On a balmy evening in August, I went to what passes for a gay bar in Iowa City with some friends. The entrance reminded me of the feed store I’d gone to with my grandpa in Alabama. It had the feeling of a space that had been improvised, made out of a warehouse or something like it. I’ve only ever been to a gay bar a few times in my life, perhaps because I find bars too much like the house I grew up in: loud, full of alcohol, music blasting from every dark corner, and a series of forced intimacies that I find hard to look away from even as they threaten to drown me.
I don’t drink because everyone I knew growing up was an alcoholic; I believe in genetics and environmental priming. But here I was in a gay bar in Iowa City because that’s what people do, I guess. They go to bars. They laugh. They touch each other’s shoulders, and they pretend if only for a moment that they are somewhere else, somewhere better. And besides, I like these friends. They are good and smart and beautiful and kind. To be among them is to remember that the world can, in fact, yield moments of grace and understanding.
We were just getting started for the night, and the place was mostly empty. Iowa City is the sort of small town where it’s possible to arrive at a place and be the only ones there. You aren’t embarrassed that there are only three people in your establishment, and you aren’t embarrassed to be only one of three people in an establishment. Shame doesn’t really enter into things. The water’s always so low that everything looks like high tide. My friends and I were catching up, exchanging news, settling in, warming up to one another’s company, because despite whatever friendliness exists between people, we are always fundamentally strangers, and no matter how much you care for someone, you are always triangulating, adjusting, trying to find the place where you enact what passes for intimacy — the sort of spontaneous flailing of friendship.
After we had been there for about 30 minutes, and after I had drunk to the middle of a large gin and tonic (the only drink I know the name of and that I know won’t make me ill), other people started to trickle in. By other people, I mostly mean one other person and a couple of drag queens out of drag who would be performing later in the evening. The man in the bar who was not a performer was skinny and had blue eyes. He wore a cap and a denim jacket. He smelled like cigarettes and whiskey. He had a raspy voice and a long, narrow nose. One of my friends waved him over.
My friends chatted him up, but he kept looking at me, which made me squirm on my barstool. I hate when people look at me. At some point, he said that he had to go watch a movie. Did we want to join him? We all laughed and said no, no, but we’d be here when he got back. And he said, to my friend and then to me, that he found me sexy. And he came around the table and kissed me on the cheek, hard and wet. And he put his arm around my neck. And my friends laughed. And I laughed, or tried to. And then he wanted to kiss me on the mouth, but I said no, and he kissed me on the cheek again and left. And my friends were laughing again.
They said, Oh, the boys love you. You’re so lucky.
A few weeks earlier, I had been kissed on the mouth by a man I didn’t really know except for the fact that he was also a writer at the writing conference we were attending in Los Angeles. I had never been kissed before, and I wasn’t keen on changing that anytime soon. But he gripped my arm and asked if he could kiss me, and I felt at that moment the way I always feel when people offer me alcohol. That to say no — to resist in any way — would be to alter some fundamental quality that held the evening together. And I felt, at the end of a very long week, unable to muster the strength to do that. I thought, If I just let him, I’ll get to walk away, and it won’t matter.
But it did matter to me. I couldn’t sleep. I had to get up early for the airport the next morning. All I could see in my mind when I shut my eyes was his small mouth, the wet-dryness of it, the pressure of his cheek brushing mine when he pulled away. How he asked if he could do it again, and how I tried to keep his arms and hands in sight at all times as he moved closer, afraid that he would reach or brush or take something more.
In the bar, after the guy left, I tried to relax, but I kept thinking, What if he did come back, what would I do then? What would I do if he came out of the dark, the light of the strobe passing along his cheek or his brow, coming for me like the men came for me out of the dark of my aunt’s house or my own bedroom so many years ago? What would I do when I felt a strange hand on me, years and miles away from that place?
I don’t know when I came to be the sort of person who startles easily at the prospect of my own body, or of someone touching or seeing my body. I don’t know when that happened or why it happened. There are easy guesses: I was raped often as a young person; I was abused physically; no one ever hugged me until I was a teenager. But these have the hollow ring of simple solutions to complicated questions. When the guy at the writing retreat kissed me on the mouth, I felt, first, emptiness, and then the queasy, earth-tilting sway of fear. When the guy at the bar kissed me, I felt, first, the earth-tilting sway of fear, and then the deep well of shame, of being seen by others, of having the record of the moment frozen into my friends’ memories. Worse still, I saw the flare of their words working, contextualizing the moment, knowing that it would be even harder to explain my feelings about it later; that it would be impossible to dismiss it.
Perhaps that’s the source of my uneasiness. That every time a person interacts with my body, I’ve got to live with the record of it; that suddenly I have another voice to contend with as I try to make peace with myself. It’s another thing I have to move aside or reconcile as I move slowly, so slowly, with the speed of geology, toward a deeper accordance with myself and what I want or don’t want. I feel sometimes that I’m trapped, stuck faking a sense of relationship envy, giving a sigh or a knowing look to the distance, wondering when, oh, when will a handsome man come and fuck me. Oh, when.
Sometimes when I’m talking about my work with friends, they ask me: “Yes, that’s great, but how are you?” What they mean is, “But why aren’t you dating? Why are you alone?” As if there’s only one way to be lonely, as if sex and romantic love were the only thing a person could long for. There’s something that happens in our conversations that makes it easy to quip or reduce the scope of a person’s life and all their desires to the presence or absence of a sexual or romantic partner. I say, “Oh, who knows, I’m happy. I’m fine.”
And then, I guess, I feel like a hypocrite, because while I do bristle when people ask me questions like that, I do long for something. And I’m only just now able to scrape away the simple surface of it. Recently, another friend came to stay with me for a couple days. We had coffee and tea. We ate meals together. We looked at books. We had long conversations deep into the night. We challenged each other. We engaged each other. We were active and present to each other’s presence in the room. He is thoughtful and good. He is the sort of boy I’ve fallen in love with my entire life — wounded and a little sad, but with smart, searching eyes and a depth of acuity that is rare in the world. But I did not fall in love with him, not really. Instead, I think, we fashioned the sort of intimacy I’ve always longed for. To be open to another person; to be aware of them, their faults, their glories, their ugliness, their beauty.
Sometimes, I say that I want to be with someone who I only have to see three or four times a week, and only to cook meals and go book shopping. I say that I want some flannel-wearing bearded man to descend from a rainy mountain in Washington State or Vermont, who smells like crushed ice and the sharp scent of pine sap, who will read Proust to me in French and drink from enamel mugs beside a firepit with me. That’s what I want. And what my friends say to me is that I want a best friend who dresses like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and I say, yes, probably. But the look in their eyes is rueful pity, that this is not enough.
What I want is mostly to be alone. And to not have to contextualize my loneliness in a way that makes other people comfortable with it. So what if I’m alone. So what if I sit in my apartment and read one book after another or watch period pieces. It’s not a wasted life. It’s not a dead end. It’s not one of those sounds that you hear in the middle of the night and go in search of only to find nothing but air. It’s not that.
But what I really think, in the midst of all of this, is that I’d like to live alone in a cabin in the woods. It’s not even about men or what they have to offer. It’s not even about, Am I attractive to gay men? Or Do gay men find black men attractive? Or Do gay men find fat black men attractive? It’s not about having parsed the offerings of gay men the world over and having found them lacking. No. It’s about, simply, not wanting sex, not desiring it, not needing it, finding it an insufficiently motivating organizing principle of life.
It’s not that I find sex disgusting, though perhaps I do. Maybe I do. I probably do. I just can’t imagine myself having sex. I haven’t had sex in so long that the part of me that wants it has withered away, and I don’t feel like that’s a loss, really. I don’t feel that having sex has improved my life in any particular way, and why should I mourn something that I find anxiety-inducing? The idea of sex — thirst — is at some level physiological for me. A reflex from some vestigial organ. But the actual, pulsating need for sex is long gone. And maybe I never had it. I don’t know. I don’t believe in the morality of a long-held thing. You aren’t more something than something else just because you’ve been one thing longer than another. The length of record is not a sign of legitimacy, but rather inertia, chronology, sequence.
And as for romantic love, that too feels like an unnecessarily complicated game. What I’d like is the cabin, the woods, the long, slow creep of rain through the trees, the short, hard days of winter, the long, eternal syrupy light of summer, and the peace of being able to dance alone and not fear the pressure of a stranger’s hand at my elbow, drawing me still.
Brandon Taylor is the associate editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Out Magazine Online, Catapult, and elsewhere. He is currently a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.