By Joseph Lezza
In the summer of 2002, I fell in love with a hundred year-old Russian imperialist. As far as first loves go, it was about as irrational a manifestation as one might expect though, in my defense, he looked no more than seventeen at the time. We’d been introduced a few months prior, in a rehearsal studio converted out of a shuttered Wawa convenience store, both of us clutching freshly Xeroxed copies of the libretto to Fiddler on the Roof. The two lone Christians cast to antagonize the otherwise peaceful Jewish denizens of Anatevka, the schedule kept us largely separated from the main players. Inside the air conditioning, Yente would make her matches and Tevye would pray for riches while the two gentiles baked out in the July heat, attempting to master the hopak. Pale, blonde and lithe, a poster boy for eastern Europe, the Russian sailed through each move as if it were nothing more than an afternoon stroll. Whereas I, with my umber mop and the grace of a Super Mario Brother, clunked up the rear, fooling no one. Nevertheless, across the parking lot, we squat and kicked, kicked and squat day after day, drilling the steps for passing motorists until the pavement sizzled under our boots.
As it’s known to do, forced camaraderie soon gave way to fast friendship, the solitude obliging a shared teenage egoism and all around saltiness that we justified as “method acting.” We were, after all, the villains. His confidence, like his gait, was without effort, no doubt due to the years he had on me (all two of them). Such confidence bred conversation and prolonged exposure inevitable admiration. He detailed his obsession with The Rocky Horror Show (to a theatre nerd, impossibly radical) recounting the times he’d skipped class so he could rush tickets in the city (to a sophomore, inarguably badass), class, I should mention, at a school no less than an hour away (to a non-driver, remarkably exotic). Insight only compounded my infatuation, something I labored to mask by meeting each of his disclosures with a nod or one-word validation. He unnerved me with his openness, something my untested gut could not interpret and, fearing confusion, I sought to explain it away. It wasn’t until opening night, on a ratty couch in the basement dressing room of New Jersey’s most majorly minor non-profit theatre, that he rested his leg across my knee and killed me instantly.
Somewhere between harassing Chava and wrecking Tzeitel’s wedding, my territory was annexed right out from under me. Just above, the stage creaked under the roll of set pieces, sending sawdust into the air. To my left, behind the door to the orchestra pit, strings plucked out the opening notes of “Sunrise, Sunset.” I’m sure that’s just how it happened. That’s how it had happened at every rehearsal. At that moment, though, I heard nothing but the ringing in my ears and saw only the leather boot perched on my right thigh. I just stared at it, seized up, as if some sudden movement might scare it away. At some point, I knew I had to go back on stage and deliver one of my two lines. But, unless it was “Boot!” I’d long forgotten it.
After an indeterminable amount of time, I allowed my eyes to travel. I meandered past the laces and cuffs of wool trousers, dotted along the hem of a military jacket, jumped a thick black belt cinched across the waist, and climbed a ladder of gold fasteners to meet a set of eyes. His eyes. Blue eyes. Deep blue eyes. Deep blue eyes trained on mine. The kind of blue I might compare to an ocean because I’m in high school and can’t think of a better metaphor. The kind of blue I could drown in if he’d grant permission. And then, permission. The spread of two lips. A crooked smile and a pair of extra long canines to which I wanted nothing more than to offer my neck. I loved him in that moment and for many moments after, the kind of love we’re prone to cheapen later in life because it’s raw and unbleached. Yet, that first hit on the tongue is rich, unprocessed; no subject to regulation or standards that will inevitably diminish its quality. It’s the delicious flavor that started it all and the toothache we live with the rest of our lives.
In the ensuing weeks, after the summer theatre staff decided against casting a dusky Italian with permanent five o’clock shadow as a young Siamese prince, I did everything within my limited means to keep the connection on life support. Without a car, communications with the Russian was relegated to the shared family computer. Every evening we’d pound out ineloquent declarations as we worked out a plan to come back together. Foolish and desperate, I stretched my fifteen year-old wallet as far as it could go and bought two nosebleed seats for Rocky Horror. “You’re the best,” he wrote. “The absolute best.” A beautiful boy thought I was the best. We planned a day in the city: He’d play tour guide, taking me to Bleecker Street, the Village, to the galleries and all of his favorite hidden spots. Back then, any land outside of midtown Manhattan might as well have been another country, a nameless place whose existence was known only to me by its presence on the subway map. I envisioned smoke-filled cafés, drag queens walking tiny little dogs and dark corners where he would run his fangs along my bottom lip. It was all very sweet and it was all very set.
I marked the days flipping burgers for beachgoers at the Seagull’s Nest Snack Shack, making a little extra change for my looming adventure. One evening, after my shift, my father showed up to drive me home, an uncommon occurrence as it would have meant his leaving work early. From the passenger seat he felt a million miles away, peeling off as soon as the door clicked into place without as much as a nod in my direction. Something was undoubtedly amiss. There was no tousle of my hair, no squeeze on my shoulder, no classic oldies blasting from the radio. His mouth was flat and his eyes krazy-glued to the road in an unpeaceful quiet my mind filled by concocting all manner of possible catastrophes. Something so horrible my father couldn’t bring himself to speak it out loud. And, when he did find the words, they were anything but reassuring.
“Listen, you can’t go into the city on Sunday anymore. Tell your friend it’s an emergency.”
He pulled into the driveway and barely came to a full stop before bolting into the house ahead of me. I made my way up the porch and through the front door, expecting to step into a crime scene. Instead, the kitchen seemed perfectly in order. There was no police tape, nothing shattered or smoldering. My mother and father sat at the table, backs to the wall, staring at me over a spread of neatly arranged sheets of paper. Taking a seat across from them, the first thing I noticed was red. Each page bled like the nameless victim of a knife-happy psychopath. But, on closer inspection, these stiffs were not so anonymous. Above each puncture wound, words came into focus. You’re the best. Familiar words. How could you not know how I felt? Private affirmations. I can’t wait to see you. Each innocent admission slashed with thick crimson as the chronology of my sweetheart correspondence blanketed the tabletop. It was a crime scene, indeed. And, I’d been called in to identify the bodies.
“You’re spying on me?” I lifted my eyes to my parents while my stomach slowly devoured itself.
“Absolutely not,” my mother spat, arms folded tightly around her chest. “I was using the computer to send an email and…and hit some buttons by accident.” Computer illiterate as she was, my mother was no idiot. Though it was clear she took me for one. “Besides, I have a right to know what’s going on in my house.”
“Nothing’s going on in your house.”
“Then what’s your explanation?” she lowered her hand to the table and violently tapped the nearest page with her index finger.
Trouble was I didn’t have one. Not only because I knew so little myself but also because it never dawned on me that this was something that begged an explanation. In that moment, I knew nothing I could offer would satisfy them. This wasn’t an interrogation, it was a forced confession. They wanted a fast guilty plea and a rush to judgment. But, doing so would be asking me to criminalize that which felt wild and organic. And, I could admit no wrongdoing where I saw none. Where I declined to respond, Mom met my silence with harsh accusations. Page by page, she poured through each line, framing the object of my affection as some manipulative deviant, assembling a timeline of my supposed brainwashing. I sunk into the chair as the mischaracterizations, each more absurd than the last, piled up until the words lost all meaning and her voice hit my ears like a mix of shrills and bellows. Dad sat to her left, muted, gazing down at the pages in defeat.
The rest of that summer was spent under house arrest. Work release allowed me to return to the snack shack, where I’d bury my rage in overcooked fries. Car rides became captive ministries, the driver’s seat a pulpit from which my mother bemoaned the pains and perversions of anal sex: “You really want a man to do that…to you?” After being perp walked to the rehearsal studio that I might leave the Rocky Horror tickets for the Russian, I was instructed to cut off all communication with him. To my surprise, however, computer access remained unrestricted and, as such, easily exploited. This would later reveal itself to be a well-placed trap upon the discovery of a binder atop my father’s armoire containing a spyware CD-ROM and printouts chronicling all of my continued transmissions to the boy. With the computer compromised, there wasn’t an inch of the facility that wasn’t under surveillance. And, under those conditions, I submitted myself to a self-imposed solitary confinement. I kept my head down at meals and avoided eye contact so as to side-step provocation; chewing in the closemouthed stalemate forged between two parties unwilling to yield.
The bubble burst one afternoon as August waned. A creak at the bottom of the steps signaled the approach of one of the guards, neither of which had set foot on the second floor in weeks. Tucking my knees to my chest, I braced against the headboard of the bed as my father appeared in the doorframe.
“Can we talk?” His tone was meeker than I remembered, and his hulking silhouette somehow diminished.
Nodding, I admitted him. Taking a seat at the edge of the bed, he hunched over, locking his gaze on the carpet. In his lap, big, meaty fingers wrapped themselves around the fist he ground into his palm. For a time, he just sat there, filling and emptying his lungs, expanding and contracting. Each breath grew more intent, as if steeling himself for an attack. In my corner, I readied to thrash, calling up every verbal defense I’d spent weeks sharpening. But, just as I readied to strike did his latest exhale erupt into a fit of hisses and spurts. Suddenly the impressive figure before me curled into himself, releasing quiet sobs into the hands that now cradled his face. There had been no way to predict or prepare for this and, from my perch, it was all I could do to hug my knees closer. Grabbing the bedpost, he righted himself and twisted to meet my eyes out of glasses that dripped with his own tears. And, between heaves, he was short and to the point.
“I don’t think you are…I don’t think you are…”
Over and over, he repeated it as if wishing it away, me away. But, far more damning than the words was the weeping. That this man, the man who did not cry at his own father’s funeral, was shattered by the discovery of who his son really was. That what I’d done to him was worse than death.
For the accidental offender, distance is often a logical next step after time served. Though home looks almost normal through eyes readjusting to the light, punishing clarity is inescapable. Days become governed by tiptoeing around chalk outlines of your former self, by scraping residue off the walls; gunk from police tape that gets under your nails. Eventually it becomes necessary to leave before you rip up the floorboards and grind your thumbs down to the knuckle. It’s a fast and unpleasant realization, after a trial, that association is not washed away by decree. The stench lingers long after conviction or exoneration, soaking into the follicles and fibers of our existence. At times it is all we can do to outrun it, hoping that the wind to our front will keep the vapor at our backs.
I went to Washington at eighteen to exchange ideas and bodily fluids. College provided. The activist was handsome - a bit older, a bit shorter. He waited for our date outside my dorm in a gray hoodie, jeans and a pair of chucks: the picture of uncomplicated self-possession. I arrived in loose-fitting green cargo pants and a billowy orange Oxford unbuttoned so as not to obscure my blue t-shirt, the one emblazoned with “JOE” in bold, white lettering - just in case my identity crisis wasn’t visible from space. At the Sunoco station, he handled the nozzle at the self-serve pump like a gunslinger, waving to me through the rear window. I spent most of dinner pushing a Caesar salad around its plate, unable to eat, unable to speak when he asked if I was ok; the memory of what had happened the last time I spoke my truth too fresh of mind. We went to the movies, In Good Company. There was a love scene. Scarlett Johansson brought a boy to her room and draped a sheer red scarf over her lamp. It was incomparably slick. I brought the boy to my room and showed him my lofted bed. It was incomparably not. His lips were cold. He came back a few weeks later to borrow some DVDs.
Florida. Four years later. The heir to some orthodontics fortune. “You should see their house at Christmas,” his friend told me. “A tree in every room.” This had come in the very same breath in which she’d uttered, “Stay away from him. He’s doesn’t do relationships.” I pretended I didn’t want one. We went to the piano bar, he in a camel sport coat and me in a fog of tuna fish from the sandwich I’d eaten a few hours prior. He pretended to be drunk. “How drunk are you?” I asked. “Drunk enough to make out with you,” he sloshed. They were the nicest words a boy had said to me in some time. He took me back to his apartment. I was shivering. He gave me a sweatshirt and asked me to stay the night. I thought it was romantic. He’d wake up every hour or so to use my mouth. I kept the sweatshirt on. The next morning, through swollen lips, I told him how I felt. He responded by moving across the country. I don’t regret the tuna fish.
Florida, still. Another two years. A cowboy asked me to sit and have lunch. He ate carrot sticks and had beautiful hands. I wanted him to feed me. Instead, he took me to the park and we talked about things I don’t remember. At night, I watched the fireworks burnish his eyes as we lay in the bed of his truck. It took me three hours to touch his knee. It took him another hour to kiss me. On Halloween, I found him at a party and he found an empty bedroom. Someone walked in to find Jack Sparrow straddling Elliot from E.T. By the end of the party, everyone knew. “I can’t do this.” By the next day, he picked another lunch table. “I can’t stay here.” By the next month, he’d gone back to the ranch in South Dakota. Better to be herd than seen.
In New York was where I met the Frenchman. He worked in perfumes (how very French). We watched Date Night on his couch (how very meta). We split chips and cider. He taught me about Champagne – the region, not the drink. I went to work the next day wearing the same clothes. “I want to spend a day with you,” he said. “A whole day to learn about you.” Saturday morning, first train to Harlem. He answered the door half-asleep and made me omelets. “You like manchego?” We went to the Met, the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire. I held his hand at the museum. I always wanted to hold someone’s hand at the museum. We drank with his friends, drank more at the bar. I kept my coat on. No cash to tip the attendant. He went to the bathroom and didn’t come back. On the dance floor, a stranger’s tongue washed me out of his mouth. He made sure I was watching. Sunday, 4 a.m. train with my coat still on. A portrait through a moving window: Death Becomes Him: A Century of Morning Attire.
St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “It’s almost one, so it’s either now or never.” Young Kennedy stood between the spires, tall, slight, a stalk of wheat bending in the night air. The church was the easiest meeting spot for two semi-stoned tourists. Matured & Bottled in Ireland. He was better looking than his photos, if that was possible. A million-dollar smile. He was better looking still, pressing me against the iron fence. “I just want to try something.” An exchange of Jameson-laced breaths in the shadow of God’s house. I was a nonbeliever of sorts. He wore Jesus around his neck and light blue underwear. I could believe in that. I could believe he liked my body when he said as much. I could believe he wanted to see me when we got back home. I could even believe his house in a neighboring town meant more than just coincidence. And, for the sake of having his tongue trace my collarbone once more, I did all of those things. I did them knowingly and with intent. So, when he slipped out of bed the next morning and took the stairs two-at a time, when he stepped out the door with clothes swinging from his bag, when he said “See you soon” but couldn’t meet my eyes as he backed away, it was not his nature held accountable but my own. Another self-inflicted wound. Another hit in a history of little murders.
Be on your knees when I arrive.
It always began the same way, some dark order from some dark figure; a sick fantasy cooked up with some unfamiliar who’d answered an ad. He’d ask for my stats: age, height, weight, length, body type, body hair, preferences, positions, kinks, limits. I’d regurgitate everything I’d already detailed in the post, holding back the urge to blast him for not taking the time to actually read it. There would be an exchange of photos. Anything with the face cut out was a nonstarter, no matter how much they assured me I “wouldn’t be disappointed.” Even if most of it was faked - the names, the phone numbers, the email accounts - a certain level of honesty was expected and unavoidable since the naked truth would soon be on full display.
With the technical fat and gristle stripped away, we could get to the meat of the situation. What did he want? To put me in my place. Did he get verbal? Hell yea, if you’re into that. When was he free? Anytime after ten. At some point, I’d let him take the reigns of the conversation, sitting back to watch the erotic novel write itself out. He’d lay down the law, telling me how I would address him, how I would undress him, how, after tonight, I’d know what a real man was. In agreement, a location would be chosen, some public place halfway between here and there. In an empty lot or down a dingy side street, sex could be treated like the illicit act I’d learned it to be. The second to arrive would approach, squint through the window and continue to the end of the road, pretending to be a lost driver should there be last minute hesitations. There they’d turn and cut their lights, sidling back and rolling to a stop at the adjacent curb. A few seconds of nothing and then an outline, head down and hands buried in pockets, would make its way across the night and into my passenger seat.
“Hey, how’s it going?” The illusion faded at the casual greeting that failed to mask the panic in his voice. Rubbing his legs, back and forth, with a hood pulled around his face my accomplice looked more like a scared child than the dominant taskmaster he’d earlier put forth. He’d find something to talk about - usually my car - fiddling with the dashboard and knobs so as to place his hand in the vicinity of my leg, then on my leg. I’d follow suit, letting my palm travel in the hopes that it might awaken some dormant sadist in him. But, the closer I came to his lap, the quieter he got. Inevitably he’d pull himself out, already erect. Between my fingers, he’d close his eyes and go somewhere else. And, I was left alone. The act itself was as carnal as starting lawnmower; the stubborn, flooded engine grunted with every pull but refused to spring to life. After ten minutes or so – however long it took my hand to go numb – the only release I achieved was that of my grip as he angled away to finish himself off. With his forehead pressed to the window, he seized, emptying into a cupped hand then licking his own essence from the creases, bringing the ghastly ceremony to its conclusion.
I drove home one-handed and, hunched over the sink, ran my filthy paw under hot water.
You and me are gonna play a little Gag the Fag.
The seat of masochism sits where pleasure and pain become inextricably twisted. For some, the erogenous receptors fire at a swift back of the hand across the ass. For others, like myself, it wasn’t so simple. Time and again, I searched for a satisfaction in the twisted promises of nameless men. Coming up empty just meant pushing the water further down until it started bubbling up another pipe. It wasn’t long before I became so entrenched in my own sense of worthlessness that I began to get off on it. And, after years of validation through silence, I needed someone to say it out loud.
Every time I went looting I became more and more emboldened, taking greater risks to realize my reward. Public places became too safe, training grounds for big-talking cowards. Instead I drifted through the cracked doorways of unlit residences with nothing more than a collapsible switchblade on my keychain. When that didn’t work, I opened my own house to strangers, hiding knives in my sock drawer and wrapping anything of value in bath towels. But, the change of location had no impact on gameplay. These so-called alpha males would beg me prepare for domination yet, upon stepping through the threshold, barely uttered more than a few half-hearted grunts. Too soaked in beer and nicotine, they couldn’t pick up the scent of my own discomfort. Too busy hating themselves; they couldn’t bother to hate me. So, there I’d be, until my arm throbbed and my jaw ached, praying for it to be over.
Mornings after brought remorse and Listerine. I’d wake up extra early just to stand in the shower, hoping to burn off a layer of skin. Fingers pricked, I dripped blood into vials, mailing off test kits far too soon after exposure for conclusive results. For three months I was chaste as a cleric, flogging myself until it was time to go sit on tissue paper. More blood, swabbed cheeks and the always-dignified rectal culture followed lectures and assurances that I was very low risk. “You’re about the only gay man in New York who still uses protection.” But, I knew that karma could eat through latex. And, that was the real issue. Not the disease itself or living with it but, rather, how it would verify everything my mother had said and my father had sobbed all those years ago. That was a diagnosis I could not live with.
When I received clemency, I’d vow that was the last time. And, then a few more months went by.
When we lost Dad, everything shifted. Suddenly the shadows couldn’t hide anything. But, being thrust into the sun carried a sort of freedom with it. Not freedom from some malevolent force but, instead, a license to release myself from the belief that I was slowly killing him. Truth be told, not since that day in my room had my father shown me anything other than outright love. Though there’d always be a part of my life he’d have difficulty addressing with words, there were innumerable actions: care packages, voicemails, 3 a.m. phone calls talking me through a panic attack, or the simple fact that he never once stopped saying “I love you;” things that should’ve told me everything I needed to know. Instead, I chose to see his silence as some ill-conceived disgrace.
Now he was everywhere. The dirty laundry was aired. And as much as that might have made rolling around in the mud all the easier, I found myself no longer wanting any part of it. It had never been as fun as it looked nor had it been easy to wash off. I’d only gotten down there in the first place after allowing weaker men to dupe me into viewing my vulnerability as some crucial character flaw. But it is an incredibly difficult thing, to admit you want love. Even harder is accepting that you deserve it. While, for me, it wouldn’t happen overnight, I’d slowly come to understand that there’s nothing to be felt without feeling. So let the broken edges mend.
Eventually there would be a boy, a bit shaky and unsure. But, he’d find me at just the time I needed to be found. I’d be patient. He’d be open. I’d trust he wouldn’t run. He’d call me “home.” When he pressed into me, his eyes were open. And, in them I could see that he was nowhere else but right there with me. Yes, he’d tell me he loved me. And, no, maybe it wouldn’t be forever. But, the fact that it was at all was more than I’d ever recognized.
Sometimes the old thoughts do creep back in. Sometimes I catch myself avoiding mirrors. The little murders are written in our reflections. Consider this my testimony.
About the Author
Joseph Lezza is a content marketer in New York, NY. A Creative Writing MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso, Joseph’s work has been published in Still: The Journal, Fearsome Critters and Rio Grande Review as well as on Thought Catalog and FYI.tv. You can follow him on Instagram: @lezzdoothis