First Comes Desire
“Situations of desire (as Freud noted in Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood) are the first objects and impellers of intellectual inquiry.”—Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
When I was five years old, I was enamored with my neighbor. She had brown braids that hung down the sides of her face from the part in the middle of her head. She had beige skin like mine, with a slightly redder undertone. In the afternoons after Headstart, under the dining room table, we laid on top of each other, creating gentle friction. The action was odd to both of us, but the sensation was exhilarating. We touched each other gingerly under our white Polo shirts and pleated navy skirts. We played impressively progressive versions of house, alternating dad and mom roles. That is until my grandmother snatched us out of our gender neutral fortress by our legs and sat us on opposite ends of the backseat of the car as we accompanied her on her errands. We stared outside at the ongoing traffic and racing buildings, fearful that even a glance at one another would be wrong.
There was Kelly, the eighth grade mentor to my second grade self. I ran my hands through her stale perm on the playground steps as she waited for her boyfriend to arrive. After Jamal (his head sat like a massive globe on his shoulders) arrived, I would follow them around as if I’d imprinted on her, watching them hug and hold hands jealously.
I despised my seventh grade math teacher, but only because I couldn’t stop eyeing her tightly pulled lips and long blonde eyelashes with sniper focus as she patrolled the room during quizzes. She was an asshole, nonetheless.
There was the girl with a big and glorious forehead, who was a friend of friends in high school.
She repeatedly felt me up at the lockers before first period near hallway Z. However, it wasn’t her hands and body warmth, but the shrewd throbbing behind the zipper of my jeans that made me uncomfortable.
“If you’ve felt that way about someone, then I don’t need to tell you–about hanging out in a crowded bar for three hours, where I could just see the back of his head and one shoulder of his plaid flannel shirt, because being in the same space with him made me feel so…good. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Finally, there was the theatre major that threw my life into utter internal disarray. I had survived three years of college with one prolonged, painfully heterosexual romantic blunder and I thought that once it shriveled up and died I would make make it out alive. But I was rendered motionless and breathless in her confusing gaze. After months of inhabiting spaces I had no desire to be simply to catch a glimpse of her chestnut colored shoulder or bright purple lipstick, I asked her to coffee. I received a heart wrenching, “I’m super busy for the next two weeks”.
Then Comes Guilt
I’m queer and have been for awhile. But I didn’t know that I could be queer and the person I’ve always been until I escaped into Samuel Delany’s meticulously lived social experiments. Samuel Delany is the queer prophet I stumbled upon after rummaging through the ravaged texts of Baldwin, Lorde, and Hughes. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which I picked up reluctantly after a failed second attempt at digesting his sci-fi masterpiece Dhalgren, offered queerness as a norm at the moment I was beginning to consider myself alien.
The first heterosexual experience I had, while romantic and satisfying in that cloudy and problematic moment, is now a wistful snapshot. Weak thrusts, muffled grunts, and begrudging foreplay (did I mention requests that I wax?) is what I thought I deserved.
“Pleasure must be socially doled out in minuscule amounts.” Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Heterosexuality is our societal default; and sex-lessness, lack of sexual-confidence, and the rejection of female pleasure are paramount to that default setting—at least for Black women. We are bearers of society’s enemies and reluctant hoes from birth; the brink of promiscuity hiding in forbidden glances and innocent first pecks.
Pleasure seemed unattainable in my mother’s bitter gaze towards men she was dating and dwindling in the realization that I hadn’t even came during my first heterosexual encounter. When I imagined myself being capable of experiencing pleasure, I would wake to the excruciating cries of an ill conceived baby, making my wet dream an erotic nightmare.
My mother sat me down for an episode of Oprah to “teach” me about sex years before that first heterosexual encounter. After the 40-minute special was over she said, “Remember, you can do it yourself” as she switched the channel back to General Hospital. I thought, “Do what myself?” My mother had spoken about sex as the gateway to the wasteland of adulthood and I had only seen brutal, criminally unromantic sex scenes on HBO after two or in action movies. I wondered, do what to myself?
I vividly remember watching Chloe, which came out in 2009, with my mother. She cringed at the tender and beautifully erotic moments the two women characters share. I closed my eyes during the extreme close-ups of flesh touching, fearful that the throbbing between my legs would lead to combustion. Could I ever do that to myself, I thought? Could I ever be with a woman? Could I ever look that good having sex? In Times Square Red, Time Square Blue, Samuel Delany visualized his sex with other men as sexy and frighteningly mundane, so I thought I’d try to do the same.
“We do little better when we sexualize our own manner of having sex as sexy…this alone allows us to relax with our own sexuality.”—Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
It’s extremely difficult to have great sex when you don’t find yourself desirable and your partner reinforces that idea. In the next heterosexual encounter I had, I came—and my partner didn’t. I asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee for his trouble after I denied his request for a blowjob. I had taken a page out of Delany’s book quite literally—clinging to his “I want to fuck you” confessions and aphorisms that the social force of desire is freeing when yielded. I began to envision myself as sexy and worthy of pleasure. Although that radical realization led to a couple of selfish, casual sex encounters I began to build what Delany calls “sexual self-confidence”.
In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany’s liberated sexual experiences—“protracted” and friendly sex with Rannit, mutual handjobs with the “quintessentially butch looking” Jonathan at The Capri, tedious and hard rubbing of The Mad Masturbator’s leathery foreskin at The Variety, and the pleasurable (but oddly hollow) intercourse with the sexually generous Hoke at his apartment— became my liaisons. I relished his ability to go out and achieve the orgasms he desired, so I followed the blueprint outlined in his non-fiction. For him there was Gary, the 46-year-old he met at The Venus, who liked two or three fingers up his ass and who wanted sex half the time and conversation the other half. For me, there was Jorge. A couple years older than me and more sexually experienced, he would meet me in my dorm room for the latter half of junior year and the beginning of senior year. Our sex, alternating between good, great and rushed, would give way to conversation, the same way it happened with Delany and Gary, Hoke, Jonathan.
Jorge was totally invested in my pleasure and after sex, we would sit in my twin bed, miles apart from each other, and discuss our other sexual adventures, sneaker releases, romantic roadblocks, and girls we were crushing on.
“Natalie, why don’t you just tell her you like her?”
“I can’t ‘cause then it’d be double rejection—I’d be outed and embarrassed.”
Then Comes Great Sex
“What homosexuality and prostitution represented for my uncle was the untrammeled pursuit of pleasure.”—Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Before my first queer encounters, I had never fantasized about strictly pleasuring my partner. If my fantasies included me, they were muddied by abnegation and rooted in haphazard thrusting that happened to me. Who else could my fantasies include, you ask? Jessica, the cousin from Run’s House; the woman who ran my favorite boutique; Jennifer Lopez, and Wesley Snipes in Money Train—anyone but myself, really.
But the more I fantasized about women—local artists and coffee shop baristas—the more frequently I entered my own fantasies. And I began to fantasize about the pleasure I could give and could receive by other people desiring me. As I read about Delany performing fellatio on strangers at The Venus and The Capri, people he’d never invite home or have non-sexual relationships with, I began to pleasure myself in a plethora of ways and unabashedly.
I followed the footsteps of The Mad Masturbator, a man Delany encountered in the theaters who masturbated so much he could literally fall asleep while other people got him off, and touched myself as frequently as possible. It took years, but finally I discovered what Oprah and my mother meant when they said I could do it myself.
“Yet what greater field and force than pleasure can human beings share.”—Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Delany discusses the difference between his sexual relationships and his love relationships, but he doesn’t deny how they’re connected.
In my first heterosexual relationship I had a simultaneous desire and aversion to holding hands, kissing, hugging, and expressing any emotional connection. I thought there was something wrong with me—I chalked it up to severe personal detachment disorder and witnessing my mother’s failed dating experiments. But Delany taught me that acknowledging and expressing my desire was kind of like finding the keys to a secret garden inside of myself. And although the garden, quite neglected and never tended to, would need some work—it could be revitalized.
In A New Sexual Paradise
“Desire and knowledge (body and mind) are not fundamental opposition; rather, they are intricately imbricated and mutually constitutive aspects of political and social life.”—Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
I would not have been able to deal with the reality of being Black and queer in this society if it didn’t feel like my only choice at its valleys and orgasmic at its peaks. My first queer encounter was so much better than the sex scenes from Chloe—my adolescent self would be proud.
Panties hardened from inexplicable wetness are no longer a source of guilt. The shame I felt when I caught myself staring at the theatre major’s body as it contorted and maneuvered no longer wounds. The desire and attraction I have to women, women who are masculine, women are feminine, women who are fat, people who may resemble society’s image of women but don’t subscribe to those constructs, women who are Black, is me and I don’t have to hide any longer.
“…anyone who self-identifies as gay must have been interpellated, at some point, as gay by some individual or social speech or text which he or she responded, “He/she/it/they must mean me.” Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
I wasn’t interpellated with a shocking, “You, you’re gay!” or a door covered in chipping rainbow wallpaper opening to welcome me. My catastrophic interpellation into queerness was more of an underwhelming and minimally uncomfortable whisper along the lines of, “Hey girl I think you like another girl” and me replying, “Yo, you’re right.”
It is unbelievably liberating to know what makes you feel good. It is unequivocally liberating to acknowledge all of the different people that can make you feel good and how that list may bend, decrease, or straight up explode depending on the day.
“…the untrammeled pursuit of pleasure was the opposite of social responsibility.” Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Through my pursuit of orgasms and owning my queerness, I became a better person. Delany’s encounters with Rannit, Hoke, The Mad Masturbator, and many others educated him on class, societal conditions and the eccentricities of relationships unimagined by heterosexual patriarchy. Similarly, my own untrammeled pursuit of pleasure has made me more socially responsible and educated than ever before.
I realized patience in the clouded eyes of a woman on the brink of orgasm. I grew better acquainted with honesty in a sunlit bed, butt naked in the company of a woman who saw the uncertainty in my eyes and didn’t flinch. I found confidence in the fingers and tongue of a woman completely devoted to making me cum. And because of it, I’m a better person.