Nearly all of us have clothes that make us feel attractive, even sexy, a motorcycle jacket, say, or a satin slip and lace garter belt. For some it’s nylon running shorts, for others a well-tailored suit. However, fetishists aside, it is the rare item of clothing with the power to physically arouse us through the mere act of putting it on.
There were two points in my life where I had such rare clothes. The first was a pair of pants that I asked my mother to buy me when I was 10 years old.
I’ve long forgotten what they were called, if I ever knew. Now we’d call them two-tone tonic, I suppose. For me back then, they were just iridescent. My uncle Leonard had taught me the word one day when we were looking at a beetle. Iridescence, he said. The colors of beetles and peacocks, and the rainbow in a puddle of gasoline. And Jesús’s pants, as I now discovered.
Jesús was my friend Ricky’s older brother. I’d sometimes see him hanging out, smoking with his friends on the stoops of the tenement houses on Willow Avenue or walking down the street in his tight shiny pants. Ricky told me his brother had been in some kind of trouble, but didn’t say what.
I thought it was kind of daring of his parents to name their son after our Lord and Savior, but Ricky said it wasn’t so unusual in his family. Anyway, he didn’t look any Jesus I had seen in paintings in church or in the books we had at school. Ricky’s brother had wavy black hair that he slicked back with gel, and skin the color of creamy coffee. And he danced.
He danced on the stoop with the music sounding from a portable player and sometimes he danced in the apartment when I was over. Ricky’s mother would have the radio on, and suddenly Jesús would start dancing, across the apartment and into the kitchen she was cooking or ironing. And he’d take her into his arms and dance her back out into the living room. I’d sit there watching him as his body twirled and shook, like a flame flickering in the wind. A flame the color of a peacock’s tail or the shiny green-blue of an oyster shell.
I had no such pants, of course. My mother dressed me as most mothers, including Ricky’s, dressed their sons at the time. I wore nothing extravagant or studied, nothing to embarrass me or her. She seemed to like plaids, judging from the photos I have of me as a boy, and she had more of a sense of playfulness in matters of fashion than I would ever have as a man. She bought me Hawaiian shirts and rope ties and seersucker shorts, clothes that were fun to wear and spoke of the pleasure of living that she still had.
Though my mother bought me new clothes in September before the start of the school year, as my aunts did for my cousins who went to public school, mine were always the same: grey trousers and white shirts and, when I’d grown out of the last one, a hunter-green corduroy blazer with my Catholic school’s insignia on the pocket. My mother made up for the monotony of September each Easter, when she’d take me and my brother shopping for clothes that we could wear outside of school.
The store she took us to was the same each year, a bargain clothing store on a highway leading out of the city. It was probably the same place Ricky’s family shopped at, though I couldn’t know that at the time.
I noticed the pants on the carousel rack next to the one my mother was browsing through. The pants were folded on hangars, one after the other, an arc of color shimmering in the light that flooded through the store’s plate-glass windows. It was as if the fabric hadn’t been dyed but instead woven with the tiniest beads of rubies and emeralds and sapphires. I thought of the boys walking down Willow Avenue in these same pants, but mostly I thought of Jesús.
I picked out a pair and held it in my hands. It felt light, and smooth like the silk scarves my aunt Gloria wore. As I folded them over my hands the pants seemed to change color, sliding from maroon into black and than back into a deep dark red, the color of the wine my grandfather made at his country house.
But this was a color Jesús could wear, not me. I put it back and found a pair in a silvery grey, with a shine like diamonds.
I was still holding the pants when my mother came up to me. I wanted them more than anything else I could remember wanting. But I didn’t know how to ask for them.
The things I asked for had always been ordinary and modest. Venus Paradise coloring sets, a model bird, change for bubble-gum baseball cards. Comic books, too, with superheroes like the Fantastic Four and Metal Men. I never asked for anything that my parents wouldn’t have thought of buying for me themselves.
This was different, though. If I asked, would she think I was becoming a boy who’d hang out in the park and smoke and get into fights? I sensed that if I asked, I’d be crossing a line, west down to Willow Avenue and the building from whose windows I could hear the salsa that Jesús danced to.
“Can I try these on?” I asked and almost wished I hadn’t said it. But if there was a line, I already was over it.
She took the pants away from me and I waited for her to say no.
Instead she fished out the label and price tag and said, “These will be too big.” She flipped through the racks and found the same pants in my size and handed them over to me. “You can try them on over there.”
Alone in the dressing room, I slipped one leg and then the other into the pants and pulled them up to my hips. I felt a small shiver as the cool fabric brushed against my legs. The pants were tight and they hugged my groin like a glove. I looked in the mirror to see a boy that suddenly looked older and different. I didn’t look like Jesús, of course, but I didn’t look like the boy I was used to seeing, either.
But I liked who I saw. I moved my hips back and forth, just a little but like the way Jesús swayed when he danced. And then the pants began to feel tighter, and an unusual sensation of warmth gathered in my groin, like the heat on my face when I sat next to the campfire. But this was a different kind of heat, one that made me want to get closer to the fire rather than retreat from it.
They were magic pants. I felt all warm and tall and strong.
But the magic didn’t return when I wore it to Mass the following week, nor at Easter dinner at my grandfather’s. It became just a pair of trousers, if somewhat flashy and out of place. Sometimes, though, when my mother was in the back yard or out shopping and I was alone in the house, I’d put on the pants. Then the feeling of warmth would return as I yanked them up and zippered myself in and stood looking at myself in the mirror. I rocked my hips more fully this time, the way Jesús did when he danced that afternoon at Ricky’s.
But eventually even that couldn’t bring back the warmth. I grew out of the pants anyway and didn’t ask for another pair. I forgot about them and then, when we moved a few years later out of the city, I forgot about Jesús, too.
For a very long time, no clothes would ever make me feel that way again. Mostly I dressed to feel comfortable, and I was most comfortable when I wasn’t being pinched or squeezed by fabric, bands and belts. With the exception of a few years when I lifted weights, I never had the body for form-fitting clothes. The tighter the clothes, the scrawnier I felt I looked. I may have embraced my sexuality when I came out in the summer after high school, but it didn’t change the image I had of my body.
Clothes could make me feel attractive at times, but this realization always came to me as a surprise. I dressed in unassuming nice-guy clothes, like the unassuming nice guy I was, in things like oxford-cloth shirts, chinos, and Shetland sweaters. I shopped for clothes the way my mother bought my school uniform, replacing the button-down that had started to fray with an identical one, the shoes and their worn-out heels with the same Cole-Haan bucks I’d been buying for a decade.
They were safe investments with a minimum return in attractiveness. I was never in fashion, but that meant that I was never out of fashion either. I didn’t have clothes that screamed “that was so last year” and that had to be retired from my closet. My clothes were the German bonds of fashion.
They were me.
Matthew tried to get me to dress more adventurously. He’d buy me retro bowling shirts and brash t-shirts, and once even a canary-yellow polo shirt, a color I hadn’t worn since my mother bought my clothes. It was his way of telling me he thought I was getting stuck.
I didn’t know what he thought I was stuck in exactly, but I made an effort to like his gifts. I would wear them on a few occasions, but then consign them to the back of the closet, where they would remain until the time came every other year when we rounded up our unwearables to give to the cleaning woman. I guess it was my way of saying that I didn’t think I needed to change. I was wrong.
Matthew and I eventually drifted apart and we stopped buying clothes for each other. Somehow—I’m still not exactly sure how—I wandered into the gay skinhead scene. Maybe it was a need to shuck the casing of a relationship and a lifestyle we cultivated that was once life-affirming but had since grown lifeless and constricting for both of us. Maybe I just wanted to feel like a bad boy again.
In any event, the bleached jeans, bomber jacket and Doc Marten boots were the closest I came to experiencing the arousal I had felt that afternoon when I tried on those tight, iridescent pants. The bleachers and boots, too, were a costume that coaxed forth desire and transformed me, if only for the span of a night, much as the Spandex costumes in the comics I read as a boy filled out the superhero and readied him for his adventures.
This time, however, I had places to wear the pants and like-minded men to hang out with when wearing it. It wasn’t a gang, like the ones I thought–falsely as I later realized–that Jesús roamed the city in, but there was a sense of bad-boy brotherhood to the scene nonetheless. The rudeness was apolitical, a function of fashion and sexual practices. The guys I met were decent men, who were appropriating an admittedly controversial and aggressive subculture for the purpose of sexual play alone, and the clothes were a mark of tribal recognition. And then the magic disappeared.
Two pairs of pants, one bleached, the other shiny, worn decades apart, both the borrowed clothes of another persona, the boy on the edge I wanted to be but knew I would never become. It didn’t matter. They were, in the end, just a way to explore something new, on my own and for myself.
The photograph of Lou Gaillot by Rumi Matsuzawa doesn’t look a lot like Jesus, but the hair’s right and there’s enough of the cool of Ricky’s older brother that it seems to belong here.