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Four Years of Fireplug

As it happened, the Manly Fireplug did not break up with me just for Dore Alley. On the contrary, we spent it side-by-side, in matching cash belts, slinging suds for my softball team, doing our best to contribute to the drunken kinky South of Market mayhem.

There comes a tipping point at Dore Alley and its big daddy Folsom Street Fair, just around 4 pm, when the crowd expands and slides from buzzed to messy, and when the smart find refuge behind a counter.

Not that I have an aversion to sweaty men in leather, but invariably there is some free spirited creature – boy, girl, or something in between – who’s doused themselves with a half dozen jars of glitter and I’m telling you now, when they rub up against you it’s all over –that shit never comes out.

But since I’ve been a little quiet around here all summer I figured I should at least share some pictures with you. Mostly out of vanity, yes, but I felt I deserved a reward for all the tedious tubs of cottage cheese and protein shakes I consumed. Keep in mind that as a college freshman I was an inch shy of six feet tall, and weighed all of 128 pounds. That toothpick kid still haunts me, though for motivational purposes alone it helps to have a few old ghosts kicking around your head.

San Francisco’s kink-themed street fairs are a good excuse to publicly tap into one’s inner bad boy while simultaneously incurring the wrath of our nation’s most pious Puritans (every year conservatives reliably wring their hands over the Folsom Street Fair). But that’s what makes living in this “bubble” so attractive: we have the numbers on our side, and local politicians need to curry the favor of even the kinky freaks, or at least get out of our way.

Having both given up pretty much every chemical vice many years ago (neither of us understands this thing called “moderation”), the Fireplug and I stick to the sexual ones these days, with one exception: the occasional nice big fat cigar. Last year we attended a sober conference in Palm Springs, but by far the best time we had that weekend was sneaking out to the Barracks and splitting a cigar with two guys, one of whom looked downright UNFAIR in a pair of chaps.

Of course the mild head buzz (no doubt from incorrectly inhaling too much, but that’s part of our charm) didn’t exactly hurt.

So naturally we split another fat one at Dore where, in spite of my general incompetence with all things technical, I happened to take the best picture I have ever taken in my entire life, thankfully of the best person I know:

I know I had more to write, but I’m a little distracted at the moment. Must scroll down, away from hot boyfriend.

So the tips we raked in at Dore went right to my softball team, the Lonestar Inferno D (Burn, baby, burn!) and five months after I timidly set foot on the field for that first day of practice, for my first season ever (as in, my entire life ever) we all flew off to beautiful Columbus, Ohio for the Gay World Series. Something like 150 teams descended on Columbus for their biggest sporting event ever.

Frankly I was still stunned at being there. One day in January, during that dark time when the Fireplug and I had called it quits, I happened to run into a casual friend who happened to mention that he was joining a softball team. Since I’d recently decided to Get Out There and Socialize More, and since this team happened to be in the D league, home to beginners and misfits and the somewhat-uncoordinated, I got on board. If you missed the ensuing journey, which did to me and for me far more than I ever could have anticipated, you can click on the “softball” tag at the end of this post.

Let’s just say that I never thought I’d be a part of something that would qualify for an event where “World Series” was part of the title.

And though we did not do as well as we had hoped there, winning three games and losing three games, we’d gone farther than the Inferno D team had ever gone before. And since I hit well enough to get on base most times at bat, and because I made one spectacular running low-ball catch from right field, I felt like I could safely say that I’d pulled my weight.

The Manly Fireplug came along for the ride, and the most important consequence of that trip is that the Fireplug got bit. By the softball bug. It had started a couple of weeks back, when we bought him a mitt and went across the street from my apartment to the little park, where he completely surprised himself by actually catching the ball. He had a good arm, too, much better than mine was at the beginning of the season. Then we took him to the batting cages, where he completely surprised himself by hitting the ball, over and over.

At both times I could see the Fireplug transform. He faced those old demons, common to gay boys everywhere, that told him he’d be inept at all things athletic, that he couldn’t measure up to other boys.  A couple of boyhood experiences only fed those demons. These are not demons you’d guess he’d carried, talking to him. Let’s just say that the Fireplug has taught me more about confidence than any other person. But most of us keep our demons out of sight.

And challenging those demons lit a fire in his belly. When he started talking about maybe joining the team next spring, I was at first a little wary. I’d started softball when we were apart, when I was a single man, and I still thought of it as “my thing.” I’d taken on softball, a sport for which I had no natural talent, to prove to myself that I could do something, and improve at something, all on my own.

But watching the Fireplug face down those demons, as I had done earlier in the season, and watching what it did to his soul, all I could think was, who the hell am I to stand in the way? And like, c’mon, me and him on the same team? Fun! Havoc!

Speaking of old demons, I’m still fleshing out and hacking away at my book, that memoir about my big gay family that I’ve been toiling at for oh, six years. Living in the past, resurrecting and wrestling with old demons, wishing many times that I had just for the love of God written fiction instead, where you can make things up!

This story demands the right emotional distance and tone on my part, otherwise it slides really fast into the Land of the Maudlin. It’s taken me six years to figure out that distance and that tone. I think I have it now, though truth be told I’ve thought that before, more than once.

You can’t wrestle with old demons for six years without noting a few uncomfortable truths. Like, I share some not very attractive traits with my parents. The kind that bounced off them and hit me, and then bounced off me, like an echo chamber. Oh there are good traits too, of course, but those don’t gnaw at me.

I’ve seen them play out over my life – traits like coldness, and a tendency to neglect loved ones. Traits that don’t exactly work in my favor, but are stubborn to change.

Today marks my fourth anniversary with the Fireplug. I’ve felt that coldness descend, the closer he gets to me, with confusion. It comes automatically, without my trying. Why would I feel cold towards the man who gives me everything I’ve ever wanted in a partner? I’m not even clear what exactly I’m trying to get at here, by talking about that coldness. By admitting it out loud. I’m still figuring it out.

But the good thing about being a grown-up is that you can try to change, sometimes only in little ways. I try to wake myself up, out of that coldness. I try to draw my own wandering, self-obsessed attention, back in his direction.

I overhear a conversation between two men at the gym, both of them detailing all of their recent acquisitions, their trips abroad, their re-decorations. The thought that comes to me : I’m so glad Joe doesn’t talk like that, a thought that comes and almost goes before I have a chance to note it, to note my luckiness in winding up with someone who talks about what lies under the skin, both in himself and in others.

I note the greater number of compliments I pay people, and I trace it back to Joe, who taught me to do so by example.

I note his phone calls home to family and the ties that bind them together.

The pride and ownership he takes of his business.

His pride and joy in even my smallest accomplishments.

The way he gets what writing means to me, and the way he makes room for it in our lives.

Our impossibly well-suited-for-each-other sexual natures.

The number of times he tells me he loves me everyday.

We settled on this anniversary because of something I once said. We’d been dating for a couple of months already, but that night, four years ago, he came home from a trip, and when we finally got a hold of each other, in my bedroom, I told him that I loved him.

I’d told him that before. “I love you,” I had said, a couple of times, but I don’t know if he really heard me. Sometimes we need to hear things a few times before they sink in.

But that night I said it differently. “I love you, Joe,” is what I said, right in his ear, and that one extra word made him hear it, really hear it, for the first time. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to to be deliberate, to stop relying on the automatic or assumed phrase, and to say the extra word that lets him know I’m paying attention.

Becoming Heather Leather

The following is an article I wrote for the new issue of BARtab magazine – you can check it out on their site here.

When it came to sex, I used to be a closed book. This was due in part to my innate shyness, though growing up in Minnesota probably didn’t help. “Are you having a good time?” was a question I’d heard a dozen times in bed by various men, usually following a bout of what I thought were obvious noises of my approval. I went through life speaking, and groaning, at volume level 9, while the world heard me at 2.

A few twisted fantasies percolated in my head but I lacked the guts to ever talk about them until the ripe old age of 35, when I went straight from a sex life of pure vanilla to dating an International Mr. Leather.

Low volume was never a problem for Joe Gallagher. Even with his mouth shut he was communicating, like the first time I saw him, wearing a t-shirt that read: “I Make Boys Cry.” The T-shirt scared the crap out of me. My fantasies did not involve tears. But still I found him compelling. Some of us are just cursed with a need for bad boys.

We liked each other for more than just the physical. Still, we both harbored doubts about our sexual compatibility. I didn’t know what to make of leather, which seemed to me a world governed by a million mysterious rules, where stuffing a red hanky in the wrong pocket could lead to trouble. Membership in this world seemed to depend upon the right boots, the right chaps, and knowledge of rigid protocols.

As a kid I’d dropped out of private school because I hated the uniforms, and I found these rules stifling. I liked Joe for his irreverent streak – he’d carved out his own place in leather. He wore what he liked, when he liked, and made no apologies.

He showed me some essays written by Robert Davolt, a leatherman who’d died of melanoma in 2005. Davolt loved the leather community, but like all good writers he was a bit cantankerous. Leather, he argued, was a relatively young world, which began as a group of “outcasts, leftovers, the dark secret of the gay community.” He advised its members to question its “traditions,” and to distrust anyone who claimed to be a leather “authority.” He wrote often of leather as a group of people on individual journeys, with no two paths the same.

Like most of us, I looked for role models in all areas of my life, and here in leather I’d found two. Joe and Robert gave me the permission I’d always thought I’d needed, permission it turned out I had only to give myself.

I began my little journey by learning what I didn’t want. A Leathermen’s discussion group taught me that I didn’t want, for example, to walk one pace behind and to the left of Joe at all times, nor did I want to be in charge of his frickin’ Outlook Express. Fortunately, on these matters, Joe and I agreed.

At Joe’s side, I went to a lot of leather events and met a lot of kinky folk, most of whom I liked. Sometimes, though, I’d meet a boy who’d talk my ear off about protocols, questioning whether or not half the people at the event were “real” leather folk, or a titleholder who seemed to have gotten lost in the intricate local leather politics. I had no stomach for politics, and was wary of protocols, but I’d learned that leather was big enough to fit us all.

Prodded by Joe, I began to speak up in bed, to set in motion my fantasies, and to claim the kind of sex I’d always wanted. And though I’d long feared it, the first time he made me cry (during sex, that is) it came as a catharsis. In leather scenes, I watched others challenge their fears and their limits and come out exhausted, exalted, and content.

I felt this sense of liberation spreading into other areas of my life. I was less fearful, less shy, less concerned with what others thought. Still, I considered myself a fringe member at best until I heard an acquaintance dismissing leather as “just another form of drag.” My reaction surprised me with its strength: anger, yeah, but also a sort of protectiveness, for the people I’d met and the experiences I’d had. And pity, too, since the acquaintance was cutting himself off from trying something new. My reaction told me that maybe, in my own way, I did belong.