Robb’s Last Tape (Take Thirteen)

Barbie and Ken

A reading by the author:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For once, just let it go.

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

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

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Eleven)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tis the season

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It’s always been the same. Christmas. It’s always been about the food and the awkward moments clustering around the notion of food: the family moments, the pictures, the Christmas tree (always missing something), the gifts, the excessive drinking and overeating, the idiotic jokes, and the sudden jolt of recognition that we all are mere shallow human beings who are bound to make mistakes. And like all creatures of habit we’ve turned all this into a celebration of habit. Christmas is the excessive salivation at the sound of the bell. It’s the constant worrying about those extra kilos and the mother-in-law who thinks everything is inappropriate. It’s when food is served with fear. It’s about dad’s jokes, the ones that deep down, hidden between folds of carefully chosen language overheard from other conversations, hide a darker truth, one that always ends up being sexual. It’s about those other people stopping by and about their crinkled noses when they’re offered another piece of homemade panettone. They’re so full of it. I mean, just look at them. And it’s about dad telling them that from the waist down you resemble him. Why would he even say that?

Christmas is also about friends coming over. Those people who are not really your friends because, believe me, there had been a time in their lives, a time as long as a moment’s beat, in which they disagreed with something you did but never had the guts to tell you so. It’s about their sexual frustrations. And yours. Gosh, it’s never been about the birth of Jesus Christ or whatever. That’s just an extended commentary, a side note to whatever we do at this time of the year. That’s Hamlet’s soliloquy, the one that doesn’t push the action forward but doesn’t bring it to a halt either. It’s something that we know by heart; it is etched into our daily lives so much so that we’re not longer paying attention to it. It’s metalanguage, a mental lullaby. And I don’t want to bring that to your attention, don’t worry, I’m not here to preach about how we’ve lost the “true” meaning of Christmas and instead replaced it with a mercantilism as tasteless as fruit out of season. Nothing of the sort. Its magic hasn’t been lost or wasted on us. On the contrary, it has become more subtle, a trait of adulthood, a portent. I’m here to tell you that, at least for me, Christmas is the saddest thing ever. For a couple of reasons.

I used to go caroling when I was little. I rehearsed it months before the winter holidays because caroling was essentially a “profession” for us kids. It was a way of earning money. The better we sang and the longer the carols the more money we got for it. And each year, like ever expanding chain stores, we went farther from our house because rumor had it that certain houses, such as those of the rich people from the village, gave out more money. Relatives and acquaintances also gave out more money and at the end of the night we would return home and count our money and dream of all the things we could buy with it. We hid the money in the most unexpected places. I never knew where my brother hid his money, but mine was always behind one of the holy paintings spread all around the house. We never bought anything significant with it because the things we bought came with a dose of bitterness. We couldn’t buy sweets because our mother and grandmother forbid it. What would the other people in the village think if they saw us buying sweets from the local shop? They would think of them as bad housewives. There were plenty of sweets at home. We couldn’t buy toys. They were useless anyways. And so there was not much left we could buy. So the money lingered, hidden behind the paintings until mother asked us for a loan. The money was never returned but mother used to point to us that she got new shoes for us, and the winter coats, and sometimes she just waved it off with her hand.

Santa, too, was a sly piece of a man. He never cared about what we wanted because the things we wanted were just too expensive. Once, he brought me about two pounds of tangerines and a plastic mask. I can distinctly remember when I opened the package because the logic behind it was so uncanny that even today it leaves me speechless. I ate all the tangerines that Christmas day. I can’t remember what happened to the mask but I do remember I only put it on my face once and it was enough. The plastic had the color of skin and the cheeks were painted lipstick red. It was not funny. At all.

The only other Christmas gift I can distinctly remember is a remote toy car that only went forward and backwards and had a long wire on its tail that connected it to the remote. The car was white and it was a sports car. Mine broke a couple of minutes after I opened the gift. My brother’s toy car kept working long after. I remember our school friends gasping when we told them about the toy cars. I didn’t feel the same. I had never dreamt of toy cars. Cars were not my thing but Santa never listened anyway. He wasn’t interested in the details, he was too far off to see the details. No wonder he lived so far removed from the all-inclusive, politically correct western society.

Eventually we understood that Santa didn’t in fact exist. Yet that realization was not as instantaneous as it is usually portrayed in the movies. We didn’t stare into the abyss when we came to it. We didn’t think life sucked from then on. Life was bad even when Santa was still in power, his totalitarian regime controlling every aspect of our lives. The realization grew on us because of the gifts that we got every year. Santa resembled our family’s financial situation just too much to be something other than a figment of our parents’ desire to maintain a familial fantasy. When times were hard Santa never came, no matter how good we had been during the year. One Saturday night, after our weekly bath, not long before Christmas, mother made me wear a new pajama. It was beige and had little boys drawn on it in repetitive patterns. Then the pajama disappeared and I forgot about it. It reemerged victorious on Christmas when I was given a gift by a fake Santa at the kindergarten. I did not realize at that time it was the same pajama and I even pointed out to my mum that my brother could wear the other one, the one that had been previously given to me on that Saturday night. Mum didn’t say anything. She just nodded in agreement. From that point of view, Santa was a good teacher. He taught us good deeds meant nothing when it came to the money machine.

Back then, Christmas was also about excessively cleaning the house, about keeping up appearances, about those couple of minutes when the priest came into our homes to bless us, the faint smell of basil in the holy water. When all the cleaning up was over we were not allowed to sit on the bed. The pillows needed to look fresh, the covers perfectly tucked. The food had to be plenty and sometimes, when not all of us were around, my grandmother would look at all the food and start crying. It was about remembering those who had passed away and who returned to our homes through food offerings. I can still remember the dumplings one of our neighbors brought on Christmas in memory of her dead husband. I recall the jam inside them.

I recall how every year there were less and less people sitting with us at the table on Christmas eve. First it was my uncle, who went abroad to look for work and meaning. Then it was my father, who also went abroad to look for work and run away from his past. Then it was my mother, who couldn’t bear the thought of living without my father and followed him submissively. My brother went after them and sent us pictures of other people sitting at different tables in different countries. Then I went away as well, as if tired of all those empty seats at my grandparents’ table. Nowadays, when I call my grandmother to wish her happy holidays I can hear something falling inside her voice, a hope that is crumbling. We are never coming back, grandma.

Somehow, Christmas always feels like a reminder of how far removed we are from some nobler, more perfect version of ourselves. A reminder of who we are, where we stand in the grand scheme of things. It’s an indicator of class as it is an indicator of our relationship status. It tells us, like the result of some difficult equation, that some people among us have gotten lucky because, look at them, they have something to hold or kiss beneath, at least, an imaginary mistletoe. It’s that time of the year when we look back at the things we did and realize we cannot have them again under any shape or form. That’s why, for me, whenever I wish somebody to have a merry Christmas what I mean to say is that I wish for them to have a merry recollection of that past, of that nobler version of themselves. And it’s not about putting glitter over shit as it is not about embracing things with joy, or drowning them in liquor. It’s more like realizing that you’re breathing and then holding your breath in until it hurts.

So, merry Christmas, whoever you are.

Ripe, a novel in three parts

Ripe is the first novel I ever wrote. Though I call it a novel only for the sake of a generic, if not childish, necessity. I started writing the first part in 2009 when I had just completed my undergraduate studies and spent the whole summer reading and writing. A couple of years later I wrote the second part. Then I thought the endeavor wouldn’t be complete without a third part. Since it’s a novel about the painful process of acquiring maturity and of discovering oneself I thought a third part would close the circle, and close it for good.

Ripe is also a novel about the nature of light. I’ve always been fascinated with the textures of light, its whims, the way it often appears as a mood rather than a stream of rays. But more specifically, it’s a novel about how different people have different light around them. Some of my characters appear in a golden light and some of them have no light at all. There are mirrors and beds around these characters, windows, closets, a mental geography that has stayed with my writing and with me since then.

There’s no structure to this novel, it does not follow a narrative except the one you could deduce from what’s being said. The structure is the novel itself, there’s no chronological order but episodes coming from different moments of my life. Ripe is an end in itself, an ax digging into the trunk of a fallen tree. It’s an attempt to reconstruct that tree, to bring it back to the exploding leaf buds, the greenery of Spring, and to force it back into that final admit of defeat, the falling.

Ripe is a novel that must be read, I think, in small doses because it might smell like gasoline, or like fresh paint. And like all of my novels, this one is dedicated to a person I can’t name directly but who has haunted my writings, whatever shape they take. All of my novels, in fact, are a prolonged apology to that particular person.

You can download the full version, for free, here: ripe-a-novel-in-three-parts

The effete, novel and social category

10352397_10201907955522302_8911305111952872968_nI wrote The Effete, a novel set in an utopian community on the outskirts of an unknown city, in 2013, and for the first time in my writing career I was experimenting with names. I don’t usually give names to my characters because most often I’m afraid that people who know me will be able to recognize themselves in the things I write about. By not using names, I also want to maintain the widest aperture to the reader, let him or her do part of the work of fiction, fill in the blanks, as well as liberate my characters of a certain excess of interpretation. From this point of view, The Effete is different: though there are no more than a couple of characters, they have a name, they are identifiable. The very title of the novel is a name in itself, one describing a social category. In the Theatür, the motherly company that in the end becomes a way of life and a metaphor for the reality that I myself have been experiencing for quite a while, “the effete” are those who have been expelled from the ranks of presumably “normal” human beings and who have sought refuge in a world where they are being told exactly what they are. No embellishments, no fancy language, the effete know where they stand. The rest is variation. And love.

The Effete is now available for free download here: the-effete-2016.

Enjoy!

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Ten)

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Imagine a world made of cornfields and unpaved side streets that lead to open fields hidden from view, themselves surrounded by forests you used to roam through with your supernatural childhood parents in search of mushrooms on early summer mornings. Imagine the fatigue of walking and not knowing. Imagine the paved roads beyond the forests, which in the meanwhile have gained so much presence on maps you did not know existed, those roads on which, now, an unfamiliar car is carrying you, and outside, as you turn your head from the man with the hairy knees who’s driving the car, you see weddings being carried out, men in white shirts, bellies, and trimmed beards, and women suffering on the high heels of the beauty that is as foreign to you as one of those languages you’ve never spoken or tried to learn. The car is unfamiliar to you because of the clutter that is surrounding your feet, the contrast it confers to your blue designer shoes. It’s unfamiliar because of the smell and because the man driving the car does not resemble so much the man in the pictures. When you first saw him, a dark shadow against the evening sun, you thought it can’t be him, the size of his head in unnatural, and when you actually get into the car, designer shoes and all, you can even see a protruding belly pushing against the seatbelt. That wasn’t there before. Yet, you go with the flow because there’s no turning back now, is there? And you put your seatbelt and listen to the man with the hairy knees and the unfamiliar car.

Imagine a world in which one look is everything and nothing: everything because it can make other men like you want you more than anything else in the whole world, because it can make other men who aren’t like you to turn violent and ruin if not your day, your month, your year, then at least your life, because that look can make other people believe you are sick; and nothing because that look is as transitory as the solitary trees you see in passing as you speed down the road. Imagine a world in which home doesn’t necessarily mean a house, an apartment, or a room that contains, among other things, the bed on which you spend most of your nights, but where home is the igloo-like inside of a car. This house is the perfect setting for men like us. It can move. It can hide. It’s this “double-hidedness” we seek when we wish to sharpen our tongues against the world through the practice of kissing.

You touch the man’s hairy knee to show you aren’t afraid of him though he’s speaking loudly over the sound of the wheels blaring through the open windows. Your touch is soft, non-threatening like a non-invasive procedure, like a caress on the head of a dying king. He’s driving the car, he’s got the power, you can only cajole him into treating you as softly as you wish to be handled. He’s talking about trips to the mountains, about secret trails he’s went down on, and you imagine the men he’s been with before you.

Those secret paths, they’re our kind of terrain, that is where we flourish, that is where we come of age surrounded by cousins willing to explore their sexuality along with ours. Our bildungsroman does not feature private tutors but the constant, nagging desire to know what we are below our waist. You tell him about your running and the way you secretly fear the dark green of the forests surrounding the road, and he tells you there’s nothing to fear, you might just encounter other men like you in those forests and practice escapism by breaking the rules of boyhood. You both make the joke with the peasant and the cornfield. What happens in the cornfield stays in the cornfield. You’ll be lucky enough, he says, if you stumble upon a peasant who takes frequent showers. You laugh your best laugh and with that laugh you begin to get used to the unfamiliar car, the smells, you begin to feel comfortable on the seat that at first felt so rigid against your buttocks.

You drive past the school where you first learned about the human reproductive system and about birth control and where you felt you were yet too young to know that stuff and yet thought such great knowledge had been bestowed upon you. You think of that time you mentioned to your mother about birth control and she suddenly snapped into attention and asked to have a look at the biology textbook. She lingered on one particular birth control technique and you thought that maybe that was the one she was using or considered using in the future. You jump back to those times you woke up during the night awakened by the bed making weird noises. Of course, you also remember the hat your mother wore the next day in the city while crossing that bridge close to the bazaar, and the way your parents smiled at each other. You return then to the man with the hairy knees thinking that he resembles the father that once, just once in your life, drove you to school.

Streets like small rivulets of shame, garnished with piercing eyes, overweight women, men with bellies pulling them down, unshaved faces, a group of men sitting on the porch of a shabby local place that is both a night bar and a supermarket. All of them are sweating including the beers standing stoically on the wooden table. You can’t really smell it because the car is fast enough but you imagine the rancid smell of sweat coming off their bodies, the smell mixing with the hint of alcohol on their breaths. You think of the women waiting for them at home and you wonder why they are drinking. The next day is a Monday. Are they drinking because of what’s ahead of them? You think of your dad, who must have done the same, and from there you jump deep into a past that is almost giddy with sensations, it tickles your entrails so much that you want to laugh a sick laugh, of shame and forgotten bitterness. You see your dad returning late at night with that hint of alcohol on his breath, you see your grandpa coming out and calling your dad a pig. You remember the sudden jolt of shock at hearing such words coming from the mouth of a man who had demonstrated such calmness on more than one occasion and who is now furious. And as much as you admire your supernatural father you know he did something wrong. You see it in the voice of your mother, in the way she moves around the house, furiously, as if she is running late with her chores.

The shame of my childhood.

The shame of not being like everyone else, of being excluded, of being bullied. The shame of having bent the golden rules of a desired innocence. This world of ours that looks at us with a carpenter’s eye, trained to smooth out the tumescent growths in the dry wood. Because if we can use our opposable thumbs to wield weapons and change our environment then why not mold our minds as well as the minds of others to fit sickly patterns? The football field where you had once been humiliated by the other kids because you were wearing a brown leather jacket in sports class. They laughed at the way you took it off to do those push ups. They’re no longer there, of course, but the grass where you once knelt to do your girly push ups, because you were unable to do the manly ones, still retains the shape of your knees and with them the weight of your shame. No wonder you desire to be humiliated by these men of yours, no wonder you wish to kneel again thinking that maybe this time you’re not kneeling out of humiliation but out of control, to wield at them a pleasure that only you could give them.

The paved road then curbs in the afternoon heat and before stopping and shoving his tongue into your mouth the man with the hairy knees checks the road in the rearview mirrors. There are no witnesses. Besides, the thought instantly crosses your mind, given the nature of your shared transience, somehow any public display of affection between two men in a speeding car will appear out of context like a meaningless phrase that can be gyrated so as to fit any context. Two men might be playing, fooling around, because that’s what we’re doing. His tongue is not a tongue but a playful serpent innocent as the fingers of savvy men checking a horse’s teeth. His hand, the one that curls around your neck and pulls you towards him, is not a hand of fire, but the hand of a fatherly pat on the back, the slap of playful adolescents, a physical comedy. You’re not kissing back but checking the taste of this man’s saliva. You wonder whether you’re doing it well. Then, when you finally get to that artificial lake with the fishermen and the ducks he’s been willing to show you, the way you hold your hand so as to touch him is simply an accident of closeness. Your hand could be there by mistake because it could be anywhere else but there, feeling the dark hairs on his arms. His hand uncovering your lower back is but a way for him to check whether you caught a tan while carrying firewood from the garden into the shed. The skin on your lower back doesn’t burn when he touches it, nobody else but you can see or feel the gravitational pull your pelvis falls into when he moves around your back. Relax, they can only see two men eating their ice creams by the lake. They might notice your designer shoes and your fancy pants because they’re so inappropriate for the setting. Other than that, it’s all natural, it’s all in the books.

Then there’s the ice cream, the one he bought from one of those bars slash supermarkets when you specifically told him you just wanted water. From his disappointed look you know he expected you to display the enthusiasm of the child you no longer are. You know you humiliated the man with the hairy knees with your dislike for ice cream. He throws both of them at you along with the bottle of still water (as requested), vanilla and pistachios and you choose vanilla. Yet when he looks at the other one he wrinkles his nose and to make it up to him you give him the one with the vanilla flavor. The taste of pistachios feels salty against your tongue and you ask him to have a taste of it, a request to which he complies dutifully, and you quickly bite off the part of ice cream where his lips and tongue had been. For a moment your throat closes as if somebody has shoved his finger just above your collarbone with the strength and savage determination of a boa constrictor.

Halfway through your ice cream you realize you need to change your mind about this man. His tongue might be intruding, his hands as well, especially when they went down your crotch accompanied by the question ‘what are you hiding there?’. He doesn’t talk about books but about other men, and you haven’t been touched like that for a while and there’s that gravitational pull again and you try to forget about the fact that, earlier during your ride, he told you he really wants to fuck you because he likes you very much and he likes the way his dick slides into someone else’s ass. He finds it ecstatic and tells you all men want to do that, distant cousins included. There was that cousin of his, the one who is now married with kids, the one whom he fucked on a drunken night, the one who squirmed at the pain of being brutally penetrated. There was that married policeman he fucked, and there’s such pride in his voice because most likely those men found him irresistible. And at one point, when the car suddenly stops again and backs into a side road that isn’t exactly paved and leads to a cornfield, you find him irresistible as well. He makes a joke about being the older one in the duo and the older guys usually have the upper hand, and with that upper hand he unbuttons his jeans to reveal his erection pulsing under his green boxer shorts. What do you think about that? You say you find it compelling and he laughs and pulls down his pants and boxers and his dick slaps against his belly.

There’s such instant familiarity in that scene, you realize, that it almost feels like coming home. You try not to think about the faces you might see or the people that might see the both of you, you, bending downwards like the twigs of weeping willows to take his pleasure in your mouth so as to make it salient, to bring it forth and out into the cornfields of your childhood shame. There’s the familiar deep grunt that comes out of his chest when you take him in your mouth, and the boa constrictor around your neck. You’re not playing any longer, child, because his body curves to meet your mouth and no innocent child’s play has ever involved this warm, burning touch of his pushing against your head. No child’s play ever involved such grunts and moans, as real as those you hear. Take it all in, he says, and pushes harder against the back of your neck, do those girly push ups. His hand goes down your back and pushes against your belt. He wants to feel your ass. He really wants to fuck you, he tells you that again and then again but you pretend you don’t hear him. When he says it again you say you are not ready. You don’t tell him about your fear of being humiliated. With his dick still out and lowered pants he gets out of the car and, my god, you’re flying, using your hands as wings, and you’re running like a beheaded chicken, what is he doing, what is he doing, what the fuck is he doing, a string of saliva is hanging on your chin and you must look ridiculous, but, good gracious, what the fuck is he doing? He goes on to your side of the car and pulls open the door and deep down, while still flying with your hands, you expect a blow of some sort, a hairy palm landing on your face. That same hairy palm that guides your head towards his crotch and an instant later he’s putting his feet on the threshold of the car so his dick is just about in your face. He complies when you tell him to get back in the car.

There are so many things he wants to tell you right then and there. He wants to tell you that he likes it, that you’re doing it well, and because his body moves in a certain way, curving, trembling, sobbing, muscles contracting all over, he finally tells you that he’s going to let go and he does, full of brotherly warmth, the bitter warmth you then spit out in the grass. You take a sip from the bottle of water you asked for and spit again while he cleans himself with the wet wipes he keeps tucked away in the door of the car. You get out of the car for a smoke with your now dusty designer shoes and you look at the cornfields and the trees beyond. He’s writing emails on his phone. I hope you enjoyed the meal, he says and you think of Happy Meals and the toys that came with them.

Weeks later he tells you, via a dating app, that he still gets a hard on when he thinks of that blow job in the cornfields. You’re a cool guy, he tells you.

And you agree. What else is there to do, right? You post a picture with clouds and birds at rest on Instagram to mark the moment.

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.