photo: Timothy Faust
adapted from badbadbad
Exterior shot of the Playpen. Hours before, Gay Pride had lit up the streets of downtown Gethsemane. The celebration and competing counterdemonstration were far more out of hand than the hate and peacenicking of the previous day’s KKK march. So many believers working themselves into a froth, as if the Wrath of God would smite the whole town for the exhibitionism of a few immoralists. Some must have showed for kicks, to gawk at the outfits and jeer at the queers. I turned out to support my friends and carry over the festivities from the night before. I was way gone by sunset. In the photo, there are colorful streamers on the windows and U.S.A. #1 = WBW spraypainted in black across one of the walls. By dawn, the message would be turned into UNIVERSAL SACRED ARTS #1 = WORLD BETWEEN WORLDS. This was Shea’s idea, open to interpretation.
Cracking her bullwhip, the Children’s Crusade singer urged partygoers to transform the vandalism into “conscious propaganda” (I believe that’s what she called it) by hand-painting the new words in columns spun off from the graffiti. We were instructed to use a rainbow of colors. I think I painted the R in SACRED, though it could have been in ARTS or one of the WORLDS. My specially mixed, in-between shade was a combo of red, orange, yellow, brown and black. I remember how my letter looked like a running man and nearly disappeared into the wall. I bet he’s still on the run.
Bebe crowning me with Cyrus’s plastic thorns. I’m frowning like a terrible two-year-old. After the rally I’d changed back into my street gear, but she wouldn’t let me be. She said I was making myself an outsider on purpose. Fate is fate, I say. But everyone else at the Playpen would be in costume, so Cyrus donated his headdress, which Bebe garlanded with silk flowers she’d sweet-talked from a girlfriend. She capped my makeover with Mardi Gras beads and insisted on dotting my cheeks with eyeliner. I look like Raggedy Nero in T-shirt and jeans. Burn, baby, burn.
Cyrus’s creation. There’s Bebe in her pink kitty outfit with her girlfriend, a blue poodle, blowing kisses at the camera. They’re fused at the tail, unfurling a rosy banner stamped with the motto LOVE IS FREE. I’m on my back on the floor. They’ve each planted a combat boot on my chest. I’m licking Bebe’s calf. I’m sure she tasted just right. I wish I could remember.
A closeup of me in mid-disco. One of those freeze-frames posterity could do without. Lips poofed, hands on hips, pelvis thrust forward. I may be on my toes. It’s unclear if I’m dancing with myself or my partner’s outside the frame. I have little recollection of this as well. Some things are better that way.
This is Lil_Girl. I found her on the fallenangels network. She said she needed a daddy. “I’ve been a bad bad girl,” she wrote in her profile. “Daddy is going to be mad at me for being a dirty little slut. He’s going to punish me, tie me up, slap me and spank me . . . I deserve to be punished. I’m ready, daddy. Tell me a bedtime story about love and family. If your words are good enough, maybe we can make them real! I need a young daddy with game. Attractive face, strong body, not small, no older than thirty years.”
She was forty-three herself, though much younger-looking with her strawberry blond pigtails and petite yoga body. When I first read her pitch, I couldn’t help thinking on where she’d come from, how she’d gotten here. I imagined a chain of brutality that bound her to the hurt. I saw her locking herself into strangleholds where she had no say, no free will, no chance to reclaim what’s hers. And now she’d found a way out, maybe back to herself.
At first it felt wrong to even read her words. But that’s judgment. She knew what she was doing when she joined fallenangels. She would be in charge now, perhaps for the first time. And I could be there for her, let her be my little girl. I could try at least. Her request would attract the ugliest suitors. Better me than them.
So I tossed off a sleepytime tale of family as a house of bondage, a house of worship, in which each member was a room where the others would go to pay homage by doing their worst, knowing they would get theirs next. The marriage of sex and violence was sanctified by the Scriptures: a cycle of torture, acceptance and vengeance, inescapable as death. Pleasure came from controlling and being controlled, giving in to no-control. The rules were clearly defined. There was touch, there was trust. No one went to bed hungry.
In the photo she’s peering out between the bars of one of three cribs making the rounds at the Playpen. Battery-powered Christmas lights snake around the pine slats. She’s surrounded by a barnyard of stuffed animals: BooBoos, Care Bears, My Little Ponies. Rattles hang from hooks at the four corners. She’s sucking Fernet from a baby bottle. Some of the black liquid must have dribbled onto the Peter Pan collar of her blouse.
She would only talk in character. “I love my daddy dear,” she’d say. “I’ll do whatever he tells me to. I know I’ve been bad, but I want to be better. Tell me what to do, daddy.” She was cute, like a girl, and I felt the need to protect her. But that’s not what she wanted.
She whined for me to take her to the Petting Zoo in the basement, where dozens of glittery folks in various states of undress watched us in silence. She told me to tell her to suck it. “Suck it, Lil_Girl,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach.
“Yes, daddy,” she said, her voice pipsqueaky like a Smurf.
This series of shots looks like something out of a Great America photo booth. It’s a toast to Gay Pride, to prove I’m not homophobic. Bebe must have put us up to it. Cyrus and me.
In the first pic, you can see we’re lit up, high on broadmindedness. There’s a bashful glance between us that could be interpreted as flirting or the hopeful moment before upchucking when you still think you won’t.
The second is in profile: fair-haired bulls about to bang horns.
Finally, our lips meet, our eyes blocking out the noise of the world. A golden halo rings our heads. We seem innocent, powerful.
I have to admit it’s a sweet image.
Cyrus is an urban cowboy. I’m wearing a paisley-stickered Kaiser helmet, plastic, with an aluminum spike on top. Each of us is on sentry duty with the Savage in hand. The cartridges were padlocked in a case in the F150, so no worries on fatal mishaps.
Side by side, the photos resemble the profile portrait of gaytoast2. Bebe set up this parallel, she later said, “to illuminate the relationship between love and war.” Not that there’s any sex or violence for real. But you could say the suggestion’s there. Cyrus would claim a soldier, like animal lust or the human need for intimacy, is never at rest.
I remember being alone outside the warehouse, training the scope on a pile of rocks down by the railroad tracks. Seeing the ex, I clicked the trigger pop pop pop. If only . . .
This one’s scary. It must have been a joke for Bebe’s amusement, it must have. We’re in the Petting Zoo. I’m naked on all fours, growling red-faced at the camera, a rubber ball-gag in my mouth. Cyrus is riding me like a jockey, leather crop in one fist, the other tugging at the gag strap. He’s naked as well. Too much information?
Me and Cyrus climbing into the F150. Off-center, though roughly in the middle of the frame, he’s mounting the Savage on the gun rack. He insisted I let him drive. With his back to the camera, what you see through the glare of the windshield are his wings spread for flight, a wiry arm stretched toward the back of the cab, his father’s strong hands securing the rifle. On the left edge of the picture, the blue poodle is tugging my shirttail, her whiskers twisted in dismay. My face is shadowed by the truck. I remember exaggerating a laugh as I hurled the crown of thorns to Bebe, heaved myself into the shotgun seat.
I took these photos on my old cell phone. The quality is poor, but it’s the best I’ve got for snapshots of my infant son.
Cyrus drove us to the ex’s place. We parked a couple blocks away. He let me load the rifle but he would carry it. “Just in case,” he said.
We crept around the back of the house, a single-floor shack just shy of a trailer. The night was warm as usual, windows open wide. I used the light from the cell’s screen to peek into the rooms. We skipped the one from which we heard the ex’s daddy snoring, cracking on how he sounded like a farting goat. Cyrus had to shake me hard to shut me up. “Prison’s no joke,” he said. I told him I didn’t care.
When I spotted the ex sleeping softly, her long dark hair splashed on the sheets like a blackhole sun, I saw for an instant how loving she was when we first met. Then I remembered all the ugliness between us.
It started with the miscarriage. Understandably, she was destroyed, and I did everything I could to help, but she never recovered. Not a year later when we agreed to try again. Not a year after that when our son was born. Not anytime since. Nothing I ever did was good enough. I’m a monster, she’d say. And yet she’s the one who stole my son from me.
Cyrus butted me with the rifle when I tried to grab it. We could barely see inside the room. Not through the screen, the blinds, the sooty drapes. But I knew my son was there. I could feel it.
I snapped these pictures that look like balled-up sheets in a bassinet, yet at the maximum zoom, you can see my son’s tiny pixelated fingers clutching his baby blanket. Cyrus said he hoped I wasn’t too let down we didn’t get the shot we’d come for. I told him we’d caught a glimpse, more than I could have banked on.
He couldn’t see what I saw, but that was okay. This was my struggle, not his, what I needed to see to make it through another day.