Robb’s Last Tape (Take Fifteen)

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We didn’t have much money when we were little. Once, my brother stole money from my mother’s purse and went on a shopping spree that eventually cost us lunch money for almost a week. He bought lots of peanuts for some reason. I distinctly remember watching the other kids at school eat their wafers and chocolate bars while I only had one apple and a watering mouth. I know now that it was the healthier choice, but you know how envious kids can get. When the teacher wanted to know why I had only one apple for lunch, I told her the truth: we were out of money.

To my astonishment today, I didn’t blame my brother for it. At that time, I perceived it as a form of cruelty perpetrated on us by our parents. They must’ve had money stashed away in some hiding place, money they wanted to keep for themselves. We couldn’t be that poor. To my innocent mind, it was the grandmother’s fault because she was the one who took care of the family’s finances. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford that new game console, they just didn’t want us to have it. We had to wear the same jacket two years in a row while the other kids got new ones every year. I wore pants knitted by my mother, which I hated because they felt heavy and made me look bulkier.

People in school were mean for no reason. I was bullied throughout middle-school and high-school, that is, ever since I became aware of the fact that I had an ego that suffered when it was deprecated. Older kids made fun of me because I was chubby and studied a lot. Because I was a geek and spent time making mud pies. Some of my classmates derided my inability to run during physical education classes, which I avoided to the best of my abilities. I even had my parents bribe the family doctor to give me a special dispensation for those classes. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but my grandparents had convinced me that if I forced myself to do something, such as intense physical activity, something would burst inside me and I would die.

Once, I developed my own alphabet and wrote stuff using that. Kids in school made fun of that as well. I kept a diary and brought it to school every once in a while to draft and develop my thoughts. They stole it from my backpack and read it out loud to the others while I cringed with embarrassment. I had written about my first gay crush, who was an older student and a volleyball player. And for all this, the only explanation I could find at that time was that my classmates were inherently evil and that they hated my guts. So I tried to avoid them, get out of class before the bell rang, spend my weekends alone playing stupid online games. My father’s colleagues from work made jokes about my parents feeding me yeast, which made me look bloated like a balloon. My cousin’s grandma once told me I had the head and the ears of a mule. I was called a sissy by random people, on the street, in school, and everywhere I made an appearance.

Casual acts of verbal and physical cruelty were at the order of the day, to the point where even things such as “you shouldn’t sit outside because it’s cold,” took on the tinge of personal attacks. Why couldn’t they just accept the way I was? When my parents went away, I went to live in the city with an old lady (and a cat) who reprimanded me for my slowness and told me to suck it up and act like a man. These acts happened so often that I came to actually give credence to them and reach the conclusion that there was something inherently wrong with me. I didn’t deserve to have friends because I was so obnoxious. With this, there also came the belief that, eventually, somebody was going to accept me for who I was and save me from myself. The only thing to do, I thought, was to find that person and steer clear of all those haters who told me I wasn’t good enough. They were the ones who needed rehabilitation, not I. I was the innocent one.

Since then, I’ve made peace with it, with them, because the resentment consumed me. It still does, especially when I get rejected by someone and I am reminded once again of my own fallibility. It is in those moments that I begin contemplating the idea that perhaps my bullies were right after all. Maybe I am unlikeable just like they told me. Whenever I feel like I disappointed my students, by making an error or by not explaining a concept in the best possible manner, the feeling returns. Why am I even trying? Am I really that stupid to believe that I could actually do it? Yet, whenever this happens, I do my best to develop new ways of halting the stream of negative thoughts at their nascent stages. And it’s not by looking at myself in the mirror while repeating out loud that I am beautiful, that I deserve to be loved, that I am human and make mistakes. I do it by being frank about my fallibility up front so that people around me can identify my mishaps and perhaps forgive me for them, exercise empathy, nurture affection, or just ignore them.

As you can imagine, it takes a tremendous mental effort to do this, and at times panic settles in, and my body starts sending signals of encroaching danger where there is none. I had a severe episode on a Saturday morning in class when I felt I couldn’t go on teaching and had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom because I was afraid I was going to soil my underwear and pants in front of my students. I was out of breath and felt as if my knees were going to topple and I was going to fall over my desk. My heart was racing, and I was sweating profusely. That day, I taught for six hours in this pitiful state, taking frequent trips to the bathroom because I was drinking water like there was no tomorrow, and to this day I still can’t fathom what kept me going, or what, to my despair, was the thing that triggered it. The fear returns every once in a while, but I’ve learned to live with it, and now it no longer bothers me that much.

A similar episode occurred while I was driving the car with my parents in it, on our way to Romania. Our GPS got lost, and my reaction was way out of proportion. My blood pressure swiftly dropped. I couldn’t focus on the road, and I felt my senses receding to the back of my mind while I was desperately trying to focus on my breath. Luckily, I had not entirely lost my ability to make decisions and told my dad I needed to pull over because I was feeling unwell. The moment I did that, and I took a sip of water, I lost consciousness.

I woke up to a beeping sound, which in fact was only in my head, and to my parents’ dumbfound faces. I exchanged seats with my father, and just minutes later, after I had checked whether we were on the right motorway, I lost consciousness again. When I woke up, we were back on the side of the road, and there was that beeping sound still. Reality came back in chunks. First the sky through the windshield, then my mom and dad’s glassy eyes, their voices asking me whether they should call an ambulance. Then the realness of the situation: I had lost contact with reality a second time that day. My chest felt heavy, and my breath was labored as if no matter how much air I sucked into my lungs it just wasn’t enough. What scared me most, though, was the fact that I had uncovered in me this ability to explore, albeit unknowingly, this dark space that was beyond my control, and which ran dangerously close to death.

That summer, once we got to my grandparents’ place, I did a complete medical check-up. Blood tests came back clean. A cardiologist looked closely at my heart, literally, and concluded, somewhat to my chagrin, there was nothing wrong with it, except for the fact that it was slightly, almost imperceptibly, enlarged. I had hoped they could see my heartbreaks, but there was nothing there. Perhaps heartbreaks only make your heart bigger, able to accommodate even more people. Or more heartbreaks. I checked my blood pressure on a daily basis, and it stayed within the prescribed limits. My body was healthy, and all the tests corroborated that conclusion. The verdict was somewhat underwhelming: it was all in mind. My bullies were gone, only to be replaced by a bullying mind, which waged war on my body on a daily basis.

I tried meditation and mindfulness to dissuade my mind from going into a fully-fledged war with my body. My back ached from all those deep breaths I took. There was an urgency to the attacks which confounded me because I felt as if they went against my nature. I had been, throughout my life, a very calm person, so why was I experiencing them? Then, when all else failed, I tried medicating them. My doctor prescribed benzodiazepines, which I took, on doctor’s orders, one hour before my classes, so that the effects of the pills would be clearly discernible from the thrum of my irrational fears by the time I got to class. I panicked when I got on crowded trains, which was almost always the case, and I got lightheaded when I was about to go on a date. I resorted to the pack of pills, whose presence was somewhat reassuring, even when I was about to go out with my friends. My anxiety subsided the way an earthquake would, and I was able to enjoy life once again. I was back to my good old zen self.

The pills emptied me of whatever negative feelings I had. They slowed me down. Reality washed over me in a constant but calming stream, a rivulet really, and everything felt manageable. Whenever I made a mistake in class, I stopped, corrected myself, and apologized. I couldn’t care less about my slips. Yet, in time, I began being increasingly aware of the fact that the pills deprived me of whatever mechanisms I might have developed to work around my issues. They were not a way to do that, the tablets only numbed my feelings, which was akin to me avoiding my bullies in high-school when I asked my teachers to let me out the class before the bell rang. The solution was always the pill. When I couldn’t sleep because of all that constant worrying and dreading, my hand quickly reached for the pills, boxes of which I kept all over the house. I put one tablet in the pockets of every jacket I had, just in case.

I realized that matters were getting out of hand when I had gone out with a friend of mine, and he kept complaining about the humidity ruining his hair, and I was about to lash out at him and tell him that I was on benzodiazepines because I couldn’t deal with reality and he worried about his fucking hair?! I didn’t do it, but just the thought of wounding his ego in that way helped me understand that the medication was beginning to legitimize a side of me I wasn’t ready to call my own: the one that admitted defeat. The part of me which admitted to being unable to work without the pills’ helping hands. The side of me that had given up on trying to recover the calmness with which I had prided myself in the past. It was only a matter of time until I would resort to that chemical succor even for the most basic human functions, such as going to the supermarket or talking to neighbors.

Now, I don’t mean to say that medication is the easy way out of a time-consuming and challenging problem. When it comes to specific mental health issues medication is vital. That is, it saves lives. It helps people lead wholesome lives and prevents them from identifying fully with their affliction. You’re not your depression. Your anxiety does not define who you are. Yet, I believe it is also essential to realize that, in time, it could lead to a defeatist outlook on life, at least when it comes to anxiety disorders. Where do we draw the line between what we do and what medication makes us do? Does it affect our capacity to make decisions? Can we claim full authorship on a decision made while under medication?

Most of us probably know this, but medication does not go to the source of our problems, it only takes care of the symptoms. It sweeps things under the carpet where we can’t notice them, which can be a good strategy, especially when you have a full-time job, or you have to raise children who do not seem to understand your mood swings. It goes without saying that most people don’t understand mood swings because if they can just stop feeling depressed, then you can do it as well. You just have to be happy, embrace positive thinking, and start singing Bob Marley. It also goes without saying that this kind of advice is likely to make things worse because it implies that if one can do something, then all of us should be able to do it.

Over the past year, while dealing with my anxiety and panic attacks, I have also tried to identify as best as I could moments in my life that have led me to where I am today, but that’s always a difficult task. Most of the times the things you think have left a mark on you are not the source of your problems. It might be something else entirely. The abuse that was not perceived as abuse when it was perpetrated on you. Family issues, an alcoholic father, an opprobrious uncle, or a cousin whose sexual appetites were too developed for his age. It can be any number of things, and there is no right or wrong answer in this equation.

I always return to my bullies, which might be my easy way out. It might be that I’m giving them too much credit where there is little credit to offer, or where there is none. I also keep having the nagging sensation that my lingering on the high-school episode might be merely an obsession I have developed over the years and that it might be high time to just let it go. My bully-narrative does fall in line with the current craze for tales of redeeming à la Oprah Winfrey. We’re all looking, it seems, for a traumatic past that would explain why we are the way we are today, to be able to say that, yes, we’ve suffered, but we’ve managed to overcome that. Just look at how far we’ve come. And perhaps I’m vilifying my bullies the way I belittled my family when I felt like they weren’t giving me the things I wanted. I need them to be evil to justify the damage I seem to be doing to myself or to be able to say that the image I have of myself is beyond recovery because of that.

It’s astonishingly easy to vilify those who hurt us, or those who do things we perceive as hurtful. It’s as if we’re hardwired to do so, trained to expect instant gratification even when the rules of the game do not even mention it or are vague with regards to that. The slightest offense, such as reading a text without replying to it right away, triggers waves of resentment. Not getting a like on Facebook from a specific person is often interpreted as an indication of a friendship turning cold. Each gesture, even the most unconscious, is thus soaked with intentions that are, in most cases, detrimental to our mental wellbeing, deprecating to our egos, disrespectful of our investments, be them emotional or physical. The road from peace to fully-fledged war is a slippery slope.

This summer I met a guy I really liked, and it all seemed to work well between us. We both love books and reading, and so we always had something to talk about, albeit our tastes in literature were diverse. He likes Italo Calvino, while I find him cold and distant at times (though the guy swears that it’s not so). I love Faulkner and other authors he has never read, and probably never will. But that never got in between us. The first time we went out we had drinks at a bar in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and we instantly liked each other. We discussed Camus that time, and in no time we got to touching hands and looking at each other with dreamy eyes. After we had drinks, we bought beers and went to his place and listened to music late into the night. We talked about Virginia Woolf and, of course, we kissed (and…did some other stuff as well; I won’t go into details). Then it was time to go because it was getting late, and he accompanied me downstairs, and we kissed by the main entrance knowing that there were surveillance cameras. We felt rebellious because, I think, we had uncovered something in each other we both liked. I took a rented bike and rushed to the train station all sweaty from the pedaling and the unusually warm night. But I felt happy.

We decided to meet again, and when I went to pick him up from his apartment, I immediately noticed something was off. We had drinks at a different bar, and we grabbed something to eat, and then we took a long walk on the banks of the river Po at night. And we had THE talk. He liked me a lot, but he was unsure about it, because he had felt the same way about his ex, and it was happening all over again, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. He was happy about seeing me, but then he saw me and felt doubt creeping in. I felt humiliated and embarrassed and told him I was going to go because the discussion made me uncomfortable, and it reminded me of other such dates, which had not worked out and they only made me feel bad about myself. Yet, he told me to stay and talk things through. We did discuss things through, and his doubts seemed to recede. My doubts did the same. I have always been of the conviction that whatever issues we might encounter in such cases there was a way out, a compromise that would make things work.

We met, repeatedly, and then he had to go back to the south for the summer holidays. We talked, every day, exchanged ideas about books and writing because he is also a writer in the making. He got jealous when I commented on other guys’ pictures on Facebook, and he told me so. I was happy with that because, finally, there was a guy who likes me the way I am. Then the ominous silences began until I couldn’t take it any longer and demanded an explanation. He told me he changed his mind and gave full swing to his doubts. He was no longer interested in pursuing whatever we had because he never really liked me in the first place. I’m an exciting guy but physically not that attractive, and so he had decided we could stay friends.

I tried crying but couldn’t. Tears never came quickly to me. A friend suggested I took a shower because showers made him cry when the situation required it. I tried writing but couldn’t. I walked around my grandparents’ back garden trying desperately to muster the energy to scream, to be furious, to kick things, punch holes through the walls. I turned the music to full volume hoping that in that way I wouldn’t be able to hear my thoughts. What did I expect? Why had I trusted this guy who was, ultimately, just like everybody else? I should have known better! I tried reading James Baldwin to calm down, but nothing helped. The heaviness in my chest returned, the shortness of breath, the lightheadedness. And all I wanted to do was tell this guy that he was a douchebag. I felt betrayed, sad, and alone, and most of all, I saw my old fears confirmed. My bullies had been right after all.

I didn’t tell the guy any of that stuff. Resorting to negative feelings, I had come to know, was akin to reaching for the pills. A quick way out that would have closed the door behind me forever. And I didn’t want that. Deep down I hoped he would take his words back and we would get back together. So I kept all that resentment to myself. Then, when we met after the summer something was definitely off. He kept squinting at me as if he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. He was overdoing his gestures, he laughed theatrically and somewhat nervously. He was intent on showing me that we had lost whatever spark there was between us. To this day we still exchange texts every once in a while. A couple of days ago he sent me a picture of the cover of a book which had made him think of me, and that makes me happy.

Yet, my initial reaction was to vilify him. I wanted him to sense my resentment and feel sorry for hurting me. I wanted him to feel sorry for himself. And although I thought of him in this way at that time, now I realize that it was only a deviation from how I honestly feel about him. I still experience that warmth in my chest I felt the first day we met when I think of him. He may feel differently about this whole situation, yet I choose to stay true to my feelings. I will most likely never know how he felt. I only hope we worked things out, in the best way, for both of us. Resentment returns, of course, and often when I see him on dating sites, I get jealous and imagine him going out with all those guys. But that feeling is only a feeling that is not mine to have. He made his choices. I made mine.

And that’s that.

I saw his best friend today, on my way to class, and I was reminded of him. The same friend in front of whom he had kissed me once when we met on the street, back when things were still going well, and I was full of hopes, and I couldn’t look at other guys. And a wave of bitterness washed over me. And I took a walk. I often doubt myself, yet I refuse to believe there’s something wrong with me. I’m sure he had his reasons.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Fourteen)

I used to do drag on stage when I was in high school. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t know how to do elaborate makeup and sew fabulous dresses out of curtains. Doing drag, for me, at that time, wasn’t new at all. When I was little, I used to dress up in my mother’s clothes and put on lipstick and dance in front of the mirror. I thought high heels were just the thing I needed. Pretending to be a woman on stage felt like a natural extension to my daily life: I did the washing up when mother was too busy doing other stuff, and grandpa always added an “a” to my first name, which, in Romanian, is usual for girls’ names, whenever he wanted to be affectionate. I was, throughout my childhood, called all kinds of names and they were all variations of sissy. Or they felt like they were variations of that.

I spent a lot of time with girls because guys naturally excluded me from their group. When I did manage to break through that wall of ice, which rarely happened, they regarded me with suspicion and kept me at arms’ distance. Or they bullied me back to the girls’ side of the room, where I was accepted with the kind of giggle you give a child when it cannot work out how a toy works. I knew I wasn’t one of them, that was kind of obvious, I had the extra thing, but at least I had somebody to hang out with. And that was okay for a while, that is until I was expected to develop a sexual interest in girls. Which is where things started to go amiss. For obvious reasons that were not as obvious at that time as they are today.

My brother did it. His friends did it. My uncle did it. They all spoke about girls with a wink at the end of every sentence as if they had been let in on a secret I was yet to be revealed by actually being with a girl. Often enough, my brother would boast about the fact that he had been taught by my uncle to fuck everything he could get his hands on, no pun intended. As opposed to my brother and his friends, who gathered to watch porn on the same VHS player I used for watching Disney movies (Aladdin is my favorite btw), girls represented a particular class of citizens that, to the eyes of the same group of men, required the implementation of a strategy, an approach. You circled around them, and then you closed in on them.

I was, of course, oblivious to the procedure, and I still am. The first time I went out with a girl, and she held my hand, all I felt was the embarrassment of having trespassed on an act that was not for me to see. She snuggled against me while we were watching a movie at the cinema, and perhaps I knew I was supposed to do something, but I kept watching the film because there were fucking robots and flying drones in it (“only a guy could like such things,” she said). When another girl held my hand, just outside class at university, I felt like disappearing because I was suddenly visible, my interests were revealed to the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel the same about guys. A couple of weeks ago I went out with a guy, whom I really liked, and we held hands and kissed in public. At the bus stop, while waiting for my bus to come, I kept my arm around his shoulders, and a little girl stared at us, and I couldn’t help obsessing over what she might be thinking. Or what the mother, who accompanied the child, might be thinking. I felt the urge to keep my hands to myself, but I also felt the guy didn’t want me to do that, and we sort of met halfway, unconsciously, and decided to enjoy those moments together. That shyness was there, too, yet, it was a shyness overruled by honesty. I wasn’t doing something that betrayed who I was, or who he was. It was the shyness of being awarded a prize of which I was proud.

I felt the same giddiness, though of a different degree when I went to the Pride Parade in Turin this year. I danced in the streets, and there were times when a chastising voice in my head kept reminding me of the fact that I was a university teacher and that a student might see me, inevitably, and think the worst. Or tell his parents who would later storm into my office and point an accusatory finger at me. I found it hard, but I reminded myself that the parade was precisely about that, about being proud of who I was, and that there must be, akin to the lives of famous writers, a separation between the personal and the professional, and that the two do not mix except obliquely and in non-invasive ways. At the end of the parade, my friends and I sat down on the sidewalk in the Vittorio Veneto square, and I felt somewhat empowered and decided to wear the rainbow flag on my backpack. I felt the fatigue one feels at the end of a productive day.

But above all these aspects, there looms an overwhelming fear, which creeps in often enough to make us avoid certain situations and which leads us to long and search for safe spaces. The phrase is often overused in gay-speak, but it defines a place where we are free of the expectations of gender. Where we are not expected to develop a sexual interest in a person of the opposite sex. Where we are able not only to hold hands and kiss with people of the same sex but also where guys can have girl-friends and girls can have boy-friends and not feel the pressure of sexual interest. It’s not necessarily a physical space, akin to those quiet coaches on a train, but it does set boundaries against any type of bullying. It is, quintessentially, a space that makes us less self-conscious.

I’m confident there are people out there, people I know, people you know, who do not see the necessity of these safe spaces. Society nowadays has developed a system of checks and balances that ostracize those who engage in hate speech, and this is, doubtlessly, a positive development. In most European countries today as well as in the United States, gay people are no longer attacked, verbally or physically, for their preferences. But that is not the point. Difference, much like change, is always unsettling mostly because we live in a world that is saturated with the things we trust are normal. When I started sharing my dating life on Facebook by writing short posts in Italian, I did it with the best of intentions and out of the belief and confidence that I should no longer hide. A few days after publishing one of my posts, the father of a friend of mine warned me that I was too naive and that some people, out there, might not be as open-minded as the most of us. He said it was fatherly advice and I accepted it as such, although, for a minute, I had visions of somebody using my words against me. An enraged student, one of my high school classmates, my parents’ friends who might use my homosexuality against them. Since then, I started filtering out, by using Facebook’s privacy settings, those who might pose a threat from that point of view. Friends, except so and so. And that is the point.

You mostly feel the necessity of these safe spaces when you like somebody, and you feel the world is standing between the two of you. It might be something that the guy you’re dating says while you’re waiting to get your movie tickets at the cinema that makes you want to touch his face. But before you take any action, you must always, be aware of your surroundings. The thought process is akin to those habit-breaking techniques they teach you when you’re trying to quit smoking. Take a step back, observe your thinking, and act against it. If you’re straight, you don’t think twice before touching your girl’s face to show affection. We have to think twice. I’ve experienced this a couple of times, but I’ve never felt it so ardently as I did when I met Richard.

[Slight change of tone here. Bear with me.]

Richard lives with his mother, and after meeting me for the first time, she told him that I’m slightly effeminate. He said it casually, over one of our expensive dinners, as if to say that he doesn’t agree with his mother’s first impression. I dismissed this confession with a papal wave of the hand. All first impressions are mistaken, as the saying goes, and to the naked eye of a mother who can only wish the best for her son, I might appear slightly offputting, as all in-laws do. And I might have returned to the thought, perhaps, while I was having sex with her son and she was still in the house one Saturday morning, adding to it, if not scorn, then at least some form of pity. But not the kind of compassion one feels for the unfortunate; instead, it was the sort of sympathy one feels for those who decide to tell you about the latest conspiracy theory they came across on the internet.

The first time I met Richard, which was in front of the Porta Susa train station in Turin, I fell in love with him. Love might be a word too big for what really happened, but I like to think that, finally, and for once, I fell in love with a guy. He speaks English with a proper English accent (not sure about the grammar though), and he dresses like a guy who’s got his own business and likes to look as if he’s never done one hour of work in his life. Which is the cool and slightly-urban-zen-just-out-of-the-gym-and-freshly-showered kind that makes you jealous and fear for your life. The second time we went out for drinks, I was still in love with him and touched his hand while he was showing me a LOTR parody on YouTube. It was also out of love that I decided to tell him the drinks were on me. It didn’t matter that I spent the pocket money I had saved for a week teaching English to a twelve-year-old on two drinks (!!!) as long as it was out of love. We kissed in the car in an underground parking lot, and we kissed when nobody was looking. And when we went out with his friends, I had to pretend I was straight.

Now, acting straight in public should be (and is, presumably) easy, and it’s not really about making comments about girls or talking about how much you like them. It is, in fact, the default label you end up with unless the person observing you has the emotional acumen to detect or understand that you are not straight. I say this from personal experience. A girl I met at the library once told me she had sensed a peculiar sensitivity in me and hence she concluded that I must be gay. A student of mine, a girl, told me she realized I was gay from the way I folded the cable of my earphones. It’s true, I don’t like when it gets all tangled up, but that girl is Sherlock. (Also, she might be reading this.) However, most people don’t have that, and they stick to the default settings: you’re straight, let’s not discuss this further. And Richard wore that label like some people wear their flaws. On his (expensive shirt) sleeve.

We always sat at opposite ends of the table, and if any touching was to be involved, we did it under the table, and only when some heavy tablecloth could cover our trespasses. Richard would always look both ways before doing anything that showed affection towards me. When I asked him whether he came out to his parents, he said yes but that he didn’t really talk about it with them. His friends did not know, and once it happened that one of the girls took an interest in him and he rejected her, not because he was gay, there was no talk of that, but because he was not interested. This created tensions within his group of friends, for obvious reasons, and he kept complaining about the fact that the others sort of avoided him. The problem was, of course, with his friends.

We danced around the topic akin to tribal men around a fire. When I addressed the issue of him coming out to his friends, which, I thought, might have eased the tensions and reinforced the bonds he had with these people, Richard dismissed it and said that he doesn’t want his sexual preferences to define who he is. Which is, rationally, a valid argument. Nobody puts that on their CV for sure, just like nobody goes around telling people, at the bus stop, for instance, that they are gay or straight. Being proud of who you are also implies this, that you can lead a life in which what you do in the bedroom does not affect your daily struggle, that you have a secret life you share only with those who matter. Yet, again, that is not the point.

Coming out is a sensitive topic. When I came out to my parents, I trembled the way I do the moment I’m about to open some blood test results. We all struggle with it, and it is that very struggle that makes the moment crucial, and constructive. Before actually doing it, I practiced everything in my head a thousand times: what I’m going to say, how I’m going to do it, where I’ll keep my hands. Yet I knew that I have to do it because, for a very long time before that, it had started to affect how I acted around my parents. Thinking twice before doing or saying anything in their company became second nature and, for once, I wanted to enjoy the ease of mind and body I could only feel at home. And perhaps that is the point. You come out to the people you care for when you begin to think that what you do in the bedroom stands between you and that ease of mind you experience only when you’re around family and friends. It’s about removing a massive amount of anxiety from your life.

I stopped seeing Richard more than a year ago. We didn’t discuss it over, we just stopped talking to each other. He isn’t much of a talker anyway. I wouldn’t hear from him for months until I would write to him and ask him out. He blocked me on Facebook or deactivated his profile, I do not know for sure. I only know that he disappeared from my life. Searching for reasons would only mean vilifying him, and I don’t want to do that. Then, a few months back, I started to miss him and asked him out again. We had drinks and French fries at this very butch pub in Turin. And by butch I mean that they sell burgers and dozens of different types of beers I cannot tell apart and men go there to watch soccer matches wearing funny hats and flags. We talked, and I was disheartened to notice that he had not changed his mind in the meantime. He no longer goes out with his friends because he feels as if they betrayed him somehow. I asked whether he made any new gay friends and he said he doesn’t need that. I suggested he tried dating apps, we had met, after all, on Tinder, but he told me everyone there has AIDS, and I didn’t broach the subject further.

I was on those dating apps as well. I knew some of those people who supposedly were HIV positive. I saw him again in his pastel-colored suit at my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, but he didn’t stick around for drinks, so we didn’t have the chance to talk that much. I still get that warmth in my chest when I see him, and, perhaps, that feeling will never go away. I hope it doesn’t. And I hope he’ll find what he’s looking for, whatever that is.

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Architectural Design (sneak peek III)

[Beginnings]

On the way to the shop, the sexless child, like any sexless child, fell from the sky in the village of grandma and into the arms of an overweight priest who tried drowning the sexless child in abnormal water. On the way to the shop, the child fell on knees and elbows, breaking the skin. That’s when the child acquired a gender. The sexful child became he.

Such joy. A boy to carry the name on his shoulders. A name like a dead body.

Wait. Or perhaps some internal animal, eager to come out, tricked the child into falling on his knees and elbows to make the blood come out. It was the devil that the overweight priest tried to wash away with the abnormal water. The blood came out, first shyly then stubbornly, like a playmate who refuses to leave. The child ran back home crying and the child’s father suggested he wash his wounds with soap. The mother disagreed and instead placed the child on her extended legs, rocking him from side to side until the pain subsided, so that the child faced the womb and go back the way he came.

But the child did not know how to get back.

The child had to wait for the wounds to heal. The skin around the wounds turned hard, then brown. The child looked forward to peeling off the hardened brown skin and so, to make the time pass, he played on soft grass, and read books on a blanket in the garden. The child used to look at the sky and think of it as the glass belly of a bottle. Then the day would finally come, when the brown hardened skin revealed the pink fragile skin beneath, the incarnation of an embarrassing kiss or of violence discovered at a later date. That other skin would harden, again, and fall, again, imperceptibly.

The child was an animal. Really.

Not unlike any other animal in the schoolyard, but somewhat different, more like a frown on an adult woman’s face when she sees horse shit on the side of the road. Indeed, more like a fart that everyone heard. This animal broke a sweat every time he masturbated.

[The shape of the sky is the shape of your life]

The houses were the same. They were painted differently, according to the taste and financial means of the owner, but they had the same look. Two big rooms with small windows. A kitchen, at the back of the house, to be used only during rough winters. The kitchens had slanted ceilings. A storage room that housed fruit and was dark enough for monsters to live in it. And an attic, where clothes were hanged to dry during the winter.

In those houses they slept, and fucked, and ate their lunches and every other meal.

The blue blue sky so unavailable. The grass, our grass, on late November mornings like hair parted to the side. Those mornings like the amber droppings of cherry trees. The ground beneath their feet so sterile that the neighbors’ grapes were sweeter. The cherry trees refused to grow and only gave them limited access to their fruit. Some rituals had not been performed properly, the ground too young to give birth to anything appealing except perhaps for the children who needed to be kept away from harm. The world beyond the front gate so evil the children had to jump over the fence and endure the bruises that flowered between their thighs. The bruises that mother would discover when she washed them on Wednesday and then on Saturday.

The trees fell from the sky like strands of hair. Grandma brushed her hair in the morning, the hair she dyed only just above the forehead, the side of the head that was most visible from under her headscarf.

The trees the children climbed to steal fruit or simply to bypass fences. Cherry trees were particularly precious. Old men guarded them with sticks and stones and if you dared to steal the fruit you ended up with a good beating.

The hair at the bottom of the sink. The hair mother found on dad’s clothes asking whose hair it was. This is not my hair. My hair is not as long as that. The condoms that mother found in father’s winter coat. About which we heard but hadn’t heard.

In winter, mother smoked by the stove, the smoke getting sucked into the puzzled mouth of the stove. She was trying to get father’s attention and she threw a box of matches at him. The box flew through the room and hit father in the groin and when the children were not looking, father made a face, and in that face the child saw their adolescence, and how adults were not the adults of books or the adults they saw on TV. These were not the adults who set on voyages not knowing where they went to seek cure for obscure illnesses. These parents were the parents who were content with what little they had.

The rooms had to be big enough to accommodate numerous families. To save on firewood, large families could crowd in one of the rooms. Most often, the other room was used as storage. And Christmas trees. Since Christmas trees had bars of chocolate on them, besides the twinkling lights and other merry paraphernalia, they had to be kept in cold rooms. Not because of the temperature, of course, the chocolate bars didn’t melt easily, but because the children had to be kept away. The tree was there for the pictures. Which we took with large woolen caps on our heads and heavy sweaters that were as itchy as they looked. We didn’t go in there. We just knew we had a Christmas tree in a part of the house that was inaccessible to us.

The other room was also where the good clothes were stored. People and clothes had to be separated that way. Clothes needed their intimacy as well. Grandpa’s heavy leather jackets were particularly shy. Like distant relatives, they were brought into the habitable room only on the nights preceding special events. Such as going to church. And like distant relatives they brought with them a smell of their own. The smell did not conceptually belong to grandpa. His heavy leather jacket, the suede kind on the outside, with white sheep hair on the inside, occasionally smelt of aftershave and deodorant. That wasn’t grandpa’s smell. His smell was that of chewed and digested grass and hay. His smell was that of sheep. Little lambs, that were sometimes brought in the house during cold winter nights. We visited them in their shed and took the smell with us. We didn’t mind it, of course, we knew no other, better, smells.

What did you expect? We were used to seeing our own shit, and that of the others in the household, steaming in the outdoor toilet on cold winter mornings. If you had to take a dump late at night or, even worse, in the middle of the night, well, good luck to you, my friend. No matter how well you dressed to withstand the thermal shock of going out at night after spending hours in an overheated room, your balls suffered nonetheless. You had to pull your pants down. In a tiny wooden shed where even your breath turned to steam. Constipation was a drag from so many points of view. You gave up easily because of the cold. Your ass froze. And sometimes a rat would appear and drown in your own shit-and-piss.

The houses were all the same.

Sad mothers grew up in them. At dinner, the men in them ate their souls and they grew like skyscrapers. They grew to become big strong men, so strong that even their convictions grew stronger in time. Their heads turned hard.

I rarely put things on my head. My head is big enough. If I put things on my head, such as a cap or a hood, my head is bound to look bigger. Hence disgusting. Nobody wants to feel like that about their heads. Unless there’s something going on in your head, unless your head is messed up and the only thing that can make it right is reprogramming, the traditional brainwash, mental shampooing. Use a soft piece of cloth for the eyes, you don’t want to scratch those LEDs, miss the high definition.

But when I do put things on my head, and then take them off, I need time to realize there’s nothing on my head. I put my hands over my hand to tell my brain there’s actually nothing there. My brain eventually gets it. My head is really free and surprisingly small, less disgusting.

When I was little a log fell on my head. I started running home the moment it happened. The other kids stopped me and told me to calm down. My head was alright, they said, and they put their hands around my face. My brain understood it was still in one piece. It was a big log. If I were to put my fingers hands around it my fingers wouldn’t touch. Not even close. I knew the log was going to fall on my head so I stood underneath it, to see how it felt.

When the log fell the pain at the top of my head told me to stand my ground. It was the full stop at the beginning of every sentence. My feet dug into the ground and since then I’ve been swimming in the dirt. The other kids didn’t want me to tell. They encouraged me to stand under the log and see it fall on my head.

The log was part of a homemade contraption, engineered by the grandfather of my cousin who wasn’t actually my cousin but it was nice to think of her as cousin. We had a swing made of wrought iron and the cousin got really jealous and she told her grandpa she wanted one as well. He put the log in between two trees and tied a thick string to it in the shape of a swing. A wooden board with two half holes at each end made sitting on the swing comfortable enough to satisfy the whims of a little girl. If you swung long enough the log would rotate until it fell out.

Nothing happened, except for the swimming-in-the-dirt thing. My head got bigger because of that realization. My ears got big as well, to fit the size of the head.

‘Your head is so big,’ my cousin’s granny said, ‘you have the ears of a donkey, and your brother’s life will amount to nothing.’

‘You stay away from her,’ my cousin’s grandpa said, ‘go home and leave her alone.’ He was trimming the trees on the street and I was just a little boy. I took my oversized head and went home, which was not very far away because we were neighbors.

On the train, on my way to work, much later on, I thought of what I saw that day while returning home. I saw mountains growing on the inside, their snowy peaks like those of homemade bread, then breath in between them, porous shame, like that of broken shoes.
A big head should house many things, even the unnecessary. But it cannot remember what happened to the toy stolen but not really stolen from grandma’s house. The grandmother on the father’s side had a house unlike our own, and in it there was a room that had no power outlets and no lights, no heating implements. The father’s twin brother and his wife slept in there even during the winter. They warmed the pillows and the covers before going to bed. They tucked themselves under the heated sheets and they slept.

In the house there were toys very different from our own and one of the cousins insisted I hide one of them under the shirt and take it home. But then, a couple of hundred feet from the house the toy disappeared.

I expected, even after reality set in and I finally got home, the toy to fall from my shirt and reveal itself.

How could a head so big forget about the toy?

‘Your head is so big,’ a classmate told me in high school. I moved to one of the other beds in the room. Where else could I tuck my head, renounce this huge house of dreams?

My father’s car got a remake and was painted in a putrid red, the color and the texture of overly matured grapefruits. The underweight neighbor whose husband lost his mind came and marveled at it the day after it was brought in from the repair shop. She must have marveled at how much money went into that paint. At times I went in the car to listen to music on the radio. The car then became a big pair of headphones. I listened to Hotel California without knowing what it was or why the musicians had decided to dedicate the song to a hotel.

The backseat was the most fascinating part of the car because that is where the goodies used to sit. Bananas mostly, chocolate, and yogurt. When the backseat was empty it was a disappointment. It happened one of my birthdays when father didn’t bring anything in the backseat. I was showered with gifts a couple of days before my birthday but that didn’t matter. Those gifts didn’t count. I wanted that game console that resembled a computer keyboard. I could write on it. Play word games. Which I didn’t play in fact, because they were boring. But just having the possibility to play that kind of games made my desires go mad.

I was around my school in the afternoon and I saw my father’s car returning home and he stopped and I got in and the backseat was so empty I wanted to cry.

At home I sat on the front steps of the house and acted real sad.

I told my father about the game console and he assured me that it was coming in the next couple of days. My father, the traitor, the unloving father.

 

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.