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.

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