Nobody thinks I’m cotton swabs or cat fur. I look and am a person who would rather dig into his ears with his own finger than jam a tiny stick in his ear and twirl it around like I’m rowing a tiny boat in a circle or winding up my jack-in-the-box brain. But the quarter ply toilet paper my deadbeat roommate brings home from the discount section of The Dollar Store has made me consider that there are parts of me that crave and deserve softness.
I fold and pull and fold and pull until the toilet paper seems to have more substance, but it still makes me wince. I remember a Tim Allen routine about going camping with his family, and forgetting toilet paper. Eventually, he succumbs to his excremental needs, and being unable to find a leaf that he doesn’t imagine is poison ivy, he uses a pinecone.
I camped frequently as a kid. Cub scouts, boy scouts, summer camp, tent in the back yard, family outings. Once, as an adult, I entered a state forest with just a tent, a sleeping bag, and a crazy ex with a backpack full of dildos. Each excursion has included toilet paper. It has always been of the multiple ply variety because I have brought it my damned self. If my options are pinecone, single ply toilet paper, or feel gross until shower time, I will wait for the shower. I would rather be stinky than bleed.
Debra doesn’t know any of this. She just knows that when I started sleeping on her couch, I brought only my discman, the highlights of my CD collection, a couple of poetry collections, four changes of clothes, some basic toiletries, and a six pack of toilet paper with the word quilted on the wrapping.
“Bringing quilted toilet paper with you when you’re staying at a friend’s house doesn’t really go with your Real Man image, Stone.”
I am unaware of sculpting a Real Man facade. I have spent most of my life wondering what a Real Man is. Not because I want to be one, but because I’m not sure I’ve ever met one. I assume she means that I wear jeans and flannel, have an LL Bean jacket and an occasionally deep voice. “It’s part one of rent. Your ass will thank me.”
“My ass isn’t as delicate as yours.” Debra says, looking at a strand of her hair that she’s twirled around her finger, instead of making eye contact. “Oh god, do you have hemorrhoids or something? I didn’t mean to...”
“No.” I say. “I just...nevermind.”
Debra can’t nevermind. Like Debra can’t look someone in the eye when she’s insulting them. Like Debra can’t stop insulting people when she thinks of something pointed and funny. I get it.
“I just do a lot of horseriding.” I lie. “So I have to treat my butt respectfully when I’m not riding.”
“Horseriding or riding cowboy on a guy’s dick?”
“I’m a top.” No hesitation. A scramble for as much masculinity as possible without lying. Maybe this is the Real Man image I’ve been subconsciously crafting.
“I knew it!” Debra says. “Eugene bet me ten dollars that you were straight.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I suggested you might be a good match for his brother, and he said you weren’t gay. But I had a feeling. Can’t hide nothing from me, Quiltbottom.”
This conversation over and over in a thousand different ways. Burlington Vermont, Centerville Massachusetts, Chicago Illinois, Seattle Washington, Washington D.C., anywhere there’s an after-party or a writers’ workshop. My entire twenties and early thirties is just me coming out over and over and over and coming out again. Revolving closet door. Like most revolving doors, it’s glass. I assume everyone can see me in it, spinning and rolling my eyes. But it seems like every time I talk with poets, my sexuality comes up.
“Amaretto and Coke? More like Amaretto and cock. Are you gay?”
“I’ve really been enjoying the persona work you’ve been doing lately, but don’t you think it’s a little offensive to be doing so many poems in the voice of a gay character when you’re straight? I mean, if it’s all for a manuscript, I get it, but it’s still kinda iffy, you know.”
“You dress like the kind of guy that beats people like you up.”
None of these people want me to fuck them. None of them have a brother or a cousin or a best friend or a hated rival that they want to fix me up with. None of them have any potential investment in where my dick travels, and yet they wonder. Behind my back, to my face, perpendicular to my glare. I don’t get why it’s important enough to warrant conversation. I don’t view most of them as homophobes but there’s definitely institutional toxic masculinity involved n the same way that those of us who like to imagine we aren’t racists still must acknowledge the institutional racism that lead us to say ignorant things or have ignorant thoughts or do insensitive acts that we didn’t mean to be racist but, in which, racism is clearly involved.
I eventually meat Eugene’s brother, and nothing I can say about the experience doesn’t make him seem like a stereotype, and me seem like I’m trying to hard to be masculine. There is no funny conversation. There is no flirting. He tells me what he does for a living and I nearly pull a muscle trying not to roll my eyes. He sees what I am wearing, and hears how I am currently unemployed and sleeping on Debra’s couch, and nearly pulls a muscle trying not to roll his eyes. Every aspect we see in each other is so radically different from how we imagine ourselves. I imagine he, too, at some point will realize we are the same person.
But, for now, there is the couch. There is quilted toilet paper. There is Eugene, who I find way more attractive than his brother, bringing a bag of magic mushrooms over to Debra’s house and making one of the more disgusting teas anyone has ever tasted, so that the three of us (his brother is at work) can get high together and talk about how to make the local poetry scene more interesting. I hate mushrooms. I don’t like tea. The combination of them is, apparently, repugnant to people who willingly consume both.
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