I was a pale and scrawny kid. I recall lying in bed late at night as a boy, poking at the bones that scraped a mere millimeter beneath my skin and feeling a profound shame at my emaciated form. My mother was so financially irresponsible that she would only go shopping for groceries every three weeks, yet somehow always managed to have a big box of cheap White Zinfandel in the fridge even when the food ran out. I have terrible memories of chanting with my sister for our mother to return home from work with food. She often forgot about us. Often, when we asked what was for dinner, she would hand us dollar bills and she would tell us to hike to the gas station up the street and buy two of the mildewed 99 cent burgers that rested for days under a heat lamp — all this as she lounged on the couch and drank vast quantities of cheap wine and felt sorry for herself as she watched Love Connection. (We would find the telltale Burger King wrappers in her car, revealing her clandestine post-work fast food trips, and this explained why she didn’t eat with us.) Still, we kept the faith. We invented songs to pass the time as our bellies grumbled. The phrase “Fend for yourself” became a regular mantra growing up. And since there was scant food, this often meant grabbing an English muffin, placing ketchup on the base, and topping this with a very thin layer of cheap Cheddar cheese. (We had a cheese slicer that allowed you to scrape veneer-thin layers because you didn’t want to be the asshole who took the last of the precious block. These days, whenever I buy more than one slab of cheese on any given week, it still feels libertine, if not scandalous or obscene.) Then you would microwave this ghastly concoction and wince as you wolfed it down. One of the reasons I became a somewhat accomplished cook in my adult years — even winning the praise of a professional food critic whom I dated a few years ago and who was very kind in her plaudits when I invited her over for a three-course home-cooked dinner — was largely because I was atoning for a childhood forged in starvation and neglect. And these days I always have a stockpile of beans and rice in the larder that rivals a well-equipped bomb shelter, along with tons of frozen meat in the freezer. I never want to live this way again.
We lived in a series of crappy apartment complexes that were often poorly maintained — brown paint rusting in jagged peels along the shaky sides of ramshackle buildings, perfunctorily touched up with a few fresh coats whenever there was a surfeit of vacancies. These units were populated by an untold number of hardscrabble survivors and troubled people. Some were comfortably lower middle-class and admirably resourceful with their money. I suspect that my knack for living quite frugally during lean times in one of the most expensive cities in the world was shaped by parsimonious exemplars established by some of these ingenious single mothers. Others were poor largely because they didn’t know how to squeeze the most from their meager paychecks. There was the family who dealt weed and coke who lived just beneath us at one place. My clueless mother was oblivious to their side hustle. Or maybe it was their main hustle. I really don’t know. I’ve never been interested in drugs, because I recall the sketchy figures who waited just outside this family’s apartment for a quick fix. There was a patch of lawn beneath an electric tower that hummed with the steady thrum of cancerous radiation and the grass was only kept watered because this swath happened to be situated next to the main drag and the cutthroat types who ran the apartment complex obviously needed to keep up appearances. There were a few crooked kids I bicycled with who urged me to shoplift and then, when one of our number was caught, they framed me as the criminal mastermind, even though it had never been my idea. I felt ashamed and guilty about stuffing a Weird Al Yankovic cassette down my pants at a K-Mart — the result of such vicious peer pressure — that I later profusely apologized to Mr. Yankovic in person when I had the opportunity to interview him decades later. Yankovic was incredibly kind but he was baffled and a little disturbed by this out-of-the-blue confession. But I had been carrying this burden for years and he seemed the only man who could provide expiation. As an adult, you learn just how much accumulated childhood trauma marks your path in adulthood. For better or worse.
But there was a silver lining to all this: these apartment complexes usually had a swimming pool. This was California, after all. And I had always loved to swim. Until there came a point where I dreaded going to the pool. Kids, as we all know, are deeply ruthless. And they were certainly incredibly cruel to me. I was called “skinny fuck” and “pale bastard.” And the insults were relentless. I became so paralyzed by these constant sullies that I began wearing T-shirts into the water, hoping that it would deter these bullies from their merciless commentary on my physicality. I never said anything in return. I hadn’t yet learned to fight any bully with devastating burns and vitriolic wit, something I am still forced to do from time to time. Yet still the kids kept up with their brutal fusillades.
By the time I was a teenager, I had come to believe that I was ugly and not sexy at all. Even though I had a few high school lovers, sweet girls who gently coaxed this backstory from me and encouraged me to take my shirt off and told me how hot I was. Still, I didn’t believe it. It certainly didn’t help that my family was incredibly Puritanical when it came to the realities of sex and the body. I rebelled against this by signing up for a Playboy subscription when I was sixteen and racing to the mailbox just after I came home from school to intercept every monthly issue bound in black plastic.
Despite all this, I was deeply ashamed of my body. Which was ridiculous. Because I never received complaints about my body from any lover in my adult life. (Oh, there was plenty to complain about on so many other fronts! I assure you that I was an awful boyfriend to many!) Whenever a girlfriend would compliment my body in bed, I would deflect her attentions, which completely embarrassed me, by becoming highly solicitous to her. I suppose that this is one of the reasons why I picked up a variegated repertoire of moves that later lovers remarked favorably on. They often told me that I was the first man to proffer a bespoke flourish that they greatly enjoyed. But this sexual precocity was driven more by pragmatism and self-disguise rather than any hubris-fueled desire to be some feckless fuckboi. I mean, you couldn’t very well distract your girl the same way every time, could you?
Years passed. I became more confident on a variety of fronts, save this thorny one that concerned my body. It deeply upset me that I was in my forties and still slightly ashamed of being shirtless. But my approach to any problem is to confront it head-on. And during the first months of the pandemic, when everything was closed, one of the few places that remained open was the beach. Like everyone, I had lost all of my gigs. And I was despondent. But the buses were free. And I started going to the beach on a regular basis. And when I saw older men who had let themselves go and who wandered along the sands without a single care in the world, it emboldened me to take off my shirt. Women approached me and flirted with shameless eclat. Gay men whistled at me. I was stunned by all of these developments. It became part of my routine to go to the beach with a few books and expose my bare chest to the sun. One of my closest friends accompanied me on some of these beach sojurns. She was very familiar with my body shame hangups and did what all good friends do: she urged me in the strongest possible terms to take off my fucking shirt. And I did. Another woman who I was dating had access to a rooftop pool in Jersey City. She also caught wind of my dysmorphia and declared that I was sexy as fuck and demanded that I accompany her with my shirt off. She pledged to wear her most revealing bikini and make the date very much worth my while. So I did.
Then, last year, I fell for the wrong woman. A narcissist who played a deep-level gaslighting game that you only find out about when it’s much too late. She did a number on me in so many ways. She contacted my friends and insisted that I was “troubled.” She emotionally manipulated me. In bed, she would curl herself up, making herself as cold and as emotionless and as unresponsive as possible. And none of my moves or the fulsome and multifarious attentions that I tender to any lover worked on her. Not a single one. I had never experienced such treatment. Even when the sex was not the greatest, I always hit a dependable baseline. And that simply didn’t exist here. The old pangs of body shame returned. I felt deeply unattractive. I felt sexually undesirable. I began to drink heavily. A bottle of wine, sometimes two, every day. Fifths of whiskey that I downed in a frighteningly swift amount of time. It certainly didn’t help that I was unemployed and burning through my savings at a rapid clip. I had a significant breakdown back in January. (Thank heavens that my friend Pete Lutz enlisted me to score a Western soundtrack for his audio drama. Pete has no idea how much composing these sixteen cues helped me to get back on the straight and narrow. And I am deeply indebted to him for his faith in my talent and his unfathomable graciousness. And I’ve discovered this year, much to my surprise, that I apparently have some aptitude for scoring and orchestration. When I rearranged an old Doctor Who music cue, I received an incredibly kind email from the original composer!)
When I finally escaped this toxic relationship, I took a break from dating for many months. I didn’t want to encumber anyone with my inner turmoil. I stayed sober for four months and this, combined with walking, caused the pounds that I had accumulated in the winter to melt off. (These days, I usually avoid hard liquor and I only have a few beers on the weekend. This is largely because I am hopelessly smitten with karaoke. And even in my old age, I still go to a few clubs because I love to dance and the only thing you tend to drink there is tons of water.)
But I still carried the dregs of feeling that my body was hideous. Christ, I was in my late forties and I still bought into this horseshit? I watched Lizzo videos over and over. She became a personal hero to me with her body-positive, give-no-fucks approach. Goddammit, why the hell couldn’t I be that confident?
Then I made a trip to New Orleans for my birthday weekend. I had never been to this incredible city before and had always wanted to visit it. It turns out that I needed New Orleans more than I knew. I wish that I had visited the Big Easy in my twenties. So many difficulties that I’ve faced in the last two decades would have been far more easier for me to deal with. I was stunned by the women — both the locals and the visitors. They were all beautiful, inside and outside. They walked the French Quarter with confidence. And they accosted me. Every hour, there was someone new who expressed interest in me. One woman asked if she could kiss me on the forehead. I said, “That depends. Will it bring you good fortune?” She said, “Oh, absolutely.” And I said okay and permitted her to kiss my forehead. Another woman pulled over in her car, veering sharply to the sidewalk from a good block away, and said, “Hey, baby, where you going?” I went to a club and saw a beautiful woman from Ecuador dancing by herself. I felt that this was criminal. And I jumped up on stage and started allemanding with her: my dependable mix of spastic white guy moves and a little salsa and swing that I had learned. We became more physical. I picked her up and spun her around the floor and she loved this. The crowd roared at our performance. Five minutes later, we were making out. And the DJ approached me and said, “Dude, I don’t know how you did that.” I told him that I didn’t know either. And there were plenty of other things that happened in Louisiana that I cannot report here.
But that’s New Orleans for you. And if you ever doubt yourself, I highly recommend that you hit the place for a very fun weekend.
But I returned to Brooklyn with some missing piece of me restored. I became determined to shut down this body shame once and for all.
So I started to make thirst traps. Friends-only posts on TikTok. I had never appeared shirtless on TikTok before. I have tended to stick with my wit and my erudition as foolproof charms.
But this obviously needed to change. For we all contain multitudes.
The first thirst trap involved me dancing and intercutting footage of me without a shirt, but I was still clutching my slightly chubby belly with nervousness and self-consciousness. But something unexpected happened. Much to my surprise, this video proved immensely popular. I was inundated with women sliding into my DMs and leaving scandalously flirtatious comments, demanding more. (One of my followers said that, if she weren’t in a healthy marriage, she would drop her husband in a minute and show me a fun time.) A woman from Canada tried to set me up with one of her friends here in New York City. Another person told me that he had showed the thirst trap to his date and that she had blushed with delight.
What the hell was going on here?
I made a second thirst trap in which I used a filter inspired by the grayscale rotoscoping from the famous video for a-ha’s “Take on Me.” And in this thirst trap, I crossed to the illustrative side and took my shirt off. It was blurry enough on that area of the frame for me to hide. This thirst trip also proved to be a big hit.
But I was still covering my shirtless form with my T-shirt. I was still a little hindered by the poisonous invective that these little bastards at the swimming pool had planted in my head so many years before. And I was a grownass man.
So last night, I decided to make a third thirst trap in which I would not disguise myself in any way. My body would be completely exposed. Fuck the haters. Fuck my dysmorphia. Fuck the little twerps from my childhood. This was about me owning who I was and being unapologetic about it.
I busted out my strobe light and put on my sexiest pair of underwear and I performed a number of poses: grinding against the wall, putting my leg — well-toned from all the walking — seductively into the air. I edited the video on my phone with a wonderful app called PowerDirector that is worth every penny. I cut each strobe flash on the beat into some footage of me walking obliviously in my apartment. The idea here was to show that I had this part of me. To suggest that it was all innocent, but to be a little outrageous about it.
I was fully prepared to be condemned and flayed alive for my boldest and most provocative thirst trap yet! But this thirst trap proved even more popular than the other two. My comments lit up with growing concatenations of flame emoji. Three women asked if I was still single. I was declared a DILF. Other women expressed how they loved my confidence. But, of course, I had been faking it. Confidence is really something that happens only when you become more comfortable after crossing a certain nervous line. And if you’re not doing that on a regular basis, then you’re probably dead inside, too mesmerized by a risk-averse and “stable” lifestyle in which you will never take a chance and you will never grow.
I was once again flattered, flabbergasted, and humbled. But it is now indisputable that, among a certain crowd, I still have it. And I can definitely go to the grave saying that I flaunted my body at the last possible time when it was in somewhat decent shape and that I had a lot of fun doing this. Better late than never!
It turns out that my body was never broken. That all of the hangups that I have lived with for more than four decades were largely in my own head. That women do like me and do find me attractive. And that I really need to acknowledge this more.
If you told me three months ago that I would be making thirst traps on TikTok, I wouldn’t have believed you. Certainly thirst traps are not for everyone. But one of the best ways to combat a deep-seated uncertainty is to throw caution to the wind and face the very fears that prevent you from being your fullest and truest self. After all, we only live once!