The first gay men I fell in love with was a former soldier in the army who managed a Kenneth Cole shop in Union Square. He was biracial, black and Irish, and was a mix of effeminate and scrappy tough. He shaved his head and wore tight black formal clothing to accent his muscular frame. He drank too much, cursed too much, smoked too much, and slept around too much. And I was intoxicated. He was bold in all the ways I was afraid, or sensible. He lived fast, came close to multiple deaths, and would have left a good-looking corpse. He was also often unkind to me. On a regular basis he reminded me that I was “so smart I lacked any common sense.” He mocked my inexperience as a gay man, having never heard of, let alone gone to, any of New York’s famous gay clubs and bars. Though we were both only thirty, he was fast approaching seventy. His bitterness and cynicism were not unlike my own but his felt somehow earned through years of enduring abusive parents and traitorous lovers and threatened bigots. My passivity had kept me in the closet, maintaining a masculine mien, for most of my life, save for the two years in middle school when my short-lived feminine manner compelled ridicule and bullying.
The First Lover was all about the bottom line. His pragmatism made my romanticism seem juvenile. He was practical to a damaging degree and I learned to swallow my own principles, my own aspirations, finding them foolish and immature. I began to pay attention to how I dressed, how much I earned, or didn’t, what new, trendy music or television shows I could talk about. He reminded me that he could cut me in half, that he was a force of nature, that I was scrawny. I became a gym fanatic and put on twenty pounds of muscle in under a year. Everyone remarked on my “new silhouette.” I suppose I should thank him for forcing me into a more commanding mode. Ironically, unlike the straight men for whom I had fallen, my first lover came closest to my brother in cementing my inferiority complex, reminding me of my countless inadequacies.
My husband gets angry with me when I fail to acknowledge the efforts he makes to keep our shared life solvent. I forget what he told me about lease payments and insurance policies, and he snaps. “I swear to god, you never pay attention to the important things and you leave me to handle everything.” When I remind him that I—before this global crisis—handled the grocery shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, he gets angrier, saying he thought I did those things because I enjoyed them.
Though we’re in quarantine, I sometimes imagine jumping on the next New Jersey Transit train out of Roselle Park, risking exposure and infection, escaping his managerial instructions and reprimands. I remind him that our marriage isn’t one of his stores and I’m not one of his employees. This doesn’t go over well. And when he scolds me, like a child or member of his staff, I’m reminded of My First Lover, and how people in retail often take on a certain style of managing others.
My First Lover made it a habit to question “the audience” for every one of my short stories, essays, novels, or films. He pressed for logic in narrative, dismissing abstraction or thematic mysteries as “pretentious horseshit.” He also did thorough work with my own ego, dismantling how I spoke, with whom I spent my time, the countries I visited, the books I read, noting it all as too precious, too rarified, though he’d never use those words. He’d say I was out of touch with the world and that’s why I couldn’t write stories that sold. That no one is interested in characters without agency, in passive voices. Confidence and pride and ambition were the engines driving the modern world. Commerce was the driver. And he was a part of it. He made it all sound oddly cultish, elitist. My friend, a public relations legend in the Hamptons and a sort of Puerto Rican Harvey Fierstein, thirty years older than me, would come to my rescue by dismissing him as a “retail queen,” who was jealous of me. I found it all laughable. Eventually.
When I made my first feature film in 2010, I cast an actor of remarkable sensitivity, range, and naturalistic reaction. He also happened to be uncommonly beautiful—an angelic athlete. Penetrating blue eyes, enviable bone structure, and a lithe, lethal body. A sexy Jesus with his stubble and shaggy dirty blond hair. Owing to subconscious influence, I might have also cast this particular beautiful performer because he looked a good deal like that Childhood Love Object, my straight friend, the pugilistic artist.
It’s common knowledge that Alfred Hitchcock obsessed over his leading ladies, controlling every aspect of their lives, not merely their performances. Tippi Hedren most infamous among them. His fixations are what allegedly caused her to retire from the industry after only making a few films, two of which were Hitch’s—The Birds and Marnie. I’m not claiming that’s what happened between me and The Projected Fantasy, but watching him, directing him, controlling what he said, how he looked, how he moved, and what he said, what he looked at, and what he moved toward or away from provided a perverse thrill that was perfectly legal and even moral within the milieu of filmmaking. And yet, the secret longing I harbored throughout the long production fueled and satisfied, served as a dirty catharsis. I never could command My Childhood Love Object to do whatever I wanted, but I could direct my actor.
Though my film was not ostensibly about a gay relationship, the two male leads did produce a palpable homoerotic tension. I too often projected myself onto the costar and imagined that the many sadomasochistic encounters were moments shared between me and My Childhood Love Object.
I also enjoyed possessing the actor within my film, the world I created and could control. It’s said that the last legal dictatorial profession is directing. Because I could not contain The Projected Fantasy’s beauty, because I could not contain him, I contained his embodiment of the character I created. And through him I contained my Childhood Love Object.
My husband and I half-joke about inviting another man into our marriage for sex. As I used my actor to sate the fantasy of My Childhood Love Object, I could use my husband to satisfy my fantasy of being held, desired, chosen by two men at once. I want so much.
The public health catastrophe has conveniently forestalled such options. My husband spoons me in bed while watching Drag Race. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable being with anyone again but you,” he says.
The Most Passionate Lover was a former medical student who’d become a hairdresser with plans to return to college and become a physician’s assistant. Puerto Rican and Mexican with a body like a college wrestler. Raven black hair and with a face that reminded me of one of my favorite porn stars, Chris Rockway. He’d been hooked on crystal meth for years and had the corroded teeth to prove it. His sexual appetite rivaled even my own. He’d manhandle me with an easy grace and had a preternatural knowledge of my body, its weak spots and hot spots, its inclinations toward pain and its nervy reactions to pleasure. He wasn’t afraid to be goofy and could become intimidatingly rough when provoked. He’d shared a story about a former lover who’d been abusive. And how one day while driving in the country from visiting friends he’d had enough. He’d pulled the car over, dragged his partner out, and beat him up after the boyfriend had assaulted him for the last time. His “Tina and Ike Moment,” he’d called it. The recounting of the story thrilled me, and our sex had become even more emotionally charged and dangerous, even sadomasochistic.
I began to take a passive-aggressive stance with The Most Passionate Lover, especially when in bed because I preferred the angry sex, the sex meant to quiet me, the sex meant to teach me a lesson, the sex meant to put me in my place, the sex that jettisoned respect. His anger, his readiness to defend his pride, to show off his ego, to ride his impulse, to hurt another who would hurt him—for none could anymore hurt him—left me panting, ecstatic. His rage was ecstasy itself and seemed custom made for my own subversive spite, my own weak little masochism. My powerful, enduring masochism. The Most Passionate Lover seduced and loved the mightiness of my meekness.
Whenever we had sex, I would inventory scenes from movies wherein the victim stood up to his bully, and I would cast myself as the victim and him as the bully. Or when I was the bully I’d be quickly reduced, cut down. He always had to be the victor. I wonder--and I know--why.
I watch my husband do manly things for his mother and grandmother—fix broken drawers, carry heavy boxes, run cable lines through floors. I help, but I also like to imagine him stronger and more masculine than I could ever be. Like my Most Passionate Lover, my husband is a “man’s man.” Though that term is dumb, it turns me on by making me feel less. Secretly, of course.
“You married a man,” says my husband, when I make fun of his vulgarity after a dinner I cook. He burps and farts and laughs about both. “At least you know my body is working and I’d be able to kick the virus’s ass.”
Following this trend of embroiling delicate, lovely men who took no shit from bullies or provocateurs, my longest lover dealt it out with me for four years. A Harvard graduate with a yen for art and nature, he worked as a programmer and held a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I watched him earn the distinction on our third date and in my mind he became perfect. I admired the way he would reprimand assholes who bullied or abused others, a fearless good Samaritan, perennially inviting conflict wherever it could be found. Such altercations scared me, but he seemed to thrive on them.
The Longest Lover was from Tucson, a Tohono O’odham. He found New York City to be hostile and cold, overcrowded and filthy. Even New York State’s mountains, he’d said, lacked the sublime grandeur of Southern Arizona’s behemoths. After moving to Tucson for two years in 2014, I’d learned he was correct about that comparison. New York mountains, for all their deciduous lushness, failed to inspire the same awe as the Santa Catalinas, the Santa Ritas, the Rincons. The desert is vast and reminds visitors and settlers alike of their smallness, their inconsequential place in the universe. My well-honed sense of smallness felt right at home. In New York, you operate under the illusion that you matter in the world or are supposed to act like you do. In the desert, nature reminds you daily of the satire of your aspirations, the folly of self-esteem.
I’d left my father on his deathbed in order to move west with My Longest Lover. He died three months after we settled. I should have waited. The problem was that no one knew how much time he had left. It could have been a year or longer said his oncologist, until the infection shortened that prognosis and surprised us all. On the flight home for The First Man’s funeral, I thought about my father and about how much under his thumb I’d lived my life. Thirty-eight years old and without him, I understood that I’d transferred that power from the first man to the new man. I’d even let him pull me away from the old man as he lay dying.
Amid Sonora’s wildlife—the mountain lions, the Gila monsters, the scorpions, the tarantulas, the javalinas, and our domesticated wildlife, our cats, Picasso, Karma, Baby Juice, Butters, and Sonia, and Boston terrier-chihuahua mutt, Shiloh—My Longest Lover would instill within me as if on a set schedule the lessons of the animal kingdom and of his arid homeland. Nature will replace you. Humans will eventually fall and the plants and flowers and birds and reptiles and
insects and better mammals will replace us, cover our tracks, extinguish any record of our damages. He helped me hate not just myself but humanity itself. I was grateful, and couldn’t get enough.
But then I returned to thoughts of The First Man. I’d survived so much with him. Together less than a mile away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Together in the region on December 26, 2004—the day the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, killing 227,898 people. Together we’d survived the collapse of his business in the ineluctable path of the Great Recession. Together we’d survived his massive personality. I’d had a say in that one. My meekness accommodated him.
As he trains our puppy to sit and roll over, my husband proves again how paternal he is. Without the long hours apart at work or family coming and going or recreational distractions, I am able to see him more fully, more consistently. I regret that I don’t want children only for his sake. He’d be a wonderful, giving father. Like My Longest Lover, my husband prefers animals. But my husband also has room in his gigantic heart for people. For me. “We’re a family,” he says, scooping us both up in his long, strong arms, the canine licking our chins. “I’m glad we got her before the world fell apart.”
The man I married on January 1, 2019 is kind, generous, and thoughtful. A marvel of humor, personable to a fault, and with talents that seem in endless supply. Like my first lover, he too works in retail and is prone to a similar nitpicking, though at that point, suddenly two weeks shy of 42, I felt less vulnerable to the constructive critiques, accustomed to the harmless putdowns. We rent a small apartment in New York’s Chinatown and spend weekends at his mother’s house in Union County, NJ—our current refuge.
Though I love him and though he deserves it, I find that I give his family the bulk of my free time, with little leftover for my own. I allowed him to choose our apartment. I allowed him to choose the venue for our wedding reception (a stately zoo). I allowed him to choose and name our dog—Zelda May Rubinstein. A district manager in charge of 140 employees across eleven stores, my husband is used to managing people, taking the lead. I let him manage and lead me. Maybe a part of why the marriage works is because I defer so readily--so proudly--to his delegations.
As we wipe down our latest delivery of groceries with disinfectant wipes, a weekly ritual now, my husband looks at me with an expression of worry.
“Do you think we’re soulmates?” he asks, to which I answer that I wouldn’t have married him if I didn’t think we were.
Adaptation is necessary, but change is a luxury. Accepting the limitations of others and of yourself is a gift. Writing—let alone speaking—in the passive voice is not a crime, despite how it’s decried by English teachers and journalists.
As I write this, the COVID-19 virus is over three months into its great expansion, ripping through my city with ferocity, accounting for half of American cases and a third of American deaths. It seems to target most mercilessly the elderly, the infirm, and the impoverished—an ageist, fascistic, classist disease that considers disposable the old, the immunocompromised, the poor. The virus can be seen as a biological embodiment of Western Culture itself, something masculine and aggressive, seeking to acquire and dominate, overstepping boundaries and penetrating borders, imperialist, colonialist, capitalist. And it is in capitalism that the essential emblem of assertion is found— the pronunciation of one’s desires, one’s claims, of speaking up and making demands. If class systems required gendering and a personality type, capitalism would surely be a man, and by no means a docile one.
And yet the new masculinity is said to be civilized and orderly. A developed, rational model of prosperity and strength and tenable morals. When assessing my betrayal of this system, my mother system, the fatherland’s de facto structure, I’m also left with the dilemma of confronting the betrayals I have made of my gender, and all the binaries it attends.
Maybe the meanest aspect of this dread disease is that because of its high infection rate, victims are forced to die alone, away from friends and family. As cold as this logic may sound, it provides comfort: maybe my detached, passive spirit, white flag waving, unmoored to any dock, would serve me should I become a statistic. On some level, I surrendered to the morbid, the temporal, the inevitable on that soccer field when I zoned out, age 7.
I was not surprised when speaking with my friend in India, The Ruler, about the global health crisis, that he echoed the president’s position—“The world should go on, let the people die if they need to die, the world should not stop, because people will die anyway, especially here in India. People will starve to death and die if they lose their livelihoods. Five hundred thousand people die of the flu every year and the world doesn’t shutter.” The confirmation of doom comforted.
Somehow amid the political and economic cruelties, and aside from the guilt and unfairness and inequality, there is a strange beauty, a serenity, a passive serenity, in watching the world watch itself. From the warm, accommodating confines of our mother-in-laws’ homes, we watch the watching world, in our pajamas, in our safe, timid spaces, sharing home-cooked meals and whispering precious, soft, mighty sentiments.
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Brian Alessandro writes for Newsday and Interview Magazine. He has published fiction, essays, and interviews in PANK, Huffington Post, Bloom, Lambda Literary, and Crashing Cathedrals, and edits The New Engagement. He is author of a novel, The Unmentionable Mann, and wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound. He is adapting Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel with Michael Carroll.