These Ghosts

I stopped saying ‘ya’ll’ in college. The word is telltale country slang, a slip of the tongue revealing your upbringing in the Dirty South. The church ladies gasped, “Ya’ll comin’ on Wednesday? We’re havin’ a barbeque!” at the First Presbyterian Church of Union Point, Georgia when I was little, and I used to think they sounded funny. Then I got older and realized that behind their smiling faces was a venomous hatred of black people and fags like me.

I never had the same accent as my parents. When I listen to them now on the phone, it’s so strong. Did I ever talk like that? I was adopted at birth in Charleston, South Carolina, a Southern city by all accounts, but my birth mother was from Phoenix. Nothing is known about my birth father — he wasn’t in the picture when I was born.

I have never met my birth parents, and I don’t know anything about them, but I know people from Phoenix and have driven through the miserable little city many times. No one from Phoenix has much of an accent. Phoneix and the surrounding Midwest is where accents go to die. People talk straight and clear there. I don’t have an accent now, but that was a conscious decision. I worked on it. I trained it out. The last vestige of South was ‘ya’ll,’ a filthy little remnant of the town I was trying to escape.  I successfully killed ‘ya’ll’ in college and never looked back.

When I went to college, I knew my peers would be from New York and California. I wanted them to know I wasn’t like the South, that I didn’t belong here, that I was stuck here by misfortune, by circumstances beyond my control. I mimicked how a guy named Sam talked. Sam was from California. He said his vowels with a flat, nasal sound. Another friend, Brady, had an “i” that sounded like “bite,” sharp and crisp. I adored it.

Some gay men think there is merit to staying in the Bible Belt as if our presence will create arts districts, coffee shops, and liberal enclaves. The reality is bleaker. Here, we become the limp-wristed florists whose unspoken sexuality is passed off as “eccentric” to the garden club,  the couple who lives on the edge of town, trained to lock the door and “look straight” when needed. We get tired and migrate to medium-sized cities like Savannah or Jacksonville or larger cities like Atlanta. We settle for the lone gay bar blinking open at night, where we walk in and see the same friends, the same tired bartender.

I’ve been living in Savannah for a few years, and this is how it is. Many people don’t know I’m from a few hours away. I don’t have an accent. Savannah, I now understand, is a very small town. It’s isolated the way gay-friendly enclaves in the South must be, but downtown, the gay scene heats up, with two bars across the street from each other, one boasting fun drag shows and cheap drinks. Just don’t stay out too late. Just don’t walk near the crowds of drunk tourists after dark. And if you do, don’t hold hands. Travel in groups if you can.

I’ve started driving outside the city on weekends to meet guys living in the wetlands of the Georgia coast. Flat and green all year, these little towns dot the South, a cluster of abandoned brick buildings next to gas stations with signs for fried chicken in the window. I’m meeting these guys mostly for sex. They’re tall and cornfed and husky, the kind of guys who don’t really douche before sex, they just grab and shower and go. They keep indoor-outdoor dogs with a chicken pen in the back.

Yesterday, it was a gay couple in Guyton. Guyton is a stretch of deserted roadway cutting through the pinewoods with one stop sign in a ten-mile stretch.  At this sign, I turned left, drove down a dirt road for half a mile, then left, then came to a farmhouse tucked in the trees. Past the farmhouse was another dirt road, which eventually led to their mailbox and their little house behind it.

After dinner, I crawled on the fur pelt thrown across the bed and rested on my stomach.  Jonathan pulled my underwear down. “I haven’t showered,” I said.

“We don’t care.”

Jonathan, a green-eyed man with a brown beard, climbed on the bed, leaned back against the headboard, and pulled down his shorts. He had the thickest cock I have ever seen in my life. “Go ahead,” he said.

He pushed my mouth down on it. I tried to suck, but it was too big. Jonathan’s husband Jason was behind me. I felt his mustache against my hole, and he started to lick. Jonathan pulled me up and lifted me over his dick. “Sit.”

The head went in and immediately a sharp stab of pain ran through me. Too fast. Jonathan spat a gob in my hand. I reached down and lubed him up. It slid in slowly. “Breathe, breathe,” he said, almost annoyed. Halfway down, he put his hands around my waist and pushed me down to the base. I yelped like a kicked dog (“Breathe, buddy”) and then it was in.

“You’re halfway there.”

Jonathan pulled me forward and kissed me. I was on top of him, and his dick pushed up in me, and he pushed me down on it. His arms were around me and I felt warm and comfortable. He was holding me and I was taking it. “It’s so thick,” I said as I kissed his neck.

“I know, I know.”

Jason was behind me, massaging my shoulders. “You got it,” he said. Jason had a stronger accent that Jonathan, those honeyed vowels. “Take it easy.” Jason came in close and kissed my back, and then I heard him spit. And then I felt something pushing over Jonathan’s cock and sat up. “I can’t do that.”

“Yes you can,” Jonathan said. “Just take a deep breath.” Jonathan pulled me in. I put my arms around his chest. “Hey, I got you. You’re doing great.”

He was holding me and rubbing me the way I’ve always wanted to be held, the way I wanted farmboys and guys on my high school football team to hold me. Once, when I was ten, one of the guys from the next county over (a friend of the hunters who came to shoot deer on our land) stopped by to ride ATVs on the hiking trails near our house. I sat behind him with my arms around his middle, my face in his jacket. The wind whipped through us and he flew through the woods, and I held his warmth, his chest, and could barely see over his massive shoulders. I’ve never felt so in love. This moment felt like that.

Jason pushed in. It felt like I was being ripped in two. I wanted to cry. Jonathan rubbed my head and Jason kissed my shoulders and then they were moving together, both inside me. I took a deep breath and let go. I could feel both of them, moving and pushing, until Jason behind me started building up speed. “There you go,” he said. “Feel those fat cocks in your hole. You can take it.”

Driving back this morning, I was so sore, and every bump in the road hurt. I thought about the full night, the almond-scented soap in the shower, the fur pelt on the bed, and their bodies moving together with me in the middle.

They were not gym bodies. Both had bellies. But they were strong and thick, bodies made to push wheelbarrows and carry bags of horse feed. It was my first double anal penetration. Their sex was un-showered, untaught. They had no interest in fashion or cruises. God, it was majestic.

For the first time in my life, their simple Southern world seemed lovely and mysterious in ways I hadn’t seen before. Their ‘ya’ll’ was rugged and sexy, not a church word at all. This, I realized, was the life that befell the gay men who retreated from loud cities and gayborhoods and gastropubs and found solace in the quiet of the countryside. Their life was one I never wanted to live. All the same, it felt familiar. That evening felt like returning home to realize it wasn’t so terrible.

On the drive, I had a daydream. In the dream, I was walking on a beach. The dream was in black and white, and I remember this because I have never dreamed in black and white before. It was like an old movie, flickering through the grainy frames. The beach was lined with fir trees and there was a campfire in a clearing. I stepped through the trees. I heard laughing and clinking bottles. When I got close, Bill Burroughs was sitting on a stump. Jack Kerouac was ranting about something and waving a half-empty bottle of whiskey. Allen Ginsberg was playing the flute.

The rest of the Beatniks walk in through the woods: Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, Carl Solomon. Then T. S. Eliot walks through the trees, his black hair parted in the middle. Walt Whitman with a walking stick stumbles through. He is smoking a pipe. Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Mary Shelley walks up from the lake, her head white and slick. The moon is rising. The fire flickers white light.

Anaïs Nin parts the bushes. Vladimir Nabokov is arguing with Bulgakov. Tennessee Williams is laughing at a joke.

Where is Randy Shilts? Ferlinghetti? It doesn’t matter, we are running through the woods. I see more of them coming in across the field, their lanterns flickering in the dark. Someone yells, “Over here!” I realize we’re all ghosts.

Kerouac runs up behind me and jumps on my back. I stumble forward under his weight but catch myself. I smell liquor on his breath. We’re going to the water.

My grandmother is there, ankle-deep in the surf, slightly hunched, wearing a skirt and Sunday jacket, the double-breasted one she loved. She is looking over her shoulder at me with that mischevious grin and her large glasses. There’s so much I want to say to her, how I miss her, but there’s no time to talk. Kerouac is on my back and we’re walking into the water. I take her hand in mine. It is so frail and thin. Kerouac’s breath is warm on my neck. Others are behind us, and my voice calls out to them, “Ya’ll follow me.”

— Beastly

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