There, in the bright, half-empty sports bar, Jack decided that this would be the year he loved men. Not just fucked men, as he often had after a drink or two at Diesel or Pony or The Door or The Unicorn or The Eagle or The Cuff or Neighbours or even The Timbre Room, when it wasn't infested with queerdo hipster types. These were the gay bars in which you flirted and flirted till the grounds for fucking were laid, unless of course you could get away with fucking right then and there in the bathroom, which Jack had never pulled off, even in the Pony bathroom with all the glory holes. But he'd go to apartments. Studios the size of broom closets or lavish corner units with a view of the Seattle skyline. After some routine mouthing, he'd take off his pants and get on his knees, turn to face the dead fern or the cracked drywall or the faraway glint of the Space Needle. The smoothest nights were when it all went so fast the guy didn't even notice Jack was trans, just plowed into his ass until he was done, then fell mindlessly back into bed like a gob of butter slipping off the knife.
Soon he’d be a veteran, avid fucker of men, Jack thought. But he had never been gripped by love for a man. Jack's mind was a ferrety thing, drilling and digging and nibbling away; he'd spent six years debating the pros and cons of transition before he took the plunge, interviewed friends and strangers of all genders, tried to Socratic-method it out. He fell in love with two cis women this way, and seven or more trans people. But the cis men he'd talked to spoke too little or spoke too much or spoke over, over, over. Was bad conversation the point? It seemed an entirely separate skillset, to romance and be romanced by men, one Jack had not felt prompted to consider until transition. He assumed, too, that amongst gay men in Seattle, love was rarely an option. They all worked in tech, keen on climbing the corporate ladder so they could plant a rainbow flag at the top, and that kind of fag doesn’t want love. That kind of fag wants a maid.
It was 6pm, and Jack’s first time at Howard’s. The historic sports bar catered to an older, quieter crowd. He was one of three men sitting at the bar. Two more played pool in the back, another sat on a stool near the dartboard. It was early, Jack knew that. But maybe early was better. No black light or fog machines. A late afternoon drink could break down the mythic quality these men possessed in the night. The fluorescent lamps in Howard’s were unforgiving, their light reflecting angrily off the glossy wooden tables. Jack could see everyone’s faces, the patches in their beards, the wrinkles in their T-shirts, the sweat on the backs of their necks. The stuff of love, Jack presumed.
Jack flagged the bartender, who nodded back at him and began to walk over. He wore a tight black V-neck and black pleather pants, tight enough to reveal his bulge. Jack flickered his eyes down to look.
Wasn't that what he was really after? Since he had started testosterone two years back, all Jack could think about was cock. He wanted to know a man’s cock intimately, to study cock and its functions, to see through the flesh to cock's machinery. He wanted to ask questions about how a man and his cock move through the world. Jack wanted a man he could comfortably ask those questions, a man he might actually want to tell he was trans—a man who would let him look, look back, love the looking.
“Hello, gorgeous,” the bartender said to Jack. Up close Jack could see his blond buzzcut had small chunks missing, and crow's feet around his eyes. “What'll it be?”
“Do you have Manny's?” Jack asked, his voice wobbling. Why was he nervous? It was just another gay bar. He'd passed it whenever he left his apartment on the way to The Door.
“Sure thing, honey,” the bartender said. His hands moved fast, as fast as if it were the last call rush. A few more guys had trickled in, but the bar remained close to empty. Jack had to be the youngest guy there.
When he’d finished making Jack's drink, the bartender walked over to one of the men at the other end of the bar, said hello and kissed him quick and hard. Ah.
Jack sipped his Manny's. He burped.
“Hey,” the other man at the bar said to Jack. The bartender and his boyfriend—or some kind of friend—started making out.
“Hey,” Jack said. He blushed. The man moved down the bar to sit next to Jack. He was at least 40 and his shirt was tucked into his too-high pants. With him he brought a Rainier and a basket of French fries. Jack had noticed him when he’d first walked in, the man’s eyes wide and alert and locked on a wall-mounted TV. Baseball was on.
“How's it going?” the man said, like every dead-end Grindr conversation Jack had ever had. He'd probably talked to this guy on Grindr before. He tried to imagine the man's Grindr presence—blurry torso pic, no username, messages sent at 11am or some other awful hour.
“Pretty boring,” Jack said. He paused for laughter, but the man screwed up his brow.
Jack pursed his lips. Past them, the bartender whispered something into his lover's ear.
“What did you do today?” Jack said.
“Work, bar. Fries,” the man said with a toothy grin as he held up the fry basket. Jack had to keep him talking; he had to look at his body more to see if he was worth the trouble.
“What do you do for work?” Jack asked.
“Sales Manager for Sweet and High,” the man said. Jack winced. Sweet and High was that artisanal dessert place downtown that stank of waffle cone. So he was a pawn for Big Ice Cream. Bad, but not Amazon bad. Jack could deal with it.
“How’d you get into that?”
“Well, it’s hard to explain succinctly. I got my MBA in 2006—”
And he was off. Jack skimmed the face—long, angular, pointed at the chin —and moved to his shoulders, sprinkled with sweat that pushed through his red-striped dress shirt. They were bony, sloping shoulders—not square or sturdy enough to hang on to. The Manager's biceps were better; each sleeve was rolled and bunched tight around the center of the muscle. Black hairs wormed their way from his spotty, olive skin. Jack briefly thought of the animated Hercules movie, the scene where Phil wraps Hercules's biceps with measuring tape so Herc can flex until it breaks.
Jack flickered his eyes down. Grey slacks, mostly obscured by shadows from the bar. No prominent bulge like the bartender, but those shadowy parts were even more arousing: all mystery, all potential.
“. . . so when they offered me the promotion, I took it. Longer hours, but.” He took a bite of fry. “More money is more money, right?”
“Can't argue with that,” Jack said.
“What do you do for work?”
“Production. I screw caps onto bottles of perfume.”
“Nice. I used to work in production.”
“Factory line. You know Crayola?”
“Crayola . . . Crayons?”
“That's the one.”
“I haven't thought about crayons in years.”
“You probably have. Crayola crayons have the third most recognizable scent for adults in this country.”
“That’s what the boss told us. After coffee and peanut butter. In fact . . .” He reached beneath his shirt and pulled out a thin chain with a red crayon set inside a gold, bullet shell casing.
“Wow,” Jack said.
“I smell familiar to people.”
“You remind them of childhood.”
“What fag doesn’t love that?”
The Sales Manager stuttered over “fag,” but Jack laughed anyway. At a man’s joke! He was laughing!
“So, why'd you quit?”
The Manager looked at the TV. “I wanted to be one of the research scientists. Work in the lab. Figure out the colors. How much red goes into Red-Orange, that kind of thing. But they stuck me on molding, then boxing, then back to molding. Only guys with degrees pick the colors.”
He put a fry in his mouth.
“So I applied to business schools and Seattle U took me,” The Manager said as he chewed noisily on.” Anyway, it was time. I was twenty-eight, living in Easton, Pennsylvania with a mattress on the floor and a goldfish in a vase, no boyfriend, no savings. It's embarrassing to live that kind of life for too long.”
“What kind of life?” Jack said, but he already knew what he meant. Something in the conversation fractured, the engine of the thing, whatever made it go. Jack had gone straight from public high school to the warehouse and stayed, largely for the healthcare and the bus pass. Now he was 26 and had no plans to move or get a degree—his kind of life.
The Manager narrowed his eyes.
“Broke. Without assets. You know what I'm talking about. Here: tell me the most valuable item in your apartment right now.”
“What the fuck?” Jack said.
“Let me guess: a really nice subwoofer.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh, come on,” The Manager said, but Jack was already walking over to the bartender, already interrupting his whispering and kissing and winking with the man across the bar, already pushing cash for beer towards their entwined hands.
* * *
“Lesbianism has spoiled me,” Jack said to himself as he turned onto 12th Avenue. He had walked past it first, down Olive Street a couple blocks, then decided to loop back and go to The Door, even though he’d been there last night and two nights before that.
On Saturday nights, the tavern was packed, as loud and disappointing as any dive in the city, where cruising gave way to cliques and nobody wanted to dance. This early on a Monday, though, there were only a handful of men, mostly paired up at tables or shooting pool. Jack settled in; he took cheap vodka shots with a twink he recognized from the gym, the one with massive arms and pinprick legs, the one with the rainbow sweatband that read “Love Wins.” This guy wasn’t a Sales Mananger; he sold tortas at the hole-in-the-wall two blocks up the street.
They played pool together, badly, for forty minutes. The twink quickly realized Jack wasn’t going to top him, so he started flirting with any guy within shouting distance of the game. The twink laughed loud, mouth wide with artifice, as he positioned the pole behind his back.
“Last time I tried to do this I scuffed the table!” the twink whined as he let the pole fly.
He missed the cue entirely and scuffed the table. The twink froze for a moment, then flounced forward to inspect the damage. Jack came behind him to look for tearing.
Should I top this guy? Jack thought to himself. Just for the hell of it? The twink’s taut, swiveling ass was inches away from Jack’s little dick. It wouldn’t be love, but it could be hot and, in a way—Jack shuddered—gender-affirming.
“Ugh, I forfeit!” The twink cried out. Then he leaned his cue against the table and walked over to the security guard for the night, a burly, greying bear with comically large ears. Must be gorgeous when he smiles, Jack thought. He watched the men riff on a joke he couldn’t hear as he racked up the balls. Then the twink made the guard laugh. Whatever annoyance Jack felt for the twink during the pool game evaporated. Those little sparks of silliness between men, in an environment so often charged with competition and hostility, still wedged their way into Jack’s heart when he saw them. That feeling, in all its surprise and sweetness, was the closest Jack had gotten to loving another man.
Before transition Jack had primarily wanted women, made himself for and about women, a butch top in a jean jacket and boots. Loving women was easy, obvious. He wore the same clothes every day. But when he started hormones, his desire for women dried up, and men, with their crude, reeking bodies, shifted into focus. Now he wanted to ride dick. Now he wanted the reeking. He tried to indicate his bottom status with different clothes—he even bought a crop top from H&M—but they all made him dysphoric, so he went back to the jackets and boots. With women it had been so easy: jean jacket, boots, buzzcut. A butch top. Done and done. But here, at the oldest gay bar in the city, Jack still didn’t know the codes. But the twink and the bear knew the codes. The codes had lived in their bodies for years.
Jack ordered a margarita. He took his straw out of his cup and balanced it on his index finger for as long as he could. 22 seconds. He asked the bartender, a short bear-type, almost identical to the guard at the door, for salt for his hand, because the margarita tasted like rubbing alcohol. Hoping to start some banter with a bear of his own, he told the bartender, “This margarita tastes like rubbing alcohol.”
“If you don’t like it, you can get out of my bar,” the bartender said.
“Oh,” Jack said, rocketed into awareness of what a pointless, needy thing that was to say. “Oh, right.”
On the way out, he passed the twink and the security guard, still talking. The twink was telling a story, his hand fluttering onto the bear’s swollen tricep. Neither looked in Jack’s direction. A few feet out of the bar, Jack turned back to scowl at the men, convinced they were laughing at him for getting kicked out. But of course, it was worse, of course they were not scowling or looking or thinking about Jack at all.
* * *
Jack went to a straight bar. It happened more than he cared to admit. It’s akin to self-harm, he mused as he swirled the straw of a better, cheaper margarita. See what the other side has. What the rest of the world won’t give you.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” Jack announced to his new bartender. “Your margaritas shouldn’t be better.”
“Better than where?”
The bartender at Bimbos was huge. A Greek god sculpted in a dream. No doubt that twink from The Door’s dream. Jack could tell he was playing gay, as most of the straight guy bartenders in Seattle did. Better tips, an old coworker had told him. The guy had said it wasn’t just the gay guys who left him more money—straight women tipped better, too. At the time, Jack had considered making a crack about how non-binary people tipped, but decided it wasn’t worth it.
“We don’t get respect!” Jack cried out, then slurped his margarita. “We should at least get the good margs.” He was, finally, mercifully drunk.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sweetheart.”
“Tell me something,” Jack slurred. “Can you tell that I’m trans?”
The bartender cocked his head. “Nope. Just thought you were a regular straight guy.”
“Was that the wrong answer?”
“Yes.” Jack slurped again.
“Drink some water,” the bartender said with a fruity little smile, then floated away to do anything else.
Jack looked around Bimbos. The theme was wrestling. Photos of luchadores papered the walls and piñatas hung from the ceiling. Guys in band t-shirts littered the bar; by the front window sat a group of off-duty firefighters and their wives as they shouted over each other about someone’s pregnancy. There was a group of three in the booth by the bathrooms, a straight couple sitting across from a fag in a polka dot polo shirt. The fag was telling a story about some girl who smelled bad at his office. Lots of hand gestures. The straight couple were lapping it up.
Jack knew trans guys who wanted this. Just this. Just to go to a straight bar and blend in. To flirt with girls and to be greeted with ‘sir’ and ‘buddy’ and ‘champ’ by the bouncer. In a way, it was all at Jack’s fingertips. He could give up the fag dream and resign himself to passing for straight. He could hang out at Bimbo’s and nowhere else. He could make friends with firefighters and compliment their wives and say that the bartender is ‘fabulous’ and ‘fierce.’ He could even sneak out with the fag in the booth, pretend to experiment, refuse to disclose his transness, refuse to disclose anything, take what the rest of the world won’t give him.
“This place sucks,” Jack said aloud. The guy next to him at the bar shifted his weight but stayed quiet.
Maybe the drinks at Bimbos weren’t actually better. Maybe it was just that the bar was bigger, and more colorful, and served tacos, and had a second bar underneath it, Cha Cha’s, which held $1 beer nights and even drag shows. Why didn’t The Door hold drag shows? Because The Door was too small, too boring, too cliquish and mean. Object held drag shows. Object had pink walls and four stories and black-and-white portraits of male models and platforms for go-gos to wind around stripper poles to trap remixes made by white people. Object was the worst bar on planet Earth, because when you went to Object you stopped being a person. Not in that good, free, anonymous, anything-can-happen way. More like a collection of body parts being groped by many hands’ way, arms and arms and arms slithering out of a crowd.
One time, Jack had gone with his sister Margot, a cis woman, to Object. She was visiting for her 21st birthday. Bob The Drag Queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race was doing a show there and Margot was a fan. She begged Jack to come with her. Someone who knows the gay bar ropes, she had said with a wink. Jack tried to warn her that Object was gross but ultimately agreed. After Bob The Drag Queen’s last death drop, Margot was trying to find the bathroom; when she saw the sign for it, she pointed. Like clockwork, a man slid his mouth onto Margot’s erect finger, then vanished into the mass of bodies. Margot gasped in horror. On the way home Jack apologized and apologized as Margot walked beside him in silence. He had not gone to Object since.
“You know what bar really sucks? Object,” Jack said to no one. The bartender was out of view. The fag in the booth behind him heard and yelled, “Yeah!”
Jack spun around. “We should go to Object.”
The fag raised his eyebrows, worried. “I thought Object sucks.”
“Object sucks!” Jack screamed. The fag flinched. Jack slapped a twenty on the bar, teetered to his feet, and slumped his way onto Pine Street in the direction of downtown.
* * *
The big pink building was shaking—no, pulsating—with green light and bass, bass, bass. Jack looked up in awe. The exterior of Object got to him, not in spite of, but because it was so deadening inside. A strange trick of light and sound, the way the bar still radiated with possibility, even when you couldn’t walk through the first floor without some software engineer grabbing your junk. With the ground-shaking bass came the roar of gays screaming, laughing, crying, singing. Proof of so many bodies, so many people with so many desires, so many stories about how they survived and where they were going next. The stuff of love, Jack thought woozily.
Vomit climbed his throat. He swerved down Melrose Street to find somewhere to sit down, away from the noise of the Object entrance. Three young queens in full face waited at the end of the line for the bar. They were enmeshed in gossip, shouting and oblivious. Jack stumbled headfirst into the queen in the white feathered dress—a swan? An angel?—and rebounded off her. The queen stumbled, but did not fall, just glowered on as he staggered past, then yelled, “Get yourself together, honey! Typical Object.” Jack nodded as he careened past but did not respond.
It was darker, the farther Jack got from Object. Fewer streetlights. He found himself in front of Oasis. He sat down on the shadowy curb across the street.
Oasis was the only bathhouse in the city. Jack hadn’t been. It cost $25 to get in and $17 to rent a locker, which to Jack seemed pretty steep for what was sure to be fine-to-mediocre anal. He had asked around at parties, even the Christmas party for the warehouse, but no one he knew had ever deigned to visit. It’s for older guys, Ryan in shipping had said to him once. So? Jack was into older guys. An older guy might be more interested in love, or at the very least, he might have been with a trans guy before. At least it might not all be over before it begins.
In an attempt to sober up, Jack took deep, full-body breaths. He hobbled over to the Oasis entrance, a black door with a green outline of a palm tree in the center. He pulled the handle.
Jack entered a small room with nothing inside but a black counter and a large glass pane, not unlike a bank teller’s station. A tall, lean man with one large hoop earring and a baseball cap greeted him. Jack handed over his credit card. “One night and one locker, please.”
The cashier explained that even if Jack wanted to visit for only one night, he would still be issued a monthly membership card that could be refilled with funds for future visits.
“So, thanks for becoming a member,” the cashier said grinning, knowing something.
The bathhouse was nearly empty. Techno music blasted through the halls and echoed, echoed until the echoes wrapped around and crashed into each other, crashed into each other again and again until the song was lost. Jack undressed, wrapped himself in a towel and did a lap. Most of the doors to the private rooms were closed, save for one that housed a man lying on his stomach, ass slumped up and waiting. The hallway of private rooms opened to a dungeon-themed area with a sex swing, a large ottoman, and leather seats that lined the walls. Past the dungeons, a maze of showers and mirrors. In fact, there were mirrors all over Oasis. A transsexual’s worse nightmare.
Jack grabbed a condom from a nearby dispenser and sat in the voyeur seats, as far from the mirrors as he could get. The alcohol had started to wear off. Was nobody else at the club except that man and his ass? What was he doing here?
He got up to leave, but when he saw another man sit down on the voyeur seats at the other end of the room, he stopped walking. He couldn’t see more than an outline of a man, but he knew that outline; he had fucked that generic male outline a dozen times.
Jack walked over.
“Hi,” he said. Shadow obscured the man’s face, but Jack could see that he, too, wore only a towel.
“Well, hello,” the man said.
“Can I—?” Jack started to say, but the man was already nodding, so Jack stopped talking and got on his knees.
* * *
It wasn’t good oral. Not for Jack or the guy he was blowing. Jack kept taking all of him in his mouth, shoving the man hard against the back of his throat. Jack could feel the soreness already, the little cuts he inflicted on himself with this anonymous dick, a dick that was surely staying hard by artificial means, enormous and unyielding before Jack ever put the thing in his mouth. They get those pink pills, Ryan from shipping had said about the guys who go to Oasis, they get those pink pills from the gas station so they can stay hard all night.
What pink pills? Jack had wanted to ask. I go to gas stations. I haven’t seen any pills.
Jack’s mouth could have been anything, a cunt or an ass or a wet hole in the dirt. It had been 15? 20 minutes? He realized then that he still had a condom in his hand. Without breaking rhythm, he gingerly placed the condom on the leather seat next to the man.
Jack sucked the man’s balls and crossed his eyes, to better see the cock, the only prize he sought from these miserable nights. To bask in his brief, borrowed riches. But the club was too dark, and his head was bobbing too fast.
He moved his mouth back to the dick. Then Jack smelled something. Something distinct, unmistakable. Familiar.
He smelled crayon.
Without unlatching from the dick, Jack peered up. There was the crayon pendant, lying still on The Sales Manager’s chest. His was face turned towards the ceiling, teeth bared in pleasure.
Jack pulled his face away and gave the dick one friendly rub with his hand, as if to send the dick off on its next adventure. The Manager glanced down; Jack looked away urgently.
“Glad you changed your mind about me,” The Manager said. Then he wrapped his towel around his waist and walked out of the room.
Jack stayed on his knees. He leaned his head onto the leather.
“Crayons,” he said.
“How’s it going there, champ?” said an older man somewhere behind him. Jack tornadoed up from the floor. The man was older than The Manager, muscular and fat, with thick grey hair and no beard. He wore a leather harness around his chest. The club’s blacklight cast spots of shadow on his round, round face. He had his hands on his hips; he looked entirely at home.
“Compulsively giving blowjobs,” Jack said.
“Been there,” said the older man. “You ever come to the club before? Don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
“No, this is my first time.” Jack relaxed his shoulders. For the last several minutes, they’d stayed pressed to his neck.
“Welcome!” the older man said. “We don’t usually get guys your age. Sometimes on weekends. It’s busier on weekends. Monday nights are tough, but I don’t work Tuesdays, so.”
“Me neither.” It was true. He didn’t work Tuesdays. They both didn’t work Tuesdays.
The stuff of love?
Jack perked up.
“That guy who just walked out of here . . . your compulsive blowjob, I assume?”
“Yeah . . . yeah.” Jack pushed his hand through his hair. The older man laughed.
“I hope you come back. Nice to see some new faces around here.” He put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. Jack was touched, overwhelmed by this man’s goodwill, his availability, the ease with which he walked through the dungeon. Surely he walked this way through grocery stores and DMVs and the homes of beloved friends. Surely when he held another man in bed, his grip was strong and assured. Surely he spent Tuesday mornings in bed with the men he loved, measured, indulgent, exalting, whispering low.
Then grew a prickling desire, one Jack hadn’t felt since before hormones, and certainly not for a man, yet here it was again, germinating: Jack wanted this person to soak through his skin.
Jack paused. The hand rested, still, on his shoulder. He had to get this part right.
“Hey . . .” Jack said. “Can I suck your dick?”
The man frowned at Jack for a second, processing, then laughed a deep, hearty laugh, like Zeus laughing down from Olympus. He reached out to cup Jack’s face.
“Ah, youth!” the older man cried out with joy, then broke into a dazzling smile. “I don’t miss it.”
They stood together like that for a moment, the older man beaming, Jack’s mouth in a perfect, dejected O. Then the man dropped his hand from Jack’s cheek and strode away.
It was decided, Jack told himself as he circled the halls of Oasis, then circled again, then circled a third and a fourth time, as he played the rejection over and over in his head. Perhaps he could eventually find a man to love, but it would not be reciprocated. His love would not be tried out in the flesh, in touch. He was too far behind; he had begun too late, loving men and manhood and sucking dick and asking for what he wanted. He was never going to know a dick intimately, let alone the person attached. Some proverb bumped around his now-throbbing, dehydrated head: Love is the only teacher? Love is the greatest teacher? Where do I sign up for classes, Jack thought fizzily. I’ll be a good student. I will be teacher’s pet.
He returned to the dungeon. The older man was sitting across the room on the leather seats. Jack sat down, too, though several feet from the older man, so as not to suggest that he had followed him. The older man looked over and waved, affable as ever. Jack twitched a hand back.
A blond jock-type in tight red boxer briefs walked into the dungeon. He arranged himself on the ottoman in the center of the room with his ass sticking high in the air. One long, soundless minute passed—someone had turned off the techno music, or the playlist had run its course. Then another man appeared in the dungeon. Jack recognized the baseball cap and earring. It was the cashier from the front desk, and he was heading straight for the jock.
The cashier pulled a condom from his jean pocket then peeled off his pants. Once the condom was on his dick, he learned forward and pulled the face of the jock towards his. They Frenched for a few seconds, tongues lithe and slick and tangling. Then the cashier shoved the jock forward, tore off the briefs and fucked his ass, slow at first then faster, then faster still. Jack looked to his left; the older man was stroking himself with the tips of his fingers, as if his penis were fragile as glassware, as if he could come by kiss of the wind. Jack started to stroke himself, too, kept stroking himself there on the leather seats long after the cashier and the jock and the older man had left. There he passed an hour or more with focused, deliberate touching, as if his body belonged to someone else, as if he’d fallen in love.
Max Delsohn has written for VICE, The Rumpus, and Triangle House, among other places. They are an MFA candidate in fiction at Syracuse University.