For My Friend Luis López-Detrés: 'Relentless'
I dedicated a short story to Luis López-Detrés in my book Nocturno y Otros Desamparos. The story is inspired by a song called "Relentless" that he heard at Twilo and wanted me to hear and dance to with him.
It was ten in the morning. I was having breakfast. Miguel was trying to explain to me the song that he had heard at the disco. He had brought an empty cassette in case I had the song and could tape it for him. I put away the plates and the bottles of medications on the table in order to pay attention to his story. He remained silent and thoughtful, then started to sing the melody. He was humming it, dancing to it. It was not familiar to me. His eyes, which were usually dull, became full of light every time he attempted to describe the tune.
"Hey, Antonio, it took me to a kind of mystical trip. To a place I'd never been before."
His muscular arms moved while he simultaneously tried to explain with his mouth. His whole body seemed to move as if he were dancing. His skin bloomed with a sort of sweat that made him resplendent as it met a ray of light that came through my window. It was fascinating to see all this passion emerge through his pores while wanting me to understand what it was about this melody that overwhelmed him. But the sound had to be experienced in the flesh to understand it. And my ears remained deaf to that excitement.
After I finished listening to the song, I went to the DJ cabin and asked him for the title. He told me the name was "Skin."
"Antonio," he told me, "I love it. I must look for it. Don't you have it?"
"I don't think so."
"When I leave here, I'll go to the record store to see if I find it, and then I'll bring it here so that you listen to it."
Later, he told me how he arrived at the music store. He had started looking for the song in the catalogue. There were almost a hundred titles with the word "skin." Miguel called over one of the employees and hummed the tune. The young man shook his head, trying to make him understand that he didn't recognize it. Miguel's fist hit the counter, making several of the tapes on the table fall to the floor. His eyes started to scan the racks, as if the telepathic power of his frustration could take him to the elusive melody.
Miguel left the store completely disappointed. The sunshine forced his eyes into refuge behind a pair of dark lenses. Miguel's intensity, at that moment, was not capable of resisting the New York sun reflecting in pieces on the walls, the buildings' empty corners and the faces of pedestrians who, contrary to Miguel, welcomed the sun with eyes unclad. He powerwalked several blocks and stumbled on a flea market on Greenwich Street, which was adorned with colorful garlands hanging from the lampposts as if they were piñatas. Miguel made his way through the crowd humming his song. The people stopped at stalls to buy leather jackets, fake jewelry, T-shirts, watches, and when hunger struck, they chose among dozens of joints that sold a variety of foods. A combined smell of rice and beans, Chinese fried rice, kebabs, hot dogs, hamburgers and pretzels perfumed that small festive labyrinth. A murmur stopped him in his tracks. He heard a tune. For a moment, he thought it was himself, immersed in his own humming. But that tune persisted from outside, following his ear. The familiar rhythm carried him to a joint that sold pirated music.
"What's the title of that song?" Miguel asked.
"Which one? The one playing?" replied the salesman.
"'Relentless'. Ten dollars a tape."
He tore the small case from the guy's hand, paid with a ten-dollar bill and then ran to the phone.
"Antonio, I found it!"
"What did you find?"
"THE SONG! I FOUND IT, I FOUND IT! I'll bring it over to you. I want to you listen to it."
Ten minutes later, Miguel pressed the eject button of my cassette player. His lips stretched from ear to ear, and with his runaway eyes, we sought the play button. "Antonio, you have to listen to this entire song!" he told me. "It stirs up so many things inside of me. You must listen to it so that you understand what I'm telling you about. I'll leave it with you and come for it later."
I pressed the play button and, cigarette in hand, placed all my attention on the song. The first thing I heard was an acute, sudden cry in a high-pitched tone, followed by the vibrating sound of a cymbal intercepted with drumbeats at the same level. After several minutes, a set of scales was introduced as it gradually mixed with a triad of three notes belonging from the same arpeggio. To this, a sweet background rhythm followed, progressively climbing from one sustained note to the next, and then falling then lowering by a half-tone to a flat note. With this elevation of half-tones, I was brought little by little by the same combination of rhythmic accents to the thematic climax of an overwhelming melody. Once at this point, it repeated and repeated among the screams of a diva that would surprisingly arise from time to time.
The song captivated me in a heart-rending way, taking me to a devastating despair, which was at the same time seductive and chaotic. Without noticing, I was already in the darkest places of my soul, my chest straining. It was a place with no exit, where I had to keep on wandering aimlessly, chasing the rhythm. When the music stopped, my heart was torn asunder, and I was left breathless. It was incredible how a type of music made for dancing could hurt so much. I called Miguel and told him of the pain that coursed through me. I couldn't understand it.
"I don't know how to explain it, but once we listen to it and dance together, we'll understand it," he told me.
I replied: "I can't wait to try it."
A week later, we were getting ready to go to Montreal, to the legendary Black & Blue party. Friday was the leather fest; Saturday was for military attire; but Sunday was the main attraction. Miguel decided that we'd decipher "Relentless" on this trip. We called each other back and forth during the week prior to our departure. Between one thing and the other, Miguel commented: "I'm dying to listen to Victor Calderón play "Relentless". Guurl?? Can you imagine? We'll reach nirvana when we listen to that song."
We arrived in Montreal. Hundreds of men walked in every part of the city, some trying to get tickets, others just modelling as if on a runway, greeting and kissing each other on the cheek, gossiping, buying their outfits, holding hands, and seeking friends from among those waiting to be friends. At about 10 p.m., we were getting ready to go to the first party. Miguel was getting his leather pants out of his suitcase, while I cleaned my boots, hat and harness.
"Miguel, help me put this on. How does it fit?"
"Come here. Let me tighten it more."
"And the hat? How does it look?"
"Too much! How do my pants look?" I asked.
"Fierce! You've got the tickets, and I've got the drugs. Are we ready?"
"Yes, let's go."
We left our room all leathered up and took the elevator to the hotel lobby. The doors opened slowly, the way the curtains go up in a theatre. The other tourists gawked at our apparel. We laughed and went into the street, took a taxi and left for Club Vortex. In the taxi, Miguel couldn't stop talking. This leather feels so nice. Who's the DJ? All those men who'll be at the party. Do I look good? Fix my hat, please. Relentless, Relentless. I enjoyed the streets of Montreal silently, the cathedrals we passed by, the hordes of fags crossing from one street to the other, also in leather. I wanted more than anything for us to listen to that song together so as to comply with the mandatory entrance trip. I don't know why the wait for "Relentless" unsettled me.
When we came into the club, we noticed over the hundreds of dancing heads a gigantic arch on the stage located at the end of the building. On the various stages of the club, there were black curtains and cells with men sodomizing each other with their arms, dildos and dicks. A scream could be heard every once in a while after the sound of a lash of a whip on skin. We saw one or two S&M scenes with masked men, their fists coated in lard sliding inside someone else's body, yet no one betrayed any pain. The bodies danced with sweat, glitter and the fat that melted on their muscles. To me, the whole scene looked like Tarzan in Wonderland.
We got to the bar, ordered two beers, took our ecstasy pills from our pockets and took them following the silence after saying "cheers." We were ready for the leather mixed with the joy of dancing. On our way to the dance floor, we greeted friends until we arrived at a corner of the stage where the night's most muscular queens tried to dance. We surrendered to the party rituals, crossing ourselves like two good Catholic kids ready to sin.
Every time a repetitive and overwhelming tune played, Miguel and I looked at each other anticipating our departure for nirvana. But the night passed along with the effect of the drugs and we didn't hear "Relentless".
At six in the morning, we came out of the club, walking slowly with bags under our eyes. Miguel and I wore dark sunglasses to hide our dilated pupils. Luckily, the streets were empty and silent. A garbage truck approached, with three men in green uniforms hanging from both sides. They jumped onto the street to pick up the waste cans. These men, who at this time of the day looked so appetizing, looked at us the same way they regarded the rubbish: with disgust and even revulsion.
We decided to walk back to the hotel. On every other corner, a ray of sunlight surprised us, filtering through the buildings and warming us. It was the beginning of fall. After so much sweat, our skins had goose bumps of erect pores every time the breeze embraced us.
We finally arrived; everything still moved in slow motion. We looked like mummies rolled in old leather. Removing our outfits was the hardest thing. I couldn't take off my boots: my feet were swollen from so much dancing. Miguel's pants had adhered to his skin. Stumbling from place to place, we were finally able to take our clothes off. We made two protein shakes and took a shower together. Our minds were as slippery as the soap that we didn't seem to be able to grab. But, little by little, we were able to remove the grime of everyone else that we had picked up during the night. After taking a shower, I lay on the couch and Miguel went to bed, both naked and exhausted. I looked at the ceiling, and could still hear the boom boom of the music rumbling through my ears. Even so, my eyes closed slowly until a complete darkness overtook me unawares. The music disappeared and only the sound of my own breathing accompanied me.
We slept in on Saturday, and in the afternoon, we ate out on Saint Catherine Street. After lunch, we returned to the hotel for a nap. We needed to recover our energy. That day was the military party. At 9:30 p.m., Miguel woke me up so that I could start getting ready. He had dressed in camo pants and drunk a protein shake. But I still felt a little disoriented, and Miguel didn't want to wait for me. So he left. I woke up three hours later, walked to the shower and turned on the tap. I waited a bit longer, until the bathroom filled with steam, the image of my body slowly disappearing. The silence suffocated me. I went to the stereo that we had brought and put on the "Relentless" cassette. I went to the shower again. The stereo speakers invaded the room with its tune. My heart, which had been beating slowly, accelerated to the pace of the music. I thought of Miguel.
The military party was full to capacity, and I wasn't able to get in. I decided to go to the after party. I knew at some point I'd run into Miguel. After several hours, I found him. When he saw me, he hugged me as if we had not seen each other in years. "Antonio, I was looking for you. I shouted and shouted while I danced to see if you heard me, but I never found you. They played our song, gurl. You missed it." We left the after party. The sun. Miguel with his ice-cold hands held mine tight, released them, held them again.
Once we arrived, we decided to do the same as the previous day: take a shower, drink protein shakes and sleep in until it was time to get ready for the last event. The big one: the Black & Blue party.
At 10 p.m., it wasn't necessary to turn off the alarm. Miguel was already taking a shower. He played the tape with the song to wake me up. We began getting ready. The drugs, the meds, the outfit, the DJ and that we'd dance to Relentless, this time together.
I had to wait in the queue. Miguel with his VIP pass went in first without waiting for me. I walked to the entrance to pick up my tickets. When I arrived to reached the door, I was dumbfounded by the grandeur of the event. I made my way to the center of the building, where there was a huge dance floor. The place was humongous.
Thousands of people dancing, sweating, letting themselves go with the music, the light and the drugs. The energy was overwhelming and seductive. On our way to the dance floor, there was a sandbox area, complete with swings, ropes and a sort of labyrinth with rooms to every side, full of balloons. I was with people I knew, and they all told me they had seen Miguel. I asked them to tell Miguel, should they see him, that I'd be dancing close to the exit that led to the balloon room. When I arrived at that corner, some friends told me that Miguel had left just a few minutes ago. I took my drugs and started to dance.
Though I had decided not to worry anymore about Miguel, I went to the restroom to see if I could find him. I walked around the dance floor, got inside this jungle of bodies, but I couldn't find him. Having given up, I returned to the corner close to the balloons, resigned to the idea of not seeing him during the party.
After several hours dancing, many bumps of Ketamine and two ecstasies, I was already floating with euphoria penetrating my bones and disrupting my skin. Every once in a while, I closed my eyes, imagining that I was being transported into nothingness. I also thought of Miguel: I saw him in front of me, dancing and enjoying himself. A pair of lips stumbled upon mine. They were Miguel's lips. At the precise moment we touched, at the very moment I noticed that he had found me, a melody approached our ears. It was "Relentless". We looked at each other. Without wanting to say anything, we began letting the music take hold of our bodies. In a matter of seconds, the two of us were flying, goose bumps on our skin. We rubbed against each other without mercy, sharing skin, but also an inexplicable pain made us shout, jump, move our hips and shake our bodies until we couldn't take it any longer. With our eyes closed, we let the song possess us. I suddenly opened them and saw Miguel looking at me with pity in his eyes.
I got close to him and he told me, "This song stabs you where it hurts, Antonio. It hurts so, so much ..."
A week after our trip to Montreal, Miguel paid me a visit with a small gift and a card. When I opened it, I found a tape with "Relentless". The card read: Antonio, I had so much fun at the Black & Blue with you. Thanks for all those times that you reminded me how much you love me. I love you too, so much. I am giving you this copy of "Relentless". Play it when you want to think of me.
Miguel left in silence. The door closed and I opened the tape's cassette case. I put the tape into my stereo system, but, before turning it on, I remembered I had to take my meds. I went to the kitchen, opened the drawer where I kept them, took out a tiny plate and started to select the pills I needed to take. I looked at the bottles and thought: the never-ending drag.
I returned to the living room, turned on the stereo, closed my eyes and listened to "Relentless". The rhythm began slow, almost as if background music. Then gradually, almost like torture, it kept accelerating until it transported me to a place of madness, to that rhythm that weighs down on you. Every note was an unknown, yet familiar force, hitting my chest without stopping, mercy or compassion. Then, I started the journey to that place of sorrow from where I always wanted to escape, but which sooner or later reached out to me with its claws. There, with happiness, nostalgia, melancholy, loss, rage, anger, joy, harmony, chaos and fear, I danced. I felt them all at the same time, constantly like an endless sentence. The song was over. Silence arrived. I looked at the pills on the little porcelain plate, walked to the stereo and put away the tape that Miguel had brought me.
Moisés Agosto-Rosario is a longtime treatment advocate and educator for people living with HIV. Mr. Agosto-Rosario has played a crucial role in ensuring that communities of color have equal access to care, treatment and lifesaving information and has won numerous awards for his work with the HIV community. He is currently the director of treatment for NMAC, formerly known as the National Minority AIDS Council.
This story was reprinted with permission of the author and has been adapted with permission from his Facebook page.