If a story needs an arc, a pleasing symmetry, then consider the rainbow, to be literal about queer symbols for a moment. A rainbow is irresolute, it has no beginning, no end. Patti LaBelle understood this. In one of her live renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” she ended by singing:
If a teeny weeny bird can fly,
Oh tell me why,
tell me why,
“The skin is all cut up,” says the first of many doctors, her rubber-gloved finger prodding at my anus. A knife-sharp pain shudders through me with each of her clumsy jabs, and her expression, as she nods in recognition of my distress, says This is not good (a look I believe all doctors should practice avoiding). Having moved to New York from Melbourne only months before, and needing medical attention without any health insurance, I was already distressed enough without her added alarm. Before I can even get my pants back up, as she moves away from me and snaps off her glove, she continues with similar tact by asking bluntly, “Are you gay?”
Yes, torn open by a lover; the price of my promiscuity.
The doctor’s recommended treatment for this condition — anal fissure the medical term — is bath-sitting. Every day, twice a day, I will sit in the bath. Other remedies are equally quaint, apothecarian: a salve of coconut oil, tea tree oil, and witch-hazel is applied daily. Sometimes a doctor seals the wound by poking it with a burning ember, blistering the torn flesh. I learn to have the bath already drawn before shitting, which I do while biting down on a towel. I am told not to worry, that the wound will heal within a month, maybe two. A month passes, then two, then twelve. Sometimes there is less blood, sometimes no pain, but all healing repeatedly reverses and there is no better plan than to return to a slow, watery recovery — sentenced to bathe.
I do not fit in my bath so I bathe in two halves: first I sit upright in an L-shape — legs extended in front — and then I tip ninety degrees, my torso in the water and my legs stretched up the wall. Lying half-submerged, both ears full of watery hum, I imagine gravity might draw my thoughts away from the thinky frontal lobe and towards the back of the brain, where ideas segue with unquestioned illogic. I like this theory, that thoughts have tangible weight, because it’s ridiculous.
Laying on my back I stare at the water damage creeping in from a corner of the ceiling. The bathroom is dingy; mildew from old shampoo bottles has gathered around the tub’s rim and the bathmat has a sinister and unexplained scorch mark burnt into it. Whatever images of luxury typically accompany bathing are, here, irrelevant. But this mandatory bathtime has its benefits — there’s at least a suspension of time.
I could begin with an ending. Tom — his coffee-stained fingertips, his kisses tasting of burnt toast. After living together for three years, we began to consider what now seems like the inevitable for two young gay men: sleeping with more men, different men, being “more open.” Promiscuity felt to me more like an obligation than a real desire; sexual variation was not only available, it demanded ever-greater variability. Tom and I used to lie side by side in bed, not touching, eyes glued to our phone screens, both scrolling through hook-up apps for sex with someone — anyone — else. What at first had felt daring quickly turned dull; lust can become its own kind of routine. How many floors of bedrooms have been littered with my clothing since? I begin to lose count of the Toms, the Nicks, the Jameses (men’s names do start to repeat themselves after a while). A Tom with sensitive nipples, a James with bad breath, a Nick who liked it when I kept my sneakers on.
How many floors of bedrooms have been littered with my clothing since? I begin to lose count of the Toms, the Nicks, the Jameses (men’s names do start to repeat themselves after a while).
These expectations of promiscuity — so prominent in gay culture — can make one obsessed with desire. Desire is fixated on the future, on what is “forever not yet here,” as José Esteban Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. I take Muñoz with me to the bath for company. “We have never been queer,” he tells me, “yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queer’s domain.” This academic queerness sometimes remains abstract when it comes to the actual business of living. “Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment,” Muñoz writes, “but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures.”
I put the book down, thinking of how I’ve failed this theory; I cannot touch it, bite it, squeeze it. Once the door to being “more open” was opened, I desired bodies and the pleasures of those bodies, those minimal transports; bodies to feel the warmth of and cradle, bodies to fuck, and sometimes bodies to abandon. Tom and I broke up on a Japanese island, alone together on an idyllic beach where anyone else might have savored the romantic surroundings, while I instead swigged sake out of a bottle on the beach while Tom hid in the tent. Once it was over, I moved from Melbourne to New York, as dramatic a severance as I could manage. Until then I had imagined that intimacy was meaningful only if it aspired to permanence. Intimacy has since been many different things with many different people. Somehow this transience — people coming into one’s life and then leaving again — feels hopeful to me, like cruising, that brief yet vibrant closeness you have with a stranger as you pass each other in the street. It is the passing that gives such encounters life.
A month into the bathing regime, with no discernable progress with the recovery, I sit in the bath over Pride weekend. Same-sex marriage has just been legalized in the United States. Despite (or perhaps because of) the occasion, I keep returning to a YouTube clip from The Judy Garland Show, where Garland sings:
Never, never will I marry,
Never, never will I wed,
Born to wander solitary,
Wide my world, narrow my bed,
Never, never will I marry,
Born to wander ’til I’m dead.
Garland’s performance, with her lopsided smile and unpredictable limbs, is so upbeat, celebratory. Nothing could be more worthy of song: to wander the world, solitary, until dead.
Garland was on her third of five marriages when she sang “Never Will I Marry” on The Judy Garland Show, although she still managed to keep varied company. She had a long-term affair with Frank Sinatra and they remained life-long friends. She once tried to give her driver a hand-job and when he fended her off for lack of interest, she obliged her gay hairdresser in the back seat instead. I have read that Garland once sang “Over the Rainbow” while gargling semen in her mouth, but this is more likely the product of some queeny biographer’s imagination.
Garland was on her third of five marriages when she sang “Never Will I Marry” on The Judy Garland Show, although she still managed to keep varied company.
Garland once recorded herself speaking with plans of completing her own autobiography — plans that would never come to fruition. Her anecdotes are rambling, disconnected, yet you get the sense that it was therapeutic for her. She was deep into pills and drinking as she aimlessly recounted her life into a tape recorder. On one of the tapes, she struggles with the recorder itself (when transcribed, it loses some of its glamor; you have to imagine the slur in her voice, the brassy Old-Hollywood accent, the clinking of ice in a tumbler):
“I’m just astounded at this machine. This is the silliest way I’ve ever known of spending the nights alone, talking to yourself into an obvious Nazi machine. But that’s the story of my life. You go with it even if you don’t know what’s going on. Keep talking, singing, smiling, and taping. Tape machine. It should be Johnson + Johnson’s tapes. My wounds I’d like to tape.”
Post-fissure, I abstain from sex altogether; letting anyone inside of me now is out of the question. As it turns out, needing the bath twice a day and no longer having sex means spending a lot more time alone, listening to Joni Mitchell with indulgent melancholy — “I don’t want nobody coming over to my table / I got nothing to talk to anybody about.” Mitchell makes desire feel potent by always partnering it with loss, its temporary nature amplified into an eternal coming and going — “We’re only particles of change, I know, I know / orbiting around the sun.”
Post-fissure, I abstain from sex altogether; letting anyone inside of me now is out of the question.
It’s not only the bath that is cramped, but this whole apartment. The kitchen is so small that there is no room for a table, so I eat dinner on my bed, laying a dishtowel over the duvet and not even bothering to unpack the Indian takeout from the plastic containers. Week-old mugs with dry teabags collect on the desk, as do faded receipts, gum packets, and the decay of a plant I’ve neglected. Performing this melancholy — allowing my home to deteriorate — feels oddly comforting.
My one regular companion at home is the cat, who belongs to my housemate who appears twice a month to collect mail before disappearing again. A stray turned domestic, the cat still has that scrawny skittishness about her. She runs the length of my apartment, scrambling up curtains and doorframes, generally being a nuisance. The cat has not been neutered, and once a month she gets in heat; she lingers in my bedroom, waiting prone, her four legs bent in an awkward crouch, shifting her weight from one paw to another, aiming her crotch directly at me in the frustrated heat of sex. Her meows are pained and gurgling as she persists on my bed, squatting over my laptop keyboard while I try to type. Even once I throw her out of the room, her desperate paws still slide under the door, scratching pathetically for affection. It’s Dickensian, these persistent visitations; sex is scratching at the bed-posts.
My sister, it turns out, has been participating in the very same bathing ritual. She too has torn, after giving birth to her first child. We laugh about it, the thought of us both sitting in our tepid pools, although privately I think my predicament is the more tragic (at least she has a baby to show for it).
I begin babysitting for a friend’s child, Davey, who is six months old. I take Davey to the park by the East River and blow raspberries on his belly and feet. I jangle colored toys in front of Davey’s face while going ooooiieeeughoe, which he seems to like. I read to Davey about colors, but he gets distracted by the pleasures of page-turning; no regard for literary momentum. I wipe poo out of the creases in Davey’s legs. I hold Davey while he sits in the bath — enormous for him — and he kicks in furious pleasure at what being wet feels like. I feed Davey his milk, his mother’s, and his tiny hand clutches at the bottle like I imagine he would at a breast. While he feeds, our eyes lock in an intimate stare that I can only describe as mimicking love. I sit with Davey in the bedroom with the shades drawn and the white-noise machine going. I sit as if I am a hammock, with Davey on my chest, and he fidgets until he can no longer hold up his head, falling asleep on the tide of my breathing. Once he is asleep I stay there, afraid to wake him but with no desire to move. We are in a bubble with nothing else to do and no one else to talk to, no bothersome world intruding. Time is suspended and it is perfectly mundane and sublime at once. Then his mother comes home and I leave, and this is good too.
I sometimes wonder if I want children. Maybe I want a child with a partner and we could adopt or find a surrogate mother or co-parent with a lesbian couple. And maybe just wanting a child is, for me, a romance — to see myself as a person who could want a child, without actually having to commit to the burdens of a child. Forever not yet here.
Joni Mitchell gave her new-born daughter up for adoption when she was twenty-one. She was living in a freezing attic room in Toronto where the spindles of the bannister had been pulled out and used the previous winter as firewood. She had no money and no way to earn money because to get into a worker’s union required money. She did have her guitar, so she sang in Toronto coffeehouses, where she met Chuck Mitchell; they were married thirty-six hours later. They lived together for just under a year, but Joni had “the urge for going,” and left him, escaping to New York, keeping only his name.
Mitchell wrote “Song for Sharon” — my favorite from her 1976 album Hejira — while on the road, driving from California to Maine, after another of her relationships ended. There is Mitchell’s story of leaving her man to come “out to the Big Apple here / to face the dream’s malfunction,” or her wisdom that “Love’s a repetitious danger,” and that despite her friend’s advice to “Have children,” or “Put some time into ecology,” all she “really wants to do right now is / find another lover.” And there is her final verse, addressed to her old friend from Maidstone for whom she is singing:
Sharon you’ve got a husband,
And a family and a farm,
I’ve got the apple of temptation,
And a diamond snake around my arm,
But you’ve still got your music,
And I’ve still got my eyes on the land and the sky,
You sing for you friends and your family,
I’ll walk green pastures by and by.
My parents were married when they were nineteen and twenty. They are now in their sixties, their entire lives connected. I have no idea if they’ve ever slept with anyone besides each other, but intimate talks about sex are uncharacteristic for us, so I may never know. One Christmas — where singlehood always feels most conspicuous, the family counted off in couples — Dad and I sat on the verandah, both of us drunk on wine and the harsh Australian sun. Finding a way to acknowledge Tom’s absence after our break up, Dad awkwardly said, “Well, you’re a lone ranger now.”
He seemed lost somewhere between sadness and pride, perhaps seeing in me a life he hadn’t lived — “wide my world, narrow my bed.” I prefer to err on the idea of his pride, but my mind keeps connecting two dots between this comment and another that he once made at Mum’s 60th birthday. In his toast, as a counterpoint to his own happy companionship, he recalled seeing a man sitting alone at a bar and retold the thought that had occurred to him: “Thank god I’m not that sad lonely person.”
There is a third dot to connect. Both of my parents, visiting me in New York for the first time, came out to my apartment in Queens. Walking up the two flights of un-swept stairs, their impression of this dank apartment must have been low, but when Dad stepped into my bedroom — the unremarkable place in which I’d spent so many solitary hours, with its gathering tea mugs and dead plant — all he said was “Heaven.”
After a year of bath-sitting, the latest doctor concludes that the best option to repair my fissure, which has failed to heal, is surgery. Not an entirely forward step: the scar tissue around the fissure has become so weak from all the attempted healing and re-tearing, that the doctor has to cut the failed skin away, essentially creating a brand new fissure to start the healing from scratch.
In the hospital I am given a backless blue robe and rubber-grip socks, and asked to wait on a bed in a room with no windows. This is what elderly life must be like, waiting in these isolated rooms. Who will be around then to nurse our bruised egos and entertain our curiosities if not a similarly aging loved one? One of the most powerful motivators of partnership, this looming horizon of age.
Who will be around then to nurse our bruised egos and entertain our curiosities if not a similarly aging loved one?
As I enter the operating theatre, a nurse asks me to lay face down on the table with my head turned to one side to accommodate the breathing mask. She asks me to count backwards from ten. I want to focus my attention on the moment of fade-out. Can I be conscious right as I lose consciousness? Will my eyelids droop and my vision blur out of focus?
I get to zero.
Still quite awake.
Nurses go about their preparations. Metallic tools tinker in aluminum dishes. Some heart rate thing is beeping. It feels as if I’m spying on a forbidden scene, as if observing life after death. A nurse touches my leg and asks if I am comfortable. “Yes,” I say to confirm that the gas hasn’t worked, and it occurs to me that maybe something actually has gone wro
Judy Garland was such a queer legend not only because she flaunted convention in her partnerships, but because she never tired of wanting. She was forever looking to some imagined place where things would be better, not content with a simpler happiness. Watching her perform, especially later in life, she shudders with expectations, with a pained pleasure. She rockets skyward while standing in place. There’s another clip of Garland I’ve been watching recently, in which she sings:
And when I have to give the world my last farewell,
And the undertaker comes to ring my funeral bell,
I don’t wanna go to heaven, don’t wanna go to hell,
I happen to like New York.
Not much, just finished at the gym
This is a lie. I was not at the gym; I was just walking around the East Village, and am now distracted by these texts from a stranger on a sex app.
Cool. You horny?
Another lie. He sends me nudes.
I send my nudes.
Hot. You should come and fuck me.
Where are you?
Are you hard?
I’m staying in a hotel
Are you hard?
This degree of articulation is typical.
So where are you staying?
He sends me more photos of himself, this time contorted on a hotel bed, his ass facing a wardrobe mirror and one arm twisting around to position the iPhone for the shot. His weird brambly arm makes me laugh.
I want you to be hard when you get here
Ok, where are you?
Stewart Hotel on 7th
I’ll be there in 20 minutes
I take the subway two stops, arriving at 28th Street. I think about watching porn on my phone to make sure I fulfil his demands. Maybe because my headphones give me some impression of privacy, I think that no one will notice if I start watching porn in the street. As long as I’m walking fast enough, I think.
I take out my phone. His messages are gone; his profile has disappeared. As I approach the hotel I realize I have no name, no room number, no phone number, so I just walk past.
I head down Seventh Avenue, across Christopher Street, and left on Bleecker — where Joni met her gypsy. The tulips, brazenly red and yellow, have appeared overnight in every street planter with a shock of color almost forgotten over winter; people are losing their winter coats. On Bleecker, I catch the eye of a man walking towards me. It looks like he’s run his fingers through his hair very deliberately and it stuck. He walks with purpose but our eyes are fixed. While his stare suggests lust, his unblinking gaze is inscrutable; no softness to suggest kindness, no sparkle to suggest wit, no wavering to suggest timidity — a severe look boring into me, impossible to penetrate. As we pass, our heads discreetly turning to hold each other in this forceful way before we pass each other and the bond is cut — I see that for all my internal curiosity, my gaze probably reflected back the exact same hardness as his. I wonder if somehow our complexities were transmitted through this guarded exchange, or if, in that moment of connection, we shared nothing. Then my memory begins to erase him, while I linger in the fading details — his broad mouth, his swept hair, his eyes. One more fleeting and consuming and illegible connection amongst us dancing particles of change.