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.