by Daniel Spielberger
Daniel Spielberger is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently an MFA candidate at CalArts' Creative Writing Program.
The endless grid. I opened a random square and there was a beefy man dressed in a long-sleeve tab collar shirt, posing in a white void with two hairless Twinks. He sported a buzz-fade complimented by a subtle scruff. Forest green eyes that accentuated an intense glare. Standing between the Twinks, he seemed fierce and all powerful. I sent him a “hey, what’s up?” merely to see if he would respond. I was living in San Francisco and my 9 to 5 was churning out witty blog posts about workplace culture and my 5 to 9 was cruising gay sex apps and my 9:30 to 11 was meeting up with whichever rando seemed appealing that evening. It was a Sunday afternoon, and after some scheduling back-and-forth, I had found myself in a bathtub with Gary, a forty-five year-old man who played a Bishop for a Mormon-themed gay porn studio as a side-gig. He had recently moved from Los Angeles to spearhead the opening of an Umami Burger in the SoMa district. Because of course, what SoMa really needed was an Umami Burger. There weren’t enough bistros, fancy salad establishments, and microbreweries to satisfy the startup crowd. I popped a soap bubble with my pinky-finger, thinking about what had to come next. I could leave The Bishop’s apartment and scavenge through Yelp to find some dumplings in the area. Perhaps, I could linger in the neighborhood for a while and sit on a park bench and smoke a joint by myself. In the bathtub, The Bishop had explained to me the intricacies of opening up a new Umami Burger. You have to find the ideal up-and-coming location: somewhere near offices with professional types who were willing to stand in Soviet-style bread lines but also close enough to the bars and nightclubs that attracted the kind of clientele that liked to splurge on a pre-game dinner. He wrapped his veiny arms around me, pulling me in, scrubbing my back and shoulders with a sponge as he broke every step down: real estate scouting, hiring new staff, micro-targeted social media marketing, designing an interior uniquely tailored to the location. This Umami Burger would be peppered with references to San Francisco’s centuries-old port history—black-and-white photographs of smiling sailors and framed 19th century maps of the Bay Area. Clearly, every Umami Burger was its own odyssey. Playing a sexy Mormon Bishop was something he kept separate from his Umami life. Even if it wasn’t his main cash flow, it was certainly the nucleus of his tireless discipline: waking up every morning at an ungodly hour to hit the gym, eating a diet that solely consisted of protein shakes and slabs of meat, and spending what little downtime he had at tanning salons or getting expensive facials. Over time, gay porn has evolved from hyper-masculine renderings of Americana—tales of sexually repressed jocks and prom kings—and inched towards the subversive: what if that Mormon Bishop who disparaged your “lifestyle” was actually gay? What if that door-knocking army of lanky missionaries were actually screwing one another once they got home? Mormon church imagery was perfect because it’s brimming with BDSM potentiality: The Bishop starred in numerous videos where he aggressively punished sinners with a paddle. In one scene, he faced a classroom of missionaries and swung around the Book of Mormon, yelling at students for misbehaving before manipulating them into an orgy. But by the time the SoMa Umami Burger had opened, this kind of fantasy would already be considered passé. Gay erotica was becoming more refined and elegant: two hunky men in tight Calvin Klein underwear, cuddled up in a well-designed apartment, talking to a camera-man about their lives as out-and-proud queers in a sprawling metropolis. And a couple years after that, tastefulness would be traded for poorly lit live-streams and POV-single-cams. It would be less about selling a holistic lifestyle and more about fooling the audience into believing that these grainy, pixelated encounters were actually attainable.
In the bathtub, I didn’t play into any role or fantasy. I was just what he nicknamed me on Grindr—a clean face. I had recently shaved and I looked eighteen and I knew that my effortlessness had its own implicit appeal in this situation. I commented on the stacks of protein powder containers that lined his kitchen counter and feigned interest in his elaborate workout routine, asking for advice about sit-ups, pull-ups, cardio, and stretches. When he left the bathroom to go to the kitchen and get me a cup of water, I searched for more clues about his life as Hercules. Rectangular-porcelain tiles; the walls adorned with small mirrors; a couple of snake eye plants in marble black vases; scented vanilla candles burning. On top of the sink, there was a box of syringes sitting next to three tiny glass bottles. I squinted and saw that the bottles were filled with a clear liquid. An ambulance siren was blaring in the background, followed by screams and laughter spilling out of a neighboring party. The chaos reminded me that there was more out there than a 45-minute to 1 hour encounter. I could easily find something else to do—grab dumplings and then catch the BART to Oakland and drink a Greyhound with a coworker at Café Van Kleef. The Bishop came back and it all became clearer: his muscles were excessively veiny and his skin was red as a tomato; his lower back was covered with acne that was reminiscent of the worst moments of my pubescent years. He noticed that I was looking at the syringes and bottles and then slumped his head, confirming in a low-pitched drone that yes, those were his steroids. I left shortly after, lying to him that I would be up for hanging out again if he wanted to.
Later that night, after drinking a few Greyhounds, I sat on my bed and opened my MacBook and searched for The Bishop. I watched a video of him stoically reciting a passage from the Book of Mormon as a skinny missionary sitting at a pew stared at him with lust. The Greyhounds made me feel like I was on a wobbling ship, and the memories with The Bishop were obscured by my time at Café Van Kleef. My friend and I sat at the crowded bar, exchanging comments about the ridiculousness of the kitschy décor—a hodgepodge of maritime equipment and old bar signs illuminated by pink fluorescent bulbs. The type of place that’s so majestic, it makes you to think about what it would look like if someone pulled the wrong plug: It’s A Small World without the smoke and mirrors; a behind-the-scenes YouTube clip of Robert Downey Jr. acting in front of a green screen, well before any CGI wizards rendered him into Iron Man. The Bishop complained that it got hot and then took off his clerical collar. Soon, his black dress shirt flew off and his pecs and washboard abs triggered ooohs and ahhhs from a gaggle of closeted worshipers. I shut my computer and quickly fell asleep. A few months later, I would walk by the brand-new Umami Burger in SoMa—a long line of hoodie-wearing engineers, marketers, and industry disruptors; the enticing scent of fries bathed in truffle oil. It seemed absolutely perfect. And I had no desire to go.