Category Archives: Gay

Is It Possible to Prove You’re Not a Bigot?

As a gay person it’s probably illegal for me to say this this week, but poor Niall Ferguson.

A few weeks ago, in a Q&A after a talk at the University of California, Ferguson pivoted off of John Maynard Keynes’ famous line ‘in the long run we are all dead’ to imply that this was double-true for Keynes, since he was gay and didn’t have any kids. So he obviously doesn’t care about future generations! Get it?

This is a bad observation and a bad joke (Keynes himself might have marveled at the sheer productivity of offending the childless, the gay and the Keynesians all in one sentence), and Ferguson issued an apology admitting so:

My colleagues, students, and friends – straight and gay – have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.

Case closed, right? Ferguson didn’t hide behind ‘I’m sorry for any offense I might have caused’, or any of the other tongue-twisters politicians issue when they get caught publicly saying stuff they privately believe. Ferguson admitted that it was a stupid comment, took responsibility, we’re moving on, right?

Not so fast, replied the internet. It turns out that in 1995, Ferguson published a paper where he argued that Keynes didn’t criticize German economic policy as hard as he could have because he was attracted to the German finance minister. And one of Ferguson’s books says WWI made Keynes unhappy because all the cute boys in London ran off to fight in it. Your move, Ferguson.

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry.

That’s Ferguson in the Harvard Crimson, defending his un-bigotry.

Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.

The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?

It’s easy to laugh at Ferguson’s naiveté. Did he really expect the left-wing offendosphere to go ‘Wait! Ferguson has gay friends? Let’s call this off!’?

But Ferguson’s gaffe, and his apology, pose a real question that I don’t think we left-wingers take seriously enough: What is an acceptable defense for a charge of bigotry?

We all roll our eyes at the ‘but I’ve got plenty of gay friends!’ defense, which sounds patronising and tokeney, and often is. We scroll through Ferguson’s 30-year career, we find two instances of problematic analysis, we tsk and pull out our church fans. What a monster!

But what if we had found some articles Ferguson wrote in his youth where he argued for gay marriage before others did? What if we found an essay he wrote to his first gay friend, expressing empathy and solidarity? What if we found out that he had a gay sister, or parent? Would any of these things be enough?

I’m not trying to defend Ferguson. I’ve read three of his books, one of which was boring and two of which were wrong, and I thought his Newsweek cover story last year deserved the dismantling it got.

But this week we haven’t been debating whether Ferguson’s books suck, or whether his comment was homophobic. We’ve been debating whether he is homophobic, something we have no way of knowing.

Ferguson’s body of work suggests that he has perhaps read too much into Keynes’s homosexuality, that he wants to paint a few too many of Keynes’ actions with that brush. That’s a legitimate critique of his work, and Ferguson could refute that charge with more evidence that Keynes’ homosexuality affected his beliefs on the post-WWI German economy.

But whether his public comments, his writing from 18 years ago, his friendship with Andrew Sullivan, evince that he is or is not a homophobe, that’s something neither he nor we can prove.

Ferguson’s statement that Keynes’s homosexuality made him incapable of caring about future generations was stupid and homophobic. He took a narrow fact and applied it to a broad range of Keynes’ actions. I can’t help but feel that when we use isolated comments to peer into the feelings and intentions of public figures, we’re doing the same thing.

5 Comments

Filed under America, Gay, Journalism, Serious

Things I Thought While Hanging Out at a Fancy Spa

Yesterday I spent all day at a fancy spa. I’ve never done this before (a birthday was involved), so the day ended up being a kind of experiment to see if I’m the kind of person who might in the future.

Here are my findings:

  • Spas, as a business model, seem to be primarily about positioning. The spa we went to had a bunch of hot tubs, some saunas, a ‘steam bath’ (I felt like broccoli) and a big pool so salty you float . It was all very pleasant, but at least three of those things are readily available at municipal pools all over Berlin. A spa day costs $30, entrance to a swimming pool costs around $4. We paid, essentially, to say we went to a spa rather than a swimming pool. 
  • Since this is Germany, the nakedness was mandatory and ubiquitous. The norm at spas seems to be: If you’re sitting or otherwise stationary, you must be naked. If you’re in motion, you must be wrapped in a towel. I don’t care to speculate as to why this is the case.
  • After living in Northern Europe for eight years, my relationship with nudity has gone through phases. When I first moved to Denmark, I was like ‘I could never go to a sauna oh my god me naked is horrifying.’ Then I did, then I did again and again and again (you get invited to saunas a lot when you live in Denmark) and I got used to it and started to sort of like it. That freedom nudists are always talking about is a real, if fleeting, thing. Then that wore off, and now I’m just indifferent. Naked, not naked, whatever. 
  • I am aware of the irony that my comfortableness being naked is, as I get older, negatively correlated with how good I look being so. 
  • The only thing I actually like about nakedness-mandatory situations at this point is looking at other people. Maybe I’m not supposed to like admit that or whatever, but the human body is totally fascinating. The diversity of proportions alone is worth a coffee table book, or at least a Tumblr.
  • The only that really surprised me about the bodies yesterday was how much plastic surgery was on display. Lots of inflated lips, tucked tummies, stationary boobs. I may be the first naked gay man to say to another naked gay man ‘oh my god: these tits’ in a semi-public setting.
  • And another thing: It’s genuinely meaningful that no matter where you go in Berlin, you’re likely to see gay canoodling. Yesterday the big salty pool was primarily peopled with couples holding each other and floating around like slow-motion bumper cars. Some of the couples were straight, some were lesbians, some were gay dudes. No one seemed to notice or care.
  • The other reason the gayness stood out for me is that it was really the only thing you can tell about naked people. Without clothes to tell you someone’s social class or category—goth, chav, rich prick, hipster, etc.—you really don’t have anything to go on. I was alarmed at how disconcerting I found this, and at the relief I felt when I realized I could use eyewear, flip-flops and reading material to categorize people. Phew.
  • It’s sort of funny how spas have this quasi-therapeutic framing. You often hear people (OK, northern Europeans) talk about how sitting in the sauna all day ‘pushes out toxins’ and is ‘cleansing’, as if those concepts exist and have meaning. 
  • Part of the package yesterday was a massage, and my masseuse, thumb-deep in my kidneys, kept saying things like ‘oh you have so much tension here’. When I told her I was a runner, she told me she’d pay special attention to my legs to ‘loosen them up’. Spending a Sunday in the sauna is a super-pleasant, and massages are objectively the best thing ever, but I think the health benefits are less based in scientific evidence and more based in the human need to think that anything weird and slightly taxing must have a purpose beyond itself.
  • I don’t know if this is related to the previous point, but after six hours I was exhausted. Exhausted like I had just run up a hill, rather than sat in various configurations of warm water underneath one. And so ravenous!  

Conclusion: Hella fun, hella doing this again. Just next time, I’m bringing higher-class flip-flops.

1 Comment

Filed under Berlin, Gay, Germany, Personal

Getting Circumcised at 22

Josh:
oh, so something significant happened today

Mike:
yaaa?

Josh:
but it’s happened, so you need to contain your judgement
i got circumcised

Mike:
youre kidding

Josh:
it’s always bothered me. even when i was in foreskin-rich denmark
made me self-conscious, and made it hard for me to have sex

Mike:
like, logistically or aesthetically?

Josh:
logistically
i had like a lot of foreskin. enough to make a condom like work its way off 

Mike:
but don’t they say getting circumcised reduces feeling?
or something?

Josh:
yeah. they do, and I expect that
but i mean, my inability to get off was not because there wasn’t enough sensation
it was just because the really sensitive tissue was getting covered up

Mike:
ahhh
what did the docs say about pros n cons?

Josh:
i mean, nothing really. he told me about the surgical risks
rare but horrifying
gangrene, accidental amputation of penis, etc
and it’ll be swollen for a while
it wasn’t that painful tho. like, a lot of fucking needles
but i didn’t feel a thing from the actual cutting

Mike:
You cant have sex for awhile I expect

Josh:
no, not for a month or so

Mike:
what do people say who’ve had the procedure?
like online n stuff

Josh:
ppl seem generally satisfied if they wanted it
less so if it was like, an emergency

Mike:
so it’s a good thing!
will your boyfriend notice any difference?

Josh:
I mean, yeah i should think so
he was anti at first
thought if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it
but he realized it was important to me

Mike:
it sounds like it was objectively broke

Josh:
yeah i guess just not broke like, i didn’t have phimosis
i am concerned i am gonna get super hormonal or something
from not having sex for so long tho

Mike:
can you fandangle yourself in the meantime?
I guess not, right

Josh:
not for at least 2 weeks, maybe longer

Mike:
I wonder if you’ll be like WAY productive
Like, write a novel and learn French and do a million pushups because sex isn’t an option

Josh:
yeah i locked off all my porn
i need to wait till the bandage is off at least
i have to keep that on for 10 days

Mike:
will there be scars?

Josh:
yeah it’s hella wrapped up right now
there may be some scarring, but this dude is the fucking best
which is why it costs $2500 out of pocket

Mike:
woah

Josh:
and i had to travel
but i feel like I don’t want to fuck around with this
this is my dick, i want the best

Mike:
hella prudent, son

Josh:
yeah i could have had it done locally for like $600
but seriously some of those adult circumcisions look REALLY bad
like railroad track scars
uneven skin, etc

Mike:
do you get to choose like how much skin they take off?

Josh:
yeah, i showed my like desired outcome
that was the other big deal about going to a specialist
if you go to a local urologist, they just have the way they do it
and you don’t really get a say
so yeah, i have confidence in this place

Mike:
is it a circumcision-only clinic?

Josh:
no, but they do a lot. a couple hundred a year
urologist. does the usual urology stuff too
vasectomy, prostate stuff
all the male employees except for the doctor were gay
and the one who was like prepping me
was using this iodine stuff that’s like orange?
and he’s like, “this’ll have some dye to it, sorta orange, it’ll match your pretty lil hair”

Mike:
super appropriate

Josh:
i know
but he actually put me at ease
even tho he was kinda hitting on me
like he talked about his boyfriend
and asked how mine felt, etc

Mike:
ok that’s nice
he’s one of Our People

Josh:
he did make the whole thing a lot easier
if inappropriate
he also let me take a pic
of the foreskin after the procedure
and offered to put it on a “to-go” container
i declined

Mike:
ew ew ew ew ew ew
I see that you have stopped typing
You had better not be uploading that photo right now
seriously
DO NOT send me it now or ever

Josh:
it’s really not that gross

Mike:
again: DO NOT upload the photo of the foreskin
I need to die never having seen that

Josh:
it kind of looks like a thin piece of seitan

Mike:
nope, I’ll trust you, never wanna see it

Josh:
but i wanted like some record of it, you know?
not preserved in a jar
but something
that thing served me for 22 years

4 Comments

Filed under America, Funny, Gay, Personal

An Open Letter to the Girl I Pretended To Have a Crush On in Eighth Grade

Dear Tracy Dolan,

Every gay teenager has a different strategy for surviving adolescence. Some join the choir, some write or paint, some play sports, some try to make themselves invisible. And some, like me, make themselves as visible as possible.

You were the first girl I pretended to have a crush on so no one would know I was gay. I didn’t intend for it to happen, for it to be you, for it to be so easy. But it did, and it was.

I want to tell you how it happened. In another world we could have been friends. In this one, you’re the girl who told me, on the last day of school, to go fuck myself. And I’m the guy that deserved it.

She had red cheeks, a cheerleader’s skirt and a big triangle smile. Her arms and legs were spread out like she was making a letter in the air, though she wasn’t moving. She had three spindly fingers on each hand, no toes, no shoes and a weak, crooked neck.

‘What are you drawing?’ Trevor Schmidt said from behind me. I had my notebook open to the inside cover. I had given her a sun-blonde ponytail, and was drawing wavy yellow lines around it.

We were sitting in staggered rows, in those cagelike middle school desks. Trevor often made comments like this, what are you writing, what page are you on, etc., because this arrangement gave him a perfect diagonal view of my desk and because he was an asshole.

We were three years into middle school, two months into our eighth grade year, and 30 seconds until Mr. Farina started his lecture.

‘Huh? Nothing,’ I said. My forearm wasn’t big enough to cover up the entire sketch, so I moved it over her skirt.

Trevor leaned forward over his desk to get a better look. His hair, long and parted down the middle like the boys on ‘Home Improvement’, hung in his face. This was Seattle in 1995, so he was probably wearing a flannel shirt, maybe a No Fear T-shirt underneath, and saggy Kris Kross jeans.

But I had never really noticed what Trevor wore. Mostly what I noticed about him was that sometimes, when standing, he would lift his shirt a little and rub the tuft of hair just above his belt buckle. I found this utterly captivating, and for nearly two years told myself I was jealous of his flat, soccer-toned stomach. Between seventh and eighth grade, I realized that I was jealous of the hand rubbing it.

‘Is that Tracy Dolan?’ he said, craning. I remember a silver cross dangling from his neck, but I may have edited that into this memory, to give him some external totem of the bully he was inside. Two years earlier, he tripped me—actually fucking tripped me!—as I was running to class. I got a bloody nose and became a school-wide comedy event for the rest of the week. I never forgot that, and I’m certain he did instantly.

‘It’s just a doodle,’ I lied. I had spent hours on it, cross-legged, colored pencils in a pile next to me. Not that I was good at drawing, or even enjoyed it, but hunching over your notebook is a trick introverts have passed down through the generations for disappearing when you’re supposed to be socializing.

Mr. Farina held up his spread left hand and started counting the fingers down, his way of telling us he was about to start talking.

‘Why are you drawing Tracy Dolan on your notebook?’ Trevor said.

Who the hell, I thought as Mr. Farina started talking, is Tracy Dolan?

You were from Montana, that much I knew, and you had the blondest hair I had ever seen. You wore it the same every day, long bangs and a ponytail, and from the back it practically threw off sparks.

I don’t actually remember meeting you, sorry about that. As boys had slowly, then suddenly, rearranged themselves under the stage lights of my attention, girls had receded into the backdrop. You were just there one day, and it only occurred to me later that you hadn’t been before.

At the time I only knew your hair and your smile. Well, not the smile really, more its limits. You never smiled to be polite, or to be liked, or because you didn’t know what to say. You smiled when you meant it, and stopped immediately when you didn’t.

But the most amazing thing about you wasn’t your hair or your smile. It was your twin brother Mark, who was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

I noticed him for the first time in history, on the first day of class. The teacher had arranged the desks in a U, facing inward. ‘It’s a Socratic seminar’, she told us as she Sharpied her name on the overhead. I had taken a seat at the front.

At the back, in the bend of the U, was your brother, who I had never seen before. He was as blonde as you, but skinnier, more restless. He reminded me of the poplars we had in our backyard, which lost their leaves in November and rattled in the wind until March. Every time I looked at him he was moving: bouncing his leg, spinning his pencil, flicking his eyes between ceiling tiles. Later I would learn that this this was a symptom of being a born athlete, one of those people who instantly, effortlessly masters every sport they’ve ever tried.

He was sitting as far from the front of the class as possible. This meant that staring at him—which I wanted to do for the entire class period, followed by the rest of my life—meant I had to face away from the teacher.

‘The 20th century,’ Ms. Dalton was telling 29 faces and the back of my head, ‘has seen a growing recognition of freedom and liberty all over the … Yes?’

He had his hand up.

‘What’s your name?’ Ms. Dalton asked.

‘Mark,’ he said. It’s perfect! I thought meaninglessly. ‘What do you mean “liberty”?’

‘That’s an interesting question, Mark,’ Ms. Dalton said. She had written ‘Miss D’ on the overhead. We called her ‘Misty’ all semester, and were seldom corrected. ‘What does it mean to you?’

Mark looked confused. ‘No,’ he said, bouncing his pencil eraser on his desk like a drumroll. ‘Like, what does the actual word mean?’

‘Oh,’ Ms. Dalton said, visibly deflating as a philosophical question was rendered a logistical one. ‘It means freedom, basically.’

‘Thanks!’ Mark said.

‘Yeah, it’s a technical term meaning “fucking retard”,’ my friend Tom murmured next to me.

‘Shhh, he seems nice!’ I said, lost somewhere in that trembling sparkle of blond hair.

I could have taken the sketch off my notebook, but I didn’t. A week later in Mr. Farina’s class, I deliberately left it open to the cover page, and was slightly disappointed that Trevor, tired or possibly hung over under a baseball cap, failed to notice it.

I had known I was gay for at least a year. There were signs before middle school—I’m standing contraposto in every family photo from 1988 onwards—but I didn’t admit it to myself until I read Jean M. Auel’s ‘Plain of Passage’ in the summer between sixth and seventh grade.

I started reading Auel’s ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series when I was 11, and still not ready to admit the blatant fact of my homosexuality. Yes, I had been transfixed by the German men’s swim team in the 1992 Olympics. Yes, I had asked for a Barbie Dream House for Christmas for the last three years—and had locked myself in the bathroom a la Diana Ross upon not receiving it.

But these were just quirks, I told myself. Hadn’t I also purchased the (mostly female) Marvel Comics swimsuit edition? Hadn’t I traced the swimsuited bodies of Jean Grey and Psylocke with a pencil and put them on my wall? No gay kid would do that.

Jondalar first appears in the second book of the ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series. He is Early Man, loincloth and everything, and he takes the heroine, Ayla, as his mate.

‘Plains of Passage’ is book three. I had started it when I was 12. I remember lying on my stomach, reading a scene in which Jondalar cuts wood for the evening fire. His ropy arms lifting the axe, his hips putting power into his swing, the sweat dripping from his brow.

Why do I have a boner? I thought.

And then, in that actual instant, I knew I was gay. I don’t know why that did it, but it did. Whenever I recall it, I hear an actual ding! In the room, like the microwave telling me my Hot Pocket is ready. Ding! You’re gay!

… Now what?

In the week since Trevor noticed the sketch, I had discovered that you and I had two classes together.

‘Tracy Dolan?’ Tom said. ‘She’s the girl who always has her hand up in the back of Mr. Fisher’s class.’

‘Oh her?’ I said.

‘She’s from Montana. Her brother is that halfwit Mark kid in Misty’s class.’

Jondalar! I tried not to noticeably react.

‘Who? … Oh right, the twitchy dude.’ With hair like the sun, was how I wanted to finish the sentence, but I stopped.

‘They’re twins,’ Tom said.

Being openly gay at Nathan Eckstein Middle School in 1995 was not an option. The closest thing we ever had to a homosexual was Gaylord Crestbotham, and he wasn’t even gay, just unfortunately named. He tried to go by William, his middle name, when he came to Eckstein in sixth grade, but barely a month went by before someone saw his real name on a permission slip and started telling everyone.

They bullied him so severe he snapped one day in the lunch line. Someone cut in front of him with a shove and a ‘move, faggot’, and he took his tennis racquet out of his gym bag, wailed on the guy for a few minutes and got expelled.

I had seen this from my lunch table, eating by myself. A month later I asked Ms. Stone, the only teacher I had seen in the lunchroom that day, if she knew what had happened to him. ‘What, to Gaylord?’ she said.

‘William,’ I said. ‘Did he go to a private school or something?’

‘There’s no private school where it’s OK to assault someone for no reason,’ she said.

I was going to need a survival strategy.

‘So what’s the deal with you and Mark Dolan?’ Tom asked me as we played Super Mario World at my house.

It was two Fridays since the sketch incident and, like every Friday, Tom was staying over.

Also like every Friday, we had bought $20 worth of weed from my brother (representing a street value of about $3.50), smoked it out of an apple in my garage and settled 18 inches in front of the TV in my basement until sunrise.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

In the two months since the first day of school, Mark had gone from ‘new kid’ to ‘cool kid’ in record time, and my increasingly elaborate attempts to bump into him were thwarted by a growing throng of admirers.

‘You’re always talking to him after class,’ Tom said. ‘And you keep inviting him to stuff, and he never comes. Why are you so obsessed with him?’

Tom was my only friend. I had spent 6th grade bullied (long hair, sweatpants, headgear), 7th grade invisible (introvert, straight A’s, Steven King novels at lunch) and 8th grade, so far, with Tom.

I met him through our neighborhood soccer team over the summer, and when school started in the fall, I suddenly had a companion for period breaks, lunches and bus rides home. Tom was the difference between staring at my shoes when I walked to class and seeing where I was going.

‘Mark just moved here, I just thought he might want to make some friends,’ I said.

‘New friends? Dude, he’s at Sarah Tanaka’s party in Laurelhurst right now,’ Tom said.

We were taking turns on Super Mario World, and I looked at Tom as he played. He had bony hands and a kind of clench in his face, concentrating on the screen. After we saw ‘Desperado’, he had decided to grow his hair long like Antonio Banderas, but he was only about halfway there.

Nine years later, when I told Tom I was gay and had kept this from him for nearly a decade, he didn’t say anything, he just gave me a hug. He’s still the only straight guy who ever did that.

But then was not now. Then was 1995, and we were 14, and our school was a great big battleship ferrying 1,400 souls to maturity, a journey our principal would later tell us, in our miniature graduation gowns, was ‘the hardest three years of your life.’ Hugs, understanding, save that shit for after the storm. Right now, you need to keep from capsizing.

‘So what’s the deal, dude?’ Tom asked, looking at me now.

‘I’m really into his sister,’ I said.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Ms. Hughes, our math teacher, stood at the front of the class and read out our seating assignments. The class huddled by the door.

‘Table 3,’ she was saying. ‘Frank Robbins and Diane Gregg.’

A week after my conversation with Tom, a girl in biology class saw me looking out the window. ‘Are you looking for Tracy Dolan out there?’ she giggled. The rest of her table leaned in for backstory. Tom had told people, and people had told people.

It was working. I tried to look mortified.

A week after that, Trevor Schmidt slapped my shoulder from behind. ‘I fucking knew it!’

I pretended not to know what he was talking about, knowing that each ‘nuh uh!’ just kindled more accusations.

‘I’m with you, dude,’ Trevor said. ‘You don’t see her because she’s all quiet and shit. But get her out from under all that polarfleece, and she’s got a body like Sharon Stone.’

I had never been more proud of myself. I decided to notice you so no one would notice me, and now I was not only assumed straight, but assumed worthy of conversation. I just had to keep broadcasting straightness loud enough to drown out the gay humming underneath.

Despite having two classes together, I had still barely met you. Ms. Hughes’s class was divided into fifteen tables, each with two students. She had already changed the seating arrangement twice. We couldn’t tell if this was a deliberate strategy on her part—obedience through churn—or if she just couldn’t decide how she’d like us arranged. Each time, you and I had ended up at different ends of the class.

‘Table six,’ she was saying as we waited near the door, ‘Michael Hobbes and Tracy Dolan.’

The class, as one, made a kind of awwwww sound, like the studio audience on ‘Full House’.

Fuck. I looked down at the floor.

‘Quiet!’ Ms. Hughes said as we walked to our desk. Even she probably knew about my fake crush on you by then.

We sat down. Ms. Hughes was assigning the rest of the desks. My cheeks were as red as yours were in the sketches I had made of you. I kept my notebook closed and my hand on top of it.

‘You’re Mike, right?’ you said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I’m a monster.
‘You’re a TA for jazz band, right?’
‘…’
‘Were you at the concert at Roosevelt last week? It was amazing,’ you said.

I looked at you and you were holding out a pack of M&Ms. Was it possible no one had told you?

‘Want some?’
‘Sure, thanks’. I took one.
‘Are you from here?’
‘Yeah, born and raised.’
‘I’m from Montana, we don’t have M&Ms there.’
‘Really?’
‘No, idiot.’ You smiled, and I smiled back.

‘So,’ Mark Dolan said. ‘What are we doing tomorrow?’

It was spring outside, not that we could tell from Mark’s basement. He was holding a ping-pong paddle, swaying back and forth, looking at me, the room, the table, his shoes, the table again. Sometimes between points he balanced the paddle on this finger like a sword. Other times he rubbed his stomach and I could see a little of it. After long rallies, he lifted it to wipe his brow. We played ping-pong a lot.

Pretending to like girls—specific girls—specific girls I had classes with—had been more successful than I had expected. From who’s that guy? I had risen in rank to the guy who has a crush on Tracy Dolan and onward to the guy who has a crush on everyone. 

Talking about girls, it turns out, is a great way to make friends with guys. It’s an opening line, a time-killer, a narrative, a joke factory. Like all great conversation topics, it’s a way of talking about yourself while pretending not to. I started watching mafia movies on weekends for research.

‘Damn, Sara Kreshki looks good cleaned up’ I would tell Tom Monday morning.

‘Her and Teresa Singer are at the top of my list,’ Trevor Schmidt would say as Farina counted down. ‘The filling-out list.’

As the drawings on my notebook went from stick figure to realistic, from Dr. Seuss to Maxim, I found myself with less time alone between classes to draw them.

‘One more game,’ I told Mark.

The social epicenter of Nathan Eckstein Middle School was the foyer just inside the main entrance. During classes, silent, it was a blank crescent of tiles with curved stairways on each side, lit by Seattle’s meager daylight.

Before and after school, though, it was a ballroom, heaving with the din of students forming and unforming in clusters, backpacks in piles, snippets of music playing from unseen speakers.

Before the sketch, before you, I moved through the foyer mornings and afternoons like a virus without a host, following the wall, reaching for the exit. I arrived in an empty classroom, opened my textbook, wrote my name and the date at the top of a sheet of paper, put down my pencil and waited for class to begin. Why did we need 30 minutes between the buses arriving and classes starting?

Time goes by faster as a participant than a spectator, and since the sketch, since you, 30 minutes wasn’t enough. Now my walk to class zigzagged, clustered and unclustered, paused to test and tweak observations I had rehearsed.

Suddenly, one day Mark was there. I was telling Trevor and two other guys about ‘The Last Seduction’, which I had seen over the weekend and had decided would provide me with conversation material through at least Wednesday.

‘That sounds awesome,’ Mark said.

‘I was gonna see it again this weekend,’ I said. ‘We should go.’

I meant me and Mark, but Trevor thought I meant us. ‘Yeah we should,’ he said.

Over the next three months, my school persona began to colonize my evenings and weekends. The clusters that formed in the foyer now formed over coffee, strip-mall teriyaki, Saturday matinees, Sunday capture-the-flag.

‘I live pretty close,’ Mark said after school one day in March. ‘We should go to my house.’

All winter I had watched Mark, looking for any sign that he carried a secret like mine. I watched him listen, I watched him talk, I watched him watch me and watch others. So far my four-month investigation had turned up no evidence whatsoever.

But now he was inviting me over. Just me! You had joined jazz band, so you weren’t home, and your parents worked til at least six.

I made my face appear to deliberate. ‘What, today?’ I said.

‘Yeah, let’s go,’ Mark said.

Like Ayla gathering her stone tools into her oxskin tunic, I shoved my textbooks into my backpack, slammed my locker and set out with Mark down the hill from Eckstein, across 35th St. and up the hill to his house.

That was March, now it was May, and Mark and I did this two or three times a week, sometimes with Trevor, sometimes with other clustermates. Once I brought Tom, who went through the afternoon like a tourist participating in a bizarre indigenous ceremony.

Every afternoon, the routine was the same as the first time. We walked up the hill to Mark’s house and let ourselves in the back door. I turned on MTV and threw the remote on the couch, then stood across the kitchen island as Mark got food out of the cupboards.

My parents had allergies and read health magazines, so Mark’s house was the only place I was allowed to eat frozen pizza. Mark took them out of the box and put them onto little silver trays for the microwave. While they rotated, he took out the blender, a quart of ice cream, a gallon of milk and whichever bottle in his parents’ liquor cabinet was fullest.

Like Ayla and Jondalar, we took whatever we could forage. Some days it was strawberry ice cream and Kahlua, others cookie dough and scotch. They were all equally terrible, but to us, they tasted like adulthood, rebellion. We drank them out of martini glasses.

Then, feeling full and disinfected, we drifted downstairs to play ping-pong until Mark’s parents came home, when I left, breathing downwards.

On that day in May, we had found a zip-lock bag of Oreos and three-quarters of a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Mark aimed the cork at me and popped it, but the bottle must have been at least a week old, and the cork fell flaccidly to the floor.

‘Don’t worry, Mark, it happens to everyone,’ I said, a premature-ejaculation joke I had heard on a sitcom that neither Mark nor I understood. He smiled anyway, poured half the bottle of champagne and the Oreos into the blender. He scraped a huge chunk of mocha chip, your favorite, on top.

I had daydreamed that on one of these tipsy afternoons Mark would make the milkshake a little too strong, look at me over the ping-pong table, lean forward a little.

‘Mike?’ he would say.

‘Mark,’ I would reply, putting down my paddle, knowing where this was going.

‘Do you ever feel… different?’ His eyes would be moist now, pleading.

I wouldn’t say anything, just walk to the other side of the table and embrace him. He would tell me everything, the desires inside him he couldn’t control, how he had tied them up, chained them down, vaulted them in, how they were too strong, he couldn’t control them anymore. In my arms he would finally be still.

Today was the nineteenth or twentieth time this hadn’t happened, and I was beginning to lose hope. As far as I could tell, the only desires animating Mark were winning at ping-pong, shouting Chris Farley quotes at me from across the table and speculating about which girls liked him.

‘What are we doing tomorrow?’ I asked.

‘Lara Farquhar is going to some high school kegger,’ Mark said. Lara rode my bus, and Mark had been bugging me to talk to her about him. I was, not surprisingly, reluctant to do so.

‘She has tits like the balloons over the Datsun dealership on Aurora,’ I said, timing the joke right as I hit the ball to his backhand. He laughed and hit the ball too hard, and it ricocheted off the ceiling.

‘That’s game, bitch,’ I said, glad for the opportunity to end this conversation before it began. I put the paddle down. ‘Your folks are gonna be home in like five minutes ago’—a joke I had stolen from MadTV—‘I’d better bounce.’

‘You gotta admit, she’s hot, man,’ he said as we walked up the concrete steps. He ducked to avoid the low ceiling. I didn’t have to.

‘You haven’t seen her on the bus, dude,’ I said. ‘When she sits at the back it takes two of the Vietnamese kids just to hold her tits down.’ Jesus Christ, this was me in action.

As we rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I could see that the TV had been switched to CNN. You were sitting on the couch, eating the rest of the Oreos, the bag on your lap.

It had been eight months since I came out as a crush-on-you haver. Mark must have known, but he never asked me about it and I never said anything. Sometimes I dreamed that his lack of interest was premeditated, deliberate. He wasn’t like me, sure, but maybe he knew my secret, could hear the hum of what I was underneath the megaphone of what I wanted to be. ‘He understands me,’ I told myself, ‘we’re connected.’

Either that or he just didn’t want to hear one of his buddies talk about nailing his sister.

From the living room, you looked over toward the noise. Your eyes didn’t meet mine, didn’t even see me. I was used to this.

‘Oh, hey Tracy!’ Your brother said from behind me.

‘Did you and this asshole eat all the mocha chip?’ you said.

We sat together from Thanksgiving until winter break. We shared homework and M&Ms, the two highest grades in the class right next to each other. We were both the kind of good at math that didn’t have to work very hard. Hughes told us the concept, we got it, we filled in the worksheets. Neither of us understood why the other students had so many questions, or why it took a whole period to explain imaginary numbers or negative square roots. We were done with our worksheets by the time everyone else started.

Sometimes you read your novel under the table as everyone else worked, Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz, a different one each week. You wanted to be a doctor, and you were already ranking medical schools on their proximity to mountains so you could keep skiing on weekends. For undergrad you would go to an all-girls school, you had decided, probably Vassar.

‘How come?’ I asked.
‘I want to work,’ you said. ‘Not deal with boy-nonsense all day.’
‘Good thing there’s no such thing as girl-nonsense,’ I said.
You smiled. ‘Whatever, just because you think everyone should go to public school.’

One period later, in Mr. Farina’s class, I told Trevor, ‘You know what Tracy told me today dude?’
‘What?’ he said, not looking up.
‘She’s trying to go to an all-girls school.’
‘For high school?’ His head was up now, I could see his eyes under his baseball hat.
‘Yeah, high school,’ I lied. Clarification on the particulars would only be a distraction. ‘She said she liked the way the uniforms fit.’
‘She did not say that,’ Trevor said.
‘Yes she did, she just told me in Hughes’s class,’ I said.
‘She is a slut, guy,’ Trevor said.

And that was how it was. You and I killed time in Ms. Hughes’s class with books and music, hobbies and plans for the future. Then, between second and third period, I retroactively trolled our conversations for material I could refine and distort, bulletins for my new friends. I even told them we went to see ‘While You Were Sleeping’ together.

‘She asked me to go, I was powerless to resist.’ Telling lies was as easy as math worksheets, just learn the rule, find the blanks and fill them in.

And then it was over. The first day back from winter break, huddled by the door in Ms. Hughes’s class again, I wished you a happy new year.

‘OK,’ you said, cold as Yellowstone, and moved to the other side of the huddle.

She knows.

I was assigned to sit with Ben Neill, one of my morning and afternoon clustermates.

‘Not next to Tracy anymore, huh?’ he asked. ‘I bet that would hurt if you weren’t such a homo.’

‘You’re just saying that because your mom likes it from the back,’ I said reflexively. Someone told her, I thought, But who, and how much?

That was January. Before your brother invited me over, before I made up crushes on Nicole Grant and Gina Lasky, before a late-spring faux fixation on Laura Gilchrist was, mortifyingly, reciprocated and I had to fake mono to get out of it.

The day after we saw you in your living room, I asked your brother why you hated me so much.

‘She thinks you’re a pervert,’ Mark said, balancing the ping-pong paddle on his finger. ‘Everyone kind of thinks that.’

At the time, appallingly, I considered this a triumph. Perverts are not gaylords. I was safe.

‘What did I ever do to her though?’ I asked.

‘Apparently you said you wanted her to wrap her thighs around you like a python. Because she has big thighs from skiing, I guess? I don’t really get it.’

Had I said that? Shit, it sounded like me.

‘Who told her?’

‘Trevor,’ he said. ‘He thinks it’s hilarious how she won’t talk to you anymore.’

This should not have surprised me. Trevor had revealed himself to be as much of a bully as a friend than as an enemy. Two years ago he had tormented me to impress eighth graders, and now he tormented sixth graders to impress me.

Once, in the cafeteria, Trevor pulled down Alec Pentieff’s pants while he was carrying his lunch tray, and he had to shuffle 20 feet with his pants at his ankles before he could pull them up again. I made a show of laughing—Christ, did we high-five?—but I felt sick to my stomach the rest of the day.

Everywhere I looked, the consequences of my survival strategy were piling up. After I canceled our smoke-and-Super Mario Fridays three times in a row, Tom stopped assuming them, and now we walked past each other like strangers. Girls I had liked—actually liked, like, as people—stopped talking to me because I had publicly appreciated their breasts, their asses or, in one case, their ‘haunches’. Alec Pentioff, who rode my bus and whose parents knew mine from church, never looked at me again.

Every time, it came as a surprise. Don’t you know this isn’t really me? I wanted to shout. Just because I’m doing this doesn’t mean I’m the kind of person who does.

I wish I could tell you, ‘I learned my lesson, the very next day I came out of the closet, I never lied again.’ But I didn’t. I kept it up this façade all through high school.

When I finally came out, on the night of high school graduation, in the Denny’s on Lake City Way, my friends told me ‘I never would have guessed’ and I received it as a compliment. Only later did I realize that there’s no such thing as hiding who you are, there’s only becoming someone else.

I remember you because you were the fork in the road. I could have sat next to you, just sat, just listened and spoken, just kept our conversations in that little rectangle where they began. I could have thrown away that sketch.

But I didn’t. The last time I saw you was the final day of eighth grade, an afternoon so bright it steamed the rain on the pavement. We ran into each other between the cluster of portables and the school building. I was heading in, you were coming out.

‘Hey Tracy,’ I said. You nodded and kept walking.

‘Hey,’ I said again. ‘Tracy? Hey, Tracy!’

‘What, Mike?’ You stopped. ‘What is it?’

It was the first time I had seen you without an audience since December. Even then, I wanted to tell you that I was sorry, that it wasn’t me who said that about you but someone else, someone mean.

I wanted to tell you that you had beaten me on Ms. Hughes’s final by one point and I was proud of you. That your brother turned out to be a nice guy, maybe even a friend. That the University of Colorado has a great medical school. That every time I saw you hunched over your notebook during breaks, I wanted to come over to see what you were writing. That I had read two Tom Clancy books this year and they both sucked.

I could have said something decent, kind, something to make you remember who I was and forget what I’d become, could have asked you what you were doing this summer, if you were reading anything good lately.

But I didn’t. Instead, what I said was, ‘You look great in those shorts’.

Your brother and I were friends until junior year of high school, when we simultaneously decided to stop calling each other. I had discovered other boys, girls had discovered him, our nows replaced our thens.

Last month, he added me on Facebook. He sells high-end SUVs at a dealership in Kansas City. In nearly all of his pictures he’s somewhere sunny, and smiling. His girlfriend appears in at least three-quarters of them, one arm around him, smiling just as wide. And in some of them there’s you.

That’s how I found out that you went to Swarthmore, that you live in New York City, that you’re a veterinarian with a daughter and a husband and a Subaru Outback and a Netflix subscription. You’re grown up, lived in, but it’s definitely you. Your daughter has a ponytail, blonde as the sun.

On that afternoon on the last day of school, you turned away from me and walked across the concrete. You didn’t even look back, you just said, almost to yourself, ‘go fuck yourself’ as I stood there at the door.

I didn’t realize it then, and I wouldn’t for a long time, but I already had.

Hope you’re still smiling, and hope you still mean it,

Mike

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Filed under America, Essays, Gay, Personal

Gay People Have Crushes Too

This article about a married 50-something dude looking up his second-grade crush is adorable, but I can’t help wondering how it would play out if the object of his affection was male.

I had dude-crushes at the rate of nearly one per year from daycare til middle school (OK, grad school). Some of them turned out to be gay, some of them didn’t. Some I still know, some I don’t. Some I’ve told, some I haven’t.

Everyone knows juvenile crushes are harmless. They say more about giver than the getter, and it should be flattering to know you exist in some neuronal nook of a forgotten acquaintance.

Still, I’d be nervous calling up the dudes I spent elementary and middle school pining over (and terrified of). Even 20 years later, even in 2012, I feel like straight guys wouldn’t find it cute and complimentary, but deceptive and threatening, like I’d stolen something from them.

Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Maybe its worth a shot! Does anyone have an e-mail address for Jonathan Taylor Thomas?

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Filed under America, Gay, Journalism, Personal

Yesterday in central Berlin, crying on a bicycle

I happened to be listening to this lecture yesterday on my way to a friend’s house, and I was all quiver-lip  from Tiergarten to Kaiserdamm.

It wasn’t just the speech. Yesterday voters in my home country and my home state decided that gay marriage threatens traditional marriage like milk threatens cereal. We shouldn’t have to vote on this shit, but we did, and we won.

It was also the same day Alex Ross published this lovely essay in the New Yorker:

I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind.

There will always be small-minded politicians, vicious diseases, bigoted thugs. Until recently, it felt like the world was rooting for them. Yesterday, it felt like it wasn’t.

‘Why are your eyes all wet?’ my friend asked when I arrived.
‘It’s cold outside,’ I said.
‘Well come inside, it’s warmer,’ he said, and it was.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Gay, Personal, Serious

Gay Men Are Filthy Skanks. Why Don’t Right-Wingers Care?

I barely know any gay people in monogamous relationships.

There’s Matt, whose boyfriend lets him screw anyone he wants as long as it’s a) in a sauna and b) not in Copenhagen, where they share a one-bedroom apartment.

There’s Hank and Kevin, one of the couples married in California in 2008 whose marriage is now in legal Mordor. They both fool around with guys they meet on the internet, and tell each other everything.
‘We have sex with other people more than we have sex with each other,’ Hank says.

There’s Michael, who hasn’t slept with his husband Harry in eight years, though they both have sex with other people. Harry prefers saunas, Michael prostitutes.

There’s Doug, who meets guys on the internet while his boyfriend is at work.
‘Does he know about this?’ I ask.
‘He must,’ Doug says.

There’s Malcolm, who has been in a monogamous relationship for eight months and is preparing the ‘let’s open it up’ talk before his next trip to Berlin.

There’s Christian and Philippe, who scout Berlin nightclubs for thirds.
‘We’re totally monogamous,’ they tell me, ‘as long as you don’t count threesomes.’

These are just anecdotes, I tell myself, not indicative of anything beyond the fact that my circle of acquaintances is basically a three-ring skank circus.

It would be easier if there were any decent numbers available on this.

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

It’s a tiny sample, from one promiscu-city, on America’s gayest coast.

I find it genuinely interesting that, of all the arguments against gay marriage, ‘they’re all filthy skanks’ is one that rarely gets aired. Gay marriage, the Republican in my head goes, gives state support to couples that are fucking each other silly, and therefore sillifies the entire institution.

The obvious counterargument to this is that heterosexual marriages aren’t any more faithful than gay ones. Straight people are fucking one another on reception desks and pool decks and business trips, they’re just not telling their spouses about it. The only thing gays are doing more of, goes the left-winger, is disclosing.

I’d like that to be true, (I guess?), but I can’t ignore the fundamental fact that cheating on your spouse and not getting caught is really hard. If my wife doesn’t want me screwing anyone else, cheating requires meeting in sketchy motels, deleting text messages, using a separate credit card, etc. Plus the social and financial consequences of getting caught. Obviously it’s not enough of a disincentive to prevent every married man from cheating, but it’s enough for some.

If my husband doesn’t care if I sleep around, however, there’s no clumsy logistics, no stifling guilt, no horrifying confrontation. It’s such a non-disincentive for nonmonogamy it’s practically a reward.

So I guess what I’m saying is that gay people must be more infidelitous than straights. Our social norms are newer, less biblical, more awesome. We made them ourselves!

This view is oversimplified, borderline homophobic, not backed up by robust research and completely ignores lesbian relationships. In other words, it’s perfect. So why hasn’t the right wing used this as a talking point? Has seriously no one told them?

Tom is one of my only friends who’s not in an open relationship. He lives in Seattle, and he’s been cheating on his boyfriend, who lives in Chicago, for two years. He’s trying to talk his boyfriend into opening the relationship.
‘The minute I convince him to sleep with someone else,’ Tom tells me over gchat, ‘he loses the moral high ground, and I don’t feel guilty anymore.’
‘haha you’re a monster,’ I type.
‘Not if I can pull this off,’ Tom replies.

Fifty percent of the time, gay marriage is a synonym for open marriage. I don’t know what this means for us as individuals, a country, a culture. I’m just glad no one seems to have noticed.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Gay, Personal

The 10 Times I Met My Landlord

Originally posted on The Billfold

1

He has an unsqueezing handshake, that’s the first thing I notice about him. He just puts his hand out, and I shake it like a juice.

“Erik,” he says, standing at the door in a bathrobe, a tanktop and untied combat boots. He’s thin, a series of parallel lines and divots up to a starburst of blond hair.

“Michael,” I say. He lets me into the foyer. I look around and realize his appearance isn’t an affectation, but genuine neglect.

The living room bows under the weight of all his belongings. A half-­dozen shelves piled with sci-fi books, stacked in trilogies. Two printers, one in each corner, both shaded by a drift of wires. A balled up blanket under the window, hard angles hinting at something wrapped up and forgotten. Not to mention the souvenirs from Central Asia and the Middle East, making outlines in the dust.

We talk logistics. Sublet, one year. Fully furnished, go ahead and use the neighbors’ Internet connection. Please don’t sit in the rocking chair, it was his grandmother’s.

Everything in the kitchen is old, but the pans are scrubbed and the knives have been sharpened to a suicidal sheen. An espresso machine takes up roughly half the counter space. There are no glasses, only coffee cups.

I tell him this will be my longest period in one apartment. I’m in Copenhagen on a short-term contract that keeps getting extended, and I’ve been living in sublets for two years now. The place I’m living in now has no shower, just a literal water closet, so every morning I walk down the stairs and across the courtyard to a bank of showers in the basement. It costs one kroner for each minute of hot water. Most mornings I gamble, shoving three kroner in the machine and soaping like someone trying to shake a bee out of their clothes. Sometimes on Sundays I spend five.

“OK,” he says.

He seems to have already decided I’m a suitable subletter based on his conversation with Thomas, our mutual friend, and he speaks in whens, not ifs. He walks me through the apartment like a tour guide giving the last circuit of the day. The shelves rattle metallically as we walk.

He shows me a gas mask he got in Bosnia, a sweater from Chinese army surplus, flavored vodka from Ukraine. After a few minutes, he’s not lifting them up, just pointing to piles: “That’s where I keep my barbells.’

We’re back in the foyer. “So!” he says.

It’s too big, too far and too full of the bread crumbs of someone else’s exploration. But the rent is reasonable and I don’t have any other options.

“I’ll take it.”

2

I visit the apartment again to sign the paperwork. I marvel for the second time how a neighborhood with so many apartment buildings can have so few shops or cafes. I bike past a nursing home, then an institution for mentally retarded adults. Most of the cars on the street are minibuses.

It’s the day before he leaves, and some of the detritus has disappeared. The espresso machine is gone, and for a second I suspect he’s taking it with him. The small talk is more like nano-talk. All of my questions come back as logistics.

“So where are you being posted?”

“Afghanistan. So you must forward the mail to my sister in Give. She’ll send it to me.”

“How long have you been in the Army?”

“Since I was 18. I have equipment here, so I may come by every once in while to pick things up.”

When I ask what he’s doing in Afghanistan, he says “the same old thing,” like we’ve known each other for years.

I tell him I’m looking forward to living on my own. Since I moved to Copenhagen I’ve lived with a Norwegian woman who told me I could have friends over as long as they weren’t foreigners, then an old woman whose dog shit on my bed and whose boyfriend told me I should bulk up by eating a bowl of raw hamburger and egg yolks every morning.

He’s looking around the apartment as I speak. He picks up a vintage coffee grinder up from the floor.

“Have you seen this?” he says. “You must grind manually. The electric grinders, they make dust. You should squeeze the beans, not eradicate them.”

3

He stops by the apartment. He e-mailed to tell me that he would do this, but never specified a time. I hear a key in the lock at 7 pm on a Wednesday, and get up from the rocking chair and put it back in the corner. Now I’m standing in the middle of the living room with a book in my hand, like I’m rehearsing a monologue.

He’s training in Aarhus before he ships out in two weeks. There he is in the foyer, taking off his boots and squeezing his hair to get the rainwater out. He’s angry about an incident on the train on the way here. Children talking too loud or something. He only says the word “undisciplined’ once, but that’s the only thing I remember of this conversation later.

He’s picking up his uniform. I’m in the kitchen cleaning up the evidence of my first three days here. He takes a cell phone call, switches to Danish, and tells the story of the train again. He waves as he backs out the door, still talking.

4

I come home from work the next day and he’s sitting in the rocking chair with a takeaway coffee cup.

“Are you picking something up?” I ask.

“It’s impossible to get good coffee in Denmark,” he says, swirling the cup. “All these amazing machines, and it is a 16-­year-­old who is using them.”

“Look, Erik…”

“I know, I’m sorry I came by unannounced,” he says. “I’m leaving in a week, and I just wanted to relax one night before I go.”

“It’s OK,” I say, putting my gloves back on.

As I leave, I ask him whether he’ll be able to find good coffee in Afghanistan. But he’s got his laptop out, and all I get is a grunt.

5

He’s there when I get home at three in the morning, sentried by two pizza boxes and an ice cream tub. Where’s he getting this food? I’ve been shopping near work and taking groceries home on my bike.

He e-­mailed to ask if he could crash at the apartment tonight, since he’s flying out of Copenhagen early tomorrow morning. The apartment is too big for me anyway, and I told him he could stay in the spare room. I can see a duffel bag in there, huge and unzipped like an autopsy. The only thing I see poking out are trinkets he’s taken from the shelves. I wonder if he’s taking any clothes.

It’s November outside, but inside the heat is turned up to an August swelter. This is the first time I’ve seen him in a tank top, and the delta of veins on his arms make him look like an engineering schematic. For all the weightlifting equipment in the apartment, I’m surprised at how wiry he is. The rocking chair could fit another two of him.

He’s watching a movie on his laptop. I can see he’s irritated that he has to pause it while I perform my “how are things?” due diligence.

“Great. Lots of training,” he says with his finger poised to click play. His face asks permission.

“Well, I’m beat. Hope you have a good tour,” I say as the sound comes back on.

6

I thought Danish people, as a rule, spent a few days with their families for Christmas. Yet there’s a text from him at 11 in the morning on Boxing Day: “I’ll be over in 15 minutes.”

He doesn’t have any visible purpose this time. He comes in, baggageless and still jacketed, and goes straight for the rocking chair. He doesn’t sigh out loud, but his body sort of does. He’s lost weight, if that’s even possible, and I wonder if he’s one of those Danish people who won’t eat anything abroad if he can’t find the food he’s used to. Once he settles, he bobs his head and looks around.

“You haven’t done anything with the place,” he says, looking at the bare walls. “You’re not that kind of guy, huh?”

This is the closest thing he’s ever expressed to an interest in my tastes or personality.

“Yeah, me neither,” he goes on. “I like to keep it simple.”

Recalling the two months I have spent systematically banishing his possessions into drawers, under tables and on top of cupboards, I audibly snort.

“How’s your Danish coming along?” he asks.

I tell him I’m taking classes, but it’s difficult to stay motivated with a full-time job.

“Well,” he says, shrugging with his eyebrows. “Either you want to learn it or you don’t.”

7

I’ve been hoping that he won’t make a habit of staging these little drop-­ins, and he doesn’t. The e-mails, however, are as regular as the rain all winter. Was there a letter from an old colleague that I forgot to forward? Is the heater working alright? Have the window cleaners called to schedule?

The medical problems make their first appearance in an e-­mail in February.

“My stomach is acting up again,” he says. “There’s not much food here that agrees with me, so I’ve lost some weight.”

I remember how he kept his coat on the whole time he was here last time, and try to imagine him even skinnier. I stretch his cheekbones out, push his eyes in, thin the hair exclaiming from his head.

Other than the hair, my mental sketch turns out to be pretty accurate.

He’s back in Denmark now, he tells me from the doorway. He has lost a considerable amount of weight, or a considerable-­looking amount anyway. His neck sticks out of his coat collar like a tree growing in a crater, his head gingerly balanced on top. Maybe I recoil when I see him; he apologizes for how he looks.

He’s on his way to Give to stay with his family, and he’s picking up some photographs on the way. His Afghanistan posting has been cancelled.

“Stomach problems,” he says, as if that makes his malady any more specific. He’s angry at the Army bureaucracy, and he answers my questions about his departure from his post with “this bullshit’ or “bunch of idiots,” nothing that yields any real information.

My lease has five months left. I’ve lost three kilos from the long bike commute each morning. I’ve found a grocery store, and a kebab place that serves Turkish coffee and opens early on Saturdays. I haven’t added any of my character to the walls, but I’ve removed some of his.

“I’m not trying to move back in, don’t worry,” he says. “As soon as this is over, I’ll be back in Afghanistan. We might even renew the sublet for another year.”

8

The next time I come home to find him in the apartment, he’s lost even more weight. His eyes have pulled back, peering out from two cavities that reach from his forehead to his jaw. The apartment is so warm that for a second I think he lit a fire somehow.

He’s telling me something about the apartment, something I’ve forgotten to do, but I’m following the vein in his neck past his clavicle, across his shoulder and down his arm. I don’t know if he’s still talking when I say, “Are you … OK?”

He’s losing weight, he says, and no one can figure out why.

“I eat and I shit,” he says. “I never gave it any more thought than that.”

I imagine all the conversations he must have had with doctors in the month since I’ve seen him last.

“They think I’m anorexic,” he says later that night. “What am I, jogging after dinner every night?” He knows his body renders this a rhetorical question.

He’s sleeping here, apparently. He has an appointment at a clinic in Copenhagen tomorrow morning. He tells me this like I already know. I’ve invited friends over for dinner, but I tell them we’ll meet at a restaurant instead. I sleep at my boyfriend’s, and when I come home the next day, the only sign of him is the clanking radiator.

9

“It used to be the girls telling me ‘I can’t figure you out,’” he says. “Now it’s the doctors.”

He’s smiling from the middle of a pillow his gaunt face makes huge. Framed like this, grey skin against the black pillow, he looks like a panel from a comic strip.

I’m at the hospital to drop off his mail. He called yesterday to whisper a request. Was there a letter from the health service? Could I bring it to him? It was important. I could use his bike if I needed to.

I don’t know what to say to him. I was afraid he would look like a stick figure under his covers, but with his legs together and his hands interlocked, he’s more like a mummy. I try not to gawk, but my breathing catches when I see him try to turn over. Shaking his hand is out of the question, so I sort of caress him under the covers in greeting.

“They feed me with a tube, but I’m still losing weight. I show them I’m not anorexic, no?” he says with a thin smile. “They won’t let me drink coffee. No calories.”

I put the letter on the bedside table, under one of the empty milkshakes. His parents are coming soon, and he has to rest before they arrive.

“Thanks,” he says.

“I work nearby,” I lie. “It’s no problem to drop off your letters.”

“It’s good to have friends visit.’

Is that, I think as I reciprocate out loud, what we are?

10

Erik stands at the door, a tortoise in a ski jacket and wool cap, neck all strings in between.

“I gained three kilos last week,” he pants. “Hard to haul all that up the stairs, huh?” I say.

My duffel bags wait, packed, in the foyer. A taxi is waiting for me downstairs. For some reason I’ve put the keys in an envelope and written his name on it.

He leans in and looks through the door. I spent four hours last night cleaning, and the apartment gleams with effort. Behind me the books are 90 degrees in three different dimensions. The souvenirs stand at attention. I even sharpened the knives.

The e-­mails continue after I move out. At first it’s all admin: the deposit, the forgotten socks, the oven needs to be cleaned. Then it’s information: He’s gaining weight, he’s got a new job, he’s thinking of expanding the bathroom.

“Why is it that all atheists claim they are humanists?” he writes in an e-­mail to which an electricity bill is attached. “It just means they will be among those praying the loudest when the boat is going under.”

To the requests, I answer in bullet-­pointed lists of yesses: I made the transfers, I took care of the bills, I’m sorry about the oven. As the admin diminishes, it takes me longer and longer to reply.

“Please come and have a cup of tea,” he writes in the last e-mail I ever receive from him, nearly a year after I’ve moved out. “I don’t get out too often, so knock on the door if you are nearby. If you are hungry, there is food—no gluten, but food anyway.”

I write that I will, and never do.

Here, in the foyer, none of this has happened yet. I lift my duffel bags and Erik and I trade places, him inside, me outside.

He offers to help me down to the taxi. I remember how his leg, sharp under three blankets, didn’t move when I touched it. I tell him over my shoulder it’s no problem, I’ve got it.

“See you around!” I call as I start down the stairs. Through the open door I can hear him take the coffee down from the shelf, and put the water on to boil.

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Filed under Denmark, Essays, Gay, Personal

Outward Bound

I think it’s a little weird that I’ve been at my new job for two months, and I haven’t ‘officially’ told my coworkers that I’m gay.

It’s not that I think they would care. It just legitimately hasn’t come up. Without a partner to drop into the conversation (‘me and my boyfriend went to Potsdam this weekend’), it’s really difficult to mention your homosexuality without seeming like you’re making a Major Announcement.

I was wishing all week that my boss would ask me what I got up to in London, so I could mention ‘I went to Gay Pride’ (possibly adding ‘and it was fabulous!’ just to make it crystal clear). But it didn’t come up argh.

So now I’m left with two choices: Either wait for an opportunity to present itself organically (‘I’m leaving work early today; I need to buy poppers before the dungeon closes’), or pedantically announce it to my colleagues directly.

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Filed under Berlin, Gay