Robb’s Last Tape (Take One)

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I turned twenty-eight a couple of weeks ago and, truth be told, I’ve never ever dated anyone. This is not because at one point I chose a life of utter promiscuity and swore my allegiance to a no-strings-attached creed, on the contrary, my existence is as sexless as that of a monk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete recluse living in a fiscal paradise either. I do socialize, occasionally, when necessity requires it. I’m not a modern Adonis, but I’m not overweight either, though I used to be for a very long while. I feel horrible pangs of guilt every time I have ice cream. I’m tall (6ft 0.8346458in to be precise), with light-brown hair, and deep blue eyes, depending on what I’m wearing, and the photo filter I’m using to take selfies. I run, I exercise daily, until everything hurts, until it feels like a punishment. I have friends, at least I think I do. I eat pizza every once in a while and feel extremely guilty every time I do that. I drink beer, Belgian, I know how to make brownies. I read all the time (that is, when I’m not doing anything else), and I’ve been studying ever since I can remember myself studying. I have a bachelor’s degree, and two master’s degrees, all of them in the humanities, and am now doing a PhD in contemporary American literature. I have never dated anyone, and if it ever did feel like I was dating someone, it always turned out that it was all in my head. I’ve had this constant feel that I was being put aside for some future use, to mature and be savored when the time was right.

I’m into guys. I like the way in which they can be both abusive and protective. I like the way they talk at times, I like their facial hair, the way it surrounds their lips, as if those kissing instruments were an oasis on a prickly rough terrain. I marvel at the violence in their hands, their thighs. In them, I look for the things that I could never have. I abandon myself to them, think of them when I jerk off.

I’m also a guy, in case you were wondering (though the jerking off part was pretty clear). I have been attracted to guys for as long as I can remember, even though there had been a time when I did not know for sure what exactly I was feeling. I did not have a name for it (I was provided with the name at a later date). And there had been times when I desperately hoped that it would pass, that it was just a phase I had to go through, a phase at the end of which I would emerge with the same violence and tenderness in my hands, similar thighs, and lips to match that sudden explosion of manhood. That never happened, of course, the phase never ended, and that almost unconscious fight against it feels, now, like a waste of time. And that’s the thing with the heterosexual mainstream covering the sky like the belly of an airplane. It feels as if I’ve wasted so much time wondering what was wrong with me when I could have wasted that time working on my pectorals. Somehow this gay thing is never parallel with the straight thing, it only comes at a later time, in the shape of a revelation. Like scientists in lab coats we move on to the next method only after having exhausted the possibilities of the first one, explored its limits, and the first one is always the straight one, the one statistically natural. Somehow, to be gay, you need to be straight first, and the transition is always a painful one, akin to independence wars. As a gay veteran, I cannot say I have emerged stronger out of that war, on the contrary, I now feel even more insecure and lonely.

I did not date anyone in high school, nobody had shown interest. My high school was full of jocks who thought that every object resembling a book bound in black leather was a Bible. I was bullied throughout my high school years, from the very first day of school until the very last one, when I had to deliver the valedictory at our graduation ceremony. By that last day, their bullying had become subtle, recognizable even in the way they pronounced my last name, obvious in the inflection of their voices. My gym teacher bullied me. She bullied the cheerleaders by slapping them with a hockey stick. Once, she called me a “little cunt” in front of my classmates. She did not apologize when I complained to my tutor about it, and after the tutor confronted her, she simply told me I had a big mouth and I had to keep it shut. As you’d expect, she was very manly and had the body for it, Glee style. I distinctly remember she even had a mustache.

I was afraid to go to school and dreaded the moment I had to leave school at the end of the day. I never went to the bathroom, and never ate during school hours because I was afraid of going to the school cafeteria (which was basically a kiosk under the stairs, Harry Potter style, except people didn’t sleep in it). I never looked up and walked as closely to the walls as possible so as not to draw attention. At least, that is what I thought back then. Once, while waiting for class to start, a guy spit in my face because I refused to give him the cap of a freshly opened Coke bottle. Later on, before biology class, a group of older student got a hold of a video camera and filmed me while “interviewing” me, a plastic bottle instead of a microphone. I asked them to leave me alone and hid my face behind my textbooks. But the plastic bottle kept probing against me, the camera pointed at me, the older students going round and round like little children around a squirrel found dead in the middle of the street. The biology teacher must have found out about it, because later on, during class, she made an allusion to the “interview”. She did nothing about it, I didn’t hear of any students being suspended for misconduct, or at least being warned. Now, when I think about it, the fact that I was one of her favorite students in my class, and the fact that she had shown her affection towards me by letting me use the biology laboratory to read and hide from the world, could have never changed the way I felt about her inability to do something about the older students. Did she not register the fact that I was in distress during and after that “interview”?

Yet, those were passing moments, their terror subsided after a couple of weeks, months, years, a couple of jokes, and friendly pats on the back. It was all part and parcel of the high school experience, right? But none of those moments compared to the one when I was wrongfully accused of bumping arrogantly (and by mistake) into another chubby guy outside the school premises. I was walking home with a classmate when we had to stop because a car was pulling out of the parking lot, and this guy bumped into me. He slapped me with a rolled textbook and tried to fist punch me. He even called on his friends and they all surrounded me after my classmate had fled in fear. He tried punching me again, I ducked and ran home. I will always remember that Thursday; it was the loose end of that constant fear I felt during those years. I started to dread going to school even more. I hid in libraries, I sought the protection of older students, did all sorts of favors to them (helping them pass that drawing class, helping them cheat on their biology tests, that kind of favors). During breaks I would move to the farthest desk in the classroom so I could not be seen from the hallways. I would ask some of the teachers to let me out before the end of the class so that I could not be seen getting out by the other students. I invented excuses, something about roommates having lost their keys. I stopped along the hallways to listen. I stayed behind, feigning interest in whatever the janitors had to complain about until I was sure all of the students had gone home. Once I even heard the chubby guy boasting to his classmates about the fact that he had turned me into a “punching bag”. And what was I if not a passive punching bag? To them, it did not matter that I was one of the best students in my class, and though I kept studying, getting top marks, all of that faded in the face of that seemingly endless terror. I never “got back” to him for what he did, or tried doing, to me. I never got my revenge. Today I can only imagine dreadful scenarios involving him: failed marriage, domestic violence, and a beer belly to match.

The bullying did stop eventually, but only after I went to college and moved to another city, as far away from my bullies as my family’s budget permitted. It came again only when, symbolically, I returned to high school as a teaching trainee. I heard mean comments coming from my students about my voice, about the fact that I had “man boobs”, about the way I moved my hands when talking in front of the class. It may all seem too far-fetched to some of you, but all of these aspects undermined my authority as a teacher and gnawed away at my self-esteem. I swore never to go back there, not even as a full-time teacher.

I did not date anyone in college, but I did hold hands with girls (I bet you weren’t expecting that). A couple of times with the friend who once touched my face nervously and I pulled away, quickly, as if touched by a burning cigarette. She held my hand when we got out of the cinema one night and a thunderstorm was looming at the edges of the city. She squeezed my hand when we said goodbye for the night in front of the taxicab. That same night, during the movie, she had buried her face in my shoulder and I had no idea what I was supposed to do and just carried on watching Transformers.

I won’t give names. My failures are my own.

Then there was that other girl who kept telling me she loved me, though I knew she kept pictures of naked men on her digital camera (men with bulging pectorals). Even today, she still tells me that she loves me, even though she is now married (to a man with bulging pectorals), but the words have a strange metallic feel to them, the sensation stirred by them similar to the awe inspired by terms such as “gold-plated”. The whole world seemed to inherit that feel whenever she was present because all men seemed to notice her, except me. And like a parasite I fed on and binged on the attention she received. She gave me a sudden and momentary sense of power, and I took the credit for it even though, deep down, I knew that I had not conquered her in any way. I wasn’t good-looking, had no bulging pectorals, I felt sorry for myself, and complained about everything. But once, after class, she held my hand, and the others saw us, they witnessed the way she reached out and grabbed me by the hand, and in their eyes I saw envy, felt the gossip piling up.

The sensation was replicated later on after one of my exams. She was waiting for me outside, and when I got out she hugged me, and our “feminist” professor saw us and smiled in a certain way, the way feminists do. Unconsciously, I was aware of the conventions of the heterosexual world because I had witnessed them for so long, in full display. Even the ugliest man, no matter how ugly, dreams of a trophy girl standing by his side, and waves her in front of everybody as if to fortify his own sense of manhood. It was only later on that, in the light of those very conventions, I realized I didn’t want her, I did not desire to possess her, I only wanted to be like her, exert the same kind of power that she wielded over the men that gawked at her wherever she went.

Then she went away. I moved even further away from my bullies to another country, and it was only in this other country where, in my solitude, I started to come to terms with my attraction to other men. I believe that the transformation had started when I told one of my Italian classmates, by text, that I was gay, and she told me that she still appreciated me despite that newfound knowledge. She even promised to hug me next time we met. She did hug me, and her affection did not seem metallic, but prone to being cast aside in a playful manner. What struck me then was not the ease with which she accepted me and promised me unmovable friendship, but rather the way in which my sexual preferences instantly occupied a less important place in the ranks of our friendship priorities. It wasn’t demeaning, don’t get me wrong, I believe it was rather the symptom of somebody who had probably thought about the issue at one point, someone who had read about it, experienced it vicariously, seen it, and decided it wasn’t going to affect the way she related to the people in her life. For her, my sexual preference was not a catastrophe in the way it was for me. For all I knew, all I wanted to do was talk about it, emphasize the drama, turn myself into a victim. Yet, she gave a sense she wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it, the way she wasn’t going to lose sleep over a medicine the effects of which she was perfectly aware.

I encountered that same relocation of energies when I told my best friend about it. He thanked me for having trusted him to the extent of confessing that kind of thing to him. I have never told him about the fact that his masculine presence in my life has been, over the years ever since I met him, to say the least, formative. I decided not to tell him about it, afraid that it might ruin our friendship, give him a sense that I was somehow interested in him in that way. I have never stopped feeling self-destructive, and every time I ask him whether there’s something in me that he would scorn and hate me for, he seems at a loss for words. The question, of course, is never singular. It comes with a baggage of self-loathing, and along its twin question: when are you going to leave me?

I’ve asked this last question, never out loud, every time I tried dating a guy.

I won’t blame anyone. My failures are my own.

The answer came as silently as the question, never out loud, in a series of absences, time filled with nothing. Soon, the answer was, and my insecurities throbbed at the thought, as if on an adrenaline rush. My insecurities knew perfectly well that the confirmation of that thought would come. And soon it came.

I slept with a guy a couple of times. Just that one guy. We had not been dating when it happened because I met him on an online dating site destined for bears, muscle bears, older guys, chubby guys, hairy guys, and (drumroll), the category that every man on that website was basically looking for, the elusive “admirers”. These latter were the opposite of the former: young good-looking guys who spent most of their time doing odd jobs that permitted them to spend insane amounts of time at the gym getting pumped up. And the results could be seen in the many pictures taken at the gym: pictures of feet, bulging biceps and pectorals, pictures often lacking a head altogether. Most important, you didn’t just talk to them, you couldn’t, they would talk to you. The best you could do was visit their profile, leave a footprint, and hope they would return the visit, and maybe even contact you. They were the gods. But not because of some sort of innate quality, rather because all of the other users lacked the narcissist thrust that compelled the “admirers” to suffer for their beauty. We admired their discipline, masturbated to their headless bodies, our way to hell paved with abs, and dreamed that one of them would finally see the shallowness of the world and pick us, us and no one else.

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