The Haunted House
Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
—The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
You’d be a most excellent playground. A man posted this comment on a picture of me on a social media site designed for gay gainers and encouragers. The picture: My belly is bloated, a swollen mound under the grey t-shirt I’m wearing. I’m leaning back in the desk chair in my studio at a writing residency. Sunlight filled the room, which provided a lot of flattering natural light. My gut is so packed tight with food that my shirt no longer covers my entire belly. Even sitting down, my shirt rides up, exposing a patch of my belly skin. I felt round and fat. I felt sexy. So I took a picture.
In some ways, this feels silly, almost Victorian—-to feel sexy, daring, in a picture where nothing is showing except a strip of my belly. The real enticement, the top ridge of my belly hidden beneath my clothes. I can, at times, feel attractive like I did that day, but I don’t walk around my daily life feeling attractive. Maybe this is because in most of my daily, offline life, I am around non-gainers. A site, like the one where I posted that picture is a bubble where I know there will be other men who find me attractive. Sexy. Desirable. All the things I don’t feel in the rest of the world. All the things I haven’t felt when going into gay bars or when going on dates with men outside the gaining community. I do worry about being objectified. This is why some days I feel uncomfortable about posting pictures like that. For some men, I am only a belly. A sack of fat to masturbate to.
This is why the playground comment struck me the wrong way when I first read it. I felt dehumanized. It was not the only comment he left. He left comments on other pictures. On one where it shows the progression of my belly growth, he said that thinking about me gaining made him hard. He lives in Los Angeles. Thousands of miles from where I live. There is little chance that he will every be able to use me as his playground. He can say this and not have to worry about the follow through. It is as my first therapist would say, “Safe.”
I’ve never had any contact with this man. This is essentially the first thing he has said to me. An introduction. Part of me is flattered. The other part of me is uncomfortable. He knows nothing about me beyond what he sees in these pictures. He was just being flirty. I don’t know if feeling awkward or wanting him to have an interest in me beyond my body is even a correct reaction.
Does it make me uptight?
I came out in 2009, and I have worried ever since that I simply do not know how to be gay in the “right” way. The “right” way being a ever moving, impossible thing to define. I know to even think such a thing is a fallacy. There is no “right” way to be anything. However, when men have walked out of dates after finding out I had been married to a woman before coming out or when guys say they had a good time on our date to never call again or when I’m feeling alone and lonely, it is difficult not to feel that I am somehow not doing something right. All those years spent in the closet, afraid, meant that I didn’t have time as a teenager, in my twenties to practice dating, having sex, forming relationships, learning how to move on when my heart is broken. So when I was in my thirties, and now in my forties, other men my age have done this, and they expect me to have done this and I have not. To come out of the closet late has, for me, felt like a perpetual game of catch-up. I’ve seen other men who came out late, some later than I did, seem to have no trouble with fitting right in. Perhaps, I will always feel behind. Perhaps, I will always feel haunted by coming out late.
Confession: I have wanted to write an essay about sex. The difference between “regular” sex and “gainer” sex. The differences in how I felt after both kinds. I can see the light under the door, but there is a shadow splayed across the floor that makes me scared to open to it. I know I must face my fear. Face what is lurking in that room. I have difficulty talking about sex. It brings out all my inadequacies.
I’ve had one serious relationship with a man. Rex was not in the gainer scene. I met him after I lost one hundred pounds, going from three hundred and fifteen pounds to two hundred and fifteen pounds. I was at point where I thought if I lost weight that I would have a better chance of meeting someone. I wanted a relationship. I wanted to be in love. I didn’t think those things were possible if I were a gainer. I didn’t tell Rex about gaining. I saw no reason to because I had planned on leaving it behind for good.
Then I lost ten more pounds and those ten more pounds seemed to make a difference. I didn’t feel right in my body. It felt like there was a hollow inside me where the gainer part of me hid wrapped in cobwebs. The fat body I wanted haunted me every time we had sex. I became too uncomfortable, so I’d tell him to stop. I didn’t want to have sex. When he asked me what was going on, I didn’t tell him. I didn’t know how to tell him how I missed my fat body. I didn’t know how to tell him that without being fat, without being able to engage in gaining, I felt unable to fully connect with my body.
He must have felt it too.
It rained. Fat, juicy drops of water ran down the sliding glass door in the kitchen. It didn’t let up all day. When Rex and I went to bed nothing seemed out of the ordinary. By the next morning it had stopped raining. The sun was out. There was a small puddle of water in the middle of the kitchen floor. Water didn’t streak from the sink or the refrigerator. A puddle with no source. We thought maybe the seal on the sliding glass door wasn’t tight enough, allowing rain water to seep in. I wiped up the water with a couple paper towels.
It was unusual, but I didn’t dwell on it. The townhouse we lived in was bright, well-lit, the ceilings high. It was newer construction. Nothing about it seemed like it should have been haunted.
But the puddle kept appearing. Always in the same spot. Never an identifiable source.
Mysterious spots of water like this can be associated with poltergeist activity. It’s also possible that poltergeist like activity can be manifested.
I’d boarded up the hallway that contained most of my physical desire. I heard it calling out my name as I brushed my teeth in the bathroom at the top of the stairs staring into the darkness downstairs. The voice sounding like it was down there, close and far away at the same time. I’d hear it knocking on the wall as I tried to fall asleep. These noises might have been the desire I’d been hiding trying to get my attention. And like most noises in a haunted house, I tried to ignore it until I couldn’t any longer.
Rex and I eventually broke up as we realized we were much better friends than boyfriends. I told Rex I was a gainer months after we ended our relationship. I felt bad for keeping it from him, and for being a gainer. “Never apologize for desire,” he said.
Being a gainer isn’t just about getting fat, it’s also about sex. For a long time, I wanted to deny that being a gainer had some connection to my sexual life.
Are you okay being touched? A friend, who shares the same name as me, asked me this as he hugged me. We were at a Dunkin’ Donuts after going to a buffet. I waited at the pick-up spot for my iced coffee. I wasn’t expecting the hug: he wrapped his arms around me from behind, and my body tensed. I didn’t want it to, but it did it anyways. He kept his arms around me as he asked me, “Are you okay being touched?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, it depends on who it is.”
“I’m sorry, I should have asked first.” He let go and moved away.
I wish I had relaxed into his hug, into his arms. But that’s not what happened. I felt myself tense. He felt it. I wondered how many other times I had done this, had other men noticed this and had taken it as some kind of rejection.
Perhaps part of the reason I tensed that day was that I had not been touched in an intimate way in months. I can go months without being touched by anyone, and most of the time I won’t notice until I’m touched again.
I guess I don’t always know how to react to being touched, how to trust it, how to let myself enjoy it without the ghosts of other times my body was harmed getting in the way.
Even when I’ve had my belly rubbed, I’ve felt the skin over my fat tense. That I can explain away as being ticklish. Once I relax a little, it is enjoyable. But I start to worry if I’m making enough noise, moaning and groaning under the delight of the guy’s hands, his lips brushing against my belly. I’m always worried if I’m displaying, indicating pleasure in the correct way.
Rex and other guys who were into regular sex, had wanted me to tell them what I wanted them to do to me, tell them how much I wanted it, and I felt embarrassed. Afraid I would sound goofy. And so, I couldn’t tell them. They were left to guess.
I still felt ashamed of what I wanted. Down the dimly lit hallway of my desire was the idea that I wanted to be fucked, but not in the traditional way. If I were to turn the handle to the door where I hid my biggest fantasy, and shine a light on it, it would look like this: I want a guy to smash a pie into my belly, feed chunks of it to me, while rubbing the filling into my gut, both of us getting messier and messier, food all over both of us, and then use the pie on my belly as lubrication to fuck my gut.
I’d seen this in a video. Two men, a couple, feeding each other, one of them fucking the other’s fat, bloated belly. I had to see it to know I wanted it.
I had the opportunity to say it, to tell an encourager that I wanted to do this with him. I took a train from Chicago to St. Louis to meet Gabe. I shouldn’t have been nervous or scared to tell him what I wanted to do. Him being an encourager meant he was more prone to entertain the idea.
I didn’t know when or how to bring it up. I didn’t want to assume too much. We shared a bed that weekend. We kissed. He rubbed my belly. He was on top of me as we ran our hands, our tongues over each others’ bodies. Our sweat intermingling.
On one of our nights together, we laid in the dark of his room as Gabe told me a story about a friend of his who had met a man from Chicago and had fallen in love too quickly. The friend had moved to be with this man. Then it didn’t work out and he had to move back to St. Louis. The friend was now in love with Gabe. He was not happy with this turn of events. Gabe didn’t want this friend to be in love with him.
I could see how it could be easy to fall in love with Gabe. There was an ease to being around him that made me want to be around him more. It was easy to sit on the couch next to him, and fall asleep in his arms. But the message he gave me by telling me that story about his friend was to not get attached. Don’t get too close. Don’t fall in love.
I wasn’t sure if that was a warning for me or for himself.
At the end of the weekend, he drove me back to the train station, we passed a Jack-in-the-Box. I told him that I wished we had gone there because there weren’t any in Chicago.
“Next time,” Gabe said.
“Awesome,” I said. “It will be fun.”
0000000“Maybe next time we can also try something else.” I took a moment. I took a deep breath and told him about my pie and belly fantasy.
“Wish we’d done that.”
“Next time,” I said.
“Next time,” he said.
Even though we both already knew there wouldn’t be a next time.
The thing that would keep us connected after our visit wasn’t gaining, it was the supernatural. We both shared in an interest in it. This had been part of my attraction to him. Months after my visit with Gabe, I had a dream he visited a haunted house. The ghosts in the house trap him. I am able to sense he is in danger. I feel like I most go to him, rescue him. But we are in different cities, hours apart, and the evil forces in the haunted house are somehow able to use their powers to cause enough traffic in Chicago to prevent me from getting to him.
When I woke up, I texted him, Had a dream you were trapped in a haunted house.
Ooooh spooky!! I went to a haunted house last night and I’m going again tonight!!
Yeah! You’re a psychic!
0000000Weird. Be careful. Be safe. I know it was just a dream and it might be silly to be worried, but I am a little.
It’s definitely a weird coincidence.
The thought of Gabe going to the haunted house, conjured The Haunting of Hill House, of the house in the book being alive, of it calling to Eleanor, wanting her to stay. I thought of the scenes in both versions of the movie adaptations were the wood walls breathe and stretch out. The house a body.
I thought of doors that slammed shut. I thought of him trapped in rooms where he couldn’t escape, the sound of footsteps thundering down the hall. I worried about Gabe being slowly absorbed by the dwelling. I remembered this passage from the book where Eleanor thinks, “The house was waiting now…and it was waiting for her; no one else could satisfy it.” Maybe the house Gabe was going to was his Hill House and he was its Eleanor.
I daydreamed about going with him, taking his hand, and protecting him as we went through the house. Another daydream that was more like a movie, an extension of the original dream, was about me coming to his rescue to free him from the house. A rather romantic scenario: one man saving the life of the other man he loves. It’s a scenario that queer people rarely get to actually see in movies.
Don’t fall in love. I didn’t tell Gabe any of this. I did ask him to let me know he was okay when he got home. Later that night he texted me, I’m alive!!!
I was glad that he had made it through the house unharmed. It was strange that I dreamt about him being in a haunted house when he had planned on going to one. Maybe it shows a connection. Maybe it was purely coincidental.
I do know that my true fear is that I will be like whatever walks in Hill House, in that I am for some reason destined to walk alone. At least in a romantic sense. I know I am not alone in terms of friendships or people who care about me.
But a romantic relationship is still something I want. Even though there have been times where I had the opportunity to be in one and chose not to be because it took too much time away from my writing.
There was a guy I went on a few dates with, an encourager, who I enjoyed spending time with, someone I had wanted to try to find space for in my life, but that didn’t work out. He accidentally conjured the ghost of my father one night.
He had asked me out on a second date. We were at dinner. It felt very formal in a very sweet, romantic way. We were at a place that had candles on the table. He had chosen the location.
“I’m glad you asked me out again,” I said.
He took a moment to respond. He said that he almost didn’t remember asking me out. He had been drunk when he had asked. He said he had needed to be drunk to have the courage to invite me out.
I immediately became angry. I twisted the pasta I’d ordered around and around on my fork. I considered getting up and walking out. On its own, it was irritating to hear that he had forgotten he asked me out. The other layer was that my father used to say all kinds of things, made promises to spend time together when he was drunk, and then wouldn’t follow through because he’d forgotten he ever said it.
Instead of leaving, I told him that it upset to me to hear this, and I told him about the other reason why this bothered me, the ghost that had shown up to the table when he said it.
He apologized. We went out one more time after that dinner, but I couldn’t shake the ghost. I couldn’t stop thinking that anytime he said anything meaningful to me, he would have to be drunk to say it. I’d lived life like that before and I refused to return to it.
Journeys end in lovers meeting.— The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
And so, where do we go from here? It seems impossible to have a satisfying ending at this point because these are still issues I’m working through. Some days I don’t even think about these things at all because I’m too busy living the rest of my life. I know that I have in the past tried to change who I am to fit into some ideal of what I should be. I won’t do that to find a man to date or have a long term relationship with. He, whoever he is, will have to be comfortable with me as a writer as a gainer, as someone who is still trying to figure out how to usher out the last few ghosts that remain. I am some days still learning to be at ease with that these are all the things that encompass me. Maybe at the end of that journey, we will meet and start a new one.
Brian Kornell’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. He received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency as well as chosen as a Jane G. Camp fellow by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). His essay “Goodbye: A Trilogy” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.