This One’s Me by Zac Thriffiley

To be fair, I made the mistake of standing too close to the kitchen island and hovering over the charcuterie spread. With my shoulders slouched and arms wide, I looked like a vulture protecting fresh roadkill that it had paid too much for at Whole Foods. Everyone knows that the safest place at a party—especially one where you only know half the guests but everyone is willing to have sex with you anyway—is next to the food. This way, you meet new people, but have something on hand to shove into your mouth if the conversation dies or takes an uncomfortable turn. A veteran wallflower can easily buy himself two minutes chewing up the marbled fat from a slice of prosciutto. 

But while I was eyeing dry-cured exit strategies, the conversation in the room softened, and a few guys turned their attention to the background music underscoring our evening. The new song coming out of the speakers was unrecognizable, simply the same steady bass line that opens every gay anthem. Soon enough, an electronic string quartet slid in, followed by bleating from a synthesized saxophone. Then a breathy voice burst through the sound to make herself heard.

The shot glasses lining the island never stood a chance.

There’s not a soul out there.

No one to hear my prayer.

As the hymn sped into the chorus, Sean barreled past me through the kitchen toward the iPad hooked up to the speakers. In his rush, he bumped me and my arms swept a Mad Men episode’s worth of gin and Aperol shots to the floor. The glasses didn’t shatter, but now the room smelled like a cross between a pine tree air filter and the aftermath of a rhubarb enema. No one else seemed to have noticed.

“This one’s me,” Sean said, a proud parent gloating over his gifted child. Everyone around us happily nodded in approval. “I heard this at my first trip back to Atmosphere after they reopened, and I immediately put it on my weekend playlist. It’s a mix by these two German sound engineers.”

“Who’s the singer?” someone asked as they waded through the flood.

“Agnetha, obviously.”

“Really? It sounds almost nothing like her.”

Sean crossed his arms. “Well it’s her. Like, okay, the Germans retuned it to cut down on the shakiness in her voice—” 

“You mean the vibrato?” He must have been the one who taught middle school choir.

“Her shakiness, and to blend it better with the new beats. But it’s still her.”

“How can you completely retune someone’s voice and say that it’s still hers?” 

“The same way that you’re still you even when you sound like a whiny bitch.”

I could hear why Sean defended the song regardless of the voice. It was simpler without losing any of the energy, more last-call-at-an-underground-EDM-show than four-a.m.-at-Studio-54. No four-part harmonies or echoing background vocals. Just one woman begging for a man in the darkness to make her forget the pain of life outside the club walls. Who can’t relate to that?

“Next one’s me,” said Jon. He mixed everyone a new round of shots.

“What do you mean?” I asked as I backed away to prevent any further environmental disasters. Sean and Jon’s phrasing sounded off to me. I was used to hearing friends claim possession over a piece of music: “This is my jam” or “They’re playing our song.” But “this one’s me” implied that the person and the song were one and the same, that they existed with and for each other. Then again, maybe I was overthinking the grammar of a passing thought. We had been drinking since noon and were much less likely to slur “me” than “mine.”

Jon handed out the shots. “Sean has it set up so that you can add songs on your phone to the playlist as long as you’re connected to the Wi-Fi.”

I wasn’t. And I didn’t intend to. I doubt anyone wanted to hear 90s alt-rock hits or most of the Broadway cast recording for Hamilton on a 4th of July afternoon.

We toasted one another with our fresh shots as the song repeated its refrain over and over until it wound itself out into silence:

Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight.

Take me through the darkness to the break of the day.


My own search for something like daybreak began the day before as soon as my train pulled into Chicago’s Union Station. I hadn’t visited in over two years, but my former home city never failed to fill my lungs with fresh lake air, my ears with the clockwork clattering of trains, and my stomach with enough fat to survive the coming winter. I figured it was time to remind my friends that, contrary to popular belief, grad school down south hadn’t made me any less fun, just more likely to cite Judith Butler in a conversation.

To tell the truth, I had specifically come to see my friend Patrick who moved to the city around the time I did, when we both graduated college. As soon as it was safe to travel, we made plans weeks in advance: what time I would get in (two p.m.), what food we would cook together (olive oil lemon tart), who would top who first (to be decided by coin toss). In the days before I rode the train up north, he asked his other friends if I could tag along to all their weekend parties. I already knew Sean and a few others from my previous lifetime in the city. When Patrick told me I was welcome, I felt a warmth smolder in my chest that only grew as the trip drew closer. He wanted to spend time alone with me, but he also wanted to include me in the uninterrupted flow of his daily life and to introduce me into the quarantine “pod” he spent the last year in. He acted as though I never left.

When I stepped into his apartment, we stood awkwardly apart, two actors forgetting their lines as soon as the lights came up. There were small movements—shoulders shifted, eyes lowered—made even more noticeable since we still hadn’t touched.

“That’s right,” he said, watching me glance at my surroundings. “You haven’t seen the new place yet.” I put my bags down and noticed how bright the space was. Light shone through windows on all sides, including two stained glass panes that colored the living room into a soft yellow sanctuary. He could have fit two of his previous apartments into this floor plan with room to spare, giving us even more space to communicate through without needing to speak. 

I whistled as I looked out his sunroom window to the tree-lined street below. “So you finally outgrew Boystown?” Patrick and I still spun around dance floors and ran up tabs we couldn’t remember paying in the historically gay neighborhood a mile south of here; but—once you got a job that required a regular sleep schedule—it was no place to make a life.

“It’s Northalsted now. And yeah, I learned I can sleep with twinks without having to live next to them.”

“I thought there already was a Northalsted. We don’t call it Boystown anymore?”

Patrick shrugged. “We still can, but it’s not really accurate. The neighborhood has a lot more families now, gay and straight. Mostly straight, honestly. Plus, some activists wanted a name that was more inclusive of queer and femme folk, and this is where they landed.”

“They landed on the least queer name that came to mind?”

He laughed. “It depends on the crowd. So just say Northalsted when you’re around anyone you don’t know.” Then, for the first time in two years, he pulled me against him in the warm light and rested his head in my neck. “We wouldn’t want anyone to think you don’t belong here.”


The first party of the weekend was at Sam’s, a mutual friend who had introduced me to Patrick years earlier. Sam introduced everyone to everyone else. At some point after dropping out of college, he took up the mantle of host extraordinaire, holding parties several times a month, inviting everyone in his contacts as quickly as he could text them, and constantly brewing a mixture of Everclear and flavored vodkas that he called jungle juice and served in a jumbo trash can.

This year’s Independence Day celebration theme was “your favorite state.” Patrick and I puzzled over this. Who has a favorite state? Eventually I realized that I could wear jeans and a flannel shirt from my suitcase and go as a generic cowboy. People could make their own judgments from there. Patrick took a more high-concept approach, dressing as an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. He claimed it was because mail goes to every state and that he couldn’t pick only one, but I suspect he just wanted an excuse to wear blue shorts with a five-inch inseam. So after making a beer run and throwing the sheets in the laundry, we headed off.

Sam’s apartment can be best described as a former methadone clinic that doubled as a CIA black site. The bottom floor had no windows, though an aluminum sign blackened with bus exhaust claimed it was a medical practice and COVID testing facility. It was only when Sam came out to greet us, in heels and a cocktail dress with the last foot of fabric torn from the bottom, that we found the front door in a lightless side alley.

“You boys walk up the stairs in front of me. Unless you want to see my asshole.” 

We entered a flat already bustling with guests in bathing suits, sports jerseys, and, in one case, a Party City Mr. Potato Head costume. Their voices echoed and blended between high living room walls that were covered floor-to-ceiling in old portraits and paintings juxtaposed without regard for subject or aesthetic movement. Napoleon pressed a doughy hand against his chest next to a scowling young woman looking over her shoulder right above yellowed schematics that looked to be from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Sam grinned at me as my scholarly instincts kicked in and I glided my fingers over the varied frames.

“Where did you get all this—”



“Mostly thrift shops and flea markets,” Sam said, straightening a bubble glass portrait of a man with bulldog jowls. “And passengers forget the strangest things at baggage claim. But I never look for anything in particular. Whatever catches my eye.”

I fingered an oily still life of flowers in bloom. “This is all very . . . you.”

“It is,” he sighed, handing me some jungle juice from off a platter commemorating the death of Princess Diana. “It’s all very me.”


Patrick never left my side the entire night. Or maybe I never left his. The only people I knew were Patrick and Sam, and the latter busied himself by flitting from room to room in ways that shouldn’t have been possible without hidden tunnels. So I like to think that Patrick and I were a unit that night, often referred to as a couple by people who didn’t know any better. And how could they? Any memories Patrick and I created there were made together, witnessed by strangers whose faces we can’t remember. In an attempt to feed the masses, we drunkenly pulled a burnt pizza that Sam had forgotten out of the oven without any mitts. We dissected unlabeled cakes in the dining room to determine their flavors. And at one point, when we found ourselves poking through Sam’s bedroom, we locked eyes as I put on a black cowboy hat lying on the closet floor.

Patrick bit his bottom lip. “Well that completes the look.”

We let the stagnant air of a Chicago summer drift through the windows and past us, so that, however briefly, we could be reminded that we stood together, not knowing or caring how much time passed as long as we held this moment alone amid many more to come.

Sam walked in with his hands on his sequined hips. “Boys, if you’re going to roleplay, you have to share with the whole class.” He pushed us toward where the crowd had now gathered in the living room, cell phone flashlights cutting through the darkness.

Despite having tailored his dress to the contours of his body with scandalous precision, our host pulled a microphone from what I hoped was thin air. “And now, everyone, it’s time for the main event, the piece of resistance, the climax of the evening—and I don’t mean the climax I gave Andrew in the bathroom earlier—the pageant of states!”

Polite applause and hollering accompanied each introduction of the contestants: California in a flowing red evening gown (“the carpet is red and so are her drapes”), Nebraska in overalls stuffed with corn (“word has it she’s an excellent fuc— shucker!”), Maine in a flannel and jeans holding up an oversized stuffed fish (“there aren’t any good puns for Maine, so we’re moving on”).

There didn’t seem to be any logic to the ordering of the states, so I gritted my teeth and waited for the inevitable.

“Our next contestant here is representing . . . I want to say . . . Texas?” Sam tried to get me to pose like the Marlboro Man for the audience, which made it more awkward when I moseyed like John Wayne. “He knows his way around ropes and is always down to go bareback. Ladies and gentlemen—Zac Thriffiley!”

“No,” Patrick said, “you don’t pronounce the ‘h.’ Like ‘Trif-fill-ee.’” Not that anyone heard.

Before the clapping could peak, a voice cried from the darkness: “Thriffiley?” He came forward into the light, head tilted with narrowed eyes bearing down on me. I tried to remember all the people in Chicago I had ever pissed off, but surely Vince Vaughn wouldn’t be here dressed as Colonel Sanders.

Sam snapped his fingers in the air as though he had solved a problem he’d been working on all night. “Oh, that’s right! This is Lisa Thriffiley’s son. The gate agent for American. In New Orleans.” He turned to me and swept his arm in front of us. “These are the other flight attendants I work with.”

One group of men hollered even louder.

“Oh, my God, your mom is the best,” said Washington D.C.

“She has saved my ass so many times,” said Ohio. “Helped me book hotels when routes got canceled and bought lunch for me when I was low on cash.”

“Well,” Sam said, “Lisa once got me on a plane without even creating a boarding pass because I was stupid and missed my flight. She basically committed a felony for me, but that’s just the kind of person she is.” And he crossed his arms as if to say this would be the final word on how incredible my mother is.

I wasn’t surprised. Working in the airline service industry since the mid-80s, my mother had more queer male colleagues than straight. I know of only two occasions when Lisa is more popular than I am in major cities: fundraisers for the Catholic Church attended by divorced Republicans and parties consisting mostly of gay flight attendants. One day I want to see what happens when I shout her name on Fire Island.

Patrick could tell I didn’t know where to take the conversation, so he put his hand on the small of my back and told everyone that we needed to leave before the buses stopped running. We went around hugging one another and promising to follow each other on social media, or at least the ones we’d be willing to see naked.

As we headed down the stairs, the group gathered behind us, waving napkins in the air like getting on the Sheridan bus was the most exciting voyage a person could take. “Bye, Patrick! See you soon!” they all shouted in near unison. As I hit the last step, one voice reached out to remind me that I was on a voyage, my bags laid half-packed next to a freshly-made bed, that I lathered with strange soaps and shampoos in a strange bathroom,  had a transit card that would not need to be reloaded in a few days, that I stood as a temporary figure worthy of hospitality but not necessarily of remembrance.

“Oh! And bye, Lisa’s son!”


Thankfully, no one at Sean’s the next day knew my mother, so I was solely defined by the Instagram thirst traps and late-night tweets the guests had scrolled through when Patrick told them I was coming. Not that I was the focus. By dinnertime, everyone’s contributions to the playlist made for a kind of parlor game. If you looked around and saw your friends bobbing their heads with a smile or closing their eyes with lips barely parted, you claimed the song for yourself, reveling in the joy you brought to the party as well as the universal recognition of your good taste. But if your song caused someone to suck on their teeth, leave the house with a muttered excuse, or, worst of all, ask, “Who added this shit?” you bit your tongue and mixed another drink. And in this way the owner of the offensive song was lost to history.

Brandon claimed a sedated version of Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch.”

Eric was “Physical,” by Dua Lipa.

Alex R: “Enigma,” by Lady Gaga.

Alex E: “Jaded,” by Pancake.

Cory: “100% Pure Love,” by Crystal Waters.

“Oh, my God,” shouted Jon from two rooms away. “I’m Crystal Waters too!”

Right as I finished making a mental inventory of the decade of gay music I needed to catch up on, Eric walked up behind me and placed his head on my shoulder, his fingers running up my waist. “Do you want to go out back and play bags?”

“Sure.” I didn’t know what I had agreed to. 

I had never met Eric before then, but Patrick told me that he was a close friend and promised to introduce us, saying that I was bound to get along with him either because we shared a love of good books or because his dark eyes and waify frame fit my type perfectly.

Behind the house, Patrick, Sean, and a few others sat in a circle, passing a joint around in the purpled shade of a green ash tree. Beyond them sat two wooden ramps, each with a hole in the middle of the top. Three red beanbags sat on one board and three blue ones sat on the other.

“Oh.” I weighed one of the beanbags in my hand. “You mean cornhole.”

Eric’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?”

“Gotta watch out for corned holes,” said Sean.

“Cornhole. My family plays it all the time at football tailgates.” For practice, I tossed the beanbag toward the opposite ramp, overshooting by ten feet but squarely hitting a Tom of Finland garden gnome.

The guy currently holding the joint pointed at me and blew a thick stream of smoke toward us. “Yes! We called it cornhole in Michigan too!”

“Well, that settles it.” I wiped dirt and dust from my hands. “Hicks like us who went to state schools call it cornhole.”

“Actually, I went to Oberlin.”

In the corn bags games that followed, I impressed everyone with my uncanny ability to launch beanbags that veered drastically from their intended course. The others blamed the alcohol; I blamed a childhood of reading the Animorphs series at recess.

“So you live in Dallas, right?” Eric shifted the conversation as we started another game.

“I do.” 

“How do you like living in Texas?”

“I don’t.” My first toss flopped onto the very bottom of the ramp.

“So then when are you keeping your ass here for good?” Sean shouted, wanting everyone in the yard to hear his question and my subsequent answer.

Eric tilted his head. “Is it really that bad?”

“No, not bad. Not in a general way.” My second toss landed on its side on the edge of the board, and we all held our breath for a second as the wind blew it over onto the wood. “What I mean is that it’s not for me. There are no green spaces, public transit sucks, the four gay bars are exactly alike, and, technically speaking, anyone could shoot me in a grocery store and probably get away with it.”

“So,” Eric met my eyes and smiled, hands clasped behind him to show he wasn’t on the attack, “are those all reasons for leaving Dallas or excuses to come back to Chicago?”

I looked back to the game and prepared my final throw, fooling myself into thinking I hadn’t heard the question. I exhaled, tossed, and the beanbag followed a clean arc through the air and landed through the hole.

“He finally gets it in.” Eric golf clapped, the smile from before still lingering.

Patrick walked up to us with fresh drinks as we set up for another game. “Sooner or later, he always does.” He smiled too, but, in the glare of the sun and a haze of pot, I couldn’t tell if the wink that followed was meant for Eric or me.

Sean brought the end of the joint over to me as a consolation prize and cheered when I finished it off.

“Let me know if you want more.” He thumped me on the back as I coughed through the final hit. “It’s good to have you, buddy,” which is a queer term of endearment, coming from someone I’ve traded nudes with.

Walking back toward the group, I nearly tripped over myself as I got to the edge of the circle and realized where I stood. I had fit myself into an empty space next to Eric, his eyes closed as Patrick held him from behind and lightly kissed his neck. The warmth in my chest that had been aching for weeks turned cold, froze, and piece by piece broke apart until it collapsed into ash and blew through my body. The two took no notice of me, and no one else seemed to notice them, nearly everyone now divided up into conversations of twos and threes. I sank to the ground, laid on my back, and let my gaze drift over the expanse of slowly-dusking sky.

I replayed this moment obsessively in the following days, trying to make sense of how that weekend could have collapsed in on me because of one sign of affection. I wasn’t jealous of Eric, or of anyone Patrick kissed goodbye that night, which was everyone. We often exchanged stories of our sexual exploits, gave each other play-by-plays of nights in bathhouses. I had seen pictures and videos of him with other men as he had of me. I knew I had no claim to Patrick, that those two days of exclusivity weighed nothing against days, weeks, years at a time spent apart from one another.

Those years grew heavier when I looked back over the weekend and looked past Patrick and the small corner of space he saved for me. In the alley the previous night, the light from upstairs wreathed Sam in a halo that showed how his dark hair had become streaked with gray. I embarrassed myself when Sean stopped to correct me by saying that, after ten years of marriage and a tenure as high school sweethearts, Cory was now his ex-husband. The train lines once so familiar to me were now choked with construction, the promise that an easier ride to work was coming as soon. The sex shops that once dotted Belmont, Halsted, and Broadway? All shuttered. That one dive bar that invited you and your coworkers in on Christmas Eve for pizza and a round of Malört? Now a sleek cocktail bar. The mayor? A lesbian cop. Patrick and Eric stood for all the time I had lost in the last two years, the friendships I could have made sooner, nights I could have spent in their arms, the life I could have built between the endless ecstasies of their worlds. That tender moment that pushed me out into myself had only been the most forceful of many reminders that I was a traveler who had only stopped to rest, who would return one day in the future to find the landscape again entirely changed and people who cock their heads and tell me, “But now this is how it’s always been.”

Without warning, fireworks boomed through the streets, shaking my eyes open and revealing Patrick leaning over me, his hand on my chest.

“You okay?” he said softly under the chatter of the others.

“Yeah.” My heartbeat slowed against his palm. “I just got a little too far into my head.”

He stood up and held out his hand. “Then let’s see if we can’t pull you back out.”


The following morning, Patrick and I said goodbye the way most gay friends do when no one is around to see: over the course of several hours and completely nude for most of them. We woke up wrapped in each other, a sheen of sweat making us cling even tighter as if we would eventually melt into one another and drip from between the sheets. Without speaking, we agreed to spend our last few hours together as though they stretched as far into the distance as we wanted them to.

He cooked a breakfast of toast smothered in poached eggs and a thick sauce made from garlic, onions, tomatoes, and anchovies. We kissed between bites, relishing a taste that only he could have ever gotten me to swallow. We showered, sliding our soaped hands over each other and shouting along as “Iris” played from my phone. We dressed, sneaking final looks at skin that had come to feel so familiar, and as soon as I threw my toothbrush back in my suitcase, I already felt a thousand miles away. Patrick smiled at me with the confidence that I would make my way back soon, but I could already feel the arsenal of excuses building up that would keep me away for another two years or longer.

I thanked him for having me, the first real words either of us had spoken all morning, as Patrick reached out to my face and pulled me into a kiss. We hung there, neither one wanting to be the one who ended the time together that we always craved. As my teeth pulled at his bottom lip, I realized that I was clutching a version of myself as much as him, a me that refused to apologize for getting too drunk to know how to wear oven mitts, that raced down Halsted at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s for a bar that would serve him and his friends one last round, that rode the red line up to Hollywood beach at three a.m. and stripped down to his underwear before diving into the abyss of Lake Michigan, that followed his friend Sam over to a shy boy in the corner of a stranger’s apartment where the two talked until the memory of that first night faded into now.

I let go of Patrick. Never let it be said I never finish first.

He let his hand linger on my cheek before letting it drop. “I’ll see you soon.”

With that, I turned around, walked out the door, and refused to look back until I was blocks away, afraid that even a passing glance would erase the memory of the last two days. By the time I boarded the train, I had allowed myself to become a traveler again, a tourist following the map that would lead him to lunch with a former colleague, double-checking evening flight times, and keeping one ear tuned to the friendly voice that reminded me how much further away I was traveling.

A woman hunched over with grocery bags cleared her throat at me before pointing at her mask. I dug a wrinkled cloth from my bag and tied it around my head, mumbling an apology. In all the excitement, I almost forgot we were experiencing a pandemic, even though it was the only reason I hadn’t visited sooner.

But could I blame the pandemic for keeping me out of Chicago all this time? It was a question I asked myself after telling anyone how long it had been since I last visited, leaving out that, before then, I hadn’t visited at all since I moved away. Would I have come any sooner otherwise? Or would I have said that I was too busy, the distance too far, the plane tickets too expensive? Would I have put off work until the final moment so that I could never afford a weekend away? Would I have told Patrick or anyone who asked that I stayed in imagined exile because I feared facing a changed city and its people who had every reason to go on without me? The prodigal son may have found a warm welcome when he returned home, but his family and friends weren’t from Cook County.

“Chicago is the next stop,” said the man in the ceiling. “Doors open on the right at Chicago.” I once read somewhere that this iconic voice actually belonged to a man from the Milwaukee suburbs. He and the Transit Authority sound engineers spent hours every year recording new announcements that needed to sound exactly like the old ones without so much as a hint of a stuffy nose or a change in inflection. How many daily commuters knew they were taking directions from an emotionless outsider? Something about this thought made me laugh a little, my first smile since leaving Patrick.

As the train slowed to a stop, I gathered my bags and made my way to the end of the car.

“Well,” I thought as the doors slid open to a throng of waiting travelers, “this is me.”



Zac Thriffiley is currently a graduate student in the English Ph.D. program at Southern Methodist University. This is his first published personal essay. He has previously written feature articles and arts reviews for DePaul University’s Ex Libris magazine and BroadwayWorld Dallas-Fort Worth. He lives in Dallas, Texas. For now.