My hotel room is perched at the intersection of two freeways, and, with the window open to let in the hot summer air, I can hear the comforting hum of traffic. I have just gotten out of the shower and am starting at myself in the mirror, deciding whether or not to shave. I hear a knock on the door: it must be room service. With a towel around my waist, I open the door for the waiter, who wheels in my breakfast cart. He nervously fusses with the plates and flatware. I sign the check and thank him. He opens the door to exit the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that he is closing the door very slowly, in order that he can watch my reflection in the hallway mirror. Momentarily, I glimpse the raw desire in his eye. Does his desire arise because of, or in spite of, the limits placed upon it — by the social contract, and by his employer? Still in my towel, I take my breakfast plate from the cart and walk over to the chair. As I approach the seat, I realize that my towel has loosened. I am holding the plate with both hands and so I do not catch the towel. Rather, with confidence, I let it fall. Standing, plate in hand, I feel the gaze of the waiter upon me. I keep my back toward the door so as to bask in the familiar glow of this look. Like the warm sunshine beaming in from the window, cast against my skin, It affords me a blanket of comfort. Yet at the same time it dispossesses me. Centeredness and dispersal, life and death, as part of the same circuit. I sense the struggle is which he is engaged — how long can he remain, peering through a gap in the door, before he is discovered, whether by me, another hotel guest, or his boss? Embodying the struggle, he monitors himself. A space of tension has opened up, a gap that only assumes its potency through the impending threat of its closure, and of its subject’s exposure. Perhaps his body takes shape, as mine does, through the contouring properties of this space. It informs him, gives form to him. Like the billowing curtains, shaped by the morning breeze — arising only because of the wind channel established by the open window and the cracked door. Self-consciously, I stand there, and slowly begin to eat from my plate. The clacking of my fork beats time like a metronome, as the erotic energy — always compositional, rhythmic — circulates through the room with the hot summer air.
I am in my underwear, reclining in a makeshift bed, leaning back against the wall. My left knee is slightly raised, my legs provocatively spread apart. The position has been determined so as to accentuate the fill of my briefs, my penis and testicles falling to the right, with attention given to the contours they thereby produce. In actuality, I can only see my position from my own vantage point. Yet I know from experience what will look best, and in this sense I can see myself from the outside. My body is positioned with attention to line. My muscles are flexed, though only slightly, so as not to appear too rigid or eager. The ideal: an attitude of utmost confidence and ease, of fully inhabiting my sexual power, though in an open way, so that others can share in it too. Not a barricaded sexuality, but a playful, circuitous one. My pose in place, my gaze connects with the artists in the room, all of whom are now beginning to draw me. Their eyes move between me and their sketch pads, repeatedly, back and forth. They project their fantasies on me. I feel them, I can see these fantasies in their gazes, and this affects me, arouses me. I meet their gazes, lingering on each of them. The attention is reciprocated. It volleys between us. We meet within this ambiguous space of arousal. Drawings take shape there. I have a role in these drawings; I help structure the erotic circuit through which they are produced. Yet I make no claims on them. I simply want to be fully present in the process itself. To completely inhabit the generating network. Not to reinforce my body (or self), but rather, in a sense, to displace it — to generate an excess that always exceeds it. Ultimately it is this space of invention that interests me, rather than the drawings that result. They do not reveal so much as conceal.
I am riding the subway one night. It is very late, after the clubs have closed but before the sun has started to rise. A few people sit quietly in the jostling car. All of us, quite obviously, have indulged quite a bit in drinking, dancing, or simply prowling the streets. Once dominating the night, shaping it to our pleasures, we now surrender to it dutifully, sitting docile in the subway car. We simply want to get to bed. One of the passengers is a drag queen. Her makeup is a bit smudged, and her hair askew, but otherwise she is impeccably dressed. Now spent, she struggles to maintain her composure. At times, sleep claims her, and her head falls to the side. Then, as her head begins to sink too low, she catches herself and abruptly sits bolt upright, adjusting her wig and smoothing her dress. This struggle plays out for several minutes. Down. Up. Down. Up. Soft. Erect. We’ve all been there, I think. But never have I seen this struggle carried out with such determination. In the liminal space between night and morning, between masculine and feminine, she struggles to maintain the performance. Never has the struggle to perform the feminine — or the masculine, for that matter — been more clearly manifest. In this sleepy hour, when one would otherwise think the act was over, the labor of performing one’s identity increases. The struggle never ends. There is no audience, but there is always the potential one — the chance that at any time a glimpse might be taken of us. Should this happen, we want to be ready. Rehearsed.
I am standing at the doorway of a bar, in a strange city. A flight delay has caused me to miss my connection, and I am stuck here for one night. I am excited by the unique pleasure that this affords: that of being a complete stranger, in a city that I have never before visited. To be the mystery person, the screen upon which fantasies are projected. I step through the doorway of the bar with a swagger, then pause to scan the room. As if a stage actor in a solo scene, I do not meet the gaze of anyone in particular. By not looking, I invite others to look. Due to the fact that am alone, I invent a form of distributed companionship — a timeless consort who is everyone and no one, everywhere and nowhere. A Knowingness that is above and beyond the here-and-now. This is not intended to be read as arrogance, but rather, a potent combination of presence and absence, availability and disinterest. Anything less would dissolve the screen. Slowly and with confidence, I walk to the bar, while absorbing the scene, mapping the space. I sip my drink and then almost spill it, due to the startling appearance of an enormous, lascivious drag queen, who now looms above me. She points a long, red-painted nail at me and gives me the Call. With a parting of heavily painted lips and a commanding, heavily-lashed stare, she intones: You! I offer some resistance, then succumb. I am whisked away into a back room. I am instructed in the new rules of the game, along with four other recruits. I am now a Contestant. The drag queen stumbles out into the bar on shaky heels, arms aflail. A breathless introduction ensues. The Contest has begun. The bar crowd, which has now become an audience, applauds wildly. One by one, each of us enters onto the rickety, makeshift stage clad only in our underwear, as the drag queen, now wielding a bucket, hurls water at us. We then work the crowd and solicit applause. To win this game, one is expected to manage some degree of erection. If no degree of hardness is possible, the wet underwear simply clings to the contours of the groin and produces a small, unappealing mound. In this case, one must attempt to fool the eye, in the grand tradition of the dancer, the courtesan, the magician. What is sexuality if not a conjuring trick? Desire requires a labyrinth. I know the moves from watching others, and I make these moves work for me. I become someone I’m not. Yet perhaps I become more of the person that I really am? The answer depends upon who, ultimately, I am acting for, and the stakes that have been thereby raised. Stripped nearly naked, a stranger in a strange town, with no social profile to uphold, there is nothing much to lose. Yet there is certainly an amorphous judge for whom I act. The audience is simply one dimension of it, the drag queen its obscene face.
I am in the sauna at the gym, relaxing after a workout. A man sits across from me. He stares at my crotch for as long as appropriate, given the protocols of sauna life, then looks away. A few beats later, his gaze returns, sweeping across my body, circling around my midsection, resting upon on the bulge cast by my penis. I am not erect, yet I feel the stimulation of his gaze. I do not return his look, and so he must operate surreptitiously. Yet I am aware of his gaze; I do not block it. He senses this, and it affords him a certain level of permission. The dance continues. The atmosphere heats up. He subtly lifts his towel to show his hardness. He expects me to reciprocate, but I do not. Failing to rouse me, he offers a question: Can I touch you? I am momentarily stunned by his eruption into speech, and by his directness. Cruising is generally a nonverbal endeavor; when it does involve dialogue it is indirect, at least at first. I respond in the negative. At this point there are few avenues left to him. Quietly, he studies his options. He looks at me, looks down at my groin, looks at me again, then quietly asks: Can you show me? At the onset of this question, I feel a jolt of sexual excitement. So direct, so genuine. So powerful in its simplicity. The basic question that every child wants asked, summoned by every plea of Look at me! I briefly consider lifting my towel and offering myself to his gaze. Yet had I succumbed, the question would have lost all its power and resonance. I preferred to hold onto it. I held onto the query of Show Me, keeping it under wraps, heated, sweating, in an ambiguous state of arousal, like the concealed region of my body to which it referred.
The VIP room, tucked in the back of a large nightclub. People coming and going, making deals, hanging out. A very tall and narrow space with spot lighting that, due to the heat and cigarette smoke, generates a milky haze. I am standing in this room, shirtless. A club promoter, who I had only just met that evening, pulls my pants down, lowers himself to his knees, and takes me into his mouth. He works on me with quiet determination. My skin, slick with oil and sweat, shines under the spotlights. I spread my arms straight out to my sides in a gesture of surrender, or of heroic conquest — though with my pants bunched at my feet, I hardly look like a champion. Yet somehow I do seem privileged: the chosen one, anointed. The promoter kneels before me in a position of subservience, and this offers me the feeling of dominance. Yet, at the same time, I am the one who is vulnerable, weakened though the public display of my nakedness and hardness. Strength and weakness, private and public, back and forth: the promoter works on me with the regularity of a machine. Five minutes? One hour? Awash in the moment, time and space are warped. The volume of the room expands. The pleasure spreads through my body and into the social space around me; or rather, it comes from the outside in, circulating through me and back out into the social environment. If identity is social, coming from the outside, then perhaps pleasure is too. Is that why masturbation is never enough? One always wants a stage. Sometimes it is onset through the simplest means: a lens, a text message, a glance. Desire requires an architecture, whether real or imaginary. Secret spaces, performative arenas, labyrinths. Ways of looking, ways of attracting, ways of belonging. The nightclub is one such construct. One might go there for the possibility of sex, but after a time, the sexual act itself becomes pointless. It is public-ized, promoted, distributed throughout the connective space that the architecture creates. And this is ultimately why we sign on.
The texts in this column were written by Jordan Crandall.