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THE STAIN ON
THE OTHER MAN'S PANTS
An obsession, said a friend who has had more experience with psychiatry than I, organizes your life. Another way of putting that, I suppose, is that it simplifies it. ("Simplify, simplify," said Thoreau.) An obsession concentrates your energy on one object—it marks off, out of the whole vast planet, a plot of ground you can cultivate. It narrows things down—like the troubadors' courtly love, the single lady a knight devotes himself to (an unattainable lady at that; the jongleurs knew what they were singing about). Or the saints' fixation on Christ.
Stendhal speaks not of obsession but of crystallization—that moment when desire suddenly focuses on one particular person—but the two seem to me like the same thing. My obsession began the night D. slept with me six years ago. I had known of his existence for seven years before that. (Later, in the depths of my obsession, I saw a biblical parallel: Jacob toiling for Rachel's father for the same period.) We lived in the same small town in rural Florida. The nearest gay bar was in a city twenty-three miles west. Shortly after I moved down there in 1983, D. was pointed out to me across that crowded bar as someone who lived in my town too. I looked at him, but that was all. He was standing with someone as handsome as he was. Tall, rangy, lean, with expensive haircuts, both men held themselves aloof somehow from the crowd around them, if by no other means than their beauty. I neversaw D. again—till one night seven years later when he introduced himself at the boat ramp, a county park much closer to our town than the gay bar, a place where men gather to cruise and have sex in a public rest room.
He was thirty-four then and still handsome—in 501s and a Navy sweatshirt as he leaned against the fender of his car smoking cigarettes and waiting for me to get out of mine. (Some premonition, some warning, some gay version of street smarts that tells us Beauty is never easy, kept me sitting in my car long after he moved his hand sideways through the air in a kind of self-deprecating, comic wave.) I was so nervous that my legs were shaking when I finally got out and walked over to him and said hello. But when he introduced himself, the tension dissolved, and we bonded—as two gay men stuck in the same small town who knew some of the same families and who each knew where the other lived. It was so late when we stopped talking that we decided to get together some other night, at an earlier hour, and after giving him my phone number I was so smitten that as he drove back to town behind me through the fragrant spring night, his little car like a puppy following mine, I thought: This is as happy as you will ever be. The next night, to my great satisfaction, he called, and I told him to come over.
Our visit lasted three or four hours, during which we mostly talked in the still, lamp-lit room whose windows were open to the damp, cool night outside. Finally I glanced at the clock—it was shortly before midnight—and told him, "Stand up." He did. Then I walked over and enclosed him in my arms. I could have stood like that forever, but sex is a progress, so I led him to the bedroom, where I left him for a moment to turn off the lamps in the other room. He undressed while I was gone, so that when I walked in I found him standing naked before a mirror. He had a body that would not even interest a muscle queen: though he was tall, six foot one or two, his head and hands were in a way too large for his torso, his shoulders too narrow, his chest flat and undeveloped—more a thorax than a chest—and sprinkled lightly with dark brown hair. His scrotal sac was especially large, the red folds of wrinkled flesh flowing down his inner thighs. There was an abashed, almost apologetic expression on his face as he stood there. I was in fact the one abashed, abject, vulnerable, my sense of unworthiness intensifying when his penis grew, so long it bent halfway, as if engineering principles could not support a weight that far distant from his trunk and the second half had to be cantilevered; a penis thicker at the bottom than the top ("a lighthouse penis," a friend said when I described it). Operating on a theory I had at the time that all gay men are really bottoms and find attention paid their cocks a mere distraction, I ignored this obvious object—as if to adore the penis others had no doubt made much of would lose me his respect—until the sex was almost done, and then I briefly put my mouth on it. At that point he gasped and, jerking himself off as I raised my head, came immediately. (So that's what he wanted, I thought. All sex is a learning process.) After his orgasm, he lay there, looking at me down his long, lean torso with the expression an infant wears after being bathed, powdered, and diapered, while I continued to lick his limbs, causing him to flinch, the way highly sensitive flesh does when it's touched. "I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did," he said when he finally got up off the bed; I was too shocked by his strangely formal courtesy to reply. Still, I offered him a shower, and I was thus able to soap the back of this body I did not want to stop touching—though he was apparently indifferent to the opportunities a shower gives for further lovemaking. Then he dressed, and after darting back down the hall with the coiled grace of a cat burglar making his escape—to make sure he hadn't left his cigarette lighter behind—he said good night and disappeared.
(Months later, I was still able to replay the thirty minutes of our sex over and over again, like a conspiracy theorist viewing the Zapruder film. Or, rather, like Emma Bovary remembering the ball at the château—the one she never gets over. He was handsome, he was kind, he was grown-up, he was masculine, he was sweet, he was even better undressed than dressed, he lived four blocks away, he was all I could ever have wanted had a genie asked me to make a wish.)
The next night he called but I couldn't see him; then I heard nothing. After several weeks of silence, I called him after I heard that a drunk driver had crashed into his house (thus I had a pretext for contacting him). It was the first of many long phone conversations between us, though I gradually realized that for some reason he had no desire to have sex with me again, that our evening was going to be of a sort I associated with urban existence (the one-night stand), and that no matter how depressed or highly sexed he might be, I was not going to be the alleviator of either of those two afflictions. And so began my wondering why I had been rejected; and so began my obsession.
I wrote letters to him I never mailed, including lists of the things about his body and character I loved; walked past his parents' house every night because one evening I'd seen him sitting shirtless on a bench in the driveway there, exhausted by his long day at the sand mine where he worked; drove past his house as nonchalantly as I could, hardly slowing down, terrified he would see me; wondered whom he was having sex with, if not with me; got up before dawn when I couldn't sleep and went to the boat ramp, thinking not that he would be there but that his car might be on the road with mine as he drove to work; looked at the phone book each time a new one came out to make sure his name was still there and that he had not moved away. All of this was exacerbated, of course, by the fact that he had not moved away—that we did live in the same small town and that there were just four blocks of houses between his and mine. It was especially awful during those long, excruciating twilights in spring, after we changed to daylight saving time, when I knew he must be home from work. What was he doing? Why couldn't I go visit him? I couldn't—that was all—because he didn't, despite the depression and boredom of our separate lives, want me to; and because one of the great unwritten laws of human society, as obdurate and impermeable as lead, is that we cannot force our amorous feelings onto another. "We are all doomed to the caprices of unequal affection," a friend wrote me in a letter at the time. Some caprice! It seemed to me more like an iron curtain separating his home from my own, even though the twilight was so clear; why television and radio signals could travel freely through the atmosphere above the trees into his home but I could not I did not know, and the fact drove me crazy.
Of course I could talk to him on the telephone—though I did that at judicious intervals, careful not to call him too much, and it took a certain courage and control over my breath before I could even dial his number. Our talks were always wonderful. He became a voice, a beautiful, rich, melancholy, masculine voice on the other end of the line, somewhere in the darkness of that little sleeping town. Both of us alone in our houses, both of us at home, talking for hours, the way we had the night he slept with me; only this time he didn't sleep with me—he hung up with a "Thanks for calling," and I knew, the minute I replaced the receiver, that I had been refused again. And the clock was ticking on what I considered a decent interval before I called him again.
One night I gathered my nerve and asked him if he wanted to come over, and he said, yawning, that he was too tired: "I think I'll have a glass of water and go to bed." "I'm being rejected for a glass of water!" I said. He laughed and said: "You tickle me." I was glad I had—making someone laugh is like making love to him—but I was bereft that this was all I was allowed to do. Our conversations on the phone were like the conversation we'd had at my house before I told him "Stand up" and we went to bed together; only each time I hung up the phone I was alone, I could not touch him; he was as remote, as refusing, as ever.
Of course that was part of his appeal: I told myself it was only by rejecting me that he'd amassed this power—that in fact he was just an ordinary, small-town southern queen; but this attempt to free myself did not work very well. Soon I was listing the reasons he was special—the looks, the voice, the masculinity, the sweetness, the dick—but my attempts to disinfect, with an intellectual bleach, my obsession with D. always ended with the reverberating certainty that no matter what the "objective" reasons for this masochistic fixation on a man I could not have, I still wanted him, so much it hurt. Yet I could not even see him. He didn't go to the boat ramp again; he didn't have to. He was young (thirteen years younger than I) and had a boyfriend (the best-looking man at my gym in Gainesville, I eventually learned). The boyfriend, D. had told me during our sole evening together, even wanted to move in with D., but D. had refused; D. was already raising a teenage daughter ("I've brought one up and I'm not about to bring up another"). He had a daughter to raise, a boyfriend who wanted to move in, a job that left him exhausted at the end of the day, but none of this mattered; I wanted to be a piece on the side. "I'm a very sexual person," he'd said. Who isn't? I thought—though I knew what he meant; some people are more sexual than others, and he was one. What I wanted was that we be sexual together. And so I became obsessed, outraged by every waking hour that we were not conjoined in bed.
Everywhere I went I thought of him—at the baths (which he thought "too impersonal"), the post office (surely he received mail!), the grocery store (even he had to eat!)—but he remained invisible. I brought his name up in conversation with other people just to hear what they had to say about him. (One neighbor thought him a ne'er-do-well, the music teacher called him "sweet," another friend labeled him "a snob," though admitted he was handsome.) The whole town became a reference library with only one subject heading: D. I told myself I was being neurotic because I was so lonely and sex-starved, and that he was probably something very different from what I imagined; but this did no good. Because he did not want to see me again, was apparently able to live without me—incredible!—I could not see how he differed from my idealized portrait. That, I told myself when the pain was most intense, was the problem: nothing allows an obsession to intensify like the vacuum of a person's absence. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it causes an obsession to catch fire and billow up into the night, like one of those oil wells the Iraqis ignited during the Gulf War.
Romantic obsessions actually give rise to similes like that; suddenly you are reading poetry again to ease your mind—John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare. Donne seems especially right: you are a tick sucking blood from your lover's arm. Yes! You are an oil field in Kuwait, a pillar of flame, burning in the night! And popular songs: Bonnie Raitt was singing "I Can't Make You Love Me" on the radio that spring—a song so lovely and on-target that every time it was played I leaned forward to hear each exquisite tinkle of the piano keys, feeling that amazement we all do when a pop song expresses, but exactly, what is going on in our lives and hearts.
On the other hand, nothing is so incommunicable as a romantic obsession. When you're on the receiving end of an obsessive's description of his passion, it's like listening to a drunk, or to someone telling you his dreams; you simply cannot feel what he is feeling; and I knew, even as I told my tale of unrequited love, that my friends were not enthralled. They all gave advice anyway. One said: "It's because you live in the same town that he doesn't want to see you." A second: "He just wanted to see what was in your pants." A third: "If he chooses to live in that town, then you're not the kind of person he wants to know." A fourth: "Love is an opportunity for personal growth." Finally, a bartender I knew—no one is more schooled in love than bartenders—told me to stop calling D., told me that I was only humiliating myself.
In truth, I couldn't tell what D.'s mood was: he always thanked me for my call; the nights were so boring in that town, surely he enjoyed talking to someone. But he never called me back. And he never asked me a question about myself. And though I assured myself that I was simply offering friendship, he could tell, no doubt, that I wanted more; that was surely why he told me in great detail about the hemorrhoid operation he was recuperating from the last time we spoke—to demystify, to desexualize himself. It didn't work. It simply saddened me that I hadn't been able, to go visit him at home that week to keep him company. Then, when two nights in a row he did not answer the phone, the truth of what I was doing hit me, and I realized I should not call again.
At first, in the silence that now began, I hoped he would be there each time I went to the boat ramp. Then I hoped he wouldn't. I needn't have worried. Three years passed without my seeing him. Then, after my hair turned gray one summer, I became afraid I might run into him. Like Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember after she is crippled in an accident and refuses to show up for the date she'd made with Cary Grant when they'd fallen in love on a cruise ship, I felt I could not expect D. to want me now—the thirteen years between us had become visible. (Is that what an obsession is? The symbol on which one's personal angst, not desire, crystallizes?) Occasionally I thought I saw him, even passed him, in the post office, but he said nothing, nor did I, and afterward I was not sure if it had been he, or only a man who looked like him. D. was like a Ken doll—he looked different with each outfit. One night in the supermarket I saw a tall, handsome, skinny man perusing frozen pizzas at the end of the aisle I was pushing my shopping cart down, but his chin looked-smaller, his nose longer, his mustache too handlebar, his hair too wavy, his profile too Victorian. It was not D. But I waited outside after checking out to make sure. The way this man walked when he emerged immediately convinced me I was wrong—it was D. Watching him get into a silver Cavalier, I realized he'd bought a new car, and I drove home behind him that rainy night and watched him turn onto his street (the clincher) as I thought: What a shame, what a waste! As if we were two convicts imprisoned, in the same cell and neither would speak to the other. I thought of Zorba the Greek saying it was a crime when any woman slept alone. His gorgeous cock was going unused—this great national resource! Why couldn't I have it? Why couldn't we spend these wasted evenings together?
A year later I saw another man who looked like D., yawning as he pushed open the door of the post office while I stood in line waiting to mail something; again, I did not think it was D. till I saw him get into a silver Cavalier and drive off, and then I became so obsessed with his little yawn (had he been up all night, having sex?) that though I went to the town library afterward to read the Travel section of the Sunday Times—articles about Antwerp, Maastricht—I felt like weeping as I did so. Travel is hell, I thought; life has no pleasures except D. I'll stay in this town till he speaks to me. Clearly this was absurd; but it didn't matter. I was obsessed with his body. "I've got a brand-new asshole," he'd drawled the evening he told me about his hemorrhoid operation; but all this had made me want to do was reply: "Then let my tongue dissolve the stitches."
By now D.'s asshole was quite healed, of course, and we no longer even acknowledged each other in the post office, and I went to the boat ramp hoping to meet someone who'd free me of him. (The only practical advice I've ever heard for liberating oneself from an obsession: meet someone else.) It didn't work. No one compared to him. Everyone else's mediocrity only confirmed his excellence. Then one April evening—six years after our meeting at the boat ramp—I was parked there shortly after sunset opposite another vehicle, a truck that belonged to a stout, well-built, bearded man in his early thirties whom I'd followed into the men's room a week earlier (hoping to find a D.-substitute) but embarrassed myself in front of because—faced with his thick, stiff dick—I could not get an erection. ("Oh, come on!" I'd cried as he zipped up. "I'm just nervous!" But he'd walked out.) My older appearance was causing me such attrition of my self-esteem that when faced with someone really young and handsome I was impotent. Still, the man's impatience had angered me. So that April evening I was sitting there stubbornly in my car while he sat in his, the two of us ignoring each Other, when another car drove up. In the dim glow of the lampposts, it looked pale cinnamon; so when the tall, slender man with a mustache got out and walked over to the truck in which the bearded youth sat, I did not think it was D. I did steel myself, however, for the inevitable envy when the two of them got together, as I was sure they would, Instead, to my surprise—and satisfaction, if I am to be honest—when the tall man with the mustache walked up to the driver's window of the truck and waved, the man inside sat bolt upright, started his engine, and drove off. Mollified, I drove away myself, leaving the tall, skinny man alone.
A few miles from the boat ramp it occurred to me that the way the tall man had waved at the man in the truck was exactly the way D. had waved at me the night he picked me up. I knew then that the tall, slender man was therefore D., and that the car was not cinnamon but silver—it was a trick played by the light of the lampposts. When I got home, I phoned him to make sure; when nobody answered, my suspicion solidified; an hour later I phoned again to apologize for not having said hello to him at the boat ramp, if indeed he had been there, which indeed (he said) he had.
He knew the man in the truck who'd driven off, he told me: he was called J.B., he had a lover, and he could be "quite arrogant." ("And I don't have much use for arrogance," said D.) Then we slipped into another of our long conversations, and he brought me up to date on the past five years. "Life's been a bitch," D. said. He was in debt; his daughter had moved out and given birth to twins; he'd broken up with his boyfriend, who now refused to speak to him (because he was still in love with D., I knew without even asking); he'd been fired from the job he hated, and from four others after that; he was working now in the drugstore in the mall outside of town. I could see him anytime I wanted, I realized, just by walking into Walgreen's. I suggested he come over for dinner, but he said, "Oh no no!" with the nervousness of someone who does not want to be obligated, or to encourage closeness. (It's not fun being an obsession.) Yet when we hung up I was relieved, elated, and touched.
I was elated, I suppose, because he no longer had the boyfriend, was living alone like me (though he'd acquired a dog, the final seal on bachelorhood), and was now working in a place where I could at least see him if I wanted to.
My only gay friend in town and I call each other whenever we see someone handsome at the boat ramp, or at the grocery store, both to alert the other person and to relieve ourselves of the pressure created by Beauty—but when Frank called this time to rave about a man working in Walgreen's, I smiled and told him that it was D., that I knew all about him, and that I did not have to go see. Still, I was pleased when Frank called me thereafter whenever he went to Walgreen's to get the pills he takes to medicate his prostate. "Was he there?" I always asked, And he told me. Then an interrogation followed. "What was he wearing?" "You know I never remember what people are wearing." "Then what was he doing?" "He was in the cosmetics department." "Arranging things?" "I don't know—he was on the other side of the aisle."
This image somehow tamed and domesticated D., reduced him to the role of drugstore manager, simply a nice man, if a bit too handsome for the job. (Imagine that as an overqualification: "I'm sorry," his employer should have said, "you're too handsome for this job, You should be a hustler.") And it seemed to me he had been brought back to earth: a constellation, an animal composed of stars, finally caged.
Of course he had been caged all along, if I was to believe the things he'd told me—how much he'd hated his old job all those years, how he felt that people who'd watched him grow up in that town were always judging him, how depressed he used to get (so depressed that his boyfriend once canceled a business trip he was to take when D. phoned to announce his sadness, told D. to come over, and was waiting naked in bed when D. arrived—one of the many little stories with which I'd tortured myself).
Sex had been his protest, his escape, all along—as it was mine—and now, for some reason, if only that he didn't have to go into the drugstore till three in the afternoon, D. began visiting the boat ramp before work. Nor was that the only change, from what Frank (who went to the boat ramp daily) told me one day. The object of my obsession—who, when I first met him, had had a handsome thirty-year-old boyfriend he went to the gay bar with every Saturday night—now went to the boat ramp to solicit men who, Frank said, were all quite elderly. One of them, Frank said, a man with white hair and a pronounced limp, had been with D. in the men's room that day for a very long time, and when the man came hobbling out and got into his car, Frank was embarrassed to see a little stain right on the seat of the old man's pants.
That stain was a triumph—of D.'s polymorphous sexual tastes, so catholic, so changing; now he was pursuing old, white-haired men and apparently poking them. (Because he assumed that at their age they must be HIV-free? Because they reminded him of his father? Because he was trying some new meat?) Still, though I kept thinking of D. and the old man together in the shadowy latrine, I was not envious. That was not what I wanted to do with D. I wanted to take him to Europe, to New York, to wake up with him on linen sheets in hotel rooms in Egypt. Instead, he was rematerializing in our own town—falling to earth in my own backyard like an old satellite that breaks up reentering the atmosphere.
One day I even spoke to him, face-to-face, in the post office parking lot. As I was coming out, sifting through my mail, I heard my name called, looked up, and there was D.—looking, as usual, not quite like D.: shorter than I remembered, with a fuller face, a closer haircut, a bit flushed but smiling, and handsome in white pants and a navy blue polo shirt, as if dressed for a date. "How's work going?" I said. "It's going," he said, as he walked away from his car and I walked toward mine. That was all we said. I laughed, and backed up, and he watched me go.
Should I have stopped and chatted? What would have been the point? After a while, obsessions become almost abstract—much more important than their objects. And yet, people are corporeal—they have voices, those voices have timbre—and though I smiled all the way home, glad the five years of ostracism were over, that he was still friendly, that he'd seen me with my silver hair, I was sad the moment I parked the car, realizing the power D. still had over me, and walked up to my front door, where, during the height of my longing, I'd always hoped I'd find taped a note from D., saying he'd been there and wanted to see me.
The next time I saw D., just two days later, he was parked at the boat ramp, talking to another man from our town, a married, closeted fellow D. had heaped scorn upon the night we met (for trying to seduce D. and, when D. refused, reporting him to the town council for not paying his garbage fee). I kept driving. Suddenly, it all looked tawdry. So, I thought as I left the park, there is D., just one more good ol' boy, sitting all morning in his car, waiting like the rest of them for some fresh meat to show up. They might as well be hog farmers at an auction waiting for a blue-ribbon sow to be brought out.
Our next encounter disillusioned me further. The following Saturday night I did not even recognize him at first in the check-out line of the grocery store until he waved to me. He was ill, he said, he'd been vomiting and shitting all day; he was leaning on his shopping cart, he was so weak; he was paste-white and, for the first time, did not look entirely handsome. A baggy blue sweater made him seem corpulent; the loafers and pressed jeans, the tired eyes in the pale white face, all gave him the look of a middle-class southern queen—from Atlanta, say. Nevertheless I walked him out to his car and helped him pack away his groceries as we talked of all the flu strains going around and the fact that it was Saturday night and neither one of us was at the bar. (He was tired of the games people played there, he said; the fake fog; everything.) I was sure as I drove off that this was the obsession's end: I even thought of the final scene in Lolita, when Humbert Humbert sees the object of his obsession come to the door, a pregnant, disheveled, harassed housewife. We were both just middle-aged queens now, going home alone on a Saturday night. I had to hand it to him: he had won. He had separated himself from my obsession—it no longer connected us.
A few nights later the phone rang. It was Frank. He'd been at the boat ramp that afternoon, and said that D. had been sitting in his car with a white-haired man when Frank drove in, and that the two of them—D. and the old man—talked for a long time. This didn't bother me. D. really is what he said he was the night we met, I thought—"a very sexual person." Let him stain the pants of any old man he cares to. Then, as Frank and I were finishing our conversation, which had turned to other topics, for some reason I went back to the original subject and made a last request for details. "Do you think he and that man were having sex in the car?" I asked. "No," said Frank. "I think they'd had sex in the bathroom and were just talking afterward." I felt a slight pang; D. had said, the night we met, that he liked to talk after he had sex; now he was talking to someone else. "How do you know that?" I said to Frank. "I don't," he said. "But I saw the man get out of the car with a little piece of paper, and then drive off. So I assume he had given the old man his number." And then it all shattered, and I was undone by the thing Proust claimed was the cause of obsession: jealousy. He gave him his number, I thought, so the man could call him and they could have sex together again. Exactly what he would not do with me. What was it? I wondered. Why that man, and not me? And I was back where I had started: envious of the stain on the other man's pants, even if D. was now so unthreatened by my desire that he could afford to be utterly affable when we met. When I saw him at the post office a few days later, we had the nicest talk, he honked his horn at me as he drove off. Then I went home and fell into another trough of sadness.
|Introduction Michael Lowenthal||xi|
|The Stain on the Other Man's Pants Andrew Holleran||1|
|Ex Marks the Spot Brian Bouldrey||15|
|Harold Ramis's Glasses D. Travers Scott||31|
|A Nigger for Narcissus Reginald Shepherd||43|
|Sink Matt Bernstein Sycamore||55|
|Love Maps Mack Friedman||61|
|A Planet Called Jeff Keith Banner||69|
|Villainy Kelly McQuain||77|
|The End of Being Known Michael Klein||91|
|Idols of the Brotherly Planet Keith Pierson||99|
|Handball Adam Levine||111|
|Scheherazade of the Downstairs Office Patrick Barnes||123|
|Patro's Revenge Tom Bacchus||139|
|In This Corner Charles Flowers||145|
|Hardwick Deke Phelps||157|
|Field of Vision Stephen Greco||167|
|Staring Back at China Philip Gambone||177|
|Ratboy Jeremy Michaels||197|
|Ode to Boy Allan Gurganus||207|
|I Am Going to Eat You Scott Heim||215|