We went to the bathhouse because it was Dorian’s thirtieth birthday and, being the kind of friend he was, he wanted to do something for himself—partying at Chicago’s Boystown, a neighborhood we’d frequented when we’d been undergraduates at Iowa—and then something for us, especially for Aviraj, who was Dorian’s closest friend and still a virgin. He had flown for this, Aviraj had; I had flown, too, but it wasn’t as big of a deal, because I had come from New York—costing me around $250—and he had from Mumbai—which could’ve cost shy of $1,000 (not that I asked). This infamous holding-out on Aviraj’s part had come, on the one hand, because of his spiritual beliefs and, on the other, because—idealistic as he was—he had never been able to keep a man, which had brought about that soothing old joke of ours where we told him not to worry; he was surely the type of guy who never dated and then, bam!, he’d marry on his first try. The group would laugh at this jealous joke, yet a jealous silence would always follow, for not only did we believe it to be true, but we also believed Aviraj to be the only one of us who had marriage in him.
It’s different now, I really wanna do it, Aviraj buzzed. We were outside of Sidetrack, waiting for Dorian, Travis, and Karl. Just as it had worked back in college, Aviraj and I were the first ones out of the bar: I would always make sure to pay early, which would leave me with enough time for an extra cigarette or two, and Aviraj would follow along, often impatient for the next thing, be it hotcakes at the local diner, an afterparty, or watching movies at mine and Dorian’s place. Back in Iowa, however, he would’ve smoked with me, and now he had an electronic cigarette that was helping him quit. I do, I do, I do! he continued, and it has to be with someone I don’t know and will never see again. I know it’s crazy, me doing it, but yes, fuck it, yes, I’m thirty-one, let’s go to the bathhouse, I wanna get fucked. Wait, I said, get fucked? You really wanna bottom on your first time? I asked. He said he did; said, I’m sitting on some fine dick tonight. There was something youthful about Aviraj, mischievously naive, which didn’t mix well with the fact that, thanks to his gut and stubbled face, he was the one out of all of us who looked most like a daddy. (Although usually I would’ve been all for sex and explorations, I’ll admit I was worried: knowing Aviraj, if he ended up regretting the loss of his virginity, he would not be able to accept it, and thus he’d turn to Dorian—blameful—and ask why he hadn’t been stopped. Travis would take Aviraj’s side, Karl would take Travis’s, and I would be left to deal with Dorian, which would not only be hard—given the fact that I was leaving on Sunday—but it was also a role I was tired of, having played it for years already, a role that often left me feeling dry and used up. For this reason, I wanted to stall Aviraj, asking him why now, why not wait—this had always been his goal, after all: waiting.) You know you have nothing to prove, I insisted. He responded with a frown. I’m not that sure anymore, he said. You know how I can be. Imagine if I’d lost it with Freddy. Remember how hard that was for me? We saw each other for two months, and it almost killed me losing him. Now, imagine if I’d let him fuck me. I told Aviraj he could change, that he could live and learn. The thing is, he whispered, it’s starting to be a problem. (I took a drag, shivering.) Guys kind of aren’t thrilled when I tell them I’m a virgin. You could lie, I said. Aviraj rolled his eyes. Of course you’d say that. I blew out the thick smoke, tasting the minty nicotine (why is it that everything tastes mintier in winter?) and I told him he could find someone who didn’t care. Dorian wouldn’t, I said, then lied: I wouldn’t. Neither would any decent guy. It wasn’t a lie in full, but it did feel like a saying off an old wives’ tale, to think love and sex had nothing to do with each other, or that decency had to come with tolerance; more than this: to think virginity at such an age, in such a world, was not at the very least suspicious. No, he said, I am sure. I’m feeling sure. Yes, I’m sure, I am; and, I mean, if I lose it at the bathhouse, well, then you guys can be there if something happens. I’ll feel safer. I smiled and nodded, biting the end of my cigarette. I couldn’t help but wonder if his insistence came from something new—Freddy, perhaps? Had this been the reason they’d broken up? Sex? I pitied him for a moment, and it was this pity that made me say: Fuck it, then. Let’s do it.
Karl and Travis came out of the bar holding hands (Karl whispering something into Travis’s ear, his lipstick smeared down to his chin) and behind them, Dorian. Dorian was a short Vietnamese guy, with a boyish face, meticulously composed. His nose slid out like a piglet’s, and his cheeks went in, defined as they were like a cave. Before giving me a kiss, he looked at Aviraj and said, I’m so sorry, Boo, the line for the bathroom was huge.
It felt strange to be together again: five friends, back at it—or, well, close to friends, for only Travis knew Karl all that well, and although Travis and Aviraj were rather close, he and Dorian had never moved past that odd stage where they could flirt freely with one another, and do it with a measure of sincerity, for if they ever ended up hooking up and had a falling-out, well, there had never been that much friendship to begin with. In fact, if I’m talking friends, it was really Dorian, Aviraj, and me. We were the ones who had kept in touch, the ones who had tried, the ones who would fly across the world for one another’s special days. Six months earlier, for example, I’d had gallbladder surgery, and though no one in my family had felt the need to come, both Dorian and Aviraj had made their way to New York. We were in this stage of life where parents and siblings were too busy for us, and where friends were the closest thing we had to that kind of childhood affection or protection. Aviraj, who was a popping new photographer, had stayed then for two days before heading back to India for one of his gigs, and Dorian, whose job as an online therapist was less mandated by geography, had stayed for a couple of weeks. During those weeks, he and I had regressed to the college students we’d once been, the ones who’d shared a one-bedroom on South Johnson Street: we slept in the same bed, cuddling; played Smash Bros. every night; and smoked some cheap weed we bought off a stranger at the corner of Ocean and Parkside Avenue. When the time came for Dorian to leave, he had kissed me on the lips—his mouth closing on mine, sucking a bit, the way only Dorian kissed—and said, Come visit soon, yes? What he’d meant to say is, I miss how it used to be, how accommodatingly life used to coil itself around us, but I didn’t correct him, didn’t dare to. I said, Of course, Babe, we’ll meet for your birthday, for sure. Thirty, he said. Hot damn, can you believe it? I told him that, oddly, I could. And now here we were. Here I was. Back in the Midwestern winter, a mild one at that. November 22. Almost Thanksgiving. Dorian’s thirtieth. The last one of us to cross this threshold.
A few blocks away from the bars—between a deli and a tattoo parlor—stood a casual metallic door, home to this infamous bathhouse. Dorian, Karl, Travis, and I paid for a locker each, while Aviraj paid for a private room, an extravagance no one had wanted or needed to afford on our previous trips to this place. The man behind the booth took away our phones and wallets, then gave us each a towel and a tight wristband with a key. He said, Alright, nothing but these two items past the locker room area, understood? And lube and condoms, of course. I asked about cigarettes, and he said, Ah, almost forgot. Yes, and cigarettes—but you can only smoke on the terrace.
Once we were admitted past the curtains, generic EDM greeted us, blasting from every corner; and so a greeting from that pervasive, noxious scent. It floated like a cloud from an indoor swimming pool, infused with pee and chlorine. From every wall, a TV hung, the old kind, black and bulky and with a few dead spots across the screen; on these TVs: men, men, men: men with ink, men with piercings, men with scars, men with beards and hairy chests and hairless navels and hairless balls with a bit of a bush on top; brown, beige, purple, pink holes licked by meaty tongues: licked, fingered, fucked, double fucked, fisted; leather and rubber and ropes and duct tape and costumes: anal beads and plugs and gags and dildos and double-sided dildos and strap-ons and bigger dildos and bigger fucking monster dildos: threeways and fourways and gangbangs and orgies and spit roasts: feet licking, cock teasing, balls slapping, pee drinking, skull fucking: most of it, almost all of it, bareback, skin into skin: Ah, the famous intimacy of our culture!
The bathhouse was divided into three floors and a terrace; the ground floor had the locker room area, the sauna, the showers, and a pool-sized Jacuzzi, yet it was on the second and third floors where most of the action took place. Regardless, there was an encouraging lack of formality in the bathhouse, for you could do anything, anywhere, with anyone… or anyone who appeared to want it, that is. Aviraj waited as Dorian, Travis, Karl, and I changed out of our clothes, wrapping the towels around our waists. On-screen was a particularly cheesy scene from a nineties flick, where a husky man was railing a twink against an office desk. The twink moaned, No, Daddy, not so hard, be nice to me, Daddy, I promise I’ll be good, now, Daddy, ahh, Daddy! Karl pointed out how strange it was that this twink was for sure somewhere in Cleveland or Wyoming now, all old and gray. Used to be such a power bottom, Travis said, and now the fag’s prolly married, blowing fifty candles on his cakes. Then Dorian: No one stays a twink forever, Boo, not even your fine ass. He reached out, pinching it, and we laughed.
As we went upstairs, we walked by a group of men who were hijacking the stairway; Dorian and Karl rushed past them, while Aviraj, Travis, and I lingered to see how the bottom mastered the three dicks with such ability. One with his bobbing head, eyes watery; one with his hand; and the last one from behind. That’s gonna be you in a minute, I whispered into Aviraj’s ear, and he nodded with embellished giddiness. It’s gonna be good, I said. Gonna be fine. I know, I know, he said, allowing a quiver of nerves to strike his voice.
Travis and Karl got distracted along the way, so Dorian, Aviraj, and I slid through the long-mirrored upstairs hallways, neon lights stroking our skins. Two-oh-eight, two-oh-eight, Aviraj kept murmuring, two-oh-eight, two-oh- eight, two-oh-eight… Bah! Home for the night. As Aviraj opened the door, Dorian took hold of my arm, bouncing: Oh-em-gee, Boo, he’s gonna do it! He’s gonna do it! Dorian used that same slow, high-pitched tone he had always used when calling for me, be it with annoyance or excitement. Whenever I heard that tone, I could close my eyes and go years back, picture us at the library at 3 a.m., me writing on my computer, him pulling my arm, begging me to stop because he was ready to go home; Boo, Boo!; close my eyes and picture us at Boystown, or outside of Iowa City’s Studio 13, twenty years old, me with my cigarette, him pulling my arm because he’d spotted one of his ex-hookups; close my eyes and picture us in our bed, the arm-pulling now because I’d beaten him at Smash Bros. or because he’d given me some of his boyfriend’s pot brownies and I’d said it was the worst shit ever. For the longest time, everyone who met us thought we were dating—Dorian and I—and many times we’d had to explain to people that we were really, really, really not. And it was true—we were not in love, nor had we ever been, but I did love him as something more than just a friend, and for the two years we’d lived on South Johnson Street we’d slept in the same bed every night, bathed together, fed each other, and had even fucked more than a couple of dozen times—which often left us unfulfilled, not only because we both preferred to top, but because there seemed to be an uncanny element in our relationship that even the language of sex couldn’t help us codify.
The last person whom I’d tried to explain this to was L, one of my best friends from New York. L had met Dorian briefly when he’d visited for my gallbladder surgery and, like everyone, had fallen in love with his unyielding kindness; when he left, she had asked, You two are so cute—were you really never anything? And this word—anything—astounded me, for of course we were something, anything—yet what name did it carry? In vagueness, things eluded names. I confirmed to her that we hadn’t dated, which really was her question. It’s not that it wasn’t explored, I said, or consummated, whichever way you want to word it, because we did fuck, and it was alright. I mean I’ve tasted his spit, his cum, and the whole sex thing was good enough to know that it wasn’t an issue of attraction. Even so, we weren’t that. Like everyone, L was confused, unbelieving, yet to be fair, looking back it was hard even for me to convince myself it hadn’t been romantic, because the memory of it appeared to be so, after all. But I was certain of this much: it hadn’t been romance—and the memory was only the rind of the experience, the surface: it didn’t dig to the depth of what it had been like. Dorian and I? We had created something different, and it wasn’t friendship (in the sense that he wasn’t the same to me as someone I followed on Twitter, on Instagram, people I’d gone to high school with, or even someone like L or Aviraj or Travis), but it wasn’t romantic either, for I knew him too well to love him in earnest, and what is romance but the allure to that which cannot in all respects converge? We weren’t that. I must insist we weren’t. We converged.
I’ll stay close by, Dorian said as Aviraj took off his pants. That way, if you need anything, I’ll be right here. The room was tiny, with nothing but a bed, a screen, and a puny desk with a bottle of lube and a jar full of generic condoms. I told him I could stay, too, and keep him company. Dorian said it wasn’t necessary. He didn’t want to have sex anyway. Me neither, I said.
You’re not fucking tonight? Aviraj asked.
Of course he is, he just wants to be kind. With this, Dorian turned to me, Come on, Boo, it’s my birthday. I want you to have fun.
This was so like him: helping others, taking care of them.
I will, I said. I am.
We’re fine! Aviraj gave a slight shake of excitement, fear, or trepidation.
You can leave and have fun! Go get dicked down! The two spoke with genuine tones; it was hard to convince them I was being honest, yet if they’d known I was, I suspect they would’ve let me stay. Still, they kept insisting, all in good nature, and after a few minutes I took them up on the forced offer and left.
It was true, though: I hadn’t been planning to have sex. A month earlier I’d found a liquid oozing out of my penis, and, scared of going to the hospital, I’d done nothing for weeks. I was confident it would go away—like most of my problems—with time. Ever since moving to Syracuse, I had been finding myself in situations I had little interest in being in, things that demanded so much of my body, things like inserting tentacle-shaped toys inside strangers, water sports in hotel bathtubs, sex parties where I’d get tied up for hours on end, two failed (and one semi-successful) attempts at double penetration; no wonder I’d ended up with this strange mucus coming out of me. (I’ve always thought it best not to over-examine these encounters or question why they stirred up a kind of pleasure in me; best not to investigate them too closely, for who knows what fetid bones one would find below that yellow flesh? Things so dark and untouched by the mind they had begun to ferment.) It wasn’t until the substance started to leave a large amount of sticky residue smeared across my underwear, forming a white crust on the tip of my penis which hurt to scrape off, even with warm water, and until the scent went from a zesty one to the strong, biting smell of a husk of torn-off skin—a change that came about two weeks after I first noticed the sickness—that I decided to call a doctor. The whole situation would’ve meant nothing to me five, ten years earlier, but now had left me quite shaken, disgusted with my body. I felt like a moldy sack of meat, a deceased thing, a thing devourable by larvae, beetles, roaches, felines: a feast for the tiny devils. Although I’d never had a superstitious personality, I now found myself waiting for a sign of sorts for my return to intercourse, something I assumed would feel like a rush of freshness, a sense of purification. So far, nothing. A sickened body.
The terrace had only two benches: one was wet, and on the other sat an older man with a cigarette stuck to his mouth. He was on the larger side, with a full, hairy belly, his dangling cheeks swollen, his chest flapping as he jerked his arm up and down. Focusing on the TV next to the exit door, he pulled on his penis with a violence fitting a beating. I forced myself not to make eye contact with him; if I did, knowing myself, I would end up on my knees, sucking him until his spunky cum filled my mouth. I lit my cigarette, eyes stuck on the stairs, and leaned against the doorframe. Every other minute, a guy would come up expecting not a terrace but a fourth floor; they would then head back down immediately or, with luck, ask politely, So, this is for smoking only, correct? and leave all the same. I had smoked about half of my pack when I saw a curious head peeking out. He smiled and kept climbing the stairs. He was young, blond, with skin the color of cookie butter; his hair was short and curly, making two suave loops on each side of his forehead. As soon as he stood before me, I realized he was quite tall, with a small gut folding upon itself; his nipples were tiny and pricked and, under these, two purple scars delineated his pecs. A recent transition, I assumed. He had seen me staring at him and had noticed my attraction, I was willing to bet, for he very quickly asked whether I’d ever come to the bathhouse before. It surprised me; not so much the content of the question, but the fact that he was down to chat. I told him I had, and, licking his lips, he said it was his first time. This explains the talking, I thought as I leaned against the railing so as to create some distance. He gave an endearing shake of his torso as if he was wiggling into himself—a charmingly awkward gesture which made me want to embrace him and tell him it was fine, he was safe, that no one would do anything to him. The infamous Chicago wind burst our skins red, but it was a small price to pay in exchange for smoking. So, how old are you? he asked, and I wondered whether there was an age line he would not cross; with this, a wave of pathetic anxiety rushed over me, for I was still getting used to these kinds of thoughts. Before considering it too much, I returned the question, How old are you? He told me he was twenty-three, then—after a look—admitted to twenty-one, which translated to nineteen in my mind. I said the truth, that I was thirty-one, although I was also certain this would translate to thirty-two, thirty-five in his mind; this didn’t bother me much, so long as he didn’t keep adding (thirty-seven, forty, God, please not forty!). Are you married? he asked. With this question came the thunderous realization of my age; my own father had already been married by the time he was thirty-one, with my sister more than well on the way. By this age, he’d left Mexico, had chosen the type of person he wanted to be, and had even written a slim philosophy book which, for a while at least, had garnered him the respect of his peers. No, I don’t really see the point of getting married, I said defensively. Why not? Just cuz, I said. It’s not that I judge someone if that’s what they want—if that’s what you want, for example, it’s not like I judge you—but I’ve never understood the obsession with marriage.
Still, he must have understood I would judge; in fact the very utterance of this sentiment—I realized as soon as it was out of my mouth—reinforced this implicit idea that, if anyone could judge anyone here, if anyone had a say, it was me: for the rest of our encounter, I would be the gatekeeper of ideas, of rules, of what was of good taste and pleasurable, for no reason other than the fact that I had a decade over him, a decade I was still getting accustomed to. The white paint on the railing was peeling, and I took a small scab and pulled at it, as if tearing skin off my fingers. (In my opinion, youth had such built-in power—a power that came with the sheer existence of a beautiful body of twenty, twenty-two years of age—that nature had found balance through features such as wisdom and cunning and maturity; features you could only hope to gain once you’d been around and had left beauty well in the past. That’s why, to my mind, there was nothing more dangerous in this world than those precocious souls who stumbled upon wisdom while still beautiful. As I looked at this kid, however, this twink (his lips red at the corners from too much licking, his timid smile, his unfocused eyes, the way his voice went downward anytime he wanted to impress) I realized he did not belong to this group of enlightened youth… and, in an odd way, this realization, too, felt like a breach, an abuse of experience.) I smiled and said, I do love a good wedding, though. Oh, nothing like a good wedding, he agreed.
The man behind us started to moan as this twink got to asking about where I was from, what I was doing in Chicago, how I liked living on the East Coast; barely giving me enough time to answer before he went off to the next inquiry. He went from subject to subject, almost unwilling to linger in any one spot for too long. I wondered if this was the way he lived his life, if this was the way he made love, or if this flakiness came from the apprehension of being in such a space. Was he still making up his mind about me? I considered leaving, or getting it over with and kissing him, but he then asked about my work, about what my novel was about, and this I found an irresistible subject: It’s about two guys in a small Mexican town, I said. The protagonist is half Mexican, yet it’s his first time living in the country. Ah, ah, nice, he replied. It deals with a discovery of queerness, I continued, identity formation, all that stuff; how it’s all a kind of performance, orientation, nationality, families, but how this doesn’t mean it’s not real. The twink let out a sound between a groan and a sigh. (I could see I was losing him, but I couldn’t stop.) I’m also interested in what dislocation can do to a person. Is it autobiographical? he asked, cutting in. No, not really, I said. Sounds autobiographical, he said. What do you mean? I don’t know, it just sounds like a personal story. (This was something I’d been hearing much of lately, from friends, from professors, from potential agents—especially the white or very young ones. A personal story; your novel sounds like a personal story. I wasn’t sure if it was something to be offended by, yet it did bother me.) No, I said, though it actually was about my childhood. I mean I am Mexican and queer, but it’s not about me. He asked why not make it about me. If I were a writer, he said, I’d feel the responsibility to tell stories about trans folks. You’re right, I guess, I said. In a way, you’re right, but this doesn’t mean the story has to be your story. He nodded and didn’t reply, which I appreciated, for I didn’t want to keep going anymore.
We stood quietly for a while, looking at the screen, me with my cigarette, him with his shivers. It was one of those porn videos where a woman offers a guy some money in exchange for having sex with him in a blindfold. Then, halfway through, the girl swaps with another man without the straight guy knowing; eventually, the straight guy finds out he’s having sex with a man, and acts all angry, indignant, until they offer him some cash, and it’s then he accepts he’d been liking it, regardless of who the hole had belonged to. Dorian and I once tried to watch one of these porn videos together and, to my surprise, he’d asked me to change it as soon as the swapping occurred. He explained he’d always hated this kind of porn; he could not understand, he commented, how rape turned people on. His statement had stunned me, for I had never looked at these videos as “Rape Porn.” For that, you had countless recordings of guys tied up and crying and yelling and all sorts of dramatic acting. There was an obvious issue of consent in this genre (I wasn’t denying that), but I had never thought that rape was the part that turned people on. What was hot here was the tricking and conquering of that ever-evasive fixture in the gay bestiary: the heterosexual jock. I asked this twink what he thought, and he responded that he hadn’t even thought about it like that. I mean, it’s not the rapiest type of porn out there, for sure, he said. Though, thinking about it, yes. It is kinda rapey. But they’re actors, I contorted with mild peevishness. He knows he’s fucking a guy. Like, he’s being paid to fuck a guy. The twink chuckled. No, I know you’re right, like I know it, but it still feels icky. Kids nowadays watch porn since they’re ten, eleven. I watched my first porn video before I had pubes. I worry that these things lead places. There are consequences. You are so young, I thought, but, You could be right, I said.
He shivered, and a part of me wanted to embrace him, if only for the weather. A couple of men walked up the stairs, gave a quick glimpse at the terrace, and, disappointed at the lack of options, headed back down. I lit another cigarette, and wondered why this twink was staying—did he really want to talk? Just chit-chat? What was he after? What was he getting? As I lit another cigarette, the twink mocked, You shouldn’t smoke so much, and poked me with his elbow. It was this gesture that told me he was not serious, not as serious as I’d mentally accused him of being; it told me that he was not one of those people who went around the world suggesting to others that they shouldn’t smoke, or that they shouldn’t watch rapey porn. I replied with, Then why are you up here, Babe? Smokers only. Licking his lips, he said, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out on any cute guys. It was this sharp exuberance in him that I found enchanting and unusual; unusual, at least, in the men I was commonly with, who were often older, more experienced, more appreciative of what I had to offer, and not so into playing the role of “Good Lover.” And did you? I asked. Did you miss any cute guys? Not really, he teased. Ah, you’re killing me, I said. I should probably go back down, he said, don’t you think? Look for someone to fuck me good? There was a shift in the way he said this—I had no clue what had originated this shift, but it was evident, a shift that told me he wanted the performance to begin. Why? I wanted to ask. Did he fear if it wasn’t now, with me, he wouldn’t get to fucking anyone else later? Nah, you shouldn’t go back down, I said, surprised at how ready I was to fuck him. Not out of excitement, precisely, but not boredom, either, or curiosity. What, then? I could not say. He asked, No? No, I said. Stay for a while. Better I should leave, he whined. I don’t think you like me that much. No, come here; I like you fine. I took a drag from my cigarette, smirking for him, and he reached toward my navel, caressed it. Don’t go back down there, I ordered. He drew me out from the towel and pushed my erection down, like a lever. You’re really hard, he said. You know, I can still get hard, (I winked). I’m not that old. He gave it another push, and as I felt it bounce, I rushed my mouth toward his.
Dropping my cigarette, I ran my hand across his tummy, his ribs, his scars. How cold his skin was, how delicate. He tasted of beer and Midwestern corn. We kissed and I placed my index finger between our lips, licking it like a cock, slobbering on it, then I reached down and drove it across his hole, getting it slick. He pushed me against the wooden rail and moaned, begging me to fuck him, fuck him—Fuck me with your big Mexican cock. Have you ever taken a Mexican cock before? I asked. He said I’d be his first one. Oh yeah? Yes. You should be at home, you know that? You should be at home, in bed with your parents, you little tease. Ay, no, Papi, will you tell on me? Will you be telling on me? I won’t need to: it’s gonna be obvious once you come back all filled with my cum. Regardless of our words, the tone we used was rather ambivalent, at once ironic and meant to titillate, so it didn’t do either mood full justice. I lowered myself to lick his hole, his cheeks—sucking on them from behind. His skin tasted of soap. The image of him cleaning himself before coming made me feel a tenderness toward him. Ahh, ahhh, AHH—so grew his exaggerated panting, like the wails of a lost kid in the ocean, or the moans of some heterosexual man who’s just been paid thousands to fuck another man. You little slut, I called him as I stood back up. Are you gonna take it? No, I can’t take it, please no, he said, rubbing himself against me. Are you gonna use my hole, Papi? Don’t call me that. Does it get you mad, Papi? Will you be punishing me? Papi? Fuck you, you little slut, open your mouth. He opened it and I sprayed his face with a blast of thick spit. The man behind us kept saying, That’s fucking hot, fucking take it, fucking hot, and I couldn’t tell if he meant us or the men on the screen. I’m a hole, Papi, he moaned. Say that again, I heard myself order. Say that again! Ahh, ahhh—a hole to be used. I should put more fingers inside you, then, to fill you up. He asked how many, and I said, As many as I want. Don’t ask, then, and just do it. He leaned against the rail, raising his waist as two fingers went in, three, four; then, as soon as I was about to put in the fifth, I spat on my cock. The look he gave as I went inside him was one of such overblown thrill, such embellished daze, that it was hard to believe it was real, and hard, as well, to tell whether he was truly aroused or merely jaded.
(I found myself aware, all of a sudden, of how little I was taking pleasure in the act, and aware of how, more often than not, sex felt good only in the rearview—a thing to discuss with friends or brag about with other queers. Yet there surely must’ve been a form of enjoyment, too, even if it wasn’t exactly erotic pleasure, for I was hard—incredibly hard—and to bring this twink to such submission, having him say things like Please don’t hurt me, and Don’t make me drink your cum, and No, no, Papi, not another finger (how horrible it was to accept: so much of sex had turned into saying the opposite of what you meant) did ignite something in me. It was hard to know what was being ignited exactly, where the source of burning was, but it was undeniable that I did want to use him, humiliate him. I wanted to sustain the act, extend it, swell it, survive it, mythicize it, even if it was only that—an act—and neither of us was having the time we were pretending to have. There followed, soon, a secondary fear, a fear that this twink, and all the other men, had faked it as I had, that they’d had a moment during sex—or several moments—where their mind was not on the act but on the fact that they were performing said act. This is sex, then; this is it. And, no, it’s not that good. It’s really not. And it’s such a hassle, such an annoyance, to have to pretend it is. But it also is this good. The abyss of sex. That’s why we are here. For the hope of it. A glance at it. A lick of it. Not sex as an object but sex as an ecology or system. Even proximity to it felt thrilling. But this, right now, this did not fulfill “Sex,” did not fulfill the idea nor the act. And I feared not only that all of this was true, for I already suspected as much, but feared having the men, this twink, break the act—yes, a massive fear of this—for them, this twink, to break the act mid-scene, turn to me and say, not with anger or accusatorily but as a fact: For all your talk and writing about sex, how can you make it this bad?)
After the twink and I were done—and it eventually was done, coming to a close—in a cool voice, he said, See you around. I felt eaten up hearing this. He was in a rush to get away from me, the young ones often were, and this embarrassed me, made me feel like I’d taken advantage of his momentary inclinations. That was the thing about fetishes: unlike other types of desires, fetishes could peek at the oddest moments, then hide away, bemused, and not care one bit about how they left you feeling. I had seen this twink behave as a person he was not yet well acquainted with, after all, a person that probably scared him still, and this was why he needed to leave: run: block me: have a great rest of your night. His shoulder blades shivered as he walked down the stairs. I smoked two cigarettes and waited for enough time to pass between the sex and the twink leaving. I would grant him this, and I would not feel too shitty about myself, for, at the end of the day, I knew I was not a bucket of flesh to be consumed; he had wanted it, he had, if only for a moment, and he was not drunk (or not all that drunk), and not high, for he hadn’t tasted tangy like that, and he was clean, and he was surely mature enough—surely. Yes, he’d been fine, and I’d given him enough chances to drop me and leave if that’s what he’d wanted, so I resolved to abandon the thought.
When I headed downstairs, I found Dorian cross-legged on the bed, rocking Aviraj like a child, telling him it was all good, Boo, it’s all good. It was almost comical, Aviraj’s sizable hairy body being held by Dorian’s delicate sand-colored hands. Dorian turned to me and shook his head as if telling me things were, in fact, not all good. In his arms, Aviraj’s body jerked with tremors and tears. From what we gathered afterward, the sex had been going great until Aviraj had felt the urge to pray. Like literally halfway through, you wanted to pray? Travis asked. We were back in our hotel bedroom, the one Dorian and I were sharing. It was four in the morning, and at last Aviraj had calmed down. The past couple of hours had been a daze of sobs and canceled Ubers and water bottles and coffee-making and snot and confusion. Aviraj said, And I couldn’t shake it off, this darn voice saying, pray, pray, pray, repent, repent, repent, pray, pray, pray, and I tried to keep going, because I mean, fuck, I was already doing it, the deed was done, but I couldn’t get into it anymore, and I couldn’t stop the guy, I mean, obviously, what was I gonna say, Hey, can we take a sec? I need to pray for a sec; then you can keep drilling me—is that a-okay? I placed my hand on his back. Quietly, Dorian asked, Do you feel like he… maybe? Aviraj covered his eyes and shook his head. Jesus Christ, don’t say that. I wasn’t taken advantage of (these words he murmured); it was only—um, you won’t get it, because you guys don’t believe in any god, but it’s not like it’s weird for me to get those urges. I just never expected that I… that they’d come in the middle of… He nodded and stood up. I’m sorry, I need to take a bath, he said. Please, y’all, go to bed. I feel like I need to clean myself.
Are you sure? we asked.
A few minutes passed, Travis and Karl headed to their room, and Dorian and I threw ourselves on the bed. Technically, Aviraj had his own room, but I already knew the three of us would be sharing the bed tonight.
Dorian rested on my chest, and I could feel his mind working. I caressed his arm with my nails. His velvety scent of sweet sweat and cologne enveloped us.
I feel so bad for him, he said.
I know, me too, I said. Hmm, do you think he’ll be like this tomorrow? It’s his last day here, it would be a waste if he spent it like this.
Dorian turned up to me, rolling his eyes. We both laughed, for of course he would. This was Aviraj we were talking about. He’d once stopped speaking to Travis for over a month because, after a long night at Studio 13, Travis had left two hickeys on each side of Aviraj’s neck as a joke.
I’ll never understand how sex can be such a big deal for some people, I said, half-seriously.
I think it’s a big deal for most people, Dorian said, seesawing through me.
Just in different ways, he added.
Yeah, I suppose so, I said. Weird thing is that he’s so cool with it, you know?
Like, in general, with others’ sex lives, or how he jokes about it all the time. People can joke about the things they can’t deal with in seriousness, he said. And because of those jokes, maybe, we’ve made Aviraj think that that’s what we’re expecting of him. I suppose we could’ve been better friends in that way. Dorian could sometimes say things like these, so true and simple, which would knock me off my feet. I gave him a small squeeze and he looked up. I could tell he had already started the blaming game.
It makes sense, I said. But it’s also part of life, making these kinds of decisions. You’re only his friend, at the end of the day, not his therapist.
So, he asked, shrugging me off, did you end up doing anything tonight?
Dorian, c’mon. We can talk about it.
I’m tired, he said, pressing into me. Tell me about your night.
I studied him, trying to read him like he would one of his patients. He looked worried, he looked sad, he looked drained, but I also knew he did not want to get into it, so I decided to let it go.
Well, I hooked up with a guy up on the terrace, I said.
Ah, the terrace! That’s why you stink. You really should stop smoking, Boo. I nodded, chuckling. He was right.
We stayed silent for a long while, listening to the shower run. I said, You know what’s funny? I was thinking about it after hooking up with this twink, and I know it’s gonna sound bad, and kind of weird, but I was thinking how t
here can be no morality in sex. Or in desire, I mean. It can’t be categorized like that: moral-slash-immoral.
I swear you always get into the weirdest conversations at the bathhouse, he mocked.
I chuckled. The thing is, I was watching one of those porn videos where a girl pays a guy to fuck her blindfolded, usually in a car, then—
The ones where the straight guy gets tricked into fucking a dude?
Uh-huh. I was thinking about how sex is like those porn videos. I know they’re actors, but as a thought experiment, if it were to happen. Even if immoral, it was pleasurable for the straight guy, no? If they had asked him before he found out, he would’ve said he loved it. I meant something like this. It’s how pleasure works. If you abstract it from the consequences, of course. The consequences can be immoral; I’m not talking about it like that, I’m talking about the nature of it. Like, for example, I’ll never get how people say they don’t enjoy Call Me by Your Name when they find out André Aciman is straight. You can feel cheated, but the enjoyment is still the same, or it should be; if you change your mind, then you didn’t enjoy the book for the right reasons. If you thought it was authentic before, why isn’t it authentic now?
Hmm, well, hmm, Dorian began, chewing on his thin, cavernous cheek. He looked straight into my eyes for a moment, then up at the white ceiling. I kissed his forehead, and with the slight scent of shampoo and sweaty bodies came the clean, artificial smell of hotel bedsheets. Talking as someone who has to deal with these kinds of cases almost every day, he said, let me tell you: most people can’t divide things so neatly. And when it’s a matter of the actual world, not hypotheticals, it doesn’t cut it to say, Well, you enjoyed it in theory.
No, of course not, I know. I didn’t mean it like that, I said. What I mean is that that stuff’s almost kind of something beyond sex. It’s about the psychosocial part of us, not the sexual part.
Ha! Psychosocial? Boo, it’s five in the morning.
Dorian yawned, stretched his legs. I could sense he wanted to sit up. I wanted to keep him close, but not by force, so I let my hand fall from his arm to the sheet, giving him way.
I’m sorry, I was just thinking, I said. I chuckled, slightly embarrassed.
Honestly, I think we should talk about something else. Given the night.
Dorian turned his face away from mine and rolled on his back. My arm was still under his neck, which pressed it down, and asleep.
I was confused, and a bit ashamed of having spoken. I realized how the ideas I thought I was saying were not the ideas I was saying; or they were not, at least, how they were being received.
I’m sorry, I said. I think I didn’t explain it correctly. Dorian shrugged and said he was not upset. I’m sorry, I repeated. I didn’t mean it about Aviraj. I shouldn’t have said it tonight.
It’s okay, I got what you meant, he said. Let’s just change the subject.
For a moment, I thought we would be going to sleep, but after a minute he turned back to me, placed his hand atop mine, and pulled it to his stomach. He behaved under such a different mentality when turned on. It
was at once endearing and fascinating. It is still my birthday, he said, making me laugh, and I didn’t get to fuck anyone. Dorian had a weighty, windy voice, with a quick wit to keep anybody clean of grime. And I liked this, being swept clean of grime.
Technically, it’s not your birthday anymore, I said. I placed my finger on his belly button and began tracing his name. Not his American name, Dorian, but his real one, the one his Vietnamese parents had given him: Hyunh, Hyunh, Hyunh. It was soft, his skin.
Talking about André Aciman, he said, placing his hand atop mine, then running his finger up my forearm. Each place he touched felt polished.
What? I asked.
You’re spelling my name.
How’d you guess?
He shrugged. I suppose I know you very well.
A lull of silence followed. I switched from tracing his name to my name, again and again. As he leaned in to kiss me, he whispered into my mouth, That’s your name you’re spelling now. Then he said it—spoke my name.
With this, I repeated the same command I’d said to the twink, not two hours earlier: Say it again. Yet this time, unlike before, giving the command felt exciting, sincere.
Say what again? Dorian asked, yet it took us but a second to converge. He took a breath and said it: Sebastian.
Sebastian Romero lives in Mexico. He is currently working as a teacher and translator. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Common and No Tokens, amongst other journals.