The Back Room


Aging Awfully

Miguel Gutierrez

I crave abduction by aliens. I want to be probed, to find out what kind of specimen I am to an advanced species. It might not be so scary –– I’ve touched and been touched by hundreds of men, most of whom I didn’t know. I’ve descended stairs carved out of stone, wearing nothing but socks and sneakers, to end up in a basement where naked men fuck in dark corners. The walls were probably seething with germs. Abduction can’t be much riskier than that. So yeah, beam me up.

Everything is creaky now. Rust forms on the inside of my bones. Morning means opening my eyes and beginning a game called “How will we negotiate weight and willingness today?” First level –– I sit up brusquely like Frankenstein. My feet don’t so much land on the floor as force me to confront my bipedal nature. I imagine what it will be like in twenty or thirty years when one false move will mean plummeting to the ground. In the second level of the game, I negotiate with body dysmorphia –– not identifying as fat, but as a person who believes he will soon be skinny again. I take this misdirected perception and near-death fabulation to the toilet, where the third level begins by gauging whether or not I can twist my middle-aged heft far enough to circumnavigate my butt cheeks and wipe my asshole.

Another place I am naked and probed is on the massage table, my face wedged into the towel-covered donut cushion. I spend the first part of the massage looking for the masseur’s feet as they enter and exit my oval field of vision. I try to project erotic excitement onto them but am too caught up with how they mediate gravity to get much of a thrill. I see various strategies, mostly in the toes. Some toes curl away from the floor, elfin-like, as if singing or smiling at life. Their upturned glee suggests that balance is the job of the center of the body, far from the carefree domain of toes. Others grip the ground with the obstinacy of an NRA advocate, tethering themselves to the Earth as we careen through space. Rare are the toes that extend with ease, calmly accepting their role as ballasts of the body. In between feet sightings, I create a ghost image of the masseur based on where I feel his hands, co-dependently speculating on whether he wants to be there with me at all.

I recently went off my antidepressants. There was no intentionality to it. Long story short my prescription ended, and after a few weeks of trying to get it refilled, it just wasn’t. I imagined the chemicals leaving my body like soap down a drain. I’m experiencing things unfiltered now, without the mediation that has, for the past five years, made the world tolerable. I’m back to the weight of things. Every day I feel heaviness and wonder –– is it real or is it me? Am I just a corroded filter, arranging everything into declensions and worst-case scenarios? I am tender and the world is brutal. The world can also be tender. The breeze caresses my arms and I tear up.                      

Drawings by Miguel Gutierrez, from Metonymically Yours, 2023. Drywall, paint, paper, pencil, soft pastels, dirt, tape, plywood, glassine, screws.

When you tip a camboy, the vibrator he has up his ass reacts. Bigger tips mean longer vibrations, or more intense levels of vibration. My favorite tip levels are the ones that set off patterns with names like “earthquake” or “waves.” I love timing the tips so that just as one pattern ends another starts. It’s a way of being a “dom” in that space, keeping the vibrations going. It’s the closest I’ll get to playing video games, a grownup version of Space Invaders. The boys I like best have the sexiest responses to the vibrations. They moan audibly, their skin flushes red, and their muscles flex, creating lusty indentations and shadows that turn me on. If they’re acting, it’s pretty good acting, because they stretch out pleasure over minutes. I don’t know how anyone can jerk off that furiously for that long without coming –– like anything, I guess the good ones are good because they practice, or because it’s a gift.

I listen for the neighbor to tell if they’re home. I press my ear to the wall, matching what I hear to what is happening. I know the sounds of humans, the shapes and vibrations they make. If I hear them, I turn the computer down, because I’m self-conscious about the noisy moans of men fucking. I don’t want to be rude to my neighbor. I don’t want them to reach for a dirty dish and be frozen mid-wipe because of a big-dicked daddy’s grunt as he cums on a hairy otter’s ass in Brazil. I don’t want them to know I’m just lying here, masturbating for hours at a time.

My father spent the last ten years of his life slowly disappearing. When he finally died, it was just a soft step through a metaphysical curtain that had been thickening for a decade. His sole agency in those years was to say no to things. One time he refused to take his medication. I tried to shove the pills into his mouth and he recoiled, arms crossed and lips shut tightly like a belligerent toddler. I was furious. The next morning he got up at five a.m., as he had been doing for a week, and went for a long walk in the neighborhood. This was the reason that I was home –– to walk behind him at a short distance and make sure he didn’t fall or get hurt. He was saying no to being kept at home. I felt like his malevolent shadow, or the world’s worst spy. It was just us in the pre-dawn spookiness of Floridian suburbs. The further he walked, the more he started listing to the left, and I got closer and closer for fear that he would tumble to the sidewalk. Eventually I was right up alongside him. He stopped. Unexpectedly I started sobbing, saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, thinking of the night before. He said, I forgive you. You and your sister, you are everything. I forgive you.

Living longer means you witness the daily onslaught of stupid and mean that passes for reality.

Living longer means you witness the toggle between progression and backlash, over and over like a tennis game from hell.

Living longer means you meet young people who are better or worse versions of who you once were.

Living longer means you draw the logic of your perspective into a latticework of meaning that purportedly helps you see patterns, something you might call “maturity.” But more often than not it feels like you’re just decorating a cage of your own design, rendering yourself unsupple and resistant to change.

Living longer means coming to terms with whether or not this is true, every day.

I think about whether I’ll end up like him. I wonder if, as I write this, my arteries and veins are calling to each other, bypassing capillaries and making the slow shift towards knotty, destabilizing unions in my brain, as they did with him. I see him when I look at my legs, the parts of his body my mother liked most. I hear him when I cough in the shower, how it starts with the sharp intake of breath before the exhale ricochets like a tiny superball, bouncing frenetically off the walls. When I was a kid, the force of his cough could be heard through the whole house. Later I’ll see him breathe as forcefully as this without coughing, in a coma in an ice-cold room at the hospital. His body jerks up and down violently on the bed like a scene from The Exorcist. I scream at the indifferent nurse to do something, anything, and eventually we take him to a different hospital where they ask me for permission to intubate. I don’t even know what that is, but I say yes. I walk into his new hospital room after they’ve done the deed and am consumed with shame when I see how easeful his breath comes now.    

When I get a four-handed massage, I track the movements to gauge who is where, when. With four hands the sensory input is meant to be so deliciously overwhelming you’re ecstatically transported to a place beyond judgment. I can’t help making evaluative assessments. With one couple I hire, one guy’s hands are warm, comforting, and gently authoritative –– he’s a natural masseur. The other one is cooler and lighter in his touch, more promiscuous along my skin, which has its own pleasures but ultimately comes off as non-committal, superficial. He tries to outpace my surveillance, but I’m good. I always know where he is, mostly because of my disappointment that he’s not the other guy. I project their ways of touching onto their relationship dynamics, deciding the warm-handed guy is the anchor, a steady, comforting force, an avatar for me. Cool-handed guy is the agent of chaos, the unpredictable randomness of a thoughtless world –– a stand-in for everything and everyone else. I experience the four-handed massage as a battle between forces of self and other, integrity/corruption. This tidy binary comes undone at the end of the massage, when cool-handed guy mounts the table and offers me his ass to rim as he ejaculates onto my chest, while warm-handed guy jerks me off. Suddenly, cool-handed guy represents not chaos, but freedom. He’s given himself the agency to allow his own pleasure into the room, while warm-handed guy plods on in dutiful, joyless strokes, until I cum, which he receives with a grim expression of finality. He turns to get a towel and the war continues.

On my laptop, the cam site registers the image of the boys in landscape mode. On the phone it’s portrait. Regardless of the screen, I size the image to maximize the picture. If I go full screen on the computer, I lose the distraction of the chat box and the camboy begins to approach life size. I see ring lights reflected in his pupils and make out the details of his tattoos and foreskin wrinkles. It’s all a trick of satellites, I know, signals pinging through the stratosphere, but sometimes I forget the flatness and believe that I’m sensing –– truly feeling –– his three-dimensional body. I predict what his temperature will be, what his muscle tone will feel like when touched, how mobile he’ll be while actually fucking. I imagine myself in the room as a welcome visitor, a beneficiary of that most powerful skill of sex workers everywhere: the illusion that everything he’s doing, all of his attention, is just for me.

My aunts (on his side of the family) say Te pareces exactamente como él. I wince because I know what they’re really saying. They want to keep him alive through me. I’m a corporeal safeguard against their own mortality. They want to claim my body, but not me. I’m too much of a faggot for them to care. They never ask me about my life, my work, or my ex-partner –– who, by the way, always says I look more like my mom. But he only ever saw my dad dead in an open casket.

Sometimes in actual sex the center of my body becomes a non-place, eclipsed, a shadow in the x-ray. My limp dick knows the lines but can’t show up to the play, so I send the script boomeranging through the rest of me, hoping that some other cluster of cells will make up for the difference, or that I’ll trick my impotence by drawing lust from a distant limb. My default strategy is to turn my imagination into a pornographic multiplex, each theater rehashing a scenario I experienced in person or saw recently. But the trajectory in the theater is frantic. Doors become merry go rounds; more often than not I’m just hurtling through sexless corridors. Reliability and excellence, those traits that I prize so much in my identity as a performer, as a person, vacate, leaving me unstable and mediocre, a man with far too much melancholy. If I’m lucky, the shadow eclipse dissipates, and warmth and feeling return. Time falls back into joint. The idea of me and the body of me align, and I don’t need anything other than what’s happening at that exact moment. If I’m lucky.

After a recent performance, several friends remark, “Wow! I haven’t seen you dance like that for years!” or, “Your dancing was so beautiful!” My warped mind hears this as, “Your work is usually so ugly,” or “It’s surprising to see a fat, old guy move well.” I internally calculate the number of years it’s been since they saw my work, because “evidence” of my dancing ability has been present throughout. I think about the strange, ever-persistent equation between a pointed foot or a high leg and “good” dancing. My bottomless need for affirmation latches onto their fascination with “my dancing” as proof of their inability to acknowledge all the other components of the work I make –– the text, the sound design, the visual life of the work. “Dancing,” in my mind, is just one facet of a massive diamond I’m showing off like an overeager fiancée. Everyone’s responses strike me as colossal failures of imagination. However, beyond the evil machinations of my narcissistic ego lies a truth: I don’t want to be a body that is remarked upon. I want to be understood as invisible. No, a thread in a larger tapestry of undulating, energetic fabric, an ebb in the ocean of despair I frame into moments of time I call “my work.” I want a life vest, not a compliment.

What would happen on the spaceship, if I were taken? Abductees talk about the fear they went through –– tests and probes, injections and implantations –– as if all we are to an alien race is a mysterious mechanism, understood through invasive procedures. If that’s the case, then I am abducted every time I go to the doctor or acquiesce to a dispiriting sexual encounter. My father was abducted for months on end in the hospital, tubes going in and out of his arms, his brain, his belly, his dick, doctors barely interacting with him except through printouts and medication. He was a thing to be studied, hovering on the fifteenth floor of a building while the world buzzed ceaselessly outside.

Some of the camboys insert enormous dildos into themselves, pausing for moments to allow you to see into the red-ringed abyss of their holes, as if to say the final frontier is internal. I have an awkward exchange with someone in the morning and suddenly I’m emotionally distorted, outside looking in at a tableau of disconnectivity, removed from the comforting order of things that make sense. I don’t really need a flying saucer. I am already in outer space.

The Back Room