Lately, I’ve been trying to get on stage more often to tell jokes because I’m still mad at the University of Hartford improv troupe Stop Laughing Mom! For making me sit through a 90-minute show.
On stage and in my writing, I can force people to listen to my TEDTalk about Casino Royale, James Bond, and post 9/11 constructions of masculinity, or how the second most popular reason why I’m blocked is because I hate Call Me By Your Name, and the first is for being Asian.
And here, maybe I can reconcile with my own sense of mortality and trauma, because if you’re not doing it publicly, then how is Twitter ever going to validate you?
The second summer I spent in Provincetown, I knew what was coming — on my face. Everything gets easier with practice, and after the first summer, I felt better prepared for whatever the east coast queer mecca could throw at me: shit stained sheets, Bear Week, a former Drag Race winner drunkenly asking me to go home with her.
During the Fourth of July period, what we in town call “Circuit Week” — because I would rather drop a blowdryer in the water while I’m in the tub than have to talk to any of those cretins — a familiar face popped up on my Grindr. The chirp of the notification sound revealed an older guy, bald, a gym selfie. I was not especially interested in him. Not because of the bad lighting, but because the last time I had had a threesome with him the year before, for the totally not shallow opportunity to sleep with his much younger boyfriend, was mediocre. It was like school cafeteria pizza. It was, like, still pizza? We went through the motions of the conversation:
How are you?
What have you been up to?
Do you wanna mess around again?
Do you do raw?
No, Jan, we’ve had this conversation before, I only use condoms.
You liked it raw last time.
Charles, what now?
“You liked it raw last time?” I barely like raw fish. I spent the majority of my life ordering hamburgers well done. Saying I liked the French cannibal movie Raw took a great amount of willpower. As far as textual messages on Grindr can convey, he seemed surprised at my surprise: “This is a total surprise to me that you did not know we were fucking you without a condom!!”
And I’m like: “This is not what we agreed to!! You had a condom on last time I checked, I thought! This is not the time for a disappearing condom act!! My word!!”
I had, thankfully, already been tested in the time since, and I was negative on all counts, but it was so annoying to me that I was kind of violated without knowing it and I had to find out a year after it happened. These things have deadlines! I do not usually spend my life sitting around waiting to be told that my personal boundaries have been transgressed so that I can write personal essays about them. That just fucks up the pitch process between me and my editor.
It was an inconvenience. I was, at the time, galled in a “my word” sense, and it wasn’t worth expending the energy to find them at the inn they were staying at a couple blocks down from where I was working/living to yell at them and say, “YOU AND YOUR HOT BOYFRIEND ONLY LASTED 7 MINUTES ANYWAYS. I KNOW BECAUSE I COUNTED. THAT IS ⅓ OF AN EPISODE OF 30 ROCK AND I EXPECT BETTER FROM YOU GAYS.” I put it out of mind.
Mostly, I’ve begun to conceptualize a lot of cis queer men as kind of annoying in that regard, increasingly bad at communication. When I moved to New York the following autumn, I had a boy over in January-ish, and we had sex and it was fine in the way that I had no notes for him as a director because it barely registered. Sometimes you want something and then you order it on Seamless and then by the time it gets there you’re like “Oh, okay.” Pizza.
What I was not prepared for was that he was going to stay the evening. I still only have a double mattress, which works fine for me because I still have the body of a 12-year-old. A double mattress does not fit a 12-year-old and a 26-year-old. I don’t think we talked much, but we went to bed relatively soon after. I was not, am not, used to people staying over. I am much more used to kicking people out after they’ve cum on me or besmirched the name of The New Yorker. It’s not that I’m scared of intimacy; I love the idea of intimacy and closeness. I crave it like I crave eating a tub of mashed potatoes by myself in my room while watching The Ice Storm on Thanksgiving. Just not with randos. And also, if I had intimacy problems, why would I be obsessed with Stephen Sondheim’s Company?
So I lay there awake most of the night. My body was stiff, unable to relax, unable to sleep. I tried counting sheeple. Ann Coulter, whose audiobooks I would listen to at bedtime in middle school. Julian Assange. Tucker Carlson. Bill O’Reilly. I felt movement on the other side. A grinding. I was not in the mood. So I continued not sleep sleeping. A hand was used to try to yank my pants and underwear down, and an attempt at thrusting began. I did my best possum impression and played dead. He tried for a few minutes to fuck me while I was trying to sleep, which is a sentence no one wants to say, second in place to, “I did eat the baby because I was trapped on a mountain and they are free of toxins and fatty.”
He stopped at some point, I fell asleep, and I kicked him out the next morning. I told a friend that this had happened, and I was also reminded of the time that the couple in Provincetown had told me too late they had removed the condom during sex. And I was reminded of another incident in Boston a few years earlier with a guy I had dated for two and a half weeks, where he, too, tried to fuck me in my sleep, and after ignoring him wouldn’t do, I relented and gave him a blow job so he would shut up.
I told a close friend about that guy in PTown and his boyfriend, and about the time this guy slept over and tried to fuck me in my sleep, and about the time this guy tried to fuck me in my sleep and then I relented and blew him to shut him up, all in a very nonchalant way. She was rather concerned. I wrote them off as boys being inconsiderate. She thought there was something more at play. And I think, now, there was.
I prefer to use whatever traumatic experiences I’ve had as a vehicle for self-deprecating humor, because I’m a sadist and a masochist, a great buy-one, get-one-free deal. My set opener is “my dad is hotter than your dad because he was cremated”, which I also once told an Apple store employee. It’s easier to write it off as funny than to linger on the details, to mire myself in the consequences, or subject them to anyone else, because, not unlike Bette Davis in All About Eve, I detest cheap sentiment.
I thought what was happening to me, in a rule of threes way, was annoying. Rule of threes means I can hex them all. But what was more irritating was that people had seemingly gone out of their way, impulse or otherwise, to transgress a boundary, and moreover, that I did not really have the language to describe how I felt about it. To admit that there was some greater implication, personal or political, to what had happened felt like I would be allowing myself to become weaker, to be changed irrevocably and cast in a light that I did not want or deserve. What happened didn’t look or sound like the stories I’ve heard, it didn’t seem severe or traumatic enough to warrant the language I was familiar with.
A news report about the term “stealthing” entering the cultural discourse was published earlier this year. Working off of a recently published paper by Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, “stealthing” was described as when a penetrative partner removes a condom during sex without telling the receptive partner. Reports suggested that gay and queer male communities had been using the term as early as 2014. And, reading these pieces, recognizing them in a way, I thought to myself, “Agh, shit.”
Framing myself in the context of trauma or sexual violation is foreign and only exciting when I’m being paid. I am the kind of person who, in their personal essay unit my freshman year of high school, responded to the essay prompt of “What was your worst day?” with the following: “The first is when I had to watch the Transformers movie over the summer with friends, a garish spectacle devoid of understanding space, time, and characterization; a nightmarish hodgepodge of nonsense. The second is when my father died in September. At least I got a lasagna dinner and a Wallace and Gromit DVD out of my father’s death, which is more than Michael Bay can say.”
When being stealthed has come up since, like when I get bloodwork done and consider converting to heterosexuality, I don’t know what to say exactly. “UH, I was kinda sorta sexually violated, I guess?” It’s this grey, awkward area, with barely any vocabulary to describe it (the first draft had the word “annoying” 12 times) and even fewer legal resources or recourse. The way many of us are told, trauma like that is supposed to be a package deal: I’m supposed to feel all these things, the change is supposed to be dramatic and life-altering, I am supposed to assume some kind of archetypal experience, but all I felt was annoyance and confusion and the desire to not really talk about it again. It’s like being a queer Asian transracial adoptee: great and failed expectations. Its impact was ephemeral, eliding immediacy.
I think the way I negotiate trauma, what it is and how it manifests, especially in art, can be blamed on my mother, which is to say I avoid it. I have muted the word “trauma” on Twitter, as well as the words “bussy,” “toxic masculinity,” “Mercury is in retrograde,” “Antoni,” “self-care,” “Swifty,” and “Bernie would have won.” I saw my mother as a strong and resilient person whose trauma, the details of which I do not know, heavily shaped her. She and I have a very complicated relationship, and in my efforts to not be her, that may have meant not addressing trauma. I think because I didn’t want to be changed by it the way it had changed her.
But now we talk. Not about this, she doesn’t know about this yet, I’m saving that for Thanksgiving, but the intricate folds to our incredibly complex and tumultuous relationship are being unearthed again. I am continually learning how to use my writing as a way to work through things, because finding a mental health professional in this city is literally worse and more expensive than dating. (Don’t worry, I am working on it.) I’m experimenting with comedy, which, despite making me want to vomit, allows me a certain sense of control that I wish I had in the past. A certain kind of agency.
I joked to a friend once that getting a haircut gives me more anxiety than being stealthed; that at least I don’t know that I’m losing control when being stealthed and that was much more convenient to my schedule of sitting on my butt and watching Danish musicals about Björk being arrested for manslaughter. With a haircut, the consequences and the humiliation are way more immediate and, like, expensive. The table at which I went on this mini-rant laughed, and a regrettable idea popped into my head.
So I wrote a set comparing being stealthed to getting a haircut, talking about the politics of consent. I long had found solace in writing darkly comic essays in a David Sedaris vein (like this one!), but I thought it would be an interesting challenge to work in another format. I didn’t know if I would ever perform it, and it sat on my laptop for a couple of months, but I saw that there was a queer open mic called Open Flame in Bushwick. I thought, if I could perform it here and it did okay, then I can do something with it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll never do anything again. I performed it at Mood Ring, framing it around the New Yorker short fiction story “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, a story predicated on sex and power and ambivalence. And it went well.
My two favorite jokes from the set:
I had sex recently, thank you, and I’m thankful because he gave me back issues of the New Yorker. Before we had sex, we were talking, and he wanted to talk to me about cultural appropriation. And then that conversation turned into one about colonialism. And then that turned into a very…. hands-on demonstration.
Obviously, one of the many side effects of being socialized in a male-dominated society is that women, and some queer men, are taught to be deferential, to fit within a kind of mold where we are less likely to challenge maleness or male authority. I want to dismantle the patriarchy and white supremacy, but I will apologize like a thousand times while doing so. “I’m so sorry, I just wanna dismantle patriarchy, like FUCK BRETT KAVANAUGH, but sorry, excuse me.”
For the first time, I felt like I could confront and reclaim something that existed in the liminal spaces of our understanding of consent and power. I could play with the language itself. I created tension, for you Nanette fans, but something in me felt washed away.
I mean, yes I still need a therapist, and if any of you know anyone who takes Aetna let me know. But for the time being, I could tell my own story, I could use my own words, I could get concerned looks from audience members with my joke about colonialism and sex with white men. I think that’s all what anyone really wants in life: autonomy, agency, and the mutually understood power of telling someone where to cum.
Image via Getty