The Kissing Number [With Links]
Choreographer, writer, and handymam artist Karen Sherman takes us to the East Village in the summer of 1994, in a diptych of essays that contemplate a moment in queer culture, the early days of the internet, aesthetic fixations, and the transience of desire.
Finnish wrestlers, Japanese billiards players, Australian power lifters, Québécois aerobics instructors flooded NYC in June of 1994. The city’s hosting of the Gay Games coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which meant you couldn’t swing a dental dam without hitting a queer. I was 23, soon to be 24, living in the East Village and waiting tables in a neighborhood café. I would eventually get fired for being a lesbian but as the only queer person working there, I got excellent tips that summer. European Gay Gamers who didn’t tip left their hotel phone numbers.
Dykes had a special power in the city. It was becoming the tail end of the era when AIDS was a death sentence (medically speaking), though we didn’t know that yet. Combination drug therapy was just becoming codified and the availability of protease inhibitors were still a year or two away, but the speed and swath of the epidemic would soon change. Queer women were essential caregivers, compatriots, and accomplices, and the misogyny long rampant among gay men seemed temporarily lifted in those days. There was a lot of solidarity. The homophobia and orchestrated neglect of the government and culture at large galvanized us. Since no one else was doing it, grassroots campaigns advocating safer sex took it upon themselves to address women who had sex with women, which meant that suddenly we were talking publicly about our sex lives—and seeing it represented with our own images instead of ones pulled from straight porn. Being so close to gay male sexual culture—which, despite the decline of cruising and the terror and sadness of AIDS, was still comparatively demonstrative and open—amplified our own sexual validation and empowerment. Only a few years after the closing of the city’s bathhouses, lesbians took up the mantle, and spaces for queer women flourished. By the mid-90s, there were many ongoing weekly parties, sex clubs, dance nights, and so many dyke bars—actual, seven-nights-a-week, year-round bars—that it was an easy walk to at least five of them from my apartment. Several nights a week, when my shift was over, I’d go out dancing, sludging it out to Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love” and Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)” until the wee hours. One night, sick with a bronchial infection and having just returned from a friend’s funeral, I went straight to the Wednesday night party at Webster Hall. In a haze of grief and exhaustion, I cried and danced for hours, generating and spending my energy in an endless loop.
That summer, there was a countermarch protesting how the official Pride march had snubbed Stonewall veterans, PWAs, trans folks, and local activists. Complaints that the march was too commercial had also already begun. In the years to come, corporate floats, contingents of Chase Bank employees, and even the most third tier Community Board members would overtake the motley clusters of ragtag queers that had made up the bulk of the march. But the stalwarts held on for as long as they could, and as late as 2001, I saw a lone woman walking the route wearing a miniskirt, cowboy hat, boots, and halter top. She walked slowly, defiantly, swinging her hips and smiling at the crowd as she held aloft a handwritten sign that read JANET RENO IS HOT DOT COM. With the float for a sleek gay nightclub hulking behind her like Donald Trump behind Hilary Clinton during the 2016 debates, she was quintessentially renegade queer New York of an ilk that was soon to disappear. She might as well have been chained to the last redwood as the machinery bore down, portending the future while repping the past.
JanetRenoIsHot.com was a real site, perfectly of its time, with few pictures—mostly a single image of Reno repeated in a column down the left-hand side of the page, like a photobooth filmstrip of someone who could only muster a single expression—and a cacophony of fonts in bright colors on a black background, causing retina burn with every word:
Welcome to the premier site for lezzies with a BIG OL’BONER for Our Lady of Perpetual Dykiness, JANET RENO. Bring me your lesbians, your butches, your femmes, your oddballs of any stripe—as long as your crotch pounds for the Generallisimo, you are WELCOME HERE!!!.
The site was full of articles, transcripts, paeans, and love poems to the most “moisture-inducing butch ever to set foot on Capitol Hill”. But my favorite was the Odd Obsessions page where you could confess your own secret lust-object. Bea Arthur. Carrot Top. Gary Sandy from WKRP in Cincinnati. When I told a friend about this, she got very quiet, then said, “I’ve always had a thing for Abe Lincoln…”
Activism was intertwined with our social lives; the people you marched with were the people you went dancing with were the people you got arrested with. Between the Stonewall anniversary, the protests, and the Gay Games, the summer of 1994 seriously doubled down on parties, and on Pride weekend I found myself at the Lesbian Avengers’ Dyke Ball at a former bank-turned-nightclub on Houston Street. We were all dancing, topless, sweaty, combat boots skidding black marks on the floor, Gay Games medals thumping against chests. The room heaved and pulsated, the heavy stone walls beaded with condensation. I kept making eye contact with a woman I’d never seen before. Bleached buzzcut, impossibly wide smile. She was a phenomenal dancer, an athlete of a silkier sport, and soon we were orbiting each other on the dance floor. We never spoke. By 4 am the room thinned out, and we drifted to a corner where, grinning, we acknowledged we’d been watching each other for hours. We left, walking out into what remained of the night. I lived only a few blocks away. She lived in Boston and was just down for the weekend, staying with a friend. It was obvious we were going to go home together, but when we reached the corner we instead said goodnight and parted: me turning right to go home, her walking up the avenue. I was baffled. I’d never been a particularly confident flirt but this had seemed a rare moment when desire was self-propelling, its outcome a no-brainer. I learned later that she’d been equally bewildered. Neither one of us knew what had happened. Only what hadn’t.
I’d gotten her phone number but also her address—as one did in the 90s—and we began a correspondence. Somewhere in it we’d gotten to talking about numbers and the qualities we associated with them. I suppose you’d call it synesthesia. I was turning 24 only two weeks later and told her how the number 24 had always had a dark and sexy connotation to me. This sounds so hokey now, and the fact that I used the word “sexy” embarrasses me still, but it was sincere. There was something so solid and warm about the number 24. Maybe the way it divided into itself. Or the cadence of the syllables. Or the phonaesthetics of “four” at the end, which has the same vowel heart as “door,” which itself is one half of “cellar door,” considered the most beautiful term in the English language based purely on its euphony. Two weeks later, right before my birthday, a package arrived. It was a painting, on wood, of the number 24. She’d included a note saying that she’d wanted to approximate my “dark and sexy” association. It wasn’t how I’d pictured it.
Her “4” was like the one my computer just typed—with a closed pitch at the top like an alpine cabin. Personally, I was a plein-air four person, the roof missing from my figure. My 2s on the other hand looped back on and through themselves. My 8s I wrote as infinities, having been taught in school that drawing two stacked circles was amateur and lazy. My 5s came down vertically, took a turn, then I lifted the pen and dashed them at the top in a separate action. My 7s were hockey sticks with no horizontal cut. My 1s had no ponytail at the top; they were a solid vertical line, a sauntering Janet Reno fan at the head of the number parade. I remember sitting with this painting on my lap, looking at how different her 4 was from mine… Her 2 also…it didn’t circle back on itself; it sat kneeling with its legs tucked under. These small details disquieted me. She suddenly seemed fully formed but unknowable. I felt a world apart from her.
Later that summer, trying to move past this hiccup in our chemistry, I went up to Boston to visit her. She’d broken her leg—a bike accident—and was in a full-length plaster cast, getting around on crutches. I walked slowly beside her as she hobbled up the steep hill to her Jamaica Plain apartment. It was a hot summer. We sweated even when motionless. Her cast seemed an unimaginable burden in the heat. Still, she never complained. But ultimately, she reminded me of someone else, or the intimacy did, or our need to please each other did, and I felt unsettled, removed from my body. I could never find my way back to that night on Houston Street.
But before that visit, I turned 24. I’ve buried the lede here because the real desire in my life at that time was a color, not a woman, and it wasn’t dark or sexy. I’d never felt anything like it—not love or lust or heartbreak. My undoing was a particular shade of yellow—or really, a very narrow range of yellow. I craved it. Couldn’t get enough of it. I didn’t understand where the feeling came from. Yellow had always been my least favorite color, even before I turned seven and we moved into a new house where my room turned out to be painted in the most hideous pale yellow. It asserted a more modest and respectable girly-girlhood than pink, but only barely. I’d never be that girl, never wanted to be that girl, but the hue was so wan as to suggest that the predestined failure of my femininity didn’t even merit a livelier shade. As if the room itself was already disappointed in me and drained of faith.
But yellow came at me full force at 24. Not the muted, mustardy shades. I didn’t care about those. I wanted the canary yellows, the cadmiums, the cautions. Butter was too dark, lemon usually too bright, too visually shallow. Daffodil could do it. Amber mixed with sunlight worked. When it was right, I was dazzled and insatiable. Yellow was my Janet Reno, my Abe Lincoln: a passion I could not explain, only indulge. I had one friend, a new friend who had become my friend by repeatedly seducing me with no intention of having anything come of it—she was the one person who always got the color right and she bestowed on me all sorts of yellow things. Gumball machine toys, fake fruit, belts, rings, postcards, beads, love letters. Because I loved it and saw it everywhere, she did too. One day as I was trying to puzzle out what was happening to me with this color, she said assuredly, if coyly, “You know, yellow is the color of desire.” I didn’t know her source for this information or how to break that down—it was so obviously a line meant to keep my desire flowing to her— but it felt right, the way it mirrored the inflaming and quelling of my cravings. Yet, what did it mean that I had delirium levels of desire for something that symbolized desire? The circuitousness made my head spin. I wanted a thing that was about wanting a thing. How could I ever be satisfied? How would I ever resolve it?
I decided that for my 24th birthday, I would throw a party and have everyone bring something yellow. It was like asking them to just bring me drugs, but they loved it. Every corner bodega was full of random yellow items, and a bizarre assortment of loot trickled in to my fifth-floor walkup. Candles, bananas, a hard hat, squash, a feather, rubber duckies, a raincoat, a monochromatic puzzle, a guitar stringer, a mustard bottle, M&Ms (all the other colors removed), a bottle of boric acid, sponges, a thermos, dishwashing gloves, a Matchbox car, hair dye, a ball of yarn, a flashlight, a carnation.
I kept the pile of yellow objects on my table for days, weeks. Just looking at it was like a deep inhale of lilies or a long drag on a pipe. I wondered if this shrine might crack the desire out of me and I would no longer be at the mercy of yellow, my heart knocked to its knees by a taxicab, a sign in a store window, a perfectly shaded pepper. It didn’t. It took another 10 years or so, but finally that desire, like others, dulled.
The next summer, I took a long solo road trip and ended up in San Francisco. The woman from Boston and I had stayed in touch, and she also happened to be in San Francisco, so we took a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, taking photos. In one, developed from a disposable camera and printed in duplicate so we’d each have a copy, she’s in the foreground, holding the camera up to capture both of us in the shot. She is still very blonde and buzzcut but no longer on crutches. Her smile is so wide it seems to break her face. Her eyes are half closed. I stand a few feet behind her. I’m holding a small stack of Polaroids we’d just taken. All around us, the rust-colored cables of the bridge, the foggy Bay skies, the long drop to the water.
Decades later, a friend tells me that a near universal experience of being in a club in your 20s is finding a hot lick of chemistry that starves in the oxygen of the street. She says that desire by definition is unresolved. If we’re lucky, I think. But I do not say it.
This article is part of the series by guest editor Kristin Van Loon.