Where are their faces? Friday night, and dozens of headless musclemen on video, strutting at some outdoor gay-pride event. Near-naked, their bronzed muscles stretched by steroids and molded by Nautilus machines, a cross between Popeye, Mister Clean, and the Michelin Man. Before the video camera cropped them at neck and knee, these were living beings. Now, on the TV angled overhead, each headless torso is no more than a soft-porn close-up of nipple, crotch, and butt.
I turn away from the monitor, suspended from the darkened ceiling. On the barstool next to me, Bernard Watkins slouches over his beer, gazing into the dim mid-distance. The TV sends radiant light over the left side of his brown face, across the shoulders of his black leather jacket. I mention the videotape. Without faces, I say, the men have no identity. Bernard cocks his head to the side, a pigeon casting a glittering, incurious eye up at the screen. He turns back, shrugs, and grabs his bottle of beer by the neck.
“It all depends on what you’re interested in,” he says, and takes a deep swig.
His sang-froid leaves me speechless. Moving my arm to catch a stray beam of light, I check my watch. The evening might stretch the length of the bar’s polished, dark-wood surface. I take a mouthful of distilled water. The water is so chilled, my teeth feel as if they’re sprouting tiny, mean hairs. For one long moment they ache like crazy.
The Eagle in North Park is not just a bar but a gay bar—and not just that: this is a gay leather bar. Here the lights are low, and a suggestive video plays nonstop overhead. The fact of few barstools means most customers stand in shady anonymity. Cued by the faceless flesh-parade overhead on the monitor, patrons also pose, offering their bodies for appraisal. With little to lean on and less on which to sit, customers keep moving while they scope out the place. The ambiance encourages behavior for which we believe ourselves not wholly responsible.
Blacks are not strongly represented in the gay leather scene. Thus Bernard Watkins represents a minority within a minority. He has agreed to be my guide. But if this teddy bear of a man, outfitted in the standard black leather jacket, is to serve as my Virgil, and if the Eagle is meant to parallel the first Inferno stop in our Divine Comedy, I ask myself.
“Did we take a wrong turn?” It is nearly ten on a Friday night, and the bar, even with its air of furtive encounter, has a neighborly quality, more like a seedy English pub than the hotbed of outlaw sexuality I’d hoped to find.
Much of the room is sunk in inky shadow, with spots of illumination offered only by the monitor, the low lights of the bar, and the light over the pool table, where dark green felt blazes like a patch of lawn at noon. Three men in their 30s and a lean, plain woman with long hair and glasses hover near the pool table. They are an odd group; with leather and Levi’s the uniform of the hour, this foursome in casual cotton duds shrieks outsider. As I watch, the woman, in slow rotation, kisses one man, tenderly touches another, and says something to the third that draws a toothy grin.
Behind its tar-black front door and blue entry light, the Eagle isn’t much more than a midsized room with two cramped toilets at the rear. Like Bernard, men are going slow on their drinks. A couple of women dump together in indigo comers. I’d pictured a packed house of men and an air of edgy expectancy, but the place is friendlier than I’d imagined. I am familiar with its sour odor of spilled beer, the dinging stink of cigarette smoke rising in the dark, that known air of listless inutility, of bodies passing in and out of deep shadow. No music ribbons the mundane, only the soundless videotape overhead, the muted voices and the hushed smack of pool balls caroming off each other. From what I can make out, the only man wearing a red hankie is me.
The Reverend Peter Gomes, professor of Christian morals at Harvard University and minister of the Memorial Church there, wonders if there is such a thing as gay culture. From magazines, mainstream movies, and popular images that are upwardly mobile, middle class, and white-market oriented. Gomes says gay culture appears to be lean, white, upscale, carefree, artsy, naughty, and flashy. This couldn’t, he has said, be the whole picture.
Writer Frank Browning figured gay culture was a culture of desire. He named his book that — The Culture of Desire. Two lean, white, upscale, artsy, naughty, half-dressed, flashy young men pose on the cover. One of the mysteries of gay life is handkerchiefs. Popularized in the 70s and once prevalent in gay ghettos across the country, bright handkerchiefs peeping from jeans’ back pockets were a quick, useful advertising tool, a secret by which the cognoscente knew, according to color and side on which the handkerchief was worn, what the wearer’s sexual interest was for the evening and the role (active or passive) he preferred to play.
Jeff Tango, a 30-year-old phone-sex operator with baby-fine brown hair and pale blue eyes, described handkerchiefs as pretty passe today. “But those who wear them,” he said, “know that yellow is for water sports, brown means scat, and white says you’re into vanilla sex, which is,” his baby blue eyes dimmed with irony, “pretty much suburban stuff.” I asked for a definition of scat.
I looked at him.
“Yep!” he nodded. “Poop!”
Tango went on to explain that a handkerchief worn on the left “means you’re a top. If you wear on the right, you’re a bottom, the one done to.” Tango comes from Minnesota. His flattened affect cools off every remark, no matter how outrageous. “In sexual encounters where roles are strictly held, like in dominance/submission or S & M, it is the top who gives the orders. But,” said Tango, “as everyone knows, one of the dark enigmas of such encounters is that while the top gives the orders, it is the bottom who calls the shots.”
So instructed, I have come prepared. The leather crowd’s uniform — a mix of leather, Levi’s, zipper, and steel — has a potency. RuPaul, touted as the “seven-foot black blond drag queen,” who shimmers on a vector opposite to those at the Kagle, understands the allure. Drag in general (and leather in particular) brings out the “flavor of the person, magnifying hidden areas of your personality that spend most of the time cooped up in the cellar of your consciousness.” I am wearing a pair of chamois-soft, chocolate-brown leather suit-cut trousers (as compared to the more casual motorcycle jean cut) that look sexy but also a bit ridiculous. I look as if I’m standing waist-high in a cow.
The color black is de rigueur with the leather set; fortunately it is so dark my slacks can pass for black. I have on English halfboots, a maroon flannel work-shirt, and I dug up a pair of handcuffs. I have a hill moustache, and I keep my hair shaved close. I remind myself of those paperbacks with covers showing a brawny Mandingo buck hauling around a Southern belle, bodice ripped, breasts exposed. I’m dangling the handcuffs and red handkerchief from my left-side belt loop. My mother whipped my butt plenty as a kid. I don’t want anyone to even think of the possibility here.
I ask Bernard why no one else is wearing a handkerchief, red or otherwise. Hadn’t he said the Kagle was San Diego’s hottest leather bar, especially on Red Hankie night? “Oh!” he says. He forgot to tell me the Red Hankies meet next week.
“It is my aim to bring together people that have the same interests,” notes Bill Freyer in his flier for the Red Hankies of San Diego (RHSD), the organization he formed in 1989. “These interests being ass play; fisting, toys, dildos, and anything else you can think of that can be considered ass play. From a small San Diego club, a new and larger organization for the World has emerged.”
Freyer maintains there are more than 300 Red Hankies worldwide today, RHSD has public bar nights anyone can attend, private socials at members’ homes for members and their guests and play parties that take place at bathhouses or hotels. On the application form, registrants are asked to indicate whether their hands are small, medium, or large.
“There are very few that wear red hankies when they go out. I encourage you to do so. Showing your colons may get you what you want.”
I stash my red hankie and take a deep breath.
Bernard spies someone across the room and takes off. I sit on my stool, cupping the plastic bottle of water between my hands hoping to warm it enough to hazard another sip.
“I overheard what you said...”
A man in a T-shirt sits on my left. The light from the TV washes over his handsome head of silver-gray hair.
“I’m sorry.” He turns to me. “I happened to overhear what you said, about the men in the video having no faces,” he says “I know what you mean. I mean, I think you’re right.” His voice has a reedy scratchiness.
“My friend, the man I was talking to,” I say, compelled to defend Bernard, “he says it depends on what you’re interested in. I don’t know. Maybe he’s right."
“Maybe so,” agrees my neighbor, looking away. His profile is good; a strong nose and chin. This is all I am able to take in; in a gay bar, eye contact carries the weight of invitation. As for the headless men in the video, I was not happy with Bernard’s remark when he made it. Porn, because it lacks heart, is generally a turnoff for me.
“To tell you the truth, that isn’t really the way I want to be, what I’m interested in,” I say, meaning to clear things up.
He nods. “I guess I’m the same way.” He pauses, then leans in. “So what are you interested in?”
The question, perhaps innocent, has a suggestive ring that reverberates like a coin dropped on the oak bar. I think of the dangerous potential, the lethal limits to which erotic intimacy (gay or straight) can lead. In 1995, San Diego was third highest in the country with 330 cases of domestic violence reported by same-sex couples. (New York was first with 454 cases, followed by San Francisco with 347.)
Ten years ago in San Francisco, a friend and ex-lover was shot point-blank between the eyes while in the middle of a sex act with a stranger he’d picked up. Gays have no monopoly on domestic violence nor on assault by a stranger. (Four years ago a woman I’d lived with was murdered while jogging. Her killer was never found.)
“I’m looking at the map of sexual desire,” I say.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “That's why I’m here.” I stick my hand out and introduce myself. “Jim Russell,” he says. He works in talent development.
“And do you like it?”
Russell turns, his face showing three-quarters in the light of the TV monitor. Seventeen years ago he was a popular billboard model, something of a well-known face in San Diego. He looks Jewish, maybe Greek. “You bet! I love talent development. But my real love,” he says, “what really is exciting is the spiritual work I’m doing."
The remark is shocking.
Russell has just broken a cardinal rule of a gay pickup bar, and he knows it. Behavior in gay bars is as regulated as protocol in the court of Louis IV. In a piano bar like Bourbon Street on Park Boulevard, men and women come to sing along. In that wood-paneled warren of rooms, they buy each other drinks or cry in their beer. Intimacies are coaxed forth. If the Eagle stands as a landmark to the dark unconscious, the id, piano bars such as Bourbon Street are for the loquacious superego.
Daemon O’Neill, a slim, darkhaired, neatly put together, hyperkinetic 30-year-old, described for me the dance clubs and bathhouses of the city. Each one is there to relieve “excess energy.” Piano bars are different. Bourbon Street is a socialized hive where customers dress up; where the hum of smart, clever things is heard; where piano music tinkles in the background while waiters take orders for Manhattan and Black Russians, Shirley Temples for those maintaining sobriety.
At dance clubs, baths, and piano bars, one goes to be overwhelmed. At the Eagle, patrons make a point of appearing underwhelmed. For Russell to say, “What is really exciting is the spiritual work I’m doing” is to admit, regardless of the subject, a willingness to shed the mask of studied nonchalance, an essential pose at this stage of encounter.
This phase of the game requires withholding. Straight or gay, there must be unknowns. Later, that man or woman of mystery, who appears to be a fine cheese, when unwrapped might be plain ol’ Velveeta brightened up with yellow food dye. Which is exactly why withholding is important — because each party gets to parade their own mystery and, in the absence of information, insinuate private fantasy onto the other. The unspoken rule is, “Don’t tell me too much.”
I smile and meet Russell’s lull gaze. I place him around 50. “Really?” I say. Many questions could be asked at this moment: What spiritual tradition do you follow? What insight have you learned? How has your life changed? Since the nature of spirituality seems at odds with a gay leather bar, I ask the most natural question—and I know it’s the rudest question too.
“So what are you doing here?”
Russell shrugs. In the light from the monitor, I notice the deft chin, how the silver hair and deep tan hint at the photographic good looks of his youth.
“I live alone,” he says, “and sometimes I want companionship. You know, the conflicting demands of body and spirit?” His smile is rueful.
Why is it that good-looking people tease out our own sense of inadequacy? Russell’s smile, nuanced to suggest a degree of worldly wisdom, cannot help but look calibrated. I imagine him looking over my shoulder, watching himself in a mirror as he speaks. The monitor’s reflection glazes his tanned face, the near-naked video lending him the hint of a blush. But then Russell, in his enthusiasm to speak, does something natural: he takes over the conversation.
His spiritual journey began, he says, when he left modeling alter being assaulted by a stalker. (“I knew I was in trouble when I saw photographs of myself cut up and strewn over the floor.”) He admits to problems that required 12-step intervention. Most amazing was when Russell was misdiagnosed with AIDS. After being tested when he was ill with hepatitis, for months he believed he was HIV-positive.
“It must have been like coming back from the dead when you learned about the misdiagnosis,” I say. “How did it feel?” “Unbelievable!” he whispers.
The deepest need of man is the need
to overcome his separateness,
to leave the prison of his aloneness.
— Erich Eromm
Dr. Fromm was right. When Russell looked me in the eye and said “unbelievable,” he bridged the condition that isolates us all. Suddenly I not only share the torment that followed the HIV diagnosis, but with the same word taste sweet reprieve.
“Now it’s your turn,” Russell says alter a moment. He lays his hands flat on the bar. “Tell me the truth. Exactly why are you here? I mean, whatever you find out, won’t it be pretty extreme?”
The subversive, the daring, what Kant called “negative pleasures,” Peter Stearns, writing in American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style, calls “anti-intensity emotionology.” Our anti-emotional style, he argues, conforms to the “requirements of corporate, service-oriented economy and management structure; small family size, with emphasis on leisure and sexual compatibility between spouses; consumerism; and anxiety about hidden forces within the body that might be disturbed by emotional excess.”
But it is excess, the extreme that I am in search of. I want to draw a map and plant a flag on it, the way they do in war movies. Originally, I’d thought about going to a swingers’ party. Daemon O’Neill had promised me a night of dance bars. There were gay baths and a dominatrix cater-ing to middle-aged men. But I ended up here, and I’m not sure if it isn’t a mistake.
Bernard is at my elbow. “There’s somebody I want you to meet,” he says. I turn to Russell. “Sure,” he says, “I’ll see you later.” I grab my water and follow Bernard, who is already halfway across the room, past the pool table with its blaze of verdant green.
Tango said that while there were plenty of pool tables in gay bars, in three years of working in the phone-sex industry he has never had a client ask for a pool table fantasy in which, say, he is tied down. That surprises me,” he said.
What does not surprise him is the boom in phone sex. It came, he thinks, in a marriage of fear and technology. “The fear of AIDS, of unsafe sex, coupled with touch-tone dialing. This way people can have their fantasy without leaving their easy chair. It is the safest sex of all.”
Tango lives north of San Diego. When he first arrived in California, he worked as a temp. He went on to erotic dancing (where he picked up his surname) and then phone sex. He does massage on the side.
“The way it works is, the client calls the number advertised in the gay press. He talks to the operator and explains what he is interested in. He describes the physical type he wants and what kind of scene— say, college boy to Daddy-type and maybe versatile, top/bottom, vanilla sex, or whatever. The operator then calls me. I call myself the ‘fantasy provider,’ ” he says with deadpan delivery. Tango graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota. It was a double degree, economics and German.
“I get the information from the operator, then call a third number, and punch in a code and the client’s number. The phone rings at the client’s place.” He picks up, and Tango is on. Tango works from the rudiments of the fantasy, weaving a story in which the caller is the central figure, acting out parts for up to 30 minutes. If by then the client has not satisfied himself, he has the option of calling the agency again and booking another call. Tango says most clients do not use the full 30 minutes. His is a flat commission: $6 for a cold call, $8 if it is a repeat. As for the cost to the client, he thinks the company charges $40 for the half hour.
Zak Topor is a beefy Teutonic blond with close-cropped hair. He wears jeans and a black T-shirt with a single leather strap wound around each bicep. Wearing wire-rimmed glasses, he appears almost middle-aged until he smiles; then he’s transformed into a boyish 32. Topor introduces his boyfriend and the two women who stand by. I catch only I Trish Curley’s name, a darkhaired woman with a silver septum ring dangling from her nose. She’s smoking a cigar.
“As a writer,” Bernard essaying to me, “I thought you’d like to meet Zak because he heads the local HIV prevention program, Project Lifeguard.”
“Is that right?” I say, smiling, nodding, waiting for more. But then Bernard says he wants another beer and the others head for the bar — all except Zak. Left alone, Topor looks at me. I look at him. What has happened? Things go to slow motion, the irrelevant detail assumes massive significance, odd connections are made. Over Topor’s shoulder, across the room, the videotape plays. Someone has taken the barstool I vacated. Jim Russell is looking straight ahead, perhaps at me, perhaps at nothing. I notice the videotape again, the decapitated bodies moving across the screen suspended from the ceiling. The TV screen is a temple frieze: the Elgin marbles made flesh.
“How is your work?”
Topor smiles and answers that it is going well. What, I ask, does Project Lifeguard do? The frame of his glasses glint as he moves his head. Topor answers that Project Lifeguard incorporates a “social marketing” program — traditional marketing tools—to help spread the word on HIV prevention and education.
In the years after aids was first reported in 1981, the gay community masterminded an intensive public health intervention. Armed with explicit fliers and scary ads urging the use of condoms for every sexual contact — and later, with subtler messages, trying to promote the new behavior as fun—educators like Topor reorganized gay mating habits. The effort was successful. According to a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, a 1994 New York City study showed that gay men’s average number of unsafe-sex contacts dropped from more than 11 per year in 1980 to 1 per year in 1991. The optimism engendered by the early statistics led some aids organizations to conclude their educational mission was complete. (San Francisco even disbanded its Stop AIDS Project in 1987.) While the safe-sex posters and fliers had worked well, the disease was not disappearing; changes adopted for a finite emergency would have to be sustained over a lifetime.
By 1991, men who had been safe for at least six years were slipping, and many men who had never been safe saw no point in starting. The renewal of prevention efforts took place in a grimmer context.
“According to a 1991 study,” the Times reported, “more than half of the nation’s 20-year-old gay men will contract HIV during their lifetime, if current trends continue. But even among the population of older, white gay men who most successfully absorbed the original prevention message, things began to look less golden.”
San Francisco’s case is instructive. Though the annual rate of new infections had decreased from over 10 percent in the early ’80s to 1.4 percent in 1990, that rate nearly doubled in the last six years. According to the article, even the good news about a class of drugs called protease inhibitors (which have reduced blood levels of HIV in some patients) has backfired. Many gay men were now talking about AIDS as if it were a manageable disease and using this premature hope as an excuse for returning to past unsafe practices.
“To get our message across,” says Topor, “we need to target our population.” He says his staff goes to where gays meet — including bathhouses and cruise sites. The staff works hard to address the different needs of the various gay communities in the area. Topor stifles a yawn. The effort makes his eyes water. “I’ve had a long week,” he admits.
The bar is more crowded. The three men and the longhaired woman are still at the pool table. I scan the crowd; Jim Russell is gone. The videotape has changed. Men clad in tiny black leather outfits parade down a runway. They are indoors, and they have faces. They smile, pause, eye the audience, and then do a fashion model’s turn, perhaps adding a handstand or, with one wrenching Velcro tear, exploding out of what little they wear, dressed only in jockstrap and boots.
Topor knows the bar’s video show. The first one was taken at the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco last summer. ‘‘This one,” he says, pointing, ‘‘is from the International leather Man contest held each year in Chicago.” As it happens, Topor was San Diego’s representative to the contest in 1994. It was a lot of work, he says. Unlike other contests, Mr. International leather emphasizes working within the community and educating the public that the leather scene is not just about pain but “a legitimate alternative sexuality in all of its expression.”
The others return from the bar. Topor pulls out a cigarette. FI is boyfriend flicks a yellow lighter in front of his nose. A flame is reflected, wavering orange twins, in Topor’s glasses.
Cigarettes Are Sublime, Richard Klein’s satirical commentary, was written, Klein says, because America was “in the midst of one of those periodic moments of repression, when the culture, descended from Puritans, imposes its hysterical vision and enforces its guilty constraints on society, legislating moral judgments under the guise of public health, all the while enlarging the power of surveillance and the reach of censorship to achieve a general restriction of freedom.”
Trish Curley is puffing on a cigar, a Havana purchased from the Cuban Cigar Factory downtown. Like the habit-forming booze they drink and the endangered creatures’ fur they wear, cigars are luxe proof of political incorrectness among young people in their 20s. They have embraced Klein’s message. A San Diego native, Curley does body piercing and manufactures the jewelry that customers might wish to dangle from their pierced ear, septum, nostril, tongue, nipple, cock head, perineum, nape of the neck, eyebrow, cheek, lip, between the eyes, clitoris, labia, or bellybutton. Besides her work as a body piercer, Curley also cochairs Club X with Topor. I ask about the club. Over a decade old, she says, the club is a pan-sexual gathering whose members engage in leather, S & M, and fetish experiences. Curley and Topor, it turns out, popped into the Kagle because they expected to find some members here.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, or bisexual,” says Curley. “ The club is for anyone. People come to us who have an average background, nothing unusual, maybe an office job, but they have a fantasy about being tied up, of submitting to someone else or maybe of dominating someone. But,” she is quick to add, “exploring alternative expression within a sexual context does not necessarily mean having sex.” Curley points out the woman and three men who’d earlier monopolized the pool table. They were now putting on their jackets, preparing to leave. They’re Club X, she says. I said I’d wondered what they were doing in a gay bar.
“They feel comfortable here,” she says. “Here they can expect people to understand that when we talk about sadomasochism, we’re not talking about dealing with pain but with what I’d call extreme sensation.”
Having to explain matters to a world more inclined to censure than listen, I am not surprised to find a party line. They all sound like Michel Foucault, the hip French philosopher. “Sexuality is something we ourselves create,” Foucault said in Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning. “It is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire. We have to understand that with our desire, through our desires, go new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sex is not a fatality; it is a possibility for creative life.
“The idea that S & M is related to deep violence, that S & M practice is a way of liberating this violence, this aggression, is stupid. We know very well what all those people are doing is not aggressive; they are inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body — through the eroticization of the body,” continues Foucault. “I think it’s a kind of creation, a creative enterprise, which has as one of its main features what I call the desexualization of pleasure. For centuries people have spoken about desire, and never about pleasure. ‘We have to liberate our desire,’ they say. No! We have to create new pleasure. And then maybe desire will follow.”
“At Club X,” says Curley, “you are with someone you trust. The element of safety comes with that trust and with the fact that you’ve completely negotiated boundaries.” The septum ring hanging from her nose gives her attractive face an odd piquancy. “Our motto," she says, “is ‘Safe, Sane, and Consensual.’ ”
Against her calming recitation jogs the memory of a flier I saw late last year. It was an advertisement for the “Dungeon Tour ’96” in San Francisco. “A tradition returns,” read the flier. “A once- in - a -decade event. C x>n>e see four of San Francisco’s most interesting dungeons. In every dungeon there will be real scenes going on. Meet the real players and checkout their equipment. Transportation, horsd’oeuvres, cocktails, and refreshments provided. Fickets are $75. Limited space available. To benefit the a ids emergency fund. Visa and MasterCard accepted.”
Flannery O’Connor said she wrote about grotesques because “when you write for the hard of hearing, one must shout.” I do not think ofTopor or Curley or the others at this bar as grotesques. At the same time, with sexuality an expression of self, this bar and these people suggest our prudish culture in reverse. I need to breathe and slip outside where the air is cool and the moonless sky black.
As Lexi Steiner walked down the hallway
of the federal court building in San Diego,
she decided that sleeping with men you didn’t
care about was an acquired taste and that she
had acquired it.
— From Slow Dancing by Elizabeth Benedict
Earlier this week, “Hannah Collier” (not her real name) met me for lunch at a Del Mar restaurant. She quickly came to the point: Should we try and crash a swingers’ party? Collier knew of my interest in exploring sexual desire and had the address of a club that met the first Saturday of every month. As we talked, she ate her food with the relish of a woman who enjoys pleasure.
Collier is a cathedral of a woman, tall with strawberry-blond hair that fell below her shoulders. The restaurant had deep, cushioned booths, dark-green carpeting, and muted lighting, which suited her. Her looks are old-fashioned: catamaran cheekbones and sea-blue eyes that seemed bluer set in a redhead’s pale face. A 38-year-old ceramicist, Collier, married and the mother of two teenage daughters, takes temp jobs as much to feed her curiosity as to bring in money. It was one of those jobs, handing out fliers at a sex conference, that introduced her to the swing scene. She was invited to a private party. She couldn’t make it and found out the next day the party had turned into an orgy. “It sounded bizarre to me," she said, “but I have to admit I was curious." Later she was invited to another private house party. This time she went. Everything was okay, she recalled; it seemed normal enough, people in small groups chatting. At one point. Collier took her glass of white wine and stepped out back to look at the pool. There, in the shallow end, she saw a woman standing and having sex.
“It was with two men at the same time,” she said. “I knew the party was supposed to be for sex, but still, when the Woman started making these loud noises — it was like an animal. I’ve never heard anything like it. Anyway, it spooked me and I left.”
Collier learned of a circuit of monthly parties where women are always welcome, but a man must be accompanied by a woman. Homes owned or rented by swingers were given over to swinging. From what she could gather, people parked away from the homes so as not to alarm neighbors. Inside, furniture was moved and mattresses laid on the floors. There might be an orgy space, a room for viewing, a room with straps hanging from the ceiling. Women, it seemed, were always the ones tied up.
In a recent Newsweek poll on adultery, of those questioned, 70 percent said an affair is always harmful to a marriage (22 percent said it can sometimes be good for a marriage). Newsweek titled its September 19th cover story “Adultery—A New Furor Over an Old Sin.” Dr. Frank Pittman, who has authored a book on infidelity, said by way of definition, “The essence of an affair is in establishing a secret intimacy with someone,” a secret that must be defended with dishonesty. Infidelity, he writes, isn’t about “whom you lie with, but who you lie to.”
Originally I had planned my map of sexual desire to include heterosexual eroticism. Just as a leather bar is distinguished by garb, attitude, and at-home paraphernalia, I’d looked into what straights — adulterous, swingers — were keen to use. In the Xandria Collection, a mail-order catalog of sex toys, I found lubricants and lotions (Fever Body Lotion “makes the skin heat up in anticipation”), clitoral stimulators, desensitizer cream for men, a string of pearls (which hang by soft loops “from your erect nipples to give you the most delightful sensations. Playful bedtime fun or, if you dare, wear them under your favorite blouse all day long!”), books, and a range of vibrators, molded to look phallic, with names like “Cupid’s Quiver,” “Honey Dipper,” “Thriller,” and “Easy-Squeezy.” (In each case batteries were “not included with purchase.”)
I was getting cold feet. As Collier described the situation at one of the monthly parties, it became clear we could not just show up, take a peek at the setup, chat with some of the attendees, and then leave. We might have to perform—and maybe not just with each other. Hannah looked at me. I looked at her. “Let’s pass!” we said in one voice, and slapped five.
Back at the bar, Zak Topor is putting on his jacket. “We’re leaving,” he says. We shake hands. He and his boyfriend and Trish Curley and her girlfriend head for the door, moving through the crowd in a single rumba line. It’s getting late; the bar has twice as many customers as it had an hour ago; and I’m feeling blue. Woody Allen, speaking on masturbation, said not to knock it. “It’s sex with someone you love.” I wonder why these people don’t call it a night, go home, and make it with someone they love. A straight friend admits to weeping in the course of the act; for him, it is proof that he is alone, and he is lonely. Maybe Fromm was right. If man’s deepest need is to leave the prison of his alone-ness, to overcome his separateness, then the act of self-love confirms our isolation.
In the name of research, I had attended a 12-step Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting, where I observed the consequences for those who seek to overcome their sense of separateness and isolation through sex. A chilling tension permeated the room. While meetings for alcoholics don’t have booze, nor overeaters food, nor gamblers dice games, at a sex addicts’ meeting, attendees struggle for independence while in the room with their addiction, others whose sexuality matches theirs. Here at the Eagle, as men stand about, talking in pairs or groups, or eyeing each other, I cannot determine the level of sexual dysfunction, but I do feel the presence of something akin to that chilling tension I’d felt at the meeting.
Through the haze of smoke and moving phantoms, a man pops out of the crowd, heading for me and Bernard. His head of premature white hair has been buzz-cut. He wears a black leather vest and jeans. He has a wide, happy smile. “What the...!” cries Bernard and wraps the man in a bear hug. “How have you...?” “But you look...!” The pair exclaim in half sentences, old friends catching up. The stranger speaks with an English accent. When Bernard has a moment to catch his breath, he turns and introduces me to Owen Lyons. The time, when checked, was 11:48.
Though in many of its aspects
this visible world seems formed
in love, the invisible spheres were
formed in fright.
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
It is early Saturday morning, and I am flying across the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. Owen Lyons’s Mercedes Benz sporty convertible is just ahead.
“If a young man is promiscuous, we say he is sowing his oats; if a young woman is promiscuous, we say she is a slut; if a homosexual of any age is promiscuous, we say he is a neurotic example of low self-esteem,” writes Andrew Holleran in his book Ground Zero. “Everyone has his/her own definition of promiscuity. Americans, products of consumer society, with a short attention span, a bent for instant gratification inculcated by advertising, and a fairly lonesome society, are made for promiscuity. Some gay men think promiscuity is a revolutionary ideal that can transform the world, release human energy, and make the planet a better place to live. Others think promiscuity is a freeway to hell. Before the plague (AIDS), promiscuity was a growth industry. Before the plague, promiscuity was the sore point of homosexual life. Why — even gay men wish to know—did homosexuals convert liberation into promiscuity? No one knows.
“When a friend asked me, ‘Why are gay men promiscuous?’ I started to reply, ‘Because they don’t marry and have children, because they feel guilty about being gay, because they’re men, because men are like dogs, because they’re lonely, because everyone would have as much sex as he could if he could, because sex is the most transcendent experience’ — then I saw my friend lighting another cigarette, and said, ‘Why do you smoke?’ ”
The bridge curves gently downward. Lights from the yacht harbor, and ahead, those of the sleeping seacoast village glow, suspended, in the misty air.
“Promiscuity offends that deep desire W.H. Auden said was not merely to be loved, but ‘to be loved alone,’ ” continues Holleran. “Promiscuity entails a double standard: We want to be promiscuous ourselves, but we want the people we sleep with to want only us. Tennessee Williams said, ‘Each time I pick someone up on the street, I leave a piece of my heart in the gutter.’ Oscar Wilde said, ‘I lie in the gutter but look up at the stars.’ Promiscuity anesthetizes many aches. Promiscuity is the quest for what can never be attained.
“Promiscuity is hope. Promiscuity is a sadness, a rut, a daily self-degradation. Promiscuity is the last true adventure, the last ecstasy, the last rain forest of industrial consumer man. Promiscuity is a means of remaining a perpetual adolescent. Promiscuity fails to satisfy that most important need—for intimacy, rootedness, shelter. Promiscuity supplies these in small, ecstatic doses. Promiscuity gives us something we can acquire no other way: the wisdom of prostitutes. Promiscuity eventually degenerates into mere habit and, like any habit, is very hard to break. Harder to break than, say, cigarette smoking, because promiscuity is an attempt to escape from loneliness. Promiscuity guarantees loneliness. In a promiscuous world, people come to believe they are worth no more than their genitals. In a promiscuous world, they’re right.”
Was Lyons promiscuous? Maybe, but he didn’t possess the repertoire of knowing glances and ready asides I’d come to associate with the type. Of course, he’d been around the block a few times, but so had I. He and his lover had broken up some months ago, while I hadn’t slept with anyone for months. Long dry spells, a blazing desert of loneliness with the shady oasis of intimacy every once in a while—while I seldom thought of my love/sex life in these terms, it was a fair description. At the bar, Lyons and I spoke in an easygoing exchange. He thought England had a better history of race relations than the U.S. I told him he was mixing issues of class with race. He spoke of his family and what it was like living as a foreigner here. I described how my year at Oxford was one of the happiest of my life. We talked about gay relationships. He accused me of cynicism. I admitted I probably was.
“Me too,” he said.
It was our mutual cynicism that led me to following him now through the tollbooth and on the way to his apartment. Our shared cynicism was a clue to more deeply held values. He checked out my leather trousers and my handcuffs.
Beyond the tollbooth area, in the city proper, I see the police car. I tell myself he’s going to pull me over: It is early in the morning, the streets of Coronado are deserted, and I’m black. Sure enough, as I pass the cop car, it swings in behind me, lights flashing. I slide into a spot in front of the Village Theatre, the cop car behind me. Lyons parks ahead. I pull out my license. My heart is pounding. When the policeman approaches, I hand over the license. I watch through my rear-view mirror as the officer returns to his car. Soon the policeman is back. He asks how I’d spent the evening.
“I was at a bar in San Diego. The Eagle. It’s in North Park.” “And what did you have to drink?”
I explain that I’d had nothing, that I don’t drink. If he means to test me, I thought, the only thing to be measured is some ice-cold distilled water. But I say nothing more: I make no moves around policemen and offer no remarks. I think of the handcuffs that still dangle from my belt loop.
“Did you know,” he asks, “you were driving without lights?” “Really?” Surely, I think, I could not have driven all the way from North Park like that. Then I remember and explain that it must have been at the toll-booth. I probably touched the trigger-sensitive switch when I paid the toll.
“Is that right?” The policeman turns his head, taking in Lyons’s expensive sports car with its ruby-red parking lights on. “Is that person with you?” he asks. Yes, I answer. I say he lives here in Coronado, which is not exactly the truth. Lyons told me earlier he was staying in a friend’s apartment here while his house was being fumigated.
“All right, then,” says the officer. He heads back for his car, and I drift away from the curb. Lyons does the same, leading the way.
Following Lyons, I make a right, turning down a wide street: I park and lock my car. I follow Lyons up the walk, into the apartment complex. We don’t speak. He is maybe an inch shorter than me. His build is powerful and his walk brisk. He is somewhere in his 40s.
The grass smells fresh and just watered. A man is emptying his garbage. I register these facts without wondering why the grass should be watered or a man putting out his garbage at 3:00 in the morning; if I do, I might also question why I’m about to enter a stranger’s apartment. What am I to make of the eager, erotic taste blooming sweet-sour in my mouth? I have no sense of my own immorality. I have the support of conservative clergyman Peter Gomes, whose sweet-licorice delivery and impeccable credentials helped name him “one of America’s seven greatest preachers” by Time magazine. Gomes officiated at inaugural ceremonies for Presidents Reagan and Bush and recently published The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, a 1996 Book of the Month Club selection.
“Gay people,” Gomes announced, “are victims not of the Bible, not of religion, and not of the church, but of people who use religion as a way to devalue and deform those whom they can neither ignore nor convert.
“The biblical writers never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer. All they knew of homosexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. These vices, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals, and to define contemporary homosexuals only in these terms is a cultural slander of the highest order.”
As I follow Lyons through the apartment complextiered flats surrounded by a landscape of potted palms and cascading waterfalls — as we climb the outer staircase to the second floor, as my host turns the key in the lock and the cylinders mesh with a faint click, it is not the arguments of church I hear, but instead the voices of a chorus: “So all right. He was with him at the bar and all the rest, but now does he have to rub our noses in it?” In mapping the state of desire, I never imagined the reality of walking into a strange apartment.
“The capacity to deny,” says Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman, “to remain innocent, to use belief as a protection against sophistications of every sort — intellectual, aesthetic, moral, psychological — keeps the American character from awakening. The American character remains blind to the tact that the virtues of mediocrity — those pieties of disciplined energy, order, sell-control, probity, and faith — are themselves messengers of the devil they would overcome.
“America’s most valued and tenacious antidepressant drug,” continues Hillman in The Soul’s Code, without which it cannot tight a war, produce, or have a nice day [is] the myth of innocence, the psychology of denial.’’
Following my treasure map, this is where I end up? I notice the apartment’s airless rooms and darkened spaces feeding off the living room. Lyons switches on the lamp, then dims the light. The apartment’s lack of furniture — just an easy chair, desk, coffee table, lamp, and an expanse of dove-gray carpet — shouts of anonymity, of transience. Lyons closes the door, muttering that his friend owns the lease but does not live here anymore. He locks the door. I hear myself clearing my throat. A light fear threads through my body and a sexual tension flares between us — hot cinders lighting the air, heating the lungs.
Once when I was a kid at the beach, my mother dished out a hot dog, folded a bun around it, and told me to go sit down and eat. I remember turning and watching stupefied as my weenie slipped out of the bun and onto the sand. I howled, even as my mother cleaned off the thing. Wiping my eyes, she said it was all right to eat it now.
“A little dirt never hurt anybody,” she said.
Lyons strips, and when he is naked except for his socks, he trusses himself with a leather cord like the one the Xandria Collection lists as a Velcro Man Strap (“Fully adjustable to fit your mood. Wear it and feel your soldier jump to attention”). Now priapic, Owen Lyons kneels before me and says, “Sir, may I help you with your shoes?”
How curious that at this moment I am reminded of an incident that took place years ago, when I lived in New York and worked at Harlem Hospital. I hobbled onto a downtown subway using a pair of crutches borrowed from the male orthopedic ward (part of my costume for a party the next evening). I was 22, young enough to enjoy the spectacle of myself, boarding the standing-room-only subway car as a cripple.
An old white woman, twisted with age, uttered one Eastern European-accented word. “Please. . She stood and pointed to her seat. My jaw dropped. In that Broadway local subway car, someone must have suspected that this robust, well-dressed young man was a fraud, a guy having a goof. But not that old woman. She took what she saw as truth; that someone on crutches is a person in need of a seat. Ashamed more than I can say,
I knew I no longer had the option of dropping the crutches and shouting, ‘Hey! I can walk!’ Pretending gratitude, I collapsed into her scat, mumbling thanks. For the long ride, I continued to play the cripple. But I was not acting just for her. When she got off the subway, nodding to me as she made her way to the double doors, I realized everyone else in the car had seen our exchange. I could not shame her good intention, nor did I want to shame myself. I played the cripple all the way home.
With Lyons, I pretend again, but this time it is easier, for we play off each other. Our intentions are benign. We wish simply to experience pleasure.
The bottom, I had learned, must have a real experience of his vulnerability. Bondage makes clear the inability to protect oneself. Some people need more than bondage to have vulnerability revealed. They may need a hand at the throat. They may need to feel broken under the assault of physical or mental stimulation.
“Thank you, sir,” Lyons says when I snap on the handcuffs. He asks if I am going to punish him because he is a white man. He wishes to be punished. This is the game. Jeff Tango was right: if as the top I get to set the rules, it is Lyons who is calling the shots. He says he knows that he deserves to be punished. The Southern belle has been replaced by a white Englishman. But I am still the Mandingo buck.
According to Bernard, a person learns to be a good top by performing for a while as a bottom. In the course of our conversation at the bar, I’d learned from Lyons that he usually acted as the top. It is only now, with this man who moves as I tell him to, speaks or doesn’t as I order, that I recognize his skill. Staring up in the dim light, his head canted to the right, I get my first good view of Lyons. He is ugly the way wantonness can sculpt handsome features into something primal. For me, pretty men are not sexy and Englishmen are often wimpy, but Lyons is neither unattractive nor weak — even on his knees. I take his head in my hands, surprised at the fine softness of his hair, the rounded feel of skull underneath.
In the course of dominance/submission, in the second stage, once the existing state of ordinary consciousness is disrupted, forces must further destabilize the existing state, thus directing the mind toward the altered state.
I order him to stand. Wearing the handcuffs, he rises.
He does as told. On his naked back, between the shoulder blades, Lyons bears a tattoo. I see it is a lion. I trace the outline of the beast and then let my finger, my full hand, move down...
In the last stage of dominance/submission, the new state of consciousness must be destabilized. So far it has been a game that Lyons has choreographed. I order him to put on shorts and nothing else. He has some in the bedroom. May he go there, he asks, but first may he go to the toilet? I give permission. While he is away I put on all my clothes and check my wallet for ID. When he returns, I remove the handcuffs and tell him to remove his socks.
“Now we’re going to take a walk.”
Excitement and fear twist his mouth.
I know Lyons. Our ritual together has cut across barriers of dominance, of race, of private historical reckoning. I understand that he craves danger, the opportunity to abase himself, the chance to suffer humiliation. I suggest he carry some ID, in case we get stopped. He says it doesn’t matter, and something pinches me, tells me to remember this moment, and I do. I open the door, and we descend the two flights of steps, the cool black air filling our lungs.
A black man, fully clothed, and beside him a white man, all but naked, stroll a sleeping neighborhood at 4.00 in the morning. We circle the block. We don’t talk. It is chilly, and Lyons’s flesh has pinked. A man bends over papers at his desk in a second-story window, a lamp casting his shadow against the wall. We pass unnoticed. A cat gazes at us from under a parked car. Suppose someone should see us and call the police? What if the cop who stopped me earlier should appear, his lights flashing? What if we meet someone out walking their dog, or someone unable to sleep? What do I say?
Later in the morning, when he is dressed, Lyons will pat his back right pocket in that ritual gesture whereby men assure themselves. But Lyons’s wallet will not be there when he feels for it, and the color will drain from his face. Is everything all right? I will ask, and he’ll remember and look at me. I thought I lost my wallet, he’ll say, but I just remembered I left it locked in the car last night.
A few hours from now, Lyons, remembering his wallet, will forget to whom he was speaking. He had locked his wallet in his car before having sex with a stranger, a man whose use of handcuffs will render him so vulnerable his life might have been snuffed out. And yes, he thought perhaps I might steal his wallet. Was it because I was a trick? Or was the black-white game we played not really a game? When he said he needed to be punished, was it for his secret thought that I was a thief?
For the moment, as we circle the block, I am struck by the fact that a white foreigner feels less compunction about walking outside naked in the early morning than I do, fully dressed and carrying proof of myself as a citizen.
On the way back to the apartment, Lyons bends to pick up a copy of the local newspaper, the Coronado Eagle. The evening’s sense of unreality returns. Back in front of the apartment, I order him to take off the shorts. He looks around anxiously. ‘‘But...!” I raise my hand.
“Take them off.”
Abashed, he does as he is told. Naked now, he clutches the shorts, trembling. He holds his hands together as if they were still handcuffed. He has been brought to an edge. I take the lead and we make our way on a tightrope of tension, walking carefully through the complex. We ascend to the second floor. My feet scrape against the steps. Once inside the apartment, Lyons is in a heightened state. The Romantics understood. In another context, they called it “trailing clouds of glory as we come.”
I’d started the evening hoping to locate a place on the map of sexual desire. By early morning, given over to desire, I’d found a spot with myself on it.
I am I, am I;
All creation shivers
With that sweet cry
I felt great, but after sleep, Yeats’s cry of aliveness will descend into familiar isolation. “Unbelievable” was the word Jim Russell whispered at the bar. Acknowledging a need to “overcome separateness, to leave the prison of aloneness,” my emotional descent was complex — nostalgia, sadness, silence, and a yearning for something else that was not here. At the bar, in our agreement about shared cynicism, I had not explained to Lyons that, as choices went, cynicism was a kinder alternative to jadedness.
Owen Lyons will invite me to sleep over, and I will be grateful; it is late and sometimes one is not asked to stay. In the morning I will paint a fantasy for Lyons that Jeff Tango could not construct for his clients. I will put Lyons back at the Eagle on the blazing green pool table. I will surround him with men who watch him and do things. Later we will dress and later still, at home, I will hear from someone at Project Lifeguard who invites me to a gathering of blacks at Morley Field, and I will say thanks, but no thanks. I will sense what is coming, like a migraine, I will feel the anxious pulse quickening. By Monday when Lyons is installed in his fumigated home, and I sit to write this account, I will begin with a description of men on video without faces — and I will know myself to be like them.
I’m too old for this kind of thing. Only in the extravagance of youth do we give away our devotions on the assumption that we’ll always have more to give. With age I have become stingy, hoarding my resources after learning that everything, including feelings, come with a price. Heartaches and heartbreaks are as real as heartburn. Now always becomes later, there is always an afterward.
A director of gay porn movies told me he films the sexual stuff first. The incidental sequences (first encounter, seduction) are filmed last because the actors “perform” better the less they know each other. Lyons and I were not just actors; we were too good at it for it not to he real. But intimacy requires context if it is to he sustained, especially one such as ours, which breached barriers quickly. Seeing too much while knowing so little — maybe that appealed to me when I was younger. Too much was no longer enough. I wanted less, and more.
Here is what happened; we slept and, after the casual intimacy of those few dreamless hours, awoke and dressed. As we prepared to vacate the friend’s apartment, Lyons recalled what he’d done with his wallet. In understanding, I did more than forgive him. That was how we left it.
Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Nobel Prize winner for literature, published a poem 40 years ago called “Nothing Twice.” It begins: “Nothing can ever happen twice, / In consequence, the sorry fact is / that we arrive here improvised / and leave without the chance to practice.”
I want another chance not to do it right but better. I would change nothing—the same bar, the same scene, the same people. To struggle is to drown. But so what? Shakespeare called this a bawdy planet. My map shows one of its sites. It is an oasis, a spot of shade in a desert. Located by longitude and latitude, “My identifying features,” Szymborska has written, “are rapture and despair.”
I always check my watch before falling asleep. I know it was after 4:00, but I could not tell more with such little light to see by — no light in the room and neither street lamp nor moonlight pressing against the undraped window. The early-morning sky might have been night, so dark was it that I could not see my hand in front of the place where my face was supposed to be.