From the edge of the pool, the water looks a perverse picture-book blue. I am alone here on this strange alien planet inhabited by glistening nude Martian men. I believe they can sense that I’m an outsider, someone to skirt around, because when I got to the pool, the two swimming inside jumped out and strutted back into the main building all dripping and exposed, leaving behind two towels haphazardly strewn on a tanning chair. Mine is still clutched tight around my waist. I dip my toe into the shallow end and recoil, feeling the cold work itself up through my leg. The website advertised the pool as heated, but I can’t imagine the staff thought anyone would venture outside the clubhouse on this unexpectedly chilly Florida night. They must have forgotten to turn the heater on. They were mostly right and the Olympic-sized pool area is deserted. Apparently not a lot of Olympians are looking to hook up at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. Gradually my limbs acclimate to the temperature. The water stares up at me, stone-like and bored by my nerves, wondering how a little boy like me could have strayed so far from home. I’m not really here, I want to tell it, as if it isn’t obvious. I’m just, I don’t know, looking.
The old slurs rush to my head—queer, homo, fag—, my mom’s face when I told her I was one, images of tragic sitcom sidekicks, every time I said to a classmate in high school that I was gay but that I was different. Different how? I’m not like other gay guys. If you walk up to me you would see that I’m made entirely out of matchsticks expertly glued together? Instead of eating I just soak my body in chicken broth overnight? No. I’m not like other gay guys. I don’t sleep around. I’m not emotional. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m practically not even gay. I don’t cruise parks. I’m not chicken.
I let my towel drop and it falls into a pile by my feet like an old snakeskin. One second I’m naked and then I’m underwater, watching the world through a sterile blue fog.
A standard room at Club Orlando will cost you $20 plus tax on a weekday, $28 plus tax on a weekend. I shouldn’t be surprised about the tax—this is a business after all—but still I can’t help wonder how many roads and schools can be traced to two men going at it in a sauna. In an effort to draw in a younger crowd, Club O has introduced discounts to those below 23. Because I am 21 at the time, I get in at the comparably bargain price of $13, which is only the cost of a locker. I arrive at bathhouse matinée hours, past midnight on a weekday, and wait in line at the front counter like at the deli. The guy in front of me checks his phone, presumably reading work emails flagged Very Important, and tugs impatiently at his t-shirt, as if every second it’s on is a nuisance. When it’s my turn, the jaded employee on duty gives me a weary look and asks for my license, which he will keep for the duration of my stay, like I’m a teenager sneaking into a midnight screening of Night of the Living Dead, then pushes over a liability waiver. I sign this contract that says that if I should acquire any sexually transmitted disease while on property, I will not sue, and hand it back with a first-day-of-school smile. In exchange, he gives me a pair of keys on a bracelet. Because I’ll be naked later, I think. No pockets. Oh God.
“Do you know the rules?” he asks, eyeing me up and down.
“Yes,” I lie. I do not want to waste any more of his time.
Maybe by habit, he nods to a metallic plaque with the club rules on a wall anyway and turns back to his portable television. “You have six hours. Enjoy.” I skim the rules: Always use protection, no alcohol allowed on premises, yadda yadda, rimming unadvised. Nothing I didn’t already learn from my mother.
I step directly into the reception area, formally referred to as the public “chill” lounge: two empty couches and a small coffee table facing a flat screen TV where I recognize Jack the Giant Slayer playing. Past that is the locker room with its wall-to-wall cubbies and a couple of benches. I head inside and wander through several rows before I find mine, 43, jammed between dozens of others. I have trouble wrenching it open. This is a bad sign, kid, my brain urges. The universe is telling you to leave. An amused-looking man getting ready to go notices me in trouble and offers to lend a hand. Oh brother, I think. Can’t I get five minutes to myself before it starts? To my surprise, he doesn’t stick around to hit on me once I’m in, not that I’m all that appealing in my frumpy plaid shirt and high tops. I don’t know what I thought before I got here. That I would step inside and immediately be leached onto by swarms of men fawning over me? Please! Back away! If you’d like to court me, speak to my father! I’m just a simple country girl doing my simple country milking! A little disappointed, I undress and neatly fold my belongings, placing them far back in my locker.
From a rack, I grab a towel from a tall stack and wrap it around my torso. I’m not here for sex, I remind myself. This is an experiment. I am a scientist and my administered starch white towel is my lab coat. My hypothesis: “Edgar Gomez is not like other gay men. Even in a place like this, he is different.” I give myself a second to accept the reality of what I’m doing. I am at a gay sex bathhouse. I am practically naked in public and not breaking any laws. I let the words This is so weird enter my mind for the first of many times, shut my locker, and leave to see what the big fuss is about.
I follow the sounds of vending machines and end up loitering alone in the cafeteria—this really is my first day of school—though it’s really no bigger than a pantry. Cafeteria is a loose term. Really, it’s two vending machines, a table, and a microwave. Out of scientific curiosity, I make my way toward the vending machines. Food is not allowed anywhere on the premises except for the designated snacking area, I remember from the plaque with the rules, so if someone were to purchase something, they would have to eat it here. This is jarring, however, because the vending machine is stocked almost exclusively with Cup O’ Noodles and gum, so should someone get hungry at any point of their six-hour visit, they’re limited to a cup of vending machine soup. Come in. Relax. Have a cup of microwaved vacuum-dried meat chunks floating in brown, lukewarm water then cuddle up with a stranger in one of our saunas! There’s a lot of sweating going on in Club Orlando.
Then there’s the vending machine deliveryman. Club O is open 24 hours, which is why I’m able to be here so late, meaning that all cleaning and restocking is done during operating hours. I imagine a middle-aged Hispanic man. I don’t know why he’s Hispanic. Maybe because I am and I’m picturing an older version of me. It’s his first day on the job and Club O is his first stop. He takes a similar route to mine, past the disenchanted front deskman and the chill lounge and into the cafeteria. Club Orlando? he thinks before walking inside, noticing the palm trees and trim garden out front. Must be some sort of country club. He’s on his knees shoving packs of Sun Chips into the machine when a naked man strolls into the cafeteria, still glowing from the steam room. The deliveryman turns around and catches sight of the naked man’s hanging flaccid penis in a state of idyllic suspension like a perfect, floating ramen noodle. Instinctively he jettisons out, scrambles aboard the company truck, blasts his Metallica’s Greatest Hits CD, and speeds off home where he will presumably have sex with his wife for a manly ten minutes before washing the gay off of him by pouring warm beer directly onto his head. And now Club O is stuck serving Cups O’ Noodles and gum, probably stocked by the front deskman between episodes of whatever he’s watching at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday night: Seinfeld re-reruns? A ShamWow infomercial?
The faint din of music on the Club O speaker system beckons me back out. Despite the house music, I struggle to feel at home here. The website promotes the club’s quaint Sunday poolside cookouts, its Thursday “Popcorn Movie Night.” I have a hard time envisioning anyone watching Pride and Prejudice here or tourists arriving by the bus-full for the world-famous ribs. Tuesday seemed like the best night for this. I want to make sure I can handle a typical visit before tackling whatever one of the themed nights might entail. Besides, a poolside cookout is not something you just show up to on a whim. First you establish relationships, get to know the layout, figure out who’s allergic to what so you don’t make the faux pas of bringing peach pie to a party that’s decidedly gluten-free. Navigating the club is particularly difficult because there is no way to know where you are. The property is massive, completely at home with the CVS across the street and the Petland adjacent to it, just another stop on your way home from work. Somehow, its proximity to Nyquil and affordable dog food doesn’t comfort me or make it any easier to find my way around. This is Orlando so I expect a pockmarked teen handing out illustrated maps and offering to take my picture wherever I go. The website, with it’s casual bulleted list of amenities—free Wi-Fi, outdoor gazebo—makes Club O seem like a Starbucks, but the reality is much more staggering.
Structurally, Club O is organized in a series of mazes. That’s not just a helpful analogy. I end up lost in a literal maze, punctuated by a series of dimly lit rooms, some wide open and others curtained off, as with the one I accidentally barge into while searching for the exit where I see a lone man sprawled out face down and cuffed onto a leather massage bed. I don’t think he hears me come in because he remains perfectly still, a mass of quiet, eager white flesh. I think of stepping closer, but what would I do? His sincerity is so moving that I am stricken with the realization of how artificial my being here is. When I say I am not like other gay men, I mean I am not like this man. I am not loose. I don’t just let things happen. But still I want to take him in my arms and kiss him on the cheek. If I am not here to have sex, then what am I here for? For kicks? To have a laugh? I grip my towel tighter and tiptoe out, closing the curtain behind me. Minutes later I locate the exit and emerge from the dark maze poolside.
Two men are treading water in the deep end. They seem intensely lost in themselves, completely oblivious to their surroundings and the bubblegum Katy Perry pop song pouring out of the sound system. I can’t tell whose hands are holding who, whether they’re sighing or panting. I want to know how they know each other, what brought them together. Do you love him? I want to scream. Why are you here? Why not me? Suddenly they realize that I am staring at them, watching them like exotic animals on safari. They climb out, leaving me standing there, blushing, and holding my towel at the edge of the pool in the cold.
I stay underwater longer than I probably should, curling up in a ball and letting gravity drag me down to the floor. My body uses up the air in my lungs within seconds but I don’t allow myself to swim back up. I force my eyes to remain open and can see almost a couple of feet ahead of me. I’ve missed so much already; I want to be alert for every part of tonight. I watch as the spotlights lining the corners of the pool give birth to bright, ethereal paths as their beams push their way to the surface above, motes of dust floating in their center like humans sucked up helplessly by UFOs. Every cell in my body is burning and restless, urging me to take a breath. I wait through the fire and, when my eyesight begins to blur and the distance I can see around me closes in, I wait through that, too. When I am ready, I don’t know how I know, I just know, either in the marrow of my bones or my brain telling me that I am a fool and drowning, I thrash my way up and out and gasp for air. I inhale the Martian atmosphere ravenously, like I haven’t breathed in years, and in my delirium am surprised that it doesn’t hurt me at all, that my head doesn’t explode like I’d learned in high school would happen if an astronaut were to take off their helmet. When I realize this, I take in more. I breathe this new air greedily, funneling it into my famished lungs until they are satisfied and buzzing. I sit at the lip of the pool, heady from this new drug, and I don’t float away. I am anchored to the place by something stronger than a weight; it is an inherent heaviness inside of me. I shake off the water like a wet puppy, wrap myself in my towel, and head back inside in the same direction as the men I’d scared off earlier.
As I make my way through one of Club Orlando’s many corridors, I begin to recognize the men I see around me. Not like Oh my god, it’s my uncle, but in the way you recognize tourists when you are also a tourist in a far off land, except what I recognize here is that everyone is foreign and that everyone traveled a long way to get here.
I blindly meander around, unsure of what I’m supposed to do next, when I find a door. Inside is a dark sauna, and I practically fall in, taking a seat next to a shadow. I feel a set of eyes on me and shift uncomfortably. There’s an anticlimax when from the shadow emerges a short, squat man, his arm extended in peace. He introduces himself as Carlos.
“Hey Carlos,” I say, confused by the small talk. It’s not like we’re sitting next to each other at the DMV. I am in my towel and he is very much naked. I can’t exactly ask, So how about the weather?
“So how about the weather?” I ask.
“It’s nice, actually,” he says, “I’m from Chicago. It’s freezing there.”
What are you doing at the DMV? I want to ask, but instead I go with the generic: “What brings you here?” What brings him here is that he’s on vacation with his sister and brother-in-law. He heard about Club O from a friend and decided to check it out. Much like me, he’s looking, though when he says it, it has a different kind of connotation. I’m looking and he’s looking. I’m not ready for that yet, so I barrage him with questions: What do you do? How old are you? Have you ever done this sort of thing? He’s the manager of a grocery store. He’s 28. No. I tell him about a TV show I’ve recently gotten into.
“So there’s this girl and she’s a private detective at her high school. Well, she’s not really a private detective. Her dad is. But she works for him. Unofficially. And like, she goes around solving crimes and mysteries and stuff.”
He listens politely, indulging the 21-year-old kid who’s too nervous to talk openly about sex. In the opposite end of the sauna I see a wide toothy smile like it’s the Cheshire cat, but it turns out to be another person who must have slinked in while I was talking to Carlos. I find out that this is Byron. He’s this 6-foot-something black man with dreadlocks down his back and a body like a GI Joe. Not too far from being one, either. He used to be a boxer, he tells us. I picture him in a ring, hopping foot to foot while an oiled-up girl in a skimpy bikini holds up a Round One sign. I can’t tell if this is a clue as to the origin of this place. How do we all find each other? He takes a seat next to me. I can feel the steam rolling off of his biceps dripping onto my comparatively puny arms. He places his hand on my thigh and traces his fingers down to my crotch. Carlos moves in, too, and grabs the corner of my towel. My heart begins to race. I’m by no means a virgin, but I’m not used to being grabbed at without so much as at least the pretense of something more. You don’t want to date me, I think, not in an ill way, but truthfully. You just want to have sex. I know, not exactly a wild request to have at a bathhouse. “I have to go,” I tell them, all pathetic. “It’s really hot in here. I need a shower.”
I slip out of the sauna and realize that I really am broiling and drenched in sweat. I make my way to an open gang shower. I am wanted. Two strange men have looked at me and thought, Here is someone who is here for sex, no hang-ups. The idea is so exhilarating that for the second time, I take off my towel, but this time I do it naturally, matter-of-factly. I am naked in public. This is so weird. So weird and so awesome. I turn the shower nozzle and the water pours out in leisurely torrents, drumming against my skin in cool, soothing beads. I stick my face up to the showerhead and swing my hair around like I’m a model in a shampoo commercial. I momentarily forget where I am or what I’m doing. I start laughing to myself, a full-body, all-encompassing guffaw. I am an object of desire. I don’t have any product but still I pretend like I’m massaging something into my hair. I laugh even harder. I’m sure that I look psychotic. I open my eyes hoping to replicate the beauty I discovered underwater earlier but instead a gush of water makes its way into my eye and dislodges one of my contacts as if to tell me to stop playing around and take something seriously for once. Look around you! I’m told, not as much from someone as from everything. It doesn’t all have to be a joke! But with only one contact, I’m blind. I rush out from beneath the showerhead and lean against the nearest wall, palming my eye with my hand to keep the contact from falling out completely. In my partial blindness, I see a man walk into the showers. He pays me no attention as he cleans himself. I am one of them. I belong here. The fact has been following me since I left the pool. I crumple down to the floor and begin the process of replacing the contact by poking at my eye. I can usually do this without a mirror but the totality of what is happening hits me and I can’t keep myself from laughing to remain still long enough. With my one good eye, I look at the man showering alone. He is so beautiful and sexy and so not me. His sensuality is effortless. He doesn’t have to make it a punch line or delude himself into believing he’s a scientist. How can I be one of them if I am nothing like this man at all?
I get up and run to find a bathroom, cradling the small piece of plastic on my index finger. I walk in, barefoot and stark naked, which is actually against the rules, and maneuver the contact over my iris in front of the sink mirror. Gradually my vision starts coming into focus and I find myself face to face with my reflection. After the pool, sauna, and showers, I have probably never been this clean in my life. I stare at myself, through myself, and recognize the same thing I saw in the others when I got out of the pool: a stranger in a foreign place who has travelled a long way to get here. The man in the massage bed, the two lovers in the pool, Carlos, Byron, the man in the shower who can look at himself without laughing: we are all strangers, but I am one of them. This is undisputable. I am here and I am thriving. I have not run off. I have not washed the gay off of me. I can do this, too. I head back to the showers, collect my towel, and step back into the sauna. The air inside is thick and suffocating. Carlos is gone but Byron is still there, sitting like a guru in silent meditation. He looks up at me, not really surprised to see me back, and smiles the same big smile as before, hey. I take a seat next to him and palm the sweat from my forehead, perspiration that seems to have formed too fast considering how little time I’ve been in here.
“What do you want to do to me?” he asks. I laugh uneasily. I want to… hug you, I think, but I don’t want to have sex with you. Not in an ill way. This is my truth. I look at him and I feel a love like a brother’s. I want him to be happy, for us to share a Cup o’ Noodles in the chill lounge, but that is all. I am one of you but I am not you. I belong here but not doing this. Byron stares at me expectantly. I have to turn down this GI Joe. For a moment, I wallow in the realization that I am patently the worst, that I will probably never get another shot with a guy like this. Briefly, I feel myself reconsidering. Maybe I can sleep with him. Maybe I am here for sex, no hang-ups. But I remember Nora Ephron. First dates splitting breadsticks at the Olive Garden and cliché awkward first kisses standing on my toes. I am so twee I could hurl. These things are important to me for some god-awful reason I wish I could wash off. Still, this is my truth, just as indisputable as my right to show up to a gay sex club to see if I fit in. Then I do what I have to do. Byron, I have to go and I am sorry to have wasted your time, though I know you will have no trouble finding someone else soon enough, I say, or some version of it slightly less gracious and eloquent. He kisses me on the lips, softly, patiently, and sends me on my way.
On my way out, I pass the front deskman again. It is near dawn now and he is slouched low in his seat, exhausted. I give him my bracelet with the key. He gives me back my license. I put it in the back pocket of my jeans. I am wearing the same clothes as I was when I arrived but I have never felt more exposed. The man behind the counter yawns widely and turns back to his rerun. He is unimpressed. I am not special, not a one-of-a-kind gay guy. I belong here. He has seen this before.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.