The easy way out

A reading by the author:

We were in bed watching TV when we heard the loud knock on the front door. I slept in the same room with grandma and grandpa because, even at that age, I was still afraid of the monsters lurking behind the curtains at night. Grandma stood up from the bed, her white nightgown sweeping the floor, to see who it was. People in the village did not disturb their neighbors after dark unless it was an emergency. Darkness and bad news came together as if the bad news waited for the night to come in order to enter our houses. Nighttime was when fevers went up or hearts failed or stomachs burned.

There was a woman at the door. I overheard her voice, just slightly above that of the politicians complaining and arguing on TV. Then, grandma came back into the room, her hair disheveled, her head looking smaller without the flowered headscarf she usually wore throughout the day, her face unreadable in the light of the TV. She said my brother tried to commit suicide by jumping into the well of the dispensary. The woman told her that she had gone out to the well to bring in some water and there he was, climbing through the ornate wooden frame, on the verge of depriving us of his life. The woman pulled him back and he cussed at her as if she had interrupted some sort of arduous activity that required his undivided attention.

He ran away and some of the people in the village had gone after him. Grandma got dressed but grandpa did not move. He’s stupid, grandpa said, stupid to even think of doing that. I got up and dressed as well and we got out into the summer air of such sickly blue I expected to see steam coming out of my mouth. We met my brother and the woman who had stopped him where the sidewalk narrowed to make way for a patch of asymmetrical grass, by the house of the man who drowned illegitimate puppies with institutional heedlessness. And my brother seemed so small in a t-shirt whose color resembled the steam that refused to come out of my mouth.

Grandma’s robust thighs moved swiftly towards him to cover the last few feet that separated us. In her flight she cooed over my brother as if to let him know that he could have missed all this, all this love she had for him. I said something as well, something akin to the things I told him when he wasn’t doing the chores he had been assigned by mother. We brought him back home, grandma pulling him to her bosom, and put him to sleep. I did not see him look at us because I did not dare look at him, as if the suicidal gesture itself, covered in tiny black feathers, had acquired a life of its own and rolled its eyes under grandma’s heavy arm.

Rumor had it he had done it for a girl. She was a city girl and he had been dating her for a while when he saw her get into the car of another man who was much older than the both of them. You don’t do that for a woman, grandpa said, that’s stupid. When grandpa said it I thought of how grandma had to cross a river in order to marry him and how in the eyes of the villagers she had been as foreign and as subversive as a woman coming from another country. Women did that for you, they were the ones transgressing. Men had to wait and wave from the opposite shore of the river.

Brother broke up with the city girl.

But then the voices in those rumors changed and the rumors changed as well. And then it was my fault. Because the younger child always gets the spotlight while the older child had to step back and gradually recede into the darkness of the stage. I wasn’t asked to do the heavy work in the field. I was the studious one who merited the pats on the back and the congratulatory tones from the adults sitting around their coffee mugs in the afternoon when the sun was pleasant enough to permit such indulgence. My hands were soft and free of any signs of hard work. I was the one who always colored within the lines, who stayed home, who did not engage in self-destructive activities such as going to the village discotheque and getting beaten up by a bunch of drunks.

I was the one who chose the easy way out.

Architectural Design (sneak peek II)

A reading by the author:

I switched places and felt my fingernails heavy with color, as if they were conscious. I thought of touching my hair but then remembered the amount of work I had put into it and decided not to do that. Not that he cared, anyways, but it was part of my orchestrated composure. I mean, the guy was talking about his dick all the time, as if his dick was a god. He didn’t mention it casually, his dick was part of an art project. Naturally, I felt curious about the project, because then I knew it was his dick and some woman’s vagina that were featured in the collage. I hoped he would invite me to see it and deep down I knew that he would, because that’s what he was like. I could see it from the moment I had met him, at the bookshop, where I was fishing for an art album for a friend of mine. That’s when he closed in on me and the lights in the room suddenly dimmed, literally, he was towering above me, blocking the light. He said something about the art album I was looking at and I thought he was in fact talking to somebody else, so I didn’t look up. He repeated it and the way he said it seemed to dig into the texture of the day, pulling it, the way you would pull at a sweater when you take it out of the dryer. The way you would crush the fabric between your fingers to test it, to make it feel worn down. I looked up and around his head I could see a halo of stray hairs and fluorescent light.

He told me he was an artist. I didn’t feel like standing up from where I was crouching, the art album still in my hands, opened at page eighty-six. The page showed a black and white photograph of a woman’s bare thighs. It wasn’t sexually explicit. The photograph was an accumulation of curved lines to the point where you couldn’t tell whether it was a woman being photographed or an accretion of dark pigments materializing out of the latte-colored background. You couldn’t tell what color the background was, but the way the whiteness fermented underneath the surface of the photo made me think of pastel colors and milk foam. His hair was unwashed and tied into a ponytail and I felt sorry for him but I had gone for so long without human touch that he seemed human enough to me. I stood up, eventually, I must have, and I was able to look at him better, but for the rest of our time together, in the bookshop and here in the teashop, I felt as little as the woman in the photograph. An accretion of black pigments that turned out to be a woman. And he turned out to be a man. And what should a man and woman do except look for each other?

He followed me around, he stood behind me in line. He boasted about a book he had found, which was some rare book and he had had the luck to find that rarity at discount price. I thought of telling him that he hadn’t been lucky, that in fact the bookstore must have lowered the price because nobody was willing to buy the book. I did not tell him that because I thought he would leave and never come back and I wanted to feel desired. We exchanged phone numbers and he promised to call me. On the subway, while I held the art album close to my chest the way girls in American high school movies did, I thought of how badly I wanted to get rid of the album, about how the woman in the picture was always going to remind me of him, and the way he towered over me as if he was entitled to do it, as if he had a right to be the way he was. I thought of the looks we exchanged at the counter when I caught him staring at my ass. I felt this tiny black hole open up just beneath my stomach when he smiled boyishly at me after I caught him staring.

And there was that stare again, on the subway, lustfully vacant but filled with the intent of a child who thinks that if he stares long enough and intensely enough at a toy in a toy store the toy will eventually become his. But there was that dying light in the sky again and I looked at it and caught it vibrating along with the vibrations of the subway. We will collide, I thought, myself and the men around me because that is what we expect of each other. And there we were, colliding over our drinks, stubbornly believing that what was happening on the inside were private matters, believing we could abscond with our thoughts, hide them well enough to be able to say that we didn’t mean what we’ve just said. And here was his face, this fishnet of human emotions, contracting with the waves going beneath and over it. When I asked him about the ratio of the photographs of his art project something got caught in the fishnet, something as undesirable as a sea creature that doesn’t count in the final weigh in and has to be thrown back into the sea. I did my best to feign domesticity as if the feelings in his face went unnoticed. They had to go unnoticed because when I saw him waiting in front of the teashop he looked like the best version of a man. It wasn’t the long hair, which made him slightly feminine. It wasn’t the beard that appeared white in the sunlight that December morning. It was the way he waited.

Architectural Design (sneak peek)

Architectural Desing Cover (Final)I was wearing a pair of brown pants when I went to the dinner, which was a farewell dinner. But I hadn’t dressed for the dinner. I had dressed for the man who was a divorcee and had a daughter who was living with him and had made pasta for dinner. I found out about the daughter, and the son, and the distant wife only after I had sucked him off in the dark, in a forest on the hills, not far from an unfamiliar street. The place was so quiet that when he moved beneath my open mouth his pants made a deafening sound. He told the daughter that he’s not eating the pasta because eating carbs for dinner was bad practice for somebody who worked out at least three times a week and didn’t see that much of a result.

 

The farewell dinner went rather well, except for the lump in my throat that decided to rise when I started to talk in front of everybody else. Across the table from me sat a young guy, whom I had not met before and who had affable looks and manners. I hoped with all my heart that he would like the brownies I had made specifically for the farewell dinner. I spoke in English to them because that was the language I felt most comfortable with, and they danced around my comfort, being particularly foreign to the language and to my way of speaking it.

I played around, too, trying to impress them with my pronunciation. Though I was already foreign, by default, I made myself even more of an alien by showing visible strain at talking into their own language. The food on the table was layered and we took turns at guessing secret ingredients. I sensed fish in the salad but said nothing about it. I resented not saying it because then, when asked about the secret ingredient in the salad, the cook, another friend of mine, said it was something related to algae.

I couldn’t enjoy the dinner because the divorcee was coming to pick me up at my friends’ place when I was done. For once, I had somebody to think about and expect. They told me I should come later for drinks with the secret friend. I already knew I was not going to come back the moment I told them that we might stop by. In my mind, I tried to see the divorcee with my friends’ eyes and I knew they would disapprove of him. I feared they might tell me he wasn’t good enough, that I deserved better, or that he doesn’t deserve me, because that’s what friends are for, to make you feel better about yourself and worse about the choices you’ve made.

I said goodbye to everyone, including to the cute guy who sat across the table from me, who was definitely not gay but who was ambiguous and handsome enough to be one. It was a warm evening that turned into a sweeter night, just good enough for a walk around the church on the hill. There weren’t that many people around so we might have kissed at the back of the church where the light permitted us to have been just an error in the matrix or an apparition you see with the corner of your eye. We might have kissed again by the rail that stopped visitors from plummeting down the abrupt valley bellow, and I might have been disappointed by it because with every kiss I felt like my feet were moving backwards as if I was a crab taking arms against a harmless but potentially dangerous predator.

We were in the car already when he asked me whether I was still using those dating apps, specifically the one we had met on, and which was specifically a way for men to meet and have sex. He had deleted his account and wanted to know whether I was seeing other guys in the meanwhile. And there it was, I thought, this is it, the guy who is going to take me away from myself and build a safe house along the path, a house no bigger than the car and much more welcoming than the rest of the world. And we weren’t returning to the city on the same road and that road got suddenly so quiet. In that darkness in which we existed only when another car’s lights illuminated us, I asked him whether he wanted me to delete my profile on that dating app. He said he wanted me to do that but he said it only after I had deleted my profile, after I had been asked by the system whether I was sure I wanted to delete my profile. I said yes three times and he said it once, after I had said it three times. It was wedding night, the closest we came to it, and the biggest promise we could make was the promise to keep ourselves to ourselves and not seek each other’s bodies in the bodies of other men.

I asked him where we were going as the road kept getting unfamiliar and he told me not to worry, he was not going to rape me. He took a left in the middle of the road with the familiarity of a man who was returning home to his wife and kids. When the car got silent in the dark and even the small red lights on the dashboard switched off in defeat I told him about the stars above us because somewhere deep down within my guts I believed he turned off the engine so that we could enjoy the quiet of the night and the lack of light pollution. I unbuckled my seatbelt and he started to pull me against him while whispering, a whisper barely audible above the swish of his pants, that I was very beautiful. Sei così bello, he said, and I believed him because I wanted this to be it. I wanted it to be the completed version of a manuscript I had worked on for years. One that would have all the commas and the full stops in place; one without the excessive adverbs and adjectives that every writer feared.

His hand went down my back and strained against my belt. Could you loosen it up a bit? And I did, and my erection suddenly had space to move, and I could see it pushing against the brown pair of paints whenever a car passed down the road and seemed like slowing down. I imagined policemen lighting our faces with flashlights and asking us what exactly we were doing there. I thought of the excuses we would make, the kind of excuses that would be credible only to the minds of children caught red handed with the biscuit jar.

His pants were all I could hear in the silence. They were constantly moving and the sound was one with the sound of my desire. A constant hush to my racing heart and yellow-eyed fears that stood suddenly attentive to the movements of the night like restless rabbits. The pants went all the way down and I couldn’t stop but wonder why he had to do that. It seemed a prodigal gesture that made me think of his ass touching the seat of the car the way I thought of my sweat when we went running together in the park and he brought me home by the same car. He pushed my head against his erection and told me to suck it with a voice I had not heard before, the voice of men in bed, slightly above a whisper but coming from somewhere just bellow the tongue, as lascivious as a tongue click.

I said nothing when he asked me where I would like him to come and he didn’t finish, because my legs were pushing against the floor of the car as if forcing the car to move forward into the sweet darkness, above the city vibrating with knowledge. It was on our way down that he mentioned his wife and kids, his wife’s accidental pregnancy when he was barely eighteen, and the daughter who came in second and was no longer a mistake. I did not look at him on the way down. I paid attention to the trees on the side of the road that seemed like half-raised hands in a mock high-five. I wanted to go back to the farewell dinner where the men were still too ambiguous to be something other than what I wanted them to be.

But before all this, before the dinner and the brown pair of pants, before all of it, I knew we were bound to fail. I was just waiting for the right moment to say it wasn’t working, well after I had realized that it was in fact not working.

Dear straight people

I get it. You’re in love. But could you stop kissing and touching in front of everybody else? It makes me uncomfortable. You’re doing it while waiting for the bus. You’re doing it on TV. I get it, really, but this is getting out of hand, because there’s no place where I could hide from you. At times, I feel as if you’re doing it on purpose. As if to spite me.

You’re posting pictures of you two kissing by the sea, by the refrigerator, at dinner. Seriously, it’s like watching a sex scene in a movie on TV while your parents are there, right beside you. You’re kissing in my books, in the TV commercials I see everywhere. How can I even dream of wearing a perfume advertised by a man who makes women fall at his feet? I don’t want the women, I just want the nice perfume. I want men to fall at my feet (yes, while I’m wearing stilettos and leather pants). Don’t you get that? Seriously, stop looking at each other as if you’re telling each other you’re gonna have maddening sex when you get home because I can see it. No, I can’t see you having sex, I don’t even want to, but I can see the look and it makes me nervous. As if I’m the one who’s going to have sex with you.

You’re doing it in the library while I’m studying. It’s distracting, because you’re right there in front of me and my eyes tend to drift, especially when there’s a man and a woman cuddling in front of me. It’s a library, for fuck’s sake. It’s where people go to study. If it was supposed to be something other than a library it would have been called “cuddling room”, or some other straight-sounding vaguely-sexual term you invent for tantric reasons. Yeah, I can see you kissing his neck, because I’m right in front of you. I mean, it’s okay to look at your neighbor’s screen every once in a while on a long flight, because it’s so shiny, and it has moving pictures, but you’re not a movie on a screen on a long haul flight. I can hear the sucking noises while you’re kissing, because it’s a library and it’s very silent inside, because it’s supposed to be like that. Even if I’m trying over here, really trying, to read something I can still hear you.

You got married, well, good for you. I’m really happy for you, and hope it won’t end in self-loathing and divorce. But please stop showing me how happy you are, and what a great smile she has in that custom-fit designer dress (which I would so like to wear at one point in my life), and how playful you men are when your best friend is getting married and you feign pity for him because marriage is like a third job, which mostly the woman will have to take because boys will be boys and they can’t stop playing with their pee-pees in the bathtub.

You got an engagement ring? I’m so happy for you, but could you stop shoving it into my face? If you take away the love what remains of the ring? The money you no longer have, because you gave it away to buy a ring. You just had a baby? No picture of your baby is ever going to wash away the knowledge that when they’re little they vomit, crap the shit out of them all day long, and when they’re fully grown they will hate you for not making them more beautiful, giving them more money, or buying them the latest gadget. Nothing will make me suspend that knowledge, not even intellectual curiosity. Love your children, don’t tell us you love them more than anything else, more than everyone else, because we, the childless, are everyone else.

A side note: your kid is not a genius because he can count to five and open a door all by himself. In fact, you’ll be surprised to know that the great majority of kids at that age can count to five and open doors. Your kid is not special. Dogs are smart, too, you know, and some of them can open doors as well. Dogs should be considered geniuses because they don’t have a brain as complex as that of human beings and they can do all that stuff.

You’re having sex, hey, sex is great. It releases endorphins, and those are fucking good, they make your body tingle and glitter in so many ways. It’s great, I can’t even stress enough how great sex is. When you’re the one doing it, that is, not when you have to listen to people moaning and making the bed groan as if you’ve finally decided to pack up your things and leave the house. Seriously, I can hear everything even though there’s a thick concrete wall between us. I get it, you woke up at four am and your little buddy in the basement felt like it, and your woman was in the mood, too, but do you have to wake me up as well? I can hear you’re really into it, the both of you, the pleasure, it’s almost palpable. But a sound so hegemonic triggers rebelliousness in me.

You’re everywhere I look, and every gesture of yours is a negation of the gestures I would like to be free to perform leisurely, the way you do them. In our beds, the ones that epitomize the only sense of privacy we’ve come to conquer and make our own, we speak your language. You’ve colonized our mouths and the way we look at each other, and in our search to be different from you we’ve lost all sense of purpose. You’ve made us ashamed of who we are because we cannot attain a sense a completion that has always been yours.

So please, whatever you do, whether on the bus, or in the library, think. Think that someone out there is not like you and can never be like you.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Thirteen)

Barbie and Ken

A reading by the author:

I used to play with dolls when I was little. And they were always somebody else’s dolls because boys should not play with dolls. When mother or grandmother caught me in the act playing with them I was told, in a half-scornful, half-playful tone that made me cringe with shame, that my pee-pee would magically detach itself from my body. Imagine the dread of a boy child being told he would have to live with the stump of his dick for the rest of his life. When caught in the act I would make the dolls fight because that was what boys do. They make women fight over them.

To begin with, we didn’t have many toys to play with because my family thought of them as a waste of money. We were encouraged to do something else instead. Play with sticks and pretend they are horses. Play outside, for god’s sake, use your imagination. Take the cow for a walk if you have too much time on your hands. Pick some beans. Do your homework. And whenever we admonished our parents for their heartless refusal to buy cool new toys we were consoled and told that, in a distant past (one I have not, up to this day, managed to salvage from the wreck of my childhood memories), we had plenty of toys. We had been so lucky back then, mother would say, as opposed to other children who had had nothing. Allegedly, we even had this fantastic toy bus that had horses riding the wind on the top of it. Fucking horses on the roof of a toy bus. And I was drawn, as if by a magnet, to that image of the toy bus, and imagined how cool it must have been to have that bus to play with. Literally, we must have been the coolest kids on the block. To this day I do not know what color that toy bus was. I often think it was just a figment of my parents’ imagination. The toy they would have liked us to have but never got to actually buying it.

All of those toys got lost due to my parents’ negligence when we moved to grandparents’ house at the countryside. They were all on the moving truck when a thief decided to kidnap them and keep them for himself. The thief’s only ransom was, I believe, the innocent suffering of my brother and I. We were infuriated back then by the thief’s cunning and cruelty and imagined him to be the very incarnation of evil. Because of him, we had been cursed to make do without those toys. And we did our best. We scavenged for toys in the garbage dump behind our house. We played with discarded lighters from a local bar and marveled at the mechanism that made the fire burst and die out. We broke bear bottles by throwing them against the trees. We lit fires and threw pressurized spray tubes in the flames and watched them explode. One time we gathered around a burning plastic barrel and watched it collapse within itself as the fire melted the gray plastic. Then one of the kids pierced it with a tree branch and as the branch flexed it threw molten plastic on my face, around my mouth, leaving red burn marks. As I flew in terror from the still burning barrel I was more afraid of my mother than of the stinging pain. The marks lingered for a couple of days then disappeared.

We climbed trees and ate crab apples. We looked for my uncle’s porn magazines under his bed. My brother started smoking and did his best to mask the smell. We ran away from home to bathe in a nearby river because everybody was doing it. But mostly, I played with dolls. I loved the blonde hair they had and the chemical symmetry of their bodies, their plastic immobility, the limited number of movements their bodies could perform. They had breasts but no nipples and I was totally fine with that. The space between their legs so devoid of any gender signals as if whoever made them stubbornly refused to give them that, afraid that it might corrupt the minds of innocent children. Their septic bodies refused to cater to any kind of sexually charged gaze. Yet, back then, I believe, we were entirely conscious of that absence. At least I felt there was something missing but was too afraid to say it out loud. I was also aware of the missing nipples. I knew perfectly well that girls had nipples too. But despite that knowledge of the missing nipples and genitalia, we were somewhat content with the surface gender markings. The dolls taught us well that it was all about what was on the outside. Womanhood meant having long blonde hair, breasts that protruded only slightly through the diaphanous dresses they wore. Women wore bright colors, they had lipstick-red lips, they had ponytails, they had tea in the afternoon. It was all about their bearing as it was all a bottom-up approach: you put all these characteristics together and what you get in the end is a woman. The technique worked for men as well.

The dolls were not mine because it would have been a sacrilege to have them around the house. I dreaded my brother’s mockery, I feared my mother’s scornful tone. And so I befriended girls instead of boys. They did not laugh at my body, they did not tell me my head was like a giant pumpkin. They seemed to be okay with it. And they had dolls to play with. My best friend was a girl. She was a distant cousin of ours from the city who only came around to spend the summer with her grandparents, who were our neighbors. We played Sailor Moon together and built tents and made mud pies imagining we were making cheese. We watched Art Attack on a German TV channel and tried to use the tricks we were taught by the show’s presenter. And at times, when we were on the rope swing in the backyard, we realized (at least I did) how common our interests were. Sometimes I think that the people who saw us playing together must have imagined us getting married at one point. At other times, considering her parents’ blatant skepticism when they saw me stopping by to ask her out to play, I think those same people also feared that I wasn’t fit for the husband-job thing. I wasn’t, for, now, obvious reasons.

We did get married. My brother performed the ceremony on a summer evening under a cherry tree. We had picked flowers and we had a white gown made out of curtains, and, for some unclear reason, when the ceremony was over I was so ashamed of myself, as if I had trampled over some sort of sacred ground that was off-limits to us children. I was a boy and she was a girl and in this dichotomy the future is always easily foreseeable. All stories ended in that way, with the happily-ever-after that comes with marriage, and there was nothing we could do about it but play our parts. Yet, as time went on I failed to develop any kind of sexual interest either in her or the girls I played with. While the other guys in my alleged group of friends started talking about the pubic hair of girls (for some sick reason, always better when “parted in the middle”), I stuck to my dolls and books. I simply thought that my time would come at one point, and I would wake up one morning unable to think of anything else except the pubic hair of girls, always best when parted in the middle. (I almost laugh as I write this and it’s the kind of laughter that nestles in my chest whenever I hear bullshit. This is all true.)

To drown my post-marital shame I put the gown-wannabe over my head and pretended I was the bride, fooling around. That was not the only time I pretended to be a woman. When I was alone and had nothing else to do I used to go through my mother’s wardrobe and put on her dresses and high heels. I would look at myself in the mirror, sing and laugh, walk in my mother’s shoes, put my hands on my hips the way women did in movies. I put lipstick on because that was the only thing my mother had in terms of make-up. I put all those elements together and for a moment I was a woman, catering to the male gaze in my own childish ways. I imagined myself on stage until at one point, in high-school, I literally was on a stage, blinded by stage lights, wearing women’s clothes. It was a play, of course, but perhaps, deep in the well of my solitude, there was a moment when the boy who was my husband on stage seemed to me more than the empty shell of memorized lines. (He was very cute, by the way, and he was a dancer.) I can still hear the burst of laughter coming from the audience when I entered the stage wearing this huge dress, all glittery and lace, and volume. My voice sounded so removed and distant when it came out through the speakers. But I knew my part well. Put all those elements together, and you’re a woman.

After the show, the girl who had applied the make-up told me, as innocently as she could, that she had forgotten the make-up remover. I washed my face as best as I could but the eyeliner and the powders she had applied were all waterproof and so I had to ride the bus back home with clear traces on my face. I noticed the stares people were giving me but for some reason I chose to ignore them. I was not going to have my big night ruined by them. I floated, crossed my legs while sitting, and dreamily watched the moving world through the windows of the bus. You’re wearing make-up, a man told me later that night, and the words seemed to freeze on the spot, as if the asymmetry of my appearance (a boy wearing make-up) took too much space in his head and he needed to cease all motor functions. I felt powerful. Not because of the make-up, but rather because I had had the courage to get on stage like that. Or perhaps I’m saying this last bit simply because I was ashamed of it, or because I’m still ashamed of it. Boys don’t play with dolls. Boys don’t wear make-up. And when I look at the photo that was taken backstage before the show (me wearing that huge nineteenth-century dress, standing next to my high-school English teacher) I still feel the uncomfortable giddiness triggered by the laughter in the audience. Perhaps that is how acts of courage feel like. You tell me.

In another show, in a different setting and on a different stage, I wore a wig that fell off in the middle of an important scene (when I was confronting the man who was supposed to strangle me in my sickbed). The make-up was minimal but the role fit like a glove, or rather unlike my wig. I was a damsel in distress and there were only two men in the play, both of them helpless and useless. One of them was my absent husband, who was most likely having extramarital sex (I don’t blame him, I was a chubby high-school kid wearing make-up after all), while the other one was my supposed killer. I shot the latter in the end, with a gun I held hidden in the folds of my bathrobe. Imagine the kind of treatment the husband must have gotten upon his return. [wink]

Then I got married again. Somewhere off stage that is, because the play began only where the happily-ever-after started, the honeymoon. Yet, this time I had to play the loving husband and, well, it didn’t go that well, as you can imagine. In the play I was supposed to be this womanizer whose ex-girlfriends showed up at the cabin in the woods where the honeymoon was supposed to happen. Then a woman in labor showed up (the baby was not mine, go figure) and another man, and then some other people I cannot recall right now and it all ended with a big party (and me ironing shirts while Frank Sinatra’s Love and Marriage was playing in the background). It was a comedy, but even in a comedy I could not play the part of the loving husband. I had no attraction towards my wife and I guess that is why marriages fail to work. I tried putting the elements together but the loving husband failed to materialize. I faked it till the end but the faking was transparent, so much so that after the show, when we were given feedback by the jury one of them told me I looked gay. (He even made the voice and the hand thing that were supposed to be the kind of gestures a gay guy makes.) I felt ashamed of myself. Put a failed loving husband together and what you get is a gay man.

It was not the only time I felt ashamed of myself. Once, during a trip in high-school a guy on the bus told me I acted like a girl. You are so girly, he told me and his companions laughed. I only wished to make myself small and disappear from the face of the earth. On another occasion, and in a period in which I had become enamored with Duncan James (the hunk from the English boyband Blue), a classmate loudly commented in front of the whole class on my habit of staring at pictures of him. You like those boys, don’t you, they’re very good-looking, he scorned me. I went all red in the face and told him to leave me alone. I told him they sang beautifully, because in situations like these that was my only exit. Pretend you love the art behind the beautiful face, pretend you admire the work, never the person. Pretend, pretend, pretend. It’s so easy, do it like I do it and before you know it you’ll be a real man. This is what you do: you scratch your balls, you put your hands in your pockets like this, you place your feet like this, firmly into the ground as if the ground beneath your feet belongs to you.

There’s a tiny recorder in your head, taking all of this in, and the words wrap around you the way a rubber band wraps around your finger until it goes blue.

A boy doesn’t talk like that. A boy doesn’t walk like that. A boy shouldn’t like flowers. A boy doesn’t hold his hands like that. Why can’t you just like girls? Have you at least tried it? As if liking girls is just a matter of how you like them. Tall, short, blondes, brunettes, spicy, sweet, take your pick, just don’t stray outside the chalk lines or the lines in the sand. I felt as if I was in one of those video games where there is only one exit and the other doors are closed; as if somewhere along the game I had not made that one thing which would open the door to the next level. I had not collected all the diamonds and the coins and I was stuck there, thinking of restarting the game. Or just quitting the game and be done with it. Because what happens when you are told that you are off, that your body does not correspond with your bearing, is akin to being told that you do not deserve your body, that you’re wasting it in view of something that only goes on in your mind, and is therefore wrong, crazy, sinful, stubborn, a vice, damaging.

Other men should make you sick. Their smell should be repulsive. The very thought of it. You’re in the army now.

Start recording, you’re told. And you listen. Because you want to belong, to be a part of something, to have friends, to be liked. Until your mind becomes a catalogue of gestures and postures. Keep the tone of your voice in check, lower the pitch, baby, let your manliness sing in the ears of your interlocutors, make the world shudder with sexual anticipation at the sound of your voice. Make women wet with your gait. Push your chest forward, spread your legs when you’re on the bus, and when you become impatient with something show them that you are impatient by shaking your feet. Puff, show your jealousy, show them who you are. And somewhere deep within your guts a part of yourself is slowly starving akin to a worker on hunger strike.

This circus training goes a very long way. You become aware of it even in the circles of people who are supposed to understand this, who are supposed to fight alongside you. A couple of days ago, I was asked, rather nonchalantly, by a guy on a dating app, whether I am manly. He’s manly too, he says, but, don’t get him wrong, he has nothing against effeminate guys, in fact, he has a lot of effeminate gay friends (does that ring a bell?). He can’t stand being seen with effeminate guys because that would be akin to wearing yourself on your sleeve and there’s a world of wrongness behind that. He doesn’t exactly say that but that’s exactly what he’s saying. I don’t really understand him, but maybe I do. Maybe I want to tell him that his preference for manly men (whatever that means) is simply a cover-up for the fact that he is uncomfortable with his own homosexuality. There are only so many ways in which a man can wear his make-up. I don’t tell him this, because he’s cute, because I’ve fucked up for so many times that I don’t want to do it again, because he likes my profile. Because, because, because. Because I’m not usually a magnet for guys as cute as him.

He is not alone in this. There’s a long stream of guys who advertise their manliness either by flexing their biceps or by saying it out loud. Manly guy for manly guys. I’m just a simple guy. I’m just a normal guy looking for other normal guys, which is secret code for straight-acting/straight-looking guys, therefore not gay, because being gay is unruly, it’s the drawing a child makes, the one in which people’s heads are too big. I want to tell them, honey baby, you like dick, and no straight-act you put on is going to change that. But I say nothing because sometimes I’m afraid of dying alone. I make brownies instead.

For once, just let it go.

I am feminine, though at times I take pride with myself when other people tell me that they would have never thought I was gay. I hide well, I want to tell them but I don’t. I might move my hands a certain way, with the elegance one rarely sees in other men. I have feminine traits. My doctor once told me I have feminine hips. And no matter what I do, no matter how much I work out, no matter how much muscle mass I put on, there are certain things I cannot change. I have my mother’s face, which at times resembles that of porcelain dolls. As I write this I feel the urge to tone it down and add “but not that much” every time I say I am feminine. And perhaps that is the problem. Perhaps the problem is with all these adjectives.

These are my hands. I can only move them this way. This is the way I speak. These are my hips. This is my face.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Twelve)

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I am often visited by images of my grandmother crying. She is still alive, don’t get me wrong, yet for some strange reason my mental image of her is strewn with tears and constant sorrow. She cried bitter tears when we had to sell our cow to pay for my father’s debts. She cried when we had to sell our car to pay for those same debts. She cried when my uncle had to leave the country in search of a better life. She cried when I went to university. And she cries when we return home for a couple of weeks during the summer. In fact, all of my summer holidays somehow boil down to that moment of leaving. For days before our departure I fear her tears and the way they deform her face; I fear the sobs that come with the tears, and those final hugs and promises to return next year.

In those moments, our car feels like a safe place. We close the door and father steps on the accelerator and somehow we move faster than grandmother’s sobs and the image of her standing beside my grandfather by the front gate, both crying. And it is in those moments that I try my best not to look back for fear I might turn into a pillar of salt. I try to think of our destination, the miles that we’ll have to cover to get back to the place that we, my family and I, call home. Once, when I felt my own tears crowding behind my eyelids, I looked back and the image has stayed with me since then. No matter how much I try to shake it off it’s still there. As McCarthy would say, what you put in your head is there forever.

The car is moving and I can hear mother sobbing in the backseat. My poor parents, she keeps saying, my poor parents. Father doesn’t say anything, his eyes fixed on the road ahead of us. He keeps his composure no matter what; even when we’re about to leave and the crying starts, he does his best to keep us mobilized. ‘Is everything inside the car? Are we all here?’ And we nod, while mother hugs giant grandfather who seems to crumble. Rocks falling from the top of the mountain. We all get in the car and even the car roars pityingly, its slow-motion clunk-clunk-clunk of the rotor becomes a memory in itself. We’re safe now, we’re moving, and I look back telling myself that I need to wave, and I wave back to them, and see grandma’s hunched back hunching further as if bent by some unseen burden until she becomes a weeping-willow of a woman.

The distance growing in between us resembles a tube, the kind of dark space where you lose your keys in, and you mentally capitulate thinking you’ll never get them back. When we’re at a safe distance, and mother’s sobbing subsides like a dying earthquake, we all think the same thing. We think of the moment of our arrival, the moment we say to each other that soon we’ll take the same road back. Soon, we all say, soon we’ll have to go back. We’re so familiar with those roads that the moment feels almost comfortable. I’ve been here before, I know you, we’re good friends. The silence that then descends over us in the car is full of grandma’s tears, and grandpa’s falling rocks, the groans that come out of his long hands as he takes turns to hug us all. The silence is also our almost telepathic realization that another year has to pass for us to return to grandma’s house.

Those long hours of driving and the year that has to pass between our trips to grandma’s house are also our way of measuring time. As migrants we also measure our time by counting the years since we left our country, as if there’s a secret dignity and solemnity to that number. As if to say that we’ve earned the right to stay in the new country. It’s been eight years now. It’s been fifteen years already. Think of all the taxes that I’ve paid in this country. Yet, we don’t realize that with each passing year it gets harder to go back, not because we become increasingly foreign – full integration is never possible, your origins will forever tuck at your sleeve like an underfed child – but because to go back would mean to lose many of the benefits that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. The trip back starts to feel as if it’s not worth the effort, the money and the mental energy we invest into those little preparative rituals before the trip. We save money in view of that trip. Change the engine oil. Check the rubber pressure, make sure it’s within the parameters. Check the suspensions. These, and others, are all ways of measuring time.

I see that time in my grandparents’ changing faces. We’re all in some kind of visual shock when we reconvene each ear. Once, when we got home one summer my grandfather didn’t even recognize us. He told me it was hard for him to believe that it was actually me. That’s how much I had changed. When I lost weight grandmother told me it was not me anymore but some foreign changeling who has come to replace her beloved grandson. It’s hard for us not to recognize the changes their own bodies undergo. They’re getting older each ear and we’re getting older as well, albeit we might not notice it. In terms of flesh, the changes are always gradual; it is proof that silence speaks by accumulation. A wrinkle there, a stretch mark somewhere else, distances become blurry, effort becomes even more effective in its deadliness. Energies must be saved. Bullshit is repudiated systematically.

In a couple of months from the time of writing this, my brother is going to become a father, and I’m going to become an uncle. I’m going to fill the stereotypical (or proverbial?) “gay uncle” sooner rather than later. This new entry in my family’s tree turns mother into a grandmother, and grandma into a great-grandma. These changes feel so huge right now that in my mind they move with the gravity and solemnity of tectonic plates falling into place once they have been disturbed. Father turns officially old although the unofficial symptoms of old age are already there. I hear father and brother joking about it, about this child of the future that will intrude into the rituals of our daily lives, but behind the jokes that silent recognition of time finally showing itself lurks like a grieving mother. The joy of it masks an irreparable sadness, as irreparable as our decaying bodies.

In a similar vein, my uncle must see his own old age reflected in that of his children, the ones who grow so fast it’s difficult to keep track. I see my own age in theirs because I remember perfectly well when they were little. I witnessed their first words, the changing of their diapers. My cousin now tells his mother that his smartphone is out of date because it was released one year ago. It’s so easy to notice these small changes because we are constant witnesses, and it’s the witnessing that makes the difference in this equation. The changes buried deep within our own bodies are so much harder to witness because they somehow feel so remote. You simply wake up and start feeling your body differently. You lose your patience, you detect easier when shit is being served to you, you snap back because you are running out of time. In times of scarcity the thing you need most becomes the most precious thing.

Mother, like grandmother, has trouble sleeping. Father and I sleep peacefully throughout the night. She’s envious and the thing makes her even more anxious and resentful. We grow old just by seeing others grow old. A tree can only grow as big as those of its own species unless it is chopped down. My brother shows me the sonogram of, at this time, genderless child and points to the size of its head. It must be a boy. They’re all hoping for a boy. Still, the image on his smartphone of the genderless offspring feels so distant, virtual almost. You can delete the picture and it’s gone, the thought of it annihilated. It’s so hard to believe that it’s true, that it exists. Perhaps we’ll all feel different when we get to know if it’s boy or girl, when we’ll set a name and a trajectory for it.

I try not to look at my brother when he tells me all this, because I’m ashamed and scared for the both of us. No matter how much effort I put into it I cannot separate mentally this image of the future father from the image of the little boy who jumped over the fence to run away from home, the one who stole money from mother’s purse to buy peanuts from the local store. The high-school dropout who spent his lunch money in Internet Cafes playing online strategy games. The man who kissed a girl in the backseat of a moving car and told her how much he loved her. The man who then dumped her. I’m ashamed that the child from the future will never get to know this unless we say it out loud. I’m afraid for my brother, for the sleepless nights and the constant worrying. And I’m afraid of the moral idealism the child is going to be taught. I’m afraid of the moment when that child will come to know the shadows of this world, when the monsters hiding under the bed will take human form.

My brother’s priorities will change and his strong convictions will wane like a departing storm, I’m almost sure of it. His body will begin to change in unexpected ways, and with that other changes will come as well. Because bigger lives turn obsolete in the presence of smaller ones. Children become yardsticks against which every adult gesture becomes meaningless unless it is integrated into a trajectory that is positive for the child and its future. Finally, my brother will see himself complete, having done the duty that is expected of every man in a heterosexual society. He and his newly forged family will be integrated into a grander narrative that is simply too big to fail. He will be able to say to his kid that “at your age, I did this”. And that narrative, which once was written by my parents as well, will in turn tell him if he’s doing good or bad. It will tell him when he is too old or too young to do certain things. There’s a bigger plan, a blueprint that acts as a tool of project management. By then we will have done this, the child will have this age.
At the same time, it makes me happy to see my brother this way. In the rush of emotions that surrounds this new arrival my parents will ask less of me.

I’m not the only one to feel this way. While I was staying in Berlin last month, I had dinner with Thomas, a German guy whose brother had recently had a child. He, too, felt that the pressure coming from his parents had decreased significantly after the birth of the little boy. The sense of urgency inspired by the parents’ desire to have a grandchild subsided and somehow he felt free. The balance in the family had been restored; it was once again business as usual. Yet, as we were talking over our Thai dinner somewhere in the vicinity of Rosenthaler Platz, I couldn’t help but notice a faint trace of sorrow in his voice when he talked about his nephew. (Or perhaps the heterosexual machine had trained me well to hear things that weren’t there.) ‘He is so cute’, Thomas kept saying, when we had to cross the street the boy stopped, looked right and left, and only then crossed the street’. He is so cute. The boy held his hand.

And there it was, I thought, the unsatisfied fatherly instinct, left behind, craving for more of that, the missing blueprint that would tell us that we’re doing good, that our lives do make sense, and that we’re building something that will make the lives of these children better. At your age I… To whom do we say these words without making our children perceive the great chasm that opens between us and them? At your age I didn’t know what was going on because nobody told me what was going on. The books were mostly silent about it, so I’ll try not to make the same mistake for you. I sincerely believe we haven’t yet figured out a way to do this, and the narratives that are supposed to help us are loudly absent, or at least still hidden. You might have figured it out already, you might already be a gay parent, and if you have please write it down for us. Consider us your children.

Against whom do we measure our own time when our children are as silent as time itself? In the eighties, at the height of the AIDS crisis, it was our friends’ deaths. “I’m beginning this book on All Saints’ Day in Paris”, Edmund White wrote in his Farewell Symphony (1997), “six months after Brice’s death.” (3) It’s been six months already. It’s been three years. It’s been fifteen years already. I have earned my right not to grieve anymore, I’m here to stay, in this country of the living. As White’s narrator walks among the other tombstones in the cemetery he notices other names, other faces, and most of all, he notices their age. “A few are young men in their twenties – I imagine they died of AIDS too.” The crisis, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote in Touching Feeling (2003), “has deroutinized the temporality of many of us in ways that only intensify this effect.” (148) “On this scene,” she adds, “an older person doesn’t love a younger as someone who will someday be where she is now, or vice versa. No one is, so to speak, passing on the family name; there’s a sense in which our life narratives will barely overlap. There’s another sense in which they slide up more intimately alongside one another than can any lives that are moving forward according to the regular schedule of the generations. It is one another immediately, one another as the present fullness of a becoming whose arc may extend no further, whom we each must learn best to apprehend, fulfill, and bear company.” (149) It’s been six months since Brice’s death. I begin this book here. Whatever was before, it ended there, six months ago.

We meticulously measure our time on “dry land”, that is, in between lovers. I’ve heard stories of long term and short term relationships. These, too, are marked by the migrant’s complex in terms of the pain occasioned by the end of those relationships. The longer the relationship is the more dramatic the break up. Or at least that is my emotional response when I hear of relationships that lasted up to six years or more. Six years feels like a lifetime on a gay dating site. And we also measure the time since our last sex date. The longer that time is the worthier we are. It’s been years since I had sex with a guy and, at most, you get a worried look akin to, perhaps, the looks war veterans get moments before they get asked whether they had killed someone on the battlefield. At the same time we get it when somebody seems to have too much sex, free of the compulsive thought of categorizing them as whores or sex addicts. It is as democratic as it gets.

We measure our time against that of our gay peers, our companions. Gay dating apps and websites give you the possibility to set age filters, an age range in which you are interested. One of them, I won’t say which, has taken the age filter literally to the extreme so that people outside your preferred age range can’t even access your profile. “After you turn thirty,” one user noticed, “there’s not much to see in here.” (I’m paraphrasing.) After forty, total eclipse of the heart. Another user, on another dating site, threatens his visitors that if they are over forty (with very few exceptions, of course, which mainly refer to overly hot men) they will be blocked on the spot. No wonder some of us lie about our age on dating sites. Yet, it makes me wonder, do these people realize that their ruthlessness will be served cold to them when they turn thirty or forty? Is thirty an age at which we become obsolete in terms of dating capital?

A key to understanding this, I believe, has to do with the way we perceive our bodies. Most often, to a gay man, his body is his only way of measuring time. His muscles, the accumulation of hours spent at the gym lifting weights, are a form of progress that measures the distance from A to B. The progress is visible: the six-pack becomes more evident in time, it emerges from under the skin, akin to a bridge protruding through the fog. The chest becomes more evident, the arms, too, they gain a shape that was not there before. Your peers notice the effort and the discipline that is behind those changes and they start to appreciate you even more. That progress is visible as well, and it translates into…more sex, more dates, envy, resentment. Another user asked his visitors to write to him only if they worked out at least once a week. Children and toned bodies overlap.

All of this makes me think of that last volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which the narrator, after having lived for so long in seclusion goes to a party and realizes that, akin to his peers, he is old:

And now I began to understand what old age was — old age, which perhaps of all the realities is the one of which we preserve for longest in our life a purely abstract conception, looking at calendars, dating our letters, seeing our friends marry and then in their turn the children of our friends, and yet, either from fear or from sloth, not understanding what all this means, until the day when we behold an unknown silhouette . . . which teaches us that we are living in a new world; until the day when a grandson of a woman we once knew, a young man whom instinctively we treat as a contemporary of ours, smiles as though we were making fun of him because it seems that we are old enough to be his grandfather — and I began to understand too what death meant and love and the joys of the spiritual life, the usefulness of suffering, a vocation, etc. (6:354–55)

Behold the unknown silhouette. Perhaps that is why we are so obsessed with the way we look, the way heterosexual people are so preoccupied with how their children present themselves. Our relationships are defined by the way we present ourselves to the world. Our bodies are our moral compasses. And we look for those who are equally preoccupied with this aestheticized outlook on life. Perhaps that is why body shaming is so pervasive on gay dating sites because our bodies fall victims to our most hidden cruelties. A German guy I matched with on Tinder told me once that his boyfriend snapped back at him saying that his dick was so small it wouldn’t satisfy a woman, let alone a man. Overweight gay men are stranded on “bear island”, where they seek (guess what) toned men who have a fetish for chubby guys, thus perpetuating the very cruelty that they’re trying to escape. We starve ourselves (I know I did) with the conviction that we will finally get accepted and caressed by the invisible hand of the market. We hate ourselves when we don’t fit someone’s version of a lover. The circle must close. The snake must eat its tail.

“Is there indeed a God”, Larry Kramer asks in Faggots (1978), “who would understand such as: ‘Baby, I want you to piss all over me!'”, to which I would answer yes, there is! It’s the same god that had once turned us into bullies against our very own.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Eleven)

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I’m most afraid of you when you take off your glasses and your eyes appear misplaced, too close to each other, and I wonder, do you know that I hide behind something as well? As we sit and talk over lunch in the university cafeteria, our voices slightly above the general thrum that threatens to drown us, I watch you move fork and knife over your veggies and chicken and see my brother’s hands. So familiar in flesh, I almost want to touch them. In this watchful state I feel like a predator waiting for you to say something revealing, if not about yourself then at least about us. Is this okay? Does it feel good to be this close? Or should I move farther away from you? Where do I stand in this equation of loss and gain?

Then again, it was you who said we should have lunch together. 

But even before the white plates still warm from the bellies of industrial dishwashers, and the lunch and the yogurt I call pudding, as we walk towards the cafeteria, I see a guy who resembles someone who wrote to me a couple of days before. There was not much of an exchange, but from the pictures he had sent me I know it is him. I know I had seen his dick in two consecutive pictures. An erection seen from two different angles (a case study, really, in the wonders of male genitalia), next to a picture of his face. Do you want to feel this in your ass? That’s what he wrote to me after the pictures and I wondered why the face? Is there a dialectics to your body I should take note of? Face, then dick, then dick again as if, in quantitative terms, your erection has a higher rate of success. I did not reply thinking that it would have been barbaric to do so. And as we pass him on the street, we look at each other and recognize each other, and later he visits my profile on that dating app as if to make sure that it had been me, in the flesh. Yes, I wanted to tell him, you saw me and I saw you. I saw your dick and I was not impressed. I had seen you the other day having lunch in the cafeteria with a girl and a guy wearing white overalls. Has he felt your dick inside his ass?

At times, I think there must be something wrong with me. How could you say no to a dick like that?

Then there are others whom I do not recognize as I walk through crowds of people on my way to the cafeteria. I don’t see them because I had not seen their faces. I only saw the beard in the picture and the mouth that wrote ‘would you like some dick as well?’ I said yes and felt ashamed. I wanted to hide. But the guy replied. ‘Meet me in the bathroom.’ Which bathroom, I asked. The reply never came and I imagined he must have thought I was somebody else, perhaps the guy across the aisle in the library who couldn’t keep his eyes buried deep in the books he was reading. He must have been disappointed.

If disappointment could grow a body, my body would look like it.

Of these things and others I think about while I watch your hands hover above the plate. I think of how different our worlds are, and not only because we’re citizens of different countries, in a country that is neither mine nor yours. I think of how, in this world of sex and erections seen from different angles, none of us could ever attain the elegance with which you move. We don’t have the long strides you take with each step unless when we’re running from each other. The white shirt and the leather shoes, your manners, the way your English comes our of your chest as if calling for attention. We’ve abandoned courtship because, unlike you, we’ve been trained to take as much as we can when we’re given the opportunity. Meet me in the bathroom where nobody could see us. The bathroom stall insulates us from the world. There isn’t time for intimate discoveries here, because anytime soon somebody might come in and take our decency away. Here’s my dick, let’s get to the part where we enjoy each other and then leave.

So, I’m taking from you as much as I can. I can only steal the things I like, because I have no currency to give in return. I’m taking your laughter, and the way your lips move when you talk. I’m taking the white shirts and stuffing them here. I’m taking the way you say my name when you’re asking me what I’m up to. I’m taking our conversations. And I’m never giving them back.