In the back room of the wedding venue, I sat on a vintage chair at an old-fashioned writing desk. I kicked off my sparkly heels, my head tight and loose at the same time, like the overstressed coils of a grandfather clock that had partially, but not completely, burst into cuckoo-cuckoo. I lifted the fluffy mountains of tulle to rest my sweaty, sore feet on the expensive oak.
Then I opened my laptop to watch gay porn.
Drunk on my signature cocktail and adrenaline, I’d puked in the bathroom before telling Lila, my maid of honor, that I wanted to call it off. The marriage license and the signatures and even the witnesses had no magical power. They were nothing more than slips of copy paper folded over twice to fit in an envelope. I could intercept the nondenominational rabbi before he mailed the marriage certificate to the city clerk’s office and then none of it would count.
He’s too sunny, I said to Lila, who’d known me since college. Like, we’ll have babies and he’ll always be on time for pickup and he’ll make brownies for all the bake sales, but when the kids are gone, will we have anything to talk about?
You don’t even have kids yet. She held my hair as I puked mushroom polenta cakes and fish kebabs. My dress puddled around me.
If you and I were both seventy, we’d have things to talk about, I said. Like books. Neal doesn’t read.
You want to dump your fiancé—sorry, your husband—because he doesn’t read? Didn’t you already know that?
Neal called me a snob when I told him on our third date that graphic novels didn’t count. Then he laughed and I laughed, and we pretended that he didn’t really think I was a snob and that I didn’t really think he was unintellectual. After dating-not-dating Micah for almost two years, goddamn, it was a breath of fresh air how straightforward Neal was. He didn’t exhaust me with the weight of the world. He took himself to the bagel shop on Sunday mornings, bought a physical newspaper, and ate an everything bagel with blueberry cream cheese while he read the comics section.
Once, he and I watched a documentary that mentioned something about Gandhi. Neal said, really vulnerably, What exactly did Gandhi do, again? And I told him I wouldn’t judge, I couldn’t, I loved him, and I rehashed a basic history about India trying to gain independence from the Brits and he asked, The British were in India? When was that? And why?
He liked that I went to Columbia. I was his smart girl and he was proud. I told him I didn’t judge him about the Gandhi thing, but I did.
Lea pounded on the door and wanted to know whether I was OK. Out there in the banquet hall, Sarah was eating canapes with her husband and kid, her belly full with Number Two. Did I want that life for myself? With Neal?
Lila whispered that if that was what I really wanted, to un-marry Neal, then I should do it ASAP. The band was playing the “Electric Slide,” and he was out on the dance floor, grinning stupidly, sliding up playfully next to his mom, a woman just as simple and loving as he. Micah was out there, too, with some girl he’d met a week earlier at Neal’s bachelor party. I didn’t want him at my wedding, but part of me was glad: I wanted him to watch me move on. I wanted him to see me with the charming, kind man I’d chosen to marry. I wanted to feel the contrast, to remind myself that Micah was gnarled, that I’d chosen a future of brightness and ease with Neal.
But no, I wished he hadn’t come. I wasn’t supposed to spend my wedding day thinking about another man.
Almost everything I know about love, I learned from an elderly man in hospice named Sunil who died last year.
Sunil came from a traditional Indian family. His relatives had disowned him when he came out as gay, except for his sister, who secretly sent him a birthday card each year. It was the seventies. They wouldn’t stop talking about AIDS and didn’t want to see him shrivel up and die. Sunil finally married his partner, Robert, after twenty years, when the Supreme Court let them. They had lived together for decades in a glass-paneled high rise. No kids, but lots of dinner parties. Robert’s parents were more welcoming, but he and Sunil were their own family, aloft in a glass haven.
The first time I visited Sunil, he didn’t mention Robert. He didn’t even say he was gay, but a wall of alphabetized DVDs did the talking. Butt-Fuck Banshees was neatly slotted next to The Bone Ranger. The curated collection sat on an expensive bookshelf, facing the front door. The first thing any visitor saw was Six Slimy Mansluts shimmying next to Sorest Rump.
Sunil tended to his collection with as much care as any film connoisseur. Something about his unabashed sexuality made me uncomfortable. He offered me tea and biscuits and spoke with a kind formality. If I’d had a warm Indian grandfather who served me sweet, milky chai and chided me about whether my job was a job or a career, it would’ve been him.
Finally, after a month of visiting him once a week, I asked why he showcased his porn collection before anything else. Sunil was a musician, but his flute lay in a closet somewhere; he was an artist, but you had to enter all the way into the kitchen before you saw his paintings.
Alzheimer’s had picked Robert apart neuron by neuron, he told me. They were the only repositories of each other’s memories. As Robert evaporated, so did Sunil’s only witness.
Sunil remembered a time they went skinny-dipping in early March and nearly got hypothermia. On their wedding night, after they got legally married at age sixty-five, they rented out the diviest bar they could find. They invited not just their friends but all the gay people they could find, come to Off the Wagon, free drinks all night, so they could educate the young gay kids who drank their liquor: This is what love looks like. Don’t let the new laws fool you, you’ve still got to know how to fight for each other.
But those times had flowed out of Robert’s brain as if it were an oversaturated sponge. A few years later, the young gays who came for free booze probably didn’t remember the two old guys footing the bill. Sunil constantly worried that he’d falter for just a moment and his life with Robert would disappear entirely. The flute, the paintings, those were vestiges of Sunil. But the porn—it was a symbol of his love for his dead husband.
Their whole last year together, he and Robert spent hours a day watching porn on their flat-screen. Even when Robert no longer knew Sunil’s name or his own, the two lovers clenched hands and watched men with large cocks whip each other. It seemed to remind him of who he was, Sunil said. He bought most of these DVDs.
In the early days of frontal lobe atrophy, Robert became hypersexual. He’d walk into a bakery, and a baguette would give him an erection. He had sex with Sunil five times a day, which made Sunil sob because it was the beginning of the end. He would cover his lover’s back in tears. As the disease ate away his brain, Robert lost the concepts of sex and gender. Still, he seemed to find solace in sitting with Sunil, holding hands, watching strange men ravage one another.
After a few months of chai and biscuits, I asked Sunil, Do you want to watch something?
You would do that for me? He gathered our crumb-strewn plates.
I’d watched porn once or twice with a guy I dated briefly in college, but we hadn’t watched together. More like he watched Hot Slut Number Three coo about the lead’s cock and then waited for me to imitate her.
In this sleek apartment, I felt drawn to the cheesy titles and the neon images on the DVD box covers. Mostly, I was drawn to Sunil’s love for Robert.
Lila and I agreed that I should take a beat to calm down and make sure I didn’t need to puke again. I retreated to the ready room, where a professional had painted my face only a few hours earlier.
With my parents in the banquet hall—so happy, the last of their daughters married off like in some biblical fairy tale—I assured Lea through the door that I’d be fine. I whispered to Lila that I needed to be alone for a sec, and she reluctantly left me. Then I found my laptop in the suitcase I’d packed for the hotel.
When I stole the DVDs from Sunil’s apartment and uploaded the files to my hard drive, I considered hiding them in some orifice of my computer, some folder labeled “Taxes” or “Admin.” Instead, I saved them to my desktop in a folder called “KINKY GAY PORN.” My own bookcase at the front of the house.
I kept waiting for Neal to find it. If he did, he never said anything. More likely, he’d never snooped on my computer. He liked everything bright and clear and out in the open. Why would he snoop? Neal didn’t have any dark, moldy parts of his personality. I’d been furious when Micah broke up with me, screamed at him, “What do you mean it’s for my own good?”
Micah would have found the folder. Maybe he would have renamed it to let me know he’d been there. Something coy, like “Is There Something I Should Know?” or “Do You Want to Try This?” Micah might’ve left a whip in the bed as a joke that wasn’t a joke, like that time he dripped hot candle wax on my nipples and I laughed because it kind of tickled but also it was hot as hell and he slipped his finger inside me and I came three times that night.
If Neal watched porn, he probably watched vanilla stuff, girls with big boobs, maybe a couple of threesomes. But I didn’t know for sure. He was the kind of guy who’d never admit his porn habits to me because it wasn’t proper. Everything in its right place. That’s why I was drunk on blackberry whiskey lemonade and sick on miniature turkey sliders. How could I have a normal life with someone so normal?
Our sex was enjoyable, but it wasn’t the biting, tearing kind. It never felt dirty. I always felt guilty after sleeping with Micah. Maybe it was the secrecy at the beginning of our relationship. It was different with Neal. He and I made love. And I loved that. Neal supported me, cheered for me unconditionally, admired me. Was being basic really so bad? He was one of the kindest people I’d ever met, like he stopped for homeless people on his way to work, even if he saw ten of them, even if he was tired.
I’d started volunteering with hospice after my grandma passed away because I felt bad that I’d traveled down to Florida only a handful of times to see her. Hospice was part of a campaign I was waging to overcome my self-centeredness. Some people are born thinking of others, like my sister Lea. Her impulse was to tend to others, whereas growing up I used to protest when anyone asked me to share a bite of my food. Something bad would happen, like a friend would skin his knee on the playground, and my first thought would be for my own wellbeing. I’d have to remind myself to inquire whether that friend was all right, that I should ask a teacher for a Band-Aid. At some point when I was a teenager, I decided that focusing on others was a learned behavior. I practiced waiting a few beats in a conversation before inserting myself. I asked about others even when I didn’t feel like it. At first I felt like an impostor, but it grew into habit. Still, there were times it’d creep in. I couldn’t fully shake that kneejerk impulse.
When my grandmother was dying, I was in the thick of my non-relationship with Micah. Then she died and I realized that I’d done it again. As penance, I signed up as a hospice volunteer.
Micah praised my volunteer work but in a removed, ironic way. He asked for interesting stories from my visits, tried to get at the kernel of why I felt compelled to do it. He’d want to talk about my emotions, about the existential nature of the work, about the value of comforting old people when they were going to die—really, what was the point of being kind to a young person, either, since they were going to die too? What was the point of any of this? I liked that about him, the fact that he never let me get by with a superficial answer to anything. But I also just wanted to do my volunteer work and feel good about it, end of story.
By the time I met Neal, my grandmother had been dead for four years. I was considering quitting hospice. If I’d signed up out of grandmother guilt, when was payment rendered? I was tired.
Multiple old people had died on me by then. Ricardo was a seventy-something Venezuelan man who wore a suit whenever I came over. We played chess until the clock hit seven and he joked he was turning into a pumpkin. I visited him for a year and a half before cancer took him.
Sandra died after only three months, and toward the end she mostly slept when I was there. I hung out with her Jamaican nurse, and we ate spiced beef patties together. I ran into the nurse a few months after Sandra died, at a CVS, and she told me that Sandra had appeared to her as a ghost, and I said that made sense because she was basically a ghost when I knew her, too.
I told all of this to Neal. He didn’t believe in ghosts, he said, and I hated that irrationally unblinking rationality. But then he told me to keep volunteering, and even offered to go with me sometimes, if that was allowed, which it wasn’t. He said maybe he’d take on a hospice commission of his own, to support me. That’s when I told him I loved him. I liked who he helped me become. That week, I reached out to my program coordinator and was assigned to Sunil.
I tried to break up with Neal once, when we’d been dating for half a year. That whole time, I’d felt this conviction that there was more to him. Maybe sunniness was just a mask to hide his fatalism about the state of our world. He’d tell me stories from his day, like, a client came in and would you believe that he’d groomed his dog to match his own outfit? That would be the whole story. Neal would always stop short of the negative. On the rare occasion he spoke ill of someone, he always berated himself afterward and felt guilty about it for days.
He hated sarcasm, and who hates sarcasm? But then, every so often, after I’d decided he wasn’t funny and maybe that was all right, not everyone needs to be a comedian, he’d drop a joke bomb and I’d really laugh, from my belly and through my ribs, half out of humor and half out of surprise.
When I said the words, I don’t know if this is working, I don’t know if we’re intellectually compatible, his eyes watered. I did love him. It wrenched me to see him sad, an emotion that just didn’t fit him. I’d tried the dark and pessimistic route with Micah, and it hadn’t worked. We’d talk politics and I’d fall into a funk about the decline of democracy; we’d talk religion and come to the conclusion that there was no God and that we were praying to the false gods of health and wellness and politics in an effort to fill the gaping hole in our souls. I’d try to support Micah emotionally with his sister Frankie, but he’d bark at me because he was under stress and I’d clap back at him and both of us would cry because Frankie’s life was unfair and we didn’t know how to fix it.
Micah was right, in the end. I didn’t belong with someone so much like myself. I did deserve someone warm, someone who’d lift me up. I loved the omigosh-can-I-have-one expression Neal made when we passed a puppy. I loved Neal. I just wasn’t sure I knew him, or that there was more to know. After dating him for a while, I’d find myself about to gossip about a friend or a coworker. But then I wouldn’t. I’d think about his reluctance to speak ill of anyone. I’d feel myself being stretched by him, let myself be pushed toward my better impulses.
Those were the times I’d think, OK, there’s got to be a there there. Maybe, in the end, Neal had a more nuanced take on human nature than I did. Maybe he observed far more than he let on. Maybe his perspective on the world was so intuitive and kaleidoscopic that he thought it was obvious. Maybe he was too shy to tell me he was a submissive, that he wanted me to make him my slave. Maybe he had a mommy thing he wanted to act out.
I tried to explain this to him. He thought I was joking about making him my slave, so I went along with it and laughed, too.
I didn’t break up with Neal at that six-month conversation. During that talk he got serious, and I thought, maybe that’s all I need. To know that he has depth of feeling. I like the sun. You don’t go to the beach for the clouds. I just wanted to know that, when the situation called for it, he could also provide shade.
For a year, I visited Sunil once a week. He’d make me sweet chai and set out biscuits, and then we’d sit side by side on his leather couch to watch whatever DVD I chose.
We started with basic bondage—buff men skin-slicked into rubber bodysuits, ball gags shoved into mouths, ropes that burned through captives’ wrists. We moved on to cock-and-ball torture, fist-fucking, electrical stimulation, piss play. I’d brush biscuit crumbs from my lips as an actor inserted his fist into another man’s anus, striving, until his limb was swallowed by another human’s innards, all the way to the shoulder, allowing him to swim among his partner’s guts, because if that boiling, sweaty stew isn’t who we are deep inside, what is?
The first time we watched, Sunil waited forty-five minutes before cautiously unzipping his fly. I didn’t say anything, just sipped my chai, as he snuck a look at me and then gingerly ran a finger along his cock.
Most people don’t assume that when you say hospice volunteer you mean watch porn with an old guy who masturbates next to you. Despite the strange kindredness of my relationship with Sunil, saying it out loud felt rapey, though I’m not sure who people would think was taking advantage of whom.
I didn’t think Neal would understand what I had with Sunil. I didn’t either, not really.
Weeks passed. As men affixed weights to stretch each other’s balls and bashed each other’s testicles with paddles, Sunil quietly jacked off next to me, his face a mix of pleasure and nostalgia. One time I tried masturbating, too, snaking a finger into my jeans and under my panty line. He didn’t say anything as I tried to turn myself on, as he rhythmically pleasured himself up and down a few paces to my right, and I was grateful. Even after he came, driblets of semen sticking to the curly gray hairs on his inner thigh, I wasn’t close at all. Despite my fascination with the men who acted as puppies to shed the weight of their personhood, it wasn’t really sexual for me. I just thought it was beautiful how these men pretended they were dogs and no one judged them.
Aside from that one failed attempt at turning myself on, I just watched quietly with Sunil so he, too, could be seen and not judged.
We were watching a scene with nipple torture when I noticed how large one of Sunil’s testicles had grown, just the left one. It wasn’t a surprise, really—hospice had told me about his testicular cancer. One day a few weeks after that, he didn’t unzip his fly but still wanted to watch. So we sat together, thinking about virility and mortality. Actors on the screen played out corporal punishment. Sunil’s hands rested on a pillow over his lap, trembling slightly.
The next time he bared himself to me, his left scrotum was an empty sack. We didn’t talk about it. He asked me about work. What was the latest with the woman who kept stealing my lunch from the fridge? How was my mom’s visit last week? What were my thoughts on wedding colors? Bridesmaids? Sunil had loved planning his wedding with Robert. Married life was the best, he said, don’t let anyone get you down with that ball-and-chain shit. They’re just assholes. Oh, and had I decided what to get Neal for his birthday? Sunil had several nice whiskey recommendations; I’d said he was a whiskey man, right?
Then we watched men use wires to electrocute each other. They screamed mawkishly in pain-delight.
Over the next few weeks, Sunil’s face grew thinner.
One man took a comically tremendous penis into his mouth and slid it down his throat, deep, without gagging. Sunil wheezed as he orgasmed, and sometimes coughed up bloody sputum.
Toward the end, he started falling asleep. He’d be half awake when I arrived, a radiation ghost, and sometimes he didn’t even make it through the opening scene. I’d finish the videos for him, making myself watch, his hand no longer touching himself but instead grasping mine.
The only family member to attend his funeral was his sister, but his non-Indian friends researched Hindu burial rituals online. We wore white, casual clothes. It was an open casket, and his body was covered with loads of flowers. His ashes were strewn in Central Park. Someone had read somewhere that Hindu tradition included a feast on the twelfth or thirteenth day after the funeral. We gathered in Sunil’s empty apartment in the sky, which would be sold afterward so the profits could be donated to a charity for LGBTQ youth. Someone had brought samosas from an Indian restaurant, and I ate one as I walked around the glassed-in living room one last time.
I’d known he was dying. I wouldn’t have met him if he weren’t. But his death didn’t feel like Ricardo’s or Sandra’s. I missed Sunil deeply. He showed me what it meant to love fully and unflinchingly. Not just in the way he loved Robert, but in the way he loved me. I aspired to love Neal in that way. I thought maybe Neal already did love me like that, or as nearly as he could.
I hoped Sunil didn’t visit me as a ghost, like Sandra with her nurse. If he did, maybe he would show up with cookies and chai, or a DVD.
His friends, mostly older gay men, didn’t glance twice at the DVD wall. I was the only person under thirty-five, and one of only two women. When no one was looking, I slipped one of my favorite DVDs into my messenger bag. Then I said what the hell and shoveled in all the DVDs that would fit, the ball gags and the piss-drinkers and the floggers and the men who acted like puppies. Guests stared, but I grabbed everything I could and hurried into the hallway and down the elevator and onto the street before anyone could stop me.
My feet were up on the desk in the back room of the wedding hall in Cobble Hill, my sparkly heels were on the floor, and my eyes were bleeding tears and mucus and regrets. A man dominated another man with a cat-o-nine-tails whip while, in the banquet room, my cousins pecked at hors d’oeuvres and my parents showed off the cha-cha they’d learned from ballroom dancing lessons.
Neal slid into the dark room and hovered by the door. I didn’t wait for him to ask what I was doing. I turned my laptop toward him.
The submissive groaned while the dom cracked a whip.
I guess I wanted Neal to do the work for me. The kink, the domination, the pain—it picked at a dark knot of something inside people. Inside me. This video would bounce against his sunny armor. Ha. What’s that. He’d find it funny, or pretend to. He’d discount it as something for deviants. He wouldn’t be able to dispel the mental image, at least of me watching it. Debauchery, he’d think, and he’d consider me debaucherous, and not in the fun way. He’d say, well, I guess that’ll be an annulment.
But instead, he pulled up the chair. We finished the video. I got angry at first, thinking my attempt to scare him off had gone over his head. But he wasn’t that dense. He was the sun, and the sun shone on everything indiscriminately. When the video ended, as if to make a point, I chose a different file. Halfway through, he reached for my hand. I thought of Sunil and Robert, holding hands and watching porn till the end.
When I didn’t feel like watching anymore, I turned it off.
Neal kept holding my hand, then led me back into the light.