Body Art ♦ (Part One of Three)

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t was ironic that an event called “Pride” should be the perfect showcasing of his insecurity, and this fact was not lost on Lewis. A weekend of events that were supposed to inspire unity, camaraderie, and, well, pride accomplished exactly the opposite. They induced feelings of discomfort and self loathing that were even greater than usual…and there was usually plenty to go around.

New York was talked about, in some circles, as being like some kind of gay Mecca. On the East Coast, liberal, progressive, and, just recently, same sex couples had been given the ability to marry. Lewis thought that was nice, but it wasn’t likely to affect him personally. Chances were he was never going to get married, not because of his sexuality, but because he was about as reclusive as a person can be who lives in a city of eight-and-a-half million. He hadn’t had sex in more than two years, and lately he’d been thinking about something his roommate had said back in college, that if you went seven years without sex you effectively regained your virginity. He’d been thinking about it because he thought it more likely he’d reach the seven year mark without getting laid again than it was he’d hook up with someone within the next five years. He just couldn’t see how it was ever going to happen again, and in certain respects, he’d be glad if it didn’t. It’s not like the sexual urge had gone away, quite the contrary. It was just that a regular routine of shameful masturbation came without any outside judgment, and that was (he could admit it), pretty much the one thing in the world he most wanted to avoid.

Lewis was thirty-seven, of Irish descent, five foot ten, about a hundred and ninety pounds, making him “husky” or “portly” or other euphemisms for what he thought of as slightly fat. No six-pack abs, let’s just put it that way. He had skin as white as milk, the kind of skin that, if he was out on a mildly sunny day, would start to redden alarmingly in about ten minutes. He had a weak chin and a small nose, puffy cheeks like a squirrel, and a spray of freckles across most of his body, with concentrations at the forearms, face, and across the shoulders. His hair was thinning, but not evenly. There was a deep groove going down the left hand side of his scalp, while on the right it had only just begun receding. He was by no means an extraordinarily ugly man, nor was he a markedly handsome one. In terms of physical appearance, he was the sort of person who would not immediately jump out at you in a crowd, and that was something he very much cultivated.

He made his living as a music teacher. He’d been a cellist with the New York Philharmonic for a little more than four years, but eventually he left, the primary reasons being that the competition among the musicians was so tiresome, and also because his last boyfriend, a violinist, had broken up with him, and Lewis didn’t want to see him six days a week. Since then, he gave private lessons, almost exclusively to children. He taught the cello, and also the piano and the flute. He’d always been talented musically, and was almost equally adept at all three. He lived in Williamsburg, playground of hippies and hipsters, with plenty of bars, health food and antique stores, pizza parlors, bodegas, and some nice green spaces. And home, yes, to a thriving gay community, or bisexual, in some cases, or bicurious, or polyamorous, or falling into less definable categories that were exhausting to try and keep track of. He taught students at his apartment, in the afternoons, mostly, but in some cases he’d agree to travel into Manhattan or Queens, if the price was right. The fact that he’d played with the Philharmonic had garnered him somewhat of a reputation, of which he was undoubtedly deserving. He’d been surprised to find out that he was a born teacher, soft spoken, patient, and able to build confidence even in those pupils that he knew privately to be hopeless.

He didn’t drive, and so took the subway fairly regularly. It was convenient, but also one of the things he hated most about the city, to be down there on the platforms, in the press of people, during rush hour especially, or in the cars themselves, bunched in together, enduring the squeaking of the wheels, people trying not to breathe too heavily, hearing the music leaking from nearby headphones. Lewis didn’t like to be touched, to have his body pressed upon by strangers. Not to say that anyone likes that, but he had a real aversion to it, to the point that it almost made him physically sick. And then there was…well, there was his problem with people looking at him.

Everybody, at some point or other in their lives, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment, has had self esteem issues regarding their own body, their own physical appearance. The lucky ones barely think of it, while it weighs more heavily on the minds of others…there is, after all, an entire cosmetics industry that preys on insecurity, not to mention commercials for fad diets, and reality TV shows that showcase the struggles of the contestants to lose weight. Lewis was one of the unlucky ones, extremely unlucky, even, because for virtually his entire life he had dealt not only with discomfort concerning his body, but also his sexuality. It had been bad enough when he was younger, but now it was even worse, as he was aging, steadily, becoming a day at a time, as he thought, fatter and uglier. He’d grown up in the Midwest, the son of a career military man and an overbearing mother, the middle child sandwiched between two girls. His father was often absent, so he was raised in a house where he was virtually swimming in estrogen, his sisters very much girly-girls, all horses and knitting and gossip. He’d loved it, when his father wasn’t around. And when his father had been there, it hadn’t taken Lewis very long to understand that approval from the only significant male presence in his life would never be forthcoming. His father would come home and say “And how are my three daughters today?” which was meant to be taken as a joke, as though he didn’t intend it in a mean-spirited way, although for the most part he did. His father always claimed to love him, and maybe he did, in his way, but the best he seemed to know how to deal with Lewis was to keep his distance from him as much as possible, both physically and emotionally. Lewis had always thought it funny, or interesting, at least, that his background was so stereotypical, in terms of where some schools of psychological thought deemed that homosexuality originated. Of course it had never been proven conclusively what made a person gay. Some maintained that there was a gene for it, others that it was a natural aberration of some kind, like a four leaf clover, only less rare. But there were shrinks who said that a child who was raised around women without a strong male role model to show an interest in them was considerably more likely to be queer. Had that been the case with Lewis, or was it a complete coincidence? He’d definitely thought about it over the years, but he had no way of knowing, just as the scientists who had hunted the “gay gene” and the shrinks with their theories could offer no legitimate proof. There were plenty of guys who grew up with a mess of brothers, and fathers who were an active presence in their lives, but who still turned out to be gay.

But Lewis was stereotypical in another way also, in that he had always been ashamed of his sexuality. He’d been teased growing up, yes, taunted, beaten up by his classmates sometimes. There really wasn’t any way to hide who he was, and in the small towns where he’d spent most of his formative years and adolescence, he had attracted attention. Bad enough to be gay, but to be shy, quiet, reserved, a musical prodigy who wasn’t the least bit athletic…a nightmare.

He’d come to New York in his early twenties, at a time when the city seemed to be in transition, becoming, in the ‘90’s, more tourist friendly, less sleazy, a far cry from the Taxi Driver style squalor of the ‘70’s. He’d had very mixed feelings about coming to a place known for having a prominent, visible gay scene. A part of him, the optimist that so rarely surfaced, was wondering if he might be able to find a niche, make friends…be amongst his people, be accepted. But it didn’t work out that way. He found opportunities in his career that likely wouldn’t have been available anywhere else, but socially…the biggest problem was that everyone there already seemed to know each other. Maybe that wasn’t an accurate perception, but that was how he saw it. The gay scene, in his first clumsy attempts to become involved with it, reminded him of a bratty high school clique, and he was the out-of-towner with the wrong clothes and haircut. The most obvious places to meet other gay men socially were clubs and bars, most of them in the Village, and the forays he attempted were mostly disastrous. He wasn’t a drinker or a drug user, he wasn’t good at approaching people, he wasn’t good looking enough to be approached himself. And he found the mannerisms and flamboyant dress of the queens annoying. Nor was he a muscle man, or a bear, or into leather. He couldn’t quite give up, not when he still got as horny as the next guy, but he pursued the interactions halfheartedly, waiting for someone else to make a first move that seldom came.

That was then, when he’d been new to the city, nearly sixteen years ago. Now he was more used to it, but no more comfortable on the trains, because that was something you couldn’t grow to enjoy, not when it was so tailor-made for unpleasantness. Lewis was keenly aware of train etiquette. You had to be, if you lived there. The tourists never knew what the hell they were doing. They complained in other countries, Europe, especially, of how loud, crude, and boisterous Americans were. Well, maybe so, but he thought the tourists from other countries visiting New York were just as bad. Talking loudly in their native languages, leaning in over the heads of seated riders to study the transit map and argue over it, then indiscriminately asking directions of anyone around them when they couldn’t figure it out. All against the subway code of conduct. No eye contact, obviously, that was first and foremost. God, how Lewis hated it when people broke that rule. It was his policy to keep his eyes downcast, his legs together, and his hands clasped in his lap, making himself as inconspicuous as possible. This way, he ran the least risk of confrontation, and he also hoped that he wouldn’t be scrutinized too closely, as that would lead to inevitable judgment.

He had a theory that everyone in the world- walking about in the streets, on elevators, in the audience back during his days with the Philharmonic- were spending most of their time looking at the people around them and making judgments about them. This included people of any age, from toddlers to the elderly, and everything in between. Any evidence to the contrary, like a person listening to music, in conversation, or closing their eyes entirely, he took to be a clever ruse. Like many people who have a mild form of psychosis, he often chided himself, mentally, telling himself it was only his imagination, that there wasn’t anything to it. And even if there was something to it, he reasoned, then why should he care what people thought of him? What should he care if the guy across from him on the train noticed that he was losing his hair, or had a little bit of a paunch? But no matter how often he told himself that he was being irrational, he couldn’t force himself to stop thinking about it. He felt like he was being judged for his obvious lack of physical perfection, but even more so for his sexuality, something that shouldn’t be immediately evident, but in his opinion, was. In a slight sidelong glance from a person sitting near, he would see disgust, hatred…hatred for who and what he was. He was constantly trying to repress a running string of internal dialogue that he imagined was coming from the people around him. Well, would you look at this prissy little fairy. Just out and about in the world, pretty as you please. Fucking faggot cocksucker. I’ve got something for him. And on it went. What he thought of as his real voice would cut in just as often. Its favorite lines were: now stop that, goddamn it, you stop it right now. You’re being absurd. See, he’s not even looking at you. It’s all in your head. Shit, he saw you looking at him! Look away! Look away! No, not that quickly! Now he’s onto you!

He felt sometimes like there were several people living inside him, a small community, and together they all made the effort to keep him relatively sane and functioning in society. He felt like, despite his constant fears about those around him and their intentions, he did a pretty good job of keeping these thoughts and feelings hidden. His last boyfriend had only been aware of them in the smallest of ways, through little bits that he had let slip whenever the context seemed appropriate. The way he felt usually revealed itself on the surface in a stiff kind of formality, one of the reasons, undoubtedly, that he didn’t have many friends or find it easy to make them. He’d been told by different people, his sisters among them, that he needed to lighten up. Would that he could. He’d often been worried that if he had more than one drink, then he’d expose too much of his personality, that he’d start acting “too gay,” and who knew what the consequences would be then! Even though the rational part of his brain insisted that there would be no consequences, it didn’t matter. He was the way he was, and no amount of his personally berating himself would change things. He’d thought, many times, about going into therapy. But the idea of actually talking, out loud, about all of these issues only brought on still more intense spasms of fear and panic. He felt like he’d rather have his fingernails pulled out than go to a shrink.

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ow did all of this relate back to Pride? Well, put it this way. Pride was the time when, for the local gays and the ones that had come from around the country and the world, they could demonstrate how comfortable they were with themselves, and that, of course, was the exact opposite of Lewis. At the centerpiece of the festivities, the parade itself, and also the myriad other related events, the parties, the specials at all the bars, there were all of these people who were able to be everything that he wanted to be, but couldn’t. Sure, some of them were idealized perfection, young, gym-toned and tan, pearly white teeth, gel-styled hair, dripping in costume jewelry, possessing of seemingly boundless exuberance. But there were just as many others who were obviously gay, but who looked more like him, older, not always in great shape…in short, ordinary guys…who seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much, and that frustrated and angered him even more. And that’s what he was, angry, yes, and envious, and then even more ashamed of himself for feeling that way. It was the typical shame cycle of the insecure. They were what he wanted to be, and so he hated them, and himself even more for hating. Because, truth be told, he had serious problems with homosexuality. The way he reasoned it out, heterosexual was the optimal way to be. You were “right,” you were “normal.” You were male, you found females attractive, and vice versa. You were bisexual, there was nothing wrong with that either. You were willing to have sex with the opposite gender, thereby leading to reproduction and the continuation of the species. Your having sex with members of the same gender just meant that you had a high libido, were open minded, and were in touch with your sexuality. Bisexuality was even preferable to being straight, in some ways, because you doubled your field of potential partners.

But homosexuality was wrong, in Lewis’ mind, for this reason. If everyone were gay, meaning that all men were only willing to have sex with other men, and all women with other women, then within one generation the human race would die out. That was why homosexuality was improper; it didn’t have anything to do with God, or morality, or any sort of foolishness like that. Lewis was basically an atheist anyway. No, to him being gay was wrong because it meant you weren’t willing, or able, to do your part for the human race, replacing yourself with progeny that would take over for you when you died. To be gay meant that you were willfully helping the human race die out.

Of course, there was a fundamental flaw with this way of thinking; all people weren’t gay. Only one in nine was, or at least that was a statistic he’d read, though maybe there were more who just wouldn’t admit to it. The point being, there were still far more heterosexuals out there, meaning the possibility of the human race dying out for that reason was virtually nil. He knew this too, of course, and it was another one of those things of which he was constantly reminding himself, but it didn’t change the way that he felt. Which then made him feel guiltier, for disliking his own kind, the content and the well adjusted…and on it went. The shame cycle.

All coming to a head at the time of Pride, because even if he didn’t actually attend the parade, or any of the parties, it was a big event, practically city wide, and it was difficult to avoid. This particular year, he had actually pretty much forgotten about it, what with his having a fairly busy schedule. His number of students fluctuated, and it was strange that there should have been a spike, he’d been thinking, during a recession, since music lessons were usually considered non-essential by parents. But New York was the playground of the over-privileged, and far be it from him to question the money when it was available. He was on the M, heading into Manhattan, and doing his usual routine of not making eye contact and being generally uncomfortable, when a posse of loud, brightly bedecked young men got into the car just a few feet away. There were six of them, all looking sort of like David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust, spandex, go-go boots, faces painted in silver streaks and swirls, showing a lot of skin, and every one of them gloriously thin, hairless, and perfect. They could have stepped right out of some fantasy of his, and he hated them from the moment he saw them. The oldest of them probably wasn’t more than twenty-two. At the age of thirty-seven, he, in gay years, was pretty much long dead already; he just hadn’t actually stopped breathing yet. They stood up in the middle of the car, twittering and preening like a flock of birds. The car was semi-crowded, a few seats available but none together, a variety of age groups and races represented, different social classes as well, by the variety and manner of dress. Lewis, in his constant state of paranoia, was always convinced that people were looking him over, if surreptitiously, but here was a situation where most of the eyes in the car actually were trained on the new arrivals, who collectively had all the glamour and pizzazz of a passing carnival float. Not that they were ashamed of the attention; far from it, it was obviously what they cultivated. They were loud and proud, a spectacle, loving the spotlight. Lewis couldn’t be surprised by the behavior; he just hadn’t expected it to be thrust into his face so abruptly, and noisily. This was a rare opportunity for sociological study. Trying not to be too obvious about it, he was able to look over the other riders and take in their reactions. In all probability, this would validate what he already knew American society felt toward the openly gay. It did, in some cases. A couple of workmen looking types, part of a construction crew, maybe, by their clothes, were eyeing the group with something between scorn and open hostility. These were the sort of guys you wouldn’t want to meet alone on a subway platform if you were a lone queen heading back to the outer boroughs late at night after a round of clubbing. They were likely to beat you down, though whether they would do so partially because of a secret attraction could only be speculated upon. The straightest acting of guys, Lewis well knew, were often the most closeted. There were some other passengers who seemed merely bemused by the new arrivals, smiling out of the corners of their mouths. It was the children in the car, a boy and girl, both looking to be about kindergarten age, who gawked openly but without malice, entranced by the spangles and glitter. It made Lewis happy and sad simultaneously, glad to see the childish wonder so much in evidence, but the pessimist in him cried out stubbornly that for these two it was only a matter of a couple of years before society began to teach them about prejudice.

* * * * *

Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3 of “Body Art.”

Steven Finkelstein is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY, and a graduate of the English Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. His work has been featured in a variety of different publications, both online and in print, most recently in the literary magazines Mouse Tales Press, 40 Ounce Bachelors, and The Stone Hobo. For more information, visit his website, www.stevenfinkelstein.com

“Body Art” is his first publication at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure. 

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  1. Dr Hurley’s Digest: Week 31 « Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure

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