of, I would later learn, nearly 1,500 people, a space that held as many people as my entire hometown. The whole crowd queer, the whole crowd dancing and all of them, at least in theory, interested in kissing or being kissed by some boy like me. 

And this is part of my middle-aged story: Jesse’s then boyfriend now lives across the street from me. He’s become dear friends with the boy I dated back then. While Jesse and his ex are friendly, Jesse is now dating a guy whom I met in my 20s on Adam4Adam and went on two or three dates with. Even this large city can feel like a small town if you’re queer and you stay long enough. Even boys you dated for a few months in 2006 will remember you, the bad as much as the good. It’s a good idea to act right, even though I couldn’t have been told that then. Mars 2112 closed some time ago, but everyone I danced with there remains a part of its extant geography. 

 

At 24, I wasn’t worried enough about kindness. Wide-open parties of 1,500 people with enough room to dance and music worth dancing to feels now a thing of the past, but maybe that’s just because I’m not 24 any longer. 

Social life, scientists believe, evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, through mechanisms we do not completely understand. In a way, our body is an example of social life: it consists of some 40 trillion cells communicating with each other—and with the same number of bacterial cells on and around them—to form what we consider the singular human form. 

Once upon a time, in a land not far away, life consisted only of organisms that made themselves singly, in one cell. Those organisms—yeast, bacteria, amoebas—still exist, of course, but now share the world with those of us built from more. At the nexus between single- and multicellular live sit organisms, like Dictyostelia (we scientists call them dicty for short), which can do both. They can be singular. They can be social. 

As 40-something gays, we aren’t old, per se, but we’re older than we used to be. Jesse was the first one to say we were middle-aged, and I immediately recognized that he was right. To many gay 20-somethings, 40 is the beginning of death; one of my (worst) ex-boyfriends used to call middle-aged gay men at sex parties “old and gross,” and he’s certainly not the only one to think this way. 

At what age does the twink inside us die? Do we mourn him, or are we glad to be done with him? Or maybe both: mourn the attention he got, glad to be done with his chaos, his need for validation, his search for a community.

Forty: the age of beer bellies (guilty) and Viagra (guilty) and Botox (guilty). Forty: an age when, a fag born in the 1980s, felt inevitable and impossible before I reached it. Twink death happens by 25. But in my 1980s, twinks just died.

And yet, here we are, Jesse and I, getting dinner in Hell’s Kitchen, a peak NYC neighbourhood for 20-something gays, because he lives in the Bronx and I live in Brooklyn and this is about as close as we can get to halfway between our homes. It is hard to maintain a long-distance friendship—as Bronx-to-Brooklyn can certainly be—and sometimes we won’t see one another for a month or two, and then one of us realizes that and sends a text and we end up sitting across from one another again. Me: the seasonal beer, a winter ale. Jesse: house margarita, no salt.

We talk about A1C and pre-diabetes, and meds versus cutting out carbs. If we go for Ozempic, we might just lose the beer bellies. We talk about the health of our parents; Jesse lost his dad as a child, but his mom is doing well, visiting home in Ghana now where Jesse was born.

“I feel like she always goes this time of year, no?” I ask.

“The New York cold,” he says. 

We talk about his sister and her kids, how great it’s been for Jesse to see his boyfriend be integrated into their family life.

“Sometimes,” he says, “they FaceTime him; they don’t even want to talk to me.”

I laugh. 

As a kid, I thought I’d be a dad by 40, have maybe two or three kids. I thought I’d be married. I thought I’d be dead. I thought I’d own a home. In fact, I’m none of these things, and I’ve lived in three different apartments in the last five years. Jesse and I are lucky in many ways; we both have boyfriends—not that everyone needs or should have a boyfriend—and we’re both at more stable places in our careers than we have ever been. He works now as a nurse epidemiologist and I teach and write, cobbling together enough money such that, because I have a boyfriend with whom I can split the bills, I can actually afford a nice place to live in New York. 

This isn’t what I thought my life would look like at 40. I have to remind myself, to convince myself, that no matter these missed markers (children, home ownership) of adulthood, I am, in fact, getting older.

I feel like an old gay when I go out dancing with my boyfriend, who’s just a few years younger than me. Everyone seems to be on G or K; you never have to wait in line for a $21 Long Island anymore!

At dinner, I mention this to Jesse: in the club, we’ve gotten older, but the world just keeps making more 21-year-olds, and they keep going out dancing. 

“Oh my god,” Jesse says, thinking about all this, taking it all in, “I truly am so old.” 

“I didn’t think club culture would feel so different than when we were that age,” I tell Jesse. I always wanted to be that old gay at the club, I always wanted to get pleasure from dancing with and around queer people until I dropped dead, preferably doing what I loved (poppers).

Dicty eat bacteria; they live in the soil. When food is abundant—party!—they swim around as a single amoeba eating as much as they can. When food becomes scarce—oh no!—they either fuck and some die, or they gather and some die. If their environment is dark, they mate: two cells coming together into one and then sending out pheromones to call other single cells to join. They eat those cells, becoming one massive cell that, under the right conditions, when food returns, can birth hundreds of single cells again.

Or, they become social. When in the presence of light, dicty come together, never fucking, but instead forming a social body, a gathering of cells, that forms a characteristic base, long neck and tulip-like head: a fruiting body. Only cells in the fruiting body will survive when conditions become favourable again. The others give up their lives so that some will survive. 

Fucking and friendship help the amoeba survive tough times. 

In my 20s and my 30s, I went out often and maintained a couple of groups of friends: grad school friends, art friends, friend-group-A that I met through Ray, friend-group-B that I met through Steve. FC and Joe whom I met the one time I went to the Black Party, and the friend group we shared for that week on Fire Island. With so many of these people, I didn’t have to make plans; we’d bump into each other at this art shit or that, at this party or that. 

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, like so many of us, I was forced to pick a small pod, and for me it was Andrei and Ngofeen, two single friends who lived nearby. When I say, now, that I have a total of five friends, it’s not that much of a lie. Andrei, Ngofeen, Saleema, Jesse, L––end of list. I kid, but only kind of. 

I haven’t been to Meat in months; I miss FC, and I still consider him a friend, but my life has narrowed so much, and deeper connections with fewer people has been the only way I can survive. I feel like I owe more to fewer people. I wouldn’t say I prefer it, but there has been no other way, not with my life now between work and writing and resting my older body. Resources aren’t infinite, there are only so many bacteria to eat, and who becomes the stalk, and who joins your social fruiting body, it’s cruel, it’s sad, it’s life.

“Do you wanna get another drink? Or is it time to go home and sleep?” I ask.

“One more drink couldn’t hurt.” But it won’t be just one. We walk a few blocks north to one of the neighbourhood’s many gay bars. Inside, around 10 p.m., it is mostly older queens; for once we are the younger ones, and I am refreshed that not everyone has the Hell’s Kitchen gay bod. I get the first round, and then it happens: a string of songs so perfect, so seemingly made exactly for two queers our age, that it feels impossible. Spice Girls (“Tell me what you want, what you really really want”) to Britney (“Oops! I did it again”) to Madonna (“Vogue!”) to the Weather Girls (“I’m gonna go out to run and let myself get absolutely soaking wet!”) to Diana Ross (“I want the world to know, gotta let it show”) to Cher (“Do you believe in life after love?!??”)

“Isn’t it love after love?” Jesse says.

“No, babe, it’s life after love!”

“No! Really?” He leans close to my ear to be heard over the music, his chin barely touching my cheek.

“I promise!” But he doesn’t believe me. He has to look it up on his phone. I mockingly roll my eyes.

“All these years, I thought it was love after love!”

Still learning stuff together, I laugh. 

“Well, do you?” Jesse asks me.

“Do I …?”

“Believe in life after love?”

“I dunno. After my big breakup, the grief, life is a different colour. It’s still life, but different.”

He nods, and starts singing harmonies. I ape an overexaggerated Cher voice. 

Thanks to Saleema, I read Marx and Zadie Smith for the first time. Thanks to Ngofeen, I bake bread. Thanks to Andrei, I’ve learned—at least occasionally—to treat myself. Jesse was the first person to make me feel confident enough to go to the gym; he taught me how to lift weights safely, and made me laugh every work day, at lunch, while we tried to exercise our anxiety away. Each of these friends has gifted me countless conversations where I’ve faced fundamental things about myself that I hadn’t realized, or had been hiding. 

I was dancing with Jesse two days ago. Now, it’s a cloudy Sunday and the sun has gone down. Soon enough, I can start making dinner, get my bread in the oven. My boyfriend just got home from a movie. Our pup is still napping in his nap place. I am melancholy, but grateful; my life isn’t what I thought it would be, but it’s here, and it’s real, it’s now and I had no idea, when I was young, the gift that would be queer friendships here in gay middle age. Without Jesse—and Saleema and Andrei and Ngofeen and L—I wouldn’t even be myself. I wish I had time for them all. I do try to text. We made ourselves together. I’m sorry. Someday soon, I hope we will dance together again. I’m not an amoeba, I don’t have to die for my friends. Without them, I’d be a single cell somewhere in the soil, just trying not to starve.

Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, activist and writer originally from Arlington, a small town in rural Washington State. He has a PhD in molecular biophysics, and his writing has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Guernica, The Village Voice, The New York Review of Books and The Feminist Wire. He lives and works in New York City.

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