Cursed to be alone. That’s what I thought. Five years had passed, after all, since my last boyfriend. My way of life: destined never again to experience a real reciprocal love! Forced to seek solace elsewhere. In books, in writing, in Literature! I grew certain of this in New York, in the middle of grad school, where the prospect of being married to Art seemed more plausible. I even began taking pride in my fate, this life of independence, no longer leaning on boyfriends. After five years I had proven myself, in a Lyndsey-Wagner-on-the-Lifetime-Channel kind of way. I was a pillar, a rock, an island of self-reliance, if you’ll pardon the redundant.
Enter the Manly Fireplug, and that old problem of love, which promptly turned me into –yet again – a twelve year-old girl. Apparently she’d never gone away, hiding within me in some dark pulmonary cavern, scraping by on pop songs and Reese Witherspoon, shuddering and swooning and generally losing her mind whenever a man with 17-inch biceps wandered by.
I did my best to keep her under wraps, assuming that the Manly Fireplug would find her presence disturbing. Instead I polished and pumped my studly exterior, mostly for his benefit. He insists that I spent an awful lot of time bending over in front of him during our work-outs at Gold’s, but I was merely obeying proper gym etiquette and re-racking our weights.
And for a while I could keep the girl under wraps; she tended to burst forth during times of emotional insecurity, but in those days, in the first blush of our lust, as the Fireplug and I exchanged lewd glances near the lat pull, she was more than pacified; she was delirious with joy. After several years of infrequent exertions, I was finally gettin’ some on a regular basis. And with an International Mr Leather, who could give it to me in ways I’d never quite experienced before. The future was bright.
In the evenings, I’d come over to his house for dinner and (just home from work, answering the door without a shirt on) he’d pull me inside his foyer, push me up against the wall, and swap spit with me for a tender hot minute, his pit bull sniffing the bag of Chinese take-out I held in my left hand, while with my right I pulled his daddy closer.
Everyone wants to get pushed against a wall by a shirtless pit bull daddy. It was certainly my favorite moment of the day. Sure, we exchanged sweet nothings (I love you, fucker or I want to break your nose) but it was his actions – the physical sensation of him gripping my waist, pushing me against the wall, and coming in close for a kiss – that made those words real to me.
So maybe I felt a little needy. Maybe, aside from the twelve year-old girl, there were other forces unleashed within me; a lust-drunk monster woken from slumber, tearing through oceans and stomping skyscrapers with its insatiable hunger. Maybe my delirious excitement was matched by fear; maybe one night I cried in his kitchen because I wanted the one thing we never get in life – a guarantee that this would last.
And that fear – tempered by our sex life – reared its ugly head when, a mere two weeks into our budding courtship, he was diagnosed with the whooping cough. (Maybe you’re thinking, “Come now, Mike, only small children get the whooping cough.” Well, I’m here to tell you, Manly Fireplugs are at risk, too. Have yours checked out.) Within a day or two, the man who used to push me up against the wall, the man who once drove to my house just to kiss me in the driveway, turned into a hacking wheeze. The cough itself was horrible: a gut-wrenching, soul-twisting noise that left him doubled over and gasping for breath. Needless to say, his appetite for sex waned. I did my best to be patient, with mixed results. Once, after a particularly horrible spell that left him gagging and drooling over his bathroom sink, he looked up and I caught the reflection of his red, tear-stained eyes in the mirror. Leaning against the doorjamb I gave him a look of utmost concern and compassion.
“Can we have sex now?” I asked. Believe it or not, he turned me down.
Our sex life ground to a halt, lurching into action only once a week or so, when the Fireplug did his best to placate my raging hormones. The intervening six or ten days grew fraught with tension. Deprived of the physical manifestations of his attraction to me, my inner brat hyperventilated into her pillow at night. I grew moody and sullen, and pouted when, night after night, I didn’t get laid. My awareness of my impatience did little to quell my axiety. My proud moments were few and far between.
But gradually I became aware that my anxieties over the question of the Fireplug’s attraction for me shrouded a deeper concern; I had no Life. This lack was most apparent when I mentally placed my daily calendar alongside the Fireplug’s busy schedule. A small business owner, his days teemed with commitments while I, faced with yawning hours of unpaid supposed-to-be-writing, found that I had plenty of time to think about him, and whether or not he still dug me.
Clearly I needed to rediscover a sense of purpose, other than getting the Fireplug to fuck me. I needed to write my book.
This required preparation. I’ve come to think of “writing the book” as an enormous, Dr Seuss-like contraption, something that can fly only with tremendous effort, with grinding gears and spinning wheels kicking the whole thing to life and, with sweat-streaked exertion on the driver’s part, slowly levitating into the air. Once it gets flying it can coast along with some effort, obeying the laws of physics: a body in motion stays in motion. Of course, it also obeys the converse: a body at rest stays at rest, and my contraption had stalled and sunk to earth during my move back to San Francisco, where it sat out on the front lawn, gangly weeds growing up through cracks in its floorboards.
My mission was clear: get the damn thing up in the air again. But I needed a little help first. As it happened, three or four other Columbia students had landed out here in San Francisco. Suffering a shared exile from the East Coast intelligentsia, we followed the national trend and formed a book club. I suggested Madame Bovary, which fell into the broad category of books-we-should-have-read-by-now, and the others agreed.
A few pages in, I was reminded of something I knew, but had stubbornly resisted remembering in the months following grad school; in order to write, I needed to read. Nothing else set off the little voice in my head that supplied me with ideas, words, a turn of phrase. Having read forty books in my final semester, I had taken, well, a little “break” from reading, and devoted myself instead to the Fireplug, gardening, and Project Runway.
That little voice flickered to life again, and soon I was scrawling in my notebook. This wasn’t quite “writing the book,” but it was a good nudge in the right direction. Inspired, I continued to plow through Bovary.
And with each page, I grew more and more uncomfortable.
The novel follows the life of Emma Bovary, a dreamy girl who, inspired by the novels she’s read, pines away, picturing the arrival of her One True Love. Instead she ends up with a rather dull, if sweetly devoted, country doctor for a husband. Frustrated by her situation, and hungering for the kind of love she’d always read about, Emma embarks on one, then two affairs with other men. One needn’t be psychic to see that it would end badly, for everyone.
Nabokov, in his lecture on Bovary, defined romantics like Emma as “characterized by a dreamy, imaginative habit of mind tending to dwell on picturesque possibilities derived mainly from literature.”
The following passage from Bovary describes the novels she read; “(They) were all love, lovers, paramours, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every relay, horses ridden to death on every page, somber forests, heart-aches, vows, sobs, tears, and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, ‘gentleman’ brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed and weeping like tombstone urns.”
I saw too much of myself in Emma. “You want that One Big Love,” my first boyfriend (a confirmed non-romantic) once told me. I’d been called a romantic my whole life; usually by well-meaning friends, who’d offered the diagnosis with the kind of look one gives a tender, wounded squirrel limping through our Darwinian jungle.
Hadn’t I been consumed with romantic fantasies? Hadn’t I grown petulant with frustration as my fantasies of an early, sex-drenched romance were dashed upon the rocks of whooping cough? I had fallen victim to romantic thinking, led there by images and ideas tied to certain words. Labels, in particular, have that kind of effect. Tell someone that you’re dating a Penthouse Centerfold, and certain images and ideas will come to them unbidden. Same with “International Mr Leather” – a label that implies a wealth of images and narratives; romantic fantasies drawn from stories, stroke books, and dirty dvds passed down over generations of gay men.
I had fallen victim to fantasies, picturing a romance with the mythical figure of International Mr Leather. And my fantasies were all lust, leather, porn stars, passive plow boys tied in gloomy play rooms, pecker hounds speared in bed, honchos ridden to sweat in bonus scenes, dim-lit dungeons, bite marks, whips, chains, straps, and dildos, well-worn slings by red light, progressive house in piss-stained bars, muscle daddies big as stallions, gruff as bulls, virile as no one ever was, flogging muscle boys and pounding pigs like pistons.
Maybe you miss the romanticism in these fantasies, but to each his own, I always say.
The whooping cough, and its effects on our sex life, had frustrated my fantasies, and dragged into view the sullen form of that twelve-year-old girl. Reading Bovary brought me to a new realization. I had always viewed my romanticism as a harmless, if inconvenient characteristic. It hurt no one but me. But in Emma’s plight I finally saw the danger of romance. Emma could not see the devotion with which her husband loved her; blinded by the images of love she’d culled from books, she could only see a dull bourgeois, a provincial man incapable of giving her the lifestyle she so stubbornly believed she needed. And her blindness had horrible consequences.
And wasn’t I the same? Romance had blinded me to reality; I had paid closer attention to what I wasn’t getting, than to the particulars of the Manly Fireplug, and the way we fit together. I’d missed, or passed over too quickly, so many things. There were the obvious: his blue eyes. His ripe, unshowered scent. His backyard hot tub. But there were others. That he’d made my weblog his home page. That he’d pre-ordered the anthology from Amazon months before it was published, that he read it three of four times, and quoted back to me his favorite sentences. That on my sixth anniversary of sobriety he’d given me his own six-year coin as a gift. That he called me every day.
I began to pay attention, and found the particulars I loved. The way he talked to dogs in the street. The college sweatshirts he wore. The goofy hand gestures he made listening to “Rhapsody in Blue” in the car on our way to Tahoe. I loved that he had a sense of humor about his role as International Mr Leather (”Don’t you know who I used to be?” he’d exclaim). I loved the udon at the noodle shop we discovered in Japantown, the words he muttered during sex, the sight of his little red car parked in the Castro. How, after we watched two seasons of The Wire, he walked around the house saying “True, dat,” like a gansta. I even grew to appreciate the look on his pitbull’s face as he (the dog) humped my leg.
Of course, in spite of my realization, in spite of my attention to these details, I may always be a romantic. And by writing this, by turning our romance into narrative, I only add to the canon of romance. Some little gay boy will stumble across these words, and fall prey to dreams of twisted pit bull daddy barbers, and may miss what life does offer him. But what else can I do, but pay attention to our particulars, and honor the buzzing, breathing detail over the dull, dishwater taste of the general.
Of course we fight. We teeter at the brink of break-up on a weekly basis. We each harbor doubts, some secret, some spoken aloud, of our compatibility. I know what I want to ignore; that there are no guarantees in love. But his cough fades by slow degrees, and if nothing else I’m getting laid more often. The other night, after a particularly rigorous fuck, we lay together on my bed in the dark. He slumbered beside me peacefully. The twelve-year old girl had disappeared for the moment. I lay on my back, looking up at the ceiling, where I saw, in the corner above my desk, the reflection of two flashing green lights. It took me a second to realize that the lights came from our cell phones, which lay together on my desk. In the early days of summer, before we had become an “us,” I had bought the same phone as his: an act of infatuated imitation. Over the months our phones had archived a daily collection of text messages to each other. Sometimes, in boredom, or amusement, I’d read through the archives and follow, obliquely, the progress of our romance.
The lights on the phones flashed, reflected off the ceiling, first one, then the other. I lay there in the dark watching them. Would we stay together? Would we split? I felt alive in that moment, perched at the edge of doubt. I could not predict; I could only pay attention. The lights flashed together in a steady rhythm, like the lights of a plane passing far overhead. First one, then the other, a call, then an answer.