A Desire for History


Photograph by Jack French

by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

One problem with gentrification is that it always gets worse. But then I go into a Hooters, and it’s a vintage clothing store. A friend of mine is trying on breasts. This is why I like dreaming. I remember when faggots kissed hello. We had so much to fear and so we feared nothing, I mean we feared one another but we feared fear more. Kissing one another on the lips, this was joyous and commonplace, a legacy we were inheriting, an art: how to stretch out the lips in front of face, how to queen it up in front of a loving or hostile public, how to emphasize connection or disdain.

We kissed hello because we had to. We had to know that we could kiss like this, a simple greeting but something splendid and transgressive even when mundane, or that’s what it felt like for me when I moved to San Francisco in 1992, and I was 19. This kiss didn’t necessarily feel like a radical act, it was just something you did if you were a faggot, whether in suit and tie or broadcasting the pageantry of outsider imagination. Was this something that united us? I wouldn’t have said so then, but maybe I’m saying it now.

Yes, there were the ones who turned their cheeks, too good for this kiss unless they explained the sudden turn by mentioning a cold sore, one just starting or one in the past, whichever way we hoped we were taking care. Sometimes you knew someone had really bad breath, but you kissed her on the lips anyway, it was okay to endure a little discomfort to avoid seeming snotty or scared. Unless this was one of those queens who would grab you and start feeling you up, that was a good reason to avoid contact. You kissed the ones you loved and the ones you didn’t even like that much, sometimes even someone you hated, just so you wouldn’t seem shady. Too much garlic was never a problem, we kissed anyway. We kissed the living and the dying, knowing that the dying were part of the living and we wanted to keep them with us.

Maybe this was a dream—I mean, I know it wasn’t a dream then, but maybe it is now. Now we’re more afraid, afraid of one another, so even the gestures of intimacy disappear. I don’t even think of kissing someone hello anymore, I reach for a hug if possible and this can be beautiful too, but in a different way. How strange to think that in the early-‘90s, when it felt like everyone was dying, we were less fearful in certain ways.

For every sentence, there might be 1000 thoughts. For every thought, there might be 1000 sentences. When someone tries to put my time spent writing into the conventional box of work I find myself struggling to imagine a way out. Perhaps that’s what writing is. Can you see this light? I want you to watch as it changes.

When I’m washing my hair in the shower, and suddenly I think what the hell am I doing? Oh, I’m in the shower—this is one of the things I do in the shower. Sometimes repetition leads to revelation, and sometimes revelation leads to repetition, which leads to no revelation ever again.

You know when you notice someone’s looking at you, but you’re not sure, so you do the same thing you were just doing, so that you don’t look like you’re looking? I was holding a piece of chewed-up licorice root in front of my face in between two fingers, getting ready to throw it out the window. He lit a cigarette. I hate cigarettes, but that’s the place for them, downstairs and outside and away from my window. He crossed the street, looked back, waited, so then I literally leaned out the window. He came back. Eventually I said do you want to come up? And he did. That’s when I knew my life could start again.

There’s a certain kind of knowledge, growing up in a particular body, socialized to be a particular thing that you will never be, knowing this and learning to grow with it instead of against. Maybe I’m saying we all need different kinds of people in our lives, right? When anything becomes homogenous, there’s a problem. When anything becomes so homogenous that people don’t even think about it, that’s worse.

I used to live in a neighborhood where no one belonged, and so we all belonged. Now I live in a neighborhood where faggots look at me like I don’t belong, and so I don’t. Soon they won’t belong either, but this won’t make anything better.

There’s too much desire without desire. Too much desire for desire. Not enough desire. Sometimes we remember the dead, and forget the living dead. And sometimes we forget everything. We make art so we don’t die. And still we die. Silence is a kind of memory, but memory should never be a form of silencing. Maybe there are exceptions. I know a process can be collective, and a collective can be in-process, but what about a collective process without collective process?

Knowing the gap between what you want and what you yearn for, can there be hope in this disjuncture? Maybe I’m saying that yearning often comes from spurning, the brokenness from that glance, the desire for seamlessness. Maybe there is no way not to be broken, only a way not to feel broken.

About the Author:

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is the author of a memoir, The End of San Francisco, winner of a 2014 Lambda Literary Award. Sycamore is also the author of two novels and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies, most recently Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Mattilda is currently finishing a third novel, Sketchtasy. If you’re in love with “A Desire for History,” it’s also available as a limited edition broadsheet from 2nd Floor Projects,