It takes two years before Bob shows his gun collection to me. The guns are in the corner closet of a room I’ve slept in over thirty times. He opens the slatted door with a key, and one by one, he pulls out latched wooden boxes, heavy velvet bags, and cardboard boxes of bullets, delicately placing them in front of me on a foldout table: a militia spread.
There is a gun manufactured during World War II with Nazi insignia carved into the hammer. A gun with a ceramic grip, cream-painted with delicate roses. A majestic double barrel, a combination of polished steel and lustrous wood. And ten others, all of them shiny, cold, and heavy in the palm of my hand. Each one of them I have to pick up and acknowledge. Turn them over in the evening light. Listen while he tells me each individual history—their makes, values, and how they came into his life.
When we initially met, years earlier, Bob told me about his collection of firearms. We were in bed together, our bodies stretched out post-sex. He told me how he bought his first one in response to the threat of ’80s AIDS paranoia. He and his boyfriend started amassing weaponry together when a proposition calling for an AIDS quarantine was put on the ballot. His boyfriend was HIV-positive. They lived together in this house for a decade. Bob didn’t seroconvert until the early 2000s, though, long after that boyfriend died of an opportunistic infection.
In ’86, even though Bob was mostly closeted, he planned a revenge-killing spree. He wanted to walk up to Jesse Helms in a dark alley and leave his body full of smoking holes. He dreamed of drugging Lyndon LaRouche and leaving him facedown in a blood-splattered hotel room. Of waiting on a rooftop for days to pick out Ronald Reagan’s tiny head from a mass of bodyguards, pull the trigger, and watch the body gently fall to the ground.
Bob came of age with the backdrop of Stonewall and Harvey Milk. He deserves these revenges. His stories fill up the room between us, settling the distance between our bodies. I never ask him what happened or why, instead of going vigilante, he stayed in his job as a scrap-metal executive, flying from country to country to negotiate against unions. It is best practice to not ask clients embarrassing questions. That is part of the role of a sex worker: to let clients remember only the good stories about themselves.
That day was the first time we met, but I decided immediately to do what it took to make Bob my regular, even though doing so would break down the boundary between sex-work life and real life. Bob would be my primary romantic relationship for a couple years, the real reason I couldn’t really commit to dating anyone else.
Bob fucks me like I’m the drink of water he’s needed for a long, long time. In bed, when I lower myself onto his cock, he growls into my ear, “Your body is made just perfect for my dick.” I kneel next to him in the kitchen and drink his piss while he deep fries me breaded eggplant. It isn’t all about the sex though. He is caring and kind of lonely. I am caring and kind of lonely as well.
In the span of our relationship, guns become a focal point of tension. Every visit, we discuss plans to go to the shooting range together. Once a month, he goes with a group called the Pink Pistols. Part of me wants to go with him, but we both shy from commitments that would solidify our relationship in that way. Our ability to be as free as we are with each other runs parallel with the transient nature of our relationship.
After two years, we’ve stopped having sex every time we hang out. A year into our bimonthly overnights, he started to get erectile dysfunction and now has to inject Viagra into the slit of his cock to get it hard. I feel disappointed when we don’t fuck, even though this should be the ideal hooker situation: getting paid to lie around naked, eating and watching TV, while Bob gives me history lessons.
Tonight, though, I am being pushy about him fucking me. Cupping my hand around his cock softly bobbing in saggy underwear. He keeps trying to talk to me about the tactics of Occupy, but instead of letting him play earnest daddy I take off my clothes and climb onto his lap. I suggest we pack a bowl; maybe if we get high, tonight will be like it was before.
The reality is that he’s not into fucking me any longer. He’s started dating a forty year-old goth to whom he doesn’t have to hand a wad of twenties in the morning. The date’s name is Billy. Bob tells me about what it’s like when they hang out: he picks Billy and his laundry up and orders him dinner. Then they get undressed, and Bob puts his fist in Billy’s ass. Billy never asks him about emotions and never wants to hear stories.
Back on the couch, his hand lies idle on my thigh. We start talking about the guns. And then we’re walking upstairs, and I find myself limply obeying instructions to press my finger against a trigger.
Even though the gun is unloaded, I feel nervous. In bed, listening to his stories of desire and revenge was romantic, but here, the connection of death-lust to the solidness of dull grey steel scares me. He wants me to practice holding and aiming. He stares at me, my hips out, and I’m trying to keep my shoulders straight and hands steady. He tells me to practice pulling the trigger. Russian roulette: What if there was one forgotten bullet in the barrel? How many of these plaster walls would it pass through?
I can’t do this with him looking at me. I feel my body absorbing the physical memories imprinted by his hands when he grasped these guns with anger. The desire for his own or others’ deaths. These guns have been held by other men in his life. What right do I have to be here?
I start panting, asking for the barrel against my temple while I suck his cock. I want to feel the muzzle pressed against my ass. Please threaten and fuck me with these weapons. I whine for him to pin me down with them. He says no. These guns are too precious to be clogged up with my spit and cum. It would create something too messy between us. He walks me into the bedroom and jams his meaty fingers into my hole. I pretend to cum but instead I feel empty and untouchable. This is the last time we ever fuck.
In New Mexico, where I grew up, everyone owned a gun. It was a ritual to give boys BB guns on their twelfth birthdays. After their parties, I’d sit watching them shoot at balloons tied to hay bales.
Driving down the windy highway, I’d see trucks full of hunters, racks of shotguns covering their back windows. My dad had a gun in the front barn. He said he kept it only for emergencies, but once I saw him shooting at the coyotes that slunk around our apple trees every morning, eating rotting fruit.
Along with gun culture comes a routine engagement with killing, with guts and blood and bullets piercing flesh.
The first boy I played footsie with was named Alistair. He was a tall redhead with a plain face. He was one of the few other gringos in our class. In the grade below us was his snotty-nosed sister Abigail, who had to go to the nurse’s office every day to take her ADD medication. Altogether, there were five siblings in the school. They lived outside Taos in one of the houses made from car tires and dried mud, with no electricity.
The third Friday of the month, our classes were driven together from school to the public pool in Española. Alistair was the only other kid who could swim, who needed to swim to avoid getting dunked underwater or standing lonely amongst the clumps of sullen teens smoking in the shallow end, the girls with their immaculate chola bangs and the boys with slick shells of hair under hairnets. It was at the 9” mark he started touching me, rubbing his feet against my ankles underwater, brushing his fingers against my waist lightly.
It was six months later when he shot himself in the face. His parents said it was a gun-cleaning accident. The wound was not fatal. Gossip at school was that, with his finger already pressing down on the trigger, Alistair decided he didn’t want to die. He succeeded in not shooting out his brains, but blasted a hole in his face where his nose once lay. We were given a half-day off to think about it. (When there were drunk-driving accidents and real suicides, we got the whole day off.)
I think about New Mexico constantly. It’s where I always end up in dreams, retracing childhood footsteps. Deep in the stillness of the mountains was the steady promise of adventure. The summers I spent walking barefoot down trails into dense ponderosa forest, taking paths over sharp rocks to a waterfall, a sparkling, clear stream that spilled through boulders the size of my body. I would lie naked on the rock, sunshine shadowed by the ghostly aspens bordering the creek, long skinny trees with arms branching into bright yellow leaves. The winters were full of soft falling snow. I’d walk through the dead pasture, the cold numbing my toes till I couldn’t feel my feet. I’d climb over fences, and the dogs and I would slide across a frozen river, picking up driftwood to break a hole through the glassy surface to the water still flowing underneath.
Life and death in New Mexico is more visceral than survival in San Francisco. Death was not news. It was walking to the school bus every day, past the body of a cow that first bloated up with gas and then deflated into a pile of strewn skin and clean-stripped bones. Bound to these memories of sweet, simple earth are recollections of the fragility of bodies and the constant threat of extinction.
Bob wants to take me to the gun range, and I can’t think of a reason to say no.
Everyone tells me that I need to know how to shoot a gun. For when the apocalypse comes. For when the bombs hit and the smoke starts rising and the earth is quaking. When the war starts or when the war ends. All queers need to be prepared so one of us can hotwire a car and we’ll hightail it to a ghost town to live in a commune, away from the storm. We’ll need guns for that. Or if all the rich people shut us in the city so they can be the ones to move out to clean air and open spaces—we’ll need guns for that too.
Bob drives into the parking lot. It’s strip-mall dirty. There’s a river next to it, but it’s less of a river of water and more like a river of mud, churning its sludge slowly.
Inside, everyone looks hard: tight-lipped faces, weathered cheeks. At the counter is a bored-looking woman. Her ponytail is as perfect as a gymnast’s, pulled back so tight it makes her eyebrows arch, every curl slick with hairspray. She hands us liability forms. I’m only allowed in as Bob’s guest. It is against their rules to let any random person off of the streets rent a gun, so as to avoid the suicidal.
Behind the counter are thick, plastic shotguns that look like toys for GI figurines. There are shelves lined with items for cleaning and customizing your gun, there are pepper spray canisters, including pink ones for girls. On the walls are rows of targets to choose from: zombies, black diagrams of bodies, and a picture of a mustached man grasping a skinny blond girl, pressing a gun against her temple. I’m grateful the figure in the cartoon isn’t a black man. In Miami, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, a gun shop started selling targets of a figure in a hooded sweatshirt, Skittles and iced tea in hand. They sold out in two days.
Above it all, a line drawing of Angelina Jolie looks upon us like the Virgin Mary. Her benevolent gaze falls on the altars’ offerings of hunting knives, NRA bumper stickers, and shirts that proudly proclaim, “Extreme Right Wing.”
Before walking into the shooting range, I must put on earmuffs and eye protection. Then I walk through one metal door, which must be completely shut before I can open the second. It feels like entering into a spaceship.
Inside, the range looks like a concrete bowling alley. But instead of bowling balls, every lane is filled with a steady stream of fire and explosion. Every time a shot is fired, I jump reflexively. I’m trying to keep my eyes on everyone, to be ready to duck at any second. I cannot let go of the idea that this is dangerous. I am the only faggot in this room, the only one wearing a purple shirt and nail polish. All the men around me are the type I’ve encountered on Friday nights waiting for the bus, the drunk and surly ones who follow me around street corners demanding a cigarette or an answer as to why I’m dressed so funny. Men I play chicken with, staying cool and impenetrable on the outside while keeping my eyes on their fists. Here, they all have guns in their hands, and even though nobody so much as glances my way, there’s a loop in my brain warning me I could die in seconds.
Even here, with the formality and cartoon targets and lists of rules about proper use, I don’t forget that guns are instruments of death. In the shopfront are hunting magazines covered with pictures of elk vibrantly alive, looking at the reader with poise and innocence against a background of vivid green. None show the felled creature, a limp corpse with blank eyes, the thunderous dance of electrical synapses in its brain dulling into a final, dead silence.
Although I get swept up in the romance of preparing for revolution, the kind of violence that guns bring feels too final, too cold. I’m scared to learn how they work, because I’m scared to tap into the mindset of how they are used.
And now it is my turn to shoot. Stay calm and pleasant. Pick up the firearm, press thumb against thumb, pulling the trigger, and stay steady for the combustion. The bullets, depending on their size, will squeeze out quiet and civil, or screaming, cursing the world for their expulsion into open air.
The anticipation is more than the action, after many rounds of tension popping my arms out of aim, I learn how to pop off shot after shot. Bob takes a picture of me: it looks like a still from a video game. The roof is crumbling, sheetrock hanging loose from the low plywood ceiling. The figure in the image is trapped on both sides by aluminum walls; above him, a light in a cage almost touches the top of his head. His shoulders are arched back, neck tanned, arms stretched out in front holding the magnum steady. A ball of flames explodes from the muzzle; its destination is the cowboy zombie target, which has its own gun drawn and which is illustrated to have a chunk of flesh already missing from its torso. Spent shells litter the ground.
I lay the gun down and walk outside to smoke a cigarette, staring into the seething brown of the river.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.