Sometimes we died instantaneously. Inside mostly, suddenly a stranger in a public and crowded place. Our faces, our memories, alien inside us. Other times, we died so so slowly. Our limbs growing weak then numb then gone. You would leave the room and it felt like breathing. It felt like before.
You, generous in stating ‘love’ like it was panacea and not a symptom we could see. You, whose only love was your frivolous fun, your politics, your principles, your galas, and your glimmer bauble awards. How your love killed us, our bodies of knowledge neglected, the CDC was never good at measuring us. But you, well, they found your infectious numbers worthy of study.
Our most distant families read about the new wave of disease killing “those Castro Chelsea Street fags” and they pictured you in that hospital bed, not us, those who would actually die. Thick calligraphy brush eyebrows, skin the color you and your lookalikes liken to your favorite confections, last names identical to their own. We aren’t what our families had in mind when they said fag—their resentment looked like you and your friends, for wherever you go, we die.
Symptomatic you: calling the police on us for reading out on our stoops, insisting you weren’t safe until the block was cleared of our people, our songs, our businesses. Symptomatic you: bleach-teethed soft-voiced problems, crowded into a frame by the sea, captioned how you had no idea a place like Puerto Vallarta could exist in The Mexico. How you had no idea there were Asian people and Black people in Latin America. Symptomatic you: incapable of hiding your childish disappointment, Oh. I thought you were all uncut.
Your face is pristine, reflected sharp and whole in the archive glass. In that same glass our faces are smudgy, unrealized. We wonder, aloud, why is this? You backtrack only to continue your worn path. Well, if you think about it, this is art. Stolen art, we remind you. Can you please lighten up? I get it, the past is heavy but when will you all move on? You ask us: When will your art go further than personal testimonies, if not for microaggressions would you have anything to say? Can’t you just give it a damn rest? You continue to play arbitrator curator supreme judge. You, always in a position to ‘remediate,’ as if we are the things making you sick. Deciding a moratorium on when and how to tell our stories, on the negative, the heavy, the parable, and it’s just not funny enough.
You, talking about agency, rising above the background—never considering that this was your work to do. For you are at an age where you cannot explain away how lonely you make people feel, blaming your consequences on your familial past.
You can’t see it. Past and present you is still, and always, happening to us.
500 years ago a few pale strangers arrived on our shores. We could see the syphilis covering their lips, the scurvy surrounding their pupils, the gunpowder beneath their fingernails. Their hungers naked and endless. We didn’t think your love of history would bring you here, stepping off that plane with sores we could not yet see. Another chronic symptom of you: transforming togetherness into a narcissistic act, stepping into our arms like presumption.
You don’t say how we fell in love, instead you say:
I just found out about this restaurant in the Outer Mission, and do you know who I found working there? I discovered the love of my life. Your friends nod. We worry they will sprain their necks, their agreements so vehement, they too are pioneers. Excited, loud, runny-mouthed, lecturing us on their most recent discoveries: gender, their own shadows suddenly large at dusk, oppression, the rising costs of airfare.
You don’t have a relationship with your father but you seem to enjoy doing everything his father’s father enjoyed doing—what you couldn’t put onto our bodies you found new names for. I just think Outer Missions sounds so much better, more continuity. Excelsior, what is this, a rallying cry?
We know our homes. We know their foundations won’t rot or yield, but adapt instead, outlast the maladies, survive you.
You told us there was never supposed to be a future for men like us. That pride and this present pleasure were all we could ever afford. Your kiss, your amber bottle of pool cleaner, your tickets to the circuit; all of it would make us free. Live liberated with me, you pleaded.
You were wrong. We always had a future. It shares the same roof of the house we knew as children—where the word faggot was dropped from the vocabulary when it became clear that we are the bindings of the house, not a pestilence; where babies are washed in kitchen sinks, where parents don’t say I’m sorry, instead they say, come and eat—far more free from the world you fashioned from Neiman Marcus Crate and Barrel Tahoe Aspen Fire Island Boystown Northampton getaways.
When generous, we might say you forgot, might continue to ignore your most glaring pathogens, you never knew nor cared to know: your library card, unused; museums that we somehow got a partial wing in, unvisited; our friendships, unqualified, unable to cure you. Truth is, we don’t know what would’ve gotten through to you—our words exhausted, every metaphor, all those vulnerable hours, wasted—we are not free in your pale blue-veined Neverland.
Your freedom is far more important than our lives. We know this is what you mean when you insist on hugging us after a fight, like you would never harm us again, like we aren’t dying.
You tried to get better. Your hola and your lo siento became impeccable, though you always uttered our languages as exotic italics. You tried to get better. But things were always too hard and you abandoned the work of our lives. You wondered what you would be without your zip code, how you would think were it not for the books on your parent’s shelves, how far you would have made it in the corporate world without the people you know. Too hard. Not enough room for all of your accomplishments. You made yourself sick again.
The toll is rising from the tens of thousands to the hundreds. You shake your head, cough, scratch, look at us for acknowledgement of your suffering. You don’t yet know that we are dead. Side by side, we receive an identical diagnosis at a doctor’s office your insurance can afford. The doctor picked up your call on the first ring, asks you to take it from the top, no mention of the several messages we left prior. He talks only to you, defines death as the moment the heart stops. You nod your head, this is news to you. We may as well not be in this room, watching, disembodied. Our deaths go beyond scientific description. The doctor can’t measure us, the unaddressed half in the room, can’t see how we manage our afterlives here at your side.
You don’t get to be the sole victim, and when we tell you this, you say we are idiots, assholes, too self-hating to get it. You tell us our culture is what’s wrong with us. Our people is what’s wrong with us. Not being you is what’s wrong with us. Constant exposure to you—your words don’t kill us like they used to. We are immune.
No. We say. We know who you are. You are your father. You are your country. You are your over-intellectualized takes on other people’s problems, problems you would never survive were they ever yours. You are over-educated. Bookshelves lined with classic philosophy, Freud, your dog eared Velvet Rage that you swore would civilize us as it did you, and still, you never learned how to listen. (No, selective hearing doesn’t count, my dear.) You are a lifetime of avoidance. You are the absence of innocence dressed in itchy white linen, illuminated by sunsets.
In the eyes of the law, you are our spouse. Until death. Equals. You couldn’t let go that we fashioned ourselves. To you we are nothing but the sum of liquor stores, ghetto and lawless and phobic. You foamed, raged, moved out of our home for some time after we sat you down, asked you: why are your favorite circuit parties prison-themed? Why do you insist so adamantly that we go harnessed, cuffed, gagged, yours? We wouldn’t go, wouldn’t be one of the black-brown party favors you and your friends pass around. No, you don’t get to book us or put us in your pretend cages. Don’t touch or grab at us like that. There is nothing erotic about the shower room you have made of the dance floor.
You push the Velvet Rage back into our faces. Don’t see us. You gesture at your friends gathered in our doorway, these parties are about being free. You opened the book to read your favorite passage, likening gay men to pilgrims marching west, endless road to balmy weather, truth, beauty, and justice.
How you slammed the front door when we reminded you that the west was never empty.
We were already here. We will continue to be.
The reverberations of the slammed door and the quiet afterward unhinge something inside our bodies. We cannot allow you to kill us anymore.
You want us out of your life, but we were never truly a part of it. Certainly not as equals. Your friends said we wanted your money. Your clout. Your friends said no man would look twice at us if we weren’t already attached to you at the hip; we would just be another colored nobody. Rice Queen, Bean Queen, that’s the worst they ever said of you. You smiled, looked upon us with drunk affection: I love Rice. I love Beans. I guess I am that kind of Queen.
Our friends asked us if we were insane. That we should never hope with men like you. That the only way whiteboys like you would so much as look at us was if we were on a bar top, a platinum blonde lace front taped to our scalps, bedazzled leotard making it hard to breathe, lip-syncing along to a Black pop star you once claimed as your spirit animal. Our friends told us that to you and your ilk, we were good enough for a damp and wrinkled dollar bill stuffed into our waistbands; never good enough to take home, never to meet your parents.
Our friends said worse, made cryptic curses. Look in their eyes, they told us. Can you tell the difference between them wanting you in their beds, or wanting you dead? Those are expectant eyes, sick on what their fantasies promised. Those hands take as if they are owed everything. For a while, we lost our friends. We reminded them of their younger years. The years they wore reptile-emerald, Aryan-ice, ambiguous-amber colored contacts whenever they left the house.
We reminded our friends of that one time they drunkenly admitted to wonder. Wondering what your lips might feel like. Theoretically, speaking. Always a clarification as punctuation. We reminded our friends that they are human and don’t always live up to their words: how they always told us don’t worry about what white people think, but quickly forgot their mantra whenever they were up for their annual work performance reviews. We lost our friends, though most of them returned to us in time.
We know how to apologize. I’m sorry I said he only wanted you because he was out of options. We respond, I’m sorry I took advantage of your insecurities. Our love returns. For a moment we are asymptomatic of you. A gift to be in the company of those who know what we have already survived, for they have survived you themselves.
It is our turn to return to all the places our lives together required us to abandon.
Some of us will return to Inglewood-Excelsior-Compton. Some of us will return to Jackson Heights-Northside-Westside. Some of us will return to Balboa-Pilsen-Fruitvale. The last of us board that plane, that ship, crossing rivers and oceans to return back to the homes your lookalikes swore you mail-ordered us from.
You keep calling our phone, filling our inbox, asking us what happened, what was it that killed us? You just wanted to fuck us, and you hate us all over again for saying what we know.
Do you actually miss us? Miss having that safe black-brown space for your tearful confessions? How your parents were mean to the gardener-cook-nanny growing up so you always make sure to tip hotel maids so so so so much. How envious you are of your richer friends, the places they go, the men they can pay for pleasure, their perpetually filled Grindr inbox. How sometimes, when we are not there, you touch yourself to the thought of fucking and being fucked by someone you have yet to discover. You think of your body as an unfulfilled passport days away from expiration. Countries of skin tone you haven’t seen up close, the languages of other hips and thighs and tongues and fingers you have yet to master, other you’s you could have been if not for us.
We are not there for you when your past finds you, again, and again, and again. You won’t ever bring yourself to express how you don’t want to die alone. Not on the inside like this. Unfathomable, undignified in how it is unendingly slow and so unyieldingly cruel. You never thought you could die our deaths.
No, my dears, you wanted the suffering that being a gay man afforded you to absolve you of your white skin, of the past, of all you refuse to see. We present you vetted scientific fact, our lived knowledge, telling you that fading doesn’t need to be like this and all you can say is, I’m sorry you feel that way.
Don’t tell me how to feel! You screamed at the backs of our heads. We didn’t stop packing. It felt too good, preparing our bodies for departure.
It’s going to be hard for you out in the scene without me! You called down the lobby staircase. The last of our things bundled in our arms. We didn’t turn around.
Outside, the world greets us as it always has, like a pandemic isn’t happening. Like we aren’t dying. Like we are still yours. Indifference: if we couldn’t be or do something for you and your interests then we better get the hell out of the way.
The world within our heads is screaming, insulting, begging us to remember what everyone knows. Never put your self-esteem solely in the hands of another. This is what sends us back home. Straight to the doorway of Don Cutz.
Barber Hugh is the exception to common knowledge. We trust his capable hands. He’s cut our hair since we could remember. Made us fresh for picture days, elementary through high school. Lined us up and faded our sides to make us the most handsome of chambelans.
Though we haven’t set foot in our original home in years, Barber Hugh sits us down in his chair all the same. Tells us how he thought we were dead. Welcomes us back.
The neighborhood missed you, fool.
He addresses us by the names we haven’t heard in years. Some tokens from the schoolyard, others the accumulation of our deeds. That dinner table language we had, that language faded from our tongues each of your toxic times overwhelmed us. Those dead names he says to us now, root through the ashen, grow warm, soften.
That overpriced reeking eucalyptus product you live for is washed from our scalps. The humming buzz of number two clippers sends the frosted tips your tackyass insisted we have, tumbling to the floor.
All you’d notice about Barber Hugh was how you’d want to digest him. Woof, what a sexy bear. You’d notice the votive candles, croon about where you might get some and ask why we never brought votive candles to your high rise. You wouldn’t know shit about the woman illuminated by the flame. No, she isn’t a Catholic saint, no she isn’t Selena, and no, you can’t have her.
We know her name. Won’t tell you what it is either. She is beneath our feet, watching over the bones of the dead. Making the new people. They watch us live and die, waiting for her command. Waiting to rise.
Barber Hugh tells us everything. The changing businesses, the new murals, which ungrateful grandkids sold the family homes, and guess who’s pregnant and married and starting up a small nation-state family?
He says all this without venom. Like we aren’t one of the ungrateful ones who haven’t returned home because we believed that this was the only way we could be yours. Barber Hugh asks us how we’ve been, he doesn’t make a show of removing the blonde from us. He is patient. He says that we will find happiness again, that what we have left of our lives isn’t the absence of a future, but something hard won, something holy.
Barber Hugh puts the razor to our face, doesn’t need to ask how we want to be shaped. The tools of the trade return to the teal-colored antiseptic. Become clean.
The chair turns. There we are. Alive and well. Grinning our baboso smile we’ve had since the cradle. Our full faces, lighter than when we were younger, running wild under droughted California sun. Barber Hugh dusts us off, eyes crinkle up with us at our reflection.
We died. You killed us. At our barber’s grace, we rise once more.
Christian Emmanuel Castaing is a writer born in San Francisco Bay Area, currently residing in Oakland. He is a candidate for a masters in fine arts in prose at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His nonfiction story “Alchemistas” was included in the anthology Fathers, Fathering, and Fatherhood: Queer Chicano/Mexicano Desire and Belonging (2021).
He is presently at work on a novel.