How Men Fight For Their Lives

He sounded like he was underwater. “You’re already dead. You’re already dead.”

Until now, it has always felt like lying when I tell people I was gay bashed in the first few hours of January 2008. Actually, it still feels a bit like I’m telling a lie but – I think – that’s the point of what I’m about to write.

Aside from the fact that it was New Year’s Eve and I was getting wasted in Phoenix, Arizona instead of Bowling Green, Kentucky where I went to college, the party was exactly like every college party I had ever been to. An iPod hooked up to speakers, an awkward costume theme I tried and failed to adhere to, and an apartment clogged with white people. I concluded that Arizona was perhaps the whitest place I had ever visited. It was like setting foot on a very well-lit moon.

I should explain that the party’s theme was The Future, which is why more than half of the people in attendance were wearing some combination of synthetic fabric, aluminum foil and sunglasses. I didn’t know that the party was going to be themed and the only other shirt I packed was a blue calico print so I put my dreadlocks into two pig tails and kept telling everyone that I was Dorothy. No one found this in any way strange because, of course, this was The Future and all bets are off in the Year 2075.

In that particular version of The Future, I was one of three out gay men at the party and two of those three were dating each other. Around the same time that everyone started doing their best to obey Andre 3000’s command to “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” my eyes landed on a straight guy on the other side of the living room. (The word straight is another lie but we’ll get to that in a moment.) Leaning against the wall with a beer in his hand and a bored look in his eyes, this type of straight guy was so familiar I could have made an educated guess about his choice of underwear.

Now, when I tell people at parties and brunches about “the time I was gay bashed” – because that’s when I’m most likely to tell this story – I leave out what I’m about to tell you. I saw him lead a girl into a bedroom and close the door behind him.

Everyone saw, actually. Since we were already out of alcohol and had somehow managed to miss the midnight countdown, a group of us pressed our ears to the bedroom door and told the self-appointed DJ to turn down the volume so we could hear what was going on. It didn’t last long – more because of our noise than their prowess, I’m sure.

The door opened and she walked out, dressed and refusing to look embarrassed as she made her way through the crowd that had gathered. And he – let’s call him Daniel – was still in bed. Perhaps because I believed that in The Future desire would be as fluid as it is sacred, I walked into the room and sat on the bed beside him. My friends laughed. My friends said “Oh, Saeed.” My friends went back to dancing and left us alone.

Daniel and I had a conversation. He gave mostly one word answers when he bothered to speak at all. I didn’t care that he had just slept with one of my girlfriends so why would I care that more often than answer me, he’d just shrug while continuing to text other girls on his phone?

And then he asked me if I wanted to go home with him. That’s a lie too, of course. There were two hours between our bedside conversation and his invitation, but if I’m going to tell you the truth, sacrifices have to be made. The point is that I was patient and I knew a great deal about straight men and their options at 4am.

You have to understand I had been passive aggressively trying to get myself killed for months. I was also on a constant vigil for “writing material” which, I now know, is basically the same thing as passive aggressively trying to get myself killed.

I left the party without telling anyone where I was going. I followed Daniel to his apartment and into what I assumed was his bedroom. I didn’t flinch when he locked his bedroom door. When I finally realized this was not, in fact, a bedroom, but an empty room with a few boxes in a corner, I shrugged and started taking off my clothes. I thought “Maybe I’ll get a poem out of this.”

As he undressed, the smell of sweat and beer flooded my nostrils. I paused to take him in and he impatiently pulled my pants off for me. Daniel took me into his mouth and then took over completely. If I hadn’t already known the word straight was a lie, I knew it then.

He got on top of me and started kissing and scraping my neck with his teeth. His bites were like sweet little cigarette burns. It was difficult to breathe with his football player build bearing down on me but he was what I had wanted all night long: a body, a real man’s body. He wasn’t especially good at giving head. To be honest, he was terrible but Daniel was the point, not the sex. I saw him. I watched and waited and now I had him.

Somehow, the blowjob got worse. I thought, “Straight guys really are terrible at this. It feels like he’s hitting me.” And then, in a moment of clarity that flickered like a flash bulb camera then just as quickly went dark, I thought, “This isn’t an analogy. He is hitting me.”

Daniel’s shift from sucking me to punching me happened so quickly, I could still feel my erection pressed against his stomach even as his arms came down from above me like lightning bolts. Trapped under a body I suddenly realized was all muscle, all I could do was watch the thunderstorm. It all felt so distant. He wasn’t beating me. He was beating the desire I had brought out in him. And this is one of the reasons why the phrase “gay bashing” feels misplaced. There, on the floor under him, when I looked up at Daniel, I didn’t see a gay basher; I saw a man who thought he was fighting for his life.

Like a driver too drunk to tense up as his car collides with another, I was too drunk to realize I was the one who was supposed to be fighting for his own life. I blocked his punches and thought about bell hooks and Audre Lorde essays; the phrase “internalized oppression” floated in and out of focus.

I took the beating because I wasn’t entirely present. I was too distracted by the fact that I knew that this would make a good story one day. I was sure of that much, even as I took a punch to the right jaw. Turning my face away from the blow, I ran through the details I would surely recite later… The spurt of his semen on my stomach, the relative silence aside from the sound of contact, the ratty holes in his green plaid boxer shorts, the way his last kiss tasted. The sum of these details would mean something had actually happened.

At one point, I even smiled at the fact that, by chance, I had taken a Brazilian Jujitsu course in order to fulfill a graduation requirement. I knew all of the proper blocks to Daniel’s punches. I smiled because it’s those kinds of coincidences that make for perfect storytelling.

I usually leave that smile out of the story, but I need you to know that, in that unlit, wood-floored room, I was more interested in the story of my life than my life. So much so that I didn’t notice at first that Daniel was talking. He sounded like he was underwater.

“You’re already dead. You’re already dead.”

It was the first time he had spoken since inviting me to his apartment. He said it over and over again and finally, I was afraid. I realized, for the first time, that no one knew where I was. All of the danger signs I had walked past on the way to this room suddenly came into view and I was terrified. And fear made everything hurt. Every point of contact started to seethe and ache like my body was angry at me for letting this happen. Too tired to fight back, I simply curled in on myself and waited for Daniel to exhaust himself.

Sometimes he’d switch his refrain to “I’m so evil. I’m so evil,” but it was never long before he went back to “You’re already dead.” He’d let out small laughs and his face was wet with sweat and tears. The fear drained out of me and annoyance took its place. My lips would’ve curled into a snarl, if it hadn’t hurt so much to do so. Tired of hearing the same slurred prophesy over and over again, I somehow managed to push him off of me. This Herculean feat had more to do with his drunken state than my strength. He made some inward gurgle, slumped over, and passed out.

I sat up and looked at him for a moment. Daniel was an attractive man. He was tall with broad shoulders. He had warm brown eyes. Even in that moment, I felt that I might have done it all over again. I could walk back to the party with him, grab a beer, and start over.

He started snoring and I realized that there was no going back. We were done. I went into the kitchen and returned with a glass of water. Holding up his head, I attempted to help him take a few sips. The water went straight through his slack lips and onto the wood floor. I tried one more time before I finally decided to put on my clothes and leave. On my way out of his apartment, I stole three bottles of brandy as a courtesy.

I don’t know what to do with this story so I tell it every chance I get. Gay bashing is finally, I suppose, an accurate description, but so is botched suicide attempt. Daniel was trying to kill a part of himself that night and I thought I deserved to be that part. That’s how self-hate works.

I’m not that person any more which is why I don’t find this story as funny as I used to find it. I used to tell it as a comedy of errors, another episode of “Saeed and His Adventures,” a chapter of my memoir-in-progress. The memory of that night hurts more than the actual punches. I walked out of Daniel’s house without a single bruise. The only injury I had was an incredibly sore thumb because Daniel had tried to literally bite it off at one point.

A few weeks ago, I had an hour-long layover at the Phoenix airport. I was halfway into a mild panic attack before I realized why. It was my first time back in the state of Arizona since my attack. And it was the first time that “attack” was the truest word for what had happened. Four years from now, maybe another word will take its place, but it isn’t a lie anymore. I swear, it isn’t a lie.

(This essay originally appeared in The Rumpus; Roxane Gay was the editor.)

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