BY Z KENNEDY-LOPEZ
Over a weekend in July, my husband, Carlos, was eating a piece of bread and bit down on a rock. He spat it out and was horrified to discover that the rock was a piece of his molar that’d snapped off, painless.
When he came home, he opened his mouth to show me. You can see where there’s a cavity, he said. I peeked—the small white castle of his tooth lacked a turret. I didn’t see the dark spot inside, the innards melding with the gum line, but was instead distracted by two points of color in the groove of its neighbor: vampire pinpricks, purple, paired.
His tooth trouble began back in February. Or, perhaps not began so much as intensified. I was in southern New Jersey, where I teach and take classes during the week, and he woke up one glum Thursday with a pounding ache in his teeth, barely able to walk, he was so dizzy. He stumbled to the emergency dentist a few blocks from our apartment in the East Village, who informed him that one of his molars was infected and needed to be pulled. I got home late that night, and found Carlos propped up in bed against the wall, wearing a button-down. He looked to me like a gunslinger shot full of lead and left slumped against the bar of a saloon.
Carlos, who’s smoked since he was sixteen, went cold turkey for two weeks as he recovered. He’s not an angry person, but he became so agitated that at one point he said to me, I feel like I want to punch someone I want a cigarette so bad.
In 2017, when a dental checkup revealed that I had three cavities, a rarity for me, I scheduled an appointment, had them fixed within the week. One perk of being in grad school so long: even if the coverage has been shitty, I’ve had health insurance the past three years. That I wouldn’t address the issue seemed out of the question, but my degree of privilege includes parents who both had good health insurance, who made sure my teeth were cleaned every six months. Carlos, who grew up in poverty, hasn’t seen a dentist in near on a decade. He—now we—haven’t been able to afford it.
I read a lot as a child, so much that it wasn’t until I left the small logging town where I grew up for college and returned that I wondered how I’d managed to spend eighteen years there without becoming bored. I was a goody two-shoes, boxed in, never questioning the boundaries of the way I was raised, books my most frequent company. Up through my middle school years, I read science fiction and fantasy novels almost exclusively—stories that often involved clashes between good and evil, violence done to enemies (I’m being unfairly reductive). The small loss has always unsettled me most. A hero’s lost tooth, or ear, or fingers, made me shiver more than if they were to have died. And perhaps it’s the rules of my upbringing and neuroses: If you make a mess, clean it. If you use something, replace it. If you make a hole, fill it.
They seem like common sense to me, like common courtesy, but I wonder if these simple call-and-response adages aren’t also a product of the white, middle-class context I was brought up in. Is courtesy, especially in the face of survival, a privilege?
This past spring, I had a physical done at the health center on campus because, in addition to silence, cholesterol runs high in my family.
The phlebotomist saw my arms and said, All right, which is worse: having blood drawn or getting a tattoo?
She had a couple small tattoos of her own; I wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to get at.
Tattoo, I said.
Ok, good, she said. Because you wouldn’t believe the number of guys who come in who have sleeves and can’t handle a quick blood draw.
Carlos is like this, others of my friends too. He has ink on multiple areas of his body, but the thought of blood or needles makes him woozy.
Tattoos and blood draws are both processes rooted in ritual. They must be arranged, there is intention and purpose. The reasoning varies, but the end result is the same: something is left behind, something is taken.
I wonder if part of the difference is the direction of the going. There can be pleasure in release, in sweat and piss, in shit and pus, in the fluids concomitant with sex. But those are ideally released willingly, not taken by another. The act of extraction never seems to be aligned with pleasure.
Is it the nature of humans to take? Or is it the nature of whiteness?
How many different ways are there to say Take it?
A few days before Carlos bit into bread, I got off work from my summer temp job in Midtown and caught the train to the West Village to meet Paul, a mentor and friend, for dinner.
The first real heatwave of the summer was finally breaking, a pleasant breeze rushing through the streets. We ate on a bench in a small green triangle near Stonewall and talked about what we’d been reading, what we’d been working on. We talked about money, and our Catholic childhoods, the ways each of our guilts still manifest. We talked about how the university pushed me to graduate a semester early, not informing me or the chair of the program that doing so would fuck with my funding. We talked about books that were enjoying a moment, which ones we thought overrated, about how I really should read Alexander Chee’s latest (I keep forgetting). A flashbulb: I’d heard Alexander Chee on a podcast recently, saying that the success of his last book paid for his dental implants.
A woman passing by interrupted to say to me, I love your butterflies. Your butterflies, as if taking in ink expands a body, adds new limbs. I love your butterflies, like one might say, I love your eyes, I love your smile, your laugh.
Paul proposed a beer, and we moved to a gay bar nearby, one he knew of but had never visited. Neither of us are IPA guys, but in the moment it felt right and we didn’t mind. The clientele was older than me, older even than Paul, who is several decades my senior. I was aware of the optics, of being the younger of a pair, of being clad in tank top and schoolish backpack in such a space, and the newness of it felt exciting.
A bite remembers because it’s in the flesh, is remembered.
I can’t remember what prompted Paul to say this, and I’m not sure I have his phrasing right. He was shaping the thought verbally; the bar was loud and my ears are easily overwhelmed. In one: the steady thump of dance music coming up the stairs past the shirtless bartenders; in the other: the crowd of men at the piano singing along to “Age of Aquarius.” Paul’s voice: soft, caught in the middle.
For years, I’ve identified in practice more as a top than a bottom, but as of this writing I’ve been bottoming almost exclusively for more than a month. And though I struggle to pinpoint a beginning in the shift, this role reversal has arisen organically, despite how, due to the quirks of my own wiring, I am not built for bottoming. It does not do for me what it does for others. I do not light up; it is not inherently pleasurable. I do not feel like the boundaries of my body and your body are blurring or merging, as I’ve heard some describe it. So often for me to bottom means to be in some form of discomfort: a part of you placed in a part of me where, for the vast majority of my life, parts have not gone.
But I cannot deny that I’ve come to crave it. Nor can I deny that there have been several times I’ve come, and come hard, without touching myself.
What this is not: a story of Tops and Bottoms; a look-at-me story of A Top Who Learned to Bottom. This is not a story about He Who Masquerades as a Bisexual Vers. This is about the strangeness of inhabiting a body and discovering that the body can without warning desire something new.
I’m a Taurus, and I enjoy my physical pleasures—food, wine, finding the balance of processes to smoothly propel myself through a pool, the throb of a synthesizer, getting fucked.
I want to ache, to feel spent as I slide off to sleep, to be slick with coconut oil and sweat, to reek of cum and ass. So often during the week, Carlos drowsily pats my ass to say, Not now, to say, I see you, I love you, but I need rest.
My husband is a Cancer, soft in many ways that I am not, generous and giving where I am reserved and stingy. There’s no value judgment to softness; I think there is a radical bravery in being so these days. But in the confines of the bedroom, my interest in soft goes out the window. I want him to shove my face into the pillow, to wrap my throat in the hook of his elbow and fuck me and fuck me and play my skin like an instrument. I want to not be able to walk straight.
I’m not a masochist, but these the cocktails of the flesh, of discomfort and pleasure spun together, call to me like a drug. Just one more, just one more please.
Once: as he enters me, I’m hit with that deep agony of rushing into things too swiftly. I’m often too ambitious—call it impulsive—and can be reckless when I should be slow. He senses my discomfort, and says, Too much? Yeah, I say, and he pulls out. But as he does, the throbbing ache changes, becomes less pain and more vibration. And in his absence, I tremble. I quiver. I want him back, now, right where he was.
Come back, I say.
But he’s gone soft. Sorry, he says sheepishly.
You can be rough with me, I say, I can handle it, I wanted it.
I know, I know, he says. He gestures toward his limp cock. I just got scared.
Once: it’s so hot in New York that to hold an ice cube is to hold a puddle. Carlos brings a cube to bed, runs it across my chest as he lifts my legs onto his shoulders, and the cold slick in the steam of the bedroom is an electric shock. I slip his sleep mask over my eyes. Blindness: everything amplified, everything louder.
My brother and I inherited our father’s control issues, and one way I’ve chosen to confront them is to fetishize them, by bringing the danger close in a safe environment, to wear away the edges. Because I’m sensitive to interpersonal power plays, the dynamics of Dom-sub relationships have always made me leery. I can recall thinking years ago, when I clung so tight to a conceptualization of myself, to Me as a fixed thing, that I could never surrender so fully to someone else in that way.
But now, but now, but. There’s something to making an attempt—even if not succeeding, even if only playing at it for a few moments—to loosen the grip.
Once: he bites my chin, and there is no pleasure in the sensation of bone on bone. I’ve asked him not to do this before, but he gets caught up in the moment. I react without thinking, making a fist in his hair and tugging his face from mine. He grunts in surprise, thinking I’m playing rough.
It’s fine if you bite me, I tell him, but don’t bite my chin.
He goes utterly still, furious. He says, “Did you pull my hair to get me to stop?”
The bigger issue is that I’m bad at communicating. I was cultured in silence and turn inward when stressed. For me there can be so much difficulty in speech that verbalizing a need or an uncomfortable thought is a physical obstacle—the brain aware of what to say, the body unwilling. It can be, as they say, like pulling teeth.
New York so often has me on my back foot, slugging to keep each day at bay. There are moments when I understand why people love the city. But more often than not, I’m so surrounded and without a sanctuary where I can be absolutely alone that I resort to utter selfishness as a survival mechanism, the only way I know to stay sane.
Once: face down, I become so overwhelmed that I need to do something with my mouth, and I bite my own arm. My nerves all scrambled, I don’t realize how hard, until I see the small purple bruise on my bicep the next day. Weeks pass before it finally goes yellow, slowly begins to fade.
The way I hyperextended my thumbs and how they now crack when I bend them. My missing tonsils, how my throat has been constantly slick with phlegm since they were removed. The scars from that bike crash, the split in my shoulder socket, the screws holding it together. That occasional lightning in the nerves of that arm when I pull something the wrong way. The various other scars across my body, the various holes I’ve elected to make in my flesh. The hitch in my spine. The spot in my back that won’t untense, the rib that slips out of place. The thing in my neck that clicks when I tilt my head up and to the right. My bent toe from that car crash. My anxiety. My depression. My OCD. My faltering eyes. The appendix that died, the body that tried to hide it for weeks.
I am wondering what it means to have a body that is or is not whole.
I am wondering what wholeness means, who sets its boundaries, who defines it. I am wondering if wholeness is related to ability, to function. I am wondering if wholeness, like age, is just a number, is a theory of relativity.
I am wondering if silence is a totality or an emptiness or if that’s two ways of saying the same thing.
I am wondering if wholeness is a myth. I am wondering what it means to be “whole” when a body is so full of holes, ins and outs, comings and goings, givings and takings. I am wondering if wholeness as a concept is a means of exclusion, of contrasting against, of control, of dismissal. I am wondering if wholeness is a white construction of, by, and for the conventionally-abled body and is therefore a narrative in need of rewriting.
And I wonder if this is a question of aesthetics, of appearances, of what is apparent. A broken tooth, a missing molar, can be hidden, smiled around.
I have a spot of keloid on my left shoulder from the bike crash in 2012 that broke my collarbone and shoulder socket. More often than not, I forget it’s there when I’m not wearing sleeves, remembering only when I catch the eyes of others drifting. I’m lucky in that I’ve rarely felt shame about my scars, but I’m also read as male and therefore free of many of the scripts about what my body should be.
One side effect of the crash and subsequent surgery leaving me marked with the silky and unsubtle stitchings across my shoulder and back: the scars of others become a point of attraction—not quite a kink, but a turn-on. Once, in seeking out porn, I came across a woman whose torso, arms, and thighs were so marked with scars, with lines and x’s stacked on x’s, with the ghosts of words, that the air left me.
Show me skin, show me the place where something was done to it, and I’ll sit. I’ll listen.
I worry that this is an aestheticization of violence and trauma, and while I don’t think it is, it’s easy for me to to say so. I think it has more to do with the spell that stories cast over me, but again, it’s easy for me to say so.
I was raised Catholic, and of all the puzzles of the religion, the one that baffled me most was that God had no beginning. That something could be without end worked for me, but to stretch and stretch into the negative extremes of the x-axis of the Cartesian coordinate system that thinking about beginnings and endings evokes in my head and to still find the divine presence alongside you, spanning in every direction—the thought refused to sit still or cooperate.
If we could have survived the heat and the density, if we’d had the right ears, how loud do you think the big bang would have been?
When I imagine an escape from the white noise of Manhattan, I sometimes imagine the emptiness of space. But even that is not silent: planetary bodies emit electromagnetic vibrations beyond the scope of human perception.
Silence is a myth. Silence is an understanding of, an interpretation as absence. Silence is an unreality, is an abstract concept, is still sound—but the sound of something we so often lack the facilities to hear.