This is Blahsmopolitan, a weekly column about one freshman’s misfortune as he navigates his New Adult Life in Chicago, and the songs that soundtracked it. New stories are posted every Thursday, alongside a curated Blahsmo playlist to complement your reading and get you through the week with some new music. This week, our columnist gets bullied into googling porn, cries about the Mars Rover, and realizes he’s in love for the first time in hopes you can learn from his mistakes. (Sorry I’ve been gone so long! I’m in two workshop courses so I’ve been totally drained creatively- this is my first final piece. Enjoy!)
This piece has been censored for UIC Radio.
I was five years old when I got my first computer. It was a pale, white, unfortunate thing that moaned and groaned to life, a process which usually took about ten minutes. I already had my own email address, (firstname.lastname@example.org, can you imagine that not being taken today?) and a little scuba diver followed my cursor around as my obsessive-compulsive self made alphabetized catalogs of all the CDs I owned so as to better keep track for the radio show I hosted under my bed. It was a lot of Spice Girls with a hint of 50 Cent. A real variety show.
Being one of the first people in my neighborhood to have not one but two computers with Internet access, I was obviously the talk of the Kindergarten class. A playdate with two Internet-enabled computers meant that we could play Stratego or Bowling Blitz from opposites sides of the room! It was unheard of. It all made me very popular, which was only boosted by the fact that I lied and told my classmates I won a Nickelodeon sweepstakes with a prize that was just too special to tell.
Fun as it all was, something changed once Ella Thomas started coming over.
We were very close friends, Ella and I, so we had no problem cramming our little bodies into the same spinning office chair for a few hours of Internet browsing. We had a good system going for when we had sleepovers, when time was of the essence– we spent twenty minutes looking at my websites first: things like Pokemon or Wiccan catalogs or the AOL Sign-up screen (which always ended with me crying because I’d even thought about going against my parents and making an account), then the next twenty minutes were dedicated to Ella’s choices like the Club Libby Lu website (which I was secretly a little excited about too).
One fateful night, I felt Ella’s finger tap me on the shoulder while I was deeply invested in a round of Minesweeper.
“What?” I asked, wiping the sweat from my five year old brow.
“My turn,” she said.
“No it’s not. There are two minutes left.”
“No, no, no, try this one. It’s really funny.”
I decided that the stress of hitting a mine wasn’t worth fighting for the last two minutes of.
I opened Internet Explorer and Ella leaned in close to my ear- I could feel her breath on me which smelled like pizza Goldfish and bananas.
“Go to…” she paused. “Sex dot com.”
“What,” I stare back at her incredulously, “is sex?”
Sex turns out to be naked girls looking at the camera and making funny faces and holding penises- gigantic penises- that don’t appear to be connected to a boy. I know what boobs are but I’m confused about what makes these particular ones sex.
“That looks cool!” says Ella, which in retrospect was a really f******* strange response. I did not think it was cool, and I especially did not think all of the naked girls holding penises that saved themselves where I saved my CD catalog files were cool. At all.
I was so mortified by what I’d seen that I communicated with my parents through sticky notes for an entire week.
I didn’t start watching straight porn until I was already several years into being an out-and-proud, prolific homosexual. I watched it as a way to study, to conduct research on a process that I’d never fully understood, like the rock cycle. When I envisioned having sex with a woman, I envisioned an incredibly sterile, medical process. I thought about sex with a woman and thought of a soothing voice over an ambiguous, crudely animated sex ed video that you watch in the fifth grade.
“The male penis is inserted into the female vagina in order for the male to-” and there’s a great emphasis here, italicized words on the script- “ejaculate to begin fertilization.”
My only knowledge of sex between a man and a woman was exactly that- a Merriam-Webster definition or a Rosecrance animation of two X-rayed maggot bodies wriggling to create a child. There was no pleasure, no romance, not even any primal urge attached to straight sex.
The research was mostly futile, but ultimately it seemed like guys in straight porn just wanted the sex more. They didn’t necessarily **** harder or moan louder, you could just see it on their faces. There is a look that flashes on every straight porn star’s face at some point in every video that’s like, I can’t believe it. I am actually having sex with a real woman. Gay men never make that face.
The first grade perv was named Zachary Cordova. It wasn’t that he was ever mean to girls, like boys who like you are supposed to be, but that he was just super handsy, and those hands were always covered in hot Cheeto dust. He had spiky blue-and-blonde hair and T-shirts that said things like “EAT. SLEEP. RAWK. REPEAT” and “WILL TRADE PARENTS FOR VIDEO GAMES” (the latter of which really shows a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of both six year olds and the people making these shirts). Making girls squeal and run away was his vice- he’d sidle up to Sally or Becky Anne or Nina and say things like:
“You like my bawwwdy?”
“Let’s go somewhere we can be aloooone!”
Or, my personal favorite, “Do you know what SEX IS!?”, often paired with a gap-toothed smile and wocka-wocka arms.
I wish that I was making it up. I was forced into a playdate with Zachary once and it all made sense- his Playstation had games where girls in bikinis played volleyball and people shot guns out of cars and said “F*** you, k***!” whereas my dad had to have a thirty minute talk with my mom before he would let me buy the clean version of the new Britney Spears album.
Regardless, I somewhat unwillingly assumed the role of the Protector of the Girls, the guardian angel who liked the things that girls liked, and sort of talked like a girl too. Girls felt safe with me, away from Zachary’s Cheeto-tinged advances, and I felt safe with them- they didn’t want to play baseball when they came over, they wanted to pretend stuffed animals were getting married. Some of them even guest starred on the under-the-bed radio show, which had since expanded to include collapsible blanket studio walls and a very comfy bean bag chair from IKEA.
Zachary strolled up and wiggled his fingers like he was casting a spell on My Girls, and they shrieked and squirmed and buried their faces in the crook under my arm. This is what being a boyfriend must be like, I thought to myself, and checked my fingers for Cheeto dust before I vomited in my mouth.
It’s August 5th.
“Are you ready?”
“No, but I never will be. And he’s never ready, either, so I don’t get to decide.”
“Fair enough. Okay. I’m gonna press play, babe.”
I’m silent. My fingers tighten on the edge of the comforter and I feel his chest rising and falling beneath my head. I have such a detailed memory of the ridges and dips of his chest that I could draw it from memory, but our heartbeats don’t match at all.
Then, it’s midnight. Long, drawn-out buzzes and beeps escape the computer speakers. It sounds like a stuffed animal trying to sing a song through a voice box soaked in battery acid. But you squeezed it. And it loves you. So it’s trying. We start to sing too.
“Happy birthday to you,” I say, tears rolling down my face already. I hear my voice from somewhere else, in a whisper. I only feel my lips forming the shapes.
“Happy birthday to you,” he joins, his voice deep and warm, filling up the little blanket cave we fashioned for ourselves even as it’s muted by his lips pressed to the top of my head.
“Happy birthday, dear Rover…” We’d decided on this because “Curiosity” didn’t quite fit the rhyme scheme. Rover slides across craters and shifts the red sands like a soft wind and keeps on singing.
“Happy birthday to you.” The song finishes, he stops the video, my tears stay hot and they only keep coming. He rounds the bend of my face and kisses me on the cheek, tightens his grip on my shoulder.
I wonder if knowing me embarrasses him.
When I was nine years old I grew an affinity for reading things that I shouldn’t have been reading. I suppose it was better than what some other kids do to rebel at that age- reading, what a badass- but I was determined to learn about things on my own. My mom tried to have the birds and bees talk with me assisted by a colorful book featuring a fat couple with ludicrous amounts of pubic hair that went on a date, took a bath together, and then copulated in a way that was all smiles, almost goofy. I was not having it. I sprinted into my room and shut the door, completely uninterested.
“You’re going to have to learn about it someday, and the computer isn’t going to tell you the right stuff!” she called upstairs.
Fine, I thought. If the computer was wrong, then the book with the hairy Italian butcher and the lady who inspired the phrase, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” was most certainly wrong. I had seen the sorts of things that were sex before, and that was not it. My best friend in the third grade class, who had recently taught me the word “c***” behind the bushes at recess, was of the school of thought that sex came down to peeing in or on someone’s vagina. This seemed to be the most reasonable explanation I’d heard thus far.
It started off innocent enough- I was at an advanced reading level in school, and I struggled my way through every book that hinted at giving me the insider knowledge I needed to decipher sex.
Cold Mountain. Mountains meant boobs, and boobs meant sex. Nothing there.
- Surely someone born in 1984 was old enough to know something about it. Not much in the way of sex there either.
Moby-Dick spoke for itself.
Then I stumbled upon Tropic of Cancer.
My jaw dropped as I read, knowing that I had found the truth about everything.
It was a nightmare. Lizards and bats shoved up the a**, ripping off pubic hair and pasting it on the chin of a friend, chewing up and swallowing parts of someone’s vagina, in public or in private. It remains unclear what “come” is but there is a terrible lot of it. After a good fifteen minutes of frantically searching for the stork that eventually delivered me, I closed the book and knew that I could not tell the friend who thought it was just about pee. It was about so much more than that. Sex was about pain.
“Do you want me to choke you?”
“What?” He asked, through a grunt of pleasure.
“I don’t know if you’re into that, but I mean, do you want me to choke you?”
His hand cradled my face and tilted it to meet his dark eyes as his head lifted slowly off the pillows.
“Look at me,” he said.
“Do I have a choice?” I said, half-laughing, my hand gliding up and down his thigh, not wanting this to end, not wanting to have ruined my first time.
“I’m serious,” he said, squinting as he stared directly into my eyes.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“I know,” I said, shrugging off his earnestness. Who knew the next time I would be able to practice the make-or-break skill of having real sex with a person?
“Hey,” he said with an urgency I’d never heard out of him before. He was always so relaxed, so nonchalant about what he wanted from the world. Things came to him and he accepted them as they did. What a crazy thing.
“I really like you,” he said, his voice soft again.
“I really like you too! What’s the big deal?”
I do as I’m told and come and join him, feeling the rusty cheers and squeals of the futon ripple through my joints. We share a moment of silence with our faces mere millimeters from each other. I can’t tell whose breath is whose. We lie staring at each other for a moment too long.
“You’re shaking,” he declares, draping his arm over my shivering body and pulling me in, matching up our limbs.
“Yeah, I’m just really nervous that my breath smells like d**k now.”
He kisses me over and over, mumbling and laughing, “Shut the f*** up!”
I want to stop my mind from running off the rails but it feels like little bolts of lightning are bouncing off the plates in my skull, zapping synapses and flooding my brain with chemicals, like my nervous system is hosting the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
“Don’t you want me to finish? I mean, don’t you want to finish?” I stare right at him, inquisitively, almost frustrated.
“I want you to relax. And I am not gonna stop kissing you until you do.”
He keeps his promise.
I take a deep breath in, survey his room and begin searching his eyes for the catch.
“You should come over again tomorrow. And you should call me tonight,” he says nodding, as if speaking to a toddler or a deaf foreigner.
There is none.
“Seriously. I get it,” he says. I feel like he really does.
In the seventh grade, every Friday after school, we walk to the grocery store and get a package of raw cookie dough and two Shasta colas for twenty-nine cents each. Once everybody has their goods stored away in their backpacks, we get on our bikes and pedal as fast as we can to the park with the plastic turtle and the sandbox in the middle.
We have a special tree there that is only structurally sound enough to carry the bodies of eight middle schoolers, so each of us has a dedicated spot. Caroline is in gymnastics, so she goes all the way up to the top branch, which we all secretly think is a little much. Michael likes to be in control of the cookie dough because he usually buys it- he is the only one of us with a job. He walks two Pomeranians and one Newfoundland, never at the same time. Benny sits on the bottom branch because he is afraid of heights, but he’s probably my favorite of the bunch. I’m somewhere in the middle, and my girlfriend, Mazie, sits next to me. Michael and Caroline are also boyfriend and girlfriend, but they fight a lot.
“Truth or Dare?” Jennifer, the only blonde in our group, pokes me and wiggles her eyebrows. She talked to me earlier in the day- Mazie and I have been boyfriend and girlfriend for two weeks. It was time to hold hands and she was gonna make it happen.
“Dare,” I say, ignoring the blaring sirens going off in my heart and the sticky lagoon of sweat forming under my arms, which has only very recently started to smell bad.
“I dare you to hold hands with… “ Jennifer pauses, which is a really good disguise to make sure Mazie doesn’t catch the trickery, “…Mazie! For fifteen seconds.”
All is silent in the tree.
I turn to Mazie and shrug, clenching my teeth and flashing a look that probably reads somewhere between having just chomped on a canker sore and actively s******g myself. She sort of smiles and takes my hand. The countdown begins and I do not squeeze or show any interest in her, or her hand, whatsoever.
“…Three, Two, One! Awww!” goes the chorus.
Later, I walk Mazie home and we do not hold hands. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” I toss at her, and she nods. She understands that what I really meant was, Thanks for letting me sweat in your palm.
I was not new to jerking off when I was thirteen, but up until that point it was mostly exploratory- a new sensation I didn’t know I could create. No thought behind it, no fantasy or wish for sex. That night, I thought about who I would like to have sex with most. Then came a vision of a huge, hulking man with a long, black beard and hard, red skin- almost like a shell.
I had a vision of being obliterated, of being smothered, of being made small- I wanted attention, I wanted to be carried, I wanted ecstasy. I came, realized I wanted to f*** the devil, and knew I was gay.
Something about seventeen made me feel invincible. The world was so big and beautiful that it seemed all but impossible for it to be against me. I was full of this wild energy that made me want to dance, and be seen, and play it cool. Shoulders back, eyes harsh, arms up to the ceiling of every room like I’d been electric since the second I was born.
My mom would drop me off in front of my friend’s house and I’d hide in the backyard until she drove away. I’d round back to the front and perch myself on the front steps, waiting for Matty to roll up in his steel blue station wagon with rust on the fender. He’d jump out, open the door for me and blast the White Stripes on the highway, sing to me like we were the only people in the world. His voice was my favorite thing about him. It was my favorite thing in general.
“Hello operator!” he’d scream. “Can you gimme number nine!? Can I see ya later?! When ya gimme back my dime!?”
He’d drive us into the city and we’d ride the trains all night until we found just the right hole-in-the-wall pizza place or donut shop to satisfy our sweet tooth, then we’d run around again and keep on satisfying it. He held my hand the whole way and I felt my love for him start in the top of my head and spiral all the way down my spine with a plunk at my feet, like a gumball machine.
We dove into bars on Halsted where they played live blues and the median age was 50, sneaking through the back door and standing tall, leaning on the bar like we were regulars. We swiped half-full gin and tonics and slammed them before anyone saw. He swung me around on the dancefloor and we did the twist and we slow danced like grown-ups- his left hand on my waist, mine on his shoulder, our hands clasped together leading our bodies as one on the right. We fooled around in the bathroom stall while the line stretched down the hallway, our eyes wild with drunken delight. We didn’t mind a crowd. I never stopped smiling.
It came time for me to go back to my friend’s house where I slept over as a decoy to lead my mom off my trail, and we sauntered through the Blue Line tunnel, his arm around me, planting messy kisses on my neck and pulling me in tightly. Our legs criss-crossed over one another, stumbling and laughing through the fluorescent light.
“We get it, you’re fags!” gurgled a brown-haired man in a Cubs jersey, walking behind us, brown-paper-bagging a 40oz of Corona. He was stumbling even more than we were, propping his limp, thin body on the filthy walls of the tunnel.
“Suck a c**k, I don’t give a s***, but don’t make it my business.”
I turned to Matty, smiling big and bright. I loved scaring them.
“I’m done being polite! I’m f*****g tired of being nice!” he hissed, spilling his beer for the rats.
I leaned forward and kissed Matty on the mouth with gratuitous tongue. I reached down and groped him, took a pull out of my flask and passed the shot into his mouth, making sure to keep eye contact with The Guy Who Is Done Being Nice. My face drips with sweet, dark gold nectar and I spit at him. He swings his arm at us somewhere between aggressively and dismissively, and returns to rest in his delirium. Those poor people.
I sit across from Matty on the train back home. He’s drifting in and out of sleep, taking breaks from passing out with his head resting against the glass divider to open those sweet eyes just barely at me, casting a Face saying everything that I always wished somebody would say without saying anything at all.
He says You and me together makes being alive real. He says You are not dirty and you are not broken. He says I do not have to do research to know how to like you. He says You can get most things you want if you just ask. He says You can take your time. He says You make me feel warm and that is most of what matters. He says You are sex and you are love, even if who comes after you may not be both. He says We have been through so much to get here.
The world beneath me rushes and rumbles, gliding with a silver fluidity that begs to be heard. All fags go to heaven, even if we can only have it on Earth.