“Live the moment,” my thesis advisor Ann tells me.
“I will.” During a thesis meeting, I tell Ann I will travel to San Francisco to research for my novel, experiencing as much of the city as my characters do.
“It’s great that you’re going,” Ann says. “You need to hear the cadence of the people in San Francisco. Listen to the sounds of the city and how they differ from Chicago. You need to smell the bay. The bay! It’s so distinct. Get it down in your writing. On the page, get down the way the wind makes your skin feel. Feel your character’s goosebumps through your own. Take notes. Make your writing live.”
“Okay,” I say. As a writer, I believe I have to live the experiences of my characters as fully as possible.
“Are you going to the bathhouse?” she asks. She knows about the plot of the novel, that an essential scene takes place at a bathhouse in Berkeley, California, just across the bay.
“Good. Keep all of your receipts. The flight, hotel, restaurants, and tours—they’re all for the writing, so they’re considered exempt on your taxes.”
“Yes. You can even deduct your trip to the bathhouse.”
“Cool,” I say. “Mike said he’d go with me. I’m too terrified to go alone.”
* * *
There are four things you might need to know.
- I have to finish my novel to graduate with my MFA.
Two. My novel is set in San Francisco, and there are two major scenes set in a bathhouse, one where a character, Kyle, dies in the bathhouse and another where another investigates his death, travelling a new city while trying to figure out the mysteries the dead leave behind. Kyle is the character whose experience I am most concerned with when going to the bathhouse.
Three. I am afraid of bathhouses. In my mind, “Bathhouse” = “You Will Get AIDS and Die.” I know this is wholly untrue and an ignorant view of the post-AIDS world we live in, but I can’t unwire my brain to think that gay bathhouses are potentially dangerous places.
- Mike and I have been dating long-distance for a year-and-a-half, and the distance has been hard. Though exclusively dating and fucking, commitment issues and fear of admitting being in love plague our relationship, so we say we are dudefriends and don’t talk about our feelings much.
* * *
Our first day in San Francisco plays like a date: We grab scones and juice, take the ferry to Alcatraz, and learn about the sordid history. I buy Mike a picture of the two of us with Alcatraz in the background, a cheesy tourist item that he can frame to remind him of a great day spent together, and also because I didn’t get him eight presents for Hanukkah yet.
We grab dinner and walk around Chinatown, buy books at City Lights and talk about Ginsberg’s “Howl.” We steal kisses around the city and hold hands on the ferry.
A good date with your dudefriend typically ends in sex. We find ourselves walking up to the front door of Steamworks, a non-descript warehouse with large street numbers outside of it. Only people “in the know” are aware that this is a sex club tucked away between other industrial buildings. Christmas lights are strung up in the parking area.
“God, this is weird,” I tell Mike.
He puts his arm around me, squeezes my shoulder, and directs me to the door. A greasy-haired, goateed burnout checks us in.
“Hey, guys,” he says. “Have either of you ever been here before?” We both shake our heads. “Do you want a one-time pass or would you like to join our Frequent Fuckers program?”
I nearly lose my composure. The “Frequent Fuckers Program” is a for-real thing. “A one-time pass works for us,” Mike says.
Berkeley burnout informs us there is only one room left for the next few hours, and this is the “Deluxe Room.”
We take it, adding a sling for seven dollars because why wouldn’t my character use a sling and it was only seven dollars more and hashtag:YOLO. The burnout asks, “Do you want a receipt?”
“Sure, “ I say. “I was told this is a tax write-off.”
We walk to our room. It’s strange. It’s eight p.m. on a Saturday night and the place is packed. A lot of the men are our age—late-twenties—and they look at us. Mike is fit, handsome, has strong arms and a smile that makes you turn into a gooey mush, and I’m kind of a bear, which is an “in” look for gays these days. I take judgment out of my head; this may be some of the patrons’ weekend outing—shop for groceries, walk the dog, go to bathhouse—and I get it because it takes away all the work and small talk of finding a one-time paramour at a bar. This makes it seem less scary. Maybe some were like my character, Kyle, curious and trying to figure out how they relate to their own sexuality.
“You ready?” Mike asks after we change into our towels in the room.
My journal and pen are on the nightstand, I have the key to the room around my arm, and we the have hanged the sling in a perfect distance from the ceiling for both of us despite who decides to top or bottom. “Yeah,” I say. We kiss in the doorway before we walk out to the wolves.
* * *
There are five reasons why couples may go to a bathhouse.
- They superimpose the idea that new erotic encounters might replace issues they have within a foundering relationship.
- They have an open relationship. It’s a reaction to hetero-normative constraints that have made gays think they need single-partner monogamy. Fuck the man, fuck the patriarchy, fuck single-partner monogamy because this is a sexual revolution, dammit, and it’s happening in the 2010’s!
- They’re both bottoms or they’re both tops. They aren’t sexually compatible.
- Voyeurism. There are public play areas. Sometimes, there are kink demonstrations or porn stars performing. Conversely, Four Point Five. Exhibitionism. Some couples want others to watch them.
Five. They have fucking slings that you can rent. In-home sling sets are. So. Expensive. Bathhouses are like convenient sex hotels with toys.
But Mike and I are here to fuck for my writing.
* * *
Kyle would walk around the bathhouse at first, taking it all in. We do this. There’s a steam room, a hot tub, showers, a gym, a maze of glory hole cubbies, a room with a sling and an ergonomic sex-bench. There’s a room with a horseshoe-shaped raised platform with faux-walls on either side cut with large square holes for public glory hole action. The wall is short enough that you can see each other from wherever you stand.
“Go up on the platform,” Mike says.
“What?” I squint my eyes.
He shrugs and smiles mischievously. “When in Berkeley.”
I go up to the top of the platform, and I look over the wall to see him walk along the perimeter. We lock eyes, and he walks to one of the square cutouts of wall and puts his face through the hole. I feel awkward and nervous and weird. I try to imagine myself as Kyle, but I can’t distance myself from the idea that my dudefriend is giving me head out in the open. Dispelling my own hang-ups on bathhouses, I let the magic happen for a few minutes until someone comes up to Mike and touches his back. He swats the man’s hand away, and a minute later a different man touches me. I push his hand away, Mike and I exchange a glance, and we both giggle and disengage. I meet him at the base of the platform.
“Weird,” I say.
“Yeah, weird,” he says. “Would it be different if either of them were our types?”
“No,” I say. “You’re mine, dude.” And we share a romantic kiss with each other with the sounds of the bathhouse in diegetic. I don’t want to be open, but I file his question away. Does it mean something that he asked?
We pass open doors with naked men lying on small cots, asses in the air. One man nods at me, takes a huff of poppers, and flexes his butt. I shudder, considering my feelings more than my character’s. I look at Mike, but if he noticed the man, his face doesn’t betray what his emotions are.
* * *
Back in our room, we tune out everything else. I tell Mike what we need to do, method acting as if I were Kyle. We are clumsy at first. While not romantic, sex in the bathhouse is strangely erotic. The deluxe room has wall-length mirrors that surround us and a mirror above the sling. The walls are open nine feet up. We hear skin slapping against skin in the next room, a man pant-moaning, and the beats of EDM music that a porn-star-turned-DJ is spinning from a glass booth not too far away from our room. The sling we rented because hashtag:YOLO hangs under the mirror and over our queen-sized bed. Mike and I can look up as we make love to each other. I say “make love” because this place is skeezy to me and “make love” makes it seem better than what we’re actually here to do—fuck for my writing.
We see ourselves in the mirrors, synchronizing our bodies to the EDM beats. The sex is animalistic and primal. At times, we laugh. I tell myself to remember the way the chains feel in my hands and the motion of my hips, or the way the leather of the sling feels against my back and the rocking motion of it, the way the sexual pheromones in the air give us energy and intensity. After, Mike takes a nap while I write pages of notes in my journal, living the experience as myself and as Kyle. My novel will be alive. It will be raw and visceral and poignant. Readers will experience these scenes with the character because I have lived the moment, dammit, and I know exactly what to say now.
* * *
I wake Mike up from his nap after I’m done with my notes.
“How’d the writing go?”
“Good.” I curl my body into his, resting my head on his chest and lacing my fingers into his. “I think I understand Kyle better.”
“Because he would have been scared. He would have been nervous. But someone would have shown him some sort of kindness.”
“You know what? Don’t tell me. Just let me read it when you’re done.”
We spend quite a bit of time at the bathhouse. We sit in the hot tub and shower together and fuck for my writing. But, really, like anything we as people do, we don’ do it just for the writing: we do it for us. We do it for an experience. We do it because we are curious.
* * *
We meet up with some friends at a bar in the Castro after midnight to kick back and drink a few beers.
A friend gives us both a hug and takes in a deep breath. “Ah,” he says, “I see you were just at Steamworks.”
“Huh?” we say.
“Your hair smells like their shampoo and you can’t get the smell of the hot tub chlorine off your body.”
We smile at him. “It was for my novel,” I say. I wink at Mike. We both know this to be true.
But, we also both know something different: when I asked Mike if he’d go to San Francisco with me for my research, he agreed, but he asked me if I really needed to go to the bathhouse. “Yes,” I had said. “Curiosity is key for a writer. We have to investigate to know and understand the human condition.” I channeled Ann. “We have to live the moment.” Mike said it sounded like an adventure.
I realized that was it—“adventure” was the purpose. It was the moment I needed for the character, the motivation behind everything he was doing in that moment, that deep down, this was the human condition about which he was trying to accomplish in my piece. And that, by going, I would understand a bit more about the human condition, about sexuality and our expressions of it and confronting my own hang-ups.
Mike winks back at me, sharing our own private reasons for going, the ones about our relationship and us and the ones that only we can understand.
I look back at our friend. He looks like he doesn’t buy it. “We’d never been before,” I say. “Anyway, I was told it would be a tax write-off.”
Parker Stockman is a writer, storyteller, editor, and teacher. He is working on a novel to finish his MFA coursework at Columbia College Chicago in Fiction Writing, but he loves to write non-fiction and memoir. He’s told stories with 2nd Story and You’re Being Ridiculous, and he is an editor at Flyleaf Journal and 3Elements Review. In addition to being a writer, Parker is an adjunct professor for virtual courses at Florida Gulf Coast University. He’d love to hear your stories and tell you his.