Nina Leen, Teenage Boys at a Movie Theater, Des Moines, 1945
Sexuality and Identity

Scenes of Desire

Wacław is gone but his porn is still here. That and a pair of Bundeswehr-issue underwear he forgot to take with him are the only physical traces he left behind. You’d think there’d be at least a photograph of two of us together, but in the five years we saw each other we never had our picture taken. He had no friends except for his ex-lover, and he was reluctant to meet mine. Who would have taken our picture?

The DVDs were gifts in honor of my name-day or at times just as a way of saying thanks for a favour I did for him. It was the only kind of present he could afford. He worked in construction, but the job was irregular and badly underpaid, and he seemed always to be short of money.  I haven’t seen him in a year or so but I still watch his video mixes now and then, an occasion less to get off than to remember him.

I suppose it’s a fitting gift in a way. Most of the time we spent together was in bed. We never went out in the way most people think of going out—for a meal or to the movies or to a concert. He couldn’t easily afford to do so and he wouldn’t let me treat him. Instead, we sometimes took long walks in the city which would end with a beer bought from a convenience store and drunk on a bench. A couple of Saturday mornings he took me to the flea markets where he bought the cheap contraband cigarettes he smoked and looked for second-half clothes. But mostly we hung out at my place, talked and had sex.

When he first starting coming over, he’d bring a couple of bottles of beer but I soon realized that this was an expense that entailed sacrifice. I thanked him and then lied and said I always had beer in the house anyway and he needn’t bring any. So instead of beer or the kind of presents that come with a gift receipt, he made me porn DVDs.

Wacław’s gift of porn wasn’t just copies of DVDs. Instead, he carefully selected and edited scenes from films he rented from a discount sex shop near the Central Market. His mix embodied a pride in craftsmanship and the affection he had for me. He knew what turned me on, and he knew me well enough to also have an idea of what might turn me on. He curated these scenes for an exhibition that was intended for one and only one viewer: me.

The segments were labelled in Polish, a carryover no doubt from the entries he made on his recorder to index the scenes. I suppose I could have deciphered the titles by noting the frequency with which a particular label would be paired with a specific act or theme, or just Googled the words, but I didn’t. They have remained the encrypted marginalia left by my very own scribe.

His DVD recorder was the prized object among a very small menagerie of possessions and one he had been saving for months to acquire. He was a minimalist by necessity, having neither the means nor the space to buy much of anything. He was that mythic figure, a man of a hundred things. He lived in a tiny basement flat. A hall at the bottom of a short flight of stairs served as the living room, barely big enough for a small two-seat sofa. There was no room on the floor for his second-hand speakers, so he had mounted these on the wall. His bedroom fit a bed and an armoire he had rescued from a building awaiting demolition. But though small he had made the flat his and he was thankful for it (he had spent his first months in the city squatting with a half-dozen other immigrants in an abandoned sweatshop). He had painted the bedroom walls and ceiling in swirls of blacklight paint and lined the front of the armoire with mirrors. There were a row of hardy plants on the steps of the stairs, and a collection of curios he had picked up over the years at the flea markets that included a lava lamp and a minaret-shaped bird-cage. He was fond of them all, but it was the recorder he was most proud of.

I thought the DVDs made an extraordinary gift, quite apart from the effort and care he devoted to producing the mixes. Other men I have known, and I, too, more times than I want to admit, can be greedy homesteaders in matters of love. We stake claims on our lovers’ loyalty even in their most private moments. We expect them to be present even when we are apart. But Wacław’s gift was a cameo of strangers’ faces that said, “I don’t expect to be in your fantasies. If I am, that’s good. But I don’t need to be.” It was a token of friendship that filled my bedroom, if only figuratively, with the bodies of other men.

But of course the porn reminded me of him. It still does, and not only because the aesthetics and content of the material he included in the mix revealed his authorship so clearly. Of the men I know, only Wacław could have edited this collection. But his porn mixes were not only a commemoration of what we already shared; they were also an intimation of what we might explore together, places we half-planned on visiting together or gear we thought about using. It didn’t matter that we both knew that we’d never go to Berlin together.

But Wacław’s gifts reminded me of him mostly because what I watch is never half as good as what I remember from our time together. They are very good mixes, and the scenes are ones that I’d have selected myself. They’re well-shot, the settings are erotically charged, and the guys are sexy and beautiful, each in his own way.  A few vaguely evoke our time together in the way that a stranger’s face seems to point to an old acquaintance or a snippet of melody will sometimes suggest a song, though neither strongly enough to yield a name or title. But no scene is shot the way we would have done it. I wonder if he knew that all along.

Most people wouldn’t call what Wacław and I had a relationship, but I’ve long ceased thinking there is any single way to define one anyway. Neither of us would have chosen the other for a friend, and in fact we never did become friends in the usual sense of the word. The only times we called each other was to arrange to meet.

We were like musicians who get together for a session to make music and then go their separate ways. Our serial encounters were each an intense but highly bracketed experience that stood out from the rest of our days, a self-contained hiatus that contained within it the possibility but never the assurance that we would revisit this space, if in altered form. There were always loose ends and unresolved themes with Wacław. Maybe that was part of what made it good.

But even though sex was what drew us together and kept us connected, it wasn’t just sex. As if it could be.

When sex is good, it’s because it encapsulates much of what is part of a relationship anyway: communication, bonding, presence, trust. How can you have good sex without letting your partner know what feels good, what you’d like more of, where you want him to take you? Or without wanting to give pleasure. And if this is so, how can you do this without being attentive? How do you have good sex without opening up yourself to be led and to lead in ways you might not have done before? And how can you do this without trust?

Our sex was too good to be just sex.

I am sure that Wacław and I are no exception to Rule 34. Somewhere out there is a porn film that closely limns our encounters. But I am sure if I saw it, it would only make me miss him more.


Image: Nina Leen, Des Moines movie theater, 1945


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