[cw: sex, sexual violence, dysphoria]
Holy are the Fragments
By Elias Lowe
“Our desires are worthy and undeserving of the shame that threatens them.”
– anonymous friend
The street sounded loud with late March slush and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, newly released, vibrated from the living room below. I laid on my bed atop a mattress soaked with gross amounts of squirted cum I never bothered to clean. I sprang up with anxiety and desire at the sound of my phone. “You are such a great humab,” my lover texted me. I was so taken with my own self doubt that I scavenged the internet for a definition of humab, not able to see the word human behind the typo, fearful to expose some type of ignorance, some insufficient vocabulary. Eventually, I understood and laughed out loud. Such love for another can expose you to yourself.
In August I was in the shower of our new place where everything was brownish yellow. Overflowing toilets. Rotting wood. A decaying mouse in the cosmetics drawer. Eight of us, chipping away at the puritan values we were soaked with all our lives through making rash decisions and disgusting conditions that we tried to make feel right. Leaning against the shower’s tiles I stood fucking the lover who called me humab. Hungry for each other, we talked dirty as the ringing pipes drowned out our voices. My feet slid on the filthy bathtub as I shoved my hand deeper inside of them. They grabbed my hair, we moaned. Cum inside of me, they said. My heart sunk, my body jolted back, desire turned instantaneously into shameful rage. I got out of the shower and stood still, dripping puddles on the black and white squares on the floor.
I literally cannot cum inside you, I probably should have said. But I know I was silent and still. I wrapped myself in a towel. I walked across the hall to lie motionless in a bed for so many minutes as my lover tried to provoke me to speak. I’m sorry, they said. They had to go to class.
I sunk into hollow anxiety, landing well below the periphery of language or touch. The bed swallowed me and the empty space between my legs. Eventually, I suppose, I stood up.
Energy is held like a candle between any two bodies that share physical space. Tangible while fleeting. This is true always, but especially in 2020, an acute intimacy desert in time. I’m sharing hours with a partner across the world. What flavor does sharing have across such distance? I wonder if space and time can be narrowed down to live inside of each other. Isolation makes you cling to such thoughts.
I read something about a split atom having a scientifically tangible impact on its other half, even while one part of it is in a lab in Nebraska and the other half is in a lab in Wyoming, or some other equivalent distance. I identify with this split atom, because I am also missing some fundamental parts of myself. Because even when there is no pandemic, I feel a wide sense of incompletion and aloneness. Because long distance relationships make this quantum example of interconnectivity feel deeply, stupidly romantic.
So I turn in my lonely bed and imagine my lover’s skin. Is it possible that I’m having empathy pain for an atom in a lab? I can feel the coldness of the laboratory room. Everything is blue and white, a broken-hearted atom sits under a microscope, wondering what happened, how did it land under such a giant man’s freezing cold, blue, plasticy hands? I feel somewhere between overly sentimental and idiotic to be empathizing with a something so small in the face of endless human hurt and tragedy. But humour is often a gateway to knowledge and there should be no limit for empathy.
I’m an adult pulsing with the testosterone levels of a teenage boy, horny out of my mind during an epidemic of state-mandated, world-wide loneliness. I’m suddenly aware of the privilege of going through testosterone puberty with the conscientiousness of a twenty-four-year-old queer feminist. I navigate my changing body with compassion and tools. I almost feel pity, I almost feel the need to excuse the rapacious and disgusting proclivities of teenage boys’ sexualities that leave so many young people harmed. That left young me so harmed years ago.
As my desire expands, I have video sex but my predominant feeling is one of entrapment. Living behind and beneath my own sexuality, I grow to hate the second dimension. The enormity of my yearning reminds me I have a body, a fact I’ve ignored for so many years. I am here. I am here shooting testosterone into my leg and I feel desire rise inside of me like a storm. Yes, I have video sex but I’m mostly alone, undoing this knot of sexual repression that was tied so tight as a child, despite the magical properties of space-time and laptops.
Until I was a teenager, I habitually hid under the blankets during sex scenes in movies when I was in the presence of anyone else. My dad chuckled over the covers at my fear, my innocence, his uncomfortability. But I actually peaked through the holes to diligently watch the scenes — my prudence — a performance which I could never fully shake.
When I go to masturbate today, shame still sounds in my ears like an out of tune orchestra, and I wonder about other people’s sexual fantasies. I search for my own self-affirmation in the ubiquity of sadistic desires. I tell myself, like a mantra, it’s right, even healing to masturbate. If this sounds like a simple reproduction of third wave feminism, let me tell you: Allowing yourself to embody physical pleasure is distinct from thinking it should be allowed.
So I go to my bed, over and over, deciding it is good to masturbate. Even when my imaginary hand is tight around her neck as I cum into my palm.
“The Last American Valentine” is a book of love poems that follows me around my life. A boy originally handed them to me in middle school. Most poets and physicists alike would find them disgustingly sentimental. I don’t know why I find them so tenderly compelling. A few years later, I handed the book to another boy who seemed to love me very much. He had sunken eyes and a propensity to smoke himself into oblivion. For many teenage years, he watched with forbearance as I discovered my own sexuality, which didn’t include him, and my own capacity for love, which sometimes did. We had a relationship that was both desperately physical and sophisticated. Our relationship took place most often in his attic in Bloomfield, smoking cigarettes out the window with an exhaust fan and Bob Marley sounding in the background. We shared our writing and our nascent critiques of capitalism. I always told him his sober poems were better than his weed-induced writing, which he labeled in his journals as “automatic.” But he went on in his devotion to weed and to me, sending me letters in class, calling me Rose Cheeks, and underlining every poem in “The Last American Valentine” that made him think of me. When flipping through an old journal I still have of his, I gather disturbing memories of our lives, our young and urgent love. One page reads, Dear Book, I am not sure why I punched the mirror in the boys bathroom.
Next Valentine’s day, I’m already gay and he is alone. I give the same book to a girl who doesn’t comment on any page, but she feels safer to love anyway. The first poem of the book is titled “The Quiet World.” It imagines a dystopia, where the government allows people only to speak 62 words a day. In the poem, two long distance lovers try to refrain from speaking each day so they can save the words for each other on the phone. On days where one of the lovers’ words have run out, the other one repeats “I love you,” until there is none left to say.
Before I go back and read this poem, I remember the imagined world as only having 100 words left to be said between two lovers ever. I remember it as the dusk of language. I still can’t decide if this is romantic or idiotic, or why I’m still thinking about it today. I do want to know a love without language, with limited language. Or a relationship where the only words that exist are “I love you.” A love that is built with honest hands, beyond lips or speech. I don’t think I ever loved that boy with honest hands or honest speech, but I still occasionally fantasize about him sexually. Why am I always in my fathers old basement? We did not have excellent sex together, but I imagine there is some amount of psychological imprinting that happens with early sexual experiences. I take solace in this rationale at the very least. Today, he has plenty of nudes on the internet which I watch my friends lust after, feigning neutrality at his little cum-covered dick, the curve of his ass.
Beyond the fantastical world building of the introductory poem, I’m sure “The Last American Valentine” is full of other deceptions about love. I relate to the dramatism of the poems despite the lies, despite their incredulity.
It’s impossible to quantify the amount of lies that have been told in that book, in writing, in the world, and it is daunting to think about. The lies that have helped in the breaking apart of a love that at one point seemed as clean and unending as a snow covered field. Or the amount of lies that hold this world together, while tearing us apart from each other, tearing ourselves apart. It’s even impossible to quantify the amount of lies that I’ve told. Trying to list them would be an exercise of strength, of shame.
My own sexuality feels so contrived, so entwined with lies, with hiding under the covers of my own curiosity, that I am unsure if I could point to my own desires, even if they were spelled out for me in plain speech, or plain porn.
In elementary school I sent a mean email to someone named Paige Green. I told her to stop bullying my sister. I believe I called her a “bitch.” My sister and my mother confronted me about this and I denied it all the way to the end. This might have been the first lie I ever told. Disturbed by my capacity to hurt, lost in my own self deception, I cried and cried and cried in my mom’s lap. My 90 pound body was drowning in the hot-red shame on our deep red couch. Please believe me, I didn’t send this email. I pleaded to preserve my innocence.
On the other end of a lie there is either a confession or preservation of false innocence. But when I tell the truth in the face of moralistic hegemony, (in our perversion lies our liberation), when I am standing up against puritanism and speak words to desire, (I want to tie you up), I feel I have landed on the side of the ignominious, of the liars. I want to burn this world to the ground.
My good friend tells of a lie they created with their friends at recess as a child about being a member of the National Swing Association. On the playground one day, they wanted to convince their friends that they were a professional swinger. The best of the best. Each child wants to be special, adults too. This is one reason we lie. My friend got caught in this tale, but miraculously, when their playmates searched for the “National Swing Association” on Google, the association existed in full, matching even the minute details my friend gave. It’s a hilarious story. Sometimes our lies are conveniently true. But lies always say something about a need we are having at the time — to be recognized as a swinging champion, to be recognized at all.
Perversities are defined by (lack of) proximity to heteronormativity, which I abandoned so long ago. Yet sometimes it feels like I can’t stop imitating it, that I have no reference point for the liberatory otherness that is supposed to come with my queerness. I’ve searched to be recognized as a masculinity champion, to be recognized at all. Is this why my desires still feel like an apology, cloaked in indignity? My dripping wet hands, cold like a bird’s beak?
When I’m a child and on the way to Kalamazoo, Michigan to visit my grandmother, I listen to Wilco on my iPod. The brown plains, repetitious cornfields and smells of manure are all bleak. Yet they match the essence of Wilco’s song. I sit at 70mph in the midwest, I sit moving in my nascent sexuality. As the highway drones on, I’m startled to see my sister masturbating under a blanket in the backseat. I am horrified and embarrassed by such witnessing. It is the first of numerous times I will suspect that someone is covertly masturbating before me. It becomes a fear and an obsession. I look back out the window, I count the Billboards reading “Concerned? Jesus can be trusted.” This memory feels very American — plainly sad while also precise, and palpably harmed. All my lies are always wishes, Jeff Tweedy’s voice drones on. I know I would die if I could come back new.
Hilton Als, born 1960, writes of his sexual relationship with Owen Dodson, born in 1914, with surprising tenderness. Reading the analysis and account of this relationship opens up sexual space inside of my own body, akin to desire, akin to nostalgia. I am wanting to be Hilton, to be Owen, to be one of their lovers. I am wanting the body of my friend who lies next to me in the January sun to get on top of mine, to enter my parted lips. I am wanting my mouth to be as disgusting as Owen’s after he vomited before receiving Hilton’s 15 year old tongue.
Why is Als’ account so evocative, why does it give me such pause? It is freeing to hear of love where you only expect to hear of pain. A metaphysical crucifix — two seemingly contrary feelings coming together at a single point. Maybe all of these words are adding up to something which can be stated in brevity: I’m into kinky sex?
But since it is freeing and frightening to hear love where you only expect to hear pain, “kink” grabs me by my emotional and ethical reflexes. I’m getting at that expansive desire that comes with someone overpowering you. The queerness of Hilton, a large 15 year old boy fucking a smelly, crusty old man. I do not know where consent belongs in this conversation, but I know that I have been orbiting around definitions of consent all my life, and Als orbits around it in his writing. Where is consent’s place in the practice of untethering our desires? I want to know. “In what sense, under what conditions, can we say that a body knows what it wants?” (Nelson).
Als identifies himself to Owen as, “someone whose sole physical purpose is to enter their body of acceptance again and again, becoming the spine that encloses closeness and encases intimacy.” While I’m bathing in the eroticism of that forbidden relationship, guilt still rains down all around me. This guilt is my own and it is also not. This guilt is sometimes necessary, but most often it is the snowball which leads to an avalanche of harm.
Testosterone makes my desire fly wide and now neither kinky nor gendered fantasies make me choke with their painful allure, but I sometimes still fear I’m falling short of the thing my partner wants. I don’t retreat at cum inside me, or, fuck me, such obvious fiction turned metaphysical fact even when it’s only my clothed thigh rubbing between her legs. These words don’t hurt like the wound that traces the space where my intangible cock is. I am imitating masculinity, I am pretending to be a boy, I promise I am not pretending. All my lies are always wishes.
I stop looking for answers to the hardest questions when the questions become a body, coming undone in the exercise of acting upon mutual desire. I feel shame rising out of the window like a ghost. Today I penetrated my partner with a realistic strap-on dick. She moaned, head to one side, hands motionless above. I pushed harder. She said fuck me and my body went on. I did not lie motionless, devastated and still. I know we were imitating something, but maybe that something doesn’t mean anything at all. There was no lie. I moved on with the rhythm of lust. Approximating freedom, my body felt enough.
Elias Lowe (they/them) is a transgender non-fiction writer, poet and committed friend based in Pittsburgh, PA. They are currently unemployed and trying to make meaning out of daily joys and tiny rebellions. Elias spends their time exploring what it means to be surviving through intentional community building and creative writing. Elias’ work has been featured in various literary magazines including Cosmonauts Avenue, Litro Magazine, After the Pause and Oyster River Pages. They just published an essay in a compilation book titled “There is Nothing so Whole as a Broken Heart,” released with AK Press.