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 Twelve)

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I am often visited by images of my grandmother crying. She is still alive, don’t get me wrong, yet for some strange reason my mental image of her is strewn with tears and constant sorrow. She cried bitter tears when we had to sell our cow to pay for my father’s debts. She cried when we had to sell our car to pay for those same debts. She cried when my uncle had to leave the country in search of a better life. She cried when I went to university. And she cries when we return home for a couple of weeks during the summer. In fact, all of my summer holidays somehow boil down to that moment of leaving. For days before our departure I fear her tears and the way they deform her face; I fear the sobs that come with the tears, and those final hugs and promises to return next year.

In those moments, our car feels like a safe place. We close the door and father steps on the accelerator and somehow we move faster than grandmother’s sobs and the image of her standing beside my grandfather by the front gate, both crying. And it is in those moments that I try my best not to look back for fear I might turn into a pillar of salt. I try to think of our destination, the miles that we’ll have to cover to get back to the place that we, my family and I, call home. Once, when I felt my own tears crowding behind my eyelids, I looked back and the image has stayed with me since then. No matter how much I try to shake it off it’s still there. As McCarthy would say, what you put in your head is there forever.

The car is moving and I can hear mother sobbing in the backseat. My poor parents, she keeps saying, my poor parents. Father doesn’t say anything, his eyes fixed on the road ahead of us. He keeps his composure no matter what; even when we’re about to leave and the crying starts, he does his best to keep us mobilized. ‘Is everything inside the car? Are we all here?’ And we nod, while mother hugs giant grandfather who seems to crumble. Rocks falling from the top of the mountain. We all get in the car and even the car roars pityingly, its slow-motion clunk-clunk-clunk of the rotor becomes a memory in itself. We’re safe now, we’re moving, and I look back telling myself that I need to wave, and I wave back to them, and see grandma’s hunched back hunching further as if bent by some unseen burden until she becomes a weeping-willow of a woman.

The distance growing in between us resembles a tube, the kind of dark space where you lose your keys in, and you mentally capitulate thinking you’ll never get them back. When we’re at a safe distance, and mother’s sobbing subsides like a dying earthquake, we all think the same thing. We think of the moment of our arrival, the moment we say to each other that soon we’ll take the same road back. Soon, we all say, soon we’ll have to go back. We’re so familiar with those roads that the moment feels almost comfortable. I’ve been here before, I know you, we’re good friends. The silence that then descends over us in the car is full of grandma’s tears, and grandpa’s falling rocks, the groans that come out of his long hands as he takes turns to hug us all. The silence is also our almost telepathic realization that another year has to pass for us to return to grandma’s house.

Those long hours of driving and the year that has to pass between our trips to grandma’s house are also our way of measuring time. As migrants we also measure our time by counting the years since we left our country, as if there’s a secret dignity and solemnity to that number. As if to say that we’ve earned the right to stay in the new country. It’s been eight years now. It’s been fifteen years already. Think of all the taxes that I’ve paid in this country. Yet, we don’t realize that with each passing year it gets harder to go back, not because we become increasingly foreign – full integration is never possible, your origins will forever tuck at your sleeve like an underfed child – but because to go back would mean to lose many of the benefits that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. The trip back starts to feel as if it’s not worth the effort, the money and the mental energy we invest into those little preparative rituals before the trip. We save money in view of that trip. Change the engine oil. Check the rubber pressure, make sure it’s within the parameters. Check the suspensions. These, and others, are all ways of measuring time.

I see that time in my grandparents’ changing faces. We’re all in some kind of visual shock when we reconvene each ear. Once, when we got home one summer my grandfather didn’t even recognize us. He told me it was hard for him to believe that it was actually me. That’s how much I had changed. When I lost weight grandmother told me it was not me anymore but some foreign changeling who has come to replace her beloved grandson. It’s hard for us not to recognize the changes their own bodies undergo. They’re getting older each ear and we’re getting older as well, albeit we might not notice it. In terms of flesh, the changes are always gradual; it is proof that silence speaks by accumulation. A wrinkle there, a stretch mark somewhere else, distances become blurry, effort becomes even more effective in its deadliness. Energies must be saved. Bullshit is repudiated systematically.

In a couple of months from the time of writing this, my brother is going to become a father, and I’m going to become an uncle. I’m going to fill the stereotypical (or proverbial?) “gay uncle” sooner rather than later. This new entry in my family’s tree turns mother into a grandmother, and grandma into a great-grandma. These changes feel so huge right now that in my mind they move with the gravity and solemnity of tectonic plates falling into place once they have been disturbed. Father turns officially old although the unofficial symptoms of old age are already there. I hear father and brother joking about it, about this child of the future that will intrude into the rituals of our daily lives, but behind the jokes that silent recognition of time finally showing itself lurks like a grieving mother. The joy of it masks an irreparable sadness, as irreparable as our decaying bodies.

In a similar vein, my uncle must see his own old age reflected in that of his children, the ones who grow so fast it’s difficult to keep track. I see my own age in theirs because I remember perfectly well when they were little. I witnessed their first words, the changing of their diapers. My cousin now tells his mother that his smartphone is out of date because it was released one year ago. It’s so easy to notice these small changes because we are constant witnesses, and it’s the witnessing that makes the difference in this equation. The changes buried deep within our own bodies are so much harder to witness because they somehow feel so remote. You simply wake up and start feeling your body differently. You lose your patience, you detect easier when shit is being served to you, you snap back because you are running out of time. In times of scarcity the thing you need most becomes the most precious thing.

Mother, like grandmother, has trouble sleeping. Father and I sleep peacefully throughout the night. She’s envious and the thing makes her even more anxious and resentful. We grow old just by seeing others grow old. A tree can only grow as big as those of its own species unless it is chopped down. My brother shows me the sonogram of, at this time, genderless child and points to the size of its head. It must be a boy. They’re all hoping for a boy. Still, the image on his smartphone of the genderless offspring feels so distant, virtual almost. You can delete the picture and it’s gone, the thought of it annihilated. It’s so hard to believe that it’s true, that it exists. Perhaps we’ll all feel different when we get to know if it’s boy or girl, when we’ll set a name and a trajectory for it.

I try not to look at my brother when he tells me all this, because I’m ashamed and scared for the both of us. No matter how much effort I put into it I cannot separate mentally this image of the future father from the image of the little boy who jumped over the fence to run away from home, the one who stole money from mother’s purse to buy peanuts from the local store. The high-school dropout who spent his lunch money in Internet Cafes playing online strategy games. The man who kissed a girl in the backseat of a moving car and told her how much he loved her. The man who then dumped her. I’m ashamed that the child from the future will never get to know this unless we say it out loud. I’m afraid for my brother, for the sleepless nights and the constant worrying. And I’m afraid of the moral idealism the child is going to be taught. I’m afraid of the moment when that child will come to know the shadows of this world, when the monsters hiding under the bed will take human form.

My brother’s priorities will change and his strong convictions will wane like a departing storm, I’m almost sure of it. His body will begin to change in unexpected ways, and with that other changes will come as well. Because bigger lives turn obsolete in the presence of smaller ones. Children become yardsticks against which every adult gesture becomes meaningless unless it is integrated into a trajectory that is positive for the child and its future. Finally, my brother will see himself complete, having done the duty that is expected of every man in a heterosexual society. He and his newly forged family will be integrated into a grander narrative that is simply too big to fail. He will be able to say to his kid that “at your age, I did this”. And that narrative, which once was written by my parents as well, will in turn tell him if he’s doing good or bad. It will tell him when he is too old or too young to do certain things. There’s a bigger plan, a blueprint that acts as a tool of project management. By then we will have done this, the child will have this age.
At the same time, it makes me happy to see my brother this way. In the rush of emotions that surrounds this new arrival my parents will ask less of me.

I’m not the only one to feel this way. While I was staying in Berlin last month, I had dinner with Thomas, a German guy whose brother had recently had a child. He, too, felt that the pressure coming from his parents had decreased significantly after the birth of the little boy. The sense of urgency inspired by the parents’ desire to have a grandchild subsided and somehow he felt free. The balance in the family had been restored; it was once again business as usual. Yet, as we were talking over our Thai dinner somewhere in the vicinity of Rosenthaler Platz, I couldn’t help but notice a faint trace of sorrow in his voice when he talked about his nephew. (Or perhaps the heterosexual machine had trained me well to hear things that weren’t there.) ‘He is so cute’, Thomas kept saying, when we had to cross the street the boy stopped, looked right and left, and only then crossed the street’. He is so cute. The boy held his hand.

And there it was, I thought, the unsatisfied fatherly instinct, left behind, craving for more of that, the missing blueprint that would tell us that we’re doing good, that our lives do make sense, and that we’re building something that will make the lives of these children better. At your age I… To whom do we say these words without making our children perceive the great chasm that opens between us and them? At your age I didn’t know what was going on because nobody told me what was going on. The books were mostly silent about it, so I’ll try not to make the same mistake for you. I sincerely believe we haven’t yet figured out a way to do this, and the narratives that are supposed to help us are loudly absent, or at least still hidden. You might have figured it out already, you might already be a gay parent, and if you have please write it down for us. Consider us your children.

Against whom do we measure our own time when our children are as silent as time itself? In the eighties, at the height of the AIDS crisis, it was our friends’ deaths. “I’m beginning this book on All Saints’ Day in Paris”, Edmund White wrote in his Farewell Symphony (1997), “six months after Brice’s death.” (3) It’s been six months already. It’s been three years. It’s been fifteen years already. I have earned my right not to grieve anymore, I’m here to stay, in this country of the living. As White’s narrator walks among the other tombstones in the cemetery he notices other names, other faces, and most of all, he notices their age. “A few are young men in their twenties – I imagine they died of AIDS too.” The crisis, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote in Touching Feeling (2003), “has deroutinized the temporality of many of us in ways that only intensify this effect.” (148) “On this scene,” she adds, “an older person doesn’t love a younger as someone who will someday be where she is now, or vice versa. No one is, so to speak, passing on the family name; there’s a sense in which our life narratives will barely overlap. There’s another sense in which they slide up more intimately alongside one another than can any lives that are moving forward according to the regular schedule of the generations. It is one another immediately, one another as the present fullness of a becoming whose arc may extend no further, whom we each must learn best to apprehend, fulfill, and bear company.” (149) It’s been six months since Brice’s death. I begin this book here. Whatever was before, it ended there, six months ago.

We meticulously measure our time on “dry land”, that is, in between lovers. I’ve heard stories of long term and short term relationships. These, too, are marked by the migrant’s complex in terms of the pain occasioned by the end of those relationships. The longer the relationship is the more dramatic the break up. Or at least that is my emotional response when I hear of relationships that lasted up to six years or more. Six years feels like a lifetime on a gay dating site. And we also measure the time since our last sex date. The longer that time is the worthier we are. It’s been years since I had sex with a guy and, at most, you get a worried look akin to, perhaps, the looks war veterans get moments before they get asked whether they had killed someone on the battlefield. At the same time we get it when somebody seems to have too much sex, free of the compulsive thought of categorizing them as whores or sex addicts. It is as democratic as it gets.

We measure our time against that of our gay peers, our companions. Gay dating apps and websites give you the possibility to set age filters, an age range in which you are interested. One of them, I won’t say which, has taken the age filter literally to the extreme so that people outside your preferred age range can’t even access your profile. “After you turn thirty,” one user noticed, “there’s not much to see in here.” (I’m paraphrasing.) After forty, total eclipse of the heart. Another user, on another dating site, threatens his visitors that if they are over forty (with very few exceptions, of course, which mainly refer to overly hot men) they will be blocked on the spot. No wonder some of us lie about our age on dating sites. Yet, it makes me wonder, do these people realize that their ruthlessness will be served cold to them when they turn thirty or forty? Is thirty an age at which we become obsolete in terms of dating capital?

A key to understanding this, I believe, has to do with the way we perceive our bodies. Most often, to a gay man, his body is his only way of measuring time. His muscles, the accumulation of hours spent at the gym lifting weights, are a form of progress that measures the distance from A to B. The progress is visible: the six-pack becomes more evident in time, it emerges from under the skin, akin to a bridge protruding through the fog. The chest becomes more evident, the arms, too, they gain a shape that was not there before. Your peers notice the effort and the discipline that is behind those changes and they start to appreciate you even more. That progress is visible as well, and it translates into…more sex, more dates, envy, resentment. Another user asked his visitors to write to him only if they worked out at least once a week. Children and toned bodies overlap.

All of this makes me think of that last volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which the narrator, after having lived for so long in seclusion goes to a party and realizes that, akin to his peers, he is old:

And now I began to understand what old age was — old age, which perhaps of all the realities is the one of which we preserve for longest in our life a purely abstract conception, looking at calendars, dating our letters, seeing our friends marry and then in their turn the children of our friends, and yet, either from fear or from sloth, not understanding what all this means, until the day when we behold an unknown silhouette . . . which teaches us that we are living in a new world; until the day when a grandson of a woman we once knew, a young man whom instinctively we treat as a contemporary of ours, smiles as though we were making fun of him because it seems that we are old enough to be his grandfather — and I began to understand too what death meant and love and the joys of the spiritual life, the usefulness of suffering, a vocation, etc. (6:354–55)

Behold the unknown silhouette. Perhaps that is why we are so obsessed with the way we look, the way heterosexual people are so preoccupied with how their children present themselves. Our relationships are defined by the way we present ourselves to the world. Our bodies are our moral compasses. And we look for those who are equally preoccupied with this aestheticized outlook on life. Perhaps that is why body shaming is so pervasive on gay dating sites because our bodies fall victims to our most hidden cruelties. A German guy I matched with on Tinder told me once that his boyfriend snapped back at him saying that his dick was so small it wouldn’t satisfy a woman, let alone a man. Overweight gay men are stranded on “bear island”, where they seek (guess what) toned men who have a fetish for chubby guys, thus perpetuating the very cruelty that they’re trying to escape. We starve ourselves (I know I did) with the conviction that we will finally get accepted and caressed by the invisible hand of the market. We hate ourselves when we don’t fit someone’s version of a lover. The circle must close. The snake must eat its tail.

“Is there indeed a God”, Larry Kramer asks in Faggots (1978), “who would understand such as: ‘Baby, I want you to piss all over me!'”, to which I would answer yes, there is! It’s the same god that had once turned us into bullies against our very own.

‘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.

39 and 49 other poems

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So, for quite a while now, I’ve been working on this poetry booklet, which is available for download starting this very moment. It contains fifty relatively short poems written in odd situations that were not necessarily optimal for such writerly activities.

Anyways, enjoy. I guess.

Click on the link below to download PDF:

39-and-49-other-poems

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.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Eight)

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Whenever I talk to people about my family and particularly about the fact that I still haven’t told them about my homosexuality – there, I’ve said it – an awkward silence immediately follows, and their questioning faces take on a tinge of contemptuousness. Why would one keep this defining feature hidden from the people who have defined one’s life? It’s so easy to do it, one just identifies the right moment and runs roughshod over it. And that’s it. Everything will feel so much better afterwards, I mean look at all those gay guys on YouTube talking about family vacations that include the boyfriend as well, their faces so sunny, so full of hope, so perfect. Just have a look at all those people coming out of their dark closets and into the blinding light of family acceptance and love.

Then, besides that recognizable tinge of contemptuousness, there’s the sense of reassurance that they’re trying to offer me: they did it themselves, their lives changed afterwards, their fathers refused to discuss it further, their mothers tiptoed around the topic by mentioning pancakes and every once in a while asking about that “special friend”, they are all now in a better place. Just look at them, they’re the living proof that there is life outside the family closet. And I reassure them about my intentions of coming out to my family in the same way they try to reassure me, in the same way I reassure my parents that I am going to get married with a smart girl (university degree required, as my grandparents keep pointing out), and have kids, and teach them the beauty of family life. Life has no meaning without kids, as my middle-school teacher keeps telling me every time we meet. And maybe there have been times when I had fallen into that trap, fleeting moments in which I imagined a quiet university-professor life, a house brimming with books, a desk filled with papers that need to be graded, and the occasional affair with a female member of the faculty. The pull of this trap curves space around it and pulls everything into its big mouth because its success rate is outstanding by scientific standards. I can see it happening around me. Every afternoon, my father comes back from work and kisses my mother, and sometimes that kiss is accompanied by a light ass slap. My brother, recently married, does the same. Just the other night, while we went on a walk, he and my sister-in-law told me that time is closing in, and they need to have a kid, purchase a family car, go on vacation. Adventure time is over. No more fancy cars, no more gadgets and fancy smartphones. It’s time to settle down. You just need to devote a little bit of your time to it.

Looking at this family picture you’d naturally think my fear of coming out to them lacks substance. It would be irrational to think these people, my family, could be capable of shunning me from the hearth, push me away from the family turf. After all, I’ve been a good boy, I’ve never transgressed the family rulebook, I did everything that was expected of me. I clean my room, I pay some of the bills, I buy them birthday gifts, I go grocery shopping with them. My family does not seem overtly religious, they’re not religious fanatics, they agree with me whenever I point out the hypocrisies of religion and its institutions, they did not frown upon me reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, nothing of the sort. They have never shown homophobic behavior, even though I can sense my father’s hesitation when it comes to using the word “gay”. A sort of hush comes over his voice, the same kind of hush one hears when adults don’t want to be overheard by children.

Though, like me, they have been raised in families whose ecosystem did not go beyond their front- and backyard, in time they have acquired the superpower of being silent about the things that could disturb the balance of their own life circles. I have never seen them even try to be righteous regarding family values, I have never heard them preach those values to the less fortunate, or talk about God and religion with the kind of glint in their eyes that would betray fanaticism or fundamentalism. Just a few days ago, while I was helping my mother change their bedsheets, my father mentioned that maybe it would have been better if I were a girl. Maybe it would have been better, I thought the instant my father made that revealing comment, it would have been so much easier for all of us. I would have carried on with my preference for men with a clear conscience, I wouldn’t have had to hide all this time, I would have found my man by now. Well, I replied, I was born with a dick, unfortunately, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, at least I’m not willing to do anything about it. Yet, between my father’s comment and my reply there had been a mental instant in which I thought of telling them on the spot. The words were in my mouth. I wanted to say my current situation is not far from what they’d envisioned for my sake, the only difference is that I’m a guy, who likes other guys, and that my predicament is dictated by the way in which my body chose to perform its gender. It would have been the right moment to just say it: they were both there, my father had opened that secret door himself, all I had to do was just utter those words. I would have killed all of those birds with just one stone.

Considering all of these aspects, I believe it would be ludicrous to say I’m afraid of my parents’ reaction. I’m a grown man after all, I have a living stipend, I own a MacBook for Pete’s sake, I have social status, I’ve been studying and doing stuff ever since I can remember. I have never rebelled against them and I believe all of my life choices have been in line, if not with their vision of my future, at least with a statistically natural vision of the future. Whatever awkwardness might result from me coming out to them would wane in a couple of days, weeks, months. I’m not afraid of them. I’m afraid of my brother because he has never in his life missed an opportunity to show his righteousness and moral superiority. When Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014 my brother made a show of it by swearing and repeatedly using the Italian word “schifo” meaning “disgusting, revolting”. I nodded, wishing to just end the whole discussion, even though inside I was celebrating, along with all of those encouraging voices on the internet who pledged to support Conchita in the song contest. I even thought of the reaction my high-school religion teacher would have had at the sound of such news. When Lord, the Finnish heavy metal band, won the contest in 2006 with Hard Rock Hallelujah, he prophesied the end of times. However, what I wanted to tell my brother in that instant was that his perception of LGBTQ people had been wrongly shaped by these occasional glimpses of gay people. He had seen and identified, and by extension built his own idea of homosexuality on, only those who had chosen to make their “gayness” (if there is such a thing) as a defining feature of their behavior and wear it on their sleeve. As a consequence, by “homosexuality” my brother understands exceedingly effeminate men, drag queens, bright colors, colorful hair, eccentric clothing, and limp wrists, aspects that in his mind trigger violent reactions, things he feels the need to counteract with bullying and swearing and shaming.

Of course, he doesn’t know better, and when people don’t know better their instincts kick in. A despiser of culture and literature (and a serial high-school dropout), he’s never been aware of the double life one needs to live in order to survive, he’s never learned the vocabulary of that doubleness. When you believe your values are simple enough because they give the impression of being natural and universal then you choose to enforce them, to feel entitled to enforce them, to perceive yourself as a guardian against deviation and foreign bodies. Add to that the arrogance of having made it, of having reached the epitome of those values, namely the formation of a “natural” family, one reinforced by the state and the church, and you’ve got yourself a preacher. I remember that when I was in middle-school and our teachers asked us to dress elegantly because of some external inspection, I happened to have the same blue shirt a classmate of mine had, and so the two of us had come up with the idea that we should all wear the same blue shirt. Both of us were scandalized when another classmate suggested we all wore red shirts because he was wearing a red shirt. We already had the blue shirts, no further action was required on our part, and we took comfort in it, so why bother with the red shirt? Couldn’t the others just buy the blue shirts and be happy? My brother, too, already has the blue shirt of his heterosexuality, he acts on feelings that are readily accepted on a daily basis because they are “statistically natural”, so why would we even suggest the existence or the need of a red shirt? Why such stubbornness?

My brother and I have always worn different shirts for as long as I can remember. We have looked up to contrastingly dissimilar people, have chosen to spend our time with incredibly different people, and if there had been a time during our idyllic childhood when I chose to spend time with the same people that was chiefly due to the fact that I felt lonely. He played with toy cars, I played with teddybears and dolls. Those were our signature toys. On Christmas I got the colorful toy rabbit, he got the Nintendo. I spent my time playing with girls, picking flowers and playing house, while he spent it with other boys, stealing cherries and strawberries from distant neighbors. He watched UFO Robot Grendizer, I watched Sailor Moon. During the summer I spent my time with a distant female cousin of ours, he spent his time with the distant cousin male counterpart. And whenever these two worlds came to a junction violence would ensue, along with ruined sandcastles and collapsed blanket forts, as well as gruesome threats coming from my mother who, on a couple of occasions when her despair was at fever pitch, even threatened us that she was going to force us to kiss each other’s butts. The only time when we got along was when our desires seemed to somehow strangely align, like when we both wanted to just watch more cartoons.

We lived at the countryside, seemingly light years behind the wonders of cable television, which only came to us through distant rumors and the promise of local politicians. And so we had only one channel, and it so happened that more often than not soccer was much more important than broadcasting cartoons for children. We envied the kids that came from town during summer vacations. They had Cartoon Network, the Mecca of all cartoon aficionados around the world. Just the thought of being able to watch cartoons all day every day was exhilarating, simply beyond our imagination, beyond the limited grasp of our little minds. That is why, when a distant relative suggested we spend a couple of days in their apartment in town, my brother and I chose to put our differences aside so as to enjoy endless hours of cartoons. It did not matter that they were in English (a language as foreign to us then as the language of adults), as it did not matter whether or not we had pocket money, as long as we could watch them all day. Needless to say, our initial excitement turned to bitter disappointment. Being able to watch cartoons all day every day did not imply that you’d enjoy all of them. We liked Dexter’s Laboratory but found Ed, Edd n Eddy to be dull and meaningless. As you’d expect I loved The Powerpuff Girls and my brother went out of the room whenever it came on. Yet, I distinctly remember the fascination with which we both watched Courage the Cowardly Dog and Cow and Chicken, and though both these shows went very much against our idea of cartoons we kept on watching.

What struck me most though about these two shows, besides all those ugly-looking aliens the dog Courage had to fight against in order to protect his family, and the red devil who walked on his butt cheeks, was the way Cow and Chicken’s parents were represented. As opposed to all the other characters these two had no faces, just normal-looking feet and voices. I did not realize at the time, of course, what their half-presence implied, I wasn’t that smart so as to brood upon the hermeneutics of that representation. They were the faceless symbols of parenthood. They did not need to have a face as long as their mere presence fulfilled that role. Imagine my shock when, in another episode, probably later on in my life, they were revealed as having no upper bodies. They were just feet and voices, yet they were the parents. In our childish innocence we filled the absence of their upper bodies with our own conceptions of parenthood. They could have been our parents, as they could have been anyone’s parents for that matter. Thinking back, I now realize the degree of maturity that that kind of representation of parenthood required of us children. Throughout our lives we encounter people who spend so much time around us that at one point they just blend in with the environment in which we spend our lives. A household like that in which Cow and Chicken lived needed that prop, parenthood, to keep the whole household imaginary glued together.

Yet it also shows how little of a stimulus we need in order to automatically generalize and create a full picture. I know I was okay with the fact that I couldn’t see their faces. I knew they were mom and dad, because that’s how they were called, despite the fact that it seemed weird a human couple could give birth to a cow and a chicken, both of them animals pertaining to different genera. Parents are all the same, I thought, the same nagging creatures who stubbornly refused to fulfill our every wish. Just as all gay men must be the same, at least in my brother’s imaginary. Out of all the gay men my brother must have encountered throughout his life he must have picked only those easily identifiable. For him, it must have been enough to see Conchita Wurst to then create a whole picture in his mind. He did not need the rest of the stimulus just as I did not need, when I first watched Cow and Chicken, to see the parents’ faces, I knew what they were, I was aware of how I was supposed to feel. I did not need the rest of the story. I had everything I needed to know.

And sometimes, we lose so much when we refuse to hear the rest of the story, when we choose not to reason with our interlocutor, a stubbornness akin to that of children who refuse to eat something because it doesn’t smell good or it doesn’t smell the way they want it to smell. This might sound like a tedious excuse, but I’m afraid my parents, and particularly my brother, won’t want to hear the rest of the story because the very idea of homosexuality would trigger in their minds a whole baggage or perceptions and reactions. And I’m afraid that who I actually am will become so tiny that it will get lost among that baggage. They won’t want to hear about the struggles I’m still going through so as to finally accept my attraction for guys, as they probably won’t want to hear about how all of my attempts at building something meaningful with a guy have failed repeatedly.

I don’t want to point fingers here. We all make mistakes. Generalizing has been for a very very long time one of the features of the brains of our species. It’s how we work. We learn to open a door and then we know how to open all doors. It doesn’t mean that we, gay people, are free of it, on the contrary I feel like we often make the same mistake. Maybe even the word “mistake” is used wrongly in this case, since we are all hardwired to act in this way. The best example I can think of at this very moment is the way gay people often, and particularly on dating sites, reduce the complexity of others by way of fetishizing a certain feature. Even more often you understand their fetish from the very first message. Once, I was contacted by a German guy who apparently was an ophthalmologist and who kept asking me about the glasses that I wore, and what kind of issues did I have with my eyes? He never asked what my name was, or what I was doing for a living. None of that was interesting to him apparently. The messages stopped coming when I told him that I was suffering from myopia. Maybe myopia was not included on his list of sexually appealing errors of the eye. I never got to know because a couple of days later he deleted his profile. I never got to see his face.

The other recurring fetish on gay dating sites is the one related to feet. Nice feet, goes the first message. On a couple of occasions I got contacted by guys who told me, up front, that they’d love to smell my running shoes, or that they’d like to lick my feet. Just as in the case of Cow and Chicken’s parents, the rest of me did not matter as long as my feet were there, as long as my running shoes were smelly enough, the rest of my body was merely a prop, one prosthetic body built to carry around my feet. They ask you about the size of your shoes in the same way others ask you about the size of your dick. Others, on the other hand, have a thing for smokers and smoke-sex, whatever that implies. On one of the dating sites I still use (I won’t give names, kids are watching) there’s this guy who has contacted me repeatedly telling me that he is doing a survey on smoking habits and would I be willing to answer a few questions about that? The same question popped up on the same dating site coming from different profiles which means that the guy has been creating a series of profiles along the way. I’ve never mentioned it to him but his way of doing surveys does not seem scientifically sound: clearly he doesn’t keep track of the people he interviews, and on a dating site it would be very difficult to do that. People cancel their profiles often only to return after a couple of weeks. New profile, new me. And if in a survey you can’t keep track of your interviewees, their age group, their gender etc., then how could you be sure that the results you obtain aren’t false? Besides, why would you be doing a survey on a gay dating site? The premises were never explained to me. I guess I’ll never know.

Others have a fetish for hairy chests or chubby guys. One just needs to change his profile picture emphasizing one particular body part in order to be contacted by different people. Post a picture in which you are smoking and most likely you are going to be contacted by somebody who’s into smoke-sex. The same goes for your feet to the point it becomes predictable. It’s all about how your body performs its role and the amount of attention one particular body part attracts. When I told one of my gay friends over lunch that I was writing this piece he mentioned a guy who contacted him on a dating site by asking him whether he sneezed loudly. On and on he went about sneezing and ways of sneezing until the conversation stopped. I mean, how long could one talk about sneezing? It seemed funny to us, but maybe the guy finds sneezing loudly sexually appealing. Sneeze in my ear, my friend and I joked.

Yet, I wonder, don’t we all have this sort of limiting view of gay men in general? Haven’t we all stopped a conversation at one point when we found out that the person we were talking to, for instance, performed the same sexual role? If you prefer the bottom bunk and find out that the person you were talking to on a dating site, notwithstanding his charm and niceness, also prefers the bottom bunk, then that person suddenly becomes less appealing, and the prospect of a future together withers with that disarming realization. In the end, it doesn’t matter how great you are, how charming and good-looking, if your body fails to perform in the way the other expects it to perform. And gay culture has often been blamed for its emphasis on the body, for its overt lasciviousness, and I think those who do the finger-pointing fail to register one essential aspect: we need to be strongly aware of our bodies in order to engage into a relationship or whatever kind. In the case of heterosexual relationships that awareness is immediately visible and is predicated on physical features. A straight man does not need to ask a woman if she’s top or bottom, jokes aside. Their bodies have already defined the kind of encounter that they are going to have (unless the woman is gay, of course). Gay men don’t have that because their bodies are physically similar. We need to further define those roles, especially when the role one performs in bed is not manifest (more masculine men most often prefer the top bunk, as opposed to effeminate men and so on, you get the picture). This need to define these roles has in turn trained us to have a particularly acute sense of our bodies as well as those of the others. We look for signs, markers, symptoms, and sometimes we focus so much on one particular aspect that we simply fail to see the rest…

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Seven)

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I have fallen in and out of love with many people throughout my life, with both men and women, albeit I have never considered myself to be bisexual. There have been times when merely the perfume of a woman would send shivers through my body, mind tremors that accompanied the instant determination to shed my shyness, or whatever insecurities I had, to finally embrace that fatal abandon that the bodies of women inspired in me. One of the many instances that I can recall at the moment happened while I was on a long train trip from my hometown to the capital of my home country, and an older woman sat next to me. I cannot remember her face, I couldn’t even tell you the color of her hair, though I can distinctly remember the mixture of tobacco and perfume that she brought with her in the train compartment. This is it, I thought in that instance, this is what I’ve been waiting for. I did not speak to the woman and she had shown no interest in initiating any kind of conversation. It was a night train, after all, and words rarely desire to travel through the darkness of a moving train when all you can think of is the comfort of those who are sleeping in their own homes. I found that mixture of cigarette smoke and perfume in many of the women I’ve encountered throughout my life. At times it disgusted me, but at times it felt like an open invitation.

In college I used to visit often a former colleague of mine from high school thinking that she was the one. Just like me, she had moved away from her home city to attend university, and she lived first with another girl in an expensive apartment close to the central park, and then moved to a smaller apartment further away from the city center. We shared meals every once in a while, I bought her cakes, helped her with whatever homework she had. She was always tired, her face drawn in a constant frown, her body thin and bony. There were days when she told that she hadn’t eaten anything. I envied her for that, and thought of me as lacking the skills to go for days without any kind of food. At times it seemed as if the meals we shared were the only meals she had ever. She did not speak too much and her laughter was often silent and breathless. But she had been like that since high school. I did not have another version of her to compare it to whatever she was turning into while I made my visits. I feared that her skepticism about the necessity of eating anything was, in fact, due to a lack of financial means. I knew her numerous family was often out of money, and all of her siblings seemed frail and bony like her. Their emaciated bodies seemed to signal and reflect their financial condition.

She also obsessed over pop stars, their bodies and fashion choices. She frequently referred to Beyoncé as a role model, among others. She followed their lives on the small TV screen she had in her apartment. There was a degree of rigidity in her words, they all had a sharp edge, and when we gossiped over the lives of our former high school colleagues she made a face that, after repeated exposures to the sight of it, I had come to perceive as sweet, and even lovable. I often wished to just reach out and hold her hand, comfort her in a way. And maybe there had been times when I wanted to let her know that I could help her, provide for her, be protective of her, be the kind of man she desired me to be. Once, I paid an unexpected visit to her place thinking that we might share a piece of cheesecake, which I had previously purchased from a local bakery. When I got to her apartment a friend of hers was there, another girl, and sharing the cake was suddenly not a good idea anymore. I had only purchased two slices of cake, and I wanted to share the cake with her and her only. Luckily, I had placed the two slices of cake in my backpack, and I was able to dismiss the initial purpose of my visit by saying that I was just in the neighborhood and thought of stopping by. We’re just friends, she kept saying to her friend. And every time she said it I felt as if, somehow, I had done some kind of mistake along the way. As terrible as being friend-zoned sounds today, at that time I did not think of it as a death sentence. I did not have the mental tools and the language to think of it in that way. At the time I felt that there was nothing wrong with the way I had approached her emotionally.

I wanted her, I wanted to be there for her, that was what men felt in the presence of women, right? I felt proud when the girl she was sharing the apartment by the park with reported back to her that she had spotted me at the supermarket with another girl as if to suggest jealousy. I felt dominant when I went to her apartment once on one of my unexpected visits, only to be greeted by the kind of knowledgeable and discreet nod people give to young lovers. She wasn’t there, but while chatting with the roommate I felt as a young and inexperienced Romeo. She apologized for my friend’s absence as if she had a part in it, and that discreet nod was there, in the way she moved her arms, the way she stood by the door not inside but outside the familiar hum of the apartment. But most important, I felt as if my body was physically inappropriate. My friend couldn’t possibly be interested in a body like that. It had the wrong shape, it gave the wrong impressions, it was the perfect embodiment of my social status, of the fact that I was a loser on the sex market. It was sloppy, it was out of control, it was pitiable.

This inappropriateness has been present with me for as long as I can remember. My body has always been all wrong. I sometimes found myself watching the other boys in my class and wondering what I was missing. Their movements seemed so effortlessly performed, their faces so symmetrical, their gestures akin to elegant dance moves. In Faustian manner I often begged whatever demon was out there, hiding behind the stars at night when everybody else was sleeping, to come and give me beauty in exchange of my soul. I was willing to burn everything I had on the altar of that desire. I read books, I searched for occult websites that could teach me how to do it. I imagined myself burning wooden crosses on barren fields in the middle of the night. I performed ritualistic praying sessions at home when nobody else was around. I kneeled and said the prayers three times, by the book, I sweated, I took physical pain to be a sign of intense passion, the smell of my sweat akin to a whispered response from a series of gods who seemed too stubborn to grant me that insignificant gift. And every morning I would check myself in the mirror to see whether I had finally been transformed into something lovable. Tomorrow, I would think in those moments, tomorrow it is going to happen. The body that I so coveted seemed the solution to all of my problems. I would finally be loved, have friends, and I would no longer be bullied. And each and every day I woke up to see the same body. Every day felt like a battle between a better part of my own self and my self-loathing. The struggle became fiercer when an item of clothing I really liked did not fit me and the store did not have bigger sizes. It burned my innards when I felt that people treated me in a certain way because of my body.

It turned to molten rock when people obliquely pointed out there was something wrong with me. Some of those assertions were not so oblique. Once, on the bus, a group of teenagers had singled me out of the crowd of commuters and started talking about me as if I wasn’t even there. Doesn’t he look like he’s mentally challenged? Just look at him, they said, and I chose not to retaliate. I tried to ignore them. I kept telling myself that I did not care anyway, that those were just words. My only mode of retaliation was to remember the time I had encountered them on the bus so as to avoid taking that same bus at the appointed hour again. I didn’t think of it as a deliberate act on my part, I put no effort into it, my body simply gathered all of its resources, mental and physical, so as to avoid that bus. It was clockwork. My body was like a sponge, it absorbed all of that blame and turned it into misery. The whole process had the finality of an unfortunate metabolism inherited from distant relatives. I was living in the basement of my body and all I could hear was people shouting invectives through a half-opened door placed at the top of a long and dark row of stairs. The reassurances that I got from my friends, whoever they were, did not matter because then I would go back to that corner in the basement of my self-esteem.

This is not a story of redemption. I’m not preparing you for that final moment when I tell you that I finally rose from those self-fashioned slums of my mind. Nothing of the sort.

I felt powerless even when I felt guilty for not trying to do anything about it. I resented those who repeatedly told me that it was in my power to change. All I needed to do was act on it. And I did. At one point during my second master I started losing weight without any conscious effort. Somehow those extra pounds started to melt away. It just wasn’t fast enough. I purchased an ergometer and started to exercise daily. I drastically reduced the amount of calories I consumed daily. No more snacks, no more sugar, up to the point where my breakfast consisted in a glass of low-fat milk. Sometimes it was only an apple, or just a slice of toast, or nothing at all. Then I would have a salad for lunch. I spent more and more time outside the house so as to avoid being in the vicinity of food. I downloaded recipe apps on my phone and tablet and at night, when my hunger kept me awake, I would look at pictures of food for comfort. I salivated abundantly. I would lie to my parents when I came back home telling them that I had in fact eaten out and there was no need to set a plate for me at the dinner table. I would feel sick every time I felt the smell of fresh bread. I was constantly in search of something to do, something that would keep my mind off food. I started exercising and working out twice a day, adding more exercises every day. A sort of numb happiness would wash over me when I felt I was getting dizzy every time I stood up. I weighed myself every twenty minutes.

One more pound and I’ll be happy, I kept telling myself. One more pound to lose and my body will be lovable. I fainted a couple of times when nobody was around the house. Once I felt so weak that I simply fell over the bed in my parents’ bedroom only to wake up minutes later not knowing where I was or what I was doing there. I could only hear the voice of my neighbor talking on the phone. I avoided drinking water because I felt that it influenced my weight and at night I would wake up dry mouthed, my tongue like fish on dry land. I lost the pleasure of reading because I couldn’t follow the text for more than two pages. The sentences seemed convoluted, written in an odd grammar, the words like mute reminders of the need for nourishment. At night I slept without moving. Placed on top of each other my legs felt alien as if their weight and purpose no longer belonged to me. The days turned into strings of hours punctuated only by those moments of guilt that came with eating.

If my weight loss was at first only slightly noticeable it then became extreme, and my friends begged me to stop. I would tell them that I had in fact stopped. It was just that one last pound that I needed to get rid of. When they asked me why I was doing it I told them, jokingly, that I hoped people could see my beautiful soul that way. They told me that maybe I should stop seeing those people, when those people were the only people I wanted to see.

The guys on dating sites noticed the change as well. I got more profile visits, and some people actually replied to my messages. Those who knew me before my weight loss congratulated me on my achievement. I was asked out more often. It felt as if finally I had been offered a pass into that other kingdom of happiness, one where people actually thought I was attractive. To hear them tell me that I was super skinny was music to my ears but my insecurities did not fade. Everything felt so transparent and distant, as if they were speaking to me through a tube. Their hands stood by their sides and with each and every encounter I came to the realization that, in fact, nothing had changed. That same inappropriateness is still there even today after all this time, akin to an overgrown skull. Their interest is only momentary, marked by that inability to do something more than just consider me an interesting guy, our relationships still virtual, cold, defined by extended hiatuses and silences. At times it feels as if they’re telling me there’s nothing more they could do, and nothing more was done. My beautiful beautiful soul is still invisible, and no matter what my friends and acquaintances tell me I still find myself unable to believe them. You’re obviously too good for them, I’ve been repeatedly told by a friend of mine who has recently moved in with his boyfriend. There’s an arrogance in this statement that I deeply resent because it denies the reality of my own emotional life and replaces it with an expression that is bound to end up in the cliché cemetery. Because when I’m too good for all of them doesn’t it mean that I’m actually not enough for any of them?