It is small.
It happens during what the psycho-social industry calls “a formative phase,” a period when the person I am meant to become will be shaped. I am plasticine-adolescent, moulded by every man who speaks, pushes, touches, gazes. My father is dying, but he refuses to die, and when he dies, I refuse to let him die. His penis has already been chopped off, a void created in place of an absence.
Psychoanalysis teaches me that the phallus is not the penis. Frantz Fanon teaches me that the black is genitality. My fantasies teach me to crave daddies, men I will never call daddy, men who will submit, men who can enjoy pleasure.
Dying and Sex: how banal.
This writing is not about my father’s death, my psycho-social development, my being queer, my sex practices, the bestselling genres of emotional vulnerability. It is not about the death I missed, the funeral I wish I had missed, the memorial services I skip, the men I want to pursue who look nothing like my father, the men who pursue me who look nothing like my father, the twenty five years it has taken to write about my father, the person I am when I write about my father, the person I unbecome when I write about my father.
If I write “my father” enough times, something might be exorcised. Maybe the me who has never known how to move on. One returns to the scene of emotional devastation to discover pieces of a self that are unrecognizable, and, worse, unusable. To discover that the carapace sheltered by nostalgia can no longer be treasured. To confront the I who cannot be valued from here, from now. Shattering happens. Again.
From my father, I inherited a love for solitude, a desire to escape from the demands of sociality, a craving to indulge silliness.
Details, my editor tells me, provide real details. Stories that provide life, depth, texture.
My Swahili has always been terrible. Classmates laughed at my pronunciation—a transformed Eliza Dolittle speaking Swahili. Teachers laughed at my attempts to shape Kikuyu into Swahili. Swahili was a school language, not one of the languages used frequently at home. Not a language I wanted to learn, not French or Italian or Arabic.
Perhaps I was 12 years old. I had failed a Swahili exam, so badly that my father sat in his green velvet chair and laughed. He decided that he would tutor me in Swahili. For a few months, he supervised my homework. I would sit in the dining room, complete an assignment, and walk to the living room, where he would check my answers.
Frustrated by this regime, one time I inscribed a little “fuck you” on the bottom left corner of my notebook. My father saw it. He told me to bring his belt. He made me lie down on the floor and he belted my buttocks a few times.
My loathing for Swahili increased.
Another time, I could not conjugate something in Swahili. It was late at night, well past nine p.m. This time, he was in his bedroom, with the door locked. Perhaps he was feeling sicker than usual. He insisted that I call a friend, a neighbor, to ask for the correct answer before I went to bed. I stood in the corridor, outside his locked room, frustrated, trying to escape the humiliation of calling a classmate late at night for one answer.
My father was implacable. I called.
Swahili became the language of late-night calls, experiences in humiliation, a barrier between my father who could not accept a son who failed and a son trying to escape a language that humiliated.
One day, perhaps I am 12, my father buys a chess set. He has decided to teach me chess. He plays checkers—what’s the British English for this?—with my brother. Chess is for us. Patiently, he teaches me how to name pieces, how they move, how to read written chess moves. I will never become very good, always trusting instinct more than anything else. Because chess is our thing, I am unable to play it with anyone else.
We will weekend together: pack food, bags, ourselves. We travel to my father’s retirement home, the home he built to retire to, away from the city, the home to which he will never retire, the home that will be his burial ground.
An hour and a half away from Nairobi, it is dry here. The house is usually locked and empty. Upon entering, we open curtains carefully, watching for the orange scorpions that hide in unexpected places. This is not a space I know how to enjoy, at least never during obligatory family visits during the holidays, when it feels as though we are exiled from Nairobi. There is no phone here. The internet does not yet exist. We are far from friends who speak English.
Yet, on weekends here with my father, this place becomes special. We talk. We play endless games of monopoly. We break rules. Make new ones. We bond.
These are our memories. Now, my memories.
Perhaps I was 7 or 8. My father bought a set of battery operated toy cars that ran on tracks. He helped to assemble the tracks. We played with them.
When I was in kindergarten—though I called it nursery school—and through Standard 2, my father would pick me up when school ended at lunch time. We would eat lunch together. And then we would nap.
This simple thing: my father napped after lunch. I napped as well.
I have learned how to nap these days, now that I’m back in the house he could not grow old in. I’m not sure it feels the same. I wouldn’t know if it did.
A devoted anglophile, my father hated the U.S. He feared, I think, that the U.S. would take something away from him. Maybe that it would take us away from him. England was more available, more manageable: church hymns, Handel’s Messiah, undemocracy. The U.S. was too big, too new, too. I don’t know. It’s difficult to read his mind.
He was right.
I left for the U.S. five years after his death.
Another predictable story about an African who travels to the U.S.
We are a tiresome genre.
Two things stay with me about that first trip, a whirlwind of landing at JFK, spending the night in a small apartment in New York City, driving to Hartford, Connecticut, stopping over in Amherst, Massachusetts, before finally arriving in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
JFK smelled bad. New York City smelled bad. It was summer New York City, and, trained by visual media that had no smell—television and film—I had not expected New York City to have a smell. Certainly not the smell of summer: hot, wet, sweaty, rotting. Even though I had traveled in Kenya, even though I could distinguish the smells of city and country, wet city and wet country, night city and night country, rich city and poor city, rain scented city and rain scented country, I had not anticipated that the U.S. might smell of anything more than television and movies, the liquid silk of celluloid.
Pittsburgh was sex. We drove through downtown Pittsburgh, Liberty Avenue, where the two extant sex shops blared “Sex.” Sex was on the streets. Sex was available to be thought with publicly, to be experienced in public. Liberty Avenue was home to Pegasus, a gay club with an under-21 night, a place what would be one of my homes. Over the next 5 years in Pittsburgh, I would wander down to Liberty Avenue late at night, look at the signs for sex, try to experience the shock of sex as something to be thought of, as an embodied way of being in the world.
Queer stories are always quest narratives. Over and over one is asked, “when did you first know?” Among the first gay men I spent time with, most of us in our late teens and early twenties, we’d always ask, “when’s the first time you had sex?” Sometimes, the former question had shades of, “when did you first know you were not normal?” Sometimes, it’s the bafflement of a heterosexuality that has always presumed it was the only thing that exists, “how can you not be heterosexual?” The curiosity is always invasive.
“When did you first know you were . . .?”
One becomes Kafka’s cockroach: which limb did you examine first? Did your movements feel strange to you? How did your feelings manifest themselves? Did you wake up with different hair? Did you get a sudden craving for Barbra Streisand? Or Diana Ross? Or Patty Lupone? Or—what’s the African equivalent?—Brenda Fassie? Did your erections take on a different aspect? How did your brain catch up with your body? Did desire jump out and shout, “surprise”?
Perhaps the last question.
Once one is past the breeze-erection period—the embarrassing adolescence when any tiny wind produces what must be called a “woody”—desire is often a surprise. One learns the difference between what is framed as attractive and what is experienced as desirable.
Should I have had a clue when, in high school, I turned away from the women termed desirable—light skinned plump girls who incarnated middle class femininity—and spent time with darker skinned slender women with stern miens and fierce minds? But a clue to what?
The forensics of desire are, inevitably, inconclusive.
After all, I relished watching Deep Throat, which I found buried under my elder brother’s mattress. I continue to return to Hans Billians’s brilliantly conceived explorations of group and public sex. My favorite orgasm—experienced at 13 or 14—was fueled by heterosexual pornography.
Psychoanalysis teaches me that all quest narratives are driven by a desire for something that can never be found. What we call desire must, inevitably, be frustrated. My encounters with psychoanalysis will make my hungers less frightening, if not more manageable. On and off, for about four years, I will immerse myself in Freud and Lacan, engage with thinkers immersed in their work: Jacqueline Rose, Leo Bersani, Joan Copjec, Tim Dean. I will learn to lose myself in their work—to plot life stories and body hungers along geometric shapes that I do not understand, to live outside my body, if only for a few hours.
Hunger pangs return at night. I will roam chatrooms, become excellent at cybersex; roam sex shops, become proficient in casual sex; roam sex clubs, become talented at having multiple sex partners; roam personals ads, become armored against the annihilating racism of a world that insists it was never invented for me.
At first, I sleep with older men because they want me. Or, to be more precise, they want to sleep with someone young. Early on, living in Pittsburgh, I learn that gay is white. Before I venture out of chatrooms, I learn to mask my race, to try to live out a fantasy that permits raceless cybersex. For some men, even the prospect of cybersex with a black body is too much. Later, as I venture out to meet men, waiting on cold winter street corners for cars that will never show up, I learn that the fantasy of planning to sleep with a black body is transgression enough. Still, the hunger pangs continue. And when I eventually start wandering into strange houses—never the same one twice—I learn that having a black body in a white space is transgression enough. White men will want to masturbate while I watch them. This is transgression enough.
From the seclusion of my majority white university, in a race-segregated Pittsburgh, I will not know how to desire black men, Asian men, Latino men, or Arab men. It will be many years before I learn to read bodies in the U.S.—how they speak desire, walk desire, dance desire, live desire. For too many of those years, my name will be Stephen. Or Ian. Or whatever will not produce the mangled pronunciations that kill my desire. Whatever will not return me to my past, my hungers, my father.
My father’s penis is small and grey and shriveled.
In 1988, he and my mother traveled to England for treatment. My sister and I were left alone, and an aunt checked in on us. Freed from parental control, we ate too much ice cream and watched too many movies. In retrospect, we were not wild enough. We didn’t have wild parties. I’m not sure we would have known how to. We were responsible. Even content.
Memory is always a battle of tenses: the past trying to make itself felt in the present, the present trying to insist on its nowness, the future of reading crowding out a present that is already past. I slip among tenses, fall down, stay down.
To write in the past tense is to occupy the scene of devastation, to wander among the ruins from which one might have constructed oneself. To marvel at the shoddy construction. To wonder how one is still possible given the random materials cobbled together to assemble a self.
When my father returned from England, he was smaller.
I was my father’s last child, the child of his prosperity. He was comfortably middle class, perhaps even wealthy, by the time I was old enough to want things: toys, books, attention. It showed. Pictures of him from the early 80s show a head swallowed by rolls of fat, a missing neck. His shirts strain to hold him in. By the mid-1980s, a regime of golf and farming had returned his neck, though he was still comfortably middle class, as his 40-inch waist proclaimed. He returned from England with a 28-inch waist.
I was the child of his prosperity. My waist was larger than his.
He continued to shrink. His doctor told my brother and me, “he will say hurtful things. He does not know what he is saying. Do not pay attention.” My brother, having learned to absent himself in that way elder brothers can, didn’t have to pay attention. I was there. I heard.
One does not stop listening to one’s idol because a doctor says so.
His voice became querulous. His stomach unable to process food. He lived on drugs and rehydrating fluids. He pissed drugs and rehydrating fluids.
I saw my father’s penis as I handed him a jug to piss in because he could not walk to the toilet. I saw my father’s penis as I helped him walk to the toilet to shit—he couldn’t shit, there was nothing to shit. I saw my father’s penis as he was dying. I saw my father’s dying penis.
A father’s dying penis must be handled carefully. Unlike those penises in castration fantasies, cut off from vibrant life, a dying penis announces its fragility. It is the disgusting object one wants to protect. The disgusting object that one can never not desire.
I hide behind one.
My father died when I was 14. By the time I was 24, I knew I preferred older men. At first, it was because they were available—I didn’t have to engage in the frustrating choreography demanded by my peers, that toxic blend of insecurity and arrogance that left so many of us damaged in spaces where we sought refuge, if not acceptance. Older men were more honest about their hungers.
Some were closeted. Some were lonely. Some wanted something younger. Some were experimental. Some were conservative. Some were conventionally attractive. Some were desirable. Some wanted sex. Some wanted me. Some wanted sex with me.
One man rode a motorcycle, smelled of hot leather and sex hunger, and wore red stockings under his chaps.
Others I met in dark rooms where the only thing that mattered was our hunger: we never had to meet again.
Two men linger.
One was a little shorter, perhaps 5’7”. His body was quiet intensity, his appetite fueled mine. We played and maybe even loved. Maybe. We met twice. I could not meet him after that. Pleasure with him offered a glimpse of a future I could not let myself imagine.
Loss truncates imagination.
Over the many years my father drove me to school, when my siblings had left home and I was the only passenger, we mapped out our future: where I’d go to school, what I’d specialize in, how we’d work together. Our dreams fused. The future belonged to us. It was impossible to imagine without him.
At 24, I finally wrote to him, about him, with him. I started trying to imagine a world without him.
At 24, I was hungry.
Extending Freud, Nicolas Abraham and Mária Török argue that death makes us horny. After a death, we want to fuck. A lot. Some people domesticate this idea by claiming fucking affirms life.
What does one call an accumulation of little deaths? A host? A multitude? A flock? A clutch? A pride? A pod?
Leo Bersani offered a more useful language: self-shattering. Sex was loss, dissolution, being undone, falling into pieces, forgetting. Not the mystical union promised by saccharine romances, where you dissolve into someone else in some grotesque parody of two becoming one. Nothing that safe. It was more frantic, more desperate, more difficult.
Each shattering produced a sliver of something I could use to build a post-mourning self. I needed many and more. Sometimes the pieces were difficult to find, even impossible. Sometimes the shattering didn’t happen fast enough or sharply enough. Sometimes there was a tear instead of a shattering.
How many pieces are enough to assemble a self one can inhabit?
At 24, I acquired what Samuel Delany calls a statistically significant number of sex experiences. I learned what I liked, how I liked it, when I liked it. I was surprised into pleasure. I took sex seriously. I accepted compliments from undersexed men. I don’t remember faces, names, living rooms, bedrooms, the geographies of sex lives. I remember some penises. The spongy texture of still-living flesh, the thrust of engorged flesh, the promise of pleasure-giving flesh.
Some penises stay with you.
Some penises you want to forget.
Over 20 years after my father dies, I return to Nairobi. I avoid his peers and friends. I avoid that inevitable moment:
“But you can’t be Bob!”
“Bob is dead!”
“You look like Bob!”
The pieces I have collected begin to shatter, become more fragile with each “Bob,” minor, earth-moving occurrences.
I haunt my mother’s house, my father’s ghost having taken on new flesh.
I no longer remember my father’s voice.
As you enter my mother’s house, past the red door, if you look to the upper-left hand corner, right before the three stairs that lead to the living room, a little bird hangs in a brass cage. That bird stole my father’s voice.
I imagine my father’s voice and hear that bird—an alarm installed so that he could beckon us. At first, us. And then, me. As he rejected the nurse my mother tried to provide. And my siblings ran away, because they could.
“Here,” my mother said, “this is how you turn on the oxygen tank.” Muscle memory: placing an oxygen mask over my father’s face, turning on the tank, fretting as it emptied, making frantic phone calls to have it replaced, calling ambulances in an era before cell phones, hoping-not-hoping that he would die. Turning on the oxygen. Hearing him gasp for oxygen. Understanding oxygen as something that could be gasped for.
Over and over, hearing that mechanical bird steal my father’s voice, my father’s mind, my father’s oxygen. Hating it. Still hating it.
Unable to ask my mother why she hangs on to it. The bird that stole my father.
How we learn to hold on to things.
Over the years of his sickness, my father, my father the doctor, a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology—how proud he was of this distinction, how little he managed to enjoy it—turned to anything that might work. Herbal remedies from suspect sources. Holy Water anointed by special priests. Anointed oil. His room became a collection of crucifixes and rosaries. Prayers filled our nominally secular house as never before. Hymns and more hymns sung in Kikuyu mode: lento tending toward shrill.
Light hurt his eyes. He could no longer climb onto the bed he had once shared with my mother. Their shared mattress was moved to the floor. My mother had a twin bed moved to the room. Her touch, I think, hurt his fragile, dying skin. How little he was touched by anyone in those dying years. Touched with love. Touched with care. Touched with intimacy. Different touches happened: clinical, but gentle. Necessary, but antiseptic. Bit of him flaked off in a bed that could no longer be shared.
Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to shut the curtains in my room, to spend glorious summer days huddled under too-warm blankets, wanting the world to go away. Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to distrust men in my bed. Perhaps it is from my mother that I learned to sleep in a twin bed, to refuse the tear that accompanies sharing and unsharing a bed.
At 24, 10 years after his death, I had not yet grown into my grief. I did not yet look like him. I was not yet the name that would remind and remember, the Bob-lookalike, the history that I now incarnate. At 24, I could haunt a new city of sex beaches and sex clubs, of hookups and STI clinics, of forgetting.
But then there was Bill.
Bill had all the eloquence the mechanical bird stole from my dying father. Perhaps he was in his 50s. Ravaged by AIDS-related complications. I recall his boots—black, thick-soled, orthopedic, because his feet were so badly damaged, he said. I never saw his feet. We met in Seattle. At first by chatting online, and then in person. He wanted touch—to be touched—to touch.
In a small café in Capital Hill, he told me about losing beauty. About the shock of moving from being one of the most desirable gym-built men in Seattle to inhabiting the AIDS-ravaged body from which everyone averted eyes. About what it meant not only to become undesirable, but unseeable. About finding the words to eulogize oneself, to hymn a dying self.
His voice was measured, gentle. His cheeks sunken. And while I could not give him what he wanted—the kind of touch he wanted—perhaps we gave each other a little of what we needed. I recovered a voice I needed to hear, a voice that expressed what it felt like to be dying. A voice that, in that moment, was louder than the mechanical bird in my mother’s house. Even then, I was selfish. I accepted the comfort he provided, not knowing how to extend comfort, turtling into libido-maddened grief.
A year after I left Seattle, I tried to write to Bill, to say something about the life I was now trying to build, a life I had begun to be able to envision. How awkwardly we write about such moments—how often I want to apologize for the ineloquence of grief.
He didn’t reply.
An online search told me he had died.
The gifts the dying provide.
There is no full-length mirror in the bathroom. What exists—put up by my sister for her daughter—slices me into pieces. My head is out of the frame, as is most of my torso.
I am a neck and a sawed-up torso, a botched guillotine job.