"Why are you still dressed?" Aron whispered into my ear, pushing me against his living room wall. I gave into his touch, all the while telling myself, Stop it, stop it, you won't be able to deliver the goods! "I wanna feel your skin next to mine," he said, pawing at my suit. "Come on man, whatta you waiting for?" Aron stepped even closer.
"Okay," I said. As I took off my jacket, I felt the coolness of the room hit my back. My dress shirt was drenched in sweat. I slowly undid the buttons until I was left in just my pants and undershirt. Aron's eyes moved down to my arms.
"What's this?" he asked, pointing to my skin.
"These things, hmm . . . they're stretch marks. I was once overweight and they appeared for some reason."
He stepped back. "Wow, I never would have thought you were fat looking at you in a suit. So how fat were you?"
My mouth was dry. "I was pretty big, 'cause I loved food. I'm Italian after all." I didn't want to tell him the real reason that I was taunted and battered in and out of my Brooklyn neighborhood by kids and adults who sensed that I was different. "I finally dieted and lost close to 100 lbs. It was difficult as hell but I'm glad I did it." The pain of hearing myself was unbearable. All my years in therapy and I still couldn't do shit with a guy.
Aron was now scanning my body, landing on my stomach. I didn't want him to see the scar tissue from the failed abdominoplasty, so I quickly made some excuse about needing to get home. I threw on my shirt and jacket and left.
- - -
The next day I thought hard about what had happened. I needed to do something else besides my usual therapy sessions--that was clear. I was 28-years old and nothing was working. I began furiously looking for inspiration of any sort, from obscure searches on YouTube to viewing day-time talk shows for inspiration from "expert" clinicians. But it was when I was scanning my old notebooks from graduate school that my eyes stuck on the subject of cognitive behavioral therapy. I reread what I had written a few years earlier about a specific technique called in-vivo exposure therapy, which progressively exposes a patient to an object that causes fear in the hope of minimizing that fear at each level of the exposure. Could this be helpful in my predicament? What if for the next few months I forced myself to take my clothes off in front of a mirror and just--stared?
With a bottle of chianti, an unhealthy supply of Xanax, and a few lit candles, I sat in front of a long length mirror, fully clothed, just looking at my face. I saw the inner-child staring out from the dark depths of my eyes. Old feelings kept creeping in, trying very hard to break down my determination. I struggled to stay focused.
A few days passed before I stood in front of the mirror with pants and a sleeveless t-shirt--the same way I stood in front of Aron. I tried to think of my body positively. I stared at the stretch marks that ran down the underside of my upper arms. I could only bear to look at them for a minute or two without having to move away to take a deep breath. As parts of my skin became exposed, there was a compulsion to beat myself with my own fists. My heart was in my throat.
Days and weeks passed. Every night was the same thing: candles, sips of a dry cabernet, and standing or sitting in front of the mirror. Yet, each day brought me closer to feeling the words: I love you. By no means was there any perfection gained through the exercises, but old negative messages no longer filled my inner cavities with conviction, it was merely a song I once knew the words to, but now could just recall how to hum. Progressively, I was able to look into my eyes and see myself smiling back. I eventually stopped comparing myself to the Arons of the world and my abusers no longer held a space on my body. After 12 weeks, I could sit in front of the mirror entirely naked.
I made sure that the lighting in my room was set to dim when I slowly allowed my eyes to skim over my whole body. I started at the top of my forehead and worked my way down, resting every few seconds on a particular part and allowing my eyes to take it all in, while I continued to whisper I love you. Each part of my body in some way was a representation of masculinity and shame. It took many deep breaths until I was able to look at them without disgust and scorn. Eventually, I began to like what I saw.
- - -
Almost a year after my botched hookup with Aron, I started dating again. I met Luca online. He was visiting New York from Naples, Italy and we got coffee in the cafe of his hotel. Luca had a soft oval face with sandy hair and green eyes. His body frame was small and tight. He was no Aron, but neither was I. The fact that Luca wasn't in town for long created the perfect scenario to explore the work I had done. After some small talk, Luca invited me back to his room.
As soon as the door closed, he started taking off his clothes, leaving bits scattered at our feet. Luca's hair reminded me of the gruff men that I fantasized about as a teen. Without hesitation, I started to strip too. The cool air didn't sting my exposed flesh like it had before. Luca caressed me and held me tightly to his own naked chest. His hands inched their way to my waist, where he unbuttoned the top of my blue jeans before lowering the zipper. Run, run, I heard myself saying out of habit. But I didn't. I kept still, standing in front of him as he continued to kiss me. I loosened the elastic of my undershorts and they fell to the floor. Luca did the same. In a full embrace, as if inhabiting each other's shadows, I allowed my body to feel the wholeness of his touch.
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