Songs For And Against Sex - Into More Essay
This was a hard piece to write because of its personal nature but I'm so glad I finally got it out there. Growing up queer in the south wasn't easy and there wasn't a path to follow. Hope this work resonates with some folks.
Songs For And Against Sex
I remember being in my mom’s car driving in my hometown, Round Rock, Texas, when I told her I liked boys. We were going to Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble or Target, someplace that you go in the suburbs that sort of feels like an event. When I told my mother I was gay she said something to the effect of “As long as you don’t do a lot of drugs or kill anybody I’ll be happy, Mike.” She then followed it up with “and try to make a lot of money so you can take care of me when I get older.” And that was sort of the end of it. It was something of a non-event. A little anticlimactic even.
I didn’t tell my father about my sexuality for another 10 years. When I finally did, it was over the phone while standing outside a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show on October 9th, 2012, six days before my 26th birthday. He could barely hear me and I had to keep screaming “I’m gay” over and over as the band played “Mladic.” It was dramatic.
While coming out to my mother was easy enough, I was dead set on making everything else about being gay a problem. Or I guess I was set up to struggle with it. I was always depressed. I had no map or guidelines. I had no destination. I had nothing but an unyielding lust for boys and men and nowhere constructive to put it. Central Texas, for all its hippie free love leanings, had a serious lack of queerness. Or at least nothing that was accessible to a teen in the suburbs. So, I began to talk to men in AOL chat rooms.
This was in the early dial-up internet days when everyone on the chats were identified by a screen name and nothing else. Maybe a little icon next to the name and some numbers to differentiate themselves from all the other people named Daddy4Frends. I didn’t really care who I was talking to in these M4M chat rooms. All that mattered was that I had somewhere to be where someone understood at least the bare minimum of what I was experiencing. I remember rushing home from school at 4PM everyday to get on the chats like a kid running downstairs on Christmas morning. The scramble of digital gasps and trills as the modem connected was Pavlovian. I could talk to these anonymous people in a way that felt so different from my peers in school. I was honest and bare except, you know, for how I lied about my age and often used photos I found on porn sites as my own. I was actively seeking men. I was being duplicitous. I was lying. I was a catfish? I was catfishing? I was trying my hardest to get taken advantage of. Right? That’s how I have agency here. I was part of the process. Tell me that I was asking for it. I know I was asking for something.
I met a guy. Well, honestly, I met several guys but I want to talk about one. The 24-year-old guy who was kind to me. He’s 40 now. I was 16 then. Let’s say he’s Russell. Russell knew about art and movies and was from the East Coast. We talked for a few weeks before meeting. I had met other men this way. I never slept with them but I would let them touch my body. Give me head. Tell me I was beautiful. I would teeter on the edge of more but always retreat away from it. It was an edge after all.
I didn’t have penetrative sex until I was 22. Russell wasn’t really interested in my dick or body after all. It sounds cliche but I knew that he was interested in my mind. He liked me. Me. I remember the day Russell gave me a mix CD titled “Foulk Music” (a play on my last name) with album art that he drew. It’s a long mix so you know it really meant something. 16 songs. This CD was my first introduction to so much of the sad boy mysticism that would come to define my adolescence and early 20s. I felt so lucky to have someone in my life showing me what was cool. The first song on the mix that Russell gave me was “Song Against Sex” from Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island. Considering our complicated relationship it was telling.
“And when I put my arms around him
I felt the blushing blood run through my cheeks
And an eeriness surrounded when his tongue began to speak
And he said…Oh boy you are so pretty”
Generally, when I look back at our relationship I think of him and the time fondly. I use words like “formative.” I say “I learned a lot.” That period of my life was full of beautiful things and I don’t want to lose them in my confusion. I think of the smell of cigarettes and the coffee from Star Seeds Diner on the IH-35 access road. I think of the slick feel of playing cards and paying for food with change that I dumped out of a jar on my mattress. I think of my first car and the weeks when I drove it without a backseat but with my friends piled in anyway. I think of how proud I was to have a manual transmission. I would spend my nights talking over stale coffee with a man eight years older than me and then return home to a bunk bed. One night, my friend Jill and I dismantled my bed. It was time for me to sleep on a mattress on the floor, like I saw men do. Bed frames were for kids.
That period of my life was full of beautiful things and I don’t want to lose them in my confusion.
When I was 16, I also tried to kill myself. Not because of my relationship with Russell, but because I didn’t feel connected to the world around me. It was like my glasses were perpetually smudged. I couldn’t find any clarity. One night I took a large bottle of ibuprofen into my bathroom and tried to swallow as much of it as I could. After about ¼ of the bottle I just vomited and sobbed into the toilet. Let’s say that was 22 pills. Maybe I weighed 130 pounds. For the treatment of mild to moderate pain, 200 mg to 400 mg of ibuprofen will work. Generally taken every six to eight hours, the maximum dose of Ibuprofen is 2400 mg per day which is 12 over-the-counter tablets. 4800 mg is about how much I managed to get down before my body rejected my actions. A bunch of silly numbers and what they don’t add up to.
I don’t really blame Russell for anything other then my taste in music. When the relationship ended, I was messy. I called and texted a lot. I think he had realized that it was all unhealthy. I think I realized I had let many of my other personal relationships atrophy. I listened to jangly songs about heartbreak and ghosts and otiosely tried to understand what I felt. The sheer weight of my loneliness was staggering and I found myself stuck on how “when I finally kissed him the whole world began to ring” and I knew that if I hadn’t met Russell I could’ve died waiting for someone to “sink into that secret place where no one dares to go.”
When I talk about this experience to other people I see the sympathy in their eyes. They think I was taken advantage of, successfully. I guess I know that intellectually. A 24-year-old man shouldn’t have an emotionally and physically intimate relationship with a 16-year-old. That’s not in question. Or I guess it is.
I still don’t know how I feel about it. I think this relationship saved my life. I think it made me confused in other ways. I’m compelled to defend this relationship when people talk about films like Call Me By Your Name. I feel like I have to explain how nuanced the experience can be. I don’t want to feel like a victim. I say, “I mean it’s not like anyone was really hurt.” It was 16 years ago and it only lasted maybe eight months in 2002. It’s 2018 now and there’s a movie that came out that everyone thinks I should love and honestly I just think it seems cartoonish. It’s a story. A story that a straight man wrote about a young boy lazily falling in love with an older man while lounging around Italy with his wealthy family. I suppose it must be relatable to someone.
After things ended with Russell, I continued to meet up with men from the internet. Eventually one day I hit a wall with the whole thing. I was in a man’s car driving somewhere. I can’t tell you what he looked like or where we were going because I honestly don’t remember. I can’t remember. All I do remember is getting scared. The area we were driving in wasn’t busy enough. Something about him didn’t seem safe enough. I remember thinking this man could kill me if he wanted to. I don’t know why that thought had never occurred to me before. I remember starting to cry. I remember saying take me home. And I just kept saying take me home. And then surprisingly, I suppose, he did. After that day, I decided that I couldn’t possibly be gay and invested myself fully in church. Tried to pray the gay away for four years. Needless to say it didn’t work. That’s an entirely different exhausting story about men and my bumbling affection for the wrong ones.
I met up with Russell again on June 29th, 2012. I was 25 and it was the summer before I came out to my dad over the phone. We met up for a beer while I was visiting New York for the Del Close Comedy Festival. I was performing with my comedy troupe Spirit Desire, a reference to a Sonic Youth song that Russell probably showed me all those years ago. I took some time away from my friends to go see a Codeine reunion show with Russell. We joked that I was around the same age he was when we met. And then we got quiet.
It was surprising how easily we could fall back into a rapport. I had kept in touch with Russell sporadically all of these years because it felt normal, I suppose. We had talked about the weirdness of our relationship. We had dealt with it. I will always be conflicted as to what it was worth and the damage it might have done but I still cared about our time together. There was something beautiful in it. I don’t know if my relationship with Russell saved my life or if it fucked me up.
I guess what I’m saying is this was why I didn’t “get” Call Me By Your Name. I guess what I’m saying is this is why I “get” Neutral Milk Hotel and the way their music is redolent of my adolescence. I guess what I’m saying is that right now it’s 2018 and I’m 32 years old, and with the world on fire I find myself returning to this relationship, and remembering how it felt to suddenly feel real and seen. And now I find myself whispering “for now we are young, let us lay in the sun, and count every beautiful thing we can see.”