Scolded as a child for picking a flower in the park, I was told that, because of what I had done, the flower would die. I knew it wasn’t true though, because my own experience had shown that as long as I held the flower and watched it closely, it wouldn’t even wilt.
Warnings about imminent decay have multiplied since that day, particularly with respect to my sex life. I’ve been told that the peak was twenty, then twenty-six, that thirty was the end, and now that it will come at forty-two, forty-five, perhaps a little later. Today, thirty-eight years from the day I was born, I wish I could say I greeted all those birthdays with the same defiance I displayed correcting the grown-up at the playground. But once I’d had some years to observe the effects of time on sexual viability, I started responding to these warnings with something closer to nervous collapse.
In the last few years, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: the more I’ve panicked about growing older, the less I’ve seemed to age. With the exception of a few grey hairs and some slow-healing injuries, I still look and feel, in my early-middle age, as fresh as that daisy the moment before I dropped it to the hot sand under the swing set, and nowhere is this truer than in bed.
The only plausible explanation for this is that I was actually right all those years ago about the daisy. The secret to preserving your youth is the same as the one for preventing the boiling of pots. For the last three decades, I’ve kept vigil over myself and stand, unscathed, amid a half-exploded minefield of erotic doom. Unlike peers who will lug thirty extra pounds to our twentieth high school reunion this fall, I’m showing up in the sailor suit I wore to the Junior Boat Dance.
Don’t roll your eyes — this is important. "There is such a little time that your youth will last," Lord Henry warned Dorian Gray. "The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we did not dare to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!"
I ran all this past some guys I’ve had sex with over the years, ranging in age from twenty-four to fifty-five, to see how others are dealing with the accumulation of birthdays.
"There’s a train of thought in the gay community that your life ends at a certain age," says Sean, twenty-seven, "but I think that’s less and less true in younger generations."
There’s something distinctly prelapsarian about Sean, with his light brown curls nearly to his shoulders, his lazy wide smile, and, on either side of his broad nose, just what John Lennon must have envisioned when he sang of Lucy’s "kaleidoscope eyes." I asked my old tricks if the interviews can be done in the nude, so Sean is sprawled on a low canvas chair with his fingers threaded behind his head and his cock hanging casually to the left.
Sean’s ease with nudity reflects a degree of poise about the body’s journey through time that I didn’t share at twenty-seven. I like the idea that this difference is generational, that a new crop of post-Will & Grace, post-Brokeback, post-gay gays might have self-esteem strong enough to withstand the age-hatred that so famously crushes straight women and gay men — that is, anyone at the mercy of male desire.
When it comes to birthdays, gay men actually have it worse than women. Unless you’re one of those really advanced gays with kids, you careen toward your erotic expiration date without the consolation — or at least the distraction — of breeding. When Virginia Woolf said there was nothing sadder than an old bugger, she wasn’t being unsympathetic. Imagine the elderly patriarch, surrounded on his deathbed by generations of his DNA, while down the street his wife’s hairdresser keels over on his bar stool, soiling his chaps with his final cosmopolitan.
It helps to be partnered. Thirty-three was an easier birthday than thirty-two for the simple reason that I’d just signed a lease on an apartment with a boyfriend and imagined (as I still do) that he and I would be together until the day we died in a fiery wreck. A study came out a few years ago showing that married people live longer, healthier lives than single people. This is attributable to the amount of time they don’t spend contemplating the prospect of one day having to change their own diapers.
From the time we’re born until age twenty-six, we mature. The rest is decay. That’s what a college professor of mine told the class when we read As I Lay Dying. Meanwhile, Sean shows no sign of having spent the last year decaying, or worrying about it. He describes having sex with men in their forties and finding them "undiminished in any way." But that generation gap he mentioned before comes up again: "I think we view older generations as having struggled and as being a little beat up by life."
I don’t feel beat up by life, despite what my essays in this publication might lead you to believe. More importantly to my sexual longevity, I don’t look beat up by life. Yes, the grey hairs, but I still have full coverage, and hair has not yet migrated to the far reaches of my body, unless you count the little sprouts coming out of my ears, and those I can tweeze while I’m writing. Not only do I still fit into the sailor suit, but if you put your index finger between my butt cheeks, I could squeeze so hard you couldn’t pull it out — and when you did, there might be a diamond in your hand. I admit to thirty-two on Craigslist and get away with it.
"Being gay is a young man’s game," movie idol Rupert Everett told the UK’s Daily Telegraph a few years ago. "Being gay and being a woman have one big thing in common, which is that we both become invisible after the age of forty-two. Who wants a gay fifty-year-old? No one, let me tell you."
When I was thirty, a celebrity-photographer friend of mine told me the cut-off was forty-five. "You should spend the next fifteen years," he advised, "fucking as many guys as you possibly can."
At forty-six, my friend Scott was the oldest guy I’d had sex with when we hooked up nine years ago. He hadn’t exactly been preserved in amber — most of his hair was gone, and his face bore witness to a California childhood decades before sunscreen was fashionable. But Scott was handsome and energetic. He wasn’t young, but he was youthful.
Scott was surprised to find in his forties that he still had it going on. "I had coins in my pocket. I think everyone has some currency in his pocket — or no currency, but there’s a measure. If you’re twenty-four and you’re unbelievably hot, and you’re totally engaged sexually, your pockets are bulging with currency, with coins. As you get older, the currency leaks from your pockets!"
I first heard Scott use the coin metaphor describing a visit to the old "Tuesday Sucks" party thrown by the Radical Faeries, a countercultural gay group whose communal houses and rural sanctuaries provide refuge not just from the straight world, but from the mainstream gay mindset whose only message to a fifty-year-old gay man is game over. With the Faeries, Scott found not only that he had currency, but so did older men, some much older. Faerie gatherings attract beautiful young guys like Sean, and also Patty, a wizened old hippie with whom I shared a lingering kiss the last time I flew to Appalachia to dance around the maypole.
I love these older men and I honor them, but I know that on some level kissing Patty and going to bed with Scott were different ways of keeping tabs on the cut flower, of looking into the distance of my years at the possibility of erotic longevity. While mainstream gay culture promises us sexual penury in our old age, the Radical Faerie utopia offers the voluntary redistribution of every kind of wealth.
Of course, intergenerational gay relationships aren’t unique to the Faeries. In addition to sustaining the physical and emotional needs of the people who brought you Western literature, architecture, philosophy, democracy, science, math and religion, such unions are now the driving force behind Daddyhunt.com ("Wiser. Stronger. Hotter."), now with 149,000 members worldwide. One of my friends will be 106 next month, and last I checked, he and his boyfriend of twenty years — forty-one years younger — still had an active, monogamous sex life. The only sensible conclusion from all of this is that Rupert Everett and Virginia Woolf and the mainstream gay mob have less wisdom among them than callow Sean in his cluttered bedroom.
"Well, I do have AIDS anxiety."
"No, I’m sorry — I said age anxiety."
"Yes, but I meant AIDS anxiety."
"Oh, good. Talk about that. I wanted to ask about STDs anyway."
"Okay. So AIDS anxiety supplants age anxiety."
"Well, as an HIV-positive man, I’m mostly really well adjusted to it, but I get these flashes. I see older men who have been living with AIDS for a long time, and you see their bellies are distorted, and their skin is bad, and you can tell that they hurt all over. I have these moments of intense fear that I’m going to be an incontinent vegetable someday. And I have an anxiety about transmitting the disease to someone else, so I try to make it very clear that I’m poz."
I look over at Sean. I’m seeing his beautiful body, the open face and the glittering, faceted eyes, and I’m willing away the nasty emotions that have now swarmed between us. I’m still hearing him pronounce the words as an HIV-positive man, and
I’m struggling in this shitty moment to balance an interviewer’s responsibilities, a friend’s concern if not grief, and a sex partner’s grievance.
"Actually, I didn’t know — that you were poz."
"Oh! I’m sorry. I thought you knew."
"Well it’s funny, because I thought we had a conversation about it, and I don’t remember exactly what we said but I must have misconstrued something . . . "
"I’m really sorry. I — "
"Don’t worry about it."
The interview moves on. I ask my questions and type down answers, but mostly I’m going over what Sean and I did that night (not enough to concern an HIV counselor, but enough to worry me), and trying to piece together how I came up with the fiction of his being HIV-negative. All I can come up with is the beauty of his youth, and all I can think of is what that beauty no longer represents for me.
"Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!" Sean is no less young, no less beautiful, but now he’s thrown open the door to the room where my picture hangs. It’s not the portrait that ages instead of the man, and it’s not the caricature that the narcissistic essayist draws to laugh off the inevitable. It’s the picture of a twelve-year-old boy growing up in San Francisco who starts to realize he’s gay just as men covered with purple lesions start showing up in the news. A thirteen year old who gets a rise out of his classmates with the riddle "What does GAY stand for? Got AIDS yet?" A young man who, after his first sexual experiences, uses every instinct of hypochondria and survivor guilt to convince himself, despite regular test results to the contrary, that he’s infected.
In a shitty moment Sean has gone from a vision of lost youth to the embodiment of what terrified me throughout my teens about what the future held. The transformation is as instant as it is complete, and it jolts me into a realization of how thoroughly, in charting my history of fearing time, I have avoided looking at that picture of myself. Because it comes as a shock to me now, that memory, that person, who thought of growing old as a privilege, who didn’t think he’d live to be thirty-eight. n°
©2008 Paul Festa and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
Festa‘s essays appear in Nerve, Salon, the Best Sex Writing
anthologies for 2005, 2006 and 2008, and other publications. He is
the author of OH MY
GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, which is based on Apparition of the Eternal
Church, his award-winning and critically acclaimed film about the
music of Olivier Messiaen. A violinist, he has toured extensively,
given the U.S., Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles
premieres of Messiaen’s 1933 Fantaisie, and performed with the
Stephen Pelton Dance Theater and the North Bay Shakespeare Company. He
is the official historian of the Presidential Memorial Commission of
San Francisco, and is revising a novel. More info at paulfesta.com.