The ﬁrst time I saw him, I felt like little birds were pecking at my scalp. My feet started to sweat. My tear ducts jiggled a bit.
And as he looked at me, just stared without saying anything, I became acutely aware of what I must look like to someone like him. The ears that seem more inclined to hang-gliding than hearing. The whole ET head-neck problem. The glasses, oh, the glasses. The chest that wasn’t. The legs that no skinny jeans could redeem. And those ridiculous feet, miles and miles of them, unfurling in boat-sized Converse.
In my experience, it’s rare for people like me to come into contact with people like him, and this was probably for the best, given the foot-sweating and the bird-pecking. Sure, I’d seen people like him in movies and on television, but I’d never really been up close to this kind of beauty—the kind that changes the air in the room, that seems to make things vibrate. I ﬁrst noticed his eyes, an unreal sky blue. I could have sworn I heard some sort of offstage ping as one of them sparkled like in a cartoon. His lips looked painted, but they weren’t, adding a feminine touch to a face that was all twentysomething Hollywood homage—Efron, that middle Jonas, the Twilight boys, with some Bette Midler thrown in as an aesthetic complication. He was wearing a low-cut T-shirt, and I immediately wanted to put my tongue in the hollow of his neck—if I were the type of person who would do a thing like that, which I wasn’t. But still.
His name was Julian, Julian Evans, and he had answered an ad I’d placed seeking a roommate. I was twenty-seven at the time, working on a PhD in American Studies at Emory, and budget cuts had cost me my funding, which meant I was no longer able to swing full rent on my two-bedroom apartment. I’d placed an ad in the local alternative weekly, ﬁguring I’d get either a post-college slacker or a grad student nerd, neither of which would threaten the rhythms of my quiet academic life. Instead, I got Julian, whose email said that he owned his own business. What kind of twenty-one year old owns his own business? I wondered. But not for long.
“I’m what they call an escort,” he said in our ﬁrst getting-to-know-you chat. We were sitting on the couch, and I was trying to pay attention to what he was saying. I found this difﬁcult because of the way his knee poked through a rip in his jeans. Once I got ﬁnished with the knee, I was going to start thinking about his ankle bone, which protruded adorably above some sort of hipper-than-thou sneaker. I must have muttered something in response, because he kept talking.
“Yeah,” he said. “Basically, guys call me up and we pretend that we’re gonna go to the movies or something, but mostly we go right to the fucking. As near as I can tell, escort’s just a fancy word for hooker. It’s a pretty good gig, though. The money’s decent and I get to sleep late.”
This was enough to wake me from my knee reverie.
“What kind of guys hire you?” I asked, trying to sound like I talked to male prostitutes all the time, that this was a typical Tuesday night for a grad student.
“It’s mostly sad married guys,” he said. “They all say they’ve never done anything like this before, that they’re just curious, but you can tell that’s bullshit once they get started in on the peen. These are not ﬁrst-timers, if you know what I’m sayin’.”
“The peen?” I asked.
“Yeah, the peen. Dick. Cock. I’ve got a beaut. I call it Walter.”
“You’ve named your, um, your, um…” I asked, pointing in the vicinity of his ‘um’. If I had tried to say cock, I would have passed out.
“Yep,” he said, “after my Uncle Walter. He’s a big, tall guy, with a big head and wide hips. Seen from the right angle, there’s deﬁnitely a resemblance.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “Your uncle must be very proud.”
“Anyway, most of these guys are pretty gross, but I’m hoping to break into the next level, where it’s mostly gay businessmen who need some eye candy for their charity dinners. The money’s better and so is the food, and I imagine they smell nicer than some of this current crowd. Kinda stinky, if you wanna know the truth. You don’t have to worry, though. I never bring guys home. Anyway, what’s your deal? You’re a ’mo, right?”
“Mo?” I asked, hoping he had some sort of kinky Three Stooges roleplaying in mind.
“Yeah, ’mo. As in homo. You’re gay, right?”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“Well, ﬁrst of all, duh. And second, your neck and face lit up like Christmas when I started talking about Walter.”
“Well, a lot of people would have been somewhat discomﬁted by the Walter talk,” I said, “but yes, I’m gay. I came out three years ago when I started grad school. I made a pretty big production of it. Wore the shirts and the buttons and went to all the meetings. I even marched in a parade or two. Otherwise, not much has changed. I wasn’t having sex then, and I’m not having sex now. My dissertation is actually gayer than I am. I’m writing about same-sex eroticism in the movies of Judd Apatow. I’m currently working on a chapter about the fetishism of male genitalia in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Julian looked at me like I was from another planet, where people kept their shirts buttoned up to the top and didn’t have names for their penises. He wasn’t wrong.
“Dude,” he said, “you really need to get laid.”
He wasn’t wrong about that either, but he didn’t seem inclined to offer a solution to my problem. I guess he was trying not to bring his work home with him. So considerate.
We spent the next few weeks falling into a pretty comfortable roommate rhythm. The ‘we’ being me, Julian and Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was Julian’s cat. His previously unannounced cat. He was a tabby with bad teeth and he loved to lie belly-up in the circle of sunlight that landed on the kitchen counter each morning. Apparently, Julian’s mom had named him, following a family tradition that required naming animals after presidents. Abraham Lincoln had been preceded by Grover Cleveland, who had been eaten by a possum, and George Washington Pussycat, a randy beast they called ‘The Father of our Neighborhood’. Of course, I was allergic, so I complained a bit about Abraham Lincoln, but I actually liked having him around. Seeing him in his spot of sun, legs up in the air, made me think of Julian, who I didn’t actually see that much of.
He was out just about every night, and I was usually asleep by the time he came home. He didn’t wake up until around noon, leaving my mornings free and quiet to think about the ways in which Judd Apatow seems more obsessed with penises than vaginas, which, I was trying to argue, reveals that at the root of every heterosexual narrative lies an unspoken but bursting-at-the-seams same-sex eroticism. I liked thinking about these things, but the writing wasn’t going well.
Everything I put on paper was so tired, so obvious, so ultimately pointless. Who cared, really? Newsﬂash—straight guys think about dick, too. Big surprise. But my proposal had already been approved, and I owed my advisor a chapter before the fall semester started. It was already July, so I kept pretending to write it. I’d sit dutifully at the computer, cursor ﬂashing, but then lose myself and the morning reading Entertainment Weekly online recaps of The Housewives of New Jersey and trying to get Abraham Lincoln to chase a rubber mouse.
This was the problem with American Studies, but it was also the lure. I got to ponder the dense patterns and structures of pop culture and not feel like I was wasting time. In college, I had been an English major and pretty sure I would pursue a PhD in literature, but at some point during my senior year, it had dawned on me that I didn’t really like literature that much. Paying so much attention to novels that no one ever read anymore felt masturbatory, and not in a good way. As I struggled to write my senior thesis, ‘The Chimney in the Lesser Novels of Thomas Hardy’, I procrastinated by watching hours of reality television, which seemed much more urgent, more full of meaning to me than Hardy and his chimneys. What did the sixth-season removal of Project Runway to Los Angeles tell us about Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis? What role did the raced bodies of Randy and Paula play in the consolidation of Ryan and Simon’s homosociality? Here, I thought, was true signiﬁcance, as a nation of millions huddled around collective, ongoing narratives, which got invented and reinvented for each new moment and each new need.
So, when I received a brochure from the graduate program in American Studies at Emory, with its lurid list of courses devoted to deconstructing the contemporary American psyche, I was sold. It went well in the early years. I loved my coursework, delighting in the opportunity to apply neo-neo-Marxist logics to the reality TV spectacle of New Jersey. What fun.
And yet here I was, with Apatow and his weewees and peepees, and I wondered if maybe the bloom was off the rose. Was all of this just too ridiculous to be taken seriously?
Of course, it didn’t help that I was becoming more interested in Julian than ﬁlm, more invested in his stories than in Apatow’s.
Julian would usually emerge from his room when he caught a whiff of the bacon I was microwaving for my then-favorite sandwich—turkey, brie, bacon and honey mustard on toasted Italian. I tend to ride a sandwich until I can’t stand the thought of it, and this was a good one, likely to last me another couple of months at least. Julian would shufﬂe into the kitchen, eyes cloudy with sleep, hair a mess, wearing pajama bottoms with little penguins on them and no shirt. He’d drink his coffee while I ate my lunch, though eating lunch while sporting an erection is harder than you’d think. It’s a crisis of dual and conﬂicting aims.
I looked forward to these moments, in part because of his nipples, but mostly because he’d tell me about his previous night’s work. The kid had no shame and would happily recount, in great detail, the men he’d met and the acts they’d asked him to perform. He made up names for them to keep them straight in the telling. There was Pig in the Blanket, Moley, The Great Assless Wonder—Assless for short—Johnny No Grip, Winnie the Pooh, Beer Can, This Al-Gore-Lookin’ Motherfucker—Al Gore for short—Toe Bitch, and my favorite, Big Gassy Baby, a two-hundred-ﬁfty-pound man who dressed up like a doll and paid Julian to burp him.
His on-the-job experiences made my own desires seem quaint by comparison. I simply wanted to cuddle with him and watch home improvement shows. Maybe later we’d have time for other stuff, but for now I just wanted to rescue him from his world of complicated peens and big gassy babies. I wanted to give him a space free of desire, even as my own desire was at full tilt.
Because while he told his stories with a kind of smirky pride, making himself the whimsical hero in a postmodern sex farce, I had the sense his pride was mostly bluster, mostly show. His left hand gave him away. I didn’t notice it the ﬁrst few times we hung out, and I’m not even sure he was aware of it, but when narrating his series of perversions for hire, his left hand was in constant motion, each ﬁnger touching his thumb in rapid and ongoing succession, and then his thumb touching the palm of his hand. He was counting his ﬁngers with his ﬁngers, over and over again. One two three four five. One two three four five. One two three four five. If it was a relief to discover that, yes, they were all in their proper positions, it wasn’t enough of a relief to keep him from starting over. The counting continued even when his stories ground to a halt, as they inevitably did. He’d just sit quietly staring at the Formica tabletop, counting his ﬁngers. Those ﬁngers made me realize I loved him. Not his eyes, or the perfect planes of his face. Not the way his bare shoulders caught the light from the kitchen window. Neither knee nor ankle bone. Not even Walter, or the hope of Walter. No, it was his ﬁngers, desperately counting, searching for calm in a world that must have seemed anything but.
Then came a period when the stories stopped. I’d sit down with my sandwich, eager for that day’s dose of nipples and debauchery, and nothing. Well, I still had the nipples, but no tales of the sick and twisted. No Al Gore. No Big Gassy Baby. Just Julian, quieter than usual, deﬂecting attention away from his nighttime adventures by asking me questions about myself. I was happy to oblige. Anything to keep him looking at me, anything for the occasional eye contact.
When he did start talking again, a few days later, things were different. No more invented names, just someone called Paul.
“Paul?” I asked. “Not Stubby or Droolie or Crack Whore?”
“Yep, Paul,” he said. “Just Paul.”
“What makes him so special?” I asked, more than a little jealous.
“Nothing, really,” he said. “He’s just different. He’s older than the other guys and less grabby.”
“He’s paying you to talk?” I asked, wondering if this meant I had been on the clock all this time.
“He’s not paying me anything yet,” he said.
I could tell he didn’t really want to talk about this. He used to love nothing more than piling detail on detail—mouths and asses and penises and warts and scars and unfortunate danglers. But he was tightlipped about this Paul guy. Wouldn’t give him up. So, I let it go.
A few days later, Julian told me he was going out of town, but he wouldn’t tell me where, or who with.
And about a week after that, all hell broke loose. I was reading on the couch, with the local evening news on mute, when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Julian was on television. It was a video of him at the airport with some older guy who looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. The crawl at the bottom of the screen said, Anti-Gay Preacher Caught with Male Prostitute.
That was how it all started.