from “My Body Laid Bare”

Thankfully, the advent of my friends’ sexuality took me out of the lonely guilt I felt after being molested. The first year of middle school is the occasion for young studs to swagger onto the scene. Once past primary school, they become frustrated little stallions, keen to know their first successes, eager to flaunt the power they feel swelling between their legs. As they develop miniature male physiques, they train their changing voices to take on a virile resonance, grow peach fuzz above their lips, act out rivalries to establish their dominance, and brag about reaching puberty. Imitating the breaks taken by fully formed males, these budding seducers impose their will as they sweep through the school grounds. On the sidewalks around the school, they send the girls into ecstasies. Their arrogant young beauty intimidates the teachers of the opposite sex and puts off effete male teachers. They know the tricks for accentuating their charm—shirt unbuttoned to reveal a hairless but broadening chest, hands of a ruffian with chewed-down nails, feigned indifference to being an object of desire, total disregard for their academic subjects. Tolerably athletic, they choose at times to excel during physical education classes. In truth, they prefer to pass the hours smoking on the school steps, braving every threat of expulsion, and lording it over their peers as the indolent chiefs of imaginary gangs.

At weekend gatherings of friends, they unzip their pants and, with a falsely casual air, pull out their extra-large penises in full view of the entourage of runts surrounding them. From now on, no one will contest their supremacy. And while everyone else, duly impressed, culminates the group masturbation session with a dry spasm, the acknowledged alpha dog of the adolescent pack discharges a spurt of precious royal fluid. Hooray for youthful virility!

As for me, my voice remained as reedy as a young girl’s. For a long time, callers would respond to my voice on the telephone with a “Hello, Miss.” My body, still as scrawny as ever, bore not the slightest resemblance to the masculine attributes I envied around me. My face, though not unpleasing, was more akin to Florentine portraits of androgynous ephebes than to paintings of ancient heroes. Nothing seemed to equip me for the construction of a male identity. I had no solidity, and I floated between the two genders. Since I didn’t want to become a girl, the only way for me to exist in the masculine space was to attach myself to its most dazzling, uncontested figure.

Thus it was that N. quickly took on the aspect of a little god. He had the full admiration of the school’s female contingent, each one dreaming of an escapade with him, of being the happy recipient of even one of his kisses. In the mornings he would enter the school grounds with a splendidly laid-back demeanor that was all his own. Looking barely awake, he would sit passively through his courses in the back of the classroom, disappearing at midday into the nearby back alleys in the company of one or another sidekick. Intrigued, I would watch his little routine unfold until I lost track of him during his homeward journey in the late afternoon. His popularity rested in part on his mystique. I could hardly understand how he incited such passion. I found his physique rather ordinary. As for his mind, I came close to judging it vulgar.

To be totally honest, I had actually begun by despising him, until the day my best female friend became infatuated with this strange animal, to the point that it was no longer possible for me to keep my distance. We hesitantly became acquainted. My friend’s flirtation with N. soon ended, yet he and I remained close, having discovered each other’s sterling qualities. At the time I was numbered among the best students in the school, and he, among the most atrocious. I have to believe that our association suited both of us. For more than a year, we were inseparable. We took to wearing nearly identical clothes, arrived at school together, and spent our evenings and weekends at his home or mine.

During the course of our friendship, my parents divorced. Since my mother couldn’t stand N., I went more and more often to my father’s place. He granted me total freedom to see my friend. We often slept in the same bed. Before we fell asleep, N. would sometimes give me a backrub, asking me if I liked it. We would then masturbate, each on his own side of the bed. In the near-darkness, I could faintly discern his long shaft without really seeing it. His body was covered with a thin layer of fat that would become for me a model of virility.

Today it seems fairly obvious that I loved him, particularly in light of the wave of emotion that surges over me as I write these lines. At the time, however, what bound me to him was more obscure. I had not yet come to terms with my attraction to males. I admired N. for the incontestable manliness that clung to his skin. The assurance I needed to assume a masculine identity was absent. Completely lacking in self-confidence, I fashioned a second, more suitable body for myself by using him as a surrogate. The homosexual impulse during adolescence is often only a way station in the acquisition of a mature sexuality. What makes the sexual characteristics of other young men so fascinating is the sense that one has yet to come into possession of one’s own. I could pretend that my enthrallment with N. was solely an attempt to understand my own body, but is that not to theorize that the entire basis of homosexuality lies there?

When he asked me if I liked having him rub my back, he was more direct in asking the question than I was in my reply. In reality, I was trying to downplay my pleasure, trying to avoid recognizing the validity of my emotions. By clouding the issue, I was only bewildering myself. All the while, he seemed to be inviting me . . . His massage certainly contained disguised caresses, and his question was a timid proposition. Sexual desire had already begun to frighten me. When it arose, I held it in check. And I firmly believe that when we masturbated alongside each other, I had a longing to touch him and also to feel his lips meet mine. But pride—a force even more mysterious than desire—kept our hands from straying and stopped our words from betraying us.

The months at his side passed in a sort of frenzy, during which I never sought to delve honestly into my feelings. Our breakup, as so often in youthful relationships, was foolish and abrupt. A trivial disagreement on the bus became heated and led to an unexpected and definitive separation.

When I reflect on my time with N., a turmoil at once joyous and nostalgic plunges me back into the atmosphere of early adolescence, somewhat in the way that the scent of flowers evokes images of springtime. I loved the era as much as I loved him, and I feel oh so keenly how completely the enchantment of discovery that once existed has vanished behind me, and how vain, how vain, is all hope of retrieving it except by inhaling its fragrance. Truly—though at the time I failed to grasp what was happening—I was being swept along by a life-giving current. Today I know the power of what I experienced, and now my only recourse is to a poor substitute called memory.

Later, by chance, we saw each other again. By then I was considered to have become a man. I often went out at night to alternative music clubs, where I would throw back several vodka tonics to shake off my inhibitions. He was gyrating on a dance floor raked by strobe lights. Through the disembodied, staccato movements of the whirling crowd, I saw him repeatedly kissing a girl and a guy, one after the other. His T-shirt, damp with sweat, was clinging to his torso. His face seemed to float in the air like an undulating sound wave. And when he pressed his body against one of his two partners and shared a kiss the way you would a drink or a cigarette, there was in his manner such a spontaneous absorption of the other that I thought immediately of his natural casualness of bygone days. I suddenly realized what gave him his charm, and what had been for me, as a young adolescent, an incomprehensible force. To use the Anglo-Saxon term, it was “sex appeal,” the sheer sexual magnetism emanating from his body. Watching the calm fervor with which he kissed the guy, I told myself that he had probably loved me, too.

From Mon corps mis à nu. Original French text copyright 2013 by Les Impressions Nouvelles. All rights reserved for all countries. Translation © 2014 by Paul Curtis Daw.