We were all looking for the exceptions; all of us. Our conversations about white people had by now become banal.
Some people really are prohibited to us. At 10 p.m. one night in the summer of 2016, a strange boy with what looked like a modeling headshot messaged me on Grindr. By then, Grindr bots had gotten alarmingly good. It felt like one of those times I’d pick up the phone from an unknown number, hear what sounded like a real person on the other end, and after saying nothing I’d hear: “Hahaha! Of course I’m real, don’t be silly!”
Most days I’d emerge from Culver Hall and trudge back to my apartment. Other days, I’d meander into one of the two best bookstores in the whole world. Either S—, an idyll of nonsensically angled bookshelves that never end—reams upon reams of obscure fiction that led straight to literary theory, then WWII historical fiction, and so forth. Or 5— Books just around the corner. A basement-level series of rooms, with the muffled air of one of those stores that are always frozen in Christmas. Over the many years I spent in Hyde Park, it was staffed by girls wearing thick glasses and boys in turtlenecks. I remember them vaguely, because they were vague.
Except Peter, with whom I spent that perplexingly delightful night. Ultimately, Peter made me lovesick, hoping to unearth a new sensibility of home: a place to arrive, a place to belong. I didn’t know then what I do now; that sometimes, when all we want to do is love someone, we miscalculate our place relative to other people. It’s not until later that we realize there are worlds we cannot belong.
Montana exports two kinds of boys. There are the boys who wear flannel during all seasons of the year, and the boys who wear flannel ironically, unbuttoned over Arcade Fire tees or wedged in under fey neck bandanas. Beyond that, the differences are superficial. Peter looked like a Nordic version of Antoni from Queer Eye. They all sort of look like that, with their trussed brown or blonde hair, their dimples and good teeth, their pale, symmetrical faces. A sense of gravitas, with their richly wavy hair and textured sweaters. But the first thing one sees on Grindr is always the pristine environment behind them, which one imagines as accompanying them at all times. Walking with a Montana Boy is like walking with a boy and a mountain.
I imagined that a lot after meeting Peter for the first time. At my giddiest, I danced down sidewalks in slow-mo as if in a montage. I skipped along, Haim in my headphones, singing aloud, mimicking the strut from the “Want You Back” music video. So you ran away with your heart . . . but just know that I want you BACK! I pranced through the Gothic quadrangles. Past the kids removing their bikes from the stands, past the pattern-bloused conversationalists. I’ll take the fall and the fault in us, I’ll give you all the love I never gave before. I danced as if trying to dance straight into the valley, into a Missoula Instagram where I’d fit right in.
Who gets so giddy from just one evening with a strange boy? Evenings with merry people were everywhere then, at least as possibilities; presented two- or three-fold for a day such that we all planned our calendars like curmudgeonly archivists. But I was also giddy because it served a purpose, in bringing out a quality without which I was hopelessly undesirable. I remember once, when I was fourteen, a group of my friends went to dinner at a very upper-crust friend’s house in Lahore, Pakistan. Her mother terrified us. The house imposed with its dark, sculpted Mughal antiques. The heady brushstrokes of a giant Ismail Gulgee painting. Inadvertently, I made the evening all about my inability to grapple with so many differently-sized knives and forks. The terrifying mother laughed jovially.
When she excused herself momentarily, my friend turned to me. “Wow. Who woulda thought you’d be the one to break my mother?” she said with a grin on her face.
“What are you talking about?”
She looked at me curiously. “You’re so charming, don’t you know? I keep forgetting about that.” She gestured as if to say: I’m impressed but I guess I shouldn’t have been.
Thenceforth—failing all else—I had the great felicity of being charming. Because a kind friend otherwise not prone to compliments had told me so.
And I was banking on that. Charm, and credentials. A serious scholar, a writer, an angst-spurning romantic. Worldly. An activist!—who could dance! Who could be so very silly! Wasn’t that what the in-laws of Missoula would love for their sons?
Peter had an airiness about him. His shirt billowed—dreamily, like shirts billow on Armie Hammer in the Italian village of Call Me By Your Name. He led me briskly through an apartment covered top to bottom with books. We sat in the fire escape out of his room and smoked a joint. I noted an issue of n+1. Hat tip.
His warmth was infectious. He was not just a bookseller; he was also studying improv comedy. Our conversation hopped around; coins flung in a fountain bouncing off their edges:
—Yes, he needed to move out of Hyde Park. “I couldn’t stomach another self-indulgent Hyde Park house party,” he said. At least Foucault was going out of fashion, though. The different kind of activist performativity. The sheer amount of it, from the humanists wearing J.Crew, we agreed, was unbearable.
—He missed Missoula, but Chicago was home now. Was America home to me yet, after four years?
—Yes, he knew some of the folks in the socialist organization I was in. A mutual friend—undocumented. So worried about them, he said. This fucking country.
—He’d found out just that day. A black female bookseller who’d been working at S— for longer than him was paid less. Yes, they had the same hours.
It was all a portmanteau of biting assertions from the intellectually-elitist hipsterdom that I was familiar with; a constant mimicry of fealty and contempt. But it was off-kilter, better, because it seemed sincere. I asked him about his books as I stood up and ran my fingers along the spines. By then I felt I was being sussed out, through elisions and pauses, about just how foreign I really was. Not because it mattered, but because he was curious. And that made it feel earnest, not irritating. I felt looser; either the joint, or Peter, or both. More than alcohol, joints gave me the laxity to be charming, and right now I desperately wanted to charm this boy, using that skill I resented having to use.
I was banking on that. Charm, and credentials.
He was fetching me a glass of water as I moved to a living room bookshelf and picked out Portnoy’s Complaint. I was rifling through it to find a particularly hilarious part I wanted to read out loud when Peter’s roommate stepped into the living room through the hallway. Alex was also improbably beautiful, just differently. A dark-haired, dark-eyed variant of the same genus. He sat down. Turned out he was an upperclassmen in my department. A biophysicist. I said things about physics-envy and evolutionary dynamics. I asked about his advisor. He asked me nothing at all.
“So how do you two know each other?” I asked. They shot each other a look, a look I was very familiar with. “Oh . . . we go way back,” said Peter. “Missoula.”
It was easy to play dumb. I turned back down to Portnoy’s Complaint, absurdly flipping to find the page that I wasn’t able to find. Alex excused himself, Peter retreated to his room with the door open. The dining room was dark. I stepped over towards his room. I felt this subterranean sensation of unraveling. I’d been in the apartment for over an hour, but the knowing look Peter and Alex shared—that look lovers share—had reminded me that so much of my heart still belonged in Pakistan. What was I supposed to do, with all this unease and thrill? Had I been presumptuous about what would happen? I paused over the threshold into Peter’s room. It was 12:30 a.m.
He sat with his legs slung over his bed frame, but there wasn’t enough space on either side for me to sit and do what I was presumably here to do. He leaned back, arms to his side, smiling. “Am I bothering you?” I asked. “Is it past your bedtime?”
“Not really,” he said.
“I should get going,” I said, suddenly. “But thanks so much for having me over!”
He walked me to the end of the street. “So what’s the deal with you and Alex?” I asked. “You guys seem great together.” He told me they had been together, but the way he phrased it was as if they could still be, but were either in an open relationship or were polyamorous. And I understood that. I didn’t mind, given how enthralled I was by both of these boys from Missoula. I just hadn’t understood any of it. In feeling unusually thrilling, the encounter had somehow become even more opaque. He hugged me.
On the Red Line, I kicked myself for not having crossed that threshold. I texted him about how lovely it was to meet them, how I’d love to meet them again. And really, how rare to find like-minded people! He replied the next day, monosyllabically, but enthusiastically. In my mind, I had exercised a choice. It didn’t matter that I had not sat down next to him and kissed him, nor that he and Alex seemed to be very much in love, nor anything else except that I liked him. Both of them, actually.
I fixated on Peter for quite some time. We met a few times, for lunch. I forgave hasty leaves and perfunctory responses; I thought about each of his words carefully. Each time his warm smile would seem less sincere. His blue-gray eyes never seemed to actually be looking at me. In the meantime, I day-dreamed about Missoula, pulling up his Instagram pictures in lab, imagining myself in them; failing. My texts got longer and more desperate, his responses took longer to come, sometimes never. The last time we met he told me he was having lunch in a park, that I should join him if I wanted. When I got there, it turned out he’d accidentally sent me to the wrong park. “Oh I’m sorry,” he said innocently in person, as if he hadn’t made me trek across Hyde Park for an hour. Many times I texted to ask what exactly had happened that first night. He never replied to those texts. I’d never charmed him at all.
This is what I mean about miscalculating our place relative to others. But then: us boys of color, too, keep slipping respective to each other. We cannot claim innocence. Later, a black boy named Jeremy took me out to eat the best chicken and waffles in the city. He treated me with the cheeky camaraderie out of a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com. Gentlemanly. I wasn’t anywhere near as lovely back. We only went on two dates. Much later, he passed away. I saw messages on his Facebook. I couldn’t tell how.
I remember knowing, when we went out, that I was being irresponsible. I shouldn’t have been dating because I was no longer open to anything. I prohibited myself to him. Now I can’t repent, an egotistical thing to want. Now my relation to him is:
I am alive, and he is not/He was a black man in Chicago, and I am not.
My months-long obsession with Peter was a source of constant teasing with my friends. In the beginning, it wasn’t concerning. I’d simply contrive all sorts of reasons to visit the bookstore—even more than usual—to find him in the narrow stacks for some validation that what I felt that night was mutual.
But soon enough, my friend Chris had enough. A biology grad student-only seminar had just ended. Alex had presented. Chris asked if I wanted to go up and say hi, to which I had to admit that—despite having met me, despite our mutual friends—Alex had pretended not to know me every time we ran into each other.
Sloppy from wine back at my apartment, I nattered on to Chris about how much I liked Peter, how meeting leftist gay men was rare, how obvious it was that we had so much in common.
After a long silence, Chris asked: “So that means he’s into you?”
What was I supposed to say? That what I’d thought possible with Peter, from just outside his bedroom, was a future of mine different to what I’d ever had before, and I wanted to fight for it. And yes, talking about such things as if we had a long, storied history of swooning romance made me sound like Annie Wilkes! But if I was to truly get away from even the idea of separating myself from my ex-fiancé, wouldn’t I have to try a life that would be different?
“I hope so, yeah.”
“That’s not what it sounds like.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Don’t you think you’re daydreaming a bit? Because from what you’ve told me, it sounds like it’s not gonna happen.”
“Probably the obvious reason,” said Chris, too quickly.
He made a face of exasperation but also pity. “I dunno. Not the exception you want him to be. He sounds hopeless. Average white douchebag. Sorry.”
I felt ashamed. “He’s not . . . I know what you’re saying, but it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? I just feel like we act like we’re not fucking over-credentialed and privileged ourselves—”
“Okay, you know what? Sure,” Chris interrupted. “Fine.” And because I knew him, I knew he meant well. I just hoped he was wrong. He wanted to be. We were both two brown boys. We knew where we stood. We all did—myself and my friends of color. We’d talked about the theories; about the exchange of status or privilege in interracial relationships. About hypogamy. We knew about the studies that showed it wasn’t as simple as theory would have us believe. But we didn’t need to know all that, did we? It felt simple enough. “Nine times out of ten, we just fucking settle,” my sociologist friend Sneha despaired, after a bad date. We were all looking for the exceptions; all of us. Our conversations about white people had by now become banal.
But with Peter it was hard to know anything. Wasn’t it hard to condemn someone as prejudicial when uncertainty in a doorway and insufficient seating space was all I had to go on?
After all, maybe for me there was an even bigger elephant in the room? Perhaps the real reason I would fail to have a meaningful relationship with Peter or Alex or any Montana Boy was the one my friends would never entertain; the thing particular to me. This is because close friends are oblivious to many things. They accept you only for how beautiful, not ugly, you really are. At a certain point, you’ve talked about the white construct of beauty so many times, that’s banal too. So you don’t repeat yourself. And though you love your friends, you don’t particularly feel like being patronized about how stupid it is to think you might just not be in someone’s league. League! the collective friend mimics, sarcastically. Jesus, Kamil, grow up!
When the infant is developing, according to Lacan, the moment he first recognizes himself in the mirror is also the moment he sees his body’s capacity for sexuality. A premature jouissance; a “me” to search for. That’s nonsense, of course. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see my sexuality; I see its obliteration. As a child, I remember trickling slowly down from my head up: from my unruly thick hair, to my riotous eyebrows, hideous nose, disproportionate lips, down to the pot belly and pregnant hips I was cursed with. If there was something I felt that was foundational to my sexuality, it was revulsion, which extended to my de-eroticized body too. Ugliness has a way of hardening into systemic, historical edicts more conceptual than erotic. Oppressive systems think of ugliness in plurals—the savage, the short, the alien, the coolie, the dark. But what about “me”?
I’d like to say it’s gotten better. It has, somewhat, but my superstitious mother used to tell us that it is not good for one to look in the mirror after sunset. By and large I’ve heeded that warning. It’s a catastrophe of a selfhood, one forged in a belief that I was at once ugly and charming.
And after all, I see myself in some white women. “What is it about the basics of human happiness, you know?” a fat white lady asked in an episode of Louie. “Feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us. No, not for us.”
So isn’t it all hopelessly complicated that I’ve wanted to say the exact same things to a white boy so many times?
2018 was the last year I felt like trying to love someone all over again. Along came a beautiful organic farmer, feted in trade magazines for his innovative, humane, eco-friendly methods. Blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, goofy Nathan. The boy who talked to me about politics and sex and love—and Bozeman, Montana. Owing to his profession, he was often out of town proselytizing his practices, so almost everything was via FaceTime. With Nathan, there was an even lighter encumbrance. I actually spoke to him as I would anyone else.
We talked about spice-offs, agricultural summits, ecosocialism. “This is the real shit that makes The Intercept really rise above almost everyone else,” he wrote, about an article exposing Russian lawmakers buying health insurance stocks while trying to repeal the ACA. “Montana is always calling me back,” he said, describing Bozeman. He sent pictures: of the boy and the mountains.
Nathan was also sexually forward, which I needed because it had been so long since I’d felt desired. He’d call me every day, while driving from town to town, state to state, regaling me with tales of travel. Those days I was reporting out a criminal justice story, and telling him about it was how I got a sense of what it was that allured me to him. A different form of charm: my capacity to hold my own in intelligent conversation. To outdo him.
That I could was no surprise to me; I was just used to withholding from boys so as to not seem superior. Matter of fact, it was the thing I missed the most—I never had to do that with my ex-partner of six years. In a way, it was the seminal dynamic by which I measured everything: the hope that the person I was with was not threatened by the biggest part of me, the one who craved to talk of politics, history, culture, whatever, without censure. About things that mattered, things that were real, things that were hard.
Nathan and I first met at Rickshaw Republic, my favorite Indonesian restaurant in the city. He won a spice-off; no minor feat. My mouth tingled from the nasi goreng. We walked down Belden to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, holding hands. We sat at the edge of the Eli Bates Fountain. Bronzed boy-fish statuettes cooed in the soft water. We kissed for what seemed like ages. I saw the flakes on his skin, his honest face, lantern-lit. He pulled me close to himself, softly.
“Tell me you like me as much as I like you,” he said.
“I’d like to think so,” I smirked.
“Ah, the honeymoon period,” he said, looking in the distance, perhaps towards the place I could belong.
And then he left the city for a long time. At first, we talked every day. As time wore on, my mind drifted towards the only future I thought I had to look forward to: one with just a career. One day, Nathan asked me for a favor. His grandfather’s luggage had been lost at O’Hare. Could I get it and deliver it to his grandfather’s house in Lincoln Park? Of course, I said. I took the unending trains to the airport. Once there, I wrangled the Lufthansa staff into locating the bags as soon as possible, then waited across from a McDonald’s, watching children and parents and people off the street standing for their number to be called. A little boy, blonde, wearing a tiny Batman backpack sat across from me, pensively chewing on his fries, and suddenly I realized how much I was mourning. I’ve wanted to have kids for as long as I can remember, more than anything in the world. Hope hurts so much more than we admit. I’d arrived, then, at another threshold, ready to give it up.
I got the luggage, and dropped in at Nathan’s grandfather’s house. He’d stayed up, even though it was 11 p.m. He invited me in for tea to thank me. I insisted there was no need, but I sat, for half an hour, parrying benign questions about Pakistan. A polite time later, I took my leave. Before I left, his hand on mine, he told me I was good for his grandson, and he hoped I’d stick around. It was kind. My eyes pinpricked. What had done it? Was I sufficiently non-exotic, or was it my act of kindness?
The grandson made up his mind soon enough. “I really like talking to you. I just have nothing to say that I’d be ready to get serious. And it may be that a relationship is untenable,” he texted, from Bozeman, to my complete lack of surprise. He was to return a week later. That turned into two weeks, then a month, then three. By the time he finally returned, meeting me on campus, it was clear nothing serious would happen. I hadn’t backed away or pushed; I was just agnostic about my control over my future. He said he wanted it to be platonic. Then he said, as if thinking about relationships for the first time: “I dunno. I guess I’ve always thought I’d end up with some burly Mid-Westerner!”
It felt like years in the making. Suddenly, I felt comfortable saying out loud that he needed to reckon, really admit to himself, that what he was really saying was that he didn’t want to be with a brown person. He laughed nervously. His eyes flitted across the trees, Pick Hall, the Oriental Institute; everything that wasn’t me. “That’s not fair. I’ve been with brown men.”
He needed to reckon, really admit to himself, that he didn’t want to be with a brown person.
That was the last thing said before I walked away. The desolation ossified. My blood curdled. Not because I’d been rejected—no, I’d reconciled that my entanglements with the Montana Boys were mere conduits for the ex I was really grieving, the one who’d loved me back. It was that Nathan’s last words contained both an old racist chestnut, and a critical seed of doubt. Racism, or ugliness? Don’t ask me. I’ve never been with a Montana Boy.
I walked to my lab. I started an experiment, planning to stay deep into the night. As I mounted samples onto slides, my hands began to tremble. The slide tray tumbled to the ground, and I doubled, crying. It was like a last gasp. I swept up the glass. Then I walked home, stones in my shoes, day after day after day until I defended my PhD, and beyond. I’m still walking.
Just a few months ago, I discovered I still had Peter’s number in my phone. Through the BERN app, I sent a text about voting by mail. He replied almost instantly. We exchanged a few messages. He was now at an arts school in New York. Eventually I asked: “You do know I was . . . strangely obsessed with you, right? Like way back when?”
“Honestly, not really,” he replied.
Here, now, the people are all white. I’m reclusive. I spend a lot of my time with a whole body of critical race and queer affect theory, trying to understand emotion and feeling from the lens of race and queerness. I know the scholarship, I know the debates. I’ve read the books. I’ve accomplished a lot, I know a lot. But if there’s a way theory helps recognize what is allowed to us, no one seems to have found it.
You want to know: What does the nebulous racism of the Montana Boy feel like?
Well—it feels like an intimate betrayal, and it strikes hardest, like the snakebite of the beautiful king cobra, from those who seem the most like-minded. It feels like a premeditated attack on a heart trying to heal. It looks like instant recoil, and it feels like revulsion. It is not unlike the kind one might receive if one is ugly. They feel similar.
“Why do you want to love him?” one might ask. Because we’re senseless. Because this idea—love—when so coveted, is a sickness and a delusion. It debilitates and deludes us; it makes us do terrible things, it makes us want people we have no need for, it makes exceptions feel more likely than they are. But disbelieve the insouciance of the Montana Boy. Because we must leave marks too, right?
“Why can he not love you back?” one might ask.
Because I’m ugly, and he’s not/Because he’s white, and I’m not.
Kamil Ahsan has a doctorate in Biology from the University of Chicago, and is currently a doctoral student in History at Yale. He is also a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in NPR,The Nation,LARB, The Rumpus, The Baffler, and Hobart, among others. Follow him at @kamuleosaurus