Language Is How We Talk Back to the Universe

Vernon, Sarah and I took seats at the end of the bar near the door. I noticed, right off, that the lone female bartender resembled Olivia Wilde: long brunette hair, green eyes, an angelic face. Vernon pointed out that one of the three male bartenders, a tall rugged man with a chiseled jaw and thick umber stubble, was equally attractive. I looked closely as he spun glasses and flicked the taps; I guess I could see it, but I pointed out I’d never been adept at judging men’s attractiveness. If someone had asked, I wouldn’t have picked him over the other two male bartenders.

“You are so full of shit,” Sarah said, slapping my shoulder. “You can totally tell he’s hot.”

“I really can’t,” I replied. “I never have been able to judge another guy’s hotness. Women, sure, but that’s still a matter of taste. People are into different things. Some people wouldn’t be into that guy.”

“Oh yes they would,” Vernon said, staring fixedly down the crowded bar.

I got up to take a piss, pondering this idea. It does seem odd that most people can judge beauty no matter which sex, and I can’t. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been that interested in sex, with either gender. I’ve always been open to all kinds of sexuality and orientations, but its never stuck at the forefront of my consciousness. Hell, I don’t think I even understood exactly what queer relationships entailed until I was in junior high, at least, because I didn’t fully understand what hetero relationships involved. My favorite cousin is a lesbian, but it didn’t register—even at fifteen—that her bleached jeans, flannel jacket, and short hair actually meant something. Through upbringing and temperament, I’ve turned out very vanilla.

Musing on this, I worked my way across the bar to the bathroom. I stepped through the door and lined up in front of the urinal. Two other men were in the bathroom. One was leaning on the stall doorframe, the other next to me by the other urinal. They looked Moroccan: golden skin, dark curly hair, strong cheekbones. Both wearing white button ups, open to mid-chest. The closest one leaned over, gave my dick a good look. I mentally shrugged at this, thinking: when in the Castro . . . As I zipped up, he leaned in and said, “Hey, you’re cute, you wanna make out?”

I found myself—quite unexpectedly—speaking in a pseudo-gay voice. Higher pitched than usual, with a valley-girl twang. “Honey, I would like to, but I’ve got a boyfriend. He’s waiting for me back at the bar, I just can’t ”

“Ohh,” he said patting my cheek. “Such a good little boy, huh?”

I left and found my seat between Sarah and Vernon. I explained what had happened. They both thought it was cute and funny. But I felt bad. I said, “I don’t know if I’m more of an asshole for pretending to be gay or lying that I had a boyfriend.”

“Which two was it?” Vernon asked. “Those two?” He pointed as the two boys came across the bar, and started up a game at the nearest pool table.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Leon,” he said, patting my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. Those two are sluts anyway.”

The exchange in the bathroom made me realize why I’m a bad judge of physically beauty: I’m attracted to sound rather than to the sight or touch of someone. My focus has always been on language. I’m always aware if someone sounds attractive, and if I’m around them long enough, I start to imitate their sound. Part of this is just my enjoyment of vocal language. I like the music in it, even more the differences in pronunciation and word choice. So I tend to take up quickly whatever patois I’m around. This has its own pitfalls. It’s reprehensible to many people to take on the speech of an African American, or a gay man, or a Native American when you are not directly a part of that culture. I agree with that: language represents our reality, and there’s a reason that certain words cause deep pain when used by non-members of a culture. They’re symbols of a history of violence and oppression. At the same time, I believe language is the only real democratic institution: if something sounds good, people will use it more and more; this is how languages grow and change. So I can’t help but want to use other language registers. But being a straight white male, perhaps I just don’t have the right. Language is how we talk back to the universe, how we express the strange beauty that is reality, and to be unaware of that, or of the universe in its ability to retort, is to dangerously ignore our most powerful and fundamentally human trait.

Leonard Crosby received his MFA from California College of the Arts. His fiction has appeared in Fiction Brigade, Samizdat Literary Journal, and Eleven Eleven. He lives in San Francisco, and spends his time writing, tutoring, and gardening. He is currently at work on a war novel and a collection of flash fiction.