This essay has gone through many transformations. It started as a note on my phone from July 2019 that just said “subways // traveling // intimacy.” Its second draft was an email I wrote to a boy I met on the beach, another writer who, at the time, didn’t have social media and so this was how we stayed in touch. Its third draft was as an issue of my newsletter. And eventually, it became an essay commissioned by [redacted] magazine, which got killed last minute. I spent a few months trying to find a new home for it, and in that time, I took another trip to New York and found myself feeling a similar mix of emotions — romantic excitement, creeping loss, queer flirtation, and a deep love for the relationships and romances I’ve built at home, the people and connections that make me feel alive — like my life is not only possible, but worth celebrating.
So this is its fourth draft. It’s out of date; life and art don’t always keep up with one another. I hope you enjoy it for what it is.
This essay was adapted from a version originally written in August 2019.
In July 2019, at the height of the mid-summer heat wave, I left my boyfriend at home in Toronto and took a 10-hour bus ride to New York City.
The trip was a gift to myself for my 24th birthday. I have a lot of friends in New York, and I try to visit often. And every time I go, I find myself falling in love with the city and the people I meet there. New York is a city with a storied, if sometimes nonsensical, sense of romance. As expensive and unkind as it is, the city invites you to be fanciful, flamboyant, and forthcoming. In contrast, Toronto is a cold city. Even visitors from other, meteorologically chillier parts of Canada remark on its unfriendliness, its paucity of charm and romance. Despite this deficit, however, I’ve found much to enjoy here. I love my boyfriend, I love our relationship, I love being with him, and the more our lives have intertwined, the deeper that love has grown.
There’s nothing lacking in my love. Still, though, there’s something to be said for occasional opportunities to travel apart and fuck around. Call it a condition of the gay experience; call it modern dating ruining romance; call it whatever you like. Either way, we’ve recognized that the desire for the different is an inevitability in any relationship, and rather than repressing it or chastising ourselves, we’ve chosen to give this desire room to breathe. For me, that New York trip was an expression of this desire, its fruition. And so, though I missed my partner the moment I left his presence, I allowed myself to be intoxicated by the excitement of travel. I drank it in, deeply and immediately, for the bare 96 hours of my visit.
Almost every gay person I know has a story about the person they met while traveling and shared their hours with, a sort of whirlwind affair that neatly literalizes the kind of thrilling tenuousness that culturally characterizes our shared social position. Gay life, love, and sex have often been depicted as a sort of foreclosed possibility—non-reproductive, unnatural, a dead-end. But isn’t that the thrill of it, though? To give oneself freely, if only to take oneself away—in my case, to hop on a 10-hour bus back to Toronto and disappear again. It is fascinating to see what an impending absence does for intimacy. The tenuousness of the connection has a sort of galvanizing influence. It imparts a level of drama and affection on even the smallest of interactions—love and trust is suddenly, vividly, wildly forthcoming. People want to tell you about themselves, to talk around and about themselves, working through you. You can feel yourself opening up for interpretation.
I don’t trust easily, but when I travel, I throw myself into the deep end—reading intimacy into situations of immediacy, and giving of myself accordingly. This is maybe more widespread of a condition than many of us would like to admit; I’d even go so far as to call it a feature of our age and experience. I turned 24 the week before my trip, planting me firmly in my 20s—a young and unstable time, by all measures. And to be young and unstable, as so many of us are, is also to be ripe with possibility, a site of shifting projection, open for negotiation and, occasionally, misinterpretation. But this is part of the excitement of it. The fact that we so often cannot give more of ourselves is key to understanding the appeal. There is something powerfully romantic in being temporary—being consumed with such appetite and impatience that you don’t give yourself time to catch your breath. The brink of disappearance forces others to enjoy you in your fullness, with nothing more demanded than your presence in that moment.
When I brought this up to my friend, the writer and porn star Ty Mitchell, he said that travelling offers us “the opportunity for intimacy without the ulterior motive of futurity.” Each moment is, simply, only what it is. Maybe that’s why the relationships I’ve formed while travelling or with travellers are some of the most intense in my life. They cannot be recreated, and that circumstantial nature is part of the magic. We tell people we want to be able to stay forever, but do we really? What happens next? What parts of ourselves would we have to expose, to hold up for critical reception? Better to be here one day and gone the next.
Of course, I don’t live my entire life this way. It would be exhausting. But it is thrilling for a weekend. And I thought about it a lot during my last night in New York City: I had just left a particularly wonderful date, and I was chatting with another boy as I tried to navigate the subway late at night. Lost in our flirtation, I got off at the wrong stop and found myself in an unfamiliar part of the city, scrambling to find a way back to the place I was staying.
I’m terrible with maps and a mess of anxiety. I am easily scrambled, and when this happens, my brain switches into high gear — I become a bundle of nerves, all sharp movements, hypervigilant, unable to locate myself in space or time, unsettled. Eventually, I found the right route and the right train. I would be in bed in an hour.
Sitting down, at peace, I thought: There is nothing quite like that feeling of safety and security in getting on the train that takes you home. You’re right where you need to be. You can stop worrying. Everything has fallen into place, and you can just relax. The train is empty. There is no one to perform for; no one to be a projection for. There is only your body and the silent stretch that closes in on home.
It is thrilling to be consumed with abandon, like wood is eaten by fire; to enjoy brief, romantic moments of complete, fleeting passion. But it is also very difficult to go through life as such a temporary figure, rather than to invest in the romantic rhythms of a love that builds and builds. Relationships change, but so do all things; that’s how we know we are alive. That life, that slow change, the movement of bodies together and apart, is always exciting. It is a forest. It is a fullness, an ecosystem, a habitat, teeming with love. There is always more to discover, learn, celebrate, play with, endlessly.
Until that summer, nearly three years into my relationship, I couldn’t even imagine allowing myself to be present with another person in quite that way. I could not trust that I would close my eyes and we would both still be there when I opened them again. To not be consumed, but to be watered, like a plant — growing, moving, shifting with the sun and shade, leaning on one another. It is a different kind of romance, but it is no less intense or passionate. It is the train that brings you home. It is the feeling of knowing that who you are, and where you are, is exactly where you’re meant to be, and that there are some people, some loves, who make that feeling possible.
Sitting there, on that silent train, I knew that I was through with being temporary, at least for a little while. All I wanted was to be home. I had the long night ahead of me, and then another 10 hours on a bus — across the city, the state, the border.
But those hours would flow like water. Soon I would be home, and back in his arms.