There are two moods I feel at three o’clock in the morning: vulnerable or horny.
I was working on a short screenplay about a twenty-something that makes dumb decisions late one night (early one morning?) and, for some reason, my brain kept taking the main character through some perverse sexual odyssey. The unholy amount of caffeine I consumed earlier wouldn’t let me rest easily, so I needed to do something else that would wear me out.
Under the orange streetlights of my neighborhood, I was on my way to have sex with a stranger. I snuck out of my apartment in the dead of night while my partner was sleeping. I wish it were as outrageous as it sounds, but we have a relationship where we encourage each other to explore their sexuality with other people. We could be one of those couples who experience the entirety of their sexual life in tandem, but I’ve learned that it’s important to fully realize my individual sexual agency and have my own experiences whether they be good or bad; vapid or fascinating.
I had been talking to an older gentleman with the username Tom. His profile was linked to his husband’s, which had the username Jerry. Tom and Jerry were involved in a type of inversion of my own relationship: they were strictly monogamous, but they often invited other men into their sex life. The agreement made prior to this hookup settled on us hanging out for a bit in their living room before “getting to it.” I sat on their faux-leather couch and tried to engage in the small-talk one makes with strangers before having sex.
Out of desperation, I tried to compliment the hodgepodge of African decorations in this white couple’s living room. Jerry curtly responded with an explanation about his husband’s job that often took him out of the country, but he had a nice smile so his rudeness could be ignored. After 20 minutes of otherwise pleasant conversation, we made our way to the guest room.
Another clause in the agreement was that Tom would only watch Jerry and me. We didn’t make it very far until Jerry faked a cough and rushed to the bathroom. I could overhear Jerry saying he was done “trying to be into black dudes.” Jerry was so turned off he couldn’t even maintain an erection. I awkwardly put my clothes on and hurried out the front door. I rushed down the apartment stairwell, muttering to myself about how stupid I was for not reading them better in the first place. The loud cracks of the steps were magnified by the silence of this ghostly hour.
Was there something wrong with me? Am I not hot enough? Why do I put myself in these embarrassing situations?
In the three minutes it took for me to descend those loud-ass stairs, I relived every embarrassing moment of my life.
The first episode of this never-ending story of humiliation was also the most severe. I was a sophomore attending a high school with a shameful disproportion of white vs. nonwhite students. There used to be a poorly crafted adage of not passing through the town at night if your skin color was darker than a brown paper bag. The uneasiness of looking different from my classmates was present before I was even old enough to comprehend the idea of race.
The most effective method of survival was to outperform my white peers so the powers-that-be would show mercy on me. If I fell into the narrow trenches of discipline so common in public schools, my chances of making it out of this town shrunk even more.
I also conditioned myself to build a personality that was very distant, allowing my peers to project whatever they wanted onto meanything to make the banality of high school more bearable. All of a sudden I was a cool, non-threatening POC who just went with the flow. Those jokes about me being an Oreo, white on the inside and black on the outside? Hilarious! Nickelback was an iconic rock band like none other? Definitely! You want me to compliment the rebel flag hanging on the back of your fucking Tahoe? Done and done!
That artifice cracked when a classmate halted a conversation at our lunch table to ask if I was gay.
What is gay? I asked myself. In my mind, being gay was white men in California who had embarked on the final frontier of their revolution by fighting for same-sex marriage. In the language of my family I was just “different.”
Certainly the internet would help me solve this mystery. This search led me through a catalogue of queer movies, queer T.V. shows, queer music.and porn. Loads of porn. So much porn that I inevitably contracted a virus on the family computer. This devolved into my mother discovering my treasure trove of cultural artifacts. My internet access was revoked for all three months of summer.
When school was back in session, I sought out the only other out gay person in my class. For me, this friendship was the first of its kind; one forged from commonality rather than the convenience of seeing them for eight hours every day. As I was introduced to others in that microscopic community of queers via mutual Facebook friends, there was a cute boy who seemed to be as obsessed with Lady Gaga as I was. One friend request later, we exchanged phone numbers. Sixteen years of pent up gay feelings gushed through my fingertips, but I knew so little about him he might as well have been a stranger. I think his name was Jameson.
We “hung out” in the back of my Chevy Blazer parked on the side of a not-too-busy street a few times before he finally wanted to take the next step. He invited me over one night while his parents were out of town (he was one of those kids whose parents were always out of town). When I walked into his parent’s bedroom, I saw that he did me the divine courtesy of throwing a shawl over the lampshade. I thought risking the fabric catching fire and torching us both mid-coitus was kind of sweet.
It took all of three minutes to lose my virginity. It was awful. He kissed like his tongue was trying to floss my teeth and I fell while taking off my clothes after insisting I keep my shirt on. The entirety of my adolescence crescendoed with a clumsy hookup with a guy I barely even knew.
The next few weeks were extra-delicious for my friends who tortured me with questions about whether or not Jameson and I did it. A stranger divulging such a part of my life without my consent was horrifying. The birth of my sex life had become public and people knew of a side of me that wasn’t created for survival. After a few obsessive texts which took weeks for a response, I realized my relationship (or whatever it was) with Jameson had run its course and we never spoke again.
When I graduated high school, I moved to Chicago to attend a liberal arts school. The education was almost secondary to the anonymity that living in a big city provided. Living in Chicago without the concern that someone was keeping tabs on me in some fashion was my first taste of liberation. This newfound freedom gave way to the prospects of sexual experimentation. At the same time, I was given another blessing from the internetGrindr. Having a direct line of communication with people I saw around campus, but was too cursed with anxiety to speak with IRL, made stepping out of my comfort zone bearable. However, by the end of my freshman year it was impossible to walk down the hall for a pack of Top Ramen without running into a dick I sucked.
Spring Break of my sophomore year was the most formative experience in the final throes of my sexual awakening. My roommate Violet invited me and a friend of ours to stay at her parent’s apartment in Queens while they were on vacation in South America. This was my chance! This mecca, as mythologized by my queer ancestors, would be the key to unlocking an ancient gay essence that would finally make my identity whole. One uncomfortable flight later, I was breathing in the urine-scented aroma of New York City.
On the fourth day of our trip, Violet showed us around Dumbo. She explained how rent would be set up between the three of us if we ever decided to move here together. At this point, checking The Grid was as subconscious an act as sneezing. A hairy torso with the username H00KD1CK messaged me with that all-too familiar pickup-line: “Looking?”
With the tourist’s inclination to seize the moment, I messaged him back. In true Midwestern fashion, I apologized with, “Oh jeeze, not right now,” and told him later that night would probably be better. He simply responded with a time.
Violet asked what those sounds were. I forgot to set my phone to vibrate and the messages’ alert tones sounded without me realizing I heard it. Luckily for me, Grindr hadn’t officially entered the American zeitgeist yet, so that particular chirp was hard for laypeople to recognize. I scoffed and shoved my phone back into my pocket. I never told my friends much about my sex life even though they were open and honest about their own. Sure, every now and then the narcissist in me would spill on a melodramatic story about my most recent “worst hookup ever.” But the fear of letting them in on the full extent of my promiscuity prevented me from truly letting my guard down. Maybe my subconscious was still feeding off of traumatic leftovers from high school.
In the hours that followed, H00KD1CK and I chatted some more. The name his parents gave him was Ben and he worked in finance. We exchanged Instagram usernames and I knew from the flood of likes that followed he was thumbing through my life’s story. We reached a point in the courtship where we exchanged nude pictures of ourselves. Still a novice to art of taking the perfect nude, I was grateful he wasn’t turned off by my unflattering angles. Within the hour, we knew each other’s body in intimate detail before we had even met. When my friends finally fell asleep watching Teen Wolf, I got dressed and left a note saying I was going out to grab a pack of smokes.
I arrived at the lobby of Ben’s apartment building 10 minutes before the time he specified. A cloud of fresh Lysol burned my eyes and made them well up. I prayed I wouldn’t arrive to Ben’s apartment looking like I just found out my dog died that’s very unsexy. The security guard at the front desk asked me to fill out the sign-in sheet, his eyes looking me up and down. There aren’t many reasons someone has a guest over at this time of night, and the way he told me Ben’s room number said he knew what I was up to.
I knocked on Ben’s door and it gave a little. He left it open for me. I walked into a long hallway that led to the living room. Ben called out to me and I walked in on him sitting on his couch wearing sweatpants and a hoodie that exposed his hairy chest. He was a little taller than imagined and his voice had a flat tone that was either creepy or charming. He asked if I liked Project Runway. Of course I did. He turned on an episode and invited me to cuddle with him. I was self-conscious of the lingering odor of cigarettes rubbing onto his hoodie, but the point of no return had passed. I nestled against Ben and his impressive chest hair. We zoned out watching the boob-tube for what felt like eons.
When Heidi said “Auf wiedersehen” to the eliminated designer, Ben finally asked if he could kiss me. I said yes. He asked if he could take off my shirt. I hesitated, then said yes. He asked if I wanted to move to his bedroom. I pretended to chew on that idea and said yes. This hookup wasn’t as clumsy as most of my previous experiences so it was a minor success. But he kept looking into my eyes and telling me how beautiful they were. I tried to look away, but his gaze was relentless. There was something about being observed like that that made me want to crawl out of my skin. His obscene interest in me went beyond the lusty infatuation people have when they go through the motions of a quickie.
Afterwards, he tried to cuddle with me while I tried to muster the energy to get up. He clutched my tense body and asked if I wanted to spend the night. The thought of sharing a bed with a stranger who seemed to be interested in me beyond the orgasm I could provide made my stomach lurch into another dimension. The knee-jerk reaction was to blame it on my Catholic upbringing. In retrospect, It was the first time somebody looked into me while having sex. That was a kind of vulnerability I was far too young to experience.
I put my clothes on and mumbled some flimsy excuse about a friend waiting for me at a coffee shop. He gave an unconvincing performance of non-disappointment. The way he said “goodbye” haunted me all the way back to my friend’s apartment in Queens. I had to block him on Instagram just to breathe easier. When I entered the front door, my friends were still sleeping. I tossed the note I left and snuck onto the couch as if nothing happened.
The next day I was chatting with a cutie who lived a few blocks from Violet’s apartment. He wanted to invite me over, but his parents were due back from their trip to France any minute. He suggested I take a trip to Forest Park. I initially thought he was suggesting I go to the park to feed some geese.
“No, dummy,” he said, “people go there to cruise!”
I thought the gays retreated from public spaces long ago to fulfill their need for expedient sexual intimacy with the internet. The idea of participating in such a tradition made my heart beat a little faster. I looked up the park and saw it wasn’t far from me. My friends were out shopping for an extra piece of luggage to carry their souvenirs back to Chicago. I wrote another note to explain I was going on a walk.
I made my way to Forest Park shortly before dusk. I ventured into the woods while the sounds of civilization melted away. I was no longer in New York City I was instead walking through a place that existed outside of time. There wasn’t a soul in sight, with the exception of a tall man in a black vest who rushed past me. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but each time he circled around on the trails, it was clear he hadn’t found it yet.
At last, the sun went down. I could barely see my own two feet, but I took solace in the streetlights that were barely visible beyond the treeline. If I ever got lost, I could follow those orange orbs and find my way back to the real world. I began to notice people moving into the forest from those streetlights. Shadows moved past me with that same brisk walk. Forest Park was no longer a quaint area where people spent their leisurely days off. Instead, it had turned into a feeding ground.
My unfamiliarity with the machinations that composed the dances between shadows made me feel closer to an alien than a human being. This community had a lexicon of social cues with which I had no fluency. I was observing a tradition in which I never had the opportunity to participate. Oddly enough, this type of alienation wasn’t negative. After growing up in an environment that centered on my body and mind being policed, it was a welcomed invisibility. In this moment nobody knew my name, my race, where I came from, what I looked like, how old I was, or even the irregular speech patterns I adopt when I’m nervous. I was a shadow amongst other shadows.
I decided I should make my way back to Violet’s place before my friends started to worry about me. I followed the streetlights, stopping just before stepping onto the street to light a cigarette. A stranger approached me from the void. He appeared to be a bearish shadow that reeked of poppers.
“You got a light?” he gruffed.
Not understanding this innocuous request could be perceived as accepting an invitation to sex, I whipped out my Zippo and held it against his Winston cigarette. He asked me where I was from.
“The Midwest,” I replied, attempting to be as vague as possible. He and his friend were a “native New Yawka.” I was just his type.
Before I could get a syllable out of my mouth, the shadow lunged his tongue down my throat. I couldn’t tell if the adrenaline rush flowing from my pancreas was responding to fear or pleasure. But I did know that I didn’t want him to stop. It was carnal abandon at its finest. There was no need to concern myself with anything beyond this moment. He wasn’t going to constantly text me for the next three days, and he certainly wasn’t going to lead me into a one-sided relationship only to disappear. In that moment I was free to explore almost any sexual desire that lurked in the back of my mind. If things got awkward I could just walk away.
Praying my luck hadn’t run out by the time I returned to Violet’s apartment, I snuck in to see them on the couch watching yet another episode of Teen Wolf.
“Well, how was your walk?”
Dammit. I was caught. I glossed over that question with a yawn and ran to the bathroom for a shower. I lay awake that night trying to relive the excitement of discovering that ephemeral pocket of time in Forest Park. It was no use trying to get some sleep before the flight back to Chicago.
Five years and 36 rickety stairs later, I made it to the lobby of Tom and Jerry’s apartment building. Jerry’s racist confession looped in my head as I pushed open the vestibule entrance. It wasn’t the racism itself that caused that visceral reaction. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t see a screencap of a white person’s dating profile where they list the races they’re willing to sexually tolerate. It was being confronted with that sort of discrimination for the first time in awhile that triggered that time-travel through past trauma.
The beauty of these brief encounters is that I’ll never have to see Tom or Jerry ever again. Although technology is constantly shifting the landscape of human interaction, the queer innovation of casual sex known as cruising has changed very little. Whether I block them on Grindr or pull up my pants and follow the trail out of the forest, these hookups with strangers are temporary. Sure, there’s the risk of facing horrific behavior such as casual racism, but there’s also the possibility of meeting someone that’ll change one’s lifeit’s how I met my partner. It’s important to remember that even negative experiences can inflict a wound that, when healed, leaves one prepared to confront the next beast head-on.
For so long these experiments in intimacy sat in the back of mind, picking at every creative endeavor I’ve embarked upon. These sexual excursions were a way for me to confront the surplus of insecurities that have followed me into adulthood. These fleeting experiences are in fact more authentic than the ones I have with people on a daily basis. They’re just as precious as they are benign, and sometimes unsatisfying.
It wasn’t until I crawled back in bed with my partner did I realize that these past and future hookups make up a sexual tapestry that facilitates growth that can be painful, yet completely necessary.
Images via Getty