As an author, I am often called upon to read at promotional events. I have read in bookstores and at conferences. I have read in libraries and open mic nights at bars. I have read to two people and to forty-plus. I have even, on one memorable occasion, read in an upscale boho vegetarian cafe/coffeehouse where a group of ten drunken, deaf lesbian bowlers, seated in the performance area by clueless waitstaff, vocalized their way through the entire lineup of authors. But I have never read erotica in a gay bathhouse before. Until last Tuesday.
A gay bathhouse, for those who have never been or wouldn’t be caught dead in one, has an incredibly unique atmosphere–insular, exhibitionistic, liberating, dangerously exhilarating, and highly charged with both sexuality and possibility. The process is simple: pay your money, get a locker (or a room) and a towel, strip, put your towel on (optional) and take your pleasure in the steam room, hot tubs, glory hole maze, sling room, orgy space, TV area or what-have-you. It’s hot and cold running men, and it encompasses both the best (sexual freedom, community, diversity) and the worst (predation, shallowness, narcissism) of gay male culture.
Drop into this mix one fully clothed author with an open book in his hand and a stack beside him ready to be sold, and what do you have? Well, up until last Tuesday, a big question mark. I had no idea what was going to happen or what shape this whole experience would take, and neither did my hosts (The Midtowne Spa and the Front Range Bears). All we knew is that it was something different to offer their patrons and an opportunity for me to do what every author does readings for–to sell books and get exposure. Did I sell any books? No. Did I get any exposure? Define your terms, please.
I read on a small stage backed by a mirror and facing a three-high bank of vinyl benches. The stage is usually used for the weekly j/o shows. No mic. None necessary for either me (I used to teach high school, so I can project like nobody’s business) or for Wednesday night’s professional masturbators (how would you hold it?). As informal as the whole thing was, I just started without introduction, reading to my friend, Tony Linan, who organized the whole thing, and a few of the Front Range Bears who showed up in support. I began with a sex scene from a short story in my collection from Lethe Press (plug, plug), Strawberries and Other Erotic Fruits. Yes, you may click the link to buy. Please.
A few more patrons joined, including a cute little cub Tony had introduced me to earlier. Only now his towel had been lost somewhere in the bowels of the building and he was sitting no more than four or five feet away with a huge erection made even larger by the ball-stretcher he was wearing. His endowment did not go unnoticed by the guy sitting next to him, who bent down and began sucking away. I was clearly distracted. My voice faltered, and it was difficult keeping my eyes off the prize and on the page. However, I was an interloper in their territory. Why should they stop doing what they paid good money to do just because I was reading? How would I reprimand them, anyway? Hey! Stop sucking cock and listen to me read about two guys sucking cock!
And when you come right down to it, what else is erotica supposed to inspire? So often we write our stories and send them out into the universe without any real idea if they’re working or not. Here, I had actual proof in front of my eyes. It was empowering, in an odd way. Okay, in a very odd way. Eventually, they moved off to continue their encounter elsewhere. Other men came and went (you know what I mean), sitting for a few moments until their attention spans demanded a cruise of the steam room, a sojourn to the sling, or a turn at the glory holes downstairs. I ended up reading sex scenes from a couple of stories and then another whole story from beginning to end. Everyone applauded, and we were done. Tony said I was free to play.
And as I was undressing in my room and getting into my towel, I started thinking about the whole thing. I was unhappy with my performance on stage. I wasn’t as animated or as good as I am when reading to clothed people. And that was because I had imposed too much formality on the situation. I had forgotten why an erotica reading in a bathhouse made perfect sense–it’s all about need and drive and satisfaction, which was why I wrote the stories in the first place. I had gone into the situation thinking that reading to naked men would be no different than reading to clothed ones, but that was wrong. It’s vastly different, and if I get invited back, I won’t be onstage with that artificial barrier between me and the audience. I’ll invite them into my room, and they’ll all sit on the bed and the floor, crowding into the hallway, making it more of a communal experience. Because that’s what the environment calls for.
The cub? Oh yes, we hooked up downstairs a couple of times. In a couple of different configurations. Having lost my place once or twice because of his shenanigans, I was determined to make him pay. And he happily cooperated. So once more, a big thanks to Tony Linan, the Midtowne Spa, and the Front Range Bears. Like reading with the deaf lesbian bowlers, it was an experience I’ll never forget.
And good for a mention in my memoirs.
©, 2013, Jerry L. Wheeler