I hate the picture of us in Rome. The one we took that day at the Colosseum. It’s shameful because of the way we’re standing: stilted, with space between our bodies, and an almost brotherly affection that says nothing of our ten, happy years together. You know the one, we’re posed side-by-side, flat to the camera, you with one arm across my rigid shoulders. Somehow the tableau reads more fraternal than carnal. And that’s upsetting.
The sight of that picture recalls the afternoon it was taken. A hot, late-summer day, where the sun splashed white gold all over everything. We were in Rome! Not bad for two boys who grew up vacationing in the Ozarks. We stood on the sloping tiers of the Colosseum, looking down at the arena where gladiators fought naked, and Christians died singing. We jockeyed for vantage points against sightseers from every nation. Here, in this city where tourism was invented, we played our parts well. And then you made your request. “Let’s get somebody to take our picture.”
I felt stricken. A chemical reaction, left over from 7th grade, fired inside my brain once more: the innate panic of the exposed fag. But that’s silly, right? We had nothing to hide, nothing to expose. Still, you ask for a simple picture and I struggle over an equation where the sides refuse to balance and equality feels impossible.
Most places we go, people won’t fuck with us for simply “being gay together” (read: existing) on the street. But asking a stranger to take our picture makes them complicit in our gayness. It assumes that they are cool with us. It invites them to share in a tiny moment of our relationship. It asks them to participate, and scrutinize. That person will act as Art Director, and have lines. “Stand a little closer together.” “Smile.” “That looks good.” Not everyone thinks that me standing close to you looks good. Not everyone likes the way we smile for each other. It breaks my heart, but it’s true. Every good thing in my life is someone else’s evil.
When you asked for the picture, I tried not to fall out of the moment, but scanning the crowd killed my buzz. Hunting for anyone who seemed progressive, I reduced my fellow travelers to stereotypes. Look for somebody young/educated/ stylish, I thought. Or, better yet, look for somebody gay. Where are a couple of camera-toting lesbians when you need them?
What does it feel like to not have this fear? To be a boy and a girl in love, on a Roman Holiday, knowing that anyone you ask to take your picture will share in your bliss and wish you well. What does that feel like? I want to hand my iPhone to a stranger and cozy up to you, eager to exude wistful puppy love in front of a backdrop fit for
eternity. The security, the entitlement–I yearn for it. It’s certainly a reason we live in New York City, a place where we’re never the only gay couple in the restaurant. Safety in numbers, my dearheart.
Even here it isn’t perfect. When we went walking through the park in Queens last weekend, and witnessed multiple wedding parties taking pictures, were you paying close attention? A bride and groom posed for the camera with two dozen of their matching best friends surrounding them, goading them into kisses. Far across the cobblestones, another photographer fussed over two handsome young men in suits. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a familiar, stunned posture. I watched their public self-consciousness from afar and hoped that they would see us and take heart. I found myself whispering to them, “Love each other.” Finally, one slipped his fingers into the hand of the other, and my throat tightened around a lump. There are neighborhoods even in this city, and minutes even in this era, that require our love to be courageous.
I berate myself for my cowardice as I marvel at the it-gets-better generation and try to identify the line inside each of us that separates shame from pride. My proudest accomplishment is becoming a man on my own terms. I’ve written my own rulebook, given it my best shot, and I defy any Monday morning quarterback who thinks they can do better. But asking a stranger to take my picture–golly that’s tough. I sound like all the things I have no patience for: a whiner, a weakling, a child. But the feeling is at gut level, it hides in the deepest fight-or-flight part of me. And you know how I love to run. At the gym, I always choose the treadmill over the punching bag.
If you feel this anxiety too, you’re better at concealing it. You’ve reproached me in the past for looking “too bro-ey” in pictures. You said that I need to relax. You’re right. I couldn’t relax all those years ago in front of The Magic Kingdom. Remember that? A friend was even taking the picture, but we were surrounded by dads and moms, and we were in Florida, and it was 2004, and I chickened out. There we were, in front of a fairytale castle, two guys on vacation together and in love, and I couldn’t bring myself to throw my arms around you. You, who I adore above all others. You, who bring me daily Heaven. I denied you because the eyes of fools were upon us. In trying to please the people who show little respect for us, I lost all respect for myself.
Even though life appears to march forward in a straight line, it actually revolves in swirling circles. This whirlpool stirs up our experiences, and cycles them back to us rearranged as second chances.
We leave Rome by ship. Gay ship. A free trip afforded to us in exchange for acting as hosts, and encouraging camaraderie amongst the passengers. You christen us “Cruise Geishas,” and the ship is our closed society of homosexuals. Every new face at the dinner table, or on the adjacent bar stool, becomes an easy friend. The only public affection we see for days is the kind that is inborn in us. My eyes are tricked into believing that we are the normal majority. The security, the entitlement! I revel in it.
After seeing the pyramids and the Hermitage (only a scant handful of years ago when men of our stripe had far less to fear in Egypt and Russia) we end our travels where they began, in Rome.
On the last night, our hoard of new compatriots storms the city, an army of men to be reckoned with, who share a fabulous lineage with so many artists, philosophers, and emperors who ruled the world before them. Our exquisite battalion descends upon a gay bar across a cobblestone square from the Colosseum. We crowd in until we spill onto the street and merge with the outside world. And with the courage of our cohorts at our backs, we kiss in the open air. Long and deep, eyes closed, heads tilted, you pressed to me, exactly where you belong. The Colosseum towers behind us, each archway aglow in the night, splashing white gold all over us. Somebody takes our picture. It is an honest thing of beauty.