ARENA by Brian Broome
THE ONLY TWO THINGS in life that can show you who you really are—what you’re really made of—are war and public sex. I know nothing of war but the images I’ve seen of desperate men locked in combat or wandering around the battlefield, exposed and vulnerable. I know perhaps too much about public sex.
When I say “public,” I am not referring to that vanilla, elevator sex that men and women have in psychological thriller movies. The sexy anti-hero with perfect hair who grabs hungrily at some seductive ingénue’s panties in an area where they may or may not get caught, like a coat check room or the back of a limousine. Straight people think they’re so adventurous.
No, I’m talking about full-on, ass-out, naked body contact with strangers who you’ve only caught glimpses of in the dark. I’m talking about insertions. Wet moments. The kind of furtive and dirty coupling where it would be rude to stop in the middle just because you’ve discovered that your partner is missing a limb. I’m talking about the kind of adventurous sex that gets men killed.
I’m talking about gay bath house sex.
The kind we used to have in the mid-nineties before gay men became s’damn cuddly. I’m talking about Arena Health Club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania sex. A place where filthy, public sex was not only encouraged but mandatory. If you walked inside the Arena Health Club, you had better been ready to fuck. Pick someone. Anyone. If you weren’t engaged in the act of coitus at the Arena, you would be asked to leave. No questions asked nor answered.
My first time at the Arena was due to too many vodka-cranberries, cocaine, and my big mouth. I had been hanging out at the bars with two friends, Tate and Jeremy, and after a long and unsuccessful evening of trying to get laid, they suggested going to the Arena. I did not know what the Arena was. I was still new but wanted to seem experienced.
The blow they’d offered to me hours before was still working its magic. It was my first, and it forced words that weren’t true to escape the lips on which I couldn’t stop chewing. Eventually, the coke took control of my entire mouth. The words felt so good and free as they flew from between my teeth and tongue, endless and meaningless, until eventually my words told them that, sure, I had been to the Arena a thousand times before. My words told all of us that I knew the doorman and the doorman knew me and that, at the Arena, we’d be welcomed with open arms. Between frequent and jerky drags of my cigarette, I told them to stick with me because I knew the Arena like I knew the palm of my hand.
These were the heady days of gay sex positivity. After the onslaught of AIDS, some gay men were trying to reclaim their sexuality in bold, daring, and unapologetic ways. Tate and Jeremy were those men. I was just trying to claim my sexuality for the first time. But I pretended in the cab that I’d had a lot of sex. All kinds. Whips. Chains. Top. Bottom. Autoerotic Asphyxia. According to my words, I had done it all.
With each street lamp that whizzed by, I heard myself make up a new story of sexual adventure. I heard myself telling them that once I showed up for a dinner party and arrived to find all the guests naked. It was mostly men, but there were some women there, I said, but I didn’t care. I pretty much just fucked everybody that night, and when I was done I smoked a joint and that made me horny again so I just dived right back on to the pile and started fucking everybody again: boy that was a crazy night but that’s what I’m like, you know? If I see it and it looks good to me, I’ll just start fucking it. According to me, I had been involved in three-ways and orgies covered from tip to toe in genitals and there was no sexual situation that intimidated me.
Meanwhile, my lips were numb from the cocaine. What was I saying? The reality was that I had never had sex beyond occasional romantic interludes with one long-gone boyfriend who had been as clueless as I was. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were gentle with each other. He asked if he was hurting me and asked if I was comfortable and smiled down at me. Sometimes we just gave up in the middle and watched old movies instead. I wasn’t even a top.
But I got carried away in the adventure of it all. I was quaking from the kind of good yayo you could only get back then. The cab driver stared straight ahead, and Tate and Jeremy barely raised an eyebrow. In truth, they had only seemed to be putting up with me all night. I knew they didn’t like me. But the more evident this became, the harder I tried. I clung to them and followed them around. I laughed too loudly at their jokes.
Tate and Jeremy were sluts. They had a handle on this sex thing. They had gripped it by the shaft and milked it for all it was worth. They were my idols. They were aloof and bitchy. Stylish but not fussy. They were, in a word, cool. I didn’t want to look like a prude. Tonight, it would be the three of us taking on the Arena Health Club. As they talked more about it, it began to dawn on me what the Arena was. I recoiled a little but didn’t let it show. And I hoped that, somehow, I could trick them into protecting me at the Arena without knowing they were doing so.
Or maybe I would meet someone at the Arena and start a new relationship. Maybe there was a café where he and I would get to know each other better before sex. I pictured alabaster white Doric columns and plant life. An azure blue pool. Maybe this gay life wasn’t so scary, so threatening, so alcohol and drug-driven as it seemed. Maybe I could let my hair down a little. Try something new.
“You walk through the door, then you pay the man, then you get naked.”
These were the last words I recall hearing from Tate as we approached the door of the club. He sounded exasperated. Somehow he knew I had never been there before. The Arena sat in the middle of a seedy neighborhood. It looked like a dilapidated old house. I walked through the door, paid the man, and then I got naked. The man supplied me with a towel so small that it could only just be held around the waist with a forefinger and thumb without a fiber to spare. I could tell immediately that there would be no café. There was no spa, no Doric columns. Also, there was no workout equipment making me question whether or not this place was really a health club. The Arena Health Club itself looked unhealthy, ill, even. Dark and brooding with paint peeling off the walls and all manner of haunted voices coming from the dark corners inside. I stood in the entrance taking it all in and turned to my friends. Now was the time to trick them into shielding me. But they were already gone. The smell of Jeremy’s freshly applied Drakkar Noir hung in the air. I was naked and alone.
If you are at a gay bath house and not participating in sex, you are suspect. The man who we handed the money to and who handed us our towels barked at me to get moving. From behind, I must have looked as though I were slowly marching to the hangman’s noose. The fingers of one hand straining to keep the tiny towel in place and the other straight down at my side refusing to touch anything before disappearing into the darkness. It was like walking into a funhouse. I had no idea what to expect. The noises that men make echoed all around me from unseen places. Expectations are useless when you’re surrounded on all sides by human nature.
The bath house was huge.
Dark and seemingly endless hallways with doors on both sides. Some doors were open and some were closed. The open ones held naked men inside who wanted me to see what they were doing to each other. They looked right into my eyes as I passed, hungry for attention. A man on his knees removed another man’s penis from his mouth to point and laugh at my slow and tentative lumber down the hallway. Open doors loud with sucking and slapping sounds. I could pick my pleasure. It was a sex museum in which I was the lone patron. At the end of the hallway was a door with celestial light emanating from it. Bright as heaven’s gate. The lone man inside was on the bed, on his knees turned away with his face shoved down in the pillow. He was white as marble with no arms and no head like a Roman statue. His hands were placed on each buttock pulling them apart to reveal his blood red anus like an open wound.
I turned and ran.
I ran back down the hallway and into another where men were standing around relieved of their tiny towels, cackling with laughter as I passed. Newbie. Scared. I ran past the salacious looks and annoyed frowns. Some grabbed for me and I jumped away yelping like an injured sea lion. It was still early in the night and not many men had found a partner yet. When I could run no longer, I just skulked the hallways, head down, stiff upper lip, until they all eventually disappeared inside private rooms or into corners where eyes were closed and heads were thrown back in ecstasy or deeply bowed. I walked past a large room, where seemingly dozens of men were all on one bed, all arms and legs and grunts, and caught a brief glimpse of Tate’s face in the fray under the dim blue light. I expected that I would just roam the halls silently all night until my friends were done and I could go home. My safe home. I expected that it would all be over soon.
I rounded a corner.
The biggest, fattest, white man that I have ever seen was standing at the end of the corridor. There was a fluorescent light flickering and shorting out just over his head. He was breathing heavily, shoulders heaving. He stepped out of the light and into shadow and took two steps toward me, his bare feet landing with two distinct thuds on the concrete floor. He was hairy, Cro-Magnon. I could feel his eyes sizing me up for a moment. I could feel his face contort. He began to barrel toward me. I stood for a moment, eyes wide and mouth agape, before I pinched up my towel tighter between my thumb and forefinger and took flight. He came after me undeterred. I ran as fast as I could in a tiny towel. I looked over my shoulder and saw his red, demon eyes blazing. I could hear his bare footfalls slap-thumping against the concrete and his rough breathing in hot pursuit. There was no one there to help me, lost inside the annals of the Arena Health Club, a place where I had no business being to begin with. I was going to die here. What would my mother say? How would she explain this at choir practice? I ran through the club taking dizzying turn after dizzying turn with a mad, horny, fat white man determined to fuck me to death right on my heels. I made a turn to the left to encounter two men in a passionate embrace, who looked up mildly annoyed as I said, breathlessly: “There—there’s a man—"
They both gave me an irritated look that said, Of course there’s a man. So I kept on running. The big white man was not giving up. He was not taking the hint, despite my full sprint in the tiny towel. I ran to the Jacuzzi room. While still open, the Jacuzzi had been deserted for a long time. The Jacuzzi itself was drained of all its water and ribaldry. A dry riverbed. Rusting and falling to disrepair. I hid behind a set of mini bleachers that were set up outside the Jacuzzi for spectator viewing of the wet and wild fun that used to go on inside. Haunted by the echoes of lovers past. I hid and held my breath until it burst from my chest. And I heard the telltale footfalls of a maniac slap-thumping against the concrete. Echoing now. Just he and I. There was only one way in. There was only one way out.
His footsteps got closer until I could hear his breath coming raspy and heavy and I looked around frantically trying to find another escape route.
“Please,” he said, in the gentlest possible way. “I saw you walking around out there. You don’t look like you belong here.” He waited. “Please,” he said again, “I love black men. You in here?” His voice cracked and brittle like an old man’s.
He rounded the corner where I was standing and saw me hiding there. Standing right in front of me, I could see that his rough breathing was not the maniacal expulsions of a fuckdemon, but of a large man who was just having trouble moving his massive weight. He towered over me, bearded and bedraggled. I was looking into the sad, wet eyes of a big, fat, naked trucker. And he seemed tired. He seemed tired of all this. He looked down at me, and I started to tell him that I had no interest and that I was going to scream if he touched me. But, I was not afraid anymore. Something in his manner let me know that he meant me no harm. What I saw in his eyes was a gasping loneliness. Pure and simple. The kind of loneliness that begs for some—any—form of humanity to reach out and touch. He reached out to take hold of my towel and I slowly pushed his hand away and shook my head. He looked disappointed. I didn’t know what to say. So, without a word, I moved past him and walked slowly through the door, leaving him and his loneliness behind.
Tate and Jeremy met me at the entrance, both fully dressed and looking refreshed. I told them stories. I told them lies. I don’t think they believed me. We did more cocaine. I was beginning to like it a lot. I would eventually learn to live for it. I would eventually learn to go back to the Arena all on my own.
The Arena Health Club no longer exists. It was torn down and nothing sits there now but a vacant lot. But I can show you exactly where it was. I can show you the exact geographical spot where my life began to slide downhill.