[One year ago today in Chicago, IL…]
Me: “Hey, could I borrow your lighter?”
Me: “Thanks. I’m Thomas, by the way.”
Him: “I’m Ben.”
The Universe: [cracks knuckles]
And the rest, as they say, is a Tom Robbins novel.
[One year ago today in Chicago, IL…]
Me: “Hey, could I borrow your lighter?”
Me: “Thanks. I’m Thomas, by the way.”
Him: “I’m Ben.”
The Universe: [cracks knuckles]
And the rest, as they say, is a Tom Robbins novel.
Dear Holiday Inn Express Housekeeping Staff,
Look, I’m not going to hedge here. I stole the Do Not Disturb sign, and I apologize for that. But in my defense, it’s just laminate paper. I’m sure you have piles and piles of replacements. Besides, most Do Not Disturb signs simply say, “Do Not Disturb.” They’re not witty or droll at all. Yours, however, says, “Hang on! I’m Busy,” which conveys a lighthearted sense of flustered urgency, making it the ideal signal flag to wave at my customers when six of them try to check out at once.
With that awkwardness out of the way, and your generous forgiveness accepted, let me just say that our room was spotless and comfortable — you clearly take pride in your work, and it shows. The walls of the hotel itself are a little thin, though, and while I own that this is a only a minor design flaw and almost certainly not your fault, it does explain why you heard what you did. Should it please you, I’d like to offer some clarification on that incident, because I’d really prefer you not assume I’m not a horrible, horrible person over one innocuous, misheard exclamation.
Our IML brother Scotty had come to the Hill Country to officiate a wedding, so Ben (an upstanding and religious young man like myself) and I decided to drive down to see him. We chose your hotel as our accommodations, which? No regrets. We will both be recommending you to family and friends. Anyway, we were packing up after two days of assuredly not-ungodly activities, and I was telling him about the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” parody that’s all about boundaries and consent, and he mentioned how funny it would be to write our own version involving a BDSM relationship.
So when he softly crooned, “I really can’t stay…” I understandably responded by screaming, “ON YOUR FUCKING KNEES, PIG.” But what you couldn’t see was the mortification on Ben’s face as he jabbed his finger frantically in the direction of the hallway and mouthed, “Oh, my God, the housekeepers are out there,” which probably would’ve helped you view the matter in a much more relatable context.
It’s also quite important to maintain Ben’s innocence in this whole affair. As additional evidence, please find below a conversation we had earlier in the morning.
Me: “Would you like coffee?”
Me: “Great! I’ll make some.”
Ben: “Hey, Thomas?”
Ben: “Why is the shower running?”
Ben: [gently, as if to a toddler who wants to know why his goldfish is sleeping on its side] “Were you going to take a shower, but then got distracted by making coffee?”
Me: “… Yes.”
Ben: [carefully removing the k-pods from my hands] “I think I’ll make some coffee. Why don’t you go take a shower?”
See? Ben is a goddamned saint, whereas I was born with a tragic disorder that leaves me incapable of controlling my impulses or using an inside voice. But I do my best to get by. I’m kind of a saint too, when you think about it, especially when given the opportunity to let my guard down in a judgement-free environment such as your fine establishment.
Which reminds me! I picked up a couple of souvenirs when we visited the Museum of the Weird, including the following gimcrack:
It’s not much, but I’m going to have a few bottles sent over as an expression of gratitude, and also so that we can have our own little inside joke, because God only knows what you thought was going on in Room 516, am I right? Ha ha! Again, thank you for your prompt service and attention to detail. I’m not even going to mention the poop someone may or may not have completely unintentionally gotten on that one washcloth, because a) we both know you deal with way worse on a daily basis, and b) it’s not like I have a norovirus or anything — Ben and I just partook a bit too mightily of your fair city’s rich, fiberless cuisine, and there was a situation, and I handled it to the best of my ability.
Your discretion is greatly appreciated as well. I’ll get extra sanitizer in the mail to you ASAP.
Ben: “Guacamoldie Hawn.”
Me: “Is that your Sisters name?”
Ben: “It was the daily special at a pizzeria in Brooklyn. It accompanied the Death Becrumbs Her.”
Me: “Wow. It’s like my brain opened a restaurant. We should totally get to eat there for free because of that.”
Ben: “We should open something similar.”
Me: “I was thinking the same thing. Should it be kink-themed? Or just terribly gay?”
Ben: “Both. Not gonna lie, I have always wanted to run a café/bakery. And also a restaurant called Fried Stuff in a Sauce.”
Me: “I’ve always wanted to run a coffee shop called King’s Corner, named after the card game some friends and I used to play in college. We added a rule that you could say whatever you wanted to the other players without repercussion. We worked out a lot of resentments that way.”
Ben: “Yes! Can we? Let’s do that.”
Me: “You bet. there will be little game tables and nooks and what-not, and then a back room for the more… flavorful games of chance.”
Ben: “Ooh! Good idea. Coffee. Baked goods. Maybe some sandwiches?”
Me: “Yes. Noshy things. Definitely scones. and a St. Andrew’s Croissant. And Spencer Spanking Plancakes.”
Me: “I am so proud of the pancake name, I can’t even see straight.”
Ben: “I’ll make a cheese, bacon and tomato sandwich and call it the CBT. Or a bacon, egg, lettuce and tomato.”
Me: “Daddy’s BeLT?”
Me: “We are frighteningly good at this.”
Ben: “Well, duh.”
Me: “And for Sunday brunch, Lonely Top Mimosas… because they’re bottomless.”
Ben: “Sold. And Beat Me Bloody Marys.”
Me: “10/10 Fuck yes. And melted white cheese with black beans and red bell peppers over blue corn tortillas. Leather Pride Flameado.”
Ben: “Nacho Pride Flag.”
Ben: “I want to figure out the perfect aftercare cake slice…”
Me: “Oh, shit. I’m about to drop the mic. Brace yourself.”
Me: “Whenever somebody orders a specialty coffee drink, we’ll ask them if they’d like it plain, or Drew Kramer.”
Ben: “What’s Drew Kramer?”
Me: “Topped with whip.”
Ben: “DONE. OVER AND OUT. WRAP IT UP AND MOVE IT ALONG. NO MORE TO SEE HERE.”
And then I was like, “I honestly don’t know if I’m shivering over this menu, or because I forgot to eat lunch,” and Ben was like, “Uh, go eat, dude,” which was quick thinking on his part. I mean, you can’t win James Beard and/or Pantheon of Leather Awards on an empty stomach. That’s just basic gastronomy.
The IML weekend festivities climax (so to speak) with the Black and Blue Ball, which takes place on the evening of Memorial Day. Everything I’d heard about this particular to-do made it sound like a bacchanalia of mythic proportions, and I’d been looking forward to it for well over a year, especially since IML contestants receive free tickets. I mean, debaucherous and patriotic and budget-friendly? Bring on the dancing boys! Literally!
I woke up that Monday at a decent hour, ate a hearty breakfast, bummed around the hotel, cruised through the Leather Market, and generally took it easy, wanting to conserve energy for the big night ahead of me. Later in the afternoon, one of my IML brothers sent out a message announcing a show tune sing-along at a video bar in Boystown, which sounded like a lot of fun on paper, although something in the back of my brain started twinging at the thought of it. Regardless, I hopped in an Uber with a group of friends and headed to the venue.
Once there, I understood that I’d made a calculated error. Running around Chicago in combat boots for four days had taken a toll on my sciatica, and I had some trouble navigating the stairs up to the rooftop lounge where all of the IML people had gathered. Additionally, the place was crowded as all get-out, and the dense horde of raucous strangers was murder on my panic disorder. Being determined, I socialized to the best of my ability, then hobbled back to the first floor and found an out-of-the-way corner booth in which to try to relax and stretch out my lower back, but I finally had to admit defeat. Everyone else was planning on going straight to Black and Blue, so I let a couple of the guys know that I’d be there in an hour or so and caught a cab back to the hotel. I crawled up the stairs to my floor, let myself into my room, collapsed on the bed, and, as anxious waves started crashing against the eroded shore of my psyche, realized I was not going the fuck anywhere.
Are you familiar with Spoon Theory? If not, it’s basically a method of quantifying physical and psychological resources. Any given task to be completed requires the sacrifice of a metaphorical spoon: Most people have drawers and dishwashers full of spoons, but those of us who deal with chronic illness and/or “neurodiversity” (as the kids call it these days) are limited in the number of spoons we’re allotted. I was running low on spoons by the time I got to the sing-along, cashed in way too many of them trying to act normal while I was there, then used up my last two returning to the hotel and making it all the way to my room. As badly as I wanted to go to the Black and Blue Ball, I was just… spoonless.
I messaged the guys to let them know I wasn’t going to attend, and they were all completely sympathetic, which honestly made me feel worse. Logically, I knew that they were glad I was taking care of myself and doing what I needed to do to preserve my well-being, but in my head this translated to admitting, “I’m a differently-sane wussy,” and my brothers averring, “Yes. Yes, in fact you are.” And yeah, that’s a skewed perspective on the situation, but it’s hard to see things realistically when the goop in my skull that exists specifically to help me discern truth from fiction starts fibbing.
I lay on my bed and watched Cartoon Network until the anxiety died down and the sense of failure faded (so, y’know, time passed), and as I slowly began to feel human again, an even more differently-sane idea coalesced. I grabbed a Sharpie and some paper and started doodling, and the next day, with a design firmly set, I wandered around until I found a tattoo parlor.
An hour and a half later, I walked out with three alchemical symbols etched on the inside of my forearm.
The first is the symbol for blood, to represent family — specifically chosen family, like my 70 new brothers, who were nothing but supportive during my lapse in invulnerability, even if I wasn’t able to process it at the time. The second symbol is a crescent moon, to remind me that I have spiritual resources to fall back on during moments of anxiety or depression. (The Moon is also associated with the number 9, which was my number during the competition.) And the third, a continuous line of zig-zags and curly-ques, is the symbol for half an ounce; in other words, a tablespoon.
From here on out, no matter what stunts my broken brain tries to pull, I will always have one spoon left.
Alchemy, whether material or metaphysical, is all about change for the better. Having a few archaic squiggles inked into my skin is not by any means the solution to my mental health issues, but it is an outward sign that I’m going to keep working until I’m better, too. And it’s a handy note-to-self that no matter what my mind is trying to make me believe, the truth is that I’m a lot more okay than I think I am.
So here it is, in all its overthought glory: Oddly placed, hard to explain, imperfect, and still healing. Just like me.
And that’s exactly how we’re supposed to be.
In Chicago, 71 gay men — flung mercilessly into the spotlight and pitted against one another in the High Cow Hunger Games — locked arms, banded together, and declared themselves brothers.
Meanwhile, in Houston, two of my straight co-workers just got into a knock-down, drag-out screaming match over a salad.
This whole “Return to the Real World” is a lot more grating than I thought it would be. Fortunately, I’m the only one in the office with keys to the restrooms, so everyone else can either simmer the hell down or invest in Depends. I’ll leave it for them to decide.
I’m not going to tell you about getting spanked with a Bible (King James Version). I’m not going to tell you about the extemporaneous Dreamgirls performance in the dressing room, or getting all choked up onstage when the guy to my left leaned over and whispered, “You know we’re in the end of the Tom of Finland movie right now, right?” And I’m not going to tell you why I gave that guy the nickname Olympia.
I’m not going to tell you why anyone yelling, “GET IN THE FUCKING UBER” will forever cause me to crack helplessly the fuck up. I’m not going to tell you about the Incident in the Stairwell, or the late-night recovery meeting that went gloriously south, or randomly bumping into the model from my favorite animated GIF**. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a text conversation I just had with my IML brother Travis.
Travis: “How are you?”
Me: “I am hanging in there. Heading back to the day job this morning, with event-drop kicking in. Hopefully I won’t have too big of a meltdown in front of the vanilla co-workers.”
Travis: “You’ll be fine. And if you do have a meltdown, just tell them your dog passed away. His name was Billingsworth, and you had him for 12 years. He was a poodle.”
Me: “Billingsworth once pulled me out of a lake to save me from drowning and jumped on my chest until I started breathing again. I miss him.”
Travis: “But he humped all the houseplants.”
Me: “Hey, everyone deserves love. #NoLabels.”
I’m sharing this particular interchange, because even after the fact, it sums up my IML experience perfectly. I was terrified of Travis when I met him, just like I was terrified of Ben, and Brian, and Magnus, and Mark, and Scott, and Scotty, and Taliesin, and all of the other beautiful men with twisted senses of humor who just… got me, and who became my closest friends and emotional support during the competition.
Maybe I’ll get around to telling those other stories once I’ve readjusted and settled back into normalcy (except for the stairwell thing; that shit is under lock and key). For now, though, I will tell you that I placed 25th out of 71 contestants, and I am ecstatic — not because of the score itself, but because I was a part of the IML Class of 2018; because even if I’d come in 72nd, I would’ve done so as myself.
I (literally) bared it all in Chicago, and the people around me cheered — not because I was the most handsome or the best built or the smartest or the wittiest, but because I was me.
And I am so fucking proud of me for that.
*Photo and explanation of the tattoo to be posted as soon as it finishes healing. It’s currently in the gory, scabby phase but will be ready for its closeup in a couple of days or so.
**See? He’s not CGI after all. And probably not a hologram.
Mike: “I’m tempted to review each of the IML contestants the way I reviewed all of this year’s Eurovision songs.”
Me: “I support and encourage you in this endeavor. But when you get to me, please know that I tried to adjust the midtones of my picture before I submitted it, and now it has a weird tinge. Everyone is going to know me as that guy with the deathly pallor who is probably dying of consumption.”
Mike: “When you’re on the runway, you should cough and spit blood once you reach the judge’s table.”
Me: “Couldn’t hurt. I’ve done a terrible job of bonding with the other contestants. I barely know any of their first names.”
Mike: “You are not going to win Miss Congeniality that way, Marjorie. And huh, one of these guys flags white velvet. I had no idea that was even a hanky color.”
Me: “It stands for voyeurism. Who’s flagging it? Is he cute? Did he say anything about me? How’s my hair?”
Mike: “You are the worst stalker ever. Did you not even read the other bios? We are so going to have a lesson in gauging the competition.”
Me: “I’m really more into impromptu stalking. But I can’t remember which color that is.”
Mike: “Plaid cordouroy.”
Me: “Love it. I wish I’d made up a bunch of nonsensical flagging attributes before I submitted my blurb. ‘Thomas is a vertical median who flags Post-Its in the front left pocket and elastic around the waist.'”
Mike: “‘When he’s feeling particularly transgressive, he wears a Little Mermaid pillowcase ripped in half as a durag.’ Wait… a holstein hanky means milking? What is miking? Are we talking dick, or turning man teats into cream dispensers?”
Me: “I’m pretty sure we’re talking prostate massage.”
Mike: “Ah. I can see that. Seriously, though, do people really walk around Ripcord with doilies or gold lamé hankies?”
Me: “People usually stick to the primary colors. Although now I want to flag doily, and if anyone hits on me, I’m going to be like, “It means my grandmother just died, asshole.”
Mike: “We should write a skit for IML about hanky code misidentification. ‘Psst. Chad. That guy over there is cruising me. What does avocado green carpet on the left mean?’ ‘Oh, um. I think it means he wants to rim you while you eat a bowl of Booberry and watch Scooby-Doo reruns.'”
Me: “Awesome. He’s flagging my childhood. That is in no way unsettling.”
Mike: “EXACTLY. ‘Say, I can’t help but notice you have a Star Wars bed sheet pocket square on your left. I think I’m the droid you’re looking for.'”
Me: “This is all going on the blog.”
Coincidentally enough, the Misfits do need a new skit concept for next year’s LUEY Weekend. and wacky Hanky Code mishaps would make for an epic farce — like a cross between The Big Gay Sketch Show and Three’s Company. I will get cracking on the script as soon as I have the best obscure colors picked out, and after I decide who among my brothers is most deserving of the nickname Chrissy.
My Dad: “When do you leave for Chicago?”
Me: “I fly out on the 23rd.”
My Mom: “Please be careful while you’re there. Chicago is a very dangerous city.”
Me: “I will, I promise. But I’m going to be so busy with the contest that I won’t have much time to even leave the hotel.”
My Mom: “Please be careful at the hotel. And wedge a chair under the doorknob of your room.”
Me: “Um, okay…”
My Dad: “No, really. A friend of mine stayed at a hotel in Chicago once, and he put his wallet on the nightstand before he went to sleep, and when he woke up, it was gone. Someone came into his room and robbed him while he slept.”
Me: “Jesus. If it’s that bad there, I’m just going to push a dresser in front of the door every night before I go to bed.”
My Mom: “Well, I mean there’s no need to overreact.”
My Mom: “But you’re probably going to get mugged.”
And yet they wonder why I’m on medication for anxiety.
[A conversation between myself and Rusty, my terribly attractive nutritionist/personal trainer.]
Rusty: “I googled that contest you’re going to.”
Me: “Oh, you did?”
Me: “So… what do you think?”
Rusty: “It’s a beauty pageant.”
Me: “… Yes. Yes, it is.”
Rusty: [leaning in close for emphasis] “We’ve. Got. This.”
To sum up, a beautiful man thinks I’m going to do well at IML, which is a win by itself as far as I’m concerned. So now I’m just trying to figure out how to incorporate this into my application — maybe I’ll attach a picture of him all pumped up and sweaty and caption it something like, “This dude says I’m the prettiest.”
I’ve mentioned IML several times over the past few months, but for the uninitiated, International Mr. Leather is an annual competition that takes place in Chicago during Memorial Day weekend. There are around 60 contestants every year, and at IML 40, I will be one of them.
I qualified for the contest about a year and a half ago (when I won the title of Mr. Firedancer Dallas, which is worth a story of its own one of these days), and at the time, I was like, “Nifty! I’ma go to IML at some unspecified point in the distant future. That’ll be a hoot.” However, now that the event is 10 weeks away, I’m like, “OMG OMG WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?!” But hey, at least I don’t suffer from any kind of acute mental illness to make the situation even more terrifying, amirite?
[insert visual flashback effect and whimsical chimes here]
Psychiatrist: “So, what brings you in today?”
Me: “I just get a little anxious sometimes.”
Psychiatrist: “Okay, let’s talk about that.”
[flash forward 15 minutes]
Me: “…anyway, it turned out I was hyperventilating, not actually dying. Oh, and I’m afraid of elevators. And my cell phone. And the unstoppable impulsion of time.”
Psychiatrist: “Uh… yeah, your ‘anxiety’ is actually a full-blown panic disorder. But on the bright side, we caught it before agoraphobia kicked in and crippled you.”
[more chimes, aaaand we’re back to the present]
Right. Mental illness. Check.
My Misfit brothers, sensing the mounting tension, are doing their best to contain my inevitable histrionics. “It’ll be fine,” they keep telling me. “Just relax and be yourself.” And I’m like, “I can only do one or the other, so which is it?!” And since I’m aces at stress-related multi-tasking, I’m also freaking out over how I’m going to afford this trip in the first place.
The title I hold does not come with travel reserves, so I’m currently working on raising enough money to cover expenses. And this is where you, my loyal Marjorettes, come in: If you’re able and willing to help, you can donate directly to my travel fund through PayPal, or you can chip in through Ko-fi. Unfortunately, donations won’t be going towards purchase of the IML title itself, but they will be of huge assistance when it comes to flights and not living out of a cardboard box next to the host hotel.
And even if you can’t donate money, emotional support is just as appreciated and infinitely more valuable. So thank you guys in advance for that — I’ll bring you back as many souvenirs as I can fit in my carry-on.