I got to know The Redhead as my teaching assistant, though I’d first been introduced to him a year earlier. We met up in the student center, a great room of wooden rafters and a massive hearth, where I could pin him down and ask questions about abstract algebra. He helped me again and again, until all I knew of him was warmth. Discussions of math became conversations about theater, art, and movement. He spoke in hurricane bursts and clips: chaotic but inevitable, shy but energetic, so much intelligence straining against the levees of his lips and racing tongue.
When The Redhead got lost in his own anxiety, I dragged him ashore into the present moment. He drenched words in their literal meaning. What struck me on those occasions was the growing belief that he was too sincere to tell me anything that he didn’t believe, and that he wouldn’t hide anything from me. When his brow smoothed and the short burst of his giggle erupted, I wanted to capture it like a June lightning bug. I wanted to poke him holes for air. I settled for touching his shoulder and grinning. We breathed together.
My girlfriend at the time liked physical intimacy between men. She liked The Redhead. So, there was not much guilt when I first curled my head into the crook of his shoulder, tracing my fingers down his arm. His thoughts stretched cloud-high, and his body felt like a safe place to wait until I understood them. After all, he was my friend.
His body was narrowness and drywall elbows, pale as a waif and filled up on cheap calories. I remember demonstrating proper push-up technique to him on the porch of a house. The spring air hung heavy with pollen. I crouched next to him, and my hand steadied his chest. I watched his body tremble as he imitated me. On his third halting ascent, he collapsed on my hand. Through his shirt, I felt red hairs rise and fall with the throb of his heart. “Good job. Everyone starts somewhere,” I told him.
I was not proud to be bisexual, and—despite occasional protestations to the contrary—I still am not proud to be bisexual. Still, I feel an unjustifiable pride in my memories of The Redhead. I used to fear other men. In so many ways, I still do. And yet, in the alcove where the fear lives, I also now feel a weak and flickering splendor. I am no longer ashamed that I fell in love with him.
My parents rarely took their children to temple, but they taught us to pray before we went to bed. I kept an idol perched on my bedside table, and I would look to Him when I said the same words each night: “Bhagavan, make me a good boy, make me behave, make me big and strong and healthy. God bless my family and me.”
Some people look within their faith and find a pair of arms to hold them, others find their marching orders, and still others find a room that is too small and dark. For me, faith has always been an angel to wrestle into submission. When I was eight years old, I had a paralyzing fear of demons. When I was alone, I would watch corners and doorframes for rakshasas and asuras to tear into my skin and bones. I’d bound up flights of stairs, as though a quick journey would keep me safe from them. Even as an adult, my faith is a physical thing: muscle, sinew, and thudding heart.
As I grew older, I moved from skepticism to atheism, the intellectual graveyard of edgy teenage boys. God couldn’t make the screaming at home go away or the bullies stop, so I found drinking, girls, stand-up comedy, and all of the other stereotypical obsessions of boys with tough home situations and few friends. The idol moved to the drawer, borne out of some childish thought that locking a god behind wood would make me forget who I am: someone who still believes with all of his body.
I came out to my mother three times.
“Mom, I think I like men. I don’t know what to do,” I told her. I was twenty. I had known The Redhead for about a year. I was still in a relationship with my girlfriend, though not for much longer. I stood outside the student center as February blew around me. My bare and nervous hand clenched around my phone. A small animal inside my chest expected hostility, though I don’t remember her ever expressing prejudice against gay men in so many words.
“You don’t,” my mother answered with certainty. She is a woman who has always convinced her beliefs into physical form. Chemotherapy thinned her hair, osteoporosis hollowed her bones, and her blood circulated only weakly to her hands. She still hauled herself out of bed each snowy morning to shovel the driveway. When we stocked the car for my move to college, she spent thirty minutes rearranging my belongings so they would take up less room, so that none of the pieces could fall.
She believed that the family must be kept together, and my father’s relationship with me had already frayed right down to the center. My aunts and uncles did not like the gays. She made me, her blood, safe in the way she knew best. She wound bubble wrap around my alveoli and trachea. She wrapped my lungs in sealed air, plastic, and empty space.
“You’re around a lot of people who are different than you, but you’ve never expressed interest in any boys before. I would have noticed before. You would have noticed before. But since you were little, it’s not like you’ve ever done anything that people-like-that do.”
After the call ended, I stood outside for another minute, watching my breath turn into night. I knew my mother’s hands must be cold, too. Then, I walked back into the chatter and light of the student center, indoor heating pricking my fingers back into being. The Redhead waited for me.
I came out to my mother three times, but she isn’t the only person to whom I failed to come out.
The first friend I came out to was a friend who loved Hamilton and board games. He prided himself as a teller of hard truths. I was liberal and naive and believed in the power of empathy. Instead, he told me, “Yeah, right. You’re just saying this because it’s trendy. My God, dude, I know you enjoy attention and being PC, but this is really tasteless. You aren’t like that.” It was sunny, and I was cold, and we walked past the stone monuments of Washington, DC as I tried to convince my closest friend in the city that I was telling the truth. You’re right, I haven’t dated any men before. But still.
The conversation lasted two hours. I failed to plead my case. So, I didn’t tell him that I was talking to The Redhead at least once a week. When I went back home and sat on my bed, I held my knees to my chest until every feeling went away. Then, I went to a bar, got my mother on the phone, and came out for the second time to her—the second time that day.
“I’m definitely bisexual, and I think I want to date men.”
“You can’t. It’s going to be so much harder without family. Life is too hard without family. You can pretend. You’ve just dated women this whole time anyway. I will always support you and I will always love you, but if you do this”—and here her voice cracked, and I could hear her holding back tears—”it will be so hard for you, and I don’t want your life to be any harder. Life is hard enough without this.
“You’ll lose everyone. They’ll never accept you. Your kids won’t know what it’s like to see their cousins. You won’t be welcome.” I could hear the dams breaking in her eyes, unable to contain the drowning to come. “You’ll always be welcome here, but they’ll never accept this, not ever.”
The words I had for her about The Redhead froze in my throat. After she hung up, I looked at his name in my phone. Three cell phones spanned the thousands of miles of errant America separating us: my mother, The Redhead, and me, trying to cradle them both in my palms.
The first time a man kissed me, I was eighteen and he was too drunk to stand. When I saw him stumbling in a daze, I asked him if he needed help. He was my girlfriend’s friend, and she’d told me that he had a problem. He asked me to walk him home: a highway bisecting the campus separated him from his bedroom. I shambled his body over my shoulder and half-carried him in the direction of his dorm.
When he began to lick my neck and up my chin in the quad, I stopped breathing. I tried to get as far away from him as I could, while still keeping him aloft. I didn’t want him to walk into traffic. I didn’t want him to have a reason to find me. He was just drunk. We got to his room. My skin crawling and tingling, I slung him onto his bed and turned to leave. When he grabbed at me and pulled me down, I fled. He was tall, with luminous skin and a dancer’s build. I’d hated it. I hadn’t asked for it. I didn’t want it.
Twenty minutes later, I received a Facebook message from him again, telling me that he was back in the student center. He hadn’t needed me, after all. I did not respond to his message, but that evening I spoke to the estranged Lord of my nightstand. I gave Him my hidden lust. Hit him with a car. Send him reeling. Put him in the hospital so I never have to see him again.
Three years later, I came out of the closet to my friends. A boy caught my eye soon after. His hair flowed black and his cheekbones rose high and sharp. He was outrageously good-looking, such that it seemed some sort of outrage that he would flirt back with me. For weeks, I teased him. Long looks, winks, whispers, you name it. I knew he wanted me, and I think I wanted him. But I didn’t have words for the cramp in my lungs that formed every time his smile filled with hunger. I feared this ravening thing in myself, in men.
Instead of taking him to bed, I came home from a party with a woman whose name I don’t remember. Laughing and grabbing at each other, we poured ourselves into my room, locked the door, and crumpled into each other’s bodies.
Sometime after 1 a.m., the boy with the cheekbones slammed his fist on the room door. He’d followed me home. “Come out,” he yelled. The woman underneath me went still.
“Come out,” he taunted again, banging on the door. He’d brought a friend. He set up a steady beat. Wouldn’t I much rather be with him right now than her? The woman sat in the room, staring at the wall, the ceiling, anything except me. In the morning, she gathered her clothes and left without a word.
But that night didn’t stop me from flirting with him a few days later. And again, after that. He was gorgeous, and he was interested in me. I was just a fence-sitter, a leader-on, someone who should count himself lucky to get any attention at all. When I crossed the aisle for graduation, I still hadn’t kissed a boy back.
Minnesota winter is unreasonably, near-uninhabitably cold. In the spring or fall, cold air pries the windows from peeling paint. By December, it begins kicking down the doors.
When I visited The Redhead over the Christmas holiday, we spent our time huddling in various shelters from the cold: Button Poetry, bars, clubs, the Mall of America. But first, he took me to a coffeeshop-meets-sex-shop, which sold just about anything that you could stick inside you or someone else. It was the sixteen-inch, jet-black dildo, complete with jumbo-size replica testicles, that brought me to a stand-still. I laughed hard enough to fall over. He looked at me in confusion. “What?”
“Sixteen… inches,” I gasped, hands on my knees.
“Yes, and?” Offense crept into his tone. “Some people are into that sort of thing, you know.”
I knew. The Redhead had called me a few months earlier asking if he should stomp on a guy’s balls with a boot after the guy asked him to do so. (I’d suggested that before doing so, he’d need to have a signed-and-witnessed contract.)
Helpless, I gestured to the fourteen-inch dildo next to it on the shelves. “Do you know what that means? That someone saw a fourteen-inch dildo and thought… that’s not enough dick for me.” I sat there on the floor, spent and hiccupping. “I need a couple more inches of dick. And the balls.”
He looked at me, the corners of his eyes pulled down. He giggled. “Handholds?” he suggested.
And still, I’d have rather been cold than cuddled with him that night in bed, though I already knew he’d close the gap. He’d done so the past two nights: pressed fire against my back, wrapped his arms around my ribs and chest, and slid his hand towards my boxers.
I looked for his books with the corners of my eyes. The Redhead lay between me and the shelves, a dragon between me and a hoard of all the things I love about him. He is still the only man I know who has read all the books on his shelf: a few old math books from college, a couple books on gay history, a lot of books on kink. I told him once that I didn’t understand the appeal of bringing so much science to sex. He said that was exactly what he liked about it.
He didn’t kiss me, because we were just friends and this was just cuddling. I still wrapped myself tighter under the covers as his breath deepened, and his arms came to encircle me. I froze. Then, I wriggled. I would need to grind up against his greedy hips to push free, and I did not want to wake him. He needed his rest. He was half-asleep. He was confused. He was beautiful. He would feel guilty.
The bed groaned his name, and he groaned a half-conscious apology. The room got hotter. The room was dark, but the window shone blue from the street. I looked dead-ahead at the bathroom door, hiding the spot where I’d thrown up the day prior, after I kissed a boy back for the first time. A boy that was not him.
The Redhead pulled his legs up underneath mine into a fetal curl, wrapping me into him. I went limp. I did not like sleeping like that. I sleep with my limbs fully extended at my sides. I told myself there was nothing that I liked about this, but I could not help thinking about another way to wake him. I could have reached down and grasped him in my dark hands. Our sweating bodies could have cried out together. Until this visit, I had not realized how much another man warmed a bed.
I surrendered to this embrace, our bodies: nausea and ardency and blaze. I did nothing else. I lay there, still and quiet, waiting for birds to call the morning into being.
There is a liberal theology of the right approach to consent. It gives sex rules and rituals, which makes it holy in its own way. I take consent very literally, asking and checking and updating at every new development. Most partners have appreciated it, though a handful felt put off. Most people like sex to be a bit reckless, and here I am establishing best practices. I hold onto the mechanics of consent tightly because they are something in which I can be certain. I give them my faith, and they give me something else. I am a member of the congregation because of the unreasonable things I want: simple rules and simple answers.
According to Planned Parenthood, consent must be freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific. The Redhead struggled to pick up on non-verbal cues. I was never taught to give freely from this lake of fire within me. As I lay beside his body, there was no clean way to end the ache in my belly. In his kitchen the next morning, I did not receive grace through confession. Only questions.
How could I walk backward, once I was already in his bed and had nowhere else to go? When I stepped through the baggage terminal, over the threshold into his arms, what had I said yes to, specifically? If you can only consent to something if both sides have the full story, how far back does the story go?
In my queer studies class, the young undergraduate with an undercut said it is tragic for people to hide who they are. I, the graduate student, stayed silent. To many of these kids, younger and bolder than me, the brave risk everything to claim their identity. The rest—well, they are the rest.
But, my biological family is fundamental to me in the ancient sense. They founded me. They planted the taproot from which I grew.
Children born into homophobic families don’t choose between the closet and liberation. No matter what, we deny some part of ourselves. We say, “I’m still the same kid, I’m still the same person.” But something has changed. And life might keep changing us.
Some people go all in, but many of us pick and choose: this part, their me; this part, new me. We shove them together like stubborn children trying to make puzzle pieces fit. Chosen families, hidden affairs, open secrets.
“They don’t count. These people who aren’t actually gay, they’re just dabbling in it.” I looked at my white friend as she spoke, her hair cropped close to her skull and eyes big with anger. Cigarette smoke bunched on itself close to the Jakarta ground, but we were used to the air here. A band overwhelmed most other sounds in the bar. I turned my gaze to the man’s hips, swiveled tight against the azure of his guitar. Her voice sped up. “I’m over this kind of bullshit.”
I looked back at her. She stopped. “This is the second time I’ve been dumped by a woman who ended up marrying a man right afterward,” she confessed in a voice like the humid night. I watched her struggling to push words through her body. There is more than one way to forget how to breathe. “I’m sorry,” she said.
The speakers boomed, the guitars shredded, and I barely heard her apology over the throb of summer. I don’t remember if I apologized to her, too.
I kissed a man consensually for the first time in Minneapolis, on New Year’s Eve, while in a gay club with The Redhead. The man I kissed had green eyes and black hair. He scratched like stubble and tasted like cigarettes. I still remember my shock at how hard and smooth his lips were, all against the itchy softness of his cheeks.
The Redhead and I returned to his home full of exhilaration. Then, I beelined for the bathroom, threw up, and shook around the toilet bowl for hours. Mercifully, The Redhead gave me this space, falling half-asleep on his bed. Eventually, I slid next to him like a glacier and his arms returned. He never tried to kiss me, though. For that, he would wait for me.
At the end of the trip, we sat drinking beers in a bar, and The Redhead told me he loved me. “I do, too,” I responded with a confused smile. Then he corrected, “No, I love you.” He wanted to be my boyfriend, or to date me, or to do whatever I’d be willing to do. He was full of need. I was full of treachery, because I lied to him. I told him that I didn’t feel the same way.
I don’t know if it was assault or stigma or just cowardice. But aren’t those reasons enough to want to slam the door shut between me and that feeling in my stomach? Our friendship never recovered from this trip. All of a sudden, I needed to find a new person with whom I could mark the rhythm of my waking hours.
In 1980, feminist scholar Adrienne Rich wrote an essay entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” She argues that the first erotic bond every person has is to their mother, and therefore all people—men and women—are more attracted to women than to men. Men have little to give their lovers but violence and control.
Surely, men can be more than that. The Redhead was more than that; I know this. But when I think of biceps and the scrape of stubble, thrusts and the taste of salt, my breath still catches. I feel fever rise under the hairs coating my arm. Sweat pricks at my pores.
I try to gift my feelings names, like Adam placing a name on the tongue of every beast and the beak of every bird. I scour my mind for a name to write this feeling down: sirocco, consumption. I land on delirium.
I came out to my mother three times.
Eight weeks before our third conversation, I switched my preferences on Tinder to Men. And begin swiping. Within minutes: Match. Match. Match. The nakedness of this desire frightened me, the thought that my flesh might launch ships.
Still, I began going on dates. One of the boys was quite something, and so I kept seeing him. “Mom, I’m dating a boy right now. I need you to know that.”
My mother gave in. She did not give her approval, endorsement, nor consent, but she accepted the truth in the most minimal of ways: she acknowledged that this was happening. “Why do you always pick the hardest path?”
Her tone of voice stayed even, and still I could hear her becoming smaller, threadbare. I grasped my mother’s heart and split it upon my knee. “He’s a really good guy,” I said.
Perhaps in a different lifetime, I was strong enough to make something beautiful from this delirium. I could call into being a new dawn. I could make a tiny glory of my own.
Instead, I felt twisted. Heated and cooled, heated and cooled again. I could feel myself pooling open in some places, growing rigid and immovable in others. I began to step more gingerly. I failed somewhere, and now I have broken thermometers for bones.
I ghosted this good man a few weeks later. This was the end of my dating history with men, not the beginning.
The Hindus say that there are millions of gods, each of whom manifests a different aspect of divinity. Even humans are fragments of the Divine, clouded up by all the grime of material illusion. The Muslims say God has ninety-nine names: the Subtle One, the Satisfier of All Needs, the Judge, and so on. The Jews and Christians call God Adonai, Yahweh, and Elohim. There are so many different ways we can entrust ourselves to someone or something beyond us.
I have been unfaithful to so many faces of God. I fell in love with a man while dating women. When The Redhead first trespassed the thresholds of my body, I lost all hope in consent’s ability to show me a clear path. I broke my mother’s heart, with no lasting relationship with a man to show for it. I now believe that faith is nothing more or less than a tide of emotions which a person cannot predict or control.
I am with a woman now, again. A woman I love. We are in a monogamous relationship. A relationship where every road sign points to seven circles around the fire, hands wrapped together, garlands. Our two families brought together at the altar of my gods.
I may never kiss a man again.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.