Start talking to both at once on Grindr. Swipe through pictures of the first and spy his husband in some shots. Find the second and toggle back and forth, knowing you’ll blip a trail each time you view their profiles. They’re strapping. Silver hair and smile lines, mid-fifties. Ask the first, Are you a couple? Yes they are. Tell the second they’re really beautiful together. Find a deep soul connection with Husband 1. Flirt sultry with Husband 2.

Ask what’s on the table right away. Talk boundaries and rules. Listen mostly. They play apart, sometimes together. When asked if you’ve been with older men, say you’re exploring new things.

The truth: you’re hungry for connection but your ex looms large. You went all the way together and when you got there, he left. Now he’s in Los Angeles and you’re in New England, Portland, a small city, scouring the usual suspects on the grid every night. You’re not ready to go there again. Gay dating has beaten you down.

Michael Colbert

Michael Colbert holds an MFA from UNC Wilmington, where he was a 2021 Brauer Fellow. His writing appears or is forthcoming in Esquire, NYLON, Hazlitt, The Cincinnati Review, and The Florida Review, among others. He lives in Maine, where he is a prose editor for No Contact, the founding editor of The Rejoinder, and is at work on a novel.

Patrick Ryan on “How to Be a Couple’s Third”

Do you talk to yourself? Do you lecture yourself? Do you berate yourself for saying the wrong thing, or doing the wrong thing, or not measuring up to other people’s standards? What have you got to say for yourself?

“How to Be a Couple’s Third” answers that very question. In this case, the self is Drew, a gay man in his late-twenties who’s just out of a long-term relationship and looking for love—but maybe in all the wrong places. He decides to pursue a couple; the couple seems game. This, Drew thinks, might be just what he needs—not two people trying to become a couple (him and another guy) but a couple that comes pre-packaged, so to speak, so that he might step into the picture without having to deal with the usual drudgery of dating. But has he found what he needs, or has he merely climbed the fence out of one playing field and into another?

What I love most about this story is its voice. It’s Drew talking to Drew, trying to figure himself out by examining his actions, past and present. The second-person voice is wry and earnest and peppered with sharp observations about human behavior. It’s also funny as hell. Michael Colbert is a writer to follow, and we’re happy to put you on that path with “How to Be a Couple’s Third.”

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did you get the idea for this story?
MC: I taught an introductory fiction class while I was in my MFA program, and one of my favorite stories to teach was Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be an Other Woman,” the opening of her collection, Self-Help, which I love. I still remember first reading that story and feeling so excited by the sarcasm, voice, and sort of conspiratorial nature of the POV—we’re inside the dance of this affair alongside the narrator. That form really spoke to me. At the same time, I was thinking a lot about the different shapes of relationships that feel common among gay men. When I realized I could revisit that story with open relationships and banal, contemporary office culture, I started writing.
PR: How long did it take you to get a draft you were happy enough to start submitting?
MC: I probably worked on it for six months or so before I started submitting it preemptively. Then a few months in I had an epiphany about the plot and rejiggered the story before sending it out again. To complete a draft I was happy about submitting took a bit longer than a year.
PR: As a magazine editor, I see a lot of submissions written in the second person. Sometimes I can’t see what it adds to the story, and it almost becomes distracting because of that. But you use the second person point of view beautifully here—and to great effect. Why did you choose it?
MC: Thank you for saying that. This story is directly inspired by the Lorrie Moore, and with that story I’m so interested by the ways in which the character is telling herself what to do, and how to do it, yet that’s also causing her pain. I thought a lot about that cognitive dissonance as I wrote: how aligned are Drew’s wants and needs in this relationship?
PR: One thing that struck me is that the narrative voice—which is Drew addressing himself—is kinder and more understanding to Drew than Drew is (to himself). It’s almost as if the narrative voice is Drew’s life coach from the near future. Were you aware of that, or is it what I brought to the table as a reader?
MC: I’m a major overthinker, and with this story I was really interested in the mechanisms we can develop to bifurcate our thinking. On the Sewanee Review podcast, Danielle Evans talked about the narratives we develop about our own lives and how they can become justification for us to keep making bad decisions. I think about this a lot—how someone can know something to be true intellectually but can also get stuck in an emotional reality that’s a bit more reductive, and both can have an influence over their way of thinking. With the story, I’m glad to hear this is coming up. I think Drew doesn’t yet know these things to be true, but the story does, and he needs to go through the gauntlet of these experiences to get there.
PR: I love that—Drew doesn’t know, but the story does. Okay, so to jump to ten years from now. Where is Drew? Is he partnered? (Or are you like a mother turtle—laying the eggs and scurrying off, never to look back?)
MC: Oh, I’m a mother turtle! I do hope for Drew’s sake that by coming through this experience in the story, ten years out he’s found a form of partnership and connection that’s fulfilling and working for him. I like to think he’s learned what he needs.
PR: What are you working on now?
MC: I’m at work on both a novel and a story collection. The novel is a bit experimental—and formally inspired by Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams (I’m a fan!). The collection is made of stories similar to this one about gay men feeling angsty in various kinds of relationships, and it culminates in a novella, which is like Cruel Intentions but set in West Hollywood and is a story of unrequited love.
PR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
MC: I love the most structured writing advice—I eat that up. It’s really helpful for me to hear what other writers do in their routines and try it out for myself. My professor Nina de Gramont once said to go for a walk right after you finish writing. Don’t use your phone or listen to music or anything, just be alone. I started doing this and found that my brain was still working through what I’d been writing after I’d closed my notebook. This helped me capture that thinking and keep up the momentum.