by T Fleischmann
excerpt from Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through
Despite “experimenting” with friends a lot when I was in junior high, I was a latecomer to hookup culture. Partly, because I’d always gone for the aberrant and off-tune, people with odd relations to their gender or whatever, so the older straight guys I could have blown when I was a small-town teenage twink didn’t interest me, but the weirdo faggots (and sometimes dykes!) in New York years later did. This was also a shield from a lot of violence, that I never went for straight guys, although it took me a long time to understand that distinction and its ramifications. More than that, though, I stopped myself for years from actually hooking up with anyone because, from the start of puberty, I had been overcome with active, violent acne. It made a bloody mess of me, pus everywhere, and I was so deeply ashamed of my body that I would never have considered taking my clothing off in front of someone until I was in my early twenties, when finally my chest and back were not, in my mind, impossible to look at. I did really find it impossible to look at myself, although also I could not stop looking at myself. I’d hold hot cloths to my chest and pluck the irritated stubble out of my face, sometimes for a solid, painful hour without break. Any pressure to my skin hurt, and I could erupt again in pus from leaning on a chair or bending too quickly. More than once I could not see out of an eye, swollen shut. When hair started growing on my chest and back it became even more a nightmare, bristle and grease, ingrown. I was miserable about it. All of this would be for long stretches of time all that I could think about, my face in particular, and everything I had decided I couldn’t do because of how I looked. I’m hideous and I’m gay, I would think to myself, I’m hideous and I’m gay. In high school, especially, the harassment, for everything—it became the encompassing framework I had for my body. So it was impossible to see myself, not because of what I was looking at, but rather because I couldn’t get beyond what everyone else was looking at. I formed routines to try to keep this horror at bay. Because of the grease, I had to wash my face every few hours or I would feel myself breaking out even more, but at the same time, from the moment I left my hometown, I refused to let any person see me without makeup, and so I was always needing a private sink, to wash myself and paint myself again. For sex, this meant I could quick-and-dirty go down on someone, and sometimes a person might go down on me. But I couldn’t bring myself to kiss for more than a couple of seconds (and that only if I was having a rare clear moment around my lips), or else someone might pull me close with their arms around me, or touch my cheek, which would be unbearable. I was too embarrassed to fuck and ask if I could keep my shirt on, but I could not take my shirt off, and sometimes I would have to say this—that I would like to keep my shirt on—because I had caved to my own desires and gone home from the bar with someone. Saying this was humiliating, and it meant I blew people, but almost never more than once, or maybe twice. I would make rules for myself: that I could fool around until someone tried to remove my shirt or reach up under it. A person I dated for a while—this charming activist with a catsuit like the lady in Tomb Raider wore and who would transition genders later—once opened up my trust enough to get me in a shower with them, but I only froze once there. After a horribly long moment they drew me a heart in the steam on the shower wall and I stepped out and wrapped a towel around myself, and I remember what that towel felt like. In my early twenties the acne quieted on my body, and my face calmed down slowly, and then I became actually slutty. Like how I had started wearing makeup when the acne came fully on, exactly as the acne began clearing is when I started slutting my way to the top of the slut class, this new me confident enough to put on a black slip and head to the Eagle for a beer bust. No surprise, then, that it was not until I started to take testosterone blockers that the acne actually stopped—although the hormones would also eventually mean good-bye to the hookup culture of anonymous gay men, to the bears and twinks of my youth. It had been testosterone, of course, that had been the problem all along. The doctors had tried all sorts of things, keeping me on harsh antibiotics for years, which wreaked havoc on my body’s ecology and permanently damage-dried my skin. The heaves in my digestion and my horrible sensitivity to light are from those antibiotics, with their long, long lists of side effects. I am reminded of this history, the same pain intensifying every time I take antibiotics for chlamydia or strep or whatever. But of course no one would have thought to tell me any of that, about the testosterone in my body being the problem. This country finds so many ways to poison people. Instead, I just needed someone to look at me and say, Would you like all of this to go away? Here is a pill to make all of these horrible things stop. And then I would have had a body that I could see and I would have loved that. I would have had a delightful time with other twinks, naked and happy and figuring ourselves out, with my clear skin and my shriveled cock, not stressed about it at all.
T Fleischmann is the author of Time Is the Thing A Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press) and Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande Books). Other recent work appears in the On Civil Disobedience series from Sector 2337 and Green Lantern Press and the anthologies Little Boxes (Coffee House) and Feminisms in Motion (AK Press). A nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and contributing editor at EssayDaily, they live in Chicago.