Last month, A.J. Daulerio—my boss and my roommate—stood in one of Nick Denton's giant Soho windows, and addressed the crowd gathered to celebrate his abruptly abandoned term as Gawker editor-in-chief. For about five minutes, he went through a list of people he somehow owed: former Gawker managing editor Lockhart Steele ("He's the only one who taught me how to do everything"); Jezebel's Jessica Coen ("The person who taught me how to blog"); former Deadspin editor Will Leitch ("I couldn't be more indebted to him for supporting me at a time when no one else did"); current Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs ("The best hire I ever made"); his former Gawker right hand, Emma Carmichael ("The person that I'm going to miss working with the most because she's everything about this company that's good"); the owner of it all, Denton ("He's the best guy you're ever gonna work for").
The specificity and deep sincerity were underlined by his tone—it was heavy and watery, like his throat was an eyelid pooling tears. I was on my way to drunken, and I didn't have A.J.'s restraint when he got to me: "Rich had the unfortunate duty of living with me while working with me and he sees what a horror show I am as a human being every day. He never treated me any less as a boss or an editor the whole time and it takes a huge person to do that."
After the speech, I talked about how nice it was with people who were nearby and then someone, I can't remember who, told me that the entire reason that A.J. had given the speech was so that the person he had hired to tag Nick Denton's stairwell would have ample time to do so. Oh.
I then confronted A.J. about this and he corrected this interpretation: His tagger indeed did come by during his speech, but "I wanted to say all those things anyway." Oh?
A.J.'s tenderness comes with mirth. He loves hard and mocks harder, often at the same time. He will knock you upside the head with his feelings and clam up like his hinge has a hair-trigger. He will envelop you with himself and then exhibit what feels like disdain when you overstep his arbitrary boundaries. He'll make you care and then make you feel hated for caring too much. So then you walk on eggshells around him and he throws eggs at you. These mixed signals make people swoon. And crazy.
I don't know when it was exactly, but at some point in the past year, I realized that he had seduced me.
Earlier this year, The New York Review of Books published an essay by Zadie Smith called "Joy." The only way it could have spoken to me more directly was if it opened, "Dear Rich." Instead, it opens, "It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy." Pleasure, by Smith's definition, is what we know it to be and something that can be experienced on a daily basis. This is opposed to "that strange mixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy." Smith says she has experienced this far less frequently – five or six times in her life—and all had higher stakes (falling in love, being on drugs) than her garden-variety daily pleasure, which comes and goes like oxygen.
I've seen joy and I've felt pleasure. After devoting about a decade of my life to the former, I've spent the past few months focusing on the latter. I went from having one man to experiencing a blur of them, a battery-powered tie rack of dudes that I sometimes stop on but just as often, whizzes right by with several getting lost in the back of my closet. If the time I have spent exploring the pleasures of sex and what surrounds it has been disproportionate, that's OK. I know how to do it the other way, and it won't be like this forever.
But I wouldn't have been able to navigate this phase without A.J., who is both the greatest and worst influence in my life—what happens your angel and the devil conspire and give you drugs so that you can't even feel your shoulders, let alone know which is which. He offered me MDMA the night that we both moved into our place in Williamsburg, both fresh off recent breakups. It was a Wednesday, so I told my boss, no, I wouldn't like to do hard drugs that night, and that I'd see him in the morning.
He gave me shrooms the night of the BET Awards and then cackled when I freaked out after misidentifying Chanté Moore (big "Love's Taken Over" enthusiast here) on Twitter and gasped in fear, "I'm talking to the world." Another work night later in the summer, I got really drunk, this time did take A.J. up on his molly offer, smoked pot and tore through our apartment/second-floor yard (if we were both gay, it'd be called the "lanai" to reference The Golden Girls). I mistakenly elbowed someone in the face when I went in for a hug, broke one of our outside chairs and ranted about the opinions that I knew people were forming based on my display. For weeks, A.J. recounted this with the enthusiasm of a father discussing his child's all-star showing in a little league game.
A.J. urged me to explore my sex life/second adolescence/post-quarter-life crisis in my writing. This made my periods of promiscuity that much more complicated in my head because I am addicted to work way more than I'm addicted to sex, and now sometimes having sex is my work.
But then again, less than two months after joining Gawker, I moved in with A.J. Daulerio. I believe in the complete dissolution of life into work.
Last April, we had both recently broken up with supremely significant others and had no idea what to do next. He was couch surfing, I was clueless. Over Gchat, my still homeless boss told me to get ready for the headache of credit checks and brokers. At that point, I asked if looking for a place together might make things easier. He said it wasn't "THE WORST idea." He was right.
Men come and go, presenting all of these equations to balance or abandon, but A.J. is my constant. He would have been something like that even if we hadn't decided to live together, given the intimacy of our working relationship—becoming roommates just intensified things. Or maybe it exacerbated them. Certainly, we went into this arrangement united as bachelors, regardless of our respective sexualities.
If anything, that divide allowed for a closer bond on my end. Sex is great, but it automatically complicates a dynamic, even when it exists only as a possibility or memory. Such is not the case with this crucial man in my life, A.J., and the ensuing simplicity is a relational oasis. Relationships free of sexual tension are uncomplicated bliss and wonderful complements to the complicated bliss of romantic entanglement.
Well, maybe not uncomplicated. I am never quite sure what he is on, and sometimes he doesn't tell me. ("I'm just drunk," is an unlikely story when you are babbling backwards like an Evil Dead demon.) Days before moving in he told me that everything would be great provided that I understood that sometimes he needs to freak out and scream and punch walls. He hasn't so far.
I'm rarely quite sure what he means. Whether at work or not, he tends to tell stories or give directives obliquely, throwing you into the middle and watching your brain flail as you try to stay afloat. One time, he came home, threw a cell phone on our counter and began ranting about how fucked up it was. Full minutes passed before I realized that he wasn't reprimanding me about anything, but recounting a story: He'd just found the phone in the back of a cab, only to have the driver reveal that he planned to return it to his former patron and charge her for his good deed. A.J. ended up giving him the fare, a tip, and the money the driver had planned on extracting from the poor girl with the missing phone, just to rub in the driver's face what a shitty person he was being.
A.J. and I have gotten in maybe two arguments. They've come from me obliquely referencing his hands-off way of coping with a certain family crisis, and they've escalated when I try to drive a stick between his shells. I know the way to deal with A.J. is never to get on his case about anything, but sometimes my passion gets the best of me. When he is lucid and determined, A.J. can be an extremely effective communicator. But he is also managerial by nature, which means that you comprehend him on his terms, and there will be communicative mysteries that go unsolved.
Smith also writes about how "joy multiplies itself dangerously":
Children are the infamous example. Isn't it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? It should be noted that an equally dangerous joy, for many people, is the dog or the cat, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude. You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.
I'd be lying if I said that every time I come home and turn the key, I don't feel at least a twinge of fear that I'm going to find A.J. dead in our apartment.
Nobody wants to find themselves reduced to a trope, but I don't believe that "odd couple" quite describes my dynamic with A.J. It misrepresents our functionality. I don't know if we complement each other as humans, but we do as roommates. He cooks for me, I clean for him. He has no rules, I run a tighter ship. He still doesn't know how to recycle, even though I've now labeled all of the bins, including our trashcan and routinely correct his misplacement. One time, he described our trash-collection setup as, "Trash, bottles and weird stuff." The weird stuff, actually, is paper. This guy is one of the sharpest people I've ever met and he has periods where keeping the ice cube trays filled and in the freezer, the Brita flowing and in the fridge, seem like unsolvable calculus.
The only really stereotypically straight-guy traits about A.J. are that his feet often stink and he watches sports frequently. I let him know when his feet are intolerable; sports are never intolerable. The white-noise of crowd reaction is the background sound of my childhood.
Growing up, I tended to spend more time with women: my mother, her sisters, my four sisters, female classmates. I spent a lot of time with my dad, but otherwise, males were mostly mysterious, consumers of things in which I had no interest and prone to calling me a faggot. By now, I'm way over that, but I still do feel a childlike jolt of accomplishment when I bond with a dude, particularly a straight one. Being this close to A.J. fills a need in me that it can't possibly fill in him. Emotionally, we are lopsided.
We are lopsided culturally, as well, but the dynamic there is inversed. A.J. has never so much as suggested we watch sports together (he knows better), but he has taken active interest in my taste. The movie of mine he's borrowed the most is Burlesque, and he bellowed one day when I referenced "wagon wheel watusi." At this point, he likes that movie more than I do. Certainly, he's watched it three times more than I have in the past year. I think he's referenced its great story, like it's a copy of Playboy.
I have gotten him hooked on TLC's freakshow programming, even Extreme Couponing. Especially Extreme Couponing. Recently, we watched Paris Is Burning and he loved it. He told me he had no idea that Madonna didn't invent voguing, which I suppose is the downside people complain about regarding such cultural appropriation. But it also shows that sometimes all that's needed to correct it is a film screening. Alternately, he was surprised to find that the queens on RuPaul's Drag Race rarely compete in actual drag races.
A.J. has marveled over Grindr's efficiency—early on, he'd practically beg me to invite a guy over via it just to witness how well oiled a sex machine can be. He's gotten over it, but he remains a devoted fan of poppers. I think I mentioned them in passing at one point early on, and he told me to get him some "at the gay store." "I'm just going to go to a porn shop, probably one of the ones near West 4th on 6th," I said. I don't think he was listening at that point, and he's deaf in one ear, so it sometimes doesn't even matter what I say.
Sometimes we do poppers together. "Social poppers." "#Summerofpoppers" was something A.J. liked to tweet and say before he forgot about it in July. When he's on poppers, he loves to rant about our amenities—he brought me to convulsive tears of appreciation when he gushed about our floor's "no-questions-asked" trash room (seriously, you can put anything in there and the next day it is gone). He also has provoked serious anxiety when going on a performative rant about the changes he planned on making to our apartment prior to our parties ("OK, so we're going to rip the floor up and put in an ice-skating rink…").
When he isn't terrifying me or throwing things like his hard, pointy keys at me to wake me up when I fall asleep on the couch, A.J can be disarmingly tender. He admitted to me that Betty Spaghetti's husband dying in A League of Their Own makes him cry every time. Before he left on what was supposed to be a long, painful trip, he left me a note on our kitchen counter: "Rich, I love you." He came back from another trip all wild-eyed and disheveled, walked into my fucking room and hit my legs hard. I was almost sleeping. "A.J., it's 2 o'clock in the morning," I hissed. He looked at me like I stepped on his soft serve. I got out of bed and talked to him for two hours.
A.J. is also sadistic and takes distinct pleasure in watching people humiliate themselves. If I'm being optimistic, I think that mostly what he loves is viewing humanity and has a particular affinity for the rawest of raw moments. Maybe he's just a dickhead deep down.
He said in his going-away speech that I get to see what a "horror show" he is as a human being, but on a daily basis, all that usually means is watching him stumble out of his room at a ridiculous hour for a professional person (say 11 a.m.), looking like a zombie trapped in a fog of bad breath, the funk of 40,000 years. He is at his worst when he is distant, and he has spent days holed up in his room. I can never be quite sure if it's because he's on drugs or sad or angry or just spending time with his girlfriend, Cat Marnell. Sometimes I peek in and the mess is astonishing. I can't tell him to clean up his room, which makes me anxious about living next to a crack den, even though I know he doesn't do crack.
During those times, we aren't any semblance of an odd couple, but part of a different cliché: so near, yet so far. The main thing gay men need to know before entering such a partnership is that your straight boyfriend is not your own.
When A.J. told me in January that he was leaving Gawker, I tried to get him to change his mind. And then he told Nick and I didn't talk to him for a few days. I was outraged and I felt abandoned and was even more pissed that he seemed content in our silence. He had convinced me to take the job in the first place, as I knew that my sensibilities didn't exactly align with Gawker's. We had met in the fall of 2011 when we were both on Neil Strauss' Sirius show. That felt like a disaster at the time (I was brutally negged) but turned out to be a turning point in my life. I know I impressed him when I spoke on air about my gay rage (a lot of which has abated since) that had me hoping that someone would call me a faggot so I'd have an excuse to kick that presumably straight guy's ass. He had never heard that before and was intrigued.
During our initial multi-interview process, which included more than one meal at the Mermaid Inn, he let me win the arguments. He surrendered battles so he could win the war. When he's on his game, his way of tailoring communication to each person that he interacts with is nothing short of masterful.
After setting things up at Gawker just so, he walked away and I couldn't even speak. He had long discussed his shelf-life as Gawker editor—traditionally, it is a job that turns over quickly for something of its profile. As a writer, signing up for this temporary rewards system is not unlike adopting a pet. You are quite certain your Gawker editor will leave before you do.
If A.J. had waited around long enough for Nick to eventually fire him, I might have gotten pissed at Nick for a bit, but I would have forgiven him quickly because it would have been Nick being Nick. A.J. leaving on his own accord is a different story. I will decline to reveal his exact thought process, which is of course somewhat insane, but I will say that by going away, A.J. thinks he is preserving order and goodness.
On a road trip with one of the only guys that I've kept around and/or has stuck around long enough to even approach being a source of joy, I was explaining this and my tongue stumbled upon the appropriate parallel: A.J. is on some Dark Knight shit. I couldn't wait to tell him that I had cracked his code, so I texted him from the road.
"You leaving Gawker is like Batman at the end of The Dark Knight."
"No it's not."
"It is close. Not The Dark Knight Rises. You're going away to preserve good."
"Ah. Well that's nice."
"Legacy over immediacy. That's how I roll, yo."
Meanwhile, I contend with immediacy. Yesterday, A.J. surprised me by emerging from his room around 1 p.m., after I had returned from a dentist appointment.
"I didn't know you were here," I said. He blearily regarded me like my face was a swirl of flesh. Whatever he said in response could be summarized as, "Blah."
He looked dazed, like he'd just come in off the street after living on it for a few weeks.
He went into his room and reemerged. I knew he was going to Vermont for an interview (people always want to talk to A.J.) and figured that I'd gotten the date wrong, which is why I was so surprised to find him home. I asked how he was getting there.
"Are you pissed off or are you sick?" I asked him, looking in his face, making him look back right at me.
I didn't want to know what kind of sick.
He called a car service to drop him off at the airport (oh right, of course he's flying), and on his way out said his first complete sentence to me of the day: "I'll see you tomorrow night."
I wanted to point out that he'd be returning on Valentine's Day and maybe ask if he was hanging out with Cat or make a joke about hanging out with me or whatever, but he was gone before I could sort out what I wanted to say and it would have been pointless anyway.