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I’m pretty sure there’s nothing as sexual for me as walking shirtless in the hot sun toward the pounding bass of a sound system telling me I’m about to dance. The vocal in the song says “Just like 1994,” which it’s not, not at all, but maybe when I get home I’ll look up this song that proves nostalgia now zooms in right to the time of my formation—the nostalgia of the early-’90s was all about the ’70s, but now we have both and neither one is true, as nostalgia can never be, but anyway I’m dancing, that’s the important part. I’m dancing outside in the blazing sun, shoes and socks and shirt off, sweat dripping down my face underneath the sunglasses and hat that are protecting my eyes from too much light. I’m dancing down at the bottom of the hill, right by the sound system, but only about four other people are dancing with me.
This is what it means to celebrate. How desire and disgust can feel so closely related, surrounding self-actualization with self-hatred. Is this just true for queers, or for everyone?
It’s strange how rave culture might be the only place where I pass unintentionally—what I’m passing as I’m not sure but I guess someone who might have come here on purpose. And eventually there’s some shirtless guy who looks like a fag, dancing with a blow-up toy and a lot of the guys here look like fags until you watch them interact, but this guy’s moves are too overtly campy and sexual to be straight and then he’s dancing with me, I think, I think he’s dancing with me—and, yes, maybe I’ve passed the point where I should be dancing this hard, but the good thing about the grass is I can just fall, over and over and it doesn’t hurt, roll around but now I’m jumping in the air, twirling around until he’s the one who’s tired I hold out my arms for a hug we hug goodbye it feels so good all that sweat like a real hug I want to see him again.
• • •
There’s nothing like an election to make you feel hopeless about the possibility for political change. I pick up a magazine promising America’s Essential Recipes, and open it right up to PORK SCHNITZEL. I’m laughing so hard that everyone at the co-op turns around to see if they can be part of my laughter. And then I’m walking through a field of dandelions. Even if it’s really just the grass between the sidewalk and street I will take this field while I can get it.
The news is always its own trauma, but when the news of the trauma echoes into our lives, past and present at once, the open door never quite closes. Trauma as a curtain that billows around us, a wall we never quite break through. I mean trauma as a weapon. How to make oppression realize its redundancy. But oppression can never realize. Anything but oppression. How saying that something is structural means we need to take it apart or else it’s a weapon we become.
How I can’t go to a depoliticized vigil, I mean a vigil, which is always depoliticized, but walking past all the candles left out three days later makes me cry. How once we held political funerals instead of vigils. The power of grief in public spaces, but only if we’re allowed grief on our own terms. How I can’t listen to politicians telling me they’re with me, and even worse is standing with people who are with these politicians. How assimilation even robs us of the tools we need in order to grieve.
Love is love isn’t the most helpful rhetoric for those of us who grew up abused by the people who told us they loved us the most. They love us when we’re dead, but they’re not interested in taking care of us while we’re alive.
I’ve never liked Robert Mapplethorpe’s art, but I’m watching a documentary about him and suddenly I’m sobbing. Of course I knew the narrative ahead of time—but then: “You can tell how successful a show is by the sound in the room. On that night the room was silent.” The night of Mapplethorpe’s last show. He couldn’t attend because he was too ill. Everyone peering into glass cases, and we’re watching their watching. We don’t know what they see—the recognition is ours.
How is it that recognition is always a shock? Recognition of self, recognition of feeling, recognition of impending death. Sometimes we think we don’t need anything, and we need everything. And sometimes we know what we need, but we can’t figure out how to need it.
This guy on the street says: How do you stay so blissed-out all the time? Which is one of the most confusing things anyone has ever asked me.
Love is love isn’t the most helpful rhetoric for those of us who grew up abused by the people who told us they loved us the most.
Confession: I just caught myself touching the leaves of a plant and thinking what is this made out of? One day, if everyone stops asking if I’m drunk, then maybe I’ll drink again. How much is profound disconnection from humanity, and how much is utter loneliness? When I was sixteen, I went out to a club for the first time, and I heard Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” mixed with some industrial song, and for years I thought that was part of the industrial song.
Sometimes they put a deceptively attractive exterior on a fake building, and suddenly it looks real. When people move in, will they look like this too? On the playground, this kid says: I need a translator, I need a translator to eat tonight.
I’m kind of entranced by watching these guys in the park touch one another so gently. Then I notice one of them is wearing an NYPD T-shirt and I want the world to end. Lying in the park trying to regain enough energy to walk home, I hear this guy circling around me, yelling in that language of conspiracy, internal made external, something about how if his people own this city how come he doesn’t have shit and I know I should be thinking about the lack of mental health resources but instead I suddenly feel scared. Maybe because I drifted into something like sleep until the yelling woke me up. And I look at the other people in the park, one is staring at this guy and the other is still sunbathing—I’m getting ready to flee and I wonder if this is one of the reasons why we only have prison.
• • •
I’m watching a video where two guys are talking about sugar apples for Christmas. In bed. In German. One of them is wearing a wedding ring—he’s caressing his lover I mean husband and the camera is caressing his ring. I should turn this off now.
New scene. One guy has feminist theory on his floor, but the camera goes for his ass. In this scene the actors are speaking English. Everyone smokes everywhere—this is Berlin. I never realized I was sensitive to smoke until I lived in Berlin for a month, jetlag for two weeks and then bronchitis for the first time since I was a kid, and that was sixteen years ago but now even if I walk too close to people smoking outside it gives me a headache.
Everyone speaks English perfectly here—you don’t really need German to survive, says this guy who doesn’t speak English perfectly. But why are gay men obsessed with white sheets? Everything they could never have, a lifetime supply of Clorox to bleach out all the cum stains. Or maybe gay marriage keeps the sheets white.
I do like it when the guy with star tattoos on his arm says: Heterosexuality, what it that? Then he holds his cigarette to the other guy’s ear as they start making out. I was straight in art school, he says, and they laugh. Okay, the making out is pretty cute.
But does this guy really have a huge cross tattooed on his back? Oh, they’re laughing again—if only sex always included laughing, maybe we could live more for living. The guy with tattoos is telling the other guy he looks so much hotter in person, he should never bleach his hair blond again. The other guy says he likes it blond, it’s going to be blond again.
But what’s going on now? The guy who used to be blond notices scars all over the tattooed guy’s arms—the tattooed guy is pointing out each of the places where he sliced himself—you do it this way, you do it that way. Cigarette burns—he’s laughing.
It’s so funny, isn’t it, the other guy says. But it’s like he’s making fun of him, a challenge almost academic. Of course we underemphasize our wounds, those of us who must in order to survive. We laugh because this is what we know. I wish he would hold the guy with the scars, instead of challenging him to show emotion.
I’m thinking about how Pride is the one day of the year when fags can express their femininity and still be sexualized. And how depressing that is.
I keep rewinding this part that must be the key to why this movie matters, I mean suddenly matters for me. They’re still talking about those scars. When was it, says the guy who used to be blond, and the tattooed guy takes a gulp of his beer and says: Reality.
What he would have said if they were speaking in German doesn’t matter as much as what we know now. Trauma in translation. Translation of trauma. The reality of living. Living with reality. How do we make this possible.
• • •
Sometimes I wonder if gated community is a redundant term. Creating boundaries around everyone who belongs, so that everyone who doesn’t belong never will. I call Brian, and he surprises me by answering. Girl, where are you, she says, even though I’m calling from my landline. She’s smashed. She says she’s been thinking about me all day, she just wants to kiss my face—so then I’m getting ready to go to Pony, even though it’s Pride.
I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to a bar on Pride before. The best strategy is always to avoid as much as possible. But here it is. The moment I’ve been waiting for. Sure, Brian’s smashed, but maybe this is an opening that will allow for a shift in our relationship. I need to take a shower first, even though Brian says come stinky. But stinky is not something I ever aspire to be.
Then I’m on the way there, and of course the whole street is blocked off in front of the Cuff, and the bass on the sound system is so loud that I kind of want to stay. Until the vocal comes on, and I realize they’re playing “It’s Raining Men.”
The weird thing about being at Pony on the night of Pride is that everyone’s so friendly. Usually people just stare at you and then look away, but now it’s a constant stream of kisses and cruisy looks and Happy Pride, Happy Pride, so I figure I’ll just smile and pretend that Pride can actually be happy.
Oh, there’s Brian, in short-shorts and fuchsia lipstick, holding my hand and pulling me inside, where people are actually dancing, and then we’re making out on the dance floor. And then in the photo booth. And then back on the dance floor. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, but I can’t tell if it’s hot—I’m so used to desexualizing my friends.
Maybe I’m not totally present. Until we’re back on the dance floor, now I’m dancing and it’s that flirtatiousness with movement that gets me high, then we’re making out and I push Brian up against the wall right when “Tainted Love” comes on—yes, really, “Tainted Love”—and honey, we are singing it. And this is when it really gets hot, my tongue going up behind Brian’s teeth and I can tell he loves that, he loves all this tainted love.
Every now and then Brian says something like: I love your lips. Or: You’re one of my favorite people. And: Is this OK? I hope this is OK.
Usually people just stare at you and then look away, but now it’s a constant stream of kisses and cruisy looks and Happy Pride, Happy Pride.
You’re giggling, Brian says, and he’s right, I am giggling. I’m giggling because I’m in my body. I’m giggling because I’m having fun. I’m giggling because can’t it always be this way. I’m giggling because we’re like a performance, and it’s also like no one else is even here. I’m giggling because Brian’s spilling his beer all over my leg.
Someone wants to piss with us in the bathroom, but that will make me pee-shy so I piss in the sink. Brian gets another beer—I don’t know how he’s going to drink another beer. We’re making out again, and he’s rubbing my chest, yes, do that, yes, I like that, and I can’t tell if he backs away because it’s getting more sexual, and whether I want it to be more sexual now or to wait until later. I mean I want to wait until later, but also I want to feel this, so I know it’s there.
I like how you can just be here, Brian says, and I know he means the way I’m interacting with everyone like I’ve been partying all day too—I just go right there, it’s in me, it’s in my history and anyway these people are more on my level when they’re smashed, I mean in terms of a readiness for intimacy, a lack of borders, an openness to possibility. Yes, there’s still shade, but tonight there’s less of a gap between yearning and softness.
Brian and I go on the patio where we can’t believe it’s still so light out, how is it still this light? I guess it’s just the difference between inside and outside, but still somehow it’s surprising. Brian has to piss again, and I think of going with him to make sure he actually comes back, but then I think that’s weird so I wait for him outside.
Someone’s fixing her makeup, so I ask if I can look in her mirror to see if my lips or cheeks are covered in Brian’s lipstick, and her friend says what are you looking for, everything is perfect. Bleached blond in a silver sequined dress like one of those women who’s been in clubs for years I mean she’s never left, I look in her eyes to see what drugs and we start dancing. The light is incredible, I say, and she says bring it down a little, I need something to cover this, and she points to her face, my eyes into her eyes and we’re flying.
After a while it’s clear that Brian isn’t coming back, so I go to look for her, and there she is out front, all the way at the other end of the fence, making out with someone else. It’s what I expected, but I didn’t want to expect it so I decided to withhold expectation. It’s not the fact that she’s making out with someone else that bothers me, it’s that she didn’t come back to tell me about it first. I don’t want to feel upset, but I feel upset. I don’t want to walk back through all the smokers out there to get to her, and when I got to her what would I say?
I go back on the patio. Now I’m exhausted—what am I doing here? At least there’s Amy, the woman in the silver dress. She says are you a Gemini—I knew you were a Gemini, I’m a Gemini, and there’s that look in the eyes again, our eyes, and then there’s John, who comes over and says you look amazing, what’s your secret?
My secret is that I’m completely exhausted all the time. My secret is that I’m so absurdly healthy, but why doesn’t it make me feel better? My secret is that I don’t have any secrets. My secret is that’s not really true. My secret is that I still haven’t figured out how to exist with or without gay culture. My secret is that I’m so desperately lonely most of the time. My secret is that I do love it when people tell me I look great. I mean I’m trying. I’m really trying.
But now none of this matters because the music is so good, and I’m back on the dance floor. Someone impossibly hot taps me on the chest, and says “You’re breakfast,” because that’s the vocal—and she could be my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I don’t want to do the same thing Brian is doing, I mean not until there’s some communication between us, right, and now the communication is in my body throwing it down, flinging around, shrieking in that way that means there’s nothing between my body and the world, this world of dancing and I know I should leave because now the smoke machine is on full blast, but I need to be here right now, with that dancing queen in the corner staring at me like damn, I mean she was doing that earlier too but then I went over to say hi and she couldn’t speak.
Until I realize now, now’s the time to go, while I’m feeling great again, before I crash, before it gets too late—I look for Brian again but I can’t find him, so I figure I’ll call when I get home. Amy’s outside—she says I’ve been up for forty-eight hours, and you were just what I needed, I’m so glad we found each other. And then more kisses, more Happy Prides, and I’m out into the 10:30 p.m. but still not quite dark sky, where am I.
Back by the Cuff, there are so many discarded plastic cups in the middle of the street that it’s almost like they were making a dance floor out of them. I’m thinking about how Pride is the one day of the year when fags can express their femininity and still be sexualized. And how depressing that is. So maybe it’s strange to say this is the only positive aspect of Pride I’ve ever experienced.
My secret is that I still haven’t figured out how to exist with or without gay culture. My secret is that I’m so desperately lonely most of the time.
And then there’s that feeling that people are closer to the possibility of experiencing connection when they’re smashed, and therefore further from the possibility of experiencing connection. This is what it means to celebrate. How desire and disgust can feel so closely related, surrounding self-actualization with self-hatred. Is this just true for queers, or for everyone? How a universal experience is universally impossible.
But I had fun, I’ll admit it, I did—I’m thinking I need to look up that “You’re breakfast” song. I’m thinking that I don’t want to call Brian and act like I wasn’t annoyed, but how will I do that? I’m so used to acting like I’m not annoyed, and how this shuts me down.
I get home, and I call Brian. Voicemail. I love voicemail. I can always say exactly what I want.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of three novels and a memoir, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco, won a Lambda Literary Award, and her previous title, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Her latest title, the novel Sketchtasy, was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Her next book, The Freezer Door, a lyric essay about desire and its impossibility, will be out in fall 2020.
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