He took long showers, which was considered unusual for a boy. He never understood why and it never felt like a long time to him. He just liked taking his time. Also, he had a stubborn dandruff problem. But everyone else thought it was unmanly. No, they thought it was womanly. Women had long hair and took long showers, but men, real men that is, were supposed to be in-and-out. He knew that he was different from other boys, but could never understand how taking a long shower betrayed that.
“You spend an hour in the shower, like a bitch!” his mother told him one afternoon. She had just woken up from a nap, and her moody grumpiness made her words sound harsh. Well, harsher than normal. There was contempt in it. This wasn’t the first time she had said something like this. She regularly badgered him about being gay. She didn’t know that he was; he didn’t know that he was (he knew he didn’t want to be). But she threw the accusation in the air. It was rhetorical. She didn’t want to hear him confirm her fears but wanted to scare him from walking down that path. Homosexuality was a choice, she was sure, and scolding her son about acting gay was the surest way to make sure he never became gay.
These words pierced him; they attacked his sense of self. They made him hold contempt for himself. They would bury themselves inside and work their way through his mind for years. But at this age, 13, he learned to cope by ignoring her words and moving on. If it was just the two of them in the room, that was pretty easy. But this time, the maid of the house was right behind his mother. She laughed. He felt humiliated. He and the maid were close friends and he didn’t want her to think he was gay.
He spent the whole day at a faraway beach. Him, his brother, his two cousins, and their dad. It was a beach he had been to before. And it was a true local beach, unlike the crowded shores in the Zone Touristique. You had to drive on a narrow road through a forest to get to the shore. A few hundred feet into the water was half-a-ship, slightly collapsed on its left side. He never knew how it got there. The French colonizers had departed this part of the country last, after the official handover of power to the natives. He thought maybe the French had no use for taking all their ships back north and left some of them behind (but where’d the other half go?). The waves were strong that day, which made for a lot of wave-jumping fun, and sand and seaweed crowded in his trunks.
He never felt more at peace than on a beach. His favorite feeling in the world was smelling the beach before he could see it. Often the shore would pop up over the hump of a road or at the end of the road. But just smelling it he knew it was there. It filled him with excitement and serenity. Looking out at the endless sea made the world feel so much bigger. And on the beach, he knew how little he needed to be happy. Life was always more simple than it seemed.
That night he took a long shower. Even he knew that. But he had no choice. Just when he thought he was done, he’d find a patch of sand still stuck on his body and a thread of seaweed buried in his butt. He turned the water on again. Eventually, he washed his entire body clean. When he walked out, his aunt was waiting for him. She had knocked while he was in the bathroom. He already heard her say, “This isn’t normal.” (Unlike his mother, who only spoke in Arabic to him, his aunt spoke to him only in English.) But when he sat down in his towel drying off, she entered the room to say her peace. “Do you know what people say about it?” “Do you think this is normal?” “If you don’t change, even I, your aunt, will soon start thinking this.” He never answered any of her questions; he felt too embarrassed about the unspoken accusation but there was no need to say anything. This was a monologue, not a conversation. He was relieved when it was over.
He got dressed and walked out. He was the last of the boys to shower. His brother and cousins weren’t in the house when he walked out onto the front patio. It was the summer and he was living in his grandmother’s home with his mother and siblings and cousins and their mom, and the permanent occupants, his favorite aunt, his grandmother, the maid, and his uncle. He knew the boys couldn’t have ventured far and as he stood on the patio he saw the front gate swing open and they strolled in talking loudly and licking ice cream.
He felt unsettled by what his aunt had said. He felt uncomfortable in his own skin. And as he looked at them, he envied them. Life must be so easy for them, he thought. They walk through life without thinking about who they are. They just know. He wanted to be like them. He wasn’t ready to admit to himself who he was and he wasn’t even sure he truly was that, at least not fully. But he knew that who he was meant that he had a burden to carry. He would have to spend his life carrying it. He didn’t think it would destroy him, but he thought it would be hard, at least sometimes.
He imagined his brain as a set of wires and putting his hand into his skull he wished he could rearrange them. So he could be normal. Just like the other boys. But he knew he couldn’t. He knew that he, as he is, was here to stay. He didn’t hate himself. If he didn’t think about it, life was still happy. But it was something a part of him wanted to change. To be done away with it, forever. He never stopped taking long showers.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a graduate of New York University and a Washington, DC-based artist and writer on queer politics.