| Arts & Culture
Queer Life The Homoerotics of Water
In the water, what you are called can change. And words, like water, will dissolve.
Almost every morning, I swam with the straight boys. The pool where I swam with the straight boys was near the park. The park and the pool were both owned by the city. This is almost true, except that the city used trustees to own the pool and a conservancy to run the park.
Nevertheless, it is true that every morning I swam with the straight boys in a pool owned by the city, and almost every afternoon, I ran with the straight boys in a park owned by the city. The pool was wet and the park was dry, except that we always ran—the straight boys and I—around the reservoir, which made the air wet and our skin glisten. The reservoir was owned by the city too, though, after 1993, no one drank out of it.
I am not the same I that I was then, but the reservoir that the straight boys and I ran around remains the same reservoir. It sits in the same place and we call it the same thing, though all the water in it has changed, which is an ancient problem, like the river in Heraclitus, and a modern problem, like the ship of Theseus.
I think of the reservoir as the same reservoir, walking around it almost every morning with my boyfriend who is almost like my husband. The reservoir is in the same place and we call it the same thing, but I am not in the same place, not exactly, and I am called the same thing only by convention. This is one reason why many queer people don’t like names, and I prefer to go swimming. Language lies, but we just swim away, always changing.
It always started the same way. I entered the pool from the street. Boys who liked boys knew when they were getting close to the pool the same way they knew when other boys were getting close to climaxing: the smell of chlorine. The subway with all its bodies jostling brought me to the street, then I entered the pool that smelled like boys getting close to finishing. Language lies, but we just swim away, always changing.
I walked down the stairs and other boys walked down the stairs and some ran. We had many clothes on when we walked or ran down the stairs and then we had none. The locker was full of many boys. It smelled like a swamp where many boys were about to climax. I sat down. The bench was metal and cold. Sometimes it was wet, but if you asked the other boys whether they opened their bottoms onto cold, wet metal every morning, they would say no even though they did. They sat and they bent and they slid their clothes off and they pulled their speedos up. I did the same thing except it wasn’t the same thing at all.
I got wet and I watched and I was watched. I knew everyone because they were my friends and schoolmates. I knew what everyone looked like wearing and not wearing their clothes because we were a team. The same could be said about me. This knowledge—of nakedness and near nakedness—was not part of how the other boys thought of being on a team, but it was part of how I thought of being on a team as a boy who loved the nakedness of the others.
Our cold wet metal mornings were innocent and sweet. We showered together. If someone dropped soap, someone else would hand it to them. If someone could not wash their back, someone else would wash it. The water washed everyone. In this way, the shower was like a subway; a shared space with many bodies, cramped and jostling. In it, we came to know how to be around other bodies in a place owned by a city.
The city made us shower to be clean before and after swimming, but could they have known they were creating a community made of bodies?
From the shower, we walked onto the deck, one by one and all together. The deck was cement and didn’t look like any other kind of deck, but we still called it by its name. You can’t do this on the deck, you can’t do that on the deck, the signs said. We jumped in.
In water, each one swam next to another. The lanes were full of the bodies of boys, but none hit or crashed or chafed. The law of the lane was inviolate. We “swam circle.” If I told you which way we swam circle, clockwise or counter, and if you were a swimmer yourself, you would know which country we swam in. I will not tell you because these borders will not matter when they are drowned in the sea.
No, borders will not and should matter, but the law of the lane will last because it is the law of love and courtesy. Swimmer’s etiquette is a therapy of the body in society; you swim with the others. A pool is no place for English or American individualism. John Lockes and John Waynes always sink.
There were four types of strokes.
The first was the straightest, fast and hard. Still, your thighs got big; your ass clenched; your hands had to make a certain shape under the water. You couldn’t splash; you swam silently, like a secret.
With the second stroke, you gave your back to the water. You followed the sky with your eye and trusted everyone before and behind.
The third stroke opened out, then dipped in. When you went under, you saw legs. You swam faster.
The fourth stroke was the most complicated, strangely complex and amazing to behold. Whoever swam it well won the hearts of many boys and their mothers.
Once we swam and swam and could swim no longer, we would tread water. For twenty or thirty minutes, we beat the water with our still soft feet. Our arms were raised, we stood swimming upright like bean poles. Under each arm was a different kind of hair, and we added this to our knowledge of one another’s bodies.
After two hours or more, we were tired. We may have been tired, but at least we were tired together. Once we left the pool, we showered in the same way that we showered before entering it. This is one of the many pleasing symmetries of swimming. In the showers, we were many bodies underwater together again, just as before we had been many bodies together in water, and before that many bodies together underwater. Each one was like another: wet, soapy, silken.
This morning—the morning I am writing about—happened in just this way, just like every other morning, except that when we showered after we swam, there was one boy who did not shower like the others. I don’t remember what he did before we swam, but after we swam, he kept on his speedo and stood off to one side, alone. He washed himself. He covered his body. He hid his nakedness. He was not a shy or different-looking boy, but an arrogant and handsome and popular one. It’s because of this arrogance and handsomeness and popularity that his hiding and standing off to the side did not go unremarked.
“What are you doing?” someone said. “Nothing,” the not-naked boy said. “Why are you showering like that?” someone else said. “You know he’s a fag, right?” the not-naked boy said, pointing at me.
But when we boys swam, we stretched ourselves. Affections shifted. Loyalties extended.
There was a long pause. Everyone was naked and next to everyone else, and I was right in the middle of it all. There was a long pause. The word “fag” fell like soap, but no one moved to pick it up. Actually, it seemed like no one moved to do anything at all.
Finally, the answer came.
“You know you’re an asshole, don’t you?”
I wish I could remember who it was, but it didn’t matter because everyone laughed.
Everyone laughed and was of the same mind and everyone stayed naked and we all did everything just as we always did. Even though everyone but me had or wanted girlfriends, and it was clear even then that I had or wanted boyfriends, and would only have or want boyfriends, everyone stayed right by my side in their nakedness. They went on smiling at one another and washing one another when they needed to be washed, and smiling at me and washing me when I needed to be washed.
The scene was technically straight, but it felt very queer.
You might think it wasn’t queer because there were many boys who were born as boys and did not love boys or because someone used the world “asshole.” But the whole point is that queer isn’t one thing or another. Queerness can have teeth, too. And it might be there for a moment then slip away.
It’s true that, if I had been in another city, or another century, I might have been drenched in curses and fists instead of friendship. The space of boys together starts as a queer one, but the queerness inherent in that in-betweenness can quickly become danger. Boys are at their most vulnerable facing the shifting and unformed.
But when we boys swam, we stretched ourselves. Affections shifted. Loyalties extended. A single body moved lovingly.
In the water, what you are called can change. And words, like water, will dissolve.