Hotel Pool, or, Gay Subject Matter

Square Dive, ©Kat O'Connor,

Alone in the pool, surrounded by other people’s children, I think of a way to describe the garbled and bulbous sounds of their high pitched voices bouncing | heightened | distracting and I think: this must be what it sounds like inside a snow globe—the garbled nature of voice trapped beneath a glass dome. Here, the indoor hotel pool is rectangular. The ceiling, high. I enter at the low end, easing my feet into cool water, holding the metal rail in case a loud, raucous embodied voice bumps into me.


PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: A picture of naked man standing in a swimming pool with his back to the viewer. He looks to his right, There is a house in the background with a large window and two deck chairs at the pool side.[1]


I never like diving right in. I like the slow feel of water engulfment as I move down each step, the cool shiver that blossoms over skin as water levels one section of body at a time. I suppose there is something secret and hushed about such delicate immersion not unsimilar to laying in tub water and lifting your hips to the surface, the sensation of cool air gently wrestling with pubic hair as each strand quietly crinkles and re-curls, raising a sensual physicality.


Leaning against the edge of the pool, chin resting at the crest of my crossed arms, now immersed in chlorinated, murky water from the shoulders down, I stand on toes between the low and deep end. I look through a row of glass windows, hardly tinted; the outside reflecting inward: rustling green tree leaves sway in a puddle of pool water a few feet away from me on the ceramic tile floor. A girl, five or six years old, disrupts the image and runs through, slopping the puddled tile water. Copycats run past my arms and face breaking color, distorting the picture, spraying cold drips in passing.

Once the tile water settles the swaying tree leaves return and my thoughts jump to David Hockney’s pool paintings: male figures, seen or unseen, diving, or swimming across a deceivingly flat watered surface; the bright sunlit areas with no sun in view, brightens the blue-green pool as a slim figure swims from one end to another.

I let go, lay back on water, kick my feet. I don’t worry about splashing children or getting water in their eyes because I am not there; I reach the edge of the deep end. I am outside, north of Sunset Boulevard.[2]

My body is long, muscular, golden. Horizontal with water I begin a perfect front crawl, legs close together toes pointed; for once, I am perfect position and untouched in every manner. I breathe with ease, splash small, hear nothing but the movement of myself, a steady metronomic count in cut time with quick luftpause in between. I am not interested in the bigger splash, the fermata. I care less about the held and captured splash; I am focused on destination.


I don’t know if Peter stands at the low end or the deep end, so I place him myself, straddling the two as I do. My body remains in water, my black lycra bathing suit, a scoop-neck tank with mid-thigh skort, slimming me as much as it possibly can. Peter presses his hands into the light gray surface area surrounding the pool, arm muscles exuding strength to hold himself up, waist higher then pool’s edge. I follow the figure lines, how they move from his wide shoulders into a perfect V, creating an enviable waistline, something feminine or not masculine, but, just enviable. Lines that continue to form slight hips and buttocks and slightly open legs that disappear into shades of blue. The Walker Art Gallery website states that Peter is “climbing out of the pool,” but I disagree (and I don’t care that the painting is called Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool because getting out is coming out, and these are not the same things (or maybe they are)). He is perfectly bound by posture without strain, suspended in time not because he is figuratively present, but because he is strong and beautiful.

His head looks right with no sign of alertness, although he could be making eye contact with someone out of frame. If Peter were in the snow globe, I could hold him and his surroundings in the palm of my hand. Turn him this way or that, try to see what he sees. But maybe his attention is simply caught by rustling green leaves in a puddle of pool water.


In the Study for Portrait for an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), I watch Peter watching the male figure swimming in the pool. It does not matter that Hockney taped these very separate images together[3] because this is what I become: not a viewer, but a voyeur—something queer in my white slacks and brown loafers; in my periwinkle shirt and coral-colored jacket—these clothing items become these colors in the actual painting. Regardless, I stand awkwardly because I am. Awkwardly because I am collaged into frame, forced to give in to the “stirring emotional distance between onlooker and swimmer.”[4] Awkward because I acquiesce | bow | surrender and like never before, I don’t care to wear a black lycra bathing suit, but stand firm yet with ease in my nakedness.



Image at the top of the page: Square Dive, oil on board, ©Kat O’Connor,


[1]“Physical Description” as written and posted on the Walker Art Gallery website:

[2]According to the Walker Art Gallery, Hockney’s “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” (1966) is the communal swimming pool at Nick Wilder’s apartment complex at “1145 Larrabee Street, Hollywood, just north of Sunset Boulevard.”

[3]See “Catalogue Note” Sotheby’s:



Bird, Window


Dusk, my desk, a poem lodged inside me, stillborn—a flash of darkness at my window, and then a crash in the room next door. Bomb, gunshot, sonic boom? I arrive in time to hear glass shatter and watch the window collapse. Shards of glass scattered among the volumes in the bookcase, at my feet, and then as I heedlessly walk, in my feet. There is blood. I imagine an owl, a steely crow, an eagle with a majestic wing span struck the glass, then, scarcely stunned, flew past my window.

Hadn’t I seen a flash of darkness?

This violent intrusion must be a sign, a message about my life, the poem I’m struggling to write. And then I remember a childhood neighbor’s pronouncement: if a bird flies into a house, it means that someone will die. I don’t believe this piece of folklore, and yet…it matters to me that the bird survived. A dead bird cannot portend a promising future.


A bird crashes into my window. An accident. Random collision of soft animate being with hard inanimate object. It happens all the time. And not always accidental: bombs fall on children, planes explode in the sky. Who am I to attribute personal meaning to this? Any meaning at all. It is dangerous to take what happens in even one’s own life personally. Only by chance did the bird hit the window of the room next door and not the window I face all day long.


And yet…and yet.  My writer’s brain insists on meaning. Nothing is random.  And then it says…Because…it says. Chronology implies Causality. Character arcs and revelations. The bird symbolizes…it says. There must be an epiphany in here somewhere, it says. Everything is personal. And then…and then…The bird lives! The poem is born! My writer’s brain holds out for redemptive endings.


People never say how violent it is when some living thing comes into or out of this world. They speak in euphemisms. He died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his loving family. Mother and baby are resting comfortably.   

The deaths I’ve witnessed haven’t been peaceful. My mother thrashed. Her limbs turned mottled and blood-deprived. My uncle’s mouth turned to an O, a cartoon drawing of a gargoyle. People I loved looked nothing like themselves as they died. There were transformations, but search as I did, I could not find the epiphanies. Nothing was revealed.  If they escaped their bodies, I could not track their flights. And yet, from their throats emerged the cries of wild birds.  


A day later, I stumble upon him (or it—why does my brain assign a gender?), feet up, eyes glazed, stiff, in the dirt in the dark corner of my yard. A lowly sparrow, ants already crawling over him. Inside him. Impact turned animate being into inanimate object. A violent almost-entrance became an exit.

A small brown bird, indistinguishable from the many of his kind that flank my bird feeder.

Competing for a few seeds. As I strain for my few words.

This is the story I want to tell:

A bird crashed into the window of the room next to my office. I saw the flash, heard the crash and ran, to find a glorious bird with a massive wing span. The blow scarcely stunned him. In the sky beyond my sight, he still flies. His violent emergence into my life can only mean that something good is about to happen.

I wait for further signs.     


Photo at the top of the page taken by Books Smuin. 


“Why do all the kids in these paintings look like old men?” Sabine asked, inspecting the legacy of some long-dead Italian.

I tilted my head back to drum up a few extra millimeters of breath, placating my air hunger for another minute or two, and replied, “I think those kids are supposed to be Jesus.”

“And why, exactly, does the baby Jesus have your dad’s hairline?”

I shrugged. “The immaculate recession?”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t say a word. She couldn’t. It was my birthday. My fortieth, in fact. A day I had never expected to see.

In honor of the occasion, we’d left home for a trip down the coast in our wheelchair-accessible minivan, putting our faith in the traffic gods to deliver us through the San Fernando Valley and into the rolling hills of the Santa Monica Mountains without a blood sacrifice—though, as anyone who has ever served time bumper-to-bumper in Los Angeles might, we would’ve considered it.

Our destination: the Getty Center—a haughty fortress of travertine and glass that dominated a ridge of the aforementioned mountains, offering views without to rival those of the art within. Promises of French Impressionism had drawn us forth, driving us through the endless rooms of Renaissance religious artwork that the late oilman J. Paul Getty preferred—including, of course, prematurely aged baby Jesi.

“There’s a name for those little dudes, but I can’t remember it,” I said, nodding at another one of the proportional dwarves as we headed for the nearby exit. “They used to be all over the place in the Middle Ages.”

“Why? Was there a plague that made everybody forget what babies looked like or something?”

I exhaled something approximating a laugh. “No. Jesus was supposed to be a perfect being, so he couldn’t come out all needy and naïve. He had to be wise beyond his years from the start. He had to be perfect.”

“Yeah. Perfectly creepy.”

She opened the door for me, and we plunged into the searing sunlight of outside, exiting one of four spare, angular buildings in favor of an equally spare central courtyard clad in porous limestone. The courtyard, liberated from the surrounding urban sprawl, spanned the visible world, creating an interstitial purgatory less Hieronymus Bosch than Michelangelo Antonioni: sterile and lonely and vast.

No matter how much it may have looked like one, however, this place was no afterlife. In the afterlife, one likely didn’t struggle for breath, as I was at the moment. The schnitzel and stuffed grape leaves from the Israeli place we’d stopped for lunch bloated in my guts, shattering the illusion of inviolability as it squeezed the vigor of all creation from my scarred and atrophied diaphragm.

This wasn’t a new phenomenon for me. Once upon a time, I could breathe on my own. All the time. As my Duchenne muscular dystrophy progressed, however, I required ventilatory support overnight. And then during the day for a few hours. And then a few more. And so on, until my current schedule of three additional hours, three times a day.

But I was also a stubborn American, programmed for rugged individualism, suppressed emotions, and a hatred for all weakness. So I only ventilated in private. Beyond the relative obscurity of my home or minivan, I took my chances with hypercapnia and its mostly tolerable symptoms of headache, fatigue, and muddled thoughts.

From the outside, such masochism must seem baffling. Why would I, crumpled and cachexic novelty to all, care how I presented myself to other people? It would be like water worrying about its perceived wetness. More likely, I was trying to convince myself of something. That I wasn’t getting worse. That I wasn’t going to die. That, somewhere deep inside, I was still the same little blue-eyed boy who had walked the black sand beaches of Hawaii and fished the alpine lakes of the Sierra Nevada for the briefest of moments and taken it all for granted.

I never understood society’s aversion to taking things for granted. There’s no contentment in it. Better to pretend the status quo will last forever as long as you possibly can. Right up until the point you leave your ventilator in the car on the far side of a three-quarter mile tram ride and find that you desperately need it.

Sabine, looking as exhausted as I felt, collapsed onto a short wall for a quick rest and social media update. As she flicked through her phone, I glanced past her. The land fell away on the other side of the wall, revealing a terraced garden and then the entirety of the sprawl—a mosaic of well-organized cubes and haphazard garnish that paved nearly all the eye could see.

The toothy buildings of Century City rose in the medium distance, with the grasping skyscrapers of downtown well beyond. At the edge of perception drifted a hazy suggestion of the gossamer Pacific, remote to the point of obscurity, yet so much closer than the tsunami of revitalizing tidal lung volume that awaited me on the back seat of the van. I felt as stupid as I did inadequate for leaving the ventilator behind, but I wasn’t about to abandon the Getty because of it. Not until I saw me a Van Gogh.

Sabine snapped her fingers. “Homunculus,” she said, glancing up from her phone with a satisfied grin.

“Gesundheit,” I replied, forcing another breath and bracing against a world increasingly bled of color and sharpness.

“No, you dork. That’s what they call the weird Jesuses. It means ‘little man.'”

As she spoke, my eyes locked on a kid in a wheelchair with obvious Duchenne crossing the courtyard not far away. Check that. Two kids. One on either side of puberty. Brothers, no doubt. Puffy-faced and puffy-limbed like I had been at their age, before I emaciated into my current form–now more Charles Schultz than Peter Paul Rubens.

“Poor bastards,” I said.

“Who? The Jesuses?”

I nodded. “Everyone deserves a childhood. Martyrs most of all.”

The boys, surprisingly flanked by both parents, turned in our direction, and I fought the urge to hide, to spare them a glimpse at the specter of their future. I knew the life these two would lead, or at least the path that their debilitation would take, robbing them of everything they once were and could have been and replacing it with a terrified cesspit of traumas and regrets.

Growing up, I’d witnessed my destiny every three months in the silent, skeletal sentinels of the child muscle clinic. Now that I’d become that destiny, I felt only pity for my younger self. For these boys. I had become my fear. And theirs.

Sabine squeezed my forearm. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Just getting old.”

“Me too.”

The boys drew nearer. Unable to escape any other way, I closed my eyes. If I couldn’t see them, maybe their passing wouldn’t be so bad.

“Forty years,” I said, shaking my head. “You know they stop keeping track of mortality rates for Duchenne at age twenty-four? Half of us are already dead by then, so I guess it’s not worth the hassle.”

She squeezed my arm harder. “But you’re not dead.”

“I know. And I feel guilty every day because of it.”

“Guilty? Why?”

“Like I said, half of us are gone by twenty-four. I’m forty. What have I done with all that extra time?”

“You found me.”

I opened my eyes. The boys were gone. Their parents too. But not Sabine.

“Yeah. I found you. A beautiful, able-bodied woman to love me and take care of me. I’m a god damn unicorn.”

She snorted, then stood up. “Come with me, Mr. Unicorn. There should be some Wheatstacks for you to eat in the West Pavilion.”


We headed into the appropriate building and blew through the first few rooms like in that old Godard movie, chasing the brass plaques as they ascended chronologically toward the mid-nineteenth century; there wasn’t enough time to see everything and I didn’t want to miss the good stuff. Story of my life.

I blame whoever first decided we should all live every day like it was our last. Carpe diem and all that. So much pressure. So exhausting. If I lived a single day like it were my last, I’d be too tired to leave the house for a week.

A sudden crowd announced the arrival of the Impressionism gallery. I skirted a slow-walker and darted through the congested opening, nearly colliding with one of the Duchenne boys making his way out. He didn’t look at me, and I returned the favor. We passed each other like those clichéd ships in the night. Two Titanics—one still chugging to New York, and the other already at the bottom of the sea.

His older brother followed, nearer the iceberg but not yet sinking, and I decided those of us with Duchenne needed a secret wave, like bikers sharing some dilapidated highway, though most of us couldn’t raise our hands anymore. Maybe a secret head wiggle would do.

There were barely 10,000 of us in the whole country, we brothers (and the rare sister) in disease. Why estrange ourselves from each other?

Inspiration struck me as I slipped past the second boy and I whispered, “What’s up, my brother?”

He either ignored me or didn’t hear, but his trailing mother must’ve seen my lips move because she smiled and mumbled a greeting. She knew what I was. So did the dad. I was a seer, and the news was all bad. Still, they had to be nice to me. If they were, it meant their own children might still know kindness in their debilitated future.

I had parents too–long-since divorced, but both still living—yet these boys and I were the three of us orphans, for muscular dystrophy is an orphan disease. It’s not common enough for a cure or treatment to be economically viable, so there isn’t one. In short, we’re not worth the effort. If only we had AIDS instead, our hope for the future might be something more than mere delusion.

We were literal orphans as well, despite our living parents. Like Mowgli or Tarzan, we’d all been raised by a species alien to our own. For no matter the love these Homo sapiens showed us, they’d never understand our kind completely—we, the Homo dystrophus. With our difference in lifespan, in presentation, in social interactivity, we were demonstrably “other,” and perhaps even deserving of our marginalization—like Neanderthal man, consumed by the fitter species until we were but broken threads in a wider tapestry. Ain’t internalized ableism grand?

Another breath and I was beyond the so-called family, deposited into the heart of the crowded gallery. I found an opening and cut right, stopping in front of one of several works by Claude Monet.

After a moment, Sabine appeared at my side. “Why are you looking at that one when the birth of Impressionism is right next to it?” she asked, motioning at a sunrise view of Le Havre painted in 1873.

But my eyes were locked on The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light, done twenty years later. I stared at the puffy, drab brushstrokes and wondered how many of the abbreviated, messy things streaked across the canvas. 10,000, perhaps? Discrete, yet all bound to the same repetitious, atrophied palette, and all working together to create the pale imitation of something holy to our pattern seeking brains.

I whispered the name to myself. Ruin. That was me—a ruin of my former self. A stained heap of marble going through the motions until I toppled into obscurity. Or perhaps it was pronounced “rue on.” Either would do for my purposes.

When I looked away from the painting, Sabine had moved across the gallery to check out Van Gogh’s Irises. As I turned to follow, the floor beneath me wobbled. No, not the floor. It was me.

I gasped for a breath that didn’t want to come. Sabine was too far away. There were people everywhere. Talking, walking, obstructing. The only opening was out, so I took it, veering through a doorway and into the elevator atrium.

The family was there. The mom saw me and smiled again.

“How old are you?” she asked.

The dad jabbed at the elevator button, keeping his eyes locked on a nearby gift kiosk.

“Forty,” I managed. “Today.”


I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. The world swayed beneath me. Stars wriggled across the room.

“It’s nice to see you out,” she said. “They won’t say anything, but I know the boys appreciate it.”

I glanced at the nearer boy. The older one. He winced, then stared at the top of his pudgy knees.

“Why?” I said, face flushed and heart thumping.

“You give them hope,” she said. She reached for my shoulder, then thought better of it. “Forty years old and you don’t even need a ventilator.”

My diaphragm forced an involuntary heave. What little color remained drained from the world. My vision tunneled. Air hunger crushed my spine behind my distended guts.

But I smiled anyway.

Probably best to keep up appearances.