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I Can’t Stop Falling for Men in Masks

Queer cruising used to mean sex. In quarantine, it’s alluring eyebrows and wandering eyes.

I fell in love again today. I had a whole affair, in fact, including a tragic but amicable parting of ways. Pumping my bike pedals up the Williamsburg Bridge, I flew past him faster than a respiratory droplet can hit the ground. He had ornate tattoos stamped along his arms and a hardened expression that broke focus just to glance at me as I passed by. All we could see were each other’s eyes, peering between helmets and masks. That was enough. In a tempestuous two seconds, we saw each other, loved each other and left each other.

Alas, he’s long gone now. 

They all disappear in a flash. So many fleeting beloveds I’ve had in train cars, on sidewalks and at the counters of coffee shops. This is the extent of my sex life with strangers in quarantine, an era of social distancing and face coverings. We’re stripped down to the essential activity of seeing and being seen. 

New York is a very romantic place, however neurotic and unavailable New Yorkers tend to be. People come expecting to be swept off their feet, but in my opinion, that’s not the kind of romance that abounds here. For me, love in New York is about the love between strangers in public. Strangers crammed together by the dense, erotic architecture of an industrial island. Often that love starts and ends with a simple glance. 

Going places and getting things, I fall in love all the time. I’m talking about cruising, sure, but I’m also talking about the sexiness of urban life even when we’re not looking for anything at all. Though we socially distance ourselves by avoiding train cars and communal indoor spaces, we still live on top of each other and descend to the same sidewalks. It’s not that the city is erotic in spite of being so crowded; the city is erotic because of it. We still see each other from six feet away. And when we do, our gaze might linger.

I miss boys. Not men as a whole, but the gay boys I’d casually notice and distinguish from everyone else by the possibility of romance electrifying the air around them. It’s greater than gaydar. We see each other in public and know intuitively that the other sucks cock. We descend into a hundred porn-y/romantic daydreams, sudden affairs and chance connections simply traveling by subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I miss snapping out of these daydreams and furtively checking the gay Yellow Pages (Grindr) to see just how available the boy in front of me might be. I miss thinking about these things without the intrusion of a pandemic that has foreclosed all the possibilities that I’d let slip by anyway.

Especially because in the summertime, which is marked in New York not by the solstice but by the first day that breaks 75 degrees, everybody gets a lot sexier. Savoring the warmth and sunlight that our Angeleno frenemies take for granted, we take more walks and we go to more places. By necessity, most of us wear less clothes. It’s very overwhelming for the first few years here. Public life feels like a pageant until you find your footing. 

And so, on any other Memorial Day weekend, a gaze could lead to a smile, and a smile could lead to sittin’ in a tree. In this bleak and bizarre present, however, most of us are wearing masks, and most of us aren’t currently taking on new acquaintances. Liaisons are simply too dangerous. 

Luckily, the erotics of urban life haven’t disappeared completely. They’ve only narrowed into a sliver of excitement between the temples. I don’t know the veracity of Victorians’ horniness toward exposed ankles, but I’m beginning to understand the allure of concealed flesh. I’m seeing people differently, computing my attraction to them using thinner evidence than before but perhaps stronger desire. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then I have found myself window-shopping incessantly. 

Maybe my masc 4 mask yearnings — I had to say it — are more shallow and less pure because I’m seeing fewer faces. I look for evidence of hotness everywhere but mostly on the face. It’s an ironic turn of events given how headless torsos were the great cliché of hookup apps. I’m often much more attracted to people I’d overlook on an app when I’m in their physical presence. In-person encounters offered respite from the flat, callous catalog of digital cruising. I miss this, too.

So while I fell in love yesterday, I’m sure I’ll fall in love again tomorrow. It could be a big, strapping man in a blue bandana nervously picking out pasta on the opposite end of the grocery store aisle. It could be a glassy-eyed boy in the driver’s seat of a Jeep Cherokee, staring idly at the road as I cross the intersection with a little extra swish in my step. Today, it was a rogue cyclist, rumbling my erotic imagination even after we were miles away. 

What if one of us turned around and caught up to the other? What if we got closer than six feet? What if we took off the masks to share a highly inadvisable kiss? 

I’ve been savoring these fantasies, infected as they are because I don’t have much optimism for a time when this is all over. And if I’m being honest, I think the masks look really hot. It’s the crisis buzzcuts I can’t stand.