|Leg Man||David Pratt|
and filters, coloring the view, bringing some things close, distancing others.
Steven held his camera disassembled while I attended him, holding filters and
a valuable lens while tin-foil divas and leather men flowed around us, swept on
to Mecca, to grab the comet's tail. Steven did not see the activists and the pale
recovering alcoholics, but stole glances at go-go boys' legs, as everyone sought
their place in the show of pride. Motorcycle grrrls revved. Somewhere my friends
in the People With AIDS Alliance mounted a flatbed trailer hung with pink crepe
paper bows like huge flaccid corsages. Corsage cortège. A few strong bodies
sported neon tank-tops, their buffed arms ready to launch fists like fireworks.
But my mind dwelt on the others, the ones I felt I'd deserted. Watery eyes stabbed
by the neon, they would exhibit themselves in silence. The river of the hopeful
and the offended flowed on around us, tugged at us, as Steven took the lens back
from me and assembled the mechanism that would organize his day.|
He'd brought six rolls of film, and fretted it would not be enough. Steven was visual, a man of moments and icons. After sex he liked to sit staring at People. Snapshots of himself with celebrities, taken at past parades, crowded his bookshelf. Amid the sunlit mêlées, frozen moments: RuPaul or Lypsinka towered over him, beamed extravagantly while Steven cracked a smile of satisfaction and embarrassment.
Last year, before I knew him, Steven had ridden with the gay volleyball league and had taken a whole roll, each shot varying just a degree from the one before, of some topless boys reaching from high up on a fire escape along the parade route -- each elongated torso perfectly rippled, sculpted arms raising into the sun a sign: "WE WANT HUSBANDS." To shoot at the sky like that Steven had had to use a special filter. I'd asked him if he knew any of the men. In a voice that might have been irritated, he just said, "No..." In the corner of one picture you see a volleyball guy tossing up a rose, but Steven said the husband hunters were up too high for it to reach them. Revealing the fire escape shots to me for the first time last week, Steven mumbled deprecations at himself for taking them, then quickly tucked them precisely back in an antique mother-o'-pearl box handed down by his grandmother.
On parade morning this year, his over-equipped camera took on an identity, like an ex-lover I hadn't been told would be there. And I had to cater to it and wait on it. I feared I'd scratch a filter or drop a lens, and shatter Steven's and my tenuous, two-month-old bond. On our first few dates I'd told myself I was coaxing him to bud and flower. He'd seemed a perfect, placid husband-dad, thirty-four-and-single to my thirty-eight-and-same. Now, on this day of icons and choices, pride and identity, I feared losing him, as he navigated the crowd with that camera.
Who to march with had proven a source of tension. Was I a person with AIDS or Steven's boyfriend? Was Steven a volleyball player or the boyfriend of a person with AIDS?
The Sunday before, as we'd sat on his couch during a break in a Barbra Streisand special, he argued in upbeat blurts that, hey, I wasn't "like them." He thought he was complimenting me. I was strong and did not need to ride on a flat-bed. "I don't know," he said. "Look, it's a little pathetic, if you want to know. Not pathetic, but... All of them flocked together like that..."
"You don't think it's inspiring? The solidarity?"
"I don't know. It's like they're asking for pity. Like, just the fact of riding together. I don't know..."
"Maybe they're celebrating survival."
"But you're not 'surviving'. You haven't been sick a day in your life. It's like you don't have it at all. And you're not a militant! Look, can we not talk about it right now..?"
I drew back but didn't take my arm from around his shoulders. "When would you like to talk about it?" But the commercial was over and Barbra had his attention. Discussion ceased, by decree of the remote. I made an incremental surrender, gradually leaning back into his soft, round shoulder. Finally he pressed against me.
We finally settled that I would ride with the volleyball team. I told myself he was right: I did not identify with illness, nor with display or with militancy. Militancy of a certain kind, at least. I am a defiant person, at times. Volleyball felt frivolous next to my friends' problems, but maybe I thought I should learn to be frivolous, now and again. Maybe I was intrigued at the idea of being a different, more playful kind of guy, smiling and relaxing on a float. Floating.
Still, I felt the nauseous tug of the serious. The righteous, the right, the happily unhappy. I did resent how Steven had put it -- "pathetic" -- but I told myself that he'd just happened to use that word. It was my button that got pushed. This relieved me in a weird way, believing this.
Now, as the parade kickoff approached, he got the camera together, the hungry, preserving eye, and we proceeded down Fifty-third to the volleyball float, toward his friends. Steven had introduced me to a few of them, once -- shown me if not exactly shown me off -- but I decided they knew little about me. As we wove toward them, Steven began to point the humongous telephoto at the bare legs of strange men, but he didn't click. What was that lens for, that weighed more than the camera? You didn't need it for boys on a fire escape, and the rest of the year he took only pictures of random friends straining facial muscles in restaurants.
I'd noticed early on, that Steven checked every pair of legs that passed. "I'm a leg man," he'd explained lightly, but said no more. I'd never asked him if he thought I had nice legs. I questioned him about the state of our relationship, but I'd never asked him if my legs measured up. I knew he didn't like his own stout calves. I liked them fine, and asked him why he didn't. He turned away muttering, "I don't know!" as though I were a fly asking the question. He was, as he'd told me, visual and not verbal. Now he aimed that scary eye at passing calves, but not at mine. (When we say "legs" don't we usually mean calves, the shapely grails in which we seek a fused grace, manliness and solidity?)
The volleyball float was a flatbed trailer with a scaled-down Astroturf court and a net. The guys would play exhibition shirts-and-skins throughout the parade. Gray bleachers rose behind the cab of the truck for guys rotated out of play, and for on-board spectators. There were only three of us spectators; the other two knew one another already. Most of the volleyball guys hadn't brought anyone. They were single, in spite of having joined the league in search of husbands.
The volleyballers shook my hand, and joking about how there were only three of us, steered me to the bleachers. I'd be carried down Fifth Avenue and across Eighth and Christopher to the River, watching a forever scoreless volleyball game. Thousands would watch me watching. No, not really. They'd just see me. I'd pass across their retinas, part of the mosaic of light, but they would not register me. Would I ever be there in their cells? If they did stop, see, wonder, would they think I was awkward or uninterested or no fun. I am not awkward, and I am a very interested man. Just in other things. Of my own. On the AIDS float I would have done and meant more, created the day, my day, blossoming from my inside out over the city. But then, that's the problem with activists, right? Ego. On the volleyball float I could just watch for a change, like the normal, nice guy I came here to be. Normal, nice, invisible, loved. Floating. Yet instead of watching the game and hearing the crowd, I worried myself in silence. Had I made the wrong choice? Was I allowing Steven's poor imagination to reduce me?
Pre-game, Steven stood apart from me, on the Astroturf, but apart from the other volleyballers, too. He sited more legs through his camera, then looked at me and grinned a fading grin.
As we crept down the boulevard of dreams I tried to sit casually, guard the camera, and care about an exhibition game. We spectators had been instructed to clap and cheer -- at everything. When Steven rotated out of the game, he hunkered beside me and photographed the parade and the crowd. We passed the same fire escape of shirtless guys -- with a new husband sign -- but Steven didn't take pictures. When he was rotated back into the game, I held the touchy camera in my lap, aware of the weight of that gross, ridiculous lens, his pipeline to utopia, and I thought I kept my eye on the ball. The crowd applauded and yelled "Woooooo!" at the guys playing skins. Steven had pointed out to me that his team did have someone with AIDS, a pumped, shaved guy with nipple rings who was all up and down the net spiking every chance he could get, and who clapped and whistled even more when nothing was happening than when something was.
After the expanse of Fifth Avenue, the parade squeezed its mad desires into narrow Village streets six deep with shirtless, sunglassed men. A seventh layer of lost boys circulated continuously behind, seeking more. At West Street, a block short of the Hudson River, the parade dissolved into a massive milling crowd, working its way down to the water to booth after booth peddling power rings, tube socks, T-shirts, hissing sausages and bootleg dance tapes. Steven had to help break down the volleyball float on a brick-lined side street. He insisted I didn't have to help. We'd meet up at a pre-arranged spot across the West Side highway, by the booths selling off the by-products of the day. The evidence.
But the crush on both sides was hopeless, and we never found one another. From a pay phone I called his machine, and said I'd simply come over early that evening, before the dance on the pier. I went to find my friends from the AIDS float.
They sat in shade farther up the promenade. Stanley, face like a bitter walnut, drank lemonade and condemned New York Times coverage of the epidemic. Alan's beeper went off and with a great deal of byplay he removed his plastic pill case from his little plaid back pack, searched out and plucked from the case a homeopathic pill, and with a cocking back of his head like he was going to swallow a sword, placed the tiny thing under his tongue. Then he stared straight ahead, and we knew it was dissolving.
I wanted to go back and climb all over Steven, feel his sweat and chunkiness slamming me, even if he didn't wish me to cum on his bare skin, even if he never said so but only mumbled each time as he deliberately rolled me onto my back, "I wanna see you cum on yourself. Yeah, that's right..." I wanted to cum on calves with him -- schoolboy calves, dancer calves, bundles of muscle shifting and flexing under the skin.
I did not feel proud to have spent the day ferried down the streets of New York, motionless, watching exhibition volleyball. Yet to my horror, I did feel relieved not to have ridden with these men: Stanley who had moved on to trashing The Observer; kindly Craig, placid in his lawn chair with his red-ribboned teddy bear, Ethel (as in Mertz, Lucy's sidekick), the chair's webbing interwoven with more red. They did make a show of it. Each made his own special show. I looked at Stanley's stick legs, and felt a surge of anger that Steven would not only not photograph them, he would not even see them. He'd filter them out.
I surveyed the group again and could not find our friend Scott. When I inquired, Craig told me Scott had felt faint, been carried from the float and gone to the St. Vincent's Emergency Room. Craig told the story one suggestive line at a time; I had to stand there asking and asking -- while the others stared into the middle distance and said nothing -- in order to finally figure out that Scott was basically okay.
Screw them, I thought after that, and excused myself.
When I reached Steven's apartment that evening, I was exhausted ready to collapse. In a light, even voice, a tone I read as relief, he volunteered that he didn't mind going to the dance with just his volleyball friends. He promised he'd only stay a little while. I confess to feeling a little relief, too. And excitement at the prospect of being alone in Steven's apartment. I could possess it in a way I had not before. We said affable, almost manic good-byes, and made sure to kiss, but as I turned and hurried for the bedroom I heard a clunk in the foyer. I stopped. I came silently up the hallway again and leaned to look. Now he wore his camera, the strap around his neck, his left hand gripping the lens protectively as he ducked out the front door.
I wandered the apartment. I had never been there without him. I began to open drawers and file cabinets, to feel the tops of closets and under the bed, for what I knew not. In the end all I had to do was stand in the bedroom and look up. Six weeks with Steven and I had not once looked up and seen the row of boxes, tell-tale yellow peeking out, color of the envelopes in which developed photos are returned. I brought them down and laughed sharply as I took them out in batches: by my estimate, more than 800 photographs of young male legs. Ha!" I cried aloud. "Ha-ha! Sonofabitch..!"
The envelopes were dusty, the older the dustier. The grains had been harvested at Gay Pride parades, on beaches, on ordinary City streets, snapped at unsettling tilts that reminded me of the trend in magazines -- random, slanty photos of anonymous subjects, blurred, titles consisting just of location, date, time: "Canal Street, 1:30 p.m., November 13, 1996"; "Union Square, 3:53 p.m., April 29, 1997." Enthralled, my heart thumping, I riffled through, stopping, raced on, went back, pulled out whole fresh stacks, then darted, hairpinned back to submerge myself in certain subjects whose perfection mystery or audacity I couldn't absorb. I went under. I felt high. Eight hundred was way too much and not nearly enough.
The pictures all cut off their subjects at the waist or the tops of the thighs, but these men sounded their siren calls more achingly through their calves than if I'd seen their whole bodies. And all were taken from the back: hundreds of stolen secret parts, hundreds of lads, strong, disease-free (the legs at least betrayed no sign), virtuous, without heads or torsos, there just for me.
I did not intend to look at them all. I did not intend to turn some endwise in their stacks so I could go back and look again. By virtue of their legs I imagined some of the young men to be exceptional in their souls. Destined. I longed for some faces, then thought that I preferred to see none. Just legs kept the pictures purer, easier to look at. Many of the legs, you could tell, had been snagged from a distance, with a zoom or telephoto. I thought of the primitive belief that photographs steal the soul.
The key turned in the lock at eleven. The stacks of photos ringed me and would not let me put them away. Steven found me cross-legged on the bed, slick legs stacked everywhere.
He didn't look angry. The photos seemed to tell him not to be. They'd mediate between us. I would say that he looked sad, and caught. A little rueful. I always loved that word, and at that moment, with Steven caught and rueful, I loved him in a new way. "Yeah," he mumbled, "I wondered how long before you found 'em..."
"It's okay," I said, trusting the photos now to do their intercessory work, the reconciliation of their children.
Steven came and sat not too close to me on the bed. I noticed again his own legs -- stocky, powerful, with black hair. Though powerful, they did lack the sleekness, the brazen bareness of the legs he favored, that led my hungry mind up past coy hems into the half-dark, the supposedly unseen whiteness and the generative spot where legs meet. Though Steven turned me on, on the open market he was a case of almost-but-not-quite.
"I guess you are a leg man," I said.
"Guess I am," he sighed, and smiled. Already my attention was diverted by a slick color photo of a stunning pair of calves that'd push hard and flex with power.
He saw me looking. "That was on Fourteenth Street," he said. "Last spring, at a street fair."
Steven could recite the location and circumstances of almost every photo, going back eight years. He always remembered the occasion, but had known none of the men. None was a friend or a member of the volleyball team. Many of the men and boys had been, Steven said, "really amazing," but now only their legs survived -- the remains of male praying mantises.
"That one wasn't that cute," he said pointing to one, "but those legs saved him." Of others he said I'd have to have seen the guy to appreciate why he took the legs.
Some were shaved or over-developed, or had tanning parlor tans. The outré artifice excited me. Others touched me for just happening to be there, happening to be bare and young and shapely. I ached to embrace their guilelessness. A few, taken with that intrusive telephoto, looked underage. The innocence and the violation stopped my heart. I wanted to find myself looking at the legs of some man I knew. Even more I wanted to see my own legs, shot before I knew Steven. "That's me," I'd say, and he'd finally accept me.
Instead I said, "Were you always a leg man?" I placed my hand on his knee. He flinched but did not pull away. I felt his coarse hair and wanted to take him, to leave myself on his less-than-perfect calves.
"Well, see... I don't know. It's kind of embarrassing, but... I didn't, like, have sex for a long time, in my twenties? My therapist said I was a 'sexual anorexic.' I don't know. I just didn't feel like it. Plus BBI. That's "bad body image." I had that. I still kind of do. I weighed more. I don't know. My brother-in-law gave me the camera...
"I wanted something to have... To hold onto. When guys have really good legs..? That's the first thing I ever noticed. Sexually, I mean. I don't know. Shorts, like, shocked me. I thought I was the only one who saw...
"This boy at camp? We were ten or eleven, but he had these beautiful, like adult legs. I tried to get behind him everywhere we went. I felt like he had everything, and he was gonna get everything. I had an Instamatic. I saved my film, and at the end of camp I went around taking everybody's picture. Girls did that mostly, but I did it so I could make this guy, Eric, pose so his legs'd show." He'd begun rocking himself, and his motion entered my own body. "I got him to do it. In the picture he's smiling, so it looks like he's my friend. But he didn't really even know me. He just smiled at everyone. He looks like my buddy. I never had that, so..."
I interrupted: "You still have it? The picture?"
He stopped rocking. He twisted around and opened his sock-and-underwear drawer. From the compartment where he kept condoms he took a yellow-brown envelope. He drew out a faded color photo with a matte surface and rounded corners. A beaming child with, yes, thick, shapely calves beyond his years. The photo gave off, by its very age and fadedness, by the very distance of its image, something that had in fact not faded, something present and eternal. That boy would have everything. The man he had become did might not have everything today, but the boy in the photo would always have it all before him.
Steven stared and rocked. "You know what sorta weirded me out?" he said. "I had this out on the shelf, with the one of me and RuPaul at the Pride parade? I looked at it every day. Eric could do it, y'know, when no one else could? I don't know. Everyone noticed it. I told 'em he was my best friend from when I was a kid. I didn't pretend I knew RuPaul, but I pretended I knew Eric. I made up stories about stuff we did, said I'd lost touch with him.
"My friends said they wished they'd had that when they were kids, and I said, 'Yeah, I was lucky.' They'd all been obsessed, one time or other. But they hadn't actually gotten to know the kid like I supposedly had. I don't know. The real thing that scared me was, I started like, believing? That he was my buddy? Even now I do. I tell you it's not true. That's what I'm supposed to say. But underneath it's like I think I'm lying, telling you what makes sense to placate you, or satisfy someone who might be listening. But he was my buddy, in some other dimension, more real than what any of you would call reality. And so...in a way...it's true...
"I liked telling him how to sit and him doing it. Like he knew what I wanted. He didn't think it was weird at all. Maybe he'd even done it before, I don't know. But me being the one with the camera. I got what I wanted. Now... I click, or I get 'em back and I think, I got away with it. Guy might even be straight, he doesn't know. But it's embarrassing, too. Money, the time, film someone made, thinking it'd be for a wedding or a vacation. It's like stealing someone's wallet and you stopped in a dark alley and look and there's no money. Can I ask you something?"
"Don't ever actually say that Eric wasn't, you know... Okay?" His eyes' dark liquid hardened.
"I know you know, you know I know, but don't ever say the actual sentence, okay?"
"I won't. Promise."
He got up, turned down the bedroom lights, and lit a couple of candles. We stared by candlelight at his pile, our pile, now, of legs. I wanted to ask if I could have dupes of certain ones. The shot, for example, of two pairs of maybe fifteen-year-old male calves, standing side-by-side in Bryant Park. Waiting. I swooned having to have them. I'd placed that photo at the back of its stack, and memorized the envelope. I tried to think when I'd be alone here again, so I could sneak the negative out...
I watched Steven. He just stared at his pictures and rocked gently.
Our relationship would last for a while. We might see the end of summer together, might even become inseparable. At least till I could get dupes. But we would not love one another.
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