Speaking to Men at Parties


“The thing you love most when you are thirteen is the thing you love forever,” Adi says. He has his leg crossed over his lap, hand on his knee in a scholarly position.

“You’re bound to it,” I add, leaning forward. “You can’t put it down.” I am drunk and twenty years old and my voice aches—I have been shouting for most of the night, but the music isn’t really that loud. I tilt my body toward the group to understand them, a hand around my ear in what feels like a theatrical gesture. The boy Adi and I are chatting with is soft-spoken mumbling-drunk, with dark eyes that scrunch up beautifully when he smiles. “Say again?” I repeat over and over. He stands up to grab a beer off the table between us, jeans slipping down his narrow hips, and Adi and I look at each other with our eyebrows raised. I giggle and he glares back—we are always passing sly glances back and forth like handwritten notes between school desks.

The boy’s name is Alan and he is disarmingly handsome, the kind of man I would have avoided in high school out of shame and fear. I am fascinated by beautiful men, their ease of movement, the carelessness of their limbs. I watch them and think of Margaret Atwood: “When I am lonely for boys it’s their bodies I miss…My love for them is visual: that is the part I would like to possess.” A desire that stems from a sense of possession; I would like to inhabit them, to take up space and know that everyone around me feels grateful. To be a beautiful white man and never know fear—how simple and glorious.


There are moments when the light passes just right over the high point of someone’s cheekbone and I imagine my whole life as it would have been in a different universe, tracing the events of this imaginary life from that spot on their face to my death. In another world, I fall in love with this boy who shares my taste in music and laughs generously at my less-than-clever drunken commentary. In another world, things are easier. In this world, we dance and sing Talking Heads to each other across the kitchen as we spin in circles: I guess that this must be the place. In another world, I do not go into the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror, watching my reflection careen across the glass. In another world, I do not make myself sick with want and worry at every turn.

Alan sits back down beside Adi and we talk about California. Whenever I meet someone who’s left California for New York, they can never shut up about being from California and how much they miss it, as if they hadn’t chosen to leave. Alan tells us that in California he met Paul McCartney once, and I clutch my hand to my collarbone in a mockery of a swoon because that is what I loved when I was thirteen, what I am bound to forever, the thing I cannot put down. There will always be a part of me that starts at the mention of The Beatles, that blip of recognition when you come across your own name in an unexpected place.

“I know this sounds corny,” he says, “but I swear to God he just made the whole room brighter.”

The enthusiasm in Alan’s voice strikes me. He tells me he saw Arctic Monkeys seven times in one year because he was in love with Alex Turner and again I am envious of him, this time because I never allowed myself to notice any women as a teenager. I instead fixated on male celebrities and characters, as if I could convince myself that I loved them the way I was supposed to love them. I want to know, suddenly, if he went to those concerts because he knew he wanted to see the lead singer, or if he had convinced himself it was because he just really liked their music. But I do not ask. Instead I stare at the mole on his right hip, made visible by his low-slung trousers. The mole is largish, about the size of a dime, and raised slightly. I try to imagine myself putting my mouth on it, on this bit of flesh which has so captured my attention, and am immediately repulsed.

This is where it always stops, the insurmountable stutter of my fantasies. This is the part I find difficult to explain even to myself, the way I can simultaneously want and so clearly not want. I picture the thoughts in my mind as a strip of film: reversed, softened, made grand by my drunkenness, mimicking how things are always beautiful onscreen. I can desire this boy as if from afar rather than with the blistering intensity I feel when a girl sits too close to me on a stranger’s bed at another party as she speaks to someone else, the air soft with smoke, my insides folding in on themselves. The universe is reduced to the point at which our hips are touching and I cringe at the clichés this meaningless contact inspires in me.

I think about Paul McCartney, his boyish features still apparent in old age: wide, down-turned eyes and full cheeks and always that charming smile. My favorite Beatle fluctuated between him and George, whose quiet demeanor intrigued me; I have always been inclined toward the fantasy of quiet men. I would watch videos of early performances for hours, unable to tear my eyes away from George’s legs, how dreadfully slender they were in his dark slacks as he stood off to the side of the stage. Ringo was about as attractive to me as a post (though darling) and John looked far too much like my father, so my desire, or what I thought was desire, had to be cast onto Paul and George. This was how I amused myself throughout most of my early adolescence: poring over photographs and watching footage from decades earlier of a half-dead, long-fractured band. Maybe The Beatles were easy to love because the group had already run its course—I could discover new information but nothing new would actually happen, and there was a comfort in this impassable distance. I cannot say that if, in another world, I would have been reduced to tears like all the girls in A Hard Day’s Night, wordlessly mouthing George-George-George as the crowd around me fell into hysterics, or if the illusion would have been ruined by seeing them in the flesh.

I think about the sightless stare of a Roman bust in a museum, terrifying and opalescent, made lovelier by the fact that I cannot touch it. In another world, I step past the line on the floor of the gallery and run my fingertips over the marble despite the docent’s protests. In another world, I tell Alan the truth: I will never be happy with what I have or what I am.

Says Alan of Alex Turner: “I don’t think I even realized who he was, the first time—he walked right past me, in those fucking Chelsea boots, and I was just so turned on,” and I laugh because it’s always those fucking Chelsea boots. The Beatles wore them, too.

I tell Alan that Ive been in the same room as David Byrne, white-haired and gracious, those darkly intense eyes gentle with crow’s feet and laugh lines, and Alan concedes that this is indeed “very, very cool.” In high school, I would have recorded such a statement from a hot boy in my journal. Now it just seems obvious. It was a screening of a documentary about competitive color guard that David Byrne had produced, with a Q&A afterwards. My friend was a huge fan of Talking Heads and I came along because I was a huge fan of her; I barely paid attention to the the Q’s that David A’ed because I was swept up in the thrill of watching someone I love watch something she loves. Her sardonic voice was made sweet as she described her enjoyment of the evening, tucking herself into a red raincoat ill-suited to the frigid March weather. Now whenever I listen to Talking Heads’ bizarre, frenetic music, I think of her with a twinge in my chest not unlike heartburn. People sometimes ask me about her, mention her to me in passing: didnt you know—? werent you—? I smile, tight-lipped, and nod. In another world, I tell Alan that I buy the shampoo she used because I miss the smell of her dark hair as it wafted toward me, head on my shoulder.

“Stop, don’t talk about it,” I say to Adi when he mentions her. “If I talk about it, I’ll cry.” I’ve been saying this for the past few months, begging friends to help me maintain the illusion that I wasn’t deeply hurt by her decision to return to Texas. The less we say about it the better.

We talk about how it would be nice to leave New York, but none of us stay away for very long. We all have our reasons. Mine is a sense of obligation to my younger self, the anxious, dirty-haired creature who collected postcards from Manhattan and watched The Beatles with a thumb-sucking compulsion and dreamt of someday ending up in a different body in a different place. She needs me to remain in this city, for at least a little longer, regardless of the people who come and go and the women I watch and want and the men I may or may not speak to at parties.

Most people have left the party by the time Adi and I declare mutiny and claim the aux cord for ourselves. Alan stretches as he makes room for me on the couch. His grey sweatshirt again rides up across his belly and I think about Saint Sebastian: his long, muscled torso, the agony and eroticism of his death as it is depicted in art. How I should like to be an arrow and glance off the flesh of some beautiful thing before falling, unbroken, to the ground. I think about Louise Bourgeois’ drawings of Saint Sebastienne as a martyred pregnant woman, the same sketch repeated over and over in a monotonous procession of bodies, smudged and headless: the grotesquerie of gestation. How awful is the practice of becoming alive.

Weeks later in Boston, my friend Laura and I discuss the dreams we’ve been having since we were little girls, nightmares in which we are pregnant despite never having had sex and everyone tells us we should be grateful to be so immaculate. But Laura is Jewish and I was never baptized and neither of us believe in anything beyond the miracle of blood and tubing that is the body itself. The nightmares persist as a reminder of what that body may be capable of, both within and without ourselves.

Hours past midnight, Adi and I walk to my apartment from the party. “Do you wish you were straight?” I ask him. He shrugs. I say, “I do, sometimes. I think it would be easier. Don’t you think it would be easier?” I hope he knows I mean easier just in the simple act of existence: would it be easier to be alive? Would I hate myself for something else if not this?

Adi doesn’t answer, but his gaze is warm behind his glasses, his jaw set in the near-pout he wears when he considers something seriously. He is a dear friend, one of the first I made at college, and one of the first people I heard utter the word “lesbian” with a gravity that implied strength and meaning rather than disdain. I lean into his shoulder and we stand like that, quiet, until Adi’s Lyft arrives.

A month and some weeks later, I stand in the living room of another apartment, once again speaking loudly over the music to an acquaintance. The theme of the party is blue, as in Maggie Nelson’s seventh book, as in Derek Jarman’s final film, as in Nina Simone’s debut album Hey, blue, there is a song for you. My acquaintance’s eyelids are a bright teal, in lovely contrast to her copper hair that falls into her face as she leans in to hear me. I feel a touch at the back of my neck and I turn around and it is Alan once again, tucking the tag back into the collar of my shirt. This is an urge I have to resist when I glimpse a misplaced tag or loose thread on a passing stranger, the same compulsion that makes me check the locks on the front door nightly before bed, a desire for security through control. Alan has not shied away from this impulse to put things in their proper place. His face, cast in cobalt, grins back at me when I turn.


Already I can feel the sense of infatuation ebbing away as I greet him, repeat my name, raise my arms around him in a clumsy approximation of an embrace. Names are important, and it bothers me on a primal level when people forget them. Alan is still handsome with his watery-drunk smile and half-lidded eyes. The man asleep, like the man in quietude, was another adolescent fixation of mine: a feral animal tranquilized to be observed more safely.

The apartment is so small and so full of bodies that we can hardly do more than shuffle in time with the music. While waiting for the bathroom, I get into an argument with a man about Kate Bush, and how would he understand the anguish conveyed in her warbling falsetto, anyway? I don’t know what’s good for me I don’t know what’s good for me.


I spend the next two years moving farther away from my body. I try to date casually and discover that I am perhaps incurably afraid of intimacy. I become catatonic in the presence of my own desire, though I spend a summer trying to convince myself that it’s the heat and humidity rather than the rush of blood in my ears that makes me nauseous every time someone tries to touch me. I sit across from a man on the subway and stare at the soft curve of his jaw as he tilts his chin downward; his dark eyes rove across the pages of a book whose title I can’t quite make out. In another world, it is the 1950s in the United States of America and I am engaged to this beautiful man whom I will never love and this is better, somehow. It’s a mid-century sitcom marriage where we sleep in separate beds and only ever kiss on the cheek. I am miserable, but it’s better than being miserable in reality because in this dream I have what feels like a justifiable reason to be miserable. My life is unfulfilled, uninspired. I see East of Eden at the cinema and masturbate to the thought of James Dean the same way I did as a teenager, silently rocking back and forth in a chair, disgusted by the idea of actually touching myself. In this world I never figure out that I’m a lesbian because I could barely figure that out in 2016 with contemporary resources. It’s easier anyway, following an assigned path, filling a prescription month after month at the pharmacy—doctor’s orders. In another world, my sadness has sharp contours, clear edges that I can press into my skin. It is not amorphous and it does not expand to fit every space I inhabit.

I try to describe some of this world to Laura in a taxi, drunk and newly twenty-two on the hottest night of last summer. “Do you ever wish that’s how it was?” Laura tells me she doesn’t—she’s tired, and she turns away from me to look out the window as we arrive at my apartment. “It’s almost light out,” I say to change the subject, waving a hand in the direction of the sky.

I am glad that I didn’t tell her the extent of my dreams, the tragic details that lull me to sleep. It is so perversely appealing to me, this fantasy of a loveless, sexless, meaningless existence in which I am freed from any expectations of self-possession or choice. In another world, no one asks me what I want to do with my life because they do not assume that I will ever do anything. I know this way of thinking is self-indulgent and wildly privileged, and that Laura’s reaction to my modest proposal was appropriate: a snort that went from surprised to scornful, a firm “No.” And yet I greet sleep that morning with dreams of pin curls and bathroom tiles scrubbed clean and never being touched by my beautiful imaginary husband, asleep beside me in his bed across the room.


Adi and I watch A Hard Day’s Night and he touches my arm when he notices I’m crying and we can pretend, briefly, that we knew each other when we were thirteen. Laura tells me that she is a lesbian, too, and this more than anything makes me feel like I may someday be able to overcome my shame because Laura is someone who did know me when we were thirteen. Through my love for her I may be able to forgive myself the trespass of being who I am. She tells me she sometimes still dreams of having children, but since realizing she is a lesbian she is no longer so afraid of the possibility.

I see David Byrne again and this time he sings. I wonder what it’s like for him to play those songs from another time when his band all lived together in the same room, cutting each other’s hair, muddling through waves new and old only to end up estranged forty years later—no talking, just head. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were dogged by other people’s hopes of a reunion from the day The Beatles broke up until that night at the Dakota, and I wonder if it bothered them to know that the best thing they ever did was be part of something beyond themselves. In another world, rooftops are only for concerts, never for leaping. In another world, I am not afraid of heights or the way my body moves through time and space, toward the ground or toward another body.




Rumpus original art by Lisa Marie Forde

Emilia Copeland Titus is a freelance editor and writer living in Brooklyn. She graduated from The New School in 2019. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Barrelhouse, and 12th Street, her college's literary magazine. She can be reached on Twitter and Instagram @emiliacopes or via her website at emiliacopelandtitus.com. More from this author →