There are brands that are practically branded into our thought processes—the swoosh along the sides of sneakers, a pair of golden arches, an apple with a bite taken out of it. But there is another logo, familiar to gay men, that I find ominous: the yellow, ancient Greek mask–like icon of Grindr, its hollowed out black eyes absent expression, allowing one to read the mask as appropriate for comedy or tragedy. Whenever the icon appears on my phone, indicating a message from someone, I see a staring phantom face rather than a potential loving mate. Grindr, for those who don’t know the app, allows subscribers, wherever they are, to find potential sex mates nearby, sometimes just feet away.
I dated someone for six months who I was coming to love, finally an age-appropriate mate, he fifty-something to my later fifties (please, let me keep that mask on for awhile). For that spell of time we were together, no longer did I have to tap the Grindr icon the moment loneliness or randiness filled me on a Friday night, presenting a catalogue display of faces before me, but few of which would be available to someone my age anyway. Despite what people think, men do meet on Grindr for dates that can lead to relationships. But, yes, it’s mostly about the hookup.
I met Aaron (for the purposes of this piece) at a New Year’s Eve party. I have long made the mistake of getting involved with young men, far too young for me, each of whom eventually frightens me away with his narcissism, so I was especially spooked by the immediate pull I felt that evening for someone age-appropriate. My New Year’s resolution to break the spell the young had over me, an actual wish I had uttered aloud to myself on the walk through the park to the West Side, seemed granted at the threshold.
After we started dating and as Aaron and I would leave one of our frequent Off Broadway performances or when we would finish making love in his always-dark apartment, he would switch on his phone again with a swipe of his fingerprint, and like a crime scene his screen would emblazon with the evidence of Grindr masks. He would quickly switch it off, fearing I might notice the faceless suitors after him—but I noticed. I kept thinking, I get messages, too, from the site, even when I am not soliciting them, so maybe that’s simply what’s happening with him. But Aaron received enough masks throughout an evening we’d be together for him to be able to cast a Sophoclean tragedy, with enough extras to recreate the populace of Troy. He is a playwright, which made this ever-replenishing cast of available masked actors all the more ironic.
So that when he admitted one evening, upon my adamant questioning, that he had had many ongoing assignations from Grindr on nights and days we weren’t together, I knew my earlier intuition was right. He was not just being unfaithful as is not uncommon in gay couples, he was being compulsively faithful to Grindr, tapping on the face he adored more.
And that is what the app allows. Pressing that five-eight’s-inch square face icon is akin to swallowing a narcotic for many gay men, one that is addicting. As Aaron said through his tears when he admitted his foibles and I said we were finished as a couple, “It’s a compulsion for me.”
All of us can show compassion to an addict of alcohol or meth or pornography or hookups, but when we are the one to directly suffer its consequences, the compassion is harder to summon up. When you are with someone you discover has had numerous anonymous sexual encounters, especially after you have made real love together many times, it’s disorienting because you can’t understand why the sex you had together wasn’t sufficient. It has made me feel insecure, inadequate. Yet, I know how to make love well. Call it a talent, even.
It seems sex can be too sufficient, too good, sometimes. The love that can be conveyed through good sex might make the allure of anonymous sex, one without emotional consequences, more alluring, for it is unthreatening. As Aaron said to me, in a final plea on 42nd Street, before I vanished into the subway to find solace at a favorite Village restaurant, “Too many people have told me they love me and it frightens me.”
Aaron never called me by my name when he and I engaged in sex. Suddenly, I became “baby” or “yeah man.” And I remember thinking as I showed him some of my love that he was already elsewhere right then. He had put on the Grindr mask, his eyes closed to the person he was with—and at the same time he could imagine me to be anyone he wished behind the mask.
I’m one of those people who likes to look at the person when I make love to him; it turns me on, gives me focus. So that when I would scan Aaron’s closed eyes, akin to the empty Oedipal orbs of the Grindr mask, in his moonlit room, his face in a grimace from approaching orgasmic release, I worried that it wasn’t me he was thinking about. And I may have been right.
Aaron is the oldest person with whom I have ever been involved and I was convinced that he would then, by sheer math, make for the most mature and considerate. After all, here was someone who had been married—albeit to a man thirty-six years older than he, which gave me pause; indeed, it was that “open” marriage of his that fostered a learned behavior that Aaron decided to continue, even as I thought we were a real couple.
Aaron is beautiful and despite his middle age many Grindr faces present themselves willingly to him. When they arrive at his threshold, he needn’t ask them to remove the mask. They are likely happy to be in his company and he in theirs. His is—was—a beautiful face to behold.
All my life as a gay man, I have heard unfaithful lovers say upon being found out, “But it didn’t mean anything.”
It means something to me. And it meant something to them, too—whether it was an orgasm or a reconfirmation of attractiveness or a thrill at the expense of someone in the wings who is made unaware.
Gay life, no matter how many advances there are for us, is inherently tough because gay men are not always kind to each other, many dismissive still of the idea of fidelity. I want to say to all of us, if you find someone you think you might love, put the Grindr mask away, show your face, smile, and create a scene that isn’t going to become a tragedy.
David Masello is a widely published essayist and poet in New York who writes about art and culture.