Reprinted from The Drag Queen of Elfland (Circlet Press) by permission of the author. The Chelsea Gym has been closed since 1999.
Photographs are by Tomás Gaspar, whose work was featured in the Electric Blanket (Visual AIDS Artistsâ Caucus). In 1998 his AIDS photography received recognition at the World AIDS Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. His work is currently represented by bridgesgallery.com.
Ever since I can remember, I've woken with a hard on. I'm sure there must've been a time when I was prepubescent and my dick was limp when I awoke. But since puberty, no matter when I wake up or how long I've been asleep, I've got a boner when I come to.
I don't know if it's just the exhilaration of waking, of finding out I'm still alive after the small death of sleep. I figure there might be something about that small death which links to le petit mort. At the least it makes for a cute joke.
Or it might just be that I have kinky dreams the moment I lose consciousness. REM libido. I wish I could remember some of them; it's as if my mind's a complete tabula rasa blank when I'm not awake for all the memory I have of them.
I think it's the first reason, though, since I never have wet dreams. I figure that if it were dreams causing my erections, I must sometimes get carried away and spill my seed before I wake. But that never happens. And every time I wake up, my dick has gotten up before me. I live in a curious half-terror that one morning I'll wake without an erection, although I'm not sure why I'm so afraid of it. It was a relief that today at least I didn't have to worry about what I'll do if it happens.
I stroked myself for a while as I lay there, letting my mind wander through these and other topics. It always struck me as a bit odd that I could think about such philosophical issues when I was jerking off, but I liked the perversity of that. It made masturbation seem even more profound than I already believed it to be.
Eventually I stretched, cracking my back, and finally opened my eyes. The alarm clock's glow was the only light in my tiny studio. 8:47 p.m. Still early. I figured I'd head to the gym for a quick workout, and a quickie in the steam room, before starting my shift as a cabbie. I'm such a creature of habit, to the point where I almost fetishize the normalcy of routine. The gym was definitely a part of that fetishized jumble of habits.
Lately the "in" crowd has moved over to American Fitness, that great big subterranean complex of exercise equipment and such, with too much emphasis on the such -- stuff like aerobics classes and a "health" bar and far too many heterosexuals cruising one another.
I'm still at the Chelsea Gym, if for no other reason than it's open until midnight, which better fits my schedule. It's also all male, and almost exclusively queer. Until something comes along to disrupt my inertia, it's where I plan to stay. There's something unpretentious about the gym, it's two small floors of freeweights. It's top-heavy in its focus, because that's what most gay men want: big pecs and biceps. A decade into the AIDS crisis, it seemed so much of our sexuality was focused on looking, since people were so afraid to have sex with each other. I think gay men are getting past that now, in part because we're forgetting about the crisis, having lived with it for so long it's become a constant. Or we're practicing safer sex or calculating risks or throwing caution to the wind and ignoring it.
But still the gym mania persists.
I think it's tied to the fact that you can't change the size of your dick -- the vacuum pump ads all lie -- but you can change the rest of your body, and insecurities being such a natural part of our psyches, we've become size queens about those muscles you do see in day to day life.
Of course, vanity and narcissism also play a heavy role, I reflected as I gathered my gym clothes into a knapsack. I flexed my bicep and thought how this -- my looks, my body -- helped me get laid. I went to the gym to keep these charms as best I could. I did also enjoy the endorphin rush of the workout, not to mention the rush from the sex in the steam room (not officially part of the gym, of course, but everyone did it and everyone knew it was there).
And part of me was concerned about putting on or at least maintaining my weight, in case the HIV ever got the upper hand.
Not that I needed to justify my going to the gym to anyone, myself included. Lately, however, I was reconsidering all of my actions. Which was another reason I went to the gym: it was a good place for me to think. When the body was occupied with some simple repetitive task -- like pumping iron or jerking off -- the mind was left free to roam, the subconscious liberated as the front brain kept the body in motion.
It was a quick trip from my minuscule, fifth-floor walk-up with an airshaft view on West Twenty Fifth Street down to the gym, but I took my time, strolling lazily along Eighth Avenue and looking at the boys. A crowd of studmuffins on roller blades lingered outside the Big Cup, while the throngs of men sitting in the window ogled them through the glass as they sipped their cappuccinos and iced teas. A towheaded blond walking a dalmatian caught my eye as he turned the corner at 19th, but I already had a destination I felt committed to and his pooch tugged him on toward home, so we merely locked gazes for a moment and chalked each other up as "the one who got away."
I made smalltalk in the lobby with Carlos, who was just leaving the gym as I got there. For someone like me who didn't hold down a normal job -- as a cabbie, people came into my life in five minute intervals -- the gym provided some social stability: that group of people I saw regularly, even though they weren't especially important in my life. They were one of my routines. I often looked forward to the gossip and interchanges, but when they switched gyms or moved to San Francisco or Los Angeles or (god alone knows why) Salt Lake City, there was always someone new to take their place. Their familiarity was comforting, reassuring in a way, like my waking hard ons. And these days I felt I needed all the comforting and reassurance I could get.
I felt at home here.
The Chelsea Gym was also the cheapest of any of the neighborhood gyms; even the Y on 23rd was more expensive. In fact, the only problem I had with the Chelsea Gym were the mirrors. Practically the entire place was mirrored, for the men to preen and pose and cruise while they pump.
I'm always afraid someone will notice I don't have a reflection.
I try hard to make it less obvious, keeping some piece of equipment between me and the mirrors whenever possible, and ignoring their existence when I can't. So many men, it seems, don't actually work out but sit at one of the exercises and ogle the other men in the mirrors. Which is an enjoyable pastime, I must admit, if a bit inconvenient for me. While I can watch them, they can't see me, so it's hard for me to cruise effectively, at least via the mirrors. So I pretend the mirrors don't exist as much as I can, and look at people directly when I'm cruising or interacting with them.
I gave my ID to Sam and went in. The locker room was crowded with naked men as the abs workout class (the Chelsea Gym's token semi-aerobic item) had just let out and they were hitting the showers at the same time that a chunk of the post-work lifters were coming upstairs from frolicking in the steam room and sauna. I loved to be in that whirl and press of bodies, but didn't linger long. I was studiously ignoring the scale over by the sunlamps, and then pretending to myself that I wasn't ignoring it and would weigh myself after the workout. The sooner I was out of the locker room, the easier it was to put out of mind.
I was working shoulders and back today. Generally I like to start with some rowing, vigorous exercise to get everything going, but both machines were occupied. I began with some front pull downs, instead, grateful that all the machines faced inward, away from the mirrors. I had barely begun my first set when a stunning young boy I'd never seen before wandered into view. I stared at him, lusted at him, thought it was returned. I wondered if we'd run into each other down in the showers later, if he would tarry to wait for me or if I would hurry to join him.
For a moment, I grappled with the existential problem of loneliness: not just as a gay man, but as a vampire. What would it be like if we were to date, move in together, join our lives? I could share immortality with him.
It was a ludicrous fantasy, of course. I didn't even know this boy, had just seen him for the first time in my life, and already I was planning an eternity for ourselves! I didn't even know his serostatus.
It was natural, though, to want desperately to fill my life with someone else at the drop of a hat. "This is no country for old men," Yeats wrote of Byzantium, which must mean that Byzantium is now reborn in the current gay subculture. That sort of loneliness is even more cosmically acute for someone like myself, always destined to be alone, to outlive anyone I might know or love, to be constantly dependent on humans for nourishment.
My head turned to watch the boy as I continued my set. It was an appealing fantasy: the romance we might have, as much as the pleasure our bodies might take in sex.
I was procrastinating, thinking about so much else, and I knew it. I wanted to pretend everything was as it had always been, didn't want to face what was happening to me.
I'd been HIV positive for at least a decade, with no adverse affects. I'm not sure when exactly I was infected, or even whether it was from unsafe sex or from drinking infected blood. Probably both.
There's a taste to infected blood that's different from anything else. It's like drinking lowfat or skim milk, in some ways, thin and watery because there're usually few t-cells. But it's got an extra flavor from all that virus, richer in taste the higher the viral load. So infected blood is like drinking skim chocolate milk. I'm partial to the taste of it, but I try not to indulge too much, for a bunch of reasons. I'm less concerned about multiple strains of HIV, although with the changes now happening to me perhaps I should've been more wary. Infected persons often have other diseases and afflictions, which I want to avoid. And perhaps most importantly, one of the ways that the HIV hasn't affected me is that, thanks to my vampirism, I am constantly replenishing my t-cell levels with the blood I feed on. So I stay healthy by drinking healthy blood. I do also feel guilty, taking the few remaining t-cells from people who're already losing them to the disease.
And thus I've been asymptomatic for at least a decade, maybe more depending on when I was first infected. Until now.
I've begun losing my appetite, my first signs of the disease taking its toll on my body.
This terrifies me. I'm not replenishing my immune system with fresh, healthy blood and all that it contains.
And what frightens me even worse is that I'm afraid the virus is now attacking whatever it is that makes me, biologically, a vampire. The cellular changes that happened that night when I was drained completely of blood, and then restored with his blood, making me like him, a creature of the night. It wasn't at all scientific, although that's how I'm thinking about it now, since there's such a science surrounding the virus these days, it's how we're trained to think about it, in numbers and chemicals and not at all its devastatingly human effects.
I'd been able to ignore much of that techno-stuff, since my vampirism has been operating like an immune system, keeping me healthy from the HIV infection. Until now, when it seems a mutation of the HIV is attacking what makes me a vampire, my immune system equivalent.
And I've no idea what to feel.
The HIV might "cure" my vampirism. But the cure itself will kill me, since my vampirism is the only thing keeping me alive right now.
I'm not exactly discontent being a vampire, but I don't know if that's just because I'm so used to it now. I'd be happy to give up the bloodletting and the deaths. It's been a long time since I've killed anyone, though at first I didn't know how to stop feeding, how not to gorge myself past satiation, until I was bloated into a torpor -- a dangerous state for me to be in since I so frequently had to flee the scenes of my hunger-crimes.
And as I, once-immortal, confront my sudden mortality, certain questions from my past began to recur: Did I have a soul? Was there an afterlife? Was I damned for all the lives I took to feed myself? Even though they were all in self defense, my body's natural instinct for survival and self-preservation.
Would I again become mortal when I lost my vampirism, or would I instead die?
But I was not alive now, I was undead. A quibble, perhaps, but an important one: I was not alive now, and I had once been dead. If I lost the state I was in, would I not revert to being dead?
And what would be the difference if I did become mortal? I'd sicken and die soon enough. I've never relished the idea of wasting away to this disease and being unable to die, on account of being undead already. I railed against the cruelties of fate, ignoring for the moment the fact that so many others had died before me and would yet die from this disease, men and women who would've killed for the prolonged years my vampirism had given me.
I'd been sitting blankly at the machine, lost in these reflections. That cute young boy wandered through my view again, drawing my mind back into my body as my body began to respond to the sight of him, arousal stirring my cock within my shorts.
I stood, deciding to skip the rest of my workout, and followed him down the stairs to the locker rooms, and the showers waiting below.
I had no answers to any of my questions. And I did not know if there was anything I could do to change what was happening. I was hoping the exercise would increase my appetite, which might prolong my un-life some while longer. I did not, could not know what would come. So I followed this boy, whose gaze met mine and in whose eyes I felt happy to be lost for all eternity, responding to those appetites which still lay within me.
Lawrence Schimel is the author or editor of over forty books, among them The Drag Queen of Elfland, Things Invisible To See, Boy Meets Boy, The Mammoth Book of Gay Erotica, and Food for Life and Other Dish. His website is http://www.circlet.com/schimel.html.
Back to the June 2000
issue of Body Positive