Good Bones

For most of my life, I was terrified of penetrative sex.

Honestly, all bodies, especially mine seemed haunted and my desires scared and perplexed me throughout my adolescence. Like I was straight up frightened. Like we traced the call and it’s coming from inside your body spooked.

When I was in middle school, I became convinced that I was possessed by some sort of malevolent creature from another realm. I cycled through all the possible demons and spirits who might have been making a home out of my body. I would pour over books on mythology and religious iconography in my suburban Texas town’s Round Rock Public Library on Main Street attempting to diagnose and identify the unwelcome squatter. This particular train of inquiry only lasted a short while but my body and what it wanted would continue to confuse me well into adulthood.

My issues with sex weren’t for lack of interest—trust me, I was obsessed with the concept but the whole to-do of it all disarmed me. Later in life, when I would try to submit myself to a sexual partner, my body would get all finicky and uncooperative like a water hose left to long with a kink in it. Nothing would work right. Every permutation of sex felt somehow wrong and impossible.

No one I knew had been able to teach me anything about the kind of sex I wanted to have—in fact, any and all information on gay sex had seemingly been erased from all of the books where I grew up. Little southern towns have a way of maintaining the whole extended moratorium on sodomy and all. I remember cherishing any sort of subversive media I could get my hands on. At 14, I thought XY Magazine was a radical piece of homosexual propaganda and I was shocked that it was available in my local Hasting’s. When I was finally able to dial up download pornographic photos, I stored them on floppy discs (six or seven low res photos fit on each) and hid them in a KNEX box at the bottom of my closet with a pack of cigarettes and some old coins that my grandfather had given me.

When I first came out, I included a lot of caveats to my new identity. I swore up and down that I would never engage in penetrative sex on either end of the equation. I was going to keep it “Christian.” You know, like Jesus and the apostles. Lot’s of mouth stuff but, you know, they were just friends. It was super important for me to place my gayness as close as possible to the heteronormative ideal as I could. I pulled that whole  “I’m gay, but, like, that doesn’t have to define me” schtick.

In my twenties, I had boyfriends and I explored sex more but every time it came to my body, to my penetration, I would lock up again. My defenses still engaged, I was unable to submit or participate. My brain, or at least part of it, was game but another part of me refused. Deep inside of me it felt like something angry was lurking.

Supportive people have told me that there is no such thing as a being “bad at sex” there’s only “bad sex” or “incompatible sexual partners” and intellectually I think I always understood that. But emotionally I truly felt as though I was the exception. Something was wrong with me. Something was broken inside of me. Even after I came out I was sure that some part of me was rotten. My body felt haunted, unsafe, and inhospitable,  like an old house full of Shirley Jackson spirits. I gave up. I put up a sign: DO NOT ENTER. My body was structurally unsound and prone to collapse. Abandon all hope ye who etc., etc. From a very early age, I felt condemned.

During this period of my life, I used to break into an old abandoned cotton mill in Walburg, Texas with my friends. The mill was straight out of a horror movie—literally portions of it were used as a filming location for the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m not sure what happened to the mill that resulted in it shutting its doors and falling to rot, or why it was never torn down after all these years, but I suppose there is a story buried there. Something about small towns, money, and lost jobs.

This was during my “I’m not gay, I’m struggling with my sexuality” phase. We can translate that to “I still hook up with guys but then I cry and pray about it afterward.” I had already come out once when I was 15 but I sort of lost the thread of that identity when I started hooking up with older men that I met in AOL Chat Rooms. I wouldn’t have “sex” with them but that wasn’t because they didn’t try. I became an expert at the dodge and weave, always offering an alternative, until one day I got too scared. A man drove me too far from my home on a road I didn’t recognize and suddenly my mortality was very real. I put myself back in the closet, joined a youth church, and got super religious. I wouldn’t even attempt to have penetrative sex until I was 22 years old.

I was 19 at the time, living in Austin, and performing with a Christian screamo band then called The Kirby (later called Widows & Orphans… it’s still on Spotify). It was a whole moment. Think 2005. Think Chi Flatirons caked in hair product. Think Lucky Strike Cigarettes, lip rings, and women’s jeans. I’m sure the era is conjuring some cringe-worthy images in your mind and I would recommend you just apply them all. We were very invested in the contrived but earnest efforts we were making to define ourselves. I saw something in all of this posturing that I wanted.

I had joined The Kirby because I was functionally in love with one of the members of the band. In case you were wondering what to do if you have a crush on someone: DO NOT inexorably bind your life with that person for four years in hopes that they might eventually fall in love with you. They won’t. I did all sorts of stupid unhealthy things while nursing this taboo crush. Drank to excess, drove unsafely. I dated a few very kind and understanding women while knowing deep down that I wasn’t available in the way they were hoping. It was all dumb and unhealthy and very much standard for a closeted queer in their early twenties.

It was with these friends that I first broke into the abandoned cotton mill in Walburg. The mill was a massive rusting two-story building with overgrown bushes and tall yellow grass surrounding it on all sides and blocking the facade from view. Inside there was a central unit of “cotton machinery” that took up most of the interior space with a wrought iron maintenance catwalk surrounding the upper portion of the mass.  The truss supporting the roof was failing and that loss of structural support had caused a cave-in on the south side of the building. This place was not safe to be wandering around in at night or any time of day but that made it way more exciting to explore. It was also a veritable spooky sound studio complete with clinking chains, moaning sheet metal, and dripping pipes.

Below the main machine unit, there was a stone stairwell that went down to a service basement where during our first visit to the mill we discovered a torn and soiled mattress. We were surprisingly undeterred even though possibly bloody mattress is maybe #1 on the list of murderer-nearby red flags. We would come back to the mill often sporting flashlights and Lonestar Beer (in my opinion the best of the cheap beers) and just hang around. We had discovered our own shabby chic condemned clubhouse.

One night, the guitar player and I went to the cotton mill in Walburg alone. Just the two of us with our flashlights and Lonestar. It was a date. It wasn’t a date but it had all of the trappings of a date. Or at least it was the closest I had experienced to a date in my life up to that point. We had returned to the mill many times over the years with more people without incident but on this particular mill trip, when it was just the two of us, something happened.

We parked our car to the left of the building behind some overgrown grass where we knew it couldn’t be seen from the road. The guitar player and I walked up to the loading drive with our flashlights off to further hide our presence. We had never been caught sneaking into the mill before and we liked to believe that was because of our expert espionage skills. I set our standard issue six-pack of tallboys and my flashlight on the chest-high cement loading dock and hoisted myself up. We had been here enough times that we had a comfortable understanding of the layout of the mill without much light. The huge metal doors of the loading dock were rusted and covered in tags and vaguely religious graffiti. One piece I remember in particular featured the words “seven lives were washed in the blood of the lamb” and seven crudely scrawled white crosses. Standard murder mill stuff.

As we entered the mill we heard a noise. It wasn’t the clink of the chains or the wind that rustled the leaves on the tree limbs that had grown into the building through the hole in the roof. The sound was new and unnatural. It was a guttural and foreboding hiss that grew into a growl. And the sound got louder when we shined our flashlights near the maintenance crawl space. Yeah, the same space where we once had found a dirty torn mattress. Being the dumb drunk young men that we were, we decided to investigate further.

As we got closer the sound intensified. We stepped through the threshold of a large wrought iron gate that separated the front section of the mill from the more mechanical rear and then suddenly something huge rose up out the ground with a flurry of darkness and motion.

The nightmare creature landed on the iron grating around the machinery with a metallic thud and bellowed a blood-curdling screech at us with its wings wide and imposing. It ran at us flapping it’s massive five and a half foot wings, the sound of its talons clanging against the hard rusting floor, it’s howl reverberating off the metal structure around us. We screamed and scrambled together back behind the iron gate we had passed through and slammed it closed just as the demon flew up to face height to rip our eyes out. We fell to the ground and held the gate closed with our feet as the monster attacked. Eventually, after what seemed like an hour but probably only amounted to a minute or two, the beast flew up through the hole in the roof and we were left dirty, breathless, and bruised on the ground. We had just encountered an angry Black Vulture. We had disturbed its nest in the middle of the night.

I found myself thinking about this vulture a lot. It’s screeching would come to mind when I thought of the guitar player and the one time we did finally kiss in a hotel room, the time when I knew he was just trying it because I had asked, just because he cared about me. Not in the way I was hoping. I would think about this vulture when I would try to have sex with future partners, when I would feel something angry and defensive rising up inside of me.

I would think about those men, too. The men who I used to meet in AOL chat rooms. The men who I had to repeatedly tell my boundaries to, even as I was just learning what boundaries were, the men who I would offer alternatives hoping that it would be enough to make them feel good, to make me feel real, to give my body value.

That vulture was just protecting it’s home. It had nested in that decaying mill and it felt responsible for keeping away predators. It had no way of knowing what we intended to do, what kind of danger we posed, it just knew that it was scared that we wanted to take something away, it was afraid that we wanted to kill something that couldn’t be brought back. I lived with this vulture inside the condemned wreck of my body for years, I convinced myself that it would always be there, screaming, refusing to let anyone enter.

Until one day it was gone. OK, fine. That’s not true. That sort of oversimplification is a disservice to the truth. The real answer, the longer answer, the “Did this movie really need to be over two hours long?” answer is this: I spent well over a decade learning to trust people with my body and I still struggle with it often. Too many men had tried to use me at too young an age and no one had been able to teach me how to have a queer body in the first place.  

Learning to let my guard down involved dozens upon dozens of attempts and a lot of disappointment. The first thing I had to understand was that I wouldn’t break when someone was inside me. Despite all of my fears of the dismantled and decrypted interior structure of my body I actually share little in common with the old forgotten mill I explored in my youth. I was just nervous and I hadn’t had an opportunity to feel strong yet.

Then it was a matter of finding sexual partners who knew how to read someone’s body. I feel like pornography has convinced generations of men that every body is ready and waiting for them to dive into and that is entirely and unequivocally not the case. I was lowkey traumatized despite talking a big game and that needed to be taken into account when trying to engage in sexual activity. Sometimes during sex I would feel myself getting scared, angry, and defensive. Some sort of baggage from the fight or flight response was lingering in my subconscious.  A large vulture if you will. Sometimes during sex I would suddenly need to stop everything and relax. Sometimes I continued even though I felt tears boiling behind my eyes. Despite often feeling hopeless, I would always come back for another round of experimentation and finally, at the age of 30, I was more or less fully able to let my guard down.

I know now that I was never condemned, I was just in an extended state of being remodeled. My body, or more importantly my mind is in a good state now, though I’m still planning future refurbishments. The vulture has since retired and spends most of its time traveling. It still shows up every once in a while to water the plants but usually it’s out on a Royal Caribbean cruise or backpacking through Europe. Maybe the metaphor is dissolving.

What I mean to say is that vulture lived inside me for a reason but over time and with support from good folks those reasons changed. It took me a long time to feel like my body was mine again after a lifetime of feeling unstable, unsafe, and afraid. I kept trying and eventually, I found a power in my body that I never knew I had before. I discovered just how sturdy I am.

The vulture has moved on. My body isn’t a haunted mill. It never really was. It’s a cute brownstone with good bones. To be real with you, it’s actually kind of fancy.

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