When I was little, my mother told me that inside everyone, at the absolute center of us, there is a tiny golden kernel, our essence distilled down to something pure, elemental, something very close to a soul. She told me that radiating from this small kernel are thousands of vaporous strings, impossibly thin, like the rippling pink licks that float inside a plasma globe. And those strings hold us all intact like a magic anchor, tied with miniscule square knots to our organs, our bones, our skin, which pull our bodies back toward that absolute center, toward that precious kernel, like our own unique gravity.
I used to stand in the middle of my bedroom, arms splayed out, looking at my naked body in the mirror, wearing the cheap X-ray glasses mail-ordered out of the back of a comic book, trying to see through my flesh, trying to locate that shining golden center. I would squeeze my eyes closed and open them quickly, as if to sneak up on the real me. I would curl into a ball under the sheets, the bedroom dark, the curtains closed and the lamp turned off, expecting the light from that kernel to shine out from my insides, a flickering orange glow, like a far away candle. But as I got older, passing involuntarily through the summers as a horny, lanky teenager somehow those pink strings began to stretch and break. Imagine your body growing larger, inflated, ballooning out—imagine time as physical distance—your edges moving ever further away from the core that holds you together.
It never occurred to me that I could make money doing what I did. Sleeping with men wasn’t a pastime, it wasn’t a hobby. It was who I was. Or it was the way I figured out who I was. Sex was how I learned to read myself. It was where I learned to disappear into the other side of the known world, sink into that flat place. It allowed me access to my hidden self, that unknown person that comes scratching its way to the surface, unexpectedly. It unlocks a space, a landscape, a perpetual wind.
The first time I got paid for sex, it was an accident. I had picked someone up, or maybe he had picked me up—however that mutual glancing is decided. He was rich (so he said) and happily married (so he also said), and he poised his pen over his checkbook after I had finished. “One hundred dollars” he mumbled, as if he were speaking to nobody in particular—and at the time, I didn’t know what kind of money I was worth. I was still breathing hard, my temples moist with sweat. He wrote it out, tearing along the perforated line, a clean, satisfying sound. And I took it, foolishly I know now—who takes checks? But he stuck a twenty in my pocket and asked if I’d come back in two weeks.
So for almost a year there were one or two appointments a month. One time we fucked on the sofa, and I accidentally knocked a lamp off the end table. I didn’t stop—he loved it—and he said he’d blame it on the maid.
I got better at it. People traded my number around.
Men called with hushed voices, confused when one of my parents answered the phone, and I became weary and anxious—afraid of being caught, I suppose—each time it rang. There were so many hang-ups that they considered removing the line entirely. But more than anything else, more than the phone calls, the wads of cash laying suspiciously around my bedroom, my coming and going at all hours, what really became the central issue—or, I know now, what had always been the central issue—were the growing differences in what we wanted from the world. It was the surfacing of a fundamental alienation which had been there all along—the reality of our lives suddenly made visible.
“Why don’t you want what we want?” my mother actually asked.
My parents were full of disappointments. In me, of course, but in their own lives, too. And my desire for something more meaningful (at least meaningful to me) in this life than fifty-minute church services and potluck dinners with chitchatting strangers was somehow taken personally.
We tried to ‘make it easier on everyone.’ Their words, not mine. We had gone through the usual steps. First, a promise to be where I said I would be (never mind that they didn’t really want to know where I was, and so I lied to save them from it) and to be home at ‘a reasonable hour,’ though it was unclear what exactly that meant. Second, my own separate, side entrance to the house, that sort of controlled freedom. They were slowly kicking me out, pointing out along the way that ‘you’re only doing this to yourself.’
They stopped speaking to me unless it was absolutely necessary, preferring instead small notes stuck to the kitchen counter, as if left from hotel housekeeping. Even the notes were stilted and shallow, cryptic, as if language was strange to them, as if they simply lacked the words. “Your father has gone for a few days.” (Gone to where, I thought.) “Turn off the pot roast when you wake up.” And sometimes, as if it were her punishment: “We love you.”
All my mother wanted was for me to be happy—whatever that means—and all my father wanted was to think about his queer son as little as possible.
All I ever wanted was someone who would stay.
I bought a train ticket to New York City, and the trip felt like a new beginning—the inauguration of an altered, unaccustomed life. I wondered what the other people on the train were trying to get away from. Because that’s what trains were to me then—escape—and that’s how everything looked, speeding across the land. Nameless places, small Virginia and North Carolina towns that exist for what purpose? As we got closer, people got more excited. Even at three and four in the morning, reading lamps were on, people were whispering to each other, quietly laughing.
That memory is very clear to me, those moments locked inside the train with strangers. My head seems to document those anonymous moments in more detail, in an easily retrievable, up-front kind of way. Like now when I’m at work at the hospital, all alone in the filing room, combing through the private records of hurt people, the incessant flood of sickness. The vastly democratic reality of the body—how it fails, and how we heal it. And so many private moments in the company of men who want, among other things, to get off.
When I arrived in New York it was just past dawn, a quiet Sunday morning. I grabbed my bags and climbed up the stairs stained with the decades of city muck, emerging. There was a specific quiet, an uncomplicated city-sound. And I was alive, nauseous with sleep deprivation but buzzing with presentness, newness. Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough to up at that hour, that early Sunday sunrise, you get to see everything frozen in a loose opaque haze, like everything is coated in a lustrous numbing powder. The buildings here are huge, leaping out of the ground. Billboards as tall as buildings. Radio towers on top of buildings. Everything wants to rocket-launch itself into the sky. Escape the concrete. Fire off, soar away.
I asked around, found out where people like me hung out. Which bars, which corners, where we could stand without being chased off. There are plenty of places. Of course, I never need to do that now, I’m busy enough with repeats. In fact, there are the messages I got today—three calls from people who want to get fucked—potentially six-hundred easy dollars (assuming I can get hard enough to fuck three people in one afternoon.)
Can you pinpoint when this sort of thing happens? Can you pry through the layers of skin and blood, isolating that precious golden kernel, protect it, save it, let it glow brilliantly inside you? Can you press your finger on a moment, holding it down, and say: Here. This is where it all changed?
I still hear my mother asking that question, not in my dreams exactly, and maybe it even comes from inside me: “Why don’t you want what we want?” I think she thought I might have the answer.