He is always unattractive. Even though I might have found him cute on the street, things are different in the steam room of the gym. Something about the way he hides behind the vapor brings to mind a dementor, or the fog I imagine always follows the Reaper. Or maybe it’s the feeling that, as he licks his lips, the sweat escaping through my pores carries out with it whatever keeps my heart beating. The link he maintains between his eyes and the parts of my body he desires becomes unshakeable. I am never the water guiding this cruise — just the ship, overturned.
They say they are made of the same thing, but being stuck in the fog of this tiny wooden room is not what I envisioned a cloud to be like. I’ve seen far too many pictures of an old white god laying across a fluffy nimbus, and I suppose I haven’t fully stopped believing in Him because I keep expecting this cloud of steam to carry me up toward a heaven where my body is mine. But Black queer boys don’t get to be like those gods, and inhaling the hot mist only makes me feel weak.
I have heard that you should leave the steam room when you begin to feel light-headed; that’s when you know the vaporized air is failing to give your blood the oxygen it requires. But as I stare down the white man cruising for Black boys who walk into this dimly lit crate, the dizziness happens too fast to acquiesce to sage advice. For my muscles to relax after any workout worth its salt and the sweat that offered it as sacrifice, I’d have to stay inside a little longer. So I linger through the disorientation for just a few more moments. But I cannot relax when the “no” of my death stare only excites him. When my death excites him. When my soul leaving my body excites him.
Soul-stealing doesn’t have to happen via touch. He doesn’t even show me anything beneath his towel at first, though the hand the towel covers in his lap moves in slow rhythms. The critical line, located in some vague place between inappropriate annoyance and “legitimate rape,” is never crossed. Any violation of my body is documentable only in my mind, and may have only occurred there, too. I might just be a bitter Black boy who hates white men. There is no law against white men stealing souls. And I have never written anything into law.
Instead, I write these stories about sitting through my death, the death that is being Black and queer in this world, over and over again. I call it “racial commentary.” I call myself a Black queer storyteller, put that on my business cards. I pretend I am telling a different story each time I write a new essay or TV script. The same tale becomes a new testament when you scrub it clean of careless old white gods. But if cleanliness is next to godliness, isn’t starting a new story without burning the book just waiting for a resurrection? No wonder these gods keep coming back.
On July 27th of last year, Gemmel Moore, a 26-year-old Black gay sex worker, was found dead in the home of Ed Buck, a 63-year-old prominent Democratic donor, after an apparent crystal meth overdose. Moore’s death was ruled accidental — that critical line still uncrossed — but his journal and friends would later corroborate another story: that Buck had a fetish for young Black gay men. A fetish that included plying them with drugs, often without their knowledge, and observing their responses to addiction over time.
“If it didn’t hurt so bad, I’d kill myself but I’ll let Ed Buck do it for now.”– December 6th, 2016 journal entry of Gemmel Moore
When I was younger, my journal was my most trusted keeper of secrets–from my mother especially. Inside of it, I could be as queer as I wanted to be when she would not have allowed it anywhere else. After she found out these secrets, my whole world came crashing down. She refused to sign off on her portion of loans for college, leaving my education in limbo. “If (queerness) is what you’ve learned from school,” she said, “then I cannot support it.” I know she regrets saying that now. But we still haven’t fully recovered.
I can only imagine what Moore’s mother Latasha Nixon regrets. I can only imagine what it felt like to open his keeper of secrets, and how it feels to be a mother of the child whose world then comes crashing through the pages. I can only hope she fully recovers, but how could she do that alone when me and my mother can’t even recover together? “[Buck] would have my son to go out to … Santa Monica Boulevard looking for young gay Black guys so he could inject them with drugs,” Nixon told L.A. Sentinel, “[to] see their reaction … and take pictures of them.”
I’ve heard that some people believe pictures steal your soul. If that is the case, I wonder what they steal from the boys whose selves have already been taken from them? What can you plunder from those who have nothing left?
From time to time, I used to come to this steam room to cruise like the white man sitting across from me. I discovered that this little wooden box hidden behind the locker room was the temple my body was never allowed to be, and finding others who would finally pray with me a prayer I understood inside of it was liberating. I often tasted rebellion against the violent limits imposed around my Black queerness while cruising in the steam room. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that safety from his unwanted attention is not sanctioned when I’ve done so much behind a door with a sign reading, “INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR OF ANY KIND WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.” And I suppose you could also say that 500 years ago this world deemed my very existence inappropriate everywhere.
The steam room is the place where I met the last boy I dated without ever intending to love. Big, brown and beautiful, he had been shooting me looks throughout my entire workout, and I would smile occasionally in return, just long enough to have plausible deniability if it came to it. Not so coincidentally, we finished and grabbed our towels at the same time. Never speaking a word, I opened the steam room door and walked into the plume of vapor knowing full well he would follow. Wanting him to. And perhaps what happened next is why I still expect this mist to carry me up toward someplace heavenly.
Behind the fog, the boy asked so many questions with his eyes that the white man wouldn’t. Is this okay? Do you want me to stop? Are you afraid? I wanted to tell him with mine that I could not ever love him the way he would end up wanting me to, but even as a storyteller that was beyond the limits of what my eyes and words could say. Instead, I told him, “Yes. Don’t stop. I am always afraid of sex. Let’s be afraid together.”
He would go on to court me for some time, persistent, but never too insistent. After coming to terms with the ultimate futility of us, he moved away, and I never heard from him again. That is the end of that story. That’s how stories should end. But there are some books that simply refuse to close.
I recently noticed a face in the Facebook message box. The green circle on the top left marking the person online is one eye, and the other is “X”d out on the top right. I imagine the text box underneath the two eyes is the mouth, and the words appearing in it are spoken aloud. Maybe this is where the stolen souls from pictures go. The green-eyed messenger could be winking, I think, surrounded by a sea of Facebook’s iconic blue. Like water. Like steam. Like what the film Moonlight taught me Black boys resemble under the shine of its titular rays. Something about the distance DM-sliding grants the slider–like the anonymity of steam room cruising–like being young, Black and queer–lends itself to soul-stealing. And add the latter to either of the former and you have yourself a perfect storm under deadly, moon-pulled tides.
If there is one place on earth that I refuse to let remain colonized, it is my body. I have written at least three articles about why I only date Black people, and white men “<3” those articles and wink into my inbox all the same. Perhaps they think all of my Black rage is just for show — a titillating challenge to overcome. A death stare in the steam room. Despite any clearly established boundaries, my inbox is regularly infiltrated by those who refuse to see this particular skin adorning my body as a boundary for the life force underneath.
The last white man who sent me a Facebook message cautioned me against “reverse-racism.” He respects my work, he insisted, but I should also know that not all white men are the same. If I don’t give them a chance, I’m “just as bad as them.” He makes sure not to say “just as bad as us.” Oh, and he likes the topless picture I just posted from my time at the beach with my best friend. But he is really trying to tell me I couldn’t possibly mean what I say when I write I don’t desire white men. I am afraid he might be right. I am afraid that I don’t have what it takes for white men to not always be right.
The messenger box’s “X” has always looked more like a dead person’s eye than a wink to me, but the digital face still speaks as if it is alive. I have always been afraid of ghosts. I close the box and close my eyes in the steam room and hope that those who speak for my body somehow stay dead. But eventually I open my eyes again, I don’t know why. And when I do, the white man in the steam room is masturbating.
My friend texted me today about how a group of white men at his gym similarly refused his rebuttals, how they kept coming on to him despite his death stares and despite him closing his eyes. We both have these experiences regularly at our apparently very queer frequented gyms, and have thus had this conversation many times, so I knew what he was going to say before he said it. I also knew, because he’s as light as me, someone, somewhere down the line of his family tree had already said it before the both of us. This might very well be anti-Black; I know Africans come in all shades. But I also know white men.
My friend didn’t know how to make it stop, he says, so he left. I want to write that I leave too, after the white man sitting in front of me spreads his legs a little wider, erecting a tent with his penis and towel between his legs. When I write this story, I want to write it with flair. I want to write that this tent resembles hooded men and burning crosses, and invoke some profound message with that metaphor. I want to write it as though the steam is smoke, as though only a white god’s burning crucifix can be the source of fire, as though I don’t have the flame to set this world ablaze myself.
I want to write it and make this violence special because if I don’t, who will? I want to write it and make this violence special because if it is not then what does it matter that I endured it? If my soul has already been stolen then what is left of me to be plundered? I don’t know how to make it stop, I want to write, so I leave. At least a story you leave behind has an ending, even when it doesn’t. At least then I won’t have to admit how I looked at the man in the steam room for a moment, too. At least then I won’t have to think about what that look meant. At least then I won’t have to commit the violence I want to commit every time this happens, violence I know I won’t get away with.
In another story, I watch the white man masturbate, or I hide behind the smoke, or I hold my breath until I pass out and never wake back up, but these are only different chapters to a book everyone wants but only to hate-read, still refusing to root for the characters. The alternative, burning this scripture, the story of Black queer people killing their tormentors rather than being killed by them, ends with the world putting such blasphemers in chains. So I leave the steam room triumphantly instead, my towel hanging down off my waist just slightly enough to feel the sigh he breathes onto the curve of my hip. I call this breath “disappointment,” even as I hold the door behind me for another Black boy to enter as I walk out. I call this “leaving,” but he always gets what he came for.