I do not know this boy. He’s a friend of a Facebook friend—some girl I hated in high school, and friended so I could see how wrong her life had gone. But then there’s this picture, flashing alongside her profile: a tough sturdy jock with a soldierly buzz cut, and a lewd tuft of hair under his lower lip. 25 years old. Abundant stubble. Mitch Kuchuk. The tilt of his head and the tightness of his T-shirt show he knows he’s the hotness. He posted a note to her profile—jk i just wanted to b a pain n say sumthing. Of course he’s not gay. Tough hetero hostility throbs in his eyes, which is probably precisely why the photo stops me cold. Just one more boy like the billions from back home… and yet the curve of his lips or the grey of his eyes elevates all that impoverished masculinity into something gorgeous. His profile promises thirty more photos, but these are only visible to his friends. I send a friend request. For the moment, though, the one is enough to masturbate to. My brain crops his face into fantasies and flashbacks. One forearm, work-tanned and furry, loops around my neck, chokes me perfectly. His teeth scrape my shoulder. Fucking hell, man, Mitch hisses, breathing out after pushing in, that’s my baby. Mitch uses the voice men back home use to talk to their cars, when their cars are running right.
Diego is dying. My mentor has lived with the virus for ten years, but now some new opportunistic infection has colonized his body and will not respond to diplomatic overtures. His voice is so strong that what he’s saying doesn’t compute at first, and then the old sex phobia flashes through me. For a split second I’m back in high school Health class, believing them when they say that gay sex is sick; sad; a certain path to fatal disease.
But then my lust explodes, expands like a toxic mushroom cloud over Manhattan. Beautiful men buzz like horseflies, everywhere I go. I want to fuck every single one of them. Jocks with broad shoulders and baseball caps, clean-cut bleary-eyed executives, cracked-out street trade, boys behind counters in drug stores. Grubby squatter punks on St. Mark’s place. Decked-out Chelsea dudes. 15-year-old Mexican boys holding hands with pretty girls. Afghans, Argentines, Zambians. I stop bringing books on the subway, because I can’t concentrate. I’m too busy staring around the crowded cars gawking at everyone even remotely hot. In my head I script unspeakably-filthy sex scenes with each of them, and then I sketch out horrible consequences. Me, chained to the bed in a hotel room high above Times Square, raped endlessly by grimy Fleet Week sailors. Me, my face alive with epithelial tissue tumors, crouched behind a dumpster, unable to die with dignity, desperate at least to die with privacy.
Surprise—Mitch accepts my friend request. Straight boys are so trusting. He’d never wonder why this man he never met before would want to be his friend. Never think sure, he’s from my hometown, but he’s living in the Big City now, and his profile clearly states Gay.
None of the other photos are as exciting as the one that first caught my eye. Nothing shirtless; nothing intimate. Several games of miniature golf. A snowy blurry midnight game of touch football. A trip to Myrtle Beach. In the best one of these he’s holding a cigar in one hand and a beer bottle in the other, looking at the camera like as soon as whoever is taking that picture is done, he’s going to push them to the ground and fuck them hard.
I focus on surfaces, since learning that Diego’s dying. On shallow stuff. I colect photos of handsome strangers, and endless gigabytes of porn. The scenes I like best lack plots and characters and sets—just boys in bedrooms, tearing each other up, snarling, cursing, savage. The perfection of pornography is that no one owes anybody anything afterwards, there’s no human contact, no messiness, shallowness. Sex for cowards.
Some guy named Dan sends me a Facebook friend request. He read my story in The Minnesota Review and liked it a lot. “You’re a great writer,” he says. “Are you working on a novel?” This world is so much better than the real world. I want to never leave the house. I want to be alone with my pornography, and with people I do not know. People who will ask nothing of me, who will not change my life or make me sad or make me sick.
On the phone Diego sounds strong but tired, cheerful but frank about the prognosis. He e-mails pictures of paintings, and includes extended commentary. Somehow, ten years after he first taught me how to read a painting, he still says things that make me see art in a whole new light.
What would my life look like if Diego, a painter from The Big City a studio in my upstate town, didn’t meet me at an art gallery and start mentoring me in painting? I’d still be there, pushing thirty, getting chubby, miserable because no one ever taught me about Caravaggio or composition, space or color, Gloria Gaynor or fellatio. Never had anyone show me, by example and by patient positive dialogue, how being queer is really rad.
Diego’s studio smelled like turpentine and varnish, dust and linseed oil and gesso and herbal tea. The ceilings were high and it got good light and the heating system was noisy and ineffective. Rent was three hundred dollars a month. Old paint, probably riddled with lead, cracked and crumbled off of every wall.
For eight dollars an hour, I stretched canvases and itemized receipts and alphabetized his CD collection and did errands and posed shirtless. While he worked, lost in some tough nook in St. Sebastian’s cheek, some mysterious coming-together of lips, I would hang out the window and watch the busy intersection three stories below. Dying a little at the sight of each passing boy I’d never get to blow.
One biked by, some barely-legal thing with tight jeans and a seductively-shaved head. I asked Diego: “why isn’t it possible to fuck every beautiful man you see?”
“Because,” he said.
“That’s a stupid reason,” I pouted.
“Some things are simple laws of physics. You can’t have sex with every attractive person in the world. You can’t change the fact that shit stinks and people die. You can’t snap your fingers and become the artist you want to be. You can’t do anything about slavery or the extermination of the Native Americans.”
I pouted some more.
“That’s why we’re artists,” he said. His face stayed focused on the canvas. “Some people use religion or sports to suck up all this excess angst, but we use art.”
He was HIV-positive, even way back then. Three years would pass before he told me. Looking down from Diego’s windows my town looked peaceful and quaint, like it must have looked to out-of-towners. No racism and rampant alcoholism—no massive unemployment or homophobia or quiet desperation. Sitting in his window, I saw how my town was beautiful not in spite of all its ugliness, but because of it.
At work, I tape thin pieces of paper to my computer monitor and call up Mitch’s picture. I trace his face. Dozens of little Mitches clog my desk. Phone messages go unreturned. Some of them get covered in Mitch scribbles.
I stopped painting soon after college. Spending so much time working on surfaces only fed my lust, my frustration, my hard time breaking through life’s outer ugliness to the joy that surges underneath. I took Diego’s lessons and applied them to writing. I wanted to get inside the heads of people who did dreadful things. Fiction let me have sex with concentration camp guards; drink scotch with executives whose money came from landmines. I wanted to make sense of every side. Fiction fooled me into thinking that we can accept and understand human suffering, simply because it’s human.
So why is it that now, with Diego dying, with the specters of death and sex tangled up and looming over my head, I’m more desperately horny than I’ve ever been? I can think of lots of reasons why Desire and Destruction make such a cute couple. All of them make sense and none of them are sufficient. Sex as celebration of life. Sex as consolation for grief, cure for stress, boost for bad self-esteem. Sex as violence done to the self. Sex as embrace of beauty, acknowledgment of yourself as an aesthetic creature susceptible to a subtle line in Shakespeare or a glistening mouth in a Goya. Sex as a clunking but brilliant chord progression in a Dead Kennedys song, or the neck of the boy bouncing up and down to it at Punk Rock Night at an 80’s bar. Sex as fun. Sex as risk. Sex as suicide. Sex as religion.
Every single conversation I have—at work, with friends, with strangers at the video store—I am totally removed. Watching from the outside. Nothing else is as important, or as terrifying. My work suffers. Somehow everything spirals down to Diego dying, and my own bottomless lust. Fucking and dying—these two things everyone has in common, that no one wants to talk about.
I know how they age, up there in the town I ran away from. Flipping through Mitch’s photos I can see the turns his life will take. It sounds stupid, saying it out loud or looking at it on the page, but I want love without life. Without time passing. Without our errors piling up. Drinking the tenth drink of the night; opening the second pack of cigarettes of the day; taking the sedentary office job; having the third kid.
Dumb decisions calcify, harden into bags under eyes and jiggly flesh on our upper arms. In one shot, seated, swamped in a girl’s hug and grinning drunk at the camera, Mitch sports a little belly. Tiny, disappearing when he stands, but likely to grow with the years. Straight guys age poorly. They’re not shallow enough. They don’t have the stomach for it. In close-ups, his eyes red and exhausted and full of joy, he already knows his best is behind him.
From his answers to stupid quizzes, to the way he voted in biased polls, I get a sense of Mitch as a person. Opposes a ban on handguns. Favors making welfare recipients pass a monthly drug test. Scored an eighty on the How well do you know 90’s cartoons? test. Plays a lot of poker. What would it add up to, all this data? Could I put it all into a database, the clothes he wore and the parties he went to, the moments where he smiles and the times he’s clearly drunk, and make a digital Mitch? Immortal, unchanging, all mine?
On the subway, or at work, or walking below steep cliffs made out of skyscrapers, I wonder what is Diego doing right now? How would this sight strike him, knowing it’s the last time he’ll see it? Riding the D train to the bottom of Brooklyn, I pass a swamp full of cattails. They bend in the wind; the shiver I get is so sweet that my body does not believe that there will ever be a time when I will not be here to see such things. Then they’re gone, replaced by red brick projects, which are every bit as lovely, and my eyes mist up. I miss my stop.
I shop. I buy books about AIDS, hoping they’ll help me process. Mostly they don’t, but the physical act of spending money is a boost. On the subway ride home, with the Strand bag cradled between my legs, long before I get them home and look through them and they fail to solve all my problems, I’m full of hope. I write new stories that are harsher, sadder, more desperate than what I usually write.
Facebook lets me connect with people I once loved, without really connecting. Best friends from when we were ten, when we thought we would always be everything to each other, when death and suffering were things in movies. I say Wow, hey, so great to see you, and pick through the messes they’ve made.
I’m asked to read at a magazine release event. My story is in the inaugural issue. Before the reading I’m in a corner deli getting cigarettes, which I had been doing a good job of avoiding up until Diego started dying, and these two gorgeous Arab thugs are checking me out.
“Hey man, what’s that?” the taller one says, tapping my earlobe. “Is that safety pins?”
“Yeah,” I say, smiling at him, at the cute thick scar going down his cheek.
“That looks good,” he says. “But I can get some real earrings for you if you want. Diamonds, stuff like that.”
“I’m all right,” I say. They’re both licking their lips, metaphorically if not literally, and I’m literally hard as a fist. I tell myself that I’d fuck them if I didn’t have a reading to go to, but I know I’m way too chickenshit.
The reading is a smash. The bookstore did zero publicity but a bunch of my friends came, even though it’s way the hell out in the bottom of Brooklyn, and my little piece of flash fiction gets laughter at five separate spots. Afterwards I smoke three cigarettes outside, chatting with friends and new fans, and the drizzle has stopped and my entourage sits on damp benches drinking strong black coffee and I’m a hit, I’m a star, I’m super-happy. And then to top it all off I’m heading for the subway and I pass a barber shop and I slow down, since I get a little charge out of seeing guys getting groomed, and who’s wielding a razor but my scar-cheeked Arab friend. Behind him, watching CNN, is his equally-hot friend. I picture myself pinned down and plugged at both ends, gagging on superhumanly huge cock, weeping as I’m fucked all the way into next week, but I’ll settle for a haircut.
“Hey, my friend,” he says, when I walk in. “I’ll get you next, sit down, get comfortable.”
“So what’s new in the world?” I ask the friend, who’s clean-cut like most guys who hang out in barber shops. On the TV screen someone interviews a weeping veiled woman.
“Bombings,” he says, “in Turkey.” His accent is thick, which might be why he’s shy. Turkey sounds like door key.
All week long the bombings have blanketed the news, always bracketed with clips of anguished women in close-up or in crowds. An emblem of useless suffering, of pain with no constructive purpose.
Five minutes later the barber boy turns and waves the razor at me. “All right, my friend, I’m ready for you.”
Strong gentle fingers knead my scalp. In the mirror I can see his friend, leaning back in the old-fashioned chair, watching, his expression inscrutable. I know they want me, but I know nothing will happen. The best they can hope for is to end up in a story I write.
On the ride home from the last time I’ll ever see Diego, boys surround me on the subway car. We rock from side to side, tunnel lights strobing out our faces, goosebumps all along our bare arms from the overzealous air conditioning. They are real, these boys. So is Mitch; so is Diego. They have lips and fingers and jobs and pubic hair and wonderful stories to tell. Writing is like sex, like Facebook, one more way to trick ourselves, even for a second, into thinking we’re not alone on this earth.