Robb’s Last Tape (Take Nine)

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Reader, my life’s the beginning of that song you know you’re not going to like, or listen to again. There’s something wrong with the rhythm, the drums, the voice of the singer.

For months, one of my neighbors has been painstakingly digging in his backyard. I watch him as he does that almost every day while having my morning coffee and smoke on the back balcony. I go out on the balcony for a smoke during the day and he’s still there, digging, sweating away, intent on building something. Sometimes he gets help from an older guy, white hair, skin sagging around his nipples. Sometimes the neighbor is accompanied by a younger guy, maybe in his mid-twenties, with a ponytail and tattoos on his pecs. At times, another younger guy joins them, a trio of sweating tan bodies pulling out the guts of the dirt. Then, after all those months of hard work, a blue pool fills the hole in the ground, the water sending streams of shimmering light against the white walls of the house. There’s music and bathing suits, a shower is installed close to the outer fence, and then the younger guys are working out, pumping iron by the pool. I watch them through the thin curtain of my cigarette smoke and through the holes in the shrubs that surround their backyard, their world so perfect that it’s almost magnetic. I can’t take my eyes off them and imagine myself living inside that world, not pumping iron, but reading by the pool, my own world suddenly embedded into the world I’m reading about. One of them picks up a pink plastic ball and passes it around, then picks up the phone and talks to somebody I can’t hear from where I’m standing. He’s making plans for the following Sunday, for the following week, and there’s a laziness in his voice I want to inhabit, a distractedness to the world outside, a whiteness of tone and movement akin to that of tennis players caught in the concentration of the game. I don’t want him to stop talking and for a moment I wish I were the person at the other end of the line, be a part of that world, the kingdom of normal boys and men. And there have been moments in my life when I felt like I had crossed that border into that other kingdom, like I had been offered passage into a world where I was permitted to contemplate the artifacts displayed there: that manly laziness of boys, the husk in their voices, their smells, their habits, the thin blue veins on their hands, the hair on their legs, the intangible ease with which they moved through the air, the felt presence-absence they left behind wherever they went. Sometimes, when I was lucky enough the breath of these normal boys and men came as close as my ears and neck, their arms made a circle around my body, the sweat of their hands mingled with my very own. But then, when my stay was long overdue and they started to sense my difference I was quietly pushed back into my own kingdom, reminded of who I was, subtly, akin to the way in which the first rays of sun appeared in the morning. And again I would look through a fence or through a window, through shrubs meant to offer privacy, the way I looked at the boys lounging by the pool, and an envious rage would wash over me, one in which I often feel as if my entire life has been a joke because no matter what I do I will still perceive myself as an alien to that world of normal boys.

B is a divorcee – he’s been switching kingdoms often – ten years older than me, and I’ve met him on a gay dating app. Something strange happens on dating apps and sites, a momentary feeling that rarely gets to be reconstructed at a later date, or in real life. It’s like planets are aligned in the very instant that two profiles come together. You like the instant caught within that profile pic, and he likes the instant you’re caught in. And you work with that, and there are so many blank fields that need to be filled in, and you put in everything you’ve got, all of your dreams and expectations, the whole range of future actions you believe are going to make you feel happy. B’s profile does not have a face pic because he’s afraid he might be discovered by his kids, a boy and a girl whose ages I cannot recall at the moment, sixteen or seventeen and twenty-something, in that age group nevertheless, not significantly younger than me. He told me about his kids in one of our statistically long chats, the kids who weren’t supposed to be kids because they had not been planned. One of them, at least, wasn’t planned, because, come on, you can’t possibly have an unwanted kid twice. B was eighteen when he and his then future wife had unprotected sex and, surprise, she got pregnant. Things happened afterwards, they got married as was expected of them, he found a job, they had their second child. Then, at one point while in the army, I can’t rightly place that specific moment on the timeline of his life, B had his first “gay experience” when one of his fellow soldiers masturbated him under the shower and apparently they both liked it. I’m being told all of these things during one of our runs together. The words in which they are told are simple enough, the sentences are short because we are running and one wouldn’t want to waste breath on such seemingly unimportant matters. Yet, it isn’t the first time I’m being told that he’s got kids, he mentioned it before, but I’ve forgotten it, and when I ask him whether he’s ever felt the need to have kids, I’m being told the story again, in detail. What triggered the whole discourse again was the sight of a father giving his toddler a ride on the bicycle. The saccharine emotion oozing from the scene is suddenly too much for me because we’re already past the six kilometers mark and fatigue is settling in like a familiar face appearing in the crowd. So I want to scoff at the father and the toddler, make a joke about the somehow good-looking father brimming with masculinity, and ask B about wanting kids.

I already have kids, he says in between breaths. And then I remember the rest of his story and try to make it my own, find my own little spot inside this story, because I like this guy, so mature and somehow balanced, protective like a father picking up his kids from school. I want to wear his feelings while I’m in his company, I want to taste the sudden revelation that he must have had that time under the shower with the fellow soldier, feel the bulbous burning of that realization at the tip of my stomach, a sensation that resembles the excitement of a dull knife sharpened and finally put to the test. I need this. I want to feel emotions other than my own, or at least an approximation of them, an experience different than the one I undergo while reading books. And there’s a point during our run when everything else starts to fade away and suddenly there’s just the two of us running and he’s asking me to go ahead because he wants to look at my ass while running. The comment is made loud enough but somehow I’m not afraid of others overhearing. He even touches my ass when I tell him that I keep my keys in the small pocket on my lower back. I even make a joke about the “chastity belt” or something like that. I sound stupid and cheesy but all this is so new to me that I just want to do it for the sake of it, I’m not going to let my mind throw obstacles in this one.

We went running on our first date, albeit that doesn’t sound like an ideal date, or a date for that matter. One is supposed to look good on a date, put their best on display, and not wear running pants and sweat like a horse (not to mention the smell of sweat and all that). One Sunday morning he sends me a message on that dating app telling me we should go running together right then and there. He’s going to pick me up. I give him my address and we decide on where to go running. I pick one of the biggest parks in the area and begin doing warm up while waiting for him to show up. Of course, I’m freaking out, but I’m also thinking that running is my element and if he can deal with my sweaty stinky self he can deal with the rest. When I step into the car I somehow feel comfortable. He’s got a beard, he’s older than me, and he’s wearing the kind of running tights that I’m wearing, the ones I almost refused to put on thinking that I might be showing off. I do love my legs sometimes, running somehow makes them desirable. He notices my foreign accent but is unable to identify it, and no more words are spent on that. I’m always reluctant about telling people about my nationality. On dating apps and sites I get a smiley face whenever I tell people about the fact that I’m Romanian. A smiley face and then an awkward silence. And when I ask them whether they’re uncomfortable – Italian people are often uncomfortable in the presence of Romanians, can’t imagine why – they tell me that they’re not, but the awkward silence continues nonetheless and the discussion quiets down to white noise. B apparently doesn’t care about my nationality. Later on he will tell me he thought I might be German or Polish, Eastern European, but never Romanian.

When we finally started running we both seemed to be out of step. I have long legs and as such I take long steps when I’m running, but B is shorter than me and I feel like I’m bouncing too high while he’s too grounded, his legs too short to keep up. Soon, however, I forget about it and we manage to find a middle ground. When we get to talking, while still running, he tells me my nose resembles the beak of a parrot, then he tells me that he’s joking. But I know my nose is like that, so he can’t be joking. Then he starts pointing out spots in between the bushes and the trees where we could stop and hide from the other people in the park. The grass leading to those spots has been stepped on repeatedly and so secret paths took shape. Others had gone there to hide before us. I choose to ignore his pointing and keep running, and I’m starting to resent his invitation to go for a run with him. I can’t focus because of him, I lose my tempo, I lose my breath because he’s talking and I need to reply. The run feels sloppy and uncontrolled as if we’re just little boys playing around in the field. Yet, strangely enough, by the time we get to the car after a ten kilometer run, I feel strangely energetic. I could still run a few kilometers, and he tells me he could do the same. He does this while waving his bulge in front of my face, he’s touching it with a gesture that seems embarrassingly immature, and then his crotch is practically in my face as I bend to do my post-workout stretch. In the car his hand is all over me as he’s telling me we should meet again, do something else maybe. I put my hand over his as he’s squeezing my knee, and then I don’t do it anymore because I’m all sweaty and I’m afraid of soaking the passenger seat and seatbelt. He notices my hesitation and doesn’t put his hand of my knee again. I, on the other hand, notice his untrimmed fingernails, the hands that have too much skin on them, the hairs on them oddly harsh and sparse, the little freckles covering his arms. For a moment I’m disgusted by the whole thing: his hands, the way he waved his bulge at me, his hand on my knee, me still sweating profusely. And then one little question pops up in my mind, a question I’m so familiar with that every time I hear it I feel like running again, running away from everything, running until everything hurts, until there’s nothing but the pain. Why are you doing this to yourself? You know you don’t like it, yes, you know you hate it, but still, you keep doing it. And for a long moment while he’s driving and talking about the drawbacks of meeting people online, about the limitations of that system, I agree with that little voice in my head. I want to go back home, I want to close the doors to my room and never come out. I imagine myself reading long into the night, refusing to eat and sleep. I feel like he’s after me, after something buried deep inside of me, something I’d prefer to keep hidden from others. My integrity, I wonder.

After I take a shower I find one of his texts on my cellphone. He’s telling me about my hesitancy when it came to touching in the car. He noticed that and interpreted it as a sign of me not liking him, but a fierceness comes over me when I read that, that calm fierceness that comes over me during debates at the university. I tell him it’s not true, I like him very much, it’s just that I’m a little bit shy. I was hesitant simply because I thought that he didn’t like me. When I tell him this it feels as if I’m at war with that little voice in my head. I’m not going to let this chance pass me by, this might be my only chance at happiness, backpedaling is not an option, I need to do this. And the voice yields and joins my fierceness to form one firmer voice, one that convinces B that I’m telling the truth, that I am, in fact, shy and unexperienced. We decide to meet again the next day after dinner to have a drink in the city. He promises to take me to one of his favorite places.

The day we’re supposed to meet is also the day in which two of my best friends are leaving for the United States and we all have dinner at the place of a common friend. But while we’re eating I keep thinking about B and I tell my friends that I might have to leave at one point. They tell me about drinks later and one of them suggests I invite B to have drinks with us. I don’t say no but the negation is so obvious to me that it’s almost nauseating to think about it. I imagine B talking to my friends and I imagine the looks on my friends’ faces when they realize B is not the kind of person they imagined me with. B doesn’t read books. When I tell him I sometimes manage to read an entire book in one day he tells me I’m too smart for him. B has no preferences when it comes to music, in fact, he listens to the kind of Italian music most Italians despise because of its excessive sentimentality. B works in a jewelry store and, as fabulous as that may sound, he is actually in charge with the logistics department of the store. B has the fashion sense of an eighteen-year-old who likes high sneakers and t-shirts in washed out colors. He has the haircut of an eighteen-year-old. B complains about having to wear long pants at work during the summer. B is simple. He’s never heard of Heidegger and I’m willing to grant him that because sometimes he looks at me with a pair of eyes that are no longer those of the sneaker-loving eighteen-year-old, and I feel like swimming in the denseness of that look, make him proud of me. Yet, I tell my friends I might join them later on for drinks, half-expecting things might get a little bit too uncomfortable with B and we’ll call it a night early.

There’s excitement, of course, in not telling my friends who B really is. It’s something that I can call my own, that secret of having somebody, a long shadow looming just behind my eyes, the silver lining behind the days my friends know I spend in solitude. A similar excitement washes over me whenever I tell my parents I’m going for a run with B. They don’t know who B is, and whenever I tell them his name without saying anything else it feels as if I’m drawing a line in the sand. This is where your knowledge of him stops, the knowledge of my secret life. My parents don’t ask too many questions but when it comes to referring to B my father hesitates and doesn’t use his name. He’s just a guy, a friend of mine. It feels like I’m wielding a real sword in front of their very eyes but they are convinced it is merely a toy sword. Whatever I do feels like child’s play.

When he picks me up by car there’s shyness in his look as if we’ve just met. He wants to look at me but then he doesn’t. This exchange of looks goes on until we both get settled in the car, until the windows of the car turn familiar and protective. When that happens he reaches out, touches my knee, reaches for my hand and holds it, places my hand on his knee when he needs to switch gears, and sometimes, when he gets bold enough he even places my hand on his crotch and presses it there. He’s taking me to one of his favorite places in the city, he doesn’t say which but by the way it looks I already know where he’s taking me. We go up some steep hills and then we’re in the parking lot of a huge church that reigns supreme over the smoggy atmosphere of the city now as small and as distant as a rug under our feet, a tapestry of streets and lights unwinding under the dark sky. The parking lot is full of people, couple holding hands, admiring the breathtaking view. I know the place, I had been there before, but I act as if it’s all new to me, faking wonder at the panorama. We go around the church and he touches me every once in a while and every time he does that I become suddenly aware of the people around us and feel as if a knotted rope is tightening around my stomach making me rigid and distant. In the dark he stands up on the railing at the edge of the path and kisses me from above.

Then we are in the car again and we’re not taking the same road back, at one point he takes a different turn and there’s no more life around us except the occasional headlights of cars coming from the opposite direction. I want to ask him where we’re going but I don’t say anything because deep down I know he’s looking for a place in the dark where we could sit quietly in the car without being seen. He’s turning on a gravel path somewhere and when the he turns off the engine and the lights we’re surrounded by a totalitarian, darkened silence. The next thing I know is he’s pulling me on his side of the car, his hands sliding over my lower back and into the back of my pants. Then he’s telling me to unbuckle my belt because I’m so beautiful and he needs to feel my ass, and he’s kissing me, and I go limp. He’s asking me to feel his erection and I do. He unbuttons his pants and the sound that his pants make while he’s moving inside them is deafening in the silence, stronger than our rising breaths. He’s pulling me and pushing my head downwards towards his crotch and midway I think that maybe that’s not what he wants me to do, it’s just in my imagination, he doesn’t want me to go down on him. Yet his dick is out and waiting and the push doesn’t slacken and his belly is moving rapidly up and down and that’s exactly what he wants me to do. When I do it a sigh escapes from his mouth, a sigh of recognition, of efforts finally repaid. ‘You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to’, he’s telling me while still holding my head in place. I’m sitting in a very uncomfortable position, my left hand propped against the rough carpet of the car floor, and with every passing car I imagine one of them stopping, imagine a pair of policemen peering inside the car, their luminous flashlights morphing into crude moralizing eyes. I was making a list of possible explanations, mentally practicing my innocent tone of voice. What was I doing with my head in that man’s lap? What were we doing out there in the woods, in the dark? The best answer I could come up with was that we were just friends looking at the stars, you know, less light pollution out there in the woods. No cars stopped but each and every one of them seemed to slow down in the vicinity of the spot where we had decided to look at the night sky. He did not finish or, at least, I did not finish him. At one point he had asked me where I would like him to finish but I just pretended I did not hear or understand the question. He had given me the choice of backing off, so I took it, feigning innocence.

On our way back he asked me whether I still had an account on the dating app that had brought us together and whether I was seeing other guys. I told him I had not cancelled my account, as he had done, and that I was not seeing other guys. Although he denied it when I confronted him on the spot, the seemingly innocent question was meant to signal his desire to cut my ties with the local gay community. He didn’t want me to see other guys and the only way to make sure I was not going to see other guys in the near future was to cancel my account. I did it the moment I got home that night because here was a man who was showing signs of jealousy, which to my mind it felt as if the heaven of relationships was finally opening its gates for me as well. If I couldn’t get into the world of normal boys and men I could, at least, get a ride into the world of normal gay boys and men.

It all felt like an elaborate way of eloping. I told my parents I was going out with some friends and they didn’t ask questions. B would pick me up and drive around to all kinds of places. Once, when he had a free day from work, we even tried having lunch together on the shores of a river we never got to in the end because the parking spot he had envisioned was occupied by a prostitute. So we took a different road through woods and unpaved streets until we found a quiet little place by a water stream clogged with garbage. In the clearing where he had parked his car a discarded armchair reigned supreme, royal almost in the lush greenery. The whole scenery seemed surreal, what with the discarded washing machine and armchair. We ate bananas and buffalo milk mozzarella because that was what we had bought from the supermarket, where, out of a surge of emotion he had leaned into me and the two teenage girls behind us in the line laughed and whispered something to each other. For some strange reason that I never got to find out he didn’t want me to see him eat, supposedly because I would find his way of eating bizarre. I found it even more bizarre to even fathom disliking somebody’s way of eating. And then he started touching me again and telling me to follow him and touch his erection. Though the scenery looked pristine enough, and untouched by human hands except the discarded objects, I felt as if we were being watched and I needed to disconnect from the outside world in order to be with him. Once we got back into the car he pushed his pants down exposing his erection, so much more real this time in daylight, and he was pulling me once again, pushing my head down. Only minutes later there was a sudden jolt in his thighs and he wasn’t pulling me anymore but pushing me away, quickly, his hands no longer on my head but on the gear switch, on the car keys turning the ignition. When I lift my head from his lap I see another car a few feet away from us, just above us on the small hill outlining the path to the clearing. I can’t see whether it’s a man or a woman driving the car because I know I won’t be able to unsee that person’s face so I don’t look long enough to make out any distinctive features. I don’t see the color of the car. From the corner of my eye I see the person’s head moving backwards and turning from us as the car is backing away in order to make space for our car. I look down at the dark carpet, at my hands and feet and laugh nervously. B’s dick is still out while he’s driving. I don’t look back at the other car. I don’t want to remember it though, even now, after all this time, I can still feel its ominous presence at the edge of that clearing in the woods. What was that person thinking when he or she saw us?

It should have been thrilling, right? I believe most of us have heard this story before, you know, people in love (or not) eloping to get a few moments of privacy far from the prying eyes of a world that stubbornly refuses to understand them. Young boys sneaking in through windows at night to kiss that special girl, young daughters rebelling against the suburban feel of a family life they come to despise in time. The things people do for love, for friendship, for the things that other people can’t understand, or can’t accept. Yet, in a heterosexual world, there’s a dismissive finality to that eloping: the mother ultimately understands the daughter’s rebelliousness because maybe at one point in her life she had went through the same; the father, too, thinks back of the silly things that he used to do for the girl he liked; all parties in this story are secretly aware that things can’t possibly go too far off the grid. It will end somehow, and if that end turns to failure that failure is still prescribed within a knightly code. The girl or the boy just didn’t listen and look at how things turned out in the end. Let that be a lesson to you all. I don’t think we, gay people, have been afforded the same kind of dismissive finality. Our kind of eloping doesn’t feel like escaping a rigid set of rules of good breeding but a mode of escaping from the world. Maybe parents in the future will nod knowingly when their gay son’s life turns into a lesson to other gay sons and daughters. What’s our failure, what’s the karma in our case should we fail to listen to our parents and elope from a suffocating code? We can’t get pregnant, so no unwanted children, no shows like Sixteen and Pregnant for us gay guys. In some places we can’t even get married, so no suffocating marriages we cannot get out of, and there’s no peer pressure regarding that. No arranged marriages. Disease? Well, for a very long time, especially throughout the eighties when the AIDS crisis struck the gay community in particular, it was thought that disease was a punishment for a lifestyle that was allegedly unnatural. And then again straight people have STDs as well, so no difference there. Wouldn’t be easier to think that somehow, deep down, unlike straight people, we have liberated ourselves from the repercussions of transgressing? Bear with me here a while longer as I make my case.

A few months back, when I went to conference in Southern Italy, I shared the apartment with a German guy who was there for the same conference. I did not come out to him explicitly but I believe that at one point he got the idea, and throughout our stay there we had the chance to talk about a lot of things. When we got to talking about relationships, specifically, about his relationship with a girl he kept mentioning, I asked him about what was the thing that made him fall in love with that girl. What was the thing that made their relationship work? I cannot recall his exact phrasing of the matter but I distinctly remember him telling me that his “significant other” made him feel “replenished”. ‘That’s so heteronormative’, I replied. Of course, he asked me to elaborate. It was his description of the relationship with his significant other that bothered me most, mostly because it was so totalizing, it engulfed like a hungry whale what must have been, undoubtedly, a whole set of complexities that stood at the basis of that replenishment. More specifically, how do you quantify that replenishment? How do I know it when I feel replenished? And most people, when they don’t know how to answer such questions, simply say “you’ll know it when it happens”. Or not. You can’t possibly find something when you don’t know the features that make it that something. You can search aimlessly, and eventually find something, but that doesn’t mean it’s the thing that you were looking for in the first place. And most descriptions of straight relationships that I’ve heard are made in this way, so grandiose that they can only make me green with envy. Because look at me, unable to find that thing that would replenish me. How am I supposed to find that replenishment as a single gay guy? Does it mean I am defective? Incomplete?

Yes, that’s exactly what it means. But not because I’m single, or because any future relationship will fail to be replenishing by any kind of standards, gay or otherwise. It’s because we’ll constantly feel the need to run, to switch gears, because every person out there will bear, at the top of their skulls, the eyes of prison guardians. Because we’ll constantly feel that we’re not eloping from a set of rules that are meant to be broken anyway because everyone has already broken them once, but rather from the world itself. I’ll never be able to describe my relationship in such grandiose terms. “We’re pushed by the world to dark spaces,” says the narrator of Jonathan Corcoran’s short story Through the Still Hours, “filthy bathrooms, and secret lookouts. We feel dirty always, but then at a certain point, when we become familiar with these dark terrains, we begin to like the feeling. We claim the dark spaces and the secret corridors as our own. These acts become at first an outlet, and then an addiction: an instant erection upon pulling into a highway rest stop.” (54-55) We’re not able to comfort each other in public not because we don’t feel anything for each other but rather because we care too much about your feelings. At most, we’ll get a nervous chuckle from you when we tell you we feel differently, that we’ve always felt different, and that what we’re going through is not just a phase. Yes, I haven’t met the right girl for me because I’ve never imagined my “significant other” being a girl. And I don’t think that’s a failure of my imagination. You see, this might be our punishment, our scarlet letter sewn not to clothes easily discarded – god knows we gay gays can’t show up in a place wearing the same thing twice – but directly to our skin. To look through the fence at something that has been denied to us. Straight relationships are like advertising, they create needs where there were no needs beforehand, offer solutions to problems that were not there before. There’s a scientific arrogance in them.

So, when you walk into one of those “dark places”, be careful, two gay guys might be hiding from the world in there, kissing, holding hands, sucking each other off.

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