Circuit: Queer Pleasure as Queer Memory
By Joseph OsmundsonOctober 22, 2019
A CIRCUIT PARTY has a bunch of gay guys in it, and they mostly look just like one another.
Wearing a shirt at a circuit party is akin to wearing a shirt in a pool in the summer: it doesn’t distract, no, it draws attention to the body, oh God, the queens think Brett like totally got fat this winter, didn’t she. Beach bodies are made in February, darling.
We don’t wear shirts, you see, at a circuit party. Possible tops: harness; singlet; fitted hats.
Pupils get dilated at circuit parties thanks to molly or G or speed or T or Tina or whatever the kids are doing these days, God help them.
Did y’all see that video of the fight breaking out at dawn at a circuit party in Mykonos between two white muscle queens who look just exactly alike among a crowd of other partygoers who look like them, too?
Four-pack abs are a requisite for entering a circuit party, six-pack abs preferred, and an eight-pack will get you like super laid.
Unless you’re hairy enough to be a bear, a separate category of man, and welcome at (some) circuit parties.
The circuit is New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, London.
Or these days a circuit party is — apparently — an invite-only event thrown by a singer, mostly full of straight white women doing blow, which is subsequently used to sell a $60 T-shirt with a neo-’90s PrEP logo on it.
The circuit might be born from disco, but disco died. So much has changed in gay life, and culture at large, since the 1970s. But the circuit is still around. It didn’t go extinct, not in 1978 when Dancer from the Dance was published, and not in 1983 when HIV was discovered to be the cause of AIDS, and not in 1995, when 50,000 people died of the virus, and not in the subsequent decade when Giuliani and Bloomberg were sanitizing New York.
I want to know why.
A circuit party is a gay dance event that might technically begin at 10:00 p.m., but all the queens know not to show up until 2:00 a.m. It won’t get good until 4:00 a.m. and the club is likely to stay open until 8:00 a.m., maybe even noon.
Dancer from the Dance is Andrew Holleran’s novel that — in 1978 — wrote the circuit down, using that very word, for the first time.
Never lose your sense of humor! And dance! For god’s sake, I hope you can dance, Sutherland tells Malone in Dancer.
What, we may well ask, is there left to live for? Why get out of bed? Sutherland asks Malone. We may still choose to live like gods, like poets. Which brings us down to dancing. Yes, that is all that’s left when love has gone. Dancing […] there is no other love in this city …
He was writing of New York, my city.
First things first: I am not an engineer. My degrees are in Biology (BA), and then Molecular Biology (MS), and then Biophysics (PhD). I did my post-doctoral research, though, in Bioinformatics, which is the use of computations tools (i.e., computers) to analyze biological data.
Which is to say: I use computers a lot, and so I use interconnected electrical circuits that process and store information in bits and bytes.
We’re getting to some definitions, and this whole deeply unfun part of this thing is going to start slow, and proceed slowly.
Circuits aren’t complicated, until they are. They are simple things: electricity moving through a wire. They’re physical things: wires (which transmit electricity) and insulators (which prevent its transmission), capacitors (which store electrical flow in an electrical field) and transistors (which store the same electrical flow but in a magnetic field). These physical things can be connected in seemingly endless conformations to do all sorts of magic, like add two plus two, or type these words, or save these words to bits on a physical drive (itself a magnetic device that can save each bit as a 0 or a 1, and erase, and rewrite this information).
Are you doing okay so far, am I going slow enough, does it hurt? Do you need a hit of poppers?
So circuits are a physical thing, placed together in an order, sitting there waiting, doing absolutely nothing. They’re waiting to be turned on, and for that you need a current. You need electricity. It’s the electricity that is pushed down path A or path B, path A1 or path A2, path A2c or A2d, and so on and so on until it ends as a 0 or a 1 written down on the surface of a magnet.
Flip a switch, turn on the lights, let the electricity flow (A -> A2 -> A2c…), and then the magic can begin. Once the magic begins, we can begin to remember.
Dancer from the Dance is about Sutherland, a drag queen (?) or gay man (?) or non-binary queen (?) or camp goddess icon (!). Sutherland is campy, with his perfect French and impeccable taste, and he’s a circuit queen, always on speed (to dance) or Quaaludes (to sleep), always ready to go dancing, always up on the gossip of who’s fucking whom.
I actively avoided reading Dancer for years, preferring the stunning novels of James Baldwin. I didn’t need — I thought — to read about a bunch of overdrugged and oversexed homosexuals. The novel, before I read it, represented the worst of homosexuality.
See: Gay people can be homophobic too.
So I bought the book, and I read it, and I saw myself, and I saw my friends, and I saw a beautiful world that a fucking virus (and indifference or hatred from politicians, culture, media, everyone everyone everyone) almost killed.
Sutherland rescues Malone, a younger gay man who becomes, over the course of the novel, isolated by his own beauty, and who isolates himself in his insatiable quest for “love.”
Because of the HIV/AIDS crisis, a generation of gay men died. Because of the crackdown on queer nightlife and sex spaces, the geography of New York pre- and post-AIDS is not the same. I spent my 20s in New York mourning my lack of mentors. I didn’t know many older gay men, and I blamed the virus for this.
And then: Dancer.
Sutherland and Malone go dancing. Malone and Sutherland talk shit about other queens. Malone does poppers, Sutherland does speed. Malone and Sutherland (and our narrator) go to Fire Island, Sutherland and Malone (and our narrator) come home from Fire Island, the city is hot, they cruise, they stay up all night talking shit in the park where I used to walk a borrowed dog, Sutherland and Malone fuck (but never each other, these two sisters) in subway stations and parks and empty warehouses, Malone fucks on the beach, Sutherland fucks in apartments, they fuck for fun, Malone fucks for money, and the money gets paid to Sutherland.
Sutherland and Malone, you see, a closed circuit (amplifiers) within the larger circuit of New York’s gay nightlife (high in computational memory, low in long-term storage).
Why was I so afraid to read this book? What to fear? Pleasure, sex? Friendship, love?
Books can tell us about who we were, and who we are. And they can connect us to a generation of faggots we lost, and to a city — to a New York — full of crime and grit and public sex, full of cheap housing and working-class fags, a version of this city that is unlikely to ever exist again.
The gritty neighborhoods of Dancer are now all luxury neighborhoods I could never afford.
Dancer paints a version of New York that I never knew, but that, through the culture and art made there, helped make me.
They warn you about drugs, but this city is the worst drug of all, warns our narrator, himself, of course, a circuit queen.
That sounds familiar to me: that is New York I know.
I came to New York in 2006 because, after living in small towns in Washington State and Minnesota and even a small town in France, I was ready for a big city. Not just any big city, but this one. The gayest one of all.
What he was truly in love with — or any of us for that matter — our narrator writes of Malone — was not Rafael, or Jesus, or the man we had been watching on the dance floor for four years now, but our own senses, the animal bliss of being alive […] what he loved, finally, was only the city.
You see, I dated a supposedly reformed circuit queen once. He never took me dancing.
After we broke up, and he wanted to win me back, he said we should go out together. We had drinks, and then we met up with his friends for more drinks before arriving early at the club, around 1:00 a.m. It was a circuit party in some converted warehouse in Bushwick, a club only for that night, not glam. Just a disco ball hanging from a ceiling with a temporary bar made out of the cheapest plywood.
At our pre-game, all his friends were doing coke, but it turns out they weren’t. No one does coke anymore, darling. Who can afford it? They were snorting K. I declined. We all popped a molly in the cab to the club. I noticed when my ex’s molly hit; his pupils dilated and he spun around on the dance floor, embracing the queen I think he always had inside.
His wrists went limp. I loved him again for a moment then.
Later in the night, when I said I didn’t feel the molly, he opened a second pill and poured it directly onto my tongue. We left shortly after that because he didn’t feel well. At around 3:00 a.m. There were cute boys. I’d danced. I’d had fun.
But I never got high. It wasn’t the fault of the drugs; all the others got high on their molly, and we took from the same stash. I didn’t trust him enough, and it was my first circuit party, and so even though the drugs were there, physical, a fact of my body, the circuits of my brain just couldn’t give in. They never let go.
I never let go.
Binary code, essentially the language of computational circuits (which combine electrical circuits and magnetic storage devices) translate all information into signals in one of two states. You have the 0 and you have the 1. Since there are 128 characters (numbers, upper- and lower-case letters), you need seven bits of information to give each 128 characters a unique binary identifier. Modern code uses eight bits, both because eight bits are now a standard byte, but also to leave space for é’s and è’s used by other languages.
So, “a” in binary is 01100001 and “A” is 01000001; “0” is 00110000 and “1” is 00110001.
And if you use more bits, you can encode all sorts of things, like a heart-eyes emoji (four bytes in unicode 32) or a Liz Lemon eye-rolling gif (644,000 bytes).
It doesn’t much matter much what code you use. It only matters that everyone agrees on the code, so that when I type a sentence (like this one) on a computer, any other computer can take the 0s and 1s and put them back together to make the meaning for you that I mean here, now, as I think and work and write.
So you need a code to write, and a code to read. Without that code, all meaning is lost.
Dancer from the Dance became part of the decoder I needed to understand the pre-HIV queer past, something that I thought was dead, but that actually I see reflected, refracted, and reproduced not only in the world, but in myself.
Holleran’s book feels remarkably current in voice, in character, in the way they had sex, in the way they grew older.
One aspect, though, feels dated: the gay men in Malone and Sutherland’s world lamented their sexuality because it meant they couldn’t get married and live happy lives in the suburbs.
Of course, now it’s 2019, and faggots can get married and live happy lives in the suburbs.
In Dancer, the word love is used endlessly. Everyone is searching for love. But love never lasts long — maybe a night, or two, or maybe a week or month. Lasting love doesn’t feel possible.
From the opening letters: Gay novels can only be very sad because what everyone wants is a house in the suburbs and gay men just couldn’t have that.
Malone explains: I would LIKE to be a happily married attorney with a house in the suburbs, 2.6 kids, and a station wagon, in which we would drive every summer to see the Grand Canyon, but I’m not! I’m completely, hopelessly gay!
And so the circuit. If we can’t be happy (in the American sense), at least we can dance!
But since the 1990s, when gays started to more seriously integrate into the institutions of American life, we learned a tough lesson that assimilationists of all sorts have been learning for generations. Nuclear, atomized American families with 2.6 kids and a station wagon, who go (on their 10 days of paid vacation) to see the Grand Canyon are often motherfucking miserable.
The smiles in Norman Rockwell paintings? Well, to borrow Sutherland’s explanation of why everyone looks so happy on the dance floor, A smile is often a shriek.
What happens when we realize that the thing we’ve been fighting for, the thing we imagine will make us happy and healthy and whole, arrives, and it turns out we are just about as miserable as we always were? What then? What now?
I’m not a circuit queen, but I like going to the parties. They scared me, too. I’m uncomfortable in my body. I used to hate being shirtless around other gay men. They’re ruthless, and I was never in the gym enough. I’m busy! I said to myself. I’m trying to finish a PhD!
But something drew me to them. The beautiful men, for one, and their inaccessibility, for two. The pleasure I once imagined being contained in those spaces. The pleasure I now know does indeed exist there.
Love is difficult, love is impossible, help me make it through the night.
Sometimes, making it through the night is enough, and on those nights, the circuit is there.
Yes, the circuit queens do drugs. Our brain is a circuit, and mood comes from our brain. Our brain is a circuit, and memories are stored there.
Electricity runs the computer where I sit and type, but it also is the only thing that runs my brain. Our brain is full of cells — neurons — that are electrically charged, always, and ready to transmit signals, where the magic begins.
Most of us don’t understand computers, but there are people on this earth who do. People who in fact design and build them.
No one on this earth understands the circuits of our brain. We have 100 billion neurons, those electrified cells, and each cell makes a median of 1,000 connections, and so those 100 billion wires have 100 trillion connections, and each connection can insulate, amplify, or change and modify the circuit itself. It’s a clusterfuck.
Memory, pleasure, kindness, connection, touch, sight, smell? We understand aspects, but never the circuit itself, never the entirety of input and processing and hard drive and storage.
Every second I dance, my muscles move and my eyes see, my skin touches, my ears are sheared open by the sound of the bass, the treble. All this information flows to my brain, makes a map of my world and myself in it. I feel. I feel, and I know this as magic.
And what most drugs do to augment all of that, we don’t understand either.
For the fact was drugs were not necessary to most of us, because the music, youth, sweaty bodies were enough.
On his face was an expression of radiant exhilaration; that expression led people to think Malone took speed, when he didn’t. It was his joy that there were men who loved other men.
I’m a scientist. Sometimes, to be honest, I’d rather forget about all that biology. Personally, I might like a drink, but I don’t need drugs. Sometimes, I’d rather use my brain to close my eyes, listen to the music, look at people dancing, and dance with them.
“What do we all have in common in this group?” I once asked a friend seriously, when it occurred to me how slender, how immaterial, how ephemeral the bond was that joined us, and he responded, “We all have lips.”
What of sex on the circuit? What of that pleasure, there?
The baths are not the circuit and the circuit is not the baths. In Dancer, when the discos closed or emptied at six or seven or eight in the morning, the remaining men would parade to the bathhouses where they would fuck. They’d kissed and flirted and danced all night. The baths were about business, about actualization, about the pleasure not of pursuit but of penetration.
The baths still exist, of course, in New York and elsewhere. HIV and late capitalism couldn’t kill the circuit, and they certainly didn’t kill bathhouses.
These are threads that tie the geography of New York from now to then. The threads it took me years to see.
In New York City, we have saunas (Korean, Russian), sex clubs (Paddles, The East and West Side Clubs), and parties (GBU, NY Jacks, NY Jocks, Inferno).
And in the last few years circuit parties have pushed into the territory of the bath, The Black Party being the most obvious example. At The Black Party, there are live sex shows (fisting!), with everyone in leather, but not much of it (jock straps, harnesses), and there’s a big back room where all pretense drops.
You check your phone at the entrance. No photos allowed.
Of course the culture of the baths and circuit parties, the sex and excess, didn’t end in response to HIV, but it did shift, and maybe it shifted away from pleasure and toward safety. Maybe.
What a false binary! I hear a savvy reader thinking. I agree, friend. And I’m happy to report that, in 2019, public health and cultural consciousness are starting to break apart that binary as well.
You want to know what’s not impossible but pretty difficult? Finding a condom and lube in a circuit party or at The Cock. Sex parties of course have stores of them everywhere, just waiting to be used. But the circuit is about beauty, not functional lube dispensers placed at sensible locations.
The baths aren’t about beauty and they’re certainly not about taste. The decor, darling! The old porn blasted on wall-mounted TVs! The sticky leather couches, sometimes with tape holding them together! The crepuscular rooms making it difficult to see the person you’re touching! Function over form at the baths.
If you want to fuck at a circuit party, it can be … a spit-filled adventure, Brokeback style, and let me tell you something, spit is not sufficient lube when a condom is being used.
So: The rise of circuit parties with backrooms has come alongside a cultural shift in the way gay men (in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles) have sex. Many, many gay men are choosing to use Truvada to lower their HIV risk and, with Truvada, to use condoms less frequently or not at all.
If taken before HIV exposure, Truvada prevents the HIV-negative individual from becoming HIV-positive (seroconverting). It’s more effective than condoms (99 percent versus 70 percent) at preventing HIV transmission, but Truvada doesn’t protect against other STIs.
In my time on Truvada, I’ve had gonorrhea (thrice) and chlamydia (one time only).
At the same time, research has clearly demonstrated that HIV-positive people who are controlling their infection with anti-retroviral drugs quite literally cannot transmit HIV.
This year, I got fucked on the roof of the Eagle on Pride Sunday by a friend of mine from California, and he looked so good in the moonlight, and I just had to have him inside me. Spit. His fingers first. We found a corner, and he was inside me, I pushed back into him, a small crowd gathered, passersby passed by, some looking me in the eye. He told me to shut up. I shut up. I ended the night my ass full and wet with his half-cells in the cab ride home, holding his hand, and both of us smiling. We fucked again in my apartment, where it was my turn to top. I’m on PrEP, and so was he. I didn’t worry about HIV once, and I had been worrying about HIV for the three decades my brain could worry about anything at all.
In the last five years, the world has turned upside down and inside out in terms of how we think about HIV, condoms, and risk.
And thank God. HIV was certainly a nail in the coffin of disco, and it changed the circuit of dancing queens (by actually killing so many of them). Its effects have lingered all these decades since. These seismic shifts in the last few years (Undetectable! PrEP!) in how we think about HIV has enabled parties, here in NYC, with backrooms, where condoms and lube are hard to come by, but pleasure is easy to find.
Frank Ocean is right, though: Not enough people know about PrEP. Like a lot of activists, I'm not sure that a circuit party alone will fix this problem, especially the one he ended up throwing with its VIP-only list and mostly white dance floor. Branding is not enough, exclusion is part of how HIV kills, and the people at the most risk were certainly not at Frank's party.
HIV infection is a circuit in a way: it connects people through bodily contact and the sharing of a virus; it connects activities like sex and drug use to a binary state of infection. Negative: 0. Positive: 1.
I am happy to report that PrEP and U=U have been salt water on that circuit. U=U, the notion that an HIV positive person cannot transmit the virus if they’re properly treated and the virus undetectable, has rendered HIV positive people the most safe sex partners, upending so many decades of myth and fear. I’m negative and on Truvada as PrEP. I have no virus in my blood but anti-retrovirals flowing through my lymph. I am a new HIV possibility. Five years ago, I couldn’t imagine myself.
We rewired the circuit. NYC in 2019 feels again like NYC of the 1970s, where men fucked in clubs and saunas and bushes without the specter of death, the certainty of a virus, also present with each thrust or grunt or moan.
Circuit parties are expensive. Tickets to the Black Party this year cost $190; the Pines Party cost $199 if you purchased your ticket weeks in advance, or $359 for a weekend pass. I don’t make Black Party money and probably never will.
This obviously alters the type of people who can go. Namely, you have to be kind of rich to imagine that spending $200 to get into a party is a reasonable thing to do. Not to mention the price of drugs or booze or both, the taxis there and back. Many people simply can’t afford these prices.
Holleran’s queens — Malone and Sutherland — didn’t pay to get into their circuit parties. They just had to know the right people (or look the right way), and the doors opened right up. At times, the queens in Holleran’s 1970s gay world couldn’t afford to eat, or sold sex for money, but they could always go dancing and find drugs.
Social capital still works, but not at the Pines Party, which is — now — big business.
The geography of a party starts with how much it costs to get in the door. Only the bodies allowed inside are allowed to twirl to the music together. Capital is everywhere, social and financial, and while the circuit might be about escapism, and queers of all races and classes might want to escape the world’s homophobia (and various –isms), only certain faggots can afford a respite from the violence of their lives by dancing from midnight until the sun comes up. That only some queers can afford these parties, then, can make for spaces filled with the very violence that we are trying to escape. What I’m saying, my dear faggots, is there’s no amount of molly and four-on-the-floor beats that can get us out of the bind our bodies and late capitalism place us in.
The circuit claims, in so much as a geography can claim anything, to be about beauty, pleasure, music: about The Night. Beauty, of course, is a social, living thing, and people of color in the queer community are often excluded from what we call beautiful. Circuit parties are damn near body-fascist. They worship — because the people within them worship — tall, angular, muscled men. Men who have this look wander a circuit party in a special way. There seems, to me, to be a small wake around them; no one dares get too close. At the same time, men follow them around, from point A to B to C on the dancefloor, waiting for the perfect moment to try to talk, or, more likely, to dance.
And this beauty — who owns it, and why — is of course political, and is also the nucleation point of the pleasure we go to the circuit party seeking.
The party isn’t just about the twirl, of course, or we’d just go to a straight club. Circuit parties offer the possibility of drugs and sex. They’re about who we might meet there, what we might do with those people, and how that will feel.
And look, everything I said about the cost of circuit parties pertains to race as well. Class is raced, duh. Some of my gay friends hate circuit parties because the music is boring. They prefer hip-hop parties and clubs, and this city has plenty of those, too, and those are mostly not white.
And OMG Dancer from the Dance suuuuuuuucks in how it talks about race. WASPs are cold and bad at sex. Most of the white men are obsessed with the sexual prowess of Latinos. Asian men are … ugh, I don’t even want to say. Edward Said would die. That the book accurately represents the racist circuit queens of the 1970s doesn’t feel like a sufficient excuse. It makes the book, for all its beauty, for all its sad humor, hard to read.
Circuit parties, when I first moved to New York, had the reputation of being all-white spaces. This has changed, but only a little, and slowly. Most of my friends on the circuit are men of color. They have that circuit body: broad shoulders, skinny waists, six to eight visible abdominal muscles. One’s a college professor. Another works at a desk job at a hotel. And one has a job, now, as a professional party promoter.
It’s 2019, and being able to pay $200 to get in a club creates a small group, a little circuit of like-minded men, where you can be both hot and black as long as you have the money to pay the cover, broad enough shoulders, and a six pack.
Oh, wow. So I just realized that I am shitting on circuit parties, and like, okay, yes, a lot of people do that, and it’s easy to do. They’re fucked up. It’s not rocket science.
Human beings are allowed pleasure. Yes, even faggots. We are allowed joy. No one is required to live only to end oppression. Oppressed people especially. Take it up with the Reaganites about why HIV still exists. They killed enough people, maybe they should spend some time making up the deficit of life they created. Maybe they should give up doing some of whatever the fuck they find joyful (golf? beer? beating their wives?).
Spaces can also change. What might a better queer circuit party look like? A second wave of less expensive, more music-minded parties — parties that attempt to be more diverse — have invented themselves: Horse Meat Disco in NYC, Ostbahnhof in Los Angeles.
Circuit parties could have sliding-scale entrance fees, campaigns to end racism, sizism, sexism, et cetera et cetera et cetera, And designated ways to care for those of us who decide to do drugs, and strictly enforced and monitored rules of consent.
We are allowed to dance.
If we have to live only to consider our suffering and try to upend it, we actually fail to live at all. The oppressions, then, win. What a bunch of dour, suffering faggots we’d be, and my favorite thing about faggots is our ability to play and to laugh and to create and to give each other joy, sometimes in the form of a well-made martini, sometimes in the form of a loaf of bread made with a sourdough starter so-and-so got from what’s-his-name, and sometimes in the form of a blow job with three well-lubed up fingers sliding in and out of one’s ass, as one sits in a sling, four or five guys all watching.
I hope circuit parties last forever, even if I die, or, worse, stop going. A string from the here and now to the then and there. I hope they last forever because they're one of the things that connects us to faggots past, faggots who died. I hope they become more “just” spaces, more accessible, and therefore freer and freeing. Circuit parties — and the circuit — connect us to the carnal joy of being bodies, of being men who love men, as Malone puts it. Sometimes, joy is reason enough.
Flesh can still do things that circuits cannot. There’s something that remains magical about life beyond computers, phones. Getting off Grindr. Interfacing face-to-face. Sucking a real fleshy dick. Dancing with real wordly bodies.
Some things are just better in analog than in 01001001001010010010. I hope, I pray, that as long as I live, the singularity will not yet arrive, AI will fall short, and getting coffee with a crush, imagining the boyfriend he could be, the life we could live together, will remain the biggest pleasure of all, a memory written in the circuit of my brain. A beautiful small moment, not ever erased until the plug is pulled from all the circuits that make me “me.”
One of the circuit parties I went to while researching this piece was, according to rumor, shut down at around 6:00 a.m. when two homosexuals were found in the bathroom ODed on G.
We know the risks. In 2018, minor TV star Joel Taylor (Storm Chasers) died aboard an Atlantis gay cruise, basically a circuit party on the water. He’d ODed on a mix — apparently — of G, molly, and coke. Deaths and ODs on gay cruises are borderline common news, and while the jokes about the hot tub gonorrhea write themselves, their regularity illustrates the potential consequences of the circuit: it is entirely possible to dance oneself to death, or at least into misery.
The circuit is dangerous, as anything that promises transcendence is. Marathon runners die of heart attacks. There’s a certain amount of risk in anything we do to forget our bodies and their limitations. Or to feel them more.
Malone told us, Everything is beautiful here, and that is all it is: beautiful. Do not expect anything else, do not expect nourishment for anything but your eye — and you will handle it all beautifully. The narrator said, Living for beauty is all very fine, but it’s a hard regimen and it burns up the heart very quickly.
I’ve read too many articles that engage in hand-wringing about the “new” effect of chem sex on gay men and gay life. Destructive drugs and destructive sex are nothing new, particularly in a community whose members are socialized to hate their bodies for the pleasure they feel, to never speak of their desires without risking social or physical death. Dancer shows us “chem sex,” and sex addiction, and lost loves and lost lives. Things have gotten better. Much better. But gays are still gay, and the world is still mostly a straitjacket, and sometimes it just feels so goddamn good to run from all that into a blotted-out world that consists of nothing but pleasure.
We all know people who say they want a husband and a home and a picket fence and a dog if not children, but they’re too addicted to nights out and hookups to make partnership work — as if partnered people aren’t allowed nights out and hookups anyway.
Sutherland, one of my favorite characters in fiction, dies of an overdose at a circuit party he’s throwing, and Malone, who’s too pretty to be interesting to me, leaves that same party to swim across the bay back from Fire Island to Long Island, which takes a ferry 20 minutes. He’s never heard from again.
I was into heavy SM. Now all I want is a hug and a kiss.
Get you a man who can do both, darling.
David Foster Wallace, himself an addict, defined addiction as when you go to The Thing to avoid the troubles that are created by The Thing. Drink so much your wife leaves. Drink to forget your wife leaving. Go to circuit parties because you’re lonely. Let circuit parties be the only pleasure you imagine.
We’re shamed into believing that risks are eventualities. Most people on the circuit never OD, nevertheless die from their drug use. We can build parties that care for people who do drugs, and that try to ensure consent even when some people are likely overindulging.
Most people I know on the circuit are addicted to more subtle things, things that don’t make click-bait headlines the way “chemsex” does. Like a lot of homosexuals, we might be addicted to the way we have to make our bodies look, for example, in order to imagine we’re worthy of attention; the notion that sex and a night out are one and the same, and that sex with a beloved in the afternoon can’t match the same high; that sex is for the night, and work is for the light of day.
These addictions don’t kill us. These addictions, though, might just keep us from fully living.
I’ve always believed that people who can’t let committed love into their lives aren’t letting themselves live fully, because life — as I have wanted to live it — required intimacy. And intimacy — I was taught — required romance.
What a shallow view of life.
But those of us who reject the capacity for joy created in nightlife, at circuit parties, those of us who reject the possibility of public pleasure, well, I’m not sure we’re living fully either.
It feels straight and white and upper-middle class and cis to have the fact of death-of-old-age be the most traumatic part of your life. All those writers who write about pills that make you no longer afraid of death are straight white men: DeLillo and Franzen and fucking Roth going on and on about “his narrator’s” impotence.
Queers are too busy trying to survive to worry about existential death. Death is always close, and so — I think — we live hard while we’re here.
Circuits are powerful, as you can see. They’re also vulnerable. They’re built by worldly things: wires and metal, electricity flowing; cells and membranes, electricity flowing.
One evening, watching TV and writing, I spilled a glass of rosé on what was then my laptop. It wasn’t my laptop any longer. Water — particularly salty water, but most water will do — will short a circuit.
A short circuit is when electricity flows along an unintended path, which allows it to flow unimpeded. Circuits are great, you see, at controlling themselves. An out-of-control circuit will heat, will melt, will die.
The HIV crisis was a short circuit between gays of the ’70s and the generation I am part of. Homophobia short-circuited the lives of gay men in the ’70s, making them believe that the only pleasure was love, that the suburbs would make them happy, but that they’d never see their own white picket fences.
O–, were homophobia no longer a short circuit in the lives of too many, including my own. O–, had HIV not stolen so many years of my own pleasure, safety, little deaths without a larger one looming. O–, were the world built to handle our excess, to buffer the pain any human might feel.
What are we doing here, in this short time on this dying rock? What am I doing here, in this body, this body that loves so many so deeply, this body that will either be lost or lose its loves one by one? We are — I am — trying to do the impossible. To build a circuit — a love, many loves, a community, a culture — a circuit so robust that no overflowing cell could bring down the whole.
I finished reading Dancer on my couch, in the New York City apartment I share with a roommate, a close friend of mine who hates circuit parties (It sounds like one long boring song that no one with actual rhythm can even dance to). He wasn’t home and so I had a temporarily quiet island four flights of steps above the city that never sleeps.
When it was over, Sutherland dead, Malone disappeared, our narrator depressed, his friend gay-married and in the South, I shut the book and sat, just sat, for a moment. I sat for a moment and then opened the book back, from its front cover, to the opening letters. I read those again. And then, again, I read the closing letters. This time I cried.
I didn’t want to finish the last page, to put these people and this time behind me. I wanted to live in it still, in their world, and not my own, fully aware that the apocalypse that is HIV was waiting for them, the ones still alive. HIV had, in fact, by 1978, we now know thanks to viral DNA sequencing studies, already arrived and claimed lives in New York, in San Francisco.
I closed the book, Holleran’s world died, and I was left again with the wreckage of my life now, the wreckage of our country, too.
How to forget about it, if only for a night? Poppers on the dance floor? Vodka and ice and the kiss of a man?
Zero. No. No, not tonight. One. Sometimes sadness and loss must be faced, cried over. Zero. Sometimes we can dance tomorrow. One. The gay disco will always be waiting. Zero.
Every day is one day closer to the end of our lives. The thing that makes me want to cry is remembering how good it felt to wake up in the arms of a man I loved. Every day for two years, I woke up in his arms. The biggest pleasure I’ve known was not a twirl, a fuck, a drug, a beat. The biggest pleasure I’ve known was feeling him twitch, half awake and half asleep, in my arms, the warmth and smoothness of his skin almost impossible to bear as I pulled him closer and closer. I wanted him to crawl inside my flesh. Sometimes he did. Was he mine? My God, my God he was!
Right now, I wake up alone, and while my days are full of friends I love and work I love, nothing matches the pleasure I felt waking up in the home we shared, next to him.
Every day since he moved out has felt, in some small way, a wasted day, and we only have so many.
So why not dance? Why not fuck? Why not do drugs, get naked, twirl? Trust me, circuit parties aren’t the high I’m chasing.
Committed love, living with a man, cooking for him, fucking just him, spending the holidays together, that is the high I’m chasing, and — if you pick the wrong man — it can be a destructive high as well.
That boyfriend and I went to circuit parties together. I dated him after the-circuit-douche-from-15th-street. My new man was a man who could do both, darling. We went to the Black Party, which I didn’t like much, and also Brut, and Horse Meat Disco, and some shit I don’t remember in Barcelona. He bought molly, and we did it together, and I felt something bubbly up inside me. With him, I could let go, give in, get high. He was a dancer, and so we danced, but when I was high, I just kept telling him I loved him, because I did, and also talking about all the books I couldn’t wait to write, including this one. I talked and talked and talked about art, about home, about him and our life together.
I talked until he said Shut up, I love you, and took my hand, and pulled me out onto the dance floor where he could feel the bodies of shirtless men against his own body, where he would put poppers to my nose, one nostril and then the other, then his own nose, and then put his hand in the small of my back and pull me into him. We twirled. Kissed. The beat of the music and the fact of our bodies consuming the whole world. He was beautiful and perfect and there and now and here and now and mine.
Remember when that aging bear of a faggot Walt Whitman wrote I am large / I contain multitudes? Remember when gay icon Elizabeth Lemon shouted, I can do it, I can have it all, while shoving a sauce-laden hoagie in her mouth hole? It’s 2019 and faggots have been through it, honey, and we haven’t won much, but my God it is possible to have the beautiful husband and the peaceful house in the South (I can smell the wisteria now, see the late afternoon light being cut into lines by the slats in the porch). We can have the road trips to the Grand Canyon, even the 2.6 kids, and still have the booze and the twirl of the night (*takes a hit of poppers*) and the way only his hand could feel pulling my body in toward his. His body, the one I loved, because it carried him, the man I loved, through the world.
I didn’t get to have all of that with the boyfriend I loved so much. It was the fault of everything but the circuit. With the right man, I believe it’s possible: I can do it, I am large, I can have it all.
I know that I can share dancing and fucking with my beloved. The circuit. The baths. These things aren’t stopping me. And I can share waking up together the day after, hung over but in his arms, head pounding, my body knowing — as it pulls him toward me, as it drifts back to sleep — the animal bliss of being alive, a closed circuit of dopamine naturally won, a joy beyond pleasure and a pleasure beyond joy.
While I’m waiting for my next him, let’s — let us — dance.
Joseph Osmundson is a scientist and writer based in New York. He has a PhD in Molecular Biophysics from The Rockefeller University, his research has been published in Cell and Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, and he’s currently a clinical professor of Biology at NYU.
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