I tell him how the reaction from my community was in some ways worse than the abuse.
Feet flat on the floor, focus on the details of the world around you.
I press the soles of my feet against the floor. I am in Vesuvio. The chipped table underneath my hands feels sticky. There’s some pressure in my bladder and I want another drink. I’m wearing motorcycle boots and Eric is in soft sneakers, and he knows it’s my first date with a man, and it’s understood that if tonight goes well, one of us is going home with the other. I am sitting in a swamp of self-loathing, but now, someone else is in here with me.
As we talk, he keeps shifting posture, leaning across the table or back in his chair or slowly opening his stance to pull me into an arc with his knee, and they’re such calculated moves—hah, you’re obviously trying to determine if the girl is interested in sharing space with you—that each time he does it, I decide, Okay, I’ll play. I try shifting the role. I lean back in my chair, and he leans in. I can pull him forward. It’s a bodily offer—you can push me and pull me, if you want. I can play either role you want.
He says, “I love your hair. It looks really soft.”
I think of a friend from eighth grade, trying and failing to indoctrinate me into heterosexuality: “You should use conditioner, in case a guy wants to run his fingers through your hair.”
If I ask him to touch my head, and I like it, what does that make me? A sellout? A liar? Confused? Bold and unconstrained? Nothing?
I angle my head toward him and he runs the palm of his hand through my hair, shifting nimble fingers along the sensitive lines of the back of my head; the ripples run all the way down to my thighs.
“That feels good. Do it again.”
Soon we’re kissing on the top floor of the beat-poet bar that doubles as a yuppie bar and I’m calculating the fastest route we can take back to my apartment at this time of night and I’m trying to outrun the fear that’s brimming at the edges of the scene.
I pull back from the kiss. “I do want to have sex with you,” I force the words out. “But I had something fucked-up happen to me a while ago. Sometimes it’s not easy for me.”
I rehearsed this line in front of V this morning. I chose words I could live with rather than ones that expressed my real feelings. My real feelings end in a scream.
He takes my hands in his. He says, “Everyone I have been with has been abused or raped.”
So that’s it then.
We return to my apartment and embrace by the windows, no table between us, and my fingers adjust to the buttons on the opposite side of his shirt. There, almost inevitable, is the nudge of his cock against the side of my hip. What was I told about this? It’s supposed to be like contending with the gearshift of a shitty old van. Like stuffing a cork in a wine bottle. It’s supposed to be inherently different from sex with women, but it isn’t. His body is the same collection of muscle and tendon and nerve as anyone else’s. The same undiscovered expanse as any new partner’s, with its sensitive spots and unknown stories and hidden traumas. A fence slapped up in the middle of a green field falls away. I almost laugh.
He asks me, “What do you want? Be greedy.”
The permission: Be greedy. What do I want?
I want him to take the flesh cock I don’t have in his hands in his mouth in his ass and I want to straddle his hips and have him rock me gently gently deeper yes until we both come and I want to fuck everyone on the planet and I want to betray my former community that excused my abusive relationship and I want to show up at my rapist ex-girlfriend’s door with a roll of duct tape and a shotgun. Where do I begin?
He whispers in my ear that he’d love to give me a massage and go down on me. That works.
His tongue is slipslipping against my clit and I’m pushing against his surprisingly soft mouth when I realize—we never talked about partner history, STIs, barriers, any of that. I’m meshing cells and fluids and who knows what else with someone who is basically a stranger, and on top of that a stranger who fucks guys—but wouldn’t he have brought it up if he had anything?
Is this okay? Should I stop him? Or is it already too late?
Or am I overreacting? Is this just an internalized fear of queer sex and queer men that I should ignore?
“Is this too much?” he asks, noticing.
I sit up and we change position and kiss more. Has he passed something to me? I push the thought away.
Neither one of us comes. We’re too nervous. “I don’t think I can,” he says, breathing hard, masturbating for me, and—what time is it, anyway? Almost three in the morning, says the clock by my bed. The last train sailed under the bay hours ago. The moon is gone and the room is almost completely dark. We stop, and he rests his head against my shoulder, and I navigate a new expanse of shoulder and chest and thigh. I’m going to count this experience. Here. I’ve done it. Lost my gold star, says a voice in my head, but I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything.
In the morning, under the blazing full sun of my bedroom windows, I notice a silver patch in his hair and deep lines running from his nose to his mouth. He told me he was thirty, but in the light I realize he’s much older.
Do I care? I’m not sure. Does it change anything? I don’t know.
We go to the bakery across the street and get breakfast. In the morning everything looks a little off and a little wrong, the sunshine too bright, the reflections on the rims of cars too fluid. Bread pudding and coffee. He orders chamomile tea because there’s a scratch in his throat and he’s afraid he’ll be too sick to work this week. I am still sore from his fingers and when we sit down, a blankness opens up in the base of my pelvis and grows until it eclipses me and dissolves me, no more me but blankness.
A hand rubs slow circles on the small of my back, and suddenly I have a back again, a spine, lungs, breath, eyes, consciousness. I am back in the bakery with the raw-wood tables, the line of hipsters out the door, the too-bright sunshine.
“Where did you go, just now?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
Outside, we embrace. Here, then, is something different: the ability to touch one’s date in public without fearing what other people in the street might do. Both of us saying platitudes: “I had a lovely time. What are you doing next weekend?”
On Sunday I travel to Oakland. Eric lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a crumbling art deco building and pays feloniously cheap rent. The apartment is stuffed with hand-me-down furniture from his grandparents, antique barware, a piano, a wall of sheet music from the forties, and hundreds of books; it smells pleasantly of dust and glue like a childhood library. The landlord stopped responding to maintenance requests years ago, so the apartment exists in a state of partial dilapidation. The in-unit dryer is now an extension of the kitchen counter, so he hangs up wet laundry in the living room. We brush aside shirts and pants and towels on our way to and from bedroom and kitchen.
The bookshelf next to his bed features half a shelf of bisexual erotica. I will soon learn that he has recently turned these books around; they used to sit on his shelves with their spines to the wall. On later excursions, I will find concealed books about major depression, bipolar disorder, how to file for disability in California. I pull one of the erotica collections out and hand it to him, and he picks a random story and starts reading aloud in his actor’s voice. I bury my face in the back of Eric’s neck, in the pine-and-cedar smell of his soap. His hand finds its way into the fuzzy slick of me.
I start coming over every weekend. In here, I realize I had always thought of my sexuality as a source of chaos, an invisible rift, like the tides churning under the surface, the fault lines that snake between the earth and spark and rattle, breaking plates in the cabinets and cracking the walls. In these two rooms, neither of us has to hide. We trace our unspoken histories: the simultaneous boy-and-girl crushes in high school, the loud-sex-having neighbors that made us wild with amplified desire, the intense fantasies and dreams that were too weird to be asked for, his lust for my boots across a wooden floor, the heart-doorways that open after four or five glasses of whiskey, the shame the shame the shame. He rests his palm against mine. See where our life lines converge.
We walk home radiant drunk, kissing each other against a pissed-on wall, and he breathes, “When we get back home, I want you to fuck me. I don’t care if it hurts.” He takes my cock in his mouth and I can feel it, I can feel it, I can feel his tongue flickering along my tip and when he moves his mouth down to my thigh his tongue noses open the harness and I can’t tell where flesh ends and leather and silicone begin; I’ve fused, I’ve become something else. Some creature in a new myth. He fucks me in the ass and it takes hours but it’s so liberating, not to be bound by the requirement that things go in elsewhere, and he’s so patient and attentive and I can tell exactly why he knows how to do it so it doesn’t hurt, but the next day I have a horrendous vaginal infection and I have to go get antibiotics and oral yeast infection medication from urgent care, and while I’m recovering he invites me over and makes tea and rubs my thigh as we sit on the floraled couch and watch movies, and he says, “I like you. I like you a lot.”
When I’m with Eric, I feel relaxed and happy. But throughout these past few weeks, whenever I leave the funky old apartment, the fearing-voice starts again: But he’s lying about his age. But there’s the pile of meds he takes every morning, the run-in with pneumonia from a few years ago, the spotty work history and the disability pension from something you haven’t heard of yet.Remember what happened the last time you talked away your worries and trusted someone who touched you in the dark raw bloody place—now you have PTSD for the rest of your life. I have no sense of people at all. I introduce Eric to a friend who can read faces and body language so well, others think she’s psychic. She says she doesn’t think I’m in danger, but she senses a quivering chasm of fury behind the crease connecting his nose to the corner of his mouth. Now that she mentions it, I can smell it on him, like smoke from an underground fire.
The company I work for is going bankrupt, and I spend most of my days pretending I am doing something, listening to audiobooks, or filing bank statements showing $0.00 balances that will be in the bankruptcy lawyer’s incinerator in six months. Everyone’s health insurance has gotten canceled, the 401(k)s have been pilfered, and, in response, a lot of office supplies have begun disappearing. I know I will not get another job—I’m too fucked-up to pretend to be functional for eight months in a row again—and I’m considering moving into a van and living in the woods for a while. So here I am, yes, here is the job I got through a temp agency, here is the place I go for eight hours a day and try to act normal, here is the phone I pick up and try to pretend that I am a person and not a firing collection of neurons and trauma responses, here is the economy collapsing around me, here are the rents skyrocketing in my neighborhood, and I am sitting in the cold blanket of my own stupidity, the failure to protect and preserve myself—the core function of any organism, down to the cellular level—for letting someone else invoke feelings in me stronger and more unexpected than ones I could give myself. Now I am sitting in the private-phone-call room, which has become the office’s covert nervous-breakdown room, texting Eric that I need him to get tested.
I’ve fused, I’ve become something else. Some creature in a new myth.
He texts me back, furious, indignant that I think he wouldn’t tell me if he had reason to worry, and I see the carefully worded message I sent him in a different light: hysterical, paranoid, unhinged. Here I am not crying in the line for coffee, because I thought something would change if I took a walk and got a hot beverage. It doesn’t. I am drinking a coffee in the center of a tornado of I want and I am ashamed. The wind is rising and a bitter rain is falling. I tell myself what I know better: that if he’s passed something to me there are treatment options, that I am not contaminated or compromised, that plenty of people live with STIs and that’s okay, just something else to deal with, but the thought is a crumpled tissue in an ocean of shame. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t acted on my desire for men, if I’d never called my abusive ex back, if I’d never left my hometown. I’ve crossed a line. I am out in the open and can never get back.
Grumbling, Eric goes to the free clinic. While we are waiting for results, I go to V’s and we order pizza and watch Fight Club on her laptop while sitting on the pockmarked floorboards of her room. Rape recovery is a lot like Fight Club. You go to a basement once a week and meet with a group of strangers with whom you are united by violence. Rule one is you don’t talk about it. Rule two is you don’t talk about it. There’s always a charismatic person who might or might not be a projection of who you wish you could be. It’s revealed that you blew up your own life, because the articles of functional adulthood that you surrounded yourself with to anchor yourself, to prove to yourself that you were okay, became intolerable to live with any longer, because you felt fenced in and domesticated by them every time you came home.
“Last summer, I let a guy fuck me without a condom,” V says. “I’m not even sure why, honestly. It was like a switch flipped and a tape started playing, and I was a compliant little kid again.”
I look up at her, this person who seems so free, so powerful, so in charge.
“What did you do about it?”
“I did the three-month and the six-month,” she replies, “and I accepted that some programming will always be there, and that some facets of my life are out of my hands.”
We watch the rest of the movie, but now I am thinking about the photocopied worksheets we are given in group, and their assumption that when we are healed we will stop acting out sexually, we will keep our side of the street clean, we will drink water, we will have one glass of wine with a sensible dinner, we will be polite to strange men, we will meditate, we will stop stripping and camming, we will be in straight-looking monogamous relationships with men our own age, we will not get STIs, we will not rage at the state of things. But everything around me is falling apart and on fire, and maybe I’m tired of healing, maybe I want to be a howling, bleeding gash in the side of the world for a while.
That’s why, when Eric calls with negative test results and sheepish apologies for making me worry, I go right over to his apartment. A drink in each hand. Reaching tentative warmth out to each other once more. He plays the piano for me and croons, “Let’s pretend that there’s a moon.” I stay at his place for two days.
He confesses that he is forty-five, not thirty. The algorithm consigns you to the dustbin of history when you turn forty. He thought we would be a one-off thing, a fantasy he was playing a part in for me, where the numbers for age, height, weight, and dick size can be rough estimates. He wasn’t expecting to wake up missing me on nights when I’m not here. I wasn’t expecting someone I could talk to. Sing duets at a campy piano karaoke bar with. Someone who would encourage me to follow my dreams through the thicket of my twenties.
How do I feel about this? I don’t know. I think about the stories I’ve heard of older men who date younger women, who are easier to manipulate, who look up to them in worshipful wonder because they’ve been alive for a few more years and have been to a therapy session or two. I wonder if a woman his age would have cussed him out. I wonder what a woman would have done.
Sitting next to him on the piano bench, I tell him my whole story. I tell him about the person I used to be, the unraped girl who loaded everything in her car and drove to San Francisco. I tell him about the girlfriend I met shooting pool at the first lesbian bar I ever set foot in. I tell him how at first it was perfect, how I told everyone I’d met my soul mate, and how it turned so quickly, one unkind word became a flood of them, how I scrambled and compromised myself to retrieve the girlfriend I thought I had. I tell him about the escalating rages; I tell him about the screaming; I tell him about the plates of food thrown at the wall; I tell him about the assaults, about the blurry winter when it rained so much my streets flooded and we could not leave the apartment for three days. I tell him what people said after I left, So you had a bad breakup, You gave your power away, You didn’t set boundaries like you should have. I tell him about the one person from our former friend group who believed me, and how she was being Ellis Act evicted while her health was collapsing and I felt too guilty to ask her for help. I tell him how the reaction from my community was in some ways worse than the abuse. And he holds my hands and says, “None of this was your fault.”
In his apartment, surrounded by blown-off clothes and vibrators and sweet-smelling dust, I am in a sanctuary where erotica collections are stacked on the table and ragtime is played and sex is safe, at least for now. His bedroom window has a view of the flight path to the San Francisco airport, and all night as I struggle to fall asleep on a lumpy mattress, I watch blinking lights from planes that arrive safely and do not crash.
I wake up and Eric is screaming, thrashing, kicking, hurling a pillow in an arc across the room. I touch his shoulder and he jerks awake, sits upright, sweat pouring down his flushed face and chest. He blinks and wipes his face and reason comes back into his eyes.
As he explains to me, he’ll never remember what the dream was about—only that something imminently terrible was about to happen to him or to someone he loves. “I have no memories from before I was six years old.”
All I can do is hold his hands in mine, like he did for me, that first night. We both know what’s probably in that blankness, and I wish I could say I was surprised.
“Any idea what might have happened?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I know I was physically abused by my older brother, but beyond that . . . it could have been anyone.”
He asks, “Do you think that’s why?” in a tiny voice, and I have to say of course not, you can desire men without having been harmed by men, but it sounds so hollow coming from me because we both know I wonder something similar about myself: Am I running to men after being harmed by women?Is that why?
We both know what’s probably in that blankness, and I wish I could say I was surprised.
And here I am, I can’t hold it, I’m fighting myself to stay in this room, this moment. Nothing will make this better. There is nothing I can say. There is nothing I can undo. I put my arm around his shoulder.
I get the severance date for my employment and that’s it, this time is ending, in three months I’ll be in someone else’s van in the woods and now Eric and I are fucking like it’s breath, like we’ll never see it again. We go out we drink absinthe we drink scotch we drink out of flasks smuggled in back pockets we drink gin I throw up in the men’s room we get a grilled cheese from Sparky’s 24-Hour Diner we drink white wine with an ice cube in it. I always vomit or fall asleep before I reach blackout drunk, but Eric doesn’t seem to have these same safety valves in him; he’ll keep drinking until he’s a dreaming man walking, he’ll take all his clothes off the hangers and throw them on the living room floor, he’ll follow a girl in homebuilt faun-legs through the crowd, he’ll blurt out “I love you” and I will be too scared to admit “Me too” and anyway he won’t remember in the morning, so I say “I know.” He sends me a picture of himself splayed out, cock hard in one hand, hips angled and legs wide open enough for a pink suggestion of asshole. He seems to be offering me a choice—be the woman on top, be the man who takes him—and welcoming whoever crawls into the frame. And now I am crying a lot because the bow in my chest is pulled tight to his, and this whole thing was supposed to be just a taste test, and now it’s Here are my insides, do you like them?
Secure in his desire, I cut my hair short. He runs his hand through it and says he loves it. I wax my legs once a week, letting myself grow fuzzy and soft as he runs his hands over my thighs at night. I change from feminine to masculine and back again. I make him pick out a cock to get fucked with, and as I’m sliding it into him I wonder, How can anyone possibly rape anyone else, how does a person even do that?
I’m trying to act like a person and something else keeps busting out, and I wish you could tell the truth in a job interview, like I could look the interviewer in the face and say, this gap in my résumé is from when I was in an abusive relationship and my partner ground me down in a million little ways until I believed I could not do anything, not dry the dishes correctly nor apply for a job nor walk out the unlocked door, and it finally ended when my former roommates took out a restraining order against my girlfriend, and this gap in my résumé is from when I moved out and got a job and I was doing okay and that’s when the flashbacks and the nightmares started, so you can see it’s all perfectly understandable and not my fault but once you are raped, capitalism promptly funnels you out of society, and I already know I’m not going back to the normal world after this. It’s going to be the wild woods forever after.
Here we are getting dressed to go out, and Eric is watching intently as I put on the only men’s shirt I own and he’s practically licking his lips as I pencil in my eyebrows and carve out cheekbones and temples with brown eye shadow, glue on a soul patch trimmed from a braid of fake hair from the costume shop. This man I am gesturing toward in the mirror, is he the real me? Will there finally be an end to the question What the fuck am I? Is he the answer? Eric calls me Cole he calls me Aiden he calls me Sky he calls me Carter and all of these men’s names whoosh past me like ties on a spinning rack, but something deeper catches, and when he calls me any of those names I feel like all my skin has been stripped away.
He brings me a drink and a bright full moon comes brimming through the living room window. Is there a scene in my future where I sit on the edge of the tub and Eric wipes my thigh with a cold alcohol pad as I ready a needle full of testosterone? Would he introduce me to his family, explain that the girl he’s dating is becoming a man in his bed? Would he claim me in public, or would I still be the dirty secret?
“Look at that moon,” he says, with a deep erotic edge in his voice. He’s one of those people whose sexuality grows even more intense when the moon is full, and I can sense his breath growing deeper.
“Lunatic.” I laugh.
“I told you, you’re dating a wild man,” he says in a growl, draining the rest of the whiskey.
We go out together, walk past the Twin Peaks tavern at the corner of Market and Castro. I tell Eric this was the first gay bar in the country to have clear windows, signifying that the people inside did not fear being seen. I am trying to sell him queerness. I am trying to convince him to quit the Cole Porter in-and-out act around his friends, wear the pink mesh shirt out of the house, at least come to the LGBT film fest later this month. I’m also trying to get seen: Are other people recognizing me as a man when I feel like a girl in a costume? Am I passing? Am I failing? I hold myself close to Eric, and I can feel the nervousness rising off him, the exposure, like me being a man was supposed to be a fun thing behind closed doors, and now what else will be asked of him, what will he have to do?
We go out to a club that’s playing mash-ups of old-school soul set to dance beats, and on the crowded dance floor we touch and caress each other until we’re both near-painfully turned on, and he grasps my hips and growls, like a werewolf, and it scares me but this time instead of turning into a scared little bunny rabbit I go wolf too, grasping his shoulders and baring my teeth and growling right back. Instead of disappearing under a wave of someone else’s lust, I catch it and ride it and it holds me up.
By the time we get back to his apartment we’ve ripped off half each other’s clothes and our cocks come out in the hallway and I’m surprised we make it through the front door. I’m facedown on the bed and Eric is between my legs, licking and searching, and he finds a place inside that I thought I didn’t have, an island that I can’t reach and that my ex never bothered to search for. I grab the pillow and start exhaling sound into it. My body draws itself into a point, tighter and tighter and ooh shit, this is going to be great and then everything goes black for half a second, and when I come back I’m screaming and sobbing into the pillow and my nose is running like a faucet and how the hell did this happen, how did I get here?
The lights come on. Eric sits me upright and pulls me into his lap, and I swear I can feel the full-moon energy pulsing through his veins and shooting out the top of his head and the tip of his cock. A werewolf who is not here to eat me alive, but here to run with me through the snowy blood-soaked woods. He’s got his claws in my hair and he’s rubbing my back and whispering come back, come back, come back.
I catch my breath, eventually, and blow an unbelievable amount of snot into a tissue. It’s like everything is leaking out of me, even things I didn’t know were in there. Eric retrieves a baseball bat from under the bed.
“Say her name and hit the mattress,” he says.
“Bullshit,” I say.
“Okay then, humor me.”
I raise the bat above my head. Something in me still hurts. Someone has ruined my life and it is not okay and it never will be and if I catch her on the street I am going to tear her face off. I say her name. I pound the shit out of the mattress and scream and cry and throw pillows and after what feels like an hour I’ve cried everything out, and I’m facedown on the bed, and my teeth hurt, and I feel like something has exploded out of me. I feel like sinking into the mattress, like running and hiding, like never showing my messy face in civilization again. Eric is lying next to me on the wrecked mattress and his hand is running over the knobs in my spine and he’s saying good job, good job, I’m so proud of you.
Katherine Scott Nelson (Scott, they/them) writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Their novella, Have You Seen Me, was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, and their short stories and essays have been featured in Ninth Letter, Confrontation, Whiskey Island, and elsewhere. They live in Southern California.