A sweat-soaked man in the gym’s sauna explains why he frequents one local neighborhood over the others. “It’s where I go for young pussy,” he says to the older guys, gawking through the dry heat and then turning his gaze to me. “And I bet that’s easy for you, kid.”
The man looks like a cop and talks like one. I am white and pass as straight, which I guess is why he speaks to me at all. I don’t clarify my sexuality, don’t tell him his choice of words is misogynistic and predatorial. Sitting there, I am wrinkled-skin and pansy. I look at his eyes instead of elsewhere, instead of where I want to look. But this isn’t bravery. His eyes are simply the safest place to look, besides the ground.
I respond clumsily, say something curtailed and caveman. Not because I am closeted or agreeing, but because I fear what would happen if he knew. If all the men here knew.
I am hyperaware of my body in such spaces, scared someone will catch a glimpse of the rainbow tree roots tattooed below my waistline—and above it: a tree with four large leaves, each representing a family member who supported me in my coming out.
Unlike many of the older guys at this gym, I wear a bathing suit in the sauna. I shower in the corner at awkward angles, rainbow roots to the wall. Several times, I considered filling the roots in, contemplated covering with black ink the colors I paid to have painted there at 18-years-old. My first tattoo. My mark of acceptance. A tattoo artistically bland but meaningful in its message: This is OK.
But sometimes OK hides in the shadows. Are those shadows to blame for this pride-less parading, this failure to correct a wrong? In other spaces, I allow my queerness to sparkle, my tongue to speak freely. But at the gym and in other macho-minded places, I dress in lies. At the gym, I am straight, too frightened to be found out.
Yet isn’t this location historic in a way? A place so many men have come to cruise? Not this particular gym, but health clubs across the country, the world. I have seen the way some men’s eyes meet mine or don’t. Why do I avoid living visibly in all spaces? Fear of retribution? Maybe. But fear is something I have not yet learned to sweat out. So I wither in the sauna, watching men come and go, some in towels and others prouder than I will ever be.
When I eventually leave the sauna for the steam room, I walk into a fog that is barbell-heavy and hotter than the dry-room bath. No safety rules are posted at this gym—no suggested time limits. But I don’t fear hyperthermia. I have learned to sit comfortably in the burning-up. A lapsed Catholic who knows all too well about hellfire. A man damned to suffering for his rainbow roots.
I steam for ten minutes. Twenty. How long would it take for my body to sweat itself clean? How long to rid myself of this soft-pedaled musicality? But before I can fully detoxify, nausea hits. I begin to lose focus. My body is a hot spring and my mouth a desert wind.
I stand unsteadily and leave the steam room. On the other side of the wet-walled door, cool air embraces my body. It feels uncertain. Feels like a man at one of the local bars on the prowl for a young woman. Feels like wanting to put him in his place but allowing locker room talk to go uncorrected.
I take a breath and inhale the scents of men’s grooming supplies: beechwood, mountain musk, engine coolant. I exhale something disguised as relief. Then I turn the corner to rinse off before heading home. I eye the showers and find my foxhole.
Adam Gianforcaro lives in Wilmington, Delaware. His stories and poems can be found or are forthcoming in Third Coast, RHINO Poetry, The Cincinnati Review (miCRo series), Lunch Ticket, Maudlin House, and elsewhere.