I am a great cork-popper.
Now what on earth could that mean? Do we take the literal definition, that is, I am great at popping corks? Ergo, I am, à la a magnificent circus freak of collegiate proportions, gathered-around and ogled by the friends, well-wishers and acquaintances who coo and aspirate at my superb, pre-eminent, P. Diddy-like cork-popping abilities? Is that really what I mean?
Or maybe we take a bit more figurative tack, in that I am simply a hearty partier, regularly awash in the carbonated alcohols that often come compressed beneath mushroom-shaped cork-oak stoppers. Perhaps I am (and proud of it, by God!) a real voluptuary — drunk off not just booze but life, drunk all the time, drunk while writing my personal essays for the august Yale Daily News Magazine. This must be what I mean.
Or is it? Let’s stroke that metaphor where the sun don’t shine, really get it to squirm and shiver. This is the love issue, after all; let’s get sex-u-al. Maybe that whole eyebrow-raising statement is a testament to my love-making talents — or perhaps, I should say, my love-taking talents. Replace one word up there with another word of endless erotic connotations, a word only slightly longer but far more graphic, a fruit, for Christ’s sake, and we reach the conclusion that I am particularly (perhaps distressingly) adroit at introducing to the world of sexual delights to vast numbers of virgin souls — girls in the traditional meaning of the term, but in my case, of course, boys.
But seriously. I am neither that cavalier, nor that promiscuous, nor, honestly, all that good at sex (I’m pretty sure). To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never taken anyone else’s virginity. I’m nothing a great cork-popper should be, though in a way, my unparalleled cork-popping skills have everything to do with sex. So what is going on here? What the hell kind of allegory am I trying to spin?
Perhaps an anecdote will help mine my near-impenetrable brain. Over dinner one night, my friends and I were discussing the depiction of gay men in pop culture. I had just read The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, which follows in the grand tradition of “Will & Grace” and “The Birdcage” in depicting a catty, sexually voracious gay man — in this case, one who “had sex with his entire gay generation in New York”—with enough ennui to not only keep himself trapped in a destructive stereotype, but to cage me in as well. Contemplating these pieces of gaymericana with my straight friends, my cage became claustrophobic, suffocating. Is this the only way straight people can see us — as incapable of genuine love? Even the Brokeback cowboys don’t really exist outside a sexual trajectory. (What do you think they’d do in that cabin they dreamed about — bake cookies?) Let’s face it, as the opening line of Queer As Folk so readily asserts: “It’s all about sex.”
So I was angry that, once again, a popular entertainment produced by a straight person, generally intended for a straight audience, presented me with a gay character in the ever-dignified tradition of olive-skinned pool boys and tight-abbed sex workers the world over. As our discussion continued, I grew not just angry, but truly vindictive — I wanted to contact the author, kiss her ass as lusciously as her sex-crazed gay character would, and get her here for a Master’s Tea. Then, in the open forum, I’d excoriate her for the wrongs committed against my “entire gay generation,” tongue-flay her for playing to the whole infernal cliché, then crack her head open and sup on the fag-hating victual inside.
As my friends tried to calm my white-knuckled tirade, I started hearing the cries of the repressed gay within, and as my friends’ condescending smiles bore down upon me — aw, look at the poor rich white gay Jew, raised by hippies in San Francisco, he’s never known real homophobia in his life (true but beside the point) — my mouth became his mouth. Opening my lips felt like I was parting them against an enormous pressure, a pressure to keep them shut and stay in my place, to accept that this is how we’re seen and get over it, to accept that 95 percent of the world is straight and won’t ever identify with us. My prison, my cage, had shrunk to the size of a champagne bottle, and every straight person surrounding me in that dining hall — I’d begun to see everyone in terms of sexual identity: not queer, not queer, queer, not queer — was the cork.
I stood up. “Straight people suck!” I shouted at a table of my feasting friends, most of them not queer. “Straight people don’t understand! Straight people can go to hell!”
Everyone turned to look. I lowered my reddened face, turned back to my chair, and sat down. I may have killed the conversation, caused a scene, and embarrassed myself in public, but I had the distinct feeling I’d just exposed them to a feeling all too foreign to non-queers: the constant need to be defined by the rest of society, by the other, by the one with the loudest voice in the room. Every non-queer could use a good straight-bashing once in a while.
The cork had officially been popped.
The origin of my cork-popping prowess can be found in high school, at age sixteen-and-a-half, at the most tremendous moment in any gay person’s life — the coming-out. Back then, I had a different name for what would become cork-popping, a far more literal but no less problematic way of labeling my predilections.
I was a great gay lover.
Now what on earth could that mean? Do we take the literal definition, that is, I am great at gay love? I’m a Porsche in the streets, a trophy in the home, a vacuum cleaner in the sack? I mean, look at me. Am I not Alcibiades?
In truth, I hadn’t even been with a man at sixteen. But there was this notion out there, one I was only beginning to comprehend, of this mysterious concept — “the gay” — this whole world of flesh and romance and politics. There was so much promise for me to plant myself in the middle of this whirlwind — to catch all my swirling thoughts and desires and distill them into my most perfect mode of expression: a novel. A passionate, stereotype-eschewing evocation of the modern gay experience, devoid of Jacks and jerks and jazz hands. The great gay American novel. And I loved it.
Of course, only the most preternatural talents write best-selling novels at sixteen (without pulling a Kaavya Viswanathan). Back then, my writing talents were far more random-association stream-of-consciousness than any patient reader should have to endure. Ultimately, the paella of prose I concocted during the nocturnal excavations of my teenage mind never became the gay Catcher in the Rye. After high school, my personal interests shifted away from the plot and characters I’d brought to life. After four years and hundreds of pages, I put the novel down with only three chapters left and absolutely no regrets.
Still, every word popped another cork. My coming out wasn’t simply concurrent with writing this book, but predicated by it — I was so proud of it, I needed to tell everyone.
“What’s your novel about?” they’d ask.
“It’s a love story between two boys,” I’d say. “Oh, and by the way, I’m gay.”
The Pyromaniac’s Song was the lived synthesis of my gay high-school years — as such, I needed to do my research in order to establish a good level of psychological realism. My citations, however, weren’t your usual APA-style footnotes:
1. Paul. Five-foot-ten slim white boy with a fairly ashen quality to the skin, likely predicated by his bat-like existence as a computer geek. And yet he always smelled so good. Ours was a largely nocturnal dalliance; what began as a capital-R Relationship soon degenerated into dinner and sex; movies and sex; “The X-Files” and sex. I still talk to him on AIM every now and again — I trust that it’s him on the other end, and not a 53-year-old pedophile named Claus with a Ring-Dings belly and a ponytail.
2. Trevor. Five-foot-six, teensy little Asian boy with a smile that took up half his face, but more in that creepy mime way than in that charming Julia Roberts way. We didn’t shirk the sun quite as much — in fact, most of our time was spent behind the wheel of one car or another, driving nowhere, listening to music and smoking pot. I tried to push things forward by bringing him back an awesome hemp wallet from a trip to Thailand I took one summer, but after he unregretfully left it at my house, we drifted. Recently he got a post at Google that I’d been rejected from. Oh well, I’ve been using that wallet for the past five years. He doesn’t know what he’s missing.
3. Alex. Sex on a rooftop.
4. Koei. Sex in car.
Hell, maybe it wasn’t my entire gay generation, but I got plenty of material. I like to think that the Emperor’s Children-like quality to my sexual experiences in high school was at least partially a product of the straight culture I was railing against in the dining hall that night, just as my novel inverted the stereotype that I’d not only been watching in the movies, but, yes, living in my life. It can be hard to hold back as a 16 year-old, awash with hormones, coming into the realization that, by God, men are sexy. My novel, then, is the testament to the reality of gay life as I see it — that sex is tired, bored, ephemeral, meaningless. Love, on the other hand — I’d pop a cork to that.