When I saw Brian at the loft party, he was shirtless and covered in sweat. He was tall and muscular, with thick chest hair that tapered neatly down his six-pack abs, and he was dancing maniacally, flailing his arms, and physically picking up random men only to drop them back down again. His beauty literally made me gasp; he had a body you only see in gay magazine photo spreads.
I tried to make eye contact, but no matter how hard I stared, he didn’t notice me. Though, to be fair, he also looked high out of his mind.
“Who is that guy?” I asked my friend.
“No idea,” he said. “He must be new to the neighborhood.”
After I downed my fifth beer, I mustered up the courage to talk to him. But it was no good. By the time I left, he was making out with someone else in the corner.
And so he joined the dozens of men I’d seen in bars during my 20s, about whom I’d obsess for weeks afterward, thinking: If only I’d had the courage to talk to him, or had the biceps to make him notice me. But unlike those guys, Brian (which is not his real name) became a fixture in my life over the next few months — or, rather, a fixture on my Grindr app.
Grindr, in case you don’t know it, is a wildly popular smartphone tool that allows gay men to find guys nearby looking to chat or hook up for sex or whatever else two men would want to do together. Its simple interface consists of a grid of 100 photos, ranked in order of increasing distance from your current location. Click on a photo and you can chat and exchange images. Since Grindr was introduced in 2009, it’s garnered over 2 million users, and in the process, has transformed the way gay men think about their surroundings.
When I downloaded it back in 2010, it turned my straight-ish Italian neighborhood into a matrix of muscular torsos and smiling faces. I was a little scandalized. I recognized many of the guys from my bodega or my coffee shop; some were 400 feet away, others even less. It was like getting a map to my neighbors’ secret desires: “Mostly a bottom,” “Discreet, you be too,” “Looking to meet right now.” The app scared me a little — now these people would recognize me too — but I was fascinated by its potential. People would send me messages: sometimes crude and accompanied by dirty pictures, sometimes charming, which would lead to hour-long correspondences. And then one day, as I was killing time in my apartment on Grindr, Brian, the man from the loft, appeared 1,500 feet away.
He was just as handsome as I remembered, with a charming description and a smiling photo. Here was my second chance! I hesitated: What if he rejects me again? Will I just seem pathetic? Then again: What did I have to lose?
So I sent him a tentative message: “Hey, how are you doing?” The reply came back immediately. “Great! How are you?”
This began a months-long correspondence. I never let on that I had seen him before, and over the weeks that followed, we talked about where we were from, and where we went to school. He worked for a nonprofit. He loved the neighborhood. He seemed to like my jokes, tapped out on a tiny keyboard, and I liked his. In short: We were hitting it off. He sent me more photos of himself — of his vacation, his naked torso, and, at one point, his dick. I could scarcely believe that somebody who looked like that could be interested in me, even just as a sexual object.
I began to imagine that, maybe — just maybe — there was more to this than a possible hookup. I only knew him as a digital presence, a sporadic vibration on my phone, but I was already imagining our future together. We would wake up in the morning, and read the paper, or bike down the street while holding hands and whistling. Then he would cradle me in his big, muscular arms.
But, as I learned, the world of Grindr can be jarring when it collides with real life. I would be reading a book at my coffee shop when someone who had sent me a picture of his penis would walk in and we would have to avert eye contact. My morning subway commute filled with men I recognized from my Grindrscape — men who were looking for threesomes with their boyfriends, or someone to come over and have sex with them right now. One time I was at a bar near my apartment when one guy walked up to me: “Don’t I know you from Grindr? You live 700 feet from here.”
I had never seen the man before in my life.
But the most unsettling experiences occurred when I saw Brian. I panicked when I passed him on my bike. I would pedal faster so he didn’t recognize me. Once, I saw him standing on my subway platform at the bottom of the stairs, but instead of introducing myself, I turned around and waited for the next train. I’m not sure what I was afraid of — awkwardness, I guess. I mean, what do you say to someone whom you’ve never met, but whom you’ve seen naked? But mostly, I was afraid that if I met him, he wouldn’t live up to my elaborate fantasies, and I’d have to end it all.
As the summer dragged on, Brian began to brag more and more about his sexual exploits. He had had sex with somebody we both knew at a party. He told me about how he had picked up two guys in the neighborhood, and he had taken them home for a threesome. He described doing sex acts that I didn’t realize existed outside of a Czech porn movie. The next night, he told me that he had met up with another guy from Grindr who “wanted it really bad.” The following night the same thing happened.
Increasingly, I started to realize that Brian wasn’t just incredibly sexy — he was a sex addict. I’d never encountered anybody who had sex with a different person, let alone multiple people, every night of the week. Perhaps he wasn’t the guy I had drawn up in my mind.
And then, finally, it happened: After months of correspondence, he wanted to meet up. But he didn’t just want to meet up, he wanted to have a threesome. I had mentioned at one point that I’d never had one before, and so he had decided to scout out other men on Grindr, and send me photos of what they looked like, in case I wanted to join. “I don’t think I can do this,” I told him, after he sent me a bunch of photos of a stranger’s penis. “This might not be my scene.” I stared at my phone, and realized that my attraction to Brian had faded. As beautiful as he was, his behavior was raising too many alarm bells for me.
“Well then let’s just meet up the two of us,” he wrote. “But first, there’s something I need to tell you. I’m HIV positive.”
And that’s when I realized I had gotten in way over my head.
The thing about digital apps like Grindr isn’t just that you invent fantasy scenarios about your fellow Grindr users. It’s that Grindr also makes you forget that on the other end of the phone is a real person, made of flesh and blood. Brian was real, with real problems and feelings — and managing a serious health problem at a horrifyingly young age. It was heartbreaking. We talked about how long he’d been seropositive. He said he was healthy, and that it wasn’t a huge issue for him. He said he would completely understand if it was a dealbreaker for me, that it had happened before and would happen again.
And now I didn’t know what to do. I’d already decided I didn’t want to sleep with him before his disclosure. But if I backed out of a meeting, it would seem like I was stigmatizing him for his HIV. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. My mind raced: Should I hook up with him anyway, just to absolve myself of guilt? Would that make me a better person? Or just weak willed?
“Let’s chat later,” I told him when I logged off. Except we never did. I would still see Brian around the neighborhood, and I would turn away, struck by embarrassment at my clumsy handling of the situation. As far as I can tell, he never saw me.
Eventually, I decided I wasn’t built for Grindr. It fed into my most obsessive impulses and preyed upon my ability to conjure imagined lives about strangers. I decided to focus my energies on real life, and I began to enjoy my newly penis-picture free coffeeshops and sidewalks. But every once in a while I would log into my neighborhood’s Grindrscape, just to see what was going on. Dozens of handsome faces would stare back at me with their smiles, from 500, 1,200, 1,800 feet away. They were so close, so enticing. But deep down, I knew they were very far away.