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…

Megafauna (a poem)

when I woke up

there was so much body around me

waves of flesh that

blended in with the sheets

the skin

wooden fences to keep

wild animals from coming in

or going out? the civilizing gesture

so masterfully planned

so present in the composition

waves of flesh

flowing under mother’s feet

positioned at the end of our bed

flowing upwards and over

mother’s questioning face

the eyes moving away from what was once

her beloved son

only to see you

alpha male a hairy hand going over

my neck to pin me down

the picture finally complete

stampede of teeth and

suppressed bursts of laughter

a morse code

of not knowing

who is this fourth man

coming into our house

to claim my bed?

mother

you’ve given me a body

that doesn’t seem to make you happy.

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?

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Six)

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I trust you’re wondering by now what happened to the guy I slept with, that only guy I ever slept with, the one I mentioned in passing at the beginning of this story, and the one I even told my English high school teacher about. Of course I did not mention the sex part to her – it would have been awfully and dreadfully rude of me – about how painful it was, how discomforting, how debasing, how fantastic. Telling her about the taxi driver who also happened to be the member of some city council in Florence, and who also happened to have parents who owned a gorgeous house by the sea, was my way of coming out to her (I used the same kind of technique on a couple of occasions). I’ll keep some of the details about this particular guy to myself because I wouldn’t want people to recognize him. Let him have his privacy, his career might suffer. And besides, let’s keep the aura of romanticism I’m trying to draw around his pretty little face vivid and kicking.

In fact, when I told my English teacher about him, implying that I was gay, her reaction was, in a way, one you’d expect. You know, she said, this whole thing might be just a phase. Have you actually tried going out with girls? If you haven’t, maybe you should, you know, see what game the other team is playing. That sort of thing. I was okay with it, of course, and told her that I had tried playing for the other team and things just didn’t work out. The moment I said it, we were in a restaurant and I was having a salad and a lemonade and she was having pasta, I was actually thinking of the fact that I couldn’t get hard in the vicinity of boobs and batting eyelashes, and that was the main point. I got the same kind of reaction from a good friend from college and he had used the same words, more or less, obliquely implying that I was missing out on an experience that would have definitely shaped who I turned out to be. He then told me that he was totally okay with it not out of a personal belief but mainly because on his frequent travels to the United Kingdom he had seen stuff. It was all good as long as I kept certain things to myself. I made a joke about wearing gloves around him and he told me I was being dramatic. I have not heard from him since. (Remember when I told you that you have to be straight first in order to be gay?)

Then, while I was having my salad, something really weird happened, something that I have been unable to decipher to this present day, and I’m asking everybody about it, especially those people who find themselves in a relationship. My English teacher asked me what was so special about this guy, since I had called him boyfriend in our conversation, and my answer contained humungous amounts of shit, the kind you find in fairytales and cheesy movies. Oh, you know, he was smart, and kind, and good-looking, and made me feel protected. I believe I even gestured with my hands to show how safe I felt around him, a kind of self hug. The kind of answers we give to questions like those are pretty much on the same line of reasoning, namely based on things we had previously heard from others, when in fact we do not experience them at all (maybe I wanted to feel protected), and they have zero emotional impact on the person listening. I tried asking this question in other conversations with both straight and gay people. What do you see, or rather, what do you feel when you look at the person you are in a relationship with? What made you fall in love with that particular person and not somebody else?

The answers that I’ve been served have always been so inconclusive that I can’t even remember them right now. I couldn’t even tell you what they were, they were that lame. But they were something like this: oh, I like the way she smiles, it makes me feel warm on the inside; I like the way he looks, and when we are on an escalator he would always stand on the upper step and kiss me on the top of my head; I feel comfortable in his presence, and he does all these little things for me. I always nodded and said I see thoughtfully when in fact I didn’t see anything except the things that were happening at the time around me, such as the fact that a dog was taking a dump on the street and the owner was getting ready to clean up the mess, a green plastic bag in his hand. Love is so much more beautiful when you don’t have it, a wise man would have said. But I am no wise man.

Anyways, back to the taxi driver. I had met him on a gay dating site, the one destined for bears, and muscle bears, and otters, and daddies, and admirers and chasers etc. Now this guy, he was an admirer, and he was tall and thin and had long hair and when he smiled he resembled a mouse, and he was studying design. He also liked drinking milk and eating chocolate chip cookies after a workout (he was a big fan of calcetto, soccer but with fewer players). And I was the lucky guy he chose out of the hundreds of chubby guys on that dating site. We chatted for a long while, for more than a year, before we met in person, and we had never exchanged dick pics, not even one, though we did occasionally mention dicks in casual conversation. He was almost unreal. There he was, I thought at the time, my knight in shining armor, complete with job and personal car, who didn’t ask for dick pics and was not horny all the time. We exchanged phone numbers, we added each other on Facebook, he told me about his sister who was a fashion designer or something like that (he was still in the closet with his family, as was I), I saw pictures of him at a wedding, and I cringed every time I saw a chubby guy around him in one of those pictures. He complimented my handwriting and even suggested he might create a font that would mime it (but that was too complicated).

One night I woke up sweating and screaming from a terrible nightmare in which my grandmother was telling me and my brother that the next day we were going to be buried alive, and I was thinking of ways to poison ourselves so as not to go through the terrible ordeal of suffocation. I did not wake my parents, I did not switch on the light, I just stood there in my bed trying to convince myself that there were no monsters in my room, and that darkness had only been rendered terrifying by the nightmare. It was still my old room, which was actually a kitchen because my brother and his fiancée were still living with us and I was no longer able to use the second bedroom. But my grandmother’s voice kept returning and so I decided to text him and tell him about the dream. It was three in the morning so I didn’t think he would reply, but then he did, and he tried comforting me by telling me to imagine that he was there next to me, and that there was nothing to be afraid of, and strangely enough I fell back asleep. The next day there was a rigidity in my head that could only have been an effect of the dream. Deep down I feared my grandmother and felt guilty about my sexual preferences. Sigmund Freud, analyze this.

I really wanted to meet this guy and thought of all kinds of ways of doing it until we both decided that it was high time we spent some time together. I lied to my parents telling them that I was going to spend a couple of days with some university friends at the seaside, and with my scholarship money I bought a train ticket to Florence. The guy did not live in Florence but in a small city close by, so I had to take another local train in order to reach my destination. When I got to the small paesino the scenery was eerily dramatic, the kind you’d see in movies taking place in Italy. It was incredibly hot, it was hilly, Italian style, and the train station was high up on a sort of concrete bridge. I got down to the street level and found myself alone on the platform, no sign of other human beings on at least a mile radius (it was also lunchtime, and in Italy streets are pretty deserted at that time of the day). A few minutes later I got a text from him informing me that he was coming, he just had to leave his dog at his grandmother’s house. He even has a dog, I thought, that’s just perfect, and I imagined us later on staying in bed with the dog, or having sex while the dog was watching us.

And then he came and we awkwardly shook hands and kissed on the cheek the way Italian guys usually do (even without being gay). In the car we listened to music and he held his hand on my knee while driving and for a long moment I thought that I had finally achieved the kind of happiness everyone coveted. I had finally found a guy I liked, and he liked me back, a guy that did not have weird fetishes, he was no enema lover, no feet licker (except maybe for the fact that he liked chubby guys). The drive to the seaside was about an hour long and he kept his hand on my knee even when the other drivers around us seemed to be looking at us. I know I was a little paranoid about the other drivers, but in those moments I felt like vanishing because I was ashamed. I wanted to push his hand away, or somehow signal to him that I was uncomfortable because of the other drivers in traffic. He did not get the signal, and he took his hand off my knee only when he needed to change gears.

The moment we got into the house, which was a beautiful summer house hidden from the street by bushy trees with leaves that seemed oily in the scorching sun, he started kissing me. We sat at the kitchen table and in between kisses I was trying to tell him that I wasn’t that good at kissing, and that he was the second guy I had kissed in my entire life, and that I might disappoint him from that point of view. He kindly dismissed my remarks telling me that I should stop worrying about it. I felt ashamed and awkward, not knowing where to put my hands, and what to do with my body. His tongue felt so foreign and out of place in my mouth, his saliva salty. After showing me the house, which wasn’t that big as it seemed when I had a first glimpse of it, he told me that I can unpack my things. He stretched on the bed and watched me unpack, indicating where I should put my things. Just leave it there or, you can put that in the bathroom. There was a boyish ease in his manner, in the way he wiggled his toes on the bed, the way he threw his duffle bag on the floor by the dresser the moment he got into the room like a teenage boy returning from football practice.

Come here, he finally said when my things were in place mixed with his, and I stretched next to him, freaking out on the inside. His body had a bony hardness when I put my head on his chest, and he kept pulling my face up to kiss me. But then it wasn’t about me anymore, it was all about him. Now take off your shirt. Now take off your pants. Now get rid of that underwear as well. Silently, I obeyed him, and one by one he mirrored all of my movements. I’ll probably never know what he felt in those moments, we never talked about it, and the last time I talked to him was a few months ago while I was still in New York City and he told me to stay there and never come back. But I believe there was a time during the first encounter when it wasn’t about either of us. I felt disembodied to say the least, as if there was something else inside me that moved and told me what to do. Now go down on him, feel him, do what he says. And in a way I felt like I needed that abandon because in that abandon I felt as if I did not hate myself anymore, for an instant I felt like everything was going to be okay, for a moment it felt like I could finally find myself on the other side of okay. And I’ll keep some of the details to myself. I’ll leave you with this mental image though: after he came he fell asleep and snored, cum pooling in his bellybutton.

The abandon continued for the next days. He slept in late, I woke up early to write about the experience but couldn’t put it into words. My guts squirmed and I couldn’t keep my feet steady. Some might say that I was somehow happy, but I didn’t think of happiness at that point, this was real, much more than the very abstract notion of happiness. We went to the beach and I watched him swim. That boyish manner returned when he jumped into the water careful not to splash it over the other swimmers. He fished a sea urchin out of the water and showed it to me. We stood on the docks in the sun with our feet in the water and when nobody was looking he put his foot under mine and tapped lightly against it. Back at the house we watched Eddie Izzard and random episodes from Game of Thrones, especially those where Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) was on. He sighed at the sight of him and purred like a cat, a deep sexy grunt boiling into his chest. He played games on his iPhone and told me he was irreparably busy. I made a video of him which I still have, even to this day. That digital memory of him has somehow managed to survive the irrational wrath I felt when I knew it was all over. Then we had sex again, Eddie Izzard still talking in the background, and I might have laughed at some of his jokes while I was on my knees doing things to him. We might have been watching episodes of Little Britain while doing it. There’s-a-limit-to-my-honesty is the best policy.

On our last day together we stained the sheets and had to wash them, dry them in the sun. I felt so ashamed of it because he had told me the previous day that his sister was going to use the house later on in the afternoon, and I was afraid she was going to notice it. I never knew whether she did or not. I felt ashamed because I knew it was my fault. I had been sloppy. I should have suggested we put a towel underneath us. We rushed to the train station. I almost missed my train. When I finally got back home that night I did not miss him, at all, even though at the train station he hugged me and I felt his voice trembling in his chest. I felt anger mostly, and fear, I felt as if he had stolen something away from me because I knew that I was never going to see him again. I tried crying but couldn’t no matter how hard I tried. I feared STDs, I feared that he had done something to me behind my back. The next months were excruciatingly painful, the months in which I was trying to convince myself I had to do an HIV test. I desperately looked for symptoms, read articles on the internet and fell deep into my well of despair every time I felt that I had in fact experienced some of the symptoms I read about in those articles. Then I took the test, along with a couple of other tests, and they all came out negative. The envelope I was given with my results in it was white and felt like a closure. Before opening it I thought that whatever was inside it would constitute the expression of whatever we shared in those moments at the seaside. And I came clean out of it, as if it had never happened. Only after this final confirmation we could both carry on with our lives. The words on that slip of paper were our way of saying goodbye.

Slowly he vanished the way colors fade when exposed to direct sunlight. It took longer for him to reply to my texts, he never called, I never called, and in that silence there was a unspoken finality, akin to a prolonged breathing out. It was only later on, much later on, that he told me he had in fact fallen in love with somebody else. He did not say I should stop contacting him, nothing of the sort, but our conversation fell into long silences, and I let it drop. It was time to let go. There is no proper way to let go, one merely lets go, and that’s it.

Years later, when I first read Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, I felt like John Schaeffer about the whole affair. Like Schaeffer, I thought of writing love letters to my Malone, but my Malone was exactly like that fictional Malone from the novel. “‘Forget the sheer style, and beauty,’ resumed Malone, ‘in this room. It’s all we’ll ever see of the Beatific Vision!'” The room Malone is referring to here was full of gorgeous men, and he was talking to a younger Schaeffer, who was up and ready to forget about the Beatific Vision and be Malone’s only lover. Enjoy it while you can. I know he’d reject me now because I’m no longer chubby and I’m no longer able to accommodate his fetish for baby fat, but at times longing washes over me. I don’t miss him, don’t get me wrong, I miss the way I felt about him, the abandon, the way we played house like children on a boring summer afternoon.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Five)

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It’s always hard to believe that the happiness you see in others is not yours, can never be yours. In fact, we are so convinced of the fact that everybody deserves to be happy that at times we end up believing that the happiness displayed by others is really ours, that it has been stolen from us, as if happiness is fossil fuel, limited, non-renewable, and accessible only to those who own a certain quantity of capital. Once it’s used, it’s gone. What do they have that I don’t? The kind of emotional jealousy implicit in this way of thinking is a dangerous downward slope, and downward slopes are always dangerous, unless you are a kid, because in the adult world time is always running out. At least, that’s what it feels like when you are nearing the age of thirty, when everything in your life will acquire a sense of urgency and an edge of despair. You’ll think of other people, famous writers who wrote their best by the age of twenty-three, that friend who seems so accomplished, who is earning more money than you, to the point where everything that you have ever done feels insignificant, inconclusive like the papers of the average students in your class. But the most painful aspect on your long list of failures is your inability to find your significant other. And the social pressure behind it is almost suffocating. For instance, every time I go back to my home country the first thing that older people, such as my grandparents and my primary school teacher, ask me is whether I have taken any steps towards building a family. Have you got a girlfriend? No matter what answers I give (marriage is a trap, I don’t need a ring around my finger to make me feel complete, marriage has become an option etc.) they are never satisfactory to them. And I see it in the way they curb their mouths downwards, in the way they try to convince me that there comes a time in life when you can only find personal satisfaction in having a family, in working for the sake of your kids.

That’s the thing, I want to tell them, I know of the fact that my mother abandoned her studies to get married at a very early age (she was barely eighteen when she got married), and I know that she had to burn her dreams, whatever they were, on the pyre of family values. I’m well aware that she hates her current job, and that she employs an inhuman amount of self-control in order to continue doing her job. I’m also well aware of the fact that my father did not have any dreams of that sort because he’s in the habit shitting on every job he’s offered. He got fired from his first job (a crime scene investigator and a policeman), and he got fired from his second job (an agent of the internal revenue service) because of his gambling addiction. My father’s only dream from that point of view was to get his hands on easy money by winning the lottery and by embezzling other people’s money. After running away from the country, my mother following him immediately after, people kept coming to our door to ask for the money that he had allegedly “borrowed” from them. I’m well aware of the fact that my brother and I won’t inherit anything, no properties, no money, and most likely no self-esteem. All of us live on a month to month basis, struggling daily to have less month at the end of our money. All of us dread the months in which we have to pay our car insurance, and we prepare for it psychologically six months ahead.

My father’s pathological gambling has even led to suicide threats on a couple of occasions, to late night visits to the nearest police station, to repeated calls that ended with the voice of the answering machine, and to obscure texts informing us that he was leaving not knowing where, and that we should forget about him and get on with our lives. During the first year I came to Italy to live with my parents and continue my studies I witnessed what I believe to be one of the worst episodes in that tragic saga. My father had been out of work for a while and the money was always low, and we struggled to pay the rent. Before going to Italy my grandparents had given me half of my university tuition so as to help me and my parents. In fact my grandparents were the only ones who helped me most throughout college because my parents were absent both physically and financially. At the time, my mother cleaned the houses of rich people for a living, and my father was in and out of work until he was arrested and imprisoned for embezzling large sums of money (the reason why he left the country in the first place). I distinctly remember the moment he was summoned by the local police department where he was told that he was under arrest and that he was being extradited to be put on trial back home. Somehow, the past has the talent of coming back at you. The tuition money given by my grandparents soon ran out, my father reassuring me every time he asked for money that the full sum and more would be returned. When the time came to actually pay the tuition my mother made a bank loan in her name and paid for it for the next four years. My father made all of us promise that we won’t mention it to my grandparents because bank loans were the one thing they dreaded most, right there next to the end of the world.

Then, a man, whom we knew to be the owner of a nearby bar, kept coming to our house and asking to speak to my father. And my father kept dismissing it saying that the man was in fact willing to give him a job. We believed him, we’ve always believed everything he said. One day, the day after my brother got his monthly stipend, my father went out to buy cigarettes, a chore that on that day took an awful lot of time. In my innocence I imagined he met people on the way and stopped to have a chat. A couple of hours later he came back and told me that he had in fact met some people and had a drink with them. Then he went into my brother’s room somehow without me noticing and told me he was going out again and that he’ll be right back. Hours passed and he did not come back. I knew where my brother kept his money and instantly realized that a large sum of it was missing. At the moment, I dismissed the thought presuming that my brother had taken it with him to work. I kept going out the balcony looking for him, thinking that maybe he was still talking to those people he was in the habit of meeting so often. Later on, my mother called to tell me that my father was not answering his phone after he had sent a text informing her that he left and that he was going to commit suicide because he had taken money from my brother to pay for a debt he was in with the owner of that nearby bar, and that he cannot live with that thought any longer. My mother kept calling him until not even the answering machine cared to answer anymore signaling that he had probably taken the sim card out of his phone.

After more hours passed with no response the three of us decided to go to the police station and file a missing person report. With my mother crying, resembling the bereft madonna from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, we took the elevator down. And there, in the main hall of the building a boy and a girl, both teenagers, were sitting on the steps giggling and holding hands and kissing. I’ll never know what my brother or my mother were experiencing at the time because I’ve never asked them about it (that’s one episode I believe all of us want to forget), but all I felt was immense jealousy and an irrational rage. There they were, enjoying the happiness that had been taken from me on that day. I’m well aware now, as I probably were when it happened, that it was mere coincidence, but I just couldn’t help thinking that those two teenagers had stolen something from me, and I hated them for, I so fucking hated them. I wanted them out of my sight, I wanted them dead, I wanted to punch them, throw bricks at them.

We got to the police department and an officer let us in. The moment she got into the room my mother started crying and telling the officer (luckily the officer was also female) in between breathtaking sobs about my father’s absence and the ominous text (which was in Romanian, so we had to translate it). The officer reassured my mother and told her to calm down and try calling my father just one last time, right there on the spot. My mother complied and dialed the number and, after a few rings, my father replied. My mother’s crying intensified and the next moment she was screaming on the phone and the officer simply watched the scene with the coolness a police officer has to maintain at all times. She couldn’t understand what my mother was saying because at such moments of high emotional intensity she always regressed to that maternal language. And in the end she managed to convince my father to come back. And he did come back that night, after we had gone to sleep. I heard the main door opening and closing.

Similar scenarios occurred over the years, and maybe there had been times when I was so sick and tired of it that I wanted to tell my father go ahead, go and leave us alone. I don’t think I suffered much because of those episodes. I’ve always retreated in my emotional void deep inside me when the emotional load on the outside was too much to bear. But I just couldn’t stand to see my mother suffering because of it. Because, you see, even though it was my father who committed those mistakes in the end it was always my mother who went on her knees to him and beg him to come back. It was as if he was threatening us with suicide so that at the end he would still be the victim. It was as if he was doing it so that we would say don’t do it, we forgive you, just don’t do it. And he was forgiven, every time. Whenever he was in debt because of his gambling addiction he would pull the suicide card, perform the stunt full circle, then wait to be cajoled back with the promise of forgiveness. Once, when my mother accused him of having spent money on gambling, he simply told her so what with the carelessness of a teenager who’s got nothing to lose.

Nowadays, whenever my father doesn’t answer his phone, or whenever he is late from work for more than an hour, all of us look at each other and in each other’s eyes we see the memory of those past moments, their shadows long and oddly-shaped. Every time it happens I immediately log into my parents’ bank account to see whether the money is still there, because I know that even the smallest misappropriation of of family funds can have disastrous effects. We never saved money except when the money was too low to be saved any longer. There are no trust funds, no savings in exotic bank accounts, no properties to be inherited, we don’t even own a house. We are still paying for a car that after three years of use is already showing signs of fatigue and we need to keep investing large sums of money into it to keep using it. There are no monthly payments to my brother’s freshly forged household just for the sake of helping and I know my brother resents it. I can see it in his face and in his occasional nods when we complain about money. And his wife’s parents are of no help either.

My father is also partially handicapped. He has lost his left foot from the knee down after a medical procedure backfired. Attempts to bring the medic to trial for misdiagnosis and malpractice have failed repeatedly. Lawyers have come to the conclusion that his case is not clear and they won’t take on cases that don’t promise large sums of money. My father’s employer was put on trial after he had fired him on the grounds of his disability. The court ruled in my father’s favor but the Italian legal system seems to be taken out of Kafka’s novels. In a country that is not ours we didn’t have the knowledge and the skills to do more about it. A large sum of money was at stake but the employer had transferred all of his belongings in his wife’s name and he is “officially” bankrupt. Since then my father suffered a series of heart strokes and he wears a stent. He cannot exercise because of his prosthetic leg and he is a smoker.

Now, going back to my initial point, besides the emotional support, what else does a man offer his woman? What satisfaction is to be drawn out of a family life so coveted and socially encouraged? Some of you will tell me something along the lines that otherwise I wouldn’t have been born, I wouldn’t be here now writing this, as if my own contribution to this world is so important that it cannot be replicated or equaled in any way. None of us are that valuable. The world won’t end if I stop existing, just as me not having children will not stop the proliferation and well-being of our species. At best, my life can be seen as a series of failed attempts, and don’t you dare give me that shit about the importance of failed attempts, and the fact that the destination is not important. In this context my homosexuality seems like a natural reaction, my movements calcified, my partner, if I’ll ever have one, won’t be able to bear children unless by some sort of medical stunt. I won’t be able to bear children. And I don’t think I want to because what have I got to offer my kid? Emotional hunger? False hopes? What is there worth preserving? I trust it’s high time we stopped perceiving the rapists and the murderers and the child molesters, those who participate in genocide, those who embezzle unfathomable sums of money, our capitalist system, as exceptional occurrences. They are one of us.

I want to tell my primary school teacher that it’s okay to want to be alone nowadays because disaster is just around the corner and that I do not wish anyone to suffer because of me or in my company. And I don’t think this is sad or tragic, it only feels so because for so long we’ve been living on this pile of shit. On the contrary, I believe this is very courageous. But my primary school teacher won’t understand that, she is adamant in her beliefs. These are mere thoughts, right? Happening in the mind, they can be persuaded into transformation. She will think I’m mad if I tell her that, just like Tony Kushner’s Harper Amaty Pitt from Angels in America, I have seen the “souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague” rising into the atmosphere to form “a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.” She will blame the book. Because look at all those generations behind us, look how happy they were. It’s so easy. It’s so easy to say you don’t need food immediately after a good meal. It’s so easy, if only I could find myself a wife.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Four)

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Striking a pose

The bitter truth is always sex-related. Every confession has to be about sex, about desiring another person’s body, one that is in most cases forbidden to us, unaccessible. The ego finds its purest expression in the ultimate orgasm, one reached in the right circumstances, at the right time, and with the right person. Reaching orgasm with the right person is akin to winning, it’s the gold medal, the long-awaited promotion, and the fatherly pat on the back coming from a superior. Nothing grooms the ego the way an orgasm does. And nothing destroys the ego the way watching other people reach that orgasm does. It’s demeaning, and it’s socially frowned upon. People often mock the porn movie industry for its poor acting as if they watch porn for the acting. And what acting is there except for those initial scenes in which the pizza delivery guy knocks at a door only to be greeted by a damsel in distress? Or those scenes in which the good-looking twink sprains his ankle while descending an uneventful hill in order to be rescued by an equally good-looking daddy who also happens to be a doctor? Now, I really doubt it that porn actors, producers, directors, aim for an Oscar. And I really really doubt it that people watch porn in order to provide other porn connoisseurs with valuable criticism, and the general public with trustworthy ratings. That is probably why it so happens that when porn emerges as a topic during educated group discussions almost everyone deflects to talking about the quality of the acting. It’s as if there’s a switch in their mind that goes on when porn is mentioned. No, I go there for the acting, I couldn’t possibly go there for the sex and the orgasm, I’m a film critic, just like everybody else in this group, right? Such pathos in the performance, such exquisite makeup, and the lighting was just incredible.

And if everything is to happen for a reason in life then there must have been a good reason behind my brother’s discovery of my uncle’s porn stash (it wasn’t that well hidden after all, and my brother, three years older than me, has always had the talent of bringing dark secrets to the light of day). We would hide to have a look at all those pictures every once in a while marveling at the anatomy of such human endeavors. About nine years younger than my mother, my uncle must have been at that time in his early twenties and in his sexual prime. We knew about his girlfriends and then we knew of his dark secret. Other dark secrets emerged later on but I was too young to unravel them and understand their full significance.

You see, I used to play alone a lot, mostly because I could not keep up with the other kids of my age. I was chubby, nearing the dreadful childhood obesity, and people made fun of me. In order to avoid that I spent most of my time reading and dressing up. Yes, I guess you could say I was an early drag queen. I used to put on my mother’s dresses and high heeled shoes, and I would even sometimes put on makeup to make the dressing up complete. I would then watch myself in the mirror, sing, and pretend I was performing a musical in front of an imaginary audience (made of adults, of course, who marveled at such precocious talent). I learned songs by heart by listening to them obsessively. And so every once in a while, while rummaging through my mother’s dresses, it happened that I came upon unused towels (put there for safekeeping and intended for future use). Some of them were clean, and some of them were sticky in the middle as if they stained with a liquid that had dried in the meantime. When I confronted my mother about the sticky situation she dismissed it by saying that my uncle blew his nose in those towels. He just was too lazy to reach for a napkin or handkerchief. In my naïveté, I believed her. Years later, while thinking about my uncle’s hidden porn stash and the mysterious towels, I realized that my uncle did not, in fact, blow his nose in those towels. He did something completely different, still involving bodily fluids nonetheless. I trust you got the idea by now.

When my uncle moved away my grandfather hid the secret stash in one of his lockers, wrapped them in an old newspaper and placed them behind mounds of carpentry tools. But even these methods were of no match to my brother’s inquisitive mind. And so we resumed our contemplation of the wonders of the human anatomy. The most precious item of my uncle’s stash was a deck of playing cards on which men and women were represented fornicating in different positions. In my sick little mind I even went to the extent of actually imagining men smoking cigars and playing Texas hold ’em using those cards late into the night. I even remember imagining this happening at the house of a priest from a neighboring village who always made kinky jokes even when children were around.

I come from a very religious background. Born and raised in an orthodox family I knew very well what sin was. It was dancing and listening to music before Easter, Christmas, and after the death of a close family member. Touching yourself in certain areas of your body was a sin. Not going to church on a Sunday was considered a sin. Not saying your prayers before going to bed was a sin. Sitting down in church was a sin, even though your feet were killing you. Also, keep in mind that mine was a family in which we had to use two distinct towels to dry ourselves after a bath: one for the hair and the upper part of your body down to your bellybutton, and one for the rest. Using one to dry your entire body was a blasphemy. My earliest memory of religion, besides the religion classes that were taught by the village priest, is me refusing to go for the Easter confession. We had to go to church very early in the morning and I wanted five more minutes and my mother just didn’t want to hear about it. I had to go to confession, because who knows what sins I kept to myself. I distinctly remember the scene: my father brutally holding me in his arms and washing my face against my will, me pushing with my feet against the bathroom sink. I can distinctly recall the face I saw in the mirror that morning. It was red with anger and covered in mucus. But I had to go to church, there was no way around it.

When I say confession don’t think of those scenes from the movies, it was nothing like that. There was no booth in which you entered and spoke to the priest through a little window. Our priest sat on a chair at the back of the church (where the women were supposed to stay during service) with his back against the gruesome images of hell painted on the wall. Next to him there was always a small round table on which people would put money (yes, you had to give money to the priest every time you confessed your sins because in that way your sins were forgiven). You would then kneel at the priest’s feet, he would cover your head with his saintly garment, and then it was confession time. Have you been a good boy? Of course, father. Did you quarrel with your friends or family? No father, of course not. And that was about it. No sensible questions were asked, and the drill continued well into my teens and early adulthood. Once, while I was in college, I had confessed to my priest that I had been unsettled after taking a course in demonology at the university. His reply was that literature in general is preparing us for the return of Satan. I stopped going to confession afterwards. The priest had a bad breath anyway.

Yet, if my confessions were uneventful, my brother’s were definitely not. Apparently, once the priest had asked him whether he had engaged in premarital sex, and my brother, due to an excess of piety, had replied affirmatively. He did not get the wine and the bread after the confession. He had officially been declared impure by the church. The gesture infuriated me at the time though my brother couldn’t care less. But I also felt jealous in a way, because the priest had never asked me that. I had had no sexual adventures at that time but still, why wasn’t I being asked the uncomfortable question? Was there something in my manner that betrayed a lack of sexual drive? Nowadays, I often wonder what would my priest’s reaction be should he find out about my latest adventures in bed. Would I be banished from the church as well? Would I be shown again the images of hell and fire painted on the walls at the back of the church?

My brother held nothing back when it came to talking about his sex experience. I knew he cheated on his supposed girlfriends, the way I knew that my father cheated on my mother. I knew my father had been kicked out from the police force on an alleged accusation of rape, one that was later settled financially. And I knew my uncle had cheated on his wife on a couple of occasions with other women. Just like my brother, my uncle held nothing back. He used to watch porn on my computer and I knew about that not because he never deleted the browser’s history, but because I was there while he was watching it, guarding the door and letting him know when my grandmother was approaching. I was perfectly aware that my only male cousin cheated on his supposed girlfriends. Both my brother and my cousin have had exceptional ways of dating girls. And there I was, trapped in the very heart of the beehive.

Porn watching sessions occurred at my house because my brother was the only one in his group of friends who held a perfectly functional VCR and was the proud owner of a collection of porn videocassettes. They would come in groups to watch them while my grandparents were away sweating in the fields picking potatoes. They did not masturbate, they just made jokes about their “hammers” (i.e. boners). Yet, what struck me most about those videos was not the act itself but rather the rapidity with which the actors went from being pizza delivery guys to full-fledged casanovas complete with abs and erect penises. At the end of these sessions my brother’s friends would ask me to play some cartoons so as to quell the passion in their pants. And on went Disney’s Aladdin. Princess Jasmine was not their kind of woman I suppose, and Aladdin was my kind of man.

Occasionally, some of them would stay behind and talk about girls, and the way you distinguished them according to their pubic hair and other such features. They would even ask me about the girls in my class and I would simply tell them I couldn’t make any difference between them. They stared at me in disbelief and to fill the awkward silence that followed I would invent distinctions of my own. In the end they would let go of it conjuring the old excuse: I was just too shy to talk about the girls I liked or disliked. Your time will come, they would tell me, just wait and see.

I did wait, for a very long time, and saw a completely different picture.

Undoubtedly, watching porn can constitute a didactic experience, and it must have been like that for my uncle, my brother and his friends. Porn movies can incite a sort of preparedness into the body, they can help muffle that fear of the unexpected, of the unknown. But they must have also defined the roles that the men watching them were supposed to fill, well beyond their fantasies. They were expected to be ready, to jump swiftly from the role of the pizza delivery guy to the one of dominating men and, by extension, from the roles of husbands and boyfriends to the ones of adventurous men ready to free themselves of the constraints of marriage and relationships.

Gay men, on the other hand, have always felt free of the constraints of marriage and relationships. Developments in this field, such as the recognition of civil unions in certain parts of the world, are quite recent in our history. Our preferences have been for a very long time part and parcel of a criminal mindset. Think of prisoners in all-male prisons for instance. We’ve been placed in the category of evolutionary deviations, our search for sexual satisfaction the outcome of a systemic suffocation, a last resort when other means of obtaining it were forbidden to us. And because we have not had a system of social pressure in place with regards to marriage and relationships has certainly helped in turning us into exploitative sex machines. The only thing that seemed to stall our drive was disease. And part of our drive was and still is made of blind anger, the kind that leads one to despair and ultimately to self-loathing and self-destructiveness. The latter is always dynamic. To produce destruction an explosive device must undo itself, must refute the consolation that comes after victory is declared and peace is organized. To obtain social and political recognition a group must manifest itself, make itself seen, and we chose to make ourselves seen by transgressing at times at the price of our own destruction. What did Alexander Portnoy, the protagonist of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, do to finally let go of his inhibitions and fears (besides masturbating excessively)? “I am marked like a road map”, Portnoy confesses, “from head to toe with my repressions. You can travel the length and breadth of my body over superhighways of shame and inhibition and fear.”

When something is forbidden the mere fact of obtaining it becomes a pleasure in itself. And even only knowing that obtaining it constitutes the breaking of a certain rule makes that object even more desirable. There’s an almost irrational stubbornness when it comes to the things that the body needs and desires, and that stubbornness sometimes turns into anger and then into violence. People who give up smoking will sometimes dream of smoking. Those who are on a diet will dream of worry-free eating. Knowing that porn is socially frowned upon makes it even more desirable. And that’s the thing, conceptually the direct consumer cannot be blamed because the consumer cannot undo the fact that porn exists in the first place, just as somebody who despises Lady Gaga’s music cannot undo the fact that Lady Gaga’s music already exists. It’s out there, people do it, we know they do it because we do it as well. “I, for one,” says the protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, “am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word ‘murder’ made us mumble as much as the word ‘masturbation’.” And I think I agree with him.