UGLY BOYS by Daniel Isaiah Elder

UGLY BOYS by Daniel Isaiah Elder

We were ugly. We were misfits and we knew it. We wore trench coats because we could hide behind them. We carved a niche for ourselves on the perimeter. We stalked out there like wolves, drawing our anger close about us, forming our own rituals, our own dances. Not that we danced. We moshed. We didn’t care for these grotesque bodies and so we threw them against each other with reckless abandon. We were rigid. We learned to inhabit our fierceness, all the gnashing within us that made it impossible to cleave to the center. All the grief which had its locus in the mirror, where we looked at the beginning and the close of each day and knew without a shiver of a doubt that we were fundamentally and inalterably ugly.

We should have cohered, then. We should have embraced. We should have found solace in each other.

But it was impossible to liberate ourselves from the narrative of being outside. So we remained in the wilderness, together but distant, howling in the void.

We were ugly.

We were boys.

*

My best friend in high school told me I was ugly. Often.

The thing about being a wolf in a pack out at the fringes is that, unbeknownst to you, belonging comes with a price. A place.

You must take yours.

He did.

He told me I was ugly, and it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt because it was our joke.

Ours.

You are so ugly. You are so ugly!

Ha. Ha. Ha.

*

My father had an ugly way of looking at the world.

Oh my god, she’s like a car accident. You can’t help but slow down and watch.

How many months pregnant do you think he is, with a belly like that?

I can’t believe they let people go outside looking this way. She should be in jail.

It wasn’t only bodies that disgusted him.

If they wanted to, these people could get themselves out of the gutter. Look at this penny I’ve just picked up. In the Soviet Union we dreamed the streets of America were paved in gold. And just look!

*

I love to cry. I love to bawl. I love to sob.

There’s nothing like a good ugly cry.

And yet.

Sometimes, when I feel the release coming on, just as that cleansing water rises up within my chest and pulses in my throat—a man opens the door and walks into the room of me and closes the door behind him.

He puts a finger to his lips and the fountain dries.

To an outsider, his might seem a soft gesture.

But we who know, know.

The violence of it all.

*

My older sisters went to preschool but when it came time for me to go, I refused. I didn’t want to wear clothes.

In one of the few home movies that survive from that time, I am three years old on family vacation in North Carolina, gloriously bared to sun and surf. My father is behind the camera and you can hear both him and my mother asking me if I want to put on some clothes, if I want to put away my pacifier, questions I don’t dignify with answers. I proclaim my name again and again, joyous in the celebration of myself.

*

Years later I entered my first locker room and found my entire relationship to boy body scraped and mangled. Toothpick! they jeered as I changed as quickly as possible into my gym shorts and shirt. They loomed over me and picked apart the way my ribs thrust forward, the way my navel jutted out. They laughed at the bones of me.

Toothpick.

Weakling.

Faggot.

*

I worked for many years with a medicine woman. Before one ceremony, I shared with the group that I felt myself a fundamentally joyous person. But still, I was dogged by listless sorrow. Some ancient sadness, its provenance a mystery.

In the dark that night, with the plants in my veins, I chased a man through a labyrinth inside myself. Only ever catching glimpses of him disappearing around corners. I knew he knew the source of my sorrow. He could explain myself to me. But he would never give me the answers, and I knew that, too.

And yet I never chose to stop chasing him. All through the night, I shunned stillness for pursuit. The landscape of the labyrinth was blasted, a barren waste of dying trees.

In the morning, the medicine woman told the group that my words had nested in her chest. She had asked herself what it would be like to feel fundamentally joyous.

And she told us that in the night, when she said my name inside her mind, my face appeared before her, brilliant and blazing like the sun. She felt my joy and beauty radiate upon her.

Her image like a salve.

To think that I could be beauty.

To think that I could be someone’s sun.

Despite the fractures that came between us later, I still hold her vision.

I still see in it a seed.

*

My mother called us each solnishko.

Each of us her little sun.

Daughter, daughter, son.

I was her golden boy.

I found my golden curls in an envelope in her dresser, after we buried her.

Vesava vishuʻa veneḥama veshezava

*

We were ugly.

What did it matter that our mothers told us we were beautiful?

We had mirrors, didn’t we?

And, of course, we had our friends.

*

He was my best friend.

We liked a lot of the same porn.

We would watch videos of women with cocks fucking shackled men.

On the other TV, Nintendo 64 racing games. We held the Rumble Paks to our groins.

Loser was whoever had to go finish themselves off in the bathroom first.

You’re so ugly.

No homo.

*

Before him, there was another best friend. We hadn’t yet stepped into the realm of teen. He liked to paint his nails. He dressed up as a woman for Halloween. We watched a lot of horror movies together, but it was those things—his nails, his costume—that terrified me.

We were friends for years, but the one and only time I was supposed to sleep over his house, I felt myself grow sick. I shivered in my skin. I lied and said my head throbbed. I wanted my mommy, and I went home.

I confused excitement for fear.

I still do, sometimes.

*

My father had a habit of placing his thumb and forefinger between my shoulder blades and squeezing.

Not too hard. But hard enough.

Walk straighter, young man.

*

I met a girl at Jewish summer day camp. It wasn’t long before she wore the mantle of best friend. We were fifteen. She liked to talk about sex, which she’d had with boys and with girls. I fell longingly in love with her.

One day my father took us to Jones Beach. She walked to the bathrooms and I watched how his eyes followed her, tracing the curves of her body. Then he turned to me, and with a grin suggested I sleep in his guest room tonight—and that I invite her to stay over too.

I didn’t want to be him, but I wanted her.

His apartment was in the East Village and she wanted to see a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, something she’d done numerous times. I had never seen it.

Actors in costume danced through the theater. A tall, chubby man in pigtails cross-dressing as the character Magenta danced down the aisles singing “Touch-a Touch-a Touch-Me.” He straddled my friend, gyrating in her lap and singing. Jealousy, discomfort, and an unnerving excitement all swam in me. Magenta leaned across her lap, caressing her face and reaching over to ruffle my hair at the same time.

Magenta was smoking outside after the show, still in fishnet tights and makeup, he invited us to a party at his apartment. We drank Corona Lights, surrounded by people in their twenties smoking pot and making out. It was a queer scene, and my friend fit in. For me, it all felt alien. I hoped she wouldn’t notice that. I wanted to impress her.

Sitting on Magenta’s bed, we laughed about him dancing on her lap.

“I wanted a better look at you, cutie,” he said, ruffling my hair again. “Do you like boys?” He grinned when my head shook. “If this room was pitch black, and your dick was being sucked, would it really matter who was sucking it?”

My heart pounding, I desperately chugged my beer. Boyish faces stared down at me from a poster tacked above Magenta’s bed. It was the band Hanson. Right over his bed. I tugged my best friend’s sleeve, murmuring that we should go soon.

Back at my father’s, she invited me from the sleeping bag on the floor into the guest bed with her. She touched me and I touched her. Pierced tongue, soft skin. She knew how to touch a body, and she knew how she liked to be touched. She guided my fingers, and urged me to bite her nipples. Harder. Harder. Really, much harder. My timidness gave way to glee.

“Lay back,” she said, and put her hand on me.

Orgasm had only ever happened alone. The pleasure burst through me like an alien invasion. If not for the fact that it was happening, it wouldn’t have been believable. It felt so different, coming from someone else’s hand. Like it meant something.

I stifled all sound, knowing my father was just on the other side of the wall. Thinking of the delight he would get from knowing what he had engineered.

My friend was holy, then. That she would do this for me made her sacred. No one ever had.

The next weekend she was busy, but we hung out soon after. She’d spent the weekend with Magenta, she said. He was her boyfriend now.

At dinner, just my father and me, he grinned knowingly and asked when I would sleep over his apartment again. I never did.

*

The modem would burble and fizz, the sounds of a portal to another dimension where a man greeted me with a hearty, warm Welcome.

In the chat rooms of RhyDin, AOL’s roleplaying universe, no door was closed to me. No one could see my face. No one could behold my body.

I stalked the taverns as the vampire Nedar, tall and muscular and sorrowful and, of course, impossibly handsome, mourning the loss of my one true love. I learned to make love with my fingers, hunting and pecking my way through seduction as Arkane, the spawn of Lucifer, who took supplicants to him and broke them and mended them again, a kindly tormentor. He strolled the land of RhyDin dominant and demanding, and creatures knelt at his feet.

I adored those creatures, and I realized I wanted to know what they experienced. I wanted to be tormented. I became a succubus, her name lost to the mists of my memory. Great ram’s horns curved alongside her head. Her skin was red. Her nipples were pierced, and so was her cock, and so was her clit, and she wandered the streets and alleys of RhyDin a thing to be used, a cock to be tortured, a pussy to be fucked. She was my desire, embodied. To be unerringly wanted. To be impossibly beautiful. To be everyone’s fantasy. To be capable of all pleasure. To be and feel everything.

Elves and bandits and demons would instant message me and only the worthy would garner my response. The writers who evoked a sense of pursuit, who made me feel hunted, whose words made me want them inside me. 

Away from the computer, I looked in the mirror and what I saw was not myself. It was the absence that surrounded and permeated me.

*

After raising two daughters, my father was glad to have an adolescent boy around. Another wolf for his pack. 

You’ve got to eat pussy.

You should ask girls to let you shave them, there’s nothing better.

A friend of mine in Russia said if you ask fifty girls in a day to sleep with you, one of them is bound to say yes. Brilliant!

Then, when I was in college, my father asked after my girlfriend.

I bet so many men check her out every time you two walk down the street. It must drive you crazy.

*

The girlfriend he spoke of was my first great love. But later, after she and I broke up, it was Mommy who told me that she’d noticed something about the two of us: we rarely touched.

None of those little touches that make up so much of a relationship, just as you pass by each other, you know? Little touches just for the sake of themselves.

Mommy, who always ran her fingernails through my curls.

*

Years after college, I was at a warehouse party, sprawled out on pillows, watching a man kiss the girl I was then dating. She and I played with others, my first brush with openness.

He was beautiful, and so was she. Just look at them.

He lifted his face from hers and looked into my eyes, his lips wet.

I’ve never been to a party like this.

You’re doing great, I said.

He must have seen the wanting deep within me, seen it more clearly than even I did. He took my face in his hands and touched me in a way no man ever had. He buried his tongue deeper inside of me than I’d ever let anyone in, deeper than I knew I could be touched.

*

A few months later, my friend the dancer was headed out for a cigarette when I stopped him in the middle of the bar. He was a graceful creature, desired by women, but with a taste only for men.

Loosened by alcohol and the memory of that one tongue’s touch months earlier, I held my body closer to his than I would have ordinarily dared. He looked at me, as if seeing me anew. Then, he placed his hand on my neck. He pressed his mouth to mine and I surrendered. The relief of that kiss—as if all this weight I carried no longer needed my skeleton to support it.

I didn’t think you’d kiss me back.

But now he knew. I ran my fingers through his hair and stroked him through his jeans in the back of the bar and I tugged at his zipper and I begged him to take me home. I whimpered. I mewled. My whole idea of boy convulsing and devouring itself.

You’ve never been pushed up against a wall and kissed by a man?

My skull between his mouth and concrete.

I climbed on top of him and there it was again—that place inside me. That deep, precious locus. He sundered me and touched me there again and again and again and it hurt and it bloomed and I tossed my hair and felt a glory unparalleled.

All the while, he looked upon me as if I was some great beauty. Some radiant star.

The next morning, he walked me to the corner and kissed me goodbye beneath the elevated train.

And I knew in a way I’d never known before just how gorgeous I really was.

*

I want to tell you that fixed everything.

I want to leave you feeling better.

*

I met a man in a movement workshop. He was tall, hirsute, strong, and gentle. With his arms spread, he reminded me of a falcon. Each week, stretching in my gawky body, I drew strength from him as he moved beside me. His solidness. His grace.

With every conversation we shared in the sweaty afterglow, my desire for him grew.

I knew that I felt safe beside him.

Two years had passed since the dancer took me home.

I invited the man to my apartment. He said he wanted something deeper than sex and I shrank away. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted him to have his way with me. To use me. To manhandle me.

I bruised my knuckles on the wall beside my bed where I knelt on all fours while his beard scratched my thighs and his tongue plunged and pulsed inside me, touching me where I longed to be touched. I was angry. I was wolf-bitten. Why had this taken so long, and why did it feel so difficult even while it felt so right? Why did it take all my focus to surrender to him, to give myself to him, when that was all I wanted? I could feel myself trying to flee the moment even as pleasure suffused my whole being.

He turned me around and watched me suck and when he pulled his cock from my mouth and asked me if I wanted him to fuck me, I said yes. And I meant it. Yes, yes, yes.

But when he turned to pick up the condom the light hit his face in a certain constellation and all I could see in that bold forehead and proud nose and bushy beard was a familiar silhouette—

Walk straighter young man.

He rolled me onto my belly. But I knew it would not work. The tension that lived between my shoulder blades spread through my body. Clenched.

You need to relax or I’ll never get inside.

He spoke those words with the greatest care and kindness, but I was trapped. I could not unsee what I had seen. I could not write a new story over the ugly one.

*

Years passed before anyone touched me there again.

*

My partner calls me her sun.

My sun.

*

All my friends know that I called my mother Mommy until the day I buried her, but to them I’ve always referred to my father as my father.

However, until the day I removed my father from my life some fifteen years ago when I was twenty-five, the fact is that I called him Daddy.

I hate telling you that.

*

I moved across the country. Each step taking me further into myself. I called my mother from a street corner one day to tell her I was queer. My body thrumming like I stood upon a precipice. There was her embrace of gay marriage, yes, but there was also the time two men kissed on Melrose Place and I could never forget the way she said, I don’t care what they do in private, but why do I have to see it? while I sat beside her with no language for the tight knitting of my toothpick body.

But after a brief and pulsing silence, what came carried through her voice was understanding.

That makes sense.

She had a way of really seeing things.

*

Whenever I disappointed my father, he made a show of biting his lip and holding his hand to his chest, swooning from some feigned wound. 

The older I get, the more distant we become, the more I see him in the mirror.

I bite my lip. I place my hand on my chest.

I feel the ugliness of other men inside of me.

You are so ugly.

*

In my new city, I dated a straight woman. Elsewhere, a man had just murdered 49 revelers at a gay club. On our second date I told her all about my dancer, our single night, the perfection of it, how it haunted me, how I knew I could never feel so safe again in the arms of a man as I had with him.

Later, as we fell apart, she framed my desire as some sort of compulsion. Some sickness.

Even if we’re together forever, you’re always going to want to sleep with men.

I could hear howling, then, in the three small bones inside my ear.

*

My love calls me her sun.

My sun.

We’d been friends for years when, after months of looking at each other in a new and strange light, we kissed for the first time. There was information, then, in the way her body moved. Invitation.

Like me, she is a writer, and years of sharing the roughest of drafts meant we met on a foundation of understanding. Of trust.

I used to watch her back, her shoulders, the strength of her unfolding in the words she wrote, in the way she mothered her wondrous children, in the way she tested the air with her body to feel the wind and gauge the chemistry of the day. I thought her a wild creature, kinked and curled, never kept.

On the porch swing, our lips met for the first time. There was something in the way she tilted the wind vane of her body into my arms. Something in the way we’d been looking at one another. Something in the space between us. I did something I’d never be so bold to do with anyone else without asking first.

I placed my hand upon her neck, and ever so gently, I laid the pad of my thumb across her windpipe.

And like all those years before, when the dancer had taken me in the middle of the bar, she surrendered. In that moment, she gave me her whole queer self. She let her strength rest, and all the weight she carried was hers alone no longer.

I would help her bear it.

*

The man I call my best friend these days listened as I told the story of the Rumble Pak boy who liked to call me ugly. We were sitting at a table with our lovers, four bisexuals gathered in a house upon a cliff overlooking the craggy beauty of the Oregon coast.

It’s taken years, I told them, to work through feeling ugly. To see beauty when I look into the mirror. And it’s still not always there.

He put his hand on mine.

You are a very strange-looking man. And you are beautiful.

*

Some things are very hard to tell you.

*

My lover calls me Daddy. She whimpers her adoration. She debases herself at my feet.

I was terrified to ask her to call me that, but I needed to know what it would feel like. And I had never felt safe enough with anyone to ask for it before.

As soon as I told her, I felt that shifting in her body, that opening of space. That consensual submission. She whispered the sodden word in my ear—and flowing into me was all the terrible weight and power of the word. It became a fluid thing, lifting where it once drooped, empowering where it once enervated.

I take good care of my pet. And she is only my pet by virtue of her willingness to give herself to me. The locus of our power exchange lives inside her—her strength, her agency, her caring kiss.

I get to play a role in the real world, now, in my own true body. My toothpick frame has swelled in recent years and my pet loves all of me, from my beard to my belly to the feet she kisses.

The father I knew never nurtured. My partner calls me Daddy because I do.

*

My father liked to sit outside at restaurants. It was difficult to keep his attention during conversations. Every time a woman walked by, his eyes would narrow, tracking her, traveling up and down the shape of her, assaying, devouring. I saw him as a cartoon, then, a leering wolf with its tongue hanging out of its mouth, saliva dripping past its fangs.

He’s my father, and he’s alive somewhere, and he’s a ghost.

*

At the coast, the four of us turned down the lights and drank and danced. In the beginning, there was room between us, but slowly the space contracted. I would touch my lover while the other lovers touched each other. Until we all found ourselves drawn to a center of gravity upon the rug beside the window looking out onto the ocean.

There was nothing planned. It just happened.

A glory of hands and tongues. Fingernails. Teeth. And an openness. A sharing. The intimacy of consent and the risk of exploration. A blurring of bodies, but with absolute clarity.

Some months before, my lover and my best friend and I had done something like this. The dancing, the closing of space. But we stopped just short of the physical. I stopped us. It wasn’t the thought of the two of them together that worried me. It was the space between him and me.

On the one hand, I felt safer with him than any other man I’d ever known. On the other hand, being sexual with him felt fraught. He was my best friend. What if we ruined our friendship? What if we wanted more? What if we turned back into the wolves we each once were, snarling and snapping? So we stopped.

Now here we were months later. My lover was on her knees, such a good pet, burying her face between his lover’s thighs. I kissed his lover while he touched her. And then my kiss with her broke and there he was, tall and close. He gestured at my lips and at his own. He asked for my consent, vulnerability sprawled across his face.

Can we?

I nodded. I had not kissed a man in many years, not since the falcon tried to fuck me but couldn’t for all that I held on to. Men. A constant desire, sometimes simmering, often burning. Never sated. And for him, I knew, it had been even longer. We shared in this struggle.

My best friend leaned towards me. In the shape of his movements he gave me the gift of utter openness and absolute safety. This entire moment of hands and bodies open to one another felt sacred, precious. If not now, when?

And still. And yet.

He puckered his lips and leaned, his face coming close. I could see all his pores, all the hairs sprouting from his stolid jawline, all the beauty of the strange crevices of his being tilting in to fill my long-denied desire, to give me the gift of what I wanted with all the safety I never felt I could be promised.

And the thought rose up, unbidden, a bedraggled beast clawing its way out from the deepest part of me as I took in his tongue and his stubble and the open wholeness of him.

You are so ugly.

*

If it came from the deepest part of me, does that mean it came from the place those men have touched?

Does the ugliness live beside the hidden, sacred beauty?

*

The next day, my pet and I were in the kitchen when my best friend came down the stairs. Weeping. You could see in the way his shoulders stooped, the way the tears dragged through his beard, the way his eyes seemed to want to slip out of his skull, just how much weight he was carrying.

We held him in our arms. We tried to bear as much of his burden as we could. We had each walked our own crooked paths to the queerness of our bodies. We had found this place. We were not alone.

We sat around the kitchen table. Through his tears he told us about the voices he heard speaking within him as he lay in bed that morning, listening to the surf outside the window. The howls of wolves from long, long ago.

Howls that said it was wrong to be touched by a man.

That it was wrong to even want that.

You fucking faggot.

I put my hand on his. I squeezed. He looked into my eyes and said thank you, with a gentleness that blew like oxygen on the hearth of my shame.

My beautiful friend. 


Daniel Isaiah Elder (he/they) is a 2018 Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Writer, and the Navigator for Lidia Yuknavitch's Corporeal Writing. His work appears in The Rumpus, Pidgeonholes, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and many more. He loves his cat, Terence.

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