On Looking for Love in Places Without
By Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore
I would stare at the goldfish and carp in the pond at the botanical gardens, enthralled by their shimmering bodies darting to the surface and then disappearing below. But I could see the edge of the pond — the fish would never escape. My father was everywhere, I wanted to scream HELP. I wanted to scream HELP. I wanted to scream HELP. I didn’t know how.
At recess, I'd trade stickers with the girls. We'd talk about how much we hated boys — they were so immature — while the boys waved sticks at us and called me sissy. Faggot. At home, there were faces in my blankets, monsters under the bed. I couldn't sleep in the dark.
In sixth grade, I read War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. My teacher held a meeting with my parents because she was worried I was missing out on my childhood, she wanted my parents to read to me.
On the main wall of my grandmother’s den hung an enlarged, framed photo of me as a baby. In the picture I was so chubby, my father pointed to it and said: most fat babies grow up to be fat adults. I stopped eating. School was my secret but dinner became a battle, a family emergency — my sister didn't eat either but girls were allowed to be anorexic. In dinners at home, my father was an explosion but in public he looked like he was about to tell the funniest joke. He’d turn to me and say Is that all you're going to eat? Then it would become a refrain for everyone at the table.
I practiced how to look right through my father's eyes until my face went blank like I didn't see anything. When my father won anyway, I'd run to my room and lock the door just before he pounded his fists against it. My parents took me to the doctor but I was 81 pounds, one pound over the minimum weight for my age. The doctor didn't know about the little black book I carried around in my bag to keep track of how many calories I consumed each day — I didn't want to eat more than a thousand. A Lender's bagel contains 160 calories, a medium-sized apple 80, a rice cake 35. But you can never eat just one rice cake.
My father was a psychiatrist and my mother a social worker. They told me I needed to go to therapy. I made up dreams. My parents scheduled regular appointments with my therapist too, they expected him to tell them everything.
Around 13, after my girl friends developed crushes on all the boys we used to hate together, I decided many things: I didn't want to hide in the bathroom at recess anymore; I would never trust my parents again; I needed to become more outgoing, to express myself in a way that allowed me the space to scare people. I wanted to be different.
I wanted to leave, but I needed my parents for money — I still believed that I had to beat my father at his own game: to go to a more prestigious college, get a higher-paying job, live in a nicer house — I felt doomed.
I remember the first time I threw an empty bottle of gin in the air and listened to it smash. I loved that feeling in my head of moving diagonally upwards and back. I wanted people to think I was always like that.
I was staring straight ahead at the wall so I wouldn’t get accused of looking, but I could still see what was next to me, which was this guy's dick sticking straight out after he dropped his right hand. My heart started pounding, I didn’t know how to breathe. My dick got hard and I covered it with my hands. I stood there for a while, facing straight ahead with my eyes looking diagonally down to the left. I didn't know what to do. I dropped my left hand.
I reached over to touch this guy’s dick, and he reached for mine. Someone came in, I stuffed my dick into my pants and practically ran. Never again, I promised myself. Never again.
I was back a week later, then several times a week throughout high school, sometimes several times in the same day. Always promising: never again.
When It All Began
Laurie was the first person I trusted. On ecstasy, we would watch the way that the world consisted of interlocking layers, as one faded out the other would begin — sometimes you could get stuck in between, but we already knew that. Every night, we stayed up so late talking, breaking down and trying to piece ourselves back together. We met at that prestigious college, the one where I went to beat my father. The one where Laurie went to escape small-town poverty. A year was enough — we both needed to get farther away.
We fled cross-country. San Francisco didn’t exactly welcome us, but we celebrated with hair dye and fake bus passes, queerness and veganism, shoplifting and activism and sluttiness and dancing. We wanted to take apart the structures that made us so damaged. We didn't know how. We took apart each other.
Chris was the person I wanted to be. He'd left home at 14 — or actually, he got kicked out — but in any case he got away, sort of. You don't get away that easily — I knew that. I didn't want to romanticize a world of desperation, but there was really no way around it. Desperation seemed so much better than despair. Not to say that they can’t come together.
Chris was more experienced with creating his own world and he was a complete slut, in such a beautiful way. He always wanted to care. He would tell you if he couldn't stand you, just like that. Chris would eat whole cloves of raw garlic and then we'd make out anyway, for hours, my whole face tearing up because of his stubble brushing against my cheeks. I felt so excited to be with him, he'd bake bread and we’d ride out all of our mood swings together and I'd hold him in the middle of the night when he'd wake up screaming.
I met Zee at the March on Washington, the gay one in 1993. The assimilation spectacle, like nothing we'd ever seen before, the height of the gays-in-the-military obsession, the beginning of national target-marketing to white fags in white t-shirts — thousands and thousands of white fags in white t-shirts. We were both there to protest with ACT UP, ended up getting arrested together for universal healthcare and when we got out of jail we were dancing in the streets to RuPaul’s “Supermodel” — we knew it was a tacky song, but we still loved it. After most of the fags in white t-shirts left town, two preppy straight white jock types asked what Zee and I were doing, outside the 24-hour restaurant where I used to hang out in high school. "Kissing," I said, and went back to it.
And then so much burning in my eyes I was screaming I couldn't see and when I could see it looked like spraypaint covering my face but it was pepper spray in my eyes to keep the jocks safe from all the black people in DC and faggots kissing too I guess. At the hospital the nurses were worried I would lose my vision because it happened at such a close range, they pumped saline through plastic tubes directly into my eyes for 45 minutes and I had to lie still. Later, my parents asked, "Why do you have to be so overt?"
Luckily, Zee knew how to hold me, he'd get all teary-eyed too and press himself against me until we were both holding everything. People still wrote love letters then, especially 19-year-old radical queer vegan faggots, and pretty soon Zee moved to San Francisco and he was telling me about the time a professor had raped him; I was trying to listen and stay present for all his pain but I couldn't feel anything, all I could think was: what are you so upset about, that's happened to me hundreds of times.
Then it was like there was an extra dimension, everything in the room was moving diagonally upwards and back. It wasn't just a physical dimension, but an emotional dimension of terror and I managed to say something about it but when I got out of bed I was a little kid, terrified of faces in the blankets, eyes in the walls — something horrible was going to happen and I couldn't stop it. I managed to write: is it something to do with my father, his naked body?
This became the period in my life when my father followed me down the street at night, he hid behind the curtains with an axe, under the bed and how could I sleep with my father under the bed? His eyes as enormous as horses’ eyes, peering in through the windows or staring at me from inside the walls, watching me from the ceiling. This was the period in my life when everything I thought I knew about my life wasn't everything at all, and I had to start learning everything all over again.
I always thought that despair was reality, and then every once in a while I'd feel some sort of illusion until the despair brought me back to my senses. It took me until the first time I became macrobiotic and quit drinking and stopped doing drugs and went on the craziest anti-candida food-elimination diet to switch things around, to think that maybe part of reality was hope, and sometimes despair could be the illusion. But there's something from my past that I worry is missing from my future: relationships based on the assumption that we would keep revealing layers of ourselves until there was nothing left to reveal and then we'd just go deeper. It was us against the world so the stakes were high.
After my relationship with Laurie fell apart and Chris moved away and Zee and I were breaking up and I was throwing stolen pint glasses out the window every day just to hear them shatter, I decided to go to Seattle for a month and stay with JoAnne. I didn't really know her — I'd only met her briefly at the March on Washington — it's funny how you can meet such amazing people in such horrible places. The March was like that, freaks stood out so much that we found one another relatively easily.
JoAnne and I shared the same bed for a month and it felt like home, even though she lived in this weird apartment that looked like some kind of suburban condo, with plush gray carpeting and cheap, new everything. People without much money lived like that in Seattle — JoAnne had been a street kid and now she worked as a phone-sex operator. I'd never shared a bed with anyone else for a month — somehow with JoAnne it never felt crowded. As soon as I arrived in Seattle, I started talking about incest and JoAnne started talking about getting raped and then she talked about how she used to steal leather jackets to buy crystal and I talked about doing bumps before bed. We shared so much anger at our parents and the rest of the world that wanted us dead, anger like a high except that it grounded us, we held each other and sobbed.
I can't write about JoAnne without writing about the fact that she died, just when she was remembering she was raped by her father. It was two weeks after I’d confronted my parents and told my father I'd never speak to him again, unless he could admit it. JoAnne and I were on opposite coasts: I’d gone back to that prestigious school to make sure I never wanted to go back again, and then I'd moved to Boston because it was the closest place with a subway. JoAnne was strung out on heroin and I was throwing 6 a.m. after-hours, mixing ecstasy with special K and alcohol and coke and pot to find just the right combination. JoAnne was kicking heroin and she went to the hospital, they told her she had active TB and a bladder infection, they admitted her for two days then gave her Tylenol and said go home. She couldn't even walk; her roommates carried her out. The next day she died.
It’s been ten years. I'm worried that not enough has changed.
In high school, when people asked what I wanted to do with my life, I'd say I wanted to become a prostitute. I thought that was something funny to say. But I can't write about sex work without writing about incest. Not in the standard pathologized way, but in the way that for so many sexual abuse survivors we find ourselves turning tricks. Maybe we don't know exactly what we're looking for, but we know that we're looking for something.
We're looking for money, of course — that's one thing we've all got in common. But I decided to become a whore because I wanted to make a living without becoming part of the workaday careerist world. I knew what it was like to leave my body — I'd done that for most of my life — now I finally didn't need to. So when I started turning tricks, it was important to me to make sure that I stayed present. This was not always easy, especially when I found myself with some guy reeking of booze, cologne, baby oil and underarm issues, looking me in the eyes and saying: you look exactly like my nephew, he’s in college now.
But I learned how to stay present. That was the magic. I also learned how to talk about exactly what I would and would not do (and still sound flexible), how to walk into a hotel looking like I owned the place (always yawn), how to perform masculinity (and pass!), and how to give a blow job to die for (try to take a look at his will first, though). In twelve years of turning tricks, I've certainly made my share of mistakes and I've certainly spent my share of time with monstrous people who threaten the existence of everything I treasure. But I have learned so much about the perilous intersections of sex, power, money, and intimacy that I could write a book just about the positioning of a trick's toiletries on the sink in a hotel bathroom. I probably will.
After 12 years, I'm ready to move on. I don't know how.
On Looking for Love in Places Without
Back in the days of my first bathroom cruising, I discovered a hidden culture of foot tapping and notes written on toilet paper, wrapped around pens, and passed underneath stall walls. I imagined entire worlds around shoes and socks and ankles, the texture of hands, the skin underneath wristwatches, the pattern of hair on thighs. I fantasized that one day I would meet someone just like me, because if I was there then there must be someone else there like me.
Later, I cruised sex clubs and beaches and alleys, phone-sex lines and backrooms and more bathrooms and backrooms and sex clubs and beaches. I embraced sluttiness with a passion, but I also found myself in a sexual world that worshipped the masculinity I despised, elevating it to a preeminent space in the pantheon of the gods. I longed for something else, but I took what I could get. I discovered a whole universe of holding and shaking and gripping and petting and moaning and panting and groaning, so much sweat and spit and come on my face and my chest, in my hands and my clothes — standing up into so many guys’ arms and just feeling it.
In a culture of sex and sex work, I learned to cultivate and crave those sudden moments when everything would get brighter or lighter or easier to imagine. That calm high-in-the-sky but still down here where everything counts — I knew this wasn’t love, but loving it made me stronger and more aware. I prioritized long-term friendships over new sex partners, but also avoided risking sex with people I loved. I thought this was healthier, that it enabled me to take better care of myself and my friends, that it allowed for a safer place to create new ways of living in a world that wants us to disappear.
But now I find myself stuck in sexual spaces where everyone follows a script requiring the avoidance of intimacy. I keep searching for that moment of transcendent passion with someone who will walk away without even saying thanks. I'm finding this harder and harder.
Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore, is the editor of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull, 2004) and is currently working on a new anthology, tentatively titled Realness Is Overrated: Rejecting the Requirement to Pass. For info and guidelines, or to send feedback, love letters, or threats, go to www.mattbernsteinsycamore.com