1. Brighton exists in a state of infinite corruptibility.
It wakes each morning in the burnt-sienna plane of hangover. Sore, distracted, secure in the fable of its own virtue, despite the evidence: the stained duvets, the swollen condoms split in half-flushed toilets.
But the city does not lie to itself. Not exactly.
Baby Jane Hudson would understand, or Norma Desmond. Faced with a truth of such outré magnificence, such awesome squalor, who but criminals or madmen would not choose to believe in more pedestrian fictions, in drowsy engagements and Sunday chaperones?
I arrive in August, insensate.
One afternoon, in the stale velvet twilight of Pittsburgh’s last adult cinema, blown by a black-haired Pole whose crucifix glimmers in the plush darkness of his chest, I don’t know if I’ll cry or cum.
I am a collection of symptoms untraceable to any illness, a sum of effects in search of a cause.
And not long after, I am gone: spun through interviews and negotiations, settlings of leases and accounts, passports and permits, across thousands of miles of canned air and static and cast at last among the pasty candyfloss and cider vomit underneath the Palace Pier.
Free to root out trouble or pursue my own.
2. Tonight I walk east along the esplanade, away
from the karaoke clamor of the Pier, its fruit machines and clattering Crazy Mouse. Lamplight pools on benches racked in summer with swaddled, lager-belly tourists and beaded dames with handbags.
But in September, when all the tourists have left town, the beach at night exudes the shuddery, gut-strung pleasure of abandoned space.
I weave along the seafront high above the old electric railway, shadow to light to shadow. The migraine of the Pier diminishes. What’s left is a discord of a distant carnival organ, the phantom smell of fried doughnuts, the ceaseless Channel surf.
Not that it’s entirely deserted. Down here we loiter with intent.
3. How did I learn about Duke’s Mound, the Bushes?
A joke, a passing reference at the shop, police report? It hardly matters. Like Brighton itself, I’ve always known this stretch of muffled footfalls and verdigris.
Within these overgrown paths that clutch and crawl the slope, the road above and the beach below and through these grottoes, men drift together and apart on waves of curiosity and appetite and a kind of joy infused with starlight and tender amnesia.
Take this would-be scally.
He sits beside me on the bench that marks the western boundary, just as the foliage thickens into cover. He smiles quickly—more uni boy than chav, despite his luminescent tracksuit and chunky gold necklace—and bums a cigarette.
The snick of my lighter sharpens his features: the fine blond fringe; narrow, unlined cheeks chilled pink; a thin slice of scar that lifts the left corner of his mouth—unusually red, mobile, vibrant. He regards the shingle of empty rock below us.
The scar almost fools me, but his soft northern accent betrays him. “Cheers, mate. Ta.”
He drags fast on his smoke and doesn’t know where to look. Forward to the sea, back over his shoulder, anywhere else, but not at me. His leg jitters. His unscathed fingers dart to his crotch and squeeze, skitter back along the inside of his thigh.
It starts like this.
4. My boyfriend and I have plans for New Year’s Eve tomorrow,
if he can ditch his husband. Tonight, I cruise the Bushes.
We met at Club Revenge one Monday as the night’s last stripper collected his baby oil and plastic gun. I sat at the bar. In front of me on a crimson banquette, Richárd borrowed a compact from his girlfriend.
Obliquely, he watched me dissolve into Bombay Sapphire blue.
His shirt and charcoal trousers were more upholstery than clothing. Lean, plush, and pinstriped, he pronounced me ridiculous, and pressed my hand against his ass. At 2 a.m. we walked up George Street to his husband’s travel agency. I knelt on the floor of the darkened shop: the smell of damp paper, of vetiver and ripe flesh.
Richárd is from a town near Budapest. In our weeks together, I have learned the Hungarian word for hunger: éhezik.
It’s cold on the coast in December, but never too cold. A compact man, unshaven dark in a leather jacket, follows me along the trails to the Temple, a space like a railway station carved in the hill beneath Lewes Crescent. A dozen men pace like impatient commuters. Fewer gather in gymnastic tableaux in the eastern wing.
I want them all.
I lean against an icy wall, and the stone pulls heat from my skin. I’m shivering when he approaches, his leather chill beneath my palm, his stubble sand on my neck. His eyes are one
shade warmer than his skin. His thick lashes shutter once. Click. Twice. Click. I’m snapped, recorded.
His mouth and groin, his round stomach and dark-furred ass, are the only available warmth. We move awkwardly at first, statues granted provisional breath. A few men gather at the edges of the frame. The rank hit of sweat as I unbutton his jeans is amyl on the dance floor, a rush as sudden as a fist to the gut.
The shadows stroke themselves and one another as we fold skin into latex, skin into throat, finger and tongue and latex into heat, slippery and tense and dissolving. We both need a shower; we’re stale with dancing and smoke. I shoot with singular intensity, outpacing him by seconds, a sticky, heaving, chlorinated blast.
We button up and smile across our separate languages as men submerge themselves in pools of darkness deeper in the Temple. A familiar shade detaches itself from a nearby column.
“Such filth.” Richárd laughs. He calls me ridiculous, his accent sheer Gabor. Not without fondness. “Tomorrow at The Queen’s Arms, yes?”
We kiss, taste the men on each other’s lips: a gentle saltiness, a crust of sea air.
5. Some nights, a van parks along the road beneath the Temple
by the sea: the AIDS bus. Volunteers serve coffee and biscuits and condoms. The van offers heat in the March bluster, when the bleak seascape and the rushing echoes of the Temple offer their own weird charms.
It must strike some as ominous, a warning of the consequence of pleasure. For me, the van is welcome and welcoming, radiant and graceful.
Tonight, the early spring wind is so strong that I lean into it: a trust fall with nature. Umbrellas explode skyward. The AIDS bus is swollen with gossip and wet shoes. I take my black coffee and a gold-foiled condom from an older woman in broken-down Docs.
John sits on a sheltered bench outside. He packs The Queen’s Arms twice a week as Betty Swollocks. Shy of celebrity, I make to move away, but he catches my eye and nods to the empty space beside him.
“There’s so much I didn’t know at your age,” he says as I sit. His right hand settles still and companionable on my left knee. “I wouldn’t have listened.”
A hawkish man in a wheelchair approaches the van, and the punk granny swings down to the pavement with a Styrofoam cup and a packet of crisps. After some drink and chat, he maneuvers his chair, with effort, against the wind to face the sea.
“He’s a good lad,” John says in Betty’s gravelly voice—the voice I’ve heard so often turning “Your Song” into a little camp lesson in irony and regret. “Tell him I said so.” With a wink, John levers himself to his feet and angles up the paths toward Kemp Town.
I rise to meet the hawk, whose goodness, thankfully, John has overstated.
6. As night begins to thin, I sit at the front where months ago
I took a would-be tough blond in my mouth with a sensation between reverence and vengeance. Aside from a few fogged streetlamps, the only light comes from twin moons, one above and one below, caught in the churning water.
I smoke, comfortably post-coital: a handsome Italian who speaks little English and climaxed musically, gushing vowels like semen. A few men I know by sight drift past, regard the sea and speculate about the coming tourist season.
Far away, two figures spread a blanket on the rocky beach. Above the rhythmic pounding of the surf is a counterpoint. The wind carries their prayers to us as they kneel on the pebbles.
The rest of the world is impossibly distant, dawn strictly potential. My body, that furnace of so much pleasure and shame, catches and quickens.
I can almost imagine undressing without fear, revealing my imperfect skin to sunlight.
Erik Schuckers studied writing at Allegheny College and the University of Sheffield. He picked apples, cleaned theaters, and sold books in the US and UK before moving into nonprofit work. He lives and writes in Pittsburgh. His poems have appeared in Assaracus, PANK, and as part of the HIV Here & Now Project, and his essay “Summer: A History” is forthcoming in the anthology Not Just Another Pretty Face (Beautiful Dreamer Press, April 2016). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected by Elissa Washuta.
Image © Neil Wilson-Prior via Flickr Creative Commons.