The Rules of Attraction
by James Killough
After a steaming bowl of pho last Saturday night on Santa Monica Boulevard, my friend Richard and I walked over to The Abbey for a pre-Christmas drink-‘n-cruise, lured in by the massive festive tree in the courtyard speckled with clumps of cotton wool. For those unfamiliar with the establishment, The Abbey is not a traditional gay bar any more. It’s a tourist attraction that looks like a Mexi-Cali version of an Asian temple, in which straight people can feel comfortable because it isn’t really a meat market as much as it is a vast posing gallery. It used to be the most beautiful gay bar in the world, but it was taken over by the evidently straight hospitality group SBE, gutted and given a disgraceful remodeling for absolutely no good reason other than it seems to pack more suckers in there.
After asking for a dirty martini on the rocks from a bartender who was clearly on a testosterone-and-salad diet, and instead getting a tankard full of pure vodka with five enormous olives thrown on top, transforming it from a cocktail into a fetish, Richard and I went outside to the patio. Because we are both tall and have this Mr. Clean bald thing going on—I call us the Twin Towers—we stood behind the door that leads back into the club in order to be out of the way of the continual bumper-car stream flowing by.
The problem is, the door kept closing. At a certain point, I reached out on impulse and held it from closing for a pair of real homos, as opposed to a pair of Str8s slumming it for a safe gay-bar experience. As he passed, one of them said, “An older bitch holding the door open for me. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.” Then he read me up and down black queen stylee and murmured appreciatively, “Hm, hmmm!” I felt like I’d been slapped in the face and goosed on the butt at the same time.
Of course, me being me this immediately triggered a musing about age and attraction, the upshot of which was that age is just another excuse for why one can’t seem to connect with everyone with whom one wants to connect. It’s actually pretty lame because the reality for “daddies” like me is that many a young Ghey enjoys a sort of reverse Oedipal complex: he wants to sleep with his father, and if not kill his mother, then at least redecorate the condo she bought in Boca with the divorce settlement. This phenomenon works very much in my favor as I do have a lion’s appetite for the young bucks.
Richard agreed that age is just an excuse. In the wonderfully impressionistic way he has of speaking, a prose poem accompanied by a flute-ish voice, he said, “If it’s not I’m too old, it’s I’m too tall, or I’m too crazy, or I’m too spacey, or I’m too distant, or I’m too intense…” And we both added to that list back and forth until we killed the argument with tautology.
In fact, true attraction is not that common, a good match for a relationship rarer still. With the exception of a sex addict, who will stick it in just about anything, most of us have pretty narrow parameters of what we like. When a straight friend tells me she wants to introduce me to her best gay friend—“he’s just so amazing, you’ll love him”—presumably with the hope that she will kill two singlehoods with one hookup and not have to listen to the whining any more, I invariably decline. Most Str8s assume that Gheys, apparent sex addicts that we are, will sleep with any man as long as he likes men, and sometimes even that isn’t a barrier. They don’t understand that generally we have as narrow parameters as they do.
For a long time, I would rarely sleep with a guy if he was under six feet tall. I’m better about that now, since I discovered that “hobbits,” as I call them, are easier on the lower back and tend not to crush your hips when they’re, well, grinding away on the bicycle seat, so to speak. I still won’t have sex with someone who is too camp, or “fem” as we say in gay parlance. And he has to be in great shape, below a certain age, and on and on and on.
Even so, it astounds me if, when I do find a guy I like, the attraction isn’t reciprocated. I am rich in double standards. “Not everyone wants to sleep with you, James,” a dear, dear friend once said when I was grumbling to him about a date that was going badly. Why go on the date if you’re not going to put out? We’re not straight for a reason, sheesh.
This is the same friend, my age, who called me the first time he was ever in Los Angeles whining, “Tell me I’m sexy. I know I’m sexy.” The frolicking press of stunning, scantily clad young things out here to Make It Big can sometimes gnaw at your ego and not let you go.
Since reaching a certain age, whenever I think about intergenerational relationships, I think about Allen Ginsberg, as one does. Marianne Faithfull took me dancing with him in New York one night a few years before he died. Well, mostly Ginsberg and Marianne danced, while his nineteen-year-old boyfriend and I watched from the sides, my eyes blinking and my teeth grinding from cocaine. The boyfriend was a poetry student at Columbia University, and had a book bag strapped to his back the whole evening, which I suppose was symbolic now that I think about it. He was kinda cute, too. I really didn’t get it; not being big on poetry, never having read Howl, I’d only had a vague overview of the jovial bearded Buddha prancing around the dance floor with Marianne.
When I maneuvered the conversation into a polite way of asking why the hell a teenager was romantically involved with a fat, relatively unattractive man in his sixties, the boyfriend replied simply, “I love him.” It was a relationship that made Alcibiades’ attraction for his teacher Socrates, who wasn’t exactly known for his beauty, seem as mundane as marrying your high-school sweetheart.
I next saw Marianne almost ten years later at one of Galliano’s shows in Paris. The first thing she said when I came up to her was, “Hi, James. I’m sober now,” as if holding up a crucifix to ward off the Devil. Perhaps because I was cresting forty and dating the twenty-one-year-old German standing beside me, I reminisced briefly about the night with Ginsberg and his boyfriend. “The nineteen-year-old has become a great poet in his own right,” she said. Mission accomplished, I guess.
Given that I am fascinated by the pathology of all kinds of relationships—the more fucked up they are, the more they help the drama of my work—I am sometimes drawn to people who make my life difficult. I think we all have that from time to time. It’s not like I’m uniquely attracted to dysfunction; my relationship with Jonathan Kemp was as smooth as ice, almost completely fight-free, and the longest I’ve ever had. We never shouted at each other, there was no instance where I became so enraged my head felt flush, as it sometimes does even with non-romantic relationships. So I’m no masochist, it’s simply that I’m fond of the person, but it’s the relationship itself that faces considerable, often insurmountable obstacles.
I’ve been in and out of one of these demanding relationships for the past two years now. Just as the partnership with Jonathan was the smoothest, this is the most punishing of my life. The physical attraction is obvious to anyone: most people are charmed by this guy. But few would go the distance with the way he behaves. It’s not fighting. As with Jonathan, we have never lost our tempers with each other. The problem is he does things like excuse himself to use the bathroom and then he disappears for six weeks. You can rely on him for nothing and can have no expectations. Tough stuff when you’re supposed to be romantically involved.
What I love most is listening to different people’s reactions to my relationship with him. After two years of this, I am now completely resigned to whatever happens between him and me; the “walkabouts” affect me not the least any more, so it’s interesting to hear outside opinions, which vary as widely as individual tastes, and reflect more on the person expressing them than they do on the reality of the relationship. I’ve noticed that women almost uniformly think I should quit and never look back, while men, particularly Str8s who are more accustomed to putting up with the mysterious vagaries of women, aren’t so sure I should cut and run. I side with the guys.
To paraphrase Dan Savage, no relationship is perfect, but if you can count what is wrong with it on more than one hand, you need to reconsider. In the case of the aforementioned bumpy romance, there is only one problem, the walkabouts, and while it has felt like an entire fist at times, it is bearable, especially for a lone wolf modern misanthrope like me. Why, it’s almost ideal, when you think about it. And I could not tackle the script I have just been commissioned to write with the right clarity without the experience of it.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison. So when a friend grimaces and lectures me on the kind of guy I should or shouldn’t be with, I just remember I had might as well be discussing with a vegan how I like my chicken cooked.
In a doleful, regretful poem about not having the guts to come out of the closet until later in life because of the way others judged him, Amistead Maupin wrote, “Be who you are/Love who you Love /Without apology/Without fear.” Opinions can be crippling hindrances, and I’ve got enough regrets without dealing with them as well.
The rules of attraction? There are none: Love is anarchy, and sex is little more than a prelude to an orgasm.