Let it Burn: Part One

Portions of this essay appeared on this blog, in rougher form. No whiners allowed.

The two men beside me twisted the faucets of the bathroom sinks, held their hands under the water, and then ran their palms through their black hair. Behind us, or was it below us, the bass of house music thumped through the walls, the rhythm muffled until the bathroom door opened and for a second a snatch of song rushed in and echoed off the walls. The men beside me gazed gravely into the mirror. They were humongous, as big as Clydesdales, snorting before their reflections, turning this way and that under the tiny spotlights, flexing biceps the size of cantaloupes. Shadows leapt across their shoulders and darted into the crevices between their enormous muscles. Gold crucifixes glittered in the hollow of their throats. Suddenly one of them whipped off his wifebeater and ran a hand over his flat belly, and I was trapped somewhere between laughter and awe. Without tearing his eyes from his reflection, the other man knocked his fist against his friend’s chest. “Ready?” he said. His friend grunted and tucked his shirt into the back of his waistband. They retreated slowly, taking quick looks back at the mirror, before slipping back into the club.

I tore a couple of paper towels from the dispenser and considered my slender reflection; even in their wake I looked like a goddamned twelve-year old. I dried my hands quickly and hurried from the room, back into the dark hallway. I looked around; stairs led both up and down, and the hallway wandered past various slick, brightly lit bars. I’d managed to lose myself in Webster Hall, the latest in a string of similar clubs I’d haunted all week on my college spring break. I was staying with my stepsister Melanie, who was attending Eugene Lang, in her fifth-floor walk-up on East Sixth Street. In the mornings I sipped coffee in her tiny kitchen, which smelled like the litter box that sat in the corner. During the day, while she worked for a temp agency in the financial district, I roamed the city: Soho, Christopher Street, the Metropolitan, where I sat by the pyramid and scribbled in my journal. In the evening we’d buy falafel wrapped in tin foil from a counter across the street, or we’d eat fried chicken and brown rice at an outside table at Dojo’s, and watch the gutter punks skulk down Saint Mark’s Place. At night I pored over my dog-eared copy of HX, a local gay rag, scanning the nightclub ads, which featured soft-core shots of shirtless men and the dimly-familiar names of DJ’s in bold type: Junior! Frankie! Little Louie Vega! I combed my hair with drugstore gel, laced up my combat boots, and ventured out alone, to the Roxy, to the Sound Factory, to the Boy Bar. I’d just turned 21, and I went out because I was in New York, and because I could. But all week I showed up too early, to find velvet ropes and thick, smirking doormen guarding empty sidewalks. Eventually I wised up, and as the week stretched on I stalled for time, wandering through the streets, through neighborhoods Melanie would later tell me I had no business seeing that late. One night in an ATM vestibule I stepped over seven sleeping men to withdraw forty bucks. Something like innocence guarded me, and I wandered till my feet turned flat and hot.

Webster Hall, a new, or new-again-that-year club, was immense, with a dozen bars on numerous floors. The thundering beats of competing songs spilled out and ran into each other down the dark hallway. I drifted in a daze into the darkest room; a cavernous ballroom lit by watery, roaming lights from above. An enormous crystal chandelier glowed faintly above the dark mass of dancing men. I stood at the edge of the dance floor and watched. A stuttering ray of red heat swept over the ballroom, and a boy my age, art-school lean, slipped out of the crowd. He offered me his hand, which I took, and as he gripped it he leaned over and shouted into my ear, “You’re not from New York, are you?”

I felt sucker-punched. Was it that obvious? I shook my head.

“I thought so,” he said. “There are no attractive men in New York.”

I turned and stared at him. “Are you kidding?”

“None,” he said. “Where you from?”

From Minneapolis, I said, by way of Florida, where I was in school.

“And you want to move here, right?”

I paused a moment before nodding.

“Your first trip?”

I nodded again.

“Thought so. Well, I’m headed home. I’ve got a long train ride uptown.” And a moment later he was gone. I took a few steps back, into the dark recesses along the wall, embarrassed that I had so clearly stood out. And after watching the Italian Stallions preen in the john, I was suffering the 98-pound weakling complex. Two years at my college gym hadn’t changed me so much. I bought a six-dollar bottle of water from the bar, and went back to the edge of the dance floor, where I frowned a little and tried to strip the wide-eyed wonder from my face.

Then a boy climbed onto a box.

He wore white Calvins, combat boots, and nothing else; a genuine go-go boy, nothing like the strippers I’d seen in Minneapolis and Sarasota, who moussed their hair, wore red g-strings and fake tans, and spent weekend nights grinding against the squealing members of drunken bachelorette parties, who’d recently taken to slumming in gay bars. No, this boy was different; his boots, the simple cut of his schoolboy briefs, his thick muscles shifting lazily to the beat. I could look at nothing else. In him was everything I envied about New York, and everything that shamed me about my hometown. He was the essence of studied, urbane cool, wrapped around the figure of sex, in view, out of reach. I watched as a blue-eyed man, gray hair buzzed close to his skull, leaned against the box and stared up at the boy. He held a five-dollar bill in his hand, and the boy slowly lowered himself to his haunches, his knees brushing the man’s shoulders. The man murmured something, and the boy smirked and rubbed the man’s head slowly. The man reached out with the bill crumpled in his fist, extended a finger, and ran it slowly down the boy’s chest and stomach, so slow and deliberate that from ten feet away I felt the boy’s skin on my fingertip. The man pulled at the waistband of the boy’s briefs, and tucked the bill inside. They talked, low and close, until the boy rose back to his feet, where he rocked in the rays of blue light.

I wound my way onto the floor and danced alone, my eyes adjusting to the dim hall and the men who brushed against me and looked past me. The sweat on their backs gleamed and changed color. The bass thumped through the floor and boys with skin the color of café cubano stretched their arms toward the spinning lights, and maybe they were on steroids, but I didn’t really care. Frankie Knuckles spinning bliss on his turntables, high over the crowd; a whistle, lonely, haunted, coming from a great distance. The boy on the box rocked slowly to the beat, and the blue lights circled his body, once, twice, then fixed on him, and caught him in their light as if he were a boy in a bottle. And in that moment I wanted so much; to be that boy, to take his place, to be lit blue and clean, washed in sweat and envy. To stay in that song while the night stretched on and we all forgot about the world outside the dark ballroom. To be someone’s boy, in that city, to walk home in the cool moments before dawn with my pockets full of crumpled bills. The music arched up and up, and the bass thumped through our chests, and my heart grew all tight, from my pitbull desire, from loneliness, from knowing I’d have to leave.

I stepped outside at four in the morning, and the cool air felt good against my damp skin. Light rain bloomed on the sidewalk, and a group of boys pushed past me, fierce and solid, and set off down the street. I followed them for a while, humming the song that Frankie had played and trying to guess which boy had collected the most phone numbers that night. We twisted through the dark streets, and at first they were just a few feet ahead, but then we turned onto Second Avenue, and I bought a soda from a bodega, and when I came out they were already blocks away. I polished off the soda in two gulps. My shirt clung to my skin, and a string of green lights turned red over the empty street…

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