The Possibilities of Pleasure: Why I Feel Like Getting High Tonight
April 12, 2005
Several weeks before she died, my mother and I had a conversation.
I was standing in her kitchen cooking dinner, which I ended up burning because I was flustered. She was sitting in her wheelchair with a purple shawl around her shoulders. It was April, and there had been a chill in the house. I couldn’t remember how our conversation had begun that day, but since they all ended up at the same place, it didn’t matter.
“Give yourself some time to figure things out,” she begged. “How do you know what you want? You’re still a child in so many ways, Maxie. You shouldn’t choose a label until you are absolutely sure what it means. And you definitely shouldn’t run around telling the whole world about this thing.”
“I’m sure I’m gay, Mom,” I said.
“You can’t see how much you’re limiting yourself. Why don’t you at least wait until you’ve explored all the options?”
I asked her if she would give the same advice to my sister; if she would sit her down after several dates with men and advise her not to be too hasty about her heterosexuality; to have sex with a woman or two first before she made any final decisions.
She recoiled in disgust. “Stop twisting my words. It’s not the same thing, Maxie, and you know it.”
“Because homosexuality is always an easier choice. Anyone can choose to engage in homosexual behavior, but being a heterosexual requires courage.”
“Well, you obviously haven’t dated in the gay community,” I told her. I wanted my laugh to sound effortless, but the conversation, as usual, had worked on me, and I was losing my advantage under my mother’s penetrating stare. “Fighting for your rights is hard no matter who you are. How is it easier to be a homosexual when there is so much homophobia in the world? As Black people we know what it’s like to be discriminated against for who we are. I’m surprised you can’t find more compassion for gay people. It’s the same struggle, Mom.”
“It is not the same struggle and wash that chicken more carefully before you put it in the oven, you’ve barely rinsed it.” I took the Cornish hen out of the pan and carried it back over to the sink, remembering that my mother could always argue with me and still maintain her usual hypervigilance.
“My friend Scott talked to his mother when he came out, and she had a hard time at first too, but one day she changed her mind, and they are good friends now. He does hair professionally and his mom gets her hair done in his shop all the time.”
“Is your friend Scott white?”
“What’s the difference?”
“The different is I’m black. And I’m your mother.”
“From the standpoint of societal oppression, gayness and blackness are very similar.”
“Oh, I can’t stand that!” She slammed her balled-up fists in her lap and turned her head to the window in distress. “For the last time, being black and being gay are not at all the same, and I wish you people would stop comparing the two. You were born black. There is nothing wrong with being black.”
“And I was also born gay, and there is nothing wrong with that either. And I’m the one who is both, so I think I would be the expert on that, not you.”
“You’re not the expert on anything, including yourself. You barely even know who you are anymore. I was there when you were born and you were not gay.”
“How the hell did you know? Did you ask me? God, this conversation is such bullshit!”
Her voice was quiet. “Don’t shout at me, Maxie, I’m still your mother.”
“Well, stop disrespecting me,” I told her. “I’m your son.”
“I know you’re my son. I raised you.”
“So what? That doesn’t mean you know everything about me. There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.”
“You’re absolutely right about that,” she said. “You’ve definitely changed. And not for the better, I might add.”
“Well, so have you.” I slammed the oven door shut.
Her eyes teared up. “I never should have sent you to U of M.”
“What does the University of Michigan have to do with this?”
“They were the ones who told you it was okay to be a homosexual. You never used words like homophobia before. I should have sent you to a black school. You should have gone to Morehouse.”
“Because there are no black gay men at Morehouse?” I didn’t need to force that laugh.
“Go ahead. You think everything’s funny these days. Don’t worry, I won’t be around much longer for you to laugh at. But you remember what I said. This gayness isn’t you. You don’t even remember what you were like when you were a baby. You were so sweet and curious. Now look what’s happened. Maybe someone hurt you when I wasn’t around. I did my best but I couldn’t protect you from everything. I know your father and I made some mistakes. We probably fought too much in front of you and your sister.”
“You did, and I’m dealing with that in therapy. But my sexuality is not your mistake, Mom. For once, if you can imagine, this doesn’t have anything to do with you. You don’t get any credit, good or bad. This is mine.”
“Well, you can certainly have it.”
“I watched you two fight constantly, and that affects my relationships. The only model I have for a partnership is bitchy sarcasm or violence. I’m going to have to unlearn that.”
“You and your sister. But do you think I had a better model growing up? You didn’t know your father when I fell in love with him. He was a different man, then. Things changed. This whole thing is his fault.”
“My being gay isn’t about you or Dad, or anybody's fault, it’s about me trying to live my own life. You don’t get a vote and you’re not going to manipulate me with your guilt, whether you are dying or not. My therapist said the other day, ‘One life per customer’. You have yours, Dad has his, and I get mine to do whatever I want. You don’t get to have my life too, Mom, even if you are my mother.” The words tumbled out of my mouth like lines from a stage play, I’d rehearsed them so often in my therapist’s office and for years in my own head. I awaited her reaction.
“Your therapist." She gave me a dubious frown. "I guess he says it’s okay for you to be gay too. Is he gay?”
I hesitated for a moment and decided on the truth. “Yes.”
“How are you going to get any help, Maxie, if you keep talking to the people who support this thing?” she pleaded.
“I don’t need any help, Mom, at least not that kind.”
“You’re sick and you don’t even know it.”
“I’m definitely sick, but not because I’m gay.”
“Well, I’m your mother, not some therapist, and I know what’s best for you.”
“How could you know what’s best for me more than me?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re a Republican, aren’t you?”
“No, I am not a Republican! Stop changing the subject.”
“That is the subject. I don’t even know who I’m talking to anymore. You sound exactly like your father.”
“And you’re not going to get me to change my mind by shaming me with that one, either. I know all your tricks, Mom.”
She was crying freely now. “You wrote your father a loving note saying ‘Dad, I’m gay, I hope you understand.’ After the way he treated you all those years. With me, you just blurted it out cruelly. You didn’t even write me a lovely note on nice stationery or anything.”
“I didn’t blurt anything. You dragged me out of the closet, remember? You asked me if I was gay that night I came home from that party at Stacey’s. What was I supposed to say? I wasn’t going to tell you anything for another year or two, until I figured it out myself, but you demanded an answer. You wouldn’t let me go to bed that night until I told you the truth.”
“You used to tell me everything. I knew you were hiding something. You were so secretive, going out all the time. Not saying where you’d been or coming home and going straight to your room. You lied and told me you were bisexual. You tricked me, Maxie.”
“I didn’t feel safe talking to you. Sometimes when you drank too much you were mean, and I thought you’d start a fight with me.”
“It’s not your fault I’m gay, Mom. Look, I’m sorry I lied. But I thought you were going to stop paying my college tuition and force me to come home or throw me out of the house. I couldn’t take that chance.”
“I’d never throw you out of the house for that, white people do that to their kids. If you’d told me that you thought you were gay sooner, when you were in high school making a decision about this, we could have gotten you some therapy when it would have made a difference. Not now that you’ve already made up your mind and you’re running around telling anyone who will listen. There is nothing wrong with questioning your life, but you are so determined these days to be right about everything, no one can tell you anything anymore.”
“You know, there is another option here. You could just accept me for who I am.”
“I’ll never accept this because it isn’t you.”
“Fine.” I was exhausted. In the silence, I could hear the television blaring Jeopardy! in her bedroom. “Dinner will be ready soon,” I said. “I’ll set the table.”
I had to step around her chair to leave the kitchen and she stopped me with her voice. “Wait. I want to say something else. You’ve forgotten everything, haven’t you? Do you even remember your childhood at all?”
I replied, “Actually, Mom, I remember a lot more than you think.”
Our eyes locked briefly, and I gave my mother the look that only an oldest child can give a parent; of shared secrets and family horror stories from the crypt that no one ever talks about. Younger children somehow manage to forget, but the oldest child always remembers. Oldest children came home for holidays and laughed beside the Christmas tree drinking egg nog, but when the lights were cut off at night and everyone had gone to bed, they were the ones who remembered that the nick in the wall at the bottom of the staircase was from the time dad dragged mom down the stairs, that when the woman with the strange voice called the house too late one night, Mom threw everything off her dresser and her makeup shattered against the wall and the red lipstick stain never did come out. It was there, in the kitchen, where Dad reached in and grabbed a knife and threatened to cut Mom’s heart out, and everyone froze waiting to see what happened next. In an oldest child’s memory, children ran from room to room for eternity, crying and begging Mom and Dad to please stop fighting, no matter how many years had passed or how many revisionist stories were told over sparkling holiday dinner tables with grandbabies passed from one set of arms to the other. Sometimes a funny story was told about those days, how “zany” dad was, how “worried” Mom used to get over nothing, how the youngest boy couldn’t stop wetting the bed no matter what anyone did, how the older girl always bit her nails and tore out her hair. But if you looked carefully enough as the laughter subsided, you caught it; the stare into nothing on the oldest child’s face, as someone nudged her enthusiastically and asked if she cared for more dessert.
My mother pushed the lever on her chair and backed away from the kitchen and the rest of the conversation. I watched her glide over to the table, a pro now at using her electric wheelchair. She had resisted it so much at first, and now it was almost like another body part. She even had her favorite bumper stickers on it, “Living Life In The Fast Lane,” and slogans like that. She had gone from falling occasionally on the ice when I was in high school, to taping up her legs with braces under her boots so no one would know she was getting sicker, to canes, to walkers, until finally she couldn’t move her legs anymore and had to submit to a wheelchair if she wanted to leave the house at all. My sister, her caretaker, who had taken a much needed break and was visiting a friend for the weekend, had fixed her hair into two tiny braids. My mother was as indomitable as ever, and a pain in the ass, but in her nightgown and slippers, and her braided hair, she was cuter than ever. When had her body gotten so small? I could easily go back into my mind and remember how as a child I went into her purse for change to buy sweets, how I dreamed one day that I would be old enough to buy all the junk food I wanted and no one would be able to stop me. I’d fill a shopping cart with candy and every day would be like Halloween. Envisioning myself then as a grown-up man required as much imagination as bedtime stories about Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk. And now here it was: the realized fantasy world of my adulthood, I had moved from home to a magical land called New York City and it had all happened in an eyeblink. I had gone from five to twenty-seven and my mother, was a tiny little woman in a wheelchair. I brought her a glass of water as an olive branch and sat down beside her at the table.
“Damn, I could really use a cigarette right now,” she said. “Why the hell did I ever quit smoking? As stressful as living around you kids is? Why do you always start fights with me anyway, Maxie?” She shook her head wearily and glared at me. Whatever we thought about each other now, on this final twist in the road, one thing was for sure: we’d definitely been through a lot in twenty-seven years.
“You started it, Mom, as always,” I reminded her. “And you stopped smoking because it was killing you.” She looked up and we were struck by the irony at the same time, relieved finally to find a laugh we could share.
When I was seven, I would go to the store to get my mother’s cigarettes. The Shop-Rite was several blocks from where we lived. My friends and I asked for money to buy candy, and my mother would say, “Well if you’re going, you might as well save me a trip. I’ll write you a note.” On the way, I took the note out of my pocket and read it. On a piece of yellow legal pad paper in her fluid script, it said: "To Whom It May Concern, I have given my son permission to buy these cigarettes for me, as I am unable to leave the house at the moment. If you need to confirm this, please call me at this number.”
My mother’s brand said “Kool Filter Kings”on the box. I came to recognize the familiar green and white label. I knew to look very carefully at the writing: a lazy or careless clerk might give me the wrong kind, Lights, or worse, Menthol. I’d once made the mistake of bringing home an inferior brand that was on sale, thinking my mother would prefer two packs for the price of one. It had been hard to forget her look of disappointment. The clerk at the store would give me a curious frown, glance at me over the edge of the note, and eventually reach for the cigarettes, which she placed on the counter next to my candy bars.
When I handed the cigarettes to my mother, she always said the same thing as she peeled off the cellophane: “Thanks, baby. Now I want you to remember smoking is horrible for you and your mother has a bad habit. I don’t ever want you to smoke, especially with your asthma. It would be the dumbest thing you could possibly do to yourself.” She crushed the wrapper in one hand and lit the first cigarette, waving the air around her. “Do you understand me?”
I could have recited the words with her, I’d heard the “don’t smoke” lecture so often. I knew from school that smoking was deadly; her words and my teacher’s were embedded in my brain. But also unforgettable was the obvious relief on my mother’s face as the effect of the cigarette took hold. I wondered what that pleasure felt like and if she was devoted to cigarettes the way I was to sugar; the rapturous, almost spiritual relationship I had with Tootsie Rolls, Jolly Ranchers, Laffy Taffy, Red Hots, Lemon Heads, Now and Laters, Fireballs, Kraft caramels and any other candy I could get my hands on. I was on my way to becoming a hard-core sugar addict by the age of seven, or earlier. No one knew, except anyone who saw me when there was no more Coke left in the house, or I’d eaten the last sugary doughnut or bowl of cereal. Another clue might have been the occasional grade school teacher who observed on a report card: “Maxie is smart, but a little hyperactive.” From candy at Christmas and Easter to birthdays celebrated at school, I never went without sugar for more than a few hours. When we did the week’s grocery shopping on Saturday, I begged for junk food and was repeatedly turned down, yet somehow I always managed to slip the Pop Tarts, Twinkies, cake mixes and ice cream in the cart when my mother had left to find something in another aisle. She groaned her displeasure when we got home, as I pulled the rejected junk from the shopping bags, like rabbits from a magician's hat.
I bought candy cigarettes. My mother strongly disapproved of them, too, and refused to buy them for my sister and me. My friends and I played “house” and enjoyed holding the powdered white sticks, strutting this way and that with our hands held in the air, and waving our smoke around us as we told our own kids, “Now remember what I told you about smoking.” We pulled on the cigarettes with the greedy delight of the hardcore smokers we’d seen in our families, working the smoke into every pore of our bodies as we savored the imaginary tobacco. When the candy cigarettes eventually bored us, we munched them.
As I worked at perfecting my eating disorder, my mother smoked in private, or at least in as much privacy as she could find in a house with two kids. My mother was already a woman of considerable glamour, but watching her sitting on the edge of her bed smoking with her legs crossed, obscured by the rising spiral of smoke, with her head tilted slightly and her hair falling on her shoulders, the image was an irresistible invitation to the mystery of that particular compulsion. It wasn’t just the way she held the cigarette that was compelling, it was the wall of silence that surrounded her; no matter how insistent the noises outside her door, or outrageous the demands on her, a cigarette break created an impenetrable shield, a space that was distinctly hers, “a room of her own.” In that space she was invulnerable and safe—we were encouraged not to come near her. I have to assume now, on reflection, that there were many times when she probably wanted to get away from our family, away from two children, the demands of a husband, and the responsibility of having three people who counted on you. A parent must be bewildered from time to time, waking up in the morning to find that there are two human lives that didn’t exist in the world before, who now require constant supervision and care. Just one of those mornings you must get up and wonder what it was like when you only had to care about what you wanted for breakfast, what your plans were for the day, what clothes you were going to wear. Now the first thought after opening one’s eyes in the morning after, “Okay, I’m still alive,” was, “Where are the kids right now and what are they doing?”
Sometimes I would catch my mother smoking and crying. Occasionally she wept, but most of the time she just sat there with tears on her face. I came in from playing to get a drink of juice and found her standing by the window with a faraway stare, holding her cigarette, arms folded, and looking as if she couldn’t see out of the window, even though it wasn’t dark outside or raining. I asked her why she was crying.
“Because I’m sad,” she said.
“Why are you sad?”
“Your mother’s just sad sometimes. It’s okay for me to be sad. Now, you go back outside and play.” She wiped her eyes briefly and smiled. ”Don’t worry, honey, I’ll be fine.”
I didn’t understand then that cigarettes sometimes helped people look at things they wished they could forget. You could consider an intolerable past, protected by the rising curtain of smoke. I knew there were things that had happened to my mother in her life that made her cry, but I didn’t know what they all were. She had nightmares from time to time from which she woke up screaming. One night she was straightening her hair at the stove after the house had gone to sleep, and I awoke. Waiting until she put her hot comb down, I snuck up behind her and shouted, “Boo!” She wasn’t even angry with me; she just sat down and cried, rocking back and forth, and told me for reasons she couldn’t explain to me, to please never surprise her like that again. When I remembered to be, I was still mad at her for the time when we were in Meijer’s Thrifty Acres, a department store the size of a football stadium. She’d told me she didn’t want to have to look for me when she was ready to leave, and I ran to the record section promising to come right back. When I returned a half hour later to where I'd left her, in Paints and Hardware, she wasn’t there. When she couldn’t find me either, she had to have me paged. The store’s loudspeaker blared all the way from canned goods to automotive repairs: “Will Maxie Gordon please come to the courtesy counter. Will Maxie Gordon please meet his mother at the courtesy counter?" I found her there holding her keys and standing next to a shopping-cart of bagged groceries. She snatched my hand, and I knew there was no point in reminding her that she’d promised me a scoop of Superman ice cream with red, blue and yellow swirls in it, or that we could look at the golden hamsters climbing against the glass of their cages. When we reached the car, she took off one of her flats and beat my ass with it in the parking lot. Another day, I was whipped for letting a white kid in our neighborhood wear the new coat she had bought for me the day before, while I walked around next to him in almost freezing weather in only a tee-shirt. She’d seen the two of us playing together from the window. When I explained that he’d asked if he could try it on, she said on her way to the closet to get the belt, “You might let the white people of this world make a fool out of you, but I bought that coat so you could wear it.”
Sometimes my mother and I had fun, playing board games or watching TV. Once when I was sick, she decided to go to work late and stayed home and we watched Phil Donahue together. A few hours later she left, I thought for her office, but she came back with McDonalds and we watched “Bill Kennedy at the Movies” and she ended up taking the whole day off. She beat me at my first million games of chess, and when I rolled over despairingly and cried, reminding her that I was the child and that she should let me win at least once, she replied, “I’m always going to play my best. That way when you beat me one day, and you will, you’ll know that you really won because you were good, not because I let you.” I hated my mother’s guts in those moments, but also felt a grudging admiration for her intractable standards. After she punished us, she would always come into the room where my sister or I was crying and say, “Do you want to be friends again?” When I screamed into my pillow a resounding “NO!” she said delicately, “Okay. I’ll be in my room. Let me know when you’re ready to be friends.” I’d emerge a few minutes later, rubbing one eye and frowning at her with steadily diminishing hatred. “I guess I’m ready to be friends again,” I mumbled. “Good, let’s play Uno,” she said.
I always wanted to protect my mother, but I couldn’t save her from everything, in fact I couldn’t save her from anything at all, but sometimes I wrote her notes I thought would help her or at least might make her happy. My graphics became more sophisticated with age, until I had the money to buy Hallmark cards, but the content was always the same: “Mom, I love you and I want you to be happy.” No matter how carefully I colored them, or started over to make them perfect, no matter how many freshly sharpened crayons I used, or trails of paper I’d balled up in frustration because the card had to be just right, it never kept her from going to her private place where tears in front of dark windows waited for her. She left me behind when she went to that place, but she always took her cigarettes with her.
The older I got, the more fascinating smoking and smokers became. I worked in an office in my twenties for the first time and watched each day as my co-workers took clandestine cigarette breaks. The lengths to which some smokers went for a smoking break without being seen by the boss were schemes worthy of espionage. Once they’d escaped downstairs, the smokers would stand in front of the building, one arm wrapped around their waist for warmth, trembling in the cold and holding their cigarette, sometimes hopping up and down a little, and laughing at themselves and each other for the foolishness of standing outside in below-freezing weather just to satisfy an addiction. They were underdressed for winter because they were unable to take enough clothing; an observant boss would notice an employee walking out the door too often with her coat, but anybody could rush onto the elevator while en route to the copy machine. The women pulled their hems down, as if slightly lowering their skirts would help keep their knees warm, and sucked their cigarettes, exhaling pure white air; the men shivered and made manly grimaces to show that the cold never really got to them. I judged them for being weak addicts because I didn’t smoke, but secretly I was jealous of their private little clusters, their smokers’ tribes. Smokers trusted and counted on each other, and nothing was more binding than a friend who you could bum a cigarette from. Smoking was a great way to relax. It wasn’t just the cigarette itself, but the time people allowed themselves to get away and smoke it. Smoking was the only way some Americans knew how to meditate. I could never admit it fully to myself, but secretly I thought that smokers were fun. It was always at parties when they were banished to stand outside the house in the dark, that the shadier, off-color conversations bloomed. People when they smoked were either pathological liars who dissembled with great flourish or rigorous truth-tellers. Somehow the great truths or great lies sounded exactly the same, an irrelevant distinction in the end, because everything was clever and funny when a smoker said it. Female smokers were eternal bad girls because smoking always retained a hint of teenage rebellion, a naughtiness, no matter how far the smoker was from her adolescent years. Male smokers in bars had a hooded, volatile look in their eyes that warned of a potential for evil, or a bestial sexual drive. I disapproved of the nasty habit, and reprimanded myself every time I found a smoker hypnotic or sexy, as she absently turned her head away during our conversation and exhaled smoke over her shoulder.
At my high school there had been an area called “The Hill”, where all the kids who smoked went between classes. We could see them from the window standing near the path that led into woods behind the school, with their long hair, armbands, tattoos, and skateboards. The girls shook out their dyed black hair once too often, pressing their stubby cigarettes to their mouths, and laughing cynically at everything through webs of heavy black mascara. The rumor was that the kids on the hill were also drinking and getting high. These special pointed cigarettes were more carefully guarded than the others; brought sneakily to the lips like a coveted secret, delicately sipped from, and passed gingerly from one set of pinched fingers to the other. The good kids, like me, were afraid even to look out at the Hill for too long, as if merely watching bad kids rebel was Medusa-like enough to freeze one forever in the same spot, or as if some essence would jump out of the trees and onto our backs, inspiring us to throw our lives away, as they were.
Occasionally a group of kids got “busted” by the principal and suspended, usually when one of the Hill kids got careless and smoked too close to the school doors, or a parent complained, but most of the time the teachers walked by and just shook their heads, leaving them to the tragic inevitability of their fates. I peeked out of the window in Mr. Harold’s economics class, and watched them one day standing out there, his voice becoming more remote as they floated into my consciousness like an erotic dream. I knew that they were traveling at rocket speed to lives of irreparably damaged reputations and irrevocable failure, but I still wondered at their solidarity and loyalty to one another. Most of the brilliant kids at school had distinguished themselves as some of the most brutal, selfish pricks alive, whether they were male or female. They were ruthless, on their own, and cared about one thing only: getting into the college of their choice. The Hill kids were losers, but they belonged to each other.
I’d heard about one of the Hill kids, Rick, who had confronted Mrs. Saunderson after her attempt to humiliate him as she passed back the mid-term papers. Mrs. Saunderson read the first two lines from his paper out loud, which he might have written during his lunch hour, and he’d said, “Fuck you”, snatched it out of her hands, ripped it in half, and walked out. The class marveled, the way a group might admire and pity someone with the guts to jump off a cliff. How many times had we all dreamt of saying “fuck you” to Mrs. Saunderson, the most powerful English teacher in the school, knowing that if we did, we could kiss a college recommendation from her goodbye? I had a personal vendetta against her; she’d chosen a selection from Hemingway's The Killers for our final American Literature exam with the word “nigger” in it eight times or more. The word could have been written eighty or eight hundred times, all I saw was “nigger” as my mind swam and I tried to brace my thoughts, looking up from time to time to see if anyone else was bothered or ashamed besides me. I carefully read the instructions again: "Identify this author based on his writing style". We had never discussed the story or its use of the word before. As one of two blacks in the entire class, I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself, and remembered that I wasn’t being called nigger - even though one of the characters in the paragraph was named Max - a man in the story was. I was frustrated and close to panic because my hurt feelings told me it was the same thing, and I was wasting precious minutes debating politics in my head, while the other pencils raced. I forced myself to move my pencil: everyone knew you never stopped writing on Mrs. Saunderson’s tests, even if you were writing Sanskrit. As so many students failed her tests anyway, the idea was just to write something. I was allowing myself to be flattened by a paragraph that wasn’t even causing the others to pause.
There were many days, particularly days with tests in them, when I’d wished a slick patch of Michigan winter ice would find Mrs. Saunderson’s shoes and guide her to a lengthy hospitalization, if not a swift, painless death. If God would not grant me her injury, then a hearty “fuck you” or test ripped in half in front of the whole class would have more than sufficed. Rick was a hero, even though he was guaranteed now to fail her class, and possibly not graduate on time. He was expelled and went right back to the Hill where his friends were awaiting the details of his triumph. They smoked, and passed a bottle and reinvigorated their philosophy on the hopelessness of trying to achieve anything in high school. I registered their addictions and everyone’s doomsday forecasts about them, but I was also aware that buried in their self-destruction was a scabby, blistered courage, and I wanted some of it. The school was more than happy that they buried themselves out there in the woods where no one would have to consider them next to our prized National Merit Finalists, our debate champions, or star athletes; they were our collective shame. But among the glowing successes of that year were the students who, if you hesitated over their yearbook photos long enough, revealed the burning, manic eyes and quivering smiles of work addicts in the making; our greatest achievers with their Ivy League aspirations, record high SAT scores, and early alcoholism. The smart and dumb kids could be divided not only by accolades, but by those who were stupid enough to allow themselves to be caught drinking on the Hill, and those wise enough to stay sober during the week so they could pass all their tests gloriously and then get fucked up on the weekend.
I was very pleased to announce to anyone who cared that at seventeen I’d never had an alcoholic drink in my life, not wine at a wedding or a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve. I was a shining example, an achiever, a leader amongst my peers, and a homosexual closet case. It was my unconscious strategy that if I created a whirlwind of activities around me, no one would see that I was gay when the dust settled. I never had a girlfriend, but was friendly with many girls; I took several to dances and said goodnight after sexless evenings went nowhere. I was elected to student congress, was a student representative to our board of education, spoke at graduation and belonged to all the groups that disapproved of teenagers who drank alcohol. I was only too happy not to be invited to some of the legendary parties that were whispered about from locker to locker on Monday morning at school. “Oh my God, did you hear what happened at Dawn Stanley’s house on Saturday night?”
The story was that Dawn’s mother had decided to accompany her father on a business trip to Florida, and as they were more than a thousand miles away, Dawn decided it was safe to “have a few friends over.” Dawn’s house was in the wealthiest neighborhood in town, known as Whitehills. By the end of the night, or so I heard, half the men in the senior class were drunk and crammed in her garage and living room. One of the guys on the football team was so wasted, he’d been dared by the others to pull down his pants and take a shit in one of the corners of the Stanleys’ living room and, not wanting to disappoint his teammates, he’d done it. Dawn cried hysterically, and was comforted by her best friends who helped her spend the next day getting the stain out of the carpet before her parents returned.
There was a movie we watched in Peer Helping class about high-school students who hid alcohol in their lockers and drank because they were under too much pressure. I thought of hidden alcohol and my mother and days when she would be getting ready for work and running late. She and my father would pick up whatever argument they hadn’t finished from the night before, and she’d pause from putting on her make-up to throw a few nasty words at him over her shoulder. She was half-dressed and running around in her bra, leaving behind a cloud of talcum powder and perfume while the television blared a morning news show. I asked her where she’d last seen my other shoe. “I don’t wear your shoes, Maxie. They are probably wherever you left them yesterday.” My sister could find only one barette which she held in one hand and a hairbrush in the other, imploring my mother to help her finish getting ready for school; a permission slip needed to be created for a school trip because it was the last day to turn one in and the original had been lost; a lunch money envelope required a check or otherwise there would be no hot lunch the following week. My mother held her compact in one hand and tried to study her face and apply mascara, while my father shouted something about unpaid bills, mortgages and debt. I asked her to drop me off at school on her way to work because I was late again and there wasn’t time for me to walk to school. I’d been told by the office that one more unexcused tardy and I’d have detention. My sister moaned it wasn’t fair, that she wanted a ride if I was getting one. My father blared that both of us should have to walk and be late; it would serve us right for not going to bed when he told us to last night, and when he was a kid, he never had half the privileges we had, and he was still expected to perform in school. Someone had accidentally tripped over the curling iron and unplugged it and my mother didn’t have time to fix her hair, so she took a wig from her drawer and brushed it vigorously, getting an orange smudge on the collar of her blouse as she tried to put it and her lipstick and her shoes on at the same time. When I asked her if she was ready to leave yet because I was going to be late, she grabbed the brush from my sister and snatched it through her hair as my sister yelled. My father roared at my mother that it was her fault that everything was so disorganized and why the hell didn’t she deal with these damn kids who never cleaned up their rooms but wanted everything including being chauffeured to school, and she stood in the middle of the room, in her coat, and couldn’t find her keys which had been on the dresser, and I told her they were downstairs on the kitchen counter because I’d gone out to her car to get a tape I wanted to listen to last night, and my father reminded her about my dentist appointment that afternoon and asked if she was planning to take me because he had a meeting, and her purse slipped down off her shoulder onto the floor. My sister asked why she was crying. “I just can’t cope!” she sobbed. “Do you hear me? I’m telling you, I can’t cope with my life anymore!”
Women never drink, especially mothers. When fathers move out, they come home from work and stay behind bathroom doors for hours asking to be left alone, please, just for a little while. They eventually go into their bedrooms and silently close the door behind them. There are never any bottles when a mother drinks but sometimes an empty half-pint of vodka is found under the couch where you are vacuuming, behind a set of towels in the bathroom after a shower, or in the cupboard back behind the cereal. You learn to make your own dinner, to write your own permission slips, to walk quietly through the house, and leave the closed door alone.
My mother died in 1998, at 58. Her death certificate said, “respiratory failure from spinal muscular atrophy”, but I felt as if she’d been assassinated. When I returned to New York after her funeral, I went straight to a gay bar. I leaned against the wall drinking a Long Island Ice Tea and staring at the revelers who were drunk and bored with each other, standing in the bar waiting for something different and fantastic to happen to them that hadn’t happened when they’d stood in the same places twenty-four hours before. The pounding beat of the house music helped to ease the palpable despair that hung in the air. I wondered how the world had the audacity to go on when my mother was dead. Intellectually, I knew it was ridiculous to believe someone had killed her; diseases “just happened” to people, and when they did, it was always tragic, but never anyone’s fault. Yet I couldn’t help thinking, if my mother had been a white woman, would she have died at 58? Sure, there were white women who died much younger, but would she have died at 58 if she’d been a white man? I ordered another Long Island. The loopy conversation in my head felt ludicrous, yet a thought snagged, and was steadily emboldened, the drunker I became. Maybe my mother would have died at 58 whether she’d been an Amish farmer, a New York taxi driver or the prime minister of a foreign nation. But I couldn’t stop thinking about black people, and black women, and daughters with abusive fathers, and stress, and diet, and poverty, and racism and sexism, and energy that should be used for jogging in the park, or salsa dancing, or a gourmet cooking class, energy for self-love, that was used up every day instead on dignity, survival, on fighting from being overwhelmed by oppression or domestic violence, on trying to cope with childhood memories of violation and narrow escapes from harm. And finally the nightmares from memories when one didn’t escape and was finally, devastatingly harmed. The energy-sapping existence that a black life demanded every day. I wanted to go after her killer, but whom? How do you kill America, racism, lynching, promotions denied because of gender inequality? I couldn’t determine where social violence ended and where personal responsibility began. Maybe she would have lived longer if she’d given up red meat, alcohol and cigarettes a decade sooner. It was this dynamic, the personal versus political, that always allowed America’s greatest serial killer, social injustice, to go free.
As I was decidedly past drunk and on my way to getting smashed, I admired the neck of a white man who was laughing a little too loudly next to me and imagined my black hands closing around it. I wasn’t so drunk or filled with such blinding insanity that I couldn’t see even if this man was white, and whether or not he appreciated that he was empowered by society in a way that my mother had never been as a black woman, the absurdity of making it his fault that she was dead. The connection between mother’s scattered ashes and his living white neck was just too vague. It was never any particular white person who oppressed, or any particular black person who was completely offended. But somehow in the great social architecture on which our unfair society was based and which eventually led from the abstraction of cruel bias and corrosive ideologies to two specific human beings, he was very much alive, very much white and male and my mother was a black woman who was dead. I thought of gay white men, and AIDS, and for a moment it broke my hateful trance, and I realized that someone was possibly holding a stopwatch to this man’s life too.
A fresh drink brought a blast of unexpected honesty: I had to admit that my mother hadn’t been an angel her entire life either. She was a tough woman, fiercely lovely and fiercely angry, a “shit-kicker”. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the family’s name for her spoken as someone said, “There goes Beryl again,” when some circumstance aroused her anger. I’d watched her on many occasions throughout my childhood, and had taken great comfort in the knowledge that she could stand up to anyone, real or imaginary - white man, white woman, other blacks, Godzilla – who fucked with her. How many times had she stopped time in a department store, when a sales clerk or manager had ignored her to help a white person who was standing in line behind her, or had attempted to humiliate her by asking for identification that wasn’t required of the white others, after she’d been a loyal customer in the store for years? My sister and I would exchange looks. We both knew the store could burn down that minute and my mother would still be standing with the appliance in her hand, demanding to see a manager in the smoking ruins.
I ordered a fourth drink, as realizations crowded into my head escorted by alcohol and bypassing the rules of decorum usually reserved for the dead. I had to admit it - some part of me was glad my mother was gone so she’d finally shut up. I wouldn’t have to take anymore of her guilt-making “what-did-you-do-with-my-son-you-gay-kidnapper-you” phone-calls any more. All those times she’d say, “I raised you and I know you better than you know yourself” I’d feel as if someone had jammed a glass fishbowl over my head, or I was being chased by a swarm of bees. I wished I could say that the days before she died, I fluffed her pillow, readying her for singing angels and sweet chariots coming forth to carry her home, but that would have been bullshit. The truth was that we probably disagreed about something right down to the last five minutes of my final visit. We reached our nadir, when I had to help her off the toilet and no one was home. She criticized the way I wiped her vagina.
I told her, “Well, I don’t have much experience down there.”
“Well, you should,” she replied.
I felt ripped off. I’d heard since I was a child, “Be whatever you want to be and I’ll always love you”, and when I said, “Okay, I’m gay,” the response was, “Wait, you forgot to read the fine print: be anything you want - but that.” Most days I felt like someone’s stock portfolio that had plummeted. My mother taught me to fight bullies, not hinting that the biggest one I might have to go up against was her.
I finally said, “Look, you wanted to raise a strong child, and you did. So you can be proud of me if you want to or not. I’m going to honor you, by defying you.” In a particularly aggressive fight when I reminded her that my father’s reaction of acceptance had differed greatly from hers, she said, “Of course, he’s probably overjoyed you’re gay. He never wanted you to become a man in the first place.”
I started to defend myself and sighed: there we sat, playing out the gay man and his overbearing mother stereotype, which we’d lived my whole life, and every year she’d had the ungraciousness to be surprised about my sexuality all over again. How could she have not known I was gay; hadn’t she been the one to teach me how to use foundation on my skin when acne erupted all over my face in the eleventh grade? Having discovered that one of the secrets to my mother’s extraordinary beauty was found in a small make-up bag in her purse, I became fascinated by the way a pair of plain eyes changed into something enticing and mysterious when just the tiniest bit of eyeliner and mascara was applied. That a very conservative dab of lipstick made the mouth look sexy and inviting. If one wanted rosy cheeks, blusher was only an arm's length away. “Don’t wear too much make-up to school,” she warned me one day, as I batted my new-found prettiness on the way out of the door. Did she think every mother and son had that conversation? But gay sons were more than just friends to share make-up tips. Gay sons were sensitive and caught their mothers crying by the window over their wrecked lives, or a man. As adult men, we sometimes took our places at those same windows, holding our cigarettes and wiping away our tears over our men. My mother could smash her part of our gay legacy if she wanted to, she definitely had that right. But she couldn’t smash me or my gayness, because I wasn’t going to let her.
None of it had seemed real the month before her death: the interview with the hospice worker, the discussion about funeral arrangements. There were to be no speeches by overblown relatives looking for an opportunity to self-aggrandize; we were to order lots of flowers, and no music. In the quiet, people would be left to their private reflections and thoughts. We might have been talking about someone else that day, a distant cousin or great aunt. My sister and I listened carefully as my mother insisted that we make her appear as beautiful in death as she’d attempted to look daily in life. (I was especially thankful for this conversation later; it gave us the courage gently to ask the woman from the funeral home who prepared my mother to reconsider some of the make-up. The rouge the woman had chosen was raspberry-colored and wrong - ghoulish and overdone, like her own.) There were morphine tablets, and oxygen masks, and insurance papers. What there weren’t were long drawn-out goodbyes, movie deathbed scenes. My mother sat upright in bed with a red ribbon in her hair, transforming extraordinarily from a high priestess and queen in one moment to the little girl I felt she’d only gotten to be at the end of her life, a vulnerability from someone as controlling as her that was permitted only by a fatal illness. She was angry at me, she said; as she could no longer move her hands or fingers, how many times had she told me before to rub her night cream in circles, not to smear it down the sides of her face in warrior streaks. I set the jar down and confronted her: I wasn’t going to help her when she talked to me like that. She apologized, but laughed as I brushed her hair and asked me, “When did you get to be so sensitive?”
On this particular visit, she’d met me at the door in her wheelchair with a request for immediate help. I put down my suitcase concerned, and asked what she needed, anticipating food or water. “I want you to help me with my taxes,” she said. We fought over that too, my selfishness, her unrealistic demands and expectations, as I told her that her taxes could wait, and she told me she’d invited me to stay so I could help her and if I didn’t want to help, I could just go back to New York and give her back her money for the plane ticket, and I told her if she wanted an indentured servant she should have hired one. As she had exasperated one relative who’d tried to provide live-in help and summarily rejected others as “too bossy”, including one of her aunts who would have been overjoyed to run my mother’s house with military efficiency, I felt trapped. My sister had been taking care of my mother off and on for years, and I could see how the task was wearing her out, but as enmeshed as my mother and I had been my whole life, I feared that if I returned to her house on her terms, I might never leave it again.
With her night cream applied to specification, and her gently brushed hair styled in a ribbon, she said, “Sit down, I want to talk to you.”
“What is it now, your Majesty?”
“You’re going to have a little money when I’m gone, not a lot, but definitely something substantial and I want to make sure you remember to handle my estate right away and not procrastinate like you sometimes do. Your sister knows what to do, but I’m telling you just in case. You are to share everything equally, like you’ve always done. I raised you both to take care of each other and not to fight over anything. Some children hate their siblings - my own brother doesn’t seem to be worth a damn at the moment - but you two aren’t like that. I expect you’ll probably spend your money right away, but I want your sister to save hers. That way it will be in a savings account if she ever has to leave a man who isn’t treating her right. It’s important for a woman to have her own money in this world.” I decided it wasn’t the time to tell her that some men could use those same saving accounts to get away from the men who were abusing them, too. And she was right, of course. When the money came, I spent all of it within months. I wanted to get away from her memory as fast as possible and found expensive store owners that were only too happy to oblige. I went to the supermarket and took taxis from fresh produce to frozen foods. I bought clothes and shoes and meals and drinks in a trance, thankful for the temporary distraction that shopping brought, barely having time to bring home the things I bought, before I reached for the doorknob to go back out again. Anything but having to pause and consider where the money had come from, or to recall this, one of our last conversations.
“I know we don’t agree on everything,” she said now, “or practically anything anymore, and you’ve decided to do what you want to do. But I will say this: I didn’t raise you to stand backstage clapping for somebody else and rushing back to the hotel to pack his bags while he’s on tour.” She knew the man I had been seeing for the last four years was a traveling musician. “You know how I feel about your lifestyle, and that’s not going to change. But whomever you’re with, you be your own man. Whether I agree with the decision you’ve made or not, I always wanted you and your sister to stand up for yourselves and be happy.” Later that night, she called out to me because she was having trouble breathing and asked me told hold her hand as we said the 23rd psalm together. Looking at the fingers shaped like a claw around mine, I had the sudden memory of my mother breaking a piece of thread with her teeth and leaning over her sewing machine when I was six. She had spent days making a black Raggedy-Ann doll from scratch because she didn't want my sister, who was four, to have a white one.
I asked the man beside me for a cigarette. He smiled. “Help yourself, baby,” and pushed a pack of Marlboro Lights over to me. Now that I wasn’t only focusing on his neck, and could see his face, I realized he was one of those older gay white men with a gravely “been there, seen it and done it all” voice that can only be achieved by years of drinking and smoking in seedy bars like the one we were standing in. He was one of those prehistoric gay men who’d experienced gay culture from “day one” and whom I was always a little afraid to trust. I’d experienced both great generosity and a motherly affection from men like him, or the bitter opposite: a crusty, fossilized gay racism, as his eyes reminded me that any man could fuck another man, but gay culture was an elite privilege for white males only. As a gay man of color who sometimes dated white men, I constantly guarded myself against those white homosexuals who kept themselves perpetually mesmerized with their fantasies of gay whiteness, boyhood and agelessness that didn’t include anyone who didn’t fit the type, including themselves (when they became “old men” at forty). Black men were invited to join the club if they brought monster cocks, drugs, or serving trays, black women were allowed in if they had monster breasts, looked like drag queens and sang disco classics. Straight white heterosexuals were tolerated long enough to create more white gay men, and lesbians of any kind were incomprehensible. I recalled the night in Washington, D.C. a few years after I’d come out of the closet and one of the last times I’d risked an evening at a bar I’d never heard of before. Surrounded on the floor by a hundred dancing clones of the same gay white man, a few who naturally fitted the physical ideal, but too many others who were only ideal-by-association as they worked blonde dye-jobs, stomachs held in tight, and even tighter facial surgery, I’d thought, if Hitler had won World War II, this was what his after party might have looked like.
He took one of his own cigarettes and winked. “Come on,” he said. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”
I finished our conversation. “Yes. It can.”
I lit the cigarette, held the smoke in my mouth and exhaled. I didn’t really smoke, and never craved cigarettes, but I had always used them as a necessary affectation in gay bars. They were great for pretending to be aloof when there was the imminent possibility that someone was going to reject you. Humiliation was always easier to play off with a cigarette in your hand; you could protect yourself by projecting the allure of a smoker who was impatient with life, irritated with everything and everyone and resigned to making do with the inferior circumstances of the moment. A smoker never stopped reminding you that where he was now could never compare to where he’d just come from. When I was in that particular mood, I would raise a haughty eyebrow at any friendly hello, and blow smoke into the face of anyone who had the nerve to talk to me without offering to buy me a drink first. I tamped my cigarette with a look of wary cynicism as I listened to their “story”. The satisfaction of rudeness was pathetic, but it could have its moments: at least I got to be the hurter instead of my usual designated role as the hurtee, sputtering as someone else’s smoke rings and rejections looped my neck. The joke was on me, though, if I ever accidentally inhaled too deeply, which always seemed to happen at those moments when it was essential that I appear cool to someone I wanted to impress. It was always in front of those who had a more blasé air than I could ever hope to project, that I went into a gagging, wheezing fit that not only exposed my desperation and pretentiousness, but left me exactly as I had started the evening: alone.
I was embarrassed at myself for being rude to this man who had been generous enough to share his cigarettes with me, aware that sadness was probably rising off me in waves, and that I was alone because the last thing anyone came to a bar to experience was grief. I felt my stomach lurch as I ordered another drink. I’d sailed without stopping past “getting smashed” and was now en route to “completely fucked up”. Completely fucked up was a never neverland I loved to visit where dead mothers, disappointing gay sons, social oppression and heartbreak didn’t exist. When I arrived at completely fucked up, I might get home or I might not, I might end up in bed with a stranger or not; I might pretend to be someone else, or I might say something so brutally honest and devastating that I even surprised myself. Completely fucked up was the only place where I was able to turn my mind off and stop judging myself, where my failures couldn’t reach me.
I’d failed because I hadn’t been able to save my mother’s life, I couldn’t change what had happened to her, and I couldn’t please her and make her proud of me the way she wanted and still have any self-respect. I couldn’t be the man she wanted me to be, and if I’d tried to be, I wouldn’t have been a man at all, but a boy pretending to be a man and living to please his mother. So, I’d achieved my manhood in the end, but it had come with a life-sentence of debilitating guilt. In my outspoken political life, I was vehemently against capital punishment: privately, I’d given myself the death penalty.
I had another drink, and was delighted when the man I bummed my next cigarette from, on my other side, smoked Kools. In my cold anger and ache, it felt like the perfect tribute to my mother. I chuckled to myself as ordered one more drink for the road, and thought about the irony of me, the good boy in high school, who’d avoided all those drinking parties and frowned at the mention of alcohol abuse, now drunk off my ass. I’d even turned up my nose when offered weed once, saying, “No thanks. I get high on life.” Now I asked myself what everyone else may have been asking themselves for years: There was nothing wrong with getting high on life, but what was one to do when life needed to get a little high?
In 1992, I was invited to a New Year’s Eve party at a trendy bar by one of my roommates who worked there. I’d been in New York for less than three months. She said some “stars” might show up and I should come. When I arrived that evening, I saw the New York I’d come a thousand miles to find, women hopping out of expensive private cars and limousines, people with enough money not to have to concern themselves with anyone or anything in particular. I was mesmerized by the incandescent lights, the flowing alcohol, and the mixture of instant intimacy and unfriendly detachment. It was clear halfway through the evening that I would only be watching, and that I would never have been in that crowd if it had not been for my friend, evidenced by the fact that no one was talking to me. Another friend I’d come with was somewhere else. I eventually ran into a movie director I recognized. I extended my hand eagerly and told him how much I admired his work—he nodded and gently pushed me aside as he waved to friends who’d arrived at the door.
The drinks were free—music to my ears and a great relief to my underpaid, almost empty wallet. By eleven o’clock, in the glaring absence of one of my own, I’d contented myself with standing at the bar eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. I’d overheard a man with dirty blonde hair who I’d decided had to be a model, order a drink I’d never heard of before. The red velvet coat he wore was so deliberately ugly it had to be designer and expensive. “Cheers,” he said to me with an English accent, raising his glass and walking back into the crowd.
I’d been drinking rum and Coke, double sweetness, and was feeling sick from the syrup, but mostly sick of myself. I pulled myself aside for a psychological one-on-one mid-party pep-talk: You idiot, anyone can order rum and Coke, for God’s sake, rum and Coke was for two-for-one well drink nights in Michigan, where the bar closed at two and you’d gotten there at 12:30 and you needed to get drunk fast and on less than twenty dollars. I needed a New York drink; something cultivated and my own that reflected a new life of sophistication. I caught the attention of a different bartender and ordered Dirty Blonde’s drink with the same distinct air of worldliness. “I’ll have four Kamikazes, straight up, made with Absolut Citron.” I was thankful when the bartender didn’t look at me as if I had spoken to him in ancient Gaelic, or rejected me outright (“I’m sorry, Sir, but you just aren’t fabulous enough for a drink like that.”). I had no idea what I’d ordered, but I liked the way a Kamikaze sounded, the annihilation in it.
In those days in particular, and the years that followed, my drinking was more thematic, based on my need for approval, rather than any cultivated taste. I’d been drinking for only three years by then, having waited until my sophomore year in college to have my first wine cooler, which seemed like slightly sassy kool-aid. I recalled the weekend parties I’d condemned and now understood why everyone had been drinking: it was fun. Rum and Coke arrived next, my ex had introduced me to Captain Morgan’s, which was my favorite until I discovered a “Screaming Orgasm" - with the Bailey’s Irish Cream and the sensuous flush of brown and white, it was an aggressive milkshake. I’d gone through my “forty-ounce” period, thinking that by drinking malt liquor I’d become “hardcore” (a real man, safe in the world); then, unable to function in life with the peculiar “stony” high and malt-liquor stupor that felt like walking underwater, I went into a martini phase. I bought a briefcase and a new suit I couldn’t afford, but which went perfectly with martinis. I ended up liking the glass more than the drink. Then it was red wine, dropped after sinuses and somnambulance. I adopted a self-conscious giggle to go with the sparkly bubbles in my new love--champagne. “I only drink champagne,” I was very happy to announce at every opportunity, and began living in an I’ll-Take-Manhattan-Ella Fitzgerald-Veuve-Clicquot fantasy, until I had to face that on my budget as an administrative assistant making $19,000 a year in publishing (some New Yorkers’ monthly budget for shoes), I would be able to afford only about one and a half glasses of champagne a month. Exasperated and defeated, I had gone back to rum and Coke, which were always available, simple and affordable.
I was pleasantly surprised when the new drinks appeared, and gulped the first one—white hot shimmering liquid that picked up the light above the bar and burned a path straight from my mouth to my stomach like tangerine-flavored gasoline. I balanced the drinks with a cigarette hanging from the side of my mouth, thankful that no one offered to help me as I carried them all back to my “friends”. Sitting by myself, I drank the other three. Embarrassed at how drunk I was becoming, I brought the New Year in alone. Past drunk, I was finally able to see what had eluded me before: New York sparkled, yes, and the people were beautiful, yes, and there was so much to do, yes, yes, yes, but New York was also one of the saddest places on earth, and all the television shows and movies I’d watched had lied to me. No one could really love anyone in New York, and the cold here was about something more than winter weather. The drinks made me warm for a little while, but it wasn’t enough, the warmth wasn’t getting inside where I needed it to, so I had two more. My friends found me hours later and asked why I’d disappeared. They put in me a cab. I told them from somewhere in the drunken soup that was my brain that they could go on partying, I’d be fine. As the cab took its sharp curves and lurched back to Brooklyn, and the lights of the bridge washed over my face and the backseat, I slid onto the floor and threw up the contents of the evening. I was unaware at the time that a barfed-in cab can’t make money for the rest of the night because it stinks of puke. The cab-driver recovered his lost fares, however, by arriving at my destination, snatching my gold chain from around my neck, and throwing me out onto the street.
I woke up the next morning feeling vague and weightless. At the time, my friends and I lived above a funeral home in Bedford Stuyvesant, a fourth-floor walk-up opposite a corner pizza-parlor. I burst into tears and took a hot bath, occasionally feeling the space around my neck where the chain had been, a gift from the ex-boyfriend I’d left in Michigan. There was an older Latino man who spent most of his time on the street, a definite character of the neighborhood who, whenever I passed by on my way to work after that night, would squint his eyes and jab his finger at me, saying, “You know, kid, you owe me, you really owe me.” When I couldn’t stand any more speculation about what he meant, I stopped to ask him. He appeared overjoyed finally to have the chance to inform me that he’d been the one who took me home that night. I’d been hanging onto a street lamp covered in vomit and he’d taken my keys and opened the door to my building, helped me out of my clothes and put me safely in bed. I obviously couldn’t dispute his account, he sounded absolutely sure, and my last memory of the evening was kissing my friends goodbye near the curb outside the bar. I gave him twenty dollars, all I had at the time in my wallet, not sure exactly what the going rate was for having a street person tuck you into bed after a drunken blackout.
I thanked the man beside me for sharing his cigarettes and helped myself off the barstool. Since my first taste of alcohol, nine years before, I’d been drunk pretty often. I’d held out much later to have my first drink than anyone else I knew, but I’d more than made up for it. Because I didn’t stay drunk for days, because at the beginning I could drink and just have a beer with dinner, or a margarita with Mexican food, because I never drank in the morning or alone, it never occurred to me that something was going wrong.
Every incident where I crossed the line was isolated by its own set of degrading and unique circumstances. There was the night I’d gotten drunk and smoked pot for the first time, and a white guy who lived on my hall had invited me and a friend of mine, Deborah, who was black, to join him and his friends in his room. I was so high, I’d agreed to the game they suggested. Each person had to sit in the center of a circle and try to keep from laughing. The others were there for what seemed like a minute or two, but I was in the center for almost fifteen minutes, giggling to myself as they all smiled, and feeling warm and accepted. Deborah eventually lifted me from the circle and said forcefully that we had to leave, now. In the hall, as I tried unsuccessfully to focus on her blurred face, she explained that the only reason why we'd been invited was so they could humiliate us. She wasn’t as high as I was, and had overhead them whispering to each other that the nigger had been so stoned he was stupid enough to volunteer to play “Monkey in the Middle.”
There was the time after I graduated that I had been drinking a few blocks away from a conference I was attending and had wandered the streets for hours, drunk and bewildered, wondering who kept changing the street signs, until I finally stumbled home at dawn. The year before, I’d gotten drunk in a bar with my then boyfriend and started flirting with a man sitting next to us. I was so fucked up on that particular night that I blacked out and must have agreed to leave the bar for only a few minutes with the man who wanted to “talk” in his car, while my ex was using the bathroom. I never returned to the bar that night. When I met my boyfriend hours later, chastened and struck sober from shame, he met me at the door of his apartment and said, “I should kill you.” It wasn’t the first time he and I had gotten drunk together and one of us had gone too far; there was the time we were inside a campus bar, and left early screaming at each other. Inside, he’d pushed me roughly, and on the way out I put a glass ashtray in my pocket. I smashed it at his feet in the parking lot to show him I wasn’t going to put up with his jealousy and put-downs anymore. I hadn’t noticed the police car a few feet away from us. Two cops came out and made me bend down and pick up every single piece of smashed glass, watching as I put it in a nearby garbage can.
I knew then that for me insecurity and alcohol were a lethal combination. I never liked the taste of straight alcohol anyway, but knew I could force myself to drink anything, even rubbing alcohol or crude oil, if I needed to get high quickly enough, badly enough. The iron will came from the same well of anger I’d used to resist my father as a teenager. After one particular occasion when his incredible unfairness had overwhelmed me at fifteen for what I vowed would be the last time, I decided one day I would never cry or be hurt by anyone ever again. I envisioned myself as a machine, all my blood vessels, arteries and inner workings replaced with wires, steel cables, bolts. I had no idea that even though my first drink would come five years later, I was creating the blueprint for an alcoholic. Sometimes I played a game with myself where I pretended to be dead, like a soldier shot down in a war, and as my head fell back, my eyes would slam open and I would lie on my bedroom floor, motionless, for as long as possible. The longer I could hold the death pose, the more invulnerable to hurt I became. I was a faggot, this I knew, and because of this I couldn’t rely on the usual masculine reserves of aggression flexed by straight boys to defend myself. What I had was something more powerful. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and gay boys had to be in there somewhere. I was a sissy, perhaps, but I had a rage already inside me that would allow me to reach through a brick wall, or tear a truck apart with my bare hands.
I’d warded off a fight in the fourth grade with this anger; whether it would also work to destroy me one day, didn’t seem to matter much then. I’d arrived at my new school and had been there less than a week when the note was passed to my desk by a white kid named Gary who sat a few rows behind me: “I’m going to kick your ass today after school.” I had a few more hours to contemplate Gary’s threat, as his friends relayed messages that everybody assumed from the way I walked that I couldn’t fight. Grade school children, who have already lived in the world for seven or eight years and who have had enough time to develop their society’s viciousness for those who don’t meet the masculine standard, have an intuition about which boys are gay. They surround the gay child like pigeons who peck to death a weaker bird. I was told I was a wuss, that I was going to be “wasted” after school. I finally sent a message back through Gary’s friend. Gary was right in his assumption that I couldn’t fight; I’d never been in a fight in my life. But I knew that if we did fight, one of two things was going to happen. I would be beaten down completely and he’d walk away without a scratch, or I’d kill him. With no fighting skills at my disposal, I’d use whatever resources I had, and from the events that had already occurred in my life by the time I was nine, I had a supreme, phantasmagoric vengeance at my disposal, mythological in my own imagination—like Medusa or Circe. Close to the end of the last period, a second note was dropped on my desk: Gary forgot he had something to do after school, but he was definitely going to beat me up “one day”. My father had advised me once that if I was ever in a fight, to pick up anything I found, metal or glass, and smash the kid across the head with it. I was satisfied that I hadn’t had to resort to a physical confrontation. I’d picked up on my mother’s gift for psychological violence, and it had served me well.
It made me sad to think that the only way I could honor her now was posthumously to get drunk with her. The irony was that even though she’d stopped drinking and smoking before she died, I would always have maternal associations with cigarettes. I knew that no amount of slogans or surgeon-general warnings was ever going to change the memory of my mother smoking by herself when I came home from school at seven, of her stamping out her cigarette hurriedly and saying as she waved the air around her, “How was school today?” Of smelling her baby-powder and perfume and dropping my school papers on the bed and giving her a big hug.
Kids are stupid. They think if they squeeze their mommies tight enough they’ll never leave them. They think as long as their mommies are in the world, they are safe. Now all I could think of was the profound mystery of death, which is always a cliché until someone you love dies. I felt as if someone had punched a hole in the sky and sucked my mother off the planet. The grief was so shattering that it was life-affirming in the end, a pain so awesome it couldn’t be shopped or drunk or fucked away. When she was alive, I’d always known where to find my mother, even on those occasions when I was more than happy not to find her. Now I wondered, just on a practical level, where she was. No one knew that I had closed her casket when the wake was over and everyone had left. I was the last one to leave her in that cold room with the flowers and close air and heavy carpet. Before I lowered the lid, I said one last time, trying to voice my confusion at it all, “Mom?” My mother had always promised that if I ever called her, she would come. I had been sick often as a child, even hospitalized on several occasions because of my asthma, and during those times the softest “Mom?” would have my mother at my bedside with the thermometer or a Popsicle. As her eyes now stayed firmly shut, and her mouth, turned down at the sides in a final look of disapproval, didn’t move, I knew she was gone. The woman from the funeral home had offered her apologies in that endless, silent corridor that made whispers sound like screams, and handed my sister and me a box filled with my mother’s ashes. The idea was absurd: I couldn’t get my mind to agree that my mother was in that box. We thanked her, said goodbye and went home.
As I wavered over the last drink which I could barely finish without its spilling over my lips, I noticed that someone was talking to me. I said goodnight to him, and stepped off the stool. Once again, I’d walked into a bar just to have a drink, and hours later, I was using the wall for support just so I could stand and reach the door. I was relieved finally to have come to the point in the evening I’d been striving for. There was a place inside my head where the horror movies of my past played all day on repeat, where oceans of grief and reserves of guilt awaited me; but at the moment, the only moment that mattered, I had finally achieved the addict’s dream. I thought about my mother, but I no longer felt a fucking thing.
I never intended to become a sex addict – does anyone? Signs of my sexual compulsion had revealed themselves much earlier in my life, but the day I officially crossed the line was during the summer I turned seventeen. I was taking an acting class in my town during my senior year in high school and went to the use the bathroom in the building during a break. I sat down and noticed that there was a hole the size of a half dollar between the two stalls. I’d never noticed it before. As I continued to look, I clearly saw that the man on the other side of the stall was masturbating. Beyond fascination, I was almost paralyzed with curiosity. I sat there for a few moments watching him, until his eye appeared in the hole, looking this way and that, and settled on my face. I jumped up as if the toilet seat had scalded me, and hurriedly dressed, horrified by his penis, his roving, detached eye, and the possibility that he had recognized me. Before returning to class, I washed my hands vigorously in a bathroom on a different floor, searching my face for any signs that might indicate to anyone that I’d just looked at a man’s penis through a hole between two bathroom stalls.
The next day, I went back to the bathroom and found both stalls empty. I locked the door and waited with a mixture of a terror, anticipation, disgust, and arousal. After what felt like hours, someone came and sat in the adjoining stall. I held my breath, waiting to see what would happen. And happen it did: the man in the stall took a shit and left. I felt like an idiot. I started to leave when a second man came in who started masturbating. This time he didn’t put just put his eye in the hole, but his penis. I reached out and touched it with a trembling hand. He withdrew it and lowered himself to his knees. The outside door opened and he stood suddenly and returned to his seat as if nothing had happened, as a man outside used the urinal, wash his hands, dried them and left. I masturbated to orgasm, flushed the toilet and walked out. I promised myself I would never go back to the nasty bathroom with its smell of shit, its interminable waiting, and the feeling of shame. I prayed that no one recognized me as I left.
I went to the public bathroom and cruised as often as I could, sometimes more than once a day. My mother would be in the middle of baking a cake and realize she’d run out of vanilla. She asked me to go to the store and buy some for her. It was always my intention to go the store, but one right turn and I was on the highway, driving back to the bathroom, waiting with my pants down around my ankles. Sometimes I waited for ten minutes, or fifteen, or thirty, or hours. Sometimes I waited and no one was there, and no one ever came. Other times, someone arrived as if we’d scheduled an appointment to meet. When I finally entered the house, breathless, with the vanilla, almost a hour and a half later, I had to lie about running into friends, about store after store that was out of extract, about car trouble. My mother took the package out of my hand, holding her gaze on me and finished her cake. I was becoming a liar, and an addict. I didn’t understand exactly what was happening to me.
I’d spent four years in high school wondering how I could find the other boy that I could trust to talk to about my gay feelings. All boys teased each other, goosed each other in the halls, pinched each other’s asses and called each other fags, but there was always a point when the homo play stopped and the boys walked away with their arms draped around their girlfriend's shoulders. I was isolated and alone, and I fantasized about the boys I saw getting undressed in the locker room. The tension in my life had been excruciating for years, a tight-rope walk, and then, accidentally, I found anonymous sex. Each hook-up had a sense of wonder and “you mean, you’re gay too?” astonishment. I never stopped being amazed by the gay men who appeared in anonymous sexual encounters. There was the man with the briefcase and tie and wedding ring, the custodian in the gray uniform, the old man who looked like someone’s grandfather, the sissy boy with lip gloss and shoulder bag, the scientist in his lab coat, the academic with a book tucked under his arm, the dancer with his fine bones and grace, the mechanic with grease on his uniform, the president of the company: all fucking in secret like jackrabbits. White men who I was pretty confident in assuming didn’t know a black person that they couldn't give orders to, who wasn’t a maid, chauffeur, cook or parking attendant, were now on their knees giving blow jobs to black bicycle messengers and Puerto Rican bus boys. Brawny men and macho monsters who I’d always believed would pummel to death any man who made even the slightest sexual advance towards them, were staring lovingly into each other eyes, locked in a tender embrace. The experience was psychedelic and mystifying. And yet when the hands were washed and dried, and each man left the bathroom, or the steam room, or the sex-club, American masculinity resumed its usual configurations. The world was right side up again, and the black messenger boy delivered the package to the white CEO who’d just sucked him off, the academic ignored the sissy who sat in the front row of his class and had just been fucked by him while wearing high heels, and the old grandfather sat in the upscale restaurant with his daughter and grandchildren as the Puerto Rican boy who'd spanked him hours ago poured fresh water and cleared his plate.
Where had all these gay men been hiding? I could only wonder, if the world knew what I knew as I traveled from one gay cubbyhole to another, would there be more understanding and less homophobia? I didn’t have enough power to smash the illusion or expose it, so I swallowed the gay shame, and took my designated place in the complicated scheme of closeted gay life. I left my sexuality and my semen on the bathroom floors with the others, and emerged, relaxed, relieved, spent, and able to return to my life as a high school student, heterosexual son, living in a normal America where gay sex happened in grotesque, faraway places with bad nasty people who were sick and evil. I made myself a solemn promise: I would never come back to the bathroom for sex again. At least not until tomorrow.
Sex in the shadows wasn't new: I was used to the hiding from childhood sex-play in bushes and basements. The only different was that as my straight friends were taking their place in serious courtships and relationships with the potential for marriage, unions worthy of an adult’s attention, at twenty, twenty-five, thirty, I was still hiding in the bushes. I was being invited by my society to have an experience of my sexuality as a gay man as long as it stayed on the level of “basement play”; as long as I continued to grab my gay feels in the prurient dark. There was no difference between being caught at seven playing "doctor" by a friend's Mom, and being chased out of the park by the cops with my pants around my ankles. The societal invitation to have gay sex or relationships never said, Stand visibly and with dignity in the open light: bring a boy to the high school prom, get married legally, hold hands or kiss your husband goodbye at the bus stop like everyone else. To venture a public gay sexuality was always to risk being ostracized, beaten, or worse.
At seven, Ayo, my boyhood friend from Nigeria, and I, would play a game called “Jungle”. In the basement of our apartment building there was a storage area in the back that was usually kept locked, but sometimes the door was left open. We would leave the lights off and walk to the back of the vast room to hide. People moved all the time and left behind boxes of old clothes and books they no longer needed. There was a mildewing mattress on the ground, and Ayo and I would pretend that we were explorers on a raft arriving at a deserted island with undiscovered treasures. I was embarrassed sometimes to admit that Ayo and I played together, not because he was from Nigeria, but because some of the kids laughed at him. His mother would often dress him in a blue snowsuit that covered his body from head to toe. Snowsuits weren’t uncommon for Michigan winters. I wore one myself from time to time walking through snowbanks where the snow came up to my hips. But Ayo wore his to school, sometimes throughout the day and late into the year, April or May. He would come to school, swaying, with stiff extended arms, and taking slow, hesitating steps like an astronaut, or a mummy, or a newborn baby learning to walk. Ayo didn’t speak very much English, but living as we did in the married housing of the University while my father was in school, there were many children from around the world who spoke English for the first time. The international mix produced hallways that gave off the funky perfume of Indian chutneys, African stews, Italian sauces, and Chinese stir-fries, and the world’s mothers called their children in from the playground in just as many diverse languages, as the sky got dark and the streetlights came on.
Ayo and I shared only a handful of words and “Jungle” was our favorite. I have to believe that it was a mixture of my cultural insensitivity and curiosity that gave the game its moniker, but it might have been Ayo’s idea. His inability to speak English fluently was no impediment to his creativity when it came to our ideas when we played together. “Jungle” required us to take off all our clothes and pretend we were in “Africa.” We would go to opposite ends of the room, and run towards each other, and meet in the center, where we would hug and let our penises touch, my brown against his almost black. Then we ran back to the wall and did it again. Or we would lie on top of each other on the mattress and kiss. We also played on the swings, in the sandbox, or climbed trees, and bought candy, but Jungle was our favorite game. When Ayo came home late from playing, his mother yelled at him in a language that I didn’t understand, but the rhythms and the intonations of a boy in trouble with his mother for being late were very familiar.
A family moved into the apartment across from us. Their little girl, Lisa, was my age. They were from Florida. I’d never seen white people like them; Lisa, her mother and her father were a very strange color, with blonde hair that was baked brown from too much sun, and skin that was almost orange. At first I thought Lisa was a boy; her hair was cut the same way all around. Lisa’s mother, Karen, was nice, and pretty, and looked like a movie star. She smoked with my mother, and sometimes they would borrow cigarettes from each other when one ran out. Karen came home from the store with a bag of groceries, and when Lisa ran to greet her, all the kids on the small playground followed and Karen gave us each a chocolate-chip cookie.
One day, it was Karen’s turn to drive the carpool to school. It was very bright outside that morning; sunlight winked off the chrome of the cars in the parking lot. Karen was in a pair of pink shorts and a frilly top, and she jangled her keys as she walked behind us. My sister, Lisa and I all started to run and get the girl who lived in the adjacent building who was always late, when Karen called me back and told the others to go ahead.
She leaned down and grabbed my wrist and snatched me to her. “Lisa told me that yesterday she looked in the basement window and she saw you and that African boy with your clothes off touching your private parts,” she said.
I tried to concentrate on my green Scooby-Doo lunchbox, and the place where her hand was holding me. Her nails were pinching my skin. “What you were doing was very bad,” she said. A strand of her hair fell into her face, and she tucked it behind one ear, her eyes rapidly searching mine. “Boys aren’t supposed to do that with each other. What if your sister caught you? Lisa is a good girl and I don’t want her seeing you do nasty things like that. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I wanted to say that I’d kissed Lisa once, and that she was a bad kisser. Kissing her was like kissing an old prune. She held her lips pursed together and pushed them out like someone who’d eaten something really sour. And Lisa kissed lots of boys too. I wanted to say that Lisa’s hair looked stupid cut in that round shape, and that she was such a “good girl” that it had been partly her idea when four of us told that kid who always cried, Chris, that we would be his friends if he pulled down his pants behind the bushes, then when he did, we took the woodchips we’d been hiding in our pockets and shoved them in his underwear, and then we pulled his pants back up and he cried some more and had to stay in the bushes and pick the woodchips out of his butt so his mom wouldn’t see them when he got home and Lisa laughed and ran behind the building like everybody else, so she wasn’t Miss Perfect, like her mom thought she was.
I could hear the screams of the other children returning. Karen leaned forward and her nose was inches from mine. “If I ever hear about anything like this ever again, I am going straight to your mother and I’m going to tell her exactly what you were doing. Do you understand me?”
I wanted to say that my mom told me about sex when I walked in on my parents one night. I couldn’t sleep and they were making love, and my mother took me back to bed and when I asked what they were doing, she told me how babies were made, and answered all my questions. I knew from our talk that sometimes kids even experimented with other kids of the same sex, but that when people got older, they “evolved” and eventually men had sex only with women. I was seven, almost eight, so I guessed having sex with another boy wasn’t so bad yet. Still, the idea of my mom finding out I had my pants down in the basement with Ayo, rubbing our penises together playing “Jungle”, made me feel weird. I had never noticed before that Karen’s sandals had little plastic daisies on them.
“I said, do you understand me?” She jerked me forward. I whispered “yes,” and she finally released my arm.
“Mom, why were talking to Maxie? Why is he crying?” Lisa asked from the front seat. She turned and stared at me wedged between my sister and the other girl, Pam.
“He’s okay.” Karen’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. “We just had to have a little talk,” she said.
I sometimes used poppers I when had sex, but I still hadn’t used harder drugs, until a man I met in a booth at a sex club offered me cocaine. It was the perfect extension of my sexual addiction, which after a few years wasn’t as satisfying as it had been in the beginning. The more anxiety I felt, the more sex I wanted to have. The cocaine was numbness on numbness, but with the anniversary of my mother’s death approaching, I found that I wasn’t feeling less sorrow, but an inexorable pull towards greater oblivion. The physical umbilical cord was severed with the cut of a knife, but the psychological one was lasting, and if my mother and I were still connected in death as in life, maybe she was someplace where I could join her. It wasn’t a conscious thought, because I wasn’t having many conscious thoughts anymore, but it made sense. I’d never used coke before, and now that I had, it felt like a daring, new frontier. There weren’t many frontiers left.
I was too frightened to have my own dealer, but figured I’d find someone to help me get what I needed. I fancied myself a hip new user, but knew I was inexperienced enough to ask the wrong stranger for drugs; a stranger who might turn out to be an undercover cop.
There was a tacky little gay bar in my neighborhood, and I went there one night looking for Connie. She was exactly where I thought she'd be; sitting on a barstool in a baseball cap and jersey. I’d seen Connie, who was black and lesbian, leave the bar many nights with friends, announcing to the bartender they’d be “right back”, and returning an hour later, with secret smiles and cackles, bursts of uncontrolled raucous laughter. She was always happy to see me. She'd even admitted to me once in a drunken confession that she liked me right away because I resembled her brother.
Connie bought the first round of drinks and after I paid for the second, I whispered in her ear. She drew away slightly said she couldn’t help me, it was Monday and her contact wasn’t there except on Thursday night and the weekends. She glanced up and down at the suit I’d worn to work.
“I didn’t know you did that shit,” she said.
“I don’t, really,” I told her. “I tried coke a couple of times, but I don’t plan to use a lot. I’ll probably stop at the end of the year. I just want to get high tonight.”
“When was the last time you used?”
Despite my desire to thwart her question with a cool response, the truth stumbled out. “Last week. But before that it was a month. I only used for the first time a couple of months ago."
She reached in her purse for her cigarettes and threw them on the bar with a heavy sigh. On Friday nights her face was a theatric wonder of wide-eyed expressions and ribald, nasty jokes; now it formed a sagging shape I didn't recognize. I’d never noticed her looking this tired before. I chose not to see defeat, and blamed it on Mondays instead, and first days back at work after long weekends of partying.
“You’re not going to listen to what I’m about to say,” she began. “Because nobody ever does. But please. Stop now, while you still can. You don’t need that shit.”
“I know. I just….” I’d almost said, “I just can’t cope with my life right now.”
“I just want to have some fun tonight.” I winked and nudged her.
She considered me. “That’s what we all want, don’t we? Girls just want to have fun. Well, you’ll have fun. That you will have. You’ll have loads of fun. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Having fun.”
Why was she talking so strangely? She tossed back the rest of her drink, leaned back a little, and glanced up and down my length again as if she’d seen something unsavory on my clothes.
“You’re so handsome. You are going to make a beautiful corpse, you know that, right? They won’t even have to put too much make-up on you. In fact, if you die in that suit, they won’t have to dress you, either. I know what I’m talking about, my family in Tennessee is in the funeral business. You are going to look so pretty when you’re dead.”
In that moment I realized I didn’t know Connie intimately enough to ask her to shut the fuck up, only well enough to ask her for drugs.
“I’m not planning on getting hooked,” I said.
Connie adjusted her cap and laughed. “Oh, nobody ever does, sweetheart! You think people sit down and say, okay, I think I’ll fuck up my life today, lose my apartment, all my friends, have my kids taken away, go broke? Look. You want to risk going to jail and sitting it out a couple of decades? You want to have a family member die and you can’t go to the funeral because you’re in prison, you go right ahead. But you ain’t gonna get the shit from me. Not tonight, you’re not.”
I’d offended her, somehow, and she was clearly finished with me, because she turned away and started a conversation with the bartender and didn’t say another word to me when I walked out of the bar.
I ignored Connie’s sermon, and went online instead. I hooked up with a guy named Daniel and smoked crack for the first time. As I left his apartment the next morning, and streets I’d always recognized, including my own, now looked dusky and unfamiliar, I knew I’d crossed the ultimate line. I deserved whatever was coming to me, I deserved to be dead. After all the Afterschool specials I’d watched on television when I was a kid about how bad drugs were, after the lecturing I’d received and given out in high school, all the judgmental stares I’d given at parties, after reading Go Ask Alice, the true diary of a girl who overdosed, when I was in sixth grade, all the days of looking out the window and judging the stoners on The Hill in high school, after trying for so long to be a good boy who never disappointed his mother or anybody else and who only wanted to be nice, I’d just sucked a white guy’s dick on my knees after smoking a crack pipe. Most black parents worked hard so that their children would not be forced into “niggerdom” by societal brutality and circumstance, and yet here it was: I’d been a willing volunteer. In a particularly wretched moment I allowed myself to be called a nigger, and a bitch and a fucking faggot, as my face was slapped or my chest hit, as I tried to prove to different guys on different nights that I was as “hard” as they were, that I could take as much humiliation or violence as they could, and not feel anything. I looked in the mirror when I got home one morning and felt as if I were trying to find someone I’d traveled with and lost in a fog. I’d anticipated the part of me that felt what I was doing was wrong: what I hadn’t expected was the other part that felt what I was doing was inevitable and very right. I no longer had to maintain the pretense anymore that I cared about myself, I no longer had to resist my oppression or self-hate, or feign righteousness. In those moments, floating in and out of my high, I saw an imaginary jury of Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and my mother, blacks who all stared at me with disappointment, slowly shaking their heads. After all those years of our trying to get down from the auction block, they said, you’re doing your best to hop back on.
My maternal grandmother had visited us once when I was nine, months before her own nervous breakdown. She was sitting in the living room watching television with us, when a news program came on about the rising rate of teen suicide. The newscaster explained in dramatically serious but indifferent tones about a girl who had been found the month before in a nearby town. She’d hanged herself after school. They showed her picture. The girl was black.
“Black people don’t kill themselves,” my grandmother said. “I wonder how many stories they had to search through to find her.” She adjusted herself awkwardly in the reclining chair and tried to sit up. “Well, I’m sorry that happened to her. But at least her hair was cute.”
They showed the girl’s picture again. She smiled out from the school photo with two shiny braids and a space between her teeth. She must have been loved, I decided, because someone had taken a lot of time to fix her hair. I imagined her standing in line on the day of school pictures, putting on her favorite sweater, and sitting there in front of the sky-blue background that all the schools used for picture days, that one that resembled floating clouds. The white man who took the photographs would position her chin with one hand and tell her kindly with a warm smile, “say cheese." After the click and the hot lights on her face, she stepped down and another child took her place. And a few weeks later the pictures came in an envelope with a plastic see-through window in the front. There were 8 x 10’s and 5 x 7’s and wallet sizes, with a composite picture of her entire class, her teacher and the principal. That night I saw her face over and over again in tiny wallet-size sky-blue squares. She’d been smiling when she posed for that picture and now she was dead.
Black people didn’t kill themselves. And yet we smoked, ate pork and grease until our hearts exploded or our arteries finally slammed shut. We didn’t kill ourselves, but we poured avalanches of sugar into the pound cakes we baked and the ice tea we drank, and skipped our insulin shots, until the doctor had no choice but to amputate our legs because of our neglected diabetes. Black people weren’t suicidal, but some black women returned to relationships with abusive black men who had shown their violent intent on several occasions, in denial about the murderous threats and admonishing friends and relatives: “He’d never really do anything to hurt me, he just likes to scare me and the kids sometimes.” Her grieving family would recall the conversation over an open casket, as another woman comforted her surviving children. Black people never committed suicide, but my uncle had the most wonderful cologne I’d ever smelled when I hugged him as a child and pressed my face against the stubble on his cheek. On a family visit, when I was twelve, I finally realized the cologne I loved so much was Seagram’s gin. We’d had to leave a long-awaited trip to an amusement park in Ohio only a few hours after arriving, because it was Saturday, and my uncle, having found that his gallon jug in the back of his car was empty, couldn’t face the prospect of running out of alcohol for the night and no way to buy any more the next day. We never committed suicide, but we shot other black people over a pair of shoes, or a slight on the dance floor of a club, black people who looked just like us, or like one of our family members, which was the same thing as shooting ourselves.
I’d been raised on the black contempt for white women who committed suicide because their credit cards were maxed out, or white men who hurled themselves out of windows or blew holes in their heads because of devalued stock or their company's bad year. White people, black people agreed, were infants, constantly having temper tantrums when God didn’t give them what they wanted, demanding to be coddled by life and ready to jump off the planet when they didn’t get their way, but black people could survive anything, and had. Anything, of course, except ourselves, and each other. If white suicide was the express train, black suicidal self-destruction was the local. Black people never killed ourselves, but we fell away, and fell apart slowly, piece by agonizing piece. And because we never committed suicide, we could never tell other black people the truth about feeling suicidal, about days when we didn’t feel like being Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass, or Martin Luther King, Jr. or strong or black, but instead felt sad and hopeless. We obfuscated the conversations on black depression, or ignored them completely, by judging each other. The bible-thumpers prayed for the addicts, but couldn’t see they had simply traded in their sexuality and sense of wonder, their spontaneous thought and creativity, for the more insidious and diabolical suicide of slogans and fundamentalism. An addiction to religion in the black community was always fine and gained the approval of one’s fellows; how could anyone get too much God? In the end, the drug addict and the bible addict sat side by side, both shame-based and afraid: the drug addict unable to answer the phone without a line of cocaine, the Jesus addict unable to throw away a paper plate without asking God for forgiveness.
I hadn’t used heroin or crystal methadone or LSD yet, only because I hadn’t found anyone who had any to offer me. I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do in front of a heroin needle, but it was possible that if the guy was cute enough, I might try it to impress him. Most of the gay sex addicts I knew based their safe sex practices on how handsome their dates were. I had to consider that I could walk even farther down into death’s damp cellar because of my usual reason for doing most anything: I wanted to be liked. Same as high school. So many years had passed since then. There had been rallies, pride marches, gay literature, lovers, sex, disclosures at work, to family and to friends, and I was no longer the frightened, co-dependent closet-case I’d been at seventeen. I was now a frightened, co-dependent, fully out gay man at thirty. The circumstances were considerably different, but the equation hadn’t changed. I’d started drinking to impress and survive at the bars - now I was getting high to impress and survive in the bathhouses and porno theaters.
When I walked to the bar for the first time in college, I was wearing a pair of suede boots with my jeans tucked inside. I thought the jeans made my ass look cute, and I had on a black denim shirt which made me feel masculine. I’d spent over an hour and a half getting ready that night and I still wasn’t completely satisfied with the way I looked. I left my room having resigned myself to the fact that I probably never would. I had to walk through the center of the campus, across the Diag, to get to the Nectarine Ballroom. There was practically a yellow brick road that led from the front door of my dorm to the front of the bar. If only I could stay on it without getting beaten up or losing my nerve. I’d had to wait until dark to leave the dorm because I knew there was nothing more tragic than arriving at a gay bar too early; you were exhausted from hours of standing around by the time the fun people arrived. At the same time, I was scared to go out too late at night when the streets were too empty. I walked briskly, trying not to appear as if I were going to break into a run, walking a little faster than those who traveled beside me. I hadn’t been able to reconcile how to dress for the bar so that other gay men would find me attractive and beautiful, but at the same time “regular” enough to get to the bar without being harassed. I looked faggy in those boots, to be sure, but once safely and gaily inside, I could kick up my heels with the best of them and without fear, and faggy wasn’t a negative thing, it was an asset. My concern now was only that I not run into the group of white fraternity boys, or black ones, who would be only too happy to humiliate a black gay man on his way to a night of all-male sexual adventure. I imagined their repulsion for me and shared it. When the bar was finally in sight, with the bouncer standing outside, I felt as if I’d walked for days through treacherous woods and found a house with a light on.
Having safely avoided the prospect of physical violence from bashers, I could now look forward to the emotional violence of the gay men that awaited me inside. Gay men were brutal to each other because all men were, and that’s why well drinks were on special and Long Islands two for one, and the DJ announced test-tube shots for a dollar all evening. It was the reason why everyone smoked. I appreciated the kindness of a bartender or proprietor who understood gay pain and realized that anyone who had never been to a gay bar before, especially one who had recently emerged from the closet, had to be drunk to ask another man to dance for the first time, to turn off the noise in his head, as he stood next to the dance floor bewildered, watching the other men dance together and wondering how he’d gotten there. He needed the bottle of beer so that he had something to do with his hands, and the stroking of its neck, the closing of his mouth over its opening, and the final tilt back and hard swallow were a form of gay flirtation as precise as the mating rituals of highland tribes in Papua New Guinea. You had at least to by tipsy, if not drunk: what if no one talked to you? It was bad enough being rejected by society, but to be rejected by the rejects was unimaginable. I found my stool, my drink and my cigarette, “struck a pose”, and prayed that whatever humiliation awaited me would at least be consummated with halfway decent sex.
I knew some white men would reject me that night solely because I was black, and for reverse reasons others would head straight for me. Both encounters were depressing. The racism of the white boys who loved “dark meat” was sometimes the most virulent kind; as they believed they truly loved black men, they were beyond criticism, and left trails of black lovers and one-night stands whom they encouraged to compete for their white male attention. They were vindicated by their sexual desire which told them that if a white man was sexually attracted to a black man he was able to avoid the societally conditioned, irresistible urge to destroy him. Some black gay men frightened me because they were mirrors for my own pain, or guilt; reminding me of a culture that rejected me and the first black man who’d hurt my feelings, my father. I intuitively knew if things got out of hand with a white man, my being black and male and at the top of the food chain of violence, he and I both knew I could probably beat the shit out of him. But what was I going to do to another black man who violated me? My fear was complete when I realized that, black or white, men were men, and as all men were boys once, I was in danger. Boys can be cruel.
If I’d been God, I would have been able to see us all in front of our mirrors that night. There was the "beautiful" man with blonde hair who would be told several times that evening how gorgeous he was, who was supposed to be coveted by all, but who ended up baffled like the rest of us when he went home alone at the end of the night, having sat most of the time by himself because the other men had decided he was too pretty to talk to and wouldn’t risk being rejected by him, or who used him sexually so they could brag to their friends; there was the older man who winced when he offered himself to the groups of dancing younger men and saw the look of disgust on their faces and the rage they had for too-old-to-be-dancing-anymore gay men in their fifties; the panic that was starting to set in for a middle-aged gay man who had known only bars and bathhouses, watching helplessly as the gay crowds got younger and his point of entry diminished. There was the unemployed man who worried that his desperate look would betray him and reveal his poverty, knowing that men only desired other men who were wealthy and successful, and that the different between dating men and women wasn't that different after all. He began to rehearse his lies for the evening, and planned to tell anyone who was interested about his million-dollar contracts, friends in L.A., and new business prospects, lies he would get away with because he’d spent more money than he could afford on an expensive haircut. He would look for a man with the same expensive hair-cut, but who could really afford it, to take care of him. The fat gay man tried to pull his fat in tighter with his belt until his stomach hurt, and avoided dinner to diminish his girth and calm the acid caused by his anticipation of being rejected; he was already envisioning the binge he would allow himself when he came home at the end of the evening again, alone. He was haunted by the words overtly written on bathroom walls of tea-rooms and the covert walls of most gay men’s magazines: no blacks, no fats, no fems. He would drink too much, laugh too loud and tell self-deprecating fat jokes all night to apologize for being different. The effeminate man knew what it meant to be teased for being gay since he started grade school: unlike the others who had the privilege of coming out when they were ready, he had been stigmatized and a gay survivor since childhood, having faced sexual violence as a boy because no one ever believes an effeminate man can be raped. He stood in front of his mirror combing his hair, wanting to be feminine enough for men who needed him to be feminine, and masculine enough for the gay men who had more hatred for sissies than some straight men did.
If I had been God, I might have been able to see us all standing in our respective bathrooms, checking our hair one last time before reaching for the door, and silently praying that tonight someone might like us more than all the others, that whoever he was he would think we were special, and love us. I would have known that no matter how afraid we were by ourselves, we were all scared of the same thing; of dying alone, of having gambled the abandonment of our families to risk gay life, and facing the possibility that there would be no one else and that we were just “out there”. If I had been God, I might have realized that despite the way we would abuse each other when we all came together, as the black man refused to talk to the “Fat Fuck” and “Gramps”, and the blonde guy refused to talk to a nigger, and the broke hustler wouldn’t let “Miss Thing” at the end of the bar with her soft hands and make-up bum a cigarette from him –we were all exactly the same and the potential was there to save each other, if we risked kindness, solidarity and friendship, instead of choosing a fierceness that only led to more isolation. But I wasn’t God, I was only me, so I sat down at the bar and ordered my first drink.
Around the corner from my second job in the city was a porno store with booths. It was called Monkey Business - on the outside was a sign with a little monkey munching on a banana. I would go in during my lunch break. The smell of porno theaters is the same wherever you go; the mixture of bleach, cleaning solution and semen hits your nostrils immediately with the promise of sex in dark booths. Men avoid each other’s eyes on the way in and the way out. We stood there in our suits and coats, careful not to brush up against anything or let our pants hit the floor, because the last thing you needed was to have a blob of cum on your suit when you went back to make the presentation or asked your secretary to type a memo.
In the sludgy darkness, occasionally interrupted by the flickering light from a movie, men stood and waited, entering booths alone, sometimes in pairs. There was the layered sound of more than one woman on the screen feigning orgasm, or screaming, of stilted porn-star dialogue. The screams were the most unsettling; the sound of someone having sex in a porno film, and movies where someone screamed as they were being murdered, weren’t really that different. We didn’t speak. It was during those times, despite our briefcases, cellular phones and expensive shoes and ties, that I understood how close to animals humans beings are. Take away language and our American Express cards, and we are just like dogs, sniffing each other’s asses, circling each other, showing teeth or flashing eyes to communicate a warning. The dark-skinned men who managed the shops would abuse us freely; carrying their mops and wiping the ejaculate from the floor every twenty minutes, banging on the door and demanding that the loiterers who were trying to have their orgasm but were too cheap to spend another dollar, either pay or get out. A light above the booth indicated when their movie had ended. I wasn’t sure why, but the men who ran the stores were always from India, with unmistakable accents. How many times had I been inside the booth as I heard the smacking of a palm against the door: “Come out. You need more change for tokens? Otherwise get out of there.” We allowed ourselves to be casually humiliated because we were perverts, men who were so desperate for sexual release we were having sex in the afternoon, near our jobs. Some straight men went into the booths, shot their load in a minute and a half and left, purposefully and brusquely walking past the rest of us. They left no time for shame. It was those who remained who were looking to hook up with another man who had the added shame of wanting not only sex, but demented sex. I don’t know if the Indian men distinguished gay men from straight; but what was absolutely clear was that whoever or whatever the hell you liked to have sex with, you needed to keep putting money in the machine. In those moments when the theater was empty and I waited for someone to arrive, I pondered these men's reality, their bottom line. I was curious about their idea of gayness and pornography, of America. They had a purposefulness that I saw in many immigrants in the city, and it didn’t seem to make a difference whether they were working in a restaurant kitchen, driving taxis, or mopping up the floor in a sex theatre. Maybe the theater was preferable, with its unique glory; it was one of the few places a “third world” man of color could chastise rich white men openly, men who blushed their embarassment and acted like six-year-old boys caught playing with their pee-pees by their mothers or angry nuns.
Once we ejaculated our despair, stress, rage, hope, anxiety or whatever else pursued us through the workday and had driven us into the shop with a determination for release, we checked our pants, zipped them, adjusted our coats and stepped back onto the street, hoping that we wouldn’t run into a co-worker there. Other men came into the shop to look at videos or sex toys, but most passed by the shelves of clear lube, poppers, and sex dolls, with their permanently surprised, O-shaped red mouths, and climbed the glowing stairs. Maybe the others were like me, vowing each time I left that place that I would never come back again, but I was tired of myself, I’d been saying that shit for years now, one day at a time. The itchy, scratchy feeling always returned, and I’d be standing around with the rest of them, glancing at our watches, speaking into phones, “Yes, I’ll be there in five minutes, I’m just sitting here in a restaurant waiting for the check,” and passing men walking in and out with downcast eyes and a curious, after-the-fact politeness as they walked out and said “excuse me.” The harder sex-addicts would miss the two o’clock meetings or arrive sweating more than fifteen minutes late and apologizing for “traffic”, or a co-worker would notice stains on the back of his trousers, and suggest he go into the bathroom and clean himself up. Occasionally a man was pulled aside and told by a friend or employer that his clothes smelled of sex.
After work, and on the way home, were the theaters with the longer hallways, open until early morning, where men walked up the aisles and passed each other, silently registering an inviting glance, or the closed, cloudy look of a definite rejection. I wanted to stay forever, as I finally capitulated totally to my sexual addiction. The theaters were no longer a departure from the real life I returned to every day; now I only worked and maintained my life so that I could get back to the theaters. I knew the roots of my addiction went back to childhood, and although I hadn’t been physically violated as far as I knew, I had definitely been introduced to sex earlier than I should have, and from that age forward, I had began to record a sexual aggressiveness. I was thankful for not having any memory of having raped another child, but I remember the kids my age who forcefully had to tell me no, or who burst into tears at the surprise of my sexual advances. I wasn’t just sexually curious; I was manipulative, and by eight had a schedule of sexual conquests planned for each day after school. The difficult thing about facing sex addiction was that a man had to drown out the internal cheering section; he had to get over the pride and self-esteem that he drew from being sexually out of control. When the glossy paint of an unquenchable sexual thirst and varied sexual proclivities dried and chipped away, I was left with the knowledge that I’d been overwhelmed by trauma of a sexual nature and violence at home, and that I was trying to make sense of it by having sex all the time.
The other possibility was that I was a slut. But the more I watched addicts in action, the less I believed in slutdom anymore, male or female; I did, however, believe in people who were co-dependent and traumatized and who had no sexual boundaries. Some of us were so terrified of people and sex, we had to fuck everyone.
Men who suffered from chronic drug and alcohol addiction physically disintegrated in a particular way; men who were sex addicts became zombies. They were still well dressed, and got to work every day, but you could see the decay in their eyes. They were the men who had sex with you and told you how much they cared for you as they looked into your eyes, and the next day could walk past you without saying a word. Men in the bathhouse who, seconds after orgasm, became impatient because you couldn’t find your towel and keys fast enough. Their face expressed their wish that you would get out of their rented room so they could shower up and wait for their next sexual encounter. Sex addicts were occasionally sadists, and could be hurtful in unfathomable ways. I had to include myself in this, whether I wanted to or not. I’d been more than happy to escort someone out of my booth who didn’t make the sexual grade, slamming the door in his face, and then stood there appalled when the door was just as abruptly slammed in mine. And then there was the phrase we all knew so well: “I think I need a little break,” because there was the possibility that someone sexier might have just walked in the theater or the sex club, someone “better” than the person we were having sex with at that moment. Our sex, as American men, was sometimes a perfect complement to our commercialism; we treated each other like microwaves or radios, expecting to be serviced at our convenience, and very happy to discard those who malfunctioned or didn’t meet our standards. There were gay men who were always trying to have sex with a man who was straight. And sometimes we succeeded; the problem was the minute our straight man had sex with us, he wasn’t straight anymore. Our disappointment at being lied to sent us in pursuit of our next “straight” guy, as we were caught in endless spin cycles of unfullfilment, always discouraged, always waiting for the arrival of “My Man.”
In order to deal with the immense pain of rejection, I would get drunk until I was cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs and then I’d go into a booth by myself and slide to the floor, where I noticed the chunks of chewed gum, dried ejaculate on the walls, the filth. I’d wake up later with drool down my chin, and the shifting light of the porno movies, wondering where I was. I might have been in there for fifteen minutes or three hours. Many guys, like me, could cruise for sex for six or seven hours, leave for an appointment, and cruise another eight. Disappointing sex wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to you; you could always come back the next night. Terror really struck when you finally got to have sex with your “dream” man, the man who was going to lift you from your depression to greater heights, who was going to be your salvation. You wait for what feels like your whole life to have sex with him, and when it is over, you make an awesome discovery: he is only a man, and, you are just as depressed as you were before, but now it is worse, you don't even have your fantasy to keep you warm. You’d mythologized his cock and made it into a magical wand that would deliver you from bondage, and what you discover is that a penis, despite our allegiance and undying loyalty to it in gay culture and the American fantasy, is just an extension of flesh, veins and blood, like an ear, or a hand, or waving fingers. Some penises are longer than others, some are more “attractive” than others, some definitely taste better than others, but in the end there are things a penis can do and things it can’t. It can help a man eliminate waste from his bladder, it can give and receive pleasure, it can provide inspiration for an artist’s creation, but what a penis can’t do is heal childhood trauma, it can’t repair damaged self-esteem or provide career counseling, it can’t give another human being a reason for existing. And that’s when the real outrage starts: we neglect and abandon ourselves for years, decades even; we put all our faith in our dedicated pursuit and search for the perfect penis, and in the end, all it turns out to be is a penis. Now what?
I knew I was in serious trouble when my depression started to enter my sexual conquests before I’d orgasmed. Until then, I could always trust that I would feel the depression eventually when the sex was over, as I carried it home with me on long subway rides and returned to an empty apartment. Now as the grief covered everything, there was no hiding-place or escape - the drug didn’t work anymore whether it was three orgasms, or four, or six, or a thousand, or four drinks or four million - nothing shut out the wrenching pain. I tried to project myself back to the day when I’d first found the hole in the bathroom stall at seventeen, a million years ago. How was a young gay person to develop a relationship to gayness and have self-esteem when gay sex was stigmatized and the few places to come out were bars and porno theaters? In that way, my sexuality and my addictions had been inextricably linked. I had to face the fact that I had no vision of myself as a sexual gay man that didn’t inlcude covert, compulsive sex and alcohol and drug abuse. I was like so many men who acted out their gay self-hatred through their sexuality. Not having the guts to kill other gay men or ourselves outright, we used our sexual power to annihilate each other; we turned each other onto drugs or knowingly had unsafe sex when we were HIV positive, and reconciled it with, “Well, if he really cared about his own health, he would have asked.” Some homosexual men had never really had an intimate loving sexual encounter with another man, had never risked any vulnerability. By committing only to harsh, exploitive sex, they turned other gay men into “women”, objectifying and violating them, and used the brutality usually assigned to straight-men as a way to consider themselves heterosexual, or “normal.” Others had “high-risk” sex, as they barebacked or were hung upside down from the ceiling, but the sex wasn’t emotionally risky at all: Olympic-size pools with all shallow ends. What became increasingly obvious was that my gay identity, at the core, was a bunch of frayed wires and blown up train tracks. I was trying my best to be a “healthy, well adjusted gay man” but with the beliefs about gayness in my head, with my inability to trust other men, trying to be “healthy”, “sexual” and "gay" was like living in Ohio and trying to drive to Los Angeles and New York City at the same time. Gay men weren’t healthy, that’s why they were gay men.
As a black man, I could certainly identify with self-destruction. A friend of mine and I called it, “The black blues singer in the bathtub" - a black woman from the twenties, taking a bath with a cigarette in one hand, bottle of gin in the other. It was the part of me that sometimes felt that the only tribute I could bring to the world as a man of color was a glorious, protracted suicide, either through crime, drug addiction or alcohol. The blues singer in the bathtub knew she was going down the drain, but exquisitely. As a black man, I had a fighting chance: black health had to exist somewhere out there, even if one had to travel in own’s imagination to fantasies of pre-colonized Africa, before it was imperiled by Western "civilization". But as a gay man, the playing field was different: it wasn’t that gay men sometimes acted wrongly, it was that gayness itself was wrong. If I, as a gay man, was flawed at my inception, what was there then to strive for? It was the reason I'd pleaded so often with my mother, “Why can’t the homosexuality be pure, and it’s just me that’s fucked up?” I’d inherited the depression before I’d even claimed the identity.
It felt silly sometimes, but I longed to believe in an undiscovered place where a gay man could experience himself as lovely, where he could have fresh flowers, ripe fruit, wonderful sex, walks on the beach, sunshine or a gentle breeze on his face, dignity. Where he could dance and touch his body, hear his own laughter, and love another man as he loved his own tears, semen, sweat, and history. Where he could explore all the possibilities of erotic pleasure, without hurting himself, without self-destructing. At night he went to sleep with no shame, feeling joyous and whole and loved. He never questioned whether God loved him or not, or whether he was beautiful or not. A gay man who finally forgave himself. I’d gone straight to a gay debauch, without ever having had a gay innocence.
What did it mean to be a gay man who wasn’t an octopus on his dates with another man, using one arm constantly to adjust the pornography he needed to keep his erection, one arm to prepare another line of coke or light his crystal pipe, an arm to get a really strong hit of poppers, an arm to finish his glass of scotch, an arm to go online and see if he could get another guy to hook up for a three-way, an arm to call the dealer because the coke was running out, an arm to open the door as the date put on his shoes to leave because his dick was smaller than was preferred, and an arm to dial the hustler he should have called in the first fucking place to get the sex he really wanted? Gay men had arms for everything, it seemed to me, except holding themselves and each other.
I was coming out of a bathhouse during the late summer when I noticed a woman with a stand advertising animals that needed homes. I’d seen her before with a few cats, but I’d always been a little suspicious and considered that hers was just another New York racket. She had a small baby-pen of puppies, some spotted black and white, and a small white one that was curled up in the palm of her hand. He looked like one of those coconut-covered cupcakes called a Snowball. It had crossed my mind to get a pet many times before, but the apartment I shared with my partner was so small, it seemed unfair to subject an animal to our two rooms. (Somehow this argument never extended to the unfairness of two humans' living in the same unacceptably small space.) I started to ask the woman a question and she dropped the puppy into my hands. He blinked. I said, “What’s your name?” and pressed him close to my jacket. Was it my imagination that he seemed not to want me to let go when I gave him back to the woman? I told her there was no way I could have a dog right now, but how much was he? A hundred dollars, she said, to pay for the shots he’d been given. Somehow a white, fluffy Samoyed had mated with a lean border collie on a farm, and the result was the creamy little puppy who was staring at me. I said goodnight and touched his fur one more time. Was it my imagination or was he watching me leave?
I came back five minutes later with a hundred dollars in cash in my fist, thankful it was close to payday. A woman in a fur coat was holding him now and speaking in French, lifting him in the air and pressing her nose against his as his tiny legs scrambled for a surface. I reached over and jammed my hundred dollars into the pet-lady’s hands. “I’m sorry, ma'am,” I said, extending my hands. “I just bought him.” I signed the papers, listened to instructions about what to do until his first appointment with the vet, and walked away from the table. As we waited for the subway to come, I stared incredulously at my new dog.
A man on the 1 train uptown was kind to us and gave me some advice. I had to admit I didn’t know the first thing about dogs, and it was late; all the pet stores were closed. He asked what I would name him, and when I asked him what his name was, he said. “Will. But you don’t want to call him that. He’s too beautiful. You should call him Kai. It means ocean.” Will got off at his stop and waved, and the doors closed behind him. New York was like that sometimes - people came in and out of your life like angels. They provided a friendly shoulder in a bar or needed directions or comfort, you briefly fell in love with them, and then they were swallowed back up into the city and you never saw them again.
I considered Kai, but it wasn’t quite right. I changed it to Kaija. When we got home, I gave him a bowl of water and opened the box of puppy chow that I’d gotten downstairs at the bodega on the corner. He stood in the middle of the living room of our two-room apartment, walked in a circle, and settled finally in a corner under the desk. I brought him into the bedroom and contemplated him as we sat together on the bed. I put a black trash bag on top of the covers, just in case of an accident, then reached out and put my hand on top of his fur to clamp him, afraid that he might walk off the edge of the bed and fall on the floor while I was asleep. Once there, I might forget he existed and crush him in the middle of the night on my way to the bathroom.
The next morning, I opened my eyes. He was panting with his mouth open, revealing a pink tongue. The look on his face said, “Now what, you asshole?”
I wasn’t sure what to do about leaving Kaija at home the first day. I dressed for work as always and put newspaper on the floor. He peed on the paper by leaning slightly forward with his legs stretched, then trotted over to his water bowl and lowered his head to extravagant slurping sounds.
With Monday mornings came responsibility, and new thoughts. I hadn’t asked my partner, who was on tour at the time, if he wanted a dog. His singing career took him in and out of our lives with regularity. I managed to camouflage the extent of my depression and addiction when he was home, and saved my mini-breakdowns for when he left town. As he was experiencing one of the busiest periods in his career, we’d now been apart for almost a month. Our partnership had always been a fluid one - it had to be to accommodate his work schedule - and we had decided to have an open relationship to avoid the devastation that we’d seen in both our families from affairs, and the divorces the betrayals brought. We both agreed that there was a lot worse that could happen to a relationship than one partner’s desire to have sex with someone else; and at the time our positions, although unfathomable to some close friends, felt like maturity. The past years, however, had changed the playing-field immensely, taking things to another level, and secrecy and addiction, at least on my part, had invaded.
I looked at Kaija exploring the corners of the apartment with his sniffing nose, jumping back with fear at the occasional dustball bigger than he was, and told my partner in a phone message that I had a surprise for him and left it that. I absolved myself of guilt and promised that if Kaija wasn’t a good fit when he returned, rather than sacrifice my relationship, I’d commit myself to finding the dog a good home.
I tried to leave the house twice, but the sound of his whimper when I shut the door followed me down the stairs into the subway. I went back, put him in my bag and took him to work. I’m not sure how I got him in the building. As co-workers and visitors struggled to get inside through the building's post-9/11 security, I floated past carrying a canvas bag with a puppy inside and a New York Daily News over his head to obscure him. I alleviated my guilt by telling myself I was only engaging in a slight variation of Take Your Child to Work Day. Safely upstairs, I closed the door. I emptied the contents of the bag and Kaija tumbled out. In the corner, I set up his temporary home: a bowl of water, a handful of food and a stuffed sock I’d brought for him to play with. My boss was out for the day, so my idea was to leave early with some excuse. Kaija was soundless for almost two hours, except for one fierce little bark loud enough to have loosened the plaster above our heads.
I had to send a fax and make some copies. “Don’t you make one sound while I’m gone,” I warned him. “I’ll be right back.”
He squeaked slightly when he yawned, and returned to his sock. I looked at him unsure and shut the door.
Since there wasn’t any security waiting for me or a crowd gathered by the door when I returned ten minutes later, I assumed everything was fine. If Kaija was this quiet, maybe I could stay at work the rest of the day.
Diana, one of the secretaries stood behind me as I reached for the handle and whispered, “Okay, what’s going on in there?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Something in there was whining when I knocked on the door a few minutes ago to ask you a question about the conference. What have you got in there, Max? It sounds like an animal.”
Knowing she would never believe it was the radio or a cell-phone, I swore her to secrecy and opened the door. We both walked in and found Kaija on the other side of the door with his tail wagging.
Diana screamed her delight and quickly brought her hands to cover her mouth after seeing the murderous look on my face. “Oh my God!” she whispered. “He’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. You can’t keep him here, though. How did you get him upstairs?”
“I’m not sure, either. I got him last night. I couldn’t leave him alone at home the very first day, could I?”
Diana promised to keep my secret, but a half hour later, as I waited in the staff lounge to pour from a fresh pot of coffee, Joanne asked if she could see the dog in my office. No, Diana hadn’t told her, she had walked past the door and heard something bark and whine. She clarified; it wasn’t the usual barking and whining heard daily in our office, but a distinctly canine kind. She promised not to tell anyone when she saw him, but asked if she could please just tell Matt on the 6th floor, who adored dogs and would die if he saw Kaija. I took the rest of the day off and brought him home at lunchtime.
Being a new dog-owner definitely required a sense of humor for the series of calamities that waited around every corner. I tried to put Kaija in a crate as the woman in the pet store instructed, but he cried and scratched in frenzied attempts to escape. I bought larger and larger ones, until the last one was just inches away from our front door and the back window. It finally occurred to me that our apartment was a crate, and there was no need to buy another one. Although Kaija could tear a cloth chew-toy to bits in record time, he had no taste for furniture, clothing or shoes. That meant that he could stay. I continued to put newspapers over ever inch of the floor to housebreak him and learned how to play dog-shit hopscotch when I came home from work. When I took him to the park, I sat down and tried to put his new little red harness on him; he wriggled free and took off. He was in Cleveland before I could even get up to run after him. He met a chain-link fence and waited for me there, tail wagging and oblivious, otherwise my adventure with him might have lasted barely a week. At the vet, he had a puppy play group on Tuesdays, where all the puppies gathered to socialize. I sat back and watched him interact with the other dogs, thinking about parents who watched their children through the window on the first day of kindergarten. I had despised the wealthy women on the East side who carried their toy poodles into designer stores and dressed them in sweaters, the women I’d stereotyped and believed would step over a hungry homeless person begging for food as they handed their “babies” a beef treat. Now here I was watching Kaija play with an enthusiastic golden retriever puppy three times his size whose excited bark caused Kaija to run over to the window in desperation and, finding no escape, pee on himself in terror. I started to stand, immediately the protective black parent: “Nobody barks like that at my child…” Kaija was more resilient than I gave him credit for, and after a few more moments of shaky horror by the window, he took a few cautious steps and bounced back, tail wagging, into the center of the group.
After walking and feeding him, I left him in the apartment, and hit the streets. I was sicker than I realized, my heart was totally shut down, I was dying, but I’d learned in my family, if you can still pull yourself together enough go to work each day, and sound cheerful enough when you answer the phone, then you’re fine. I needed help, I didn’t want to leave the house anymore, except to act out sexually and earn the money at work that allowed me to keep having sex. The only thing that dragged me from my obsession, was the guilt of Kaija waiting at home for me to feed him or go to the bathroom. Having hurt myself and been hurt in various ways throughout the day, I came home at night depleted and we lay on the bed together. He was growing, and his coat was a luxurious, guilty pleasure - all the decadence and comfort of fur without the requisite murder. He helped me to remember the basics: eat, sleep, shit, get someone to pet you once in a while. Repeat. I was smarter than he was by anyone’s standards, a dog couldn’t solve an algebraic equation, or read a book, or hold a job - but my being smart had gotten me into a deadly addiction that I was still trying to intellectualize away. Kaija's life-force was stronger. I was the walking dead.
My partner agreed to keeping Kaija and loved him at once, but didn’t want him on the bed. When he was gone, Kaija slept with me under the covers, his cold nose pressed against mine. His enthusiasm towards everything from a new bone to my opening the door when I came home from work was an affront to how cynical and depressed I’d become. One day, I observed him looking at me lovingly, and realized suddenly that I didn’t trust human beings anymore, that even though I was willing to have sex without hesitation, I hadn’t trusted them for years. I wasn’t sure when it had officially happened, when the heartbreak had been complete and my heart had calcified. I’d been dying my entire life a little at a time from the contempt reflected in other people’s eyes at my African features, my darker skin. No person I’d met or could hope to meet in my lifetime had been freed from the gaze of racism, no matter how much they tried to de-colonize their own mind. I couldn’t even trust my own eyes when I looked in the mirror. Kaija was without a racist index to categorize me. He responded solely to who I was, my soul. As there was no human being I was likely to encounter in my lifetime who could claim to be free of this indoctrination, with the exception of newborn babies who were corrupted with their first television program, Kaija was superior to any human being on earth.
The day I got high alone in my apartment, I’d finally broken my golden rule. I’d managed to use drugs only on sex dates, in bars, in clubs, but I knew that if I ever got high or started seriously drinking alone, I was in trouble, and I wouldn’t be able to pretend that I could manage my life any longer. I still didn’t have a dealer, because I was terrified of the possibility of being extended credit that I would not be able to pay, and the consequences. An acquaintance at the bar helped me to get some crack cocaine. Every time I tried to light the pipe, Kaija started barking. He was barking so much, in fact, that I was starting to wonder if he’d been a crackhead in a previous life and wanted some, or if he was trying to alert the police and get me arrested. He had never barked like that before. He was spooking me out: I’d read once that dogs could see ghosts and I thought that maybe the Angel of Death had entered the room and had his arm around my shoulder. Our window on the seventh floor was visible from the street, and I envisioned someone walking down Broadway and seeing the light on in the apartment, the silhouette of the two of us; the Angel and me, beating each other to death in the apartment. When the Angel won, of course, being already dead, they would find me alone, having overdosed in the apartment. Or maybe Kaija was barking at my mother. She had made me promise I wouldn’t smoke, and I’d kept the promise. I didn’t smoke cigarettes; just crack.
The months that followed were like pictures in a slideshow, as I found myself in the porno theaters, the bathhouse, drunk, high, crawling on the ground to chase my poppers which rolled into the next booth, sliding through forests of other people’s legs and used condoms. I masturbated six and seven times a day, until my skin was raw or bleeding, and even then it wasn’t enough to stop the pain. I stayed at the gym for hours in the steam room, drunk and high, setting up a “lemonade stand” in the corner and giving back to back blow jobs for any takers, having sex for hours until I was either thrown out, or until my skin started to burn from exposure to the heat. I closed the porno theaters at 4am and was the only one left when the lights came on, and the janitor stood there with his mop, waiting for me to leave. I was drinking 100 proof vodka, almost a pint a day.
I went to a bar one night and ran into Scott whom I had met getting high at Daniel’s house. He was leaving the bar, he said, he had to meet a friend, but had I heard Daniel was dead? He’d been found in his apartment days ago; after he hadn’t shown up for work and his sister had called all his friends, a female neighbor with a spare set of keys finally opened his door. He’d had a heart attack. My mind refused to accept the story, so I called Daniel’s phone number. It was disconnected and gave a forwarding number in upstate New York. His mother answered and cried when I asked for him. She confirmed he was dead, and said the family figured he’d been at a nightclub and someone had put something in his drink.
Daniel. He was a homosexual, an aspiring writer, and a Jew. Despite the fact that some people believed Jews ran the world and were free from persecution in New York, I knew that Daniel had the mantle of oppression on his shoulders, and an intolerable legacy that he too had to reconcile with his gay sexuality. How could a male child of a people who had been exterminated waste his seed having sex with other men, and possibly gentile men at that? How could a black man in America, when the black family was under siege, black men were in prison or dead from street violence and police brutality, forfeit his opportunity to perpetuate the race, by having sex with men, and white men at that? It was a bitch being a gay man who came from an oppressed people with great expectations.
In fifth grade I used to argue with a Jewish boy in my class, Herschel, over which atrocity had been worse, slavery or the Holocaust. We both raged at each other on the playground as he reminded me about the millions who died in the camps, and I explained about the millions who died in the boats from Africa, how blacks watched their children sold in front of them, with price-tags on them like toasters. At least their children were still alive somewhere, Herschel raged, Jewish children were gassed. I said the Holocaust happened over a few years, whereas slavery had existed for hundreds of years. He said the oppression of Jews had occurred for thousands. We never agreed, as the waspy white kids watched the black boy and Jewish boy shouting at recess. We were both filled with so much self-righteous anger and pain, bigger than our little bodies could handle, and the explicit instructions we’d received from our families about survival, that as so many of us had been destroyed, we were not allowed to let the world destroy us too. It was a necessary but awesome responsibility when placed beside the elementary school existence of birthday parties with cupcakes and napkins, Halloween parades, kickball and quiet storytime. I thought Herschel was obnoxious, but I admired his ferocious will, and I knew he was going to survive.
I knew Daniel wasn’t Herschel. I put aside for the moment the complicated relationship between blacks and Jews in America and thought solely about Daniel and me as gay men in our thirties. If Daniel was like me, he’d probably only known a gay identity of substance-abuse, bars, anonymous cruising for sex, and the expectation of one day finding a lover to spend the rest of his life with. I’d been stupid enough to believe I’d get a grace period with crack cocaine, that I could get high a few times and that if I didn’t like it, I had a money-back guarantee. What I didn’t understand was that I was addicted to cocaine before I even tried it because of the depth of my sexual addiction. I’d been compulsive in one way or another since I was four. I didn’t know about the chronic phase of addiction then, and that there was a reason that Daniel rarely left the house, why his teeth were crumbling away and the refrigerator was empty even though he’d told me, and I believe him, that he’d gone to an Ivy League school, and could make money anytime he wanted, even though he was on welfare. I knew he was talented, I read his writing. We’d acted out all the desperate scenarios of two addicts. He turned me on to crack and lied and said that we were only “freebasing”, he helped me go through what little savings I had and I returned to the bank machine several times in one night to get more money until my statements read the two words that brought every addict to his knees: “Insufficient funds”; he’d screamed at me and called me a “motherfucker” when I asked him to share the last hit; he’d stolen drugs from me, and I’d stolen drugs that I bought in the first place back from him. I’d only known him for a few months, and yet he wanted me to go and confront a dealer who had given us a shitty batch of crack. In five months I’d gone from curious experimentation to crack whore. He had been fair, though: the first time we used, he asked me twice if I knew exactly what I was doing; he didn’t want the karma of having turned me on. I said yes. He was a caring older brother - when a friend of his came over and offered a hit of acid which I reached for, Daniel flushed it down the toilet and screamed at me. Didn’t I know that mixing crack, acid and poppers was insane? I felt protected by Daniel and the drugs we shared created a snuggly feeling that reminded me of being a kid, of crawling into my parent's bed at night and sleeping between them. In the box of warmth that their bodies created, I always knew that nothing could ever harm me.
Daniel and I both sat on the floor and looked at the ceiling listening to Miles Davis' “Kind of Blue". He said that he always wished he could play jazz, that when he got sober this time, he was going to start writing again; he had a great idea for a novel. One night we were partying and a friend of his stopped by. Todd was a ravaged addict whose initial attractiveness belied his chronic drug until a closer examination revealed the deep lines and scars in his face. He asked me how long I’d been smoking crack. I said I hadn’t used crack, we were “freebasing.” Todd's mouth dropped open. “You’re fuckin’ kidding, right?” When I told him I’d only started a few months before, he laughed sardonically and shook his head. “Great, just what America needs, another crack nigger.” I had a pretty strong track record of confronting white people on their racism, but I was so appalled by the truth in his statement, I was struck dumb. Now I thought of a world that wasn’t going to stop rotating for a moment because a Jewish man was dead from a drug overdose, or because a black man was doing his best to join him. And now Daniel could add one more to the millions of Jews and homosexuals who had died in the concentration camps, if his self-destruction, like mine, was ruled by the ideology, perpetuated by still too many, that because he was Jewish or homosexual he didn’t deserve to live. I found myself feeling landslides of sadness for him, and for me, and all the other gay men who were of color or religiously persecuted, who when they came out had to face their internalized homophobia and social oppression. Adding self-hate to self-hate, they never stood a chance. When the VCR gleamed with the promise of a potential sale for drug money, I decided to ask for help.
I walked Kaija in the park this morning. No matter how many times we come to the same place with a bit of clearing for him to exercise, he always has the same exuberant bark, unable to wait for me to take him off the leash. I throw a stick and he runs, vigorous and low to the ground, with astounding speed. After a while, he collapses and pants and I walk over to him. It’s cold, but the sun is out this morning, and I can feel it on my skin.
A few months after I stopped drinking in May of 2002, I took a risk one day and shared an increasing sense of dread with my new sober friend, Anne. Anne was in her forties, pragmatic and firm, and impatient when overthanked or praised. My life in recovery had begun to improve slowly, as lives do when not poisoned out of existence by alcohol and drugs, and I was feeling overwhelmed. I was still amazed that I’d had days in succession of not waking up feeling sick, without the fear of going to sleep and not waking up at all. For months, I hadn’t been down on my knees in a sex club drooling at 4 am, or throwing up all over myself or in the street outside a club. I went to bed sober and I woke up sober. I took long walks each day with Kaija and I was eating regularly. I looked in the mirror and my face was changing. I told Anne, “I’m afraid that I’m on this big beach dancing with all of you sober people and having a party, and a tidal wave is approaching and it is coming to get only me.” I waited for her to give me a slogan or a “don’t worry, be happy” pat on the hand, offering the mindless platitudes spoken at another’s face that so often pass for conversation these days. Anne’s eyes locked with mine and didn’t flinch. “You’re absolutely right,” she said, and I immediately felt a new dread replace the old one—the feeling that comes from knowing you’ve met someone who is finally going to tell you the truth. “That tidal wave is coming to get you. It is everything in your life that you have been running from. But you don’t have to run and you don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.”
I feel like getting high tonight, because I feel like getting high every night. I want to get high because I am an addict, because every night if you open the window you can hear the psychic screams of people who are crying for help, and no one stops; we just turn up the music louder or get into taxi cabs. With the world as it is now, unfairness on top of unfairness, with torture, and war, children dying of hunger, AIDS, genocide, political disenfranchisement, I get the feeling that pathology and insanity will always win, and it’s a great excuse to go somewhere and get fucked up all over again. (As one man told me in a sex club right after 9/11, “I plan to just keep sucking dick and getting high until they drop the final bomb on us.”) But I have to stay sober so that I can at least tell the truth about what’s happening, whether what I write will change it or not.
The other day I was at the computer, and Kaija was on the bed, panting behind my back, as if her were trying to read the screen over my shoulder. His breath was bad - he’d just eaten his breakfast - and mine was probably worse; I hadn’t eaten mine or brushed my teeth before checking my e-mail. I grabbed his snout and gave it a kiss, because I knew he heard me take the plastic off a pack of Post-Its to leave myself a note and he thought I was eating some delicious junk food. I looked at Kaija for a moment and I thought, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe in God these days, but I know you are extraordinary and beautiful and full of life and something made you, and it wasn’t me, so maybe I can believe in the something that made you. Because if that something made you, it has at least to be as beautiful as you are. And I realized then that I didn’t make me either, which means technically I am only loaned to myself and therefore do not have a right to destroy something that I didn’t create, which means I am not allowed to destroy myself. I consider Kaija’s magnificence, which I’ve never questioned, and wonder whether I can apply this thought to me.
Kaija starts barking when I won’t give him the treat he thinks I have in my hand. Anyone who lives with a dog knows that at times they are very much like children. I tell him firmly: “You bark one more time and you’re getting a ‘time out.’” He clamps his jaw shut, jumps down from the bed, and trots off defiantly, tail up and anus in full view—the doggy version of “kiss my ass.” In dog years Kaija’s a teenager now, so I have to tolerate this rebellious stage. He’s definitely not a puppy anymore. He leaves me in the room alone and I go into the bathroom and run some hot water.
Sometimes the most revolutionary act an abused, suicidal, addicted, oppressed person can do is take a bubble bath. As I step into it, Kaija instantly returns, unable to resist knowing what I am doing every second of the day. It’s the border collie in him. What a relief to know that it’s not only human beings that are control freaks. I flick some sprinkles of water on his face and he blinks and steps back with his mouth open and panting. I start laughing. It occurs to me that I am having fun without hurting myself, no small feat. It’s a worthy achievement, and definitely right on time: thirty-four years to achieve my gay innocence.