I hate my body.
My biceps are puny as plums. My chest swells to the size of an anthill. It doesn’t fill out even the tightest T-shirt. Instead of the half-moons of muscle that I crave, my calves are sapling-thin, just bone wrapped with skin. I’m black, so my ass is supposed to be a buoyant, high-shelf force of nature. In my twenties and thirties it was, kind of. But now that I have reached my mid-forties the shelf has descended a few pegs and it’s ringed with stretch marks.
I avoid mirrors. I don’t look at my reflection when I walk by windows. Selfies are against my religion.
Therapists and self-help gurus tell you to love yourself, to love your body, or at least accept it. They warn about the perils of comparing yourself to others. But it’s hard not to, especially right now, because on my computer screen, opened up in Photoshop, is a jpeg of a guy from a reality show. His dark curly hair and dark beard flow, almost seamlessly, into the jungle of tangled strands that carpets his large, sculpted pecs and his inhumanly flat stomach (so flat it is almost concave) that is hacked up into six distinct sectors. One arm rests behind his head, exposing the tender flesh of his underarm. His other hand teases the waist band of his sparse, leopard skin bikini briefs as if he is hankering or threatening or promising to remove them. His eyes are half-closed and his unsmiling mouth falls half-open. It seems to say, to whisper, I know you want to fuck me, but you’re not worthy.
I’m a web guy for Tapestry, a web site for gay men. Our editorial mission is to produce slick, carefully-curated, engaging content that empowers our audience to make informed choices in the realms of lifestyle, fashion, travel, and entertainment; choices that will enhance the user’s economic power, style, and self-esteem so that he can represent the gay community productively and confidently.
But regardless of the altruistic editorial mission; regardless of the hours-long meetings that leave the editors weary and on edge; regardless of the critical deadlines, the furious copyediting, and the exalted position the owners think the site holds in the universe of gay media (or in the universe, period), Tapestry is, ultimately, all about one thing and one thing only: hot shirtless men.
That’s why this guy is on my screen. I have to crop the image so it can be inserted into a story. This picture went up today on another web site and the editors want to put it on ours to boost traffic. His name is Valero Martinelli, but since becoming a breakout star on the breakout reality series Bluegrass State, he has shortened it to just Valero. The show, shot in the tiny town of Lemon Pepper, Kentucky, population 6,500, documents the antics of a cadre of twenty-somethings whose sole purpose seems to be to offend, insult, and scandalize the small town’s residents. Brawling in the streets. Arrests. Interracial couplings. Valero exploded onto the radar of popular culture midway through season one when he sauntered down Lemon Pepper’s main drag in nothing but a neon orange thong and $350 Gucci flip-flops.
During that same season, he made a tepid, passing statement in support of marriage equality. His comment in its entirety was Sure, whatever, doesn’t really bother me; I think I had a cousin who was gay. The gay media lit up like a solar flare. VALERO SUPPORTS MARRIAGE EQUALITY, REALITY STAR COMES OUT IN SUPPORT OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, and TV’S HOTTEST HUNK SUPPORTS US! were a few of the headlines lasered onto the homepages of gay sites across the web. Valero had been anointed a gay icon. A gorgeous body is apparently the only criteria necessary to claim that status, regardless of how one actually feels about the gays: during the 2012 presidential election, Tapestry’s editors made me build a slideshow of shirtless pictures of Paul Ryan.
“Timothy, how’s that pic coming? Is it ready?”
The voice of Chad, our online editor, leaps at me over the cubicle wall while he sits in his office. I know he hasn’t bothered to stand or even look up from his computer.
“Almost,” I answer.
Moments later I hear Chad conversing with the fashion editor, Brandon, and I can’t help wondering why it seems all twenty and thirty-something gay guys in New York are named Chad or Brandon or Darren or Evan.
“Like, I got a resume today,” Brandon says, “for the junior editor position?” He gives a snort of disgust. “The cover letter says the guy has thirty years experience. That means he’s, like, in his fifties. Maybe even sixty.” I can’t see them over the cubicle wall, but I imagine that Brandon—from the perch of his young, blue-eyed, peroxide-blond supremacy—just shuddered. “What should I do?”
I hear the tearing of paper and I know that Chad has snatched the offending resume with the viciousness of a starving man snatching a chicken bone and ripped it to pieces. “No way we’re hiring someone with thirty years experience.”
“I know, right?” Brandon says. “And if he’s that old, he’s, like, probably uptight.”
“He wouldn’t fit in here. He wouldn’t get us.”
Chad says this with a pretense of sympathy, as if rejecting the fifty-year-old is for the man’s own pitiful sake.I have a moment of fright: I’m not that far from fifty. And I’m black. And my body looks nothing like the one on my screen. I’m an anomaly at Tapestry.
Chad suddenly materializes at my cubicle and sears me with a dirty look. “Is the Valero pic ready?”
Tattoos engulf Chad’s arms and hands. They creep up both sides of his neck like climbing vines, overrunning his olive-complexion skin. I know from the superabundance of pictures that he has plastered on social media that his entire body is engraved with tattoos. He takes a day off from work about every other month to get a new one. I once heard him say that was all he lived for. Tapestry has witnessed his ink accumulate like credit card debt.
What a shame, I think. Because, except for the ink, he’s beautiful. He’s a muscle-bound 5’10 with melon-fat arms and a chest so robust, it stretches the fabric of his tight v-neck T-shirt to the breaking point. His powerhouse legs and curvy bubble of an ass are barely contained by jeans so snug, they might as well be leggings. His waist is trim. His midsection has just enough extra to keep him from being too perfect. I covet his physique and savor a vindictive satisfaction that he has ruined it with all this ridiculous ink. I doubt he has considered what these tattoos will look like when he is seventy or eighty, when the taut muscle loosens and the flesh surrenders its elasticity; when the skin slackens to a leathery rind turning the tattoos into sagging, crinkly cartoons.
“I need that pic, like, now,” Chad says in his best Anna Wintour and storms back to his office. “We do have deadlines around here, you know.”
This is Tapestry, where a shirtless pic of a C-list celebrity qualifies as breaking news.
* * *
It’s Friday. Right after work, I go to The Tool Shed on Christopher Street in the West Village. A few guys stand outside the bar, top shirt buttons undone, ties loosened. Two smoke cigarettes, two others boldly pass a joint back and forth. All four exhale slowly, in long, sumptuous streams, as if their languid exhalations will exorcise the demons of the work week.
Inside I find not so much a crowd, more like a muddle. More guys with wayward ties; one man looking staid and financial in his Brooks Brothers-style suit; someone in the uniform shirt of one of those electronic stores. Satchels and backpacks and briefcases stuffed with laptops and contracts sit guarded in the protective proximity of peoples’ feet. Booze is guzzled more liberally, though no less eagerly, than it is Monday to Thursday. Later in the evening a go-go boy will shake and shimmy and stockpile dollar tips in the waistband of his thong while standing on the raised platform now being used as a seat by a guy sporting a Mohawk and fiddling endlessly with his phone. Two bartenders—tank-topped and muscular—sparkle while mixing drinks and performing their primary function: flirting with the patrons. A shirtless bar back with dreadlocks down to his ankles and piercings in both nipples, in both eyebrows, and in his nose and lips, roams the bar collecting discarded glasses.
The Tool Shed is a dive—dark, raw, unrefined—but not grungy. Its floors and walls and restroom do not gleam, but neither do they disgust. It’s your typical bar with loud music, loud patrons, and loud attitudes. However, The Tool Shed is atypical in one key aspect: its patrons are split almost evenly between blacks and whites. An “interracial” bar, but rarely do the races intermingle. Mostly it’s blacks talking with blacks while whites stand on the sidelines pining to be invited into that exclusive and elusive world of the Gay Black Male. Sometimes that invitation comes, often it doesn’t. Even so, if you’re a white man who prefers black men (or vice versa), The Tool Shed is one of the few bars that caters specifically—if unofficially—to that predilection.
I get a rum-and-coke, then sit on a stool against the wall not far from the pool table. A game is in progress. I recognize one of the players as someone I met here a few months ago. A handsome white, thirty-ish guy with blond hair and a sunset-red beard. We talked for a bit the night we met and seemed to enjoy each other’s company—until our conversation revealed that I do the unthinkable: I live in Queens. Staunch Manhattanites revel in their superiority to the peasants who reside in the other four boroughs (although they generously make exceptions for the gentrified areas of Brooklyn). In this way they are like fundamentalist Christians who think anyone who believes outside of their realm is a sinner. Unlike fundamentalists, staunch Manhattanites do not believe sinners should be saved or even paid attention to.
“Ok. Well. Nice meeting you,” I told him when I saw I’d worn out my welcome. “Time to head home.”
“Why? You have to catch the last bus to Queens?” he said, and with a nastiness designed to stick.
Now my eyes leave the pool game and land on a bald, goateed white man standing directly across from me. I smile. He smiles. He looks away. I look away. I look back. He looks back. He smiles. I smile. I look away. We engage in several more iterations of this ritual mating dance before he walks over.
“Hi. I’m Ernie.”
He’s forty-seven. A musician. Lives in Jersey City. Teaches music in the public schools. About 6’2 and slim. Where there was once hair is now just an outline, an opaque memento of what once was. Ernie’s thick goatee is speckled with gray. His dark bushy eyebrows are set low, right above his brown eyes, creeping down, just slightly, onto his eyelids. With those low-set brows knitted together in consternation, Ernie looks a little mean. Until he smiles, and then his eyes open up and his cheeks plump out and his lips seem to turn a little redder.
We talk for a bit before exchanging phone numbers and email addresses. Before parting, we give each other a nice hug and a nicer kiss.
* * *
I get the subway at Christopher Street and transfer at Times Square. A man with no hands stands on the platform. His arms end where his wrists should start. A rusty tin can for donations sits on the ground in front of him. He holds a cardboard poster between his thick ruddy stumps. I don’t know what it says because I can’t bear to look. I’ve seen him several times and I always speed by, keeping my gaze locked straight ahead. I don’t allow it to stray. I’ll be struck with pity and inconsolable guilt if it does. Right by the handless man is a group of silly twenty-somethings, sporting hip hair sculpted with gel and streaked with highlights. The females are slim and pretty in midriff-baring tops and Daisy Dukes; the males glowing and adorable in Capri pants and tank tops. They laugh and tease and joke with one another while the handless man stands mute and stationary, just inches from them, holding his poster between his stumps.
* * *
Ernie and I talk and text morning, noon, and night, over the course of the ensuing week, our conversations a cherished contrast from the drivel I overhear daily at Tapestry: Lady Gaga’s “awesome” new video; the hot guy on The Bachelor; the latest “totally cool” dance bars; techno music; the newly-discovered pic of Hugh Jackman shirtless on a beach. Ernie can talk about the arts, politics, the books on his nightstand. We both love jazz and classical music. He composes music. I tell him I write poetry and he’s intrigued. Not many guys are intrigued by poetry.
“I’m trying fiction, too,” I say on the phone one night. “I’ve written a couple of short stories. Nothing published. I can see myself writing a novel eventually. But right now, poetry is my thing.”
“Can’t wait to read it. You know what? I love your voice.”
“Why?” I say.
“It’s deep and distinctive. Resonant and clear. The way you speak is confident and authoritative and so articulate. You don’t have an accent. It’s like you’re from nowhere. And everywhere. Your voice is beautiful. Did you ever consider broadcasting?”
But I’ve been asked that before. And I’ve been told many times that my voice is beautiful. I once had a customer service job that involved talking to people over the phone and I know it was my voice that calmed and reassured even the most irate. I want to tell Ernie that I love his voice, too. The smooth and easy tranquility of it. Its lush and slightly melancholic purr. But I don’t, afraid he’ll think I’m only complimenting him on his voice because he complimented me on mine. Instead I say, “You know what I like about you?”
“I like that you call me and you text me and you email me. Without me always having to do it first. We share the responsibility of communicating. It’s not just me reaching out. You reach, too. A lot of guys don’t. Most guys don’t.”
“I always will,” Ernie says. “I promise.”
This makes me nervous. It’s too soon for promises. We haven’t even had our first date. I don’t know his favorite color or if he’s a cat person or a dog person or when his birthday is or if he likes his family. At forty-six I know better than to be beguiled by the promises of a man I’ve known for a week. Nevertheless, his promise sends me soaring on the winds of hope.
* * *
We agree to meet for our first date Saturday afternoon. On my way, in the subway at Times Square, I see a poster of that reality show guy—Valero—in an advertisement touting the upcoming season of his show. He’s fully-clothed, but his biceps and pecs practically burst from the Photoshopped confines of his form-fitting shirt. The contours of his abs are visible through the sheer material.
An old man stands in front of the poster. He looks ninety. Stooped. Folds of loose, sallow skin wilting off his crumbling bones. His face is pale, his eyes watery. I know that he was once young, that he hasn’t always been this way. I wonder what he looked like then. Was he handsome or cute? Just so-so? Maybe he’s always been ugly. I hope not. To be old and ugly is the natural course of things. To be young and ugly is a travesty, unnatural, unforgivable.
People walk by. Some do a double-take at Valero. No one sees the old man.
* * *
We meet at Jupiter Diner on Christopher Street, not far from The Tool Shed. We talk for hours. I confide that I hate my body.
“From the time I was a little kid,” I say, “people felt the need to remind me how skinny I was. I had an aunt who told my mother she was sure I had worms. My high school drama teacher joked that my waist was slimmer than a girl’s thigh. In gym, the coach pointed me out to the rest of the class as an example of the kind of body you don’t want. Now I work for a company that idolizes the perfect body above all else. I mean, I go to the gym three, four, five times a week. I take supplements. I’ve done personal training. But I’m still skinny. People tell me, just eat more, as if that’ll solve everything. But it doesn’t: there’s this thing called DNA and mine has determined that I’ll never have a go-go boy’s body. Sometimes I feel like I should apologize for not having better genes.”
I didn’t mean to rant. I hope I haven’t turned Ernie off, made him want to flee Jupiter Diner and the self-hating skinny black guy.
“Your genes are fine,” Ernie says. “I can tell you have a cute body. Even though I haven’t seen you with your clothes off—yet.”
He winks. I’m embarrassed. And pleased. And a little aroused. But then Ernie starts to fidget with his coffee cup. He looks around the room, distracted, but not in an inattentive or rude way. His distraction looks like struggle. His bushy eyebrows crease, then uncrease, then crease again in contemplation. Finally the struggle seems to resolve to a decision.
“I need to tell you something, Timothy.”
I’ve heard this declaration from guys before, this prelude to some serious news that should probably have been shared much sooner, before hopes were flown skyward. I steel myself, knowing one of three popular confessions is likely:
I have a boyfriend/partner/husband. If this is what he tells me, I’ll walk out of this diner without a word, without paying my share of the bill. I’ll go home and go to bed and cry for hours or days or weeks or months over this man I’ve known for one week. I know I will, I’ve done it before.
I’m moving to a faraway state soon. I’ll be disappointed because he should have told me sooner, but I’ll enjoy dating him while it lasts and try not to get attached. That attempt will fail—miserably—and, like the first scenario, I’ll end up in bed and in tears.
I’m HIV-positive. This is, by a wide margin, the most popular and least frightening confession of the three. I’m negative, but have had boyfriends, one night stands, and fuck buddies who I knew were positive. It doesn’t bother me. I once met a guy on a Saturday night at The Tool Shed and we left together. We had just stepped into my apartment, when he blurted, “There’s something you should know. I’m positive.” I replied, “Ok. You have HIV and I have condoms. Make yourself at home. You want red wine, white wine, or seltzer?”
And now, in the half moment between the announcement of the confession and the confession itself, sweat swims in my underarms.
“I used to be heavy,” Ernie says. “Really heavy. Five years ago I lost 160 pounds. Talk about hating your body.”
He tells me about the humiliation he endured as the fat kid in school. The pranks. The torture. The diets that didn’t work or that he couldn’t stick to. Reaching adulthood and being passed up for jobs and how certain he is that, at least sometimes, it was because of his obesity. He almost cries recalling a harrowing night at the symphony when he had to leave because he couldn’t fit in the seat.
“The people around me,” he says, “some were amused, some were annoyed. How dare he be fat. How dare we have to look at something so ugly and fat. The next month I borrowed money from my parents and had the surgery.”
“And look at you now,” I say.
“Yeah.” He smiles. “Look at me now.”
I am incredulous. Judging by his slim frame, you’d never know he’d once been atrociously overweight. But, selfishly, I am a hundred times more relieved than I am incredulous. He doesn’t have a boyfriend or husband. He’s not moving a thousand miles away. His confession is not an obstacle that will bedevil our path forward or annihilate it altogether. My hopes can remain aloft.
* * *
My place the next day. Ernie’s coming over. I’m fixing a simple sinner: baked chicken, fresh asparagus, shrimp. I would normally include rice or pasta, but Ernie has renounced carbs. “I might as well eat poison,” he told me.
I gut the shrimp and try to slow my mind from racing ahead; try to temper my hopes and coax them down from their moon-high altitude. This always happens when I meet a guy I really like: I get too far ahead of myself too fast. So fast I can’t ease the momentum. So fast that, when disappointment inevitably arrives, I’m caught unprepared, unprotected. But, wisely or stupidly, I always try again. I hope Ernie is different. I think he will be. I always think that.
He’s here and we’re both elated. We hug as if it’s been weeks since we last saw each other, instead of twenty-three hours and twenty-six minutes; as if our presence in each other’s arms is a relief.
“Wine?” I say.
“Red, white, or white zinfandel?”
I pour the wine, turn on the CD player which I’ve already loaded with jazz and classical, set to play randomly. The very first selection is Dinah Washington singing “Make the Man Love Me.” I’m mortified that Ernie will think I’m trying to send him a message.
He takes a sip of wine, then places his glass on the coffee table with the import of a judge laying down a gavel. “I want to read your poetry.”
“Now? This very minute?”
“This very minute.”
So we go into my bedroom and sit at the computer, or rather, he sits and I kneel beside him, our arms spiraling each other’s shoulders. I watch his eyebrows crease in consternation and then uncrease when he reaches the end of a poem and a smile delights his face. As he scrolls through the verses of poem after poem, I think, distinctly, This is a man I might like to live with one day. Mel Tormé’s rendition of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” floats in from the living room, his velvety fog of a voice cooing in intimate elegance.
“Your writing voice is just like your speaking voice,” Ernie says. “Authoritative. Articulate.”
We squeeze each other’s shoulders, which rapidly evolves to caressing of necks, kissing of cheeks, communion of lips. I had thought we’d have dessert after dinner, not before, but I don’t fight this. Ernie is aggressive, which I like. He maneuvers me onto the bed. We kiss some more, then undress.
I’m horrified at what I see.
I expected a slender body, and it is, but with blobs of excess skin budding around his pecs and bubbling his midsection. It streams from his buttocks, droops down his back. The excess skin is wrinkly, loose, completely void of elasticity or tautness. I touch it. It’s gelatinous and squishy. The way it pours off his body reminds me of thick, lumpy dough being poured slowly from a bowl.
I didn’t expect a ripped body or six-pack abs or a high-definition chest. But I didn’t expect this either.
Half-rough, half-gentle, Ernie propels me onto my back and kisses me. His hunger heightens each second, but my arousal has withered. To reignite it, I shut my eyes, tight, tight, and think about how wonderful he is; how sweet and smart and cute; how he loves books and jazz and my poetry. Tighter. Tighter. As if the strain might reconfigure my sight, redesign my visual perception so that I’ll like what I see when I reopen my eyes.
I reopen them.
I see his body.
I can’t do this.
I stop him, take his face in both my hands. I look into his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Flustered, jarred, breathless, he looks at me as if he doesn’t understand: I’ve interrupted treasure and he can’t make sense of why. And then he gets it. His eyes don’t shift. His face and body remain still. But a stricken, heartsick air creeps up and envelopes him. I feel it. If it had a temperature, it would freeze me.
He gathers up his clothes—slowly, dazed—and goes into the bathroom. I hear him crying behind the closed door. The sound is tender, just like the tender and sensitive man whom I have hurt. I sit on my bed and wait.
When he emerges, we don’t speak. We both head straight through the living room and to the front door as if—because—there is no other option. The possibilities so ferociously alive just forty minutes ago have been butchered. Our wine glasses, still full, sit on the coffee table. The apartment is flush with the smell of baking chicken. It must be done by now. The music has changed again: a live recording of Leontyne Price singing “Visse D’arte” in her dusky, opulent soprano.
Ernie leaves. He doesn’t say goodbye. I don’t either.
I stand at the door for minutes, staring at it. The sound of his crying smashes through my head. I’ll never forget it. I go into the kitchen and shut the oven off, but don’t bother to take the chicken out. It’ll dry out and be inedible. A waste of food, of money. I don’t care. I go into the living room, turn the music off, drain both glasses of wine, one right after the other, like a poisoned person gulping an antidote. I sit on my couch. I put my head in my hands.
Joe Okonkwo recently received his MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. His short fiction has appeared in Penumbra, Promethean, Best Gay Love Stories 2009 and online at KeepThisBagAwayFromChildren.com. His poetry has been published in Anthology magazine. He is currently working on securing a publisher for his novel, Jazz Moon, a story set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris.