Picture me in the locker room. I am taking my white T-shirt on and off, again and again, trying to decide if it looks less weird to walk around the bathhouse with a shirt on or in my binder, sports bra–like contraption that smashes my body into a masculinity-sausage. The friend I came with asks if I’m “Donald Ducking it” which makes me feel even more ridiculous, an oversized, pants-less bird nervously fluttering from shadow to shadow in the maze upstairs, desperately quacking at strangers. I leave the T-shirt on. After creaking up the carpeted stairs to the upper level, I wander through the three rooms that compose the floor. They each have vinyl-cushioned platforms and bunk beds, some glory holes that nobody seems to use. There’s a leather sling and two televisions that display muted porn, casting a spot of bright light across the otherwise dim walls. The music playing over the sound system is unremarkable and fills what could potentially be a very awkward silence if allowed to flourish on its own.

Imagine my reflection in the mirror I inevitably pass on my way back to the first room. I am struck by the whiteness of it all, the stark white towel wrapped around my waist, the loose white T-shirt covering my binder. I remember the shirt being tighter for some reason. The way it hangs off my shoulders now makes me feel miniature. I feel like a shrunken ghost. There’s a book about a boy whose best friend takes him to a notorious cruising park to watch the men glide silently, like spirits. I wonder how that boy would’ve felt if he’d passed a mirror that night, if he’d been pulled away from his watching long enough to realize that he, too, had become watchable, a specter, perched on the ledge between existing and vanishing. It’s bad enough having everyone look at you and keep walking. But being forced to look at yourself feels cruel. 

Imagine that everyone has left their words in the locker room, everyone except a pair of men in the top half of a tall vinyl bunk bed. When I first passed them, they were still fucking, a tangle of thighs. But as I circle back, they’re lying side by side, chattering in floral Spanish. I imagine they must know each other, and I start building their story. Maybe they’re tourists, giddy to be in San Francisco for the first time and unable to quiet their excitement. Or maybe they live here and they’re conducting an illicit affair beneath the pink glow of tinted light bulbs. Or maybe they’ve never met and, wandering through the labyrinth, they were uncontrollably drawn to each other like a pair of magnets, or prickly, static-clung socks. And imagine, the spark that happened when they realized they shared a tongue. I try not to linger too long at their bedside. I try not to exist too much.

Wandering isn’t working. I see a boy sitting below one of the monitors, watching the shiny probing genitals. He’s no one I’d look twice at on the street, but in here he looks like a kind island. I stand on the opposite side of some well-spaced wooden slats, trying to decide how best to engage him. Cruising feels so technical, and I wonder if everyone else is just hardwired to do this, if the plotted, mechanical pace of my bare feet is just further proof of my inauthenticity. The boy isn’t touching himself; he just sits with his back against the wall, staring at the screen. I step out from behind the slats and, feigning bravery, ask if I can sit with him. I’m still not sure if I’m allowed to talk here, but he barely looks at me to say “Sure,” and returns his gaze to the porn. I crawl onto the padded platform beside him and wait. I guess in all my planning and worrying, I never thought about what would come in between making eye contact and having sex. Everyone in the bathhouse makes touch look so organic. I can’t decide if I should reach for him and am hoping he’ll make a first move. At last five slow, aching, agonizing minutes pass in utter and desolate silence. His towel is still wrapped tightly around his waist; his fingers, curled over one of his knees, haven’t so much as flinched since I sat down. Feeling panicked and unable to wait any longer, I stand up without saying a word and melt back into the darkness.

I make a few more laps. Passing back into the largest room, I accidentally bump shoulders with an older guy about my height, which is to say, short. He looks at my T-shirt for a moment, and puts his hand on my waist. Picture my chest as a stubborn doorknob, oiled but unable to turn. Like an engine revving, whinnying. He sniffs at my neck like an animal; his breath terrifies me. I forget about sound. His hand slides up my torso and finds something. He pulls away. The texture is wrong, I can tell, he can tell. The knob is starting to give.  He smiles and the mechanism creaks. His fingers move toward my mouth, further fueling the anticipation. The fingers somehow land on my cheek. He is pinching my cheek. His head shakes out a “No” and he suddenly, wordlessly evaporates. The doorknob breaks off in my hand; the weight is degrading. I desperately want a dim corner to hide in, yet somehow, every twist and turn of the maze feels like a display case for my inadequacies. Picture the blank glare of my T-shirt and towel, the naked stumpy legs dangling below. I find my friend lurking silently next to a pair of men using the leather sling. His hand has vanished under the rolled top of his towel and makes wet shadow puppets between his thighs. “Let’s get out of here,” I say, and his hand reappears with a small exhale.

In the locker room once more, I quickly slide back into my socks and pants. Under the layers of T-shirt, sweatshirt, and denim jacket, I feel armored and wonder why I couldn’t wear this upstairs. As if flesh were any more honest than the fabrics I’ve chosen to wrap myself in. Blue denim over white terrycloth, beige elastic over loosening skin. Those choices every bit as genuine as the body propping it all up.

Picture me shooting across the eastbound lower deck of the Bay Bridge. Picture my car as a comet and the orange lights that illuminate the unnervingly low ceiling as constellations flying past. Picture my face tugged tight like an astronaut. Picture my bed, blue and welcoming like the earth, unmade bedding swirled like smog and clouds. Imagine, the insignificance of my body, the glory of my speed. 


Julian Shendelman is an Oakland-based dog dad, baker, wannabe artist, and a highly stereotypical Libra. He was a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow in Nonfiction and performs regularly in the Bay Area.