Above: Edvard Munch. “The Absinthe Drinkers” (1890).

“I’m only here to make a friend; to find someone who I can talk with; a nice guy that will understand me.” I kept saying that in my head over and over again as I drove towards San Francisco one dark night. It was 1989, and I was nineteen years old. It was the height of the AIDS crisis. There was no cure for those infected with HIV and the treatments available only temporarily avoided the inevitable. I was petrified, but I was more scared of being alone.

During the previous year, I spent many days wandering through the porn shops and adult video arcades of the Bay Area. The clientele in these often dirty and stinking places were men of desperation. For a few dollars, you could watch constantly looping X-rated films in small private booths where a personal television screen was mounted into the wall. Slowly, I learned that if you didn’t want to be alone – just leave the door unlocked. Here, I had my first sexual experience. Out of nowhere, what appeared to resemble the shadow of a tall well-built man walked into my cubicle and immediately dropped to his knees. We said nothing to each other and when it was over – he was gone.

For awhile, this newfound, uncomplicated, and freely accessible rush was enough for me. But, at first, I would only make my rounds on a Friday and or Saturday night, then I started to go during the week, and finally – in the middle of the day. On a particular occasion, I had sex with a faceless and nameless man at one porn-shop, then got in my car and decided to drive to another; looking for my next shadowy embrace. I stopped watching porn, the movies playing in the sex-shops merely provided background noise in which our moans became indistinguishable from those of the actors. In a matter of months, I received oral sex from nearly one hundred men.

My whole life, I had always longed to be near men; to feel accepted by them. The camaraderie in all-male sports teams, the pre-game huddles, the chest bumps after a home-run, the slaps on the back from a coach, and the ribald jokes in the locker-room, mesmerized me even though I was always an outsider looking in. Early on in boyhood, I failed the initiation process. Unguided and unsure, at home I tended towards solitary play and imaginary games with make-believe friends. My brother continually threw me out of his room where I found his collection of models and army toys endlessly fascinating. I will never forget sneaking into his closet and secretly stroking the short furry simulated hair on the head and beard of a large 12-inch GI Joe action figure. It was a spiritual, almost magical experience. My more-accepting sisters allowed me to play dolls with them, but I instinctively loathed it. Alone, I endlessly drew intricate and complicated maps of fantastical lands populated by talking animals, witches, and muscle-bound gladiators and knights. After school, I would hurry home to watch repeats of 1950s and 60 kid’s television shows; how I longed to be Jimmy Olsen, Tonto, or Batman’s sidekick Robin.

At about age eight or nine, while mischievously rummaging through my brother’s belongings, I found a stash of “Playboy” and “Penthouse” magazines. Soon, they became my solitary escape and I methodically planned my raiding expeditions whenever he wasn’t home. I stole a few and kept them in a tree house. Unsatisfied, I started pilfering them from local liquor stores. Soon, beckoned by the last few pages filled with advertisements for raunchy porn films, I ordered video-tapes by sending cash through the mail. I would sit for hours with my face a couple of feet from the screen. I never looked at the women and focused solely on the men – often headless with only their torso in the frame, I quickly tired of all the female intrusions into my line of sight and exclusively began to buy gay porn. What they did in these films I never could have imagined. But I was captivated. A particular scene I found endlessly fascinating: a young immature kid arrives in a big city and finds comfort and security with a kindly experienced man who takes him home and introduces the boy to his friends and an orgy ensues. I dreamed of the day that would be me.

When I was a small boy, I cherished little outings with my father to the barbershop or the hardware store. These places smelled like men. But my time at the vestibule of manhood would be brief as my father became increasingly busy, distant, and preoccupied. I felt permanently locked out. Around other boys, I shrunk. The world of masculinity was like a diorama which I could peer into but never belong.

My first ventures as a teenager into the semi-illicit environs of male homosexuality was like stepping through the looking-glass into a plane of existence I had always ached to be a part of. Yet, it was an illusion. Every time I reached out for someone, they vanished or they were never there at all. For the longer I sought out men for anonymous sex, the more dehumanizing and impersonal it became. Because suddenly, sex was reduced to sticking an erect member under the space between the floor and the partition separating two public lavatory stalls. One night, all I could feel was the cold steel of a wall against my face. I was still trying to break through.

It was then that I decided to forgo my fear of AIDS and attempt a more meaningful relationship that extended beyond a five to ten minute encounter. I walked down Castro Street and entered a bar simply because I liked the music emanating from within. The place was a loud jumble of male bodies. Although the doors were open, inside it reeked of smoke and sweat. I sat at the bar and waited. Too shy to look up from the drink in front of me, I stole quick sideways glances at those nearby. I caught a couple of guys assessing the newcomer. I didn’t like it. Reminded me of the indifferent long stare from grade-school kick-ball team captains who looked everyone over while picking members for their team. I always got passed over in favor of my chubby fellow-reject friend who couldn’t run. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. An older handsome man with an approving and kind face asked me to dance. He took my hand as we pushed our way through the crowd. I felt curiously safe in the midst of this throng. I looked up at the ceiling and the spinning overhead lights, deep inhaled, and I suddenly thought I found somewhere I belonged. I closed my eyes, but opened them quickly when I felt the sting from a stubbled chin and then a pair of warm lips sliding down my neck.

At about midnight, my dance partner invited me to his nearby apartment and I followed him for a few blocks, walking past some of the dirty book stores that I previously haunted. I looked back, and thought – how pathetic and sad I had been. At his place, he was gently instructive and it was over quickly. We said goodbye and I strolled slowly back towards the bar where we met. Lost in thought, I forgot which way I was going. Then, in the front of me was the same gay porn rental shop and arcade; I looked in the front window and the place was crowded – I walked through the door.

Now, my lovers had faces and occasionally a first name. However, I grew bored and relied less upon the frequency of my sexual experiences as I became increasingly fixated on their intensity and the distinctive physical characteristics of my partner. It was a return to the toilet stall and despite the often bright lights of the disco, sex degenerated to the desperate and the mechanically pelvic. The San Francisco bathhouses and sex-clubs where now my favored venue for nearly nonverbal hook-ups; the only required communication: “Are you a top or bottom?” Inside, monitors were mounted to every wall and no matter which way you looked – a gay porn film was streaming overhead. So, when things started to get mundane, you could always watch the movie and make believe that there was some sort of connection taking place – that everything was unified. Yet, as much as I tired, whenever I passed through the bathhouse, or even the local gay bar or dance-club, on any packed Saturday night, it always left me with this inescapable sense of dismemberment and loneliness. I could often remember the individual parts of those I stumbled upon, but not whole bodies let alone a full human person. I would leave, knowing I just pressed my body up against countless men, but it was as if I had just been inside a completely empty room. The pursuit and eventual realization of gay sex was constantly solitary and masturbatory. Without the moderating counterbalance of women, everything that is exceedingly careless, obsessive, and unstable about male sexuality is incrementally exaggerated. The impersonal nature of gay sex eventually pushes the fringes towards collapse and self-destruction. I never fully realized this at the time, except there were a few transitory moments when I wondered where it would end. For women, that demarcation between self-preservation and excess was clearly evident.

Ever since I opened my first porn magazine, I collected in my brain an ever expanding catalogue of sexual fantasies.; the most persistent was the desire to engage in public sex. Trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t gay, or that the sheer fact of my physical anatomy meant something in terms of an inherited possession of my own manhood, just before I “came-out” I would intermittingly pick-up female street prostitutes in a frantic attempt to feel masculine. Most were only comfortable with offering oral sex in a parked car, therefore they would get visibly annoyed when I continually made odd requests – one was to have kinky sex at a location where we might get caught. Even when enticed with large amounts of cash, they always refused. After one such failed solicitation, I immediately dropped the woman off and raced to a nearby gay pub. Within a few minutes, what I was willing to pay for – I experienced for free.

The unhindered access to an increasingly varied oeuvre of sex is what initially kept me in the gay community. But it was also the promise of the knowledge I would gain through partaking in such acts that became my overriding preoccupation. Only by partaking in physical intimacy with other men, the essential characteristic of my personality that distinguished myself and others from the rest of our gender, could I discover the truth – about who I was. I thought this would immediately happen that first night someone reached out of nowhere and touched me – it didn’t. So I kept looking. Consequently, different and more invasive forms of intercourse could perhaps reach deep enough inside me and touch what I couldn’t comprehend. Only, something was never quite right. I think intuitively I knew that I was becoming desperate, but I decided that I would rather be unhappy than alone.

In Edvard Munch’s “The Absinthe Drinkers” there is a bright and colorful world outside the window, but the two depressed men, who don’t seem to know the other is there, are imprisoned with their own delusions and sufferings therefore they don’t notice anything beyond their own self.

One warm day in early-Autumn, as I sat alone in my small apartment, on an impulse driven by the fear of being entrapped with my own thoughts, I jumped up and decided to attend the notorious Folsom Street Fair. The sun was shinning, the sky was a clear blue, but I could not see it. I had never been as something kept me away. It was an inner terror, not of what I might see, but of what I might be compelled to do.

Encompassing a few cordoned off streets near Downtown San Francisco, the Folsom Street Fair was the annual celebration of the gay leather and bondage communities. Predominantly attended by men of a somewhat older and hairy persuasion, I arrived wearing blue-jeans and a t-shirt. Right away I felt self-conscious and out-of-place amongst all the men in black rubber and chains. At first glance, it was a much larger version of a gay-bar moved outdoors. There was a collective and heartless evaluation taking place by everyone present. The muscle-bound gods dressed as if they were Roman slave masters, standing separately and aloof. They were untouchable and those who were physically less impressive only dared to look at them and admire from a safe protective distance.

In the predominantly industrial area, small stores, machine shops, and garages were closed and their large rolling metal doors shut. Down the street this created a distinctive series of sidewalk niches or porticos where individual naked men would stand framed in the doorway. Some of them, remarkably handsome, would draw crowds to watch. I was instantly reminded of the long colonnades in Ancient Greece where statues of exquisite nude male athletes were lined up in a row. A few ecstatic revelers would manage to move forward and painfully fall to their knee-caps on the hard concrete. I was caught up. Without a thought, I confidently strode to the front and stood next to the guy receiving oral sex. I unzipped my pants and joined in. Without warning, the other man unexpectedly emptied his bladder and some of it splashed onto me. I walked away soiled and stinking.

In the midst of this debauchery, I met someone. He was a friend of a former lover. He was older, but we shared a similar background. Both of us remembered enduring intense periods of trauma and extreme alienation from men when we were young. These recollections were shared extemporaneously and neither of us thought it peculiar since all of our friends recalled similar upsetting memories. We explained the parallels in our sufferings, even though we came-of-age in different eras, and in different parts of the country, as due largely to the outward manifestations of a homosexual orientation that, unbeknownst to even us, was often visible to many of those who observed our behavior and distinctly un-boyish or queer predilections. He thought he had been born gay – he never knew a time when he didn’t have these feelings.

Through my latest lover, I was introduced to a new circle of friends – more mature men who had lived through and survived the raucous decade of sexual liberation and freedom in the 1970s. A few had partners that were battling AIDS. Some were grieving the loss of a loved one. One was infected with HIV. Most still occasionally attended a local gay fair or festival and they would frequently visit a local bar to meet friends, but their days of determined sexual carousing were over.

They showed an incredible amount of empathy towards those who were dying and alone. It was this dichotomy in male homosexuality that was unsettling when compared to the sick decadence at Folsom. But what is most attractive about gay men to the outside world, especially among heterosexual women, is their willingness to unquestioningly accept the marginalized and the transgressive. This welcoming attitude comes from their own distress caused by childhood abuse and rejection. But in homosexuality, I discovered that we never fully recover from these fears. Instead, we endlessly search for someone or something to make it go away.

In the beginning, the sex was hot and passionate, only it quickly began to deviate into the routine and the tiresome. It was as if I were a boy again, stuck with the same old stack of porno mags. I needed to refresh my supply. In addition, the laborious preparations needed to facilitate intercourse became inconvenient and tiresome. We cared for each other, and in my compassion for him, I unknowingly didn’t want to witness what we were doing to each other. One night, I accidently walked into the bathroom, and he was on all-fours in the tub. Just beforehand, I asked him for sex, he disappeared and was in the process of irrigating and cleansing his lower entrails. He didn’t think anything of it, though he briskly told me to “just wait.” Nevertheless I was humiliated for him. I wasn’t naive to these procedures as they had once been a part of my evening routine. Yet, I was doing that to my own body. What had I done to another human being? Later, in order to get through it, I treated him roughly and the person I respected became another headless body.

Eventually, we only performed oral sex on each other and our fixation was on various techniques in order to achieve climax; gay porn usually played in the background. I would usually finish myself off by masturbating. It was incredibly depersonalizing. In a last ditch effort to shake things up, we invited into our bedroom a few close friends. It worked for awhile, but then it became isolating; I wasn’t supposed to become emotionally involved with these people and vice versa. In my mind, it was over.

Ultimately, fear had driven me to this – a fear of being alone, and a fear of dying. But it wasn’t love that drew us together, only in hindsight, I think it was love which pulled us apart. Because, I could no longer physically abuse this good person. I could look the other way when I caused a stranger to be in pain, but I would not do that with him.

Almost the next day, I went back to casual hooking-up. Days became weeks and weeks became months. I left the gay bars and bathhouses and started going out in the evenings to a number of nearby public parks. Here, the sex was primordial. In the darkness, away from the equidistantly spaced lamp posts, men huddled about a certain wooded areas, adjacent parking lots, or public restrooms. I would prop myself up against a tree trunk and wait for someone to make their move. We would exchange a few preliminary words and then nonchalantly saunter into a thicket of bushes. Depending upon what we were doing, a small cluster of men, unwanted by the others usually due to their obvious age or weight, would hover nearby to stand silently by and watch while masturbating.

As my physical appearance deteriorated, I slowly edged nearer the periphery of those who couldn’t find a partner. Instead of waiting for someone to move towards me, I had to take the chance and risk rejection. It only happened a few times, but I was devastated. At a semi-deserted parking lot, there were a row of about eight cars situated next to each other. I pulled in at the end, and I could see through each successive window down the entire line. Almost directly above, a barely functioning street light emanated a sallow glow that gave everything and everyone a flat two-dimensional sheen. Several of the guys were still turning their heads from left to right in order to see who was there. Occasionally someone would arch their back and display an erect member. Suddenly, in one car, a head flipped up from below a steering wheel. The guy wiped his mouth and opened the passenger-side door to leave. Next to me, a handsome man pulled in next to my car. We glanced at each and he turned away. I got out of my car, reached for the door handle to the passenger-side of his car and immediately heard the electronic locking system loudly click as the knob pull-pin popped down. Similarly I wished my skull could have retracted into my body. I found someone that night, we used each other and then each of us vanished back into the darkness. As I left, I surmised: “This is hell.”

As I neared thirty years of age, and nearly a decade as a gay man, I began to give up hope. The male affirmation and love that originally brought me to San Francisco appeared more elusive and unrealized than ever. Up until then, I half- detested men who would kneel, bend-over, and slobber before another man. But I finally got it. The gay cruising areas often bordered or shared a fluctuating border with numerous heroin shooting galleries. Sometimes, I would squirm when I inadvertently stepped on a partially blood filled syringe as I tried to position myself with another guy before we had sex. This world was almost completely alien and revolting to me except for a friend who speedballed various drugs into his system; he was also an insatiable receptive sex partner. Though I struggled to make sense of it, I couldn’t comprehend why someone would stick a hot needle into their arm. But what were we doing? With the penis as hypodermic. The human capacity to voluntarily endure whatever will deaden the pain, cease the loneliness, and end the isolation, knows almost no limits. Even to the edge of death. To this day, it’s curious that the first initial victims of AIDS were gay men and IV-drug users.

In a final attempt at securing masculinity, I was willing to try everything. At the time, as the millennium approached, gay porn was preoccupied with gang-bangs – wherein one passive male would take-on several men. After the famous “Pride” parade in San Francisco, I heard of such a scenario and joined in. There was nearly a line forming at the hotel door when I arrived and they weren’t fussy about who walked in. No one I could see was wearing a condom. For these men, and following a trend in the gay male community at large, sex through plastic was intolerable. They didn’t care anymore. Yet, I still couldn’t feel anything. And all of our sweating and grunting bodies huddled together over a single prostrated male – couldn’t equal one man. Nothing would ever be enough. Because this wasn’t about sex.

In early-1999, I was finally beaten. I fell to the ground and knelt, but not before God. I was before a man. Despite all the disappointments and disillusionment, I thought he could save me. He didn’t. When it was finished, I left alone – and I never returned.

“And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and running to him fell upon his neck, and kissed him.”

I went home; to the place where I experienced so much frustration and torment. I left everything behind – my friends, my work, my interests, my community, my life. I had no one. But I couldn’t go back. As much as it hurt, I knew that I would rather be alone than return to nothingness.

For awhile, it seemed easy because I was so consumed with regaining some semblance of physical health. But when I started to feel a little better, many of my old fears and insecurities returned. I was alone, in the same room I grew up in. The TV I endlessly glared at hadn’t move an inch; nor had I. For weeks, I almost never went outside those four walls. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of my parents as I walked to the bathroom or kitchen and I could tell they were worried. I wanted to call old friends. What would I say?

Out of nowhere, a former buddy tracked me down. I couldn’t admit anything to him; I was embarrassed; I didn’t want to be different again – I wanted to be part of the crowd. He invited me to a party and I accepted. I thought to myself: “I can do this.” I can socialize, have some fun, and keep my pants up. When I arrived, I swiftly grew comfortable with everything I formerly admonished as meaningless. I listened and partook in every conversation, but I had no desire to go home with anyone. I was proud for maintaining my composure. Yet, as the night drew on, I looked at all of these people and they seemed happy and content. Could I have misjudged all of this?

As several party guests began to filter out the front door, my friend introduced me to his boyfriend. Earlier, I keenly observed the young man from across the room. He reminded me – of me…a long time ago. My friend asked me if I wanted to join them in his bedroom. I froze, and then blurted out: “Can I just watch?” He looked at me quizzically and said begrudgingly said: “Yes.” As I followed them up the stairs, I thought to myself: “I have this under control…I’ll only go so far.” I stood in the corner for awhile as the young man knelt before my friend. When he reached out his hand towards me – I took it. For several days afterwards, I was disgusted with myself. But I got lonely again.

During the 1990s, I missed the internet-chat room revolution. I had never been on one, but while cruising the web, I discovered an on-line conference site in which gay men could anonymously talk with one another. At first, I was amazed by the volume of guys who were signed on at once. In those days, a relative few men uploaded profile pictures, but those that did inevitably cropped out their faces which usually left a headless shot of the naked torso, or only the crotch. These were fragments of men. None of them were whole. They are the living incarnation if a Cubist painting: the pieces shattered, and eventually the force of gravity coalesces them into a single clump with everything misplaced and disjointed. While dropping in and out of numerous rooms, I quickly surmised the content and depth of the conversations. Curious, I joined in.

Georges Braque, “Man with a Guitar” (1911).

Almost every day for several weeks, I stayed up most of the night madly typing on the keyboard. By accident, I discovered that individual chat room visitors could send private messages. For the most part, everyone’s opening statement began with the all-important question: “Top or bottom?” This was a cyber-bar; I was back in the Castro, except I never left my room.

A man represented by a single photo of his chest, sent me a private message. He wanted to meet right away. I didn’t. I wanted to talk. Over the next few days, whenever I signed onto the chat-room, he almost immediately sent me a message. We had a lot in common. He had once been very sexually active in the San Francisco gay sex scene in the 1980s; slightly before I got there. Today, he was in semi-retirement living alone with his male lover.

Eventually, he wore me down, or more precisely, I was exhausted. In my head, I went through this tortured set-up whereby I could remain chaste and continue to socialize with active homosexuals as a disinterested “gay” man. Although I knew this man wanted to have sex with me, I decided to meet with him anyway. I was in a state of self-imposed delusion. I tried to convince myself that I had control over the situation. I was nineteen again, scared of AIDS, and walking to my first gay bar. Now, I was scared of myself.

We arranged a bizarre clandestine meeting; his house was off-limits because the live-in boyfriend didn’t know. He asked that I rendezvous with him on a slightly deserted country road outside of town. When I got there, it was completely dark. I pulled up behind a lone car parked on the gravel shoulder. I got out and walked over to the passenger-side door. It opened and I sat down. I couldn’t clearly see him. We talked for less than five minutes and then he reached over and touched me. I leaned back and closed my eyes. It felt good. I hadn’t been near anyone in so long that I instantaneously peaked. He mocked me as if I were an awkward and clumsy school-kid new to the game. I got back in my car and drove home.

Since I had been away from home, during all those lost years, my father and mother converted back to the Faith. That night, when I walked into their house, I couldn’t hear anything except for the faint murmur of a prayer. My father was praying for me. As he had done so for a long time.

Slowly, I got to know my father. He wasn’t the man I remembered. He wasn’t so tall, and he wasn’t so judgmental or remote. We never had a formal conversation, but stories were interjected into unplanned banter. They were recurrently about his childhood – stories of a lonely farm-boy, the last born in his family, who often had to take care of himself. His treatment by those who should have cared for him bordered on abusive.

I started to seriously think about my own childhood. There was so much I needed to say. I talked with a good priest who I knew and trusted. He recommended a Catholic support group called Courage. Through in-person meetings and on the moderated internet chat-room which was open once a week, I met men like myself from all over the country. Like my “gay” friends back in San Francisco, we shared a similar autobiography; except for one thing – we had given up on “gay.” All of us struggled with loneliness. For that reason, we sought each other out. My relationship with these men became intense. It was different, and our connection far more intimate and revealing than what I experienced with gay men. As a homosexual I opened every orifice for other men, but I truly bared nothing. With my friends in Courage, I could be authentically honest.

When I got to know men, men with same-sex attraction, heterosexual men, my father, they ceased to be a mystery. None of them were perfect. They were flawed men, but they were honest. I admit, at first it’s awkward. Generally, as men, we tend not share our feelings. For this reason, when anxious, depressed or upset, men are more likely to drink, watch porn, or, in my case, turn to sex. In these diversions, we avoid the pain. But even in the more emotionally unencumbered gay male community, I found the conversation to be superficially captivated with films, pop-stars, and gossip. There was a subconscious fear of deep-thinking, hence the attractiveness of simplistic slogans like “born this way” and the hatred for those, such as Randy Shilts, who dared to explore uncomfortable and darker phenomena.

About a year after leaving homosexuality, I inexplicably for awhile resided at a Benedictine Monastery in a remote section of France. I didn’t know why I was there; I was looking for something. At first, I was extremely terrified to even request a visit, I thought every sin I ever committed was tattooed to my forehead. They opened the door and treated me like all the other men allowed to stay at their male-only guesthouse. It seemed odd, I thought: “I am not man.” At mealtime, I ate in the refectory with the male pilgrims and the monks, I felt like an imposter.

Every night, after Compline, the monks would gather about this stone statue of the Madonna and child. I would hide behind a column and watch their faces in the candlelight. These men were physically extraordinary and unbelievably handsome. Unlike, the gay bars, discos, and bathhouses, they were supremely calm; there was no music, no jostling for position. They knelt. They exhibited a kind of muscular control and poise that was remarkably beautiful. Fully covered and clothed in their thick winter wool habits, their bodies were not exposed yet they revealed everything in this transcendent moment of complete and utter vulnerability that didn’t make them appear weak. In prayer, so much became manifest that remained festering and hidden. I know my father prayed for me – and it changed my life. I watched the monks until, one by one, they disappeared into the darkness and retired to their cells. No one touched me, but I knew I was not alone. I knelt down on the stone floor – and I prayed. I belonged here.